Lord of All

17 In the twenty-seventh year, in the first month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me: 18 “Son of man, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon made his army labor hard against Tyre. Every head was made bald, and every shoulder was rubbed bare, yet neither he nor his army got anything from Tyre to pay for the labor that he had performed against her. 19 Therefore thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will give the land of Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; and he shall carry off its wealth and despoil it and plunder it; and it shall be the wages for his army. 20 I have given him the land of Egypt as his payment for which he labored, because they worked for me, declares the Lord God.

21 “On that day I will cause a horn to spring up for the house of Israel, and I will open your lips among them. Then they will know that I am the Lord.” Ezekiel 29:17-21 ESV

Some 17 years later, Ezekiel received yet another oracle from God concerning Egypt, and this one came sometime around his 50th birthday. The prophet placed it immediately after the prior message to identify Babylon as the source of Egypt’s fall. King Nebuchadnezzar would be the one wielding the sword against Pharaoh and his people. The same nation that brought about the end of Judah and Tyre would sweep down on the unsuspecting citizens of Egypt, “and the land of Egypt shall be a desolation and a waste” (Ezekiel 29:9 ESV).

The amazing thing about this passage is its insistence that Nebuchadnezzar acted as an agent of God Almighty. He was an instrument in the hands of God, carrying out the divine will exactly as God had intended. Unknowingly serving as God’s instrument of judgment, Nebuchadnezzar would lay siege to Tyre for 13 long years, forcing his army to endure a lengthy and costly campaign that resulted in little benefit.

“Son of man, the army of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon fought so hard against Tyre that the warriors’ heads were rubbed bare and their shoulders were raw and blistered. Yet Nebuchadnezzar and his army won no plunder to compensate them for all their work.” – Ezekiel 29:18 NLT

This kind of expenditure against a relatively small coastal city made no sense for a global juggernaut like Babylon. It had little to gain from pouring such much time and resources into a single campaign against a city-state that posed little threat to its empire. But Nebuchadnezzar was doing God’s bidding. He was serving as God’s agent of wrath against Tyre, and he would perform the same role against Egypt.

In fact, God makes it clear that the Egyptian campaign would be a form of payback for Nebuchadnezzar’s losses suffered at Tyre.

“Therefore, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will give the land of Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. He will carry off its wealth, plundering everything it has so he can pay his army.” – Ezekiel 29:19 NLT

The wealth of Egypt made that of Tyre pale by comparison. Nebuchadnezzar’s plunder of the vast Egyptian empire would more than compensate for any losses he suffered in his capture of Tyre.

In ancient days, plunder was one of the primary sources of payment for a nation’s armed forces. A soldier’s base salary was relatively small but the appeal of military service was in the sense of adventure it provided and the potential windfall of booty a successful campaign might bring. The conquest of a wealthy city could result in a sizeable bonus for the average footsoldier. Part of the incentive for defeating their enemies was the right to ransack and loot at will. Victorious soldiers were free to take whatever riches they could carry off as plunder, and the cities and towns of Egypt would prove to be a boon for the Babylonian forces.

“The scant historical data indicates that Egypt and Tyre became allies under Pharaoh Hophra (Apries). The extended siege of Tyre was perhaps due to the aid Tyre received from the Egyptians. In such an act Hophra was going contrary to God’s purposes. Not only was the siege prolonged by Egyptian support, but some also surmise that Egypt’s maritime aid enabled Tyre to send away her wealth for security during the siege. When Tyre surrendered about 573 B.C. . . ., Babylonia gained almost no spoils from the long siege.” – Ralph H. Alexander, Ezekiel

God rewarded Nebuchadnezzar for services rendered. This pagan king and his army would receive ample compensation for their role in the defeat of Tyre and it would come in the form of a successful military campaign against one of the greatest nations on earth at that time: Egypt.

This stunning victory against a perennial powerhouse in the region would be directly attributable to God, and this insight was meant to bring a sense of joy and hope to the exiled people of Judah.

“I have given him the land of Egypt as a reward for his work, says the Sovereign Lord, because he was working for me when he destroyed Tyre.” – Ezekiel 29:20 NLT

As the Jewish refugees living in Babylon heard this oracle from the lips of Ezekiel, they couldn’t help but recall the long and storied history of Israel’s relationship with Egypt. Their ancestors had lived as exiles in the land of the Pharaohs for more than 400 years. In the land of the pyramids and sphinxes, the descendants of Jacob had labored as slaves, building the very edifices that made Egypt the envy of the world (Exodus 1:8-14). They had heard the stories of how the Pharaoh had ordered the enslavement of their forefathers and foremothers. They knew the chilling details concerning the royal edict that ordered the infanticide of all the male children born to the Israelites (Exodus 1:15-22). The stories of Pharoah’s repeated refusals to allow Moses to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt would have been seared into their collective conscience. The people of Judah had no reason to love the Egyptians, so the report of their demise at the hands of the Babylonians should have come as welcome news to the exiles. Any time an oppressor nation got a taste of its own medicine was music to the ears of all those who had suffered at their hand.

And to add a further ray of hope to the exiles’ dark and difficult existence, God informs them that the day is coming when they will experience His undeserved grace and mercy as He restores them to their former glory as a nation.

“And the day will come when I will cause the ancient glory of Israel to revive, and then, Ezekiel, your words will be respected. Then they will know that I am the Lord.” – Ezekiel 29:21 NLT

God had predicted the falls of Ammon, Moab, Edom, Philistia, Tyre, and now, Egypt. The nations would fall like dominoes under the divinely ordained hand of King Nebuchadnezzar. Even Judah would succumb to Babylon’s insatiable and unstoppable quest to expand its empire and secure its place as the world’s most powerful nation.

But the Babylonians wold prove to be just another pawn in God’s strategic unveiling of His sovereign will for mankind. And while Babylon would enjoy its moment in the sunlight, it would prove to be shortlived. God’s real interest was in the well-being of His chosen people, and back in chapter 28, He revealed His intentions to restore them to the land He had given them.

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: The people of Israel will again live in their own land, the land I gave my servant Jacob. For I will gather them from the distant lands where I have scattered them. I will reveal to the nations of the world my holiness among my people. – Ezekiel 28:25 NLT

God exists outside of time. He is transcendent and all-knowing, possessing the unique ability to see past, present, and future all at the same time. Time means nothing to Him. As the eternal God, a thousand years are like a day (2 Peter 3:8). For the exiles, their stay in Babylon seemed endless and hopeless. They couldn’t see past the next morning. And all this news of Judah’s destruction just seemed to make matters worse. But God was letting them know that He had plans and was working those plans to perfection. He was in control of all things, including their future. The nations were under His rule and operated according to His sovereign will. Their rise and fall were His doing. Their victories and defeats were ordained from His throne room in heaven. And the exiles living in Judah needed to understand that their God was more powerful than their captor. Their circumstance was not a sign of God’s demise. The news of Jerusalem’s pending fall was not to be read as His abandonment of them. He was still on His throne and fully in control of all things at all times. And the day was coming when they would know that He is and will always be the Lord.

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.

Divine Payback

1 The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, set your face toward the Ammonites and prophesy against them. Say to the Ammonites, Hear the word of the Lord God: Thus says the Lord God, Because you said, ‘Aha!’ over my sanctuary when it was profaned, and over the land of Israel when it was made desolate, and over the house of Judah when they went into exile, therefore behold, I am handing you over to the people of the East for a possession, and they shall set their encampments among you and make their dwellings in your midst. They shall eat your fruit, and they shall drink your milk. I will make Rabbah a pasture for camels and Ammon a fold for flocks. Then you will know that I am the Lord. For thus says the Lord God: Because you have clapped your hands and stamped your feet and rejoiced with all the malice within your soul against the land of Israel, therefore, behold, I have stretched out my hand against you, and will hand you over as plunder to the nations. And I will cut you off from the peoples and will make you perish out of the countries; I will destroy you. Then you will know that I am the Lord.

