"He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath He seen perverseness in Israel: the Lord his God is with him, and the shout of a King is among them." (Numbers 23:21)
In the four chapters commencing with the twenty-first we have a series of very profitable, salutary and consolatory lessons. Lessons humbling, yet exalting. Lessons by which we are taught God's way of descent to us, and His way, for it is His, of our ascent to Him. Also of that perfect salvation according to purpose, accomplished in the doing and dying of the Surety of the covenant, and perfected in glory in the enjoyment of the spirits of the just made perfect. These four chapters are complete, they form a continuous, perfect narrative, nothing wanting, which can be read separately without doing violence to the rest of the book. And yet to read them apart from the continuous stream of historic truth flowing through the whole, we should lose sight of much that makes for our spiritual instruction, and for that godly discipline needful for every soul brought into living oneness with our Lord Jesus Christ.
You will notice that we have in the twenty-first chapter an account of the lifting up of the serpent in the wilderness by Moses for serpent-bitten Israelites. May God give you the gracious privilege of ever keeping the truth sealed in your hearts. The serpent was for Israelites, not for the surrounding nations with whom Israel foolishly mixed, learned their ways, and felt something of the judgment belonging peculiarly to them. Israel sinned, the Lord sent fiery serpents, the serpents bit the people, much people of Israel died, the people confessed their sin, Moses prayed for the people, God prescribed the remedy. "Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live." Should what? Should be made whole? No; God did not say so. Should be saved? God did not say so. Should be healed? God did not say so. Though, mark you, all these are comprised in what He did say. And what was that? "Shall live." That is the truth of Divine revelation concerning those with whom God has to do in salvation matters. These by nature through the bite of the old serpent are dead in trespasses and sins, and only by the obedience, death and resurrection of Jesus, by the quickening grace and truth of the Holy Ghost, the Faithful Witness of the covenant, are they partakers of spiritual and eternal life. How blessed to know that "the Spirit Himself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God. And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with Him, that we may be also glorified together" (Rom. 8:16,17).
Mark! The command was to look, not one to another, not to Moses the prophet, not to Aaron the priest, not to the Levites, to nothing whatever but to the brazen serpent, which was typical of the Son of Man lifted up. All through the New Testament we find this true concerning Jesus Christ. Turn to John 3:14,15; "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life." Believing and looking are one and the same thing here. Those for whom a saving Christ was provided, and who are blessed with a revelation of Him in their heart by the Holy Ghost, cannot help but look to Him. "They looked unto Him, and were lightened: and their faces were not ashamed" (Ps. 34:5). They looked to what? "Unto Him." To God in Christ Who reconciled them wholly to Himself by death, and life, and power. It is precious to live in the spirit of the inquiry of the Greeks to Philip, "Sir, we would see Jesus" (John 12:21); but it is most blessed to dwell in the assurance of the Apostle, "But WE SEE JESUS, Who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honor; that He by the grace of God should taste death for every man" (Heb. 2:9). A sight of a Crowned Christ, a Sovereign Saviour, is gladdening to the heart. Especially so when He is seen and known as the Sweetener of death to His own who dread it. He is crowned to taste, not suffer, to make palatable, not endure, death, for all the sons of God whom He brings to glory. He will not come again to suffer down here. Some expect to see Him on the earth again. I do not. To meet my Lord in the air and to be ever with Him will be quite enough for me. Let me be taken to glory, and think you that I shall wish to return to this wretched, worn out world. No indeed.
Look at that wonderful expression in Heb. 12:2; "Looking off unto Jesus the Author and Finisher of faith." Looking off from what? From every person and thing to Christ. From all the worthies mentioned in chapter eleven. We do not worship patriarchs, priests, or mediators. That is Popish profanity and idolatry. We have to do with the Man Christ Jesus alone, and He alone has to do with us in salvation matters. He looks well after that! A living, reigning Christ is ever "attentive to the state and wants of all His love has saved." He ever lives to sweeten death for all those of His redeemed who must experience it on the way to glory. Death is an article found in the saint's inventory. "All things are yours, death!" Death belongs to the saint. The saint does not belong to death. He may through fear of death be subject to bondage; but from all such bondage Christ will deliver him. If I am Christ's death is mine, and He will sweeten it for me. "Can that which is unsavory be eaten without salt? or is there any taste in the white of an egg" (Job 6:6). Death is unsavory; but a little of the salt of the covenant dropped into it makes it palatable, as the beginning of life without languor and glory without glamour. You may hear this sung at all the free-will workshops in the land,
"There is life for a look at the Crucified One."
