The Jackass Did Speak!
They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Beor, who loved the wages of wickedness. But he was rebuked for his wrongdoing by a donkey—a beast without speech—who spoke with a man’s voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.
Balaam, the dark prophet from Pethor, is remembered by most people, if known at all, for one incident alone – he is the only person to ever hear a spoken message delivered by a donkey. Of course, this incident provides an occasion for great hilarity and an opportunity for ridicule of the Word by those enlightened souls who have determined to reject the Word of God while trusting in their own enlightened intellects.
Peter, ignoring the tendency of the world, simply presents the reminder that the prophet Balaam was restrained in his madness when he was rebuked by a donkey. Such an event is worthy of our exploration, for it can prove instructive to the child of God willing to learn from that which God has provided in His Word. As those who have received the Word of God, we are convinced that this Word is not superfluous. That which God has caused to be written in His Word was given as warnings for our benefit [cf. 1 Corinthians 10:11]. Thus, Peter’s words concerning Balaam are worthy of our careful study … for the jackass did speak!
The Incident Reviewed – The first and most extensive reporting of Balaam is given in Numbers 22-24. In that passage Balaam is mentioned fifty times. Israel was camping in the plains of Moab and Balak, king of Moab, sent for Balaam to come curse Israel. Apparently Balaam had a reputation as a soothsayer capable of inflicting damage on those he cursed. However, God forbid the prophet to accompany the elders of Moab.
Balak sent other, more prestigious, elders in an effort to induce Balaam to come curse Israel. This time, God permitted the seer to accompany them, but with the admonition that he must say only what God instructed him to say. Eagerly, he arose early the next morning, saddled his donkey, and set out with the princes of Moab. God, however, was very angry when he went [Numbers 22:22], presumably because Balaam harboured in his heart the thought that he would enrich himself through disobedience to the express will of God.
The angel of the Lord stood in the road, sword drawn, prepared to slay the greedy prophet. The donkey saw the angel and turned off the road straying into a field. Balaam, apparently in frustration because he did not wish to be delayed in obtaining the wealth promised him, beat her to get her back onto the road. The donkey had moved by this time between two vineyards, each of which was surrounded by a wall.
Intent on beating his donkey the prophet was unaware that the angel of the Lord had moved to a position in front of the poor beast. The donkey, however, saw the angel and in fear pressed into the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot. This action on the part of the donkey brought an even more severe beating from Balaam. The walls acted as a sort of funnel, and the donkey, under the furious assault of the prophet, moved forward. The angel, however, stepped squarely in front of the beast in such a position that there was no room to turn around.
At this, the donkey lay down, bringing upon herself the most severe beating yet. Balaam began to use his staff to beat the poor beast. Under the hail of blows, the donkey began to speak. Clearly, Balaam was angry, for he did not pause to reflect that donkey’s don’t usually speak to their owners, even when the owners are beating them unjustly. He answered the donkey. Determining which was a jackass must have been difficult!
The Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?”
Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”
The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”
“No,” he said.
With that, the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown.
It is worth noting that the usual response of those who realise they are in the presence of the emissaries of the Living God, the holy angels, respond by falling to the ground. Pride drains from wicked man as water drains from a broken glass in the presence of God’s messengers. The angel of the Lord now initiated an interrogation of the prophet, asking him the reason for his madness. “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me. The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If she had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared her.”
Balaam, less in repentance than in fear, apologised and revealed that he knew the reason the angel was opposed to him. He said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned. I did not realise you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now if you are displeased, I will go back.” Underscore in your mind that people seldom sin unconsciously. Motivated by greed, though momentarily blinded and maddened by the possibility of transient riches, we know we are wrong. Balaam realised he had sinned, for his heart was driven by greed. He knew the angel of the Lord was displeased. So, chastened by the presence of the Lord, though his heart was unchanged, he was willing to return home, even if reluctantly.
