Balaam: Wizard or Prophet?

Numbers 22-24 contains a very interesting part of Israel’s history right before they entered the Promised Land.  In these chapters, we learn about Balaam and his talking donkey (she-ass).  Opinions about Balaam vary; some say he was God’s prophet who stumbled, others say he was a wizard or seer of some sort.  Which is it?  I appreciate Keil and Delitzsch’s (K&D) perspective:

This double-sidedness and ambiguity of the religious and prophetic character of Balaam may be explained on the supposition that, being endowed with a predisposition to divination and prophecy, he practised soothsaying and divination as a trade; and for the purpose of bringing this art to the greatest possible perfection, brought not only the traditions of the different nations, but all the phenomena of his own times, within the range of his observations. In this way he may have derived the first elements of the true knowledge of God from different echoes of the tradition of the primeval age, which was then not quite extinct, and may possibly have heard in his own native land some notes of the patriarchal revelations out of the home of the tribe-fathers of Israel.

K&D go on to say that Balaam had also heard about Yahweh from Israel’s overwhelming defeat of Sihon and Og, which happened right before Balak asked Balaam to curse Israel.  K&D continue:

[Through knowing this about Israel and Yahweh], Balaam was no doubt induced not only to procure more exact information concerning the events themselves, that he might make a profitable use of it in connection with his own occupation, but also to dedicate himself to the service of Jehovah, “in the hope of being able to participate in the new powers conferred upon the human race; so that henceforth he called Jehovah his God, and appeared as a prophet in His name” (Hengstenberg). In this respect Balaam resembles the Jewish exorcists, who cast out demons in the name of Jesus without following Christ (Mark 9:38, 39; Luke 9:49), but more especially Simon Magus, his “New Testament antitype,” who was also so powerfully attracted by the new divine powers of Christianity that he became a believer, and submitted to baptism, because he saw the signs and great miracles that were done (Acts 8:13).

And from the very time when Balaam sought Jehovah, the fame of his prophetical art appears to have spread. It was no doubt the report that he stood in close connection with the God of Israel, which induced Balak, according to Num. 22:6, to hire him to oppose the Israelites; as the heathen king shared the belief, which was common to all the heathen, that Balaam was able to work upon the God he served, and to determine and regulate His will. God had probably given to the soothsayer a few isolated but memorable glimpses of the unseen, to prepare him for the service of His kingdom. But “Balaam’s heart was not right with God,” and “he loved the wages of unrighteousness” (Acts 8:21; 2 Pet. 2:15). His thirst for honor and wealth was not so overcome by the revelations of the true God, that he could bring himself to give up his soothsaying, and serve the living God with an undivided heart.

Thus it came to pass, that through the appeal addressed to him by Balak, he was brought into a situation in which, although he did not venture to attempt anything in opposition to the will of Jehovah, his heart was never thoroughly changed; so that, whilst he refused the honours and rewards that were promised him by Balak, and pronounced blessings upon Israel in the strength of the Spirit of God that came upon him, he was overcome immediately afterwards by the might of the sin of his own unbroken heart, fell back into the old heathen spirit, and advised the Midianites to entice the Israelites to join in the licentious worship of Baal Peor (Num. 31:16), and was eventually put to death by the Israelites when they conquered these their foes (Num. 31:8).  Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 761–762.

In my view, this is a helpful perspective on Balaam; to compare him to the NT Jewish exorcists or Simon Magus makes a lot of sense.  This story also shows the sovereignty of God in using people like Balaam to accomplish His good purposes for His people.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

God’s Sovereignty, Our Suffering (Bridges)

Is God Really in Control?: Trusting God in a World of Terrorism, Tsunamis, and Personal Tragedy This is one of the better books I’ve read on suffering and the sovereignty of God: Is God Really in Control by Jerry Bridges.  This book is outstanding because it is very biblical, pastoral, and practical.  You won’t find a detailed philosophical discussion of theodicy in these pages, but you will find hope, comfort, and encouragement in the sovereignty of God’s love in Christ.  As always, Bridges writes in a straightforward manner that most Christians can understand.  You can give this book to a 60-year-old Christian going through a trial or a newly married husband and wife grieving over a miscarriage.  This is truly a book for the church.

