Why does Balaam say 'God is not man' (Numbers 23:19)?

Balaam was a prophet first mentioned in Numbers 22, and in a conversation with Balak, the king of Moab, Balaam said, "God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind" (Numbers 23:19). Even though Balaam was wicked (see 2 Peter 2:15), his statement that "God is not man" is true.

Earlier, King Balak had solicited Balaam to put a curse on Israel, but God told Balaam not to go with Balak or to curse Israel because the Israelites were blessed (Numbers 22:12). Balak again urged Balaam to go with him and to curse Israel, enticing Balaam with promises to honor him richly (Numbers 22:17). Again, Balaam refused, but made request of God (Numbers 22:18–19). God permitted Balaam to go with Balak but reiterated that Balaam could not curse Israel (Numbers 22:20). Balaam had already been instructed not to go, but he decided to pursue Balak's offer anyway (apparently, the temptation of riches and honor was great). In a remarkable episode, the Angel of the Lord stood in the path to keep Balaam from going, and the donkey Balaam rode saw the angel and tried to take a different path. After several repetitions of this, Balaam beat his donkey, and the donkey finally just lay down (Numbers 22:22–27). Remarkably, God allowed the donkey to speak (Numbers 22:28–30) and for Balaam to see and talk with the Angel of the Lord (Numbers 22:31–35). Balaam acknowledged he had sinned against God, yet God showed Balaam mercy and allowed him to continue his journey.

In Numbers 23 Balaam's prophecies are recorded, including Balaam's statement that "God is not man" (Numbers 23:19). First, Balaam acknowledged that he could not denounce and curse what God had not denounced or cursed (Numbers 23:8), and so he blessed Israel (Numbers 23:9–12). Again, King Balak requested a curse upon Israel, and a second time Balaam received word from the Lord and said, "God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and he will not do it? Or has he spoken, and he will not fulfill it?" (Numbers 23:19).

In saying that "God is not man, that he should lie," Balaam was saying that God would accomplish what He said He would. God had promised blessing for the people of Israel, going back to His covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12:2–3) that He later expanded and traced through Abraham's son Isaac and grandson Jacob (whom God renamed Israel). God would not change His mind about fulfilling His promises as a mere man might do; instead, when He gives His word, He will keep His word.

Even though Balaam knew that God is not a man that He should lie and that Israel was blessed, it didn't stop him from working against Israel. Later, Balaam was taken in by another temptation, and he counseled Israel to commit idolatry with Moab (Numbers 25:1–3; 31:16)—if Balaam couldn't curse Israel for the king of Moab, at least he could get Israel to live with the Moabites (something God had told them not to do).

Balaam's story did not have a happy ending (see 2 Peter 2:15, Jude 1:11, and Revelation 2:14) because he did not act like he believed God would keep His word. God had warned Israel not to do the things Balaam encouraged them to do. Even though Balaam knew the truth, he was like a hearer of the word but not a doer of the word (James 1:22). We can learn from Balaam's negative example. "God is not man, that he should lie lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind" (Numbers 23:19). When God warns us not to do something, He means it, and we need to heed what He has said.

But the truth that God is not a man that He should lie is also very encouraging; the promises that God has made to us—that He will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5) or that He will give us wisdom if we ask in faith (James 1:5), for example—are sure. He will keep His word to us. He is faithful and keeps His promises, not only to judge but to show mercy and grace.

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