January 2, 2008
Balaam’s Prophecy (1)
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Numbers 22, the last verse of that chapter, and then we’ll read the first twenty-six verses of the twenty-third chapter tonight. It’s been a while since we’ve been in Numbers together.
When we last left Balaam, he was talking to a donkey. And we said that throughout this story the sovereignty of God has been highlighted at the expense of the key antagonist of Israel in this passage. Balak the great king has not looked so great. Balaam, the great pagan soothsayer and seer and prophet, has not looked so great. But God has shown Himself to be great in defense of His own people.
And the passage is filled with humor and irony at the expense of both Balaam and Balak. One of the things that we didn’t have the opportunity to consider the last time we were together when we were looking at the incident of Balaam and his ass was some of the very irony in the words spoken to Balaam’s donkey by Balaam. You remember at one point the prophet is so frustrated with his donkey he said, “If I had a sword, I’d strike you down right now!” And of course the irony of it was the reason the donkey wasn’t moving was because there was an angel who did have a sword, who was ready to strike Balaam down! And so while Balaam threatens his donkey with the sword that he doesn’t have, there’s an angel who does have a sword who’s ready to strike Balaam down. And so the whole story is filled with delicious irony, showing the weakness of Balaam and the weakness of those who will oppose God’s people and God Almighty himself.
Over and over, the sovereignty of God is stressed in the passage to the great comfort of the people of God. And so also in the story we’re going to read tonight, because now Balak the king thinks, ‘OK, now having been frustrated on my first and second attempts to get Balaam to come and to do my bidding, I think what we’ll do now is move onto my turf. I’m going to get Balaam into the high places of Baal. We’re going to get near my gods, and we’re going to offer my gods sacrifices. And then I’m going to spring the question. We’re going to set up bunches of altars on the high places, and we’re going to offer significant sacrifices to the Baal’s, and then I’m going to put the squeeze on Balaam to curse the people of God.’ And that’s the context of the story that we’re going to read tonight.
Let’s pray before we hear God’s word.
Father, thank You for this word. Teach us to trust You, to love You, to believe You. And show us wonderful things from Your law, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
This is God’s word, beginning in Numbers 22:41 —
“And in the morning Balak took Balaam and brought him up to Bamoth-baal, and from there he saw a fraction of the people. And Balaam said to Balak, ‘Build for me here seven altars, and prepare for me here seven bulls and seven rams.’ Balak did as Balaam had said. And Balak and Balaam offered on each altar a bull and a ram. And Balaam said to Balak, ‘Stand beside your burnt offering, and I will go. Perhaps the Lord will come to meet me, and whatever he shows me I will tell you.’ And he went to a bare height, and God met Balaam. And Balaam said to him, ‘I have arranged the seven altars and I have offered on each altar a bull and a ram.’ And the Lord put a word in Balaam’s mouth and said, ‘Return to Balak, and thus you shall speak.’ And he returned to him, and behold, he and all the princes of Moab were standing beside his burnt offering. And Balaam took up his discourse and said,
‘From Aram Balak has brought me,
The king of Moab from the eastern mountains:
‘Come, curse Jacob for me, and come, denounce Israel!’
How can I curse whom God has not cursed?
How can I denounce whom the Lord has not denounced?
For from the top of the crags I see him, from the hills I behold him;
Behold, a people dwelling alone, and not counting itself
among the nations!
Who can count the dust of Jacob or number the fourth part of Israel?
Let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his!’
And Balak said to Balaam, ‘What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, and behold, you have done nothing but bless them.’ And he answered and said, ‘Must I not take care to speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?’ And Balak said to him, ‘Please come with me to another place, from which you may see them. You shall see only a fraction of them and shall not see them all. Then curse them for me from there.’ And he took him to the field of Zophim, to the top of Pisgah, and built seven altars and offered a bull and a ram on each altar. Balaam said to Balak, ‘Stand here beside your burnt offering, while I meet the Lord over there.’
