Scripture: Numbers 22:1-41
[Read vv. 1-6.]
Did you hear about the ESPN scandal that happened recently?
On the last Sunday night in August, at the beginning of the new football season, ESPN decided to broadcast football games between top high school teams in the country—so that a football-starved national audience would get to watch future college and NFL stars when they were still in high school. It’s not my thing, but some people care about that, right? So on this Sunday night, in their prime-time slot, ESPN broadcast a game between IMG Academy—which is basically a boarding school in Florida for top high school athletes—and Bishop Sycamore High School, an allegedly elite football powerhouse from Columbus, Ohio… only…
Bishop Sycamore was… terrible. I mean, unbelievably bad. In 2020, they had an 0-6 record. They only had 30 to 35 players on their roster. They didn’t apparently have enough helmets for every member on the team, so players were seen sharing one another’s helmets during the game!
Also, Bishop Sycamore had played on Friday night—just two days before going up against the best high school team in the country! So they already weren’t exactly well-rested and recuperated!
How did this happen? It turns out, Bishop Sycamore’s coach had lied to and scammed ESPN to get his team on national TV. And the network didn’t verify the information that the high school had given them.
Early in the broadcast, after IMG jumped out quickly to like a three-touchdown lead, one of the ESPN announcers said, “It’s very, very clear that [Bishop Sycamore] can’t match up… From what we’ve seen so far, this is not a fair fight, and there’s got to be a point where you’re worried about health and safety.” The final score was 58-0.1
To say the least, Bishop Sycamore High School was badly overmatched. Their defeat was inevitable.
And so it is, in today’s scripture, with these two hostile nations, Moab and Midian, on the border of the land that would soon be occupied by Israel—the land of Canaan, better known as the Promised Land. King Balak, of Moab, had entered an alliance with Midian. They had to do something about Israel… Israel had wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, but they were now large, strong, and wealthy… and they had already defeated a couple of other nations on the border. King Balak rightly feared that his nation would be next!
So the king had an idea… What if he contracts with a powerful, world-renowned sorcerer from what is now present-day Iraq named Balaam. Balaam, Balak believed, had spiritual power… He had the power to put curses on people, even nations. Maybe he can put a curse Israel! So Balak sends messengers to Balaam, in verse 6: “Please come and curse these people for me because they are too powerful for me. Then perhaps I will be able to conquer them and drive them from the land.”
Now, I’m not suggesting for a moment that King Balak’s plan was a good one. It was preposterous. Later, we learn that Balaam’s plan is to call upon Israel’s God to put a curse on Israel. Obviously that’s not going to work! Moreover, why is King Balak asking a mere human like Balaam to help him?
If you’re worried about God’s people, Israel, why not go directly to the God of those people? Why not pray directly to this God whose people you’re so afraid of?
But… Let’s give King Balak some credit. At least he understands that he’s in over his head. At least he understands he desperately needs help. At least he understands that he cannot solve this problem on his own… at least he knows that he is not self-sufficient.
And this is the surprisingly good news of a crisis…when we realize we cannot solve this problem on our own, when we realize we desperately need help, when we realize we cannot be self-sufficient… When we realize these things, we just might be desperate enough to do what?
To turn to the One who truly has the power to help us! Not to turn to any mere mortal, but to turn to God himself!
In his book The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis talks about the way that God is gracious enough to send a crisis our way—or to use an existing crisis—to bring us to our knees, to motivate us to turn to God for help, to pray. Lewis says that it takes a lot of humility on God’s part to do this for us. Because, Lewis writes,
[I]t is a poor thing to strike our colors to God when the ship is going down under us [to “strike our colors” means to raise a flag on a ship. Lewis is saying, in other words, that we only pledge our loyalty to God when our ship is sinking and we hardly have any other choice!]. So it’s a poor thing to strike our colors to God when the ship is going down under us, a poor thing to come to Him as a last resort, [to offer everything we have to God when we’ve already lost everything of value].
If God were proud, He would hardly have us on such terms; but He is not proud, He stoops to conquer, He will have us even though we have shown that we prefer everything else to Him, and come to Him because there is ‘nothing better’ now to be had.2
That great nineteenth century English preacher Charles Spurgeon had the boldness to put it like this: “Anything is a blessing which makes us pray.”
But I get it… We may not want those kinds of blessings! Even if we need them!
