I was in the grocery store the other day, and as I was making my way down one aisle, I passed another shopper. This woman had a child in her cart, whom I judged to be about five or six years old. This was a very attractive child, and I was especially fascinated by the way its long hair had been so meticulously braided. And so when I caught the eye of the child, I said something like, “Hello there. I love your hair. What a lovely young lady you are!” The mother looked at me with disgust and replied, “His name is ______.” What could I say? There was absolutely no way for me to take back what I had said or to make amends for my foolishness. I quickly found it necessary to look for something I needed several aisles away.
Sometimes we say things that really get us into trouble. Someone sent me an e-mail message recently about things that you should never say to a police officer. These included the following:
As much as he wishes to do so, the false prophet Balaam finds it impossible to say anything that will please Balak, the king of Moab. This heathen king was attempting to persuade Balaam to curse the Israelites, who had camped nearby, poised to take possession of the Promised Land.
10 And Balaam said to God, “Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent to me saying, 11 ‘Look, a nation has come out of Egypt, and it covers the face of the earth. Come now and put a curse on them for me; perhaps I will be able to defeat them and drive them out.’” 12 But God said to Balaam, “You must not go with them; you must not curse the people, for they are blessed” (Numbers 22:10-12).
In our previous lesson, we focused on Numbers 22 and the invitation Balaam received from the delegation sent by Balak. Balak made a very tempting offer to Balaam, if he would come and curse Israel for him. Because Balaam wanted to accept Balak’s offer, he did not listen when God forbade him to go with the delegation that had come to bring him to Balak. Neither did he listen to his donkey, which spoke to him. Only when Balaam saw the Angel of the Lord did he offer to turn back from going to the king of Moab. God instructed Balaam to go on, but with one condition: he was to very carefully speak only the words that God gave him (22:35). If Balaam learned anything at all, it was that when he spoke for God, he must not say anything but that which God revealed to him.
As we approach Numbers 22:36-24:25, we will attempt to focus on three things: (1) the stubborn persistence of Balak; (2) the progress of Balaam; and, (3) the oracles which God had spoken through Balaam. I would remind you that while Balaam is a false prophet, the words he speaks in our text are the words of God. Just as God can speak through a donkey, He can also speak through a man like Balaam. Indeed, one of the great prophecies of the Old Testament is to be found in our text! Regardless of the mouthpiece, let us listen well to what God is saying, and let us seek to learn what Balaam and Balak did not.
One of my relatives used to say that his mother was the most gracious woman he ever knew. He claimed that she always found something good to say about everyone. “Why,” he would say, “if you asked her about the devil, she was sure to say, ‘Well, he’s persistent.’” That’s one thing we can safely say about Balak. In our text, Balak is both “persistent” and “consistent.” That’s a nice way of saying that he was a stubborn man, who refused to listen and to learn. The Bible has other names for people like him.
As I read through these chapters in Numbers, I am amazed that this man never gives up, and that he never seems to get the message. This is in spite of the fact that it is God who is speaking, and He repeats the message several times. Here is a king who is willing to pay Balaam well for his words, if he will put a curse upon Israel. Yet he is not willing to heed the words of Balaam, which pronounce a curse upon any who would curse Israel. Balak learns absolutely nothing from his encounter with the God of Israel.
His persistence is seen in his refusal to accept Balaam’s response when he declines his invitation to come and curse Israel. His persistence is also seen in his numerous attempts to approach God in worship (Numbers 22:39—23:6; 23:13-17, 27-30). If I am correct, Balak is not attempting to have Balaam persuade his heathen “gods” to curse the Israelites and their God. I suspect that Balak has already attempted this and failed. I believe Balaam is being brought in as a kind of spiritual consultant, with the hope that he can somehow communicate with Yahweh and induce Him to curse His own people, the Israelites, upon whom He has pronounced His blessing.
