Peter Misselbrook's Blog
Mar 21 2019 - Numbers 22:36-23:12 – Balaam's oracle

Yesterday the Lord warned Balaam in the most dramatic fashion that if he continued to go with the messengers he must only declare over the Israelites the words that the Lord would give him.

When Balak heard that Balaam was coming he was both pleased but also angry; pleased to have secured (as he thought) the services of this powerful prophet, but angry that Balaam had taken so long in coming. The two men have very different understandings of the role of the prophet. Balak appears to think that the prophet's power resides entirely in him; he can pronounce a blessing or curse and those over whom it is pronounced suffer the consequences. Balaam, on the contrary, is only too aware that he has no power of his own – he is not a magician equipped with magic spells. If his words are to have any effect on those over whom he declares them, they must be the words that the Lord has given him. The power lies entirely with the word of the Lord.

Balaam seeks to explain this to the king saying, "I can’t say whatever I please. I must speak only what God puts in my mouth" (22:38). Nevertheless, Balaam wants to please the king and to secure a decent reward for his work. Therefore he hits on a plan to try to win the Lord around. He has the king's men build seven altars and together the king and the prophet offer a bull and a ram on each altar. Then the prophet goes off on his own to see what word the Lord will give to him.

When Balaam meets with God he declares, "I have prepared seven altars, and on each altar I have offered a bull and a ram" (23:4). The prophet is hoping to have won over the Lord to Moab's side. But his words are brushed aside; all of these expensive offerings do not impress the Lord. Balaam is given the precise words that he is to speak over the Israelites in the presence of Moab's king.

Balaam's message for the king and for Israel is clear. The king may have persuaded him to come from the eastern mountains hoping that he would curse Israel but nothing can persuade Balaam to do so – he still remembers the angel with the drawn sword ready to cut him down. Balaam declares, "How can I curse those whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce those whom the Lord has not denounced?" (23:8). He then speaks of the special character of Israel as a great people who are unlike any other nation on earth. They are a righteous people, a people whom God declares to be his own. Balaam envies them and wishes that he could be numbered among such a people.

King Balak is not pleased with this oracle. He tries twice more to get Balaam pronounce a curse over this people (see 23:13-24:13), but with the same result; Balaam can only bless this people whom the Lord has blessed and chosen to be the source of blessing for all nations on earth.

James Philip writes, "What we have in Balaam's prophecies is an uncovering of the divine plan of the ages … which underlies the whole redemptive history of the Bible, the plan of redemption fulfilled in Christ, but prepared for and foreshadowed down the centuries until the fulfilment of the time when he should come, to give himself as a ransom for the sins of many."

God cannot be diverted from his plan by the opposition of all the powers on earth (see Psalm 2), or by attempts to win him round by bribery. He is a God who is unfailingly faithful to his promises and purposes. The challenge for ourselves is not whether we can get God to come over to our side and endorse our plans but whether we are ready and willing to bow the knee to him and become aligned with his plans and with his people. This alone will secure his blessing and will make us the source of blessing to others. And, found in him, no one can take away the blessing that is ours.

Living God, we acknowledge that you alone are God and we stand amazed at your purposes running through the pages of Scripture and focussing in the birth, life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. We gladly acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord and that he is the source of our righteousness in life and in death. Bless us, Lord, and make us a blessing.

Peter Misselbrook