AN EXPOSITION OF NUMBERS 22:21-35
21 And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab.
In the year 1401 BC, the Israelites were encamped in the Plain of Moab. Having been delivered from Egypt, the Land of Bondage, the Hebrew people were on their way to the Land of Promise until they complained to the Lord, who placed everyone twenty years of age and over under the sin unto death, and forced the Israelites to wander in the dessert for forty years.
Their wilderness journey brought them into contact with Balak, the king of Moab who united with the Midianites to drive the Israelites away. To ensure their departure, and to diminish their size and strength, Balak hired Balaam to curse the Israelites for money.
How this came to pass is uncertain, for Balaam originally lived in Pethor, a city of Mesopotamia. However, Balaam possessed some knowledge of the true God, and became known as a prophet. Balaam gave honor to the Lord for his prophetic gifts. Unfortunately, Balaam made the Lord angry, because he used his spiritual gift for personal profit.
22 And God’s anger was kindled because he went: and the angel of the LORD stood in the way for an adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him.
When the Bible speaks of “God’s anger”, the language is that of anthropopathism, or ascribing human emotions to God so that we can understand His essence. In His innermost being, God is not in constant turmoil and agitation, but the language of anthropopathism helps us to understand what happened to Balaam. God is the very essence of peace, but when He deals with some individuals, it is though He is angry because of the things they do. What Balaam did was to go with the princes of Moab, because Balak, the king of Moab, had hired him for a nefarious purpose, and that was to speak against the Hebrew people.
On his journey with the princes of Moab, suddenly, the Angel of the LORD stood in the path Balaam travelled. The Angel of the LORD stood in the path as an adversary against him.
Who was this Angel of the LORD?
The Angel of the LORD is presented in Scripture as a mysterious messenger of God. Sometimes He is described as the LORD Himself (Gen. 16:10-13; Ex. 3:2-6; 23:20; Judges 6:11-18).Sometimes the Angel of the LORD is simply a heavenly messenger sent by God. The LORD used this messenger to appear to individuals for special purposes. Here, the Angel of the LORD was sent to arrest the madness of the prophet.
The larger application is that when the Lord comes to us, we do not want Him to appear as our Adversary. There are far better ways for the Lord to come to be with His people.
Christ and His People
The Lord may come as the Bridegroom to be with His Bride.
The Lord may come as the Head of His body to be with His Members.
The Lord may come as the Great Physician to heal His Patients.
The Lord may come as the Chief Advocate to plead for His Clients.
The Lord may come as the Good Shepherd to guide His Sheep.
The Lord may come as the Master Rabbi to teach His Disciples.
When the Angel of the LORD appeared on the path travelled by Balaam, two servants were with him. It did not matter. The LORD had a controversy with Balaam, and was determined to communicate the message to him. So, the LORD stood in the path to keep His promise to Israel. “I will be an enemy to thy enemies” (Exodus 23:22). What a comfort that is to the Church in every generation. God is on our side. Holy Angels will guard us. When the enemy comes in like a flood the Spirit of the Lord will lift up a standard against him.
23 And the ass saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field: and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way.
Additional information is given about the Angel of the LORD standing in the way. In His hand was a drawn sword, indicating a readiness for combat. Perhaps it was a flaming sword, like that in the hands of the cherubim guarding the Tree of Life (Gen. 3:24), turning every way. Certainly, in the hands of the Angel of the LORD the drawn sword was an effective weapon of warfare. It would accomplish whatever objective it was put to. It would cut or kill accordingly.
First to see the Angel of the LORD with the drawn sword was the donkey. Balaam would later boast that he was a man whose eyes were open, and that he saw the visions of the Almighty (Num. 24:3,4). The truth of the matter was that Balaam was a false prophet whose “eyes were blinded with covetousness and ambition and dazzled with the rewards of divination!” (Matthew Henry). Well would Isaiah one day say, “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider” (Isaiah 1:3).
Startled by the presence of the Angel of the LORD, the ass bolted and ran into a field, which startled Balaam. The prophet began to beat the animal to turn her back onto the path. It was to no avail.
In his anger against his animal, Balaam is like every sinner who is determined to do wrong, and becomes enraged with anyone and anything that would prevent their actions.
