The prepared text of today’s Reign of Christ Sunday sermon at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York, is below. The sermon audio by this donkey prophet is available from this link. For Advent, we will be looking at the next four passages in Numbers. These passages each contain an oracle of blessing upon God’s people. The four passages are as follows: Numbers 23:1-12, 23:13-26, 23:27-24:13, 24:14-25. My commentary on this portion of Numbers is available at this link.
Last Sunday we looked at the first half of this chapter. We met the elders of Moab whose catastrophizing convinced the elders of Midian to make an alliance with their nation against the Hebrew “horde” that had taken possession of the land next to them. We specifically met Balak, the son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time. Balak completely believed the catastrophizing—that is, he assumed that the people of Israel were there to destroy his people next. We remember how the Pharaoh of Egypt enslaved and then ordered the infanticide of Hebrew baby boys because the Hebrew people were so numerous that he was afraid they would revolt against him. Now Balak and the elders of his nation were afraid because of the large number of Hebrew people. They were afraid that Israel would easily overcome them. So Balak sent for Balaam, the son of Beor, at Pethor, who we met when the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian came to Pethor with the fees of divination in their hand. Balak wanted Balaam to come to Moab and curse Israel so that they would be able to preemptively attack Israel and defeat them. But the God of Israel wasn’t willing to let Balaam go with them to curse Israel. Then we met Balaam again when Balak sent princes with more money to try again to convince him to come and curse Israel. And even though YHWH was clear the first time, Balaam tried to change His mind to let him go to Moab to curse Israel. YHWH still didn’t want Balaam to go and YHWH wouldn’t change His mind about cursing Israel. But Balaam, the prophet, got up in the morning and went with the princes without explanation. By not saying anything, Balaam gave the princes the impression that YHWH was now agreeable with Balaam going to Moab to curse Israel. It isn’t like Balaam said, ‘Well I can come because you’re call is more important to me than the call of YHWH, but I still can only do what YHWH says and He is clear on the subject that Israel is blessed and not cursed.’ So Balaam, a renowed seer, is headed on the road with these princes to Moab.
The God of Israel does not sit idly-by while the princes of this world and their prophets want to curse those who trust Him.
When the nations assemble to fight us and the people plot against us, Psalm 2:4 says, “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.” It isn’t hard to imagine that every time the one sitting in the heavens tells us this story, He is laughing and invites us to laugh with Him (cf. Psa 2:4). He made a mockery of Balaam in this passage. Balaam, the renowned seer—a man who could interpret dreams and visions, the kind of person who might look at the palm of your hand and see your future, the kind of person who might see the future of kings in the stars in the sky, the kind of person who might see and speak with the dead—Balaam, the seer, was blind to the Spiritual reality in front of him. Three times—the number not being accidental—three times, the angel of YHWH stood before him in the road with a drawn sword in his hand. And three times, Balaam struck the donkey who saved his life. Each time, the stakes were raised. The first time, the donkey was able to turn aside out of the road and into the field. The second time, the angel of YHWH was standing in a narrow path between vineyards with a wall on either side and the donkey was able to squeeze by on the side by pushing against the wall but it hurt Balaam’s foot. The third time, there was nowhere for the donkey to turn so she laid down under Balaam. And this time Balaam was especially angry when he struck the donkey with his staff. This renowed seer didn’t know what to make of this. He didn’t understand what was happening. He felt like the donkey was making a fool of him. And as we’re laughing at how a donkey was speaking to him, he wished that he could put her to death. Balaam was powerless to curse her or carry out his threats against her. But the donkey was able to see the angel of the Lord with a drawn sword in His hand. The donkey was able to speak words of wisdom, “Am I not your donkey, on which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Is it my habit to treat you this way?” (Num 22:30). I, myself, wonder what the princes of Moab and Midian made of all of this. They might not have been able to hear the donkey speak or see the angel of YHWH in the road but they see the donkey doing this seemingly erratic behavior and Balaam speaking to it. (Indeed, it was not the donkey that made a fool of Balaam—YHWH had made a fool of him.)
