The story of Balaam is first mentioned in the book of Numbers in chapters 22 to 24. Take some time to read these chapters to understand the context. The story revolves around Balak, the king of Moab, asking Balaam to curse Israel for a reward. Israel was on their way to the promised land and was moving through the Moabite territory. Balaam was a wicked prophet, and scripture explains that Balaam heard from God and spoke as the Lord asked him to, but his heart was not right with God.
There is some confusion when we read this story because, throughout the Bible, we see multiple references to the error of Balaam but often fail to understand what this error is. The reason for this confusion is that when we read the story in the book of Numbers, Balaam is repeatedly making pronouncements as God directed. Even when Balak, king of Moab, presses Balaam for another message and curse Israel instead, Balaam blesses Israel. This happened repeatedly. In Numbers 23:12, Balaam says, “Must I not take care to speak what the LORD puts in my mouth?”
If this is the case, then why does the Bible often talk about the error of Balaam? Some examples are:
- 2 Peter 2:15-16 speaks about following the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness
- Jude 1:11 speaks about running greedily in the error of Balaam for profit
- Revelation 2:13-15 speaks about holding to 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 sexual immorality.
So, how do we understand what Balaam’s error is and is it a lesson for our lives today and the condition of some Christians and churches? In Revelation 2:3-5, Jesus warns the church in Pergamum that some are holding on to the teaching of Balaam? Let us examine the error and doctrine of Balaam.
Firstly, God spoke to Balaam and granted him the power to show the power of God. We know this because Numbers 22:6 says, “Come now, curse this people for me, since they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” Balaam heard the voice of God; He was completely aware of the truth of God and His requirements, yet Balaam’s heart was far from God. He was a selfish and unfaithful prophet. God granted Balaam to hear the truth and prophecy what God was speaking to him. In other words, if Balaam’s heart was right and toward God, then he would have used the opportunity to turn Balak, the Moabites and others to turn from their idol worship and unrighteous living and instead lead them to worship the true and living God. But he didn’t! Balaam wanted to curse Israel for unrighteous gain, but he couldn’t because God would not allow it.
Secondly, his desire for money meant more than the truth. Balaam was ready to go with Balak to curse Israel for money. Even though he ended up blessing Isreal instead, His heart’s desire and the intention was the “wages of unrighteousness” (2 Peter 2:15-16). Balaam was well aware of what God’s requirement was, but this was not what pleased Balaam. He loved the money instead. The Bible is clear that there are many such prophets who know the truth, but they desire the gain of money rather than to proclaim the truth of God. Micah 3:11 says, “Its heads give judgment for a bribe; its priests teach for a price; its prophets practice divination for money; yet they lean on the LORD and say, “Is not the LORD in the midst of us? No disaster shall come upon us.”
Thirdly, Balaam devised a plan to cause Israel to sin by teaching them to practice idolatry and commit fornication. Numbers 31:16 says, “Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the LORD in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the LORD.” The act of betrayal advised by Balaam is found in Numbers 25:1-3, saying, “While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel”
So this is the error and doctrine of Balaam. Even though he knew the truth and Jehovah as God, his heart was still wicked. Outwardly he proclaimed blessings to Israel because God would not allow any other way. Eventually, knowing that God would not permit Him to curse Isreal, Balaam cunningly advised king Balam to cause the people of Israel to whore with the daughters of Moab and enter into idol worship. This was a cunning and devious act to lead Israel away from the Lord. 2 Corinthians 11:13-15 says, “For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.”
Finally, because of his continued wickedness, God killed Balaam at the hands of the Israelites. Joshua 13:22 says “Balaam also, the son of Beor, the one who practiced divination, was killed with the sword by the people of Israel among the rest of their slain.”
In conclusion, this is an important lesson and a very timely one for the days we are living in. Even in our Christian community and churches, like the church in Pergamum, do we find the error and doctrine of Balaam rampant in our midst? In other words, the leaders, preachers, teachers, and all who know the holiness of God, His sovereignty, and His truth as revealed in His word, yet they water down the word of God. Do they love gain rather than truth? Is this what we see in the prosperity gospel and seeker-sensitive movements, and the like? All for the sake of outward growth rather than the true repentance of the heart.
Take time to examine the motives of your heart. If you are doing anything outside of a deep love for our Lord Jesus Christ, and He is not your treasure, then you are not worthy to be His disciple (Luke 14:26). Seek to bring people closer to God, don’t be man-centred, rather be God-centred. Don’t water down the truth of God to be culturally relevant or for church growth strategies, but stand up and proclaim the truth as it is written in His word.