“Thus says the Lord God: Because Moab and Seir said, ‘Behold, the house of Judah is like all the other nations,’ therefore I will lay open the flank of Moab from the cities, from its cities on its frontier, the glory of the country, Beth-jeshimoth, Baal-meon, and Kiriathaim. 10 I will give it along with the Ammonites to the people of the East as a possession, that the Ammonites may be remembered no more among the nations, 11 and I will execute judgments upon Moab. Then they will know that I am the Lord.

12 “Thus says the Lord God: Because Edom acted revengefully against the house of Judah and has grievously offended in taking vengeance on them, 13 therefore thus says the Lord God, I will stretch out my hand against Edom and cut off from it man and beast. And I will make it desolate; from Teman even to Dedan they shall fall by the sword. 14 And I will lay my vengeance upon Edom by the hand of my people Israel, and they shall do in Edom according to my anger and according to my wrath, and they shall know my vengeance, declares the Lord God.

15 “Thus says the Lord God: Because the Philistines acted revengefully and took vengeance with malice of soul to destroy in never-ending enmity, 16 therefore thus says the Lord God, Behold, I will stretch out my hand against the Philistines, and I will cut off the Cherethites and destroy the rest of the seacoast. 17 I will execute great vengeance on them with wrathful rebukes. Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I lay my vengeance upon them.” – Ezekiel 25:1-17 ESV

From the moment the Israelites entered the land of Canaan, they found themselves surrounded by a host of hostile enemies. When they showed up on the scene after their 40-year trek through the wilderness, they were greeted with less-than-open arms by the land’s current occupants. The Israelites numbered in the millions by the time they entered the land, and they were viewed as a threat by the various people groups who lived in the region. But God had granted them a particular portion of the land as their inheritance. Centuries earlier, God had promised Abraham that the land of Canaan would be the possession of his offspring.

“I will always be your God and the God of your descendants after you. And I will give the entire land of Canaan, where you now live as a foreigner, to you and your descendants. It will be their possession forever, and I will be their God.” – Genesis 17:7-8 NLT

But during the more than 500-year delay between the time when that promise was given and when the people of Israel entered Canaan, the land had not set empty or unoccupied. Its fertile soil and central location made it an attractive piece of real estate. And while the Israelites had been languishing as slaves in Egypt, a host of nations had taken up residence in and around Canaan. This included the nations listed in the chapter: Ammon, Moab, Seir, Edom, and Philistia. These particular groups occupied territory on the edges of the land of Canaan, and God had given Moses instructions about how to deal with them. In order to enter Canaan, the people of Israel would need to pass through some of these outlying territories. Their goal was to do so as peacefully as possible but, if necessary, they were ordered to use force.

“As you approach a town to attack it, you must first offer its people terms for peace. If they accept your terms and open the gates to you, then all the people inside will serve you in forced labor. But if they refuse to make peace and prepare to fight, you must attack the town. When the Lord your God hands the town over to you, use your swords to kill every man in the town. But you may keep for yourselves all the women, children, livestock, and other plunder. You may enjoy the plunder from your enemies that the Lord your God has given you. – Deuteronomy 20:10-14 NLT

Some of the nations listed in this chapter had an interesting relationship with the people of Israel. They were actually blood relations. In the case of the Ammonites and Moabites, they were the descendants of Abraham’s nephew, Lot. The record of their rather sordid history is found in the book of Genesis. Lot had made the unwise decision to settle his family in Sodom, a city infamous for its immorality. But God graciously rescued Lot and his two daughters before destroying the entire city and all its occupants.

In the immediate aftermath of Lot’s rescue, his daughters took it upon themselves to continue their family line by getting their father drunk and having sexual relations with him. And their depraved plan worked.

…both of Lot’s daughters became pregnant by their own father.  When the older daughter gave birth to a son, she named him Moab. He became the ancestor of the nation now known as the Moabites. When the younger daughter gave birth to a son, she named him Ben-ammi. He became the ancestor of the nation now known as the Ammonites. – Genesis 19:36-38 NLT

So, the Ammonites and Moabites were actually distant relatives of the Israelites. They had settled in the eastern portion of the land of Palestine long before the nation of Israel had been released from its captivity in Egypt. And they both proved to be less-than-accommodating to the Israelites as they attempted to enter the land of Canaan.

But God’s warnings recorded in Ezekiel 25 have to do with their response to the much-later fall of the northern kingdom of Israel, and what will be their gloating response to the fall of Judah and Jerusalem. When the Babylonian finally defeated the southern kingdom of Judah, the Ammonites and Moabites would rejoice. But God warns that they will suffer a similar fate at the hands of “the people of the East” (Ezekiel 25:10 ESV).

And the same thing will happen to the Edomites. This nation enjoyed a close relationship with the Israelites as well. They were the descendants of Esau, the twin brother of Jacob. And while both brothers were in their mother’s womb, God had warned Rebekah, “The sons in your womb will become two nations. From the very beginning, the two nations will be rivals. One nation will be stronger than the other; and your older son will serve your younger son” (Genesis 25:23 NLT).

The Edomites and Israelites never got along. In fact, their history was marked by constant conflict. Despite their blood ties, there was no love lost between these two nations. And because the Edomites would also rejoice at Judah’s demise, God would bring judgment upon them as well.

“I will raise my fist of judgment against Edom. I will wipe out its people and animals with the sword. I will make a wasteland of everything from Teman to Dedan.” – Ezekiel 25:13 NLT

The final nation addressed in God’s message to Ezekiel is Philistia. The Philistines occupied the land along the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, just west of Canaan. They are first listed in the book of Genesis as the descendants of Mizraim, the grandson of Noah.

Mizraim was the ancestor of the Ludites, Anamites, Lehabites, Naphtuhites, Pathrusites, Casluhites, and the Caphtorites, from whom the Philistines came… – Genesis 10:13-14 NLT

So, they too were distant relatives of the Israelites. They were a warring people who posed a perennial problem for the Israelites throughout their history. When God released the Israelites from their captivity in Egypt, He had chosen to send them via a route that would avoid any conflict with the Philistines.

When Pharaoh finally let the people go, God did not lead them along the main road that runs through Philistine territory, even though that was the shortest route to the Promised Land. God said, “If the people are faced with a battle, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” – Exodus 13:17 NLT

God knew that an encounter with the Philistines might dissuade His people from attempting to enter the land He had promised them, so He sent them on a lengthier and more circuitous way.

As they had done throughout their hostile history with Israel, the Philistines would take advantage of the northern kingdom’s fall to the Assyrians, confiscating their land and plundering their cities. And when Jerusalem came under siege by the Babylonians, the Philistines would use Judah’s suffering as an opportunity to extend their own borders and enrich their coffers. But they would pay dearly for their efforts.

“I will raise my fist of judgment against the land of the Philistines. I will wipe out the Kerethites and utterly destroy the people who live by the sea. I will execute terrible vengeance against them to punish them for what they have done.” – Ezekiel 25:16-17 NLT

Each of these nations had direct ties to the people of God. Yet they had chosen to rejoice at Israel’s suffering and profit from their loss. But when God was done punishing His disobedient people, He would turn His wrath upon their enemies. When the dust settled and the judgment of God had run its course, everyone would know that He alone was God. He warns the Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites, and Philistines, “when I have inflicted my revenge, they will know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 25:17 NLT).

And the prophet, Isaiah, predicts a future day when the once-divided nations of Israel and Judah will be reunited and they will wreak vengeance upon all their former enemies.

Then at last the jealousy between Israel and Judah will end.
    They will not be rivals anymore.
They will join forces to swoop down on Philistia to the west.
    Together they will attack and plunder the nations to the east.
They will occupy the lands of Edom and Moab,
    and Ammon will obey them. – Isaiah 11:13-14 NLT

God was going to judge His rebellious people, but He was not done with them. He would not renege on His commitment to them. And while the surrounding nations might see the fall of Israel and Judah as a godsend, they would one day experience the miracle of their complete revitalization and restoration as God’s chosen people. As God told Isaiah, the day was coming when all His promises to His people will be fulfilled and their fortunes will be restored.

In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time
    to bring back the remnant of his people—
those who remain in Assyria and northern Egypt;
    in southern Egypt, Ethiopia, and Elam;
    in Babylonia, Hamath, and all the distant coastlands.
He will raise a flag among the nations
    and assemble the exiles of Israel.
He will gather the scattered people of Judah
    from the ends of the earth. – Isaiah 11:11-12 NLT

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.