The angel of the LORD, however, was content to simply remind Balaam of his original conditions for accompanying the princes of Moab, “Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you.” So Balaam went with the princes of Balak [Numbers 22:28-35]. The purpose of the entire exercise was to remind the prophet of the conditions God had given before He had granted permission to accompany the princes of Moab. The one who dares to speak for God enjoys great freedom, but only with the limits God sets.
Balaam did eventually arrive in Moab and together with Balak he viewed the camp of Israel. Three times he was urged by Balak to curse Israel, and three times he returned with the message that God had blessed them. He was thus incapable of cursing those whom God had blessed. The king’s anger flamed hotly and he scathingly dismissed the prophet in whom he had placed such hope. This outburst brought forth one of the great messianic prophecies of the Word of God [Numbers 24:15-19].
Had the incident concluded with this, we would today honour Balaam as a great man of God. We would consider him as blessed for having received the privilege to delivering the message of the Messiah to come from within Israel.
The Incident Explored – The incident for which Balaam is most readily remembered is that he was rebuked by a jackass. While some of us may have heard the voice of a jackass, none of us can lay claim to having received a message from a jackass. Students of the Word, however, remember the prophet for other less amusing reasons. Balaam was a prophet who received the message of God, but he was a prophet willing to sell his skill for the proper price without reference to the Word of God. He is remembered for his avarice and his participation in pagan cult and immorality. Oh, that he had taken to heart the words uttered during his first oracle. Blessing Israel, he concluded with these words:
Who can count the dust of Jacob
or number the fourth part of Israel?
Let me die the death of the righteous,
and may my end be like theirs!”
Up to this point I have said nothing which would indicate that Balaam did anything less than what God expected of him. In fact, if you are unaware of the Word of God you will perhaps wonder why he is condemned by Peter. The reason for his condemnation is found in the chapter which immediately follows Balaam’s last prophecy. Superficially, it would seem that Balak rebuked Balaam and Balaam went on his way. There is more to the story, however. Numbers 25:1-18 recounts an awesome sin which was imported into the camp and which almost brought utter disaster upon the people of God.
The people began worshipping the Baal of Peor, the lord of the opening. Whatever this god may have represented, an essential part of this ancient, pagan worship was to engage in sex as a part of the rites. The people of Israel found the activities associated with this worship appealing, though it is not clear that they felt any compulsion to actually worship this false god. There is nothing casual about casual sex. All such activity is a form of idolatry found outside the sanctity of holy matrimony.
Spiritual harlotry grew so prevalent among the Israelites that, Zimri, one of the leaders of the Tribe of Simeon even brought the daughter of a Moabite chieftain into the camp to “worship” with her. Phinehas, son of Eleazar, followed the two into Zimri’s tent and ran them through with his spear while they were thoroughly occupied with “worship”. Clearly, God approved of this drastic action by Phinehas and spared Israel, but not before thousands of Israelites had died in divine judgement.
The careful student of the Bible will note a great difference in two censuses. In Numbers 1:23 we note that 59,300 men of Simeon twenty years old or more able to serve in the armies of Israel are counted, whereas a later census listed soon after these events found but 22,200 members of the Tribe of Simeon [Numbers 26:14]. It is quite possible that mainly Simeonites were involved in this grave sin, which would only point to the danger of following errant leaders. Just as one cannot obtain sweet water from a polluted well, so godliness cannot be discovered when unrighteousness is tolerated with church leadership. The man of God must be a godly leader, about all else.
What does Balaam have to do with all this? Numbers 31:15,16 reads as follows: “Have you allowed all the women to live?” [Moses] asked them. “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the LORD in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the LORD’s people.”
These words followed a battle against Midian, and the people had captured a number of Midianite women, bringing them into the camp. Focus on the fact that Moses understood that the women of Moab followed Balaam’s advice and led the people of Israel astray. Balaam, though outwardly obeying God in the precise aspects in which God had commanded him, gave Balak advice which would lead to divine condemnation of Israel for a fee. Attracted by the prospect of worldly wealth, he had enabled the wicked to attack the righteous people of God. This, then, is Balaam’s error of which Jude speaks [Jude 11] and the way of Balaam of which Peter speaks.
