When Balak sent for Balaam to come and curse the children of Israel, God clearly stated, ‘Thou shalt not go with them; thou shall not curse the people: for they are blessed’, Num. 22. 12. Nothing could have been more definite, but Balaam coveted the rewards Balak promised to give him, and so, despite his earlier refusal, Balaam finally came. It seems that on the part of Balak there was a mixed feeling of relief that Balaam had come, and yet some annoyance that he had not come earlier. That Balak was relieved when Balaam arrived is suggested by the fact that he went out to meet him personally; that he was irritated by the delay is echoed in his words of reproof in verses 36 and 37.
In response, Balaam said, ‘Lo, I am come unto thee: have I now any power at all to say any thing? the word that God putteth in my mouth, that shall I speak’, v. 38. The experience with the ass had certainly made an impact upon Balaam, and his words to Balak suggest that, as much as he might resent it, the lesson of the ass had in some measure been learned; he could but declare what God would give to him. In 2 Peter chapter 1 verse 21, the apostle, speaking of the divine inspiration of the scriptures, says, ‘the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost’. Balaam was not numbered among that company of ‘holy men of God’ and yet his messages were certainly not of ‘the will of man’ but divinely inspired. Prior to Balaam taking up his third parable, we are specifically told, ‘Balaam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel abidingin his tents according to their tribes; and the spirit of God came upon him’, Num. 24. 2. While there is no earlier reference to the Holy Spirit coming upon Balaam, we have no room to doubt that the preceding two parables were no less divinely inspired and no less authoritative.
It seems likely that, following Balaam’s arrival, Balak held a feast in honour of his guest. Placing Balaam among his princes, Balak offered sacrifices of oxen and sheep, sending portions to Balaam and to the princes that were with him, 22. 40. But to whom were the sacrifices offered? In the next verse we have the first mention in scripture of ‘the high places of Baal’, the chief male deity of the Phoenicians and the Canaanites, and, though not specifically stated, one assumes (though some disagree!) that it was to Baal the sacrifices were devoted. But for what purpose? The very next day they are going to get down to the business in hand, and it seems that, in the evening before, Balak offers sacrifices to his god as a supplication for success in the venture before them. Behind the idol there is demonic activity; thus, an attempt to engage the power of Satan to curse the people of God.1
From this point, events move very quickly: ‘it came to pass on the morrow, that Balak took Balaam, and brought him up into the high places of Baal, that thence he might see the utmost part of the people’, 22. 41. The word ‘utmost’ has the idea of ‘the extremity, the end’ and we have reason to think that Balak was anxious to keep Balaam from seeing the whole camp, but instead only a part of it. After all, he didn’t want Balaam to be too impressed with the size and appearance of the people he had been called to curse! In his first parable, Balaam speaks of the ‘fourth part of Israel’, perhaps suggesting that was all he could see of Israel’s camp at that moment.2
Numbers chapter 23 opens with Balaam’s request, ‘Build me here seven altars, and prepare me here seven oxen and seven rams. And Balak did as Balaam had spoken’. But, again, we must ask to whom were the sacrifices offered? It appears not now to Baal but Jehovah, whom Balaam had earlier called, ‘the Lord my God’.3 It could be that the building of seven altars reflected heathen practice, but we suggested in the first article that Balaam had some knowledge of the God of Israel and, perhaps, some concept of the sacred significance attached to the number seven in the worship of Jehovah, and so this was an attempt to propitiate Jehovah. As the smoke ascends, Balak is directed to ‘stand by’ his offering in the position of a suppliant, while Balaam says, ‘I will go: peradventure the Lord [Jehovah] will come to meet me’. In what way did he expect the Lord to meet him? Balaam practised divination; he was going forth not expecting to meet the Lord personally but to seek ‘enchantments’. That is evident from the opening verse of chapter 24, where, prior to Balaam’s third parable, we are told, ‘he went not, as at other times, to seek for enchantments’. As chapter 23 opens, this is one of those ‘other times’. From a high vantage point he sought to view, perhaps, the movement of the clouds, the flight of the birds, something he could view as a manifestation of Jehovah in the phenomena of nature that he could take as an omen of forthcoming events. The offerings were to Jehovah, but presented from what location? From ‘the high places of Baal’. It was virtually an attempt to combine heathenism and monotheism and to eliminate the distance between them.4
In our day the attempts are more refined, so we hear of ‘multi-faith services’, associating the name of God and prayers to God with systems and faiths that disregard God’s word, and fail to give to the Lord Jesus Christ the pre-eminence that is His due. But surely, ‘the high places of Baal’ would be a favourable location if a person wanted to curse the people of God; certainly, Balak thought so. But whatever means might be sought, whether the wisdom of men or the wiles of the devil, whatever the location even, though a centre of demonic idol worship, nothing could frustrate the counsel or purpose of God. Every attempt Balak and Balaam made to curse the people only served to manifest further the love and grace of God for His people and His determination to bless them. The children of Israel had nothing to say or do in the matter. In fact, they were oblivious to what was being proposed. It was simply a question of whether their adversaries could prevail to curse those whom God had blessed.
Although Balaam set out to seek enchantments, God (Elohim) met him, Num. 23. 4. But, in verse 5, the ‘Lord’ (Jehovah) put a word into his mouth, the word of the faithful covenant-keeping God respecting His people, and verses 7 to 10 record the first of Balaam’s seven parables. The parable is in a familiar Hebrew poetic form, consisting of fourteen statements that divide into seven couplets, each key thought being embodied in two sentences.5 The first couplet is: ‘Balak the king of Moab hath brought me from Aram’; ‘out of the mountains of the east’. The second couplet is: ‘come, curse me Jacob’; ‘come, defy Israel’. The specific focus of the first parable is Israel’s distinctive position in divine purpose amongst the nations.
Balaam began by reiterating the commission given to him, ‘Come, curse me Jacob, and come, defy Israel’. The word ‘curse’, as we previously noted, has the idea ‘to bind’, so as to immobilize them and render them powerless in face of attack. The word ‘defy’ denotes, literally, ‘to foam at the mouth’, in the sense of ‘to be enraged against, to angrily threaten’.
Responding directly to the commission, Balaam says two things. First, ‘How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed?’ v. 8. Second, ‘or how shall I defy, whom the Lord hath not defied?’ v. 8. However wayward Israel had been in the wilderness, no divine curse had been laid upon them. There was no foundation upon which Balaam could build. It is interesting that he says, ‘whom God [Heb. Elohim, the mighty God, the God of power] hath not cursed’, then, ‘whom the Lord [Heb. Jehovah, the faithful covenant-keeping God, the God of promise] hath not defied’. They were a people protected on that two-fold basis – divine power and divine promise. The journey of Balaam had been futile, the objective of the journey impossible. The prophet Isaiah would later write, ‘No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is of me, saith the Lord’, Isa. 54. 17. If that was so for Israel, it is no less true for believers today. Paul says, ‘If God be for us who can be against us … Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us’, Rom. 8. 31-37.