22 Balaam and his Ass

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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: 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. Numbers xxii. 32, 33.

IT is hard to realize that famous saying of the apostle Paul, Though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge, and though I have all faith so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. Yet it is undoubtedly true.

To be a prophet is a great gift, but to be a loving, kindly, faithful servant of the Lord is by far a greater. This truth is exemplified in the history of the prophet Balaam, whose intellect was divinely bright, but whose heart was sordid, corrupt, mean, and low. The divine history which brings him before us is interesting and important in several respects, but particularly in two. It presents us with many remnants of an earlier Church, which had prevailed in Canaan and the surrounding countries; and whose lights though generally corrupted and debased, yet still existed with a few. And, secondly, it presents Israel, after the discipline of forty years, now ready to enter the promised land, trained to the beautiful order indicated by Balaam. How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel. As the valleys they are spread forth, as gardens by the rivers side.

There was a church, meant in the Scriptures by the allegory of Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, which had been spread far and wide over those Eastern countries centuries before Moses was called to lead the Israelites from Egypt. The abominations of the Canaanites and the idolatries of the surrounding lands were the truths of that church corrupted, prostituted, profaned, and turned to magical and diabolical purposes.

Baal was an emblem of the sun, and sun-worship in its origin was the worship of the Lord, the sun of heaven.

The names of many places in Canaan imply a reference to former celebrity connected with religion.

We read of Debir as one of the cities; end as the name signifies the Word, it was probably the seat of heavenly teaching in days long gone by. In the chapter preceding the one from which our text is taken, we read of two books of a Bible before the present Bible, the Book of the Wars of the Lord (ver. 14) and the book of them that speak in proverbs, or prophecies (ver. 27), appellations that may perhaps remind us of our own twofold division of the law and the prophets; and in the extracts from these books many names occur which are used with a spiritual significance. Balaam and the king of Moab both seem familiar with the names of the Lord, and with the capability of having the spiritual sight opened. The order also to have seven altars built for worship, and seven oxen and seven rams for sacrifice, can scarcely fall to strike us as implying some knowledge of the sacred symbolism of numbers.

These various considerations all seem to indicate the fact that in remote times the Church had existed in Syria, as there is reason to believe it had in many other Eastern countries, and that the superstitions, and gross worship of beastly sacrifices, which yet have a certain relation to the truth, were but the carnal perversion of what had been in ages then remote, the bright lessons of a purer, better faith.

Balaam was one in whom the knowledge and the better faith still continued, with the gifts of spiritual intercourse and prophecy added; but, alas, with a total neglect of that regeneration of the heart which is mans indispensable duty upon earth. He knew the right, but he loved the wrong.

The description Balaam gives of himself is very majestic and strangely solemn and affecting. Balaam, the son of Beer, hath said, and the man whose eyes are open hath said: he hath said who heard the words of God, and knew the knowledge of the Most High, who saw the vision of the Almighty, bowing down, but having his eyes open.

Balaam was an inhabitant of Pethor, a small city of Mesepotamia, on the River Euphrates, and we may infer that the decay of true religion had not been so complete in that region of the East as in Canaan and the surrounding countries. The intensity of the alarm felt by the Moabites and the Midianites may he concluded from their having sent so far, not less than four hundred miles, for one whom they believed powerful to bless and to curse, and friendly to them.

But, let us consider the subject a little more deeply in its spiritual and universal character.

The scene of the transaction was the land of Moab. Balak was the king of Moab. Balaam was the distant prophet called upon to save the Moabites from impending danger and defeat. The Moabites were a people that originated in a dark and lawless way from Lot, the cousin of Abraham, and generally they were in opposition to Israel. They inhabited a country outside of the Dead Sea, about fifty miles long and fifty miles broad. In their best states they were tributaries to the Israelites.

