The Blessing of the King
December 11, 2016 Speaker: Jeff Jones
Topic: Sermon Scripture: Numbers 22–24
- Messengers from the King
- Messages for the King
- The Message of the King
Christmas is unlike any other season. You hear the word “magical” a lot, because it’s otherworldly. As the lights go up, as the music starts playing in the malls and on the radio, as the pine trees and the holly start sprouting up everywhere, as the snow begins to fall—it’s like a different world has descended on our own and taken over. Part of what makes the season seem so otherworldly is the imagery, the symbolism, that dominates the season. In the decorations, in the song lyrics, in the stories we tell, there’s recurring themes. These symbols draw us into the season, remind us of what Christmas is all about.
There’s a number of those same festive images in our text this morning. Some of the same symbols and pictures. First, it’s a story. Christmas is full of stories, right? Christmas is a story. A true story, yes, but no less a story. And so, yes, first, we’re reading a story this morning. A story that has other festive stuff. Stuff like kings. And gifts. Otherworldly, supernatural stuff, too. Like prophecies. And miracles. There’s an angel. There’s a star. There’s even a farm animal from the barnyard!
That’s Numbers 22-24, sometimes called “The Book of Balaam.” Probably most of us have never thought of it as a Christmas kind of story. But not only does it have so many of the same, otherworldly features of the Christmas season, it’s actually a crucial foundation for some of them. It’s not just a funny story in the kids’ story Bible. Actually, as we start getting into it, we’ll find that, as supernatural as it is, the story of Balaam is actually pretty grim and dark at points. And that’s important. Christmas seems otherworldly to us, because it is—we celebrate heaven coming down to earth, as God becomes flesh and dwells among us. And yet it’s so easy to get lost in the otherworldliness of the season and forget just how grim and dark the life and mission of this Christmas child actually was. Knowing why Christmas happened the way it did and where some of the Christmas symbols came from reminds us that this Christ child came into the real world, in real history, to fix a real, dark, problem.
Let me describe where we stand as the story begins. The people of God are on the brink of open war with the pagan culture facing them. Their enemies are harassing them at every turn. There have even been outright attempts to stamp them out. And the attacks aren’t just overt and explicitly hostile. These attacks come in more than one form. God’s people find themselves attracted to the ways of unbelievers. They are tempted to compromise, to imitate the worship of other religions. They are lured by the sexual practices they see all around them, enticed by the freedom and license enjoyed by outsiders. There’s transitions of leadership, political leadership, and religious leadership. New leaders are taking over. And there’s not just transitions; there have been moral failures by prominent leaders as well, overt and flagrant public sin. On top of it all, God’s given his people an impossible mission. A mandate to go where they are not wanted, where they will be bitterly opposed, where God’s name is not honored and glorified.
What have I just described? The people of Israel, camped on the plains of Moab, preparing to enter the Promised Land? Or the evangelical church in North America at the beginning of the 21st century? See, the words of the Bible—even this story from the Old Testament Law—have everything to do with us today.
God ordained these events, and the record of these events, as a lesson and as an encouragement to Israel, as they prepared to cross the Jordan River into Canaan. For us, as God’s people in the New Covenant, this story has the same meaning, but that meaning is unfolded and explained far more than the Israelites could have imagined.
Since it’s a long passage, I won’t read the whole thing. Rather, I’m going to be reading verses and sections here and there as we work through the passage.
MESSENGERS FROM THE KING
The Book of Balaam begins not with Balaam, but with the terrified king of Moab. Balak is afraid because there is a horde of Israelites camped on his doorstep. He can’t match them in battle. And so he tries a different approach—to curse them. He sends for a diviner, a religious expert, from far, far away. Balaam lives in what’s modern-day Iraq, a journey of about a month from Moab. Clearly, Balaam has an international reputation.
Chapter 22 has an overall theme. Messengers from the king. There’s three cycles, three confrontations, between Balaam and royal messengers in our first chapter. Verse 7, the first messengers from Balak show up at Balaam’s door and give him a message: ‘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.’ Don’t miss the flattery here, though. Verse 6: “I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” That’s high praise. Too high.
Balaam invites them to stay the night. He tells them he’ll see what God says. We need to notice something, though. He uses God’s covenant name. Verse 8, you see in your English Bibles, he says he’ll see what the LORD—all caps—will say. That all-caps LORD means Yahweh. The I AM. Balaam is no dummy. He’s a religious expert, remember? He knows that any blessing or cursing depends on Yahweh.
