The way of Balaam
We find the record of Balaam in Numbers 22-24. Israel, being on the way to the promised land, camped in the “plains of Moab on the side of Jordan across from Jericho” (Numbers 22:1). This made Balak, king of Moab, very afraid and he sent ambassadors to Pethor - a place in Mesopotamia, several hundred kilometers away – to bring Balaam. The assignment he had for him is given in Numbers 22: 5-6:
“Look a people has come from Egypt. See they cover the face of the earth, and are settling next to me! Therefore please come at once, curse this people for me, for they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed and he whom you curse is cursed”
Balaam’s fame was that “him whom he blessed was blessed and him whom he cursed was cursed” (Numbers 22:6). If one reads the whole record of Numbers 22-24 he will find out that Balaam initially had a godly attitude. When the servants of Balak approached him, he only promised to them that he would check their request with God. When God told him not to go with them, he obediently sent them away. This is what a man walking on the right path would do and that’s what Balaam did as well. He was obviously walking on that path. However, Balak insisted. After some days more princes, more honorable ones, arrived again at Balaam’s place promising him great honour and riches if he only went and cursed Israel. Somebody that had clearly settled the answer of God in his heart, would not wait: he would again send the princes away, as God had already made it clear that he was not to go with them. But Balaam didn’t do this. Instead he said that he would check with God again. Though this is still okay and certainly not as bad as going with them without checking with God at all, it indeed shows a crack, an instability, an intention to not send them away unsatisfied. You plea God again only for something that you still want, and you are not fine and settled with what He has told you the first time. And this is what happened here. Balaam wanted to go with them, the gifts too many and the honour too much for him to deny. On the other hand, he didn’t want to disobey God either! He would be happy if he went there, curse Israel, get the rewards and have it fine with God too – much the same with us sometimes: I want to do my will, so God please change yours, let me do mine and we will be fine! God seeing him at this stage, told him to go but only if the men came to call him again. Yet, in the morning we see him up on his donkey and ready for the long travel! He didn’t want to lose a second and didn’t wait for anybody to call him! As a result, God’s anger was aroused and He sent His angel to stand against him. Balaam’s ass saved his life for when she saw the angel she tried to avoid him. The angel told Balaam to go but to ONLY say the word that God would speak to him. Why did God have to say to him “ONLY the word that I will speak to you, that you will speak” (Numbers 22:35)? This was a warning to Balaam to not deviate from His word. As we will see, he didn’t pay attention to it fully. Balaam therefore went and met Balak. Despite that Balak took him to various places that would make it easier for him to curse Israel, Balaam kept attached to what God had told him and spoke only His word which was only blessings for Israel. Balak was very upset! Here is what he said to Balaam after a three-round blessing of Israel: “I called you to curse my enemies, and look, you have bountifully blessed them these three times! Now therefore, flee to your place. I said I would greatly honor you, but in fact, the Lord has kept you back from honor” (Numbers 24:10-11).
Balaam: An example to be avoided
It appears that Balaam took a stand for God. He only spoke His word and though he went with the princes of Balak he only said what God wanted him to say. He didn’t deviate from it. One could even ask why II Peter 2:15 as well as other passages that we will see later present him as an example to be avoided. Sure he wanted to go and may be he had his eyes on the gifts. Yet, it seems that he didn’t diverge from what God told him and finally he left the place empty handed. He obeyed God despite the fact that this meant the loss of the gifts and rewards promised to him. Or, was it not so?
Balaam is mentioned as an example to be avoided in II Peter, Jude and Revelation. This may seem unjustified by the records we have seen up to now, but carrying on we will find the reason:
Numbers 25:1-5, 9
“Now Israel remained in Acacia Grove, and the people began to commit harlotry with the women of Moab. They [the women of Moab] invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel was joined to Baal of Peor, and the anger of the Lord was aroused against Israel. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of the people and hang the offenders before the Lord, out in the sun, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel. So Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Every one of you kill his men who were joined to Baal of Peor…… And those who died in the plague were twenty four thousand.”
How did it come that the women of Moab knew how to seduce the Israelites? How did it come that they came, made them to commit harlotry with them, invited them to their sacrifices and made them to bow down to their false gods? God was displeased, His anger was aroused and 24.000 Israelites lost their lives in the plague that followed. Who really devised these wicked plans that brought such a destruction to Israel? Numbers 31:15-16 and Revelation 2:14 give us the answer:
“and Moses said to them: “Have you kept all the women alive? Look these women caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord””
and Revelation 2:14 (the Lord Jesus is speaking to the angel of the church in Pergamos)
“But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication.”
The teacher that taught Moab how to make Israel to stumble was Balaam. We already saw how inclined he was to gifts and honour. II Peter 2:15-16 tell us that he LOVED them:
II Peter 2:15
“they have forsaken the right way and gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Beor, WHO LOVED THE WAGES OF UNRIGHTEOUSNESS; but he was rebuked for his iniquity: a dumb donkey speaking with a man’s voice restrained the madness of the prophet.”
