The Root of Deception

Accompanying the problems arising from the wrong motives discussed in the previous handout is the issue of idolatry. Whenever we “hear from God,” it is usually subjective in nature to some degree. Seldom is it completely objective. Rather, we hear God speaking through the issues that exist in our hearts or our minds. As such, it is extremely important to have clean hearts and pure minds, since impurity can taint what we hear from God.

Because the life of Balaam provides amazing insight into the terrible dangers of deception accompanying idolatry his example also trumpets a stern warning of how even someone who is gifted prophetically can become deceived in their guidance from God

Two significant benefits can be gained from understanding Balaam’s life. First, there are practical guidelines on following God’s leading. Second, we see that the degree to which we have allowed idolatry to remain in our hearts is the degree to which we are susceptible to deception and delusion. Seen correctly, this awareness can help us choose the Lord’s fear instead of presumption.

The Israelites journeyed and encamped in the plains of Moab, on the east side of the Jordan (River) at Jericho. And (the king of Moab) Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. And Moab was terrified at the people and full of dread, because they were many; Moab was distressed and overcome with fear because of the Israelites. And Moab said to the elders of Midian, Now will this multitude lick up all that is round about us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field. So Balak son of Zippor the king of the Moabites at that time, Sent messengers to Balaam (a foreteller of events) son of Beor at Pethor, which is by the (Euphrates) River, even to the land of the children of his people, to say to him, There is a people come out from Egypt; behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they have settled down and dwell opposite me. Now come, I beg of you, curse this people for me, for they are too powerful for me; perhaps I may be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed. And the elders of Moab and of Midian departed with the rewards of foretelling in their hand; and they came to Balaam, and told him the words of Balak. And he said to them, Lodge here tonight, and I will bring you word, as the Lord may speak to me. And the princes of Moab abode with Balaam (that night). And God came to Balaam, and said, what men are these with you? And Balaam said to God, Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent to me, saying, Behold, the people who came out of Egypt cover the face of the earth; come now, curse them for me; perhaps I shall be able to fight against them and drive them out. And God said to Balaam, You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed. And Balaam rose up in the morning, and said to the princes of Balak, Go back to your own land, for the Lord refuses to permit me to go with you. So the princes of Moab rose up and went to Balak, and said, Balaam refuses to come with us. Then Balak again sent princes, more of them and more honorable than the first ones. And they came to Balaam, and said to him, thus says Balak son of Zippor, I beg of you, let nothing hinder you from coming to me. For I will promote you to very great honor, and I will do whatever you tell me; so come, I beg of you, curse this people for me. And Balaam answered the servants of Balak, If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord my God, to do less or more. Now therefore, I pray you, tarry here again tonight that I may know what more the Lord will say to me. And God came to Balaam at night, and said to him, If the men come to call you, rise up and go with them; but still only what I tell you may you do. And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab. And God’s anger was kindled because he went; and the Angel of the Lord stood in the way as an adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his donkey, and his two servants were with him. And the donkey saw the Angel of the Lord standing in the way and His sword drawn in His hand, and the donkey turned aside out of the way, and went into the field; and Balaam struck the donkey to turn her into the way   (Numbers 22:1-23 AMP).


Consider Balaam’s strengths. His first mention in Scripture shows God appearing and speaking to him (verse 9). Additionally, Balaam’s prophetic ability must have been astounding since Balak considered Balaam’s gift to be his only hope of victory over Israel (verse 6). As a foundation for our examination of his life, it is apparent that Balaam heard from God and that God hearkened to his words spoken prophetically

Getting What You Want

The first question to examine is why would God want to kill someone who obeys His word? In verse 20, God tells Balaam to go with the princes of Moab, but to speak only what He tells him. Then in verse 22, God sends an angel to kill Balaam for obeying Him! How can God want to kill someone for obeying His word?

Upon closer inspection, it appears that God never intended for Balaam to go to Balak. His original instruction was concise and clear, prohibiting Balaam from going (verse 12). Later, when more honorable princes came offering limitless rewards, Balaam, motivated by his lust for wealth, inquired if God had changed His mind. This time God instructed Balaam to go (verse 20), became angry when he went, and then released an angel to kill him for going (verse 22)!

Our second question is why would God give Balaam permission to go to Balak the second time instead of simply forbidding him again from going? The third question is how can someone hear God as clearly as Balaam and still walk in such profound deception? Both of these answers are found in God’s way of dealing with those who have set up idols in their hearts. God revealed this dealing to Ezekiel. 

