A Sermon by Rev. Kurt Horigan AsplundhPreached in Bryn Athyn December 4, 1994
Our text is the blessing of Balaam upon the camp of Israel:
“How lovely are your tents, 0 Jacob! your dwellings, 0 Israel! Like valleys that stretch out, like gardens by the riverside, like aloes planted by the Lord, like cedars beside the waters” (Numbers 24:5,6).
Before the Lord’s coming, the world was endangered. Mankind’s evils had accumulated. The world was in danger of being overwhelmed by the hells. In those days, people actually were possessed by spirits. In ways unknown to a skeptical modern age, the spiritual world influenced people’s lives. Evil spirits of hell could inspire terror or insanity, or even cause death.
One reason the Lord came on earth was to prevent this destruction of the human race. His love was to save, not destroy. Though people had brought evil upon themselves and deserved punishment and death, the Lord’s love longed for their salvation. Contrast the nature of the Lord’s love with human love: people quickly anger and seek retribution. Once, for example, as the Lord traveled through Samaria toward Jerusalem with His disciples, the Samaritans refused to receive them. James and John said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” That is how they would treat their enemies. The Lord rebuked them. “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them” (Luke 9:52-56).
How great the Lord’s mercy is in comparison with our own. Instead of seeking retribution against those who have sinned against Him, as we might against those who offend us, He seeks their protection. He is, literally, a shield for us, and by His advent came to stand between us and the fury of the hells.
This was true 2000 years ago; it continues to be true today for each one of us. We do not know the kind of spirit we are of. Often it is the spirit of hell that rules and would lead us to eternal destruction were it not for the Lord’s merciful protection.
The account of Balaam has direct application to our own life. Just as King Balak of Moab conspired to bring destruction on the camp of Israel, calling upon Balaam the seer to curse the tribes, so the hells lurk at the edges of our life, yearning to accuse and condemn us for our faults and evils. Just as the Lord protected Israel from destruction, so He preserves our life no matter how unworthy we may be.
The Heavenly Doctrine teaches that we are born a hell, though not for hell but for heaven. It is of the mercy of the Lord that our lives can be protected from destruction until the Lord makes His advent in our lives and a new spirit moves us.
Balaam, the evil prophet of Syria, came to curse the Israelites passing through Moab. The Heavenly Doctrine reveals what Balaam could have done if there had been no Divine intervention. He could have revealed the inner evil of Israel and by a curse “would have stirred up turbulent hordes [of spirits] against that nation …” (SD 1778). These spirits would have administered punishments that would have destroyed them. However, the occult powers of the Syrian wizard were strictly controlled by the Lord – even turned into a powerful prophecy of His advent. For it was from Balaam’s prediction of the star arising out of Jacob that wise men from the east knew of the Lord’s birth.
Balaam longed for the honors and riches promised by Balak if only he would curse Israel, yet he could not curse; he could only bless them. Three times Balaam went into the mountains overlooking the camp, to the sacred places of Baal. Seven altars were built and bullocks and rams sacrificed. But as Balaam stood beside the smoking altars and scanned the camp of Israel below, no curses came from his lips.
At this, King Balak’s ire rose. He struck his hands together in frustration and said to Balaam: “I called you to curse my enemies, and look, you have bountifully blessed them … three times!” (Num. 24: 10). Balaam’s frustration was as deep as the king’s. It was no love for Israel prompting his blessings. It was the power of the Lord overruling his evil intentions. What happened here is a prime example of the Lord’s power to preserve us from condemnation and destruction at the hands of evil spirits.
Israel was extremely vulnerable to an assault from hell. This is revealed in the Heavenly Doctrine. It is said that there were things in them that were “nefarious, idolatrous, and filthy” (SD 2354). In spite of the high cause to which they had been called, the people of Israel were flawed. Their hearts were wicked. Add to this that the spirits of hell love to discover evil and punish it in others. “They anxiously search for whatever evil they can find,” we are told, and “when they find evil, claim the right over it” to punish and destroy those souls. A curse upon Israel by Balaam would have unleashed the fury of the hells upon them. It would be as though Balaam were a knowledgeable guide leading these armies of hell to the camp of an unsuspecting enemy, pointing out their weaknesses and allowing the spirits to rush in for the slaughter. “The world of spirits before the Lord’s Advent was of this character,” we read, “but after His Advent … [spirits] … were powerfully restrained in this respect” (SD 1778).
All this may seem remarkable to us. We barely reflect about the existence of the spiritual world, still less that it has a powerful influence on our lives. Until the Heavenly Doctrine was given, the destructive power of the hells was unexplained.
