In Numbers 22-24, the biblical record focuses on a character named Balaam. For most people, this section of scripture poses a problem in understanding the character of this strange and interesting man. Thus, to introduce some profitable lessons that we may learn from his life, let us establish something about his character. So often, many do not allow the Bible to explain and interpret itself. If we did so, we would not draw unwarranted conclusions.
Because God overpowered Balaam to prophesy, this has led many to misunderstand this event. Thus, the general idea of Balaam is that he was a Gentile prophet coming down from the Patriarchal period, and that the patriarchy handed down their knowledge of God to Balaam. Therefore, many use him as a symbol of the knowledge of God in the Gentile world and how the Gentiles will obtain divine knowledge apart from the nation of Israel. However, there are a number of problems with this idea, as we see with the following questions. Did God continue to inspire men in the Gentile world and make revelations to them directly? If so, where is the basis for such (other than this supposed exception)? Does not God sending Jonah to prophesy to Assyria prove otherwise? If not, why did God not speak differently to an Assyrian patriarch/priest/prophet from within the city of Nineveh? Why do so many of the major and minor prophets prophesy to nations other than Israel and Judah? If we suppose that the priesthood of patriarchy passed down through the Gentiles, did they continue to offer the same sacrifices of patriarchy? I propose to you that they did not, especially from this account, because a proper priest without a proper sacrifice cannot approach God.
Therefore, I do not believe Balaam is an example of a Gentile prophet living and serving God under the Patriarchal system. Let me support my belief with the following. Namely, the Bible never calls him a prophet. While it is true that he prophesied, he did so in spite of whom he really was and not because he was a prophet. This fact has misled people into categorizing him automatically as a prophet of God. Yet, it is strange for him to be a prophet since the Bible never refers to him as one. In fact, the Bible plainly refers to him as something else—“Balaam also the son of Beor, the soothsayer, did the children of Israel slay with the sword among them that were slain by them” (Josh. 13:22). If we let the Bible arrive at its own conclusion, God through His word calls him a “soothsayer,” which is quite different from being a Gentile prophet of God. In fact, Deuteronomy 18:9-14 shows that such practices are abomination to God! In fact, Balak, king of the Moabites, wanted to hire him as a diviner, enchanter, soothsayer or sorcerer (Num. 22:7). Can one conceive of Balak hiring a true prophet of God to curse His own people? Who could fathom such a thing? In fact, God is using Balaam to inform Balak that divination and enchantments do not work against Israel (Num. 23:23). The God of Israel does not operate that way. The knowledge of God through Israel came by divine revelation. Thus, when we read Numbers 24:1: “And when Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he went not, as at other times, to seek for enchantments, but he set his face toward the wilderness,” we cannot mistake the language! The Bible says plainly that what he had been doing up until this time was seeking enchantments. How could he be an inspired prophet of God and seek enchantments of the occult? Rather, in this account, God made him say the opposite of what he intended to say.
Therefore, how did he arrive at his limited knowledge of God and the Israelites, which he undoubtedly had? Remember in the background of all of this that Israel was to be a light to the pagan nations around them (Exod. 19:1-6; cf. Isa. 43:10). The deliverance of Israel from Egypt by God demonstrated the conflict between idolatry and the true and living God of Israel. Apart from divine revelation, how can any man know anything about God and the invisible world without attempting to use pagan ways and practices to reach that information? Therefore, God said through Moses in Exodus 12:12, “…against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the Lord.” In Joshua 2:9- 11, Rahab illustrates another Gentile who also heard of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, and she believed that their God was the one and only true and living God. While she was a convert, others like Balaam saw Him simply as one God among many gods that was more powerful than the gods of Egypt were. Therefore, because he mixed his limited knowledge of God with pagan practices, this is why he sought permission of God to curse them. What better way for God to announce to the pagan world that the Israelites are His people than by using a well-known soothsayer as His spokesperson? Moreover, God forced words from his mouth in revelation just as He did so concerning the donkey, which illustrates and underscores this valuable lesson. In addition, Balaam announced to the world at that time as the Israelites were about to enter Canaan that when anyone opposes the God of Israel, he will be cursed.
With this lengthy introduction in place, let us learn some practical lessons from this Old Testament individual. First, Balaam had a misunderstanding of God. Balaam thought of God as an idolatrous God who was superior to the idol gods of other nations. His misunderstanding grew out of the desire of his heart. This reminds us of being sure we have the proper understanding of God. For us, God intended the Bible to reveal Himself through Jesus Christ (John 1:18).
Second, Balaam tried to use God for his own purposes and ends. Because he continued to try to curse Israel, he tried to use God for his purpose of gaining wealth. If we are not careful, we can do that also. Do we serve God because of who He is, or because we use Him for our own purposes and benefits? We do not use God, but He is to use us! Our purpose of life is to do what God wants us to do. We should want God to be pleased with our lives. “What is it that I would rather do than anything else? Is it to please God?”
Third, Balaam reminds us of the tremendous appeal and power of materialism and worldliness. He thought he could persuade God and change His mind, but his heart was only on material things and worldly honor. We need to be consciously and continually aware of the subtle and unconscious influences these may have in our lives. If not, then we, as Balaam, can pretend that we are following a course of obedience to God, but at the same time, live contrary to His will and in rebellion to Him.
