“[false prophets] having eyes full of adultery that never cease from sin, enticing unstable souls, having a heart trained in greed, accursed children; forsaking the right way, they have gone astray, having followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness; but he received a rebuke for his own transgression, for a mute donkey, speaking with a voice of a man, restrained the madness of the prophet.” (2 Peter 2:14–16, NASB95)
Balaam is most well known in Deuteronomy chapter 22-24 for the incident when Balak the king of Moab had called upon Balaam who practiced divination or was a false prophet (Joshua 13:22) who God confronted to be His worker of blessing on the people of Israel. It was on the way to this first encounter with Balak that the angel of the Lord (or a manifestation of the Lord Himself) appeared to Balaam’s donkey, even speaking through the donkey to get Balaam’s attention. Balaam was incensed and repeated struck it when his donkey would not move past the angel of the Lord with sword in hand. Even when the donkey spoke Balaam did not figure out that something bigger was going on. We read, “And the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” Then Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a mockery of me! If there had been a sword in my hand, I would have killed you by now.” The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I ever been accustomed to do so to you?” And he said, “No.”” (Numbers 22:28–30, NASB95)
It was not until the next verse that he gets the real picture. “Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed all the way to the ground.” (Numbers 22:31, NASB95) In showing Himself to Balaam, the angel of the Lord told Balaam, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out as an adversary, because your way was contrary to me.” (Numbers 22:32, NASB95) In response to this Balaam admitted his sin. Through the next couple of chapters, the king of Moab instructed Balaam several times to curse the people of Israel only to have Balaam bless them instead. The encounter afterward went like this each time: “Then Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, but behold, you have actually blessed them!” He replied, “Must I not be careful to speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?”” (Numbers 23:11–12, NASB95; see also 23:25-26; 24:10-14). With each we have recorded for us an oracle given by Balaam. After the last one we read, “Then Balaam arose and departed and returned to his place, and Balak also went his way.” (Numbers 24:25, NASB95)
At this point we would think that Balaam, who had been a false prophet, might have seen the light and changed his ways. But with the very next verse we read, “While Israel remained at Shittim, the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor, and the Lord was angry against Israel.” (Numbers 25:1–3, NASB95) So, what did this have to do with Balaam? This is where the history and context of Scripture helps to fill in some of the blanks.
As we begin Deuteronomy chapter 31 Moses was instructed by the Lord to avenge the people of Israel on the Midianites. In verse 8 we see part of the list of those who were slain. “They killed the kings of Midian along with the rest of their slain: Evi and Rekem and Zur and Hur and Reba, the five kings of Midian; they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword.” (Numbers 31:8, NASB95) And verse 9 tells us who they let live. “The sons of Israel captured the women of Midian and their little ones; and all their cattle and all their flocks and all their goods they plundered.” (Numbers 31:9, NASB95) This sounded like a merciful thing to do, but there was more to the story. Moses would confront his officers for not doing as they were instructed with these words, “Have you spared all the women? “Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the Lord.”” (Numbers 31:15–16, NASB95) Evidently Balaam’s encouragement was at the heart of their turning. Balaam had been used by God, but Balaam’s heart had not been changed and he returned to his false ways which ended not only in his death by the death of many others.
Just as we read in the verses that Balaam never ceased from sin, so it is true for other false prophets who entice unstable or easily swayed people to walk in their ways. In Acts 13:6-11 we read of another false prophet Bar-Jesus:
“When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they found a magician, a Jewish false prophet whose name was Bar-Jesus, who was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence. This man summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the magician (for so his name is translated) was opposing them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. But Saul, who was also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, fixed his gaze on him, and said, “You who are full of all deceit and fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease to make crooked the straight ways of the Lord? “Now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and not see the sun for a time.” And immediately a mist and a darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking those who would lead him by the hand.” (Acts 13:6–11, NASB95)
Bar-Jesus and Paul were going head-to-head in speaking to the Sergius Paulus. Paul was presenting the word of God and the magician tried to turn him away. Then we read that Paul turned his attention to Bar-Jesus, rebuked him for his deceitful and fraudulent ways, and spoke a judgment from the Lord that he would lose his sight or a season, which is exactly what happened. The good news found in verse 12 is, “Then the proconsul believed when he saw what had happened, being amazed at the teaching of the Lord.” (Acts 13:12, NASB95)
The presence of evil is real. False prophets are abundant. But God’s Word is the best response and His Spirit makes it effective to restrain evil and open eyes and change hearts such that men are amazed and people believe and are saved.