When you talk about the most memorable Bible stories there are many that come to mind; Noah and the Ark, Jonah and the Whale, Elijah and the chariots from Heaven, and Balaam and his talking Donkey. This last account is the one we are going to focus on this morning. And this morning we are not only going to look at the account of the talking donkey, we are also going to look at the “rest of the story”.
The story of Balaam is valuable for us to study. Balaam gets more space in the Bible than does Mary the mother of Jesus. In fact, he gets more space than 10 of the 12 disciples combined! He is referred to three times in the New Testament and some people believe the wise men came to Jerusalem to search for a King because of Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24:17
“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.He will crush the foreheads of Moab,the skulls of all the sons of Sheth.
Last week we looked at the reason the Israelites spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness. As we reach chapter 22 more than 39 years has passed! (Needless to say, not much is written about the wilderness years). The events we read about today probably took place four months before Israel will enter the land promised them. They are on the Western side of the Jordan river, getting into position for entry into the land.
It should be no surprise that a movement of such a large group of people would make the inhabitants of the land nervous. And this was certainly the case for Balak the King of Moab. Balak saw this crowd of people camping near his country and decided to do something to protect himself. He sent a group of his men to hire a well-known seer by the name of Balaam to come and put a curse on the Israelites.
The text tells us that the men brought with them the “fee of divination”. The word for divination is used several times in the Old Testament and in almost every case it refers to an occult practice and is condemned by God. So right off the bat we figure Balaam to be a bad guy. But things are not what they seem.
The men arrive at the home of Balaam and he asks the men to stay the night while he checks with the Lord. I don’t know how he did this but he got a clear message back from the Lord. The Lord told him to refuse to go with the men. God made it clear that it was His intention to bless Israel rather than condemn them. So, the next day Balaam tells the men that he would like to help them, but he can’t. The Lord said no, so he can’t go.
From this first scene we learn two important lessons. First, the Lord will answer those who sincerely call to Him. It doesn’t matter where you have been . . . if you sincerely seek the Lord, you will find Him. Jesus told us, “Seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened, Ask and it shall be given.”
And what a good example Balaam provides for us. When the Lord’s will is clear we must turn away from other options! We must be willing to trust God more than the lure of profit, fame, or power. If we seek Him we must be willing to obey Him.
The messengers head home. Balak is not used to being refused, so he sends a larger group of men with a bigger fee. Balaam meets them at the door and says, “Look, it doesn’t matter how much Balak offers me, I can’t go unless He gives me permission.” But, he the guys to hang around and he’ll check with God again.
We get the feeling that Balaam was hoping that God would change His mind. All that money dangling in front of him was real tempting. There is one thing you can be sure about temptation, the Devil will not stop at one attack. The Devil will come at us from many different directions and at many different times. Saying “No” once is a victory in one battle but more battles will come. We can not let down our guard. The Devil will attack in an area of vulnerability over and over again. He will come at us repeatedly and from different angles. And this is what he is doing to Balaam.
Balaam turns to Lord once again. And God tells Balaam he can go with the men but He reminds him that he is to say only what he is told. God gave permission but He wasn’t happy about it. In verse 22 of chapter 22 we read that God was angry at Balaam. Since Balaam was intent on going with the men God let Balaam go.
J. Vernon McGee wrote,
There are certain things that you can keep nagging God about that He’ll permit you to do. But, my friend, you’ll dry up spiritually. And there are a great many Christians who could testify to this experience. Do you want God’s permissive will, or do you want His direct will? Do you want Him to give you every one of your prayer requests, or do you really want Him to have His way? Do you want His will to be done, or do you really want God to come over on your side and do what you want done? The interesting thing is that there are times when He will do just that.J. Vernon McGee, More Real Characters, electronic ed., Page 55 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001, c1997).You may have heard the whimsical story of the preacher who came to his wife and said, “I’ve just gotten a call to the church in the next town. It’s a larger town. It’s a much better church. The people in it are more refined and cultured, and they do not cause the trouble they do here; and they’ve offered me a higher salary. I’m going upstairs and pray about this to see if it’s the Lord’s will for me to go.” His wife says, “Fine, I’ll go up and pray with you.” And he says, “Oh, my, no. You stay down here and pack up.” (McGee)
Anyway, Balaam heads to Moab with the princes and riding on a donkey. The angel of the Lord stood in the road with his sword drawn but no one saw him but the donkey. The donkey turned off the road to avoid the angel. Balaam beat the donkey until he got back on the path. Next the angel appeared while they were on a narrow path between two walls around some vineyards. To avoid the angel the donkey pressed up against one wall crushing the foot of Balaam. Once again, Balaam beat the donkey.
Next the angel appeared on a road where they could not turn to the right or the left. There was no where to go so the donkey laid down! Balaam (certainly embarrassed, frustrated and really mad), beat the donkey with his staff. At this we are told.
Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?” Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”
The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” “No,” he said.
Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown. The angel of the Lord asked him, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me. (Numbers 22:28-32)
God gave the donkey the ability to talk! And even more amazing to me was the fact that Balaam talked back! Balaam is shown that the donkey saved him from death. Balaam (the smart guy that he is) tells the Lord that he is willing to return home if the Lord really doesn’t want him to go to Moab. God says, “Keep going . . . but say ONLY what I tell you.”
Isn’t it great the extent that God will go to get our attention?
