Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 6: Harmony of the Law, Part IV, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
1. And the children of Israel set forward, and pitched in the plains of Moab, on this side Jordan by Jericho.
1. Inde profecti sunt filii Israel, et castrametati sunt in campestribus Moab trans Jordanem Jericho.
2. And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that israel had done to the Amorites.
2. Quum autem vidisset Balac filius Sippor qumcunque fecerat Israel Emorrhaeo:
3. And Moab was sore afraid of the people, because they were many; and Moab was distressed because of the children of Israel.
3. Timuit Moab propter populum valde, quod multus esset: et anxius fuit Moab propter filios Israel.
4. And Moab said unto the elders of Midian, Now shall this company lick up all that are round about us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field. And Balak the son of Zippor was king of the Moabites at that time.
4. Dixit igitur Moab ad seniores Madian, Nunc lambet congregatio haec omnes circuitus nostros, quemadmodum lambit bos gramen agri. Porto Balac filius Sippor erat rex Moab tempore illo.
5. He sent messengers therefore unto Baalam the son of Beor, to Pethor, which is by the river of the land of the children of his people, to call him, saying, Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt: behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me.
5. Misit igitur legatos ad Balaam filium Beor in Pethor, quae erat juxta flumen terrae filiorum populi sui, ut vocaret eum, dicendo, En populus egressus est ex Aegypto, ecce, operuit superficiem terrae, et habitat contra me.
6. Come now, therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people; for they are too mighty for me: peradventure I shall prevail, that we may smite them, and that I may drive them out of the land: for I wot that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed.
6. Nunc ergo veni, obsecro, maledic mihi populum hunc, quia fortior me est: fortepotero, et percutiam eum, expellamque e terra. Novi enim quod cui benedixeris benedictus erit, et cui maledixeris maledictus erit.
7. And the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the rewards of divination in their hand; and they came unto Baalam, and spake unto him the words of Balak.
7. Profecti ergo sunt seniores Madian, et divinationes in manu eorum: et pervenerunt ad Balaam, et retulerunt ei vrrba Balac.
8. And he said unto them, Lodge here this night, and I will bring you word again, as the Lord shall speak unto me. And the princes of Moab abode with Balaam.
8. Ille vero dixit eis, Pernoctate hic nocte ista, et reddam vobis responsum, quemadmodum loquetur Jehova ad me. Manseruntque principes Moab cum Balaam.
9. And God came unto Balaam, and said, What men are these with thee?
9. Et venit Deus ad Balaam, ac dixit, Qui sunt viri isti qui sunt apud te?
10. And Balaam said unto God, Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, hath sent unto me, saying,
10. Respondit Balaam Deo, Balac filius Sippor rex Moab misit ad me:
11. Behold, there is a people come out of Egypt, which covereth the face of the earth: come now, curse me them; peradventure I shall be able to overcome them, and drive them out.
11. En populus iste qui egressus est ex AEgypto operuit superficiem terrae: nunc ergo veni, maledic mihi illi: forte potero pugnare cum eo, et expellere eum.
12. And God said unto Baalam, Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed.
12. Et dixit Deus ad Balaam, Ne eas cum illis, neque maledicas populo qui benedictus est.
13. And Balaam rose up in the morning, and said unto the princes of Balak, Get you into your land: for the Lord refuseth to give me leave to go with you
13. Surrexit itaque Balaam mane, et dixit ad principes Balac, Revertimini ad terram vestram: quia renuit Jehova concedere mihi, ut eam vobiscum.
14. And the princes of Moab rose up, and they went unto Balak, and said, Balaam refuseth to come with us.
14. Et surrexerunt principes Moab, et perverternut ad Balac, ac dixerunt, Renuit Balaam venire nobiscum.
15. And Balak sent yet again princes, more, and more honorable than they.
15. Rursus ergo misit Balac principes plures, et nobiliores istis.
16. And they came to Balaam, and said to him, Thus saith Balak the son of Zippor, Let nothing, I pray thee, hinder thee from coming unto me;
16. Qui venientes ad Balaam dixerunt ei, Sic dixit Balac filius Sippor, Noli quaeso prohibere teipsum ne venias ad me:
17. For I will promote thee unto very great honor, and I will do whatsoever thou sayest unto me: come therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people.
17. Nam honorando honorabo te valde, et quicquid dixeris mihi, faciam: veni igitur obsecro, et maledic mihi populo huic.
18. And Balaam answered and said unto the servants of Balak, If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord my God, to do less or more.
18. Respendens autem Balaam dixit servis Balac, Etiamsi daturus sit mihi Balac plenam domum suam argento et auro, non possim transgredi sermonem Jehoare Dei mei, ut faciam aliquid, sive parvum, sive magnum.
19. Now therefore, I pray you, tarry ye also here this night, that I may know what the Lord will say unto me more.
19. Nunc ergo manete, obsecro, hic vos quoque hac nocte, ut sciam quid addet Jehova loqui mihi.
20. And God came unto Balaam at night, and said unto him, If the men come to call thee, rise up, and go with them; but yet the word which I shall say unto thee, that shalt thou do.
