NOTE ON THE PROPHECIES OF BALAAM
That the prophecies of Balaam have a Messianic character, and are only to
be fully understood in a Christian sense, seems to lie upon the face of them.
The Targums of Onkelos and
here, and the great mass of Christian interpretation has uniformly followed
in the track of Jewish tradition. It is of course possible to get rid of the
prophetic element altogether by assuming that the utterances of Balaam
were either composed or largely interpolated after the events to which they
seem to refer. It would be necessary in this case to bring their real date
down to the period of the Macedonian conquests, and much later still if the
Greek empire also was to “perish for ever.” The difficulty and arbitrary
character of such an assumption becomes the more evident the more it is
considered; nor does it seem consistent with the form into which the
predictions are cast. A patriotic Jew looking back from the days of
Alexander or his successors would not call the great Eastern power by the
name of Asshur, because two subsequent empires had arisen in the place of
the future, should see Asshur, and only Asshur, is in perfect keeping with
what we know of prophetic perspective, — the further off the events
descried by inward vision, the more extreme the foreshortening, —
according to which law it is well known that the first and second advents of
Christ are inextricably blended in almost every case.
If we accept the prophecies as genuine, it is, again, only possible to reject
the Messianic element by assuming that no Jewish prophecy overleaps the
narrow limits of Jewish history. The mysterious Being whom Balaam
descries in the undated future, who is the King of
identifies with the
naught all nations of the world, cannot be David, although David may
anticipate him in many ways; still less, as the reference to Agag, Amalek,
and the Kenites might for a moment incline us to believe, can it be Saul. At
the same time, while the Messianic element in the prophecy cannot
reasonably be ignored, it is obvious that it does not by any means exist by
itself; it is so mixed up with what is purely local and temporal in the
him, that it is impossible to isolate it or to exhibit it in any clear and definite
form. The Messiah indeed appears, as it were, upon the stage in a
MYSTERIOUS and REMOTE GRANDEUR but He appears with a
slaughter weapon in His hand, crushing such enemies of
and there formidable, and exterminating the very fugitives from the overthrow.
Even where the vision loses for once its local coloring in one way, so that the
King of Israel deals with all the sons of men, yet it retains it in another, for
He deals with them in wrath and destruction, not in love and blessing.
There is here so little akin to the true ideal, that we are readily tempted to
say that Christ is not here at all, but only Saul or David, or the Jewish
monarchy personified in the ruthlessness of its consolidated power. But if
we know anything of the genius of prophecy, it is exactly this, that the
future and the grand and the heavenly is seen through a medium of the
present and the paltry and the earthly. The Messianic element almost
always occurs in connection with some crisis in the outward history of the
chosen people; it is inextricably mixed up with what is purely local in
interest, and often with what is distinctly imperfect in morality. To the Jew
— and to Balaam also, however unwillingly, as the servant of Jehovah —
them. “Our country, right or wrong,” was an impossible sentiment to him,
because he could not conceive of his country being wrong; he knew
nothing of moral victories, or the triumphs of defeat or of suffering; he
could not think of God’s kingdom as asserting itself in any other way than
the overthrow, or (better still) the annihilation, of
the vanquished, the horrors of sacked cities, the agonies of desolated
homes, were nothing to him; nothing, unless it were joy — joy that the
wickedness should be broken.
All these feelings belonged to a most imperfect morality and we rightly
look upon them with horror, because we have (albeit as yet very
imperfectly) conformed our sentiments to a higher standard. But it was the
very condition of the old dispensation that God adopted the then moral
code, such as it was, and hallowed it with religious sanctions, and gave it a
strong direction God-ward, and so educated His own for something higher.
Hence it is wholly natural and consistent to find this early vision of the
Messiah, the heaven-sent King of Israel, introduced in connection with the
fall of the petty pastoral state of
in time and place, and all the more because his personal desires went with
narrow, and essentially imperfect, but not untrue, conviction of his he saw
Messiah, and he saw him crushing
all the rest of a hostile world. That no one would have been more utterly
astonished if he had beheld the Messiah as He was, is certain; but that is not
at all inconsistent with the belief that he really prophesied concerning him.
That He should put all enemies under His feet was what Balaam truly saw;
but he saw it and gave utterance to it according to the ideas and imagery of
which his mind was full. God ever reveals the supernatural through the
natural, the heavenly through the earthly, the future through the present.
It remains to consider briefly the temporal fulfillments of Balaam’s
David, when it was vanquished, and a great part of the inhabitants
slaughtered (II Samuel 8:2). In the division of the kingdom it fell to the
the northern monarchy gave it opportunities to rebel, of which it
successfully availed itself after the death of Ahab (II Kings 1:1). Only in
the time of John Hyrcanus (B.C. 129) was it finally subdued, and ceased to
have an independent existence.
as possible exterminated (I Kings 11:15-16). Nevertheless, it was able
to shake off the yoke under Joram (II Kings 8:20), and, although
defeated, was never again subdued (see on Genesis 27:40). The
prophets (e.g., Obadiah), but we must hold that they were never
adequately fulfilled, unless we look for a spiritual realization not in wrath,
in mercy. The later Jews themselves came to regard “
Scriptural synonym for all who hated and oppressed them.
Amalek was very thoroughly overthrown by Saul, acting under the
directions of Samuel (I Samuel 15:7-8), and never appears to have
regained any national existence. Certain bands of Amalekites were smitten
by David, and others at a later period in the reign of Hezekiah by the men
of Simeon (I Chronicles 4:39-43).
The prophecy concerning the Kenites presents, as noted above, great
difficulty, because it is impossible to know certainly whether the older
Kenites of Genesis or the later Kenites of I Samuel are intended. In either
case, however, it must be acknowledged that sacred history throws no light
whatever on the fulfillment of the prophecy; we know nothing at all as to
the fate of this small clan. No doubt it ultimately shared the lot of all the
was transplanted by one of the Assyrian generals to some far-off spot,
where its very existence as a separate people was lost.
The “ships from the
of Balaam invaders from over the western seas, as opposed to previous
conquerors from over the eastern deserts and mountains. That the invasion
Alexander the Great was not actually made by the way of
nothing to the point. It was never any part of spiritual illumination to
extend geographical knowledge. To Balaam’s mind the only open way
from the remote and unknown western lands was the waterway by the
beneath the lee of those sheltering coasts towards the harbors of
were rigged in Balaam’s time, and not as in the time of Alexander. But the
rigging, like the route, belonged to the local and personal medium through
which the prophecy came, not to the prophecy itself. As a fact it remains
true that a maritime power from the West, whose home was beyond
inherited the empire of
maritime power also is part of the prophecy must remain doubtful.
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