The Story of Patriarchs and Prophets
by Ellen G. White
Chapter 40: Balaam
Returning to the Jordan from the conquest of Bashan,
the Israelites, in preparation for the immediate invasion of
Canaan, encamped beside the river, above its entrance into the
Dead Sea, and just opposite the plain of Jericho. They were upon
the very borders of Moab, and the Moabites were filled with terror
at the close proximity of the invaders.
The people of Moab had not been molested by Israel, yet they
had watched with troubled forebodings all that had taken place
in the surrounding countries. The Amorites, before whom they
had been forced to retreat, had been conquered by the Hebrews,
and the territory which the Amorites had wrested from Moab
was now in the possession of Israel. The hosts of Bashan had
yielded before the mysterious power enshrouded in the cloudy
pillar, and the giant strongholds were occupied by the Hebrews.
The Moabites dared not risk an attack upon them; an appeal
to arms was hopeless in face of the supernatural agencies that
wrought in their behalf. But they determined, as Pharaoh had
done, to enlist the power of sorcery to counteract the work of
God. They would bring a curse upon Israel.
The people of Moab were closely connected with the Midianites,
both by the ties of nationality and religion. And Balak, the
king of Moab, aroused the fears of the kindred people, and
secured their co-operation in his designs against Israel by the
message, "Now shall this company lick up all that are round about
us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field." Balaam, an
inhabitant of Mesopotamia, was reported to possess supernatural
powers, and his fame had reached to the land of Moab. It was
determined to call him to their aid. Accordingly, messengers of
"the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian," were sent to
secure his divinations and enchantments against Israel. [p. 439]
The ambassadors at once set out on their long journey over
the mountains and across the deserts to Mesopotamia; and upon
finding Balaam, they delivered to him the message of their king:
"Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt: behold, they
cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me: come
now therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people; for they are too
mighty for me: peradventure I shall prevail, that we may smite
them, and that I may drive them out of the land: for I wot that
he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is
Balaam was once a good man and a prophet of God; but he
had apostatized, and had given up to covetousness; yet he
still professed to be a servant of the Most High. He was not
ignorant of God's work in behalf of Israel; and when the messengers
announced their errand, he well knew that it was his duty to
refuse the rewards of Balak and to dismiss the ambassadors. But
he ventured to dally with temptation, and urged the messengers
to tarry with him that night, declaring that he could give no
decided answer till he had asked counsel of the Lord. Balaam knew
that his curse could not harm Israel. God was on their side, and
so long as they were true to Him no adverse power of earth or hell
could prevail against them. But his pride was flattered by the
words of the ambassadors, "He whom thou blessest is blessed,
and he whom thou cursest is cursed." The bribe of costly gifts
and prospective exaltation excited his covetousness. He greedily
accepted the offered treasures, and then, while professing strict
obedience to the will of God, he tried to comply with the desires
In the night season the angel of God came to Balaam with the
message, "Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the
people: for they are blessed."
In the morning Balaam reluctantly dismissed the messengers,
but he did not tell them what the Lord had said. Angry that his
visions of gain and honor had been suddenly dispelled, he
petulantly exclaimed, "Get you into your land: for the Lord refuseth
to give me leave to go with you."
Balaam "loved the wages of unrighteousness." 2 Peter 2:15.
The sin of covetousness, which God declares to be idolatry, had
made him a timeserver, and through this one fault Satan gained [p. 440] entire control of him. It was this that caused his ruin. The
tempter is ever presenting worldly gain and honor to entice men
from the service of God. He tells them it is their overconscientiousness
that keeps them from prosperity. Thus many are
induced to venture out of the path of strict integrity. One wrong
step makes the next easier, and they become more and more
presumptuous. They will do and dare most terrible things when
once they have given themselves to the control of avarice and a
desire for power. Many flatter themselves that they can depart
from strict integrity for a time, for the sake of some worldly
advantage, and that having gained their object, they can change
their course when they please. Such are entangling themselves in
the snare of Satan, and it is seldom that they escape.
