Digging Deeper: Death of the Righteous

Author: Mr. Kenneth Frank | Faculty in Theology, Living Education

Estimated Reading Time: 6 min. 29 sec.

Did you know that an Old Testament soothsayer aspired to die the death of the righteous?

Even though God had prophesied through this man in the past, at the time he pronounced this wish he had been hired by a Moabite king to curse Israel as they journeyed to the Holy Land to conquer it from the resident pagans. This anomalous story focuses on a bizarre character of the Old Testament. Nonetheless, what he proclaimed about the death of the righteous has inspired Bible readers ever since. Today’s Digging Deeper examines this intriguing account.

Our focus verse for this study is: “Who can count the dust of Jacob, and the number of the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!” (Numbers 23:10 KJV throughout). These words are part of the first oracle of a false prophet named Balaam. He had been hired by Balak, the king of Moab, to curse Israel as they passed through his territory on their way to the Promised Land (Numbers 22:1-41; 23:1-30; 24:1-25). Balaam recognized that the righteous have hope in their death (Proverbs 14:32). This glorious future is their “last end.” However, he seemed to realize he was not part of their destiny.

Who are the righteous?

Just who are these righteous that Balaam described? Some may think the righteous are perfect people. However, Israel was anything but, as explained by the Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary: “This designation of ‘upright,’ or ‘righteous’ people, given by Balaam to Israel, was applied to them, not on account of the superior excellence of their national character-for they were frequently perverse, disobedient, and rebellious-but in reference to their being an elect nation, in the midst of which God, ‘the just and righteous’ (Deuteronomy 32:4), dwelt” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers defines the original word: “The Hebrew word yesharim (upright, or righteous) is applied to Israel because God, who is just and right (Deuteronomy 32:4) had chosen His people to be a Jeshurun (Deuteronomy 32:15; 33:5,26)—a holy and peculiar people, following after righteousness and judgment” (e-Sword 13.0.0). To bring this concept into our time, Adam Clarke’s Commentary declares: “A righteous man is one who is saved from his sins, who is justified and sanctified through the blood of the covenant, and who lives, not only an innocent, but also a holy and useful life. He who would die well should live well; for a bad death must be the issue of a bad life” (Ibid.). Based on this, God’s people are the righteous.

The soothsayer’s dilemma

Balaam was from Mesopotamia (Deuteronomy 23:4) and is described as a soothsayer (Joshua 13:22). James Gray’s Concise Bible Commentary declares: “Balaam is a mystery. He comes from Mesopotamia where the knowledge of the true God lingered after it had been lost in the other parts of the known world. He is one of the group containing Melchisedec and Job, who testified that although Jehovah was now revealing Himself peculiarly to the Hebrews, yet He had not left Himself without witnesses in the other nations” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Balak brought Balaam from Aram (Mesopotamia) to curse and defy Israel (Numbers 23:7). The Bridgeway Bible Dictionary clarifies what is meant: “Cursing in the ancient Hebrew world was not a burst of bad language as it usually is in the world of today. It was a pronouncement of judgment believed to bring the release of powerful forces against the person cursed (Numbers 22:6; Judges 5:23; Job 31:30; Proverbs 30:10)” (e-Sword 13.0.0). This was an ancient custom, as Fausset’s Bible Dictionary declares: “It was a practice of ancient nations to devote their enemies to destruction at the beginning of their wars; the form of execration is preserved in Macrobius, Saturnalia, 3:9” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

However, God, Israel’s Protector, would not permit Balaam to curse the Israelites (Numbers 22:12). Balaam tried more than once to curse Israel; instead, God’s words coming from his mouth were only blessings on Israel (Numbers 13:2). Even though Balaam was self-serving in his plot with Balak, God still spoke through him (Numbers 23:5). Balak demanded that Balaam curse Israel instead. Balaam retorted, “How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? or how shall I defy, whom the LORD hath not defied?” (Numbers 23:8 KJV). Our focus verse for this article comes from this exchange of intense and desperate words.

Balaam admitted he could only proclaim what God put in his mouth (Numbers 23:12). F.B. Meyer’s Through the Bible Day by Day notes: “On the contrary, he could forge no weapon against Israel that could prosper, and when he tried to raise his tongue in judgment against the people of God he was condemned. It was as if God said, ‘Touch not mine anointed.’ Psalm 105:15; Isaiah 54:17; Romans 8:31” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Balak later declared why he did not go to war with Israel. He tried to curse them through Balaam (Joshua 24:9-10; Judges 11:25) instead. John Kitto’s Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature explains that “From Judges 11:25, it is clear that Balak was so certain of the fulfillment of Balaam’s blessing, ‘blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee’ (Numbers 24:9), that he never afterwards made the least military attempt to oppose the Israelites (comp. Micah 6:5; Revelation 2:14)” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

What the death of the righteous requires

Even though Balaam wanted to die the death of the righteous, he did not get his wish. When the Israelites were victorious over their enemies in taking the Promised Land, among the people they executed was Balaam (Numbers 31:8; Joshua 13:22). Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers explains: “The end of Balaam (Numbers 31:8) presented a strange contrast to his prayer, and showed that even the prayer of the wicked is abomination in the sight of the Lord (See Proverbs 28:9)” (e-Sword 13.0.0). William Robertson Nicholl’s Sermon Bible presents this alarming picture: “His own death was perhaps the most miserable of all that are recorded in the Old Testament” (Ibid.). David Guzik’s Enduring Word Commentary declares why: “Balaam was one of the many who long to die the death of the righteous, yet have no desire to live the life of the righteous. The two go together” (Ibid.). Few today are willing to live the life of the righteous so that they will experience the death of the righteous.

Death is not pleasant; often it is exceedingly difficult. Nonetheless, this assurance is offered by William Robertson Nicoll’s Sermon Bible: “By the death of the righteous is not meant merely a happy end, but any circumstances of death whatever after a holy and obedient life. The worst death of those who are accounted righteous before God is better than the best and easiest death of an unrighteous person” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Dying in the faith of Jesus Christ reassures Christians that, though they sleep in Jesus through death for a time (1 Thessalonians 4:14), they shall rise in glorious bodies like their Lord’s (Philippians 3:21). The resurrection of the righteous is the sequel to “the death of the righteous.”

Kenneth Frank headshot

Kenneth Frank was born and raised in New Jersey, USA and attended Ambassador College, graduating in 1973. He served in the Canadian ministry from 1973-1999, after which he returned to the USA to pastor churches in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina for 15 years. Having earned a BA degree from Ambassador College he later earned a MA degree from Grand Canyon University before being assigned to the Charlotte office to teach at Living University, now Living Education. Currently, he teaches the Survey of the Bible course to the on-campus students and writes the Digging Deeper column for our online Bible study program. He is married, has four children, and seven grandchildren.