That makes God’s response really interesting. He comes to Balaam at night and asks: “Who are these men with you?” Odd question. Surely God knows who they are and why they’ve come, right? Like God asking Cain, in Genesis 4, “Where is your brother Abel?”, God already knows the answer. So does Balaam. “Who’s this?” means “Why are they here? Why are you even considering this?” It’s a rebuke. Why was he even considering this? So when God answers: “You shall not go with them. You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed,” well, Balaam should have known that already.
You get the sense that Balaam’s not too happy about this. He was looking forward to the payday. He gets up in the morning and says, “Go to your own land, for the Lord has refused to let me go with you.” Like a child whose parents tell him he’s not allowed to go out and play with his friends. Notice that he didn’t tell them why the Lord refused. He doesn’t mention that Israel is blessed and cannot be cursed. So the messengers go back to Balaam, and say even less than that: “Balaam refuses to come with us.” And Balak hears that and thinks Balaam’s holding out for more money.
So, for a second time, Balaam gets messengers from the king. More honorable ones. And they tell him, “Let nothing hinder you from coming, for I will surely do you great honor (that means pay him a lot) and whatever you say to me I will do. Come, curse this people for me.” Balak’s desperate and his promise of a “blank cheque” shows that.
Again, Balaam’s response to the messengers is very revealing: “I could not go beyond the command of the LORD my God to do less or more.” Sounds pious, right? But he goes on: “So you, too, please stay here tonight, that I may know what more the LORD will say to me.” Why? God already gave him the answer, right? Balaam here reveals how he actually sees God. Yahweh, to Balaam, is a deity who can be manipulated and turned by men. After all, that was Balaam’s specialty, right? One who knows all the gods and can bring blessing or cursing based on his divination and augury. Balaam asks them to stay because he is hoping to change God’s mind.
So, like a young child asking his parents again for the treat that they already refused to give him, Balaam meets God at night. And surprisingly, God tells him this time, “If the men have come to call you, rise, go with them; but only do what I tell you.” It’s almost exactly what Balaam wanted. Yes, Yahweh changed his mind! Yes, I’m allowed to go! Sure, he said I can only do what he tells me, but he’s already changed his mind once, right? I got this. I can manipulate him.
Off he goes, then, in search of his payday. But along the way, he gets a third visit. He meets more messengers from the king.
It starts off rather oddly. His donkey abruptly veers off the road into the field. His servants are probably watching, and Balaam is embarrassed. He smacks the animal and gets her back on the road. Then they wind up in vineyard country, and the donkey veers again—she rubs up against the wall suddenly, and crushes his foot. Balaam’s angry and he beats her again. Finally, as they enter a narrow place where there’s no room to maneuver, the donkey abruptly lies down. Won’t go any further. Balaam is so furious by this point that he beats her again with his staff.
All of a sudden, the donkey speaks. “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” You’d think that this internationally renowned religious expert might noticed that something unusual, something supernatural, just might be happening here. You know, subtle hints like a donkey is TALKING to you. It’s very telling, and very chilling, that for all Balaam’s religious learning and study and experience, he doesn’t get the message. Rather, he proceeds to argue with his beast of burden. “Because you have made a fool of me!” he says. His donkey has been veering off the road that he should never have been on. That same farm animal is now conversing with him in fluent Aramaic. And yet Balaam’s biggest concern is how stupid he looks. Balaam is so concerned with his own reputation that he is utterly blind to what is happening. He even says, “I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you!” He’s about to regret that statement in a big way.
The donkey, this suddenly articulate farm animal, is the voice of reason here. “Am I not your donkey? On which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Is it my habit to treat you this way?” Good points. Very reasonable. Especially considering it’s a donkey talking! Balaam, I think, is starting to realize that it’s not the donkey making him look stupid. He begrudgingly mutters, “No.” Like a kid who knows they’ve broken a rule, and his mother’s asked him, “Are you supposed to do that?” “No.” Balaam, the religious expert of international reputation, the diviner and seer par excellence, has just lost a debate with his donkey.
All of a sudden, the LORD opens his eyes. Again, I keep hammering on this, but Balaam is the internationally renowned expert in all matters religious and spiritual. He called Yahweh “my God.” He’s going on a month-long trip that depends on him manipulating and controlling God for its success. And yet--God has to open Balaam’s eyes. For all his boasting later in the passage about being the “the man whose eye is opened,” to his everlasting humiliation and shame, a donkey saw more clearly than he did. A beast of burden was more sensitive to the presence of God than the man who boasted later to be “him who hears the words of God.” God will not be manipulated.
