How many times have you made a choice based on desire or gain—where, rather than following the clear warning of God on a matter, you have pushed it until you got your own way? Sometimes it seems like we are getting what we want and then it does not work out as we had expected. Other times, we justify what we want, and we work any angle in order to get it.
As we read the introduction to Balaam, we notice a couple of things. First, Balaam is not an Israelite (Numbers 22:5). Second, God is fulfilling His promise to strike fear in the hearts of the inhabitants of Canaan (Numbers 22:3). Third, Balaam inquires of the Lord (Numbers 22:8). Fourth, God speaks to Balaam (Numbers 22:9). Fifth, Balaam listens to God but does not obey (Numbers 22:22). Sixth, Balaam cannot do anything contrary to the Lord’s will (Numbers 23:8).
First, Balaam is not an Israelite. Many times it is easy to assume that God only speaks to certain types of people. This is not always the case. God usually speaks through a particular means that He has defined. In the Age of Balaam, God used visions and prophets as His mouthpiece. In the Old Testament, this developed an elitism that Israel was the only people through whom God spoke. But, here we have an instance of a non-Israelite receiving direct communication from God in a very specific manner. We have to understand that this is not the norm. Peter tells us that we have something surer, the prophetic word. God declares His will to all peoples through His word.
Second, God is fulfilling His promise to strike fear in the hearts of the inhabitants of Canaan. Exodus 23:27 says, “I will send my terror before you, and will throw into confusion all the people against whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you.” God promises to go before Israel, and He does. Balak, the king of Moab, is scared, so he calls on Balaam. Balaam has a reputation for divination and power. In essence, Balak knows that he cannot defeat the Israelites in battle. He also understands that there are spiritual realities, and God works in His mighty way. Balak brings together Moab and Midian in hopes of giving themselves more strength. However, God always does what He says He will do.
Third, Balaam inquires of the Lord (Numbers 22:8). Balaam inquires and asks God what He wants him to do. The irony here is so funny. Balaam is asking God if he can go and curse the people that God brought out of the land of Egypt. Balaam does not have all the data. He does not realize that Israel are the people of the same God that he, Balaam, follows. This should be a warning to us; many times, we lack all the data and pray in our ignorance, whereas, if we were to do the research, we could pray better. We can thank God that He has given His Spirit to pray when we do not know what to pray. This is a good thing for us to keep in mind. Balaam is willing to obey in the form of following directions from the Lord. But, notice that I am not using the word obey in sense of obedience as it relates to Balaam, because He does not obey, even though he has a willingness to submit to the outward command. We will discuss this later. How often do we inquire of the Lord not because we want to obey, but because we know it is necessary and right?
Fourth, God speaks to Balaam (Numbers 22:9). The passage that this verse is in, is key to understanding all of the issues with Balaam. God specifically tells Balaam, “you will not curse these people, for they are blessed.” God clearly tells Balaam what he is not to do—do not go, do not curse. This is a clear declaration by God of what Balaam is, and is not, to do. Balaam listens and sends the men on their way.
Fourth, Balaam listens to God, but does not obey (Numbers 22:22). This is a major point. This will clarify the problem of contradictory commands in the text. Balaam knew what the command of God was concerning the people of Israel, yet he entertains the princes and tells them he will inquire of the Lord again. We know from other texts in the Bible that the money offered to Balaam was a great temptation. God has specifically told Balaam what he cannot do. This is like when our children know we have said no to something and then start to whine and wheedle or persistently ask, while what they are asking for is harmful and not what is best for them. Obedience is not just following orders; it is having a right heart and attitude.
Balaam does not obey. He does not have the right heart or attitude based on his willingness to listen to the princes of Moab. How do we know this? Peter tells us, “Forsaking the right way; they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing, but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.” This is a common error. Scripture speaks of Balaam’s error on more than one occasion and never in good way. (Jude 1:11, Revelation 2:14). Oftentimes, we think we know what we want, and we are persistent even after God has given us a direct or clear “No” as an answer. We would rather have our stuff than give God obedience.
God tells Balaam to go, even though God has clearly told Balaam what is, and is not, going to happen. Balaam has a direct command not to curse. Balaam knows that this is what Balak wants Him to do. God gives Balaam warnings along the way—so much so that Balaam is rebuked by a donkey. God hands Balaam over to his sin and Balaam reaps the rewards (Numbers 31:8).
Fifth, Balaam cannot do anything contrary to the Lord’s will (Numbers 23:8). God allows Balaam to go, but God does not listen to Balaam and curse His people; rather, He makes Balaam bless them. God puts the words in Balaam’s mouth. No matter how much Balaam wants to curse these people, he cannot, because the only thing he can do is what the Lord tells him to do. Though Balaam knows that he cannot curse Israel, He does deal treacherously with the people of Israel. Numbers 31:16 tells us that Balaam caused the people of Israel to act against the Lord. Balaam has the Moabite women lead the men of Israel astray into pagan worship. Remember God had told Israel not to intermarry, as this would lead them away from God. This command continually is disobeyed and the people of Israel end up in captivity because of this sin of idolatry. In Numbers 25, we see that the Israelites followed after other women and they followed after the other gods. Balaam had instigated this.
Balaam is a figure that we can look at and be thankful to God for His work and plan. God tells us clearly in Joshua 24:10 that He would not listen to Balaam. God is not at our beck and call. Throughout the story, Balaam seeks God, hoping for a change, and it never happens. God has a clear plan He has laid down from the foundation of the world. This plan is according to His own infinite, wise counsel. We have seen how God always fulfills His word. It is a refuge for us.
How are you trusting in the promises of God, relying on Him, following Him in all things with a right heart and right attitude? In what ways are you following after the error of Balaam? How are material things more important than the Word of the Lord? Spend some time meditating and reading God’s Word and ask the Spirit to illuminate these things.
By His grace and for His glory,
Pastor Joshua Kirstine
*Special thanks to J. Taylor for his help with this week’s devotional.