Fourth, Balaam violated his own conscience. He was not satisfied with God’s answer of not going, and continued to try to seek permission to curse Israel that he might obtain the rewards. Instead of realizing what he knew, he continues after the honor, fame and riches that Balak offers. We need to be careful about continually violating our conscience. It is not our guide, but it is our warning system to alert against wickedness as revealed by the word of God. When we do not do as the Bible says, our conscience makes us toss and turn. Thus, we need to be careful that we do not sear our conscience (cf. 1 Tim. 4:2).
Fifth, Balaam was a man who acted under force of duty rather than willingly, gladly and lovingly doing what God says. Sure, he speaks what God wants him to speak, but the desire of his heart is to curse and not bless. As a result, although his words spoke blessings, it brought absolutely no benefit to Balaam. Therefore, do I obey God reluctantly? Is that the same attitude I have? Am I looking for a way to receive the blessings of God but trying to go a different way about it? If so, this is a danger signal! Do I assemble to worship because I love God and because I want to please and obey Him, or do I assemble reluctantly? Would we rather be somewhere else? Do we assemble just because it is our duty and that we would know that we would be lost if we did not assemble, or do we assemble because we love the Lord? Whenever we serve God with heavy feet and not with joy and love, it is a danger signal that something is wrong with our hearts.
Sixth, Balaam is wrong about the danger of doing as little as possible. Everything he did was what he had to do. Is that the way I look at serving God? Do I measure my service to God by as little or as much as I can do? If I only want to do as little as I can do to get by, that is another danger signal. Some want just to live as close to the line of worldliness as they can possibly be, and just barely get over the line. Seventh, Balaam shows the danger of keeping the letter of the law and ignoring the spirit of it. While Balaam said everything God told him to say, he said it under pressure and not willingly. He would have given anything to say the opposite of what God was saying through him. This is why he kept on trying, moving from one place to another. It is important to learn that in obeying God, we are to have the proper attitude of heart while we do it.
Eighth, Balaam teaches that the wrong way is not a way of life that is smooth. When Balaam started out, God told him not to go. However, an angel got in his way, closing the door in his path. Yet, in spite of that closed door, he was not willing to turn around. Look at his attitude. He was mistreating the donkey, because the path was blocked. He insisted on pursuing his own will, regardless of anything. Sometimes, we are like that. A wife may block the path of ruin that her husband is going, but instead of realizing what she is doing, he abuses her and is as irrational as Balaam was. Maybe it is the other way around. We very often act in an unusual, irrational way towards those who may be trying to help us. Parents may be trying to stand in the way of their children from a road to ruin; yet, their children may never realize that their welfare is at stake.
Ninth, Balaam solemnly reminds us of the danger of covetousness. The reward and honor from Balak became Balaam’s god. This is what always happens where covetousness is concerned. This is one reason the Bible speaks of “mammon” as something that one serves (Matt. 6:24). Paul says, “…covetousness…is idolatry” (Col. 3:5).
Tenth, Balaam never repented. When the angel blocked his way, he admitted that he had sinned, but he did not intend to change his attitude toward God, his attitude toward the nation of Israel as a blessed people and his heart of greed. Therefore, his wishes remained the same, and he did not repent. We need to learn that the words on our lips, “I have sinned,” must accompany an attitude of heart that matches that where we no longer wish or desire to follow the directions wherein we were involved in sin.
Eleventh, Balaam acknowledged the authority of God, but did not appreciate the goodness of God. He admitted to Balak that he could only do that which God says and that he could only obey the God of Israel because He has all authority without going beyond such, but he had no appreciation for the goodness of God. Look at what God had done for the nation of Israel and those others whom He would bless through them if they blessed (cf. Gen. 12:3). Yet, Balaam could see no goodness of God in that. The power and authority of God bound him, but he was never converted. We may admit the authority of God, but it may not convert or change us to accept the goodness of God.
Twelfth, Balaam produced no sense of guilt. Oftentimes when men fail and get backed into a corner, they regret their actions, but only because they failed and not because they realize the road that they traveled ended in shame. That is the sad story of his life and death without God and without hope.
In conclusion, we have seen from our study in Numbers 22-24 that Balaam was indeed a diviner and enchanter rather than a prophet of God. Just because he prophesied, this did not mean that he was a prophet. God put the words in his mouth in spite of what he wanted to say. To illustrate, Pharaoh dreamed a dream from God for Joseph to interpret, but that did not make Pharaoh a prophet. Furthermore, Nebuchadnezzar dreamed a dream from God for Daniel to interpret, but that did not make Nebuchadnezzar a prophet. Therefore, the prophecies of Balaam were the attempts of God to reveal Himself to Balaam, Balak and all the surrounding heathen nations that God does not work by enchantments and divination, but that He was different than any pseudo-god they ever served. Every attempt of Balaam failed in cursing Israel. Thus, he went home empty-handed without any reward. As is always the case, sin promises, but cannot deliver. May we profit from a deeper study of the word of God, especially that concerning the life of the strange character named Balaam.