King Balak of Moab isn't willing to give up yet on seeing Israel cursed by the prophet Balaam. These men have tried twice already but nothing has come out of Balaam's mouth except blessings for Israel. The king takes Balaam to a third location to try for a third time.
"Then Balak said to Balaam, 'Come, let me take you to another place. Perhaps it will please God to let you curse them for me there.'" (Numbers 23:27) The king thinks perhaps he and the prophet haven't done enough to honor or appease the Lord. He is a superstitious man whose pagan religion involves performing many repetitive rituals and incantations, according to the Lord Jesus who said when teaching His disciples how to pray, "And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words." (Matthew 6:7) The heathen peoples would repeat a word or phrase or imprecation over and over like a chant and they would perform rituals over and over. For example, if they prayed for rain and it didn't come swiftly, they believed the only reason their gods hadn't answered was because they hadn't performed their chant or their ritual perfectly enough or often enough. In 1 Kings 18 we'll find a group of Baal worshipers so distraught that Baal isn't showing up that they'll begin shouting nonstop, dancing feverishly, and even cutting themselves.
King Balak and his people the Moabites are Baal worshipers. In today's passage he takes Balaam to Peor (also known also as Baal Peor in the Bible) in a third attempt to secure a successful cursing of Israel. We will learn more about the location known as Baal Peor in Numbers 25 and Numbers 31. It is also mentioned in the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Hosea, Psalms, and 1 Corinthians as a place of sexual immorality. We will also learn that the prophet Balaam had a hand in a specific incident of sin that takes place at Baal Peor later in the book of Numbers. "And Balak took Balaam to the top of Peor, overlooking the wasteland." (Numbers 23:28)
Just as they did the first two times, the men build altars and offer sacrifices on them. "Balaam said, 'Build me seven altars here, and prepare seven bulls and seven rams for me.' Balak did as Balaam had said, and offered a bull and a ram on each altar. Now when Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he did not resort to divination as at other times, but turned his face toward the wilderness." (Numbers 23:29-30, Numbers 24:1) We don't know what type of "divination" Balaam engaged in during his first two attempts to seek words of evil about Israel. On both those occasions he walked some distance away from the king and his officials to see what the Lord would say to him, so I am unsure whether he was mixing pagan rituals in with his own religion or what exactly took place when he attempted to obtain the answer he wanted from the Lord. This time he doesn't get alone with the Lord. This time he doesn't try whatever methods he previously tried. Some scholars think he has concluded it's a waste of his time to do anything but just stand there and let the Lord put His words in his mouth. If that's the case, Balaam hasn't come to this conclusion because he's yielding to the Lord in a worshipful and respectful manner; it's because he's accepted he can only say what the Lord tells him to say. Does he know the Lord is still only going to allow him to bless Israel? I don't think so. He's accepted he can't say anything against the Lord but he still hopes the Lord will change His mind.
"When Balaam looked out and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the Spirit of God came on him and he spoke his message: 'The prophecy of Balaam son of Beor, the prophecy of one whose eyes see clearly, the prophecy of one who hears the words of God, who sees a vision from the Almighty: who falls prostrate and whose eyes are opened:..." (Numbers 24:3b-4) We'll stop midsentence to point out how prideful the prophet is, boasting about himself and building himself up in his own eyes and in the eyes of the king and the king's officials. He thinks he's a pretty big deal because the Lord is speaking through him but the Lord doesn't only speak through good people. King Saul, for example, will prophesy even though he didn't live according to God's will and kept descending further and further into sin and madness. The Lord sometimes uses unbelievers to rebuke believers. We spoke of that several days ago and about how painful and humbling it is to have an unbeliever point out to us that we aren't behaving like Jesus. A preacher who turned out not to be living in the will of God spoke a word some years back that was exactly what I needed to hear in a time of trouble; he quoted a verse from the Bible that I desperately needed to hear and the Lord used that message to minister to me even though the messenger wasn't a very godly man. Balaam is making a big deal out of himself because the Lord is speaking through him when instead it ought to shame and humble him that God is so powerful He can make the prophet speak words the prophet doesn't want to speak. Balaam isn't saying what he wants to say. He's saying what the Lord wants him to say in spite of how hard he's trying to do the opposite. But his pride in himself is so great that he misses the point and misses a good opportunity to repent and give the Lord honor instead of giving himself honor.