Balak behaves like a Mafia “godfather,” who is trying to “make Balaam and God an offer they cannot refuse.” On the one hand, he employs flattery and bribery to persuade Balaam, and on the other hand, there is the implied threat that harm will come to him if Balak does not get what he demands. Balak looks upon God as being weak-willed, so he expects to change the will of God by persisting to press Him to curse Israel. And so he moves from one place to another, making one sacrifice after another, as though the quality and quantity of his offerings can manipulate God. God is not impressed, nor does He change His mind.
Notice, too, that Balak is very willing to join together with Balaam and with whatever “god” will get him what he wants. He is the classic polytheist (a believer in many gods). He looks upon the gods as some people look on vitamin pills—if one is good, then several must be far better. And so Balak is more than willing to unite himself with other prophets and other gods, so long as he gets his way. His motto is, “the more the merrier.”
Balak’s approach was the opposite of God’s instructions to Israel. God repeatedly warned the Israelites not to embrace any other gods or to incorporate any of their religious practices. Their safety and security came from standing alone, in keeping themselves separate from the heathen nations around them, and in worshipping God alone. Balak could not even begin to grasp how offensive his “worship” was to the God of Israel. Was he trying to get God’s attention? He was getting it, but not in the way he wanted.
The more I have studied this passage, the more I have been impressed with the differences between Balak and Balaam. Both men were pagans, it is true, but each responded differently to divine revelation in this account. Balak makes no progress at all. He is exactly the same man at the end of the story as he is at the beginning. Balaam, however, undergoes some significant changes. Balaam makes a great deal of progress in his understanding of God, and in the way he speaks as a prophet. Consider these examples of Balaam’s progress in our passage.
Balaam learns that those whom Balak merely calls “a people” are “God’s people.”
5 And he sent messengers to Balaam, the son of Beor, to Pethor, which is by the river in his native land, to call him, saying, “Look, a nation has come out of Egypt. They cover the face of the earth, and they are settling next to me. 6 So now, please come and curse this nation for me, for they are too powerful for me. Perhaps I will prevail so that we may conquer them, and drive them out of the land. For I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed” (Numbers 22:5-6, emphasis mine).
20 Indeed, I have received command to bless, and he has blessed, and I cannot reverse it. 21 He has not looked on iniquity in Jacob, neither has he seen trouble in Israel. The LORD their God is with them, and the acclamation for a king is among them; 22 God brought them out of Egypt, They have as it were the strength of a wild bull. 23 For there is no spell against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel. At this time it must be said of Jacob and of Israel, “What God has done!” (Numbers 23:20-23, emphasis mine).
Balaam learns that those whom Balak wants him to curse are those whom God has blessed.
6 So now, please come and curse this nation for me, for they are too powerful for me. Perhaps I will prevail so that we may conquer them, and drive them out of the land. For I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed. . . .12 But God said to Balaam, “You must not go with them; you must not curse the people, for they are blessed” (Numbers 22:6, 12, emphasis mine).
Then Balaam took up his oracle, and said, “Balak, the king of Moab brought me from Aram, out of the mountains of the east, saying, ‘Come, pronounce a curse on Jacob for me, and come, denounce Israel.’ 8 How can I curse whom God has not cursed, or how can I denounce whom the LORD has not denounced? (Numbers 23:7-8, emphasis mine).
19 “God is not a man, that he should lie, neither the son of man, that he should repent; has he said, and will he not do it? or has he spoken, and will he not establish it? 20 Indeed, I have received command to bless, and he has blessed, and I cannot reverse it” (Numbers 23:19-20, emphasis mine).
Balaam eventually admits his sin in going with Balak’s emissaries and offers to go back. When Balak summons Balaam, this false prophet really wants to go and curse the Israelites. Obviously, Balaam would have been rewarded with a generous fee, which he was eager to obtain. After God instructs him not to go (22:6, 12), Balaam declines the invitation of Balak’s emissaries, but without conviction, thereby leaving the door open for future negotiations. When a better offer is proposed and Balaam seeks God’s permission to go, God grants him permission, but it eventually becomes apparent to him that this displeased God greatly, putting his life in great jeopardy. This was first communicated circumstantially by Balaam’s donkey, as she repeatedly turned off the path. Then it was conveyed more clearly and forcefully when the donkey spoke to Balaam, and finally when he saw the Angel of the Lord standing in his way, with drawn sword. Balaam finally admits his guilt in going to Balak (22:34) and offers to turn back.
Balaam’s words to Balak indicate some movement in the right direction. Balaam tells Balak that he has no power, in and of himself, to speak anything for God (22:38). He also informs Balak that whatever God puts in his mouth, that he must speak (22:38; 23:3, 12).
At first, Balaam is not entirely candid in what he says, but in the end, he speaks very plainly and forcefully to Balak. Balaam does not fully disclose all that Balak had communicated to him through the delegation that he had sent (compare 22:5-6 with 22:11). Likewise, Balaam does not fully convey to Balak all that God had spoken to him (compare 22:9, 12 with 22:13). But after the ordeal with his donkey and the Angel of the Lord, Balaam is careful to say all that God revealed to him. The oracles that he spoke were the words of God.
Balaam begins to identify himself with God and with the nation Israel.
18 And Balaam answered and said to the servants of Balak, “If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not transgress the commandment of the LORD my God, to do less or more” (Numbers 22:18, emphasis mine).
10 Who can count the dust of Jacob, Or as a number, the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the upright, and let my latter end be like theirs” (Numbers 23:10).
Balaam comes to grasp that the God of Israel was God alone. Balaam starts to comprehend the complete “otherness” of God when compared to the “gods” he has dealt with previously. Specifically, Balaam begins to grasp the sovereignty of God:
18 And he took up his oracle, and said, “Rise up Balak, and hear, Listen to me, son of Zippor; 19 God is not a man, that he should lie, neither the son of man, that he should repent; has he said, and will he not do it? or has he spoken, and will he not establish it? 20 Indeed, I have received command to bless, and he has blessed, and I cannot reverse it. 21 He has not looked on iniquity in Jacob, neither has he seen trouble in Israel.
The LORD their God is with them, and the acclamation for a king is among them; 22 God brought them out of Egypt, They have as it were the strength of a wild bull. 23 For there is no spell against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel. At this time it must be said of Jacob and of Israel, “What God has done!” 24 Indeed, the people will rise up like a lion, and like a lion lift himself up; they will not lie down until they eat their prey, and drink the blood of the slain” (Numbers 23:18-24, emphasis mine).
When Balaam learns how God’s will is supposed to be sought, he ceases to employ his pagan methods and uses those that please God: “ When Balaam saw that it pleased the LORD to bless Israel, he did not go as at the other times to seek for omens, but he set his face toward the wilderness (Numbers 24:1).
At first, God “put the words in Balaam’s mouth,” as He did with the donkey. But later God’s Spirit comes upon Balaam, so that he speaks in the Spirit:
The king said, “Is the hand of Joab with you in all of this?” The woman replied, “As your soul lives, my lord the king, there is no deviation to the right or to the left from all that my lord the king has said. For your servant Joab gave me instructions. He has put all these words in my mouth” (2 Samuel 14:19,emphasis mine).
“So now, look, the LORD has placed a lying spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of yours; but the LORD has decreed disaster for you” (1 Kings 22:23, emphasis mine).
2 And Balaam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel camped tribe by tribe; and the Spirit of God came upon him. 3 Then he took up this oracle, and said, . . . (Numbers 24:2-3a, emphasis mine).
In the end, Balaam speaks the words of God to Balak, in spite of the fact that he has already been fired and told to leave, and in spite of the fact that doing so puts his life in jeopardy.
