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The Curious Case of Balaam – Part 2

Two weeks ago we began the story of Balaam but we didn’t get a chance to finish it because we ran out of time. Then last week I had every intention of finishing the story, but God had some other plans in mind and our Sunday service went in a good, but different direction.  So now today my plan is to finally wrap up our story of Balaam.

Now since it’s been a couple of weeks, I should probably give you a brief recap of the story so far. The story of Balaam is found in Numbers chapter 22. At this point in the over-all story of the Bible, the children of Israel are just about ready to enter the Promised Land, conquer Jericho and drive out the Canaanites. But before they do, on their way to the Jordan River, they park just outside the land of Moab for a while.

Now the King of Moab – Balak is his name –  is very concerned about this massive group of Israelites parked outside his territory. He’s afraid they might just attack him, and if they did, he’s pretty sure he would be in big trouble. After all, the Israelites did just completely annihilate King Og of Bashan and King Shihon of the Amorites. King Og and King Shihon had attacked the Israelites, but of course, God was with them, and the Israelites defeated King Og and King Shihon, took over their land, and left no survivors.

So King Balak of Moab is understandably concerned. In fact, terrified might be a better word. He’s convinced that this massive hoard of Israelites is coming to wipe him out too, so he does the only thing that he believes might just give him a fighting change. He decides to hire this fellow Balaam to curse the Israelites.

Now that might not seem like a very sound military strategy – I don’t think many generals today would put much faith in the power of a curse – but Balak certainly did. So much so that he was willing to pay a handsome sum to Balaam if he would come and curse the Israelites for him.

Now as we saw last week, this Balaam character is a peculiar fellow. One one hand, he seems to be nothing more than a professional witchdoctor – calling down curses or blessings for the highest bidder. But on the other hand, he appears to know and follow the instructions of the God of Israel! So we’re not entirely sure where he stands with God – but we do know that other parts of the Bible view him as being ‘eager to earn money by doing wrong’. In the New Testament, Peter describes some false teachers by saying….

They have wandered off the right road and followed the footsteps of Balaam son of Beor, who loved to earn money by doing wrong. 2 Peter 2:15

So maybe Balaam started off as a true prophet of God, but then got greedy? Or maybe He never really knew the God of Israel in a personal way…Maybe it was just business to him!… We’re not sure… But either way, whether Balaam truly knew God or not, he certainly wasn’t acting in obedience to Him in this case. 

Because when we left off last week, Balak had offered to pay Balaam pretty much whatever price he named – if he would just go and curse the Israelites. So despite God’s clear command not to curse the Israelites, Balaam loaded up his donkey and headed out with the Moabite delegates. It says in Numbers 22:21….

21 So the next morning Balaam got up, saddled his donkey, and started off with the Moabite officials. 22 But God was angry that Balaam was going, so he sent the angel of the Lord to stand in the road to block his way. Numbers 22:21-22

And we did talk a little bit last time about whether or not God had actually given Balaam permission to go with these Moabites, so I won’t get into that again, but one thing is for sure. God is not happy with Balaam.

And that’s right about where we left off last week. Balaam is heading off with the Moabites – eager to earn money by doing wrong, but God is not happy with Balaam and has sent an angel to stand in the road to block his way.

And this is where the story begins to get very interesting! It says in verse 22…

As Balaam and two servants were riding along, 23 Balaam’s donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand. The donkey bolted off the road into a field, but Balaam beat it and turned it back onto the road. 

24 Then the angel of the Lord stood at a place where the road narrowed between two vineyard walls. 25 When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it tried to squeeze by and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall. So Balaam beat the donkey again. 26 Then the angel of the Lord moved farther down the road and stood in a place too narrow for the donkey to get by at all. 27 This time when the donkey saw the angel, it lay down under Balaam. In a fit of rage Balaam beat the animal again with his staff. Numbers 22:22b-27

So there are a couple of curious things going on here. First of all, Balaam’s donkey is apparently able to see the angel of the Lord – while Balaam and his two servants cannot.

Which is actually pretty ironic. Balaam is supposed to be this great seer or diviner. He’s renown for his ability to call on the gods and bring down curses or blessings! Of all people, Balaam is supposed to be in touch with God and with the spiritual realities around him! And yet this donkey has more spiritual insight than he does!

The donkey is fully aware that the angel of the Lord is standing in opposition to them – but Balaam hasn’t got a clue!

And this just got me to wondering: I wonder if Balaam’s disobedience to the Lord has led him to become spiritually blind – or at least spiritually dull?

As I’ve said earlier, I’m not entirely sure what kind of relationship Balaam has with the Lord, but there seems to be this principle in Scripture that when we are disobedient to God – when we deliberately choose to rebel against Him – our spiritual discernment becomes cloudy to say the least.

I think of passages like Romans 1:19-23 which talks about those who refuse to acknowledge God as the Creator. Its says…

19 They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. 20 For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.

21 Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. 22 Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. 23 And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles.

