King Balak of Moab summoned the prophet Balaam to pronounce a curse upon Israel. But Balaam will only be able to say whatever the Lord tells him to say. Our passage is titled "Balaam's First Message" in my NIV Bible but we could more accurately title it "The Lord's First Message". The Lord has only good things to say about Israel in our text.
It is the following morning after Balaam's arrival in Moab. We concluded yesterday's passage with Balaam and King Balak standing on Bamoth Baal (a high place upon which there was likely an altar built in honor of the false god Baal) looking out over the valley toward the Israelite encampment. This is where we pick up today. "Balaam said, 'Build me seven altars here, and prepare seven bulls and seven rams for me.' Balak did as Balaam said, and the two of them offered a bull and a ram on each altar." (Numbers 23:1-2) Bamoth Baal is a pagan place but the seven altars are built for the Lord and the bulls and rams are offered to the Lord. King Balak doesn't worship the God of Israel; he worships his own gods but he believes the God of Israel exists and that He protects the Israelites. Balak probably doesn't think the Lord is any more important than any of the heathen deities he believes in but he's willing to make offerings to Him in hopes of pleasing Him to the point of taking His protective hand off of Israel.
I think Balaam is hoping for the same thing, not because he has anything against Israel personally but because he's only looking out for himself. He wants the fame and fortune promised to him by the king of Moab. "Then Balaam said to Balak, 'Stay here beside your offering while I go aside. Perhaps the Lord will come to meet with me. Whatever He reveals to me I will tell you.' Then he went off to a barren height." (Numbers 23:3) It's good to get alone with God to see what He has to say to us. But in Balaam's case he already knows how the Lord feels about him speaking against Israel. The Lord has already told him not to do it. Balaam is like a child who keeps asking his parent over and over for permission to do a certain thing that the parent has already forbidden. God shows up and Balaam points out the seven altars and the offerings as if this will please the Lord into doing what Balaam wants. "God met with him, and Balaam said, 'I have prepared seven altars, and on each altar I have offered a bull and a ram.'" (Numbers 23:4) Balaam says, "Have you seen what I've done? This is all for You: these seven altars and these bulls and rams! Didn't I do a good job? Wasn't it nice of me to honor You in front of those heathen Moabites? Aren't You proud that I made a pagan king help me build altars to Your name and sacrifice offerings for Your glory? Now can I have what I want?"
Balaam is still behaving like a spoiled child whose father has already said no to something but who hopes because he's been a good boy today his father will give in. But responsible fathers don't allow their children to do harmful and disobedient things, no matter how obedient they've been in other matters. "The Lord put a word in Balaam's mouth and said, 'Go back to Balak and give him this word.' So he went back to him and found him standing beside his offering, with all the Moabite officials." (Numbers 23:5-6) It's kind of funny that this haughty king and his impressive officials haven't moved an inch from where Balaam told them to stand. They're willing to let a prophet---who isn't even from their own nation---order them around like they are servants. They so badly want harm to come to Israel that if Balaam had told them to stand on their heads beside their offering they would have done it.
I can't help wondering whether Balaam is just as surprised as Balak by what comes out of his mouth. "Then Balaam spoke his message: 'Balak brought me from Aram, the king of Moab from the eastern mountains. 'Come,' he said, 'curse Jacob for me; come, denounce Israel.' How can I curse those whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce those whom the Lord has not denounced? From the rocky peaks I see them, from the heights I view them. I see a people who live apart and do not consider themselves one of the nations. Who can count the dust of Jacob or number even a fourth of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and may my final end be like theirs!'" (Numbers 23:7-10)
Balaam not only finds himself unable to curse Israel but finds himself basically envying Israel instead, saying something like, "We should all be so lucky as to be like Israel! God is with Israel. God fights for Israel. Israel is like no other nation on earth. She is blessed in life because she serves the one true God and keeps herself separate from pagan nations. She is blessed in death because God's servants are rewarded forevermore in His presence when they pass out of this life. I could wish no better thing for myself than to be like the people of Israel!"
Balak is horrified when he hears Balaam's pronouncement. "Balak said to Balaam, 'What have you done to me? I brought you to curse my enemies, but you have done nothing but bless them!' He answered, 'Must I not speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?'" (Numbers 23:11-12) Israel is Balak's enemy only in his own mind. The Israelites have done nothing whatsoever to threaten the Moabites. The Moabites, and their neighbors the Midianites, have made all of this up in their minds. They believe Israel intends to attack them even though this is not the case. But, as the Bible says, wicked people have a tendency to fall prey to paranoia: "The wicked flee though no one pursues". (Proverbs 28:1a) Wicked people judge others by what they themselves would do. If King Balak were the leader of Israel, and if his troops were as numerous and as powerful as Israel's troops, he would attack everyone around him and take their territory for himself. Because this is the type of person he is, he imagines the political leader of Israel is the same type of person. Because the Moabite and Midianite soldiers would love to overcome all the surrounding nations in battle, they imagine the soldiers of Israel feel the same way. All these people have judged Israel by their own standards and as a result they've unnecessarily fallen victim to fear and dread.
If the wicked flee when no one pursues, what do the righteous do? The second half of the verse from Proverbs 28 says this: "The righteous are as bold as a lion." Why? Because God is with them! Because God fights for them! I want to close with something from a commentary by the late Matthew Henry, a famous minister and Christian writer who lived from 1662 to 1714. While King Balak conspires against Israel, and while the prophet Balaam diligently seeks to do Israel harm in exchange for financial gain, Matthew Henry says, "Neither Moses nor the elders of Israel know anything of the matter, nor are in a capacity to break the snare; but God, who keeps Israel, and neither slumbers nor sleeps, baffles the attempt, without any intercession or contrivance of theirs." Israel has no idea King Balak has made himself her enemy. Israel is unaware of the plot against her. But the God of Israel knows everything about the matter and has no intention of allowing the plot to come to fruition.
It comforts me to think about all the times the Lord has protected us even when we didn't know we needed protecting! God protects us even when we don't know someone has made themselves our enemy. God protects us even when we don't know a plot is afoot to do us harm. Many times we didn't know we needed to pray for protection against hidden dangers but God took action on our behalf anyway. In this life we'll have some known enemies: Satan and certain human individuals who don't even try to disguise their hatred of us. But we'll have unknown enemies too. There will be people who come to us dressed in sheep's clothing but who are actually wolves on the inside. (Matthew 7:15) They'll pretend to be our friends while waiting for a chance to backstab us to gain the advantage over us at school or at work or in society. We sometimes have unknown enemies within our own bodies when cells go wrong or something starts to break down and God corrects it because it isn't our time to leave this world. We are going to be awestruck when we meet our Lord someday and find out just how many times He saved our reputations or our careers or our marriages or our health or our very lives when we didn't even know we were in danger.
You and I have probably already been spared multiple times today---and it's only 7:44am where I live---because Satan would kill us at any moment if God would let him. Our hearts might have stopped beating already today if the Lord hadn't kept them ticking. We might have taken a bad tumble and broken our necks if the Lord hadn't held our feet steady. We might have choked to death on our breakfast if the Lord hadn't made sure our throat muscles worked exactly as He's designed them to work. But we aren't leaving this world on Satan's timetable and there's nothing he or anyone else or any disease or any accident can do against God's will. You and I are here until God calls us home. And until then we can be bold as a lion because God is looking out for us twenty-four hours a day every day of our lives.