That is false; but by changing one little word we get at a glorious truth-
"There is life in a look at the Crucified One."
There is no mistake at all about that. Do you obtain a look at Him by the grace of the Holy Ghost, the Glorifier of the Father's Christ, who receives of the things of Christ to show them unto you? Eternal life is yours, intelligent apprehension is yours, experimental possession is yours, grace is begun in you to be consummated in everlasting glory.
No sooner were these truths spoken by God to Israel, the Gospel through the lifting up of the serpent, and Israel brought into fellowship and communion with God, than the enemy was at the door. Thus it ever is down here. Have you peace this morning? Think it not strange should warfare rage ere the shades of evening close around you. I received a letter yesterday from a dear Zionite in the State of New York. He is a man in Christ, and all in the Lord who know him can abundantly testify to his being an Israelite indeed, hating double-dealing. Dear Ira Clute, such is his name, he has worshipped with us here, and during his short visit he put a few of us to the blush. He wrote thus: "I never could have thought I should have such hard thoughts of God in my breast. At times I have noticed that the subtle serpent would very much change his way to kindle fires of enmity in me which burn with such force that I have imagined myself on a level with hell itself, myself a roaring, boiling pot of rebellion against God's ways and dealings with me. Instead of knowing Him as a Merciful Father I was forced to picture Him as a tyrant. O beloved, to struggle with such vile imaginations was hard for both body and soul. But once and again some word came home with unusual sweetness, like this, 'Resistless Sovereign of the skies.' At another time, 'How sweet the name of Jesus sounds.' I need not tell you what sweetness the word brings when applied by the Spirit to a tempest-tossed heart. O to feel lifted from a level with hell to sit in heavenly places, all calm, peace and love, all sins freely forgiven. The Word made flesh is altogether lovely to the sin burdened soul. He is more than a match for Satan, and Satan is so afraid of the faith of God entering the heart, because it always overcomes him. I have told him that though all should go against me I should hang upon the Lord, and if in the storm he should prevail against me, he would have to settle with the Mighty One of Israel." Do you know of anything like that? You may be overflowing with joy and thankfulness this morning, but ere long He may show you hard things and give you to drink of the wine of astonishment, and your heart be moved with rebellion against Him. Many times I have been there, and I do not expect to grow any better. But with all my changes my God can never change. "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? Or hath He spoken, and shall He not make it good?"
Enemies lurk in Israel's pathway. Balak would have Israel cursed. The moment the curses were ready, the God of blessing appears for Israel. When Balak brought Balaam under his influence against Israel, God influenced Balaam against Balak. Read for yourselves the dealings of God with this strange character in chapter twenty-two. Mark him well at the commencement of chapter twenty-three. Here you see Balak and Balaam with their seven altars, seven bullocks, and seven rams. They were thoroughly knit together in their fleshly religious mind, yet God was looking on to thwart their accursed project, and to bring Israel into the enjoyment of His own patronage and protection. Look at ver. 4: "And God met Balaam," Balaam did not want Him. Balaam said to God, "I have prepared seven altars, and I have offered upon every altar a bullock and a ram." Great I was paramount. "And the Lord put a word in Balaam's mouth, and said, Return unto Balak, and thus thou shalt speak. And he returned unto him, and lo, he stood by his burnt sacrifice, he, and all the princes of Moab. And he took up his parable, and said, Balak the king of Moab hath brought me from Aram, out of the mountains of the east, saying, Come, curse me Jacob, and come, defy Israel? or how shall I defy, whom the Lord hath not defied? For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations." Where did he see this? "From the top of the rocks." Where is that? Come to Isa. 33:16; "He shall dwell on high: His place of defense shall be the munitions of rocks:" margin, heights, or high places. Lifted up by Divine grace and power far above the regions of the flesh, into the pure atmosphere of sovereign grace and truth, far removed from the murk and mist of the City of Legality. There we see and enjoy God in His own light.
