God uses a pagan sorcerer to prophesy the Messiah (Numbers 24:17)

God uses a pagan sorcerer to prophesy the Messiah (Numbers 24:17)

Prepared and preached by Pastor Steve Rhodes for and at Bethel Friends Church on Sunday, November 24

A number of years ago I heard about a church that would advertise on their website, “Doubters welcome.” I liked that. I hate to think that people stay away from the church because they have doubts. We all have doubts from time to time. Or, we all have had to overcome doubts in order to grow in our faith. About 20 years ago I was studying the book of Revelation. I was going chapter by chapter studying one chapter at a time. It encouraged my faith so much because I saw how the Bible fits together. In studying the book of Revelation, I saw how prophesies from Daniel in the Old Testament were fulfilled in Jesus in the Gospels and how other prophesies are still going to be fulfilled when Jesus comes again. All of these Scriptures from the Old and New Testament fit together perfectly. It is amazing!

John Ortberg writes:

As long as you have faith, you will have doubts. I sometimes use the following illustration when I’m speaking. I tell the audience that I have a twenty-dollar bill in my hand and ask for a volunteer who believes me. Usually only a few hands go up. Then I tell the volunteer that I am about to destroy his (or her) faith. I open my hand and show the twenty-dollar bill. The reason I can say I am destroying his faith is that now he knows I hold the bill. He sees the bill and doesn’t need faith anymore. Faith is required only when we have doubts, when we do not know for sure. When knowledge comes, faith is no more.

Sometimes a person is tempted to think, I can’t become a Christian because I still have doubts. I’m still not sure. But as long as doubts exist, as long as the person is still uncertain, that is the only time faith is needed. When the doubts are gone, the person doesn’t need faith anymore. Knowledge has come.

I tell the audience that this is exactly the point Paul was making in his first letter to the church at Corinth: “Now we see [that a ‘knowing’ word] but a poor reflection [now we have confusion, misunderstanding, doubts, and questions] … then we shall see face to face [we don’t see face-to-face yet]. Now I know in part [with questions and doubts]; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (13:12).[1]

Today, we are going to look at another passage from the Old Testament that is prophetic to the Messiah.

My theme today:

God uses a pagan sorcerer to prophesy the Messiah.


Realize that God can use anyone.

Let’s read Numbers 24:17:

“I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near;
A star shall come forth from Jacob,
A scepter shall rise from Israel,
And shall crush through the forehead of Moab,
And tear down all the sons of Sheth…

  1. Baalam and Balak in context.
    1. Context is critical so let me place this passage in context.
    2. In chapter 21, Israel started conquering the people of Canaan. They were getting ready to go into the Promised Land. They were not in the Promised Land yet but soon they would be. If you were to read chapter 21 you would see that when the Israelites trusted the Lord they would win the battles. God took care of them.
    3. So, now we get to chapter 22. There is a man named Balak in an area named Moab. Balak is a king in this area and he hears about or sees how the Israelites are conquering everyone they come into contact with. The Moabites and their king Balak are getting a little scared. So Balak contacts this prophet, pagan prophet, and asked him to curse the Israelites. His name is Balaam and he is internationally famous.
    4. Balaam asks God if he can do this.
      1. Balaam is not asking the Israelite God specifically but probably any of the gods. It was the One True Israelite God that answered. I suspect God might have ignored him but it had to do with His people the Israelites.
      2. God says, “You cannot curse them for they are blessed.”
        1. You may recall Gen 12:1-3. This is the promise of God to Abraham. God says, “those who bless you I will bless and those who curse you I will curse.” Now God proves that.
      3. Balaam sends these messengers back to Moab to tell Balak the Lord will not allow them to curse Israel. But if you look at verse 14 of chapter 22, the messengers tell Balak that Balaam will not come. They didn’t give Balak the message that the Lord would not allow it.
      4. The messengers come back and Balaam ask the Lord about this again. This time the Lord says alright, you can go but only speak what I tell you…. This is because in chapters 23 and 24 the curses that Balaam was supposed to pour out on Israel will end up being blessings. God takes care of His people.
      5. It is easy to read this passage and think that Balaam was a good obedient man but he wasn’t. God forced him to be obedient. The rest of Scripture refers to him as a false prophet who wanted selfish gain.
        1. 2 Peter 2:15 talks of Balaam as selfish.
        2. Revelation does as well in Revelation 2:14.
        3. In Number 31:16 Balaam is accused of giving bad advice to the Israelites which led them into adultery.
        4. In Numbers 31:8 he is killed.
      6. In Numbers 22:28 the Lord talks through a donkey to get through to Balaam.
      7. So, that gets us to Numbers 23 which is where Balaam begins to bless Israel. Here is this pagan prophet blessing Israel, this is powerful.
    5. The prophesy of the Messiah.
      1. Numbers 24:17 is the actual Messianic prophesy, but let’s continue setting the table.
      2. The context of Numbers 24:17 is Balaam as found in chapter 22 and written about above.
      3. In Numbers 23 and 24 Balaam blesses Israel 3 times. Every time he tries to curse Israel he blesses them.
      4. Starting in Numbers 24:15 we have Balaam’s final (fourth oracle) which is our passage.
      5. Numbers 24:1 is continuing the 3rd blessing of Israel.
      6. Beginning in Numbers 23:25 Balak, who is the local king of Moab asks Balaam to curse Israel. He has been asking him to curse Israel, but Balaam can only bless Israel.
      7. The ESV Study Bible shares: Balaam’s second blessing ( 18–24) responds to Balak’s complaint that Balaam should have cursed, not blessed, the people (v. 11). Balaam observes that God does not change his mind, so the blessing already pronounced cannot be turned into a curse (vv. 19–20). So the nation will be free from disaster (v. 21).
      8. In Numbers 23:26: Balaam says that he has do what the Lord tells him.
      9. In verse 27: we have Balak, again the local king of Moab, taking him to a high place thinking this can make him curse Israel.
      10. Then, in verses 28-30: Balak took Balaam to the top of Peor which overlooks the dessert. Balaam then asked for 7 alters and they made sacrifices.
      11. This brings us to chapter 24.
      12. Read with me verses 1-2 of chapter 24: When Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he did not go as at other times to seek omens but he set his face toward the wilderness. And Balaam lifted up his eyes and saw Israel camping tribe by tribe; and the Spirit of God came upon him.
      13. This is now, specifically, Balaam’s 3rd oracle: now he knew that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel so he did not seek omens but he set his face toward the wilderness.
      14. This is a telling passage.
      15. Verse 2 says that the Spirit of the Lord came upon him. That is awesome! The Spirit of the Lord came upon this pagan man.
      16. He saw Israel camping tribe by tribe. Imagine the picture of Israel camping tribe by tribe and the Lord comes upon Balaam at this time.
      17. Verse 3, he takes up his oracle, or discourse:
      18. Verse 3 tells who the oracle is from.
      19. Verse 4: The oracle of him who hears the Word of God, who sees the Vision of the Almighty…This oracle is from God.
      20. Again, this is Almighty God working through a pagan non-believer, sorcerer.
      21. Verses 5-7 are about how great their locations are, etc. Then, in verse 7, he talks about how high their kings will be. Israel’s Kingdom will be exalted.
      22. Verse 8 is about the Lord leading them to military victories.
      23. Verse 9 includes the same idea as Gen 12:3 and the covenant with Abraham.
      24. Verses 10-13 includes Balak’s anger. Balak is angry because he wanted Balaam to curse Israel and now three times he has blessed them.
      25. Verses 12-13: Balak sends him home, but Balaam says that he told the messengers that he must speak what the Lord says.
      26. Now we come to verse 17: “I see him, but not now;
        I behold him, but not near;
        A star shall come forth from Jacob,
        A scepter shall rise from Israel,
        And shall crush through the forehead of Moab,
        And tear down all the sons of Sheth…

        1. A star: symbol of kingship.
        2. A scepter: royalty.
  • Genesis 49:10 tells us “the scepter will not depart from Judah.”
  1. This Star, this Sceptre will lead Israel. They will defeat their enemies.
  • ESV Study Bible: Sons of Sheth should probably be identified with nomads who lived in Canaan. The Shutu are mentioned in Egyptian texts from 1900 B.C.[2]
  1. In Verses 18-19 are more about the Messiah reigning defeating enemies.
  • Verses 20ff are a prophesy about the other nations.
  1. Think about this prophesy. This is all about Israel being the ruling Kingdom.
  2. This is all about Israel having a MIGHTY King.
  • The New American Commentary shares: One of the most remarkable prophecies of the Hebrew Bible, interpreted for centuries before the Christian era as portending and heralding the great Messianic king and kingdom, is here uttered by a pagan divination expert. Allen remarked, “That this prophecy should come from one who was unworthy makes the prophecy all the more dramatic and startling.”622 As noted earlier, the Book of Balaam presents an amazing picture of God in his sovereign desire to bless his people Israel. He will utilize whatever means he chooses to reveal himself and his will for his people, even if it means divinely drafting for service one who would seem the ultimate antithesis of what the world would envision for a leader and spokesman—but his thoughts are not our thoughts (Isa 55:8).[3]
  • This is a simple, yet profound prophesy about the Messiah.
  • Applications:
    1. God uses this pagan king to prophesy the Messiah. Do we trust that God can use everyone?
    2. We must not limit God. God can work in any way He chooses.
    3. We must have more confidence in our faith.
    4. We must have more confidence in God’s Word.
    5. We must have more trust in the Messiah, recognizing God’s pre-ordained plan.
    6. Balaam did what the Lord told Him (Numbers 24:12-13). We must be obedient to the Lord’s will.
    7. Balaam did what the Lord told him regardless of money. Even though he was a pagan man, he was not going to let money sway him (Numbers 24:12-13). Do we let money sway us?
    8. All this was going on behind the scenes, Israel did not know this was going on. We can have more trust in the Lord knowing that He is working behind the scenes.

So, I began this message talking about doubt. It always encourages my faith to see how the Bible fits together. This passage was written some 1400 years before Jesus and it is also connected with Genesis 49:10 which was spoken 400 years before that. All of these Messianic prophesies and inferences fit together. The Bible written by 39 or 40 authors over a 1400 year period all fits together.

In his book Stories for the Journey, William R. White shares the story of Hans, a European seminary professor devastated by the death of his wife, Enid. Hans was so overcome with sorrow that he lost his appetite and didn’t want to leave the house. Out of concern, the seminary president, along with three other professors, paid Hans a visit. The grieving professor confessed that he was struggling with doubt. “I am no longer able to pray to God,” he admitted to his colleagues. “In fact, I am not certain I believe in God any more.” After a moment of silence, the seminary president said, “Then we will believe for you. We will pray for you.” The four men continued to meet daily for prayer, asking God to restore the gift of faith to their friend. Some months later, as the four friends gathered for prayer with Hans, Hans smiled and said, “It is no longer necessary for you to pray for me. Today I would like you to pray with me.”[4]

Confess, Believe, trust, commit: Firmly make the decision to be with Him in order to become like Him and to learn and do all that He says and then arrange your affairs around Him.




[1] John Ortberg, Faith & Doubt (Zondervan, 2008), pp. 139-140

[2] https://www.esv.org/Numbers+24/

622 Allen, “Numbers,” 909.

[3] R. Dennis Cole, Numbers, vol. 3B, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 425.

[4] John Koessler, in the sermon “Blessed Are Those Who Mourn,” PreachingToday.com

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