Speaking of these kinds of painful blessings, you may remember that lovely song by singer-songwriter Laura Story, written after her husband was diagnosed with cancer. It was called “Blessings.” It included these words:
We pray for blessings
We pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep
We pray for healing, for prosperity
We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering
All the while, You hear each spoken need
Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things…
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?
But if you don’t think this is true, think of your own life… In your own life, when have you felt closest to God? When have grown closest to God? When have you enjoyed the sweetest times of prayer? When have you felt God’s presence most?
When everything is going your way, when you’re enjoying great prosperity, when everything is smooth sailing. Of course not…
In Isaiah chapter 30, the prophet has been describing a time of painful tribulation and judgment in the life of God’s people Israel. But when they reach a point when they’ve been thoroughly defeated by their enemies, when they’ve lost everything, when their spirits are at their lowest, Isaiah says, “Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts to show mercy to you…”
That “therefore” implies that God has brought them into this trial, this season of testing and pain and suffering, so that the people will come back to God. And when they repent and come back to him, good news…Isaiah writes, “He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry. As soon as he hears it, he answers you.”
Like a parent with a nursing child… The child cries out in the night. And what does the child’s mother or father do? They rush to the child’s crib to help them, to give them what they need, to alleviate their pain and discomfort, to feed them, to nourish them, to heal them.
That’s what our Father longs to do for us!
So… take a cue from King Balak: Whenever a big crisis comes along—or a little crisis, or any crisis in between: Admit that you’re powerless. Admit that can’t solve it on your own. Admit that you need help. And unlike King Balak, cry out… Cry out to the One who can truly help you. He longs to hear from you! He longs to help you. He longs to heal you.
So getting back to tonight’s scripture… Balak’s messengers try to persuade Balaam to curse Israel. Balak will give him a lot of money. And Balaam, we find out, loves money.
But Balaam at least has the good sense to consult first with Israel’s God about putting this curse… on God’s own people! And God speaks to Balaam, in verse 12: “You can’t do this! You can’t curse this people because they are blessed… by me.”
So Balaam refuses. But King Balak won’t take no for an answer. And his messengers offer Balaam even more money. And Balaam refuses. And Balaam sounds all pious and righteous. Listen to verse 18: “Even if Balak were to give me his palace filled with silver and gold, I would be powerless to do anything against the will of the Lord my God.”
Oh please! For Balaam, this is merely a negotiating tactic. He’s holding out for even more money, more glory, more honor!
And Balaam is about to get into big trouble for it. If you know anything about the story of Balaam, you know this next part of the story: Balaam agrees to go with Balak’s people. Picking up with verse 22… [Read verses 22 to 35.]
In Acts chapter 23, the apostle Paul is under arrest and in Roman custody in Palestine. He’s been put on trial and has just appeared before a couple of Roman governors. His life literally hangs in the balance. His opponents have accused him of treason against Rome—because of his allegiance to Jesus. Verse 11 says this:
The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”
Now, in the very next verses, Acts 23:12 and 13, it says this:
When it was day, the Jews made a plot and bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. There were more than forty who made this conspiracy.
And then Luke goes on to describe their plan… and the unlikely way that their plan was thwarted.
I want you to get the picture. The Lord Jesus comes to Paul in a vision: “You don’t have to be afraid of anything. Your life is not in danger. I’m going to send you to Rome, and you’re going to continue your mission to spread the gospel there.” And then the very next morning some of Paul’s fiercest enemies—more than 40 of them, in fact—form a conspiracy to murder Paul while he’s still in Palestine, before he leaves for Rome.
Paul doesn’t even know about this plot to kill him. Perhaps if he did he would worry about it. Who knows? After all, I’m sure these 40-plus men are ruthless and clever, right?
Here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter what these men do… not one iota. Because unbeknownst to these 40 clever and ruthless and highly motivated enemies of Paul, who have put into place a plan to kill him… unbeknownst to all of them… God has put into place… a different plan.
So you tell me… Whose plan do you think will succeed?
See, these 40 men can try their hardest, they can do their very worst… As pastor John Piper points out, Paul is immortal until he fulfills God’s purpose for him and goes to Rome, and accomplishes all the things that God has planned for him there!
Until Paul fulfills God’s purpose for him, he is invincible… he is literally unkillable!