When the messengers reported to Balak the prophet's refusal
to accompany them, they did not intimate that God had forbidden
him. Supposing that Balaam's delay was merely to secure a
richer reward, the king sent princes more in number and more
honorable than the first, with promises of higher honors, and
with authority to concede to any terms that Balaam might
demand. Balak's urgent message to the prophet was, "Let nothing,
I pray thee, hinder thee from coming unto me: for I will
promote thee unto very great honor, and I will do whatsoever
thou sayest unto me: come therefore, I pray thee, curse me this
A second time Balaam was tested. In response to the solicitations
of the ambassadors he professed great conscientiousness
and integrity, assuring them that no amount of gold and silver
could induce him to go contrary to the will of God. But he
longed to comply with the king's request; and although the will
of God had already been definitely made known to him, he urged
the messengers to tarry, that he might further inquire of God;
as though the Infinite One were a man, to be persuaded.
In the night season the Lord appeared to Balaam and said,
"If the men come to call thee, rise up, and go with them; but yet
the word which I shall say unto thee, that shalt thou do." Thus
far the Lord would permit Balaam to follow his own will,
because he was determined upon it. He did not seek to do the will
of God, but chose his own course, and then endeavored to secure
the sanction of the Lord.
There are thousands at the present day who are pursuing a
similar course. They would have no difficulty in understanding [p. 441] their duty if it were in harmony with their inclinations. It is
plainly set before them in the Bible or is clearly indicated by
circumstances and reason. But because these evidences are
contrary to their desires and inclinations they frequently set them
aside and presume to go to God to learn their duty. With great
apparent conscientiousness they pray long and earnestly for light.
But God will not be trifled with. He often permits such persons
to follow their own desires and to suffer the result. "My people
would not hearken to My voice. . . . So I gave them up unto
their own hearts' lust: and they walked in their own counsels."
Psalm 81:11, 12. When one clearly sees a duty, let him not
presume to go to God with the prayer that he may be excused from
performing it. He should rather, with a humble, submissive spirit,
ask for divine strength and wisdom to meet its claims.
The Moabites were a degraded, idolatrous people; yet according
to the light which they had received their guilt was not so
great in the sight of Heaven as was that of Balaam. As he
professed to be God's prophet, however, all he should say would be
supposed to be uttered by divine authority. Hence he was not to
be permitted to speak as he chose, but must deliver the message
which God should give him. "The word which I shall say unto
thee, that shalt thou do," was the divine command.
Balaam had received permission to go with the messengers
from Moab if they came in the morning to call him. But, annoyed
at his delay, and expecting another refusal, they set out on their
homeward journey without further consultation with him. Every
excuse for complying with the request of Balak had now been
removed. But Balaam was determined to secure the reward; and,
taking the beast upon which he was accustomed to ride, he set
out on the journey. He feared that even now the divine
permission might be withdrawn, and he pressed eagerly forward,
impatient lest he should by some means fail to gain the coveted
But "the angel of the Lord stood in the way for an adversary
against him." The animal saw the divine messenger, who was
unperceived by the man, and turned aside from the highway into
a field. With cruel blows Balaam brought the beast back into
the path; but again, in a narrow place shut in by walls, the angel
appeared, and the animal, trying to avoid the menacing figure,
crushed her master's foot against the wall. Balaam was blinded
to the heavenly interposition, and knew not that God was [p. 442] obstructing his path. The man became exasperated, and beating the
ass unmercifully, forced it to proceed.
Again, "in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either
to the right hand or to the left," the angel appeared, as before,
in a threatening attitude; and the poor beast, trembling with
terror, made a full stop, and fell to the earth under its rider.
Balaam's rage was unbounded, and with his staff he smote the
animal more cruelly than before. God now opened its mouth,
and by "the dumb ass speaking with man's voice," he "forbade
the madness of the prophet." 2 Peter 2:16. "What have I done
unto thee," it said, "that thou hast smitten me these three
Furious at being thus hindered in his journey, Balaam
answered the beast as he would have addressed an intelligent
being—"Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a
sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee." Here was a
professed magician, on his way to pronounce a curse upon a
whole people with the intent to paralyze their strength, while
he had not power even to slay the animal upon which he rode!
The eyes of Balaam were now opened, and he beheld the
angel of God standing with drawn sword ready to slay him. In
terror "he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face." The
angel said to him, "Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these
three times? Behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy
way is perverse before me: and the ass saw me, and turned from
me these three times: unless she had turned from me surely now
also I had slain thee, and saved her alive."
Balaam owed the preservation of his life to the poor animal
that he had treated so cruelly. The man who claimed to be a
prophet of the Lord, who declared that his eyes were open, and
he saw the "vision of the Almighty," was so blinded by
covetousness and ambition that he could not discern the angel of God
visible to his beast. "The god of this world hath blinded the
minds of them which believe not." 2 Corinthians 4:4. How many
are thus blinded! They rush on in forbidden paths, transgressing
the divine law, and cannot discern that God and His angels are
against them. Like Balaam they are angry at those who would
prevent their ruin.
Balaam had given evidence of the spirit that controlled him,
by his treatment of his beast. "A righteous man regardeth the
life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel." [p. 443] Proverbs 12:10. Few realize as they should the sinfulness of abusing
animals or leaving them to suffer from neglect. He who
created man made the lower animals also, and "His tender
mercies are over all His works." Psalm 145:9. The animals were
created to serve man, but he has no right to cause them pain by
harsh treatment or cruel exaction.
It is because of man's sin that "the whole creation groaneth
and travaileth in pain together." Romans 8:22. Suffering and
death were thus entailed, not only upon the human race, but
upon the animals. Surely, then, it becomes man to seek to lighten,
instead of increasing, the weight of suffering which his
transgression has brought upon God's creatures. He who will abuse
animals because he has them in his power is both a coward and
a tyrant. A disposition to cause pain, whether to our fellow
men or to the brute creation, is satanic. Many do not realize
that their cruelty will ever be known, because the poor dumb
animals cannot reveal it. But could the eyes of these men be
opened, as were those of Balaam, they would see an angel of
God standing as a witness, to testify against them in the courts
above. A record goes up to heaven, and a day is coming when
judgment will be pronounced against those who abuse God's
When he beheld the messenger of God, Balaam exclaimed
in terror, "I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in
the way against me: now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get
me back again." The Lord suffered him to proceed on his journey,
but gave him to understand that his words should be
controlled by divine power. God would give evidence to Moab that
the Hebrews were under the guardianship of Heaven, and this
He did effectually when He showed them how powerless Balaam
was even to utter a curse against them without divine permission.
The king of Moab, being informed of the approach of
Balaam, went out with a large retinue to the borders of his kingdom,
to receive him. When he expressed his astonishment at
Balaam's delay, in view of the rich rewards awaiting him, the
prophet's answer was, "Lo, I am come unto thee: have I now any
power at all to say anything? the word that God putteth in my
mouth, that shall I speak." Balaam greatly regretted this restriction;
he feared that his purpose could not be carried out, because
the Lord's controlling power was upon him.
With great pomp the king, with the chief dignitaries of his [p. 444] kingdom, escorted Balaam to "the high places of Baal," from
which he could survey the Hebrew host. Behold the prophet as
he stands upon the lofty height, looking down over the encampment
of God's chosen people. How little do the Israelites know
of what is taking place so near them! How little do they know of
the care of God, extended over them by day and by night! How
dull are the perceptions of God's people! How slow are they, in
every age, to comprehend His great love and mercy! If they
could discern the wonderful power of God constantly exerted in
their behalf, would not their hearts be filled with gratitude for
His love, and with awe at the thought of His majesty and power?
Balaam had some knowledge of the sacrificial offerings of the
Hebrews, and he hoped that by surpassing them in costly gifts he
might secure the blessing of God and ensure the accomplishment
of his sinful projects. Thus the sentiments of the idolatrous
Moabites were gaining control of his mind. His wisdom had
become foolishness; his spiritual vision was beclouded; he had
brought blindness upon himself by yielding to the power of Satan.
