Richard Sibbes’ sermon “Balaam’s Wish” published in 1639 considers the statement of Balaam recorded in Numbers 23:10, Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!
To consider this verse, Sibbes begins by making observations. Before we look at what he writes, just look at the text itself: It concerns life (by implication) and death. He speaks of the righteous dying (which is a common experience); and the death of the righteous has unique element – which Balaam desires. When we come to a text, the first thing we must do is simply observe: what is this like? What is unlike this? What the parts? What causes this, and what does it cause? Any number of such questions should applied to the text.
Sibbes offers four observations:
First, That the righteous men die, and have an end as well as others.
Secondly, That the state of the soul continues after death. It was in vain for him to desire ‘to die the death of the righteous,’ but in regard of the subsistence of the soul.
Thirdly, That the estate of righteous men in their end is a blessed estate, because here it was the desire of Balaam, ‘Oh that I might die the death of the righteous!’
Fourthly, There is an excellent estate of God’s people, and they desire that portion: ‘Oh let me die the death of the righteous.’ These are the four things I shall unfold, which discover the intendment of Balaam in these words.
Concerning the first observation, he begins by answering a possible objection: if Christ came ot free us from death, then why do we still die?
For Christ, in his first coming, came not to redeem our bodies from death, but our souls from damnation. His second coming shall be to redeem our bodies from corruption into a ‘glorious liberty.’ Therefore wise men die as well as fools.
Next he draws our the observation (from Ecclesiastes 2, that all men will die, wise and fool) and makes it concrete. Good preaching always makes concrete observations; it draws ideas down in the world in which we live:
Those whose eyes and hands have been lift up to God in prayer, and whose feet have carried them to the holy place, as well as those whose eyes are full of adultery, and whose hands are full of blood, they die all alike, in manner alike. Ofttimes it is the same in the eye of the world.
So far Sibbes makes the point of Ecclesiastes describing life under the sun. But he then points to what will come after (for death is not an end in itself; but rather a summons to judgment):
Death comes upon good and bad, but to the good for their greater glory; for the shell must be broken before they come to the pearl. Death it fits them for the blessed life after the body lying a while in the grave, the soul being in the hands of God. And death now it makes an end of sin, that brought in death; and it makes us conformable to the Son of God, our Elder Brother, that died for us.
Death is an end of the body’s life in this age, but it is also the end of sin. Sibbes then stops and urges meditation:
The point is pregnant, and full of gracious and serious meditations.
This is point too little considered: you are, I am, going to die. Consider this carefully – it will change how we consider this life. To this end, Sibbes offers two “uses”, that is applications of the text – and in particular, applications of this meditation:
The first use is that we make use of this life: this is the question of why do you live? There are two answers, what you will say and what you actually believe. What you actually believe is shown by what you do. Sibbes gives the answer which should be given:
Use 1. It should enforce this excellent duty, that considering we have no long continuance here, therefore, while we are here, to do that wherefore we come into the world. As a factor, that is sent into a place to provide such goods beforehand, let us consider that here we are sent to get into a state of salvation, to get out of the state of nature into the state of grace, to furnish our souls with grace, to fit us for our dissolution to come. Let us not forget the main end of our living here. Considering we cannot be here long, let us do the work that God hath put into our hands quickly and faithfully, with all our might.
Having shown us how we should live, Sibbes then cautions against abuse of this life. This gets to the second question above – how do we show what we believe about life, based upon the way we live. What should the knowledge of death do to us:
Use 2. And let it enforce moderation to all earthly things. ‘The time is short, therefore let those that use the world be as if they used it not,’ &c., 1 Cor. 7:29. Those friends that have been joined together will part. Therefore let us use our bodies and souls so, that we may present them both comfortably to God. Let us beg of God to make a right use of this fading condition. But I hasten.
Think of different Sibbes answers the question than is common in culture, which would exult following after whatever we desire. He councils, do you duty and do not be much taken with the pleasure of earthly things, since you are going to leave.