Dr. Richard L. Strauss
August 4, 1974
It was only 38 years, but it seemed like an eternity to those children of Israel who had been wandering in that waste land south of the Dead Sea for all that time. But the drudgery and the despair of those years was over when we come to Numbers chapter 22. And the heartache and the hardships of those years were forgotten.
The nation Israel is now on the move and they are marching under divine orders. They are motivated by the promise of victory over their enemies and entrance into their promised land. They marched past the kingdoms of Edom and Moab. They penetrated north to the very borders of their land through two fantastic victories: one over a king named Sihon of the Amorites, and the other over a king named Og of Bashan.
And now when our story opens in Numbers 22, they are encamped on the plains of Moab, awaiting further instructions from the Lord. Now the plains of Moab were a flat plateau area east of the Jordan River, just opposite Jericho. It is here where the events transpire that we want to talk about today and in the next two Sundays.
They are events which revolve around one of the most puzzling personages in all the Word of God—a contradictory character named Balaam. I want you to look first of all at Balaam's reputation.
1. Balaam's Reputation
The story begins as someone else with a similar name--don't get the two confused, please—Balak, the son of Zippor (pronounced zi-POR), saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites (verse 2). He observes the strength of Israel's forces. While the Israelites had no intention of fighting Balak or trying to destroy him, the very presence of all those Jews just didn't sit well with Balak. It discomforted him. He was tremendously disturbed about the whole thing.
"And Moab was exceedingly afraid of the people because they were many, and Moab was sick with dread because of the children of Israel" (Numbers 22:3).
So Balak succeeds in getting some other people—the Midianites, who were further to the south—just about as upset and distraught as he was. Together, they formulate a plan.
"Then 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: 'Look, a people has come from Egypt. See, they cover the face of the earth, and are settling next to me! Therefore please come at once, curse this people for me, for they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall 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'" (Numbers 22:5-6).
So the plan is to call a fellow named Balaam, son of Beor. For the first time, we meet this strange individual in God's Word. Balaam, son of Beor.
Now it was quite a long journey to get there, all the way to Pethor, which happened to be in Mesopotamia or Babylon. It was 600 miles, which is a long way to go either by foot or by camel. But it was well worth it for Balak. For this fellow, Balaam, had an outstanding reputation as a sorcerer. When he used his magical powers to hex somebody, they knew they were hexed. Balaam's reputation had traveled 600 miles: he who Balaam blessed was blessed, indeed, and he who Balaam cursed was cursed.
You know, his very name indicated his famous powers. The name "Balaam" means "devourer" or "destroyer of the people." Devourer of the people. And he lived in Pethor. It occurred to me that maybe they called him the Pethor People Eater. His gift may have run in the family; his father's name, Beor, means to burn, to eat off, or destroy.
This Balaam was a soothsayer. He wasn't a prophet of God. I think it's important to establish that this man was a wizard. He was a diviner, a conjurer. Not a true prophet of God. Keep your finger in Numbers 22 and turn over to Joshua 13, where Balaam is mentioned again.
"The children of Israel also killed with the sword Balaam the son of Beor, the soothsayer, among those who were killed by them" (Joshua 13:22).
Balaam the soothsayer. That word is never used of a true prophet of God. Balaam is never called a navi (pronounced na-VEE), that was the word for a true prophet. He's never called that. He's called a soothsayer.
Now look back at Numbers 22 again, and down in verse 7 when the king of Moab sent to Balaam, it says they departed with the rewards of divination, the diviner's fee. That word divination is from the same Hebrew root as soothsayer.
Soothsaying is condemned by God in the law of Moses. I want you to look at it because it's important to establish this before we begin. Some people think Balaam was a believer in God. There are some indications that he might be, but look at this, beginning in Deuteronomy 18:9. God says to the children of Israel:
"'When you come into the land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer'"—there's our word—"'or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the Lord, and because of these abominations the Lord your God drives them out from before you'" (Deuteronomy 18:9-12).
Divination is an abomination to God. God doesn't like these things today any more than He did in Balaam's day. The Apostle Paul calls sorcery a work of the flesh in Galatians 5:20, and sorcery covers the same general areas: things like magic potions, amulets, incantations, witchcraft, appeals to occult powers, delving into the mysterious world of the unseen spirits to tell fortunes or predict the future. These things, God says, are an abomination to Him.