There is intimate communication between the spiritual and natural worlds. As to our mind or spirit we are in the spiritual world and subject to the influences of that world. Because of this association every evil carries a consequent punishment, every good its own reward. When we allow our minds to be carried into evils, we invite punishments from the spiritual world, suffering agonies of many kinds. On the other hand, in pursuit of orderly uses, we can be rewarded by angelic spirits with a sense of peace and trust.
In the incident of Balaam, the Lord was unwilling to have the evils of Israel discovered and brought to the attention of evil spirits. Therefore he did not allow Balaam to curse the camp. Evils certainly were there in the hearts of the people – and could be discovered and revealed by such a seer as Balaam – but they were kept concealed for good reason. Israel had been called by the Lord to serve a great use. Though evil at heart, this nation served to represent the church on earth, and was the Lord’s footstool. This, coupled with the fact that the Lord would be born among this people, provided the cause for which Israel was spared.
The prophet’s parting words to King Balak were a warning: “I will advise you what this people will do to your people in the latter days” (Num. 24:14). This warning went beyond the political relationships between Israel and Moab and Israel’s ascendancy over the nations of Moab and Edom. Moab means also a spiritual Moab, a hellish society with intent to destroy the goods of the church. The parable of this prophecy was addressed to a congregation of spirits as well as to the king and his commanders. It was a clear promise that their days of unrestrained evil were numbered. The Lord Himself would come to seek them out in every corner of their domain: “A Scepter shall rise out of Israel and batter the brow of Moab, and destroy all the sons of Sheth” (Num. 24:17). The coming Messiah would reign triumphant over the powers of hell. As Jesus later said to Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).
The very destruction threatening Israel at that moment was what the Lord would come to earth to prevent. By His birth and life on earth He would face the hells in combat, conquer them, and forever govern their influence.
The account of Balaam shows how the Lord guards our life. We can see that the unsuspecting Israelites were shielded from disaster by the Lord in spite of their evils. They did not know that Balaam stood with Balak in the hills above their camp, eyeing them in repeated efforts to bring the curse of hell upon them. No more do we reflect that evil spirits, unseen by us, constantly search the loves and affections of our minds, seeking a vulnerability. The Lord delivers us daily from these evil ones!
This is the Lord’s protection of our spiritual freedom. The spirits of hell wish nothing more than to condemn us at the very first hint of evildoing. Their most subtle attack is to convince us that we are too evil to be saved. We are vulnerable because of our interior quality. “The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21). The Lord knows this, and therefore He does not allow us to suffer condemnation and punishment at the hands of the hells to the extent that we actually deserve. He preserves us from this spiritual devastation even as He protected the camp of Israel.
How the Lord provides this protection is suggested in the text itself. The blessing refers to the tents and dwellings of the camp. Balaam saw the camp of Israel spread out in the valley of Moab. It was an impressive sight: a city of tents in their order, tribe by tribe, family by family. At the center was the tabernacle of the Lord, the place of His dwelling. This order of the camp was the thing that made it possible for the Lord to save them. There was a power in this external form.
We are told that the tribes arranged themselves around the tabernacle in a specified way. Each tribe had its place. At first they had been a rabble of disorganized fugitive slaves. Now they had been disciplined by the laws of the Lord. The organization of their camp was a picture of heaven. The Lord had commanded Israel to follow this order so that the physical camp could represent the pattern of heaven itself.
“The Israelitish people represented the Lord’s kingdom in the heavens,” the Writings teach, “and thus the heavenly order there …” (AC 3703:18). Such an order has tremendous power. It is such that hell cannot possibly disturb it although it constantly tries to do so. “It is this very order, and thus heaven itself, which was represented by the encampments of the sons of Israel in the wilderness …” we are told. And “it was for this reason that when Balaam saw Israel dwelling according to their tribes, and the spirit of God came upon him, he uttered his enunciation” – the blessing upon the tents of Jacob (AC 4236:2).
Balaam could do nothing but bless this camp, for its form suggested the form of heaven itself. The fact that the people in the camp were prone to evils and falsities of every kind was offset by the fact that they held to an outward form of order. This was like a protective shell. Within this orderly form they had the freedom to live life without infestation from the spirits of hell.
This is the Lord’s provision for all of us. While our life may be infected with evils of many kinds, we may yet live safe from them. Order for the sake of uses is our protective shield. Even in hell, we are told, the sufferings of the spirits there are diminished when they are doing orderly and useful tasks. The reason is that this work for others imposes a pattern of order upon their lives and protects them from their evil loves with their direful consequences.
This is not to say that we may gain heaven by observing only external forms of order. When we pass into the spiritual world our interior loves are revealed and become active. We must change these during our life in this world. But this is not a task we can accomplish in one effort, or even many. It is a lifelong process, and during this process the Lord provides a safe space for our development. Tender states of growth require a protective sphere. While we maintain external order in our lives we may quietly and freely come to grips with the deeper evil loves that we find in ourselves. Under the protection of uses, customary forms, and orderly ways of life, we enjoy a freedom that would not otherwise be possible. Only in this sphere of protection and freedom will we make true spiritual gains.