Here are a couple of highlights from the book:

“In order to trust God, we must always view our adverse circumstances through the eyes of faith, not of sense.  …We must shape our vision of God by the Bible, not by our experiences” (p. 19 & 35).

“God never wastes pain.  He always uses it to accomplish his purpose.  And his purpose is for his glory and our good.  Therefore we can trust him when our hearts are aching or our bodies are racked with pain” (p. 65).

“We must depend upon God to do for us to do what we cannot do for ourselves.  We must, to the same degree, depend on him to enable us to do what we must do for ourselves” (p. 75).

“The good that God works for us in our lives is conformity to the likeness of his Son (Rom. 8:28-30).  So, his good is not necessarily our present comfort or happiness but rather conformity to Christ in ever-increasing measure for eternity” (p. 85).

“In adversity we tend to doubt God’s fatherly care, but in prosperity we tend to forget it.  If we are to trust God, we must acknowledge our dependence upon him at all times, good times as well as bad times” (p. 131).

We all face trials and suffering in life at one point or another.  When the dark valleys in life come, this book will help you keep your eyes on the Lord and strengthen your trust in his Word.

Jerry Bridges, Is God Really In Control?  Trusting God in a World of Hurt (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2006).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

God’s Sovereign Providence – and His Means (Horton)

The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way God is sovereign, and he is providentially in control of everything that comes to pass. He’s not surprised when things happen, nor is he unsure of the future, since all things happen according to his plan (Ps. 33.11, Prov. 19.21, Is. 46.10).  At the same time, he uses means and instruments to accomplish his purposes (cf. Is. 44.28).  I appreciate how Michael Horton said it in The Christian Faith:

“Ironically, many today who would not affirm a classic Christian notion of divine sovereignty in salvation nevertheless often speak as if God does all things in their daily lives directly, without any instrumental means or ‘secondary causes.’  If one attributes a remarkable recovery from an illness to the skill of the physicians, well-meaning Christians are sometimes inclined to reply, ‘Yes, but God was the one who healed her.’  In more extreme cases, some believers even excuse their laziness and lack of wisdom or preparation by appealing to God’s sovereignty.  ‘Just pray about it’; ‘If God wants it to happen, it will happen.'”

“To be sure, the truth of God’s providence is meant to assure believers that ultimately our times are in God’s hands, but God does not fulfill all of his purposes directly.  In fact, it is his ordinary course to employ means, whether human beings or weather patterns, social upheavals, animal migrations, various vocations, and a host of other factors over which he has control.  We are comforted by the truth that God works all things – even adversity – into his plan for our salvation.  God provides, but we are commanded to pray for our daily bread and to labor in our callings.”

Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, p. 361.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Truly Successful Preaching (Newton)

Sometimes we think that a successful preacher is one who is well-known, is the pastor of a large church, whose sermons are downloaded by the thousands, whose conferences are always sold out and books are bestsellers.  The truth is, these things don’t necessarily mean a preacher is successful in the biblical sense of the term.  Heretics and unorthodox preachers can have all these things!

What makes for a successful preacher, biblically speaking?  What is truly successful preaching?  Well, it doesn’t depend upon popularity, sermon download numbers, church size, or best-selling books and conferences.  John Newton described it well while discussing the sovereign grace of God in regenerating dead hearts:

“…We may observe the proper use and value of the preaching of the Gospel, which is the great instrument by which the Holy Spirit opens the blind eyes. Like the rod of Moses, it owes all its efficacy to the appointment and promise of God. Ministers cannot be too earnest in the discharge of their office; it behooves them to use all diligence to find out acceptable words, and to proclaim the whole counsel of God. Yet when they have done all, they have done nothing, unless their word is accompanied to the heart by the power and demonstration of the Spirit.”