Balaam now sees a figure with a drawn sword standing in the path. As terrifying as the sight is, the words must have been even more chilling: “Behold, I have come out to oppose you, because your way is perverse before me… If she (the donkey) had not turned aside from me, surely I would have killed you, and let her live.”
Oh, the humiliation. First he looked like he couldn’t drive his own donkey. Then he got in a heated debate with his livestock. A debate he lost. Now, the very man who wished for a sword just moments before, finds one pointed directly at his throat. By a figure who calls Balaam’s way “perverse.” Adding insult to injury, Balaam is told that if he’d been slain, the donkey would have been let go—his life is worth less than his beast’s.
God, just like Balak, sent Balaam two messengers. The first spoke kindly and reasonably, even if she did so with hay stuck in her teeth. The second messenger—the Hebrew word for “angel” means “messenger”—this second messenger, though, came in judgment. Balaam knows it. He’s already fallen on his face. He is forced to confess: he says, “I have sinned.” But even with such a good start he can’t help himself; he says, “for I did not know that you stood in the road against me.” I’m a sinner, yes, but it’s an accident. I didn’t know! This coming from the man who was already told not to go, who was already told not to curse God’s people. His next words continue the same pattern: “Now therefore, if it is evil in your sight, I will turn back.” IF it is evil. If. He’s just been told his way is perverse and that his life is forfeit, and he still says “if.” See, he’s still hoping to change God’s mind. Otherwise he’d have run back home; it wouldn’t even have been an option.
God, again, tells him to get up and go. Part of Balaam was probably relieved at this point, probably—given the “if” he just said—probably still hoping to change God’s mind. But he’s been chastened. He’s been rattled, and it’s dawning on him that he’s not in control of the situation at all.
Three times Balaam receives messengers from a king. Three times he tries to manipulate. He planned and hoped to come as the expert who has it all under control. Now, though, he shows up at Balak’s doorstep, a rattled and increasingly unwilling participant in events that are very much outside of his control. You can hear it in his voice, actually. When Balak asks him in verse 37, “Why did you not come to me? Am I not able to honor you?” Balaam grouches at him: “Look! I have come to you! Have I now any power of my own to speak anything? The word that God puts in my mouth, that I must speak.” Balaam styles himself as the one who makes the spirits and the gods do his bidding, but now he’s starting to realize he’s just a puppet on God’s string. The one petitioned and begged for help by the messengers of one king has now become a mere messenger for another. What irony.
MESSAGES FOR THE KING
We’ve seen three cycles of messengers from the king. Now, we move to look at the next three cycles in the Book of Balaam, cycles of messages for the king. We can’t go through all three of these prophecies in detail. They parallel each other; it’s not uncommon in the Bible to see three repetitions of an event as a way of making a point. So we’ll look at all three at once.
God is Sovereign
First, all three involve attempts by man to manipulate God, and God’s refusal to be manipulated. Or to put it differently: God is sovereign and does what he pleases. In chapter 23, Balaam still hasn’t stopped trying to manipulate God. He gets up in the morning, and Balak takes him to Bamoth-Baal, a mountaintop where he can see the “fringes” or “outskirts” of the people. Balaam asserts himself. He orders the king around. Gets him to build seven altars. Gets him to sacrifice seven bulls, and seven rams. And then he tells Balak to wait while he goes off to search for omens. Now, even in this Balaam seems to be aware he’s not in control; he tells Balak, “Perhaps the Lord will come to meet me.” “Perhaps.” Not certainly. I suspect that, deep down, Balaam knows he won’t be able to come through for the king, and he’s trying to lower expectations. But like I said, he hasn’t stopped trying to manipulate God. He goes off, and sure enough, God shows up. Balaam says to him, “I have arranged the seven altars and I have offered on each altar a bull and a ram.” I think Matthew Henry said it best:
….he boasted of his performances: I have prepared seven altars, and offered upon every altar a bullock and a ram. How had he done it? It cost him nothing; it was done at Balak’s expense; yet… [h]e boasts of it, as if he had done some mighty thing…. He insists upon it as a reason why God should gratify him in his desire to curse Israel, as if now he had made God his debtor, and might draw upon him for what he pleased. He thinks God is so much beholden to him for these sacrifices that the least he can do in recompense for them is to sacrifice his Israel to the malice of the king of Moab…. (Matthew Henry’s Commentary)
It’s not just Balaam trying to manipulate God, either. Balak began by bringing Balaam to a place, Bemoth-Baal, where he could see some of Israel. In that day, it was considered vital for one pronouncing a blessing or curse to see what he’s pronouncing about. When Balaam fails to curse Israel in the first time, Balak thinks, “maybe this isn’t the right location. If I move to a different place maybe Yahweh won’t be able to control Balaam.” So Balak says, in 23:13: “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.” So they move off to the field of Zophim on top of Pisgah, and Balaam tries again. When God forces Balaam to bless Israel from there, Balak moves him again, 23:27: “Come now, I will take you to another place. Perhaps it will please God that you may curse them for me from there.” And so they move again to Peor, and again it fails—this time, God gives Balaam not only a blessing for Israel, but a curse on Moab and the other nations.