As the Israelites were the representatives by divine appointment of a true spiritual Church, so it would follow that the countries surrounding the land of Canaan, according to their relation to, and connection with, the Israelites, must have their representation also. The Moabites are obviously so regarded in the Word of God.

There are people in every land who separate worship from life. They are ready to worship, they are even pious in their habits and punctilious in their attendance upon the services of religion, but, have no concern about purity of heart, and very little about uprightness of life. Their piety has no relation to justice, and very little to charity. They have no religious principles, they have only practices. They will readily yield outward observance to public prayer, and be indignant at those who neglect church but they regard worship not as a means of making them true and pure, just and good, but au a tax due to the Almighty, dangerous and wrong to neglect. They will crowd to church, but lay no control upon their passions. They will mix solemnly in public worship, but the moment any one offends them they will indulge in words fearful to hear. They will continue in their orgies until Saturday night, but appear with devout face on Sunday morning. They know nothing and care nothing about justice to men being a duty to God. They are strange mixtures of sill and superstition, religion without, and lust within. They have an instinctive aversion to inward religion. They abhor downright sincerity in heart and thought. They shrink from thinking on religious subjects. They avoid the themes of death and eternity as painful specters to be kept from sight as much as possible. They are not without some virtues, are often characters that deceive themselves as to their true nature, and win the admiration and esteem of the superficial, but with painful impurities that grow with age, and curse many a home at length with a bad husband or wife, and a reckless father or mother. Such men surprise the world often with frauds and bankruptcies which astonish and appall men who saw the fair outside, and the religious demeanor, but never knew how little of true and living religious thought there was, and how much of self-indulgence.

These persons are the spiritual Moabites. Their aim to preserve themselves unchanged on the approach of the spiritual Israelites is represented in the history before by the efforts of Balak, king of Moab, and the temptation of Balaam to curse, and, if possible, ruin Israel.

The true spiritual Moabite is described in those remarkable words of the prophet Jeremiah, Moab hath been at ease from his youth, and he hath settled on his lees, and hath not been emptied from vessel to vessel, neither hath he gone into captivity: therefore his taste remained in him, and his scent is not changed.–Jer. xlviii. 11.

How truly is described in these expressive terms religion without regeneration. The states of those who have been at ease from their youth, and pampered the natural man, attending to religious service in its turn with the other customs of life, as the proper thing to do, but never inquiring into the truth or falsehood of what is offered to them, never inquiring into themselves, never testing their inclinations by the laws of truth and goodness, and warring against such as are wrong. Settled on their lees, such minds dread and abhor change, reformation, and progress. They cling to the habits of their Church and country, however pernicious. Their taste remains, and their scent is not changed.

It never occurs to the true Moabite that religious worship is a means and not an end; a means to make us wise, humble, unselfish, and good; its very essence is change and purification. The man who is not changed is no wiser than he was last year, no better than he used to be. He is not born again. He has not struggled with his selfishness in temper. He has not hurled his inward idols from their thrones, especially the demon self. He has not come into the captivity of temptation, and been emptied from vessel to vessel. With such a thin covering as custom, or fashion, or natural amiability gives, he is capricious, self-willed, violent and impure, as his unchanged temperament makes him, and his religious service does him harm rather than good, as it soothes his conscience with the sad opiate that it compensates in the light of God for his shortcomings, and even his vileness in every other respect.

Most of the great persecutors of others have been lax in their lives, or gloomy and bitter in their tempers, but strict in their superstition Such is the mental Moabite. The land of the Moabites was near to Canaan, but the Dead Sea was between them.

The Moabite state is one that has some near resemblance to true religion, but between them is a whole Dead Sea of superstitious thought. It is not unlovely in appearance, but powerless against many sins, and in times of excitement, against many wild delusions. The calamity of Moab is near to come, and his affliction hasteth fast. All ye that are about him bemoan him, and all ye that know his name say, How is the strong staff broken, and the beautiful rod.–Jer. xlviii. 16, 17.