And you know, Satan has absolutely destroyed the testimony and the lives of some believers by this very means. And I know some with whom it started with nothing more serious than a Ouija board or a horoscope. But that's the beginning of delving into the world of the unseen, and God says that is an abomination to Him. It's quite obvious that we're seeing a resurgence of the occult in our day, and God told us to expect it. The Apostle Paul wrote, "Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons" (1 Timothy 4:1).
And when the Antichrist comes, it will be after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders. Satanism will grow in the last days and we expect that to happen because God told us so. But Christian, beware of this Satanic snare. Watch out even for the fringes of the occult; Satan can use it to destroy us. The person who knows the living God has the inner witness of God's Spirit. He doesn't need to dabble in the dark, murky waters of demonism.
People who know God consult the Lord. Isaiah asks, "Should not a people seek unto their God?" (see Isaiah 8:19). Listen, my Christian friend, you don't need Ouija boards and horoscopes. You have the Lord and that's all you need. He Himself is all we need.
Well, that's Balaam's reputation. He was a soothsayer, a sorcerer, a diviner. I want you to look secondly at his vacillation.
2. Balaam's Vacillation
The elders of Moab and Midian come and tell Balaam what they want. Look at verse 8 for his reply. "And he said to them, 'Lodge here tonight, and I will bring back word to you, as the Lord speaks to me.' So the princes of Moab stayed with Balaam" (Numbers 22:8).
Now this reveals what an enigma this fellow Balaam was. He was a heathen soothsayer, but he had knowledge of the one true and living God. How did he get it?
Well, Balaam lived in the cradle of civilization, the Mesopotamian Valley. That was Abraham's original home, you remember. And there were other people there who knew God. Furthermore, the news of the great things God had done through the children of Israel had traveled far and wide. You remember Rahab in Jericho said to the spies, "Yes, we've heard of what your God has done for you." Maybe the news had traveled all the way over to the Mesopotamian Valley to Pethor, and Balaam had heard. That may have been why he was interested in getting on the right side of God. He wanted to get to know God. After all, if Jehovah was that great to do what He had done for the children of Israel, it would be a smart thing to get on the good side of Him. It would have been good for business. If you're a person who is supposed to know the future, then to know a God like this would be a handy thing.
So we read, "Then God came to Balaam and said, 'Who are these men with you?'" (Numbers 22:9).
That's one of the strangest things in the whole story of Balaam as far as I'm concerned, and that is that he's a heathen soothsayer and obviously not a believer, but God—the one true God—speaks to him and on occasion speaks through him. That's a strange, strange thing to me. I would find that hard to believe were it not for some unusual New Testament passages that would corroborate this very kind of thing.
For instance, hold your place in Numbers and look at Matthew chapter 7. Jesus is teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'" (Matthew 7:21).
You see, there is power in Jesus' name. And some people have discovered it, who have never really admitted their own sinfulness and trusted Jesus Christ as their Savior from sin, and lived a life of fruitfulness and godliness to demonstrate it. They never have. But you see, God is sovereign and He may choose to work through such an individual if He sees that His purposes can be accomplished—somebody who doesn't even know Christ. You see, everyone who uses the name of Christ is not a Christian. These people in Matthew 7 did all these things in Jesus' name. They even performed miracles in Jesus' name. But they weren't Christians. Jesus said, "I never knew you. Depart from Me."
Now don't be beguiled by Satan's counterfeit. The Apostle John says in 1 John 4:1, "Test the spirits to see if they be of God." Even people who perform miracles in Jesus' name are not necessarily God's children. Check them out on some other things. How do they rate on great Biblical doctrines about Christ like the virgin birth and the deity of Christ, and the substitutionary death? Do they ever talk about the blood of Christ? Do they believe in His bodily resurrection or His second coming?
Not every individual who talks to God, whom God uses, is necessarily a child of God. That's obvious from New Testament and Old. The fact that God spoke to Balaam is no problem to me. God is going to use this money-hungry soothsayer to accomplish His own glorious purposes, because God is sovereign and He can do anything He pleases.
Now God's answer to Balaam comes in verse 12. Balaam tells God why those people are here and what they want him to do and asks whether he should do it.
"And God said to Balaam, 'You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed'" (Numbers 22:12).
