“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” (Numbers 31:16).
Balaam was a sorcerer of international renown. Although he lived some 600km from Moabite territory on the south-east of Canaan, Moab’s king Balak, who was in league with the Midianites, had heard of Balaam’s fame. So when Israel approached the promised land Balak sent delegations to Balaam, offering him a huge sum of money to come and curse Israel.
Now Balaam loved money more than doing what’s right (2 Peter 2:15), so he saddled his donkey and made the long journey to Balak. But God forced Balaam to speak only blessings instead of curses upon Israel. Not only did he speak the praises of Israel and of Israel’s God, but from the mouth of this unbelieving instrument in God’s hand came an amazing prophecy of the coming Messiah: “a Star shall come out of Jacob, a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and batter the brow of Moab…” (Numbers 24:17). But none of this impressed Balak. In anger at Balaam’s inability to curse Israel, he sent Balaam away.
Balaam, too, appeared unimpressed by the wonderful words God caused him to speak. He was more interested in Balak’s money, so he offered Balak some cunning advice. If God would not let him curse Israel, there was another way and that was for Israel to bring down God’s covenant curse upon themselves so that they would be destroyed by His fierce anger. For Israel was God’s covenant people and that covenant was associated with wonderful promises if the people would love, trust and serve the LORD, but awful curses if they turned away from Him.
Illustrating this point in a sermon on Numbers 31:16, Rev C Bouwman says,[i] “A covenant contains two parties, in this case God and Israel. In that covenant God promised to bless Israel. To break that blessing, Balaam the sorcerer had first tried to manipulate God, to convince God to change His approach to Israel and so curse this people. To his big disappointment Balaam learned that he couldn’t manipulate God, and so couldn’t get a curse upon the people – and hence missed out on the money.
So what should he do? If he can’t manipulate God so that He curses His people, maybe he can manipulate the people so that they attract God’s curse upon themselves! Get the people to sin, and then God in turn must pour out His wrath on Israel, must curse!”
There you have the counsel of Balaam. Rev Bouwman defines it as follows:
“It’s the advice not to be antagonistic towards Israel, because you can’t beat them that way. Instead, befriend Israel, get your girls to invite their boys to your parties. Then get them to participate in the feasts of your gods, lure them to sin, and then God will have to curse, His anger will be provoked so that He pours out His wrath on Israel and destroys them. And you, Balak, will be rid of your problem. (And Balaam will get his pot of gold.)”
How sinister the advice! Balak heeded it: “They invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods” (Numbers 25:2). “We need to know,” says Rev Bouwman, “that in Hebrew the word ‘they’ is feminine, and the point is that the women of Moab came with the invitation. As we read it in our text: it was the women who caused Israel to sin.”
Enmity vs friendship
It wasn’t just female allurement; it was also the allure of friendship. The people of Israel had for so long been treated as outsiders and had experienced so much enmity from other nations. Yet here was an offer of friendship. As Rev Bouwman says:
“For so many years the people of Israel had been despised, slaves in Egypt. In the desert they were alone, a self-contained unit, with no friends among the nations of the world. At the end of their desert sojourn they met up with cousin Esau in the land of Edom and sought permission to travel through his territory. But cousin Edom gave no permission; there was no friendship, only rejection (Num 20:14ff).
As they approached the Promised Land, king Arad the Canaanite came out to fight Israel; there was no friendship, only rejection (Num 21:1ff).
The people sought permission to go through the land of Sihon king of the Amorites, but Sihon wouldn’t allow it; there was no friendship, only rejection (Num 21:21ff), and so Israel had to fight….
They came in the neighbourhood of Og king of Bashan, and again there was no friendship; Og and his people came out against Israel in battle (Num 21:33ff) – rejection.”
“And now,” adds Rev Bouwman, “after all that enmity, all that loneliness, all that rejection, come these Moabite girls, and they offer what the people of Israel hadn’t tasted in years – friendship, acceptance! And if the allurement of friendship and acceptance wasn’t enough, the invitation came through girls.
Imagine it … put yourself in the shoes of Israel’s boys: could you resist the advance? How cunning, how crafty! See there, brothers and sisters, an example of the scheming of the evil one! The counsel of Balaam is devilish to its core….”
