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The Seer Who Couldn’t See - Numbers 22-23

God's Revelation of the Messiah Comes to the False Prophet Balaam

Numbers 22-23; 2 Peter 2:14-16; Revelation 2:14; Jude 11; 1 Peter 5:8

Dec 09, 2012 12:00 PM

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There are a lot of very strange stories in the Bible.  From the beginning, as if the creation of the world from nothing wasn’t fantastic enough, we get three chapters in and we’re told of a talking serpent.  Six chapters in and we read of a large boat full of animals.  We read of a prophet being swallowed by a big fish and ravens feeding a hungry Elijah.  But in my opinion, none of those stories quite compares with the account of the talking donkey.  

Balaam was a man who practiced divination.  He was what some refer to as a master of the dark arts with an ability to conjure spirits and see things other people could not, for the purpose of predicting the future.  He was a sorcerer.  It was a practice which the LORD forbade the people of Israel to engage in.

But more than that, the Scriptures tell repeatedly of his love of money.  Greed drove his sorcery.  He was hired as a seer to access the spirit world and pronounce a curse upon the people of Israel.  In the course of those events, Balaam has an argument with his donkey.  That is strange.  But what makes it infinitely more strange is that it is true!

•    If you look through the Scriptures for information about Balaam, nothing good is said about him.  Peter uses him as an example of what a false teacher looks like because of his love for money (2 Peter 2:14-16 ESV).  
•    In Revelation 2, the Lord Jesus is speaking to the church at Pergamum and says, “You have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality.” (Revelation 2:14 ESV).  
•    Jude warns us of false teachers like Balaam: “Woe to them!  For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam's error and perished in Korah's rebellion." (Jude 1:11 ESV).

Balaam is not a biblical hero.  He is a villain.  Even his name means “devourer”.1  One who devours.  Like our adversary the devil who prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8).  His name could also be interpreted as Destroyer Of People (NOBS Study Bible Name List), Destruction Of The People (Jones' Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names), or Confuser Of The People (Jones).  [Jones also adds Swallowing Up The People.]2  An enemy of God’s people.

When the children of Israel were making their way to the Promised Land, they entered into the territory of Balak, the king of Moab.  It is there that Balaam enters the scene.  Turn with me to Numbers 22.

Numbers 22:1-6
Balak, the king of Moab (the long-time enemies of Israel) knows he cannot defeat "this hoarde" (v4). So he resorts to a diviner (v7), a seer, a person who dabbles in the unseen world of spirits and demons.  Balaam has a reputation for blessing and cursing people.  What better person to hire for the purpose of defeating Israel.  

Numbers 22:7-14
The Elders of Moab go to Balaam and he tells them to stay the night.  He will tell them what the LORD says about all of this.  Then, the LORD does indeed come to Balaam and gives him a direct and disappointing command: "You shall not go with them.  You shall not curse the people for they are blessed." (v12)  Don't go and don't curse them.

So Balaam tells the delegation he can't go because God won't let him. (v13)  Balaam does NOT say, "God has blessed these people and you guys better leave them alone!  You don't want to mess with the God of Israel.  So just forget it.  I'm not about to go against the LORD and speak evil of His people."

Balaam doesn't say that.  In fact, he uses God's command to help drive up the price for his services because He loves money; "who loved gain from wrongdoing" (2 Peter 2:15c).  He even blames God for this unfortunate turn of events: ". . . the LORD has refused to let me go with you." So he sends them back to Balak and they report, "Balaam refuses to come with us." (v14)  But that is not to say he doesn't want to.

Numbers 22:15-21
Balak thinks enough money can buy Balaam and the curses he desires to inflict upon Israel. And he is right.  But not yet.

Balaam is between a rock and a hard place.  On the one side, God is commanding him to leave Israel alone.  On the other hand, there is a TON of money to be made.  What to do??  He plays hard to get.  "Spend one more night and let me see if God has changed His mind from the last time I talked to Him.  Maybe we can still work something out!"

So the LORD comes to Balaam a second time and tells him to go with the men.  But it is not because God has had a change of heart.  He is going to use Balaam for His own glory by allowing Balaam to go and do what he wants to do: Curse Israel for money.

