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“That We Might Have Hope” (Rom. 15:4)

Numbers Chapters Twenty-two Through Twenty-four

A False Prophet And His Donkey

In this interesting Old Testament account from the book of Numbers we are introduced to Balaam and his donkey. Balaam is a false prophet. His donkey is just a donkey. Unlikely spokesman of God? Perhaps, but both were used by God to get His message out.

After refusing to heed the faithful advice of Joshua and Caleb to enter the land “flowing with milk and honey,” the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness for 38 years. Despite their frequent complaints and rebellions, God protected His covenant people from their enemies. He provided a means of protection from the deadly “fiery serpents.” He also gave them victories over the heathen Canaanites and their king Arad, the Amorites under king Sihon, and the people of Bashan and their king Og. God did not want His people to fight against Moab and Ammon, the descendants of Lot (Judg. 11:17-18). Yet Moab was afraid of Israel. Balak, the Moabite king, saw the destructive power of the Israelite forces and was filled with dread. This fear led him to desperately seek the services of Balaam, a prophet of Mesopotamia.

God’s Purposes

Balaam was an opportunist. Apparently he was renowned for his ability to communicate with “the gods” and pronounce blessings and curses on people. So when Balak’s messengers approached him about cursing the Israelites he was, no doubt, hoping for some generous compensation. Balaam’s plans, however, did not coincide with God’s plans. God used this false prophet to accomplish His purposes. God spoke to Balaam and told him not to go with the messengers. He said: “You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed.”

Balak then sent more distinguished messengers to Balaam and promised him a handsome reward for his services. Balaam told them that he could only speak what God would tell him to speak. This time God gave him permission to return with the messengers but warned him to speak only the words He would give him.

God wanted to make sure Balaam got the message. The following day while traveling to Moab, Balaam’s donkey saw the angel of the Lord on the road and refused to pass through Him. The first time the donkey veered off the road. The second time Balaam’s foot was crushed against a stone wall as the donkey pressed close to it. The third time the donkey sat down and refused to go any further. After each incident Balaam beat the donkey in anger. Finally the donkey spoke and asked Balaam why he was being beaten. Balaam answered that the donkey had made a fool of him and he would have killed him if only he had a sword. Then Balaam’s eyes were opened and he saw the angel of the Lord with His sword drawn. The talking donkey had saved his life! Balaam got the message. For when Balak came to greet him as they reached Moab, Balaam clearly pointed out that he could only speak God’s words.

While in Moab, Balaam received several more messages from God which he then passed on to Balak. Instead of cursing the Israelites, Balaam brought further blessings to them. Included in the blessings was a promise of the coming Savior: “I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; A scepter will rise out of Israel” (Num. 24:17). Balaam also prophesied the utter destruction of Israel’s enemies. Finally, Balak pleaded with Balaam to go back home and speak no more. Before turning home Balaam did give Balak some advice which could cause harm to the Israelites. He encouraged the Moabites to seduce the Israelites away from their God through adultery and idolatry. This advice was taken and used somewhat effectively.

Lessons For Us

So what does a story about a talking donkey and a false prophet have to do with us? It clearly demonstrates the great love our God has for His people. The Israelites, sinful as they were, deserved no blessings from their God. They received them anyway. We do likewise. It also warns of the destruction that will come to the enemies of God. The worldly might of the enemies of God’s people would prove ineffective in preventing the Israelites from settling in the Promised Land.

It also demonstrates how God can use a variety of people, not only Christians, in carrying out His will. Balaam, a false prophet, was used to speak the words of God. We can also clearly see the ability of our God to look into our hearts. In contrast to Jonah, another spokesman used by God, who clearly disobeyed the orders of God, Balaam appears to outwardly follow God’s instructions. We know, however, that God was not pleased with Balaam’s attitude. Don’t we “obey” in a similar way at times? Don’t we sometimes outwardly go through the proper motions, but our hearts are in rebellion? May God help us to do the right things for the right reasons.

We can also learn from the donkey. Perhaps we have had donkeys in our lives–people God has used to alert us to the reckless path in which we are heading. Oftentimes we don’t appreciate the guidance of those who see our paths more clearly than we do. We may “beat” them for their attempts to thwart our plans. It is only when our eyes see clearly once again that we realize how God uses others to direct our lives. May our covenant God continue to bless us, His people, on our paths homeward.

Oh, guide and lead me, Lord,

While here below I wander

That I may follow Thee

Till I shall see Thee yonder.

For if I led myself,

I soon would go astray;

But if Thou leadest me,

I keep the narrow way.

(TLH 417:6)

–Prof. Joseph Lau