As the Israelites made their way up the Transjordan region en route to their entrance into Canaan, they defeated the Amorite kings, Sihon and Og (Num. 21:21–35). The Hebrews moved farther north and camped in the plains of Moab on the eastern side of Jordan across from Jericho.
Balak, a Moabite king, was exceedingly fearful of this great body of people. Accordingly, the pagan ruler sent for a prophet at Pethor by the Euphrates River, some four hundred miles away. His name was Balaam, a man who would live for millennia in prophetic infamy (2 Pet. 2:15; Jude 11; Rev. 2:14).
It was Balak’s intention that the covetous Balaam could be bribed to curse (i.e., pronounce a devastating curse upon) the Israelite people, thus thwarting further conquests. But the Lord nullified that plan. Instead, Balaam was forced to bless the Hebrews (Num. 22–23).
Numbers chapter twenty-four is remarkable. It contains a series of prophecies uttered by Balaam as “the Spirit of God came upon him” (Numb. 24:2). He tells of a people (Israel) who will achieve victory and prosperity because of their relationship with the Almighty. He then looks to the distant future and amazingly declares.
I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near.
There shall come a star 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 tumult (Num. 24:17 — ASV).
For centuries this passage has been surrounded by controversy. Does the mysterious prophecy have a messianic thrust, or is there some other significance?
Various views have been suggested by respected Bible students. Since the text is not referenced in the New Testament, there is some latitude for difference of opinion among those who reverence the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures.
Martin Luther denied any messianic application due to the flawed character of Balaam. Would God use a devious person for such an exalted theme? The reformer apparently overlooked the fact that Balaam, for a special purpose, had come under the influence of “the Spirit of God” (Num. 24:2; cf. also Jn. 11:49–52).
It is further alleged that the prophecy would have had no significance to Balaam. This objection is meaningless:
“The faithful and holy prophets of God themselves did not always comprehend the full bearings of the predictions which the Spirit of God delivered through them (cf. 1 Pet. 1:11)” (Espin and Thrupp 1981, 747).
Some restrict the prophecy to King David alone (Smick 1962, 144).
David and the Messiah
Other students contend that Balaam’s prophecy had a more immediate application to David, but an ultimate fulfillment in the Messiah.
Adam Clarke entertained this view and in support he cited the most influential Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, in his paraphrase of the text.
I shall see him, but not now. This is David. I shall behold him, but not nigh. This is the king Messiah. A Star shall come out of David. This is David. And a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel. This is the king Messiah. And shall smite the corners of Moab. This is David, (as it is written, 2 Sam. viii.2: And he smote Moab, casting them down to the ground. — And shall destroy all the children of Sheth. This is the king Messiah, of whom it is written (Psa. lxxii.8) He shall have dominion from sea to sea (n.d., 699).
Others have viewed the matter similarly. C. F. Keil wrote:
The fulfillment of this prophecy commenced with the subjugation of the Edomites by David (2 Sam. viii.14; 1 Kgs. xi.15, 16; 1 Chron. xviii.12, 13), but it will not be completed till “the end of the days,” when all the enemies of God and His Church will be made the footstool of Christ (Ps. cx.1sqq.) (1980, III.194).
Professor Gordon J. Wenham, lecturer in Semitic studies at the Queen’s University of Belfast, declared:
If the primary fulfillment of Balaam’s prophecies was in the rise of David and the defeat of his foes, a further fulfillment may surely be seen in Jesus, the son of David, who has conquered sin and death, and now reigns “until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Cor. 15:25) (1981, 183).
Others entertain rather mixed convictions about the matter. One scholar has written:
From the early synagogue and church to the present day there have been those who have held that the ultimate reference of this passage is to the Messiah. It is doubtful that this text was originally understood messianically, and whether it can, in isolation from the rest of Scripture, be read in that way. It surely does give some of the first glints of messianic hope, even if only in a highly indirect form, and, when placed in the context of the whole canon of Scripture, some adumbration of the future victory of God such as came to be represented in the Messiah may be seen (Ashley 1993, 503).
