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What You Didn't Know About Balaam May Surprise You

by J. W. Jepson, D.Min.

Life In Christ Center, 3095 Cherry Heights Road, The Dalles, Oregon 97058

(541) 296-1136

copyright � 1974, 2001 by J. W. Jepson

All rights reserved, including the right to grant the following permission and to prohibit the misuse thereof:

The Author hereby grants permission to reproduce the text of this article, without changes or alterations*, as a ministry, but not for commercial or non-ministry purposes.

*Permission is given for publication of excerpts and condensed versions.

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(first published in Christian Life, February 1974)

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Long ago in Pathor, Mesopotamia, an unusual character lived. He appeared to have had some knowledge of the true God; however, his heart was far from being right in the sight of the Lord. He was known as a blesser and a curser--a diviner, or a magician.

His name was Balaam. He was a mercenary religionist who thought nothing of sacrificing principles for money.

The Israelites had wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. God had given them victory in battle over the Amorites, and the kingdom of Bashan, and now Canaan, their promised land, was again in sight.

The kingdom of Moab was close to Canaan and was the last great obstacle between the Hebrews and the Holy Land.

When Balak, king of Moab, heard what Israel had done to the Amorites, he was afraid. So Balak sent several of his princes to persuade Balaam to rob the Israelites of their strength by his curses.

Balaam is an example of what happens when religion is divorced from morality, thus destroying its very essence. It becomes a mere form without substance. God is trying to teach us something through the tragedy of Balaam. Our hearts must be right if we are to be acceptable to God. A pure heart is an absolute prerequisite for genuine and religious experiences are an empty shell, a delusion.

By examining Balaam's motives we can see how God exposes the inner workings of the unregenerate human heart. Notice the Bible's analysis.

Balaam began by entertaining the wrong company. The princes of Moab were his guests. God asked Balaam, "What men are these with thee?" (Numbers 22:9). The question didn't seem to faze Balaam. He casually told God he was being offered a contract to curse the whole nation, Israel.

God then commanded Balaam, "Thou shalt not go" (v.12). That should have settled the matter, but Balaam's greed motivated him to drastic means--even to question the Lord.

The next morning Balaam told the pagan princes they would have to depart alone because "the Lord refuseth to give me leave to go with you" (v.13). In other words, "I really want to, fellows, but God won't let me. It's God's fault. I don't want to obey Him, but I have to. I would love to do what's wrong, but it's against my religion."

Sound familiar? How many times have we been kept from wrong behavior only by a sense of religions duty, not by love for God and man? What a delusion! The person whose heart has not been cleansed from the love of sin needs to be born again.

So Balak, the Moabite ruler, got the impression it was circumstances, not principles, that kept Balaam from going. And he was right. That's why Balak tried again. Temptation always returns where it is welcome.

Balak ordered the delegation to be larger and more prestigious the second time. Properly impressed, Balaam pleaded, "Tarry ye also here this night, that I may know what the Lord will say unto me more" (v.19).

God already had spoken, but Balaam thought he could change God's mind or modify His Word. How ridiculous.

Most of us have encountered spiritually proud people who believe the Bible's principles don't really apply to them. Maybe you know someone who has said, "What right does that preacher have telling me what God's will is? I have a deeper spiritual experience than he does." (Or maybe you've said that yourself.) These people have never learned that humble, consistent obedience to God's Word is an essential part of true spirituality.

Spiritual experiences cannot absolve a bad conscience. Remember one thing God is teaching us through Balaam: The heart must be right in the sight of god. First Corinthians 13 tells us plainly that spirituality is real only if we have God's love in our hearts. Otherwise it is just noise.

A poor, confused woman sat in my office one day. I tried to help her but couldn't. She didn't want help. She considered herself far too advanced spiritually to listen to a minister. So she became a "church" unto herself. Her home was a nightmare. She was a slave to her desires. Yet she had convinced herself she was one of God's elite. She was concerned only with her alleged dreams and visions, not with what the Bible teaches.

Balaam too refused to accept the finality of God's Word. So God said, "Go with them" (v.20). God hadn't changed His mind or set aside His Word, He was simply saying: "You're determined in your heart to go, so go ahead. You're going to do it anyway." Legal permission, not moral approval, is all Balaam wanted. When a person wants to do what displeases God and yet remain technically religious, something's wrong with his heart. A person with an honest heart will seek to please God in everything.

If people are determined to live in sin, God lets them. That includes you and me. Certainly He warns us, and convicts us by His Holy Spirit. He strives to win us away from our folly, but He does not force us.

So Balaam saddled up and was on his way down the trail of rebellion. God was unhappy about it. How else would He fell? He was watching someone He loved head for destruction. The selfish seer was on his way to ruin not only himself but a whole multitude.

Suddenly the donkey saw the angel of the Lord and balked. Balaam struck her. Later she again saw the angel in a narrow place between two walls. She balked again, this time crushing Balaam's foot. The beast got another beating.

The angel moved even farther down the trail. As the donkey saw him this time, she fell under the load of human rebellion she had been carrying.

Then the prophet demonstrated his spiritual insensitivity. He was less responsive to divine activity than his animal. The donkey saw the angel every appearance, but Balaam didn't recognize God in anything. When the animal crushed his foot, Balaam should have realized God was dealing with him. Had he been wise he would have headed home, thanking God the lesson didn't cost him more than a sore foot.

