As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, we will spend the next four Sundays looking at four prophecies of the coming hope of Israel from an unlikely source: Balaam, the scoundrel prophet of Israel. Despite the circumstances, these are some of the greatest benedictions of Scripture describing God’s determination to bless Israel through the coming Messiah and in Him, all the nations of the earth.
“The Balaam said to Balak, ‘Build seven altars for me here, and prepare seven bulls and seven rams for me here…’” (Num. 23:1-13)
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
The backdrop to these verses is famous: Balak King of Moab hired Balaam to curse Israel apparently because he intended to go to war with them (cf. Josh. 24:9). On the way, the Lord’s angel confronted him, but only his donkey could see the angel. After beating and threatening the donkey, the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and he spoke and then Balaam’s eyes were opened to see the angel. Having been severely warned by God, Balaam arrives and instructs Balak to set up an elaborate set of altars and offerings, and speaks this “parable” saying that Balak has called him to curse Israel (23:1-7). But Balaam asks how he can possibly curse whom God has not cursed, and how can he denounce whom God has not denounced (23:8)? Therefore, out comes a great blessing: Israel is a great and mighty nation that can be seen from the tops of the rocky crags of mountains, and Israel is famous among the nations – well known, unique, and not mistaken for any other nation (23:9). Israel is very numerous – who can count the dust of Jacob? Who can even number a portion of the dust of Israel (23:10)? Finally, Balaam insists that Israel is righteous and upright, and so blessed, that there could be no better death than to die among them: let my end be like his (23:10).
A PROVERB IN THE MOUTH OF THE KING
The word translated “parable” or “discourse” is the word for “proverb.” And while this word can sometimes refer to a “byword,” a sort of cautionary tale, clearly something more “proverbial” is going on here: there is deep kingly wisdom at work here. But it isn’t Balak or Balaam. Notice the layers of irony: Why in the world would a pagan king hire an Israelite prophet to curse Israel? Apparently Balak knows that Israel has the upperhand and he wants that mojo. Balaam would apparently be willing to curse, and yet all that can come out is a blessing on Israel (four times). Add to this the fact that Israel is not really in great shape. Remember the unbelieving spies and all the complaining in the wilderness (Num. 13-14), and even though Balaam couldn’t curse Israel, he was involved in the relatively successful plot to seduce the Israelite men with Moabite women (Num. 25, 31:16). This is all high octane providence, which is just another way of saying God is King over all. Sometimes people object to the doctrine of providence because they think that God will be harsh, unfair, or petty, but this story illustrates God’s abundant patience, overwhelming kindness, and amazing sense of humor. Left to ourselves, we seek and deserve cursing, but God the Wisest King works all things according to His counsel because He is determined to bless (Eph. 1:11).
Balaam is hired to pronounced curses, but the only thing that can come out is blessing: “How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? Or who shall I defy, whom the Lord has not defied?” (23:8). And so it is in all things in this world: Joseph: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Gen. 50:20). “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). This same providence was at work in a Roman census that sent a young couple to Bethlehem, and an evil king’s plot to kill a young child (Mt. 2, Lk. 2). The center of this doctrine of providence is the Cross itself: “Him [Jesus], being delivered up by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, yet by the hand of lawless men did crucify and slay” (Acts 2:23). God is King, and this world is His proverb.
THE DEATH OF THE UPRIGHT
The final benediction of this first prophecy is really striking. One suspects layers of irony here as well. Many of the Israelites will be dying shortly after they fall into sin, and Balaam will die in battle (Num. 31:8). But the straightforward meaning of the blessing is that there is no better way to die than being among the tribes of Israel. Death is a curse (Gen. 3:19), and death is an enemy (1 Cor. 15:25-26). And yet, the Bible also says that when a man puts on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’ (1 Cor. 15:54).
Balaam’s blessing is that all would die the “death up the upright,” that all might have his end (Num. 23:10). This is Jesus, the seed of the woman, the descendant of Eve, the seed of Abraham, who came to crush the seed of the serpent (Gen. 3:15). Jesus is the upright one, the Righteous One, and in His death, He crushed the head of the serpent, the devil. He destroyed his power by taking all the accusations he could bring against us and they were nailed to His cross, taking away the fear of death (Col. 2:14, Heb. 2:14). The death of the Upright Man took away the sting of death (the law and our guilt) so that it is only “sleep” for those in Him.
CONCLUSION: TAKING UP HIS CROSSES
The call to follow Jesus is the call to take up His cross. He calls us to die, but if we can see that summons from the tops of the mountains where Balaam prophesied, we can see that call to die with Him as the greatest honor, the greatest blessing. Jesus was born to die, so that we might die with Him, so that we might rise with Him.
It has been said that everyone wants to save the world, but no one wants to help mom do the dishes, which is just to say, the really hard part is choosing the right death. “Everyone dies, not everyone truly lives” is just another way of saying not everyone chooses the right death. You can lay your life down by helping with the dishes; you might also need to lay your life down to lead your family in cheerfully doing the chores. Your car might need fixing, but so might your five year old’s heart. You may be burdened with many cares, but have you considered that your cross may be to lay them down? This death is a blessing. Maybe not easy, but it’s always good.
Fundamentally the right death is the obedient death. Many of these deaths are straightforward (repent), but when it gets really gnarly, trust Christ our wise King who knows how to turn all things for our good. This is His story, and He knows the way out of every grave.