The first generation of Israel perished in the wilderness, but the second generation recaptured the vision that their parents had lost. With renewed purpose, Moses led them around Edom and then northward through Moab. God’s favor and power was with these new Israelites. They encountered and defeated several enemies as they journeyed including the Canaanite led by the king of Arad, the Amorites led by King Sihon, and the armies of Bashan led by King Og.
The children of God effectively took control of the vast area due east of the Jordan River and camped themselves in the plains of Moab. This would be the place from which they’d eventually launch their full-scale invasion of the Promised Land. In the meantime, however, their presence in his country alarmed the Moabite king Balak. Despite his deep concerns, Balak feared military confrontation with Israel. Balak needed to address the threat in another manner.
In this morning’s sermon, we will read the story of Balaam and Balak. Balaam was a sorcerer who was hired by King Balak specifically to place a curse on Israel. The king hoped that this curse would weaken Moses and his followers so that they might be defeated.
I. BALAAM IS HIRED (Numbers 22:1-20)
Although the land of Midian was many miles away to the south, this passages indicates that many Midianites had migrated and settled in Moab. The Moabites and Midianites were allies with one another, and both were bothered by the arrival of Moses and his people. King Balak decided to hire Balaam, a prominent diviner from a neighboring kingdom, to come and place a curse on Israel. Perhaps then, his armies could drive these unwanted Hebrews out of Moab.
Balak sent messengers to Balaam along with a hefty payment for the services to be rendered. When these men arrived, they presented Balaam with the king’s offer. Balaam asked the guests to spend the night so that he’d have time to consult with God. That night the LORD told Balaam not to go with the men and not to curse Israel. Therefore, the next morning Balaam sent the king’s messengers on their way and did not return with them.
Balak was not willing to give up so easily. The king sent a second group of messengers - more prestigious than the first - back to Balaam hoping that the he’d reconsider. Balaam told them that no matter how much money was offered, he simply could not speak contrary to the LORD’s command. Nevertheless, he agreed to return with the men to Balak the king all the while insisting that he would only speak what God allowed.
II. THE TALKING DONKEY (Numbers 22:21-40)
God was angry with Balaam for agreeing to go with the king’s men. He had clearly instructed Balaam not to curse Israel. Although God did not prevent him for going, it was certainly displeasing to the LORD that he went. Balaam saddled his donkey and rode with the messengers back to Moab.
Along the way Balaam’s donkey abruptly turned off the trail and walked into a field. Balaam redirected the donkey by striking it. Later, the beast pressed against a wall causing Balaam’s foot to get smashed. He struck the donkey again in anger. After that the donkey came to a sudden stop and laid down under Balaam. Balaam was furious and hit the poor animal with his stick. Imagine his surprise when the donkey said, “Why do you keep hitting me?”
At this moment God opened Balaam’s eyes and he saw the angel of the LORD standing there with a drawn sword in his hand. The angel explained that the donkey had been able to see him all the while and that is why it had been acting so strangely. As a matter of fact, by turning aside on three occasions the donkey had actually saved Balaam’s life. The angel then told Balaam to continue on to Moab, careful to speak only what he was told.
III. THE FIRST BLESSING (Numbers 22:41-23:12)
After their initial meeting, Balak took Balaam up to the high places of Baal. From there they could see a large portion of the children of Israel camped at a distance. The king’s men erected seven altars upon which they sacrificed burnt offerings. Following this Balaam spoke his first discourse.
King Balak was expecting Balaam to curse Israel, but instead the diviner blessed them. The king was outraged. Balaam quickly defended himself by reminding the king that he’d promised only to say what the LORD put in his mouth.
IV. THE SECOND BLESSING (Numbers 23:13-26)
Balak sought to try this process a second time. He took Balaam to another peak located in the field of Zophim. From there they could only see a small group of the Israelites. Perhaps Balaam would be able to curse them if they were fewer in number. Again, the men built seven altars and made sacrifices before Balaam spoke.
Again Balaam pronounced a blessing upon the children of Jacob. King Balak couldn’t believe what was happening. He told Balaam that if he wasn’t going to curse Israel than not to say anything - certainly don’t bless them! Again the sorcerer answered that he’d only speak as God directed him to.
V. THE THIRD BLESSING (Numbers 23:27-24:13)
Still not willing to give up on his plan, Balak led Balaam to the top of Peor which overlooked the wilderness. Perhaps God would allow a curse to be spoken from there. They set up seven altars and made burnt offerings upon them. Balaam then spoke his third oracle.
Again Balaam pronounced a blessing upon Israel. Balak was furious. He had been betrayed. Rather than cursing Moses and his followers, Balaam had actually blessed them three times. Still Balaam defended his actions by saying that he had agreed to only speak what the LORD allowed.
VI. THE PROPHECY OF DOOM (Numbers 24:14-25)
Balaam went on to prophesy about the coming disasters of Moab, Sheth, Edom, Seir, Amalek, Kenite, Asshur, and Eber. So not only had he blessed Israel, but he also foretold how she would soon demolish her enemies. Balak’s plan had completely backfired, and so he and Balaam parted ways. However, this would not be the last time that the two worked together...
When you read the eloquent prophecies of Balaam, you might think that he was a pretty good guy. After all, he repeatedly refused to curse God’s children even when pressured to do so. Yet the Bible repeatedly condemns Balaam for his unrighteous actions. While Balaam said the right things outwardly, a closer look reveals his inward motivations were corrupt.
If Balaam already knew that he was not going to curse Israel, why did he continue to string Balak along as if he might? Different answers have been proposed for this question, but I tend to believe that Balaam was intentionally taking advantage of the desperate king. Make no mistake - Balaam had no particular devotion to or regard for either God or Israel, and the only reason he spoke blessings rather than curses was because he feared the angel of the LORD more than he feared the sniveling king. Balaam was in it for himself. I wonder how much compensation Balaam received before the disheartened king finally realized what was happening...
Today there are still many men and women around just like Balaam. They are often very well-known and highly respected. They too are usually dynamic leaders and eloquent speakers. Sadly, many desperate and needy people look to these charlatans as God’s answer to their impassioned prayers. They send what little money they have to them and their ministries expecting to receive God’s blessing, but in the end these modern-day Balaams are just playing off of their follower’s grief and despair. They use the ministry and the things of God as nothing
more than a means of personal gain. These false teachers love the wages of unrighteousness. Woe to the Balaams of this world! May God have mercy on their souls.