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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

From the King of Moab to the King of Kings


“They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Bezer, who loved the wages of wickedness. But he was rebuked for his wrongdoing by a donkey—an animal without speech—who spoke with a human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness." 2 Peter 2:15-16

Have you ever been on a car journey and seen a sign which reads, ‘diversion ahead’? You were hoping to go straight along the road, but now you have to take a longer detour away from your chosen route? I felt like that in preparing for today’s message. We have been considering this second letter of Peter, written to people who truly believe that Jesus has saved them from their sins and failings. The Bible calls these people, ‘the church’. Last time, we started looking at chapter 2, and its message about false teachers. We followed a route from verse 1 to verse 9, more or less. It was my intention this week to press on through the second part of this chapter. But it is like I saw a sign which said ‘diversion ahead’! Maybe next time the diversion will be gone and we will carry on through. Thankfully, unlike car journeys, wherever we travel in God’s word, the scenery is always full of wonder.

There is a reason for this diversion. In verse 15, Peter mentions an Old Testament character called Balaam. I want us to examine Balaam this week because his example will then be useful in helping us to understand some of the more difficult things that Peter has to say about false teachers. Actually, I want us to ‘appraise’ Balaam.

We may have to undergo appraisals as part of our education, or in our jobs. This is where someone will more precisely investigate the quality, or otherwise, of what we are doing. Our performance is assessed. So, what about Balaam’s performance. Well, most of the work is done for us. Balaam already has a school report, straight from The Plains of Moab Academy! It’s found in our Bibles. It’s a bit like the school reports that I received when I was a boy at Hailsham Secondary School. It isn’t very good.

But that isn’t the full story. Have you heard of the word, ‘ostensibly’? It means apparently, but not actually. If you read Numbers 22-24, Balaam appears to be quite commendable. Actually, when we read verses 20 to 22 of chapter 22, we are, possibly, more inclined to wonder what God is doing, than to question Balaam. Thankfully, if we study the Bible’s whole report, we gain a much clearer picture of what is really happening, than if we just casually glance.

Balaam was, ostensibly, a true prophet. He wasn’t a ‘false prophet’, in the sense that he did speak God’s words, which were words of great truth. But he was ‘false’. What we see on the surface, which appears to be a desire to be obedient, is just a cover-up. Something else lurks underneath. Because Balaam’s heart was not true. Balaam’s heart motive was not right with God.

The main account is in three consecutive chapters in Numbers, starting at chapter 22. The Israelites, who were God’s people under the Old Covenant, had been freed by him from slavery in the Land of Egypt. They were on their protracted journey to the land that the Lord God had promised to give them. They were close to the Land of Moab, and the Moabites saw them as an existential threat. ‘Moab was terrified’ & ‘filled with dread’ (v.3). A man named Balak ‘was king of Moab at that time’ (v.4). He sent messengers to the prophet Balaam to come and pronounce ‘a curse on these people’. He gave a reason for seeking him out. He said, ‘For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed’ (v.6). There is a lesson here for us. Balaam evidently had vision. He had special insight. But that didn’t make his heart right with God.

In this account he refuses to curse Israel. That also didn’t make him right. Although he spoke positively about Israel, secretly his aim was to undo them. This doesn’t appear to be a personal issue. It was simply about money. Balak had promised to reward him well. Balaam really loved money. Tim has been doing a series of messages, here at Riverside, on those letters to the seven churches that are found at the beginning of the book of Revelation. He has mentioned the church at Pergamum who had a false teacher among their number. This person was advocating the heresy taught by a group called the Nicolaitans. This teaching promoted sexual immorality and idol worship.

This is really relevant to what we have here in Numbers. After these chapters end, and Balaam appears to disappear off the scene, Israel is immediately seduced by sin. The Moabites send their young women to the Israelite camp. The Israelite men are tempted by their offer of freedom of sexual expression, contrary to God’s revealed will to them. Once they start on this reckless path, it seems that nothing will stop them. They are soon offering sacrifices to, and bowing down in front of, the false gods of Moab. But something does stop them. In fact, someone does. God does. He sends a plague and 24 000 men forfeit their lives. The record of Numbers 25 doesn’t mention Balaam’s involvement. Deuteronomy 23 has a hint. Other ancient writings from this time period do mention it, although we could not verify the truth of those records without the confirmation that Revelation 2 gives us. Verse 14, part of the warning to the church at Pergamum says this, ‘there are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality.’

Balaam told Balak to do this. Peter confirms the reason. It was because Balaam ‘loved the wages of wickedness’. God had already given him a clear answer in Numbers 22:12. God said, ‘Do not go.’ But Balaam doesn’t settle on this as God’s final answer. He wants him to change his mind. Balaam is desperate for his reward. The Lord God of Israel knows all this. I think this explains why he tells Balaam that he can go in verse 20. Sadly, solemnly, he sees through Balaam. He knows how low this man will eventually stoop. Balaam is being prepared for judgment. But that judgment doesn’t come straight away. In his goodness, the Lord God sends an angel to ‘oppose him’. But Balaam is so intent on rushing on, that he is blinded even to this.

This is the incident of the talking donkey, which Peter mentions. Balaam stood at the top of a slippery slope, due to his love of money. But he hit the bottom of that slope because he just refused to see and refused to listen. Again, there are lessons here for us.

Numbers 22:23 says, ‘When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, it turned off the road into a field'. Balaam’s reaction to this turn of providence in his life? ‘Balaam beat (the donkey) to get it back on the road.’ Then he receives personal injury, as his donkey, in fear, at the angel’s reappearance crushes Balaam’s foot against a wall. Does he stop and consider his course of action? No, the only effect is to intensify his efforts.

His journey is then brought to a sudden halt, as the donkey collapses beneath him. Surely, now Balaam would start to ask questions? No, he just gets ‘angry’.

Even a supernatural event makes no immediate difference. If a donkey started speaking to you, what would your reaction be? Balaam doesn’t display any shock. Instead he just picks a fight with a donkey. He tells it that if he had a sword to hand then he would kill it. Why? Because of utter self-absorption. He says, ‘you have made a fool out of me.’ Then he admits that the donkey’s behaviour had been completely out of character. He knew his animal well; that it had a consistently subservient character. This change of behaviour, in itself, should have given pause for thought as to the reason why.

In summary, Balaam was incapable of listening and couldn’t understand the plain truth that even a beast of burden could see. No wonder Peter calls it ‘madness’. In the verses we considered last time, Peter points out the inevitability of judgment. He uses the phrase ‘swift destruction’. This is what happens to Balaam. The bible doesn’t mention him again until several chapters later. One verse, Numbers 31:8, where Balaam is killed in battle by the sword of God, held in the hand of an Israelite soldier.

Balaam’s example is given to us as a warning. Balaam is a living illustration of how corrupt motives can lead to error, even when there is the appearance of obedience. But Balaam’s story is not just about error. It is also about extra-ordinary truth. Balaam spoke truth; wonderful truth. Several times in Numbers 22-24 we read a similar statement, ‘The Lord put a word in Balaam’s mouth’ (as Numbers 23:5). His prophecy is described as ‘the prophecy of one who hears the words of God’ (Numbers 24:4).

Someone who was without true faith in God, spoke his words. How can this be? Because God turns things upside down. I was struck by this last Sunday when Tim again focussed on those messages to the churches, in Revelation. The church; the local body of Christ, in Smyrna was ‘stand-out’. That church was faithful to the Lord, despite serious opposition. It stood firm. Other churches were failing and they were sharply rebuked. But they were also given promises, if only they sharpened up their act. In fact, the Lord seems to give the most wonderful promises to the least wonderful churches! Likewise with Balaam. This less than wonderful person, is chosen to speak the most wonderful truth about the Lord’s people.

Who loves Isaiah’s promises about the coming of Jesus Christ to our world? Well Balaam’s words of promise are right up there with Isaiah’s. Ostensibly, Balaam’s prophecies are about the nation of Israel; the descendants of Jacob. Actually, they are only completely true when we apply them to another body of people. Ultimately, they speak about the church of Jesus Christ.

Tim mentioned this last week. He said, ‘under the new covenant a Jew is not a Jew who is one outwardly only (i.e. circumcised), but a person is a Jew who is one inwardly.’ Tim referred us to the Apostle Paul’s writings in Romans 2. We have a similar theme in Romans 9, which tells us that if God’s Old Testament promises were meant to be fulfilled in the actual Jewish people, so Israel, then they have failed. But they have ‘not… failed’ (v.6). In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul tells us that, ‘no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ. And so through him the ‘Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God’ (2 Corinthians 1:20).

The ‘us’ is us, if we are believers – it’s the church of Jesus Christ. God tells us that every one of his promises are true to ‘us’, and we say ‘Amen!’, ‘praise be to God’s glory!’

So, what promises does God give us in the blessings that Balaam was called to deliver? Well, what about this? Numbers 23:8-10, which contains Balaam’s first message, says, ‘How can I curse those whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce those whom the Lord has not denounced? From the rocky peaks I see them, from the heights I view them. I see people who live apart and do not consider themselves one of the nations. Who can count the dust of Jacob or number even a fourth of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and may my final end be like theirs!