God is sovereign. God will not be manipulated. God, not man, is in control. God makes it plain in the first oracle, 23 verse 23: “There is no enchantment against Jacob, no divination against Israel.” Spiritual warfare against God’s people is hopeless. The first time Balaam tries to brag about the sacrifices, God ignores it. The text just says in response: “The LORD put a word in Balaam’s mouth and said, ‘Return to Balak, and thus you shall speak.’” The second time, they do the sacrifices again, Balaam looks for omens again, but when God shows up Balaam doesn’t even mention the sacrifices—he goes to meet the Lord, 23:16, and there’s no conversation at all; God just puts a word in his mouth and sends him back. The third time, Balaam doesn’t even bother looking for omens at all. It’s pointless. He just passively looks toward Israel’s camp and the Lord drops the Spirit on him. Nothing Balaam and Balak do—sacrifices, moving locations, omen-seeking, currying favour—none of it makes any difference whatsoever. The God of Israel does what he pleases, to the point of overriding Balaam’s use of his own mouth. Even many Christians nowadays seek to make much of man’s so-called free will, but God doesn’t seem to care one bit. It’s God’s will, not man’s, that shall stand. God is sovereign. He will not be manipulated.
God, not man, blesses and curses
Second, all three oracles, as well as the fourth one that follows, show that as the old hymn says, God is the fount of every blessing. God, not man, blesses and curses. Probably the greatest humiliation of Balaam in our text begins with Balak’s fawning words back in 22: “I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” That was Balaam’s reputation. This was Balaam’s identity. His career. It was bad enough that when he showed up in Moab, he had to warn his new employer that, well, actually, “Have I now any power of my own to speak anything? The word that God puts in my mouth, that must I speak.”
While the first three oracles are pretty similar, all praising and blessing Israel, they also show movement, from the first to the second to the third and even the fourth and final prophecy. There’s development. In the first oracle, Balaam quotes Balak’s request, “Come, curse Jacob for me, and come, denounce Israel.” He then says he can’t: “How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce whom the LORD has not denounced?” So, first, he can’t and won’t curse Israel. In the second, God, by Balaam, goes further. Not only will he not curse. Now, he will bless Israel. Verse 20: “Behold, I received a command to bless; he has blessed, and I cannot revoke it.” He must and will bless Israel and won’t take that back.
In the first, he refuses to curse. In the second, he blesses instead and refuses to take it back. In the third, it takes a very ominous turn for Balak. Not only does God refuse to curse Israel, and not only will he instead bless them and not take it back; now, in the third oracle, God through Balaam ends on this note: “Blessed are those who bless you, and cursed are those who curse you.” It’s the very promise God gave to Abraham in Genesis 12. Here, it becomes a chilling warning to both Balak and Balaam: those who curse my people will be cursed.
That’s the third oracle. The fourth oracle, which we’ll look at in more detail next, completes this movement. While in the first God refuses to curse, in the second God blesses, and in the third God promises both blessing for Israel and cursing for its enemies, the fourth describes, in the most apocalyptic terms, the destruction of Balak’s nation, his allies, and even the other major powers of the region.
