“. . . And Balak the son of Zippor was king of Moab at that time. So he sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor, at Pethor, which is near the River, in the land of the sons of his people, to call him, saying, ‘Behold, a people came out of Egypt; behold, they cover the surface of the land, and they are living opposite me. Now, therefore, please come, curse this people for me since they are too mighty for me; perhaps I may be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed’” (22:4-6).
Truths are repeated in Scripture for emphasis. These truths are often illustrated by Bible characters to fix them in our minds. Numerous biblical characters are famous and well remembered. Noah, Abraham, Moses, Daniel, and Paul would immediately come to mind. Other biblical characters, however, are infamous: Cain, Jezebel, Ahab, Herod, Judas Iscariot, and the character of this text, Balaam. In Numbers 22—24, alone, Balaam’s name appears fifty times. Second Peter 2:15, 16, Jude 11, and Revelation 2:14 also mention him with something about his actions and his character. The narrative of Balaam is significant because it affected the conduct of a whole nation. Balaam tried to have the best of both worlds - the secular and the divine. But he lost both. We are perhaps more familiar with Balaam’s donkey than with Balaam. While God’s speaking, through this animal, is an integral part of the story, Balaam’s life and actions need to be considered more than the donkey. As we examine his life, principles can be learned for godly living.
I. The Balaam incident:
The story of Balaam begins with Balak, a person with a name and character similar to Balaam’s. Somehow Balak had become king of the Moabites. The Moabites were one of the nations that occupied Canaan, which God had determined to dispossess. Balak realized that Israel well outnumbered his Moabite forces. Since Israel was a threat to the Midianites as well, he also knew that, when a common enemy threatens two nations, they should combine forces for mutual protection. Only the gods could give the divine help Balak believed he needed. Therefore, he joined with Midian and hired a professional soothsayer, a wizard from Mesopotamia named Balaam (22:6, 7).
Balaam was from Pethor, possibly a city of professional wizards and students of wizardry. His name means “devourer” or “swallower up” and that of his father, Beor, means “burner up” or “destroyer.” Balaam had a reputation; his incantations were viewed as bringing positive results (22:6). Balaam, however, did not work for free. He was a hireling who divined for a profit (22:7).
The pagan philosophy of heathenism in Moses’ day is interesting. Magic had absolute and irresistible power with the gods. Therefore, power was inherent in the wizard or in the incantation he used in the name of those gods. We are able to see, in this, a fundamental difference between a prophet of God and a heathen seer. In paganism the power was seen in the man. In the prophet of God, through the miracles he performed, the power was seen in God, Himself. This is evidenced in the New Testament example of Simon the sorcerer and Philip (Acts 8). Simon, himself, realized a power was working through Philip; which he could not imitate. Glory had to be given to God and Simon became a believer.
Balaam must have obtained preliminary information about Israel from Balak or another source. Jehovah’s mighty works in Egypt had crossed the last forty years and had come to Balaam. Balaam, therefore, approached Jehovah God on a professional soothsaying level. He wanted to succeed in making Jehovah speak through him. Thus, God would become one of Balaam’s patron deities. He, in turn, could become Jehovah’s prophet. God at various times allowed a revelation of Himself to those He had not specifically called to prophesy. In this case, God allowed Balaam, through whatever means he used, to contact Him. At various times, God made exceptions to His way of revealing His will. Balaam’s donkey, as well as the witch at Endor, (1 Samuel 28:7f.) serve as examples.
Three times Balaam tried to curse Israel; but each time, God would only allow a blessing to come out of his mouth. This calls to mind God’s promise in His covenant to Abraham: “I will bless those who bless you and the one who curses you, I will curse” (Genesis 12:3). Each time Balaam failed, Balak was infuriated. However, the expression Balaam used in 22:18 suggests that Balak might get more for his money if he paid more. Balaam agreed to try one more time and suggested to Balak that he be allowed to contact Jehovah once more. God came to him and told him, during that night, to go with the leaders of Moab. However, when he went with them the next day, his going simply revealed Balaam’s true greed (22:22, 23). Balaam’s greed was about to get him into divine trouble. Jude 11 declared, “. . . and for pay they have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam, . . .” He was blinded by greed. He prided himself on being a seer, a mystic who could peer into the veil of the unknown. Yet, a dumb animal saw more of the divine than his master did. As the animal balked and Balaam found himself talking to his own donkey, we wonder who was smarter. It reminds us of the expression, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
Balaam’s most dreadful sin was not his own personal greed. It was that he persuaded Israel to participate in pagan worship rites which included sexual immorality (Revelation 2:14). Because of this sin, Israel lost favor with God and many Israelites lost their lives because of God’s wrath on the guilty.
His tragic end is seen in 31:7, 8: “So they made war against Midian, just as the Lord had commanded Moses, and they killed every male. . . . they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword.” When Israel made war on Midian, Balaam was found on the wrong side and was killed as one of Israel’s enemies. He had tried to hold on to God and His divine favor while holding on to his gold. He ended up losing both.
II. The instructions we gain:
We can learn at least three lessons from this incident in Balaam’s life. First, our own motives for service to God must be genuine. The devil once challenged God’s use and blessing of His servant Job and suggested that Job merely served God for reward. God proved, through Job’s tragedies, that Satan was wrong. The example of Job causes us to ask the question, “Why do I serve God?”
Mistakenly, a doctrine is being circulated in religious circles that could be termed the gospel of success. Many are led to believe that if they just have a little and then allow Jesus in their lives, they will be successful. God will allow them to climb that corporate, athletic, or career ladder to the top. Such a doctrine is totally secular and deluding. God never promised Christians secular and financial success for being Christians. God promised a cross and servantship (Mark 8:34). God does not want “hirelings” as His children.
Ode to a preacher:
Preach a sermon, preacher, but make it short and sweet; Our stomachs strike at twelve o’clock, a’ hungering for to eat.
Preach a sermon, preacher, but don’t get too specific; So long as you will generalize, we think you are terrific.
Preach a sermon, preacher, the kind we love to hear; We'll pat you on your spineless back, as you tickle our itching ear!
Second, sin can blind us to its real dangers. Jude 11 says, “. . . they have rushed headlong . . .” We, sometimes, are so determined to have our own way that nothing can be said or done to change our minds. I recently read in a newspaper of a lady who sold her baby for $5,000.00 worth of cocaine. This lady had allowed this addicting drug to blind her to the consequences of her senseless actions. Paul said, “But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21, 22).
Third, we learn an encouraging lesson about God and His relationship with His people (23:8, 9). While God dealt with individuals, within the nation of Israel, He looked also on the whole nation as holy and sanctified in His sight. Balaam was forced to bless, not curse, the whole nation gathered in the valley below. The Bible says God will save the church (Ephesians 5:25-27). In Matthew 25, at the judgment scene, two groups, as a whole, are seen: the saved and the unsaved. One went to the right, the other to the left. One was welcomed; the other departed from the presence of God. What then happens to an individual who “quits the church”? The Bible says he has walked out from under the umbrella of God’s grace to the outside where God’s spiritual blessings are not available (Hebrews 10:25, 29-33).
This text has described one individual and two groups. One group is for God and the other against God. Balaam found himself in the wrong group. It was a tragic mistake that cost him both his life and his soul. God considers a soul extremely valuable (Matthew 16:26). What is yours worth? God says it is worth more than all the gold you could ever obtain or be promised. Where are you standing today? Christ is found standing with His church (Revelation 1:12, 13). Standing with Him, you know you are in the right place.