20. Tunc venit Deus ad Balaam nocte, et dixit ei, Si vocandum te venerint viri isti, surge, vade cum eis: veruntamen quod dixero tibi, illud facies.
21. And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab.
21. Surrexit itaque Balaam mane,et stravit asinam suam, et perrexit cum principibus Moab.
22. And God’s anger was kindled because he went: and the angel of the Lord stood in the way for an adversary against him. (Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him.)
22. Iratus vero est furor Dei quod ipse iret cum illis: stetitque angelus Jehovae in ipsa via, in adversarium illi: ipse autem equitabat super asinam suam, et duo pueri ejus erant cum co.
23. And the ass saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field; and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way.
23. At videns asina angelum Jehovae stantem in via, et gladium ejus evaginatam in manu ejus, declinavit ilia e via, et ivit in agrum: itaque percussit Balaam asinam ut declinare faceret eam in viam.
24. But the angel of the Lord stood in a path of the vineyards, a wall being on this side, and a wall on that side.
24. Stetitque postea angelus Jehovae in semita vinearum: maceria una erat hinc, et maceria altera inde.
25. And when the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall; and he smote her again.
25. Videns vero secundo asina angelum Jehovae, coarctavit sese parieti, coarctavit quoque pedem Balaam ad parietem: propterea addidit percutere cam.
26. And the angel of the Lord went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left.
26. Addidit praeterea angelus Jehovae transire, et stetit in loco angusto ubi nulla erat via ad declinandum sire ad dextram sire ad sinistram.
27. And when the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff.
27. Quum autem vidisset asina angelum Jehovah, succubuit sub Balaam, unde iratus furor Balaam percussit asinam baculo.
28. And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass; and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?
28. Et aperuit Jehova os asinae, dixitque ilia ad Balaam, Quid feci tibi, quod percussisti me jam tribus vicibus:
29. And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.
29. Tunc dixit Balaam ad asinam, Quia illusisti mihi, utinam esset gladius in manu mea, certe nunc occiderem te.
30. And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? And he said, Nay.
30. Dixit autem asina ad Balaam, Nonne sum asina tua? super me equitasti ex quo esse coepisti usque ad diem hanc, nunquid solita sum facere tibi sic? Qui respondit, Nequaquam.
31. Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face.
31. Et detexit Jehova oculos Balaam, viditque angelum Jehovae stantem in via, et gladium ejus evaginatum in manu ejus: tum demisso capite adoravit pronus in faciem suam.
32. And the angel of the Lord said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? Behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me:
32. Et alloquutus est eum angelus Jehovae, Quare percussisti asinam tuam jam tribus vicibus? en ego egressus sum in adversarium tibi, quia declinavit a via coram me.
33. And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me, surely now also I had slain thee, and saved her alive.
33. Et vidit me asina, declinavit-que ante me jam tribus vicibus: quod si non declinasset a facie mea, jam nunc etiam te occidissem, et ipsam vivam reservassem.
31. And Balaam said unto the angel of the Lord, I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me: now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back again.
34. Dixit igitur Balaam ad angelum Jehovae, Peccavi: non enim sciebam quod tu stares in occursum mei in via: Nunc autem si malum est in oculis tuis, revertar mihi.
35. And the angel of the Lord said unto Balaam, Go with the men: but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak. So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.
35. Angelus vero Jehovae dixit ad Balaam, Vade cum istis viris: veruntamen verbum quod loquar ad te illud loqueris. Abiit igitur Balaam cum principibus Balac:
36. And when Balak heard that Balaam was come, he went out to meet him unto a city of Moab, which is in the border of Arnon, which is in the utmost coast.
36. Audiens vero Balac quod adveniret Balaam, egressus est in occursam ejus in civitatem quandam Moab, quae erat juxta terminun Arnon, quae est in extremo finium.
37. And Balak said unto Balaam, Did I not earnestly send unto thee to call thee? wherefore camest thou not unto me? am I not able indeed to promote thee to honor?
37. Et dixit Balac ad Balaam, Annon mittendo misi ad te ad accersendum te? an vere non possum honorare te?
38. And Balaam said unto Balak, Lo, I am come unto thee: have now any power at all to say any thing? the word that God putteth in my mouth, that shall I speak.
38. Respondit autem Balaam ad Balac, Ecce veni ad te: nunc autem nunquid omnino potero loqui quicquam? Verbum quod posuerit Deus in ore meo, illud loquar.
39. And Balaam went with Balak, and they came unto Kirjath-huzoth.
39. Et perrexit Balaam cum Balac, et pervenerunt in civitatem Husoth:
40. And Balak offered oxen and sheep, and sent to Balaam, and to the princes that were with him.
40. Et mactavit Balac boves, et oves: misitque ad Balaam et ad principes qui cum ipso erant.
41. And it came to pass on the morrow, that Balak took Balaam, and brought him up into the high places of Baal, that thence he might see the utmost part of the people.