And the Lord met Balaam and put a word in his mouth and said, ‘Return to Balak, and thus shall you speak.’ And he came to him, and behold, he was standing beside his burnt offering, and the princes of Moab with him. And Balak said to him, ‘What has the Lord spoken?’ And Balaam took up his discourse and said,
‘Rise Balak, and hear; give ear to me, O son of Zippor:
God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man,
that he should change his mind.
Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken,
and will he not fulfill it?
Behold, I received a command to bless:
He has blessed, and I cannot revoke it.
He has not beheld misfortune in Jacob, nor has he seen trouble in Israel.
The Lord their God is with them, and the shout of a king is among them.
God brings them out of Egypt and is for them
like the horns of the wild ox.
For there is no enchantment against Jacob, no divination against Israel;
Now it shall be said of Jacob and Israel, ‘What has God wrought!’
Behold, a people! As a lioness it rises up and as a lion it lifts itself;
It does not lie down until it has devoured the prey
and drunk the blood of the slain.’
“And Balak said to Balaam, ‘Do not curse them at all, and do not bless them at all.’ But Balaam answered Balak, ‘Did I not tell you, ‘All that the Lord says, that I must do’?’”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
This passage moves the contest onto the home turf of King Balak. He asks Balaam to view the people of God from one of the high places where false gods are worshiped in his land. So he takes him up on the mountain, and he puts up seven altars, and he shows him the people of God, and he thinks that he’s got leverage now. But Balaam tells him, ‘I will inquire of the Lord again, and I’m going to tell you only what the Lord says to me.’ (He promises him that in Numbers 23:3.) And then after sacrifices are offered to the false gods (the Baals from the high place), who shows up but the one true God to speak to Balaam! And twice He delivers absolutely crystal clear messages to Balaam to give to Balak that are one hundred and eighty degrees opposite from what Balak wants Balaam to do.
There are at least five things that I think we see in these two incidents. There’s so much more that we could do, but in the time that we have tonight, I want to point you to five things in these two incidents that we learn.
I. The security of the people of God.
The first thing (and you see it in verse 8 as Balaam delivers the first word of the Lord to Balak)…the first thing that we see is the unassailable security of the people of God.
Balak’s desire is for Balaam to curse the people of God. God says, ‘Balaam, go back and tell King Balak this: ‘How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce whom the Lord has not denounced?’’ The whole point is — and the irony of it all is — that this pagan prophet who has been hired by Balak to curse the people of God is the instrument that God uses to tell the pagan king Balak that no one can curse those whom God has blessed. Do you catch the rich irony of that? Balaam was to be Balak’s instrument of cursing on Israel, but instead he ends up being the one who delivers the message of blessing about Israel to Balak. God’s sovereignty is again demonstrated in the very exchange, and he shows the unassailable security of the people of God.
There are great forces in this world arrayed against God’s people. Some of those forces are natural; some of those forces are supernatural. But it does not matter. That’s why the Apostle Paul was able to say that neither principalities nor powers could separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. That is why he could say that neither life nor death could separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. The people of God are unassailably secure.
Now. My friends, the people of God… please remember this…the people of God, Israel moving into the land — they don’t feel secure. They’re grumbling all the time to Moses and to Aaron and to their leaders about the insecurity that they feel about their circumstances. But what’s God teaching in this story? He’s saying, ‘No one can lay a hand on you! No one can lay a hand on you. You are unassailably secure, under the sheltering umbrella of My blessing.’ And my friends, we’re no different than the children of Israel. God has made the same promise to His people under the blessings of the new covenant, and more. And yet we don’t feel secure so much of the time. We don’t live as if we’re secure so much of the time. And so this message is not just a message for the children of Israel in the wilderness, that they would trust the unassailable security that has been vouchsafed to them by the Almighty sovereign God, it’s for us! No matter what the circumstance we’re in at this point or at any point in our lives, if we are resting and trusting in Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel, if we are His blood-bought forgiven and adopted children, there is no one and no thing that can lay one finger on a hair of our heads apart from the will of our heavenly Father, because we are secure in His hand. That’s the first thing we learn in this passage, the unassailable security of the people of God.