This is talking about death. How can our final end be like that of someone who is ‘right with God’? Romans 9 tells us. It tells us how not to do it and it tells us how to do it. Israel of old, did not do it, by and large. Only a few, a ‘remnant’ (Romans 9:27) really believed the words that God spoke. The rest failed. They failed for a reason. It wasn’t for want of trying. Romans 9:31 (NLT), says, about,‘the people of Israel’, that they ‘tried so hard to get right with God’. They tried to ‘get right’ by their actions. Paul says, they ‘never succeeded.’ Are you trying to get right with God by your actions? You’re doomed to failure. You will never succeed.

How can we succeed in this most important matter? Paul tells us about another group of people. In an extra-ordinary statement, which turns all human-made religion on its head, he says the church of Jesus Christ, ‘even though (they) were not trying to follow God’s standards, they were made right with God.’ How could this take place? Paul says, ‘it was by faith that this took place’ (Romans 9:30 (NLT)). They believed God’s promise that he could rescue them from their ruin and, when they believed him, he counted that as making them ‘right’ with him (as Romans 4:5).

So God used Balaam to describe the privileged position of his true people. I want to briefly consider some words from Balaam’s second message. Last week, Tim pointed us to Romans 8:18-19, where believers are reminded that they are ‘heirs’. They have a share ‘with Christ’. They have ‘a share in his glory’. It’s an investment that will bring a return. They also must ‘share in his sufferings’ while they live here on earth. It’s part and parcel of the deal. The church that Peter is writing to in his second letter is suffering. It is suffering from the devastating effects of false teaching.

I know brothers and sisters in Christ, who this week have suffered as a result of standing firm in their faith and obedience to their Lord. They have experienced misery and could well have wondered at their misfortune. Why? Because they are very human, human beings. Like us all. Their perspective has been from that level. Our perspective is from that level. The human view is rarely more than six feet off the ground. It’s so close to the earth and we get the dirt and dust in our eyes. God’s view is fundamentally different. It is clear and it is true. ‘From the rocky peaks I see them, from the heights I view them.’ Isaiah 57:15 says, “For this is what the high and exalted One says – he who lives for ever, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place…’”.

As we (see Romans 8) ‘groan’ in ‘suffering’, the heavenly ‘potter’ (Isaiah 64:8) is at ‘work’, moulding our life experiences, and our lives for our ‘good’, because we ‘love him.’

Through Balaam, we are, in effect, given a behind the scenes view of God’s working life. Numbers 23:21 says, ‘No misfortune is seen in Jacob, no misery observed in Israel. The Lord their God is with them; the shout of the King is among them.’

Who is this ‘King’ that the people of God are shouting about? We find an answer in Revelation 19:11-16. There are several ways in which he is described. ‘His name is the Word of God.’ If we link that to what we find in John 1, we can be sure that this is ‘the Word’ who ‘became human and made his home among us’, who was ‘the Father’s one and only Son’ (John 1:14 (NLT)). Revelation 19 calls him ‘Faithful and True’. He is crowned with ‘many crowns’. ‘He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood’, which points us to the pinnacle of his mission, when he was led like a criminal, to be slaughtered upon Calvary’s cross. Revelation 19 tells us something about that. It is written in the present tense. Because what he achieved there will never be like the victories of men and nations. The passing of time will not erase the memory. It will never be lost to history. What he did has an everlasting implication. ‘He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.’

John, in writing that in Revelation, borrows from Isaiah’s prophetic promise in Isaiah 63:1-6. Isaiah posed a question to this person. He asked him, ‘Why are your garments red, like those of one treading the winepress?’ The reply is given, ‘I have trodden the winepress’; ‘I have trodden the winepress alone…

I posed a question. ‘Who is this ‘King’ that the people of God are shouting about?’ Isaiah asks the same thing. He says, ‘Who is this…?’ The reply? ‘‘It is I, proclaiming victory, mighty to save.’ Revelation 19 says that on his garment, and on his person, a name is written. ‘KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.’

It is Jesus. He is the King whose name his church sings. I have one last question? Do you want your last end to be that of one ‘made right with God’? It can be. Romans 9 has told us how. ‘It (is) by faith that this (takes) place’. Believe that Jesus has saved you. Trust that he is your King and your Lord. Let him rule in your heart and lead you in life. He is ‘mighty to save’! ‘Amen’ to that. As the Apostle Paul says, ‘through him the ‘Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God.’ Amen.


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