Now let us look at the character of Balaam. What was he? A soothsayer, whose heart was dead set against the God of Israel, and against the Israel of God. To judge him from his utterances we should not say so. But, be careful! Sweet words oft flow from hearts as bitter as wormwood. "Take heed what ye hear, Take heed who ye hear, Beware of men." Such is the advice of the Master, and such is mine to you from His Blessed Book. Balaam was a strange character. He had the Spirit of God in his mouth, and the devil had full possession of his heart. His mouth was filled with God-honoring truth, while his heart was wholly moved by Satan's subility and duplicity. What an awful wretch! The very thought of him begets great searching of heart. It is most solemn to see that there is a way to hell through the pulpit. This begets serious and solemn reflection in a poor sinner whom Christ puts in trust with His Gospel. Here is a man who spake truth unmixed and in most glorious language, yet the devil had full possession of his heart. Are we quite sure of that? Turn to the short Epistle of Jude, where are many things unpalatable to Arminians, merit-mongers, Paptist and religious infidels. Listen! "But these speak evil of those things which they know not: but what they know naturally, as brute beasts, in those things they corrupt themselves." Many would not look upon Jude as a gentleman for language so rugged and trenchant. Like his Master he respected not man's judgment. "Woe unto them! for they have gone in the way of Cain, and ran greedily after the error of Balaam for reward." Yo see that Balaam's heart was in Balak's coffers, his mind was eaten up with covetousness.
Now look at 2 Peter 2:10,16. Peter is one with Jude. "But chiefly them that walk after the flesh in the lust of uncleanness, and despise government." Do you notice that? It is one of the marks of Antichrist. Wherever you hear persons railing against constituted authority, whatever their profession of religion may be, or however much they may talk about grace, they are not one with God in this matter. Read your Bibles well on this important subject. "Presumptuous are they, self-willed; they are not afraid to speak evil of dignities. Whereas angels, which are greater in power and might, bring not railing accusation against them before the Lord. But these, as natural brute beasts." Look at these terrible words, they seem so contrary to the spirit which we all love to enjoy, the spirit of meekness and gentleness, sitting at the feet of Jesus. "But these, as natural brute beasts, made to be taken and destroyed." Very few of those who profess to love their Bibles are in love with this, they do not believe it, but hate the preacher who does, and who dares to be bold in his God for the whole truth. "But these, as natural brute beasts, made to be taken and destroyed, speak evil of the things that they understand not; and shall utterly perish in their own corruption: And shall receive the reward of unrighteousness, as they that count it pleasure to riot in the daytime. Spots they are and blemishes, sporting themselves with their own deceivings, while they feast with you." What a picture! Hard hearted reprobates delight in feasts of love, subjection to ordinances, flaming profession of love to God, and anxiety for the welfare of everybody. But in all this they lie. Where are they? Look at them! "Having eyes full of adultery, and that cannot cease from sin; beguiling unstable souls: an heart they have exercised with covetous practices; cursed children." Noticed that! Balaam's tribe is not yet extinct. "Which have forsaken the right way, and are gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Bosor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness; but was rebuked for his iniquity; the dumb ass, speaking with man's voice, forbad the madness of the prophet." There you have a man who could speak God's truth most gloriously, in which the Lord Jesus Christ is exalted as Head over all, swaying the sceptre of universal dominion, destroying the enemies of His people, sheltering His own under the shadow of His wings. Terrible! say you. So do I. It is terrible to behold the judgments of God on the wicked, even when we are assured of His gracious protection, sprinkled with atoning blood, clothed in everlasting righteousness, and kept by His invincible power. It is very blessed to notice how God is never at a loss for instruments to accomplish His purpose of love, or for messengers to carry His messages of mercy to His own for their comfort and encouragement, or with announcements of judgment to His enemies for their confusion and defeat.