By Balaam's direction seven altars were erected, and he
offered a sacrifice upon each. He then withdrew to a "high place,"
to meet with God, promising to make known to Balak whatever
the Lord should reveal.
With the nobles and princes of Moab the king stood beside
the sacrifice, while around them gathered the eager multitude,
watching for the return of the prophet. He came at last, and the
people waited for the words that should paralyze forever that
strange power exerted in behalf of the hated Israelites. Balaam
"The king of Moab hath brought me from Aram,
Out of the mountains of the east,
Saying, Come, curse me Jacob,
And come, defy Israel.
How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed?
Or how shall I defy, whom the Lord hath not defied?
For from the top of the rocks I see him,
And from the hills I behold him:
Lo, the people shall dwell alone,
And shall not be reckoned among the nations.
Who can count the dust of Jacob,
And the number of the fourth part of Israel?
Let me die the death of the righteous,
And let my last end be like his!" [p. 447]
Balaam confessed that he came with the purpose of cursing
Israel, but the words he uttered were directly contrary to the
sentiments of his heart. He was constrained to pronounce blessings,
while his soul was filled with curses.
As Balaam looked upon the encampment of Israel he beheld
with astonishment the evidence of their prosperity. They had
been represented to him as a rude, disorganized multitude,
infesting the country in roving bands that were a pest and terror
to the surrounding nations; but their appearance was the reverse
of all this. He saw the vast extent and perfect arrangement of
their camp, everything bearing the marks of thorough discipline
and order. He was shown the favor with which God regarded
Israel, and their distinctive character as His chosen people. They
were not to stand upon a level with other nations, but to be
exalted above them all. "The people shall dwell alone, and shall
not be reckoned among the nations." At the time when these
words were spoken the Israelites had no permanent settlement,
and their peculiar character, their manners and customs, were
not familiar to Balaam. But how strikingly was this prophecy
fulfilled in the afterhistory of Israel! Through all the years of
their captivity, through all the ages since they were dispersed
among the nations, they have remained a distinct people. So
the people of God—the true Israel—though scattered throughout
all nations, are on earth but sojourners, whose citizenship is in
Not only was Balaam shown the history of the Hebrew people
as a nation, but he beheld the increase and prosperity of the
true Israel of God to the close of time. He saw the special favor
of the Most High attending those who love and fear Him. He
saw them supported by His arm as they enter the dark valley
of the shadow of death. And he beheld them coming forth from
their graves, crowned with glory, honor, and immortality. He
saw the redeemed rejoicing in the unfading glories of the earth
made new. Gazing upon the scene, he exclaimed, "Who can
count the dust of Jacob, and the number of the fourth part of
Israel?" And as he saw the crown of glory on every brow, the joy
beaming from every countenance, and looked forward to that
endless life of unalloyed happiness, he uttered the solemn prayer,
"Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be
like his!" [p. 448]
If Balaam had had a disposition to accept the light that God
had given, he would now have made true his words; he would
at once have severed all connection with Moab. He would no
longer have presumed upon the mercy of God, but would have
returned to Him with deep repentance. But Balaam loved the
wages of unrighteousness, and these he was determined to secure.
Balak had confidently expected a curse that would fall like a
withering blight upon Israel; and at the words of the prophet he
passionately exclaimed, "What hast thou done unto me? I took
thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast blessed them
altogether." Balaam, seeking to make a virtue of necessity,
professed to have spoken from a conscientious regard for the will of
God the words that had been forced from his lips by divine
power. His answer was, "Must I not take heed to speak that
which the Lord hath put in my mouth?"
Balak could not even now relinquish his purpose. He decided
that the imposing spectacle presented by the vast encampment
of the Hebrews had so intimidated Balaam that he dared not
practice his divinations against them. The king determined to
take the prophet to some point where only a small part of the
host might be seen. If Balaam could be induced to curse them in
detached parties, the whole camp would soon be devoted to
destruction. On the top of an elevation called Pisgah another trial
was made. Again seven altars were erected, whereon were placed
the same offerings as at the first. The king and his princes
remained by the sacrifices, while Balaam retired to meet with God.