24 But the angel of the LORD stood in a path of the vineyards, a wall being on this side, and a wall on that side.
25 And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall: and he smote her again.
In the attempt to avoid the Angel of the LORD, the ass threw herself against a wall and crushed the foot of Balaam. A person’s wrong actions will always hurt them, but it does not matter. They will press on in the sinful madness. In his pain and anger, Balaam again struck the animal with greater force and fury than before.
26 And the angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left.
27 And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff.
The contest between the wayward prophet, the alarmed animal, and the Angel of the LORD continued. Movement continued until there was a narrow place where there was no way to pass onward. Realizing that, the ass crumbled beneath Balaam and bowed as it were to the presence of the Angel of the LORD. This action aroused the anger of Balaam who smote the donkey for the third time. And then a miracle took place. The donkey began to speak.
The idea of a talking donkey is no more amazing than a talking parrot, or, for that matter, a talking human. Who has made humans, with the same bodily elements of stardust, to speak, but God? It is true. The crucial elements for life on Earth, often called the building blocks of life: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur are found in the stars. Only God can add life to the crucial elements of life. One day God made a donkey speak, to remind people that He controls nature. He is sovereign of every situation. And He can rebuke the madness of a wayward prophet.
28 And the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?
In the delightful TV series, Mr. Ed (1958 – 1966), the opening song asked, “What do you say to a talking horse?” That is the situation here. The ass asked Balaam, “What have I done unto you that you should beat me three times?” What do you say to a talking donkey? Amazingly enough, Balaam took the moment in stride and replied to the animal to justify the violence against it.
29 And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.
So enraged was Balaam that he not only answered the animal, but confessed he wished he had a sword in his hand to kill it on the spot.
30 And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? And he said, Nay.
In an attempt to reason with the anger of Balaam, the ass had a final question to ask. It was a rhetorical question that demanded a negative answer. “Balaam,” said the donkey, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”(NIV) In honesty, Balaam answered correctly. “No.” It was at this point that the LORD, opened the eyes of Balaam so that he too saw the Angel of the LORD.
31 Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face.
The ability to see the LORD is a divine undertaking. The Natural Man has no spiritual capacity. “I admit fully”, said Bishop J. C. Ryle, “that man has many grand and noble faculties left about him, and that in arts and sciences and literature he shows immense capacity. But the fact still remains that in spiritual things—he is utterly “dead” and has no natural knowledge, or love, or fear of God” (J. C. Ryle).
God must open the eyes of men to spiritual truth concerning sin, righteousness, and the judgment to come. If God does not open blind eyes, individuals will be left in darkness, and doomed to a black eternity.
When God does open eyes to the LORD, individuals bow down their heads, and fall flat on their faces.
32 And the angel of the LORD said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me:
33 And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me, surely now also I had slain thee, and saved her alive.
34 And Balaam said unto the angel of the LORD, I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me: now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back again.
35 And the angel of the LORD said unto Balaam, Go with the men: but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak. So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.
Having seen the angel of the LORD, Balaam agreed to speak only what God permitted him to speak.
In the narrative that followed this moment, the Bible reveals that Balaam tried to speak against Israel three times, and three times his cursing was turned to words of blessing with magnificent prophecies (Num. 24:17).
Realizing that he could not curse the Israelites, Balaam suggested that the Israelites be led into acts of sexual immorality (Num. 31:16). The results are recorded in Numbers 25.
Life did not end well for Balaam. He was killed in battle when he sided with the Midianites against the Israelites (Num. 31:8).
The centuries passed, but the evil which Balaam did, has not been forgotten. What a terrible legacy Balaam has left in history.
In the New Testament the Church is warned about the Error of Balaam, or trying to make merchandise of God’s people (Jude 11).
The Church is told about the Way of Balaam, or the great sin of simony, whereby the gifts of God are commercialized (2 Peter 2:15).
The Church is instructed not to embrace the Doctrine of Balaam, or the abandonment of godly separation in favor of worldly conformity. Balaam taught Balak to corrupt people he could not curse, by encouraging them to marry Moabite women, and so commit spiritual fornication.
These important lessons must not be forgotten today.