Without this blessing, an apostle might labor in vain: but it shall be in a measure afforded to all who preach the truth in love, in simplicity, and in all humble dependence upon Him who alone can give success. This in a great measure puts all faithful ministers on a level, notwithstanding any seeming disparity in gifts and abilities. Those who have a lively talent that affects emotions, may engage the ear, and raise the natural passions of their hearers; but they cannot reach the heart. The blessing may be rather expected to attend the humble, than the talented speaker.”

These words – especially the ones I’ve emphasized –  are comforting for us preachers and applicable to everyone who hears the word proclaimed.   Don’t give pastors credit or fame; give it all to God!

John Newton, Works, volume 1 page 286-7.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Wasted Pain? Pointless Suffering?

Is God Really in Control?: Trusting God in a World of Terrorism, Tsunamis, and Personal Tragedy Suffering and pain are realities in life.  Despite what Buddhists or New Age cults say about suffering, it is real, it hurts, and it can even shake the Christian’s faith.  Thankfully Scripture gives us a helpful angle on suffering in light of God’s sovereignty.   We see it on the cross and we see it in God’s fatherly love.  In God’s sovereignty, suffering is productive: Christ’s suffering resulted in salvation for sinners, and the Christian’s suffering produces endurance, character, and so on (see Rom. 5:4-5).

Lamentations 3:32-33 says this of God: Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone (NIV).  Jerry Bridges wrote some helpful reflections on this truth.

“God does not willing bring affliction or grief to us.  He does not delight in causing us to experience pain or heartache.  He always has a purpose for the grief He brings or allows to come into our lives.  Most often we do not know what that purpose is, but it is enough to know that His infinite wisdom and perfect love have determined that the particular sorrow is best for us.”

“God never wastes pain.  He always uses it to accomplish His purpose.  And His purpose is for His glory and our good.  Therefore, we can trust Him when our hearts are aching or our bodies are racked with pain.”

“Trusting God in the midst of our pain and heartache means that we accept it from  Him.  There is a vast difference between acceptance and either resignation or submission.  We can resign ourselves to a difficult situation, simply because we see no other alternative.  Many people do that all the time.  Or we can submit to the sovereignty of God in our circumstances with a certain amount of reluctance.  But to truly accept our pain and heartache has the connotation of willingness.  An aptitude of acceptance says that we trust God, that He loves us and knows what is best for us.”

Jerry Bridges, Is God Really in Control? p. 63-4.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church
Hammond, WI, 54015

History Taken Out Of God’s Hands: Middle Knowledge

Reformed Dogmatics : Volume 2: God and Creation by [Bavinck, Herman] Reformed Christian theology teaches that God, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordained everything that comes to pass (Ps. 33:11, Heb. 6:17, etc.; see also WCF 3.1).  In other words, all things come to pass because God decreed them.  He works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will (Eph. 1:11 NIV).  God predestined some unto salvation because it was his good pleasure, not because he foresaw some choosing Christ.

Not everyone agrees with this view.  Some people say that it detracts from human freedom, so they speak of God’s middle knowledge.  That is, although God knows all the possibilities of what might happen in the future, his decree depends on man’s choices and actions.  In this view, God decreed that which he foresaw would happen.  For a simple example, long ago God knew every possible action and choice Billy might make, but he only decreed that which he foresaw Billy actually doing.  God’s decree comes after his foreknowledge of Billy’s actions.  His decree is dependent upon Billy’s actions.  This view is an attempt to harmonize freedom of the will and God’s omniscience and sovereignty.