Again the prophet was entrusted with a divine message, which he
was powerless to alter or withhold.
When he appeared to the anxious, expectant company the
question was put to him, "What hath the Lord spoken?" The
answer, as before, struck terror to the heart of king and princes:
"God is not a man, that He should lie;
Neither the son of man, that He should repent:
Hath He said, and shall He not do it?
Or hath He spoken, and shall He not make it good?
Behold, I have received commandment to bless:
And He hath blessed; and I cannot reverse it.
He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob,
Neither hath He seen perverseness in Israel:
The Lord his God is with him,
And the shout of a king is among them." [p. 449]
Awed by these revelations, Balaam exclaimed, "Surely there
is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination
against Israel." The great magician had tried his power of
enchantment, in accordance with the desire of the Moabites; but
concerning this very occasion it should be said of Israel, "What
hath God wrought!" While they were under the divine protection,
no people or nation, though aided by all the power of Satan,
should be able to prevail against them. All the world should
wonder at the marvelous work of God in behalf of His people—
that a man determined to pursue a sinful course should be so
controlled by divine power as to utter, instead of imprecations,
the richest and most precious promises, in the language of
sublime and impassioned poetry. And the favor of God at this
time manifested toward Israel was to be an assurance of His
protecting care for His obedient, faithful children in all ages.
When Satan should inspire evil men to misrepresent, harass, and
destroy God's people, this very occurrence would be brought to
their remembrance, and would strengthen their courage and their
faith in God.
The king of Moab, disheartened and distressed, exclaimed,
"Neither curse them at all, nor bless them at all." Yet a faint
hope still lingered in his heart, and he determined to make
another trial. He now conducted Balaam to Mount Peor, where
was a temple devoted to the licentious worship of Baal, their god.
Here the same number of altars were erected as before, and the
same number of sacrifices were offered; but Balaam went not
alone, as at other times, to learn God's will. He made no pretense
of sorcery, but standing beside the altars, he looked abroad upon
the tents of Israel. Again the Spirit of God rested upon him,
and the divine message came from his lips:
"How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob,
And thy tabernacles, O Israel!
As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river's side,
As the trees of lignaloes which the Lord hath planted,
and as cedar trees beside the waters.
He shall pour the water out of his buckets,
and his seed shall be in many waters,
And his King shall be higher than Agag,
and his kingdom shall be exalted. . . .
He couched, he lay down as a lion, and as a great lion:
who shall stir him up?
Blessed is he that blesseth thee,
and cursed is he that curseth thee." [p. 450]
The prosperity of God's people is here represented by some of
the most beautiful figures to be found in nature. The prophet
likens Israel to fertile valleys covered with abundant harvests; to
flourishing gardens watered by never-failing springs; to the
fragrant sandal tree and the stately cedar. The figure last mentioned
is one of the most strikingly beautiful and appropriate to
be found in the inspired word. The cedar of Lebanon was
honored by all the people of the East. The class of trees to which it
belongs is found wherever man has gone throughout the earth.
From the arctic regions to the tropic zone they flourish, rejoicing
in the heat, yet braving the cold; springing in rich luxuriance
by the riverside, yet towering aloft upon the parched and thirsty
waste. They plant their roots deep among the rocks of the
mountains and boldly stand in defiance of the tempest. Their leaves
are fresh and green when all else has perished at the breath of
winter. Above all other trees the cedar of Lebanon is distinguished
for its strength, its firmness, its undecaying vigor; and
this is used as a symbol of those whose life is "hid with Christ in
God." Colossians 3:3. Says the Scripture, "The righteous . . .
shall grow like a cedar." Psalm 92:12. The divine hand has
exalted the cedar as king over the forest. "The fir trees were not
like his boughs, and the chestnut trees were not like his branches"
(Ezekiel 31:8); nor any tree in the garden of God. The cedar is
repeatedly employed as an emblem of royalty, and its use in
Scripture to represent the righteous shows how Heaven regards
those who do the will of God.