The tragic story isn’t finished at this point, for Balaam so thoroughly identified with the enemies of God that he died with them. Numbers 31:8 speaks of the conquest of the kings of Midian, adding the observation: they also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword. Likewise, the account given in Joshua 13:22 informs us that in addition to those slain in battle, the Israelites had put to the sword Balaam son of Beor, who practised divination. At the last he died together with those allied against the people of God, as do all false teachers.
What is perhaps overlooked, but which is nevertheless germane, is that Balaam did speak in God’s Name; he spoke in the Name of the Living God! Though Balaam could not lay claim to being a prophet in the sense the term is normally used of the Old Testament prophets, God did on this one occasion speak through him! Balaam was a diviner, one who sought to discover the mind of the gods through manipulating those gods. There are mysteries associated with this which I cannot unravel. Why would God participate in divination? Why would God speak through someone so morally twisted as Balaam? Why would God provide such a great prophecy through a diviner? The simple answer is that we have no answer, and we are silenced by the silence of God.
Yet, it is that singular fact that God did speak by Balaam which makes Peter’s statement all the more important for our present world. Men who actually declare the truth, men who actually speak in the Name of God, can nevertheless be tempted to sell their abilities to the highest bidder. To bear the title of “Reverend” while speaking two diverse messages – one for the public and one for private conversation – is to be guilty of the sin of Balaam. Such individuals need to heed the fact that God does call us to account for our service in His Name.
Paul, both in his first letter to Timothy and in his letter to Titus, provides the requirements for those desiring ordination, recognition of the call to spiritual orders. The characteristics which are set before us in those letter list in the main character traits instead of educational attainment or rhetorical abilities [cf. 1 Timothy 3:2-7]. The ratio of character traits to other abilities is twelve to one in the passage in First Timothy, and in Titus 1:6-9 the ratio is fourteen to one. The reason for this emphasis on character is that the minister of God is seen to reflect God’s character before mankind. Therefore, what the minister is in public must also be seen to be what he is in private. Churches do well to carefully consider the character of those they think to call to public ministry, insuring that these characteristics are met. Above all else, the man of God must possess integrity.
This, then, was Balaam’s sin; and this is the sin against which Peter inveighs. Money, a job, a position, takes precedence over honesty and over doing the will of God. There is always an angle in view, always a search to find an easy way to perform the task assigned, always an effort to hold a job instead of seeking the will of God. Such individuals fall under the scathing condemnation of Peter who would say that such people have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam.
Dear people, selling out one’s conscience for money is the sin of Balaam. Using the people of God for personal gain, living the lie while outwardly attempting to appear righteous, tolerating immorality, a selective morality – this is the sin of Balaam. It is an awful sin, and one which God shall surely judge. Worse still, tolerating those guilty of the sin of Balaam invites His judgement upon us, though we are His beloved people.
The Incident Applied – Did Balaam learn anything from this incident? The subsequent events would indicate that he learned nothing. Like the Bourbons of France, it would seem that he neither learned anything nor forgot anything. Following the account Moses provides in Numbers 22-24, we next read of Balaam in Numbers 31:8 and Joshua 13:22. We saw in a brief sentence iterated within those two verses that Balaam son of Beor was slain during the conquest of Canaan. He ended his days among the enemies of God and paid for his choice with his life, his name becoming a byword.
There are several pointed observations and applications which I must make. Certainly, it is important to determine that we both know the will of God and do that will. Certainly, we must avoid even the appearance of evil, embracing what is right. Certainly, the text speaks of God’s awesome demands for righteousness. Ignoring these important though ancillary issues, I do ask you to focus on four important truths, applying them in the life of this congregation, as well as in your individual lives.