Reformed theology strongly opposes this teaching of middle knowledge.  Herman Bavinck critiqued this well as he explained middle knowledge:

[Middle knowledge teaches that] God does not derive his knowledge of the free actions of human beings from his own being, his own decrees, but from the will of creatures. God, accordingly, becomes dependent on the world, derives knowledge from the world that he did not have and could not obtain from himself, and hence, in his knowledge, ceases to be one, simple, and independent—that is, God.

Conversely, the creature in large part becomes independent vis-à-vis God. The creature did indeed at one time receive “being” (esse) and “being able” (posse) from God but now it has the “volition” (velle) completely in its own hand. The creature sovereignly makes it own decisions and either accomplishes something or does not accomplish something apart from any preceding divine decree. Something can therefore come into being quite apart from God’s will.

The creature is now creator, autonomous, sovereign; the entire history of the world is taken out of God’s controlling hands and placed into human hands. First, humans decide; then God responds with a plan that corresponds to that decision.  …What are we to think, then, of a God who forever awaits all those decisions and keeps in readiness a store of all possible plans for all possibilities? What then remains of even a sketch of the world plan when left to humans to flesh out? And of what value is a government whose chief executive is the slave of his own subordinates?

In the theory of middle knowledge, that is precisely the case with God. God looks on, while humans decide. It is not God who makes distinctions among people, but people distinguish themselves. Grace is dispensed, according to merit; predestination depends on good works

Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 201 (slightly edited).

Bavinck made it clear that Reformed theology firmly rejects middle knowledge because it strays from the teaching of Scripture that God – not man! – is completely omniscient and sovereign.  He is on the throne, we are not.  We are but clay in the hands of the Potter (Jer. 18:6, Rom. 9:21).  Not to us, but to Him be the glory (Ps 115:1)!

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

A Kind Of Implicit Blasphemy In Complaining (Boston)

The Works Of Thomas Boston: Volume 1 by [Boston, Thomas] If you know a few things about Israel’s wilderness years, you know they complained and grumbled more than once.  Israel’s grumbling was a terrible sin, because it showed that they doubted God’s providence and promise, it showed their arrogant and covetous hearts, and it showed they didn’t trust God.  Paul says we can learn from Israel’s sin: “…And don’t grumble as some of them did, and then were destroyed by the angel of death” (1 Cor. 10:10 NLT).  Paul also said we should do all things without grumbling and arguing (Phil. 2:14).

While talking about God’s providence and sovereign decree, Thomas Boston (d. 1732) listed some notes of application.  What does it mean that God sovereignly decrees all things that come to pass, and by his providence is in control of all things?  Here’s one application point that has to do with complaining (I’ve slightly updated the language):

“See here the evil of murmuring and complaining at our lot in the world. How quick are you to quarrel with God, as if he were in the wrong when his dealings with you are not according to your own desires and wishes? You demand a reason, and call God to an account, ‘Why am I thus? Why so much afflicted and distressed? Why so long afflicted? And why such an affliction rather than another? Why am I so poor and another so rich?’ Thus your hearts rise up against God

But you should remember, that this is to defame the counsels of infinite wisdom, as if God had not ordered your affairs wisely enough in his eternal counsel. We find the Lord reproving Job for this: ‘shall he that contend with the Lord instruct him?’ (Job 40:2). When you murmur and fret under irritable and afflicting dispensations, this is presuming to instruct God how to deal with you, and to reprove him as if he were in the wrong. Yea, there is a kind of implicit blasphemy in it, as if you had more wisdom and justice to dispose of your lot, and to carve out your own portion in the world. This is the language of such a disposition, ‘Had I been on God’s counsel, I had ordered this matter better; things had not been with me as now they are.’

O presume not to correct the infinite wisdom of God, seeing he has decreed all things most wisely and judiciously.”

To combat sinful complaining, we need to contemplate the sovereign decree and providence of God, and trust that he does all things well.  He’s the Potter, we are the clay!

Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: Part 1, ed. Samuel M‘Millan, vol. 1 (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1848), 166.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI