At the beginning of each New Year, most of us start with new resolution and good intentions. It is a time for fresh starts and new beginnings. We resolve to read more, to eat right, and to follow through on that exercise program. But according to research, only 8 percent of us follow through on those New Year’s goals and 80 percent of resolutions are given up by February.
Such good intentions but life gets in the way. There is a difference between an intention and a resolution.
The Bible is full of people who began with good intentions, such as the man of God who heard God’s voice, but thought he was done when he wasn’t, or Solomon who had high ideals when he succeeded his father, but then got caught up in his own press. They had that in common with two other people in the Bible that we typically view as villains, Balaam and Herod the tetrarch.
Balaam, who was paid to curse Israel, in the end gave one of the most well known prophecies regarding the birth of the Messiah, one that features prominently around the Christmas season. “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.” (Numbers 24:17)
That is the part we focus upon, but you have to read the whole verse to get a sense of the scope of what was going on:
“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the foreheads of Moab, the skulls of all the people of Sheth.”
Sounds a little extreme doesn’t it? But there is even more drama.
On Balak and Balaam
The story begins in the book of Numbers, Israel had been wandering around in the wilderness for 40 years because they had refused to enter the land of Canaan and lost the opportunity for the blessing. Aaron and Moses also missed the promised land because they did not follow God’s instructions precisely. ( Numbers 20:2-12) They were wandering through the desert, moving from place to place, with the Promised Land always in sight.
When moving to a new location, Moses asked permission of the ruling power of the land to pass through, promising not to disturb anything. In a continuing pattern, the ruler refused to allow passage through their land (Numbers 20:14-21 interaction with Edom). This antipathy escalated with the king of Arad attacking and capturing a group of the Israelites. This led to a war between Arad and Israel where Israel utterly conquered. (Numbers 21:1-3). After more drama with complaints, snakes, and more opposition to Israel’s passage where Israel won a battle over the strongest warrior in the land (Numbers 21:33-35), Balak, the ruler of nearby Moab, got nervous. (Numbers 22:1-3)
Balak was worried because he saw the victories of the Israelites, victories over people that had pushed Moab out of their previously inhabited land. The root of the Israelites campaign to conquer the promised land goes back further than God’s promise to the Israelites at Sinai (Exodus 33:1), It goes back further than God’s directive to Moses, and it even goes back before the promise of God to Jacob at Bethel or Abraham (Genesis 17:8). It begins in Genesis 9:20-27 when Noah curses Ham’s son Canaan. The directive was to conquer the land of the Canaanites, not the surrounding lands. Why the Canaanites were singled out is a topic for another day, but the point is Balak didn’t have anything to worry about. The Moabites descended from Lot (Genesis 19:37), and God told Moses not to bother them because they were in the land He had given them (Deuteronomy 2:9).
Balak knew about God, but he didn’t know God. He let fear overtake him without knowing the circumstances and he sought out Balaam, someone he knew was a prophet of God. Balak knew that if he could get Balaam to speak against Israel, that it would be so.
Balak sent ambassadors to Balaam and said:
“And now come, curse for me this people, since it is stronger than we are, if we may be able to strike some of them, and I will cast them out from the land. For I know that whomever you bless are blessed, and whomever you curse are cursed.” (Numbers 22:6 NETS)
Whenever Balaam is referenced later in the Bible, he is always referred to as a sell out. We think of him as the guy whose donkey had more sense than he did, or who later successfully tempted Israel into sin. Later, Joshua reminds the Israelites that although Balaam was known as a powerful seer, God was more powerful and delivered them (Joshua 24:10.) In the middle of fierce political opposition, Nehemiah reminded Israel that God had turned Balaam’s curse into a blessing (Nehemiah 13:2). Micah did the same (Micah 6:5). In the New Testament, Balaam is the poster boy of a sellout. One who leads people into error in order to line his own pockets (2 Peter 2:15, Jude 1:11, and Revelation 2:14).
But Balaam didn’t start out this way. He actually did hear and speak for God, Balak would not have come to him otherwise. But there is a lesson here, how we begin does not automatically ensure where we will end. We have to continue to make the right choices along the way.
When Balak’s delegation came to Balaam, he did the right thing. He did not give them an answer until He asked God if it was something that he could do. (Numbers 22:8) God told him two things: not to go with them and that he was not able to curse them because God had blessed them. (Numbers 22:12). Balaam gave them the answer and the delegation left.
This should have been the end of the matter . . . But it wasn’t.
This is the way the enemy works. He doesn’t give up after one attempt. This is why, throughout the Old Testament and the New, we are repeatedly told to “stand firm.”
Not giving up, Balak sent a second group of representatives to entice Balaam to help him. He sent a larger group with higher status, people of prominence to honor Balaam. Balak promised to honor Balaam and to give him whatever he wanted if he would come to curse the Israelites. (Numbers 22:16-17)
This is the part of the story to really ponder. God told Balaam not to go with them, he was not to be a part of their plot against Israel. However, Balaam really wanted to go. He was probably flattered by all of the important people who came to plead with him and tempted by the promises of Balak. The second time, God said, “okay go ahead and but you can only say what I tell you.”