10 Then Balak’s anger was kindled against Balaam, and he struck his hands together. And Balak said to Balaam, “I called you to curse my enemies, and look, you have done nothing but bless them these three times. 11 So now, flee to your place. I said that I would greatly honor you; but now, the LORD has stood in the way of your honor.” 12 And Balaam said to Balak, “Did I not also speak to your messengers which you sent to me, saying, 13 ‘If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the commandment of the LORD to do either good or evil of my own will; but what the LORD tells me I must speak.’ 14 And now, I am about to go to my people. Come now, and I will advise you as to what this people will do to your people in the future.” 15 And he took up his oracle, and said:
“The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, and the oracle of the man whose eyes are open; 16 the oracle of him who hears the words of God, and who knows the knowledge of the Most High, who he sees a vision from the Almighty, although falling prostrate with eyes open: 17 ‘I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not close at hand; A star will march forth out of Jacob, and a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the skulls of Moab, and the heads of all the sons of Sheth. 18 And Edom will be a possession, Seir, his enemies, will also be a possession; but Israel will do valiantly. 19 A ruler will be established from Jacob, and will destroy the remains of the city.’”
20 Then he looked on Amalek, and took up his oracle, and said, “Amalek was the first of the nations, but his end will be that he will perish.” 21 Then he looked on the Kenites, and took up his oracle, and said, “Your dwelling place seems strong, and your nest is set in a rock; 22 Nevertheless the Kenite will be consumed, How long will Asshur take you away captive?” 23 And he took up his oracle, and said, “Oh, who will live when God does this! 24 And ships will come from the coast of Kittim, And will afflict Asshur, and will afflict Eber, and he will also perish forever.” 25 And Balaam rose up, and went and returned to his place; and Balak also went his way.
One might wonder why there are four separate prophecies given through Balaam in chapters 23 and 24. Balak seemed to insist on seeking further revelation, with the hope that he could somehow change the purposes and promises of God. But when you compare the four prophecies, you begin to observe some very interesting relationships. (1) Each subsequent prophecy is longer and more specific than the previous one. From Balak’s perspective, every prophecy gets worse. (2) At the beginning, Balaam’s words emphasize the impossibility of cursing the people God has blessed; as these prophecies continue, there is a growing emphasis and specificity regarding the judgment of God on Israel’s enemies. Does Balak want God’s people cursed? Instead, he finds that he and his people are cursed! (3) There is also a growing emphasis and specificity regarding the blessings that God will bring upon His people, Israel.
Balak becomes more and more upset by Balaam’s prophecies. He is emphatic that he will not settle for this kind of prophecy, and that Balaam had better come up with something better. Finally, after Balaam’s third prophecy, Balak gives up, and with great anger tells Balaam to leave. There will be no bonus check for Balaam, and not even a paycheck for him. If Balaam wants to spare his life, he had better get out of town quickly. Surely Balaam did not fail to get the point, and yet instead of keeping quiet and leaving quickly, he delivers a final prophecy against Balak’s wishes. This is an amazing prophecy of blessings for Israel and of judgment for all the enemies of Israel. By the end of Numbers 24, we can see that Balaam has come a long way from the fellow we first met in chapter 22.
What Balak cannot grasp, and Balaam begins to understand, is that God’s relationship with Israel is based upon His covenant with Abraham and his descendants. Unlike men, God will not break His promises. No matter what Balak offers, there is no way that Balaam or any other prophet can manipulate Him so that He will abandon His people, to whom He has eternally committed Himself in the form of a covenant:
1 Now the LORD had said to Abram, “Go out from your country, and from your relatives, and from your father's household, to the land that I will show you; 2 and I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, in order that you might be a blessing; 3 and I will bless those who bless you, but the one who treats you lightly I must curse, and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1-3).
In the light of God’s covenant promise to Abraham, the forefather of the nation Israel, Balak’s request of Balaam is seen for what it is—impossible:
5 And he sent messengers to Balaam, the son of Beor, to Pethor, which is by the river in his native land, to call him, saying, “Look, a nation has come out of Egypt. They cover the face of the earth, and they are settling next to me. 6 So now, please come and curse this nation for me, for they are too powerful for me. Perhaps I will prevail so that we may conquer them, and drive them out of the land. For I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed” (Numbers 22:5-6).
