Too Good Not to Be True

Psalm 68.11
Your procession, God, has come into view,
   the procession of my God and King into the sanctuary.
In front are the singers, after them the musicians;
   with them are the young women playing the timbrels.

Reflection: Too Good Not to Be True
By John Tillman

I have personally always been drawn to the unusual stories of the Bible and I pray that many of you have benefited from an extended look at Balaam this week.

I worked with some writing partners on a children’s Bible teaching curriculum for many years. But before that curriculum, my partners had worked on another curriculum with a major Christian publisher. My partners wanted to tell the story of Balaam, but got pushback from the publishers, “Donkeys don’t talk and we don’t want to confuse the children.” My friends responded, “Does that mean we can’t teach Lazarus because dead men don’t come out of the grave?” The publisher eventually got their way and the Balaam lesson was cut.

It was a deep feeling of accomplishment when we eventually put a lesson on Balaam in the curriculum we wrote together later.

In his book, Telling the Truth, Frederick Buechner challenges preachers not to shy away from the fantastic and the miraculous, but to tell the truth in all its childishness.

“The preacher is apt to preach the gospel with the high magic taken out, the deep mystery reduced to a manageable size.

The wild and joyful promise of the gospel is reduced to promises more easily kept. The peace that passeth all understanding is reduced to peace that anybody can understand. The faith that can move mountains and raise the dead becomes faith that can help make life bearable until death ends it. Eternal life becomes a metaphor for the way the good a man does lives after him.

Let the preacher stretch our imagination and strain our credulity and make our jaws drop because the sad joke of it is that if he does not, then of all people he is almost the only one left who does not…

The joke of it is that often it is the preacher who as steward of the wildest mystery of them all is the one who hangs back, prudent, cautious, hopelessly mature and wise to the last when no less than Saint Paul tells him to be a fool for Christ’s sake, no less than Christ tells him to be a child for his own and the kingdom’s sake.

Let the preacher tell the truth…Let him preach this overwhelming of tragedy by comedy, of darkness by light, of the ordinary by the extraordinary, as the tale that is too good not to be true.” 

Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
My eyes are upon the faithful in the land, that they may dwell with me. — Psalm 101.6

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Numbers 25 (Listen – 2:20) 
Psalm 68 (Listen – 4:26)

Thank You!
Thank you for reading and a huge thank you to those who donate to our ministry, keeping The Park Forum ad-free and enabling us to continue to produce fresh content. Every year our donors help us produce over 100,000 words of free devotionals. Follow this link to support our readers.

Read more about Balaams and Balaks
Balaam is not concerned with whether what the king wants is right or moral. He does not care about reconciling men or nations to God. Balaam’s prophecies are for sale.

Read more about The Prophet of Profit
Despite his close relationship with God and his ability to hear God speak Balaam seems to show the Lord no loyalty, reverence, or love.

Balaam’s Success

Numbers 24.10-14
“I summoned you to curse my enemies, but you have blessed them these three times….I said I would reward you handsomely, but the Lord has kept you from being rewarded.”

Balaam answered Balak, “Did I not tell the messengers you sent me, ‘Even if Balak gave me all the silver and gold in his palace, I could not do anything of my own accord, good or bad, to go beyond the command of the Lord—and I must say only what the Lord says’? Now I am going back to my people, but come, let me warn you of what this people will do to your people in days to come.”

Psalm 66.16-19
Come and hear, all you who fear God;
   let me tell you what he has done for me.
I cried out to him with my mouth;
   his praise was on my tongue.
If I had cherished sin in my heart,
   the Lord would not have listened;
but God has surely listened
   and has heard my prayer.

Reflection: Balaam’s Success
By John Tillman

If all one ever read of Balaam was Numbers 22-24, one might think of him as a somewhat unwilling prophet. After all, he blesses Israel three times, rather than curse them as he was hired to do. In doing this he angers Balak and Balak cancels his planned payment. If we aren’t careful, we could mistake Balaam for someone who, in the end, honorably delivered God’s message despite relational and financial loss.

