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Barnes' Notes on the Bible
1And when Balaam saw that it pleased the LORD to bless Israel, he went not, as at other times, to seek for enchantments, but he set his face toward the wilderness.
2And Balaam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel abiding in his tents according to their tribes; and the spirit of God came upon him.
Balaam gazed over the camp of Israel that stretched before him, and allowed the spectacle to work its own influence upon him.
3And he took up his parable, and said, Balaam the son of Beor hath said, and the man whose eyes are open hath said:
Whose eyes are open - i. e., opened in inward vision, to discern things that were hidden from ordinary beholders.
4He hath said, which heard the words of God, which saw the vision of the Almighty, falling into a trance, but having his eyes open:
The "falling" of which Balaam speaks was the condition under which the inward opening of his eyes took place. It indicates the force of the divine inspiration overpowering the seer. The faithful prophets of the Lord do not appear to have been subject to these violent illapses Daniel 8:17; Revelation 1:17.
In Balaam and in Saul 1 Samuel 19:24 the word of God could only prevail by first subduing the alien will, and overpowering the bodily energies which the will ordinarily directs.
5How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel!
6As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river's side, as the trees of lign aloes which the LORD hath planted, and as cedar trees beside the waters.
As gardens by the river's side - Balaam's language reflects the famous artificial gardens along the banks of his own river, the Euphrates.
As the trees of lign aloes which the Lord hath planted - The latter words contain an apparent reference to Paradise (compare Genesis 2:8). The aloe, imported from China and the far distant east, furnished to the ancients one of the most fragrant and precious of spices; compare Psalm 45:8; Proverbs 7:17,
As cedar trees beside the waters - i. e., as the noblest of trees branching forth in the fairest of situations: an image of majestic beauty, as that of the last verse was of rare fecundity.
7He shall pour the water out of his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters, and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted.
Balaam's native soil was ordinarily irrigated by water fetched from the neighboring Euphrates, and carried in buckets suspended from the two ends of a pole. Thus the metaphor would import that Israel should have his own exuberant and unfailing channels of blessing and plenty. Some take the word to be predictive of the future benefits which, through the means of Israel, were to accrue to the rest of the world.
Agag - The name, apparently hereditary (compare 1 Samuel 15) to the chieftains of Amalek, means "high." The words point to the Amalekite kingdom as highly prosperous and powerful at the time (compare Numbers 24:20); but also to be far excelled by the future glories of Israel. The Amalekites never in fact recovered their crushing defeat by Saul (1 Samuel 15:2 ff), though they appear again as foes to Israel in the reign of David (1 Samuel 27:1-12 and 30). The remnant of them was destroyed in the reign of Hezekiah 1 Chronicles 4:43.
8God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows.
9He couched, he lay down as a lion, and as a great lion: who shall stir him up? Blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee.
10And Balak's anger was kindled against Balaam, and he smote his hands together: and Balak said unto Balaam, I called thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast altogether blessed them these three times.
11Therefore now flee thou to thy place: I thought to promote thee unto great honour; but, lo, the LORD hath kept thee back from honour.
12And Balaam said unto Balak, Spake I not also to thy messengers which thou sentest unto me, saying,
13If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the commandment of the LORD, to do either good or bad of mine own mind; but what the LORD saith, that will I speak?
14And now, behold, I go unto my people: come therefore, and I will advertise thee what this people shall do to thy people in the latter days.
I will advertise thee - i. e., "I will advise thee," words which refer to the ensuing prophecy.
15And he took up his parable, and said, Balaam the son of Beor hath said, and the man whose eyes are open hath said:
16He hath said, which heard the words of God, and knew the knowledge of the most High, which saw the vision of the Almighty, falling into a trance, but having his eyes open:
And knew, the knowledge of the Most High - With the addition of these words, which point to the greater importance and the more distinctly predictive character of what follows, the introduction to this last parable is the same as the introduction to the preceding parable.
17I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth.
Render, I see him, though he be not now: I behold him, though he be not near. Balaam here describes what is actually before him in inward vision.