Balaam prophesied that Israel's King would be greater and
more powerful than Agag. This was the name given to the kings
of the Amalekites, who were at this time a very powerful nation;
but Israel, if true to God, would subdue all her enemies. The
King of Israel was the Son of God; and His throne was one day
to be established in the earth, and His power to be exalted above
all earthly kingdoms.
As he listened to the prophet's words Balak was overwhelmed
with disappointed hope, with fear and rage. He was indignant
that Balaam could have given him the least encouragement of a
favorable response, when everything was determined against him.
He regarded with scorn the prophet's compromising, deceptive
course. The king exclaimed fiercely, "Therefore now flee thou
to thy place: I thought to promote thee unto great honor; but,
lo, the Lord hath kept thee back from honor." The answer was [p. 451] that the king had been forewarned that Balaam could speak only
the message given him from God.
Before returning to his people, Balaam uttered a most beautiful
and sublime prophecy of the world's Redeemer and the final
destruction of the enemies of God:
"I shall see Him, but not now:
I shall behold Him, but not nigh:
There shall come a Star out of Jacob,
and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel,
And shall smite the corners of Moab,
and destroy all the children of Sheth."
And he closed by predicting the complete destruction of Moab
and Edom, of Amalek and the Kenites, thus leaving to the
Moabitish king no ray of hope.
Disappointed in his hopes of wealth and promotion, in
disfavor with the king, and conscious that he had incurred the
displeasure of God, Balaam returned from his self-chosen mission.
After he had reached his home the controlling power of the
Spirit of God left him, and his covetousness, which had been
merely held in check, prevailed. He was ready to resort to any
means to gain the reward promised by Balak. Balaam knew that
the prosperity of Israel depended upon their obedience to God,
and that there was no way to cause their overthrow but by
seducing them into sin. He now decided to secure Balak's favor
by advising the Moabites of the course to be pursued to bring a
curse upon Israel.
He immediately returned to the land of Moab and laid his
plans before the king. The Moabites themselves were convinced
that so long as Israel remained true to God, He would be their
shield. The plan proposed by Balaam was to separate them from
God by enticing them into idolatry. If they could be led to
engage in the licentious worship of Baal and Ashtaroth, their
omnipotent Protector would become their enemy, and they would
soon fall a prey to the fierce, warlike nations around them. This
plan was readily accepted by the king, and Balaam himself
remained to assist in carrying it into effect.
Balaam witnessed the success of his diabolical scheme. He
saw the curse of God visited upon His people, and thousands
falling under His judgments; but the divine justice that
punished sin in Israel did not permit the tempters to escape. In the
war of Israel against the Midianites, Balaam was slain. He had
felt a presentiment that his own end was near when he exclaimed, [p. 452]
"Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be
like his!" But he had not chosen to live the life of the righteous,
and his destiny was fixed with the enemies of God.
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The fate of Balaam was similar to that of Judas, and their
characters bear a marked resemblance to each other. Both these
men tried to unite the service of God and mammon, and met
with signal failure. Balaam acknowledged the true God, and
professed to serve Him; Judas believed in Jesus as the Messiah,
and united with His followers. But Balaam hoped to make the
service of Jehovah the steppingstone to the acquirement of riches
and worldly honor; and failing in this he stumbled and fell and
was broken. Judas expected by his connection with Christ to
secure wealth and promotion in that worldly kingdom which, as
he believed, the Messiah was about to set up. The failure of his
hopes drove him to apostasy and ruin. Both Balaam and Judas
had received great light and enjoyed special privileges, but a
single cherished sin poisoned the entire character and caused
It is a perilous thing to allow an unchristian trait to live in
the heart. One cherished sin will, little by little, debase the
character, bringing all its nobler powers into subjection to the evil
desire. The removal of one safeguard from the conscience, the
indulgence of one evil habit, one neglect of the high claims of
duty, breaks down the defenses of the soul and opens the way for
Satan to come in and lead us astray. The only safe course is to let
our prayers go forth daily from a sincere heart, as did David,
"Hold up my goings in Thy paths, that my footsteps slip not."
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"Apostasy at the Jordan"