The Miraculous is Seldom Meaningful. This is the first truth which I draw to your attention. An individual who witnesses a miracle seldom considers the implication of what was witnessed. Few, if any, people come to faith because they witness a miracle. Balaam heard from God, and moreover heard the voice of a donkey. That certainly qualifies as a miracle in most quarters, despite the temptation for some to say that donkeys speak all around them every day. Nevertheless, Balaam sought to find a way to curse the people of God so he might obtain the wealth promised by the king of Moab. Balaam was unchanged, though he witnessed an astonishing miracle.
If faith is founded on anything other than Christ and His righteousness, miraculous events have no meaning. They can either be explained away or they will have no bearing on my decision. Until the heart is changed, amazing and startling events are meaningless. I cannot help but be struck by the words of Jesus recorded in Luke 11:29-32. This is a wicked generation. It asks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgement with the men of this generation and condemn them; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here. Seeking the miraculous, the people of Jesus’ day missed the greatest miracle, the miracle of eternal life revealed in their midst.
In Luke 16:19-31, Jesus told the story of the rich man and Lazarus. As the story concludes, we see the rich man begging Father Abraham to send a messenger to his brothers, warning them against living in such a manner as to invite divine condemnation. “They have Moses and the Prophets,” replied Abraham, “let them listen to them.” The rich man, in torment in Hades, begs Abraham, pleading that if someone from the dead goes to them they will repent. Listen carefully to the pointed response, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced, even if someone rises from the dead.”
The immediate application to people of faith in this day late in the dispensation of grace is to avoid becoming so focused on supposed events that we fail to understand what is said. Multitudes seek a sign to certify the object of their faith. It is not a sign which is needed; it is the Son which we need. Let us determine that we will be careful to listen for the voice of God in every event, and not content ourselves with seeking a sign to certify our faith. To the Word! If that which is said fails to agree with this Word, it is because there is no light in those speaking. If their lives fail to match the content of their words, let them be rebuked while we determine that we will follow our God.
The Love of Money is the Root of All Kinds of Evil. Clearly, Balaam was attracted by the promise of wealth. Balak had promised wealth unimaginable. At first he merely called Balaam, dispatching some of the elders of Moab and Midian with the fee for divination [Numbers 22:7]. When God did not permit Balaam to return with them, Balak sent others, more numerous and more distinguished than those of the first delegation. This time they promised him a handsome reward, doing whatever he said [Numbers 22:17]. In effect, the kingly offer was, “Name your own price!”
When Balaam had uttered his first three oracles, each blessing the people of God, Balak was enraged. He smote his hands together and spewed out his disappointment and rage. “I said I would reward you handsomely, but the Lord had kept you from being rewarded” [Numbers 24:10]. Balaam’s mind must have gone into overdrive, because he hatched the diabolical plan to seduce Israel which led to the destruction of twenty-four thousand men of Israel. We might readily draw the conclusion that he was rewarded handsomely for his disingenuous plan.
In his earlier letter, Peter warned elders to serve without considering the wages. I am not reticent about reminding the people of God that they are responsible to insure that the spokesman of God is remunerated generously, but I am even more open in asserting that those who carry the title of reverend minister are responsible to serve without regard to money. In that earlier letter, Peter wrote these words: To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock [1 Peter 5:1-3].
People choose to betray the Lord for a handful of silver every day. Some betray for hard cash; for specie and script or bullion and bills they betray convictions, saying what the people want to hear so as not to displease their listeners who are their masters. One need not be a prophet to realise that such actions will increase with the proximity of the conclusion of this age. Paul, in his last letter to Timothy, warned him of this fact: the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths [2 Timothy 4:3,4].
Whenever I am silent in the face of deceitful actions at work, hoping to keep my job at the cost of speaking my convictions, I align myself with the enemies of God. Should I refrain from rebuking those who ridicule righteousness and who speak blasphemously against the Lord and His people, I peddle my convictions for a pittance. I don’t need to actively betray my Lord for thirty pieces of silver, as did Judas; I can do so quietly, surreptitiously, through my silence and through my refusal to stand for what is right. Peace at any price is too great a price.