Balaam continues the message from the Lord: "How beautiful are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel! Like valleys they spread out, like gardens beside a river, like aloes planted by the Lord, like cedars beside the waters. Water will flow from their buckets; their seed will have abundant water." (Numbers 24:5-7a) The Lord loves the sight of the Israelite encampment. He's brought these people out of Egypt and He's taking them to the promised land. In His eyes they are already a great nation; He has stated His intention to make a great nation of them and anything the Lord intends is as good as done. He loves watching over these people who are precious to Him and He intends to provide for them now and always.
The message goes on: "Their king will be greater than Agag; their kingdom will be exalted." (Numbers 24:7b) I can't say whether this Agag was a king contemporary with King Balak or whether the Lord is speaking of the Agag of the book of I Samuel. There could have been many men of ancient times in that region called Agag but I tend to think the Lord is speaking prophetically of what will happen in 1 Samuel 15 when Israel's first king, Saul, is victorious in battle over King Agag of the Amalekites.
The remainder of the message involves other future victories of Israel, both the victories she will win when taking over the promised land and the victories she will win defending herself from enemies. "God brought them out of Egypt; they have the strength of a wild ox. They devour hostile nations and break their bones in pieces; with their arrows they pierce them. Like a lion they crouch and lie down, like a lioness---who dares to rouse them? May those who bless you be blessed and those who curse you be cursed!" (Numbers 24:8-9) I imagine Balaam's voice rising as the message reaches a crescendo of blessing at the end.
Israel is compared here to a crouching lion. Who would rouse a sleeping lion or deliberately draw the attention of a lion lying at ease in the tall grasses? Only a foolish person would do such a thing. The lion would arise, pounce, and tear him to pieces. The last thing King Balak should want is to stir Israel to battle. He would not emerge victorious. Israel's God would enable her to tear Balak's army to shreds.
The king flies into a rage when he hears the prophet bless Israel for the third time. "Then Balak's anger burned against Balaam. He struck his hands together and said to him, 'I summoned you to curse my enemies, but you have blessed them these three times. Now leave at once and go home! I said I would reward you handsomely, but the Lord has kept you from being rewarded.'" (Numbers 24:10-11) Satan is putting words in Balak's mouth, for it's the devil's way to claim God is keeping something from us. Balak says it's God's fault he can't pay Balaam. God has prevented Balaam from cursing Israel; therefore, in Balak's mind, God is keeping prosperity from Balaam. Satan made a similar statement in Genesis when he claimed to Eve that the only reason God didn't want her to eat the forbidden fruit is because it would make her wise like God.
Balaam repeats what he's said to the king previously. His hands are tied. He is literally unable to say anything about Israel that the Lord doesn't tell him to say. "Balaam answered Balak, 'Did I not tell the messengers you sent me, 'Even if Balak gave me all the silver and gold in his palace, I could not do anything of my own accord, good or bad, to go beyond the command of the Lord---and I must say only what the Lord says'? Now I am going back to my people, but come, let me warn you of what this people will do to your people in days to come.'" (Numbers 24:12-14) Balaam says, "I'm going, but first let me tell you more about Israel. Israel is a nation to be feared and Israel's God is a God to be feared."
Balaam will speak four more messages of blessing and prophecy concerning Israel. None of it will be anything the king wants to hear. He'll rue the day he sent for Balaam to curse Israel. The Israelites were not bothering him or threatening him except in his own mind. He made himself Israel's enemy, not the other way around. He has cursed Israel in his thoughts and in his heart and he would have cursed them literally if it had been within his power. And as the Lord says, He will bless those who bless Israel and curse those who curse Israel. Nothing good will come of what Balak has done.