41. Postera autem die accepit Balac ipsum Balaam, et ascendere fecit eum in excelsa Baal, et vidit illinc extremum populi.
1. And the children, of Israel set forward. This narrative contains many circumstances worthy of record: First, it shews that there is no stone which Satan does not turn for the destruction of the Church, and that, after he has assailed her in vain by force of arms, he attacks her by snares and secret artifices, whilst the ungodly also work under his impulse, as far as they are able, to overthrow her by deceit, and to make the promises of God, and His unchangeable decree for the preservation of the Church which He has chosen, of none effect. But God shews, on the other hand, that He so watches over His own, as to turn to their salvation whatever plots their enemies may devise for their destruction. He likewise represents as in a mirror how foolish and vain are their attempts who endeavor to undermine the grace of God; and especially He demonstrates that God’s truth will always be so completely victorious as to receive the testimony even of its professed enemies; just as Balaam was made to proclaim it. These and other observations, however, will be better made in their several places.
We have already seen that there was no reason why Balak should devise any evil against God’s people, since he had no inconvenience to fear from them. Their faith had been voluntarily pledged; security had been promised him, and a treaty proposed. When, therefore, he and all the Moabites prepare themselves, and arouse their neighbors for resistance, they were ungrateful to God as well as men. In his very alarm we see the truth of what Scripture declares, viz., that the reprobate are always agitated by groundless terrors; and this is the just reward of those who seek not peace with God, that they should be constantly harassed by wretched disquietude. By special privilege God had exempted the Moabites from being at all interfered with; but they invent for themselves causes of anxiety, because they see that God’s people had overcome great and powerful kings. For as the brightness of the sun is painful and injurious to those who have weak eyes, so the blessings which God bestows upon the Church, in token of His paternal favor, torment the reprobate and stir them up to envy. If the Moabites had prudently considered their own advantage, they might have easily so arranged with their old connections as to provide for their own tranquillity; but now, by provoking their ill-will, they make the worst bargain possible for themselves. Nor is it the unwise alarm of Balak only which is described, but that of the whole nation of Moab. At first, indeed, the king’s name is introduced alone, but immediately afterwards Moses includes them all without exception, hence it is plain that this error was universal, by the contagion of which they presently corrupt others also. For they invite the Midianites to associate themselves with them in the work of repulsing the Israelites. The pretext alleged is, that as oxen consume the grass of the field, so there was imminent danger lest if the people of Israel were not resisted, they should as it were lick up and devour all the nations; whereas they had experienced quite the reverse, for the people had turned aside of their own accord into circuitous paths, in order to avoid doing them injury. This forbearance would have delivered them from all anxiety, unless their own malignity had taught them to entertain foul suspicions; for why had not the Israelites made a direct aggression upon their territories, except because they were desirous to leave them safe and intact? Otherwise they would have boldly made a way for themselves by force of arms.
5. He sent messengers therefore unto Balaam. This passage shews us, like many others, that the errors wherein Satan entangles unbelievers are derived from good principles. The modesty of king Balak appears to be worthy of praise, in that, conscious of his own weakness, and placing no confidence in human aid, he sets about imploring the help of God. For this is our only safe refuge, although earthly aids may fail us, still to maintain our courage, and to rely upon God, who is all-sufficient in Himself, and independent of external means. Thus far, then, Balak acts rightly, for he seeks nothing more than to conciliate God’s favor, nor places his confidence of victory in anything but God’s good-will; but, when he seeks for God amiss by circuitous ways, he departs far from Him. And this is a common error with all hypocrites and unbelievers, that, whilst they aspire after God, they wander into indirect paths of their own. Balak desires Divine deliverance from his danger; but the means are of his own device, when he would purchase incantations from a mercenary prophet; thus it is, that he binds down God, and subjects Him to his own inventions. He knows, he says, that the power of blessing and cursing appertained to Balaam; but, whence arose this persuasion, unless, 142 by catching at the more empty name of Prophet, he separates God from Himself? He ought first to have inquired what the will of God was, and to have addressed prayer in earnest faith to Him, in order to propitiate Him; whereas, omitting the main thing, he is satisfied with a mere venal blessing. We gather, therefore, from his anxiety to obtain peace and pardon from God, that there was some seed of religion implanted in his mind. The reverence which he pays to the Prophet is also a sign of his piety. But that he desires to win over God by his own vain inventions is a proof of foolish superstition; and that he seeks to lay Him under obligation to himself, of impious pride. 143
I know not how it came into the mind of the Chaldee interpreter to suppose that Pether was on the banks of the Euphrates; nor is it probable that (Balaam) was fetched from so great a distance. Neither would his celebrity have extended from so distant a place to these nations. I am persuaded that it is the proper name of a place, because the termination of the word Petorah does not admit of its being an epithet, such as “the soothsayer,” as Jerome has rendered it. Although, however, the country is not specified, it is probably gathered from the context that Balaam was a Midianite; and for this reason I conceive the Midianites were sought in alliance, in order that they might gain over their fellow-countrymen.
