January 9, 2008
Numbers — With God in the Wilderness:
Balaam’s Prophecy (2)
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Numbers 23. But in the outline that Jeremy is distributing right now, you have this text printed front and back for you, laid out in a little bit of a poetic form.
Sometimes in our Bibles, because the Bible publishers are trying to squeeze in as many words onto a page as possible (so that the Bible editions of their printings aren’t much thicker than they already are), you lose a sense of the poetry that is encapsulated sometimes in the middle of historic narrative — a story about an historical fact recorded in the form of an exciting narrative like this. And there are significant poetic portions of Numbers 23 and 24, and so in the outline that I’ve given you, I’ve tried to give you a feel for where there is dialog between the two main characters in this passage, King Balak, and then the pagan sorcerer (seer) Balaam…and then, in the portions where Balaam is speaking in very elevated poetic speech. It may help give you a better sense of the meaning of what Balaam is saying in this passage to see the poetry laid out in long lines without the poetic stanzas being broken up. And so I’ve printed that for you in the English Standard Version from which I will read today.
Let me just remind you that we’re coming to the end of a section of Numbers that we’ve been studying for several times now. Numbers 22-24 contains the Balaam story, and tonight we come to a very extraordinary passage in which a pagan prophet who had been approached by a pagan king to curse the people of God will in fact make a prophecy about the coming king of the people of God that is fulfilled in the first Christmas, when the magi follow the star of that king that the Lord God of Israel would send into the world for the salvation of His people and all those who rest and trust on His name alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel.
Now this whole story of Balaam and Balak and the people of God in the wilderness on their way into the Promised Land serves to highlight God’s sovereignty. In fact, the function of this story — you can imagine this story being recounted by the children of Israel, once they’re in the Promised Land, as they are recalling the deeds that the Lord has accomplished in order to get them into the Promised Land safely. This story would have served to confirm to the people of God God’s sovereign providence over them; that is, God was in charge and God was watching over them in their time of need to protect them from their enemies, both natural and supernatural, both kings and peoples of the lands around that did not want them in the Promised Land, and even those who had dark supernatural powers to wield against them. Against both of these types of enemies God had protected them, and as this story would have been recounted by the people of God in the Promised Land, they would have been given opportunity and occasion to praise the living God for how He had taken care of them. So this story serves to confirm and comfort the people of God with the reality of God’s sovereignty and the certainty of His salvation and providence.
So let’s give attention to this passage tonight, beginning in Numbers 23:27 and going all the way to Numbers 24 to the end of the chapter, verse 25. Let’s pray before we read God’s word.
Lord, this is Your word. We ask that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things in it, and to see and to hear by Your Spirit the truth in such a way as to respond to it believing. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Hear the word of the living God:
“And Balak said to Balaam, ‘Come now, I will take you to another place. Perhaps it will please God that you may curse them for me from there.’ So Balak took Balaam to the top of Peor, which overlooks the desert. And Balaam said to Balak, ‘Build for me here seven altars and prepare for me here seven bulls and seven rams.’ And Balak did as Balaam had said, and offered a bull and a ram on each altar.
“When Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he did not go, as at other times, to look for omens, but he set his face toward the wilderness. And Balaam lifted up his eyes and saw Israel camping tribe by tribe. And the spirit of God came upon him, and he took up his discourse and said,
‘The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor,
the oracles of the man whose eye is opened,
the oracle of him who hears the words of God,
who sees the vision of the Almighty,
falling down with his eyes uncovered:
How lovely are your tents, O Jacob,
your encampments, O Israel!
Like palm groves that stretch afar,
like gardens beside a river,
like aloes that the Lord has planted,
like cedar trees beside the waters.
Water shall flow from his buckets,
and his seed shall be in many waters;
his king shall be higher than Agag,
and his kingdom shall be exalted.
God brings him out of Egypt
and is for him like the horns of the wild ox;
he shall eat up the nations, his adversaries,
and shall break their bones in pieces
and pierce them through with his arrows.
