Book of Numbers Chapter Twenty-Three Commentary by
Pastor Ron Beckham
As the relationship between King Balak of Moab and Balaam the supposed "prophet," continues to unfold from Chapter 22—we find Balak trying to control his destiny and Balaam attempting to get out of a bad situation through fervent religious activity. Neither would succeed, as the narrative continues into Verses 1-3: "Then Balaam said to Balak, 'Build seven altars for me here, and prepare seven bulls and seven rams for me here.' 2 Balak did just as Balaam had spoken, and Balak and Balaam offered up a bull and a ram on each altar. 3 Then Balaam said to Balak, 'Stand beside your burnt offering, and I will go; perhaps the Lord will come to meet me, and whatever He shows me I will tell you.' So he went to a bare hill." All of this sounds somehow "OK." Altars are part of many religious activities, not only then but also right now. Religions tend to emphasize sacrifice of one kind or another, but only God Himself can do what needs to be done. Balaam used the fine-sounding words that he could only say and do what the Lord told him. However, we can go back to Numbers 22:12 where all this was starting and see that the Lord said to Balaam, "Don't go with them," referring to the men sent by Balak to pay money that got Balaam involved in the first place. Jude 11 is clear that Balaam became a part of this "for the sake of gain." He was in it for the money.
Verses 4-6: "Now God met Balaam, and he said to Him, 'I have set up the seven altars, and I have offered up a bull and a ram on each altar.' 5 Then the Lord put a word in Balaam's mouth and said, 'Return to Balak, and you shall speak thus.' 6 So he returned to him, and behold, he was standing beside his burnt offering, he and all the leaders of Moab." Balak and Balaam both believed the Lord exists, but they lacked faith in Him. They involved themselves in do-it-yourself religion, even to the point of erecting not merely one altar, but seven of them, killing fourteen more animals in the process. What they really needed was God's grace, made effective through faith in the Lord (Ephesians 2:8-9). There is no other way.
Verses 7-10 encompass the words placed into Balaam's mouth by the Lord: "He took up his discourse and said, 'From Aram Balak has brought me,
Moab's king from the mountains of the East, 'Come curse Jacob for me, and come, denounce Israel!' 8 How shall I curse whom God has not cursed?
And how can I denounce whom the Lord has not denounced? 9 As I see him from the top of the rocks, and I look at him from the hills; Behold, a people who dwells apart, and will not be reckoned among the nations. 10 Who can count the dust of Jacob, or number the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his!'" Balaam had a reputation which was being ruined at the moment. King Balak had paid the man to curse the nation Israel, which, now free from slavery in Egypt, was parked on his doorstep. Balak was afraid, Balaam was afraid also, and his fear of the Lord was becoming even greater than his concerns about Balak. Such concerns should be ours also. Jesus replied, when asked what "work" we must do in order to be right with God: "This is the work of God, that you BELIEVE in Him whom He sent" (John 6:28-29). Balaam KNEW that Israel was (and is) blessed by God—how could he say otherwise? We must trust in God's Son—how can we do otherwise? Balaam began to hope he would die, fantasizing that in death, God might declare him upright like the people of Israel.
Verses 11-12: "Then Balak said to Balaam, "What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, but behold, you have actually blessed them!' 12 He replied, 'Must I not be careful to speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?'" Notice how PERSONALLY Balak took all this, which is what people do. He said to Balaam, "What have you done to ME?" And Balaam's response was very similar: He muttered, "I didn't do it—it was the 'Lord'!" Many do exactly that—take the credit when things go well, and try to avoid the blame when they don't.
In Verses 13-14, Balak sought a new perspective—perhaps the answer would be different in another place: "Then Balak said to him, 'Please come with me to another place from where you may see them, although you will only see the extreme end of them and will not see all of them; and curse them for me from there.' 14 So he took him to the field of Zophim, to the top of Pisgah, and built seven altars and offered a bull and a ram on each altar." They followed Israel at a distance, moving from one high place to another. "Perhaps God will change His mind if we try another mountain..." There is some truth to what they were doing. Jesus would later speak to a group of Pharisees, and His words were introduced this way: "Men always ought to pray and not lose heart" (Luke 18:1-8). Jesus' subsequent words ended with a question: "...When the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?" It is good to persist in prayer, but our prayers must reflect honest faith in the Lord. Scripture indicates that Balak and Balaam believed the Lord existed but they had no faith in Him. The Lord clearly showed His intention to bless Israel—and these men were defying God, trying to turn the blessing into a curse. God is not manipulated by our whims.
Verses 15-17: "And he said to Balak, 'Stand here beside your burnt offering while I myself meet the Lord over there.' 16 Then the Lord met Balaam and put a word in his mouth and said, 'Return to Balak, and thus you shall speak.' 17 He came to him, and behold, he was standing beside his burnt offering, and the leaders of Moab with him. And Balak said to him, 'What has the Lord spoken?'" For those who trust in the Lord, He has promised to fill us with "the Spirit of truth" who will guide us into all truth (John 16:13). The Spirit takes us into the perspective of God, who IS the truth and will show us what is needed. The Son of God Himself IS our Sacrifice. Through faith in Him, we are forgiven, healed and we receive His Holy Spirit. "You are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you" (Romans 8:9). We, like these men, must not merely trust in ourselves—we need the Lord and His Holy Spirit.
In Verses 18-24, Balaam told King Balak what the Lord had to say: "Then he took up his discourse and said, 'Arise, O Balak, and hear;
Give ear to me, O son of Zippor! 19 God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it?
Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good? 20 Behold, I have received a command to bless;
when He has blessed, then I cannot revoke it. 21 He has not observed misfortune in Jacob; nor has He seen trouble in Israel; the Lord his God is with him,
and the shout of a king is among them. 22 God brings them out of Egypt,
He is for them like the horns of the wild ox. 23 For there is no omen against Jacob, nor is there any divination against Israel; at the proper time it shall be said to Jacob and to Israel, what God has done! 24 Behold, a people rises like a lioness,
and as a lion it lifts itself;
it will not lie down until it devours the prey, and drinks the blood of the slain.''' Whether we represent governments, churches, companies, armies, navies, families, or merely ourselves, we need more than a human understanding of what life is all about. John 16:13 informs us that those with faith in the Lord discover the Spirit of God, who "will tell you things to come." God's blessing was on the nation Israel, but Balak chose to not agree with God. We can learn what to do through faith in the Lord. Balaam and Balak lacked such faith, finding confusion because unbelief opposes the will of God.
In Verses 25-26, the king resorted to a response typical of many in humanity, essentially saying, "If you won't do what I want, then don't do anything at all"—"Then Balak said to Balaam, 'Do not curse them at all nor bless them at all!' 26 But Balaam replied to Balak, 'Did I not tell you, 'Whatever the Lord speaks, that I must do?'" King Balak came close to shouting "Shut up!" at Balaam, who once again took a defensive posture, trying to get out of his predicament by implying once more: "It's not my fault, it's the Lord's fault!"
Verses 27-30: "Then Balak said to Balaam, 'Please come, I will take you to another place; perhaps it will be agreeable with God that you curse them for me from there.' 28 So Balak took Balaam to the top of Peor which overlooks the wasteland. 29 Balaam said to Balak, 'Build seven altars for me here and prepare seven bulls and seven rams for me here.' 30 Balak did just as Balaam had said, and offered up a bull and a ram on each altar." The two should have learned their lesson before this, but here they were—once more trying to force the Lord to do their will instead of His. And to understand this so-called prophet, we look to an additional place in Scripture—2 Peter 3:15 unmasks "Balaam" (as someone) who loved the wages of unrighteousness." More evidence that he was in it for the money. The two have moved to another hilltop, hoping to slip under God's radar, and they tried to bribe the Lord with more sacrifices. We need to consider David in Psalm 51:16-19. In confessing his own sin he said to the Lord, "You do not desire sacrifice...the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit...a contrite heart"—God accepts the broken hearted, who no longer try to dazzle the Lord with mere religious activity. Instead we entrust our hearts and lives to Him.
Lord, I am not that different from Balak and Balaam, who tried to please You, but did not have faith IN You. I confess my sin of unbelief and trust in You now. Please forgive me, Lord. I am Yours. In Jesus Name. Amen.