“And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword. “ ‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’ -Revelation 2:12-17
Many say Balaam was a prophet, but this was not so. Balaam was no prophet. At least, not a prophet of Yahweh. He was definitely a false prophet, a prophet for hire. He was a thief and a trickster who meddled with powers beyond his comprehension. For lack of a better term, he was a warlock or sorcerer. But he probably preferred a word more like “diviner” or “seer.” He was one who regularly dealt with demons disguised as various deities, making deals and inquiring of them for the knowledge he needed to perform spells and incantations, blessings and curses. Like Prometheus who stole fire from Zeus, Balaam sought to steal “fire” of his own—divine knowledge for his personal gain.
When someone needed a blessing, Balaam would summon up Baal or Asherah. When Moab sought to go to war against the Philistines, Balaam would beseech Dagon, the seven-headed dragon god of the sea to turn on his followers. When they wanted to make sure they were victorious, Balaam would inquire of Molech how many human sacrifices Mot would require. Balaam was known as one who could bless, and there would be a blessing, one who could curse, and a curse would fall on those who were cursed. Divination was how Balaam made his living. When someone needed a blessing or curse conjured up, they would go to Balaam and ask him to do it. He would turn to dark powers, to inquire of secret, divine knowledge to learn what he must do to perform the incantation or spell for the blessing or curse.
So when Balak, king of Moab, wanted to curse Israel, who better to turn to than Balaam. Surely Balaam could pierce the veil and intercede on Moab's behalf with Yahweh. All Balaam had to do was inquire of Yahweh’s secret knowledge. If a direct approach didn’t work, perhaps Balaam could outsmart Yahweh and trick God into giving up the information that he needed to enact the curse.
In most cases, Balaam was in way over his head. But this time he simply didn't have a clue what, or with whom, he was messing with. When Balaam invokes Yahweh, the actual Yahweh, and not a demon masquerading as a deity, actually shows up. God of His own volition, actually intervenes in the situation. He tells Balaam, “You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” Don’t let the significance of that single statement be lost on you. It’s not that Balaam could not have tried to curse Isreal; it’s that a curse simply would not stick. They could not be cursed; not because they were inherently righteous or really good at doing everything that God had told them to do, but because they were blessed. Period. God’s blessing automatically negated any curse that would be sent against them. The blessing was a reversal of the Curse, an overturning of all afflictions. They were blessed, and so all curses would fail. To be blessed by Yahweh means that you are brought into a state where the Curse of sin has no lasting effect. It’s an impenetrable shield, a protective covering, against which all hell and the power of sin and the curses which can only exist in and under the state of sin are rendered inert; that is, without activity or power.
Furthermore, God is gracious to Balaam. For if Balaam had attempted to curse Israel, God would have cursed him in return. God had promised Israel that anyone who blesses them would be blessed and anyone who cursed them would be cursed. This is the promise given to Abram in Genesis 12:3 right after God promises to make Abram a great nation, the manifestation of which was currently camping on Moabite land. Cursing Israel was futile, even more so, it was suicidal. God was gracious to Balaam. And yet, Balaam continued to appeal for a different verdict, a different word from God other than the Word of blessing which God had given. Four additional times Balaam appealed God’s Word. And three times God placed His Word within this false prophet, compelling him to confess blessings over Israel in the hearing of the king of Moab who had asked him to curse them.
Furious, Balak, the king of Moab, finally parted company with Balaam who could do nothing but bless Israel. But not before Balaam had offered as a last service some advice: that Moab might defeat Israel if he told the Moabite women to prostitute themselves amongst Israel and invite them to worship their gods, eat their food offered to their idols, and sacrifice. This Balak did. Those Israelite men must have thought it was their lucky day when the hot foreign women went strutting past the edge of their camp, laking eyes at them and gesturing for them to follow. The result was twenty-four thousand Israelites dying by a plague, all those who had whored with the daughters of Moab. Though there is no record of what happened to Balak, it is believed that he died when Israel defeated the Midianites and all their kings immediately after this. Balaam, too, was killed with the Sword for his treachery.
This, then, is the teaching of Balaam: Try to get God to give you the words you want. If you cannot, teach people to believe in different words, words other than God’s Word. Balaam, who knew God had blessed Israel with His Word so that they could not be cursed, taught Balak to teach them to seek the “blessings” of different gods, a different “word” other than the Word of blessing and promise which God had given them. And in so doing, in tricking the Israelites to exchange God's protective Word for other words, it brought a curse down upon them.
Balaam was no prophet. He was a false prophet. He replaced the Word of the promise with other words, false teachings about false gods. In removing the Word of promise, Israel was led to disbelieve the Gospel and was cut down by the Word of the Law, that other side of the two-edged sword of God’s mouth.
St. Peter writes of false prophets like Balaam. He says,
“But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words.
They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, while they feast with you. They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing, but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.
These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved. For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption.” (2 Peter 2:1-3, 13-19)
The trick of Satan from the beginning has been to replace God's Word with other words. But these other words are useless, powerless. They cannot save. Indeed, they can only lead us blindly into condemnation. They leave us open and exposed to condemnation under the Law since to accept them we must first reject the Word of Promise.
This is what Paul refers to when he says,
“Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.” (Romans 1:24-25)
With the context we've established in this and the last article, we can now begin to see clearly what's happening in the letter to the church in Pergamum, which we will look at next time. In the meantime, let us now and always pray, "Lord, keep us steadfast in your Word. Curb those who by deceit or sword would wrest the kingdom from Your Son, and bring to not all He has done. Amen."