No Prophet for Hire

By James Cornwell

Reading from Numbers, 23:11-26

11 Then Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? I brought you to curse my enemies, but now you have done nothing but bless them.” 12He answered, “Must I not take care to say what the Lord puts into my mouth?”

13 So Balak said to him, “Come with me to another place from which you may see them; you shall see only part of them, and shall not see them all; then curse them for me from there.” 14So he took him to the field of Zophim, to the top of Pisgah. He built seven altars, and offered a bull and a ram on each altar. 15Balaam said to Balak, “Stand here beside your burnt-offerings, while I meet the Lord over there.” 16The Lord met Balaam, put a word into his mouth, and said, “Return to Balak, and this is what you shall say.” 17When he came to him, he was standing beside his burnt-offerings with the officials of Moab. Balak said to him, “What has the Lord said?” 18Then Balaam uttered his oracle, saying:
“Rise, Balak, and hear;
   listen to me, O son of Zippor:
19 God is not a human being, that he should lie,
   or a mortal, that he should change his mind.
Has he promised, and will he not do it?
   Has he spoken, and will he not fulfil it?
20 See, I received a command to bless;
   he has blessed, and I cannot revoke it.
21 He has not beheld misfortune in Jacob;
   nor has he seen trouble in Israel.
The Lord their God is with them,
   acclaimed as a king among them.
22 God, who brings them out of Egypt,
   is like the horns of a wild ox for them.
23 Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob,
   no divination against Israel;
now it shall be said of Jacob and Israel,
   ‘See what God has done!’
24 Look, a people rising up like a lioness,
   and rousing itself like a lion!
It does not lie down until it has eaten the prey
   and drunk the blood of the slain.”

25 Then Balak said to Balaam, “Do not curse them at all, and do not bless them at all.” 26But Balaam answered Balak, “Did I not tell you, ‘Whatever the Lord says, that is what I must do’?”


King Balak recruits Balaam, a prophet, to ask the Lord to curse the Israelites migrating through the land of Canaan. Balaam, unsurprisingly, returns with an unwanted answer: No — God will bless Israel. Balak now hedges: Perhaps Balaam could simply refrain from either blessing or cursing the Israelites? But Balaam knows the answer is now clear: God will bless. And when God’s will is discerned, a prophet must declare it.

In our day we have the gift of the Scriptures, our primary way of learning the will of God. But sometimes, as contemporary Balaks, when we first encounter that will, we do not like what we find. Perhaps we seek curses — for those who wrong us, for our enemies — and the Scriptures command blessing and prayer instead. Or perhaps we seek blessing for the idols in our lives — wealth, power, sex, fame — and instead find serious warnings and a jealous God. Or maybe we turn our eyes and ears toward the many of Balaams in our day, asking them to discern the “true” meaning from the Scriptures on our behalf — a meaning that is more in keeping with our own hopes and wishes.

When we remake God in our own image, when we only seek counsel that will tell us what we want to hear, rather than what we need, our world shrinks to the cramped size of human ambition and appetite. We find our hopes and wishes are not too great or “radical” for this Scripture’s God, but too tame, small, and fragile. He does not repent of the great blessing he intends for his people; and for those who seek to serve him first, it is the blessing which “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor heart imagined” (2 Cor. 2:9). This is why we must read the Scriptures, together with all of God’s Church, lest we forget the counsel of Balaam: “God is not a human being, that he should lie; neither a mortal, that he should change his mind.”

James Cornwell lives and teaches in the Hudson Valley with his wife Sarah and their five children.

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