Balaam: A study in failure

This is Mr Ed, a talking horse.  A horse can't really talk, of course.  But a donkey did one time, to a man  named Balaam.

This is Mr Ed, a talking horse. A horse can’t really talk, of course. But a donkey did one time, to a man named Balaam.


The people of Israel also killed Balaam the magician, the son of Beor.  (Joshua 13:22  TLB)

That’s pretty severe treatment for a “magician!”  But Balaam was no David Copperfield; no sleight-of-hand artist was he.  He was not famous for conjuring bunny rabbits or sawing a woman in two.  Balaam, believe it not, was a one-time preacher!  So this verse is not merely a statement; it is a revelation of what happens when a servant of God ceases to be one.  It’s a striking example of what Jesus talked about:

If anyone separates from me, he is thrown away like a useless branch, withers, and is gathered into a pile with all the others and burned.  (John 15:6  TLB)

Who was this Balaam?  What do we know about him beyond his unfortunate end?  He is referred to numerous times in both Testaments, and not a lot of good things are said about him.  The apostle Paul wrote about people like Balaam:

They will betray their friends; they will be hotheaded, puffed up with pride, and prefer good times to worshiping God. They will go to church, yes, but they won’t really believe anything they hear. Don’t be taken in by people like that.  (2 Timothy 3:4, 5  TLB)

Balaam is a sort of enigmatic character, but we know enough about to learn some valuable lessons.

1.  Balaam’s character

(a)  God spoke directly to him

That night God came to Balaam and asked him, “Who are these men?” 

“They have come from King Balak of Moab,” he replied.  “The king says that a vast horde of people from Egypt has arrived at his border, and he wants me to go at once and curse them, in the hope that he can battle them successfully.”

 “Don’t do it!” God told him. “You are not to curse them, for I have blessed them!”  (Numbers 22:9—12  TLB)

Then Balaam said to the king, “Stand here by your burnt offerings and I will see if the Lord will meet me; and I will tell you what he says to me.” So he went up to a barren height, and God met him there. Balaam told the Lord, “I have prepared seven altars and have sacrificed a young bull and a ram on each.” Then the Lord gave Balaam a message for King Balak.  (Numbers 23:3—5  TLB)

What an awesome privilege it is to hear from God!  God spoke to this man and Balaam recognized the voice.  You might think that hearing the voice of God would be enough to convince anybody of the importance of continued faith in God.  Or that knowing the God of the universe is so intently interested in a person that He would stoop to talk to that person would be enough to bind his heart and soul to God forever.

But, we know that the Word of God did not bind Balaam to God.  Before you pass judgment, ask yourself what the Word of God does to you.  Sadly, for many Christians the Word of God is barely interesting.  They don’t let it get into their heart to change them.

(b)  He was a courageous preacher

Balaam replied, “I have come, but I have no power to say anything except what God tells me to say; and that is what I shall speak.”  (Numbers 22:38  TLB)

Now, this is a phenomenal thing for Balaam to say, and he was 100% right.  But what’s even more impressive is that he was standing up to Balak, who had just chided him for being late.

At this early point in Balaam’s service for God, we can see that he started the race well—he began on the right track.  He was preaching just like other genuine prophets of God, like Micaiah—

“This I vow, that I will say only what the Lord tells me to!”  (1 Kings 22:14  TLB)

(c)   He had the Word of God put in his mouth

Then the Lord gave Balaam a message for King Balak.  (Numbers 23:5  TLB)

In this, Balaam was in very good company.

Then he touched my mouth and said, “See, I have put my words in your mouth!”  (Jeremiah 1:9  TLB)

This was a great privilege, to have the Word of God put in you.  This privilege, by the way, is the privilege of all believers:

But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith which we preach): that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.  (Romans 10:8, 9  NKJV)

(d)  He had the right perspective, Numbers 23:18—24

This is Balaam’s first prophecy to Balak and it just overflows with magnificent and powerful statements about God’s character.  Everything Balaam said was spot on.  He had absolute perfect perspective on the character of his God.

Not only that, Balaam’s word of prophecy predicted the ultimate victory of Israel over its enemies, which was something Balak did not want to hear.

So, Balaam, had perspective and courage to speak the truth, no matter what.

(e)  He fellowshipped with God

Then Balaam said to the king, “Stand here by your burnt offerings and I will see if the Lord will meet me; and I will tell you what he says to me.” So he went up to a barren height, and God met him there.  (Numbers 23:3, 4a  TLB)

There are many Christians—perhaps most—who have never had this experience.  They seek it, they desire it, they have never lacked the faith, but they have never had this incredible experience where God actually “met them” as He did Balaam.

(f)  He proclaimed the faithfulness of God and was faithful

…even if you gave me a palace filled with silver and gold, I could not go beyond the words of Jehovah, and could not say a word of my own. I said that I would say only what Jehovah says!  (Numbers 24:13  TLB)

When Balaam had finished his message to Balak, to say that Balak was angry would be an understatement!

