In the Old Testament Book of Numbers there is an interesting story about the prophet Balaam. This individual seems to have been a man who knew of the true God, but who was nevertheless a “wicked” man (2 Peter 2:15, Jude 11, Revelation 2:14) who served pagan kings and who was eventually killed by ancient Israel (Joshua 13:22).
Numbers describes how Balaam was hired by the Moabite king Balak to curse the people of Israel. If we have read it, the incident in which God miraculously caused Balaam’s donkey to speak to him to warn him (Numbers 22:28) is one we all remember about this “prophet for hire.” But there is something more important that we can learn from the story of Balaam that is easy to miss.
It is clear that one of Balaam’s chief credentials or skills was constructing curses to be used on the enemies of those who hired him. Balaam evidently knew enough about the true God and His purposes for Israel, however, that the prophet repeatedly refused to curse the Israelites. Three times Balak provided expensive sacrifices and urged Balaam to curse Israel (with considerable financial incentives to do so), yet each time Balaam delivered not a curse, but a blessing (Numbers 23:11), insisting: “… I can’t say whatever I please. I must speak only what God puts in my mouth” (Numbers 22:38). And what God told Balaam to tell Balak was not what the king wanted to hear. God firmly instructed Balaam “You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed” (Numbers 22:13).
In the course of delivering not curses, but blessings on Israel, Balaam makes an astonishing statement, recorded in Numbers 23:21. The NIV translates this verse “No misfortune is seen in Jacob, no misery observed in Israel. The LORD their God is with them …,” but many translations take a more literal approach and translate this verse along the following lines:
"He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel: the LORD his God is with him …" (King James Version).
"He considers no disaster for Jacob; He sees no trouble for Israel. The LORD their God is with them …” (Holman Christian Standard Bible).
"He has not responded to iniquity in Jacob or gazed at mischief in Israel. The LORD his God is with them…” (International Standard Version).
"He has not looked on iniquity in Jacob, nor has he seen trouble in Israel. The LORD their God is with them…” (NET Bible).
But whichever option we choose among the possible translations of this verse, the message remains the same: God was not looking at Israel’s failures and saw no disaster looming for them. The remarkable thing about this is that God’s command to Balaam not to curse Israel, and the words of blessing that He did tell the prophet to convey, occurred after the people of Israel had turned to idol worship at Sinai, had complained continually (Numbers 11, etc.), and had openly rebelled against Moses and God (Numbers 12, 14). This is after we are repeatedly told “the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people…” (Numbers 11:33, etc.), and God had even said he was tempted to destroy them utterly (Numbers 14:11-12). Yet because of his love for Israel, God remained loyal to them (Deuteronomy 23:5).
This picture of God’s loyalty to Israel despite their disloyalty to him is a remarkable one of itself, and it is an important example for us to consider in our own lives. Humanly, loyalty is a quality we tend to give only to those who are loyal to us, and it is a quality that is all too quickly withdrawn when others do not reciprocate.
The story of Balaam and God’s loyalty to Israel is one we can all apply in striving to be loyal to others despite their failings toward us. God still disciplined Israel for its transgressions (Numbers 14:20-23), but his love included loyalty. In our own lives we should use wisdom in dealing with those who show they cannot be trusted, but we should remember that loyalty is a clear trait of the character of God and a very real part of true forgiveness and love.