Bible Studies in Israel’s Wilderness Wanderings
Balaam, obedience and a talking donkey

By Fraser Gordon

Introduction

Last time we looked at how God had sent serpents among the people to bite them because they were murmuring and complaining---as they do all the way through their wilderness wanderings. So He sent serpents to bite them but He also provided a remedy which was that if they put a bronze serpent up on a pole and looked at it they would live. We looked at that beautiful story of how when a person realizes that they are a sinner first and foremost, all they have to do is look toward God's remedy, which was a serpent hung up upon a pole; a beautiful type and picture of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. The nation has spent 38 years wandering around and has come back to this place for two more years before they actually came to cross over. Remember their judgment for unbelief was 40 years wandering and so they had to stay in this place until the forty years were fulfilled. Now I want to look at the next little part which is really an introduction to a character that comes in just before they cross over Jordon. He is not a very nice character really and his name is Balaam. Israel had camped right next to the Moabite king who was called Balak.

Fear builds in the heart of a king...

Num 22:1-4 Then the sons of Israel journeyed, and camped in the plains of Moab beyond the Jordan opposite Jericho. (2) Now Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. (3) So Moab was in great fear because of the people, for they were numerous; and Moab was in dread of the sons of Israel. (4) Moab said to the elders of Midian, "Now this horde will lick up all that is around us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field." And Balak the son of Zippor was king of Moab at that time.

Balak was really afraid of Israel because he had heard how many battles they had won on their way up from Egypt. They had actually just conquered a couple of kings, and Israel was very numerous. So he is afraid, not only of Israel as a military power, but also the size of the nation; he thinks that they are going to lick everything up, they are going to consume everything and there would not be enough for both nations to survive.

Enter Balaam – a right rogue!

Num 22:5 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.

Back to Balaam, whose name means “consumer of the people”. The Bible tells us where he is from; he was living by the river Euphrates. Balaam is mentioned three times in the New Testament, Peter, Jude and Revelation speak of him, and in every instance he is spoken of as being a rogue of a character. We are told about ‘the way of Balaam, the error of Balaam and the doctrine of Balaam.’ In all of those instances it portrays him as someone who is false, someone who is professing to be something but all the time his heart is in another area. So Balaam is our character today.

Num22:6 "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."

Balaam was a gentile. He wasn't a Jew but obviously he was a medium of some reputation because two kings actually hire him to come and curse Israel.

Num 22:9-12 Then God came to Balaam and said, "Who are these men with you?" (10) Balaam said to God, "Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent word to me, (11) 'Behold, there is a people who came out of Egypt and they cover the surface of the land; now come, curse them for me; perhaps I may be able to fight against them and drive them out.'" (12) God said to Balaam, "Do not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed."

Now we have God's response which is very direct. There are two “shall not's”. You shall not go with the people and you shall not curse them for they are blessed. When they came out of Egypt, they were blessed. When I read that I thought “wow” because from the time that they came out it has just been one failure after another, continual moaning and complaining, but from God’s perspective “they are blessed people.” Throughout their wilderness wanderings when they walked after the flesh and despite all their failings from God's perspective He could say “they are blessed”. And I thought that is so true of us also because many times in our Christian life we feel we are just not meeting the mark and think, where is God in all of this? My Christian life doesn't add up, it doesn't measure up – what is wrong? But from God's perspective He sees you as “blessed”. If you are a Christian today you are “in Christ”, you are in the risen Lord Jesus Christ, and you are blessed with every spiritual blessing that is attributed to the risen Christ. You are loved as “the beloved”. You cannot get any more than that. We are “in Christ” and that standing doesn't change. We are blessed, despite how we are acting and how we are feeling. God is on our side and He is for us. Because of this it was impossible for Balaam to curse this nation because God had blessed them.

Num 22:9-12 Then God came to Balaam and said, "Who are these men with you?" (10) Balaam said to God, "Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent word to me, (11) 'Behold, there is a people who came out of Egypt and they cover the surface of the land; now come, curse them for me; perhaps I may be able to fight against them and drive them out.'" (12) God said to Balaam, "Do not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed."

So God's first response to Balaam was “look, you cannot go with the people which the king of Moab has sent.”There are two “shall not's” “you shall not go with the people” and “you shall not curse Israel.” Don't waste your time, they are a blessed people. Was that the whole story? No. When you look at the life of this guy Balaam, there are two instances where he really compromises with what God has told him and this is the first one. He only gives the messengers of Balak half of the story. He tells them that he is not allowed to go with them but the real story was that it was impossible for him to curse the nation. He should have said to them “God has forbidden me to go with you because I cannot pronounce a curse upon this nation”. Their covering is Christ. They are blessed by Jehovah, so you are wasting your time. But he doesn't, he only gives half a story “I am not allowed to go with you.” So that sends the people back to the king with half of the message.

