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Balaam, Part 2

The One Thing to Fear

7Balaam and Donkey

by Dennis Pollock

In a previous study, we looked at the unique and fascinating story of Balaam. The problem with that study was that it took so long to cover the details and relate the entire story that little time and space remained to enumerate the major lessons we can learn from it. I touched on what seemed to be the main takeaway from this strange Biblical account, but had no time at all to go into a second lesson which I felt was nearly as important for us to see. It seemed almost criminal to tell the story of Balaam and ignore this point altogether, and hence a second study.

First, let’s do a little review in case you missed the first study. Balaam was a prophet but he was not an Israelite. He had gained a reputation of being able to proclaim curses upon people and nations throughout the region. So when millions of Israelites camped at the outskirts of Moab, the Moabite King Balak became more than a little nervous. He sent for Balaam, the cursing prophet, to come and curse Israel so that Moab could defeat the Hebrews in battle. Balaam prayed about it and was told by God not to go – that the Israelite people were under God’s blessing and were not to be cursed. But King Balak sent another group of messengers to Balaam offering the prophet phenomenal wealth if he would just agree to curse the Jews.

Balaam told the messengers he would pray again and see “what more” the Lord would tell him. God did permit him to go but every time Balaam sought to pronounce a curse on Israel, God turned the attempted curses into blessings. Eventually Balaam gave up. Throughout the Scriptures Balaam is spoken of as a symbol of greed and wickedness. The main application of this story that I made in the previous study was that Balaam’s great mistake was in seeking what more the Lord would say. God had already told him not to go and why. Once God says no, we have no business seeking God for any other answer!

Balaam’s Advice

There is another powerful insight we may gain from the story of Balaam. It has to do with the advice that Balaam (the prophet) gave Balak (the king of Moab). Almost immediately after Balaam’s failed attempts to curse Israel, we read that the Israelite men “began to commit harlotry with the women of Moab.” The two peoples became friendly with one another, especially when it came to male/female relationships. Many immoral relationships were formed between the Jewish men and the Moabite women. This was bad enough, but it got even worse. The pretty Moabite ladies started inviting their Jewish boyfriends to some of their pagan religious ceremonies, and before you knew it, Jewish men in great numbers were worshiping the Moabite god, Baal of Peor. There was much eating, drinking, and “fooling around,” and the Jewish men must have figured that showing a little deference to the Moabite god was a small price to pay for the pleasures they were enjoying.

God was not at all pleased and quickly sent a plague among the Israelites that killed around 24,000 of them. And so, what Balaam’s attempted curses could not accomplish, the women of Moab found not so very difficult. By leading the men of Israel into immorality and idolatry they were able to bring about the death of tens of thousands of them.

How did this sexual immorality between the Israeli men and the Moabite women come to pass? We are told in Scripture that this was accomplished as a result of the counsel of Balaam, given to King Balak. In a later battle with the Midianites the Jewish soldiers kill all the males but spare the women, and Moses becomes furious. He tells His soldiers: “Have you kept all the women alive? Look, these women caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the LORD in the incident of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the LORD.” Moses allowed the girls and unmarried ladies to be spared, but all the married women were put to death, for fear that they might lead the Israeli males into idolatry.

Stumbling Blocks

In the second chapter of Revelation Jesus sends a message to the church in Pergamos, and warns: “But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality” (Revelation 2:14). What we see here is that although Balaam could never accomplish the ruin of Israel directly through his attempted curses, he did manage to find a “workaround.” He understood that as long as Israel walked in basic obedience to the laws of their God they were untouchable. But he also realized that if they could be persuaded to rebel against the Lord, their defenses would be shattered and they would prove not so invincible after all. The canny prophet no doubt gained a pretty fair piece of pocket change for his wicked advice. In the case of Israel, curses proved worthless, but the stumbling block strategy worked to perfection.

Israel had no reason to fear prophets, witch-doctors, swords, spears, or vast enemy armies. As long as God was with them, they lived in that magic place of safety and total provision. The only real fear, the only real worry they had was that they might somehow move out from the place of obedience and faith, and bring about their own destruction.

And this, of course, is the application for us today. Much has changed since those ancient days. We live in different times. And in Jesus Christ we live under a new covenant. But some things remain the same. As with Israel, we who are in Christ are called to live in a place of faith and obedience to God. And when we move away from that place of faith and obedience, the results can be disastrous.

