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The Man Whose Donkey Talked

Numbers 22:31-35

Sometimes the funniest things appear on church sign boards. They aren’t intended to be funny, but they are. I read about the sign board in front of a large downtown church which posted the subject for the next Sunday’s sermon. Passersby were treated to this gem. The sign read: “‘A Jackass Speaks His Mind’—Dr. Moore”!

Now I am certain that Dr. Moore was dealing with the same Old Testament story I want us to focus on today. It is the story of Balaam, the man whose donkey talked. The story is found in the Book of Numbers, chapters 22, 23, and 24. However, as I have studied this story, it seems to me that it is better told in four chapters. I’ll show you what I mean…

We begin with Chapter One. I call it “Not For Sale.”

Israel had been led out of Egypt by God and Moses, and had spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness. They were now ready to enter the Promised Land, but in order to occupy that land, they had to win some crucial battles against the Canaanites, the Midianites, and the Moabites. The king of the Moabites was a man named Balak. He was an accomplished military leader and he recognized that the forces of the Israelites were superior to his own. So King Balak began to search about for some secret weapon which might give him an advantage in the war. He decided to enlist into his service a well-known prophet of that day whose name was Balaam. Nov; Balaam lived to the east, in the region near the Euphrates River. However, his reputation spread far and wide. He seemed to possess the ability not only to foretell the future, but also to control it. He not only had the ability to tell you what would happen tomorrow, but he had the ability to directly influence what was going to happen tomorrow. So Balak’s idea was to get Balaam to curse the Israelites and to make it impossible for them to defeat the Moabites.

It was at that point that Balak sent a company of his ambassadors and a caravan of gold and silver to Balaam in order to enlist his services. When they asked Balaam if he would accept the money and come to help the Moabites, Balaam replied: “Stay here overnight! I shall pray to God and I will give you an answer in the morning.” This Balaam was a rather remarkable man. John Calvin said of him that he was truly endowed with the powers and spirit of a great prophet. And it can be stated quite legitimately, that Balaam was the first wise man from the east to appear in Scripture. That is clear in what happens. Balaam spent the night in prayer, and God told him that he could not go. The next morning he told the king’s ambassadors “No,” and they headed back home disappointed.

This to me is the best part of the story. What we have here is a king trying to buy a preacher, and the preacher says, “I am not for sale.” People have always tried to buy the servants of God. I remember visiting with a wealthy businessman. He said that he and some others were trying to reform the church of which he was a part. I asked if any ministers were engaged in the effort with him. He said, “No, ministers are too easily intimidated by other clergy. Only the laypeople can be free and unpressured.” What I said then, I repeat now. In all of my ministry, I have never had another minister try to pressure or coerce me. Even the minister who is my superior in the church, the man who is the Executive of our Presbytery, has never done that. We have some differences theologically, but never once has he ever suggested what I ought to preach. But I have had a lot of laypeople try to control what I preach. I have been offered cash to preach certain sermons. I have known of individuals who withheld their offerings or threatened to go to another church or complained that the minister’s salary was too high because they didn’t like what he was saying or doing. Yes, there have always been those who tried to buy off or intimidate or pressure the servants of God.

And there are some who yield, but, thank God, there are many who don’t. Do you know why that for 35 years now, Billy Graham has been the most powerful witness for Christ in our world? I’ll tell you why. It is because he is not for sale. There have been efforts—many efforts—organized efforts—to uncover the taint of scandal and self-gain in his life. All to no avail. His ministry to the world is fueled by millions of dollars, but they do not line his pockets! He has served God with a clean heart and a clean life and God has blessed his ministry. Let anyone who seeks to sully his name or criticize his work beware of the judgment of our Lord. Billy Graham is not for sale.

This pulpit is holy ground. Every week I stand in this place to speak God’s Word as His Spirit has revealed it to me. And this servant of God is not for sale. I will not be pressured. I will not be intimidated. I will not be bought off. I will continue to preach God’s Word, no matter the cost, no matter the response, as long as He gives me the breath to breathe.

So Chapter One ends with Balaam saying to the king: “I am not for sale.”

Now we come to Chapter Two. I call it “The Price is Right.”

King Balak wouldn’t take “No” for an answer. He believed that every man has his price, and so he organized a large caravan with more money and sent it to Balaam. Apparently that got Balaam’s attention. His resolve began to waver. So he asked the king’s men to stay overnight while he sought to renegotiate with God. Of course, that’s absurd on the face of it. God is not fickle. God does not vacillate . God does not say “No” today and “Yes” tomorrow. God doesn’t change His mind. But with the temptation of more money, Balaam forgot that.

There’s a story which came out of the Civil War—a true story—about a riverboat captain who was approached by agents of the Confederacy offering him money to smuggle arms and cotton down the river. He said, “No.” They upped the price. He said, “No.” They made a still larger offer. He said, “No.” They then offered more than four times the original offer, and he physically threw them off his boat. They said: “Why are you throwing us off?” He replied: “Because you are getting too near my price.” Unfortunately, Balaam wasn’t wise enough to say that.

You know temptation always comes to us at the moment we are weakest. Think about Jesus in the wilderness. He wasn’t tempted after the first day or the tenth day or the thirtieth day. He was tempted after forty days. When He was hungriest and thirtiest and weakest, at that point, He was tempted. And so are we.

