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The people of Israel were close to finally entering the promised land, and they were near the borders of a country whose king was Balak. When Balak saw the host of Israel, he was afraid and sent for Balaam, a known prophet at the time, to come and curse Israel for him in exchange for gifts.
Balak had heard of the effectiveness of Balaam’s powers. But Balaam knew that the Israelites were God’s people, and he could not curse them. And instead of saying no to King Balak’s offer, he hesitated because of the rich gifts and promises of wealth that the king offered.
In verse 12 and 13 God revealed His will to Balaam saying, “You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed. So Balaam rose in the morning and said to the princes of Balak, “Go back to your land, for the Lord has refused to give me permission to go with you.”
But Balaam wanted in his heart to go and obtain the gifts. Had the prophet desired to do God’s will, the words recorded in verse 12 would have ended the matter. But when a man is insistent on his own way, the Lord may allow him to do what he wants and reap the consequences (Psalms 81:11, 12 also Hosea 4:17). God’s government is a government of free moral choice; the Lord does not force the human will. He instructs man that disobedience brings destruction but does not stop man’s wrong choices.
So, in verse 20, the Lord permitted Balaam to do what he really wants saying, “If the men come to call you, rise and go with them; but only the word which I speak to you—that you shall do.” This was merely a permissive command. It was not based on God’s will but on Balaam’s own will.
The talking donkey
Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the Moabite officials. But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of the Lord stood in the road to oppose him. 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. So, Balaam beat it to get it back on the road.
Then, the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path through the vineyards, with walls on both sides. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it pressed close to the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot against it. So, he beat the donkey one more time.
Again, the angel of the Lord moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat it with his staff. At this point, the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?” (Verse 28).
Then, God opened Balaam’s eyes and showed him the angel standing in the way with His drawn sword in His hand, and the donkey turned aside out of the way and went into the field. The donkey was trying to avoid death (verse 31).
Greed blinded the eyes of Balaam that he could not see what the donkey was seeing. The truth is that prophet owed his life to the ass he had severely beaten. The spirit that controlled Balaam was reflected in his behavior.
Balaam is an example of a prophet who apostatized from his mission, seeking to make financial profit out of his divine calling. Accordingly, we read about God’s warning of accepting of the “doctrine of Balaam” (Revelation 2:14), the “error of Balaam” (Jude 11), and the “way of Balaam” (2 Peter 2:15).
In His service,