Then Balaam took up his oracle, and said, “Balak, the king of Moab brought me from Aram, out of the mountains of the east, saying, ‘Come, pronounce a curse on Jacob or me, and come, denounce Israel.’ 8 How can I curse whom God has not cursed, or how can I denounce whom the LORD has not denounced? (Numbers 23:7-8, emphasis mine).
All the prophecies of Balaam are the outgrowth of God’s covenant promises to Israel, and Balak’s attempts to reverse this covenant will prove futile.
7 Then Balaam took up his oracle, and said, “Balak, the king of Moab brought me from Aram, out of the mountains of the east, saying, ‘Come, pronounce a curse on Jacob for me, and come, denounce Israel.’ 8 How can I curse whom God has not cursed, or how can I denounce whom the LORD has not denounced? 9 For from the top of the rocks I see them, and from the hills I watch them. Indeed, a nation that lives alone, and it will not be reckoned among the nations. 10 Who can count the dust of Jacob, Or as a number, the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the upright, and let my latter end be like theirs.”
This first prophecy is short and to the point. Balak has brought Balaam from Aram, instructing him to curse Israel (Numbers 23:7). It is impossible for Balaam to grant his request because, as a prophet, he can only echo what God has declared. God has not denounced Israel, so neither can Balaam denounce them (verse 8). This is a nation that stands apart from all other nations (verse 9), and they will become even greater in number and strength (verse 10a). Balaam cannot curse them; he even indicates that he wishes he could enter into their blessings, which include a hope that extends beyond the grave (10b).
18 And he took up his oracle, and said, “Rise up Balak, and hear, Listen to me, son of Zippor; 19 God is not a man, that he should lie, neither the son of man, that he should repent; has he said, and will he not do it? or has he spoken, and will he not establish it? 20 Indeed, I have received command to bless, and he has blessed, and I cannot reverse it. 21 He has not looked on iniquity in Jacob, neither has he seen trouble in Israel. The LORD their God is with them, and the acclamation for a king is among them; 22 God brought them out of Egypt, They have as it were the strength of a wild bull. 23 For there is no spell against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel. At this time it must be said of Jacob and of Israel, “What God has done!” 24 Indeed, the people will rise up like a lion, and like a lion lift himself up; they will not lie down until they eat their prey, and drink the blood of the slain.”
My perception of Balak is that he is a man who is accustomed to getting his way. No one would dare to speak harshly to him, and yet even though he has made it clear to Balaam that he wants no more prophecies like the first one (23:11-12), Balaam’s words become more pointed and forceful. His second oracle begins with words that we might paraphrase this way: “Sit up straight and listen, Balak, because God has a word for you, and you’d better pay attention!”
Balak may be used to giving orders to men, and even to his “gods,” but the God of Israel is different. He is not a man. He does not lie, and He certainly does not break His promises. He does not take orders from men. If God has committed Himself to bless Israel, that is the way it will be (verse 19). Since God has commanded Balaam to bless Israel, he surely cannot reverse it (verse 20).
Verse 21 is absolutely amazing. Behind this verse, there appears to be the assumption on Balak’s part that God’s blessings are based upon the merits of those who are blessed. Balak thus appears to be attempting to outdo Israel, by his sacrifices and by hiring Balaam. Balaam pulls the rug out from under Balak once again by informing this heathen king that God’s blessings are based upon the principle of grace. God has not made His covenant with Israel, based upon Israel’s righteousness. Indeed, God does not look upon the (many) sins of Jacob. God’s kindness to Israel is rooted in His grace. This was the basis for His leading Israel out of Egypt. Balak should remember that God defended Israel against her enemies, so that they were invincible. There was no way that Balaam could reverse this to bring about Israel’s downfall. To oppose Israel is to oppose Israel’s God (verses 22-23).
The final verse, Numbers 23:24, concludes with a powerful word of promise and warning. What God has done for Israel shows His faithfulness and power. But God is yet to do great things for His people in the future. He will cause Israel to rise up like a lion. Like a lion, Israel will not rest until it has destroyed and consumed its prey—and we all know who that will include (see Numbers 31:1-12)! This final verse of Balaam’s second prophecy is a very powerful word of warning that Israel will destroy their enemies. The point of all this is quite clear—no nation ought to become the enemy of Israel. This is precisely what Balak is doing.