Him - i. e., the prince, represented in the succeeding words by the Star and Scepter. The star has among all nations served as a symbol of regal power and splendour: and the birth and future glory of great monarchs were believed by the ancients to be heralded by the appearance of stars or comets: compare also Isaiah 14:12; Daniel 8:10; Revelation 1:16, Revelation 1:20; Revelation 2:1; Revelation 9:1.
The corners of Moab - literally, "the two sides of Moab," i. e., the length and breadth of the land: compare Jeremiah 48:45.
Destroy all the children of Sheth - Rather, "overthrow the sons of tumult," i. e., the warriors of Moab, whose valour and fierceness is frequently referred to elsewhere (compare Exodus 15:15; Isaiah 15:4; Isaiah 16:6, etc.) Compare Jeremiah 48:45.
18And Edom shall be a possession, Seir also shall be a possession for his enemies; and Israel shall do valiantly.
Seir - The older name of the mountain-land, south of Moab, and east of the Arabah, which the Edomites inhabited Genesis 32:3; Genesis 36:8-9.
19Out of Jacob shall come he that shall have dominion, and shall destroy him that remaineth of the city.
Destroy him that remaineth of the city - i. e., shall destroy those of every city that had previously escaped. The phrase tersely describes a conqueror who first defeats his enemies in battle, and then hunts out the fugitives until he has cut off all of every place (compare 1 Kings 11:16).
The victories of David were a partial accomplishment of the predictions Numbers 24:14, Numbers 24:18, but did not exhaust them.
It is apparent that Edom and Moab are named by Balaam, as they are also by the prophets (compare e. g., Isaiah 11:14), as representatives of the pagan nations Numbers 24:8 who were hostile to the theocracy. As Jacob therefore figures as a constant type of the kingdom of Messiah in the prophets, so do Edom and Joab of the enemies of that kingdom; and in the threatened ruin of Edom and Moab is indicated the eventual destruction of all that resist the kingdom of God in its power.
The "Star" and "Sceptre" of the prophecy, like the "Sceptre" and "Lawgiver" of Genesis 49:10, point also naturally to a line of princes rather than to an individual; or rather are emblems of the kingdom of Israel generally. Thus, the victories of David and his successors, generation after generation, over Edom and Moab, are unquestionably recurring and progressive accomplishments of what Balaam foretold; but in addition the prophecy reaches forward to some further and culminating accomplishment; and that too in "the latter days" Numbers 24:14, the ordinary prophetic designation for the time of the Messiah (compare the marginal references).
To a Christian the connection between the Star and Seeptre of Balaam and the Star of the king of the Jews, which the wise men saw Matthew 2:2, is self-evident.
20And when he looked on Amalek, he took up his parable, and said, Amalek was the first of the nations; but his latter end shall be that he perish for ever.
When he looked - i. e., in spirit, as he saw the Star Numbers 24:17.
Amalek was the first of the nations - Rather, is pre-eminent among the neighboring nations: compare the same expression in Amos 6:1. Hence, the force of the words Numbers 24:7 "higher than Agag," i. e., than the king of this powerful nation (compare Numbers 14:45; Exodus 17:8). This rank, due to the warlike prowess of the tribe, Balaam contrasts with its approaching downfall and extinction.
21And he looked on the Kenites, and took up his parable, and said, Strong is thy dwellingplace, and thou puttest thy nest in a rock.
The Kenites - First mentioned Genesis 15:19 as one of the tribes whose territory was promised to Abraham. In Judges 1:16, where we read of them as moving with the children of Judah, to establish themselves in the pastures south of Arad, Moses' father-in-law is spoken of as a Kenite (compare Judges 4:11). It appears therefore, since Moses' father-in-law was a prince or priest of Midian (Exodus 2:15 ff), that the Kenites must have been of Midianite extraction, and so descended from Abraham through Keturah Genesis 25:2.