He crouched, he lay down like a lion and like a lioness;
who will rouse him up?
Blessed are those who bless you,
and cursed are those who curse you.’
“And Balak’s anger was kindled against Balaam, and he struck his hands together. And Balak said to Balaam, ‘I called you to curse my enemies, and behold, you have blessed them these three times. Therefore now flee to your own place. I said, ‘I will certainly honor you,’ but the Lord has held you back from honor.’ And Balaam said to Balak, ‘Did I not tell your messengers whom you sent to me, ‘If Balak should give me his house full of silver and gold, I would not be able to go beyond the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad of my own will. What the Lord speaks, that will I speak’? And now, behold, I am going to my people. Come, I will let you know what this people will do to your people in the latter days.’
“And he took up his discourse and said,
‘The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor,
the oracle of the man whose eye is opened,
the oracle of him who hears the words of God,
and knows the knowledge of the Most High,
who sees the vision of the Almighty,
falling down with his eyes uncovered:
I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near:
a star shall come out of Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;
it shall crush the forehead of Moab
and break down all the sons of Sheth.
Edom shall be dispossessed;
Seir also, his enemies, shall be dispossessed.
Israel is doing valiantly.
And one from Jacob shall exercise dominion
and destroy the survivors of cities!’
“Then he looked on Amalek and took up his discourse and said,
‘Amalek was the first among the nations,
but its end is utter destruction.’
And he looked on the Kenite, and took up his discourse and said,
‘Enduring is your dwelling place,
and your nest is set in the rock.
Nevertheless, Kain shall be burned
when Asshur takes you away captive.’
“And he took up his discourse and said,
‘Alas, who shall live when God does this?
But ships shall come from Kittim
And shall afflict Asshur and Eber; and he too shall come to utter destruction.’
“Then Balaam rose and went back to his place. And Balak also went his way.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
This is a rich passage, and we can’t exhaust its riches in the time that we have tonight, but I want to draw your attention to one comfort and two warnings that we find in this passage. The comfort again has to do with the sovereignty of God, as in all of this story God is showing Israel that He is in charge of absolutely everything and everyone for Israel’s good…that no pagan king and no pagan prophet can lay a finger on the people of God apart from God’s will. And so once again in this passage we see numerous ways in which the sovereignty of God over the totality of this situation for the good of Israel is stressed. Let me just mention a number of those things.
I. God’s sovereignty in the comfort of His people.
First of all, God demonstrates His sovereignty for the sake of comforting and encouraging and strengthening the faith of Israel by once again showing that venue is not the issue here. For the second time, Balak has asked Balaam to move to a place that might be more opportune.
You can see what might be at work in Balak’s mind. Balak is a polytheist, and he thinks that maybe Balaam’s spell didn’t work because he wasn’t in the right location. Maybe if he moved locations, the gods of that location would be more favorable to the curse which he has requested Balaam to perform on the people of God. And so they move to yet another high place. They’ve already been in a high place, the high places of the Baals, and now they move to another high place and they set up more altars. But God shows His sovereignty by making it clear for a second time that ‘You can set up shop anywhere you want, Balak, and you still can’t curse My people, because I’m the only true God, and I’m the God of that mountain just as well as I’m the God of that mountain; and you can move from mountain, to mountain, to mountain, and it’s not going to work.’ And so God’s sovereignty is manifested in verses 27 and 28 of chapter 23 by showing you that they can move to any venue that they want, and it’s still not going to be effective against the sovereign God.
God’s sovereignty is demonstrated as a comfort to God’s people in this passage in another way. Isn’t it fascinating that Balaam, this pagan seer, we are told — look at verses 1 and 2 of chapter 24 — that Balaam, this pagan seer, when he finally sees the ultimate vision, when he finally sees the concluding word which God has for him, for Balak, and for all the people of God, what is that word? Well, the word is this: The word is that Israel is blessed.
