Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Magi and Balaam: A Tale of Two Kinds of Wisdom

What did the Magi understand? Why did they travel such a long distance from the east to come to worship the newborn King (Matthew 2:1-12)? Certainly, there were enough kings in the east who would have rewarded the Magi for their gifts and worship. The tiny child could not reciprocate in this manner.

Evidently, they knew that this child wasn’t an ordinary king but the King of Kings. But He was a foreigner! Why take the risk to worship someone who was not their own king. Certainly, this would arouse suspicions of sedition! However, the Magi knew that Jesus was more than just another great king. For one thing, He had His own personal star, which had appeared to them. For another, the Magi evidently knew enough to seek this child in the environs of Jerusalem, the city of Promise. They also knew that He was the Messiah and deserved worship. We see this in King Herod’s response to them (Mat. 2:7, 8).

Well, from where did the Magi get this wisdom? Frankly, we don’t know. However, there are certain parallels between their knowledge and that of another man from the east – the false prophet Balaam. Balaam also saw a star as he prophesied according to “the vision of the almighty”:

  • "I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; A Star shall come out of Jacob; a Scepter shall rise out of Israel…” (Numbers 24:17; All quotations from the NKJV)
 The “scepter” represents the reign of a King. The “star” represents the light and the glory that emanate from Him. Although Balaam confessed that he saw Him, it was only from far off. In one sense, the King was already among Israel, but in another sense, His time had not yet come. However, the Magi understood otherwise. “His star” (Mat. 2:2) had finally appeared to them, heralding His arrival, and they knew that they had to make haste to worship Him.

Instead, Balaam had come to curse Israel at the bequest of the king of Moab, Balak, who feared the Israelite multitudes. However, the Lord had warned Balaam that he must only say what the Lord had instructed him to say.

Balak prepared sacrificial offerings and Balaam proceeded up the mountain to curse Israel, if God would so allow him. However, Balaam came back with a prophecy that great displeased his benefactor:

  • "Who can count the dust of Jacob, or number one-fourth of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my end be like his!" (Numbers 23:10)
Instead of cursing Israel as Balak would pay him to do, Balaam saw Israel’s blessed end, and expressed his desire to share in their fate.

As a faithful pagan who believed that getting blessings and curses was just a matter of using the right techniques or manipulations, he angrily brought his prophet up to another mountain and made additional sacrifices, convinced that the right combination would produce his desired outcome. However, Balaam’s next prophecy was even more discomforting to Balak:

  • "He has not observed iniquity in Jacob, nor has He seen wickedness in Israel. The Lord his God is with him, and the shout of a King is among them.” (Numbers 23:21)
Strangely, even though Israel’s King was far off, He also was present with Israel. The Apostle Paul had written:

  • All [Israel] drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. (1 Cor. 10:4)
Christ was always among His people, but not in His post-crucifixion fullness. Israel was blessed through Christ’s presence materially and otherwise. Through the anticipated blood of Christ, "He has not observed iniquity in Jacob, nor has He seen wickedness in Israel.”

This is absolutely incredible. Israel was crawling with “iniquity” and “wickedness.” Why did not God see this? Was He blind? Certainly not! Instead, He perceived sinful Israel through eyes of love and mercy – a mercy that can only be understood in light of the time when His requirement of justice would be decisively fulfilled on the Cross.

King Balak was not lacking in perseverance or sacrificial animals. He took his prophet to another mountain. This time, Balaam described his prophecy as to one whose “eye is opened” and sees the “vision of the Almighty” (Num. 24:3, 4). “Falling down” in awe, he saw something incredible, something that we are prevented from seeing:

  • "How lovely are your tents, O Jacob! Your dwellings, O Israel!” (Numbers 24:5)
After 40 years of wandering in the desert, Israel’s tents must have looked ratty at best. However, this wasn’t how they looked in their God’s eyes. Instead, they were “lovely.” Everything about Israel was beloved, even their smelly, un-bathed tents!

Although our God loves us with a love that surpasses all understanding (Eph. 3.17-19), we are kept from seeing this. This causes us to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). I suspect that we are not yet ready to receive the fullness of this knowledge.

By the time that the Magi arrived to worship the Child Jesus, He was no longer living in a stable but a house. However, it must have represented the humblest of lodgings. Nevertheless, these travelers fell to the ground and worshiped. There is no hint here of an elegant bow or curtsy. As Balaam had hit the ground, so too did the Magi, overcome with His glory. However, what Balaam had seen from afar, the Magi saw in person.

Balaam had seen the King as only the Savior of Israel. However, the Magi worshiped Jesus, the King of Kings, the Savior of the entire world and also their Savior. While Balaam had received the gifts of the King of Moab, the Magi gave gifts to the King of Kings.

Although Balaam wouldn’t curse Israel, he foolishly counseled Balak to tempt Israel to sin, which Israel did at great cost to themselves. However, Balaam was killed when Israel retaliated against Moab for their treachery. In contrast, the Magi left their gifts, and not evil advice, and lived, warned by God to avoid the murderous Herod.

Balaam had also seen the light, but this didn’t bring him to worship. It had no lasting effect upon him. However, the Magi worshiped and departed after leaving their precious gifts of gold, incense and myrrh.

It had been a divine appointment. Once they left, the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream directing them to flee to Egypt. This they were able to do in comfort, thanks to the gifts of the Magi.

I suspect that Balaam’s treacherous advice finally earned Balak’s reward. However, his was a fool’s wisdom – a wisdom that failed to perceive the “tents of Israel” and the King who inhabited them.

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