The subject of prophecy is one which certainly ought not to be altogether neglected. If it were only for the sake of the many appeals made to it by our Lord and His Apostles, it would have a just claim on our attention.
I. It is a very misleading notion of prophecy if we regard it as an anticipation of history. History, in our common sense of the term, is busy with particular nations, times, places, actions, and even persons. If, in this sense, prophecy were a history written beforehand, it would alter the very condition of humanity, by removing from us our uncertainty as to the future; it would make us acquainted with those times and seasons which the Father hath put in His own power.
II. What history does not and cannot do, that prophecy does, and for that very reason it is very different from history. Prophecy fixes our attention on principles, on good and evil, on truth and falsehood, on God and on His enemy. Prophecy is God’s voice, speaking to us respecting the issue in all time of that great struggle which is the real interest of human life, the struggle between good and evil. Beset as we are by evil within us and without, it is the natural and earnest question of the human mind, What shall be the end at last? And the answer is given by prophecy that it shall be well at last, that there shall be a time when good shall perfectly triumph.
III. Thus, as in the text, Balak, king of the Moabites, calls upon Balaam the prophet to curse Israel. This is the history: on the one hand there was one people; on the other there was another. Mere history can find no difficulty in determining that the highest good to unborn generations of the human race was involved in the preservation of Israel. It is the comparative good and evil which history can discern in the two nations which determines their respective characters as the representatives at that time and place of that real good and evil whose contest is the enduring subject of prophecy.
This is a thought in which all the world would agree, if they could speak out their real feelings. Those who are most backward and unwilling to lead the life of the righteous man—even they would wish to die the righteous man’s death.
I. By the death of the righteous is not meant merely a happy end, but any circumstances of death whatever after a holy and obedient life. The worst death of those who are accounted righteous before God is better than the best and easiest death of an unrighteous person.
II. Nothing can exceed the apparent truth and piety of Balaam’s thoughts concerning death. Yet at the time he uttered them he was about the devil’s work, doing all he could to corrupt souls, and make God and man enemies to each other, for the sake of a little filthy lucre. His words have passed into a kind of proverb, as describing a happy death. His own death was perhaps the most miserable of all that are recorded in the Old Testament.
III. Let no man, therefore, deceive himself, nor imagine that all is as yet tolerably right between him and his God, because he feels his heart warm at devout expressions like this of Balaam; because, when he thinks of it, he would wish to die the death of the righteous. Do not rest satisfied with anything short of consistent Christian practice. Other ways may make you comfortable for a time, but this will bring a man peace at the last.
I. Balaam was half converted, and so he was not converted at all. He would not wholly part with his besetting sin, and so it mastered him and destroyed him. He would not serve God more than he thought he need, and so he ended in deadly opposition to God, disserving God as greatly as he could, and seducing others from His service, and so soon as he had finished his work of evil losing his life and his soul.
II. What the direct warnings or inspirations of God were to Balaam, that God’s voice in His word and in our consciences is to us. The special sin of Balaam was that he indulged and fed with his heart’s blood one darling passion (covetousness), and that, not daring or wishing to go against the direct command of God, he tried in every way he could to evade it. While our soul keeps back one thing, while we are contriving in one thing to cheat our conscience and hold back part of the price from God, all is but Balaam-service; we are as yet none of His.
I. Balaam is a heathen prophet; he is certainly not produced as a favourable specimen of one. In the New Testament he is represented as the very type of false and evil teachers. Yet the teaching of Balaam is not ascribed to an evil spirit, but to God; he is not treated as a mere pretender to powers which were not his; his knowledge and foresight are acknowledged as real.
II. How then was Balaam a false prophet? His predictions were confirmed; what he spoke of the goodly tents of Israel was fulfilled more perfectly than he dreamed; the star which he saw in his vision did actually arise and shine upon Gentiles as well as Hebrews. That test of truth the prophet Balaam could well endure. But a man may be false though all his words are true, though he has gifts and endowments of the highest order, though these gifts and endowments proceed, as all proceed, from God.
III. You will not find that Isaiah is true and Balaam false because the one received communications from God and the other did not, nor because Isaiah belonged to the covenant people and Balaam did not. But you will find that Isaiah lived for his people, and not for himself; that he did not value himself upon his gifts, or upon his holiness, or upon anything whatsoever that belonged to him as an individual. The certainty, under every possible discouragement and conflict, that the righteous God would prevail over all that was unrighteous in the universe, the willingness to be made an instrument in carrying out God’s purposes, let what would come of him or his character—this is the sign of the true prophet; this is what separates him from the solitary self-seeker, who shrank from the thought of God appearing to set the world right, who only wished when his wishes were purest that he might die the death of the righteous.
There are three special thoughts which come to us in connection with this text.
I. The first is, the absolute need, if the army of the Lord is to conquer, of the presence of the Lord and of the realisation of His presence by those who are called by His name, and wear His armour, and wield His weapons. It pleases the Lord to let us fight His battles, to give us His armour and His weapons, and to inspire us with His courage, and to fill our enemies with His terror. We have no power except it be given us by Him; we can drive out no darkness of heathenism except the Lord be with us. We want more of our own battle-cry, the “shout of our King,” telling of His actual presence with His host.
II. It is also necessary to realise the essential unity of the Church of Christ, of the army of the living God. We should pray and work, and earnestly desire that all the people of the Lord may be one. If we want a reason for the little progress made in the conquest of the world of heathenism for the Lord of life and glory, if we want to account for the dark and darkening fringe of sin, and misery, and unbelief within the borders of our own land, we can find cause enough for these things in our failure to realise and to work and pray for the ideal of the essential unity of the Church of Christ.
III. Our text inspires us with hope. There is no greater need for us, as individuals or as a united body, than hope. And how can we be otherwise than full of hope when we call to mind that the promise is for us, “The shout of a King is among them”? There is hope for ourselves, and hope for others. Life passes on; friends pass away; strength for effort grows less; unavailing efforts stretch out behind us in a long, increasing line, like wounded men falling down to die in the terrible retreat; but still there is hope—hope that will grow and increase, and come daily nearer to its accomplishment. “The shout of a King is among us,” and we cannot be moving on to ultimate defeat. There is a battle, terrible enough, to fight; but victory is the end, not defeat.
I. With all the favourable traits which may be noticed in the character of Balaam, the features of his besetting sin are plainly marked. The power of money over him seems to have been known, and so when he refused to come Balak hoped to overcome his scruples by the bribe of great promotion. And the prophet’s conduct well justified these expectations. He feared God so far that he dared not rebel directly against His will; but he was so much in love with the world’s gauds and honours and wealth, that he was ever trying to humour his conscience to bend the line of right to the line of seeming interest. He thought to secure this world and the next; he lost both: he had too much truth to secure the rewards of Balak; he had too little truth to escape the wrath of God.
II. The lesson to be learned from such a character is surely plain for us. Balaam’s character is that of the half-hearted Christian. He makes a partial and unwilling sacrifice. He is, like Balaam, an uncertain, irresolute, wavering man, with many better principles and feelings, but with an undergrowth of evil which he will not utterly root out.
III. From the history of Balaam we learn: (1) the importance to each one of us of being indeed earnest Christians, of giving to God our hearts and our affections; (2) the importance of striving to subdue wholly every separate sin to which we are tempted; (3) the great need we have of seeking earnestly from God the gift of a sincere heart.