A Vision of Things to Come

15 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,
16 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:
17 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.
18 Edom shall be dispossessed;
    Seir also, his enemies, shall be dispossessed.
    Israel is doing valiantly.
19 And one from Jacob shall exercise dominion
    and destroy the survivors of cities!”

20 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.”

21 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.
22 Nevertheless, Kain shall be burned
    when Asshur takes you away captive.”

23 And he took up his discourse and said,

“Alas, who shall live when God does this?
24     But ships shall come from Kittim
and shall afflict Asshur and Eber;
    and he too shall come to utter destruction.”

25 Then Balaam rose and went back to his place. And Balak also went his way. Numbers 24:15-25 ESV

Balaam, the seer, had seen and heard all he needed to determine the will of Jehovah. No more altars were necessary and there was no need to spill the blood of another animal. God had made Himself perfectly clear and had left nothing up to doubt or debate. While King Balak was still holding out hope that a curse of the Israelites was forthcoming, In a sense, Balaam was saying, “I can see clearly now!”

“This is the message of Balaam son of Beor,
    the message of the man whose eyes see clearly,
the message of one who hears the words of God,
    who has knowledge from the Most High,
who sees a vision from the Almighty,
    who bows down with eyes wide open…” – Numbers 24:15-16 NLT

There was no further need to consult with the Lord. This newly enlightened soothsayer was transformed into a spokesman of God and given a series of disturbing prophecies to deliver to King Balak. First, true to his reputation as a seer, Balaam spoke of seeing an individual whose arrival was sometime in the foreseeable future.

“I see him, but not now;
    I behold him, but not near…” – Numbers 24:17 ESV

And Balaam informs King Balak that the origins of this coming one would be of a supernatural nature and accompanied by kingly authority.

“…a star shall come out of Jacob,
    and a scepter shall rise out of Israel…” – Numbers 24:17 ESV

From the very people group that Balak had hoped to curse would come a future king.

“That stars could be used metaphorically for kings is suggested by Isaiah 14:12, where the king of Babylon is called ‘Day Star’, and Revelation 22:16, which calls Jesus ‘the offspring of David, the bright morning star.’ That a king is meant here is confirmed by the second line of the couplet: a sceptre shall rise out of Israel, a sceptre being part of the royal insignia (Ps. 45:6; Amos 1:5,8; Gen. 49:10).” – Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries

And that king will “crush the forehead of Moab” (Numbers 24:17 ESV). This appears to be a reference to the king of Moab, the title held by Balak. This bit of bad news only confirmed Balak’s earlier suspicions and further fueled his desire to see the Israelites cursed. They were a direct threat to his rule and reign.

But the news only gets worse. Balaam goes on to mention the sons of Sheth as well as the kingdoms of Edom and Seir. This coming king would break down and dispossess them all.

“Edom will be taken over,
    and Seir, its enemy, will be conquered,
    while Israel marches on in triumph.” – Numbers 24:18 NLT

No one would be able to stand against God’s appointed leader and His chosen people. That included the Amalekites and the Kenites. This future king would be powerful and successful in leading the Israelites against all the inhabitants of the land of Canaan. And this prophecy was right in line with the blessing that Jacob had given to his son Judah centuries earlier.

“The scepter will not depart from Judah,
    nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants,
until the coming of the one to whom it belongs,
    the one whom all nations will honor.” – Genesis 49:10 NLT

Whether he realized it or not, Balaam was being used by God to confirm that very prophecy. The promise of a future king who would come from the tribe of Judah was still yet to be fulfilled. There is sense in which much of this prophecy was fulfilled under the reign of King David, a member of the tribe of Judah. David would prove to be a warrior-king whose military victories helped put Israel on the map politically speaking. He would expand the boundaries of Israel through military conquest and create one of the most powerful nations on the face of the earth at that time. And he would bequeath that nation to his son, Solomon, who would continue to build and expand the kingdom of Israel. But the day would come when Solomon’s kingdom would be divided in half, never again to enjoy its former glory. So, the final phase of Balaam’s prophecy remains unfulfilled.

“Alas, who can survive
    unless God has willed it?
Ships will come from the coasts of Cyprus;
    they will oppress Assyria and afflict Eber,
but they, too, will be utterly destroyed.” – Numbers 24:23-24 NLT

This appears to be a reference to future kingdoms that will come to power in the region and attempt to overthrow God’s people. But even these powers-to-be will meet a similar fate as the Moabites, Kenites, and Edomites. They will be utterly destroyed by God’s people with the help of the “star” who holds the “scepter” in his hand. And the book of Revelation predicts this coming time when a descendant of Jacob from the tribe of Judah will bring victory over all of Israel’s enemies once and for all.

To all who are victorious, who obey me to the very end,

To them I will give authority over all the nations.
They will rule the nations with an iron rod
    and smash them like clay pots.

They will have the same authority I received from my Father, and I will also give them the morning star! – Revelation 2:26-28 NLT

And in Revelation 22, the apostle John provides insight into the identity of “the morning star.”

“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this message for the churches. I am both the source of David and the heir to his throne. I am the bright morning star.” – Revelation 22:16 NLT

Jesus is the one of whom Balaam prophesied. He is the one who will bring destruction to the enemies of Israel. And the apostle John was given a vision of this end-times event, which he recorded in the book of Revelation.

Then I saw heaven opened, and a white horse was standing there. Its rider was named Faithful and True, for he judges fairly and wages a righteous war. His eyes were like flames of fire, and on his head were many crowns. A name was written on him that no one understood except himself. He wore a robe dipped in blood, and his title was the Word of God. The armies of heaven, dressed in the finest of pure white linen, followed him on white horses. From his mouth came a sharp sword to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod. He will release the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty, like juice flowing from a winepress. On his robe at his thigh was written this title: King of all kings and Lord of all lords. – Revelation 19:11-16 NLT

There is no way that Balaam understood the full import of his words. He had no way of seeing into the future and identifying this conquering king to come. But once he had delivered his Spirit-inspired message to King Balak, he went on his way. And Balak was left to consider the words of Jehovah and the impact they might have on his life and kingdom.

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.

Our Faithful God

27 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.” 28 So Balak took Balaam to the top of Peor, which overlooks the desert. 29 And Balaam said to Balak, “Build for me here seven altars and prepare for me here seven bulls and seven rams.” 30 And Balak did as Balaam had said, and offered a bull and a ram on each altar.

1 When Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he did not go, as at other times, to look for omens, but 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 oracle 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.”

10 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. 11 Therefore now flee to your own place. I said, ‘I will certainly honor you,’ but the Lord has held you back from honor.” 12 And Balaam said to Balak, “Did I not tell your messengers whom you sent to me, 13 ‘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’? 14 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.” Numbers 23:27-24:14 ESV

The third time is the charm, or so Balak hoped. In his relentless effort to have Balaam curse the Israelites, Balak suggested that they try their luck at a third location. He still harbored hopes that they might be able to convince Jehovah to change His mind and curse His own people. In a sense, he was attempting to treat God as he had Balaam; by trying to buy Him off. Balak seemed to believe that deities were no different than humans and were susceptible to bribes and influence peddling. He had already authorized the construction of 14 altars and the sacrifice of 56 bulls and seven rams in an attempt to sway the mind of God. And his obsession with defeating the Israelites drove him to up the ante one more time.

But on this occasion, Balaam refused to seek the will of Jehovah because he already knew what the answer would be. The seer had already determined that nothing would convince the God of Israel to do anything but bless His people. Balak’s sacrifices were an exercise in futility and a waste of time.

Rather than follow Balak to Mount Peor, Balaam headed to the wilderness, where it appears he was given a vision by God. As he lay prostrate on the ground, the Holy Spirit opened his eyes to see the Israelites “camping tribe by tribe” (Numbers 24:2 ESV). In the previous accounts, Balaam had stood on higher ground and seen a portion of the Israelite camp with his own eyes. But this time, he was given a vision that allowed him to see each and every one of the 12 tribes of Israel, and this Spirit-induced dream was accompanied by yet another message from God.