Romans 1:19-23

You can see in this passage, that by refusing to acknowledge God as God – the minds of these people have become dark and confused. They think they are wise, but are instead utter fools! Their rebellion against God has led to spiritual blindness.

The other passage that comes to mind is Ephesians 4:17-18. Paul writes:

17 With the Lord’s authority I say this: Live no longer as the Gentiles do, for they are hopelessly confused. 18 Their minds are full of darkness; they wander far from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against him. Ephesians 4:17-18

When we harden our hearts to the Lord, darkness and confusion are the result. We can’t see things for what they really are. And that’s certainly the case for those who don’t have a personal relationship with God. They can’t see the dangerous reality of their own sin – they don’t see that they are headed towards destruction!

And while both of these passages are referring to those who don’t have a personal relationship with God, I think the principle applies even to Christians.

When we are living in disobedience to God, we should not expect the wisdom and the discernment and the clarity that comes from walking close to God – walking in the light as the Bible so often instructs us!

When we choose to walk in disobedience to God – we choose to walk in the dark, and that can be a pretty dangerous path. And that’s just where we see Balaam – walking in disobedience – blinded to reality – blinded to the danger just before him.

So that’s one thing to note in this passage. The second thing that I want to note in this passage is how Balaam responds to the unusual behaviour of his donkey. Let’s read through those verses again.

As Balaam and two servants were riding along, 23 Balaam’s donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand. The donkey bolted off the road into a field, but Balaam beat it and turned it back onto the road. 

24 Then the angel of the Lord stood at a place where the road narrowed between two vineyard walls. 25 When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it tried to squeeze by and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall. So Balaam beat the donkey again. 26 Then the angel of the Lord moved farther down the road and stood in a place too narrow for the donkey to get by at all. 27 This time when the donkey saw the angel, it lay down under Balaam. In a fit of rage Balaam beat the animal again with his staff. Numbers 22:22b-27

Balaam seems to have little mercy for this donkey. Which is pretty ironic, of course, because the donkey is just trying to spare their lives by avoiding this angel who is standing there with a drawn sword. The donkey is aware of the danger and first bolts off the road, then tries to squeeze by the angel by squishing up against the vineyard wall, and then when it has no way forward, it just lays down.

It’s really only doing what’s in the best interest of Balaam! And yet Balaam, unaware of the disaster that his donkey has just spared him from – beats the donkey without mercy! It says in verse 27…

“In a fit of rage Balaam beat the animal again with his staff.” Numbers 22:27b

What a way to say ‘thanks’ to his donkey who has just saved his life three times!

And I wonder how often we do that with God.

We were actually talking about angels at Justifed this week and how they minister to us in many different ways. And one comment was made that we probably have no idea how often God sends his angels to save us from disaster – disaster that we’re not even aware of!

Maybe our car doesn’t start so that, unbeknownst to us, we can avoid a deadly accident on the highway. Maybe we lose our job and have to move to a new city, so that, unbeknownst to us, God can connect us with a church there that will totally change the direction of our kids lives! Or maybe God allows the coronavirus to sweep across the world to set the stage for a new revival….

We just don’t know what God is doing. But I wonder how often we act like Balaam. When our car doesn’t start, or we lose our job, or we face all the problems that come with the coronavirus – do we lash out at God – angry with him for allowing these inconveniences?

Or do we stop and thank Him for saving us from the things we’re not even aware of!

I guess it all comes down to what you believe about God. Do you truly believe that God is good? Do you truly believe that God works all things together for good? If so, then you can be truly thankful for all things that come into you life – things that seem good or bad – because either way, you know that through those things, God is doing good for you – even when you can’t see it. Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:18

18 Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:18

In other words, don’t beat your donkey when it bolts off the road – be thankful. Don’t beat your donkey when he crushes your foot up against a wall – be thankful. Don’t beat your donkey when he lays down under you. Instead, be thankful, because your donkey may have just saved your life!

Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.

Well, Balaam was anything but thankful in his circumstances. He was furious and he was beating the snot out of his donkey. And it’s at this point that God did a most interesting thing – he allowed the donkey to speak. Verse 28.

28 Then the Lord gave the donkey the ability to speak. “What have I done to you that deserves your beating me three times?” it asked Balaam.

29 “You have made me look like a fool!” Balaam shouted. “If I had a sword with me, I would kill you!”

Numbers 22:28-29

Now just pause here for a second to appreciate this. Balaam apparently doesn’t not even bat an eye at the fact that his donkey just spoke to him. I don’t know if he’s just so enraged that he’s not thinking clearly or what – but without skipping a beat, he answers his donkey. He’s having a conversation with it.

The donkey says, “Why do you keep beating me?” And Balaam replies, “Because you have made me look like a fool!”

I’m not sure how dignified Balaam thought he looked as he stood there arguing with his donkey. I can just imagine Balaam’s two servants watching this all happen, thinking their master has flipped his lid!

