The story of Balaam, the soothsayer, is in the Book of Numbers, chapters 22-24 with New Testament writers warning about Balaam on three separate occasions. With that in mind, the story must contain important lessons for us.
Balaam is a strange and intriguing personality. He is a baffling combination of supernatural spiritual gifts and corrupt character. Sometimes we can see this combination in ministers and leaders today.
When the story of Balaam opens, Israel is encamped on the border of Canaan. The King of Moab, Balak, was apparently afraid of the Israelites. Balak viewed the Israelites as a threat to his kingdom, although they had done nothing to justify his fear.
Feeling unable to confront Israel in battle, Balak decided to use spiritual weapons against them. He sent some of his princes, with a fee for divination in their hands, to the Israelites. Balak called for Balaam to come and put a curse on Israel. As a soothsayer, Balaam had a reputation for uttering blessings or curses with a powerful effect for good or evil.
It is interesting to note that Balaam came from a town in Mesopotamia. He was not an Israelite, yet he had direct personal knowledge of the one true God. In Numbers 22:18 Balaam refers to God as “my God” and knew his sacred name.
When Balak’s princes arrived, God told Balaam not to go with them and not to curse Israel. Balaam obeyed. So Balak sends a larger party of more honorable princes with a promise of a much greater reward. This time God gave Balaam permission to go on one condition: “If the men come to call you” (Numbers 22:20). Interestingly enough, there is no record that the men did come to call Balaam again. Yet he went, and by his disobedience incurred the anger of the Lord, who opposed him on his journey and nearly killed him. This is a great side story of how the donkey Balaam was riding saw an angel blocking their way and even spoke to Balaam when he began to punish the donkey. Finally, however, the Lord did release Balaam to go but with the condition: “Only the word that I speak to you, that you shall speak” (Numbers 22:35).
Balak welcomed Balaam and made the most elaborate preparations for him to curse Israel. But each time the result was exactly the opposite. Altogether Balaam uttered four prophecies, which are among the most beautiful and powerful revelations in Scripture of God’s irrevocable commitment to bless Israel.
Thwarted by God in his attempt to curse Israel, Balaam proposed a different strategy against her (see Numbers 31:16). If the Moabite women could entice the Israelites into idolatry and immorality, it would not be necessary to curse them! God Himself would bring judgment upon them. Balaam’s second strategy succeeded and 24,000 Israelites perished under God’s judgment (see Numbers 25:1-9).
In all of this Balaam displayed the most amazing inconsistency. More than once he had been explicitly forbidden to curse Israel. Further, by supernatural revelation he had four times affirmed God’s unchanging purpose to bless Israel and to judge her enemies. But he stubbornly persisted in cooperating with Balak, the enemy of Israel, and in plotting Israel’s destruction. (Eventually he was executed along with the kings of Midian—Numbers 31:8.)
This story leaves us to ask ourselves: What motive could be powerful and compelling that it would cause Balaam to act in direct opposition to the revelation he had received from God—to his own ultimate destruction? Two writers of the New Testament answer this question.
Speaking of false teachers in the Church, Peter says: “They have forsaken the right way and gone astray, following the way of Balaam the sone of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness” (2 Peter 2:15).
Jude likewise, speaking of false teachers, says: They…have run greedily in the error Balaam for profit: (Jude 11).
The answer is clear. Balaam was tempted to his own destruction by the love of money. For this he was willing to prostitute his marvelous spiritual gifts. Probably he was flattered too by the attention he received from King Balak and his princes. The love of money is closely associated with the desire for popularity and for power. All of these evil lusts grow out of the selfsame soil: pride. Sounds like some of our church and government leaders, doesn’t it?
What are the lessons to learn?
First, Almighty God has made an irrevocable commitment to establish the Jews as His people forever (get over it if you think otherwise). There is no power in the world, human or satanic, that can ever annul this commitment. Even Israel’s own unfaithfulness can never annul God’s faithfulness.
Speaking to Israel, Balaam says: “Blessed is he who blesses you, and cursed is he who curses you.” Individuals and nations alike determine their destiny—often without being aware of it—by their attitude toward the Jews. Those who bless are blessed and those who curse are cursed!
Second, one of Satan’s strongest and most successful weapons against us is the love of money. This has been true from the earliest days of Christianity until now. A ministry accompanied buy powerful supernatural signs—especially miracles of healing—can almost always become a means of making money.
Paul contrasted his own ministry with that of many of his contemporaries with these words: “Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit” (2 Corinthians 2:17 NIV emphasis added).
Money in itself is not evil. By nature, money is neutral. It can be used however for either good or for evil. When we begin to love money, then we are caught in Satan’s snare. Look at Paul’s solemn warning to us:
But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into
many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition.
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed
from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.
(1 Timothy 6:9-10)
Third, we need to understand the difference between spiritual gifts and spiritual fruit. Gifts represent ability, but fruit represents character. A gift comes through a brief impartation from God, but fruit comes through a slow process of development. Receiving a spiritual gift does not, in itself, change a person’s character. If a person was proud or unrelieable or deceitful before receiving a spiritual gift, that person will still be proud or unreliable or deceitful after receiving it. When we pass from time to eternity, we will leave our gifts behind, but our character will be with us forever.
Balaam’s clear vision of the blessed end that awaits the righteous is shown by his prayer: “Let me die the death of the righteous and let my end be like his!” (Numbers 23:10).Yet Balaam’s prayer was not granted. He was executed with the Moabites, whose money had tempted him to align himself against God.
Balaam’s story and the lessons learned from it are so current, not only in the Church but in our government as well. Each day in this election year greed among our officials and candidates for the highest offices in the land seems to be the driving force. Public service has become a means to great wealth. Certainly “service” is a misnomer these days. Not only greed but lying, cheating, and stealing, have become the norm and seemingly what the public accepts as normal.
Let’s learn from Balaam that obedience to the word of God is a means to much greater wealth than the world can offer. Character outweighs gifts. The fate of Balaam provides a graphic illustration of Jesus’ teaching given in Matthew 7:21-23:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who
does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we
not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders
in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me,
you who practice lawlessness.