But the LORD does give him one command: "Only do what I tell you." (v20) "Go ahead if you want to go so badly, if you need that money so desperately.  But be careful what you do."

So Balaam heads out on his donkey with the princes of Moab.  Because he wants the money.

Numbers 22:22-30
"But God's anger was kindled because he went” (v22). "Balaam, you know what I said to you.  But you don't want what I want.  You want what YOU want.  So go ahead.  Go to the king.  But I am against you, Balaam."

Parents have conversations like this with their teenagers all the time.  The kid KNOWS the parent does not want them to go to the party, to the mall, to hang out with certain other kids, whatever.  But the kids ask anyway!  Because they are totally unconcerned with what the PARENT wants.  They are entirely concerned with what THEY want.  So sometimes a parent will give permission to their child to do the very thing they don’t want their child to do for the purpose of allowing the child to suffer the consequences of a poor decision and gain some MUCH NEEDED wisdom.

Married couples have this same kind of conversation:  “Honey, I know it’s your birthday, but the guys are getting together for the Superbowl.  Would it be OK if I go hang out with them?  Then after the game or maybe tomorrow we could go out and do something for your birthday.”You KNOW it’s not OK.  But you ask anyway.  And she says something along the lines of, “Sure, I don’t mind.  You go and have a good time.”  Right.

God is so angry with Balaam that He sends "the angel of the LORD" to confront him.  The only problem, as ironic as it is, is the seer is blind.  He is oblivious to the grave danger that he approaches three times.

But his donkey is not blind!  This dumb animal is a better seer than Balaam is.  He attempts to avoid this fearsome angel three times by not going where Balaam wants her to go.  So Balaam whips the donkey.  And she begins to speak!

"Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey." I believe this is a very important phrase in this passage.  It is astounding, not only that the donkey speaks, but that Balaam answers her!  Is it possible that he has seen something like this before?  Not only does he answer, but he has a heated discussion with his donkey.  He is angry, "because you have made a fool of me!" (v29)  Pride seems to be a problem for Balaam also.  Pride and greed often keep company.

Numbers 22:31-35
Here is another entry for the "Dumbest Statement in the Bible" award: "I have sinned, for I did not know that you stood in the road against me.  Now therefore, if it is evil in your sight, I will turn back.” (v34)

Really?  Are you serious Balaam?  Why does Balaam think the angel of the LORD is there?  With a sword??  Even his donkey knows he is traveling in the wrong direction!  It's way past time to turn back.

But God often allows us to do things that He knows, and that WE KNOW are not good.  God has already told Balaam what not to do.  "Don't go, and don't curse them."  He doesn’t need to pray about this.  God has even sent an angel with a sword who has threatened to kill Balaam if he passes this way to meet up with Balak.  Even Balaam's donkey is more discerning than he is.  She knows not to continue this way.

But because of greed, Balaam STILL wants to go to Balak to provide his evil services for hire.  So the angel of the LORD tells him once again that he can go, "but speak only the word that I tell you.”

Numbers 22:36-41
Balaam finally arrives and Balak chides him for taking so long.  Balaam says (in essence), "I'm here now", with no real explanation why he is so late: "I was on my way, but my dumb old donkey started complaining about me beating her.  And then there was this angel with a sword . . . "

Balaam is quick to give this caveat concerning what he is about to do for Balak.  He needs to understand the terms of the agreement.  This is the fine print: "Have I now any power of my own to speak anything?  The word that God puts in my mouth, that must I speak." (v38).

In other words, "I'm here.  I'll do my best.  But if this doesn't work, it's the LORD's fault."  This is quite the statement considering that Balaam just heard a donkey speak.  His donkey was enabled by God with the power to speak for herself.  What does Balaam expect will come from his own mouth when he attempts to say the very thing God has forbidden him to say?

As an aside, why can’t Balaam do what he wants to do?  Why doesn’t Balaam have the freedom to say whatever he wants to say?  He even admits to Balak that he can only say what the Lord says:  "Have I now any power of my own to speak anything? The word that God puts in my mouth, that must I speak." How does this affect our understanding of free will?  Do we really have free will, as it is so often taught to us?  At the very least, I would have to say that in this instance, Balaam did not have what we call free will.  But God does.  God’s sovereign will directly superseded Balaam’s will.  Balaam’s business card said, “Curses For Hire”, but he absolutely could not perform his duty.