Now that's pretty clear, isn't it? Wouldn't you like it if God would speak to you in that kind of clear, concise, incontrovertible manner? I mean, if you wanted to make a decision and you went to God, and God spoke in audible terms and said, "Don't do this; do that." Wouldn't that be wonderful?
Well, Balaam got the word of God and he knew it without any question. It was clear, definite, unmistakable, and final. "Balaam, don't go with them. You cannot curse this people, for they are blessed." Now you might want to underline the words in verse 12, "You shall not go with them," because later on in the story you might wonder why God says some things that He says. But don't forget, the word of God and the perfect will of God—clear, unmistakable, and final—is "you shall not go with them."
If Balaam wants to obey God, he's going to have to put this whole thing out of his mind. But evidently the tone of his voice in verse 13 must have implied to those princes from Moab and Midian that he really did want to go. It probably wasn't a definite and stern tone. It was probably a little wishy-washy or uncertain, "Go back to your land, for the Lord has refused to give me permission to go with you" (Numbers 22:13). You know, like "I'd really like to go—I can almost see and feel that money—and I'd like to have the honor and prestige that Balak is offering me, but I just won't be able to do it, fellas. I really want to, but I'm just not going to be able to make it."
Well, anyway, Balak interpreted the answer when the princes returned to him after another month's journey as exactly that: Balaam really did want to go. And Balak is convinced that every man has his price, so he sent some more honorable princes with a better offer. They come in verses 14-17, and they tell Balaam what the king is going to do for him if only he'll come and curse the Israelites. I want you to look at Balaam's answer in verse 18. This is beautiful.
"Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the word of the Lord my God, to do less or more" (Numbers 22:18).
Isn't that wonderful? Man, I wish some Christians would say something like that. I mean, really, some believers, in this age of grace, who know God's will for their lives and won't do it, would say to God, "I'll do anything You want me to do. Not one thing less and not one thing more, but Your will for my life."
If only Balaam had meant it. They were just empty words, like sometimes we utter. The fact that he didn't mean it is clear from the next verse. He goes on to say, "Now therefore, please, you also stay here tonight, that I may know what more the Lord will say to me" (Numbers 22:19). Now that's phony if I ever saw it.
God had already told him what to do--clearly, definitely, unmistakably, and finally. "Hold on, fellas. Let me check with God one more time. Maybe He'll let me go." Balaam is not seeking the will of God; he already knew the will of God. He's seeking divine permission to do what was wrong. That money looked so good. That honor was so inviting. He's trying to find a way to have all that and yet stay on the good side of Jehovah.
The Apostle Peter says Balaam loved the wages of unrighteousness (2 Peter 2:15). The vacillation in verse 19 is the beginning of the end for Balaam. God let him have his wish.
"And God came to Balaam at night and said to him, 'If the men come to call you, rise and go with them; but only the word which I speak to you—that you shall do.' So Balaam rose in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went with the princes of Moab" (Numbers 22:20-21).
Was it God's will for Balaam to go? No. And yet God says, "OK, Balaam, if that's what you want." You see, God doesn't force His will on us. That's something that Christians often times have confused in their minds. God doesn't make us do His will. He isn't going to insist on His way. If we want to go our way and have our will, then He's going to let us do it—but the consequences are never happy. You can mark that down.
You know, if you're young, that'd be a good thing to learn even at your young age. I can take you to meet some adults who wish they would have learned this lesson at your age, but they didn't. And now they're reaping the consequences of disobedience to the will of God. The pathway of self-will is a frightening place to be. God may let us have the desires of our hearts when we keep demanding them, but the result is unhappiness.
Remember the story of the children of Israel grumbling and complaining about the manna and they said, "Oh, if only we had a little meat." And God sent them meat. They were up to their ears in meat (Exodus 16). But the psalmist says He gave them their request but He sent leanness to their souls (Psalm 106:15). That's a pretty sad state to be in. A lean soul.
Now Balaam sinned against the light that God gave him and the result is going to be disastrous. The same is true for us. If we continue on a course in the willful disobedience to God, we can look for the same kind of sorrow that Balaam experienced. And it often begins with the same kind of vacillation we see in his life in dealing with sin: a refusal to say firmly and resolutely, "No! That's contrary to the will of God for my life." And then turn and flee from temptation. We have this proneness to flirt with temptation—to be where we ought not to be and to see things we ought not to see. We put ourselves in the way of temptation and then we wonder why we fall so often. Sin gets a hold of our lives, and the more we sin, the more we want to sin. Then we get hung up on our sins and we just cannot seem to extricate ourselves from it. God wants us to resist temptation by the power of His Spirit, and not vacillate like Balaam did.
