Verse 1 of today’s chapter tells us that the Israelites have reached the plains of Moab; and they’ve camped along the River Jordan and across from the city of Jericho. That tells us that their journey is almost over, because we know that after they crossed the Jordan, they attacked the city of Jericho and began to take the Promised Land. So, their journey is almost over; their 40 years in the wilderness is almost complete; soon they’ll be in the Promised Land.
However, their trials and troubles are not yet over; there are still enemies to contend with. And in today’s passage we read about Balak, king of the Moabites, who joined forces with the people of Midian in order to attack the people of Israel. But before they launched their attacked, Balak tried to hire Balaam to curse the people of Israel in order to weaken them before the battle. But, as we’ll see, it’s clear that the Lord would not let Balaam curse his people, because he has blessed them. And so, let’s look at this passage now.
Verses 1 to 6
According to verse 2, Balak had seen all that the Israelites had done to the Amorites, which we read about in chapter 21. Do you remember? The Israelites asked Sihon their king if they could pass through the land of the Amorites. The king refused and came out to attack them with his army, but the Israelites put them to the sword and took over their land. Well, Balak had heard about this and now he was terrified, because there were so many of the Israelites; and no doubt he was afraid that what they did to the Amorites, he would do to the Moabites. He, of course, had nothing to fear from them, because according to Deuteronomy 2, the Lord had commanded Moses not to harass the Moabites or provoke them to war, because the Lord was not willing to give any of the Moabite land to the Israelites; it had been reserved by the Lord for the descendants of Lot.
Nevertheless, Balak and his people were afraid. And so, they appealed to the Midianites for help, comparing the people of Israel to a hungry ox which licks up all the grass in a field. And as well as seeking help from the Midianites, Balak sent messengers to this man called Balaam to seek his help. He wanted Balaam to put a curse on the Israelites so that he would be able to defeat them and drive them out of the country. And look what he added at the end of verse 6:
For I know that those you bless are blessed; and those you curse are cursed.
So, Balaam has a reputation for being a powerful person, with the ability to bless and to curse. According to verse 7 he practiced some form of divination; and in chapter 23 we hear the oracles he was able to speak. So, he was some kind of seer or prophet. But, he hired himself out for money. And so, Balak wanted to buy his services.
Verses 7 to 14
And in the following verses, Balak hears from the Lord on three separate occasions. First of all, there’s verses 7 to 14 where we read how Balak’s messengers came to Balaam and told him what Balak had said. Balaam invited the messengers to stay the night; and during the night, the Lord spoke to him and told him plainly in verse 12:
Do not go with them.
You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed.
And so, the next morning, after he got up, Balaam told the messengers that they must return without him, for the Lord had refused to let him go with them.
Verses 15 to 22
In verses 15 to 22 Balak hears from the Lord a second time. On this occasion, Balak sent more messengers who are described as being more numerous and more distinguished than the first. And their message to Balaam is that he should let nothing keep him from coming to Balak. ‘I will reward you handsomely’, the king said. ‘I will do whatever you say.’ In other words: Name your price. Balak believed that everyone has a price. Offer someone enough money and they’ll set aside their scruples and do whatever you ask. So, name your price, Balaam.
And Balaam’s reply is in verse 18:
Even if Balak gave me his palace filled with silver and gold, I could not do beyond the command of the Lord my God.
He’s saying that he can’t be bought. Since the Lord has forbidden him, he cannot go, no matter what riches Balak offered him. Nevertheless, he invited the messengers to spend the night, just in case the Lord has more instructions for him. And sure enough, in the night, the Lord spoke to Balaam and this time, he allowed Balaam to go with them. ‘But’, he added, ‘do only what I tell you’.
The commentators are divided about Balaam. Some are impressed with him, because although he wasn’t an Israelite, he clearly knew something about the Lord. For instance, he referred to God by his special covenant name — LORD in capital letters — and Balaam appears unwilling to disobey the Lord, even when offered a great deal of money. However, elsewhere in the Bible he’s known as someone who preferred money to serving the Lord. For instance, in 2 Peter, Peter warns his readers about false teachers, whom he compares to Balaam ‘who loved gain from wrongdoing’. Jude also warns about false teachers who:
walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion.
In Revelation 2, the Lord complained about the church in Pergamum that some of them held to the teaching of Balaam. And as we’ll see later in the book of Numbers, although he did not curse the Israelites, he gave Balak advice on how to lead the Israelites astray. And so, it’s possible that — by refusing to go with Balak’s messengers — he was only playing hardball with them in order to get more money. Furthermore, according to verse 7 he practiced divination; and 24:1 mentions that he was known for using sorcery. Both of these practices were forbidden by the Lord. Taking these things into account, we shouldn’t regard him as a saint as some do. Nevertheless, the Lord was still able to speak through him. But as we’ll now see, the Lord is also able to speak through an old donkey.
