Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 69


Selfishness, as Shown in Balaam’s Character

Preached February 1, 1852

  Frederick W. Robertson

“Who can count the dust of Jacob, and the number of the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!” - Numbers 23:10


We acquainted ourselves with the earlier part of Balaam’s history last Sunday. We saw how great gifts in him were perverted by ambition and avarice-ambition making them subservient to the admiration of himself; avarice transforming them into mere instruments for accumulating wealth. And we saw how his conscience was gradually perverted by insincerity, till his mind became the place of hideous contradictions, and even God Himself had become to him a lie; with his heart disordered, until the bitterness of all going wrong within vented itself on innocent circumstances, and he found himself so entangled in a false course that to go back was impossible.

Now we come to the second stage. He has been with Balak: he has built his altars, offered his sacrifices, and tried his enchantments, to ascertain whether Jehovah will permit him to curse Israel. And the Voice in his heart, through all, says, “Israel is blest.” He looks down from the hill-top, and sees the fair camp of Israel afar-off, in beautiful array, their white tents gleaming “as the trees of lignaloes which the Lord had planted.” He feels the solitary grandeur of a nation unlike all other nations-people which “shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.” A nation too numberless to give Balak any hope of success in the coming war. “Who can count the dust of Jacob, and the number of the fourth part of Israel?” A nation too strong in righteousness for idolaters and enchanters to cope with, “Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel?” Then follows a personal ejaculation-“Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!”

Now to prevent the possibility of misconception, or any supposition that Balaam was expressing words whose full significance he did not understand-that when he was speaking of righteousness he had only a heathen notion of it-we refer to the sixth chapter of Micah, from the fifth verse. We will next refer to Numbers xxxi. 8, and Joshua xiii. 22, from whence it appears that he who desired to die the death of the righteous, died the death of the ungodly, and fell, not on the side of the Lord, but fighting against the Lord’s cause. The first thing we find in this history of Balaam is an attempt to change the will of God.

Let us clearly understand what was the meaning of all those reiterated sacrifices.

1. Balaam wanted to please himself without displeasing God. The problem was how to go to Balak, and yet not offend God. He would have given worlds to get rid of his duties, and be sacrificed, not to learn what his duty was, but to get his duty altered. Now see the feeling that lay at the root of all this-that God is mutable. Yet of all men one would have thought that Balaam knew better, for had he not said, “God is not a man, that He should lie; neither the son of man that He should repent: hath He said, and shall He not do it?” But when we look upon it, we see Balaam had scarcely any feeling higher than this-God is more inflexible than man. Probably had he expressed the exact shade of feeling, he would have said, more obstinate. He thought that God had set his heart upon Israel, and that it was hard, yet not impossible, to alter this partiality. Hence he tries sacrifices to bribe, and prayers to coax, God.

How deeply rooted this feeling is in human nature-this belief in God’s mutability-you may see from the Romish doctrine of indulgences and atonements. The Romish Church permits crime for certain considerations. For certain considerations it teaches that God will forgive crimes. Atonements after, and indulgences before sin, are the same. But this Romish doctrine never could have succeeded, if the belief in God’s mutability and the desire that He should be mutable, were not in man already.