It is a poor exposition of what follows in verse 7, that they had “the divinations in their hand,” 144 to refer it to the art of divination, or even that they were accompanied by those who were skillful in the same science. It is more simple to interpret it of their commission, as though Moses said that the messengers were instructed as to what they sought of Balaam, viz., that he should curse the people of Israel, for there is no absurdity in supposing that Moses again repeats what he had related in the preceding verse. Still, I am not indisposed to accept the view which others take, viz., that they took with them the reward or price of divination, for there have been in all ages hireling prophets who made a sale of their revelations; and since even amongst the Israelites many impostors thus set themselves up for hire, this abuse had much vogue (among them.) Hence it was that Saul and his servant hesitated to go to Samuel, because they had not any gift at hand to offer him, until the servant replied that he had the fourth part of a shekel of silver, as if Samuel set up his prophecies for sale, as was commonly the case. (1 Sam. 9:7, 8.) Ezekiel, indeed, charges the false prophets with this, that they sold themselves for a trifling bribe.
8. And he said unto them, Lodge here this night. Inasmuch as he waits for a revelation from the true God, it is probable that he was not a magician or sorcerer, whose only power to divine arose from superstition or evil arts. We shall, indeed, see hereafter, that he was accustomed to use many impostures and deceptions; but it will be plain, from the evidence of facts, that he was furnished with the gift of prophecy. Not that he is to be reckoned among the true prophets whom God set over His Church, because neither was the perpetual office of prophesying conferred upon him, nor was it conjoined with that of teaching. For those servants of His, to whom God intrusted the office of prophesying, He so directed by His Spirit, that they never spoke except out of His mouth. And although they did not foresee all that was to happen, but only according to the measure of their revelation, still He concealed nothing from them which it was profitable for them to know. Hence the expression of Amos,
“Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” (Am 3:7.)
In a word, they were the organs of the Holy Spirit for all necessary predictions; and the credit due to their prophecies was of an equable and constant character, so that they never spoke absurdly or in vain. Besides, they were endowed with the power of adapting their prophecies to a just object and use. Thus, after the Law was promulgated, they were its interpreters. In prosperity they bore witness to the grace of God; in adversity, to His judgments. In fine, their business was to ratify God’s covenant, whereby He reconciles men to Himself through Christ. Far different was the case with Balaam, and such like, who were only endued with a particular gift, 145 so that they truly foretold some things, and were mistaken in others; and, indeed, they only uttered bare revelations without any admixture of doctrine. God willed, indeed, that such should exist even among heathen nations, so that some sparks of light should shine amidst their darkness, and thus the excuse of ignorance should be taken away. Indeed, all those who have dared to delude the world by their impostures have usurped the name of prophet; and although the word divination is honorable and sacred, it has been improperly applied to the art of deception, and the liberty to lie, as it is the custom of the devil to profane God’s name by its impious abuse. Still, there were some among the Gentiles who occasionally predicted future events by divine inspiration; and this was especially the case before the Law was given, inasmuch as God had not then distinguished His elect people from others by this mark. At this time, it is true, the promise had been given,
“The Lord thy God will raise up unto thee prophets,” 146 etc, (De 18:15.);
but it was not yet generally known, and therefore God was unwilling that the nations should be deprived of their soothsayers, who still were very different from those true prophets, whose call was clear and legitimate.
I have said thus much briefly with reference to Balaam, whom God addresses in a vision by night, or dream, no less familiarly than any of His own servants; but only on a particular point. By the inquiry, “What men are these with thee?” Hie indirectly reproves his improper desires. At first sight he pretends a holy anxiety to obey, when he dares to attempt nothing without God’s permission, and refuses to stir a foot, until he shall have received His answer. Yet secret covetousness influences him to obtain from God, by bargaining as it were, what he still feels not to be right. God glances at this astuteness, when He inquires respecting the men; as much as to say, that there was no reason why he should detain them a moment, since their demand should have been peremptorily refused. And, assuredly, if he had been free, he would have hastened at once to obey the wishes of king Balak, even contrary to the will of God. He now requests that permission should be given him; as if he desired to have the reins, which withheld him from his evil purposes, slackened, when he would have willingly shaken them off altogether, if he were not well aware that he could do nothing further than God would permit. Nor, indeed, does he regard what is lawful and right; but only seeks that his mouth may be opened to curse with impunity.