I want you to look, thirdly, at Balaam's admonition—God's warning to Balaam.
3. Balaam's Admonition
God is so gracious. We never do get out of God's will but that He does not warn us of the folly of our way. Balaam's warning by God brings us to the famous story of the talking donkey, that critics of God's Word have ridiculed for centuries. The story begins down in verse 22.
"Then God’s anger was aroused because he went, and the Angel of the Lord took His stand in the way as an adversary against him. And he was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him" (Numbers 22:22).
Notice that God's anger was kindled against him. That doesn't mean that God got mad like we do in selfish anger. God is infinitely righteous and just. Sin is an offense to His righteousness and it demands a response from God. Sometimes the Scriptures put that response in human terms. And the anger of God was kindled, but it's vastly different from our anger, which is sinful anger. Notice why God got angry: "because he went." See it? "Because he went." Didn't God tell him to go? Yes, but Balaam knew that was not the will of God. God was simply allowing him to go the way he insisted on going. God was angry because he went.
Balaam is intent on doing some injury to God's people, thereby securing Balak's riches. God's going to show him the foolishness of his disobedience and He does it through a dumb animal. Now you know this story probably as well as I do. There is an angel in the path. He doesn't see the angel but the donkey does. Balaam gets a little hot at his donkey and he starts whopping her with his staff and he gets her back on the path again. He no sooner gets her on a path—a path between two walls—and the angel of the Lord appears again. And sure enough, Balaam can't see the angel but the donkey can, so she rears back and she crushes Balaam's foot against the wall.
Now Balaam is really getting mad. So he gets his stick and he whops her a little harder and gets her going right again. Further on ahead the angel appears a third time. This time the donkey lays flat down right in the middle of the path. Balaam could have hit her over the head with a 2x4 to get her attention and she still would not budged from that position. She was not going to move because the angel of the Lord was there with a sword in his hand.
This time Balaam loses his cool and goes berserk. He hits the fan and comes unglued, and he beats the tar out of that donkey with his stick like she'd never been beat before. You know, things like this happen to people who turn their backs to the will of God—even sometimes to Christians. When a person willfully and knowingly resists the revealed word of God and the conviction of God's Spirit, he gets out of sorts with everybody and everything. Sometimes he loses his temper—yells and screams and he takes out his inner frustrations on whomever or whatever is nearby. He may kick the dog; he may slap the kids; he may slam the door, or do some other thing just to let out the tension of guilt, which comes from being outside the will of God. "'There is no peace,' says my God, 'for the wicked'" (Isaiah 57:21).
It's at this point that the donkey speaks, and a brief conversation ensues in verse 28. "Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, 'What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?' And Balaam said to the donkey, 'Because you have abused me. I wish there were a sword in my hand, for now I would kill you!' So the donkey said to Balaam, 'Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden, ever since I became yours, to this day? Was I ever disposed to do this to you?' And he said, 'No'" (Numbers 22:28-30).
Now Balaam is so furious that he doesn't even sense the absurdity of talking to a donkey. I mean, this guy is really gone! Some people ask, "Do you really think that that donkey talked?" Listen, friend, if God can create a universe, certainly making a voice come out of a donkey's mouth is no problem whatsoever. It's a minor thing to God. I accept it because God's Word says it. That's why I believe it.
Peter evidently thought it happened, and he was no dummy. Over in 2 Peter 2:16 we read, "but he [Balaam] was rebuked for his iniquity: a dumb donkey speaking with a man’s voice restrained the madness of the prophet." God said He did. Peter thought He did. I accept that He did.
God uses this extraordinary phenomenon to try to drill some sense into Balaam's head. And it seems like he almost comes to his senses, at least temporarily.
"Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the Angel of the Lord standing in the way with His drawn sword in His hand; and he bowed his head and fell flat on his face. And the Angel of the Lord said to him, 'Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out to stand against you, because your way is perverse before Me'"—mark that, will you? Your way is perverse before Me—"'The donkey saw Me and turned aside from Me these three times. If she had not turned aside from Me, surely I would also have killed you by now, and let her live'" (Numbers 22:31-33).
