Balaam’s first two attempts to curse the children of Israel had been totally unsuccessful. Each time the Lord intervened and, instead of a curse, Balaam pronounced a blessing. In the first parable, Balaam described them as being a separated people ‘not … reckoned among the nations’. In the second parable, they are spoken of as being a holy people in their standing before God, ‘He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel’.1 At the end of the first attempt, Balak complained, ‘I took thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast blessed them altogether’. After the second attempt, he said ‘Neither curse them at all, nor bless them at all’, to which Balaam replied, ‘Told not I thee, saying, All that the Lord speaketh, that I must do?’2 Despite what Balak said, and clearly dismissive of the sovereign power of God, he granted to Balaam a third opportunity to curse the people. It seems Balak still clung to the thought that maybe the location was unsuitable and a different locality, not to mention new altars and sacrifices, might produce a different result. Fereday succinctly says, ‘This was sheer wickedness, Jehovah had twice thwarted his plans, yet Balak was determined to make another effort’.3
For the third attempt, Balak brought Balaam to ‘the top of Peor, that looketh toward Jeshimon’, 23. 28. The word ‘Jeshimon’ denotes a desert or wilderness, the location being a ridge from which it seems Balaam had the clearest view yet of Israel’s camp spread out before him. The name ‘Peor’ suggests it was an appointed site for the worship of ‘Baal-Peor’, the ‘Lord of Peor’, the worship of whom the children of Israel were later seduced into by the women of Moab, Num. 25. The familiar ritual of building altars and offering sacrifices is repeated. Taking a summary, there have now been twenty-one altars, twenty-one bullocks, and twenty-one rams. Could God be manipulated into changing His mind with a wealth of altars and sacrifices? Balak might have hoped so but Proverbs chapter 21 verse 27 says, ‘The sacrifice of the wicked is abomination: how much more, when he bringeth it with a wicked mind?’ - the exact situation with Balak and Balaam.
Though the altars and sacrifices were simply a repetition of what had been done previously, when we come to Numbers chapter 24 there are some noticeable differences concerning Balaam:
Setting his face toward the wilderness, ‘Balaam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel abiding in his tents according to their tribes’, v. 2. What a sight that must have been!
The tabernacle in the midst and the tribes abiding in their appointed places, by their standards as recorded in Numbers chapter 2. Each tribe in its divinely appointed place, God dwelling in the midst. David would later write, ‘How good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity … there the Lord commanded the blessing’, Ps. 133. 1. We know that during the reign of Rehoboam the nation of Israel was divided into the northern and southern kingdoms, a breach that, to this day, has never been healed, but there is a time coming when the tribes will be regathered. Looking on to that day, the prophet Ezekiel was directed to take two sticks, one representative of the northern kingdom, the other of the southern kingdom, the Lord saying, ‘Behold, I will take the children of Israel from among the heathen, whither they be gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land: and I will make them one nation in the land upon the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king to them all: and they shall be no more two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms any more at all’.5 As we picture the scene before Balaam, what of the unity and order that should mark the people of God today? Are our words and ways consistent with ‘endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’?6
In the first parable, Israel was a chosen people, in the second, cleansed, now, in the third parable, a comely people. The description Balaam gives of the camp stands in marked contrast to the wilderness terrain that he set his face toward. Balaam speaks of valleys, gardens, trees, rivers and waters.7 ‘How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel! As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river’s side, as the trees of lign aloes which the Lord hath planted, and as cedar trees beside the waters’, Num. 24. 5, 6. Tatford comments, ‘These were far more than the abodes of insignificant nomadic tribes, and the language of the poet broke from Balaam’s lips … Balaam saw the settlements of Israel spreading out like broad valleys, the open ground between the tents reaching into the distance like beautifully watered glens, the tents like riverside gardens planted by the Lord, the people like lign aloes and cedar trees’.8 This is a description suggestive of life and vitality, beauty and fragrance, strength and stateliness. It may not be Balaam’s view but, empowered by the Spirit, he is giving voice to how the Lord saw them. Despite the nation’s subsequent history and present state, that is how the people will yet be seen in the outworking of divine purpose. Foretelling such days, Isaiah says, ‘thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not’, 58. 11. In the book of Hosea, the Lord says, ‘I will be as the dew unto Israel: he shall grow as the lily, and cast forth his roots as Lebanon. His branches shall spread, and his beauty shall be as the olive tree, and his smell as Lebanon’, 14. 5, 6. While all these verses relate to Israel, we should not forget that Paul spoke of the assembly at Corinth as ‘God’s husbandry’ or ‘cultivated garden’, 1 Cor. 3. 9. Divine order marked Israel’s camp, should that not be so of each local assembly? Doesn’t the apostle say, ‘God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints’, and again, ‘Let all things be done decently and in order’, 1 Cor. 14. 33, 40? As a cultivated garden, shouldn’t each assembly be found fruitful before God? Fruit, attractive to behold and sweet to the taste? All speaking the same thing, with no divisions among them, perfectly joined together in the same mind and judgement, 1 Cor. 1. 10.
Having described Israel’s camp God-ward, Balaam next spoke of what, in divine purpose, they were appointed to be in witness and testimony man-ward. ‘He shall pour the water out of his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters, and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted’, Num. 24. 7. Four things are mentioned: his ‘buckets … seed … king … kingdom’, and they naturally divide into two couplets.
The imagery is first of a man carrying two pails of water on a pole stretched across his shoulders. The buckets are full to the brim and at each step he takes the water spills out. This is illustrative of the people abundantly blessed of God and becoming a channel of blessing to others. The next stanza continues that theme, ‘his seed … in many waters’ and carries an echo of Genesis chapter 22 verses 17 and 18 and the Lord’s promise to Abraham, ‘That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in thy seed shall all nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice’. Perusing these statements, we cannot but think of the future days of blessing that lie in store for the nation, when, according to the prophetic scriptures, not only will the people of Israel be richly blessed of God, but will, through divine enabling, be themselves a channel of blessing to others. As to the blessing of the nation, ‘Fear not, O Jacob, my servant; and thou, Jesurun, whom I have chosen. For I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground: I will pour my spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine offspring’, Isa. 44. 2, 3. But, as we shall see in the next article, Israel’s influence will yet be worldwide.
Num. 23. 9, 21.
Num. 23. 11, 25, 26.
W. W. Fereday, Jonah and Balaam , John Ritchie Ltd., pg. 62.
Cp. Paul’s prayer for the believers at Ephesus, Eph. 1. 18.
Ezek. 37. 21, 22.
Eph. 4. 1-6.
J. J. Stubbs, What the Bible Teaches, Numbers, John Ritchie, pp. 322, 323.
F. A. Tatford, Prophet from the Euphrates, Prophetic Witness Publishing House, 1973, pg. 50.