Balak tries again, taking Balaam to a field atop Mount Pisgah, where he could see only the outermost part of the camp (Numbers 23:13). His rationale for this is that Balaam could not curse Israel while faced with the mystical power of the whole people. If he could see just a part of Israel, the odds would be more even and a curse more likely. So, the diviner again offers a bull and a ram on seven different altars (verse 14).
In both of the first two prophecies is an interesting phrase: "God [or, the LORD] met Balaam" (verses 4, 16). This is a very personal and close form of communication. How God met him is unknown, but it is obvious that he knew God was present and giving him the words to speak to Balak (verses 5, 16). In the next chapter, the narrative says explicitly that "the Spirit of God came upon him" to inspire his next prophecy (Numbers 24:2).
We have a hard time understanding why God would work this closely with such an evil, unconverted man yet never appear to us or even seem to inspire us with fitting words, a skillful reply, or an instruction on what to do in a difficult circumstance. However, we must understand that God was in this man making a great witness of His power and glory. As hard as he tried, not even the most famous diviner of his day could curse God's people, and the word of Israel's blessings and their prophesied conquests gave notice that God's plan would go forward despite the efforts of the surrounding nations. Thus, for its impact, God deigns to speak through an unworthy vessel.
In the first paragraph (verses 19-20), the soothsayer admits his powerlessness before God. Since at least the days of Abraham, God had been foretelling what He would do for His people, and there was no way He would renege on it now that it was about to unfold! On such a pivotal part of His plan, God would not be forced or cajoled to change His mind.
The first half of verse 21 has had many wondering how it could be true, since the entire account of Israel in the wilderness is a sad commentary on how sinful Israel was! The idea here is not that God does not see their sin—the Pentateuch is full of God's observations about their iniquities—but that their wickedness has not reached the point that He would be persuaded to curse them.
Certainly, He would not be bribed into cursing His own people by their—and thus His—enemies! For, as the verse goes on to say, He is with Israel as their King! Why would He curse His own kingdom and people? And why, after going to the trouble of leading them out of Egypt with such a strong hand (verse 22), would He allow them to be defeated just before reaching their destination? This interpretation becomes clear in verse 23: There would be no sorcery or divination against Israel because of what God had done for them.
The final verse highlights Israel as a lion, a symbol of regal power and predatory mastery. This is an allusion to Jacob's prophecy concerning the tribes of Israel in Genesis 49:9: "Judah is a lion's whelp; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He bows down, he lies down as a lion; and as a lion, who shall rouse him?" In this case, Judah stands for the whole nation (as it later came to rule all Israel in David). A nation often resembles its leadership—and vice versa—so it can be said that under God's inspiration Balaam saw Israel through the lens of the royal tribe of Judah. This is especially interesting in light of the description of God as Israel's King in Numbers 23:21 and the upcoming prophecy of a great King to come.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The Prophecies of Balaam (Part One)