Bad news for Israel’s enemies. And yet we can’t forget why this text is in the Bible in the first place. These chapters, this “Book of Balaam,” may have been written about Moab, but it wasn’t written to them. Moses wrote these words for his own people. For Israel. And in this passage is great comfort for God’s people. God’s intention is to bless them and to curse their enemies. It’s all over this passage. Balaam marvels, in the first oracle, 23:10, at the size of Israel—that’s God’s faithfulness in blessing them, and it’s God’s faithfulness in keeping his promises to Abraham that his descendants would outnumber the stars. Balaam highlights the strength of Israel, its prowess in battle, as he describes Israel as a lion and a lioness in 23:24 and 24:9. Well, those victories weren’t Israel’s doing; they were God’s work. God blessed them with victory. God is the fount of every blessing—not man. And for the Israelites who first heard these words read to them, waiting to enter the Promised Land, the story of Balaam being co-opted by their own mighty God to bless them, the story of God overriding seers and kings and even a donkey to make sure that they were blessed and not cursed—what a comfort that would have been! The God of heaven and earth—not only is he their God and they his people, but he loves them and wants to care for them and cherish them by blessing them!
The Heart of the Book of Balaam
This, really, is the very heart of the passage, the over-arching theme. This is the sum of God’s messages for the king, and by them to Israel: God will let nothing stop him from blessing his people. God delights in blessing his people.
The blessings, though, aren’t just material or numerical or military. God’s greatest blessing isn’t Israel’s population, or its record in battle, or even its deliverance from Egypt. God has blessed them with something far more valuable than that—both now, in the plains of Moab, but even more in the future. That’s what we turn to next, in the final part of our passage.
THE MESSAGE OF THE KING
I already pointed out there’s movement in this passage. We saw that in the transition from not cursing, to blessing, to blessing and cursing, and finally to cursing alone. There’s one more movement, one more developing theme, in all of Balaam’s prophecies that we need to look at this morning. This theme unpacks and lays out God’s greatest blessing for his people, for Israel—and for his people today.
The first vague hint is found in the first oracle, 23:9. Israel is different. Balaam calls them “a people dwelling alone, and not counting itself among the nations.” Israel stood apart. They were distinct somehow. What set them apart? Why does Balaam highlight their difference at all?
The second oracle makes it more obvious, in verse 21. Balaam points out what makes them different—and what actually was the greatest blessing Israel possessed. “The LORD their God is with them.” That’s the essence of the covenant promises, repeated again and again through the Bible: “You will be my people, and I will be your God.” We see it in the beginning of the Bible, as God walked with his people, Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden. We see it at the very end of the Bible, in Revelation 21:3: "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God."
This promise, this theme, is the very backbone of the entire Bible. And this presence of God with them is the greatest blessing Israel possessed—not their numbers, not their skill at arms. Balaam goes on: “and the shout of a king is with them.” God isn’t just with them. God is with them as their king. The God of the universe is the King of Israel.
Yet as great as this promise is, Balaam reveals something else. Something only hinted at to Abraham and to Jacob. See, this passage is a crucial hinge in biblical history. God is and will remain their king. But God also promised Abraham that “kings will come from your body.” And yet Israel had no human king. Up until this point in the Bible, there has been no mention of any human king for Israel. This, Balaam’s prophecy, changes all that.
The third oracle makes it plain, 24:7: “his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted.” Agag was the title for the kings of Amalek, one of the most powerful nations in the region. Yet Israel, which has no human king, will somehow have a king who is greater. And Israel, as his kingdom, will be exalted.
Isn’t that a step back? From God himself to a human king? But the same oracle makes it plain that God isn’t leaving. Look at the language leading up to verse 7 and the mention of the king. The tents are lovely, Balaam says. Why? They are like palm groves, like gardens beside a river. Like cedar trees beside the waters. Does that language sound familiar? Israel, sitting in an arid desert, in dusty, dirty tents, is being described like a garden. Like the Garden of Eden. Or, of the garden of Jerusalem at the end of Revelation. Both are places where God dwells with his people. It’s no coincidence that these same elements—carvings of palm trees, cedar wood beams, a great sea of water—these very same element Balaam compares Israel to are the very elements used to furnish the Temple. In the Temple, they recalled the Garden of Eden, where God dwelt in purity and holiness with his people. They looked forward to the scene in Revelation, where God dwells with his people in paradise. Balaam is saying, in the third oracle, that Israel is like a temple. They are set apart, God is dwelling with them, and so they are like a temple. And in this temple, among this set apart people, will be a king who will be higher than all. That itself hints at a king who’s not just a king, but a king who deserves to live in a temple.
At this point, by the way, Balak is finished with this charade. Balaam has come and made a fool of him, just as Balaam himself had been made a fool. So Balak fires him: “Flee to your own place. The Lord has held you back from honor.” Moved by the Spirit, Balaam replies with his fourth oracle, an oracle much more ominous, than the previous three.
