Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 68


Perversion, as Shown in Balaam’s Character

Preached January 25, 1852

  Frederick W. Robertson

“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. 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.” - Numbers 22:34-35


Time judgment which we form on the character of Balaam is one of unmitigated condemnation. We know and say that he was a false prophet and a bad man. This is however, doubtless, because we come to the consideration of his history having already prejudged his case.

St. Peter, St. Jude, and St. John have passed sentence upon him. Having eyes full of adultery, and that can not cease from sin; beguiling unstable souls: a heart they have exercised with covetous practices; cursed children: which have forsaken the right way, and are gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Bosor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness, but was rebuked for his iniquity: the dumb ass speaking with man’s voice forbade the madness of the prophet;” “Woe unto them I for they have gone in the way Cain, and ran greedily after the error of Balaam for reward, and perished in the gainsaying of Core;” “But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.” And so we read the history of Balaam familiar with these passages, and coloring all with them.

But assuredly this is not the sentence we should have pronounced if we had been left to our-selves, but one much less revere. Repulsive as Balaam’s character is when it is seen at a distance, when it is seen near it has much in it that is human, like ourselves, inviting compassion-even admiration: there are traits of firmness, conscientiousness, nobleness.

For example, in the text, he offers to retrace his steps as soon as he perceives that he is doing wrong. He asks guidance of God before he will undertake a journey: “And he said unto them, Lodge here this night, and I will bring you word again, as the Lord shall speak unto me.” He professes-and in earnest-“If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I can not go beyond the word of the Lord my God, to do less or more.” He prays to “die the death of the righteous, and that his hast end may be like his.” Yet the inspired judgment of his character, as a whole, stands recorded as one of unmeasured severity.

And accordingly one of the main lessons in Balaam’s history must ever be to trace how it is that men, who to the world appear respectable, conscientious, honorable, gifted, religious, may be in the sight of God accursed, and heirs of perdition. Our subject, then, to-day is perversion:


I. Perversion of great gifts.

II. Perversion of the conscience.


I. Of great gifts.

The history tells of Balak sending to Pethor for Balaam to curse the Israelites. This was a common occurrence in ancient history. There was a class of men regularly set apart to bless and curse, to spell-bind the winds and foretell events. Balaam was such an one.

Now the ordinary account would be that such men were impostors, or endued with political sagacity, or had secret dealings with the devil. But the Bible says Balaam’s inspiration was from God.

It did not arise from diabolical agency, or from merely political sagacity: that magnificent ode of sublime poetry, given in chapter xxiv., is from God.

The Bible refers the inspiration of the poet, of the prophet, of the worker in cunning workmanship, to God. It makes no mention of our modern distinction between that inspiration enjoyed by the sacred writers and that enjoyed by ordinary men, except so far as the use is concerned. God’s prophets glorified Him. The wicked prophets glorified themselves; but their inspiration was real, and came from God, and these divine powers were perverted

1. By turning them to purposes of self-aggrandizement.

Now, remember how the true prophets of Jehovah spoke. Simply, with no affectation of mystery, no claims to mystical illumination. They delighted to share their power with their fellows; they said, “The heart of the Lord was with them that fear Him;” that the Lord “dwelt with an humble and contrite heart.” They represented themselves as inspired, not because greater or wiser than their brethren, but because more weak, more humble, and dependent upon God.

Contrast Balaam’s conduct. Every thing is done to show the difference between him amid others-to fix men’s attention upon himself-the wonderful, mysterious man who is in communication with Heaven. He builds altars, and uses enchantments. These were a priest’s manoeuvres, not a prophet’s.

He was the solitary self-seeker-alone, isolated, loving to be separated from all other men; admired, feared and sought.

Balak struck the key-note of his character when he said, “Am I not able to promote thee unto honor?” Herein, then, lies the first perversion of glorious gifts: that Balaam sought not God’s honor but his own.

2. By making those gifts subservient to his own greed.

It is evident that Balaam half suspected his own failing. Otherwise what mean those vaunts, “If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold?” Brave men do not vaunt their courage, nor honorable men their honesty, nor do the truly noble boast of high birth. All who understand the human heart perceive a secret sense of weakness in these loud boasts of immaculate purity. Silver and gold, these were the things he loved, and so, not content with communion with God, with the possession of sublime gifts, he thought these only valuable so far as they were means of putting himself in possession of riches. Thus spiritual powers were degraded to make himself a vulgar man of wealth.

There are two opposite motives which sway men. Some, like Simon Magus, will give gold to be admired and wondered at; some will barter honor for gold. In some the two are blended; as in Balaam, we see the desire for honor and wealth-wealth, perhaps, as being another means of insuring reputation. And so have we seen many begin and end in our own day~begin with a high-minded courage which flatters none; speaks truth, even unpalatable truth; but when this advocacy of truth brings men, as it brought to Balaam, to consult them, and they rise in the world, or in a court, and become men of consideration, then by degrees the plain truth is sacrificed to a feverish love of notoriety, the love of truth is superseded, and passes into a love of influence.