“This is the message of Balaam son of Beor,
    the message of the man whose eyes see clearly,
the message of one who hears the words of God,
    who sees a vision from the Almighty,
    who bows down with eyes wide open…” – Numbers 24:3-4 NLT

Balaam was left without any doubts regarding the countless number of Israelites camped in the plains of Moab. He was given a panoramic vision of the entire nation of Israel and was overwhelmed by what he saw.

“How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob;
    how lovely are your homes, O Israel!
They spread before me like palm groves,
    like gardens by the riverside.
They are like tall trees planted by the Lord,
    like cedars beside the waters…” – Numbers 24:5-6 NLT

In his trance-like state, Balaam envisioned Israel as tall trees planted by the hand of God. They grew tall and strong beside the waters, and they were cared for by their divine gardener.

“He will pour the water out of his buckets,
and their descendants will be like abundant water;
their king will be greater than Agag,
and their kingdom will be exalted.” – Numbers 24:7 NET

As God had promised to Abraham centuries earlier, He was going to bless His people and transform them into a mighty nation.

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse…” – Genesis 12:2-3 ESV

God had delivered them from their captivity in Egypt and had been leading them through the wilderness for the last four decades. But soon, they would no longer be wanderers in the wilderness but citizens of a mighty kingdom ruled over by a powerful king. The promised blessings of Jehovah would be fully realized and there was nothing anyone could do to prevent this predetermined outcome.

“God brought them out of Egypt.
They have, as it were, the strength of a young bull;
they will devour hostile people,
and will break their bones,
and will pierce them through with arrows. – Numbers 24:8 NET

Once again, Balak was receiving far-from-pleasant news from his hired gun. Rather than pronouncing a curse on Israel, Balaam was singing the praises of their God and warning against any attempts to do them harm. None of this was what Balak wanted to hear. And to make matters worse, Balaam describes God as a hungry apex predator, waiting to attack and destroy any who would dare stand against His will. And, quoting from Jehovah’s covenant promise to Abraham, Balaam provides Balak with one final warning against trying to curse the Israelites.

“Blessed are those who bless you,
    and cursed are those who curse you.” – Numbers 24:9 ESV

Israel was favored by God and there was nothing Balaam or anyone else could do to alter that fact. Their future was in the hands of Jehovah. He had great plans for them and He would see to it that the covenant promises He made to Abraham were fully fulfilled.

But Balak refused to accept Balaam’s assessment and angrily fired his disappointing diviner. He reneged on his promise of reward and sent Balaam home empty-handed.

“I called you to curse my enemies! Instead, you have blessed them three times. Now get out of here! Go back home! I promised to reward you richly, but the Lord has kept you from your reward.” – Numbers 24:10-11 NLT

But before he departed, Balaam had one more thing to say to his former employer. He reminded Balak that from the very beginning he had been open and above board about his inability to curse the Israelites. He had warned Balak that regardless of how much reward he was offered, he “would be powerless to do anything against the will of the Lord” (Numbers 24:13 NLT). While Balaam confessed that he could be easily bought off, Jehovah was not susceptible to bribes. The God of Israel had made promises to His people and He would faithfully fulfill them, despite anyone’s attempts to deter or dissuade Him.

As Balaam prepared to return home, he gave Balak one final series of messages that would leave the over-confident king in a state of despair and disillusionment. Not only would God never curse His own people, but He would use them to pour out curses on the nations of Canaan. This wandering band of former slaves would become a force to be reckoned with, as Jehovah carried out His promise to transform them into a mighty nation and gift them the land of Canaan as their home. God would keep every covenant commitment He had made to Abraham, including the promise of many descendants and the gift of a homeland.

“Look as far as you can see in every direction—north and south, east and west. I am giving all this land, as far as you can see, to you and your descendants as a permanent possession. And I will give you so many descendants that, like the dust of the earth, they cannot be counted! Go and walk through the land in every direction, for I am giving it to you.” – Genesis 13:14-17 NLT

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.

Man Rages and God Laughs

13 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.” 14 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. 15 Balaam said to Balak, “Stand here beside your burnt offering, while I meet the Lord over there.” 16 And the Lord met Balaam and put a word in his mouth and said, “Return to Balak, and thus shall you speak.” 17 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?” 18 And Balaam took up his discourse and said,

“Rise, Balak, and hear;
    give ear to me, O son of Zippor:
19 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?
20 Behold, I received a command to bless:
    he has blessed, and I cannot revoke it.
21 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.
22 God brings them out of Egypt
    and is for them like the horns of the wild ox.
23 For there is no enchantment against Jacob,
    no divination against Israel;
now it shall be said of Jacob and Israel,
    ‘What has God wrought!’
24 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.”

25 And Balak said to Balaam, “Do not curse them at all, and do not bless them at all.” 26 But Balaam answered Balak, “Did I not tell you, ‘All that the Lord says, that I must do’?” Numbers 23:13-26 ESV

Balak was doggedly determined in his efforts to have the Israelites cursed. And he seems to have believed that Balaam’s reluctance to do so was based on fear of their overwhelming numbers. After all, from his earlier vantage point, Balaam had stressed the size of the Israelite camp.

“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

So, Balak suggested a change of venue where Balaam’s view of the Israelite encampment might be somewhat restricted. Perhaps if the seer saw fewer Israelites he would be less wary of issuing a curse on them.

“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.” – Numbers 23:13 NLT

Balak’s desperation was at an all-time high, and he was willing to do anything to ensure that his hired diviner carried out his assignment. He even built seven more altars and sacrificed an additional seven bulls in the hopes that this location might create the right environment for Balaam to conjure up a devastating curse on the enemy camp. But, once again, Balaam informed the king that he would have to consult Jehovah, the God of the Israelites.

“Stand here by your burnt offerings while I go over there to meet the Lord.” – Numbers 23: 15 NLT

By this point, Balaam knew that he would be a fool to do anything that angered Israel’s God. It wasn’t the size of Israel’s camp that scared Balaam; it was the power of their God. Yet, there seems to be a part of Balaam that hoped he could convince Jehovah to change His mind. Why else would he agree to offer additional sacrifices and call on Jehovah yet again? He must have harbored hopes that this time would be different.

“Balaam is constantly shifting, prevaricating, equivocating, changing—he is himself the prime example of the distinction between God and man.” – Ronald B. Allen, “Numbers.” In Genesis—Numbers. Vol. 2 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary

But, unlike Balaam, God would prove to be unchanging in His covenant commitment to Israel. He was not fickle or easily swayed to change His mind. So, when Balaam heard from God a second time, the message he received was aimed directly at Balak and it contained a stern lesson concerning God’s faithfulness and His commitment to bless His chosen people. There was nothing Balaam or Balak could do to alter His plans for the nation of Israel.

First, God had Balaam teach Balaam the doctrine of divine immutability.

“Rise up, Balak, and listen!
    Hear me, son of Zippor.
God is not a man, so he does not lie.
    He is not human, so he does not change his mind.
Has he ever spoken and failed to act?
    Has he ever promised and not carried it through? – Numbers 23:18-19 NLT

Jehovah was not anything like the false gods that Balak worshiped. He wasn’t a human on steroids, a mere man with supernatural powers and a flawed character. Israel’s God was otherworldly and without equal. He could not be bought off, coerced, or expected to do anything that would violate His divine will.

And Balaam delivered the less-than-encouraging news that there was nothing he could do to thwart God’s plans for Israel.

“God has blessed, and I cannot reverse it!
No misfortune is in his plan for Jacob;
    no trouble is in store for Israel.
For the Lord their God is with them;
    he has been proclaimed their king.” – Numbers 23:20-21 NLT

This not-so-subtle point was aimed directly at Balak. God was letting this inconsequential king know he was no match for the one true King. Balak was outclassed and out of his league. His paltry army and insignificant kingdom were up against the God of the universe and the odds were totally against him. And Balaam was forced to admit that his parlor tricks would be of no use against the all-powerful God of Israel.