II. The unique heritage of the people of God.
The second thing we see, and we’ll see it in the very first words of verse 9, is the unique heritage of the people of God.
Balaam has been hired to curse the children of Israel. He’s been hired to go out and pronounce a curse that will bring destruction to the sons of Jacob. And what does God have him go back to Balak to say? You see it in verse 9. Look at the words:
“From the top of the crags I see him, from the hills I behold him….”
What’s going on there? Does that scene remind you of anything else? Does it remind you of God speaking to Abraham? Does it remind you of God speaking to Moses and saying — what? As God sets Abraham and Moses on a high place and says, ‘Look across the land. This is the land that I have given to your descendents. This is the land that I have given to My people. This is the land of Canaan. It’s yours!’
Now a pagan prophet looks from a mountaintop that a pagan king has put him on in order to curse the people of God so that they will not inherit the inheritance that God has promised to them, and God sends that very same pagan prophet back to the pagan king to say, “From the top of the crag, I see him.” Who is him? The sons of Abraham! The children of Jacob! “From the hills I behold him.” It is the pagan prophet acknowledging this is the people of God, and this is their land. He is acknowledging the unique heritage of the people of God. God has promised them an inheritance. God has promised them a land, and they will not be defrauded of it. They will not be denied it. They will not be cursed and lose it through the curse of a pagan prophet.
So not only the unassailable security of the people of God in verse 8, but the unique heritage of the people of God in verse 9 is emphasized.
III. The distinctive identity of the people of God.
But there’s a third thing, and you see it in the second half of verse 9. Here we see the distinctive identity of the people of God acknowledged by Balaam.
“Behold…” [how does he describe them?]
“Behold, a people dwelling alone, and not counting itself among the nations!”
He identifies the children of Israel as utterly unique. They’re not like the other nations. He comes back to Balak. Balak’s asked him to curse the people of God. And he says, ‘I’ve just got to tell you about these people! There’s nobody like them on the earth! God wanted me to tell you there’s nobody like them on the earth. Here’s the message that the Lord sends back to you. You know all those rams and bulls that you offered, and all the altars you set up? And you wanted a message from the Lord? Well, here it is! There’s nobody like these people. They’re not to be numbered amongst the nations, because they’re not like the nations. They’re totally different. They’re unique. They’re distinctive. They’re like no one else. They’re not counted amongst the nations. They are God’s peculiar treasure. They are the apple of His eye. It’s as if Balaam is the instrument to say to Balak, ‘Do you have any idea who you’re asking me to curse?’
IV. The ultimate destiny of the people of God.
And then fourth, in verse 10, he’s not only pointed to the unassailable security of the people of God, and the unique heritage of the people of God, and the distinctive identity of the people of God, but here he points to the ultimate destiny of the people of God.
“Who can count the dust of Jacob or number the fourth part of Israel?”
You can’t even begin to count these people! They’re like the sand on the seashore. They’re like the stars in the sky. What does that sound like? It sounds like the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3.
But then he says — what? Balaam, who’s been hired to curse the people of God, comes back to Balak with this message from the Lord: ‘You know, Balak, I just wish that I could die the death of the upright. I just wish that my end could be like their end. I wish I could be numbered amongst them.’ And you know what Balak’s thinking — ‘Whose side are you on? I want you to curse them, not admire them! I want you to curse them, not wish that you were one of them!’
Do you remember how Come, My Soul, Thy Suit Prepare ends? We didn’t sing that stanza. Take your hymnal out. Look at No. 628. John Newton — yes, John Newton wrote this hymn. John Newton asks you as a believer to sing in verse 6, in stanza 6:
“Show me what I have to do,
Every hour my strength renew:
Let me live life of faith,
Let me die thy people’s death;
Let me die thy people’s death.”