One could attempt to make a comparison to Jonah. Like Jonah, Balaam attempts to do the opposite of what God commands. Both prophets’ travels get interrupted by a life threatening event. Jonah and Balaam both have a miraculous intervention by an animal. Balaam is run off the road three times. Jonah is in the belly of the fish for three days. Jonah is reluctant to see God’s message accepted. Balaam is reluctant to give up his attempts to curse Israel. But the comparison falls flat.

The rest of scripture makes it clear that Balaam did nothing honorably. Multiple scriptures testify that God, through his power, overcame what Balaam attempted. Balaam never gave up helping Balak to defeat and destroy Israel. Although Balak dismisses Balaam without payment in this chapter, it is clear from the rest of scripture that their prophet-for-hire relationship was maintained.

Every other mention of Balaam remarks on either his deception of the Israelites or his attempts at monetary gain by betraying them.

In Balaam’s last mention in scripture, John records in Revelation that Balaam tried a backdoor method to curse the Israelites. After being unable to curse the Israelites directly, as he was asked by Balak, Balaam coached Balak on a conspiracy to tempt Israel to sins that their culture was prone to.

Balaam failed to curse the Israelites, but he succeeded in tempting the Israelites to curse themselves with sins. Balaam’s strategy of people-pleasing pandering to powerful politicians is still alive today. So are his methods of deceit and temptation.

The Israelites’ culture was most susceptible to the sexual temptations of ancient fertility cults, In our culture, sexuality might have less of a sensual pull than financial sins. Greed is the fertility god of our age and our culture is addicted to it.

No matter what sins or idols we are tempted with, may we approach God humbly, seeking repentance and redemption through Christ.

Prayer: The Morning Psalm
It is better to rely on the Lord than to put any trust in rulers. All the ungodly encompass me; in the name of the Lord I will repel them. — Psalm 118.9-10

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Numbers 24 (Listen – 3:37) 
Psalm 66-67 (Listen – 2:44)

Thank You!
Thank you for reading and a huge thank you to those who donate to our ministry, keeping The Park Forum ad-free and enabling us to continue to produce fresh content. Every year our donors help us produce over 100,000 words of free devotionals. Follow this link to support our readers.

Read more about Lamenting Materialism :: A Guided Prayer
In ancient agrarian society if you worshiped a sun god or a fertility goddess or a god of weather or a god of bountiful harvest you were worshiping a god of financial success. It is akin to our worship of stock performance or financial forecasts or political economic policies.

Read more about The Idol of Immorality, Impurity, and Greed
We are correct when we assess idolatry’s primitive nature. Where we are wrong is in thinking that our modernity exempts us from its allure.

The Prophet of Profit

Numbers 23.16, 27-28
The Lord met with Balaam and put a word in his mouth and said, “Go back to Balak and give him this word.”

Then Balak said to Balaam, “Come, let me take you to another place. Perhaps it will please God to let you curse them for me from there.” And Balak took Balaam to the top of Peor, overlooking the wasteland.

Jude 1.11
Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; they have rushed for profit into Balaam’s error; they have been destroyed in Korah’s rebellion.

Reflection: The Prophet of Profit
By John Tillman

Many Sunday school lessons and sermons about Balaam focus on the most relatable and likeable character in the story—the donkey. Even the deadly angel who comes to warn Balaam against colluding with Balak likes the donkey better than the man. The angel goes to the effort to explain that if he had killed Balaam he would have been careful to spare the donkey’s life.

Balaam may seem a minor, unpopular character but he has an impressive string of mentions throughout scripture and seems to enjoy a relationship with God that sounds remarkably similar to that of other prophets in scripture whose ethical principles are far higher. Balaam also makes multiple prophecies about Israel that are not only correct, but are often beautiful. For example:

“No misfortune is seen in Jacob,
   no misery observed in Israel.
The Lord their God is with them;
   the shout of the King is among them.”