“God brought them out of Egypt;
    for them he is as strong as a wild ox.
No curse can touch Jacob;
    no magic has any power against Israel.” – Numbers 23:22-23 NLT

Whether Balaam realized it or not, he was echoing the failures of the Egyptian magicians who had tried to replicate the supernatural miracles of Moses.

So Moses and Aaron did just as the Lord had commanded them. When Aaron raised his hand and struck the ground with his staff, gnats infested the entire land, covering the Egyptians and their animals. All the dust in the land of Egypt turned into gnats. Pharaoh’s magicians tried to do the same thing with their secret arts, but this time they failed. – Exodus 8:17-18 NLT

Magicians and magistrates are powerless against Jehovah. Human kings and kingdoms have no hope of victory against the King of kings. And the psalmist pointed out the futility of attempting to wage war against the Almighty.

Why do the nations rage
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
    and the rulers take counsel together,
    against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
    and cast away their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
    the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
    and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King
    on Zion, my holy hill.” – Psalm 2:1-6 ESV

The King on Zion had one last bit of bad news for the king of Moab. And this final part of the message must have left Balak on the verge of depression.

“For now it will be said of Jacob,
    ‘What wonders God has done for Israel!’
These people rise up like a lioness,
    like a majestic lion rousing itself.
They refuse to rest
    until they have feasted on prey,
    drinking the blood of the slaughtered!” – Numbers 23:23-24 NLT

Desperate to find a silver lining on this dark cloud of depressing news, Balak pleaded with Balaam, “if you won’t curse them, at least don’t bless them!” (Numbers 23:25 NLT). He was grasping for any semblance of hope among all the doom and gloom of Balaam’s latest message. But, once again, the hapless sage was forced to confess his powerlessness to do anything that would conflict with God’s will.

“Didn’t I tell you that I can do only what the Lord tells me?” – Numbers 23:26 NLT

But it will become evident that Balak was just as unchanging and immutable as Jehovah. Unwilling to take no for an answer, the stubborn potentate would try one last time to convince Balaam to curse the Israelites. It was his only hope. But his stubbornness would prove to be no match for God’s covenant faithfulness.

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.

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.

Don’t Mess With Jehovah

1 Then the people of Israel set out and camped in the plains of Moab beyond the Jordan at Jericho. And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. And Moab was in great dread of the people, because they were many. Moab was overcome with fear of the people of Israel. And Moab said to the elders of Midian, “This horde will now lick up all that is around us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field.” So Balak the son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time, sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor at Pethor, which is near the River in the land of the people of Amaw, to call him, saying, “Behold, a people has come out of Egypt. They cover the face of the earth, and they are dwelling opposite me. Come now, curse this people for me, since they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.”

So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the fees for divination in their hand. And they came to Balaam and gave him Balak’s message. And he said to them, “Lodge here tonight, and I will bring back word to you, as the Lord speaks to me.” So the princes of Moab stayed with Balaam. And God came to Balaam and said, “Who are these men with you?” 10 And Balaam said to God, “Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent to me, saying, 11 ‘Behold, a people has come out of Egypt, and it covers the face of the earth. Now come, curse them for me. Perhaps I shall be able to fight against them and drive them out.’” 12 God said to Balaam, “You shall not go with them. You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” 13 So Balaam rose in the morning and said to the princes of Balak, “Go to your own land, for the Lord has refused to let me go with you.” 14 So the princes of Moab rose and went to Balak and said, “Balaam refuses to come with us.”

15 Once again Balak sent princes, more in number and more honorable than these. 16 And they came to Balaam and said to him, “Thus says Balak the son of Zippor: ‘Let nothing hinder you from coming to me, 17 for I will surely do you great honor, and whatever you say to me I will do. Come, curse this people for me.’” 18 But Balaam answered and said to the servants of Balak, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the Lord my God to do less or more. 19 So you, too, please stay here tonight, that I may know what more the Lord will say to me.” 20 And God came to Balaam at night and said to him, “If the men have come to call you, rise, go with them; but only do what I tell you.” 21 So Balaam rose in the morning and saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab. Numbers 22:1-21 ESV

God was leading the people of Israel ever closer to the borders of Canaan. The day was drawing nearer when they would be expected to cross over the Jordan River and begin their conquest of the land promised to them by God as their rightful inheritance. And all the battles in which they had recently been engaged had been meant to prepare them for the confrontations they would face in the conquest of their new homeland. While God had designated Canaan as their future home, it would not come without a fight or apart from faith in the power and providence of God.

News of the Israelites’ recent victory over the Amorites had begun to spread and the surrounding nations began to grow wary of this new kid on the block. The reputation of the Israelites had begun to change. They were no longer viewed as just a large but seemingly harmless group of former slaves and sheep herders. They had proved themselves to be a formidable fighting force that could easily overwhelm the small nation-states that occupied Canaan and the surrounding lands. With their conquest of the Amorites, the Israelites had become a real and present danger.

The Jordan River formed the eastern border of the land of Canaan, so when the Israelites set up camp on the plains of Moab, they were within “spitting distance” of the promised land. But news of their arrival soon reached the ears of Balak, the king of Moab, and he was not pleased.

Balak son of Zippor, the Moabite king, had seen everything the Israelites did to the Amorites. And when the people of Moab saw how many Israelites there were, they were terrified. The king of Moab said to the elders of Midian, “This mob will devour everything in sight, like an ox devours grass in the field!” – Numbers 22:2-4 NLT

The Israelites had descended upon Moab like a plague of locusts and Balak feared the worst. He realized that a group this large would need a source of food and envisioned them plundering the surrounding farms, orchards, and vineyards in order to fill their stomachs. Motivated by his growing sense of dread, Balak reached out to the elder of nearby Midian in an attempt to form an alliance against their newfound enemy.

When the Israelites had first appeared within the borders of Moab, the Moabites had extended a degree of tolerance, accepting payment in return for food and water. They probably assumed the Israelites would move on to greener pastures. But when Balak heard that the Israelites had set up camp on the plains, he became more than a bit concerned about the long-term implications of this latest report.

Unwilling to take on the Israelites in a head-to-head battle, he came up with a less risky plan. He sent for a diviner named Balaam. This man was some sort of pagan magician or soothsayer, and he had a reputation for being able to issue curses. This led Balak to send emissaries to Balaam with the following message:

“Please come and curse these people for me because they are too powerful for me. Then perhaps I will be able to conquer them and drive them from the land. I know that blessings fall on any people you bless, and curses fall on people you curse.” – Numbers 22:6 NLT

Nowhere in the text does it indicate that Balaam was a worshiper of Yahweh, the God of the Israelites. But he was believed to have supernatural abilities that allowed him to pronounce blessings and curses at will. And Balak wanted this powerful “wizard” to work his magic and call down a curse on the host of Israelites camping on his doorstep.

Balak is not specific regarding the nature of the curse he has in mind, but it seems that he was hoping for some kind of spell that might weaken the Israelite forces and make their defeat easier. In a sense, he was looking for a miracle. And he was willing to pay for it. No doubt, Balak believed that Balaam would invoke the assistance of some kind of deity or supernatural power. He seemed to understand that the defeat of the Israelites would require divine intervention.

When the envoys delivered the money and Balak’s message to Balaam, this so-called diviner agreed to consider the king’s proposition. But first, he asked for time to consult “the Lord” (Numbers 22:8 ESV). What’s interesting about this statement, is that Balaam used the proper name of Israel’s God – יְהֹוָה (Yᵊhōvâ). This doesn’t mean that Balaam was a worshiper of Jehovah, but may simply indicate that he knew the name of Israel’s God and was going to begin by seeking that deity’s permission to issue the curse. Rather than pit one god against another, Balaam was going to attempt to turn Israel’s God against them. But Balaam never got a chance to solicit an opinion from Jehovah because God came calling on him.

That night God came to Balaam and asked him, “Who are these men visiting you?” – Numbers 22:9 NLT

God was already aware of the situation but He went ahead and asked Balaam to summarize what was going on, beginning with the identity and mission of the visitors. This nocturnal encounter must have caught Balaam by surprise. There’s even a question of whether Balaam had ever intended to seek a word from Jehovah. It seems much more likely that Balaam would have returned to the messengers with some story he had concocted overnight. But instead, God showed up and provided this self-proclaimed prophet with a message meant solely for him.