What Balaam was doing in these parables, and enchantments, and sacrifices, was simply purchasing an indulgence to sin; in other words, it was an attempt to make the Eternal Mind change. What was wanting for Balaam to feel was this-God can not change. What he did feel was this-God will not change. There are many writers who teach that this and that is right because God has willed it. All discussion is cut short by the reply, God has determined it, therefore it is right. Now there is exceeding danger in this mode of thought, for a thing is not right because God has willed it, but God wills it because it is right. It is in this tone the Bible always speaks. Never, except in one obscure passage, does the Bible seem to refer right and wrong to the sovereignty of God, and declare it a matter of will; never does it imply that if He so chose, He could reverse evil and good. It says, “Is not my way equal? are not your ways unequal?” “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” was Abraham’s exclamation in a kind of hideous doubt whether the Creator might not be on the eve of doing unjustice. So the Bible justifies the ways of God to man. But it could not do so unless it admitted eternal laws, with which no will can interfere. Nay more, see what ensues from this mode of thought. If right is right because God wills it, then, if God chose, He could make injustice, and cruelty, and lying to be right. This is exactly what Balaam thought. If God could but be prevailed on to hate Israel, then for him to curse them would be right. And again: if power and sovereignty make right, then, supposing the Ruler were a demon devilish hatred would be as right as now it is wrong. There is great danger in some of our present modes of thinking. It is a common thought that might makes right, but for us there is no rest, no rock, no sure footing, so long as we feel right and wrong are mere matters of will and decree. There is no safety, then, from these hankering feelings and wishes to alter God’s decree. You are unsafe until you feel, “Heaven and earth may pass away, but God’s word can not pass away.”

2. We notice, secondly, an attempt to blind himself. One of the strangest leaves in the book of the human heart is here turned. We observe here perfect veracity with utter want of truth. Balaam was veracious. He will not deceive Balak. Nothing was easier than to get the reward by muttering a spell, knowing all the while that it would not work. Many a European has sold incantations to rich savages for jewels and curiosities, thus enriching himself by deceit. Now Balaam was not supernaturally withheld. That is a baseless assumption. Nothing withheld him but his conscience. No bribe on earth could induce Balaam to say a falsehood-to pretend a curse which was powerless-to get gold, dearly as he loved it, by a pretense. “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,” was no mere fine saying, but the very truth. You might as soon have turned the sun from his course as induced Balaam to utter falsehood.

And yet, with all this, there was utter truthlessness of heart. Balaam will not utter what is not true; but he will blind himself so that he may not see the truth, and so speak a lie, believing it to be the truth.

He will only speak the thing he feels; but he is not careful to feel all that is true. He goes to another place, where the whole truth may not force itself upon his mind-to a hill where he shall not see the whole of Israel: from hill to hill for the chance of getting to a place where the truth ma disappear. But there stands the stubborn fact-Israel is blessed; and he will look at the fact in every way, to see if he can not get it into a position where it shall be seen no longer. Ostrich-like!

Such a character is not so uncommon as, perhaps, we think. There is many a lucrative business which involves misery and wrong to those who are employed in it. The man would be too benevolent to put the gold in his purse if he knew of the misery. But he takes care not to know. There is many a dishonorable thing done at an election, and the principal takes care not to inquire. Many an oppression is exercised on a tenantry, and the landlord receives his rent and asks no questions. Or there is some situation which depends upon the holding of certain religious opinions, and the candidate has a suspicion that if he were to examine, he could not conscientiously profess these opinions, and perchance he takes care not to examine.

3. Failing in all these evil designs against Israel, Balaam, tries his last expedient to ruin them, and that partially succeeds.

He recommends Balak to use the fascination of the daughters of Moab to entice the Israelites into idolatry. (Num. xxxi. 15, 16. Rev. ii. 14). He has tried enchantments and sacrifices in vain to reverse God’s will. He has tried in vain to think that will is reversed. It will not do. He feels at last that God has not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath He seen perverseness in Israel. Now therefore, he tries to reverse the character of these favorites, and so to reverse God’s will. God will not curse the good; therefore Balaam tries to make them wicked; he tries to make the good curse themselves, and so exasperate God.

A more diabolical wickedness we can scarcely conceive. Yet Balaam was an honorable man and a veracious man; nay, a man of delicate conscientiousness and unconquerable scruples-a man of lofty religious professions, highly respectable and respected. The Lord of heaven and earth has said there is such a thing as “straining out a gnat, and swallowing a camel.”

