Strength for the Journey: “Message Discarded” – Numbers 23:1-26

Close up of a graduation cap and a certificate with a ribbonA young man graduated from high school in a very affluent area of California. His father was well to do, having made a fortune in the days of the high tech boom. He was a fine Christian man, and loved his son deeply. On graduation day, the youth found a small box on his bed, with a card attached. Anxiously, he opened the box and found in it a Bible, with a little note from his father. The boy was angry. He loved his dad, but he couldn’t believe that he only got a Bible for all the hard work he put in to graduate near the top of his class. As the day wore on, he saw his classmates and heard all about the great gifts their parents gave them – the list was filled with “over the top” items of cars, trips, boats and the like. The young man in our story became more enraged, upset that his father didn’t give him more. When he came home, he never spoke to his father. He threw the Bible on his desk, and never opened the attached card. Disgusted with his father’s cheap attitude, the next morning he blew up at breakfast and unloaded a piece of his mind, before he marched out the door to the sound of the honk of his friend and off to his job as a golf caddy. Later that same day he got a call that his father was rushed to the hospital with a heart attack, and was in critical condition – not expected to live. Stunned by the news, he rushed to the hospital, but not before his father was gone. Friends and family tried to comfort him, but by day’s end he sat again in his room, staring at the wrapping on desk, and the attached card. On the envelope it merely said: “To my son”. He opened the card. Taped within the card was a key and a note that said: “The Bible is the gift of God to every believer – it will help you get around. In the garage downstairs is a new car – it will help you get around as well. I am proud of you son. I love you very much. Dad.”

I don’t think anyone – the boy I just mentioned included – thinks he reacted in a right way. He clearly acted selfishly, and spoke on an entirely selfish impulse. Discarding the message without really reading and grasping what his father said was a critical mistake… but sadly it is not a RARE one. I believe his story highlights in my mind the way we respond to precious gifts, and I have in mind today the very special gift of God’s Word that the boy’s father knew was so very precious.

Key Principle: God’s Word is a gift to men – but only if we rightly receive it.

There are four common ways people respond to God’s Word. Some believe – they see what the content of the message truly reveals and they repent and respond with bowed knee. Yet, many do not. They often employ one of three other responses to the Word. Some cynically use it to make a point they formed without it – a form of manipulation of the truth. Others attempt to confuse people by offering the notion that it is all so subject to private interpretation it is impossible to know the truth. Still others reject the message outright – and just tell the one who clearly speaks God’s Word to shut up and leave them alone! These responses of rejection aren’t new in our post-modern world, Balak of Moab demonstrated the same three rejections thousands of years ago!

When we open to Numbers 23, we are entering a story, an already underway mini-series ticked into the Bible. In the last episode of the series (in Numbers 22), we encountered a Moabite chieftain named Balak and a prophet he brought in from Mesopotamia with a commission to curse Israel. That prophet was named Balaam. Balak had a demoralized army that needed encouragement, and he imported Balaam to prophesy a pre-conceived curse over Israel to help him bolster the spirits of the Moabites. Balaam came because though he was a prophet, he was not walking in obedience to God – so God met him on the way and confronted him with his own compromises. Balaam ended the last chapter as a repentant prophet. Now in Moab, he was repentant, but caught in the difficult situation of compromises caused by his earlier disobedient agreement to come to Moab. By the end of the last episode (chapter 22), Balaam observed Israel from a pagan high place – a place he never would have gone as a prophet of God, while his nostrils were filled with the smell of pagan sacrifices. Awakened from the stupor of his disobedience, Balaam now faced dealing with the results of his compromised life. Balaam had to keep going with his agreement, even though he knew that he shouldn’t be in the relationship. We drop into the scene with the two men talking to one another as we enter Numbers 23…

There were six steps in the story that lead us to the REACTION TO THE MESSAGE – which is the point of the whole study:

1: Religion: The believer, Balaam, made up the religious observance with something that seemed right (23:1).