The emphasis in this second oracle of Balaam is on the God of Israel, His nature, and His attributes. Based upon God’s covenant and His character, it is certain that the blessings of Israel are certain and secure. And based upon His covenant relationship with Israel, as evident in the exodus, no nation should dare to oppose the people of God. To do so is to become the enemy of God and to face destruction. If there is a curse to be pronounced, it must be pronounced upon God’s enemies, because God’s blessings have been promised to His people, Israel.
3 Then he took up this oracle, and said, “The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, and the oracle of the man whose eyes are open; 4 The oracle of him who hears the words of God, who sees the vision of the Almighty, although falling prostrate with eyes open: 5 ‘How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, and your habitations, O Israel! 6 They are like valleys stretched forth, like gardens by the river’s side, like aloes that the LORD has planted and like cedar trees beside the waters. 7 He will pour the water out of his buckets, and their descendants will be like flowing water; their king will be greater than Agag, and their kingdom will be exalted. 8 God brought them out of Egypt, They have as it were the strength of a young bull; they will devour hostile people, and will break their bones, and pierce them through with arrows. 9 They crouch and lie down like a lioness; and as a great lion, who can stir him? Blessed is he that bless you, and cursed is he that curses you.’”
As I read the first words of this third oracle, I am impressed with the way Balaam has an ever-growing sense that he is speaking authoritatively for God. Verses 3 and 4 say it so forcefully. Balaam has claimed to speak for the “gods” before, but now he realizes that the revelation he has received is from the one True God, and that his words are therefore authoritative. In today’s terminology, Balaam has come to believe in the inspiration and authority of Scripture, and he sees that what he is speaking is the Word of God. It certainly affects the way Balaam deals with Balak, and it should also affect the way Balak responds to the Word of the Lord.
The rest of Balaam’s third oracle pronounces a blessing on Israel. How this must have galled Balak. He was paying for cursing, not blessing! How different is the way God looks upon the Israelites, camped below. Balak sees them as a great threat to him and to his people. God sees them as beautiful. They are like gardens, planted by the river. God will faithfully water them, and as He does, they will grow stronger, so that they will utterly defeat their enemies (verses 5-9). The imagery of a lion devouring its prey introduced in the last oracle (23:24) is once again employed (24:9). And now the Abrahamic covenant is reiterated in a way that precisely reverses what Balak has sought!
Balak is hot with anger. How dare Balaam turn the tables on him, blessing the very people he was paying him to curse, and cursing those whom he insisted that he bless! To make matters worse, Balaam has done this three times (24:10). Balak knows how to hurt a fellow like Balaam—he fires him and withholds his pay (24:11). Balaam tries to explain, but Balak is not listening (24:12-13). In spite of his anger, Balaam gives Balak a final, unsolicited word from the Lord in his fourth and final oracle.
15 And he took up his oracle, and said: “The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, and the oracle of the man whose eyes are open; 16 the oracle of him who hears the words of God, and who knows the knowledge of the Most High, who he sees a vision from the Almighty, although falling prostrate with eyes open: 17 ‘I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not close at hand; A star will march forth out of Jacob, and a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the skulls of Moab, and the heads of all the sons of Sheth. 18 And Edom will be a possession, Seir, his enemies, will also be a possession; but Israel will do valiantly. 19 A ruler will be established from Jacob, and will destroy the remains of the city.’”
20 Then he looked on Amalek, and took up his oracle, and said, “Amalek was the first of the nations, but his end will be that he will perish.”
21 Then he looked on the Kenites, and took up his oracle, and said, “Your dwelling place seems strong, and your nest is set in a rock; 22 Nevertheless the Kenite will be consumed, How long will Asshur take you away captive?”
23 And he took up his oracle, and said, “Oh, who will live when God does this! 24 And ships will come from the coast of Kittim, And will afflict Asshur, and will afflict Eber, and he will also perish forever.”