The question here is how many times do we keep asking for a “yes” when we have already been told “no?”
As the fictionalized George MacDonald explains in Lewis’ The Great Divorce,
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.”
Balaam most likely rationalized his actions, but his heart was motivated by avarice. God gave Balaam his way but, as we will see, it didn’t work out well for him.
Next Balaam and his donkey have an encounter with an angel. (Numbers 22:22-35) Some may ask, “Well God told him he could go, so why is it that an angel was standing in the road ready to strike him down?” Balaam had already ignored what God said once. What are the odds that he would have obeyed and spoken exactly what God told him if he hadn’t just been scared spitless right before he met Balak? Pretty low I think.
That he spoke a blessing over Israel in spite of standing in the middle of a camp of people who wanted him to do the exact opposite was only because the fear of God had been put in him. It didn’t last long. Balak tried three different times to get a curse out of Balaam, each time Balaam could only speak a blessing.
You would think that both of them would have caught a clue at this point that maybe the course they were on was one they shouldn’t take. But neither did. Balak was overwhelmed by the thought that he might lose his position and Balaam, by coming at all, had committed himself to finding a way to harm Israel. Since Balaam could not speak a curse directly upon Israel, he came up with a plan to entice Israel into bringing a curse down on itself.
The thing to remember about Balaam is that he began in relationship with God. God went to great lengths to warn him against the path to destruction. However, Balaam’s desire for money and prestige won out over his initial good intentions.
Herod’s Big Mistake
Another person who began with good intentions, at least to some extent, is Herod the tetrach. In Mark’s account of the circumstances leading up to Herod’s execution of John the Baptist (Mark 6:17-29), Herod is represented as respecting John, as listening to what John had to say, and that he “kept John safe.” Matthew and Luke paint a different picture, but Mark may have been right in his more sympathetic portrayal in that if Herod wanted to kill John, he could have done so at the outset.
However, we know that Herod did not harm John initially, but kept him in prison. That way he was not out stirring up the people in the countryside and pricking the pride of the religious leaders. The one person John was bothering was Herodias. Formerly the wife of Herod’s brother, John spoke out very strongly against the union as it was against the Law.
Like Balak and Balaam who maneuvered around the Word from God in an attempt to get what they both wanted, Herodias set about to put an end to this man who was a thorn in her side. Sending her daughter (Herod’s stepdaughter), Salome, in to dance for Herod and his guests, Herodias banked on Herod’s pride and effusiveness to play into her hands. When Herod made the promise that he would give her anything she asked, “even to half of his kingdom,” how could he refuse her request to execute a badly dressed guy from the hill country without looking foolish? His pride got in the way of his initial good intentions.
Good Intentions Aren’t Enough
The point is, no one begins with the intention of becoming an infamous villain. Balaam began as a respected seer, not as a corrupted sellout. Herod Antipas probably never imagined that the only reason most people would know his name would be because of the actions his problems with women caused. They were both big men with great ideas. Neither ended well. Herod died in exile and Balaam died in the resulting battle between Israel and the Midianites. (Numbers 31:8)
Good intentions often lead to bad endings.
 Kelsey Mulvey, “80% of New Year’s Resolutions Fail by February – Here’s How to Keep Yours,” News, Business Insider, January 3, 2017, accessed January 3, 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/new-years-resolutions-courses-2016-12.
 C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001). 75.
 Note on Herod: Herod the Great was the ruler over all of Judea when Jesus was born. After Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. the kingdom was divided into four provinces and given to Salome, Herod’s sister, and his three sons: Archelaus, Herod Antipas, and Philip. Archelaus was banished in A.D. 6, Philip ruled until A.D. 34, and Herod Antipas until A.D. 39.
Stewart Henry Perowne, The Later Herods (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1958). Pp 7-8.
 Note on the Gospel Accounts: Mark’s gospel has the most charitable portrayal of Herod in this story. The account is recorded in each of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 14:3-12, Mark 6:17-29, and Luke 3:9-20); however, it’s interesting to read how each writer presents the story. Mark isolates John’s chastisement of Herod as solely due to his marriage to his brother’s wife. Luke, on the other hand, says that it was not only because of the marriage but “all the evil things Herod had done. (Luke 3:19). Mark claims that Herod knew John was a “righteous and holy man,” that he ‘heard John gladly,” and “kept him safe.” (Mark 16:20) After Salome manipulated Herod into executing John the Baptist, according to Mark Herod was “exceedingly sorry” but that he couldn’t go back on his word after his promise in front of his guests (Mark 6:26). Matthew doesn’t mention any reluctance or any goodwill towards John on Herod’s part. In fact, Matthew states that the reason Herod kept John alive was because the people believed he was a prophet. (Matthew 14:5) It may be that Mark wrote his Gospel while Herod was still alive and so painted a more positive picture of Herod’s motivations. Luke and Matthew, writing later, would not have had that same pressure in their narration.