December 1/2, 2012
Jason Meyer | Numbers 24:14-24
And now, behold, I am going to my people. Come, I will let you know what this people will do to your people in the latter days.” And he took up his discourse and said, “The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eye is opened, the oracle of him who hears the words of God, and knows the knowledge of the Most High, who sees the vision of the Almighty, falling down with his eyes uncovered: I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth. Edom shall be dispossessed; Seir also, his enemies, shall be dispossessed. Israel is doing valiantly. And one from Jacob shall exercise dominion and destroy the survivors of cities!”
Let’s begin with where we are going. Take a look at the advent candle. There is now one candle burning. Fast forward to Dec 23–24. There will be not one, but four candles lit. What will that symbolize? Think of each candle representing some bright glorious attribute of Jesus. What happens when all four are lit? The brightness increases as they burn together. The darkness is dispelled. The light is mesmerizing. We are drawn in irresistibly.
This is a word picture for the bright radiance of the glory of Jesus—but it is such an imperfect symbol. Imagine how many candles we would have to burn to represent all the attributes of Jesus. Imagine the brightness of all of them burning at once!
The world does not contain enough candles to represent Jesus. Even the sun cannot burn bright enough. And one day we will have no more need for its light because it will be eclipsed by the brightness of God’s glory. The end of the Bible says, “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Revelation 21:23). The lamp is the Lamb! Jesus is the perfect intersection of every excellency. They seamlessly and sinlessly come together in an unparalleled way in one person.
Three Levels of the Glory of the Excellencies of Christ
Now we have to come back to the limitations of our service. We do not have thousands of candles burning. We have one today and we will have four by Christmas. You need not be disappointed by the fact that we have four. They symbolize something.
What Do the Advent Candles Signify?
What do they signify? You may remember at the end of Luke’s Gospel that Jesus had to open the minds of the disciples to understand that the Scriptures spoke of him. In Luke 24:27 he gave a sermon to two disciples. “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” Later in that same chapter he appeared to the eleven disciples and said, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). Jesus refers to three parts of the Hebrew Bible: the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms. These three represent the divisions of the Hebrew Bible: Law (Genesis–Deuteronomy), Prophets (Former and Latter Prophets), and Psalms was the head term for the third division called the Writings. We are going to follow this pattern Jesus gave us this Advent.
Therefore, in these four weeks together we will look at a text from each of the three parts of the Hebrew Bible (Law, Prophets, and Writings) and one from the New Testament. Numbers 24 (the Law) will show us that he is a king that will crush his enemies, Isaiah 53 (passage from the Prophets) will show us that he is a king that will be crushed for his enemies, Psalm 16 (passage from the Writings) will show us that he will be a risen king triumphing over the last enemy. Then we will look at how these elements appear in the Christmas story of Matthew 1–2. Let us pray that just as Jesus once opened the minds and hearts of his disciples to understand what the Scriptures said about him, that Jesus by the power of the Spirit would come and do it for us again today.
Three Questions We Will Try to Answer
Let’s look at our text today in three parts:
1. When? The Timing of the King’s Coming (vs. 15–17)
This text belongs to a lengthy section of Numbers in which the king of Moab is determined to curse Israel. He hires Balaam, a prophet for hire, to curse Israel, but in the end Balaam only blesses Israel and curses Moab. Balaam himself is stunningly reminded of God’s opposition to any attempt to curse Israel by a donkey that talks. The donkey senses that there is an angel with a flaming sword standing in Balaam’s path and the donkey actually has to tell Balaam of the danger. Yes, the Bible says that a donkey spoke! The point here is the rich irony—the donkey is more perceptive than the prophet Balaam. All of the strategies of the king of Moab to curse Israel actually end up blessing Israel and cursing Moab. What wonderful sovereignty!
The timeframe of this prophecy is set “at the end of the days.” This text has many similarities with Genesis 49. Old Testament scholar John Sailhamer helped me see these parallels between Genesis 49, Numbers 24, and Deuteronomy 31. “In each of the three segments, the central narrative figure (Jacob, Balaam, Moses) calls an audience together (imperative: Genesis 49:1; Numbers 24:14; Deuteronomy 31:28) and proclaims (cohortative: Genesis 49:1; Numbers 24:14; Deuteronomy 31:28) what will happen (Genesis 49:1; Numbers 24:14; Deuteronomy 31:29) in “the end of days” (Genesis 49:1; Numbers 24:14; Deuteronomy 31:29)” (See Sailhamer’s book, The Pentateuch as Narrative, p. 36).
Therefore, let us look at the similarities in structure and timing.
