The prepared text of today’s sermon at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church for the Fourth Sunday of Advent is below. (As usual, skip the text with the strike-through…that’s there for organizational purposes.) You can find the sermon audio for this oracle about a star from Jacob at this link. Next Sunday we will have a service of readings and carols. The readings are: Luke 1:5-25, 26-38, 39-56, 57-80, Matt 1:18-25, Luke 2:1-21, 22-38, Matt 2:1-12. I’ll also have a short Christmas sermon in the service. On Epiphany of the Lord Sunday, Jan 6, I’m planning to preach on that Matt 2:1-12 text. If you are looking to listen to a Christmas sermon for a devotional during this week, there are many on this site. Have a merry Christmas.
Last Sunday we talked about how expensive the first three oracles were. Each time Balak built seven altars and on each one he sacrificed a bull and a ram—the most expensive sacrificial animals. This fourth one we will look at today is a bonus oracle. That is, it is for free. If Balaam were to advertise his oracle services, he might say: “Buy three and get one free.” For us as Christians, it is the pattern of death and resurrection. But before we jump too quickly to the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, let’s remember that His resurrection is also a part of the final judgment. The coming final judgment isn’t good news for everyone. Indeed, Balaam’s oracles follow the ancient prophetic pattern of three plus one. In this pattern, the fourth oracle packs the greatest punch. Often they are oracles of judgment, thus the fourth oracle speaks of utter destruction. In other words, the fourth oracle points to the final judgment. And often in this ancient prophetic pattern of three plus one, the plus one oracle has four parts. In other words, the fourth oracle itself is really four oracles put together. This is also true for our passage today. Numbers 24:15 says, “And he took up his discourse and said….” Numbers 24:20 says, “Then he looked on Amalek and took up his discourse and said….” Numbers 24:21 says, “And he looked on the Kenite, and took up his discourse and said….” And Numbers 24:23 says, “And he took up his discourse and said….” This fourth oracle is really four oracles put together. Of course if we add the first three expensive oracles with these four free ones we get a total of seven oracles. But there is one more thing that I want to highlight before we read the whole passage and that is the way that it begins. It says, “And now, behold, I am going to my people” (Numbers 24:14). This is a euphemism for saying that he is going to die soon. Thus this is the final oracle of the world renowned prophet Balaam. In the ANE, final discourses were given a special prophetic significance like the final speeches by Jacob and Moses. And in all three of these cases (Gen 49:1, Deut 31:29, and Num 24:14) the Hebrew word meaning “in the latter days” is used while introducing the poetic oracle. It is the opposite of the word translated “in the beginning” to open Genesis. In other words, this is an oracle about the end times. Hear the word of the Lord:
This oracle began to be fulfilled in Old Testament times, but points to the reign of Christ Jesus.
This oracle began to be fulfilled in Old Testament times. Looking into the distant future, Balaam sees King David of the tribe of Judah. Jacob’s poetic oracle had said something like, “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” (Gen 49:10). This much is clear: the picture is of a king from the tribe of Judah to whom the surrounding defeated nations would submit. And now Balaam says, “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.” Then Balaam mentions the defeat of Edom and Seir. The idea here is that Israel would defeat all of their enemies and the king of Israel would exercise dominion over them. King David would do just that to Moab and Edom/Seir. In the next discourse, Balaam says that the Amalekites would be utterly destroyed. The text we looked at last Sunday mentioned Agag, which is the name of Amalekite kings (Num 24:7). One day King Saul would kill all of the Amalekites in one region, except Agag the king (1 Sam 15:8). The prophet Samuel would then hack Agag to pieces (1 Sam 15:33ff). Saul’s failure to put Agag to the sword led the prophet Samuel to anoint David as king. The surviving Amalekites would continue to vex Israel for centuries. In the book of Esther, the villain was Haman the Agagite—meaning that Haman descended from an Amalekite king. In the third discourse, Balaam looks to the Kenites whose secure home up in the hills would eventually fail to be enough to protect them. He says that Asshur will take them away captive. The idea is that a mighty empire would take the Kenites into captivity, thus Asshur is a reference to the Assyrians who one day did just that. But even the Assyrians that God used to defeat the Kenites weren’t safe for the fourth discourse says that ships would come from Kittim and the Kittim would destroy them. The Kittim are the Greeks who under Alexander the Great would defeat the remnants of the Assyrian empire. (Thus Balaam looked into the distant future and saw things that would begin to be fulfilled in Old Testament times.)
But what Balaam saw finds its ultimate fulfillment in the reign of Christ Jesus. That’s why we as Christians read “a star shall come out of Jacob” and immediately think of Jesus. Balaam caught a glimpse of the latter days that began as the angels announced the impending conceptions of the prophet John the Baptist and the king Jesus Christ. In those days, the Jewish people understood this oracle to be speaking about the coming Christ. After all, the Jewish people were living under the tyranny of the Roman Empire’s vassal, King Herod, who was not Jewish but an Edomite. That’s why they would read these verses and immediately think of the coming Christ. And while Jesus wasn’t the military conqueror that many desired to see, He would do better than crush the head of Moab—the seed of the serpent. Jesus would crush the head of the serpent Satan himself through Jesus’ death and his resurrection on the third day. Therefore, He is the one from Jacob who exercises dominion over all the earth and who is coming again in glory. (As Balaam asks, “Alas, who shall live when God does this?”)
For this is an oracle about the reign of Christ until He has put all of His enemies under His feet (cf. Psa 110:1; 1 Cor 15:25).
None of His enemies shall live when He comes again. It will be the end for those who, like the people of Moab, sought to curse Christ’s people. It will be the end for those who, like the people of Edom, should’ve treated Christ’s people as brothers but instead treated His people as enemies. It will be the end for those who, like the Amalekites, made it their life’s mission to attack Christ’s people. It will also be the end for those who, like the Kenites, sometimes showed kindness to Christ’s people (cf. 1 Sam 15:6) but trusted in their strongholds to save them. It will even be the end for those who, like the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans, brought God’s judgment on other nations including His judgment on Israel. All those who refuse to willingly submit to the reign of Christ, He will put under His feet and He will send them to join Satan for eternity. And, thanks be to God, it will be the end for the last enemy of Christ’s people—death itself—for it will be the final resurrection for those who trust in Him. (Who shall live when God does this? None of His enemies shall live—only the righteous-by-faith in Christ Jesus shall live.)
The news that He is coming in judgment is good news for those who trust in Jesus. Yes, Balaam’s vision is bad news for the nations but it was good news for Israel. And Jesus himself is the star from Jacob and the Israel of God. Thus the news of Christ’s coming again is good news of relief and victory for those who are suffering persecution and oppression for their faith in Him. Indeed, Christ’s return is good news for people of all nations who trust in Him for their salvation from sin and death. It is probably not a coincidence that the wise men from a foreign land followed a star to find the young Christ when He came the first time. They understood something of His significance as the king of the Jews who would exercise dominion over the entire earth. Nor is it a coincidence that even today we pay attention to the prophetic word as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts—to paraphrase 2 Peter 1:19—for the morning star is Jesus Christ. Thus we look with eyes of faith to His coming as to the rise of a star in the sky. And until He comes, we tell people about Jesus and the good news of forgiveness in His name. For if it weren’t for His forgiveness, we too would be numbered among the Moabites and Amalekites without the hope of mercy. But as it is we are counted among the people of God by faith in a king who was conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary. Thanks be to God. Amen.