King Balak was livid with rage by now.  (Numbers 24:10a  TLB)

He advised the prophet to flee to the safety of his home.  It’s a testimony to the Balaam’s ability of persuasion that Balak actually credited the Lord in the situation.  But Balaam was firm in his resolve to remain faithful to God in spite of the fact that Balak had offered Balaam a tempting bribe.

(g)  He was moved by God

Then the Spirit of God came upon him…  (Numbers 24:2b  NKJV)

It’s undeniable that this happened to Balaam more than once.  It’s undeniable that Balaam was the recipient of a special providence whereby the Spirit of God came upon him so that his words and his life would have a singular, powerful anointing.

(h)  He wanted to die the death of the righteous

Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my end be like his!  (Numbers 23:10b  NKJV)

Well, he wanted to die righteous.  Noble, yes, but it’s not enough.  Balaam should have been concerned about how he lived, too.  From our brief survey of Balaam’s career, we have pointed out the high points.  The problem is, there are some terrible low points.  Because of those low points, however, he did not die the death of the righteous.

2.  Balaam’s guilt and failure

(a)  He tried to change the Word of God

Nobody can get away with this crime against God, especially one who knows better.  Here is what the Lord said:

Then King Balak of Moab started a war against Israel, and he asked Balaam, the son of Beor, to curse you.  But I wouldn’t listen to him. Instead I made him bless you; and so I delivered Israel from him.  (Joshua 24:9, 10  TLB)

There is a terrible implication in these verses.  It seems as though Balaam knew what God wanted to do, but instead Balaam wanted to do something else and he tried to get God to go along with him.  Fortunately for Israel, God would have nothing to do with Balaam’s dopey scheme.

A lot of Christians try to do this; they get an idea in their head and then try to persuade God to bless them in their endeavor.  God will only bless you if you are engaged in carrying out HIS endeavors.  The secret is to know and do God’s will.  Failure comes when you try to make your will come to pass without regard to what God wants.

(b)  He loved money

They have gone off the road and become lost like Balaam, the son of Beor, who fell in love with the money he could make by doing wrong…  (2 Peter 2:15  TLB)

Like Lot’s wife, Balaam would have liked the rewards of the righteous, but his heart was set on the gain of godlessness.  It has been rightly observed that the love of the heart determines the character of the life in the sight of God.  Yes, God looks at the heart and He knows what’s going on deep down inside.

(c)  He taught God’s people to sin

In his stinging indictment against the church at Pergamos, the Lord said this:

And yet I have a few things against you. You tolerate some among you who do as Balaam did when he taught Balak how to ruin the people of Israel by involving them in sexual sin and encouraging them to go to idol feasts.  (Revelation 2:14  TLB)

These are the very ones who followed Balaam’s advice and caused the people of Israel to worship idols on Mount Peor, and they are the cause of the plague that destroyed us.  (Numbers 31:16  TLB)

There is no greater charge that could be brought against a Christian than this one:  causing somebody else to sin.  Balaam, man of God, had done just that.  This single sin alone carried with it an awful consequence:

Now kill all the boys and all the women who have had sexual intercourse.  Only the little girls may live; you may keep them for yourselves.  (Numbers 31:17, 18  TLB)

This seems to be a pretty tough judgment and liberals love to use this verse to show the barbarity of Judaism and Christianity.  However, there was a real danger in allowing these boys and women to live.  These women caused the children of Israel to sin; they therefore could not be allowed to live, free to victimize the male population a second time.  To allow the male children to live, growing up in Israel, would have been to invite a national disaster.

(d)  He went back to his own home

So Balaam and Balak returned to their homes.   (Numbers 24:25  TLB)

Balaam went back from where he came.  God called him to serve, but in returning home, this prophet literally started digging his own grave and sealing his own doom.  It’s better to remain with the Lord than to “return home.”  It’s better to return to the Lord than to stay comfortably in your sin.

Had Balaam gone “full steam ahead” for God, there was no way he would have ever gone back home.

(e)  He did not die the death of the righteous

The people of Israel also killed Balaam the magician, the son of Beor.  (Joshua 13:22  TLB)

Why?  Well, Balaam, one time servant and prophet of God, had 9 strikes against him.

  • He abused his spiritual gifts.  This is a terrible sin.
  • He sought God’s power to get man’s money.  He valued spiritual gifts by their market value.
  • The love of money leads to a Christian to ruin.
  • Being untrue to your conscious leads to corrupt practices.
  • Christians like Balaam will be face real consequences in this world eventually.  You reap what you sow.
  • The enjoyment of sin doesn’t last long.
  • Possessing spiritual gifts is no guarantee that your life is right with God.
  • Christians who do not use their spiritual gifts for God will regret that.  In the end, their life will be nothing more than “what might have been.”
  • A believer who uses his gifts and position to advance sin and evil will NOT be numbered among the people of God.

Balaam stands as a good, though pathetic, example of one who knew God but refused to give God the place of authority in his life.



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