We’ve already talked a bit about it. Verses 15-24 describe the destruction of several nations: not just Moab, but Edom, and Amalek, and the Kenites, and finally Asshur—probably Assyria—and Eber. Even more, though, this oracle finishes developing the kingly theme. Balaam’s words in verse 17 are some of the most stirring ever written: “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.”
I said the fact that God will bless his people is the heart, the theme, of this entire passage. Well, this is the goal, the objective, the climax that the whole story of Balaam has been moving toward. Balaam closes his messages to the king with this message, the message of the King. This is the highest and greatest way in which God will bless his people—and curse their enemies. A star will rise out of Jacob, a scepter out of Israel.
A star, and scepter. These are royal symbols. This is the king Balaam has already promised. And this king shall not only be glorious—that’s the idea of the star—and not only have authority—that’s the idea of the scepter. No, part of the blessing is that he will crush their enemies. Balaam goes on: “One from Jacob shall exercise dominion, and destroy the survivors of cities!”
This promise of a star rising from Jacob became a desperate hope for Israel. No wonder, when a star appeared in the East fourteen hundred years later, all of Jerusalem was gripped with excitement. No wonder Magi came from the East—from Balaam’s old stomping grounds, at that! And no wonder they came asking for the king of the Jews. Israel saw in this prophecy not only the beauty and glory of their future king; they saw the star as the sign of his coming. This is what the entire story of Balaam is driving at. The God who blesses his people will one day bless them with an exalted King. The God who was already dwelling with Israel on the Plains of Moab will one day “tabernacle among them” in human flesh. See, the story of Balaam is about Christmas. It’s about Jesus Christ. It’s the message of the King—the blessing of the King.
Jesus is all over this passage. Not just at the end, either. Look back at chapter 22, with the donkey. The Lord opens Balaam’s eyes, and who does he see? The text says an “angel.” The Hebrew word for “angel” literally means “messenger.” It’s precisely the same word used in the same text for Balak’s messengers.
What that means is that when we see the word “angel,” it means a “messenger,” who may or may not be one of the heavenly beings called “angels.” Look more closely at this figure with the sword. Look at how he talks. He tells Balaam, “I have come out to oppose you, because your way is perverse before me.” “I” oppose you. Your way is perverse “before me.” Look at Balaam’s response. “I have sinned.” Why? “I did not know you stood in the road against me.” Balaam recognizes something here—he has sinned, because this figure was opposed to him. “Sinned.” The figure goes on: “Go with the men—but speak only the word I tell you.” Not what “the Lord” or what “God” tells you. “I tell you.” Balaam’s opponent here speaks with utterly divine authority. Later on, the text makes plain who is putting words in Balaam’s mouth—23:5 and 16: “The LORD put a word in Balaam’s mouth.”
This is a messenger from God, yes, but I don’t think he is a mere angel. This is a figure who speaks with authority. Who judges men as perverse before him. Who can be sinned against. Who puts words in the mouths of prophets. This messenger from God, I think, is the Lord. This is what theologians call a theophany, an appearance of God in human form. Like when God visited Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre, like Isaiah’s vision in Isaiah chapter six. Now, the New Testament tells us no man has seen the Father. John, commenting on Isaiah chapter 6, tells us that Isaiah saw Christ’s glory and spoke of him. Turn quickly to Revelation chapter 2. Last book of the Bible. Jesus is giving John letters to seven churches, in verses 12-17 he addresses the church at Pergamum. Notice, verse 14, he warns the church against those who imitate Balaam, who like Balaam entice God’s people to go into immorality. Notice, then, how Jesus introduces himself to that church. Just before the Balaam comparison, how does Jesus identify himself? Verse 12: “The words of him who has the sharp, two-edged sword.”
Balaam ran into the pre-incarnate Son of God himself on this road. Which puts a twist on Balaam’s words in chapter 24: “I see him, but not now. I behold him, but not hear.” This star will rise in the future, yes, and that’s what Balaam has seen. But not just in the future. Balaam’s already seen him. He’s felt his sword against his throat.
The Book of Balaam is not about Balaam. It’s about Jesus Christ. From the beginning to the end, it’s about the Word from God, God’s perfect messenger. It’s about the God who dwelt among his people. This is the message of the King: The King will bless his people with his own presence, in human form. God’s greatest blessing, God’s greatest gift, is the blessing of the King, Jesus Christ.