25 And Balaam rose up, and went and returned to his place; and Balak also went his way.
In verses 15 and 16, Balaam repeats what he has already declared in 23:2-3. Once again the introduction makes it clear that the words which follow are inspired by God, and thus reliable and authoritative. Balak would do well to heed them, and so would we.
Verses 17-19 are a sermon in and of themselves. This pagan prophet speaks the most beautiful and pointed words of prophecy yet. In fact, in this messianic prophecy, Balaam goes farther than many true prophets have done, or will do. Has God promised to bless Abraham and his offspring in the Abrahamic covenant? Balaam now tells us how this will take place. The blessings that will come to Israel come through Messiah. Wonder of wonders, Balaam “sees” him, a true prophet for a few moments of his life, at least so far as his words are concerned. This Messiah will not only come to save Israel, He will destroy Israel’s enemies (verses 17b-18).
Have the Midianites and the Moabites sought to form an alliance against Israel with the futile hope of defeating the people of God? It won’t work. In fact, these closing words of Balaam’s prophecy spell out defeat for all those who would join together against the people of God. In spite of all their strengths and strongholds, nothing will prevent them from the defeat which God has promised in the Abrahamic covenant, and now through Balaam. With these parting words, Balaam leaves. We would suppose that we have seen the last of Balaam, but Numbers 25 indicates otherwise.
Our text leaves us with many lessons to ponder. Allow me to mention a few of the lessons I see from these chapters.
The Israelites have now come to the borders of the Promised Land. Soon, they will possess the land under Joshua. Throughout Israel’s history, the neighboring nations surrounding Israel will be intimidated by the presence of the people of God and His blessings upon them. Like Balak, the kings of these nations will seek to bring about Israel’s downfall. Let Israel never forget that their safety and security—and their blessings—are a gift from God, based upon His covenant with them. As they trust in Him, He will protect them and give them prosperity, even in the face of opposition from their neighbors.
Though they do not see it at the time, it will become increasingly apparent that the blessings of God will ultimately be realized through one person—the Messiah. He is the reason why God can bless an unworthy people. Israel’s blessings are wrapped up in Messiah. Whether one is an Israelite or a Gentile, every person must choose to submit to Him or to oppose Him. To submit to Him (to bless Him) is to experience God’s blessings. To oppose Him (to curse Him) is to fall under the curse of God. Israel’s future rests in their response to the Messiah who is yet to come.
I am impressed by the fact that the events of chapters 22-24 are not taking place before the eyes of the Israelites. If it were not for the account of Numbers 22-24, neither Israel nor we would even know these things took place. I am reminded of passages in Job and in the Book of Daniel that speak of the “spiritual warfare” that is taking place, unknown to us (unless God reveals it). Thank God that He is constantly protecting us and securing our blessings, when the forces of hell oppose us.
We can learn an important lesson from Balak. It does not pay to oppose the purposes and promises of God. We can never prevail against God. Let us learn from Balak that what God says, He means. When we neglect the Word God has spoken to us, we do so to our own peril.
1 After God spoke long ago in various portions and in various ways to our ancestors through the prophets, 2 in these last days he has spoken to us in a son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he created the world (Hebrews 1:1-2).
1 Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2 For if the message spoken through angels proved to be so firm that every violation or disobedience received its just penalty, 3 how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was first communicated through the Lord and was confirmed to us by those who heard him, 4 while God confirmed their witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Hebrews 2:1-4).
How sad that Balak has everything backwards! The presence of Israel in the land was not a threat to him, but a blessing. All he had to do was to bless Israel. Instead, he sought to curse God’s people.
The issue is essentially the same for men and women today. Our Lord is the fulfillment of Israel’s blessings. We are blessed or cursed of God, based upon our response to Jesus Christ:
13 After they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. For Herod is going to look for the child to kill him.” 14 Then he got up, took the child and his mother at night and went to Egypt. 15 He stayed there until Herod died. In this way what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled: “I called my Son out of Egypt” (Matthew 2:13-15, citing Hosea 11:1).