Yet despite his close relationship with God and his ability to hear God speak Balaam seems to show the Lord no loyalty, reverence, or love. He is focused on attempting to do what Balak wants, even when God had prevented him from doing it, he tries again. And again.

As modern believers we have many advantages over prophets and priests in ancient times. We do not need to rely on divination, or strange practices to hear God. God’s Word is available to us in almost any language we could want and we have huge opportunities for deep study and understanding of the Bible. Not only that, but as Christians we have the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit who Christ promised would teach us the Scriptures and what they mean.

But despite all our advantages, we can sometimes still fall into the error of Balaam, thinking that God and the Word of the Lord can be used in a utilitarian way, whether that is to curse others or to bless ourselves.

In our culture, as in Balaam’s, curses are more valuable, clickable, profitable content than blessings. But despite our culture and our tendency to desire to bless ourselves, may we seek God for the joy of his presence, rather than the marketability of his miracles. And may we make our proclamation of God’s Word a blessing to those who hear it and never a curse.

Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
I will bear witness that the Lord is righteous; I will praise the Name of the Lord Most High. — Psalm 7.18

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Numbers 23 (Listen – 4:01) 
Psalm 64-65 (Listen – 2:39)

Thank You!
Thank you for reading and a huge thank you to those who donate to our ministry, keeping The Park Forum ad-free and enabling us to continue to produce fresh content. Every year our donors help us produce over 100,000 words of free devotionals. Follow this link to support our readers.

Read more about Political Promises
May we not trade our role as ambassadors of a heavenly kingdom for an inferior role as a political party’s “yes-men.”

Read more about The Seductive Idolatry of Politics
Politics is the idol we bring with us to church just as the Israelites worshiped Baal alongside Jehovah. Israel continued this practice until eventually, altars to Baal were set up in God’s temple supplanting true worship.

Balaams and Balaks

Number 22.6
Now come and put a curse on these people, because they are too powerful for me. Perhaps then I will be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.

Reflection: Balaams and Balaks
By John Tillman

Last week we celebrated the bravery of the prophet, Nathan, who confronted King David with his sins and described the terrible consequences that would be the result of the king’s actions.

This week’s readings begin with a very different prophet—one who could not be further from the ethical stance of Nathan—Balaam. Balaam is not concerned with whether what the king wants is right or moral. He does not care about reconciling men or nations to God as Nathan does. Balaam’s prophecies are for sale. But rather than allow Balaam to put words in his mouth, God puts his words in Balaam’s mouth.

God takes extreme measures. He causes Balaam’s donkey to speak to him to get his attention. Then, once Balaam sees the threatening, angel, God sternly warns Balaam to only say what God tells him to say. Although God speaks through Balaam, there is no relationship of love or trust—no expectation of good faith.

In the end, Balaam says what God commands. This could be because he is overwhelmed by the visions or because he is simply obeying out of fear of the angel who threatened him. Scripture does not tell us.

Perhaps the best lesson we can learn from Balaam is that there will always be prophets willing to buddy up to powerful, political leaders. These modern Balaams do their best to put words in God’s mouth that are pleasing to the powerful.

There are many political leaders today who are just like Balak. They want prophets of God to come to them, stand with them, worship with them, and bless their evil practices and desires. And there are many Balaams in the world today who claim to speak for God and yet seem willing to tickle the ears of the powerful in exchange for assurances of influence and power.

As God’s people, we can’t do much about the Balaams or the Balaks of the world. We must leave them up to God, for he is more than able to deal with them according to their sins.

Instead, we must simply keep serving our God and following him through our desert of sojourn. When the Balaams look down on us, may they be unable to deny the beauty of the love of God that is among us.

