In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.
The story of Balaam is certainly a colorful one. Balak, king of Moab is looking out for his kingdom, and he sees from the Amorites that, militarily, he’s up a creek. So, he wisely chooses another method—an appeal straight to the top. So, Balak gets ahold of someone whom he knows has connections with the “man upstairs.” For good measure, he even flatters Balaam by saying, “I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.”
It’s worthwhile to point out just two (out of many errors) of Balak. First of all, he is under the impression that his way is best. He literally goes across hill and dale to achieve his goal: Israel must be gone. He can’t be convinced otherwise. He is the very model of an unbeliever. My life, my way. If I’m going to appeal to God, it’s going to be on my terms. I’ll decide when I ask for his help, and I’ll set the agenda for how the meeting is going to go.
If some of that sounds familiar, it’s because even believers sometimes approach God this way. Not wanting (or trusting) God to have full control of our lives and future, we also make plans for how things should or must be.
Second (and an outgrowth of his unbelief), Balak sees the effectiveness in human actions. He tries to buy the prophet’s favor with gifts, because he thinks it’s just a matter of buttering up Balaam to get him to speak powerful, divine words in his favor. He’s under the impression that the spiritual world works like the rest of the earth—throw enough money at a problem, and you’ll eventually get your way. It goes completely over his head when Balaam says that he can only do what God tells Him.
It’s part of the sinful flesh to put trust in people. We also tend to put our confidence in the man of God over the God whom that man serves. He just preaches such fabulous sermons that surely he can get through to my hard-hearted relatives. If I get in buddy-buddy and give him everything he wants, maybe he’ll give me special treatment and not call out my favorite sins. Even though he has human failings and occasionally shows favoritism, when he’s doing his job rightly, what Balaam said is right: “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the Lord my God to do less or more.” (Num. 22:18)
So it’s pretty clear that Balak is not someone God wants us to be like. What about Balaam? After all, he’s spiritually astute and has the gift of speaking God’s word. Normally Scripture gives us the examples of prophets and apostles to emulate. Is that true with Balaam? He had faith enough to call the Lord “my God,” and he understood obedience and duty to God. But is that enough? (By ‘enough’ I mean, is that a complete, pleasing life before God?)
God has shown His will to Balaam: “You shall not go with them. You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed” (Num. 22:12). But then God tests Balaam to see how deep his faith runs. So far, Balaam has been boasting about how he can’t do anything beyond the word God gives him. But then God appears to let off and change his mind: “If the men have come to call you, rise, go with them; but only do what I tell you.” (v. 20) So Balaam turns around and goes with them.
Here’s where God’s gracious dealing with Balaam is a lesson and warning to us. God is angered by Balaam going with them because He had already made His intentions known: Don’t go with the people who want Israel cursed. Israel is blessed and I’m not changing My mind. So God teaches Balaam a lesson using his donkey.
Balaam’s donkey is able to see that God is not pleased with his course of action. Yet, Balaam, thinks the animal should not use reason, and be more like cars that go and stop at the driver’s command. Finally, the Lord talks out of Balaam’s ass and rebukes him. He opens Balaam’s eyes to see the Angel of the Lord with his sword drawn. He says, “Your way is perverse before me” (literally, slippery), and He makes the point that Balaam’s bare-word obedience will earn him nothing less than being slain while his donkey rides off into the sunset.
The point is God does not want to deal with us the way a rider treats a stupid animal. In Psalm 32, the Lord says, “Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you.” (Ps. 32:9)
There are moments in our lives where our obedience as children of God is tested. Is God toying with us to do that? No, His will is for us to be obedient from the heart, not just outward compulsion. When He disciplines us in this way, He is treating us as children. He wants His children to grow into their own faith and keep His Word in their hearts.
God’s desire for His creatures is to restore us to fellowship with Him, a fellowship that comes from within and unites our will with His will. The Lord was not done with Balaam, because despite his madness and his “slippery” ways, He turned a desire to curse into a reason to proclaim His mighty works on the horizon.
God’s salvation will not be thwarted by princes, human stumbling, or anything else. God uses Balaam’s mouth to prophecy of His Christ: “Speak only the word which I tell you”
Balaam speaks of a people. No, wait, of one (v. 9a): “From the tops of the crags I see him, from the hills I behold him” But, then again, “a people dwelling alone.” It is One, and yet of many. A people set apart. What Balaam sees is the promise of Offspring spoken to Abraham: In that Offspring, shall descendants be like the stars of heaven (Gen. 15:5-6).
The sons of Israel thought they were set apart by their Laws, their covenant with God, their Temple and sacrifices. And it’s true in the fact that they were not like the other nations around them, and they were commanded not to intermarry with them. (See Deuteronomy 4:1-14) Yet God was not done with His people after having established holy boundaries and rules to regulate every aspect of life. This is no better than Balaam beating his donkey, thinking it’s stubborn.
No, God’s people are set apart through Jesus, the Christ. He came to make a people holy to the Lord—Washed and set apart in the waters of Holy Baptism, joined to the sacrifice offered on the altar of the cross, recipients of the righteousness bestowed through faith, where God is worshipped not by outward obedience but through the “washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5-6).
Why was Balaam not able to curse the people God had blessed? Because it was God’s will that all the disobedient, wandering, and foolish of the earth would die to sin and live to Him through the Offspring of Jacob. And when our pilgrimage has come to a close, it is our confident hope that we will receive the “death of the upright” and be gathered into God’s house forever. Thanks be to God through Jesus, our King! Amen.