Numbers 23:1 Then Balaam said to Balak, “Build seven altars for me here, and prepare seven bulls and seven rams for me here.”

In the absence of real relationship with God, the charade of religious practice still made sense to the manipulative chieftain Balak. Perhaps Balaam the seer believed that God would speak, but it is clear that the religious practice of the sacrifices, as far as Balak was concerned, was a mere set up for the manipulation of his people. The high cost of religion was a perfectly acceptable cost for a cynical power broker – and it still is. Beware of those who claim a relationship with God but do not walk as He has commanded – it is a clear sign they are using faith as a cloak to gain power or influence. This applies to individuals, but also to political parties and establishments. It is the singular reason the church must not be aligned with a single party – because she has too often been used.

Believers must be able to peer through the mere frequent mention of Jesus, God and Bible as the whole evaluation of a political figure’s true commitment to Jesus and His message. Don’t vote for someone because they quote the Bible, or claim to be a Christian. Christianity is more than a simple declaration – it is a relationship with the Living God through the sacrifice of Jesus. It is trusting in the completed work at Calvary – where Jesus died – as the full satisfaction of sin. That is the entry point to your walk with God. At the same time, not every action of a born again person reflects Jesus or Christianity. Christian thinking and Christian action are measurable against the text of Scripture. One who claims to be a believer but demonstrates little or no impulse to uphold the key principles of God’s Word may well be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The fact is that people have used religious words and God talk for millennia to gain political power – and our time is no different from the day Balak cynically did so years ago. Believers need to recognize that helping politicians USE religion to win voter confidence is a mistake on our part.

2: Mimickery: The unbeliever, Balak, mimicked the believer and offered to a God he did not truly serve – perhaps in order to appease this God on the “off chance” He was real – but surely to win the crowd over (23:2).

Numbers 23:2 Balak did just as Balaam had spoken, and Balak and Balaam offered up a bull and a ram on each altar.

The behavior of a believer in front of the world is incredibly important. Because unbelievers don’t know God, they don’t know how to relate to Him at all. In many cases, they take their cues from us. If we who know God enter a time of worship and do things in a haphazard way, the unbeliever in our midst will learn from us that worship and respect that do not reflect our true understanding of God.

Ponder this: What does it say about the importance we place on our worship if we don’t prepare both heart and body for it as though meeting corporately with God is something special? Would unbelievers observe your desire to be a part of the worship service and think that your time in worship is something that is “a) optional, b) important, or c) essential” to your faith? Is it possible that we have the right theology but may give the wrong “signals” to those who may observe our walk? It appears Balaam had Balak sacrifice alongside of him – when Balak had little or no respect for the God of Abraham. What cues did he learn from the believer in front of him?

3: Promise: The believer was now left with a new choice – speak with integrity what he knew was the truth, or go back to the lies that brought him into the camp.

Balaam claims he will seek God and bring a faithful message (something he failed to do in the last chapter). The question is: “After meeting God and repenting of his compromise, will he now faithfully represent Him?”

Numbers 23:3 Then Balaam said to Balak, “Stand beside your burnt offering, and I will go; perhaps the LORD will come to meet me, and whatever He shows me I will tell you.” So he went to a bare hill.

Balaam got away from the high place, and went to be alone with God. He told Balak to remain behind and tend to his altar while he got alone with God. What an important choice – to get alone and listen to God’s voice. Believers cannot be what we must in PUBLIC until we are what we must be in PRIVATE before the Lord.

4: Reflection: God met the prophet, and the prophet anxiously shared the size and nature of the offering he made.

Numbers 23:4 Now God met Balaam, and he said to Him, “I have set up the seven altars, and I have offered up a bull and a ram on each altar.”

This is not an uncommon thread in Scripture. Many times men who know God make up their minds what God would want – not based on any command of God. The absence of consistent obedience brings with it the absence of certainty about God’s direction in daily affairs. In cases like that, believers end up trying to talk God into their observance, as though He doesn’t know what pleases Him.

