Many of us have heard the story of the prophet hired by the Moabites to curse Israel. On his journey to meet the Moabite king, God sends an angel to kill him. The prophet can’t see him. However, the prophet’s donkey can. The donkey shies away from the angel with the flaming sword three times and is rewarded for her trouble with beatings.

Finally, God opens the donkey’s mouth. “Why have you beaten me these three times?” she asks.

Balaam, beside himself with frustration, doesn’t even realize that it’s unusual for a donkey to talk.

“You’re making me look like a fool!”

Says the man to his donkey.

A little later, God unveils Balaam’s eyes, he sees the angel, repents, and goes onward to Moab, agreeing to only say what God tells him to. And of course, Balaam, who has been hired to curse the Israelites, can do nothing but bless them. [1]

End of story, right?

Wrong. There’s more.

After blessing the Israelites, Balaam returns home to Pethor [2], north of Israel. But he doesn’t stay there.

Several chapters later, God uses the Israelites to judge the Midianites. The narrative mentions many are slain in that campaign, including Balaam. What is Balaam doing there?

Midian, a kingdom to the south of Israel, had originally teamed up with Moab to solicit Balaam to curse the Israelites. Though Balaam was a prophet of God, he didn’t always exhibit the most submissive attitudes.

When the king of Moab first tried to hire Balaam to prophesy against Israel, God told him not to go. Yet Balaam repeatedly came back to God with the same question. He wanted the money and wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

Can you hear the whiny toddler saying to his parents, “Are you sure you won’t give me what I want? Are you sure?

Balaam returned to God, again and again, to see if He would change His mind. His actions may have been obedient, but his heart was anything but.

When he finally met with Balak, Balaam self-righteously claimed that he wouldn’t say anything that God didn’t want him to say.

When he found that God wouldn’t let him prophesy against Israel, what did he do? He counselled Moab on how to lure Israel into sin so that God would remove His favour from them. In Numbers 31:16, God lays responsibility for this lure and the subsequent sin squarely at Balaam’s feet. Talk about obeying God outwardly while having a heart full of disobedience! Based on these attitudes, it doesn’t seem likely that Balaam could have been up to any good at the end of his life when he returned to Midian.

And that brings me to the next realization. Balaam was a famous prophet of God. He clearly heard from God and made accurate predictions about the future. But he wasn’t really obedient.

Here’s the underlying principle:

I may hear from God, but this does not guarantee that I’m obeying or honouring Him.

Sometimes, I think, we take our hearing from God as proof that we have His approval. God doesn’t speak to just anyone, right? You have to be pretty holy to hear His voice, right? The story of Balaam shows us that this is not necessarily the case.

How careful we need to be to even follow God in one small detail. How humble we need to be in order to not inject our own thoughts and preferences onto the things God says to us. How much we need His wisdom to discern how far He is leading us, and not step past that point. And how easily we can fool ourselves into thinking we are more godly than we actually are.

“Lord God, You know that I’m not very good at listening. I’m not very good at being obedient or godly either, for that matter. But you also know that I want to be better. I want to become more and more like Jesus, but I can’t do this without You. There’s no amount of effort or willpower I can expend that will get me to my goal. So please take over. Please teach me to hear Your voice. Please give me stubbornness—not of disobedience, but the stubbornness required to follow You wherever you lead, no matter where it may be. Please delight me with the bounty of Your presence, and enable me to live a life that pleases You.”


[1] This story can be found in Numbers 22-24.

[2] See Numbers 22:5 and 24:25.

(Picture Source)