YHWH showed Balaam that he would be God’s to command. This was the theme that keeps coming up in the story of Balaam but a theme that is easy for us to miss. The first time Balak sent people to call Balaam to curse Israel, YHWH asked him, “Who are these men with you?” (Num 22:9). In other words, YHWH was asking what authority these men have to call upon Balaam to bless or to curse Israel. The second time Balak sent people to call Balaam to curse Israel, YHWH said, “If the men have come to call you, rise, go with them; but only do what I tell you.” (Num 22:20). In other words, YHWH was saying, ‘Are they the ones summoning you? Or do you serve YHWH?’ And Balaam probably interprets YHWH’s words as meaning, ‘If the money is really more important to you than obeying me, then go ahead with these princes but you still won’t be able to curse Israel.’ The point is that only YHWH has the authority to call Balaam to go bless or to go curse Israel. Balaam finally understood this in the encounter with the angel of YHWH. He said, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you stood in the road against me.” (Num 22:34). We get a little closer to the Hebrew meaning if we say, “I did not realize you stood in the road to call me.” It is the same verb that YHWH had used saying, “If the men have come to call you.” Since Balaam now understands that he answers to YHWH’s call and not to Balak’s call, YHWH let him go to Balak. And when Balaam arrived, Balak asked Balaam, “Did I not send to you to call you? Why did you not come to me?” “Am I not able to honor you?” And Balaam answered with what he should have said all along—you don’t have the authority to call me and I can only say what YHWH gives me to say. Instead of saying, ‘You called and I am here,’ he said, “Behold, I have come to you.” He doesn’t seem very happy about only being able to say what YHWH puts in his mouth, but he knows that he doesn’t have a choice—if YHWH called him, then it is YHWH’s words that he must speak. (God wasn’t about to let this pagan prophet curse those who trust Him—nor will God allow any witch or Satan worshiper or sorcerer or whatever to curse you in Christ Jesus.)
The God who powerfully spoke at creation and “it was so” is powerfully pronouncing you blessed in Christ Jesus.
The angel of YHWH is not our adversary standing in front of us with a sword in His hand ready to strike us down. YHWH’s angel could have done that to Paul when he was on the road to Damascus. You may remember that when Paul, better known those days as Saul, breathing threats and murder against the disciples of Jesus was on the road to Damascus suddenly a light from heaven shown around him and he fell to the ground hearing a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And Saul replied, “Who are you Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” Meanwhile the men who were with him were speechless, because they heard the voice but they didn’t see anyone (Acts 9:1-7). Paul deserved to be struck down by the angel of YHWH. He didn’t know the Lord. That is, he wasn’t in a saving relationship with the Lord Jesus. He was persecuting the disciples of Jesus and thus persecuting Jesus Himself. “But God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” (Rom 5:8) as Paul would later write to the Christians at Rome. Remember when Adam and Eve were driven out of the garden? God placed “cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life” (Gen 3:24). Think of it this way, the angel of YHWH stood with a sword guarding the way to the tree of life. So why is it then that the angel of YHWH isn’t our adversary standing in front of us with a sword in His hand ready to strike us down? We are in the wilderness—on our way to the Promised Land—why is it that the angel of YHWH isn’t standing in our way to put us to death to keep us from reaching our destination? It is because Jesus Christ died for us. The sword of the angel of YHWH struck down Christ on the cross. Thus instead of striking us down, that sword circumcised our hearts so that He isn’t our adversary any longer.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, we know we are under God’s blessing rather than His wrath and curse as we journey through this present wilderness. No one can persuade our God to prophetically curse us. In this present evil-age, He may allow others to take away our food, our water, our homes, our children, and even our own lives. But no one can manipulate our God into causing us Spiritual harm and catastrophe—no one can manipulate our God into changing His mind regarding our everlasting salvation and throw us into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur (cf. Rev 19:20, 20:10, 14-15). Well-known throughout much of the ANE for manipulating the gods to pronounce blessings and curses on people and nations for profit, that famous prophet Balaam never personally moved from being under God’s wrath and curse to being under God’s blessing. Balaam was saved from death that day by a donkey, but Balaam never put His faith in YHWH. Indeed, we read later in Numbers that Balaam died for his sins. Nevertheless, first, YHWH would use this pagan prophet to pronounce a powerful blessing upon the people of Israel. Yes, this text demonstrates that He could’ve used a donkey to do that. Speaking of which, the donkey is another good reminder that we ought not to think very highly of Balaam. And yet, for all of us who have moved from God’s wrath to grace by the gift of faith in Jesus Christ, God will only allow us to be powerfully pronounced blessed. No donkey-politician or donkey-prophet can do otherwise. Indeed, you hear and experience a powerful blessing pronounced upon you by this donkey-prophet in front of you each Sunday. That a donkey could do it is a reminder to us pastors that we ought not to think very highly of ourselves and a reminder to all of us not to put our pastors up on pedestals in our minds. But in any case, it isn’t the righteousness of the pastor or the reputation of the pastor or even the faith of the pastor that makes the pronouncement of God’s blessing powerful nor does a pastor’s lack of righteousness, reputation, or faith matter. He or she is merely the donkey-prophet through whom God powerfully speaks to bless you. May God always get all of the glory and may He continue to powerfully speak through you to bless others as He makes all things new. Amen.