Balaam informed God of the number of altars and rams in an apparent desire to hear the Lord’s approval. The last time they met together, Balaam was chastised. This time he wanted to restart the discussion on a more positive note. There is no comment in the text from God about the rams or the altars – but God does use the Seer. How many religious practices have been created by men in place of simple obedience – and at what price? From the ram’s perspective it was not a good day at the worship center, and we don’t know if there was any particular need for their blood to be spilt at a worship celebration led by pagans for a cynical power grabbing exercise. What we can say with certainty is that Balaam, like any believer was UNCERTAIN he was doing right when he wasn’t following the expressed Word of God.

5: Revelation: God decided to share a word with Balaam in the situation, because God wanted to work a plan.

Numbers 23:5 Then the LORD put a word in Balaam’s mouth and said, “Return to Balak, and you shall speak thus.

Don’t get the idea that because “it worked” that God was somehow completely happy with how all this came to be. Pragmatism is the notion that because something worked it is a correct way to do it. That is very contemporary, but also very flawed thinking. Ask any mathematics teacher – the correct method of finding the sum is every bit as important as the correct sum itself. If one does something the wrong way and it works, it can cripple them from discovering the right way to do something. God constantly turns wrong into right when it serves His purpose to do so in the Bible. Though that is true, it doesn’t make the wrong way correct. The ability to recognize that truth – that God works in spite of men – is one of the key lessons that made the Patriarch Joseph a hopeful man in the midst of an unfair imprisonment.

Joseph said it this way:

Genesis 50:15 “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong which we did to him!” 16 So they sent [a message] to Joseph, saying, “Your father charged before he died, saying, 17 Thus you shall say to Joseph, “Please forgive, I beg you, the transgression of your brothers and their sin, for they did you wrong.”‘ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” And Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18 Then his brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” 19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid, for am I in God’s place? 20 “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. 21 “So therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.” So he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.

There is a special and deep lesson of encouragement that enters the heart of any believer that can see God’s loving hand in the course of life’s difficult and most unfair moments. Joseph clearly could. He know that when God wanted to work, He could act “in”, perhaps “through”, and always “in spite of” ungodly men and devious evil actions.

In spite of Balak’s cynicism, and Balaam’s earlier compromises, God was at work and spoke clearly. He can do that when He chooses. He needs no church, no choir, no special setting. God can clearly touch His creation on a bare hill on a hot and sunny day – and He did.

6: Proclamation: Balaam returned with a message from God. All eyes were trained on him.

Numbers 23:6 So he returned to him, and behold, he was standing beside his burnt offering, he and all the leaders of Moab. 7 He took up his discourse and said, “From Aram Balak has brought me, Moab’s king from the mountains of the East, Come curse Jacob for me, And come, denounce Israel!’ 8 “How shall I curse whom God has not cursed? And how can I denounce whom the LORD has not denounced? 9 “As I see him from the top of the rocks, And I look at him from the hills; Behold, a people [who] dwells apart, And will not be reckoned among the nations. 10 “Who can count the dust of Jacob, Or number the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the upright, And let my end be like his!”

It appears that when Balaam returned with his message, he held nothing back. It also appears that he may have thought this would be his last prophecy as a living prophet! His choice was clear – he would serve God faithfully now:

• He made clear that Balak brought him there to offer a prepared message of cursing and denunciation (23:7).

• He specified that God HAD spoken, and that God’s Word did not conform to what Balak wanted (23:8).

• He confirmed that God’s promises concerning Israel were true and secure (23:9-10).

• He pledged his desire to die and be recalled as a man of truth, rather than to celebrate a concocted message (23:10b).

The proper choice for the man of God is to speak the Word of God without apology. We must learn to speak with enormous love and true winsomeness – but we dare not prostitute the message of the Living One to become more acceptable to the crowd about us. Balaam admitted in his message that God had been faithful to His promises. Genesis 13 and 28 both promised to make a great nation out of Abraham’s children – and God did exactly that! How desperate we are in modern America to hear the unashamed voices of those who will “speak the truth in love”! It is easy to become hollow, and equally easy to sound harsh – we need NEW VOICES.

