The Lord’s Day Evening
November 11, 2007
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. Please be seated. We began our study in the story of Balak and Balaam and Israel last Lord’s Day evening. It is a dramatic story. It is the story of God’s sovereign care over His people. Even as their enemies seek to avail themselves of supernatural powers to bring down curse and destruction on the people of God, God manifests His sovereignty.
What’s the message of the part of this story that we studied last week? We really only focused on one of at least four great lessons that are found in Numbers 22:1-21, so allow me…indulge me…allow me to give you those four messages — at least four messages — that we find in that passage.
The first lesson that we learn in Numbers 22:1-21 is that God is sovereign. We’ve been singing about that all night. Did you notice? Have I been subtle enough in the hymns that I’ve been choosing? We’ve been singing about the sovereignty of God over and over and over in every which way in the songs that we’ve sung tonight. That’s one of the great lessons of this passage. Kings may attempt to resist God; they may resort to supernatural powers and to the dark arts of sorcerers, but to no avail. God is sovereign. He is inexhaustibly sovereign. He is undefeatably sovereign. He is sovereign. That is the message we meet in verses 1-7 of Numbers 22.
But there’s a second lesson, and this is the one that we dwelt on the few minutes that we had to dwell on it. I think my introduction was thirty minutes and the sermon was five minutes last week! So in the five-minute-one-point sermon, this was the lesson that we dwelt on: No one can thwart the blessing of God.
In Genesis 12:1-3, the Lord had promised Abraham and his spiritual descendents that He would make them a great nation, that He would bless them, make their name great, that He would make them a blessing. And then He said, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you, I will curse.” So when you come to verses 5-6 of Numbers 22 (go ahead an allow your eyes to look)…when you come to verses 5-6, the minute that you hear king Balak say to Balaam in verses 5-6, “Come now, curse this people for me…for I know that he whom you blessed is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed,” you know that a contest is on. Because God said that He’s blessed this people, and now a pagan king is calling on a sorcerer of the dark arts to curse them. You know a contest is on. Already in your ears is ringing the remembrance of Moses’ stories to you about the contest between God and Pharaoh, and you remember who won! And you know the minute that those verses are out of Moses’ mouth that a contest is on in Numbers 22, and it will be about who is sovereign. And you know who’s going to win. You remember the words of the psalmist, Psalm 109:29: “Let them curse, but You will bless.” That’s what you learn in Numbers 22:5-6. No one can thwart the blessing of God. When God sets His saving blessing on His people, nothing can thwart it. No power of hell, no scheme of man can ever pluck you from His hand. Nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ: not death or life, or angels, or rulers, or things present or things to come, or powers or principalities, or height or depth, or any other thing in creation can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. When God has blessed, no one can thwart it. No one can thwart the blessing of God. That’s the second lesson that we learned in Numbers 22:1-21.
The third lesson that we learn is this: God is sovereign over the nations. He’s not just sovereign in Israel, and then outside of Israel that’s up for debate. And He is not just sovereign over true prophets, He is sovereign over false prophets.
So the third lesson of Numbers 22:1-21 is that God is sovereign over the nations, and even over false prophets. The minute we hear Balaam say in verse 8 (go ahead and look at verse 8)…the minute we hear Balaam say in verse 8, in response to the emissaries who have been sent by king Balak, ‘Well, stay here tonight and I’ll bring word back to you as the Lord speaks to me’; the minute we hear this pagan prophet say, ‘Well, hold on. Let me go check with the God of Israel and see if it would be OK for me to curse His people’; the minute we hear him say that, we realize that Moses is showing us the sovereignty of God. He is demonstrating the rule of God to Israel by showing them that even pagan false prophets have to check with Him before they attempt to deliver a curse on Israel. It kind of reminds you of Job 1 and 2, doesn’t it?
‘Satan, have you considered my servant Job?’
‘Well, now that You mention it, I have noticed him. I’d like to curse him and show You that he doesn’t really love You.’
‘You may go do so, but you may not touch his body.’
God is even constraining the activities of Satan. The point again here: God is sovereign over the nation, and even over the false prophets. That’s the point of Numbers 22:8, 12.