Richard Foster has a book in which he says that the most powerful temptations in this life arise out of money, sex and power. That’s where we are weakest. That’s where we are most vulnerable. And that’s where temptation strikes. The king discovered that Balaam’s weakness was money, so he sent more money, sacks of it. As a result, instead of fleeing that temptation—and that’s what the Bible tells us to do with temptation, to flee from it—instead of fleeing, Balaam said: “Wait here and let me see what I can do.”

Chapter Two ends with Balaam coming out the next morning and saying: “The Lord says I may go with you.” In other words, the price was right.

Next we come to Chapter Three. I call it “God Moves in Hilarious Ways His Wonders To Perform.”

And this is hilarious. Balaam sets off toward Moab riding on his donkey. Now God was angry at Balaam so He sent an angel with a sword to block the road. Balaam didn’t see the angel, but his donkey did. So the donkey veered off the road and into a field. That shook Balaam up and got him mad. He beat the donkey back onto the road. The angel then took a position at a point on the road where there were walls on either side. Once again the donkey veered off the road and into the wall, in the process smashing Balaam’s foot. Can’t you see old Balaam now—hopping around and crying out in pain over his smashed foot and crying out in anger over his wayward donkey? Well, it all happened for a third time, only this time when the donkey saw the angel, he stopped dead, bent over and deposited the prophet in the dust. Quite a spectacle really. At that point God adds insult to injury, because He has the donkey turn and speak to Balaam. He says: “Why are you beating on me?” Then this whole thing becomes downright hilarious. Balaam starts talking to the donkey! He says: “Because you made me look like a fool.” And that coming from a man who is talking to a donkey! The donkey then proceeds to teach a great lesson to this wise man from the east. He says: “I take you where you ought to go, and I don’t take you where you ought not to go.”

Thank God for that donkey. Thank God for anything that takes us away from the things that are not of God. It may be a book or a letter. It may be a momento from your childhood or a prayer your parents prayed. It might be a word of counsel from a friend or a word of warning from an enemy. It might be the affection of a pet or the melody of a song. It might be a verse of Scripture read or a promise made. It might be a sermon—it might even be this sermon. But thank God for anything that keeps us from going against the will of God in our lives. Yes, thank God for anything that makes us think about God, even if it’s a talking donkey.

So Chapter Three ends with Balaam finally opening his eyes to see the wonders of God.

Then we come to Chapter Four. I call it “A Short Word for the Long Haul.”

Unfortunately, Balaam didn’t heed the wisdom of the donkey. He said to the angel: “If I have sinned, I will go home again.” Listen to that, will you? Not “Lord, I have sinned and I am not worthy to be called your servant,” but “if I have done something wrong.” If…if? Even in the presence of God’s angel, Balaam still couldn’t be honest with himself or about himself. And when the angel heard that “if,” his response is the saddest one in the whole story. He says: “Go on to Moab.” The angel recognized that there was no hope for Balaam. The prophet was so caught up in doing what he wanted to do that he couldn’t honestly admit that he was doing it for himself and not for the glory of God.

Balaam’s problem was his motive. Water cannot rise higher than its source. Just so, no deed we do can be better than our motive for it. That’s why we must always examine our own motives and search our own souls. Balaam did the right thing, but for the wrong reason. “No one,” Jesus said, “can serve two masters.” So examine your motives. Are you doing the right thing for the wrong reason?

The greatest danger a Christian can face is found in the word “contentment.” The Bible says that in whatsoever state we are, there we are to be content. But that’s referring to the situations of the earth. As far as our spiritual growth is concerned, we are never to be content. I shall never be content until I become everything God wants me to be in life. And I shall never be content until this church becomes the most powerful and effective witness for Christ it can possibly be. You see, the moment we feel we have arrived spiritually, we stop growing—we stop moving forward. So we must constantly search our motives. Balaam did the right thing for the wrong reasons—and in the end, he lost everything, including his life. It’s a tragic story because Balaam started with so much and ended with so little.

There’s a scene in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress where we are shown a stately and glorious palace. Many men in armor surround it to keep anyone from entering. There’s a man at a table with a book and a pen. Anyone who wishes to try to fight his way into the glory of the palace must sign his name at the table. Suddenly a man walks up to the table and says: “Set down my name, sir!” Then the man takes a helmet and a sword and begins to slowly battle his way toward the doorway to glory. It is a fearsome battle. After giving and receiving many wounds, he makes his way into the palace. As soon as he enters, a choir of angels robed in gold begin to sing: “Come in, come in, eternal glory thou shalt win!”

Bunyan is saying that you don’t gain the kingdom of heaven just by asking for it or wishing for it. You don’t just wander across the line. You don’t just drift in. You have to fight every step of the way. You have to struggle for all you are worth. You have to resist those who try to buy you. You have to run away from the temptations that come to you when you are weak. You have to respond to any reminder of God’s way for your life. And you must always be hungering and thirsting for more and more of God and the things of God. You see, it’s a long, long haul to glory. But here’s a short word for that long haul: the Bible says that those “who endure to the end shall be saved.”


Those are some things I learned from the story of Balaam, the man whose donkey talked. I pray that you might learn them, too…

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