At this point in our lesson – the text changes direction. The tone of the relationship between Balak and Balaam shifts as Balak no longer controls the message of God for his own political purposes. His responses are three that should be familiar to believers today:

Three Ways Unbelievers Respond to the Clarity of God’s Word

First, some will try again to MANIPULATE the Word for their own purposes:

Balak revealed that he didn’t truly believe that God was at work at all – he cynically saw only TWO MEN at work here.

Numbers 23:11 Then Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, but behold, you have actually blessed them!”

The world is perfectly happy for us to have a Bible that we claim is truth – so long as it does not say anything that conflicts with their predetermined moral sense of “fairness” or “tolerance”. They don’t mind us hearing a message from “God” as long as He says affirming things, nice things, happy things, things that bless them and ordain future blessing for them. When we sing “God bless America” it is a harmless and sentimental tradition. When we call America to BLESS GOD by following His Word – it is restrictive, intolerant and wholly unloving. Why?

The bottom line is they don’t believe that God has truly spoken at all – the text is the mere record of some benevolent philanthropist “do-gooders” that were harmlessly spouting a meaningless set of rules in antiquity. Further, they aren’t really “on board” with the idea that even their Creator should have the right to tell them how to live! Americans increasingly want a benevolent God who brings prosperity – a “friends with benefits” view of the Almighty.

Here is a truth every modern western believer must recognize: The Bible is an entirely offensive book to a man or woman who desires to write their own moral code. It lays out the case for a Holy God and a rebellious mankind. Though it is clearly poised to offer the love and hope of salvation – one can only desire salvation if we first embraced our lost-ness, and that strikes at the heart of rationalist man’s self-reliance. In the end, if a man or woman truly believes there is a God in Heaven and they accept the Bible as His Word – they desire to become tuned to what God said concerning them. Sitting at the feet of the Sovereign One is not forced servitude – but a joyful act of worship. Conversely, if one sees the Bible merely as a good book by good men alone – they find fault with texts that seek to limit their responses to impulses to do as they like. The issue is both their fundamental belief in God’s existence and their trust in the veracity of the Biblical record.

Our lives really are, to a great extent, morally defined by our recognition or rejection of the first line of the Bible: “In the beginning God created the Heavens and the earth.” If we truly accept that the God of the Bible is our Creator, we are willing accept His right to direct and instruction His creation. In that hour the Bible becomes more than a tale of ancient men; it draws us to an understanding of the God who made us. If we do not believe He is Creator, we are free to create our own system of morality based on any principles that our heart desires – and many are doing just that. Even so, our culture is only recently emboldened to frame the Bible as evil. We should expect to see more of that in the future, and the Biblical definitions of right and wrong are seen as more offensive and intolerant. For the time being, we are still largely living with the manipulative use of the text – where one can claim that it is not true, but then argue that it is somehow essential to our system of morality. Political use of the Bible for such blatant manipulation is a farce – no matter who does it.

Balaam verbalizes the lesson of the believer who has faced God and been convicted – he cannot pretend that God is silent, unengaged, or malleable.

Numbers 23:12 He replied, “Must I not be careful to speak what the LORD puts in my mouth?”

In the face of manipulation, the believer falls back to the truth as presented and basically says: “Look, I didn’t write the stuff. I am here to report what God said – nothing more, nothing less!” Isn’t that a GREAT RESPONSE?

Second, some will try to REINTERPRET the Word of God –

…to get a reading more favorable to their own view: “Maybe you didn’t see things from the right angle! Look again!” Balak says.

Numbers 23:13 Then Balak said to him, “Please come with me to another place from where you may see them, although you will only see the extreme end of them and will not see all of them; and curse them for me from there.” 14 So he took him to the field of Zophim, to the top of Pisgah, and built seven altars and offered a bull and a ram on [each] altar.

