Beckett: Pastoral Thoughts – Balaam’s First Oracle: God Does Not Curse His People (Numbers 23:1-12)

And the LORD put a word in Balaam’s mouth and said, “Return to Balak, and thus you shall speak.” And he returned to him, and behold, he and all the princes of Moab were standing beside his burnt offering. And Balaam took up his discourse and said, “From Aram Balak has brought me, the king of Moab from the eastern mountains: ‘Come, curse Jacob for me, and come, denounce Israel!’ How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce whom the LORD has not denounced? For from the top of the crags I see him, from the hills I behold him; behold, a people dwelling alone, and not counting itself among the nations! Who can count the dust of Jacob or number the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his!” And Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, and behold, you have done nothing but bless them.” And he answered and said, “Must I not take care to speak what the LORD puts in my mouth?”

Numbers 23:5-12

In the presence of Balak the king of Moab and the princes of Moab, Balaam begins with a statement of his reason for being there. Balak brought him from the country Aram, which is two countries north of Moab. He had summoned him to put a curse on Israel and to denounce them. Yet Balaam speaks the Word Yahweh had given him, which was not to curse Israel since they are blessed by Him. Therefore, Balaam says, “How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce whom the LORD has not denounced” (v. 8)? If Balaam is to curse and denounce a people, he can only do so by Yahweh’s command. It is worth noting, however, that Balaam does not say he doesn’t want to curse them, but only that he can’t. Not only because of Yahweh’s Word, but Balaam also appeals to the impressive number of the people.

He looks out at the cliffs and sees a people dwelling “alone.” The Hebrew word for this is best translated “isolation, separation.” They are a people separate from the nations, “not counting itself among the nations” (v. 9)! They are not like the other nations because they are not part of any other nation. This speaks to their tremendous power, the direct result of their God’s blessing. They are a people so vast that Balaam says, “Who can count the dust of Jacob or number the fourth part of Israel” (v. 10)? God’s promise and blessing to Abraham is thus fulfilled, “I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted” (Genesis 13:16). They are a people blessed, indeed. Having seen such a blessed nation, Balaam desires to die as part of the people. If Yahweh blesses a people so immensely in life, certainly He must also bless them in death!

And indeed, He does. For as David writes, “Therefore, my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol or let Your Holy One see corruption” (Psalm 16:9-10). David, King of Israel, was looking to his Saviour, the Messiah. God does not abandon His people in the grave, just as Job likewise confesses, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25-26). And the Apostle Peter preaches this psalm as fulfilled in Christ:

“And as for the fact that He raised Him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, He has spoken in this way, ‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’ Therefore, He says also in another psalm, ‘You will not let Your Holy One see corruption.’ For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, but He whom God raised up did not see corruption. Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by Him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the Law of Moses.”

Acts 13:34-39

Although David, like all human beings, is lowered into Sheol when he dies, his flesh nevertheless dwells secure because he knows God’s Holy One shall not see corruption; for David, and all human beings, remain dead and cannot raise themselves. Yet Christ did not remain dead and raised Himself from the grave. Nevertheless, the holy ones of Christ—the saints—shall also not see corruption because He will raise them from the dead. This is the paradox Job confesses, “And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God.” How will wee see God in our flesh when our flesh has been destroyed? It works like this, “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). The curse of death cannot not last, for Christ shall bless us with the gift of eternal life.

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