But it seems unlikely that the Kenites of Genesis 15:19, who were to be dispossessed by the descendants of Abraham, were identical with those of whom Balaam speaks, and who were, because of good offices rendered at the time of the Exodus, always regarded as kinsmen and friends by Israel (compare 1 Samuel 15:6; 1 Samuel 27:10). Rather, is it probable that the Kenites of Genesis 15:19 were a Canaanite people, who derived their name from the city Kain, which fell eventually within the borders of the tribe of Judah Joshua 15:22; and that the descendants of Hobab, who appear in Judges 1:16 as making war in this very district, possessed themselves of this city, and with it of the name Kenite also. This they would seem to have already done when Balsam uttered his prediction; and in the next verse it is, as the margin correctly indicates, not of the Kenite, but of Kain the city, that he speaks. Nor is it surprising to find them in possession of their new abode in the promised land, while the Israelites were yet in their tents. It may well be that this roving band of Midianites had already entered Canaan, perhaps along the shores of the Dead Sea, and by routes impracticable for the huge host of Israel, and had, as a kind of advanced guard, made a beginning of the conquest of the country.
From 1 Chronicles 2:54-55, we learn that the Rechabites were a branch of the Kenites; and the name Salmaites, always given to the Kenites in the Targums, connects them with Salma, the son of Caleb, there mentioned. Jeremiah 35 shows how tenaciously, for many centuries, they held fast the nomadic habits of their race.
Strong is thy dwellingplace, and thou puttest thy nest in a rock - Render, Strong (or firm) be thy dwelling-place, and put thou thy nest in the rock (or cliff). In the Hebrew there is a play on the words ken, "nest," and Kain, the name of the Kenites' abode. This nest in the cliff might be the city of Hazazon-tamar or Engedi, if that be (as is likely) the "city of palm-trees," from which they went up subsequently Judges 1:16. But there is another site, about 10 miles south of Engedi, to which Balaam's words would be more appropriate, on the summit of the cliff rising perpendicularly from the level of the western shore of the Dead Sea, where was afterward built the city of Masada, the scene of the closing tragedy of the Jewish-Roman war. It is not likely that such a natural fortress would ever have been unoccupied, or even excluded from a place in the list of the cities of Judah. Nor is there any site in the Holy land which a rude but warlike people might more fittingly designate as either Ken, the Nest, or Kain, the Possession.
22Nevertheless the Kenite shall be wasted, until Asshur shall carry thee away captive.
Render, For Kain shall surely not be destroyed (literally "be for destruction") until Asshur, etc. The words are not, as they appear in the King James Version, a prediction of evil to the Kenites, but a promise, on the contrary, of safety to be long continued to them (compare Numbers 10:32; Jeremiah 35:19).
23And he took up his parable, and said, Alas, who shall live when God doeth this!
When God doeth this - The eventual carrying away of the allies of Israel by Assyria presented itself to Balaam as the ruin of all peace and safety upon earth. One prediction was howerer, yet wanting, and is next given, namely, that the conquerors of the Kenites should fare no better than the Kenites themselves.
24And ships shall come from the coast of Chittim, and shall afflict Asshur, and shall afflict Eber, and he also shall perish for ever.
Chittim - i. e., Cyprus, the nearest of the western islands, the only one visible from Palestine, and so the representative to Balsam and to Israel of all those unknown western regions across the Mediterranean Sea, from which were at length to come the conquerors of the mighty empires of the East. Compare Isaiah 23:1, Isaiah 23:12; Jeremiah 2:10.
Eber - i. e., the descendants of Shem. Of these Asshur was one (compare marginal references), and is here specified by name, since the Assyrians attained, in the empires of Babylon and Nineveh, to an extraordinary grandeur, and were destined to a most signal and irretrievable fall.
He also - i. e., the conqueror of Asshur and Eber who should come across the sea. It is not revealed from where the blow should come that should overthrow in its turn the power that prevailed over the great monarchies of the East.
25And Balaam rose up, and went and returned to his place: and Balak also went his way.
Returned to his own place - i. e., among the Midianites to plot by new means against the people of God, and to perish in his sin Numbers 31:8, Numbers 31:16; Revelation 2:14.