Balaam sounds good... but his heart is turning

Num22:13 So Balaam arose in the morning and said to Balak's leaders, "Go back to your land, for the LORD has refused to let me go with you."

Num 22:18-19 Balaam replied to the servants of Balak, "Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, either small or great, contrary to the command of the LORD my God. (19) "Now please, you also stay here tonight, and I will find out what else the LORD will speak to me."

The second downward step for Balaam is in verses 18 and 19. The King sends his messengers back to him. They are more honourable and they are obviously bearing greater gifts or greater promises, because verse 18 makes reference to it. “Then Balaam answered and said to the servants of Balak, “though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything either small or great, contrary to the command of the Lord my God.” But in verse 19 He says “And now please, you also stay here tonight, and I will find out what else the Lord will speak to me.” What had God said to him in the first instance? Do not go with them. What should Balaam's response have been, because God had already made it really clear what His will was?

Notice here that Balaam says “you stay here tonight that I may know what more the Lord will say to me.” There is a little wavering here with Balaam. And this little wavering reveals what is going on in Balaam's heart because these men have come to him obviously with a really tempting offer and somehow Balaam moves off the clear direct word of God “you shall not go” and “you shall not curse”. Something happens here and Balaam stops and says “this is a new group of people, maybe things have changed with God” “You stay here tonight and I will find out if God has actually changed His mind.” But in behind it all you can see the idol in Balaam's heart is really “what can I get?” Something has been offered to him that he can get something out of. For himself. This is his second downward step. He thought that maybe the rules had changed, but they hadn't. God's will had not changed, it was clear and direct but Balaam wanted something for himself.

2Pe 2:15-16 forsaking the right way, they have gone astray, having followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness; (16) but he received a rebuke for his own transgression, for a mute donkey, speaking with a voice of a man, restrained the madness of the prophet.

Peter interprets this passage with “there is a way of Balaam and it is the wages of unrighteousness” And really all false teachers and all false prophets come in the character of Balaam. Balaam's problem was that he thought he could actually benefit out of this. He thought that God might change His mind and he can actually get something for himself. I could get wealthy; I could get honour or something king Balak was actually offering. That is the way that all false teachers work. In behind their service for God there is an amount of “what can I get out of this”. There is an idol in their heart that either wants to get the riches, wants to earn money out of it, or get the fame or the honour, or something along those lines, and this is why Balaam in the scriptures is a warning to us. Our life and our character, and what we do for God, has to be of a pure motive and of a pure heart. Our service to God is to Him and for His glory and for nothing else. It is not about what we can get.

So Balaam was looking for a way to market the gift that he had. He didn’t seem to comprehend the fact that God was really testing him. He was looking for God to change His mind! Well the Lord hadn't any more to say to him, He had already given him His clear, direct will.

A nice profession masks a deceitful heart

The second thing I thought about is the deceitfulness of the human heart. Here you have Balaam saying to the messengers, “I could not go beyond the word of my God to do less or more.” He is professing to do everything that God tells him but that was not true, his heart was hungering after something else. I believe that is a real warning for us because our heart, as the bible says in Jeremiah 17, is desperately wicked. The Lord knows that and this is why we need the word of God because as Hebrews says it actually divides the thoughts and intents of the heart. It searches those inner things that sometimes we don't know exist within our hearts. We can be coming to God for something and yet hungering for something else, and we are all capable of it because these are all idols that we have. We can profess to do something for God but somehow we have ulterior motives and Balaam is actually like that. The word of God shows us when we are not walking true to His path; not being completely honest before him.

Many of our prayers have hidden agendas. We come to God for things but we have an agenda. I read of a Pastor who came back to his wife at home and said “Look I have had a call from the church in the next town; it is a bigger town than the one we are in, it's a bigger church, they are fine people, they are nice folks, and it is probably a bigger pay packet!” Then he says to his wife “Honey, I am going to go upstairs and find out the will of the Lord about this matter” and she replies “good, I will come with you.” But he says “No, you stay down here and pack.” He had already made up his mind and at times we are also like that. Sometimes we will just do what we are going to do because we want to do it. So we need the word of God to keep a real check on the motives and the intents of our hearts. This is why David prayed “Surely You desire truth in the inward parts” and “create in me a clean heart” one that is honest before You, one that is not hiding things.

