God’s Unlikely Spokesman

1 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!
10 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!”

11 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.” 12 And he answered and said, “Must I not take care to speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?” Numbers 23:1-12 ESV

In the following two chapters, Moses will reveal a series of oracles or divine pronouncements from Jehovah but delivered through Balaam, a pagan and profit-hungry diviner. For whatever reason, God had chosen to use this unworthy vessel to deliver a series of blessings upon His chosen people, the nation of Israel. And this unexpected turn of events would leave King Balak in a state of confusion and rage. After all, he had offered Balaam a sizeable reward to pronounce a curse upon the unwelcome Israelites who had invaded his realm.

This story, recorded by Moses for the benefit of the people of Israel, was meant to accentuate the sovereign will of God and provide encouragement to the Israelites. In it, God reveals His unparalleled power over any and all forces that might attempt to stand against His chosen people. Jehovah could utilize any and all resources to accomplish His divine will, including a pagan diviner who had hoped to score a big payday from King Balak by issuing a curse on the Israelites.

Neither Balak nor Balaam were a threat to the people of God. They were both nothing more than pawns in the hand of the all-powerful, all-knowing Jehovah. No curse uttered by this pseudo-prophet would have made any impact on God’s people. Yet, much to Balaam’s surprise and Balak’s chagrin, God would use this imposter to deliver a series of powerful and irreversible blessings on the descendants of Abraham.

“The most arresting element of the introductory section is in the words ‘God met with him’ (v. 4) and ‘the LORD put a message in Balaam’s mouth’ (v. 5). Despite the pagan and unsavory actions of this ungodly man, the Lord deigns to meet with him and to speak through him. This is utterly remarkable. We often say that God will never use an unclean vessel. This is not quite accurate. God may use whatever vessel he wishes; the issue concerns what happens to an unclean vessel when God has finished using it for his purposes.” – Ronald B. Allen, “Numbers.” In Genesis—Numbers. Vol. 2 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary

It is no coincidence that, earlier in the story, God spoke to Balaam through a donkey. When the revered soothsayer had been unable to see the angel of God standing in his path with a drawn sword, Balaam’s donkey had seen the danger and veered away from the danger. This prompted Balaam to beat the donkey severely and, much to his surprise, the donkey responded by questioning Balaam’s unjust treatment. Much to Balaam’s surprise, the donkey spoke to him. This “dumb” beast held a reasoned and well-articulated conversation with a man who was renowned for his ability to “speak” with the gods.

And now, Jehovah would use Balaam to deliver His divinely ordained words of blessings on Israel. Through the lips of this pagan oracle from Aram, God would issue a series of powerful messages concerning the fate of His chosen people. And each time Balaam opened his mouth, his hopes of making a profit diminished and Balak’s anger increased exponentially.

The whole scene has a somewhat theatrical flavor to it. One can almost sense Balaam’s desire to buy himself time. He is still harboring some hope of turning this entire affair in his favor. He has not given up on the idea of issuing a curse and gaining his reward. So, he buys himself time by having Balak set up an elaborate altar complex.

“Build me seven altars here, and prepare seven young bulls and seven rams for me to sacrifice.” – Numbers 23:1 NLT

This bit of showmanship was probably intended to impress Balak. It had all the trappings of a cultic sacrificial ceremony and would have given Balak the impression that Balaam was preparing to call down the wrath of the gods upon the unsuspecting Israelites. Balaam encouraged Balak’s hopes by offering a series of blood sacrifices on the altars, signifying his attempt to call on divine aid. But nothing happened.

By this time, Balaam knew that he was dealing with the one true God and he would have to seek His will. So, he left Balak standing by his blood-soaked altars and went to the top of a nearby hill to see if Jehovah had a word for him.

“Stand here by your burnt offerings, and I will go to see if the Lord will respond to me. Then I will tell you whatever he reveals to me.” – Numbers 23:3 NLT

And Jehovah didn’t disappoint. Moses states that “God met Balaam” (Numbers 23:4 ESV) and the Almighty gave him a message to deliver to Balak. And Balaam must have felt a sense of panic and fear as he heard the words he was to repeat to the king. This was not going to go well. But Balaam, motivated by his earlier vision of the well-armed angel, wisely obeyed God’s command and delivered the message he had been given.

God had Balaam begin by recounting the nature of Balak’s request.

“Balak summoned me to come from Aram;
    the king of Moab brought me from the eastern hills.
‘Come,’ he said, ‘curse Jacob for me!
    Come and announce Israel’s doom.’ – Numbers 23:7 NLT

Then, he dropped the bombshell.

“But how can I curse those
    whom God has not cursed?
How can I condemn those
    whom the Lord has not condemned?” – Numbers 23:8 NLT

This was not what Balak wanted to hear. And it was going to get worse. What Balaam said next would leave the king in a rage. Rather than hearing a pronouncement of doom, Balak would have to listen to Balaam wax eloquent about Israel’s numbers and seemingly charmed status as a nation. They were blessed by God.

I see them from the cliff tops;
    I watch them from the hills.
I see a people who live by themselves,
    set apart from other nations.
Who can count Jacob’s descendants, as numerous as dust?
    Who can count even a fourth of Israel’s people?” – Numbers 23:9-10 NLT

This rather cryptic-sounding message was crystal clear to Balak. The Israelites were uniquely gifted people who enjoyed the favor of their God. Their extensive numbers were evidence that Jehovah’s hand was upon them and no one would be able to stand against them. And Balaam makes things even worse when he states his own jealousy of their status as God’s chosen people.

“Let me die like the righteous;
    let my life end like theirs.” – Numbers 23:10 NLT

What Balaam didn’t realize was that the words God had given him to speak were intended to reflect the words of the promise God had given to Abraham centuries earlier.

“Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others.  I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” – Genesis 12:1-3 NLT

God had Balaam express his own desire to be blessed rather than cursed. To stand against the people of God was a death sentence. Anyone who chose to resist them would face the judgment of God. And Balaam was learning the painful lesson that any attempt on his part to curse God’s people would end in futility and failure.

But Balak was incensed. He felt that Balaam had deceived him.

“What have you done to me? I brought you to curse my enemies. Instead, you have blessed them!” – Numbers 23:11 NLT

And yet, Balaam admitted that he was powerless to resist the sovereign will of Jehovah. He was dealing with a force that was unlike anything he had ever encountered before. And he confessed that he was unwilling to the will of God.

“I will speak only the message that the Lord puts in my mouth.” – Numbers 23:12 NLT

This so-called “wise” man was increasing in wisdom with each passing minute. And while it is doubtful that his original intention had been to call on the name of Jehovah, he had now discovered that the God of Israel and His chosen people were not to be trifled with.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.