Numbers 23+24


Last week we read how Balak — the king of the Moabites — sent messengers to Balaam in order to hire him to curse the people of Israel. Balak was afraid that Israel would destroy his people as they had done to the Amorites; but he hoped that — if Balaam cursed the Israelites — he would be able to defeat them in battle and drive them out of the country. And do you remember? When Balaam was on his way to see Balak, the Lord was angry with him; and the angel of the Lord stood in his way. Balaam couldn’t see the angel, but his donkey could. And every time the donkey stopped because of the angel, Balaam beat the donkey. But then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey to speak and to explain what was happening; and the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes to see what was happening. And the Lord warned him to say to Balak only what the Lord commanded him to say.

And so, we come to chapters 23 and 24 which contain the four oracles or messages which the Lord enabled Balaam to say. And while Balak wanted Balaam to curse the people of Israel, the Lord made clear that he had blessed the people of Israel and that just has he helped them in the past, he would help them in the future too. Moreover, as we’ll see, through this pagan prophet, the Lord announced the coming of Christ into the world. So, let’s look at these two chapters now.

First Oracle

Balaam’s first oracle appears in verses 1 to 12 of chapter 23. You see from verse 1 that Balaam asked Balak to build seven altars and to prepare seven bulls and seven rams for sacrifice. The number seven in ancient times symbolised fullness; and so perhaps Balaam intends by these seven bulls and seven rams to offer the fullest and most complete sacrifice as an offering. It’s possible as well that he’s offering these sacrifices to seven different gods; the historians have found that other people in the ancient world did this kind of thing in order to appeal to several different gods at once. And, of course, Balaam was a pagan who believed in multiple deities; and so, perhaps he’s offering sacrifices to all of them at once in order to engage their help. Nevertheless, among the many gods he’s appealing to, he’s also looking to the Lord, the God of Israel, for a message.

And we read how the Lord met him and put a message in his mouth. And in the first message, Balaam recounts how Balak brought him to curse Israel. But, he asks, how can I curse those whom the Lord has blessed? He says in verse 9 that Israel was a nation set apart from all the other nations. And that’s true, because the Lord had set them apart as holy and to be his own special people. And the Lord had promised — hadn’t he? — to multiply them so that their number would be like the dust: too many to count.

Interestingly, at the end of the message, Balaam says:

Let me die the death of the righteous,
and may my end be like theirs!

He wants to become like them and to be counted righteous like them. But Balak is not pleased with him, because instead of cursing Israel, he has blessed them.

Second Oracle

Balaam’s second oracle appears in verses 13 to 26 of chapter 23. They moved to a different location; and once again built the altars and offered the sacrifices. And once again the Lord met Balaam and put a message in his mouth. In this message, Balaam says that the Lord does not change. So, he doesn’t lie, saying one thing one moment, and another thing another moment. And he doesn’t change his mind, as we do. And so, since in the past the Lord blessed Israel, he was not going to change his mind now and curse them; and he wasn’t going to let Balaam curse them either.

So, says Balaam, no misfortune is seen in Jacob and no misery is observed there, because the Lord is with them; and he’s a great King who brought them out of Egypt with a shout of victory and has given to them the strength of an ox to overcome their enemies. No magic can be used against them; and instead, people will talk about all the things the Lord does for them. And that’s true, because whenever the spies entered Jericho in the days of Joshua, the people of the city were afraid, because they had all heard what the Lord had done for Israel. The people of Israel have become so mighty and powerful that they can be compared to a lioness and lion.

That was Balaam’s second message; and again Balak is not pleased. In effect, he says to Balaam:

If that’s all you can say, don’t say anything at all.

Third Oracle

Balaam’s third oracle is from verse 27 of chapter 23 to verse 13 of chapter 24. Again they move to another location and offer the same sacrifices on seven altars. We’re told that this time he did not resort to sorcery. Furthermore, whereas on the previous two occasions, the Lord put a message in his mouth, this time we’re told the Spirit of the Lord came on him so that he spoke this message.