I heard a really cool story this week that just reminded me of being honest and true to what we are in God. There was a homeless man in America. I can't remember which town it was, but he found a back pack on the side of the road and it had $45,000 in it. He was homeless, he didn't have anything, but he handed it in to the police and they interviewed him because it was so rare to find someone who was honest. His response was to the question “Why didn't you just spend it, out of all the people that have needs, it is you.”He replied “Well, my life is in the hands of the Lord and I just didn't feel right about keeping it.” The owner came forth--I think it was some Japanese guy, and they made such a big deal about it in America. It was in all the papers, that here is someone who was honest and did the right thing, and they gave him a plaque. I don't know where a homeless man is going to put a plaque, but anyway, another guy in another state was so impressed by this that he set up an on-line account for him and I heard that it was up to $90,000. So he handed in $45,000 and now he had twice that amount, and the man who had set up the online account was saying we want to actually get enough to buy him a home. I was just amazed at this story and how simple it was, that this one man who had every right to have ‘a spend up’ or whatever, thought “No, my life is in the hands of the Lord, this is the right thing to do.”

But Balaam is not like that.

Did God change His mind?

Num 22:20 God came to Balaam at night and said to him, "If the men have come to call you, rise up and go with them; but only the word which I speak to you shall you do."

So here you have a contradiction, why did God tell him to go with the messengers from the king? Why did God tell him to go and then a couple of verses later He comes out as an adversary against Balaam saying “Your way is perverse before Me”. Why did God tell him to go? It is because he will never override our free will; He will allow you and I to do pretty much that which our hearts are set on. Balaam had already made up his mind, way back there, when he said “stay here tonight; let's see if God has any extra to say about this matter.” Balaam had already made up his mind and God knew that, so he allowed him to walk down the path that he wanted to walk down. It is the same for us also; God will not force us against our will. And the bible is full of His saints going their own way. That is what I love about scripture, it is just full of people that God loves and has used, but yet they make these independent self-willed mistakes, whether it is Abraham, or David. I was listening to a guy talking about Abraham this week, whenever he got into trouble he always ran into Egypt. God never stopped him but God was with him. He lied about his wife down there, and nearly got into trouble with the king, but God preserved him through that. However, you always bring out baggage from the areas that you walk into that aren’t God's will. Abraham came out from Egypt with a servant called Hagar. If Abraham hadn't gone down into Egypt he wouldn't have got the servant girl Hagar. And Hagar in the end became quite an issue because she presented an opportunity for Abraham when he couldn't have a son – to try to bring forth a son for God’s purpose. And so we have a whole big mess, which continues to this day, just because of that. God will never over ride our independent will. He will allow you to go, but you will be buffeted in some way when you step outside of God's will. Balaam's sin was going to find him out.

There is another corresponding passage to this story in 1st Kings13 about the prophet that was given instructions from God that he was to go to a city and to speak this way and say this thing, and he was not to eat anything and to go back by a different way. God was testing that prophet and he goes and does what he what he was told, but on his way back an old prophet comes and says to him “look God has told me you are to come home to my house and eat at my table.” And this man, instead of doing what God had revealed to him wavered, and he went with the man to his home. The old prophet actually had a prophecy over him while he was in his house saying “Look, you have disobeyed the word of the Lord.” When he continued on his way a lion met him on the road and took his life. The lion just stood over his corpse, and didn’t even touch the donkey. The lion here is really like the adversary that has come out to meet Balaam.

Let ‘em have it donkey! Speak sense to the wayward prophet.

Num22:28 And 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?"

There are only two occasions where an animal speaks in scripture, this is one, and the other is the serpent in Genesis. So God opened this donkey's mouth and Balaam said to the donkey “Because you have abused me I wish there was a sword in my hand for now I would kill you.” Then 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”. Of all the words of wisdom in this passage, it is this one. It is classic because here you have someone who is considered to be very wise, he is hired by two kings, able to pronounce a curse, and obviously see things that are unseen, yet he hasn't got a clue what is going on here. But the donkey knows and is actually asking Balaam “Haven't I been yours always, doesn't it seem strange to you that three times I have turned out of the way?

Num 22:31-34 Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed all the way to the ground. (32) The angel of the LORD said to him, "Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out as an adversary, because your way was contrary to me. (33) "But the donkey saw me and turned aside from me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, I would surely have killed you just now, and let her live." (34) Balaam said to the angel of the LORD, "I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing in the way against me. Now then, if it is displeasing to you, I will turn back."

And so God allowed him to turn back and go with the men.

So here you have the wisest guy around. And, as Peter says, he was rebuked by a dumb donkey. The one that actually spoke wisdom in this passage is the one that it is considered to be dumb. So the prophet’s madness was really halted at that point by a donkey. This whole passage is really introducing someone who is professing to do something but in their heart they are not. And God allowed this so that this man's sin might be brought out in the open, and that he might know the true state of his heart.