“Do not go with them. You are not to curse these people, for they have been blessed!” – Numbers 22:12 NLT

Balaam was to show these men the door. And God made it crystal clear that the last thing Balaam should consider doing was to issue a curse on the people of Israel. It’s not that God feared Balaam’s curse, but that Balaam needed to know that Israel was under God’s blessing. It was Balaam who needed to be afraid because God had promised to curse anyone who treated Abraham’s descendants with contempt.

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 12:3 NLT

Even a fake curse would be met with God’s vengeance. If Balaam had decided to make a quick buck by going with the men and pronouncing a curse on the Israelites, he would have come to regret it. And Balaam didn’t take this word from Jehovah lightly. He may have been a false prophet but he recognized a real prophecy when He heard one. So, the next morning, he delivered to Balak’s messengers some disappointing news.

“Go on home! The Lord will not let me go with you.” – Numbers 22:13 NLT

But when the envoys returned with the bad news, Balak refused to accept. Desperate for divine help, he sent an even larger contingent of dignitaries to persuade Balaam and they were armed with an even greater offer of reward. Yet, Balaam remained adamant and refused to accept their bribe.

“Even if Balak were to give me his palace filled with silver and gold, I would be powerless to do anything against the will of the Lord my God. But stay here one more night, and I will see if the Lord has anything else to say to me.” – Numbers 22:18-19 NLT

At this point, it appears as if Balaam has had a “come-to-Jesus-moment.” He now refers to Jehovah as “my God.” Something has happened. This pagan prognosticator has suddenly realized that Jehovah is the one true God. Unlike all the other times Balaam had sought divine help, this time he had gotten an actual answer. Jehovah, the God of Israel had spoken, and Balaam was not about to risk angering an actual, bonified deity.

As before, Balaam invites the men to spend the night and agrees to seek additional insight from Jehovah. And during the night, God spoke to Balaam again.

That night God came to Balaam and told him, “Since these men have come for you, get up and go with them. But do only what I tell you to do.” – Numbers 22:20 NLT

And having heard from the Lord, Balaam did just as he was told.

the next morning Balaam got up, saddled his donkey, and started off with the Moabite officials. – Numbers 22:21 NLT

Yet, as the next verse will point out, “God was angry that Balaam was going…” (Numbers 22:22 NLT). This pseudo-prophet was about to learn a painful lesson on the sovereignty and omniscience of Jehovah. The God of the Israelites was not some figment of man’s imagination but the all-powerful, all-knowing God of the universe. He had seen into Balaam’s heart and knew exactly what this pride-filled and profit-hungry man was thinking. Balaam was still hoping to cash in on this opportunity and was already formulating a plan to give Balak what he wanted while lining his own pockets.

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.

Growing Confidence

10 And the people of Israel set out and camped in Oboth. 11 And they set out from Oboth and camped at Iye-abarim, in the wilderness that is opposite Moab, toward the sunrise. 12 From there they set out and camped in the Valley of Zered. 13 From there they set out and camped on the other side of the Arnon, which is in the wilderness that extends from the border of the Amorites, for the Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites. 14 Therefore it is said in the Book of the Wars of the Lord,

“Waheb in Suphah, and the valleys of the Arnon,
15 and the slope of the valleys
that extends to the seat of Ar,
and leans to the border of Moab.”

16 And from there they continued to Beer; that is the well of which the Lord said to Moses, “Gather the people together, so that I may give them water.” 17 Then Israel sang this song:

“Spring up, O well!—Sing to it!—
18 the well that the princes made,
that the nobles of the people dug,
with the scepter and with their staffs.”

And from the wilderness they went on to Mattanah, 19 and from Mattanah to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to Bamoth, 20 and from Bamoth to the valley lying in the region of Moab by the top of Pisgah that looks down on the desert. Numbers 21:10-20 ESV

Having been denied safe passage through the land of Edom, the Israelites had attempted to make their way through the Negev. But their efforts were hampered by the Canaanites who occupied that territory. So, they reversed their steps and headed east around the borders of Edom and on to the western borders of Moab. This would have been a long and circuitous journey that left the Israelites frustrated by their slow progress. It was an unexpected and unwelcome detour that required the people of God to extend their time in the wilderness. But there was a reason for this delay. God was waiting for the last of the rebellious generous that had refused to enter Canaan the first time to die off. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses recalls the nearly 40-year death march the Israelites were forced to make because of their disobedience to God’s command.

“Thirty-eight years passed from the time we first left Kadesh-barnea until we finally crossed the Zered Brook! By then, all the men old enough to fight in battle had died in the wilderness, as the Lord had vowed would happen. The Lord struck them down until they had all been eliminated from the community.” – Deuteronomy 2:14-15 NLT

And as that earlier generation slowly died off, the time was growing closer when the next crop of Israelites would face the decision to obey God and enter the land of Canaan. But as they drew closer to Canaan’s border, God warned the people to give the people of Moab a wide berth.

“Do not bother the Moabites, the descendants of Lot, or start a war with them. I have given them Ar as their property, and I will not give you any of their land.” – Deuteronomy 2:9 NLT

When the very last member of the earlier generation died, the Israelites were given permission to cross the border of Moab and enter the land of Ammon,

“Today you will cross the border of Moab at Ar and enter the land of the Ammonites, the descendants of Lot. But do not bother them or start a war with them. I have given the land of Ammon to them as their property, and I will not give you any of their land.’” – Deuteronomy 2:18-19 NLT

As before, the Israelites were to refrain from taking any land from the Ammonites. These people were close relatives of the Israelites and God declared their property to be off limits. God had awarded Lot’s descendants this land and the Israelites had no claim to it.

But the day came when God ordered the Israelites to begin their conquest of the land of Canaan. The older generation was gone and, after a nearly 40-year delay, it was time for God’s people to obey His command and enter the land of promise.

“Then the Lord said, ‘Now get moving! Cross the Arnon Gorge. Look, I will hand over to you Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and I will give you his land. Attack him and begin to occupy the land. Beginning today I will make people throughout the earth terrified because of you. When they hear reports about you, they will tremble with dread and fear.’” – Deuteronomy 2:24-25 NLT

Moses attempted to negotiate a treaty with Sihon, the king of the Amorites, but he was not interested in peace talks. That’s when God informed Moses to drop the peace overtures and have the people pick up their weapons.

“Look, I have begun to hand King Sihon and his land over to you. Begin now to conquer and occupy his land.” – Deuteronomy 2:31 NLT

And the victory was overwhelming. Moses indicates that “the Lord our God handed him over to us, and we crushed him, his sons, and all his people.  We conquered all his towns and completely destroyed everyone—men, women, and children. Not a single person was spared” (Deuteronomy 2:33-34 NLT).

Moses refers to “the Book of the Wars of the Lord” (Numbers 21:14 ESV. This was a record of Israel’s victories in the form of songs. The people were just beginning to witness the overwhelming power of God on their behalf. This victory over the Amorites was to be the first of many and it was intended to promote a sense of hope and confidence among the people of God.

After their defeat of the Amorites, the Israelites continued on to Beer, where God quenched the thirst of the people with refreshing water. And the people responded in grateful song.

“Spring up, O well!
    Yes, sing its praises!
Sing of this well,
    which princes dug,
which great leaders hollowed out
    with their scepters and staffs.” – Numbers 21:17-18 NLT

Israel was experiencing a sense of renewed confidence as they witnessed firsthand the power and providence of God. He was graciously preparing them for the days ahead and helping them to understand that anything was possible when they placed their faith in Him.

But while they were getting closer to the land of Canaan, they were not quite ready to take on the challenged that lie across the border. So, God continue to prepare them for the difficult days ahead.

Their enthusiasm, while admirable, would not be enough to bring victory against the nations living in Canaan. What the Israelites really needed was increased confidence in the power of God. Ultimately, the conquest of the land would be up to Him. They were going to need to learn to trust Him implicitly. Cockiness was not an acceptable substitute for confidence in God.

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.

When We Pitch Our Tent Toward Sodom

23 The sun had risen on the earth when Lot came to Zoar. 24 Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven. 25 And he overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. 26 But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.