The Spokesman of God Bears an Awesome Responsibility to be Righteous. The one professing to speak in the Name of the Living Christ is responsible to live a life worthy of that professed calling. Though this requirement for external righteousness is incumbent upon all Christians, it is especially vital in the life of the man of God. The righteousness in view is not an external righteousness, but it is an internal righteousness which is reflected outwardly. Jesus warned against false prophets, and then He stated: By their fruit you will recognise them… A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognise them [Matthew 7:16, 18-20]. Balaam, though professing to speak for God, was willing to make exceptions for the sake of immediate convenience. Whenever I willingly trade conviction for convenience, I am taking the way of Balaam. Whenever my moral convictions are easily exchanged to achieve a transient goal, I walk in the way of Balaam.
The great sin of the Pharisees was that they were willing to make exceptions to insure their own ease. So, Jesus said to the crowds following Him, and to His disciples, “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practise what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves do not life a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for men to see” [Matthew 23:2-5]. It is possible to be as straight as a gun barrel, theologically, and just as empty.
The minister of God will prove be either a source of great blessing to the people of God, or he will prove to be the source of greatest reprehension to that congregation. The resulting impact depends upon the individual minister’s character and manner of life. I am aware that it is not only what I say that bears on the action of the people of God; it is my own life which I shall see reflected in great measure in their lives. If I live a lie, the people who look to me for pastoral guidance will soon begin to live a lie themselves. If I live solely for my own convenience, the people looking to me for pastoral guidance will shortly begin to justify neglecting personal sacrifice for the cause of Christ. Thus, the spokesman of God has received an awesome charge, not only to speak the truth, but also to live the truth. To do anything less is to follow the way of Balaam.
Righteousness and Wickedness have Nothing in Common. Ultimately, the great tragedy of Balaam’s life is that he thought he could choose to be righteous and evil at the same time. In that vein, listen carefully to the words of the Apostle, recorded in 2 Corinthians 6:14-18. Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
“Therefore come out from them
and be separate,
says the Lord.
Touch no unclean thing,
and I will receive you.”
“I will be a Father to you,
and you will be my sons and daughters, says the
The minister of God must keep short accounts with God, refusing to succumb to evil. To surrender to the temptation to live for the moment is to sacrifice the permanent on the altar of the temporary. Surely the words of Jesus, spoken when He delivered the Sermon on the Mount, bear heavily on this matter of personal righteousness. “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” [Matthew 6:24]. The admonitions preceding that oft-quoted saying speak of a heart which serves willingly, and not by constraint. The words speak of those who live in the light, and are recognised as living in the light. Let the man of God live righteously.
The message does apply to each Christian in that we are each one responsible to honour God in our manner of life. More particularly, however, the message is a warning against permitting false teachers to insinuate themselves into the congregation of God. The responsibility for watchfulness is one shared by the entire congregation, and not by a few, select members only. All alike bear responsibility to call to account those who claim to occupy the sacred desk by divine appointment. Though we ought neither engage in witch hunts nor anticipate dirt in every corner of the minister’s life, we are nevertheless responsible to insure that the man of God is motivated by nothing less than the desire to honour Christ and the longing to fulfil His will.
Should some with less than noble desires present themselves, we should not hesitate to confront them, questioning why they wish to speak in the Name of the Lord. To do less is to share in their wicked ways, inviting God’s judgement on us as a people. John states the issue pointedly when he writes, If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching [of Christ], do not take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work [2 John 10,11]. Again, the aged Apostle wrote these words: Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God [3 John 11]. You may find it interesting to discover that this was said of a man who was merely inhospitable, an action which we would likely question if it even qualified as sin. That act is, however, sinful, for it revealed an arrogant heart; and arrogance is an awful sin. In other words, there is no such thing as a little bit of sin.
Do right. Determine that those who lead you are worthy of your trust. Encourage them to do right. Hold every act up against the Word of God. Above all else, do what honours the Lord Christ. Though the stars fall out on the heavens, do right. Amen.