How is Numbers 24:17 a Messianic prophecy? I'm not convinced. After all, these are the words of Balaam, who led the Israelites into sin. Help me out.

To begin with, sometimes people tell more than they know, as in Caiaphas' "prophecy" of how Jesus' death would save God's people (John 11:49-51). And Caiaphas was the high priest who engineered the crucifixion! Balaam was driven  by impure motives (Num 31:16; 2 Pet 2:15; Jude 11; Rev 2:14). And at times God's Spirit comes on those who don't seem to be in a saved relationship with him (1 Sam 19:23-24). So Balaam's heart is not the issue, but how the Lord was using him for his sovereign purposes.

Let's take a look at Num 24 (the most relevant part of the verse):

“I see him, but not now;
    I behold him, but not near.
A star will come out of Jacob;
    a scepter will rise out of Israel."

It sounds like a prophecy of something eminent (though not necessarily imminent). The scepter denotes rule, the star glory of even divinity. But how did the ancient Jews interpret the passage? As messianic. Here are some instances:

  • Old Testament: Mal 4:2 (LXX 3:20); Zech 6:2
  • Dead Sea Scrolls: CD 7:18-20; 1QM 11:6-7; 4QTest 9-13
  • Other literature: Test. of Levi 18:3; Test. of Judah 24:1.

So it's hardly surprising the Christians too considered Num 24 a Messianic text.

  • New Testament: Matt 2:2-20. See also Rev 22:16.
  • Patristic writers: Justin, 1 Apology 32.12; Dial. 106.4; Hippolytus, Comm. in Dan. 1.9; Origen Contra Cels. 1.59-60; Ignatius Eph. 19:2-3; Prot. Jas. 21:2; Clement of Alex., Exc. ex. Theod. 74