On the ground of judgment Balak and Balaam met. Balak would have Israel cursed. Balaam would, but could not do it. He gives his reason, "For from the top of the rocks I see Him, and from the hills I behold Him: lo, the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations. 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! And Balak said unto Balaam, What hast thou done unto me? I took thee to curse mine enemies, and behold, thou hast blessed them altogether. And he answered and said, Must I not take heed to speak that which the Lord hath put in my mouth?" Here Balak would take Balaam to another place, no doubt thinking that by change of position a change of circumstances might take place. This cannot be, for God has still more trenchant truth than ever from the lips of Balaam. "And the Lord met Balaam, and put a word in his mouth, and said, Go again unto Balak, and say thus. And when he came to him, behold he stood by his burnt-offering, and the princes of Moab with him. And Balak said unto him, What hath the Lord spoken? And he took up his parable and said, Rise up, Balak, and hear; hearken unto me, thou son of Zippor, 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? or hath He spoken, and shall He not make it good?" Balak might change his tactics and alter his position, he might maneuver and manipulate; but the God of Israel knows nothing of change. "He is in one mind, and who can turn Him? And what His soul desireth, even that He doeth" (Job 23:13). From His purpose He deviates not. From His promise He never departs. He promised eternal life to His own elect in Christ Jesus before the world began, and every one to whom it was promised must have it in due time. "Behold, I have received commandment to bless, and He hath blessed; and I cannot reverse it." Balaam was a strange, mysterious character. He could fall down before God's truth, and then turn round and make a polite bow to the devil's lie. If it suited his purpose he would acknowledge God. If it increased his riches he would court the devil. Terrible condition. Why do such creatures exist? Mark well the answer of Holy Writ, "As natural brute beasts, made to be taken and destroyed."
Remember that wonderful word in Prov. 16:4; "The Lord hath made all things for Himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil." Balak and Balaam were made for Israel's evil day. Evil was approaching and surrounding God's Israel. Balak and Balaam were plotting against God's Israel, which seemed on the verge of destruction. Israel's extremity is God's opportunity for the display of His powerful protection. When Satan would shake the foundations of the Church, the God of the Church would give Satan a shaking. And that He does assuredly. When enemies abound with their false accusations against the people of God, He is ever ready to defend His own. How blessed it is for us to enter into the spiritual understanding and intelligent apprehension of this blessed truth. When the world will call the Church bad names, the Lord is at hand with everything that is good to say concerning her. God will not have His people called hard names with impunity. You see this again and again in His blessed Book. Notice the conduct of Moses at Meribah. God told him to speak to the rock to give forth its water, but, in a rage, he smote the rock and called God's people rebels. For this he was not allowed to enter the promised land. Lamentable picture! The meekest of all men then upon the face of the earth losing himself in a fit of passion. Are you ever like that? Certainly you are. O what bitter things we have to write against ourselves because of our hard feelings and harse judgment. Frequently ready to speak words which do not become us as the saints of God, and are contrary to the dignity which ever should grace the members of our Lord's spiritual body. And sometimes when we do not speak out our vile temper, we can look it, while those at whom our looks dart daggers, are grieved to see the miserable plight into which we have fallen. This is the honest truth before Him with Whom we have to do. Yet how blessed it is to enjoy the fact, that "He that is perfect in knowledge is with us," knows all about us, and ever defends us from all accusations, hard speeches and violent threats, and has given us the unfailing promise, "Every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn" (Isa. 54:17). God is ever ready to speak a good word to and for His own. Mark well the words of His Spirit from the mouth of a covetous Balaam which are a lasting rebuke to all cursing Balaks, "He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath He seen perverseness in Israel." Is that true? Yes, true as God is true, or God would not have declared it to be the word of His Spirit from Balaam's mouth concerning Jacob, His own Israel.
Notice that word of the Lord by Mal. 3:6; "I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed." The sons of Jacob are like their father, deceivers, supplanters, with hearts deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, with carnal minds which are enmity against God, yet they are not consumed of their own lusts, not with the fire of hell. How is this? Because of the immutability of Jacob's God. He is unchangeable in His purpose, in His promise, in His written word in the Scriptures of truth, and spoken home to the hearts of His people by the Holy Ghost. "The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him, and He will show them His covenant" (Ps. 25:14). O what a blessed truth that is for us. All that God has declared concerning His people is eternity true, and when necessary, He will prove it to be so in their joyful experience. This is beautifully set before us all through the Scriptures of truth. Do we see a saint described there? He is a sinner. Do we see a saved sinner? He is a saint of the Most High God, and as such He will know what it is to cry and groan for salvation every day of his sojourning here upon earth, for he will find the vanity of the world, the corruption of the flesh, and the subtilty of Satan, too much for him, but not too much for his God. This seems strange, say you. well, no; not when we have a right judgment of the mystery of iniquity and the mystery of redeeming love. God dwells among His people to constitute them holy. Christ dwells in the midst of His members to save them from impurity. The Holy Ghost abides in the temple which He has consecrated for Himself. He may be grieved with the abounding abominations and defilements, yet here He proves Himself to be the abiding Comforter. He contracts no defilement from those in whom He dwells, but purges it all away.