27 And Abraham went early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord. 28 And he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and toward all the land of the valley, and he looked and, behold, the smoke of the land went up like the smoke of a furnace.

29 So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the valley, God remembered Abraham and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow when he overthrew the cities in which Lot had lived.

30 Now Lot went up out of Zoar and lived in the hills with his two daughters, for he was afraid to live in Zoar. So he lived in a cave with his two daughters. 31 And the firstborn said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to come in to us after the manner of all the earth. 32 Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve offspring from our father.” 33 So they made their father drink wine that night. And the firstborn went in and lay with her father. He did not know when she lay down or when she arose.

34 The next day, the firstborn said to the younger, “Behold, I lay last night with my father. Let us make him drink wine tonight also. Then you go in and lie with him, that we may preserve offspring from our father.” 35 So they made their father drink wine that night also. And the younger arose and lay with him, and he did not know when she lay down or when she arose. 36 Thus both the daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father. 37 The firstborn bore a son and called his name Moab. He is the father of the Moabites to this day. 38 The younger also bore a son and called his name Ben-ammi. He is the father of the Ammonites to this day. Genesis 19:23-38 ESV

Lot departed from Sodom and made his way to the small village of Zoar, with his wife and two daughters accompanying him. And Moses provides a rather sterile and sketchy description of the life-altering experience this small family had to endure. Their world had been rocked by the arrival of the two strangers. Lot and his family had been enjoying their comfortable life in Sodom until the night the two visitors showed up unexpectedly. Lot had been a well-respected city leader. His wife had probably been busy planning their two daughters’ pending weddings. Both girls had been betrothed and fully expected to celebrate and consummate their marriages. But all that had changed.

Now, they were running for their lives. And Lot’s two daughters must have been devastated by the news that their future husbands had chosen to remain behind in Sodom. It seems likely that both young women would have wrestled with thoughts of returning to Sodom but they had an allegiance to obey their father. They may have harbored doubts about the veracity of the message of doom delivered by the two visitors. And the thought of abandoning their home and their futures must have left them confused and conflicted.

Moses provides only a small glimpse into the tumultuous emotional state of Lot and his family. As he briefly describes the devastating destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, he mentions Lot’s wife turning back to look at the shocking scene. Moses provides no explanation for her actions. But one can only guess that her curiosity was piqued by the sounds that accompanied the massive display of firepower that rained down from heaven. The destruction of these two cities was an unprecedented event of cosmic proportions.

…the Lord rained down fire and burning sulfur from the sky on Sodom and Gomorrah. He utterly destroyed them, along with the other cities and villages of the plain, wiping out all the people and every bit of vegetation. – Genesis 19:24-25 NLT

One might describe her interest as nothing more than a simple case of “rubbernecking.” There are some commentators who read more into her actions and label her backward glance as an expression of longing and regret. Moses simply states that, as Lot made his way to Zoar, his wife “looked back, and she became a pillar of salt” (Genesis 19:26 ESV). The Hebrew word that is translated “looked back” is נָבַט (nāḇaṭ) and it can mean “to look intently; to gaze.” The thought is that, in looking back, Lot’s wife displayed sorrow for the destruction of her former home. She still harbored strong emotional ties to Sodom.

But it seems more likely that this poor woman, shocked by all that had just happened over the last 24 hours, was distracted by the earth-shattering sounds of God’s divine judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah. But regardless of her motivation, her actions violated the warning of the two angels. They had clearly warned Lot: “Escape for your life. Do not look back or stop anywhere in the valley. Escape to the hills, lest you be swept away” (Genesis 19:17 ESV). 

Once again, Moses provides little in the way of explanation. He mentions nothing about Lot’s reaction to his wife’s sudden and gruesome death. One minute she had been right behind him, alive and well. The next, she was a lifeless pillar of salt. Had Lot turned back? If he did, why was he not struck down by God? Had he continued to run, not realizing his wife’s fate until he arrived in Zoar? Moses provides no answers to these questions. In fact, he changes the subject altogether. In a rather frustrating and seemingly ill-placed aside, Moses refocuses the narrative on Abraham.

Abraham had been the one who negotiated with the Lord, hoping to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction. But as he stood on the hillside overlooking the valley, he saw the smoke rising up from the burning ruins of the two cities. He must have been shocked at the sight because God had clearly promised to spare the cities if He could find ten righteous individuals living in them. Abraham’s thoughts must have gone to Lot and his family. Were they still alive or had God destroyed there? Moses does not reveal whether God shared with Abraham the fate of his nephew. He simply states that “God remembered Abraham and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow when he overthrew the cities in which Lot had lived” (Genesis 19:29 ESV). Abraham had believed that the cities would need to be spared in order to keep Lot alive. But God had something else in mind. He was going to visit judgment upon the wicked while providing a way of escape for the righteous. There had not been ten righteous people living in Sodom. According to the apostle Peter, there had been only one.

God also rescued Lot out of Sodom because he was a righteous man who was sick of the shameful immorality of the wicked people around him. Yes, Lot was a righteous man who was tormented in his soul by the wickedness he saw and heard day after day. So you see, the Lord knows how to rescue godly people from their trials, even while keeping the wicked under punishment until the day of final judgment. He is especially hard on those who follow their own twisted sexual desire, and who despise authority. – 2 Peter 2:7-10 NLT

God rescued Lot but refused to turn a blind eye to the wickedness of Sodom and its sister city, Gomorrah. And delivering Lot, God was demonstrating His faithfulness to fulfill the wish of Abraham. God delivered and destroyed. He demonstrated grace and justice at the same time. He spared the righteous and punished the wicked.

But the story doesn’t end there. When Moses turns the narrative back to Lot and his fate, he has him leaving the village of Zoar and moving into the hills. There is no mention of Lot’s wife. He is now a widower, trying to raise two adult children on his own. For some unexplained reason, Lot felt unsafe living in Zoar. Perhaps the inhabitants saw this stranger’s arrival in their village as some kind of omen. After all, he had been the only one to escape the devastation that had happened in the valley. And these people lived near enough to Sodom and Gomorrah to know all about what had happened. But regardless of his reasons, Lot relocated his dwindling family to a cave. And there the action takes another dark twist.

These two young women now found themselves as damaged goods. They had been betrothed but now their fates were uncertain. In that culture, betrothal was tantamount to marriage. It was based on a binding contract between the two families. A betrothed couple was considered to be married. The only thing missing was the final consummation of the marriage that would take place on their wedding night. So, Lot’s daughters probably considered themselves to be damaged goods. That likely played a part in their fateful decision.

There are no men left anywhere in this entire area, so we can’t get married like everyone else. And our father will soon be too old to have children. Come, let’s get him drunk with wine, and then we will have sex with him. That way we will preserve our family line through our father.” – Genesis 19:31-32 NLT

Everything about this decision is wrong. It reveals their fatalistic and flawed outlook on life. According to them, their best years were behind them. There was nothing good that could come out of this latest chain of events. Their husbands were dead. Their home had been destroyed. They had lost all their friends in the destruction of Sodom. And their mother had been turned into a pillar of salt by their father’s God. So, faced with the prospect of an uncertain future, they decided to take matters into their own hands. They followed through with their perverse plan. And over the course of two consecutive evenings, each of the girls committed incest with their drunken father.

Moses did not relate this rather X-rated story to titillate and arouse his audience. He was providing them with a history of the Moabites and Ammonites. The unholy union between Lot and his daughters would produce two people groups that would become the perennial and persistent enemies of Israel. It is interesting to consider that God had spared Lot because of the pleadings of Abraham. But His rescue of Lot resulted in the creation of these two nations who would become perpetual thorns in the side of Abraham’s descendants. The Moabites and Ammonites were idolatrous and immoral. In fact, the book of Numbers reveals the sordid story of how the Moabite women lured the men of Israel into immorality and idolatry.

