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 Palestine make mention of King Meshiba

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

Assyria proper. But that Balaam, looking forward down the dim vista 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 Israel, and whom he

identifies with the Shiloh of Jacob’s dying prophecy, and who is to bring to

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

relations between Israel and the petty tribes which surrounded and envied

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 Israel as were then

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 —

the cause of Israel was the cause of God; he could not discern between

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

in the overthrow, or (better still) the annihilation, of Moab, Edom, Assyria,

Babylon, Rome, the whole world which was not Israel. The sufferings 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

kingdom of God should be exalted in the earth, joy that the reign of

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 Moab. To Balaam, standing where he did

in time and place, and all the more because his personal desires went with

Moab as against Israel, Moab stood forth as the representative kingdom of

darkness, Israel as the kingdom of light. Through that strong, definite,

narrow, and essentially imperfect, but not untrue, conviction of his he saw

the Messiah, and he saw him crushing Moab first, and then trampling down

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

prophecies. Moab was not apparently seriously attacked until the time of

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

share of Israel, with the other lands beyond Jordan, but the vicissitudes of

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.

 

Edom was also conquered for the first time by David, and the people as far

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

prophecies against Edom were indeed taken up again and again by 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,

but in mercy. The later Jews themselves came to regard Edom as a

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

inhabitants of Palestine, with the exception of Judah and Jerusalem, and

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 side of Cyprus” clearly enough represent in the vision

of Balaam invaders from over the western seas, as opposed to previous

conquerors from over the eastern deserts and mountains. That the invasion

of Alexander the Great was not actually made by the way of Cyprus is

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

sides of Cyprus, and accordingly he saw the hostile fleets gliding down

beneath the lee of those sheltering coasts towards the harbors of

Phoenicia. Doubtless the ships which Balaam saw were rigged as ships

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

Cyprus, did overwhelm the older power which stood in the place and

inherited the empire of Assyria. Whether the subsequent ruin of this

maritime power also is part of the prophecy must remain doubtful.

 

 

 

 

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