The Israelites were now encamped in the plains of Moab, across the Jordan River from Jericho. Here they stayed until the day that Joshua led the people across the Jordan River. But their presence struck fear in the heart of King Balak of Moab – even though the Lord had specifically instructed the Israelites to not harm the Moabites. Balak hatched a scheme to get the people of Israel cursed – that is, to set God against them, Who had hitherto fought on their side. He had a false notion that if he could get some prophet to pray for evil upon them, and to pronounce a blessing upon himself and his forces, that he would then be able to overpower them. And so, to this end, Balak sent for a well-known sorcerer named Balaam. The Lord used the mouth of this man to speak His own words and pronounce a blessing upon Israel after all, yet we have abundant proof that Balaam lived and died a wicked man – an enemy to God and His people.
In order to convince Balaam to come and do his bidding, the king’s messengers tried to entice him with the “wages of unrighteousness” (2 Pet. 2:15). But God laid restraint upon Balaam, forbidding him to go and curse Israel. And he ought to have answered the messengers decisively, once and for all, that he would never curse a people whom God had blessed. But instead, he took a night’s time to consider what to do. When we parley with temptation instead of outright fleeing from it, we are in great danger of being overcome by it.
Balaam was not faithful in returning God’s answer to the messengers. Nor were the messengers faithful in returning Balaam’s answer to Balak. So the king decided to send a second embassy to him. This time, Balak not only laid a bait for Balaam’s covetousness, but also for his pride and ambition. How earnestly we ought to beg the Lord daily to mortify such desires in us! Sinners spare no pains nor cost, and they do not care how low they stoop in order to gratify their wicked desires. Shall we, then, be unwilling to do what is right? God forbid!
Balaam’s conscience charged him to obey the command of God. Indeed, nobody could have spoken better than he did in verse 18. But alas! Many people call God their own, but they are not His because they are not His exclusively; they try to serve two masters. Like Balaam, they try to serve both God and their greed. Although this covetous man’s conscience told him what he ought to do, his corrupt affections inclined him to go contrary to the Lord’s command. He outwardly seemed to refuse the temptation, but he expressed no abhorrence of it. He really had a strong desire to accept the offer, and he hoped that the Lord might give him permission to go; therefore, he waited another night to see if God would do so – even though he had already been told what the will of God was. And this time, He gave Balaam up to his own heart’s lusts. The next morning, he departed with Balak’s messengers; and the Lord was angry that he went – not so much because of his act of actually going (for He had already determined that Balaam would be His unwilling instrument to bless His people and confuse His enemies); but rather, because of the secret malice in Balaam’s heart that made him still desire to curse Israel in one way or another, in order to make Balak his friend.
As Balaam was riding along, the angel of the Lord stood in his way with a drawn sword. Consequently, Balaam’s donkey tried to turn out of the way. But it is common for those whose hearts are stubbornly bent on evil to push on violently through the difficulties that Providence lays in their way. After Balaam had done so – three times! – the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey. This was a great miracle done by the power of God! He Who gave Man the ability to speak could also, when He pleased, make the donkey speak with a man’s voice. And then, Balaam’s eyes were opened. The Lord has many ways to bring down the hard and unhumbled heart. When our eyes are opened, we shall see the danger of sinful ways, and how much it was for our advantage to be frustrated and thwarted in them.
Balaam now seemed to relent. “I have sinned,” said he. But it does not appear that he was truly willing to acknowledge the wickedness of his heart. At last, when he found that he could not go forward, he declared that he was content to go back (since there was no other remedy). The angel of the Lord told him to go on; however, he declared that Balaam would not only be prevented from cursing Israel, but also that he would be forced to bless them – and this would be more for the glory of God and his own confusion than if he had turned back and went home. See how the Lord determined that Balaam would speak the very reverse of what he intended! There is a striking Scripture passage to the same effect in Psalm 76:10, which shows that the Lord causes men to be the instruments of accomplishing the very opposite of their own intentions.
Balaam finally met up with Balak, but he told the king not to depend too much upon him. However, in reality, he was just as desirous to please Balak as he had ever pretended to be in order to please God. He had his fears that he would not be able to curse the people of God as Balak wished. Nevertheless, they both did as the enemies of Jesus are described as doing in after ages; they took counsel together against the Lord, and against Christ the Messiah, His “Anointed One” (Ps. 2:2-4).
Lord, we see how necessary it is for us to pray every day, “Our Father which art in heaven… lead us not into temptation!” Give us grace and help us to watch over our own hearts, since Balaam shows us just how far people may go in the knowledge of You, and yet come short of Your Divine grace. Amen.
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