12. Thou shalt not go with them. If there were any room for doubt, God peremptorily removes it, and confirms the prohibition; because it was unlawful to curse, those whom He had blessed. For nothing more is permitted to prophets than that they should be the witnesses, or ambassadors (internuntii,) or heralds of the grace which God freely deigns to bestow at His own pleasure upon whom He will. Moreover, God is said to bless those whom He has embraced with His favor, and to whom He experimentally declares Himself to be propitious, when He displays His liberality towards them. Of this blessing He willed that the prophets should be His ministers in such a manner that the power should still remain altogether in His own hands. If, therefore, they usurp to themselves the prerogative of blessing without His commission, their act is not merely frivolous and inefficacious, but even blasphemous. Justly, then, does Ezekiel convict of falsehood and deception those false prophets, who, by their flatteries, encourage the souls which were doomed to die; whilst they slay by their terrors and threats those to whom God had promised life. (Eze 13:2 and 22.) Hence we gather, how vain it is for hypocrites, as they are wont to do, to purchase pardon from men in order to propitiate God; and also that we need not be afraid of those degenerate ministers, 147 who desire to domineer tyrannically in virtue of their office, although they launch their fulminations against the innocent.
It is plain, however, that Balaam’s obedience to God’s command does not proceed from the heart. His words, indeed, might deceive the simple, from their appearance of humility; “I will not go, because God forbids it; “but there is no doubt but that, led as he was to gratify them by ambition and by avarice, he indicates that he would be disposed to undertake the journey, unless he were forbidden by God. If his heart had been sincere, the honest reply he should have given was obvious, viz., that it was vain to send either for himself or any one else, in order that Balak might resist the inviolable decree of God. If he had thus heartily and unequivocally given glory to God, another embassy would not have been sent to him; but by his faltering excuse he appeared to inflame the desire of the foolish king, in order to sell his curse at a higher price; for we know that this is the usual way with impostors, that they obtain higher pay for themselves in proportion to the difficulty of the matter. Still, however, if we compare the mercenary prophets of the Pope with Balaam, his servile and enforced submission will deserve no little praise by the side of their detestable and indomitable folly, who, in despite of God, hesitate not to burst forth in impious curses. The truth, which they oppugn, is conspicuous: that terrible judgment, which (God) denounces by the mouth of Isaiah, rings in their ears, “Woe unto them that put darkness for light, and light for darkness,” (Isa 5:20;) nevertheless they proceed, and in their brutal madness vomit forth their blasphemies not only to the destruction of the Church, but, if it were possible, to the extinction of all religion.
15. And Balak sent yet again princes. Here we see that, however humbly ungodly men implore God’s grace, still they do not lay aside their pride; as if their grandeur could avail to dazzle the eyes of God. In order, therefore, to make Him comply with their wishes, they think it enough to display their magnificent ceremonies; and, indeed, whatever modesty superstition may pretend, it always swells with secret confidence Thus Balak, in order to obtain favor, makes a show of his dignity and power, and deems that Balaam will be thus at his service. Although, however, the impostor shews much more spirit in this his second reply than before, still his hypocrisy is soon discovered, and he betrays the duplicity of his mind. It is, indeed, a noble speech, and indicative of much magnanimity, “If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I will not disobey the command of God:” but why does he not instantly banish from him altogether these unholy traffickers, who are instigating him to transgression? We see, then, that he speaks rather in a spirit of boasting, than to ascribe to God the glory due to Him; for his desire was to acquire for himself the title and credit of a holy Prophet by this parade of obedience. In the meantime, when he begs that a season of delay should be granted him for the purpose of inquiring what God’s pleasure was, he is convicted of impious rebellion. He does not dare openly, and in flagrant contempt of God, to put himself forward for the purpose of cursing God’s people: and so far well: but why does he not acquiesce in the Divine decision? why, when he has been assured whether a matter was lawful or not, does he still doubtingly inquire? For thus does he deliberate, and question whether that which God has once prescribed ought to be certain and unchangeable; nay, he endeavors to force God to alter His determination. From the time that he had heard, “Thou shalt not go,” upon what pretense was it permissible to continue the controversy? This, then, is the object of Balaam’s endeavor, that God, by withdrawing the decision which He had pronounced, should deny Himself; and this was an act of most blasphemous impiety. Still many such persons will be found now-a-days, who, though fully assured of the will of God, cease not nevertheless to countermine it, so that they may at length attain the end, towards which they are hurried by their lawless cupidity. At the outset, it is anything but their desire to know what is right; or, when they know it, to follow it: but ambition instigates some, lust inflames others, and others are urged forward by avarice: in a word, evil affections preside over every deliberation. Straightway God interposes some obstacle, and compels them, whether they will or no, to understand what they ought to do. They proceed, however, notwithstanding; and, inasmuch as the way is closed, they endeavor by subterfuges, by crooked paths or evasions, to elude the sure word of God; and, although they appear to do this modestly, because they hesitate until permission shall have been obtained from God, yet herein does their impudence betray itself, that they do not cease to importune God and His prophets, until they have extorted what they have already heard to be unlawful. It is plain, therefore, that all those are disciples of Balaam, who try the indulgence, of God, that He may at length permit them to attempt what; He has once refused.
