The Vain Wish
Adapted from a Sermon by Horatius Bonar, 1867
"Let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his!" Numbers 23:10
We must not lose sight of the place where these words were spoken. It was in the land of Moab, and amid the wild desolation of its bare grey hills. It was close to the promised land—but not in it; quite within sight of it, yet still with the Jordan river and the Dead Sea between. It was a land of enemies; a land of false worship; a land whose king hated Israel, and was searching everywhere for curses to launch at him. From this foreign-land, and from these hills, around which the mists from the sea of death are gathering, and over which the gloom of the shadow of death is resting, this prayer comes up, "Let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his!"
Nor must we forget the man who spoke them. He is a Mesopotamian prophet; a man who, though a worshiper of false gods, knows much of the one true God. He is one who wants to serve two masters, and to make the best of both worlds; and, while serving Moab's Baal, would like to be in favor with Israel's Jehovah. He knows enough of Jehovah to stand in awe of his anger, and enough of Jehovah's people to want an inheritance among them. But, like Demas, “he is in love with this present world,” (2 Ti 4:10) and he covets the wages of unrighteousness. He would like to lose nothing of the good either of this world or the next.
He would like to pitch his tent among the good dwellings of Israel; but then, he would have to come out from his own nation, and break off with Moab; he must give up all of Balak's rewards, and give up honor, wealth, reputation, friends; and he can’t make up his mind to do this.
He would like religion, if it were not so costly. He would gladly have a home both in Israel and Moab, and be both Baal's and Jehovah's prophet; but, since he can’t so to speak have both heaven and earth just now, he comes up with the idea: “might I not enjoy them in succession, one after the other; Moab for now, and Israel afterwards? Could I not serve Baal just now, and Jehovah afterwards? Might I not go on living as I do now—but switch over at death?
This is the thought that is working its way through these words, "Let me die the death of the upright." He sees that the death of the righteous is the best, whatever his life may be, and from the gloomy depths of a "divided heart" he sends up this bitter cry.
But, this morning, it is with the wish or prayer itself that we have especially to do.
(1.) In the first place, we will look into what it actually means,
(2.) and in the second we will look into what state of feeling it indicates.
1. And so, in the first place, What does it mean?
He knew that he had to die, and that, after death, he must live forever. He had seen men die; he had seen the men of Aram, and Midian, and Moab die; but it was without hope; and he had seen the mourners go about the streets for them—but they grieved as those who had no hope. And he does not want to die their death.
He had seen, or at least heard of, other deaths, for he evidently knew much of Israel and Israel's history. He had heard of the deaths of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in former days; and, it may be, he had heard of Aaron's death on Mount Hor, (Num 33:38) just a short time before; and so he knew how the righteous die. "Let me, then, die their death." Dimly, and from afar, he had read the joyful truth, afterwards brought nearer and into fuller light—"Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord" (Rev 14:13)
But the words really mean more than this; because notice how he speaks not merely of death—but of something beyond death—the last end of the righteous. This is not just a repetition of the other, “Let me die the death of the upright.” These are indeed parallel thoughts— but there is a progression; this second part contains more than the first; and by "my end" the prophet meant resurrection—a truth far more widely known, at least among the nations in any way linked with the patriarchs and patriarchal traditions, than is generally realized.
Balaam's prayer was, "Let me share the death of the righteous; and let me share his resurrection too." What a full and all-inclusive prayer! There is no vagueness about the object of the wish, whatever there may be about the feelings or behavior of the one who uttered it. It is a prayer for us to join in; and, though once the prayer of an unbeliever, it may well be the prayer of a believing man.
2. In the second place, what state of feeling does it indicate?
It wasn’t in pretended earnestness nor idle flippancy that these words were uttered. They were sincere. Indeed, the Syrian prophet surely felt what he was saying. Compelled by the almighty Spirit to look into Israel's future, and utter glorious things concerning it, he was roused up to desire such a future for himself, to eagerly desire such a glory and such an immortality as what awaited Israel when the Star of Jacob (Num 24:17) should arise, bringing morning, and gladness, and an incorruptible inheritance.
Sick at heart, and weary of the hollowness of his own heathenism, and all that it could give him, he cries aloud, from the depths of a dissatisfied heart, "Let me die the death of the upright." Disappointed and sorrowful, he sees the eternal brightness in the distance, with all its attraction, and beauty, and unchangeableness, and in the bitterness of his spirit he cries out, "Would God that I were there!"
The feeling soon passes off—but while it lasts it is real. But, with all its reality, it leads to nothing. It leaves him where it found him—amid the mountains of Moab—as earthly, as covetous, as carnal as before. He would gladly have the death of the upright—but he sees nothing desirable in the life of the upright. He would gladly have Israel's inheritance—but he has no wish to be a worshiper of Israel's God.
Balaam's wish is a very common one, both in its nature and in its fruitlessness. Sometimes it is a mere passing wish, brought about by weariness and trouble; at other times it is a deep-breathed prayer; but, in both cases, it is too often ineffective, and leads to nothing.
Men and Women, young as well as old, sometimes get tired of life—sick of the world and its vanities. Sometimes they realize that it really has nothing for them after all; and that, even if it had, none of its pleasures can last. When it has done all it can, it still leaves them with a troubled conscience, an aching head, and an empty heart.
It makes promises—but cannot keep them; it gives gifts to its lovers—but they perish with the using; it strews roses in the path of its admirers—but this is only to cover its hideousness; it prepares its parties and banquets—but these are to intoxicate and poison; it spreads out its thrones and splendors, its costly gems and pearls, its gold and silver, its purple and scarlet, its gaiety and splendor; but these fill up nothing—they bind up no wounds, they knit no broken ties, they stop no bleeding hearts, they heal no striken affection; they leave sorrow still sorrow, and pain still pain, and tears still tears, and death still death, and the grave still the scene of farewells, and the dwelling of corruption.
Is it astonishing, then, that the afflicted spirit should at times fling all such earthly mockeries aside, and groan out the fervent prayer of the Syrian prophet, "Let me die the death of the upright?" Have you not often done so? And have you not added, "Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest!" (Ps 55:6)
In too many cases, this is a mere transient and sentimental wish. It leads to no action, no result. It vanishes like a bright rainbow from a dark cloud, and there is no change. Is it to be so with you? You hope to enter heaven; you wish for a happy death at last; but will mere wishes save you? Will wishes pluck out death's sting, or conquer the grave, or make you a partaker of the resurrection of the just? You can't wish yourself into heaven, or out of hell. Your wishes will do nothing for you, either here or in eternity. If you are hungry, a wish won't give you bread; or, if you are thirsty, a wish won't quench your thirst; or, if suffering, a wish won't soothe your pain; or, if dying, a wish won't bring back health into your pale face and faded eye.
Yet, a wish may be a good beginning. All fruit begins with buds and blossoms; and though these often come to nothing, yet sometimes they end in much. And, therefore, I would reason with you; I would plead with you. That wish may be the beginning of your eternal life. It may lead to much if you will let it lead you on! Do not trust to it, as if it made you safe and right; yet do not despise it, as if it were nothing.
It may be like the angel that came to Lot to lead him out of Sodom! “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Heb 13:2) Yield to it, and let it lead you on. Let it lead you out of the world. Let it lead you out of self. Let it lead you to the cross. Let it lead you to the blood of sprinkling, the fountain opened for sin and for uncleanness. Let it lead you straight, and right away, just as you are—to Christ Jesus himself! Let it lead you up to the mercy-seat, where the blood speaks pardon, and the High Priest waits to bless. Let it do all this now.
Do not allow that wish, however faint, to die away. It is the touch of the Spirit within you. It is the voice of Christ, saying, "Come to me." (Matt 11:28) It is the call of the Father, yearning over his prodigal, and beseeching him to be reconciled and blessed.
But a prayer like this, as it points at both death and resurrection, specially speaks of him who is the resurrection and the life. Go to him with your longings for the death and resurrection of the righteous.
Go to him with that weary spirit, he will give it rest;
with that empty heart, he will fill it;
with that aching head, he will soothe it;
with that troubled mind, he will calm it;
with that faded eye, he will brighten it. He will give you "a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning." (Is 61:3)
Go to him with your sorrow, he will turn it into joy.
Go to him with your death, he will transform it into life.
Go to him with your sins, he will forgive them frankly.
Go to him with your stony heart, he will take it out of you, and give you a heart of flesh.
Go to him with your chains, he will snap them off.
Go to him with your hunger, he will feed you; with your thirst, he will give you drink.
Go to him with every burden, and care, and weakness—he will remove them all.
And so, do not rest in a wish, a prayer, however good. That will not save you. Balaam went as far as that, Demas went farther, Judas farther still; yet they were lost. Do not be like these. Break off with sin at once. Break with the world at once. Do not linger any longer on the mountains of Moab or the plains of Midian.
Enter Israel's land. Pitch your tents in the midst of the beloved nation. Say with Ruth, when she left Moab, "For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you" (Ruth 1:16)
You know that you must die. It is inevitable. Don’t dismiss that subject with a wish or a hurried prayer. Do not ignore it, or treat it sentimentally, or seek to diminish its solemnity.
Look death full in the face. Take up Balaam's prayer. It is a good one; only let it be carried out. Die in Jesus, and you die well. "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord." (Rev 14:13) But the dying in Jesus must be started by the living in Jesus. Only this will do. Live in him—and it will not be hard to die.
"Let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his!"