Jesus Comes in Judgment
This passage is about the blessing of God’s king. But note that it’s not an indiscriminate blessing. There are two kinds of people, here in this passage, and here in our world. There is the people whom God is with, the people who are a temple and a garden for the King, the people “dwelling alone, not counting itself among the nations.” And then there are the nations.
The Bible tells the story of how this God, who dwells among his people, who loves to bless his people, how this God saved his people. He brought Israel out of bondage in Egypt—Balaam said he was for them like the horns of a wild ox, an unstoppable, powerful, driving force smashing through all resistance and pulling his people behind him to safety. God blesses his people, and that starts with saving them from slavery. For Israel, it was literal slavery. But our problem is far worse than that. Every one of us, by nature, deep down inside, is, or once was, like Balaam: self-centred, manipulative, selfish. God looks at every one of us, like Balaam, and declares that our way is perverse before him. We are all, like Balaam said, sinners. And just like Balaam, God will not accept from us the excuse, “I did not know.”
This is the blessing of Balaam’s prophecy, and the blessing of Christmas: God has promised to dwell among his people to bless them, and to do so in human flesh. God the Son came to earth and did just that. He lived a perfect life, which we could not. And then God the Father punished Jesus for our sins. He died in our place and took our punishment. He did it all—he purchased our salvation, and he offers it to us freely. You don’t have to earn it. You just need to give up on yourself and believe in him—to recognize and turn from your old perverse way, and to trust that what he did was enough to save you once and for all. Faith in Jesus alone will save you. And then, the Bible tells us, God highly exalted him—just like Balaam said!—exalted him by raising him from the dead and setting him over all things. See, he’s not just Israel’s king. He’s the king of all creation. And one day, he will come to judge the living and the dead.
Don’t miss that, especially if you are here and you don’t know this King personally. This is the very passage that foretold the Star of Bethlehem. This passage is the first to foretell a King of the Jews, who would be exalted, who would have dominion. This is one of the first Christmas passages. Don’t miss this, then. Don’t miss what’s happening when this “star from Jacob” rises and this “scepter comes out of Israel.” What happens in chapter 24? This star and scepter demolishes God’s enemies. He dispossesses the peoples. He judges the nations and destroys the survivors of cities. The Jesus who came as a cute, cuddly baby at Christmas is the same Lord who put a sword to Balaam’s throat.
Jesus made it very clear in his own words: if you aren’t with him, you are against him. And if you are against him, in Balaam’s words, you will be crushed, and broken down, and dispossessed, and destroyed. If you’re here this morning and you don’t belong to Jesus, if you don’t believe in him, don’t be blind to what stands before you. Not me--I’m just the donkey who’s brought you here. No, the Lord is standing in your way, right now, with a sharp, two-edged sword in his hand. Death comes for us all, my friends. I can’t guarantee you’ll make it home alive today. Then what? Then comes judgment. Now is hour of salvation. Turn from your perverse way. Listen to the messenger of the King. Believe him and trust in Jesus alone.
What The Lord Speaks, That Will I Speak
If you do belong to Jesus, there’s another application here. We see it all over this passage. 22:20 – “only do what I tell you.” 22:35 – “speak only the word that I tell you.” 22:38 – “Have I any power of my own to speak anything? The word that God puts in my mouth, that must I speak.” 23:3 – “Whatever he shows me, I will tell you.” 23:5 and again in 16 – “Return to Balak, and thus shall you speak.” 23:12 – “Must I not take care to speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?” 23:26 – “Did I not tell you, All that the Lord says, that I must do?” And 24:12 – “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.”
In the Christian life, God talks, and we listen. Our way is either perverse or acceptable before him, but it’s before him—he defines what’s right and wrong. Does God’s word have that kind of authority for you? Or is the Bible just a set of suggestions for you? Do you do what it says even when it hurts, even when it conflicts with your strongest desires? Or do you find ways to wiggle out of it?
That’s what Balaam did. Our text doesn’t tell us, but as we saw from Revelation 2, Balaam advised the Moabites and the Midianites to use sexual temptation to draw the Israelites away from God. Chapter 25 describes what happened. That was Balaam’s idea. Like so many interpreters today, he ignored the overall theme and thrust of God’s revelation, and found a loophole. He couldn’t curse Israel directly. He couldn’t add to God’s words by pronouncing a judgment himself. But he figured he could still “advise” Balak and the Midianites, and that’s what he did. Is that how you handle the Bible? Looking for loopholes to justify your sin? Or compartmentalizing the Bible, letting it have authority in some of your life, but ignoring it for the rest? Or are you adding to God’s words, forbidding things that the Lord has permitted, or permitting that which he has forbidden? Are you putting stumbling blocks in the path of others?