Look at verse 1. “When Balaam saw…” What? “…that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel….” Now isn’t the sovereignty of God manifested in an extraordinary way there? What does the pagan seer see? He sees that it pleased the Lord to bless His people. And so God’s sovereignty is manifested in that even the pagan seer hired to curse the people of God sees that God has blessed His people and that there’s nothing that he can do against that blessing.
Thirdly, notice the extraordinary events that are testified to in verses 3-9 of chapter 24, and especially in verse 9. Do you see what happens in verse 9? There we read the conclusion to the first oracle of Balaam, and that oracle concludes with these words: “Blessed are those who bless you, and cursed are those who curse you.”
Now, what does that remind you of? Well, it reminds you of Genesis 12:1-3. And what is Genesis 12:1-3? It is God’s covenant promise to Abraham. So what is it that the pagan prophet confesses under the sovereign control of the Holy Spirit of God but that God’s promise to Abraham for Israel is true? What more graphic way could God have shown to the children of Israel that He was sovereign for their good? And, can you imagine? This story is being told around the campfire, and a little boy is confused by it. And he asks his dad, back in the tent, after they’ve heard the story, “Dad, I don’t understand it. King Balak, who hated us, hired Balaam to curse us.”
“But, Dad, Balaam said that those who bless us are blessed, and those who curse us are cursed.”
“But, Dad, he’s a pagan prophet. He’s not a prophet of the Lord. He’s our enemy!”
“I don’t understand, Dad.”
“Son, don’t you know? Your God is sovereign, even over pagan prophets.”
“Wow, Dad! Then it’s also true that not a hair can fall from my head apart from the will of our loving God.”
“Yes, son, that’s right, because He’s sovereign.”
But Balaam’s not done yet! And look, you feel for Balak here! Of course he’s angry! He wanted a curse! But it gets worse, because in verses 15-24 Balaam says to Balak, ‘Look, it’s not just that they’re God’s people now; it’s that there’s still yet greater blessing in store for this people in the future. Let me tell you what they’re going to do to you.’ And so he recounts the destruction of the enemies of God’s people, making it clear that God’s blessing on Israel has a still yet future aspect. God’s blessing is not just now, there’s a blessing still to come. This is a temporary blessing. It’s a blessing which is unfolding, and God’s sovereignty is revealed to the comfort of the people of God in the prediction of Numbers 24:17, where Balaam the pagan prophet will predict the coming of “a star out of Jacob, a scepter out of Israel, who shall exercise dominion.” And so Matthew records that pagan kings, or pagan seers, or pagan wise men (whatever they were, these magi from the East) will come to Israel looking for the king, because they’ve seen His star. And Matthew’s just telling you that the prophecy of the pagan prophet Balaam has been understood, because of the sovereignty of God, by these pagan wise men from the East, and they’ve come to look for the one who had been prophesied of 1400 years before His coming. God is sovereign.
And of course God demonstrates His sovereignty in sending both Balaam and Balak packing! And of course it comes in two stages, doesn’t it? First you have these angry words from Balak to Balaam in chapter 24:11 — ‘I told you I was going to honor you if you did this; you didn’t do it, so I’m not going to honor you.’ In other words, ‘I told you I was going to pay you handsomely; you didn’t do it, so I’m going to send you away empty handed.’ So Balaam, who was attracted in the first place because of the prospect of becoming a very wealthy man, goes away empty handed. He has served as a pawn in the purposes of God and he has absolutely nothing to show for it but frustration and a waste of his own time. God is sovereign.
And Balak, the king who was going to impede the coming of the people of God into the Promised Land? He goes his own way. God sends them both packing.
In all of this, God demonstrates His sovereignty for the comfort of His people. Over and over and over in this story, in 25 different ways God presses home one truth to the people of God: ‘I am in charge. You can trust Me.’ And why does He have to press that truth home so many times, so many ways? Because this is a fallen world filled with troubles now as it was then, and our faith is weak. And in His kindness, in order to strengthen our weak faith, He tells us a thousand different ways that we can trust Him. And it would be a shame for us tonight to go away wagging our finger at the children of Israel for not trusting Him more, when we ourselves have right now, where we’re sitting in our own pews, plenty of challenges in which we struggle to trust the providence of God.