Come to the third chapter of Zechariah's prophecies. Here we see Joshua the High Priest clothed with filthy garments. He had the right of access to God and communion with Him. God made known to him the love of His heart, and the secrets of His covenant. Though he was dear to the heart of Christ, he needed stripping, cleansing, clothing, crowning and anointing with fresh oil. So do I. So do you, and that repeatedly. yet, with all this, we are privileged to sing,
"In spite of all our failing,
In Thee we firmly stood;
Hell's craft is unavailing,
Through Thy most precious blood."
Come along to that blessed Song of Solomon. In it you have the heartfelt confession of the eternity loved bride, "I am black, but comely." About twenty years ago I published a tract with the title, "Black, but Comely." In it there is a list of persons who give an account of themselves as brought under the convincing teaching of the Holy Ghost. Scripture worthies have nothing good to say of themselves, and holy men of God in succeeding generations who enjoyed communion with God, and were overcome with the beauty and comeliness of Jesus Christ, all declare, "I am black." Dear Henry Fowler was a blessed man. Yet listen to this humbling confession:
"Lord, what is man when deeply tried?
What? Why, a mass of cursed pride!
A filthy den of beasts unclean,
The heart presents a dismal scene!
When all my purposes are crossed,
And God won't suffer me to boast;
When all my prospects blasted are,
I'm ready then to curse and swear."
This will shock them mock modesty of the precise and pious Pharisee, while a sense of it breaks the heart of God's loved one, who confesses, "I am black;" but the gracious response flows from the heart of Incarnate Love, "Thou art fair, My love: there is no spot in thee" (Song 4:7). The love, the dove, the bride of Christ, the sinner in the enjoyment of covenant mercy, sees in self not one spot of beauty, not one speck of comeliness; but pollution from the head to the foot; yet the truth holds good, No iniquity in Jacob, no perverseness in Israel.
I wish you to pay particular attention to the Master and His disciples in the thirteenth of John. He "took a towel and girded Himself. After that He poureth water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith He was girded." Beautiful figures! He was girded with covenant love which shows forth the beauty and grace of the Gospel. "Peter saith unto Him, Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with Me. Simon Peter saith unto Him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head." Peter fell short here, for the Lord meant a spiritual washing for the whole spiritual man. He would have them separated from all uncleanness by the power of His truth. Notice! "He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit." Turn to John 15:3; "Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you." Peter would drink in those words with a relish; yet that very night after hearing the words, "Now are ye clean, clean every whit," he fell, he lied, he cursed, he swore, "I know not the Man." There is a wonderful picture for your study! The Master declares this man "clean, every whit, clean through the word," yet he must learn in the bitterness of his soul that in him, that is, in his flesh, dwelt no good thing, for to will was present with him, but how to perform that which was good he found not. He had to confess with the godly remnant in Isaiah's days, "For our transgressions are multiplied before Thee, and our sins testify against us: for our transgressions are with us; and as for our iniquities, we know them: in transgressing and lying against the Lord, and departing away from our God, speaking oppression and revolt, conceiving and uttering from the heart words of falsehood" (Isa. 59:12,13). Here we are today, like Peter, like Paul, like Isaiah, and the goodly fellowship of living saints, weary of earth, self and sin, yet blessed with mercy in the dark depths of spiritual misery, and mercy in the heights of covenant favor rejoicing our hearts with full and free salvation, and all the deliverance which our agonized spirits long for in the Person of the Beloved and in the perfection of our Covenant Surety.
"He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob." Covenant provision prevents the sight. "Neither hath He seen perverseness in Israel." How can He when all the sins of His Israel are covered by the depths of the sea of covenant love? How can He when He has cast all the sins, iniquities and transgressions of Zion behind His back? How can He when the Saviour of His people put away all trace of their sin by the sacrifice of Himself? "Who is like unto thee, O people saved by the Lord?" (Deut. 33:29). "The Lord his God is with him." With him continually wherever he goes. May He give you to feel, as I have done, and do, the blessedness of last Sunday morning's text: "He that is perfect in knowledge is with thee." He knows all about thee. Pharisees may charge thee with breaking the commandments, and would have thee damned; but Jesus will have thee saved. Pharisees saw sin in the woman they brought to Him (John 8:1-11). But Jesus would see none. "Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee: go, and sin no more." May the Lord bless us all for Christ's sake. Amen.