20. And God came to Balaam at, night. Although God is far from being deceitful, still hypocrites with their quibbles deserve that He should delude their craft. If we more closely consider the desire of Balaam, it was that God should belie Himself. For, if he was persuaded that He was truthful, what else was there to be hoped except that he should ratify His reply ten times over? Nevertheless, he wickedly lies to God, when he asks for a permission to go, which would convict God Himself of capriciousness and inconstancy. God, therefore, ironically permits what He had before forbidden. If any should deem it to be absurd that God, who is truth itself, should speak deceptively, the answer is easily found, viz., that God was guilty of no falsehood, but that He loosed the reins to a man obstinate in his own perverseness, just as a person might emancipate a wayward and grossly immoral son, because he will not suffer himself to be ruled. For had not his ungodly covetousness blinded Balaam, the meaning of this ironical permission was not difficult to be understood. Hence, then, let hypocrites learn, that they profit nothing by their vain pretences, although God may indulge them for a time, since He at length taketh the wily in their own craftiness; wherefore, nothing is better than, in pure and simple teachableness, to inquire what He would have us do, that we may instantly succumb, nor try to alter a word or a syllable as soon as He shall have deigned to open His holy mouth to instruct us. For to call in question what has been decided by Him, what is it but to compel Him by our importunity to bend Himself to our wishes?
22. And God’s anger was kindled because he went. How is it consistent that God should be angry when Balaam had attempted nothing, thus far, contrary to His command? But we must bear in mind, what I have lately hinted, that God apparently permits much which He does not approve. He allowed the people in the wilderness to eat flesh: He permitted men to give a writing of divorce to their wives, and even to marry several at once; still it was not right for them to eat the flesh, nor were divorce and polygamy free from culpability. At any rate, Balaam sinned by pertinaciously urging what was sinful, and thus deserved the punishment of death, though God was pleased to mitigate it. On this point it behoves us also to be soberly wise, lest, when God’s secret judgments differ from our moral sense, we should cry out against Him. That prophet, who, having faithfully delivered his message, tasted bread on his way back, and this at the instigation of another prophet, so that he only fell through carelessness and want of reflection, He punished with death, (1Ki 13;) in this case, the punishment which He inflicts upon an impostor and cheat, who 148 prostitutes his tongue for hire, is no harsher than to terrify him by threats. Here the temerity of the flesh would willingly lay hold of the occasion to find fault with God; but the fact was, that the punishment which awaited Balaam, and from which he did not finally escape, was delayed for a certain period in order to display more brightly the glory of God. Wherefore, if a doubt ever pervades our minds, when the reason for any of God’s works is not apparent, let us learn at once to repress it.
The external manifestation of God’s anger is afterwards described; i.e., that the Angel meets him with a drawn sword; wherein we may observe that, to the great disgrace of the Prophet, the glory of the Angel was first revealed to the ass. For, although the Angel had assumed a body, by the sight of which a brute-animal might be affected, how did it come to pass that the ass was terrified at this alarm ing sight, whilst the eyes of the Prophet were closed against it, unless because God wished to brand the stupidity of this faithless man with a mark of ignominy? He had previously boasted of his extraordinary visions; a vision now escapes him which was manifest to the eyes of a beast. Whence did such blindness as this arise, except from avarice, by which he was so stupified as to prefer filthy lucre to the holy calling of God? In a word, in him was fulfilled, what Scripture so often denounces against the reprobate, that he was struck by a spirit of dizziness and folly so as to be unable to perceive anything. I have already said, that although angels are naturally invisible, yet that they assume bodies whenever God so pleases, and act in the character of human beings. Who supplied the Angel with a sword? Even He, who created all things out of nothing. If any curious person should go further, and inquire of what material the sword was made? it will be easy to reprove his folly by another question, viz., Whether it is easier for mortal man or for God to apply iron and steel to their various purposes? And it might be the case that a bright light shone from the sword, as when the Cherubim were placed with swords to shut the entrance of Paradise against Adam. In a word, God clothed His Angel in such a form as might strike with terror both the brute-animal and the false prophet. But He began with the ass, in order to put the stolidity of the wicked man more completely to shame.
Moses proceeds to relate how the ass, first of all, was turned aside out of the way, and then, when she was met in a narrow place, how she tremblingly started back so as to crush her master’s foot against the wall, and at length how she fell down under him. Surely this miserable impostor ought to have been awakened, if he had not been fascinated by the devil. But Moses carefully details all these circumstances, in order to show that he was not only deprived of common sense, but so utterly astounded, as to pay no attention to a most illustrious miracle.
