The story of Balaam (Num. 22) has always intrigued me: it has a lot of twists. A non-Israelite prophet of God; a prophet wanting money for his work, conversing with a donkey, going to a pagan place to pray to God.
Balak has an offer; Balaam will pray about it. Really? Is there a need to pray about whether or not to curse God’s people? When God’s will is obvious, do we need to pray about it, hoping for permission to do what we want to do?
Balaam’s story shows how perilous it is to parlay with temptation: he “loved the wages of unrighteousness” (2 Peter 2:15).1 Having stated that a “house full of silver and gold” would not cause him to go against the will of God (Num. 22:18), he shows how much he hopes to obtain the offered wealth and still serve God.
Set on getting the money Balaam goes off to offer sacrifices at three different locations. Do we really expect to influence God with sacrifices when our hearts are far from Him? All our “churchy” attendance at services, our offerings and mission trips combined, do not add up to an excuse or compensation for a single sin: “to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam. 15:22).
God uses different methods to save us from ourselves.
Moreover, wouldn’t a prophet know that it’s useless to attempt to curse what God has blessed, or get Him to bless what He has cursed. Never mind those troubled souls who have a vendetta against the church in their wish or effort to bring blight upon the object of His supreme regard on earth.2 God’s laws—moral, civil, and health—are given not to make arbitrary demands on His people, but to protect, prosper, and bless us. Trying to curse the divine statutes, or the chosen people of God, is doomed from the start to be a failed effort.
As the ancient Israelites went about normal life in their camp oblivious to Balaam and Balak’s efforts, so God’s people today may live our lives in Him with little comprehension of the forces of evil gathered to see us cursed, and little knowledge of God’s constant care over us. Perhaps if we thought more on that constant protection we might be much more exuberant in our appreciation: “Oh, that [men and women and girls and boys] would give thanks to the Lord for His goodness, and for His wonderful works to the children of men!” (Ps. 107:8). It may be that one of the most transformative lessons from this story, if put into practice, would be summarized as“don’t beat the donkey.”
As Balaam rides along, his donkey sees the Angel of the Lord with sword drawn, standing in the way, and runs off into a field. Balaam beats the animal. Now in a walled pathway the donkey sees the Angel again, and presses against the stone wall, squeezing Balaam’s foot. Balaam beats the ass again. The third time it happens in a narrow place: the donkey simply lies down. In anger Balaam again beats his donkey.
Whereupon the Lord opens the donkey’s mouth and it says to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?”
And here’s the greatest absurdity: Balaam answers! “Because you have abused me. I wish there were a sword in my hand, for now I would kill you!”
The conversation continues: “Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden, ever since I became yours, to this day? Was I ever disposed to do this to you?” (Think, buddy!)
Balaam responds, “No” (Num. 22:22-30).Then the Lord opens Balaam’s eyes and he sees the Angel, who asks, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? . . . Your way is perverse before Me. The donkey saw Me and turned aside from Me these three times. If she had not turned aside . . . surely I would also have killed you” (verses 32, 33). The irritating donkey has saved his life. Realizing the grave stupidity of his behavior, Balaam confesses, “I have sinned, for I did not know You stood in the way against me. Now therefore, if it displeases You, I will turn back” (verse 34).
God uses different methods to save us from ourselves. We can be blinded by pride or preference. We should be always ready to ask if there might be a good reason that circumstances seem to oppose a course of action. We have all heard of people angry about the counsel of friends, even calling them ‘donkey!’ and rejecting their counsel. Instead of recognizing God’s providence, they beat the donkey.
Who knows? Unplanned difficulties may be just now saving you from something harmful. Will you look for the Angel or beat the donkey? Are you complaining, grumbling, blaming? missing the Angel? Truth is that the extremes of our donkey beating show themselves to be nothing less than pathetic, self-centered whining: “I don’t have cell reception!” “These French fries are cold”—irritabilities of ours not even worth the instant of video or audio, or the fleeting inch of paper space they occupy.
Ellen White observed: “Our devised plans often fail that God’s plans for us may be a complete success. Oh, it is in the future life we shall see the tangles and mysteries of life, that have so annoyed and disappointed our fond hopes, explained. We will see that the prayers and hopes for certain things which have been withheld have been among our greatest blessings.”3
So wherever on the spectrum your situation falls, look for the Angel. When emotions flare and people yell, don’t beat the donkey; look for the Angel. When serious problems happen and life is difficult, don’t beat the donkey; look for the Angel. When the teachings and ways of God are puzzling, don’t beat the donkey; look for the Angel. When you see Balak’s offer, both attractive and immoral, don’t beat the donkey; don’t even harness the poor animal. Whatever the circumstance, heaven’s messenger will always represent the better option: look for the Angel—don’t beat the donkey!
Mark Heisey is a Seventh-day Adventist minister who serves as director of Barnabas Center Ministry.