“Was Balaam’s advice successful? Yes! ‘the people [of Israel] ate and bowed down to their gods….’ Covenant people, heathen people: on their knees together in front of the same idols…. And let’s say now nothing of the fact that the worship of the Baals included cultic prostitution…. The people fell for the stumbling block Balaam counselled Balak to lay before them…. Here’s success for Balaam! For ‘the anger of the Lord was aroused against Israel,’ says vs 3, For time and again the LORD had warned His people that upon covenant breaking must come covenant curse. God keeps His word, and so God’s judgment had to come upon His people. Vs 4: ‘the Lord said to Moses: Take the leaders of the people and hang the offenders…’ And vs 8 adds that a plague broke out amongst the people, killing people here, there, anywhere, everywhere.”
Balaam’s counsel and the NT church
Rev Bouwman proclaims: “Over the years the devil has not forgotten this counsel. Some 1400 years later, in the New Testament church of Pergamos, somebody in the congregation advised the members of that church that it was OK to accept the world’s overtures of friendliness, and so minimize the antithesis; that’s the ‘doctrine of Balaam’ Jesus refers to in Revelation 2:14.
Various in the congregation of Pergamos fell for this teaching, gave themselves to the world, forgot the antithesis, forgot their covenant distinctiveness; it’s the attitude of Israel in Numbers 25 all over again. Jesus’ response? The same as God’s response in Numbers 25! ‘Repent,’ He says, ‘or else I will come to you quickly and will fight against you with the sword of My mouth’ (Rev 2:16). And we know: if Jesus begins to fight against His church, that church will perish as certainly as the Israelites of Numbers 25 perished through the plague. In the New Testament dispensation the doctrine of Balaam is as effective in moving God to destroy His church as it was in the Old Testament – for God does not change, and so His wrath must fall upon all covenant disobedience.”
Balaam’s counsel and today
“That makes the question so imperative for us,” adds Rev Bouwman: “is the counsel of Balaam still taught today? Make no mistake on the point, beloved! The devil is shrewd enough to know that he has here a proven way to bring the wrath of God upon the church of God. It suits him to the ground to whisper into our ear that there should be friendliness with the world, that the girls of the world should extend their invitations to the boys of the church, minimize the antithesis…. The trick works, works so well, for nobody likes to be different, everybody wants to be accepted. Israel fell for it. So did some in Pergamos.”
Of course, it’s not just in the friendships we develop with the world. It’s also in our desires to adjust to the culture of the world, in our desires not to show we’re different, a separate people, a holy nation. Rev Bouwman gives the example of something he read about what’s called Contemporary Christian Music. “Said a writer: ‘the music is indistinguishable from its secular counterpart, except for the uplifting lyrics. CCM (that’s Contemporary Christian Music) … [enables] kids to be normal, blue-jean-wearing, music-loving American teenagers without abandoning their faith.’ Notice: the kids can be ‘normal’. Though the music is ‘indistinguishable’, from secular music, its Christian lyrics make it acceptable so that Christian youth can embrace it, be modern also, don’t have to be different. It speaks to us all; we don’t want to be different, would spare our children the scorn that comes with being different.”
So if we embrace Contemporary Christian Music – and therefore the culture of the world – are we showing that we are different? What does it say, says Rev Bouwman, “that we see in our midst those who dress as the world does, including hipsters and spaghetti tops for the girls – never mind what it does to the guys? What does it say that the very movies the world watches receive a viewing in our living rooms too? Does that not speak of a closeness with the world instead of a distance, of friendship instead of antithesis? It’s the same mistake, beloved, as Israel made in Numbers 25 and Pergamos in Revelation 2; it’s falling for the ‘counsel of Balaam’. But falling for that counsel means that we bring upon ourselves the wrath of holy God – and that’s exactly what the devil wants!
Here we have our responsibility: it is for us to be alert to the doctrine of Balaam, ever to ask whether we’ve fallen for that counsel, whether in fact we are bringing God’s wrath upon ourselves. The command of the Lord to Pergamos in Revelation 2 applies to us then too: Repent, lest the Lord come to fight against us, destroy us.
The Lord our God insists that His children be different. That’s why the Lord tells us of the “counsel of Balaam”, tells us how Balaam counselled the building of bridges between the children of God and the children of Satan – with devastating results for the children of God. In our world of tolerance, this is a lesson we need to learn, again and again.”