28. And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass. Sceptical persons criticize this passage, and ridicule it, as if Moses related an incredible fable. And, indeed, their scoff appears to be plausible, when they object that there is a great difference between the bray of all ass and all articulate voice; but, however they may now indulge in such wanton observations, they will at length be made to feel how seriously and reverently we ought to speak of the marvellous works of God, by their jokes and trifling about which they seek to appear facetious. Now, since their chattering is unworthy of a lengthened refutation, let us be satisfied by the contempt into which it is thrown by a single expression of Moses, when he says that God “opened the mouth of the ass.” For whence would men possess the faculty of speech, unless God had opened their mouth at the first creation of the world? Whence comes it that magpies and parrots imitate the human voice, unless it were the will of God to manifest in them a specimen of a certain extraordinary power? Who is there, then, who shall now impose a law upon the Maker of the world, to prevent Him from adapting the mouth of a beast to the utterance of words? Unless perhaps they would suppose Him to be bound irrevocably, because He has once appointed a certain order in nature, to abstain from displaying His power by miracles. If the ass had been changed into a man, we should have been bound to reverence this proof of God’s incomprehensible power; 149 now, when we are told that merely a few words were drawn from it without intelligence or judgment, as if a sound of any kind were diffused through the air, shall the miracle be regarded as a fable? Moreover, if unclean spirits utter words in spectral illusions, why shall God be unable to endow mute tongues with the faculty of speech? Let us, then, learn to reverence with becoming humility the sentence which God executed on the false prophet. He might have chastised him directly by the words of the Angel; but, because the reproof would not have been sufficiently severe if unattended by gross ignominy, He ordained that a beast should instruct him. The voice of the Angel was, indeed, added afterwards; but, since he had been so unteachable, he is treated according to his desert, when, after having made some proficiency in the school of the ass, he begins to listen to God. And, further, the ass convicts him of being dull, and deluded in mind in this respect, that he was not aroused by this unusual circumstance. For she says that she had never before been refractory. If, therefore, there had been any spark of apprehension in the wretched man, he ought to have reflected as to what was the meaning of this novel proceeding and sudden change. Thus was he awakened from his lethargy, in order that he might listen more attentively to what the Angel afterwards spoke.
31. Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam. This passage teaches us, that whatever be the acuteness of our senses, it is not only implanted in us by God, but also either sustained or extinguished by His secret inspiration. Balaam’s eyes are opened; consequently there was a veil before them previously, which prevented him from seeing what was manifest. Thus God at His pleasure makes dull the senses of those who seem to themselves to be very acute; since perception is His special gift.
By this example we are shewn as in a mirror how hypocrites fear God, viz., when they are influenced by His presence; for as soon as they can withdraw themselves, they revel like fugitive slaves. Balaam saw the angel threatening him with a drawn sword, and he hung down his head, and adored; that is to say, because the vengeance of God was impending. But this fear by no means induced him to true correction of himself, he confesses, indeed, that he had sinned, and puts forth some fruit of repentance in that he is ready to return home; but he betrays a servile and compulsory fear, which only trembles at the thought of punishment. “I knew not (he says) that thou stoodest in the way.” Unless, therefore, the Angel had been armed for his punishment, he was proceeding in security, as if impunity were conceded to him. Another expression also discovers his craft and perfidiousness, he is ready to return, if his proceeding should displease God; as if he had not known before that it was by no means pleasing to God. This, then, is a ridiculous condition, as if he were in doubt on a point which was abundantly clear. If he really feared God, and in pure sincerity of heart, he ought at once to have renounced an expedition which was wicked in itself, and improperly undertaken. For what avail was it to say, “I have sinned,” if he thinks that he can prosecute the journey he had begun in opposition to God? Let us, therefore, learn, when God’s will is positively known, to have recourse to no crooked subterfuges, whereby we may delay to perform it.
When the Angel says: Unless the ass had turned aside, that he should have slain Balaam without injuring her, he intimates not only that, in accordance with God’s justice and loving-kindness, he would have spared the harmless animal, but that by the very sagacity of the beast, — as though she had deprecated God’s anger, — the life of her master, who was else unworthy of mercy, had been redeemed.
35. And the angel of the Lord said unto Balaam. Again this wicked man is ironically permitted to do what could not be carried out without sin. But, as I have said before, he was so conscious of his ungodly covetousness, that he knowingly and wilfully deceived himself, instead of being deceived. At the same time, we must observe that, as Paul calls God’s wisdom “manifold,” (Eph 3:10,) so His will is declared in various ways, as if He were inconsistent with Himself, though it always actually remains the same. Certain it is, that it was a mere pretense of Balaam, that he went at the command or permission of God. Nevertheless, this answer was given him, “Go,” etc. God, indeed, cast derision on the pertinacious folly of this wicked man, and did not approve as proper that which, as far as words went, He permitted; meanwhile, these two things are consistent with each other, that God did not approve what He condemned, and yet chose that it should be done. For, even when He executes His purpose by means of wicked men, He does not prescribe to them that they are to act thus. He willed to require punishment of Solomon by the hands of Jeroboam, and that the impiety of the house of Ahab should have vengeance inflicted upon it by Jehu; and still it was not right of Jeroboam to upset what God had declared, i.e., that the posterity of David should continue upon the throne; and Jehu also, although he had been anointed by the Prophet, still was guilty of a criminal act in seizing the kingdom: inasmuch as nothing but ambition impelled him to it. As far as relates to the history before us, it was His will to prove by the mouth of Balaam how effectual and unchangeable was His determination as to the adoption of the people, whereby His truth and faithfulness might be more conspicuously shewn forth. Nevertheless, Balaam sinned, in that he was attracted, like a hound, by the scent of gain, to sell his curses for money.