But inside that outward form of mere devotion, We have heard the pride of Moab, (he is exceeding proud) his loftiness, his arrogancy, his pride, and the haughtiness of his heart.–ver. 29. And the time assuredly comes at last when those terrible words are fulfilled on all who remain in that unhappy state of ritual religion, without internal truth and love, virtue, and obedience, Moab shall be destroyed from being a people, because he hath magnified himself against the Lord. Fear, and the pit, and the snare, shall be upon thee, O inhabitant of Moab, saith the Lord. He that fleeth from the fear shall fall into the pit; and he that getteth up out of the pit shall be taken in the snare: for I will bring upon it, even upon Moab, the year of their visitation, saith the Lord.–ver. 42-44.

The elders of Moab and the elders of Midian come with rewards of divination in their hand. The rewards of regeneration are wisdom, purity, love, heavenly-mindedness, heavenly joy, end heavenly peace. The rewards of divination are delirium, infatuation, the applause of the foolish, the vain, and the bad, and it may be earthly pomp and power, the hollow gewgaws of time and sense.

We have here represented the next step in the declension of a sinking soul. He will go on the wrong side, but he thinks he will do right there. The words spoken and ascribed to God portray the permission of the Divine Providence to one whose ruling love is bent on doing wrong, a permission not of good-will, but of necessary condescension for wise ends, and therefore it is immediately added, Gods anger was kindled because he went.–ver. 22.

Man’s sense of pain, when he is opposing the divine laws, is called the anger of God. God is never angry in himself, but He seems angry to the soul which has opposed itself to His goodness and wisdom.

Balaam saddled his Ass and went with the princes of Moab. But the angel of the Lord stood as an adversary in his way, with a sword drawn in his hand (ver. 22, 23).

No doubt these incidents occurred to Balaam just as they are related, but we must never forget that the Divine Record contains them, and therefore every circumstance may convey to us a part of the spiritual lesson.

The ass, like the horse, has its correspondence in divine things. The horse corresponds to the INTELLECT, which carries its rider on the path of spiritual truth; hence Judah is said to be the Lords goodly horse in the battle (Zech. x. 2); and He who rode on the white horse went forth conquering and to conquer (Rev. vi. 1). The ass corresponds to the intellect in relation to natural truth. Thus it corresponds to a lower faculty of the same class as that of which the horse is the symbol.

The horse corresponds to spiritual good sense, and the ass to natural good sense.

Issachar is said to be a strong ass, couching between two burdens (Gen. xlix. 14). In the original language of the Scriptures it is said of Ishmael, He shall be a wild-ass man.–Gen. xvi. 12. Israel in disobedience is called a wild-ass alone by himself (Hosea viii. 9). And the Lord rode on an ass to Jerusalem, to teach us that our good sense on all earthly subjects should ever be subordinate to those sacred principles which form the Church, and govern our eternal interest. The ass should be guided by the Savior to Jerusalem.

Balaam saddling his Ass was a symbol, in spiritual things, of a person arranging his mind: setting himself in order to accomplish the purpose he had in view, that of uniting himself to Moab.

Before proceeding in our consideration of the narrative it may be well to observe that Balaam was a seer, or one, as he himself several times declares, who saw visions of the Almighty, having his eyes open–that is, his spiritual eyes. Now, with such a one, there is often such a blending of the perception of the spiritual with the natural that, as the apostle Paul expresses it, whether he is in the body or out of the body he cannot tell (2 Cor. xii. 2). So whether an object is in the natural world, or in the spiritual world, as far as flight goes, he cannot tell.

Whenever an angel is seen we may be assured that it is with spiritual eyes, for natural eyes can only see natural objects, and spiritual eyes can only see spiritual objects. So when Balaam saw the angel, Divine Providence had uncovered his spiritual sight, and he then beheld the objects of the spiritual world.