Fourth lesson: God uses even the wrath of man for His own praise and glory. [Hold on one second. I’m going to turn around and see if there’s anybody near a keyboard. Can you be ready to give me an A in just a minute? Thank you! (There’s a method to that madness!)] God uses even the wrath of man for His own praise and glory.
The minute that you see God tell Balaam, when Balaam asks a second time if he can go with the embassy sent by Balak to ask him to come curse Israel in verse 20 (go ahead and look at verse 20), already he’s gone to the Lord, he’s asked the Lord, the Lord has said ‘No! Do not go with them. You may not curse them.’ And they come back again and they offer him more money. And he says, ‘I can’t do this, because the Lord has told me I can’t do it. But let me just check again.’ The minute that you hear God say to him in verse 20 in effect, ‘Sure. Go ahead,’ the minute that you hear that happen in verse 20, you know that God is going to use Balaam’s own desire for riches and Balak’s desire for power and protection to display God’s sovereignty — the minute that you hear Balaam say those words.
But you say to me, ‘Well, hold on. What do we do with verse 20? Because in this passage God has already told him no, don’t go, you may not curse them. Now He says sure, go. But you still can’t curse them. Did God change His mind? No! What is going on here? When God says, “If the men have come to you, rise, go with them, but only do what I tell you,” He has not changed His mind. He is allowing the wicked to go ahead and do what the wicked want to do. He is limiting the scope of what the wicked will be allowed to do, and He will soon show how the evil designs of the wicked will serve His own ends and purposes and glory. This is exactly what the psalmist is talking about in Psalm 76:10: “Even the wrath of man will praise Him.”
Now we sing about this. Take your hymnals out and turn to No. 66. When we sing God Is Known Among His People, which is the Psalter version of Psalm 76, and we get to the third stanza of that Psalter version, we sing this to the wonderful tune LAUDA ANIMA, (Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven), listen to what we sing:
“When from heaven your sentence sounded,
All the earth in fear was still,
While to save the meek and lowly
God in judgment wrought His will;
Even the wrath of man shall praise You,
Your designs it shall fulfill.”
That’s exactly what’s about to happen here. The wicked is going to do exactly what he wants to do. I mean, what part of “No!” did you not understand, Balaam? This is not the change of God’s mind; this is God just saying, ‘Go ahead.’
Men, you recognize this. You’ve heard this before. There’s this really important social occasion that you and your wife are supposed to go to, and you really want to go to the big ball game:
“Honey, I know we’re supposed to go to this social event, but me and my buddies, we really want to go to this ball game. Would that be OK with you?”
“Sure. Go ahead.”
Now of course God is not being passive-aggressive, and He’s not being fickle here. He has already explained precisely what He wants Balaam to do, and in coming back Balaam is showing you what his heart wants to do. And now (oh, and this is frightening!) God is saying, ‘OK, Balaam’s heart. Have it your way.’ And when God says that to sinners, you understand what it always means. It always means their destruction. The pagan Greeks even understood this. You remember what they used to say? “Whom the gods would destroy, they answer their prayers.” In other words, very often it’s what we want that will kill us. And this is God saying to Balaam, ‘Go ahead. Do what you want to do, which is exactly opposite of what I have already made amply clear that I want you to do.’
So we sing this when we sing Psalm 76. So let’s sing that third stanza of Psalm 76 together:
“When from heaven your sentence sounded,
All the earth in fear was still,
While to save the meek and lowly
God in judgment wrought His will;
Even the wrath of man shall praise You,
Your designs it shall fulfill.”
That last line is the exact meaning of what is going on in this lesson, the fourth lesson of Numbers 22:1-21, especially in verse 20. Compare it to verse 12, and to verse 22.
So, so far the story has highlighted the reality of God’s sovereignty and the certainty of God’s salvation and providence over His people, and that brings us to the story of Balaam and his donkey.
Heavenly Father, this is Your word. It’s not just a myth illustrative of some deeper truth or principle. It’s history. It’s not just history; it is Your revelation to us of Your will and works and ways. You’re teaching us about yourself, You’re teaching us about Your sovereignty, You’re teaching us about Your salvation, You’re teaching us about Your providence and protection of Your people. You’re teaching us about You and what You do in Your good purposes, so we don’t want to miss a word that You’re saying to us. Open our ears to hear, and open our eyes and hearts to behold wonderful things in Your word. This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Now believe it or not, that was a short version of the introduction. That’s why I gave you all that stuff on the outline, so that you could just look at that yourself. But on the flip side of the outline that I gave you, I’ve given you sort of a broken down outlined version of this passage in Numbers 22:22-40. It may help you to follow along a little bit the story line in the flow of argument in this passage.
This is the word of the living God:
“But God’s anger was kindled because he went, and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the way as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. And the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand. And the donkey turned aside out of the road and went into the field. And Balaam struck the donkey, to turn her into the road. Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. And when the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she pushed against the wall and pressed Balaam’s foot against the wall. So he struck her again. Then the angel of the Lord went ahead and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she lay down under Balaam. And Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, ‘What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?’ And Balaam said to the donkey, ‘Because you have made a fool of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you.’ And the donkey said to Balaam, ‘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?’ And he said, ‘No.’
“Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand. And he bowed down and fell on his face. And the angel of the Lord said to him, ‘Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out to oppose you because your way is perverse before me.’
[Do not forget verse 32!]
“‘The donkey saw me and turned aside these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let her live.’ Then Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, ‘I have sinned, for I did not know that; you stood in the road against me. Now therefore, it if is evil in your sight, I will turn back.’ And the angel of the Lord said to Balaam, ‘Go with the men, but speak only the word that I tell you.’ So Balaam went on with the princes of Balak.
“When Balak heard that Balaam had come, he went out to meet him at the city of Moab, on the border formed by the Arnon, at the extremity of the border. And Balak said to Balaam, ‘Did I not send to you to call you? Why did you not come to me? Am I not able to honor you?’ Balaam said to Balak, ‘Behold, I have come to you! Have I now any power of my own to speak anything? The word that God puts in my mouth, that must I speak.’
[Don’t forget that sentence, either!]
“Then Balaam went with Balak, and they came to Kiriath-huzoth. And Balak sacrificed oxen and sheep, and sent for Balaam and for the princes who were with him.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He add His blessing to it.
There are four lessons in passing that I want to draw to your attention in this great passage tonight. I’ll call them “Asides 1, 2, 3, and 4.” They’re maybe not the main point of where the passage is going, but they howl for comment as we work our way through this passage. But there’s one lesson–I don’t even know why I call it “lesson one,” because it’s the only main lesson that I’m going to try and press home tonight because it’s the main point of the passage before us. So let’s look at these four asides and one lesson together.
I. There are some things that you don’t have to pray about.
The first thing we learn, and we learn it really before we even get into this passage…we learn it all the way back in verse 19. The first lesson that we learn is that there are some things that you don’t have to pray about.
There are some things that you don’t have to pray about. What do I mean by that? What I mean is this: When God has said no in and by His word, you do not have to pray to know what His will is.
Now all the way back in verse 12, in answer to Balaam’s query, ‘Can I go and earn some big bucks from Balak by cursing Your people?’ God has said ‘No, you may not go with them, and no, you may not curse My people.’ And you know what? Balaam doesn’t really need to pray about that any more. God has already said it in His word. He does not have to pray to ascertain the will of God. God’s will has been made crystal clear, unambiguously, in and by His word. And so, my friends, when God has spoken in His word, we don’t have to pray about it.
And yet so very often we find ourselves doing just that. The Lord has given us a command that doesn’t quite cotton with us, or He’s given us a prohibition and our hearts are yearning to do the thing that He has prohibited. And we begin to entertain the prospect of seeking His guidance through prayer to ascertain what He would have us do. That is a wasted prayer. There are some things that you don’t have to pray about. When God has told you in His word no or yes, He means it. Surely that is one of the lessons that we find out when Balaam is going back a second time after having been offered more money to curse, and asking God again. Surely that is wasted breath and effort, because he already knows what God wants him to do. And what he’s actually doing is revealing the power of the sinful desires of his heart.
II. Apart from a work of grace in our hearts, dumb animals are more sensitive to the presence and will of God than we are.
That leads us to the second aside: Apart from a work of grace in our hearts, dumb animals are more sensitive to the presence and will of God than we are.
Apart from a work of grace in our hearts by God, dumb animals are more sensitive to the presence and will of God than we are. Isn’t it fascinating that in this passage the donkey sees and perceives and responds appropriately to the presence of the sword-wielding angel of the Lord before the seer does? He’s a prophet! He can “see” the future! But he can’t see the angel of the Lord with a sword right in front of him. But the donkey can, and she does exactly what an intelligent being would do. The first time, she heads into the field! And the next time she scrunches up against the wall. And then when there’s no place to go, she’s on the floor! But it’s only subsequently that the “seer’s” eyes are opened to the presence of the Lord.
You see the message that’s coming loud and clear here. Balaam may be the greatest sorcerer in Mesopotamia, but he can’t see something as plain as the nose on his face: the sword-wielding angel of the Lord waiting for his destruction for disobeying a direct command from God. But a donkey can.
And what’s the point? The point is this: Why did Balaam not turn back? Why didn’t he listen to the first time? Because Balaam didn’t want to. Balaam didn’t listen to what God commanded because Balaam didn’t want to. Balaam didn’t turn back because Balaam didn’t want to. He wanted the riches that were offered to him by Balak.
You see, my friends, dead sinners don’t have the free will to stop sinning…because they don’t want to. You don’t believe me? Let me issue this challenge to you. Want to prove me wrong? You want to show me that it’s possible for dead sinners to stop sinning? Well, here’s the challenge. OK. Fine. Stop sinning. It’s true of even blood-bought saints that we can find ourselves struggling to do things that we know we ought not, and it’s even more true for those who have not been changed of heart by the Holy Sprit. Apart from a work of grace in our hearts, dumb animals are more sensitive to the presence and will of God than we are. That’s the second aside that we learn in this passage.
III. The truth of God’s word is not dependent upon our esteem of the messenger.
Here’s a third thing, and it’s simply this. God can use a donkey if He wants to. God can use a donkey to prophesy if He wishes. The truth of God’s word is not dependent upon our esteem of the messenger. God will sometimes use messengers to bring a message whose persons or character seem incongruent with the message and the majesty of God. Isn’t that what we learn in verses 28-30 as this donkey starts talking some common sense? Some common sense that Balaam really needs to understand and implement himself? The donkey is an instrument of the Lord, and God can use a donkey if He wants to.
IV. When your donkey speaks to you, it will forever change your relationship with your donkey
The fourth aside is simply this. Again look at verses 28-30. What is happening as Balaam has this conversation with his donkey? Mark said that if your dog spoke to you when you came home from church today it would forever change your relationship with your dog. Well, let me tell you what! When your donkey speaks to you, it will forever change your relationship with your donkey!
But what’s going on here? OK. Moses in this story…and picture yourself: you’re the children of Israel, you’re camped out, and Moses is telling you this story about the stratagem of the evil one to destroy you. And you’re sitting there family by family, gathered around the campfire, and Moses is telling you this story of how the evil king Balaam has reached out to this powerful Mesopotamia-wide renowned sorcerer who has the power to see the future and who can wield dark arts, and who can bring down curses on people and destroy them or he can bring down blessings on them and they just have magnificent riches. (And you’re trembling! Oh, my! What are we up against here? Principalities and the powers of demonic world forces are aligned against us!) And then the next thing you know, Moses is showing you this evil, powerful sorcerer having a conversation with his donkey. What’s Moses doing? Moses is showing you how God mocks the would-be curser of Israel by depicting him as engaged in a heated debate with a domestic animal.
Can you imagine this? Your five-year-old is sitting next to you as Moses is telling the story, and suddenly the tug comes on the robe–
“Daddy! Daddy! Moses just said that that pagan prophet was arguing with his donkey!”
“Right, right, honey, that’s exactly…”
“And his donkey’s winning the argument!”
“Ex…ex..exactly, honey! That’s precisely the point.”
That’s what the enemies of God and the enemies of His people, however nefarious, however great their mastery of the dark arts–that’s what they’re like in comparison to the sovereign power of the living God. They’re a mockery.
Well, there are the four asides.
V. What’s the one great lesson?
The one great lesson is this: God is assuring Israel in this story of His sovereignty over the sorcerer.
He is assuring Israel of His sovereignty over the sorcerer, and He does this in three ways. Look at verse 32, verse 35, and verse 38.
In verse 32, God issues His judgment of Balaam. And what is it? The angel of the Lord says what? “I have come out to oppose you because your way is perverse to me.” Now just let me say two things. If someone is judging you in a court of law, one thing that means is they have the authority to do so. And here this powerful sorcerer arraigned against Israel, hired to by the king to curse them, is arraigned before God and God issues His judgment on him. And it says “I am sovereign over you.” And secondly, He weighs him in the balances and He finds him lacking. ‘I consider you,’ God says, ‘perverse.’ There is God’s judgment of the great seer, sorcerer, prophet Balaam: You are perverse. And so God shows His sovereignty over the sorcerer in judging Balaam, and in doing that He both shows His authority over Balaam and He shows Balaam’s moral perversity. He shows you His estimation and judgment and assessment of Balaam’s character and person and life.
Secondly, look at verse 35. Then God instructs Balaam for the second time, in almost the exact language that He used the last time. The angel of the Lord in verse 35 says what? “Go with the men, but speak only the word that I tell you.”
Now understand. You’ve got to look back at verse 34. Balaam has just had his eyes opened, and there’s the angel of the Lord with a sword in front of him. Now. God has told you do not go with them. God has told you do not curse them. You’ve come back to Him and asked Him ‘Would it be all right for me to go?’ He said, ‘Go ahead.’ And now He’s tried to kill you three times! And look at what Balaam says! ‘Now, if it’s evil in Your sight, I’ll turn back!’ How thick can you be?!? “If it’s evil in Your sight, I’ll turn back”? I’d be w-a-a-y back down in Mesopotamia by now!
But then what happens? Once again God issues the instruction: “Go on with the men, but you cannot curse them.” And you see there God in His sovereign decree confirming the wicked desires of Balaam’s heart to accomplish the purposes of God’s sovereign will. And so you see His sovereignty over the sorcerer in His instruction of Balaam.
And then finally, look at verse 38. It’s a hilarious scene! ‘What kept you so long?’ Balak says to him. And Balaam is going, ‘You don’t know what kind of a day I’ve had! Just watch it, buddy! You don’t know…I’ve had an angel try and kill me three times, my foot is crushed…’ and then he says, ‘Look, I came to you, but I don’t have the power of my own to speak anything. The word that God puts in my mouth, that must I speak. I’ve come to you Balak, but here’s the deal. I can’t do anything against the children of Israel that their God doesn’t let me do.’ Now can you imagine Balak’s response to this? ‘Well, what kind of a sorcerer are you? I hired you to curse these people! What do you mean, you have to ask their God before you curse them?’
No, Balaam in verse 38 is acknowledging his own subservience to God. Moses is putting in his own mouth — what? An acknowledgement of the sovereignty of God.
And what’s the message for Israel, and what’s the message for you?
You remember how Mark told you this morning that God is not limited by circumstances? That means, my friends, that if you’re resting and trusting in Jesus Christ alone, you are never merely the victim of circumstances, because our God is not limited by circumstances. Even if those circumstances are false prophets arrayed against you for your destruction, they cannot thwart His sovereignty. No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck you from His hand. That’s why Suree could say to the missionary how her heart had been torn from her when her daughter had been taken. And yet if God wants to take her other children, she will give them. Because nothing can separate her from the love of God in Christ, and nothing can touch her – nothing! — apart from His sovereign power. And my friends, that’s a message that we really, really need to believe.
Father, You are sovereign, and I’m not sure that I know anything more comforting than that in this fallen, fickle, wicked world. So we praise You for it, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Would you stand and receive God’s blessing.
Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord, until the day break and the shadows flee away.
[Congregation sings O Father, You Are Sovereign]