Note "your way is perverse before Me." Balaam is moving contrary to the word of God. He wants to have the best of two worlds. He wants all the things that this life offers and all that money can buy, and he's willing to pay any price to get it. Yet he still wants the approval of God. You know, I've met some people in this modern age who feel the same way. They live for themselves. The things of this world are all that they want. They live to build their bank accounts and their possessions, and their comforts, and they give no place to God in their lives whatsoever, and yet, they think that God ought to let them into His heaven. They want the best of both worlds. God says, "Your way is perverse before Me."
And then comes a confession. I have to say that of everything else that we know of Balaam in the Word of God, that this is as much baloney as verse 19 was.
"Balaam said to the Angel of the Lord, 'I have sinned, for I did not know You stood in the way against me. Now therefore, if it displeases You, I will turn back'" (Numbers 22:34).
"If it displeases You"? Why certainly it displeased God. God had shown him His will. There was no question about it and yet Balaam still refuses to honestly acknowledge his sinful self-will. He hopes that somehow God will let him get his hands on that money. I'm not really surprised at God's reply.
"Then the Angel of the Lord said to Balaam, 'Go with the men, but only the word that I speak to you, that you shall speak.' So Balaam went with the princes of Balak" (Numbers 22:35).
God is saying not "My will has changed," but "Balaam, if you really want to go that way and if that's the way you're going to have it, go ahead and do it. But you're not going to be able to say anything except what I tell you to say."
Now, this is to me a very, very interesting story. I wish we could go on and finish the story but come back next week and we'll go on. Let's just pause today with this thought: This man, Balaam, wanted the best of two worlds. But as we're going to see when the story unfolds Balaam lost both worlds. He lost this one and that which is to come.
Listen to me, my friend. You can have the best of both worlds. That's right. God offers us the best in both lives: this present, physical life, and in eternity. The best of this life is not accumulating things. The best of this life is living in personal fellowship with the Lord Jesus Christ: coming to know Him as Savior, submitting to Him as Lord, and enjoying His presence moment by moment. That's the best of this life. And then after this life: joy unspeakable and full of glory. Eternity in the presence of the Savior.
I don't know which road you're on this morning, but it's possible some folks here in this room are traveling Balaam's route. It's time to turn around. Stop playing games with God and telling Him we're really willing when we aren't, and turn around. That's what "conversion" means: an about-face. Turn around. Acknowledge our sinfulness before Him. Trust Him as your own personal Savior from sin and then to begin to live in the center of His will. Won't you do that today?
If you've been fooling with God and putting off this decision, why not heed the warning God placed in His Word through this unusual individual named Balaam, and turn to Him in sincere faith today? Let's pray.
Heavenly Father, how we ask You to use Your Word to convict of sin and bring some who know not the Savior into a personal relationship with Him. Lord, work in our midst right now. These are the issues of eternity—nothing to be trifled with. God, we pray that You'll save some right now in these moments. We know You want to do that. We know You're working in hearts. Father, break down all resistance. May the Spirit do His work now in bringing about new life.
Trusting Jesus as Your Savior
Will you remain in an attitude of prayer and let me talk just for a moment? I want to talk to those of you who are not sure that God has saved you, because you have some doubts that you've really ever admitted how sinful you are. How unworthy even your good deeds are of earning eternal life. You're not sure that you've received Jesus Christ as your Savior. Why not do it now? When you settle it today, it will be settled forever. God will enter your life in the Person of His Holy Spirit. He'll seal you in your relationship with Jesus Christ and you can move out now to live for Him, confident that this fact is settled forever. "My sins are forgiven. I'm on my way to heaven."
If you're willing to admit your sin, and put your total trust and confidence in the finished work of Jesus Christ, in His shed blood—because when He died on that cross He died in your place for your sins. Won't you trust Him now? Talk to Him in the quiet of your own heart and tell Him you're ready to trust Him: "Lord, Jesus, I'm a sinner. I believe You died for Me. I need Your salvation. Lord Jesus, come into my life and save me." Oh, won't you trust Him?
Father, we pray, again, that You'll continue to work, convicting of sin till those who still resist will be brought to saving faith in Jesus Christ. For it's in His name we pray. Amen.
Continue to BL-2: A Star out of Jacob