We must not forget also that each animal has its spiritual form, which is the soul of its natural form. It has not the spiritual and celestial degrees of the soul, nor that internal which links man to God as a human being has, and therefore has neither the principles nor the capacity of immortal life, yet it has that lower degree of mind in which the animal appetites reside, and which can be seen in the spiritual world.

Hence animals have a limited species of thought, a mental sympathy with man, and frequently appear to dream. In the sacred narrative the Ass is said to have seen the angel before the prophet did so, and we can hardly regard this as difficult to be conceived. In the other life the forms of animals constantly appear, corresponding to the ideas and sentiments which are the subjects of the thoughts of the angels near whom they are. And while they remain, they seem in all respects like animals on earth. They are, in fact, the spiritual forms which, when clothed with matter, become animals on the earth.

Literally, then, an animal has the capacity of perceiving a spiritual being, if permitted of the Divine Providence, and the text assures us the has sew the angel three times.

The way of Balaam corresponded to the false and evil course he was taking. The action of the Ass corresponded to the dictates of common-sense. Going into the field corresponds to the mind investigating whether this downward course will conduce to goodness in life. It is expressive of the activity of conscience, suggesting that a harvest of virtues must undoubtedly be reaped for the soul to be right, and a Moabite condition will not conduce to that end. Notwithstanding this warning, Balaam persevered, and compelled the Ass to go on until he came to a path of the vineyards having a wall on this side and on that side, and there the angel stood again. The Ass was once more unwilling to go, and crushed Balaams foot against the wall.

The path among the vineyards and the two walls would correspond to his course in relation to faith. Wall corresponds to doctrine, and two walls to the doctrines of faith and charity. The crushing of the foot would represent the condemnation of the conduct he was pursuing. Still he did violence to the Ass, and compelled it to go forward. The angel of the Lord appeared again where there was no possibility of passing, and the Ass fell down. Balaam was enraged, smote the Ass, and longed for the power to destroy it.

Let us remember the symbolic character of the Ass, and then see how graphic is the portraiture of the downward course of a man interiorly bad, but as yet with much of truth in the intellect. His common-sense sees the laws of heaven opposing him, and remonstrates with him, but is overborne. His love of evil urges him on, blind to consequences.

As he proceeds, his sense of right brings the considerations of religion upon him, hedges him in, and condemns him. Rage makes him violent. His natural sense of right entirely fails him, his Ass falls down. His madness urges him on to destroy everything that stands in his way, yet he cannot readily do this. A remonstrance comes home to him that reason is right, and has served him during his life upwards, and would serve him still, but he has opposed himself to heaven, the sword of truth is across his path.

The voice from the Ass was an appearance for the sake of the correspondence, like the voice from the clouds in the spiritual scenes of the New Testament. The Ass had no rational thought from which speech comes, but Divine Providence could make a voice come to the sinning Prophet that would symbolize the voice of reason which speaks potently to all of us ere we finally break it down. And then the mental veil was taken from the spiritual eyes of the erring one, and he saw heavens messenger before him, sword in hand. He shuddered, fell down, and acknowledged he had sinned.

He was stayed in his career, warned, and directed, but not cured. He was brought into the state of mind that would prevent him from doing evil on this journey, or from cursing Israel. He was made to bless the people of the Lord.

But alas! what pains men take to curse themselves! With wondrous gifts, with power of admiring right, and longing for the death of the righteous (Chap. xxiii. 10); yet his way was perverse, and he leagued himself with Moab and Midian, perfidiously, corruptly, to ensnare and destroy all that was weak in Israel, and so destroyed himself, thus becoming a shame and a warning to all future generations (Rev. 11. 14).

Preserve us, O Divine Savior, from tampering with right. Bless us, Lord Jesus, with a single heart and a single eye, so that we may love thee, and love thy people, and so hare Thee abiding with us until we come at last to the peace of thy kingdom.

Author: Jonathan Bayley — From Egypt to Canaan (1869)