Thursday, May 29, 2008

Whose eye sees clearly (part one)

by John D Ramsey

From Kingdom in Context [1] Click here for part two of two

If you could hear the words of God, if you had knowledge of God and his purposes, and if you could see God, how differently would you live? Numbers 22 introduces us to one of the most bizarre characters of the Old Testament. Balaam was a prophet, “who [heard] the words of God, who [had] knowledge from the Most High, who [saw] a vision from the Almighty[2] Nevertheless, Balaam died and ignoble death because as Peter says, he “loved the wages of wickedness.”[3]

Before Israel entered into the Promised Land, they lingered near the land of Moab northwest of the Dead Sea along the Jordan River. This area at one time had belonged to Moab, but the Amorites had wrested control of it. When Israel approached this area, they had sent messengers to Sihon, the king of the Amorites asking permission to pass through his land. He denied them. Previously when Israel had been denied permission to pass through a land, they walked the long way around. Sihon not only denied them access, he sent his army out to destroy them. Israel fought back, defeated the Amorites, and took possession of their land.

In Numbers 21:29, Israel chided Moab, because the land north of the Arnon, which Moab lost to the Amorites, Israel had captured easily. If Moab was too weak to defend themselves against the Amorites, then they were no match for Israel. Og, the king of Bashon, also sent his army against Israel. His kingdom was not in Israel’s path, but he fought against them and they destroyed him and took possession of his land, as well.

Israel had already passed by Moab, but Balak the king of Moab was afraid. He sent for Balaam who lived far north of Moab on the Euphrates River in what is now Syria. Balaam was a prophet of God. Although Moab worshipped a deity they called Chemosh, Balak sent for Balaam because whom Balaam blessed was blessed, and whom Balaam cursed was cursed. God’s reputation through Balaam was powerful; consequently, Balak overlooked the local deities. In Israel’s chide against Moab, they also ridiculed the god Chemosh, saying, “He has given his sons as fugitives and his daughters into captivity.”[4] Balak knew his gods were powerless against Israel so he sought aid from the Almighty.

When Balak first sent representatives to Balaam, Balaam told them a partial truth. God had told Balaam two things: “Do not go with them” and “you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” Balaam told Balaks representatives, “Go back to your land, for the LORD has refused to let me go with you.”[5] This was true, but Balaam withheld the most important piece of information: Israel was blessed.

When Balak persisted in his request, Balaam inquired of God again, and God let Balaam go with the men. God warned Balaam that he must speak only the words God gave to him. God permitted Balaam to go, but he was angry with Balaam for asking. God sent his angel to stand in the path. Balaam's donkey balked, and Balaam abused her. Balaam was more stubborn than the beast. Balaam was in such a rage that when the donkey began speaking to him, he argued back. Finally, when God opened Balaam’s eyes and he saw the angel with a sword ready to strike him dead, Balaam confessed that he had sinned. Balaam still sought permission to continue on his journey and God let him go, warning him to speak only the words that God would give him.

Why would God be angry with Balaam? Balaam had sought the Lord’s permission before starting his journey. While Balaam knew that he could do only what God permitted, Balaam did not want what God wanted. Balaam wanted to please the princes of Moab for his own gain. Balaam represented God for profit. Later in 2 Kings 5, when Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, tried to profit from God's miracle, he was stricken with leprosy. Balaam was no Elisha. Elisha was concerned with God’s reputation. Balaam was concerned only with himself.

Why would God let Balaam proceed after blocking his way using an angel with a drawn sword? God was making it clear to him that Balaam was serving his own interests and not God’s. Balaam failed to want what God wanted; instead, he persisted in using his knowledge of God for his personal gain. Although the angel did not strike Balaam with the sword, Balaam eventually died by the sword. In Balaam's third oracle he describes himself as one "whose eye sees clearly" yet Balaam failed to see the long-term consequences of his actions.

Balaam had a distinct advantage over most men in history. God met with Balaam in visions. Balaam knew the power of God referring to him as the “Almighty”, yet Balaam loved the wages of wickedness and betrayal. How do we handle our knowledge of God? Believing that God exists is not enough. James tells us, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.”[6]

Balaam’s first oracle regarding Israel ends saying, “Let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his!”[7] Balaam’s own words prophesied the gift of God, yet he chose the wages of sin rather than the gift of eternal life. Balaam had knowledge, but he lacked faith. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”[8] Balaam knew God, and although he prophesied the words of God, he did not do the will of God. When we read about Balaam, we should examine our own relationship with the Almighty. Do we serve as Elisha did, or do we seek to be served as did Balaam.

[1] This discussion is taken from Kingdom in Context, a little weekly Bible study in which I take part.
[2] Numbers 24:16 (NIV)
[3] 2 Peter 2:15 (NIV)
[4] Numbers 21:29 (NIV)
[5] Numbers 22:12-13 (NASB)
[6] James 2:19 (NIV)
[7] Numbers 23:10 (NASB)
[8] Matthew 7:21 (NIV)

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