While the Israelites were camped at Acacia Grove, some of the men defiled themselves by having sexual relations with local Moabite women. These women invited them to attend sacrifices to their gods, so the Israelites feasted with them and worshiped the gods of Moab. In this way, Israel joined in the worship of Baal of Peor, causing the Lord’s anger to blaze against his people. – Numbers 25:1-3 NLT

For the people of Israel, this recounting of Lot’s rescue was meant to remind them that the actions of the righteous have implications. God considered Lot to be a righteous man, but he made some very unrighteous decisions. He had no business living in Sodom. He should have never agreed to betroth his daughters to two Sodomite men. Lot had been driven by “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life” (1 John 2:16 ESV). Even when he had become “sick of the shameful immorality” (2 Peter 2:7 NLT) in Sodom, he had remained. He didn’t flee immorality. He cozied up to it. He compromised his convictions and ended up paying severe and long-lasting consequences. Yet, Moses ends the story of Lot with the last verse of chapter 19. One man’s decision to settle among the cities of the valley and move his tent as far as Sodom (Genesis 13:12) had produced a lasting legacy of immorality and idolatry that would haunt the descendants of Abraham for generations to come.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

A God-Ordained Victory

15 “But now bring me a musician.” And when the musician played, the hand of the Lord came upon him. 16 And he said, “Thus says the Lord, ‘I will make this dry streambed full of pools.’ 17 For thus says the Lord, ‘You shall not see wind or rain, but that streambed shall be filled with water, so that you shall drink, you, your livestock, and your animals.’ 18 This is a light thing in the sight of the Lord. He will also give the Moabites into your hand, 19 and you shall attack every fortified city and every choice city, and shall fell every good tree and stop up all springs of water and ruin every good piece of land with stones.” 20 The next morning, about the time of offering the sacrifice, behold, water came from the direction of Edom, till the country was filled with water.

21 When all the Moabites heard that the kings had come up to fight against them, all who were able to put on armor, from the youngest to the oldest, were called out and were drawn up at the border. 22 And when they rose early in the morning and the sun shone on the water, the Moabites saw the water opposite them as red as blood. 23 And they said, “This is blood; the kings have surely fought together and struck one another down. Now then, Moab, to the spoil!” 24 But when they came to the camp of Israel, the Israelites rose and struck the Moabites, till they fled before them. And they went forward, striking the Moabites as they went.  25 And they overthrew the cities, and on every good piece of land every man threw a stone until it was covered. They stopped every spring of water and felled all the good trees, till only its stones were left in Kir-hareseth, and the slingers surrounded and attacked it. 26 When the king of Moab saw that the battle was going against him, he took with him 700 swordsmen to break through, opposite the king of Edom, but they could not. 27 Then he took his oldest son who was to reign in his place and offered him for a burnt offering on the wall. And there came great wrath against Israel. And they withdrew from him and returned to their own land.  2 Kings 3:15-27 ESV

Verse 15 opens with the combined armies of Israel and Judah bogged down in the wilderness of Edom. Jehoram and Jehoshaphat had joined forces to attack the kingdom of Moab, but somewhere along the way, their campaign had come to an abrupt halt due to lack of water. There, in the desert-like conditions just south of the Dead Sea, they were forced to seek the aid of Elisha, the prophet of God. And while Elisha was reticent to assist the apostate king of Israel, he agreed to help because of his respect for Jehoshaphat. When Jehoram had taken stock of their precarious circumstance, he had panicked, declaring that Yahweh was out to destroy them. But Jehoshaphat, rather than assuming the worst, recommended that they seek a word from the prophet of God.

And, after having agreed to come to their aid, the first thing Elisha did was call for a musician. No explanation is given for this request, but it seems evident that the music was intended to create a soothing atmosphere, conducive to hearing from God. Much to Jehoram’s surprise, the message Elisha received from Yahweh was positive and not negative.

“This is what the Lord says: This dry valley will be filled with pools of water! You will see neither wind nor rain, says the Lord, but this valley will be filled with water. You will have plenty for yourselves and your cattle and other animals.” – 2 Kings 3:16-17 NLT

God was going to do a miracle. Elisha announced that God would fill the dry valley with water, but they would never see a cloud or watch a single raindrop fall from the sky. Where once there had been nothing but sand as far as the eye could see, there would be refreshing pools of water – enough to satisfy the thirst of every soldier, horse, and pack animal. But, according to Elisha, that would be nothing compared to the real miracle God was going to perform.

“But this is only a simple thing for the Lord, for he will make you victorious over the army of Moab! You will conquer the best of their towns, even the fortified ones. You will cut down all their good trees, stop up all their springs, and ruin all their good land with stones.” – 2 Kings 3:18-19 NLT

Turning a desert into a refreshing oasis filled with fresh drinking water was nothing for God. The real miracle would come in the form of His gracious intervention in the battle against the Moabites. He was going to turn their apparent failure into victory.

God had no love affair with the Moabites. They had been a constant problem for the people of Israel for centuries. And it had all begun when the Israelites were preparing to enter the land of Canaan. The king of Moab had watched as the Israelites had easily defeated the Ammonites, and he was afraid that they would face the same fate. So, he hired the services of Balaam, a local seer, providing him with instructions to curse the Israelites.

“Look, a vast horde of people has arrived from Egypt. They cover the face of the earth and are threatening me. Please come and curse these people for me because they are too powerful for me. Then perhaps I will be able to conquer them and drive them from the land. I know that blessings fall on any people you bless, and curses fall on people you curse.” – Numbers 22:5-6 NLT

But God repeatedly thwarted Balaam’s efforts to curse the people of Israel. So, Balaam ended up coming up with an alternative solution. He advised Balak, the king of Moab, to encourage his women to seduce the men of Israel. His ploy was to use intermarriage between the two nations to encourage an alliance. And, his strategy almost worked.

While the Israelites were camped at Acacia Grove, some of the men defiled themselves by having sexual relations with local Moabite women. These women invited them to attend sacrifices to their gods, so the Israelites feasted with them and worshiped the gods of Moab. In this way, Israel joined in the worship of Baal of Peor, causing the Lord’s anger to blaze against his people. – Numbers 25:1-3 NLT

God ended up judging those Israelites who violated His prohibition against intermarrying with the pagan nations in Canaan. And He placed a permanent curse of the nation of Moab.

“No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants for ten generations may be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.As long as you live, you must never promote the welfare and prosperity of the Ammonites or Moabites.” – Deuteronomy 23:3, 6 NLT

Despite Jehoram’s apostasy and Jehoshaphat’s unwise alliance with this idolatrous king, God would provide them with a miraculous and decisive victory over the Moabites. He would snatch victory out of the hands of defeat and, in doing so, allow these two prideful and self-possessed kings to reap the reward they didn’t deserve.

The next morning, water began to flow into the camp. Somewhere, out of sight, rain was falling that turned into rivers of water that flowed all the way to the wilderness of Edom. The armies of Israel and Judah woke up to the sight of pools of freshwater as far as the eye could see. But the Moabites, who were encamped along their southern border, woke up to see what they believed to be pools of blood. They immediately assumed that the armies of Israel, Judah, and Edom had turned on one another and a blood bath had ensued. But when they went to investigate what had happened, rather than dead bodies, they encountered a well-rested and fully rejuvenated army. The battle quickly turned into a rout, with the armies of Israel, Judah, and Edom chasing “them into the land of Moab, destroying everything as they went. They destroyed the towns, covered their good land with stones, stopped up all the springs, and cut down all the good trees” (2 Kings 3:24-25 NLT).

In a last desperate attempt to turn the tide of the battle, the king of Moab took his son, the heir to his throne, and offered him up as a living sacrifice to his false god. And his costly offering seemed to have had its intended effect, providing the demoralized Moabite troops with the inspiration they needed to hold off the Israelites and their allies. The author simply states “there came great wrath against Israel” (2 Kings 3:27 ESV). Evidently, the Moabites rallied behind their king and were able to drive off the invaders.

God had put the Moabites in their place. What King Mesha had failed to realize was that, when he had dared to stand opposed to Jehoram, he had actually been picking a fight with God Almighty. And while God did not approve of Jehoram’s lifestyle or leadership as the king of Israel, God was going to defend His covenant people. This victory had clearly demonstrated God’s faithfulness and His unwavering commitment to defend His people, whether they deserved it or not.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson