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They had spoken against God and Moses, and now they humbly speak to Moses that he would pray to God for them. He, that so often prayed for them unbidden, cannot but much more do it requested; and now obtains the means of their cure. It was equally in the power of God to remoye the serpents, and to heal their stinging; to have cured the Israelites by his word, and by his sign : but he finds it best for his people (to exercise their faith) that the serpents may bite, and their bitings may envenom, and that this venom may endanger the Israelites; and that they, thus affected, may seek to him for remedy, and seeking may find it from such means as should have no power but in signification ; that while their bodies were cured by the sign, their souls might be confirmed by the matter signified. A serpent of brass could no more heal than sting them. What remedy could their eyes give to their legs? Or what could a serpent of cold brass prevail against a living and fiery serpent? In this troublesome desert we are all stung by that fiery and old serpent: O Saviour, it is to thee we must look, and be cured; it is thou that wert their paschal lamb, their manna, their rock, their serpent. To all purposes dost thou vary thyself to thy Church, that we may find thee every where: thou art for our nourishment, refreshing, cure; as hereafter, so even now, all in all.
This serpent, which was appointed' for cure to Israel, at last stings them to death, by idolatrous abuse, What poison there is in idolatry, that makes even antidotes deadly!: As Moses therefore raised this serpent, so Hezekiah pulled it down: God commanded the raising of it, God approved the demolishing of it. Superstitious use can mar the very institutions of God; how much more the most wise and well-grounded devices of men! Num. xxi.
.. . OF BALAAM. Moab and Midian had been all this while standers by and lookers on. If they had not seen the pattern of their own ruin in these neighbours, it had never troubled them, to see the kings of the Amorites and Bashan to fall before Israel. Had not the Israelites camped in the plains of Moab, their victories had been no eyesore to Balac. Wicked men never care to observe God's judgments till themselves be touched : the fire of a neighbour's house would not so affect us, if it were not with the danger of our own : secure minds never startle till God come home to their very senses.
Balac and his Moabites had wit enough to fear, not wit enough to prevent judgment : they see an enemy in their borders, and yet take no right course for their safety. Who would not have looked, that they should have come to Israel with conditions of peace? Or why did they not think, “ Either Israel's God is stronger than ours, or he is not. If he be not, why are we afraid of him? If he be, why do we. not serve him? The same hand, which gives them victory, can give us protection.” Carnal men, that are secure of the vengeance of God ere it do come, are mastered with
it when it doth come; and not knowing which way to turn them, run forth at the wrong door. ,
The Midianites join with the Moabites in consultation, in aetion, against Israel: one would have thought, they should have looked for favour from Moses for Jethro's sake, which was both a prince of their country, and father-in-law to Moses; and either now, or not long before, was with Israel in the wilderness. Neither is it like, but that Moses having found forty years harbour amongst them, would have been (what he might) inclinable to favourable treaties with them ; but now they are so fast linked to Moab, that they will either sink or swim together. Entireness with wicked consorts is one of the strongest chains of hell, and binds us to a participation þoth of sin and punishment: an easy occasion will knit wicked hearts together in conspiracy against the Church of God. · Their errand is deyilish, Corne, curse Israel : that which Satan could not do by the swords of Og and Sehon, he will now try to effect by the tongue of Balaam. If either strength or policy would prevail against God's Church, it could not stand. And why should not we be as industrious to promote the glory of God, and bend both our hands and heads to the causes of the Almighty? When all helps fail Moab, the magician is sought to. It is a sign of a desperate cause, to make Satan either our counsellor, or our refuge..!