Prayer: The Call To Prayer
Let my mouth be full of your praise and your glory all the day long. — Psalm 71.8

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Numbers 22 (Listen – 5:55) 
Psalm 62-63 (Listen – 2:44)

Thank You!
Thank you for reading and a huge thank you to those who donate to our ministry, keeping The Park Forum ad-free and enabling us to continue to produce fresh content. Every year our donors help us produce over 100,000 words of free devotionals. Follow this link to support our readers.

Read more about In The Face of Wonder
Mary’s powerful confession, prayer, and prophecy, shows her familiarity with the scriptures and an intimate connection with God like the prophets of old.

Read more about The Losers Who Write History
It has been said that winners write history books, but in the case of the Bible, that is decidedly not true. Scripture, especially when it comes to the prophets, passes the microphone to the losers of history.

Artful Prayers

Psalm 57.1, 4
Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me,
   for in you I take refuge.
I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings
   until the disaster has passed.

I am in the midst of lions;
   I am forced to dwell among ravenous beasts—
men whose teeth are spears and arrows,
   whose tongues are sharp swords.

Reflection: Artful Prayers
By John Tillman

All scripture is “useful for training in righteousness,” but what scripture is—what mode and form of writing it takes—affects how we engage with it.

Lists of legalities in Leviticus may leave us dry. Genealogical records may excite us only when scandalous details grab our attention. Histories of heroes and villains may be thrilling and inspiring, but can often lead us astray if we are foolish enough to think we are always intended to religiously copy the actions and choices of historical figures. The fully flawed and un-idealized humans recorded in scripture show us more of their sins than their virtues. When rightly read, the lives of even heroes like David are perhaps more cautionary than they are aspirational.

One of the reasons that the psalms are so engaging to any reader of God’s Word is that they are works of art and carry with them the inherent timelessness that great artworks possess. In the psalms, we see with the eyes of those viewing a play, hearing a song, gazing into a painting.  We are here to enter the lived emotion of the artists who bared their souls to God in prayers that were always intended to be performed.

The psalms are not merely a private diary of rants and ravings to God, they are intended for an audience of humans. Some are written “to the director of music,” to be performed chorally. Some are “maskils,” instructive, pedagogical poetry that is intended to teach a lesson. Some are “songs of ascents,” to be sung as one climbed the Temple mount to worship. Psalms are intended for us to see them, hear them, perform them, and to participate emotionally with them. Psalms are intimate in the same way a play performed in a 1200 seat theatre is intimate.

In the psalms, we aren’t going to be told what to do in the office today when someone insults us. But we can see the inner emotional reality of someone whose friends were betrayed to death and who is now hiding in a cave. We won’t get three practical points about how to tell someone about Jesus, but we will get to see the world’s wonder through the eyes of an artist painting a descriptive thank you to a loving creator.

All art is not scripture. But all art preaches. Many times art preaches more effectively than a sermon.

May we live artfully in the power of the Holy Spirit, creating with our lives a prayer that may be seen, heard, felt, and may cause those viewing it to join tearfully in our sufferings, and joyfully in our celebrations.

Prayer: The Request for Presence
Show me your marvelous loving-kindness, O Savior of those who take refuge at your right hand from those who rise up against them. Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me under the shadow of your wings. — Psalm 17.7-8

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Numbers 19 (Listen – 3:39)
Psalm 56-57 (Listen – 3:11)

This Weekend’s Readings
Numbers 20 (Listen – 4:15) Psalm 58-59 (Listen – 3:32)
Numbers 21 (Listen – 5:03) Psalm 60-61 (Listen – 2:27)

Thank You!
Thank you for reading and a huge thank you to those who donate to our ministry, keeping The Park Forum ad-free and enabling us to continue to produce fresh content. Every year our donors help us produce over 100,000 words of free devotionals. Follow this link to support our readers.

Read more about How to Grow in Prayer
Mastering the art of prayer, like anything else, takes time. The time we give it will be a true measure of its importance to us.

Read more about Prayer, Our Tent of Meeting
For us, prayer is our tent of meeting, where the deepest thirsts of our souls may be satisfied.

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