Then Jacob summoned his sons and said, “Gather (imperative) yourselves together that I may tell (cohortative) you what shall happen to you in the days to come.”—Genesis 49:1
“And now, behold, I am going to my people. Come (imperative), I will let you know (cohortative) what this people will do to your people in the latter days.”—Numbers 24:14
Now Balaam peers into the future and tells Balak what will happen “in days to come.” The vision captivates his senses: his eyes, his ears, his mind. His eyes are opened, he sees the vision of the Almighty, he hears the words of God, he knows the knowledge of the Most High. This is not one thing to know among many. This is decisive seeing, hearing, and knowing. It is a way to say: Listen up! Pay attention! Do not miss this!
We do this all of the time. Have I got a story for you! If you call in the next 15 seconds. People pull this in advertising all of the time to get us to buy more detergent or exercise pills or lights that clap on or off! How pathetic to act as if those things are urgent.
Here is a vision of supreme importance. There is a severe urgency to this message for our souls. What does Balaam see? Or more specifically—who does he see?
2. Who? The Identity of the King to Come (v. 17)
Notice that we do not get a name. We get a picture filled with powerful imagery. I love this picture. He is a bright star. He has a powerful scepter. The imagery we see complements a picture already painted for us in the Pentateuch concerning the coming Messiah as the Lion King. Don’t think of the Disney version when you hear that!
“Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down to you. Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him, and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.”—Genesis 49:8–10
“He crouched, he lay down like a lion, and like a lioness; who will rouse him up? Blessed are those who blesses you, and cursed are those who curse you.”—Numbers 24:9
"I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; and it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth."—Numbers 24:17
We have the textual imagery—now how do we determine historical identity? Many people have noted the fact that Israel’s greatest king, David, had victories over both Moab and Edom (2 Samuel 8:2, 13–14; 1 Kings 11:15–16). Certainly these victories satisfy some elements of Balaam’s prophesy. David’s victories were only temporary, however. Moab and Edom keep coming back into the picture. They had to be reconquered several times throughout Israel’s history. This lack of permanent dominion of these enemies led the prophets to foretell of a future conquering that would be permanent.
Many looked for the Messiah to fit this picture. It is interesting that someone who claimed to be the Messiah in the 2nd century A.D. was called “Bar-Kochba,” “son of the star” (cf. v. 17).
The final book of the Bible affirms that these prophecies refer to Jesus, “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” (Revelation 5:5). In Revelation 22:16 the risen Jesus calls himself both the offspring of David and “the bright and morning star.” As we will see on the last week of Advent, the so-called Star of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:2, 7, 9–10) may well have been based on expectation that a literal star would point the way to a scepter (i.e., a ruler, the Messiah) (see also T. Ashley’s commentary on the book of Numbers).
3. What Will Happen? The Results of the King’s Coming (vs. 17–24)
There is a bone-chilling simplicity here: They are crushed. He comes and then crunch. No contest! There is no back-and-forth battle here. The scepter shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth. Edom shall be dispossessed. The one from Jacob will have complete dominion. He will even destroy the survivors (v. 19). Balaam says that the same thing shall happen to the Amalekites, the Kenites, and Kittim—they shall come to “utter destruction” (v. 24).
The Moabites, and the Amalekites, and the Kenites were not the only enemies of God in Numbers. The Israelites became God’s enemies by their unbelief. It is a haunting book. Do you know why it is called Numbers? The Israelites of the book of Numbers became known as the wilderness generation. That generation saw his miracles and his kindness to them and then spurned him in unbelief by refusing to enter the Promised Land. He vowed in his anger that they would not enter into his rest. He counted or numbered Israel at the beginning and then again at the end of the book. God’s vow was fulfilled. His math was right on the mark. Not one of them was alive at the end. Do not mistake God’s mercy for God’s weakness. He preserved them in the wilderness. He did not let their sandals or clothes wear out. But that did not mean that he did not destroy them in his wrath.
Perhaps we could be tempted to think, “Well that’s Israel. They had such hard hearts!”
Paul warned the church at Corinth that they should not trust in baptism or the Lord’s supper to save them. The Israelites had a form of these. They passed through the sea and were baptized into Moses. They had a spiritual food and a spiritual drink. They drank from the rock that was Christ. “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness” (1 Corinthians 10:5). Paul also cites a text very close to ours. He says, “We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day” (1 Corinthians 10:8). That reference is to Numbers 25. Our text has Balaam prophesying about a great future coming king. The next chapter (Numbers 25) has the Israelites spurning that great revelation by their sexual immorality with the daughters of the Moabites. The anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. God sent a plague. Those who died by the plague were twenty-four thousand (Numbers 25:9).
Numbers 25 is the reason why Balaam appears in the rest of the Bible as an enemy of God, even though he spoke truth in the previous chapter. God refuses to hear him (Deuteronomy 23:5; Joshua 24:10). Numbers extends this process in Numbers 31:16, implicating Balaam in the seduction of Israel in Numbers 25:1–18. As one of the enemies of Israel he is killed (Numbers 31:8; Joshua 13:22). Balaam becomes a pattern for future false teachers who gain influence in the Christian community and encourage immorality (2 Peter 2:15–16; Jude 11; Revelation 2:14).