For whole churches, and especially for men aspiring to pastoral ministry, there’s another obvious application. Balaam’s words, forced though they were, are still true. When a man steps into this pulpit, when elders lead a local church, when the church speaks to the culture, these words need to guide us: “Must I not take care to speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?” The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Balak, at one point, tells Balaam, “Do not bless them and do not curse them.” He didn’t like what Balaam said, so he wanted him to stop talking. That would have been just as sinful as actually cursing Israel.
We, the church, have been entrusted with the very words of God. And it is our mandate to preach the whole counsel of God. And like Balak, we hear the culture telling us to shut up. Don’t talk about sin. Don’t talk about hell. Don’t say that sex outside the marriage of one man and one woman is sinful. Don’t say that divorce is almost always wrong. Don’t say character matters in politics. Don’t say that men and women are made not only equal but distinct and different. Don’t say Jesus is the only way to God.
We cannot be silent. Don’t be ashamed of God’s words, like Balaam was. Don’t be intimidated, for the king we serve is far greater than Agag. When the world tells us to stop, when the world’s anger is kindled and they strike their hands together and say “Be silent, or else,” this is our reply: “Must I not take care to speak what the Lord puts in my mouth? What the Lord speaks, that will I speak!”
The Lord Is With Us To Bless
When we speak God’s words there are consequences. When we seek to live as God’s people in the world, we will stand out and look different—that’s what Balaam saw in his first oracle with Israel, and it’s no different as his people today. Being different will draw opposition and resistance, just as the nations rose up to oppose Israel.
That’s why God inspired these events. That’s why he moved Moses to record them. Israel was tired, and exhausted, and scared, and sinful. They needed reassurance. They needed to be reminded of God’s character.
This is a faithful, and loving God. Past, present, and future, he loves and cares for his people. Balaam’s words highlight all three ways. For the past, Balaam declares that God has brought them out of Egypt, that he has made them numerous. For the present, Balaam declares that God is with them as their king, that Israel is having victory over the nations, and that Israel is blessed and not cursed. For the future, Balaam declares that God will give them a great king and an exalted kingdom, that he will give them rest and security—that’s the idea in 24:9, when he says Israel will lay down like a lion, because who dares to mess with a lion when he’s sleeping? God has been faithful. God is faithful. God will be faithful. Faithful to bless. “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind.” Balak and Balaam tried to change God’s mind about blessing Israel. But God didn’t change. God doesn’t change.
Think how Israel must feel to hear that. Their own leaders have failed—Moses struck a rock when he was supposed to speak to it, and was sentenced to die in the wilderness. Aaron led the people into idol worship and also died in the wilderness. The whole first generation that came out of Egypt refused to enter the promised land; they died in the wilderness. And now, this new generation, they’ve sinned, again and again. They’ve complained for water. They’ve whined about the food God gave them—back in chapter 20 they call it “worthless.” They are ungrateful. They are still tempted by idols—the very chapter after our passage sees them fall into sexual immorality and thousands die. And now they’ve been refused safe passage by Edom and have to take the long way around, fighting for their lives the whole way.
They have to be wondering: is God forgetting about us? Will we, too, die in the wilderness? No. Because God does not change. Because God does not lie. Because God promised to give Abraham and his offspring the Promised Land, God will bless his people—and no foreign king, no international religious expert, not even their own boneheaded stubbornness will change his mind. He will chastise and punish them if need be, but he will bring them into the land. He will bless them.
For us today, that’s a comfort too. Yes, the world seems to be coming apart. Yes, our values and beliefs are ridiculed and even criminalized. Yes, we are called intolerant and unloving. We are called to be in the world but not of it—just like Israel was called “a people dwelling alone, not counting itself among the nations.” Just like Israel, Christ’s church, as the people of God, are called to face the opposition of the world. Just like Israel, we will sin. Our leaders may fail. We may grumble and complain about things of little value. We may fail to fight temptation. But God has resolved, has sworn by himself: he will bless his people. The gates of hell will not prevail against his church. For he is with us. He does not lie. And he does not change. We are not alone.
This Christmas season, when you see the star on the tree, remember why it’s there, remember what it means, and remember why that promise was given. The Lord our God is with us to bless us. And the shout of a king is among us. Let’s pray.