Why go to all the trouble of rebuilding the altars? Why look in another direction when the LORD had spoken ever so clearly? It is simple. When people cannot refute the content of the Word of God – they quickly move to “Well, that is how YOU interpret the Bible!” The Word that was as clear as “NO, YOU CANNOT CURSE THEM!” somehow becomes so hard to interpret.

We see this all the time. People do gymnastics to the Bible to make it less clear than it is. Words like “Thou shalt not” or “It is an abomination before the Lord” become new statements like: “I am not sure you can be so clear, you know I have heard many other religious people say the Bible is too hard to interpret.

Let me direct here: The Bible has some passages that are poetic, and some that are symbolic – but they are not most of the content. Of the 1189 chapters in the English Bible, the overwhelming number of them can be understood at face value by a school child reading them. I am not saying the Spirit of God doesn’t give greater comprehension to the applications, but I am saying that Joseph’s color coat isn’t so hard to see when you read the story. Most of the text is a straightforward story – with little need to embrace years of seminary study. When Paul told Timothy and Titus how to act in their relationships with others, it was not deeply cryptic language.

Look at how Balaam humored Balak, perhaps because only one of them had a standing army that both could see on that hill…

15 And he said to Balak, “Stand here beside your burnt offering while I myself meet [the LORD] over there.” 16 Then the LORD met Balaam and put a word in his mouth and said, “Return to Balak, and thus you shall speak.” 17 He came to him, and behold, he was standing beside his burnt offering, and the leaders of Moab with him. And Balak said to him, “What has the LORD spoken?” 18 Then he took up his discourse and said, “Arise, O Balak, and hear; Give ear to me, O son of Zippor! 19 “God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good? 20 “Behold, I have received [a command] to bless; When He has blessed, then I cannot revoke it. 21 “He has not observed misfortune in Jacob; Nor has He seen trouble in Israel; The LORD his God is with him, And the shout of a king is among them. 22 “God brings them out of Egypt, He is for them like the horns of the wild ox. 23 “For there is no omen against Jacob, Nor is there any divination against Israel; At the proper time it shall be said to Jacob And to Israel, what God has done! 24 “Behold, a people rises like a lioness, And as a lion it lifts itself; It will not lie down until it devours the prey, And drinks the blood of the slain.”

Here is the fundamental problem with unbelievers using the Bible – they aren’t willing to see God as the One who is unmovable, and man as the one who must change. Balak wanted a change of message, so he claimed that a change of venue might help. Balaam wanted to make the point that no matter how Balak felt – God is God. He is not subject to the popular vote, or the shifting winds of human morality. If God says it is good and right – then it is, no matter what people think.

Oh that the church, so impacted by rationalism and so distracted by the bright lights of cultural fame, would learn that God is not worried about men’s agreement to His absolute rule over Creation….

Finally, when all else fails, some will just tell the believer to SHUT UP!

25 Then Balak said to Balaam, “Do not curse them at all nor bless them at all!” 26 But Balaam replied to Balak, “Did I not tell you, ‘Whatever the LORD speaks, that I must do’?”

There are four responses to God’s truth:

• The first is demonstrated by Balaam who confronted in disobedience, repented and chose to hear and obey God’s Word as delivered.

The next three are familiar to anyone who works in a secular world environment.

• There was Balak’s first response when he refused the truth and tried to manipulate in private the words spoken in public.

• The second response was to confuse the issue by suggesting it was merely a question of “interpretation” of the words – that Balaam had simply interpreted God’s words incorrectly and seen Israel from the wrong angle.

• The last was an open call to reject the words – a plea to cease offering the words if they will not be as desired.

God’s Word is a gift to men – but only if we rightly receive it.

The story isn’t finished yet, because Balak had invested a great deal in the scene and wasn’t ready to give up – but that is for our next lesson (in Numbers 23:27-30). Stay tuned!