All of these points remind us that our mere presence in church today does not guarantee a place in God’s family. You also cannot appeal to his care in sustaining you with physical health and life and breath. He sustained the Israelites in the wilderness, but he still destroyed all of the unbelievers. We do not presume upon God. He is a king, not a vending machine of mercy. The picture is not one in which you are in charge and he dispenses mercy whenever you come calling. His mercy does not work like that. His mercy captures us and he gloriously takes ownership of our lives.
If this does not sound appealing to you, then you do not know what kind of king he is. He is not a king that takes advantage of you and unjustly uses you for his own ends. We come to a jarring bend in the road. We come to realize that sinners are his enemies and thus we are his enemies.
If that frightens you and makes you want to run from him, then you are half right. You understand the bad news of the gospel. Sinners will receive the wrath of God. But the Lord’s Supper today reminds us of the good news of the gospel. Tim Keller tells the story of the gospel by relating it to something we all experience in our relationships (adapted from Tim Keller, “Mary,” a sermon preached at Redeemer Presbyterian, December 23, 2001).
In all relationships, because we are sinners, we get into a conversation like this:
“You’re to blame!”
“No, it’s your fault!”
“No, it’s you.”
“No, it isn’t. It’s you.”
Now what has happened? The relationship is coming apart at the seams. You are in danger of losing the relationship because neither side will budge, take any blame, or make any concessions. This is a relational dead end.
But then sometimes this happens:
“You’re to blame!”
“No, it’s your fault!”
“No, it’s you.”
“No, it isn’t. It’s you.”
“Okay, it’s me.”
One person drops the defenses and the relationship can start to be put back together again—all because one person accepted the blame. Why would someone do that? Because in the midst of all the hostility, one person says, “I want you back. I will not lose this relationship.” The only way to get the relationship back is to let the verbal blow fall without shielding yourself from it.
My point in telling you this story is two-fold. First, I want to encourage you to do that today, if you have broken relationships. Let the verbal blow fall. Pursue the person. Tell them you want them back this Christmas. But second, I believe you can only do that because God did something greater.
The King’s Table—Can a Table Talk?
Look at the symbols here for the King’s Table—what we call the Lord’s Supper. Can a table talk? What does this table say? It is the voice of God saying, “I want you back. I will not lose this relationship. I will send my Son. He will take the blame.” This is why we sing the songs that we do about the power of the cross: “This the power of the cross. Christ became sin for us. Took the blame, bore the wrath, we stand forgiven at the cross.”
Think about the greatness of the cross as seen here in the symbols of the Table. In my prior example, someone could accept part of the blame and did. It was brave and loving to accept the blame, but it was not grace—the person took the blame that they deserved. Jesus did not deserve the blame. He bore our blame. That is amazing love. That is an unmerited, vast, priceless ocean store of mercy.
That is why we celebrate the King’s Table. It is almost an unthinkable grace. This table does not represent weakness. There is no lack of power here. He could have easily turned all his enemies into dust. But he didn’t. He died for enemies.
We will see it in even more depth next week in Isaiah 53. It was the will of the Lord to crush him (Isaiah 53:10). He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities (Isaiah 53:5). We see it just as clearly in Romans 5. God demonstrates his love for us while we were still ungodly (Romans 5:6), still sinners (Romans 5:8), still enemies (Romans 5:10). God sent his Son to die for us as ungodly, sinful, enemies.
So what do we say when we take of this table? This meal is for sinners that say with their whole heart: Christ was crushed for me. He bore my blame. He paid for my sins. Think of the food and drink the King has given us at his Table. The bread represents his body—broken for us. Think about the bread as you crush and grind it with your teeth. What love! The cup represents his blood poured out for you. The grapes were crushed so that we can drink the juice. It is almost gloriously unthinkable. He did that for us. O how he loves us! What an ocean of mercy! This is not weakness on his part—but awesome, conquering, unstoppable love that will reclaim broken relationships. The Table testifies to what kind of king Jesus is because “we proclaim the Lord’s death” (1 Corinthians 11:26). It tells us of his tender love at this time.
But the Table says one more thing. “We proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). The Table tells us of a time that will come when you will see the rest of the story concerning what kind of king Jesus is.
Jesus’ full glorious strength will be on display fully at the final judgment. The Bible calls this the wrath of the Lamb. “Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’” (Revelation 6:15–17). The table tells us that a time will come when he will no longer be tender towards his enemies. He is not tender when it is time for justice to fall down with its crushing weight! Either he will be crushed for our sins or we will be crushed for our sins. This is the most important decision you could make right now. How will you respond to this King and his table?