I find it both ironic and fascinating that Israel could not be attacked and significantly hurt directly. Balaam’s attempts at curses were entirely powerless, and God turned what the prophet and the king of Moab hoped to be curses into blessings. But his advice to the king, telling him to use the Moabite women to seduce the Israelite men, worked masterfully. The men succumbed easily to the charms of the Moabite ladies, and in a very short time thousands of Israelites were dying from a plague. The obvious lesson and takeaway from this is that the greatest danger to the people of God is never in the physical realm alone; it always relates to our walk with God.

Knowing What to Fear

The sad thing is that the people of God rarely seem to get this. We often fear physical dangers and threats above all else. A lack of money, a disease, a lost job, a co-worker who seems out to get us – these things bother us greatly, but we rarely ever worry about or consider the danger of us moving out of fellowship with God, or displeasing Him in any way.

One example of this can be seen in the way we pray for a family road trip. As Christians, we usually feel that when we are going to be traveling hundreds of miles on the highways on a long journey, it would be good to pray before we leave. And so we generally pray a short prayer for “travel mercies” before we leave (at least we should). Our prayer may go something like this: “Father we pray for your protection as we travel today. Please keep us from accidents and harm while we are on the road. We thank you that Your angels protect us and we trust You to be with us throughout this journey. In Jesus’ name – Amen.”

There is nothing wrong with that prayer. It is a good prayer as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough. We have prayed for physical protection and grace, but we haven’t said a thing about spiritual protection. I remember when my children were young I used to pray something like that prayer before going on our long journeys from Texas to Missouri to see the grandparents. We always arrived safely. I don’t think we ever had an accident on the road during those 700 mile, all-day journeys. But on one trip I remember there were lots of arguments in the car among the kids and impatience on my part. We arrived on time and without physical incident, but I later realized that I should have prayed for peace and pleasant relationships throughout the journey as well as safety from accidents!

Survival in Lagos, Nigeria

Benedicta in Lagos, Nigeria

Jesus taught us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” It is not enough just to get through a day or a week or a year or a life without any major physical tragedies or disasters. We need to both pray for and trust Jesus for godly, righteous, peaceful days and weeks and years and lives. Sometimes we can be highly alert to physical dangers, but blissfully ignorant of spiritual dangers. My wife, Benedicta, is from Nigeria. Before marrying me, she lived most of her adult life in the bustling, sprawling, rowdy city of Lagos. I think Lagos must be one of the toughest cities in the entire world for a single woman to live in and succeed. While there are many good and decent people there, there are also not a few con men and criminals roaming the streets and looking for victims.

When Benedicta first arrived in Lagos she had a very mild personality and hardly spoke above a whisper. She moved slowly, walked slowly, and had no clue just how dangerous Lagos could be. She soon found out. More than once she discovered, after riding on a bus, that someone had cut a slit in her purse while she was looking the other way, and had stolen all the cash she had. Once she was robbed at gunpoint. And con men were frequently trying their lines and their schemes on her. She learned to be alert. She began to walk along the road with her eyes constantly moving in every direction, looking for potential threats. When men approached her with their various lines, she learned to speak roughly to them and send them on their way. She became quite skilled at living with an eye for danger everywhere, so much so that even in America she can hardly go anywhere without constantly looking about her for possible trouble. As much as I have tried to tell her that things here aren’t quite so bad, those habits and ways ingrained in her in Lagos, Nigeria seem permanently etched upon her spirit.

Permanent Residents

It is not wrong to be alert to physical dangers. People who assume there is nothing to fear make the easiest targets for thieves, con men, scammers, and grifters. But we who are in Christ Jesus need to recognize that our greatest dangers are never merely physical. They are always spiritual. Jesus couldn’t have made this any plainer when He declared:

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28).

The greatest danger for the Christian is to walk away or drift away from that place of abiding in Jesus. As we abide in Jesus we live in that secret place of the Most High, the shelter of the Almighty, and as long as we make that place our dwelling, all is well. This doesn’t mean we won’t have problems or pressures or face dangers, but it does mean that we are eternally safe and well. We live with a hedge of the grace of God around us and we draw nourishment, life, and strength from Jesus continually. As long as we remain close to the heart of Jesus, we are blessed and nourished today, tomorrow, and all of our days.

But if we ever allow the enemy of our souls to lead us away from that sweet and pleasant place in Christ, until we no longer walk with Him or trust Him, and we begin to disobey His word and His ways, tragedy is surely headed our way. Our greatest threat is not a car accident or a robber or cancer. It is in departing from the living God. Therefore, as our Lord has instructed us, let us watch, let us trust, and let us abide in Jesus so that when the adversary attacks with various and sundry temptations as with those Israelite men, we will have God’s grace and power to resist in Jesus’ name.


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