His eyes have been opened, he says. And he sees that Israel’s tents are beautiful. He describes how they spread out like valleys and they’re like gardens by a river which are full of beautiful flowers and trees. They’re like a lush and fruitful land. Well, he’s using poetic language — isn’t he? — to convey the idea of God’s blessing on them.

But then in verse 7 he anticipates a time when there will be a king in Israel who will be greater than Agag. Well, many years after this, King Saul would defeat Agag in battle. And so, the Lord is enabling Balaam to see that day in advance. And once again, Balaam refers to how the Lord brought them out of Egypt with a shout of victory and has given them the strength of an ox and lioness and lion. And this message ends with a reference to the Lord’s promise to Abraham that those who bless them will be blessed; and those who curse them will be cursed.

Balak is once again displeased and tells Balaam to go home. Furthermore, since Balaam did not curse Israel, he would not receive the promised reward.

Fourth Oracle

Balaam’s fourth and final oracle appears in verses 14 to 25. And in verse 14 Balaam says to Balak that he’s going to warn him of what Israel will do to Balak’s people ‘in days to come’. So, this message is not about Balak’s day, but it’s about things which will happen after his day.

In verse 17, Balaam says that he sees ‘him’, but ‘not now’. He beholds ‘him’, but ‘not near’. So, the Lord has opened Balaam’s eyes and enabled him to see someone who is coming, but whose coming is not at that time. This person will come, but his arrival is not yet near.

He goes on to refer to this person as a star who will come from Jacob; and as a sceptre who will rise out of Israel. Well, stars and sceptres symbolise kings and their authority. And so, the Lord has opened Balaam’s eyes to see the coming of a king. And this king will be a mighty king who will crush and destroy all his enemies, according to verses 17 to 19. Balaam also goes on in verses 20 and following to mention other pagan nations which will be destroyed in the coming days.

So, the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam to enable him to see the coming of a great king. And, of course, the words of his prophecy were fulfilled by the coming of David, who would one day become King of Israel. And, of course, David was a great king, because he was able — with the help of the Lord — to defeat their enemies at that time; and to bring peace at last to Israel. For years and years — throughout the period of the judges and during the time of Saul — the Israelites were harassed and oppressed by their enemies. But David was able to conquer their enemies and to establish peace in Israel.

Christ the King

However, Christian interpreters believe that Balaam’s final oracle is not only about David, but it’s also about the Lord Jesus Christ. Back in verse 14, Balaam referred to ‘days to come’. The expression ‘days to come’ can also be translated as ‘latter days’ or ‘last days’. And — as you’ll no doubt remember — in the Bible ‘the last days’ refers to the time which began with the coming of the Lord Jesus into the world; and his resurrection from the dead; and his ascension to heaven; and ‘the last days’ will continue until the Lord comes again in glory and with great power.

So, this oracle is not about Balak’s day, and it’s not just about David’s day; although it, no doubt, includes David’s day. But it’s about the coming of the Lord Jesus, who came as King to deliver his people from our sin and misery in this present evil age, so that we might live in peace and safety on God’s holy mountain in the new heaven and earth, where there will be no one and nothing to hurt or harm us or to destroy our peace in the presence of the Lord.

And sure enough, when the time was right, the Lord came into the world. And whenever he cast out demons, he revealed how he would one day conquer and condemn all his enemies: all those who continue in their sin and rebellion and refuse to repent and believe in him, but remain on Satan’s side in opposition to him.

But, on the other hand, whenever he healed the sick, he revealed how he would one day raise our bodies from the grave and glorify us in his presence forever and forever.

Those who continue to rebel against him, will be condemned like the nations mentioned in these verses. But those who repent and believe receive God’s blessing, just as the Israelites were blessed by him. And the blessing we receive is the assurance of sins forgiven and the hope of everlasting life.