Why did they not send to Balaam to bless themselves, rather than to curse Israel?: It had been more easy to be defended from the hurt of their enemies, than to have their enemies laid open to be hurt by them. Pride and malice did not care so much for safety, as for conquest; it would not content them to escape Israel, if Israel may escape them ; it was not thank-worthy to save their own blood, if they did not spill the blood of others; as if their own prosperity had been nothing, if Israel also prospered. If there be one project worse than another, 'a wicked heart will find it out : nothing but destruction will content the malicious. · I know not whether Balaam were more famous, or Balac'more confident. If the king had not been persuaded of the strength of his charm, he had not sent so far, and paid so dear for it: now he trusts more to his enchantment, than to the forces of Moab and Midian; and, as if heaven and earth were in the power of a charmer's tongue, he saith, He that thou blessest is blessed ; and he whom thou cursest is cursed. Magic, through the permission of God, is powerful; for whatsoever the devil can do, the magician may do ; but it is madness to think either of them omnipotent. If either the curses of men, or the endeavours of the powers of darkness, should be effectual, all would be hell. No, Balac: so short is the power of thy Balaam, that neither thou, nor thy pro-, phet himself can avoid that curse, which thou wouldst have brought upon Israel. Had Balaam been a true prophet of God, this bolck assurance had been but just. Both those ancient seers and the prophets of the Gospel, have the ratification of God in heaven to their sentences on earth. Why have we less care of the blessa
ings, and less fear of the curses and censures of God's ministers? Who would not rather have Elisha's guard, than both the kings of Israel and Assyria ? He himself, as he had the angelical chariots and horsemen about him, so was he the chariots and horsemen of Israel. Why should our faith be less strong than superstition? Or why should God's agents have less virtue than Satan's ?
I should wonder to hear God speak with a false prophet, if I did not know, it hath been no rare thing with him (as with men) to bestow words, even where he will not bestow favour. Pharaoh, Abimelech, Nebuchadnezzar, receive visions from God': neither can I think this strange, when I hear God speaking to Satan in a question no less familiar than this of Balaam, Whence comest thou, Satan? Not the sound of the voice of God, but the matter which he speaks argues love: he may speak to an 'enemy; he speaks peace to none but his own. It is a vain brag, “ God hath spoken to me ;" so may he do to reprobatės or devils. But what said he? Did he say to my soul, I am thy salvation? Hath he indented with me that he will be my God, and I shall be his? I cannot hear this voice, and not live.
God heard all the consultation and message of these Moabites : these messengers could not have moved their foot or their tongue but in him ; and yet he, which asked Adam where he was, asks Balaam, What men are these? I have ever seen, that God loves to take occasion of proceeding with us from ourselves, rather than from his own immediate prescience. Hence it is, that we lay open our wants, and confess our sins, to him that knows both better than our own hearts, because he will deal with us from our own mouths. · The prevention of God forbids both his journey and his curse : and what if he had been suffered to go and curse? What corn had this wind shaken, when God meant to bless them? How many bulls have bellowed out execrations against this Church of God? What are we the worse? Yet I doubt, if we had been so much blessed, had not those Balaamitish curses been spent upon us. He that knows what waste wind the causeless curses of wicked men are, yet will not have Balaam curse Israel ; because he will not allow Balac so much encouragement in his opposition, as the conceit of this help. Or perhaps, if Balac thought this sorcerer a true prophet, God would not have his name, so much as in the opinion of the heathen, scandalized, in usurping it to a purpose which he meant not should succeed.
The hand of God is in the restraint of many evils, which we never knew to be towards us. The Israelites sat still in their tents; they little thought what mischief was brewing against them: without ever making them of counsel, God crosses the designs of their enemies. He, that keepeth Israel, is both a sure and a secret friend.
The reward of the divination had easily commanded the journey and curse of the covetous prophet, if God had not stayed him. How oft are wicked men curbed by a divine hand, even
in those sins which their heart stands to! It is no thank to, lewd men, that their wickedness is not prosperous. Whence is it, that the world is not over-run with evil, but from this; that men can. not be so ill as they would ?
The first entertainment of this message would make a stranger think Balaam wise and honest; he will not give a sudden answer, but craves leisure to consult with God, and promises to return the answer he shall receive. Who would not say, " This man is free from rashness, from partiality ?" Dissimulation is crafty, and able to deceive thousands. The words are good: when he comes to action, the fraud bewrays itself; for, both he insinuates his own forwardness, and casts the blame of the prohibition upon God, and, which is worse, delivers but half his answer : he says indeed, God refuses to give me leave to go; he says not, as it was, He charges me not to curse them, for they are blessed. So did Balaam deny, as one that wished to be sent for again. Perhaps a peremptory refusal had hindered his further solicitation. Concealment of some truths is sometimes as faulty as a denial. True fidelity is not niggardly in her relations.