And so it is with any plans that King Balak, the Moabites, the Midianites, or Balaam might make make to thwart God’s mission for his people Israel in today’s scripture.
Those plans will fail! God’s plans for Israel will succeed!
Listen: If this true for the apostle Paul, and if it’s true for God’s people Israel, it’s no less true for us Christians in Toccoa, Georgia, in the 21st century! God has no less a plan, no less a purpose, no less a mission for our lives in this world… And God’s plan is custom-designed for each one of us. There are people in our lives, in our time, in our place, to whom we’re supposed to witness, to whom we’re supposed to reach out in the name of Christ and with the love of Christ, and for whom we are meant to glorify God. And God will give us time, as much as necessary, to fulfill his plan for us.
But I get it: It’s so easy to forget this truth. It’s so easy to forget that God has a plan for us, and to live our lives with a sense of purpose. And I think this is because so often it just doesn’t seem like it! It’s so often hard to see how God is using us and working his plan in our lives!
Remember the movie Dead Poet’s Society… Robin Williams plays John Keating, a literature teacher at an elite New England boarding school. Spoiler alert: Near the the end of the movie, he gets fired and it looks to all the world as if his efforts to teach and inspire his students were in vain. And then, as he’s packing up his office to leave the school, his students, who are in the classroom being taught by a substitute teacher, each stand up on their desks and say, “O captain, my captain,” quoting the Whitman poem Keating had taught them… This was their way of thanking him for the way he had touched and changed their lives forever.
Just think: If Keating hadn’t witnessed that—if he had left the school at a different time—he would never have known the impact he had on their lives. He still would have had the impact on their, he just never would have known it!
That’s often the way God’s plan works out in our lives. We don’t even see or comprehend the ways in which God has used us!
Our problem is, we simply can’t see things—we’re unable to see things—from God’s perspective. Which means we can’t see the way things really are most of the time… And we won’t be able to until we get to heaven! Because so much of reality is invisible to us!
That’s true—obviously—for poor Balaam!
He couldn’t see the way things “really were,” either. Not until God sort of lifted the curtain separating our world from the heavenly realm, and allowed Balaam to see the real reason that his donkey was unwilling or unable to take him forward down the road. Balaam couldn’t see that this angel was blocking his way. He thought that his animal was just being stubborn.
But no… There was something else going on. There was a deeper reason this was happening to him.
And isn’t this a theme for this entire scripture? King Balak was unable to see the deeper reason that Israel was inheriting this land. Neither he nor Balaam were able to see the deeper reason that their plans against Israel would never succeed. And Balaam, of course, was unable to see the deeper reason his donkey was being so stubborn—at least at first!
There’s another place in Acts that I want to show you, and I’m going to conclude with this. Acts 16:4 and 5. Here, Paul, Silas, and Timothy are on one of their missionary journeys. And we’re told the following:
And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.
That is strange and mysterious! They planned to go to Asia; I’m sure they prayed really hard about going to Asia. I’m sure the thought it was a great idea. But the Holy Spirit forbade them. They planned to go to Bithynia; I’m sure they prayed really hard about going to Bithynia. I’m sure they thought it was a great idea. But the “Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” And then Paul has a vision to go to Europe instead.
But how, exactly, did the Holy Spirit, “the Spirit of Jesus,” forbid them, or prevent them from doing what they planned? We’re not told. But it’s likely that it wasn’t any kind of vision or dramatic appearance by Jesus himself. Because as we saw earlier, when the Lord appears to Paul directly or in a vision, Luke reports it. No… it’s likely that the “Spirit of Jesus” prevented Paul and the others from doing what they planned through ordinary means. Maybe they couldn’t afford to go to Asia or Bithynia… Maybe bad weather prevented them… Maybe they got sick and had to change their plans… Maybe they had some kind of family emergency they had to attend to.
Or maybe… maybe there were angels with swords standing in the road, preventing their horses or donkeys from going forward!
Regardless, Paul and his fellow missionaries came to understand that this disappointing setback wasn’t really as a setback at all… They discerned that God’s hand was in it… They discerned that there was a deeper reason… and that God was saying, “I don’t want you to go there. I want you to go here instead.”
So they prayed and they planned to fulfill God’s purpose for them… but God had something even better for them! And that will be true for you, too.
The next time you experience a setback or disappointment in your life, tell yourself this: “God must have a deeper reason for this. Show me what it is, Lord!”