Or they begin with a generous indifference to wealth-simple, austere; by degrees they find the society of the rich leading them from extravagance to extravagance, till at last high intellectual and high spiritual powers become the servile instruments of appropriating gold. The world sees the sad spectacle of the man of science and the man of God waiting at the doors of princes, or cringing before the public for promotion and admiration.


II. Perversion of conscience.

1. The first intimation we have of the fact that Balaam was tampering with his conscience is in his second appeal to God. On the first occasion God said, “Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people; for they are blessed.” Then more honorable messengers were sent from Balak, with larger bribes. Balaam asks permission of God again. Here is the evidence of a secret hollowness in his heart, however fair the outside seemed. In worldly matters, “think twice;” but in duty, it has been well said, “first thoughts are best;” they are more fresh, more pure, have more of God in them. There is nothing like the first glance we get at duty, before there has been any special pleading of our affections or inclinations. Duty is never uncertain at first. It is only after we have got involved in the mazes and sophistries of wishing that things were otherwise than they are that it seems indistinct. Considering a duty is often only explaining it away. Deliberation is often only dishonesty. God’s guidance is plain, when we are true.

Let us understand in what Balaam’s hollowness consisted. He wanted to please himself without displeasing God. The problem was how to go to Balak, and yet not to offend God. He would have given worlds to get rid of his duty; and he went to God to got his duty altered, not to lean what his duty was. All this rested upon an idea that the will of God makes right, instead of being right-as if it were a caprice which can be altered, instead of the law of the universe, which can not alter.

How deeply this principle is ingrained in human nature you may see from the Roman Catholic practice of indulgences. The Romish Church permits transgressions for a consideration, and pardons them for the same. Such a doctrine never could have succeeded if the desire and belief were not in man already. What Balaam was doing in this prayer was simply purchasing an indulgence to sin.

2. The second stage is a state of hideous contradictions; God permits Balaam to go, and then is angry with him for going. There is nothing here which can not be interpreted by bitter experience. We must not explain it away by saying that these were only the alternations of Balaam’s own mind. They were; but they were the alternations of a mind with which God was expostulating, and to which God appeared differently at different times; the horrible mazes and inconsistencies of a spirit which contradicts itself, and strives to disobey the God whom yet it feels and acknowledges. To such a state of mind God becomes a contradiction. “With the froward”-oh, how true!-“thou wilt show thyself froward.” God speaks once, and if that voice be not heard, but is willfully silenced, the second time it utters a terrible permission. God says, “Go,” and then is angry. Experience will tell us how God has sent us to reap the fruit of our own willfulness.

3. We notice next the evidences in him of a disordered mind and heart.

We come now to the most difficult portion of the story: “The dumb ass, speaking with man’s voice, forbade the madness of the prophet.” One of the most profound and pus of modern commentators on this passage has not scrupled to represent the whole transaction as occurring in a vision. Others have thought that Balaam’s own heart, smiting him for his cruelty, put, as it were, words into the ass’s mouth.

We care not. Let the caviller cavil if he will. There is too much profound truth throughout this narrative for us to care much about either the literal or the figurative interpretation. One thing, however, is clear. Balaam did only what men so entangled always do. The real fault is in themselves. They have committed themselves to a false position, and when obstacles stand in their way, they lay the blame on circumstances. They smite the dumb innocent occasion of their perplexity as if it were the cause. And the passionateness-the “madness” of the act is but an indication that all is going wrong within. There was a canker at the heart of Balaam’s life and his equanimity was gone; his temper vented itself on brute things. Who has not seen the like-a grown man, unreasoning as a child, furious beyond the occasion? If you knew the whole, you would see that was not the thing which had moved him so terribly; you would see that all was wrong inwardly.

It is a strange, sad picture this. The first an in the land, gifted beyond most others, conscious of great mental power, going on to splendid prospects, yet with hopelessness and misery working at his heart. Who would have envied Balaam if he could have seen all-the hell that was working at his heart?

Lastly, let us consider the impossibility under such circumstances of going back. Balaam offers to go back. The angel says, “Go on.” There was yet one hope for him-to be true, to utter God’s words careless of the consequences; but he who had been false so long, how should he be true? It was too late. In the ardor of youth you have made perhaps a wrong choice, or chosen an unfit profession, or suffered yourself weakly and passively to be drifted into a false course of action, and now, in spite of yourself you feel there is no going back. To many minds, such a lot comes as with the mysterious force of a destiny. They see themselves driven, and forget that they put themselves in the way of the stream that drives them. They excuse their own acts as if they were coerced. They struggle now and then faintly, as Balaam did-try to go back-can not-and at last sink passively in the mighty current that floats them on to wrong.

And thenceforth to them all God’s intimations will come unnaturally. His voice will sound as that of an angel against them in the way. Spectral lights will gleam, only to show a quagmire from which there is no path of extrication. The heavenliest things and the meanest will forbid the madness of the prophet: and yet at the same time seem to say to the weak and vacillating self-seeker, “You have done wrong, and you must do more wrong.” Then deepens down a hideous, unnatural, spectral state-the incubus as of a dream of hell, mixed with bitter reminiscences of heaven.

Your secret faults will come out in your life. Therefore we say to you-be true.