There are men who would not play false, and yet would wrongly win. There are men who would not lie, and yet who would bribe a poor man to support a cause which he believes in his soul to be false. There are men who would resent at the sword’s point the charge of dishonor, who would yet for selfish gratification entice the weak into sin, and damn body and soul in hell. There are men who would be shocked at being called traitors, who in time of war will yet make a fortune by selling arms to their country’s foes. here are men respectable and respected, who give liberally and support religious societies, and go to church, and would not take God’s name in vain, who have made wealth, in some trade of opium or spirits, out of the wreck of innumerable human lives. Balaam is one of the accursed spirits now, but he did no more than these are doing.

Now see what lay at the root of all this hollowness: selfishness.

From first to last one thing appears uppermost in this history-Balaam’s self;-the honor of Balaam as a true prophet-therefore he will not lie; the wealth of Balaam-therefore the Israelites must be sacrificed. Nay more, even in his sublimest visions his egotism breaks out. In the sight of God’s Israel he cries, “Let me die the death of the righteous:” in anticipation of the glories of the eternal advent, “I shall behold Him, but not nigh.” He sees the vision of a kingdom, a Church, a chosen people, a triumph of righteousness. In such anticipations, the nobler prophets broke out into strains in which their own personality was forgotten. Moses, when he thought that God would destroy His people, prays in agony-“Yet now, if Thou wilt, forgive their sins;-and if not, blot me, I pray Thee, out of Thy book.” Paul speaks in impassioned words-“l have continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites.” But Balaam’s chief feeling seems to be, “How will all this advance me?” And the magnificence of the prophecy is thus marred by a chord of melancholy and diseased egotism. Not for one moment-even in those moments when uninspired men gladly forget themselves; men who have devoted themselves to a monarchy or dreamed of a republic in sublime self-abnegation-can Balaam forget himself in God’s cause.

Observe, then: desire for personal salvation is not religion. It may go with it, but it is not religion. Anxiety for the state of one’s own soul is not the healthiest or best symptom. Of course every one wishes, “Let me die the death of the righteous.” But it is one thing to wish to be saved, another to wish God’s right to triumph; one thing to wish to die safe, another to give to holily. Nay. not only is this desire for personal salvation not religion, but if soured, it passes into hatred of the good. Balaam’s feeling became spite against the people who are to be blessed when he is not blessed. He indulges a wish that good may not prosper, because personal interests are mixed up with the failure of good.

We see anxiety about human opinion is uppermost. Throughout we find in Balaam’s character semblances, not realities. He would not transgress a rule, but he would violate a principle. He would not say white was black, but he would sully it till it looked black.

Now consider the whole.

A bad man prophesies under the fear of God, restrained by conscience, full of poetry and sublime feelings, with a full clear view of death as dwarfing life, and the blessedness of righteousness as compared with wealth. And yet we find him striving to disobey God, hollow and unsound at heart; using for the devil wisdom and gifts bestowed by God; sacrificing all with a gambler’s desperation, for name and wealth: tempting a nation to sin, and crime, and ruin; separated in selfish isolation from all mankind; superior to Balak, and yet feeling that Balak knew him to be a man that had his price; with the bitter anguish of being despised by the men who were inferior to himself; forced to conceive of a grandeur in which he had no share, and a righteousness in which be had no part. Can you not conceive the end of one with a mind so torn and distracted?-the death in battle; the insane frenzy with which he would rush into the field, and finding all go against him, and that lost for which he had bartered heaven, after having died a thousand worse than deaths, find death at last upon the spears of the Israelites?

In application, we remark: 1st. The danger of great powers. It is an awful thing, this conscious power to see more, to feel more, to know more than our fellows.

2d. But let us mark well the difference between feeling and doing.

It is possible to have sublime feelings, great passions, even great sympathies with the race, and yet not to hove man. To feel mightily, is one thing, to live truly and charitably, another. Sin may be felt at the core, and yet not be cast out. Brethren, beware. See how a man may be going on uttering fine words, orthodox truths, and yet be rotten at the heart.