Where wickedness meets with power, it thinks to command all the world, and takes great scorn of any repulse. So little is Balac discouraged with one refusal, that he sends so much the stronger message ; More princes, and more honourable. Oh that we could be so importunate for our good, as wicked men are for the compassing of their own designs! A denial doth but whet the desires of vehement suitors. Why are we faint in spiritual things, when we are not denied, but delayed ?.
Those, which are themselves transported with vanity and ambition, think that no heart hath power to resist these offers. Balac's princes thought they had struck it dead, when they had once mentioned promotion to great honour. Self-love makes them think they cannot be slaves, while others may be free; and that all the world would be glad to run on madding after their bait. Nature thinks it impossible to contemn honour and wealth ; and because too many souls are thus taken, cannot believe that any would escape. But let carnal hearts know, that there are those who can spit the world in the face, and say, Thy gold and silver perish with thee ; and that, in comparison of a good conscience, can tread under foot his best proffers, like shadows, as they are; and that can do as Balaam said.
How near truth and falsehood can lodge together! Here was piety in the lips, and covetousness in the heart. Who can any more regard good words, that hears Balaam speak so like a saint? A houseful of gold and silver may not pervert his tongue, his heart is won with less; for if he had not already swallowed the reward, and found it sweet, why did he again solicit God, in that which was peremptorily denied him? If his mind had not been bribed already, why did he stay the messengers ? why did he expect a change in God? why was he willing to feed them with hope of success, which had fed him with hope of recompence?
One prohibition is enough for a good man. While the delay of God doth but hold us in suspense, importunity is holy and seasonable ; but when once he gives a resolute denial, it is profane sauciness to solicit him. When we ask what we are bidden, our suits are not more vehement than welcome ; but when we beg prohibited' favours, our presumption is troublesome and abominable: no good heart will endure to be twice forbidden.
Yet this importunity hath obtained a permission ; but a permission worse than a denial. I heard God say before, Go not, nor curse them ; now he says, Go, but curse not; anon, he is angry that he did go. Why did he permit that which he forbad, if he be angry for doing that which he permitted ? Some things God permits with an indignation ; not for that he gives leave to the act, but that he gives a man over to his sin in the act; this sufferance implies not favour, but judgment : so did God bid Balaam to go, as Solomon bids the young man follow the ways of his own heart. It is one thing to like, another thing to suffer: Moses never approved those legal divorces, yet he tolerated them: God never liked Balaam's journey, yet he displeasedly gives way to it; as if he said, “ Well, since thou art so hot, set on this journey, be gone." And thus Balaam took it; else, when God after professed his displeasure for the journey, it had been a ready answer, " Thou commandedst me;" but herein his confession argues his guilt. Balaam's suit and Israel's quails had both one fashion of grant; in anger. How much better is it, to have gracious denials, than angry yieldings!.
A small persuasion heartens the willing : it booted not to bid the covetous prophet hasten to his way. Now he makes himself sure of success. His corrupt heart tells him, that, as God had relented in his licence to go, so he might perhaps in his licence to curse; and he saw how this curse might bless him with abundance of wealth : he'rose up early therefore, and saddled his ass. The night seemed long to his forwardness. Covetous men need neither clock nor bell to awaken them; their desires make them restless. Oh that we could with as much eagerness seek the true riches, which only can make us happy!
We, that see only the outside of Balaam, may marvel, why he that permitted him to go, afterward opposes his going ; but God, that saw his heart, perceived what corrupt affections carried him: he saw, that his covetous desires and wicked hopes grew the stronger, the nearer he came to his end : an angel is therefore sent to with-hold the hasty sorcerer. Our inward disposition is the life of our actions; according to that doth the God of Spirits judge us, while men censure according to our external motions. To go at all, when God had commanded to stay, was presumptu. aus; but to go with a desire to curse, made the act doubly sinful, and fetched an angel to resist it. It is one of the worthy employments of good angels, to make secret opposition to evil designs : many a wicked act have they hindered, without the knowledge of the agent. It is all one with the Almighty, to work by spirits and