Tuesday, April 12, 2022

The View from the Ground

The story of Balaam is remarkable on several levels. Its lessons are important enough for the writer of Numbers to devote three full chapters to them. Moses would later cite God’s reversal of Balaam’s failed attempt to curse his people as evidence of his love for them. Joshua would cite it as evidence of God’s ability to deliver them. The prophet Micah would say it is evidence of God’s righteousness. In Nehemiah, the story of Balaam and its consequences would inspire the returned exiles to separation and holiness. In the New Testament, Peter, Jude and John would make reference to the way of Balaam, the error of Balaam, and the teaching of Balaam.

The story of Balaam matters for multiple reasons, and the talking donkey is actually the least of them.

Cognitive Dissonance

What struck me this time through the book of Numbers is the astounding difference between the historical conduct of the people of Israel and the way God speaks about them through Balaam. The attentive reader will definitely experience some cognitive dissonance when he encounters Balaam’s (wholly coerced) blessing of Israel.

Right before the king of Moab summons the famous Ammonite diviner and offers to make him rich if only he will curse Israel, we have chronicled for us a series of Israel’s corporate failures. In chapters 13 and 14, the people refuse to enter Canaan and propose returning to Egypt, are only saved by the intercession of Moses, then go out to battle on their own and are soundly defeated. In chapter 16, Korah stages a rebellion, and a plague among his followers kills almost 15,000 people. In chapter 20, Israel grumbles about lack of water. In chapter 21, Israel becomes impatient with God and Moses and is afflicted by poisonous serpents. Throughout their time in the wilderness, Israel grumbled, moaned, rebelled, feared men and failed to fear God.

Those Lovely Tents

While these events are probably distributed over nearly a forty year period, they show a persistent history of moral deficiency both in the generation that refused to enter Canaan and in that which followed it. If we are honest, the view from the ground sometimes didn’t look all that wonderful where Israel was concerned.

And yet these are the people about whom Balaam finds himself saying things like “Let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like [Israel’s]!” and “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your encampments, O Israel!” and “Blessed are those who bless you, and cursed are those who curse you.”

Or my favorite of the bunch:

“He has not beheld misfortune in Jacob, nor has he seen trouble in Israel. The Lord their God is with them, and the shout of a king is among them. God brings them out of Egypt and is for them like the horns of the wild ox. For there is no enchantment against Jacob, no divination against Israel; now it shall be said of Jacob and Israel, ‘What has God wrought!’ ”

Really? No misfortune? No trouble?

Discipline and Judgment

Well, certainly not from the perspective of the king of Moab. All he saw was what God allowed to him to see of Israel, both with his own eyes and through the oracles of Balaam. And the view from heaven was a good deal rosier than the view from the ground.

When God speaks to the world about his people, he does not do it with qualifiers like we might:

“Well, you know, he has his problems, but he means well.”

“He’s not too bad these days considering that awful upbringing he had.”

“She’d be a really nice person if only she could shake those bad habits.”

All of those things might well be true, but they were not the business of the Moabites, and they are not the business of the world around us. God’s dealings with his people and his dealings with the world are two very separate issues, and he never muddles his judgments together. Judgment certainly begins with the household of God, but you would never confuse the judgment of the household with the judgment of the world outside it.

Discipline vs. Destruction

Oh, Israel had plenty of faults, and the writers of Bible history do not spare us the details. Israel knew a fair bit about God’s discipline from hard personal experience. But put what Numbers says about Israel side by side with what God says to Balaam about Amalek (“its end is utter destruction”) or about the Kenites (“Kain shall be burned”) or about Asshur and Eber (“he too shall come to utter destruction”).

There is no comparison between one and the other. Discipline and destruction are not two related aspects of the same process. They are something else entirely.

God’s view of his people expressed through Balaam was predicated on his promises to Abraham and will be made reality in the world not because of the personal qualities of Israelites and Jews, but because of God’s unchanging character and his undying love for people who often behave themselves in ways that are less than lovely.

A Little More Cognitive Dissonance

When I look around at the people of God today, I must say I sometimes experience a little cognitive dissonance of my own regarding the difference between our standing in Christ and our current state: a scandal here, an embarrassing act of cowardice there, a bit of flirting with the world in one quarter or another, division all over the place — I can’t exactly say we always look much like a bride in fine linen or a sacred temple or a glorious assembly “without spot or wrinkle, holy and without blemish”. Individually or corporately, I can’t see much about Christians that inspires me to think the gates of hell will not prevail against us. Yet these are what the Head of the Church himself says about us, and he is not mistaken.

The reason he is not mistaken is that he is not relying on us to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and become what he has called us to be. Just as God brought Israel out of Egypt and was for them like the horns of the wild ox, and just as a star would come out of Jacob who would dispossess his enemies and destroy them forever, so also God’s purposes for his church will be accomplished because he will ensure it. The Bride wears fine linen because “it was granted to her”. God’s temple is sacred because God’s own Spirit indwells it. The assembly is glorious because Christ cleanses her by the washing of water with the word. And the gates of hell will not prevail against us because, as the Lord Jesus himself put it, “I will build my church.” Not you, not me, and certainly not some ecumenical council with a bunch of shiny new ideas.

The view from the ground and the view from heaven are very different indeed. As we strive to bring our own state in line with our heavenly standing, we need to keep the latter firmly in view.

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