15 Brothers and sisters, let me illustrate with a human analogy: when a covenant has been ratified, even though it is only a human contract, no one can set it aside or add anything to it. 16 Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his descendant. Scripture does not say, “and to the descendants,” referring to many, but “and to your descendant,” referring to one, who is Christ (Galatians 3:15-16).
12 But to all who have received him—those who believe in his name—he has given the right to become God’s children 13 —children not born by human parents or by human desire or a husband’s decision, but by God (John 1:12-13).
16 For this is the way God loved the world: he gave his one and only Son that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him. 18 The one who believes in him is not condemned. The one who does not believe has been condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God (John 3:16-18).
Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
9 If we accept the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, because this is the testimony of God that he has testified concerning his Son. 10 (The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has testified concerning his Son.) 11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life; and this life is in his Son. 12 The one who has the Son has this eternal life; the one who does not have the Son does not have this eternal life (1 John 5:9-12).
Balaam teaches us a very important lesson. Being close to God is not enough. As I read through these chapters in the Book of Numbers, I see Balaam getting closer and closer to the truth. He even speaks some of the most beautiful words of prophecy we could ever hope to read. And yet in spite of all this, we know that Balaam never comes to faith. He, like Balak, will perish because of his sin. It is not enough to be close to God. It is not even enough to speak words of truth about God. Balaam never really trusted in the God of Israel. Are you close to God? Do you attend church, and perhaps even read His Word? You might even teach a Sunday school class. But have you responded to the words of salvation which you have read and taught? It does not matter how close you have gotten to salvation if you have not received Jesus Christ by faith, the One of whom Balaam spoke, but in Whom he never trusted.
Our text is a wonderful illustration of the sovereignty of God. God is in complete control. He does what He wants, and what He says, He does. No one can thwart His purposes and promises. Those who oppose Him will perish. Those who trust in Him will be saved. The God of Israel is God alone. He is not like the man-made “gods” of the heathen, which can be manipulated to give them what we want. Men must bow down to God and be His servants.
I find it interesting that some Christians resist the biblical teaching that God is sovereign—in absolute control. Would we really want it any other way? Because He is sovereign, no one can resist Him or nullify His purposes and promises. God is able to produce everything that He has promised. And the One who has all knowledge and all power is also the One who is loving and merciful. Who else would we wish to be in control? The sovereignty of God is not the basis for protest, but the basis for praise. While the king of Moab did not submit to the sovereignty of God, an even greater king did:
28 Now all of this happened to Nebuchadnezzar the king. 29 After twelve months, he happened to be walking around on the walls of the royal palace of Babylon. 30 The king uttered these words: “Is this not the great Babylon that I have built for a royal residence by my own mighty strength and for my majestic honor?” 31 While these words were still on the king's lips, a voice fell from heaven: “It is hereby announced to you, Nebuchadnezzar the king, that your kingdom has been removed from you. 32 You will be driven from among human beings, and your dwelling will be with the animals of the field. You will be fed grass like oxen, and seven times will pass over you before you comprehend that the Most High is ruler over human kingdoms. He bestows them on whomever he wishes.” 33 Now in that very moment this pronouncement came true with Nebuchadnezzar. He was driven from among human beings, and he ate grass like oxen, and his body became damp with the dew of the sky, until his hair became long like an eagle's feathers, and his nails like the claws of a bird. 34 But at the end of the appointed time I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity returned to me.
“I blessed the Most High, and I praised and glorified the one who lives forever. For his rule is an everlasting rule, and his kingdom extends from one generation to the next. 35 All the inhabitants of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he wishes with the army of heaven and with those who inhabit the earth. No one swats his hand and says to him, `What have you done?'
36 “At that time my sanity returned to me. I was restored to the honor of my kingdom, and my splendor returned to me. My ministers and my magistrates were seeking me out, and I was reinstated over my kingdom. Tremendous greatness was restored to me. 37 Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the king of heaven, for all of his deeds are right and his ways are just. Those who live in pride he is able to bring low” (Daniel 4:28-37).