The Error of Balaam

Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam's error and perished in Korah's rebellion. (Jude 1:11)

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. (2Pe 2:14-16)

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. (Rev 2:14)

Balaam is another old testament character who is mentioned repeatedly in the New Testament as a warning for the people of God. In fact he serves as a double warning, for Balaam's error can refer both to the error the prophet himself made and the error he led others into. It is thus a warning to avoid becoming like him, and also to avoid those who would lead us down his path.

Balaam is a curious character. He was a pagan soothsayer who heard from God. He is described both as prophet and false prophet. A man of contradictions. He came to curse the people yet restrained himself to only speak the words of blessing that the Lord gave him. Yet it was his lack of restraint that was his undoing. For he thought that he could be obedient to the Lord and persist in the rebellion of his own heart. The Lord resisted his path in many ways, even causing a donkey to speak - yet he persisted to the end. Even after he had seen the blessing that was on the people of God he sought to destroy them by leading them into immorality and unfaithfulness to God.

The error of Balaam thus represents the folly of those who know the Lord and know that the course that they are on is unrighteous in his eyes, yet for the love and lure of sinful pleasure they persist in it anyway!

It also represents the cunning scheme of our enemy. For he knows that he cannot defeat us by direct attack. Even his worst curse (if he has any power to curse at all, rather than manipulating the righteous curse of God for his own twisted means) cannot touch those whom the Lord has blessed. Failing to destroy us himself, he will seek to get us to destroy ourselves instead with the subtle lure of temptation into compromise. He is not called the tempter for nothing!

Just as with Cain, the stark contrast to the clear way of God may cause us to dismiss Balaam as irrelevant to our walk. But before we do, perhaps we should ask ourselves a few questions:

Are we more devoted than David?

Are we wiser than Solomon?

Are we stronger than Sampson?

All these three, despite the call of God on their lives, despite their clear gifting, fell into temptation and succumbed to Balaam's error. The only enemy that could defeat them was their own unfaithfulness in pursuing a path of sinful indulgence.

Let us heed the warning and avoid that path. A remarkable calling or gift is no guarantee of automatic continuance in the will of God. Balaam's error was that his life was in stark contrast to his prophetic gift, and he failed to bring any adjustment.

But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people. (Eph 5:3 NIV)


The way Cain went wrong

In my last post, the Way of Cain, I wrote about how Cain is presented in the Scriptures as a warning to us. We may be tempted to ignore that warning, because he was "Of the Evil One" and a murderer and thus seemingly far removed from us. But although the way of Cain ended with murder it did not begin there.

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. (Mt5:21-22)

Jesus, in the sermon on the mount traces back the way of Cain, from murder to anger, from anger to insults, and from insults to an offhand remark that reveals what is in the heart. Whilst we may never have followed the way of Cain to the bitter end, we all may stray on to the start of that path at some time or other. The warnings of scripture are written for a reason: they are all applicable to us! [1Co 10:11]

The way of Cain, for Cain himself, began with the resentment he felt over the grace that was shown to his brother. Why did he feel resentment? This, to me, reveals where the way of Cain really begins. It begins when we see our brothers as competing ministries rather than complementary servants outworking God's varied grace. [1Pe 4:10]

Joseph's brothers clearly went down the way of Cain. They became jealous of the grace bestowed on Joseph by their father. They saw him as competition for their father's affections and their own standing in the family. This resentment blinded them to the blessing that Joseph was to the family and themselves.

Saul went down the way of Cain. He became jealous of the grace that was upon David's life and saw it as a direct competition to his authority as King. He could not see the blessing David was to the kingdom, only the perceived threat he was to himself.

The way of Cain begins for us when the blessing and grace poured out on a brother and fellow servant of Jesus does not cause us to rejoice, but to feel threatened. If we find ourselves responding in that way, it's time to recognise that the way we have strayed onto is not good and turn around quickly.

We are not in competition with each other. We have been given varied grace in order to work together as Christ's body for his glory and honour - not our own.

But God has so composed the body, giving greater honour to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together. (1Co 12:24b-26)


The Way of Cain

Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain (Jude 11a)

For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother's righteous. (1Jn 3:11-12)

In Luke 15, Jesus tells what is probably his most famous parable: The prodigal son. However when you read the context of the parable carefully, you realise that the parable is not primarily directed at the prodigals. It's a story about two brothers. One who receives abundant grace from the father, and the other who becomes bitter and angry as a result. It was told to the Pharisees who resented the grace he was showing to the tax collectors and sinners. Jesus in correcting their attitude tells this tale of two brothers which contains a sharp reminder of the very first two brothers: Abel and Cain. Jesus was sending a strong message - there is a grave danger in becoming resentful over the grace shown to another - for it is the way of Cain!

See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; (Heb 12:15)

Cain we are told in 1 John, "Was of the evil one." We might be tempted therefore to disregard his life and his errors as being irrelevant to those of us who belong to God. Yet in the same breath John warns us that we must not become like him! Since there is no need for a warning for something that can never occur, the implicit suggestion is that we are not immune from straying down the way of Cain, and we must be on guard to make sure we turn around quickly if we find we are on that path, for we know where it leads!

Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. (1Jn 3:15)

You see, Cain did not start out badly...

In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground. (Ge 4:5)

Cain brought an offering to God. It was his own initiative, and expression of his own heart and desire to minister to God. There was nothing wrong with this at all. It shows that there were good and noble desires and ambitions within Cain's heart... It was what happened next that revealed that there were other things lurking in Cain's heart that were not so pleasant!

...and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. (Ge 4:4)

His younger brother got in on the act! Although Cain's attitude towards God seemed right, it was his attitude towards his brother that was his undoing. As John reminds us over and over in his epistles. Our love for God cannot exist in isolation from an expression of love towards our brothers. If the latter is wrong, then so is the former. God will sometimes arrange situations to bring issues in our heart that need dealing with up to the surface. The Father sought to do this for Cain...

The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” (Ge 4:6-7)

Even Cain had a choice. God did not set him up to fail! He stood at a crossroads. He could repent of his bad attitude towards his brother and master his sinful resentment, or he could continue to indulge it and see where it led him...

The choice he made now stands as an eternal warning for us not to do likewise!

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Mt 5:21-24)

[More to follow...]