Up to the time of Numbers 24 Balaam was a prophet of God, a God’s spokesman. He was walking on the right way. BUT not up to the end. He eventually forsook it and went astray, because “he loved the wages of unrighteousness”. He started well but had an awful end. It is not only important to start on the right way. It is also very important to keep on it till the end. Balaam started well, but didn’t continue well. He was finally killed by the Israelites when they took over Midian1. In the record of his death (Joshua 13:22), he is no longer called “prophet” but “soothsayer”. He started as a prophet, a spokesman of God but ended as soothsayer, God’s enemy.
Balaam in II Peter and Jude
Balaam turned from being a spokesman of God to a false teacher that made God’s people stumble (Revelation 2:14). He was on the right way but forsook it and went astray. This is probably the reason that he is mentioned three times by different writers in the New Testament as an example to be avoided. We have already seen the relevant record of Revelation and here are the other two from II Peter and Jude:
II Peter 2:16
“THEY have forsaken the right way and gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness; but he was rebuked for his iniquity: a dumb donkey speaking with a man’s voice restrained the madness of the prophet.”
and Jude 11
“Woe to them! For THEY have gone in the way of Cain, have run greedily in the error of Balaam for profit, and perished in the rebellion of Korah”
Both II Peter and Jude refer to those who follow Balaam’s way. Who are these people? What have they done? Do they have any similarity with Balaam, and if yes what is it? How could this Old Testament figure relate to the today’s age of grace ? We will find the answer in the Scriptures. Starting from II Peter, the word “they” goes back to the first verse, where we read:
II Peter 2:1-3
“but there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even deny the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction does not slumber.”
We will go on with more information given about those false teachers. But let’s first make clear their origin. This becomes obvious from verses 1, 15 and 20-21. There we read:
II Peter 2:1
“but there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even deny the Lord who bought them and bring on themselves swift destruction.”
II Peter 2:15
“They have forsaken the right way and gone astray”
and II Peter 2:20-21
“For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them.”
As it is obvious from the above:
• These people were people the Lord had bought.
• They were people who had escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ2.
• They had known the way of righteousness and the holy commandment was delivered unto them3.
• They had forsaken the right way, which in turn means that they were once walking on it.
The false teachers the Word of God is speaking about here are therefore not unbelievers but believers or to be precise they started as such. For what else are people who were bought by the Lord, have full knowledge of the Lord and to whom the holy commandment was delivered? As Balaam, they started on the right way but they forsook it and turned to false teachers, bringing in destructive heresies and exploiting God’s people by deceptive words! If we think that the matter of these false teachers is rather not to be given much attention, for after all we haven’t seen many openly “denying the Lord that bought them”, we are wrong. God devoted much of II Peter and almost the whole epistle of Jude speaking about these impostors. This is really a matter where the Word of God says: “ATTENTION”. II Timothy 2:15 tells us:
II Timothy 2:15
“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
It is our job to rightly divide the word of truth and without a strong foundation on it, it will be impossible to be protected by the false teachers that go around. Returning to II Peter, verses 10-22 continue on these apostates:
II Peter 2:10-22
“and especially those who walk according to the flesh in the lust of uncleanness and despise authority. They are presumptuous, self willed. They are not afraid not to speak of dignitaries, whereas angels, who are greater in power and might, do not bring a reviling accusation against them before the Lord. But these, like natural brute beasts made to be caught and destroyed, speak evil of the things they do not understand, and will utterly perish in their own corruption, and will receive the wages of unrighteousness, as those who count it pleasure to carouse in the daytime. They are spots and blemishes, carousing in their own deceptions while they feast with you, having eyes full of adultery and that cannot cease from sin, enticing unstable souls. They have a heart trained in covetous practices, and are accursed children. They have forsaken the right way and gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness; but he was rebuked for his iniquity: a dumb donkey speaking with a man's voice restrained the madness of the prophet. These are wells without water, clouds carried by a tempest, for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever. For when they speak great swelling words of emptiness, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through lewdness, the ones who have actually escaped from those who live in error. While they promise them liberty, they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by whom a person is overcome, by him also he is brought into bondage. For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them. But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: "A dog returns to his own vomit," and, "a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire.”
God devotes a large part of II Peter to describe these false teachers. Many of them are out there today and many have passed through the centuries, using God’s and Christ’s name for their own cause, for power, for money, for honour. It is not Christ whose example they follow but Balaam’s. II Peter leaves no doubt for their end. As we just read:
• They bring on themselves swift destruction (II Peter 2:1).
• For a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction does not slumber (II Peter 2:3).
• “For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter state has become worse for them that the first. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them. But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: "A dog returns to his own vomit," and, "a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire.” (II Peter 2:20-22, NKJV-RSV)
• For them is reserved the blackness of darkness forever (II Peter 2:17).