You heard Billy Greenlee give thanks to the Lord for the way that He provided. I want to tell you that one of the ways that I struggle is in trusting that the Lord will provide for the material resources that we need to do the ministry of this church. I am “Oh, me of little faith!” when it comes to that financial provision, and Billy’s right: the Lord answered in remarkable ways in the month of December.
But you know, we all have our areas. There are some areas where we can be extraordinarily trusting in the Lord…and then there’ll be that other area of our lives where we really, really struggle. You know, we may be able to trust the Lord in our own physical hardships, and yet find it very, very difficult to trust the Lord when a loved one is going through a great, great trial of a disease or an illness. Or, we may be able to trust the Lord that He would show us what He would have us to do in a particular situation, and at the same time really struggle trusting that the Lord will guide our children in their difficult situations. All of us have our area in which we are faith-challenged, and here’s the Lord’s message for all of us tonight: “I am in charge for your good. Neither pagan kings nor prophets can lay a finger on you. You can trust Me.” What a glorious, timely, needed message that is!
II. Balaam heard the voice of God but did not trust God.
But there are two warnings in this passage as well, and we would be the poorer if we didn’t pay attention to them. And the first warning is this…it is simply this: that despite all that he saw and all that he heard from God, and all that he said for God, Balaam did not trust in this God for his salvation.
Can you imagine being given the privilege of announcing the star that comes out of Jacob and the scepter out of Judah? Moses doesn’t make that prophecy! Aaron doesn’t make that prophecy! Joshua doesn’t make that prophecy…Nathan doesn’t make that prophecy…Balaam makes that prophecy! But he doesn’t embrace for his salvation the God who has appointed a star to come out of Jacob and a scepter out of Judah.
Over and over and over, as we saw the first time when we started through this passage, over and over and over the Bible makes it clear that Balaam was a false prophet, a hireling. He spoke the truth under the influence of God’s Holy Spirit, but he didn’t embrace it himself.
Ah, friends! All of us have had the privilege — some of us for more years than others — of being in a fellowship where the word of God is believed to be the inspired, authoritative, infallible, inerrant rule of faith and life, the very words of the living God written down for our profit and edification. But it is possible to be in the midst of a fellowship like that and not embrace that truth for ourselves, even as Balaam delivered the inerrant word of God and didn’t embrace it for himself.
What a warning that is for us. It’s not enough for us to know the claims of the word of God about himself; we must by faith believe that the word of God is what the word of God says it is, and believe the promise and command that the word of God gives us: that all those and only those who rest and trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel will fellowship with God forever.
What a warning Balaam is. He knew the word of God, he delivered the word of God; he did better than many who claim the name of ‘Christian.’ Isn’t it fascinating that Balaam can say — take a look at verse 13 — Balaam can say, “I will not go beyond the word of the Lord.” [Boy, I wish that there were Christian ministers out there today who would say that!] And he goes on to say, “What the Lord speaks, that will I speak.” I wish that every Christian minister out there who ministers in the name of Christ would say that — “What the Lord speaks, that I will speak.” And yet, he did not believe. What a warning that is to us.
One last thing. In all of this great challenge from Balak and Balaam against the well-being of the people of God, the people of God did not suffer so much as a scratch. Israel’s enemies — natural and supernatural — couldn’t lay a finger on them. But do you know what? In the next chapter Israel will do to herself what her enemies could not do to her, by committing spiritual adultery against the living God.
Isn’t it an irony? Through this torrential onslaught of satanic opposition, not one hair of one Israelite’s head was harmed. And then, by their own choice, by their own doing, by their own defection, they will reap untold harm upon themselves. Let’s take that to heart, too, even as we’re encouraged that as we trust in God, He can be trusted.
Heavenly Father, thank You for these messages from the stories of Balaam. Grant that we would believe that You are in charge for our good; that we would believe and embrace Your word; that we would believe and embrace Your Savior; but that we would not go after other gods to the destruction of our own souls. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.