So blessed in the sight of the Lord is the death of His godly ones that one of the things that John Newton is praying for is that he would not only live well, but die well; and he invites you as a believer to pray the prayer that you would die the death of the people of God: in faith, trusting in the living God through Jesus Christ.
And Balaam’s looking…Balaam the pagan is looking down on the people of God from the heights and he says, ‘I wish I could die their death. I wish I could be numbered amongst them. I wish my end was going to be like the end of the children of Abraham.’ Isn’t that extraordinary? This is not what Balak wanted to hear!
V. The unquestionable sovereignty of God in the care of His people.
Well, what’s the point? The point is that Balak’s instrument is ultimately simply God’s instrument to demonstrate His complete loving sovereignty and providence and care for His people. And you learn that, of course, in the second word that God gives to Balaam to give to Balak, don’t you? Look especially at verse 19, because in the second word, Balaam’s message from the Lord back to Balak this time isn’t so much about the promises that God has given to the sons of Abraham, to the children of Israel, as it is about the character of the God who has made those promises to the children of Israel. And in the second word from the Lord, Balaam announces this to Balak:
“God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?”
What Balaam is being used by God to announce to Balak there is not the unassailable security of the people of God, or the unique heritage of the people of God, or the distinctive identity of God, or the ultimate destiny of the people of God, but the unquestionable sovereignty of the people of God. This time God sends Balaam back to say, ‘Balak, let me tell you something not about My people, let me tell you something about Me. Listen closely, Balak. Number one: I’m not like you. I’m not like you. You, Balak, have all your life worshiped a god made in your image. I’m not like you. And here’s one way that I’m not like you: When I promise, it’s done. When I promise, I don’t change My mind. When I set blessing on someone, there’s no “king’s X.” No crossed fingers. No small print down in the bottom of the clause where under certain circumstances I renege. When I promise, it’s done. And Balak, I’ve put My word of promise on these people, and you can’t undo it, and Balaam can’t undo it because My sovereignty is unquestionable.’ You see, in all of these things it is precisely God’s power, God’s will, God’s purpose, God’s sovereignty which is the source of comfort for the people of God.
I wonder if one reason why in our own time so many professing Christians feel frightened and uncomfortable, and even to some degree hopeless, in this hard and fallen world that is filled with many dangers, toils, and snares…I wonder if it is that they’ve not adequately pondered and taken in and believed this comforting truth:
that God’s sovereignty is unquestionable, and therefore their security is unassailable;
that God’s sovereignty is unquestionable, and therefore their heritage is unassailable;
that God’s sovereignty is unquestionable, and therefore their destiny in unassailable.
Do you believe that tonight? Do you believe that in the hardest places in your life? The most confusing places in your life, the places in your life where it doesn’t look like God is at work, or where it looks like He’s even working at cross purposes? Understand, the children of Israel aren’t up on Pisgah with Balaam and Balak in this conversation. They’re down in the valley marching on, and they’ve been grumbling all the way. And you know what? They’ll doubt some more. They’ll question some more. They’ll wonder what God is doing. They’ll be afraid of what they’re up against. But God’s message here is, ‘Children, I’m in control, and I will leave none of My children behind.’
Our heavenly Father, there are folks in this room tonight who are in places where they really, really need the confidence and hope of Your sovereign watchcare and providence over them. There are things that are happening in their lives that to them make no sense, that are breaking their hearts, causing them fear, and weighing them down and stretching them thin. They need a word from You. And isn’t the irony rich, O God, that tonight that You’ve decided to deliver that word to them through the mouth of a pagan prophet named Balaam, recorded in Your own inspired authoritative and inerrant word for their everlasting comfort. Lord, this is my prayer for every heart trusting in Christ and needing His word of comfort: by Your Holy Spirit infallibly give them that assurance and hope. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Would you stand for God’s blessing.
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.