It is not salvation that is reserved for these people but “the blackness of darkness forever”. But “is not salvation a gift given by grace?”, some will say. Sure it is. It is a gift given by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). But as it is obvious, some people will deny the Lord - and therefore the faith - and will turn to be His enemies exploiting His people and bringing in destructive heresies. They are indeed similar to Balaam. He was also on the right way but he went astray and turned from being a true prophet to a false teacher that taught God’s enemies how to make His people stumble. For these people “is reserved the blackness of darkness forever”. According to II Peter “it would be better for them to not to have known the way of righteousness than having known to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them”.
Balaam is also mentioned in Jude, almost in the same way and context as in II Peter. Jude starts his epistle with the following:
“Beloved, being very eager to write to you of our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.
Jude wanted through his epistle to exhort the believers to EARNESTLY CONTEND FOR THE FAITH WHICH WAS ONCE FOR ALL DELIVERED TO THE SAINTS. Obviously this faith was under attack. This faith IS under attack and the enemy, as long as he is around, he will never cease to attack it. We have to contend earnestly for this faith and Jude goes on to give the reasons in his one-chapter long epistle:
“For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny our only Master and Lord Jesus Christ. But I want to remind you, though you once knew this, that the Lord, having saved the people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. And the angels who did not keep their proper domain, but left their own abode, He has reserved in everlasting chains under darkness for the judgment of the great day; as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities around them in a similar manner to these, having given themselves over to sexual immorality and gone after strange flesh, are set forth as an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire. Likewise also these dreamers defile the flesh, reject authority, and speak evil of dignitaries. Yet Michael the archangel, in contending with the devil, when he disputed about the body of Moses, dared not bring against him a reviling accusation, but said, "The Lord rebuke you!" But these speak evil of whatever they do not know; and whatever they know naturally, like brute beasts, in these things they corrupt themselves. Woe to them! For they have gone in the way of Cain, have run greedily in the error of Balaam for profit, and perished in the rebellion of Korah. These are spots in your love feasts, while they feast with you without fear, serving only themselves. They are clouds without water, carried about by the winds; late autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, pulled up by the roots; raging waves of the sea, foaming up their own shame; wandering stars for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever. Now Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about these men also, saying, "Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of His saints, "to execute judgment on all, to convict all who are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have committed in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him." These are grumblers, complainers, walking according to their own lusts; and they mouth great swelling words, flattering people to gain advantage. But you, beloved, remember the words which were spoken before by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ: how they told you that there would be mockers in the last time who would walk according to their own ungodly lusts. These are sensual persons, who cause divisions, not having the Spirit.”
It appears that these are the same kind of people, at least as far as fruit is concerned, with those we saw in II Peter. They are impostors who may even dare to call themselves Christians. Because of these false teachers – and there are many of them active today - Jude felt an earnest need to write to the believers to tell them to fight for the faith delivered once for all to the saints. We have to fight for the faith! It is the Scriptures - not doctrines, ordinances and traditions of men, whoever these are – the basis of our faith. Colossians 2:8 warns us:
“Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.”
also II John 7-8
“for many deceivers have gone into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and an antichrist.Look to yourselves, that we do not lose those things we worked for, but that we may receive a full reward.”
Also Jude and Peter tell us:
“But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.”
II Peter 3:14-18
“You therefore, beloved, since you know this beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked; but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and forever. Amen.”
“Beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked”. All of us can be potentially “led away with the error of the wicked”. None is exempted from this warning. Balaam started on the right way but he eventually forsook it. “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”, Peter continues. “Beware” is one part of the action, growth in grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ is the other.
There are many impostors out there, and even within the body of Christ – that’s why Peter and Jude address believers - and the only way to be protected from their deceitful teachings is to incline to the pure milk of the Word. The only way to build our house so that it is not overtaken by anything that may come against it, is to build it on the rock, which Jesus Christ explained is to hear God’s Word and do it (Matthew 7:24-25). Balaam knew the word of God, he actually followed it up to a point but not after it crossed with his lust for honour and riches. Once this happened he went astray. In contrast to him, we must go the right way : the way of knowing and at all costs doing God’s Word. Starting, running and finishing the race, reaping complete and full the rewards God has for us.
“let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
1.By that time he had moved from his place, in Mesopotamia, and was living in the land of Midian, together with the enemies of Israel.
2.The word “knowledge” here is the Greek word “επίγνωσις” (epignosis) that means “exact or full knowledge” , “precise or further knowledge, thorough acquaintance with; true knowledge” (as opposed to the word “gnosis” that simply means “knowledge”). See Vines Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, MacDonald Publishing Company, p.641 and The Companion Bible, Kregel Publications, Appendix 132.
3.Again the verb “to know” that is used here is the verb “επιγινώσκω” (epiginosko) that means “to know full well”, “to know thoroughly and accurately” (see the references given in ftn.2).