Numbers 23:1-6
This seems to be the procedure which Balaam uses to "conjure up a spirit", that spirit being the LORD Himself: Seven altars, seven bulls, and seven rams.  The LORD, surely an anthropomorphic presentation of Jesus, meets with Balaam even though Balaam is attempting to do the very thing God forbade him to do.  But "perhaps" the LORD will change His mind about Israel and curse them.

Then, in a clear violation of Balaam's free will, God puts a word in Balaam's mouth (v5) and tells him what to say to Balak.  Not only to Balak, but to the entire entourage of the princes of Moab (v6).  They are all witnesses to the power of God over this famously evil man who can supposedly bless and curse people at will according to Balak’s testimony about him: "I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” (22:6 ESV)

Numbers 23:7-10
Here is an "in your face" display of the sovereign power of God.  What Balaam wanted to do, he could not do, not even for money.

What has happened here is similar to what happened earlier to Balaam.  God can put words in anyone's mouth.  God can speak by any means He chooses.  God spoke to Balaam by means of a donkey, and now He is making a donkey out of Balaam, speaking His own good words, words of blessing for His people, through this wickedly greedy man's mouth. has (in my warped way of thinking) an excellent "Demotivational" poster of two business men shaking hands in agreement.  The poster is entitled Consulting: "If you're not a part of the solution, there's good money to be made in prolonging the problem."

That is precisely what is happening for Balaam here.  He can't solve Balak's problem by bringing a curse upon Israel, so he simply takes advantage of the prolonged problem.  And Balak's problem is far worse than he thought!  How much would he be willing to pay for a resolution to this predicament?

Numbers 23:11-17
Panic mode is in full force now.  And it seems Balaam is playing Balak literally for all he's worth.  So Balak decides the problem must be population.  Balaam is just trying to curse too many people at once (v10).  "Here's an idea!  Let's move over to this other hill where you can't see so many of them.  Then you'll be able to curse them, Balaam.  You won't be overwhelmed by the multitude of them."  So they go through the conjuring process again (Seven altars, bulls and rams) in order to get an audience with the LORD.  The LORD comes to Balaam and He repeats the previous process, putting words in Balaam's mouth yet again.  Repetition is a great teacher.

Numbers 23:18-24
In this second discourse, Balaam speaks directly to Balak, rebukes him, and tells of Israel's future destruction of all her enemies.  That would include Balak and the Moabites.  Israel is a lion that will not rest until her enemies are destroyed (v24).

This should have been enough to send Balak packing.  Or it should have caused him to realize Who he was going up against and driven him to repentance, or to seek peace with Israel.  But this man is as spiritually blind as his seer.  Balaam "sees" things and "hears" things, but it is clear that neither man's heart is being affected by any of this.  Balak seeks out evil spirits to bring about the cursing of Israel, but when the LORD says through Balaam that is not going to happen, Balak is completely undaunted.  He continues in a blind pursuit for the destruction of his enemies, led by a blind seer.  Truly an occasion of the blind leading the blind.

Numbers 23:25-30
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.  So for the third time, Balak recruits Balaam's services, still convinced that population and geography must have something to do with blessings and cursings.  Maybe the gods are different elsewhere and will be more cooperative.  But Balaam reminds Balak once again that he can only say what Jehovah God tells him to say.  He has no freedom in this manner.  He cannot deliver the goods.  However, desperation drives men to do exceedingly stupid things.  Thus, seven MORE altars, bulls, and rams to conjure up the LORD.  It has reached the point of being comical.

Numbers 24:1-2
But this time, Balaam does something different.  He finally grasps what is obvious to those who love the Lord.  "It pleased the LORD to bless Israel" (v1).  Balaam has not been concerned with what pleases the LORD.  He has only been concerned with what pleases himself.  He has been opposed by God, by an angel with a sword, and even by his own donkey.  But now, finally, the "seer" sees that God intends to bless and not curse Israel.

It is here that Balaam is influenced by a spirit: the Holy Spirit.  Now he begins to speak the greatest of blessings upon Israel.  This is a prophetic crescendo leading to a great climactic vision of the Messiah Himself: the Lord Jesus.




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