‘Curse the Jews and I’ll pay you well’, said Balak, king of Moab, to Balaam, the prophet from Pethor. But every time Balaam opened his mouth to curse Israel he found himself speaking words of blessing, so he never got his fee for the job! God would not allow this mercenary prophet to harm his people, as they camped on the borders of Moab.
No change of mind
When Balak sent his princes to hire Balaam, God had clearly said to Balaam: ‘Do not go with them. You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed’(Numbers 22:12). Yet, this evil prophet tries his hardest to make God change his mind.
Firstly, when Balak sends more distinguished princes to secure his services, Balaam asks God to reconsider his decision (Numbers 22:19). But God will not alter his plans. And to make the point clear, God sends an armed angel and opens a donkey’s mouth to bring Balaam to his senses. But the prophet has set his heart on Balak’s wages rather than obeying God; money has become his god (Numbers 22: 21-35).
Secondly, when Balaam arrives in Moab, he and Balak offer sacrifices to God; perhaps they thought that this would persuade the Lord to let the prophet curse the Jews (Numbers 23:1-4).
After pronouncing a blessing on the Jews, contrary to his paymaster’s instructions, Balaam goes to a different vantage point and tries to curse some of the people. ‘I’ll settle for cursing a few tribes if I can’t curse them all’, reasons Balaam before offering yet more burnt sacrifices (Numbers 23:13-15).
Later, the determined prophet presents yet further offerings, but still God will not change his mind (Numbers 23:27-30). By the time we arrive at the opening of Numbers 24, Balaam has despaired of offerings and magic. Resigned to the knowledge that God will not change his mind, he speaks whatever words God puts into his mouth!
God works for good
What may we learn from Balaam’s attempt to make God change his mind? We learn that God cannot be manipulated because he‘is not a man’(Numbers 23:19). He is not obliged to do what we want, or perform when we demand. He is sovereign and works according to his own will and timetable (Ephesians 1:11).
However, the sovereign Lord always works for the good of his people. He would not allow Balaam to curse his chosen people. Neither will he allow anything in our lives which is not for our ultimate benefit.
We may say that Numbers chapters 22-24, which relate the story of Balaam and Balak, illustrate the familiar words of Romans 8:28: ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose’.
‘God is not a man … that he should change his mind,’declares Balaam correctly (Numbers 23:19). Yet there are times when the Lord does appear to alter his plans. An example is found in God’s rejection of Saul and his choice of David in his place. ‘I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions’, says God to Samuel (1 Samuel 15:11).
So had God made a mistake in commanding Samuel to anoint Saul? Was his selection of David a divine change of mind? Not at all! Some of God’s plans (like the appointment of Saul) are conditional, depending on man’s obedience; other divine plans (like the choice of David) are unconditional, depending only on his decrees. God knew from the beginning that Saul would disobey, but made him king nevertheless as an example of man’s perfidy and ingratitude. ‘When in Scripture God is said to repent, it does not mean any change of his mind, but only a change of his way’, comments Matthew Henry.
God does not lie
Through his futile attempt to curse the Jews, Balaam realised that ‘God is not a man that he should lie’(Numbers 23:19). God’s word is always reliable; he is altogether trustworthy. Therefore we should believe what he says in the Bible, and amend our ways to conform to his commands. Furthermore, God never breaks his promises, neither does he fail to carry out his threats.
To be told that God does not lie, and still not obey his word or believe his promises, is tantamount to calling him a liar! The apostle John writes forthrightly: ‘If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives’, and again: ‘Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son’ (1 John 1:10; 5:10).
God forgives sinners
Reading Numbers 23:19-20 we might picture God as austere and unbending. But verse 21 presents to us a God who delights to show mercy. Verses 19-20 teach us how we ought to think about God, whereas verse 21 tells us what God thinks about believers.
We are told: ‘He has not observed iniquity in Jacob, nor has he seen wickedness in Israel’ (Numbers 23:21; NKJV). It seems incredible that God should look at his people and see no sin. How often the Jews had grumbled against God and his servant Moses! And God had often punished them for their rebellion.
Is this another example of a divine change of mind — one moment he is angry and the next moment he is smiling? No, because among the rebels were God’s true people who trusted him for pardon and who desired to obey him. God looked at them with eyes of forgiving love.
There is a delightful verse in Isaiah which throws light on Numbers 23:21: ‘He has clothed me with the garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness’ (Isaiah 61:10). It is because God has cleansed his people that he can look upon them as without sin.
Turning to the New Testament we learn that a robe of righteousnesscovers us because of Christ’s perfect life and atoning death. He lived a perfect life as our representative. He took the punishment we deserve when he died in our place on the cross. Consequently, when God looks at his people he does not see their sins but only the perfect righteousness of Christ.
God speaks through sinful people
The Lord spoke through Balaam, ‘who loved the wages of wickedness’ (2 Peter 2:15). That should reassure us that he can speak through us who love Christ, in spite of our sin and imperfection!
But if we are to speak consistently on God’s behalf, we need more than the right theology of God (Balaam had that). We must have an experience of his saving grace and sanctifying power in our lives, so that we serve the Lord sincerely and effectively.
Then the same Holy Spirit who came on Balaam temporarily, but then departed, will enable us permanently and consistently to do his will. If we are true followers of Christ, the Spirit of Christ lives in us and equips us to serve the unchanging God