Verses 21 to 35
And so, in verses 21 to 35 Balaam hears from the Lord a third time. According to verse 21, he got up and saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab. Now, although the Lord had allowed him to go, we still read in verse 22 that the Lord was very angry with him. As a result, the Lord sent his angel to stand in Balaam’s way.
We’ve met the angel of the Lord before: sometimes he’s portrayed as being separate from the Lord; sometimes he’s portrayed as being identical with the Lord. Some interpreters say the angel of the Lord is the pre-incarnate Christ. That is, before God the Son became incarnate, he would appear from time to time to the Lord’s people in the form of an angel. In any case, Moses tells us here that the angel of the Lord stood in Balaam’s way.
Balaam had a reputation for being a seer, a person with special spiritual insight. However, on this occasion, it was not Balaam who saw the angel, but his donkey. When the donkey saw the angel, and his sword, he turned off the road. And Balaam beat her.
The angel of the Lord stood in their way a second time. This time the donkey moved to the side of the road, crushing Balaam’s foot against the wall. Again he beat her.
The angel of the Lord stood in their way a third time. This time, the donkey lay down on the road. And again Balaam beat her.
But on this occasion, the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth and enabled her to speak. She wanted to know what she had done wrong that Balaam had beaten her three times? Balaam, of course, still knows nothing about the angel. And so, he complained that the donkey had made him look a fool; and if he had a sword, he would kill the donkey. Balaam comes across as unreasonable and foolish, but the donkey comes across as perfectly reasonable, because she pointed out that in all the years he had ridden her, she’d never behaved like this. In other words: if you’re such a great seer, if you’re a wise man, why can’t you see that something unusual is happening?
The Lord finally opened his eyes and enabled him to see the angel. And so, he bowed down before him. And the angel rebuked him for beating his donkey and warned him that his path was a reckless one, or a wicked one. In other words, the way he was going was contrary to God’s will. And his donkey had therefore kept him from being killed by the angel. And once again, the Lord reminded Balaam to speak only what he — the Lord — tells him to speak. And so, perhaps here’s the reason why the Lord was very angry with Balaam when he set off on this journey. The Lord had allowed him to go, but perhaps in Balaam’s heart he had decided not to proclaim the word of the Lord, but to curse the Israelites as Balak wanted him to do. And so, once again the Lord reminded him to speak the word of the Lord and that only.
Verses 36 to 41
And finally, in verse 36 to 41, Balaam and Balak meet. And Balaam made clear to Balak that he must only say what God puts in his mouth. Just as the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey to speak, so the Lord will open Balaam’s mouth; and Balaam must be careful to speak God’s word only.
Balaam was regarded as a seer and a prophet. And yet, the Lord exposed his spiritual blindness and foolishness, because his donkey was able to see what he could not see: that the angel of the Lord was standing in his way to oppose him. Furthermore, Balaam did not see that what he was attempting to do was sinful and contrary to God’s will. So, though he was a seer, he could not see, until the Lord came to him and spoke to him.
And, of course, all of us are spiritually blind until the Lord reveals himself to us. And the Lord has revealed himself to us, because in the past, he spoke to us in many and various ways by his prophets; then, he spoke finally and fully in the person of his Son. And now he has given us his written word which speaks to us of Christ, so that we might know him and his salvation.
Whoever relies on human insight and human understanding will always remain ignorant of the Lord, just as Balaam was. Whoever relies on the wisdom of the world to make sense of things — whether it’s ancient wisdom or modern wisdom — will remain in the dark. But whoever humbles themselves and relies on what God has revealed to us in his word about his Son receives a true knowledge of God and of his will for our salvation. And so, instead of relying on the wisdom of the world, we’re to rely on God’s wisdom which he has made known to us in his word.
And finally, though Balak wanted Balaam to curse the Israelites, he would not succeed, for they were a people, blessed by the Lord. After all, hadn’t the Lord promised to bless Abraham and his descendants after him? And so, their enemies would not succeed against them because the Lord had promised to keep them safe. And so, no one would succeed in destroying the Israelites, because the Lord had blessed them.
And though the Devil comes at us with his wicked schemes, and though the Devil stirs up the world to oppose us, we needn’t be afraid, because the Lord has promised to protect his church in every generation. And after our life in this world is over, we enter that eternal blessedness which he has prepared for all his people. In the meantime, he speaks to reassure his suffering people and to say to them:
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
In the days of Moses, the Lord had promised his people that they would inherit the land of Canaan. And he promises his believing people that though the world hates us and curses us, we will, nevertheless, inherit everlasting life in his everlasting kingdom.