36. And whenBalak heard that Balaam was come. This passage admirably represents to us the spirit of all those who are devoted to their various superstitions without a sincere fear of God. They are cringing to their false prophets; they meanly flatter them, and hardly stop short of worshipping them, so that nothing more obsequious can be imagined; yet they inwardly cherish pride, which breaks out when they by no means expect, it. The king goes forth to meet the prophet, and to pay due honors to himself and his office. It is a great condescension; for it is equivalent to laying his crown and sceptre at his feet: but his dissimulation soon discovers itself, when, expostulating with Balaam, he boasts of his power and riches, wherewith he was able to reward him. Now this is precisely as if he should make the prophetical office subservient to money, and claim the dominion over its revelations by means of his wealth. However great, then, may be the servility with which superstitious persons flatter their idols and priests, still they never lay aside their proud spirits. Such zeal we may see in the Papists, who are as prodigal as possible of the reverence which they parade towards their prelates and monks; but on this condition, that they will be, on their part, complacent to their lusts. If, therefore, a priest, (sacrificus) will not gratify his worshippers, they inveigh against him with as much bitterness as if he were any swine-herd.
The answer of Balaam at first sight breathes nothing but piety: “I have come, (he says,) but I must needs speak as God shall command.” Whereby he signifies, that, as far as civility required, and inasmuch as depended upon himself, he would have complied with the wishes of the king; but that, in regard to his office as a prophet, he was not at liberty to do this, inasmuch as he would disregard the favor of all mankind, in order that he might obey the commands of God alone.
39. And Balaam went with Balak. Moses proceeds to relate how honorably and sumptuously Balaam was received. And first, he records that he was taken to the city of Huzoth; 150 which some would understand as a proper name, others as a noun appellative. In whichever way you take it, it denotes the extent of the city, which was divided into various streets. Secondly, Moses tells us that an abundance of animals were slain in preparation for the feast, and that guests were invited to banquet with Balaam himself. 151 The object of all this is, that Balaam was enticed by blandishments, in order that he might be ashamed to refuse anything to so munificent a king, by whom he had been treated not merely in a friendly, but in a liberal manner; just as if Balaam stood in the place of God, or as if the grace of God Himself were marketable. At length Moses adds that Balaam was brought up into the high places of Baal, that from this elevation he might more conveniently see the camp of the people. Moses, however, says that he only saw the extreme part of the camp; because the whole country was mountainous, and the view was obstructed by distance; still, in my opinion, the sanctity of the spot was the reason why it was chosen by Balak. He, therefore, brought Balaam to a temple, as it were, in order the more to conciliate God’s favor. Hence, too, it is apparent that this impostor had no fixed or solid views with regard to the service of God, but that he worshipped idols promiscuously amongst the heathen, either because he was involved in the same superstitions, or because he made no difficulty in complying with any customs or rites, in order to curry favor. For there have always been 152 trimmers in the world, who for flattery’s sake have corrupted religion by various devices, and have mingled heaven with earth.
“Si ce n’est qu’en prenant a la volee le titre vain de Prophete sans son effet, il separe Dieu de soy-mesme, ou le veust couper par pieces?” unless it be that, laying hold at random of the empty title of Prophet without its essence, he separates God from himself, and would cut him in pieces? — Fr.
“D’un orgueil diabolique; “of diabolical arrogance. — Fr.
A.V. “The rewards of divination;” Ainsworth says, “So Targum Jonathan expoundeth it, The fruits of divination sealed in their hand; and thus Besorah, i.e., good tidings, is used for the reward of good tidings, in 2Sa 4:10.” “Non raro Hebraei rem ponunt pro pretio rei; ut Ex 21:10, humiliatio, i.e., pretium pudicitiae.” — Bonfrerius in Poole.
“Pour predire ceci ou cela;” to predict this or that. — Fr.
A.V. “A Prophet.” See C.’s Comment. in loco, vol. 1, p. 433.
“Les ministres masques;” the masked ministers. — Fr.
“Qui vouloit vendre la grace du sainct Esprit;” who would sell the grace of the Holy Spirit. — Fr.
Addition in Fr., “Plutost que d’en faire nos farceries;” rather than to make our mock at it.
A. V., “Kirjath-huzoth.” Margin “a city of streets.”
“Et que Balaam a este accompagne de gens honorables;” and that Balaam was accompanied by persons of honor.— Fr.
Lat., “medii homines.” Fr., “des nageurs entre deux eaux; “swimmers between two waters.