The Vain Wish
By Horatius Bonar, 1867
"Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last 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 nearby the land of promise—but not in it; quite within sight of it, yet still with Jordan 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 stranger-land, and from these hills, around which the exhalations from the sea of death are gathering, and over which the gloom of the shadow of death is resting, the prayer comes up, "Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last 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 displeasure, and enough of Jehovah's people to desire an inheritance among them. But, like Demas, he loves this present world, 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 goodly tabernacles of Israel; but then, he must come out from his own nation, and break with Moab; he must forego all Balak's rewards, and give up honor, wealth, reputation, friends; and he cannot make up his mind to this. He would like religion, if it were not so dear. He would gladly have a home both in Israel and Moab, and be both Baal's and Jehovah's prophet; but, since he cannot thus unite heaven and earth just now, he starts the thought—but might I enjoy them in succession; Moab just now, Israel afterwards? Might I not serve Baal just now, and Jehovah hereafter? Might I not go on living as heretofore—but make a change at death? This is the thought that is working its way through these words, "Let me die the death of the righteous." 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 it is with the wish or prayer itself that we have specially to do. (1.) What does it mean? (2.) What state of feeling does it indicate?
1. What does it mean?He knew that he must 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 sorrowed as those who had no hope. He would not 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 other days; and, it may be, he had heard of Aaron's death on Mount Hor, just a short time before; and 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 that die in the Lord."
But the words mean more than this; for he speaks not merely of death—but of something beyond death—the last end of the righteous. This is no repetition of the other. There is a parallelism indeed—but it is an ascending one; this second part containing more than the first; and by "last 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 admitted. Balaam's prayer was, "Let me share the death of the righteous; and let me share his resurrection too." How full and comprehensive! There is no vagueness about the object of the wish, whatever there may be about the feelings or actings of him 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.
II. What state of feeling does it indicate?It was not in pretended earnestness nor idle flippancy that these words were uttered. They were sincere. The Syrian prophet 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 covet such a glory and such an immortality as awaited Israel when the Star of Jacob 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 righteous." 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 righteous—but he sees nothing desirable in the life of the righteous. 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, called up by vexation and weariness; at other times it is a deep-breathed prayer; but, in both cases, it is too often ineffective, leading to nothing. Men, young as well as old, get tired of life—sick of the world and its vanities. They see that it 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 revelings and banquetings—but these are to intoxicate and poison; it spreads out its thrones and pomps, 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 staunch no bleeding hearts, they heal no blighted 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 vexed 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 righteous?" Have you not often done so? And have you not added, "O that I had wings like a dove; then should I fly away, and be at rest?"
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 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 hereafter. If hungry, a wish won't give you bread; or, if 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 cheek 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; Oh, 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! Be not, therefore, forgetful to entertain this stranger; for you may be entertaining an angel unawares. 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 without delay, 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 unto me." It is the call of the Father, yearning over his prodigal, and beseeching him to be reconciled and blessed. But a prayer like this, pointing both at 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 "beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning." 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 the heart of flesh. Go to him with your chains, he will snap them asunder. 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.
Oh, 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. Be not like these. Quarrel with sin at once. Break with the world at once. Linger no 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, "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, will I die, and there will I be buried—the Lord do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me."
You know that you must die. Do not dismiss that subject with a wish or a hurried prayer. Do not treat it sentimentally, and sing, "O for the death of those that die like daylight in the west!" Do not trifle away its solemnity, or say with the French infidel (Mirabeau), "Let me die to the sound of delicious music!" Look death full in the face. Take up Balaam's prayer. It is a good one; only let be carried out. Die in Jesus, and you die well. "Blessed are the dead, who die in the Lord." But the dying in Jesus must be begun by the living in Jesus. Only this will do. Live in him—and it will not be hard to die.