Balaam arrives in Moab and Balak is overjoyed. He greets Balaam but Balaam warns him that he has to say what he is told. The next morning they went to overlook the Israelite camp. They offer a set of sacrifices. Balaam seeks the Lord’s words and he receives them. Balaam steps forwrad to utter the words God gave him. Balak is rubbing his hands in anticipation. Balaam says,
How can I curse those whom God has not cursed?How can I denounce those whom the Lord has not denounced? (Numbers 23:8)
Balaam proceeds not to curse Israel but he blesses them! Balak says, “I’m not paying you for a blessing!” Balaam told Balak that he had to say what God told him to say. Balak is a persistent little guy so he take Balaam to a different location to try again. This time Balaam says,
Balak tries one more time. And this time Balaam doesn’t even ask God. He knows what God wants to say and blesses Israel again. Balak is angry and refuses to pay Balaam. Balaam utters a prophecy about how the Israelites will eventually wipe out the residents of Moab. And then he turns to the men standing around him and prophecies about these men and their descendents. All in all Balaam utters three prophecies of blessing for Israel. And three curses against Balak and his friends.
What an important lesson for us. The Apostle Paul states it clearly.
Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. (Romans 8:33)
When God has chosen to make us His own, no one can condemn us. The nay-sayers, the critics, the opponents of the faith may speak loud and long against us but their curses will have no effect. God protects and defends His people. You and I can be afraid or we can be confident of God’s great love and provision.
SCENE FOUR – EPILOGUE
After these attempts to condemn and curse Israel we read a sordid story of Israel’s idolatry once again. Apparently the ladies of Moab came down and began to seduce the men of Israel. In the process of these immoral liaisons the women of Moab invite the men to worship with them. These men, under the “stupid spell” put on them by these beautiful women, rush headlong into idolatry.
God is angered by these blatant acts of rebellion and ingratitude and sends a plague to strike the people. God says the only way to get rid of the stench and the death is to execute the offenders. And that’s what is done. The sin of these people had become so brazen that one man even brought a woman right through camp with him. He wasn’t even trying to hide his sin. When people are no longer ashamed of their sin they reach a new level of depravity. Isn’t that a frightening message for our time?
This hardened man and the woman he brought into came were executed on the spot. That act stopped the plague. But 24,000 people died in this plague.
What does this have to do with Balaam? In chapter 31 Israel defeats Midian and Moses asks the soldiers,
“Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the Lord in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people. [Numbers 31:15-16]
We can only guess what happened. Balak offered Balaam a huge sum of money to curse Israel. God told Balaam not to curse Israel, so he didn’t. And I would guess that as Balaam was getting ready to leave Moab he said to Balak, “You know, I can’t curse Israel, but I can tell you how to get them to bring a curse upon themselves . . . . for a fee.” And when Balak paid up, Balaam explained that all Balak had to do was send his most attractive women into the camp and let the ladies pull them into idolatry. Balaam understood that sometimes the most devastating things that happen to a country don’t come from outward attacks. They come from a cancer on that erodes from the inside.
Balaam who at times seemed so noble to us, was seduced by money. In fact, this is the legacy that he left for future generations. Listen to what the New Testament says about him,
2 Peter 2:15 They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Beor, who loved the wages of wickedness.
Jude 11 Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; they have rushed for profit into Balaam’s error; they have been destroyed in Korah’s rebellion.
Revelation 2:14 Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality.
There is nothing that seems to corrupt as easily as money. How many apparent believers have left the things of the God in order to gain earthly riches? How many have seen the hunger for riches twist their values? How many ministries began with good intentions but then became obsessed with raising more and more money? Money is not bad but the love of money is. The love of money causes to do horrible things. It led Balaam to deliberately undermine God’s people. It has led others to
- act with treason by selling secrets to the enemy
- compromise their values
- cheating customers
- lying to the IRS
- engaging in illegal activity
- pursuing frivolous lawsuits
- robbing God by withholding our tithe
- sink deep into the mire of debt
- and look at people in terms of what they have or what they can give rather than who they are
I hope you see that the story of Balaam is given a large place in the story of the Bible because of the many lessons there are to learn. We have already looked at several lessons,
- Anyone who truly seeks God will find Him
- When God reveals His will we should obey without wavering
- When the Devil tempts us he seldom tries only once
- If we refuse God’s will, He will allow us to do our will but without His blessing
- God will use many different kinds of means to reach us
- As children of God we are under no condemnation
- And the lure of the material can seduce and destroy
But even after all this there is one more lesson. What about Balaam? Was he a believer or wasn’t he? At times he looks like a true follower. At other times he appears to be obeying God only on the surface. Which is it? Which Balaam is the true Balaam? I don’t know the answer to that question.
We should learn from Balaam that the race is not over until we cross the finish line. You see, it is possible to have some great spiritual times in your life and not really belong to the Lord. The true test of a true believer is their ability to fight the good fight, to finish the course, and to keep the faith. God has promised that he will finish his work in every true believer.
Balaam should cause us to ask some important questions:
- Do I know about God, or do I know God?
- Am I trusting my religious rituals or am I trusting what Christ has done for me and what His Spirit can do in me?
- Have I begun to coast in my spiritual life?
- Am I serving the Lord for the material blessing I hope it will bring or do I serve the Lord because of the eternal life He has given?
- Am I serving God in outward things while I am denying God in private?
- Am I more like Balaam than I’d like to admit?
I encourage you to do a personal inventory today. It’s my hope that each of us would be able to use Balaam as an illustration of many different important issues. Because, the story of Balaam is really about allot more than just a talking donkey.