Others are more decisive in their conviction of the issue. Ronald B. Allen, professor of Hebrew Scripture at Western Baptist Seminary, says: “The prophecy of the star out of Jacob and the scepter out of Israel is a specific prophecy of the coming messianic Ruler, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Again: “[W]e believe this text speaks unmistakably of the coming of the Messiah” (1990, 909; emphasis added).
The specific details of the prophecy are fascinating. Concerning the object of his prophecy, the star out of Jacob, consider these points from Balaam’s oracle:
“I see him, but not now.”
The vision is not literal, but prophetic. The time period of the terminal subject of the vision was not contemporary, but future. In fact, the following line states that the person “is not near.” He is in the distant future.
“Out of Jacob”
The object of the vision will “come out of Jacob,” thus be a person, a man (as reflected in the masculine pronouns), and a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (cf. Gen. 12:3; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14).
Moreover, he was represented symbolically as a star. The term “star” could be used as a metaphor for regal power (cf. Isaiah 13:10; 14:12). In certain texts Jesus was portrayed prophetically as a “great light” for the illumination of humanity (Isa. 9:2; cf. Mt. 4:14–16).
The Lord himself claimed to be the “light of the world” (Jn. 8:12). In John’s conclusion to the book of Revelation, he depicts Christ as “the root and the offspring of David, the bright, the morning star” (Rev. 22:16b). Some see a connection between this text and Balaam’s prophecy (Mounce 1998, 409).
In the next line, the word “scepter” reveals that Jacob’s offspring will not only be a luminary, but a royal figure as well, suggesting his authority. The scepter is the symbol of a ruler’s power.
In Genesis chapter forty-nine, in foretelling the destiny of his sons just before his death, Jacob announced:
“The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the obedience of the peoples be” (Gen. 49:10).
The connection between these two prophecies, as Merrill observes, “is unmistakable” (1985, 244).
Further, the writer of the book of Hebrews, quoting from Psalm 45, represents God as speaking to his Son, saying,
“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; and the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom” (Psa. 1:8).
Not only is the Lord depicted as a ruler with his scepter, he is a perfect ruler with absolute “uprightness.”
It should be emphasized that according to the New Testament, Christ is reigning now (cf. 1 Cor. 15:25). His administration does not await a future, earthly millennial reign antecedent to the second coming.
Destruction of enemies
Finally, there is the picture of the destruction of the king’s adversaries, represented under the figures of Israel’s ancient enemies—the Moabites and Edomites (Num. 24:18ff). Ellicott observes:
“Moab and Edom represented symbolically the enemies of Christ and of His Church, and as such will eventually be subdued by the King of kings (cf. Ps. 60:8)” (1959, 548).
The Lord’s enemies will be vanquished either by his life-changing gospel (Mk. 16:15–16) or by his judgment of wrath (Rev. 19:11–16).
It is also worthy of note that the early “church fathers” attributed a messianic sense to Numbers 24:17. Justin Martyr (ca. 100–165) argued:
“And that He [Christ] should arise like a star from the seed of Abraham, Moses showed beforehand when he said, ‘A star shall arise from Jacob, and a leader from Israel’” (Dialogue With Trypho CVI; ANF 1.252).
Irenaeus (ca. 130–200) associated the star of Balaam’s prophecy with that which the wise men from the East followed to Bethlehem (Against Heresies IX.2; ANF 1.422–423).
Origen (ca. 185–254) contended it probable that the Magi (also from the East) were familiar with Balaam’s prophecies and the text regarding the star. He said, “Moses also wrote,” then he cited the text from Numbers (Against Celsus 1.LX; ANF 4.422–423; cf. 5.519; 7:112, 239)
The testimony of the “fathers,” while not conclusive on its own, does demonstrate an ancient conviction regarding this passage shared by those who lived in the early post-apostolic years.
There also is evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls that the Jews of the Qumran community associated the star and the scepter of Numbers 24 with “the final battle of good and evil” (Allen, 911).
In view of the collective evidence, biblical and otherwise, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that Numbers 24:17 has a messianic thrust.