But Balaam was spiritually dense. He was a clairvoyant, but that did not change the blindness of his heart. The mark of real spirituality is obedience to God's Word, not psychic experiences. True religion is centered in the heart--the will. There sin has to be faced and dealt with. God searches the heart, and He desires "truth in the inward parts" (Psalm 51:6). The heart must be right with God before there can be real peace and joy.

At the judgment many will say, "Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?" These people will claim great supernatural experiences. They will assert their works were an exercise of real Christianity ("in thy name").

But the verdict of Christ will be, "I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity" (Matthew 7:22,23). Their hearts weren't right. They thought character didn't count.

By this time Balaam's soul was on the critical list. Instead of humbling himself, he became angry. An uncontrolled temper reveals a perverse spirit.

But a miracle happened. The donkey began preaching to Balaam! Even more remarkable, Balaam didn't seem to recognize the miracle. Was he crazy? Intellectually, no. Morally, yes. As all who reject the truth, he had set himself on a course opposed to all reality and reason. "The dumb ass speaking with man's voice forbade the madness of the prophet," Peter said (2 Peter 2:16). Balaam behaved as though he were out of his mind.

At last God opened Balaam's eyes. He saw the angel and fell flat on his face. About time. The angel said plainly, "Thy way is perverse before me" (Numbers 22:32).

Balaam answered, "If it displease thee, I will get me back again" (v.34).

If? What was wrong with the man? Hadn't he just heard the divine message that his way was perverse? Didn't that throbbing foot remind him of something? Peter has right. Only a madman would say "if" in the face of God's solemn word.

Balaam's heart hadn't changed. He demonstrated no real moral integrity, no genuine sincerity of heart, so the angel told him to go ahead. "So Balaam went" (v.35).

I remember a young man who had been running from God for years. Then strange things began to happen. Miraculously he escaped unharmed from a car wreck. A few days later he was walking down the street in Portland, Oregon. A car broke loose in one of the multistoried parking lots and crashed to the pavement, barely 10 yards from him.

When he told me, I looked him straight in the eye and said, "God's trying to tell you something. " God does talk to us in unusual ways--just as He talked to Balaam. We need to be aware of His dealings.

The scene changed. Balaam and Balak were in the high place of Baal (v.41). As so often happens, Balaam's rebellious heart caused him to wander into a false religion. Instead of being with God's people, Balaam was standing off looking at them.

Balaam seemed content in the high place of Baal. It was a religion a after his own carnal heart. "Build me here seven altars, and prepare me here seven oxen and seven rams," he commanded (Numbers 23:1).

Elsie was our neighbor when I was a boy. Often my mother shared the gospel with her, but Elsie's heart remained closed to Christ. As time went by some "missionaries" of a cult successfully influenced her to join their religion.

Several weeks later my mother again had an opportunity to talk to Elsie about faith in Christ. Elsie became upset. "I was feeling fine in my new religion," she whimpered, "until you came over. Now I'm all upset." But she didn't change. Neither did Balaam.

If man does not submit to the true religion of the Bible, he will form a religion to fit his own liking.

What happened next to Balaam is almost unbelievable. He prophesied, and the prophecy was from the Lord. That shows God's sovereignty, and that the ability to prophesy is not by itself proof that a person is right with the Lord. It is difficult for us to understand, but it's true. We must keep our hearts right, or we shall lose not only our gifts but also our souls.

Watch the progress of Balaam's sad delusion. Though far from having a right relationship with God, he still entertained a false hope of the future: "Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!" (v.10). Poor soul. It didn't turn out that way.

For the next scene we move over to the Pisgah mountain range. Possibly Balak felt that the sight of the whole congregation of Israel would impress Balaam too deeply. He wanted Balaam to see only the fringe of the camp where some undesirable elements might come to view. It would be easier to curse the whole congregation when only the unruly and the hypocrites were visible.

Balaam tried hard, but it didn't work. He sought for enchantments (Numbers 24:1). It is inferred he even asked God to curse Israel. This God refused to do, of course (Deuteronomy 23:4,5 ).

See how selfishness perverted his man's religion. The love of money occupied such a large place in Balaam's sense of values that he didn't feel ashamed to invoke God's aid in securing the destruction of a whole nation. People will pray if they think they can get God to help them secure what they want. How deceitful is the unregenerate heart.

But still Balaam was determined to have that money, no matter what the result to God, to Israel, and to his own soul. And he found a way to get it. He couldn't divine disfavor upon Israel as long as the nation was obedient to God. As long as they were incorrupt, they were unconquerable.

So Balaam decided to corrupt Israel. At the instigation of Balaam, Balak sent some immoral Moabite girls to seduce the men of Israel.

The strategy worked. Israelite men participated in the immoral rites of the heathen. Even a son of one of the princes of the tribe of Simeon took a Midianite princess into his tent in the sight of Moses and the congregation as they wept before the door of the tabernacle.

That was too much for Aaron's grandson Phinehas. He went right into the tent after them with a javelin in his hand and took care of that unbearable affront to the holiness and majesty of God.

But What happened to Balaam? Did he get his wish for a peaceful death? Israelite soldiers brought divinely appointed judgment upon the Midianites. As the dead were accounted for, the prostrate corpse of a civilian was found lying in a pool of blood, the body torn open by a weapon of war. It was Balaam (Numbers 31:8).

It was a repulsive sight and a reminder once more of the wages of sin. Balaam wished for the right future. But he got what he chose, not what he wished for.

Each of us is faced with eternal life and death decisions. This was David's prayer: "Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me" (Psalm 51:10). If we desire a pure heart, one that is right with God, we won't repeat Balaam's errors.

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