The Writings speak of the necessity of having some study or business to keep our minds circumscribed and use-oriented. When the mind is not bound by purpose and outwardly disciplined to serve, it falls prey to many dangerous influences that enter in and attach themselves to our deep-seated lusts and evil affections. We should be occupied in orderly ways during our lifetime. This organizes our mind into a heavenly form. We need to simulate the heavenly form of life in our words and works even while we work, day by day, to infill the form with a true essence. This is what is meant by the succinct principle of life which the Writings propose: “Act precedes; man’s willing follows” (AC 4353:3).
Some might say this is hypocrisy. Simulation is just a way to cover our evils and so gain our ends in a socially acceptable way. But in fact, hypocrisy is covering evil with intent to deceive. It is not the same to cover evil with the intent to amend it. It is praiseworthy to restrain our evil loves to keep them from harming the neighbor. Meanwhile, we may strive for an inward change.
Finally, we should remember that it was the Lord who taught Israel how to arrange their camp. So too the Lord instructs us in the ways of a good life. We must look for the patterns of an orderly life as they are given in the Word. If we discover what the Lord commands and seek to practice His will in our lives, we will be protected from the influence of evil spirits. This is the means of protection the Lord has provided as we make our personal wilderness journey. We may not be conscious of the strengthening this brings. Like the unsuspecting Israelites who went about their normal tasks in the camp while Balaam labored to curse them, we may be unaware of the eyes secretly observing our life, hoping to find our faults and make us victims of an evil curse.
Perhaps it is a frightening thought to realize that evil spirits as well as angels are with us constantly during our life in the world. Yet we need not fear these hidden watchers as long as we dwell in the camp of the Lord. Their opportunity to realize the curse can never come. It was so with Balaam who longed to curse Israel. He could not. “He has not observed iniquity in Jacob, nor has He seen wickedness in Israel. The Lord his God is with him … Surely there is no sorcery against Jacob, nor is there any divination against Israel. It now must be said of Jacob and of Israel, ‘Oh, what God has done!”‘
Instead of a curse there was a blessing, a blessing the Lord intends for every person who orders his life by the truths of the Word. “How lovely are your tents, 0 Jacob! your dwellings, 0 Israel!” Amen.
Lessons: Numbers 24:1-6, 9-17; SD 2354; AC 5992:2,3
Spiritual Diary 2354
Concerning Balaam, why he pronounced a blessing. One may wonder that Balaam could curse the people, but that Jehovah did not allow him, yea, also that he had to bless them, as is also read (Joshua 24:9, 10), as if the cursing of the people by him could have effected anything. But I am able to know … from the state of the world of spirits … that very many of them seek a pretext for punishing; and as soon as they find anything of evil that is of any significance, desire the soul to be delivered to them … They anxiously search for whatever evil they can find, and when they find evil, claim the right over it; moreover, the soul is relinquished to them to be punished, for when the evil is great, then it is in the evil to be punished; wherefore the Lord, on account of justice, permits the evil and false to be punished, but only for the sake of its reformation or good. Since, therefore, there were such things in the people of Israel as were nefarious, idolatrous, and filthy, the Lord was unwilling that these should be detected by Balaam, and so be arraigned, for it was true that they were such; they would then have been condemned, which the Lord forbade … That Balaam could speak with spirits, and that he was led by them, is manifest enough from his confession. 1748, June 18.
Arcana Coelestia 5992
Infernal spirits continually attack and the angels protect; such is the order.
 The angels especially regulate the affections, for these make the man’s life and also his freedom. The angels also observe whether any hells are open that were not open before, and from which there is influx with the man, which takes place when the man brings himself into any new evil. These hells the angels close so far as the man allows, and remove any spirits who attempt to emerge therefrom. They also disperse strange and new influxes that produce evil effects.
 Especially do the angels call forth the goods and truths that are with a man, and set them in opposition to the evils and falsities which the evil spirits excite. Thus the person is in the midst, and does not perceive either the evil or the good; and being in the midst, he is in freedom to turn himself either to the one or to the other. By such means do angels from the Lord lead and protect a man, and this every moment, and every moment of a moment; for if the angels were to intermit their care for a single moment, the man would be precipitated into evil from which he could never afterward be brought out. These things the angels do from the love they have from the Lord, for they perceive nothing more delightful and happy than to remove evils from a man and lead him to heaven. That this is a joy to them, see Luke 15:7. Scarcely any man believes that the Lord takes such care of a man, and this continually from the first thread of his life to the last of it, and afterward to eternity.