But anyway, Balaam is so enraged that he says to his donkey “If I had a sword with me, I would kill you!”

To which, the donkey calmly and wisely replied.

30 “But I am the same donkey you have ridden all your life,” the donkey answered. “Have I ever done anything like this before?”

“No,” Balaam admitted.

Numbers 22:30

It’s bad enough that Balaam is arguing with his donkey – but worse yet, it seems the donkey is winning the debate! For a guy that’s supposed to so wise and powerful and in-tune with God, He sure seems pretty slow to put all the pieces together.

When his donkey first started acting very unusually – going off the path, pressing up against the wall, laying down in the middle of the road – when she had never done anything like that before –  you’d think Balaam might pause to consider that maybe there is something going on. But nope, he’s so wrapped up worrying about looking foolish, that he doesn’t have any thought that something is amiss!

And then, even when his donkey begins to speak to him – even that doesn’t cause him to wonder what in the world is going on.

And so finally, God decides to make things crystal clear and drive the lesson home. Verse 31

31 Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the roadway with a drawn sword in his hand. Balaam bowed his head and fell face down on the ground before him.

32 “Why did you beat your donkey those three times?” the angel of the Lord demanded. “Look, I have come to block your way because you are stubbornly resisting me. 33 Three times the donkey saw me and shied away; otherwise, I would certainly have killed you by now and spared the donkey.”

Numbers 22:31-33

Man, that is a rebuke. It is not a good day when the angel of the Lord – with sword in hand – tells you that you are stubbornly resisting God – and that he is ready to kill you and spare the life of your donkey. This is serious stuff.

But I think more than just pointing out Balaam’s sin, I think the angel here is making a much broader point regarding Balaam’s going to curse the Israelites. 

In hindsight now, Balaam could see that his donkey had saved his life. His beatings and his threats to kill her are now obviously foolish. Of course, Balaam couldn’t see it at the time, but she was only trying to save his life – He had been a fool to treat her so terribly!

In a similar way, cursing the Israelites so that they could be destroyed by the Moabites, would be equally foolish, because it was from the Israelites that the Saviour of the world would come! Balaam couldn’t see it now, but Jesus would one day be born through the nation of Israel and he would be the only way for any of us to experience true, eternal life.

Cursing the Israelites so that they would be destroyed would be even more foolish than beating the donkey that had just saved your life. Its like the saying – “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”

Don’t beat the donkey that just saved your life and don’t curse the nation that will provide salvation to everyone!

This whole story is a very vivid object lesson for Balaam and for us.

And so upon this confrontation with the angel of the Lord, Balaam does the only thing that he could do. He admits his sin.

34 Then Balaam confessed to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned. I didn’t realize you were standing in the road to block my way. I will return home if you are against my going.”

Numbers 22:34

And by the way, that’s all that any of us can do. When we are confronted with our own sin – when we realize that we are acting in disobedience or when we realize that we have been stubbornly resisting God – the only thing we can do is to confess our sin and determine to change our path. And when we do that, God promises that he will forgive us. 1 John 1:9 says…

9 But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. 1 John 1:9

God is ready and eager to forgive our sin and to restore a right relationship with us. Big sins – little sins – it doesn’t matter. Jesus paid for them all when he died on the cross. Our responsibility is simply to admit or to confess and to repent of our sin.

And it appears that that’s what Balaam did. He confessed his sin and was ready and willing to go on home if that’s what God wanted him to do. But God wasn’t quite finished with Balaam just yet. In verse 35 we read…

35 But the angel of the Lord told Balaam, “Go with these men, but say only what I tell you to say.” So Balaam went on with Balak’s officials. 

Numbers 22:35

And we don’t have the time this morning to keep reading, but in the verses that follow, Balaam proceeds to meet up with Balak – but repeatedly tells him that he can only say what the Lord tells him to say. And he does exactly that.

In fact, over the course of the next two chapters, Balak tries to get Balaam to curse the Israelites three times – but three times, Balaam blesses them instead. It’s actually kinda comedic as Balak tries to get Balaam to curse even just a few Israelites – but every time, God pronounces blessings on the Israelites through Balaam – and actually prophecies destruction for Moab.

It’s a pretty incredible story – and it just shows us all over again that God’s good plan will come to pass no matter what.

Despite Balaam’s stubborn disobedience and Balak’s absolute determination to curse the Israelites, God’s ultimate plan for the nation of Israel (and for our salvation) would prevail.

Proverbs 21:19 says

Many are the plans in a person’s heart,

    but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.

Proverbs 21:19 NIV

And that’s still true today. No matter what is going on in our world, we can have confidence that God’s purpose will prevail. Despite Satan’s best efforts to derail God’s work or despite our own moments of disobedience, God’s purpose and plan will prevail. He’s going to make it happen one way or the other. He can use angels – he can use donkeys – He can even use you and I to carry out his plan and purpose.

Many are the plans in a person’s heart,

but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.

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