December 12, 2016
by Iain Duguid
In Balaam’s final oracle he announced that a star would come out of Jacob and a scepter out of Israel, a great king who would definitively crush all of her enemies (Numbers 24:17–19). In that day, pride of place would not be sufficient to keep Israel’s adversaries safe: the Amalekites, who were “first among the nations,” would come to ruin (24:20). A secure location would be no defense either: the Kenites would be flushed out of their rocky lair (24:21). Even those whom God used to destroy those nations would themselves ultimately go down in defeat at the hands of others—the Assyrians who would overcome and enslave the Kenites would themselves be subdued in due time by a warlike power from across the sea (24:24). Meanwhile, those who brought low the Assyrians would themselves come to ruin in the end (24:24). Who can endure this great day of the Lord’s wrath (24:23)?
This final oracle thus spans the entire sweep of human history. Nation after nation will rise to world domination and then fall to defeat. But when the messianic King arrives on the scene, no people other than Israel, the nation set apart, will survive the final day of destruction. At the end of all things, when all of human history has played out its course of changing fortunes, the Lord’s people will be the only ones left standing.
If it is true that Israel as God’s people has a unique relationship with the Lord that means both their present blessing and final security, then they are indeed to be envied. If the Lord has chosen Israel to be his own and has promised to be with them in the past, the present, and the future, then Balaam’s wish is understandable: “Let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his!” (23:10). When you even out the merely temporary fluctuations in the fortunes of people and nations, there are ultimately only two fates offered in this world. There is the Lord’s blessing leading to a flourishing life and an enviable death or the Lord’s curse leading to defeat and ultimate destruction.
Yet the coming of the star that Balaam foresaw wasn’t entirely what you might have predicted. At the birth of Jesus, a heavenly star indeed rose over Israel to mark where the infant King lay. Yet the baby King lay in a manger, not in a palace, and those drawn by the star were not Israelites but foreign Magi, students of signs and portents as was Balaam, who came from the east, Balaam’s former home (Matthew 2:1–12). King Herod, an Edomite by descent, was not instantly crushed by the coming of this new King but continued his rule, slaughtering scores of innocent children in Bethlehem. The rising of this star in Christ’s first coming did not yet bring about the total destruction of the nations, for Jesus had come first to be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to . . . Israel” (Luke 2:32). Yet in another way, his coming was exactly what Balaam anticipated: those who, like the Magi, blessed the new Israel, Jesus, and submitted to him found a blessing for themselves. Meanwhile, those who cursed this new Israel found themselves under a curse, just as the Lord had promised Abraham (24:9; see Genesis 12:3). What is more, the day is yet coming when God’s final judgment will be delivered on Herod and on all those who stand against him and his anointed.
Israel’s Blessing Fulfilled in Christ
What that means, then, is that these oracles for Israel are precious promises for us. Some Christians believe that Old Testament promises that speak of “Israel” are only intended for ethnic Israel and not for the church. For them, Balaam’s prophecies speak of a glorious future for the physical descendants of Israel, but they would call any attempt to apply these promises to the church “replacement theology.” I would suggest that this is a misunderstanding of what the Scriptures teach about Israel. It is not that the church has replaced Israel in the New Testament so much as that Old Testament Israel—ethnic Israel—finds its true goal and fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is himself the star of Jacob, the Israel of God.
In Jesus, the star of Jacob has risen for us and for our salvation.
In the person of Jesus, therefore, the true Israel has arrived, and all those who come to God by faith in him—Jews and Gentiles alike—become God’s children and are thereby incorporated into this new people of God (John 1:11, 12). In Christ, Jews and Gentiles together become the true heirs of the promise given to Abraham, his spiritual descendants (Galatians 3:29). Outside of Christ, on the other hand, there is no longer any true Israel. It is those who are in Christ who are the true chosen people: a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God (1 Peter 2:9). We have been chosen by God for exactly the same special relationship that he had with his Old Testament people. In his incredible grace and mercy, God chose us before the foundation of the world, so that we might be blessed in Christ with every spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1:3, 4). He has rescued us from the final judgment that awaits all those who remain outside his people and has given us the glorious inheritance of a relationship with himself. In Jesus, the star of Jacob has risen for us and for our salvation.
If this is so, then we may have the assurance of the Lord’s settled purpose to bless us in Jesus Christ. No one can rob us of that blessing, and nothing can prevent us from inheriting its promises. All those who trust in Christ and are united to him by faith will die the death of the righteous, for Christ’s righteousness is credited to them, exactly as if it were their own. Whatever life throws at each of us, it must therefore always be “well with my soul,” for Christ has died in our place and is now risen from the dead. If we keep our eyes on that reality, then none of the traumatic rises and falls in our temporal fortunes that are an inevitable part of life in this fallen world can ever completely shake us. We will be settled on a solid rock, established on a firm foundation. People may come and go: some will let us down and hurt us, while others, no matter how faithful, will ultimately die and leave us on our own. But God will still be there. Fortunes may be made and lost, houses may burn, stock markets may crash, and cars will inevitably rust. Yet in Christ, we have an inheritance that no misfortune can touch. At the end of the day, only God remains, and those upon whom his blessing rests.
Ironically, though, Balaam never found that blessing. Even though he declared that he wanted to “die the death of the righteous” (23:10, NIV), once again his life didn’t match up to his words. If Balaam truly wanted to die the death of the righteous, the way to do so was to join the righteous during his lifetime. The Magi of Jesus’s day showed the way: he should have come to Israel’s God and laid his treasures at his feet. Had Balaam been willing to say goodbye to Balak and (more pertinently) to abandon his passion for Balak’s silver and gold, he could have received what he desired. The doors in Israel were open to aliens and strangers who wanted to abandon their old religions and join themselves to Israel and to her God. Sadly, though, money was more important to Balaam than achieving the death of the righteous. As a result, he stayed among the Midianites who opposed Israel and Israel’s God, and he died by the sword in their midst (31:8).
Come to Christ now, as the Magi did at his incarnation, and submit your life to his lordship.
It is a sobering reality to think that many people say they want to die at peace with God but are not willing to pursue peace with God while they live. Being reconciled to the Lord is not something we can put off until a more convenient time, for in all probability such a time will never come and we will die still in our sins, rebels against the Lord of Heaven and earth. A day is coming when the Star of Jacob will come to crush all such rebels and enemies. When Jesus returns to this earth, it will be as a warrior riding out for the final battle in which he will crush all of his enemies (Revelation 19:11). If we want to spend eternity under God’s blessing as part of his people, today is the day to enter into his favor. Come to Christ now, as the Magi did at his incarnation, and submit your life to his lordship. Ask for his forgiveness to cover your sins; receive his righteousness to clothe your spiritual nakedness. The door is open today for everyone who will come in and bow the knee willingly to the Lord to receive his blessing. So come, enter into his people. As you do so, you will receive his blessing, find peace in the midst of a tumultuous world, and be able look forward with joy to the day when his final victory will be accomplished.
This piece is adapted from Iain Duguid, Numbers: God’s Presence in the Wilderness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 286–289. Used with permission of the publisher.