Today’s reading includes Numbers 22:21-23:30, Luke 1:57-80, Psalm 58:1-11, Proverbs 11:12-13.
When we read the sensational story of Balaam and his donkey, we are tempted to focus on the fact that the donkey spoke. Weird. Sounds like a scene from Chronicles of Narnia. Did the donkey really speak? If so, which language? Did he speak through his actions? Yes, but he had to have spoken with more than actions because the message was not heard with actions alone. And maybe that is a point we can chew on for a moment. We often say, “Actions are stronger than words”. And I do believe that is true. But sometimes words are also needed for people to really understand us. At our church when someone is sent out on a mission trip or in some kind of ministry, the congregation extends a hand toward the person being commissioned and says in unison: “Preach the Gospel everywhere, and if necessary use words”, a quote often attributed to St. Francis. I love that tradition and I find its message to be true. But we can’t rely only on action, sometimes it is necessary to use words. And we trust that God will give us the words He wants us to say, when he wants us to say it. Even if we are as hard-headed as a donkey.
In this passage, I think we should strive to skim over the sensational part that we can’t fully understand and dig a bit deeper to see the real point behind the story. Balak was a king of Moab and though his name meant “devastator”, we was actually acting in great fear. According to the Forerunner Commentary,
The name Balak means “devastator,” a very evil name. However, his father’s name, Zippor means “sparrow,” which are among the flightiest of birds. A person cannot creep close to a sparrow, as they fly at the slightest movement. So, here is mighty Balak, the Devastator, the son of Zippor, the Sparrow, and “Moab was exceedingly afraid”! The Devastator was afraid, acting like a sparrow!
In the New Testament, we find that God’s eye is on the sparrow. He is watching those who are afraid and will offer peace if they will turn to Him. But Balak did not know God and so his answer was to form an alliance with the Midianites, who ended up becoming a thorn in Israel’s side.
Balak’s answer was also to call on Balaam to call down a curse on the Israelites. Balaam was a prophet of the Lord, and in ancient times, prophets apparently held a measure of supernatural powers. We find that Balaam was not wholeheartedly following the Lord, though. And that, sadly, was forever his reputation. He had a measure of godliness, but not a full measure of holy motives. Later, we will see that Balaam was used as a stumbling block for God’s people. (Numbers 31)
In this instance, we see that on the outside Balaam was acting like a prophet. Prophets would confer with God before doing something, right? Balaam appears to say the right words, but God could see his heart. He wanted to go to meet with Balak, though he knew Balak wanted him to curse God’s people.
18 But Balaam answered them, “Even if Balak gave me all the silver and gold in his palace, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the Lord my God. 19 Now spend the night here so that I can find out what else the Lord will tell me.”
20 That night God came to Balaam and said, “Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you.”
But though God granted him permission to go, he had already told Balaam not to curse the people of God. Seems to me, Balaam could have dropped the subject at that point, but he persisted. So God let him go to teach him a lesson. We know he was not going on God’s mission, with God’s blessings because of what we read in verses 21-22.
21 Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the Moabite officials. 22 But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of the Lord stood in the road to oppose him.
All along the way, God put roadblocks in front of Balaam. But Balaam ignored the roadblocks. He kept pressing forward into what he wanted. Even though he had clothed it as a godly mission, it was not. And so repeatedly, God blocked the way.
Have you ever had that experience? I have. On the outside, an opportunity or situation seems good, godly even. But then going forward, the road seems blocked on every turn. The confusing part is that the enemy can try to block our way, too. It takes careful discernment and wisdom to see if it a roadblock is from the Lord, or is a stumbling block from the enemy, or is simply a matter of timing. The only way to discern God’s best in that situation is to seek the Lord whole-heartedly, confessing and surrendering your own desires. Giving Him your whole heart and mind and soul, so that the desires will indeed be godly desires. Then you can rest easy that He indeed will lead you along the right path. Once you have surrendered to the Lord wholeheartedly, you can with confidence proclaim:
Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Balaam went forward thinking he had consulted with the Lord, but he had not done so with a pure heart, free of his own motivations. And so, God set up roadblocks. Roadblocks that even a donkey could see, but Balaam could not. Finally, God got his attention, and finally Balaam was ready to rid himself of his personal motivations.
34 Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned. I did not realize you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now if you are displeased, I will go back.”
35 The angel of the Lord said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you.” So Balaam went with Balak’s officials.
When making a decision, make sure you are being honest with yourself about your motivations behind it. Surrender your motivations to the Lord, and ask Him to put roadblocks along the way whenever you are walking in the wrong direction. And then, only listen, only speak what He says.
It appears that Balaam did obey God, but somewhere along the way, the old self-serving motivations must have creeped back in. We see in Revelation 2, in the letters to the seven churches, God had this to say:
14 Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality.
Balaam did not curse the Israelites, so he obeyed to an extent. But in the end, the impurity of his heart led him to teach Balak how to hurt the Israelites by enticing them to sin, which caused a separation between them and God. As Jesus said,
6But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.