Then came certain of the elders of Israel to me, and sat before me. And the word of the Lord came to me: Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their hearts, and put the stumbling block of their iniquity and guilt before their faces; should I permit Myself to be inquired of at all by them?

Therefore speak to them, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Every man of the house of Israel who takes his idols (of self-will and unsubmissiveness) into his heart, and puts the stumbling block of his iniquity (idols of silver and gold) before his face, and yet comes to the prophet to inquire of him, I the Lord will answer him, answer him according to the multitude of his idols; That I may lay hold of the house of Israel in the thoughts of their own mind and heart, because they are all estranged from Me through their idols (Ezekiel 14:1-5 AMP).

God will speak to us through our idols. If we set up an idol in our heart, harboring a desire for something contrary to God’s revealed will and then inquire of God concerning His will, He will speak in agreement with our idols. By inquiring of God concerning something we know to be contrary to His revealed will, we are already participating in deception. If we know His will, we do not need to ask, we just need to obey 

Balaam knew God’s will in this situation. It was revealed in God’s first word to him. Just as God spoke through the idols of desire for wealth and prominence that Balaam had allowed to take root in his heart, so He will speak to us through our idols as well. If we need a practical reason to choose the fear of God, here it is: God will participate in our deception if we continue in it.

Deceived by Deception

One of the main problems with deception is that we are not aware that we are deceived. In fact, the most deceived people generally believe themselves to be following the Lord’s own voice. Consider the rest of Balaam’s story:

And the donkey saw the Angel of the Lord standing in the way and His sword drawn in His hand, and the donkey turned aside out of the way, and went into the field; and Balaam struck the donkey to turn her into the way. But the Angel of the Lord stood in a path of the vineyards, a wall on this side and a wall on that side.

And when the donkey saw the Angel of the Lord, she thrust herself against the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against it, and he struck her again. And the Angel of the Lord went further, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no room to turn either to the right hand or to the left. And when the donkey saw the Angel of the Lord, she fell down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. And the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, What have I done to you that you should strike me these three times? And Balaam said to the donkey, because you have ridiculed and provoked me; I wish there were a sword in my hand, for now I would kill you!

And the donkey said to Balaam, Am not I your donkey, upon which you have ridden all your life long until this day? Was I ever accustomed to do so to you? And he said, No. Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the Angel of the Lord standing in the way with His sword drawn in His hand; and he bowed his head, and fell on his face. And the Angel of the Lord said to him, Why have you struck your donkey these three times? See, I came out to stand against and resist you, for your behavior is willfully obstinate and contrary before Me. And the ass saw Me, and turned from Me these three times. If she had not turned from Me, surely I would have slain you, and saved her alive. Balaam said to the Angel of the Lord, I have sinned; for I did not know You stood in the way against me. But now, if my going displeases You, I will return. The Angel of the Lord said to Balaam, Go with the men; but you shall speak only what I tell you. So Balaam went with the princes of Balak (Numbers 22:23-35 AMP).

Although Balaam was prophetically gifted, consider how spiritually dull he had become through his idolatry Not only did Balaam not see the angel sent to kill him, but when his donkey began talking to him, Balaam talked back! Apparently he never realized how miraculous this was because he was so focused on the wealth and honor waiting for him. If a donkey began questioning you on something, wouldn’t you be more prone to question how and why he was talking rather than argue with him?

Even after seeing the angel armed with a sword, Balaam did not acknowledge his sin in going to Moab against God’s will. Although it may appear that he repented in verse 34, a closer examination reveals that he only answered the angel’s question from verse 32 about wrongly beating his donkey and accepted responsibility for that.

Unbelievably, Balaam continued pressing forward to Moab. He told the angel he would go back home if his going to Balak was displeasing to God.  If it was displeasing? God sending an angel to kill him more than implied it was displeasing! Balaam, driven by the idols of prominence and wealth, was blinded to God’s will. Remarkably, he continued to ask God’s permission to go. Even more remarkably, the Lord once again answered Balaam through the idols in his heart, instructing him to go.

Learn the Lessons

Balaam is not the only example we have of this phenomenon. Recent church history resounds with the tragedies of those who, after years of faithful service, have died in disrepute by following the idols of their hearts, believing their actions to be God’s will. If we are wise, we will learn our lessons from the lives of others. Several practical insights are found in Balaam’s life, as well as a general warning about the danger of idolatry

1) Go with God’s revealed will.

God’s will primarily is revealed in His written Word, and we should never go against it. Any leading from God that contradicts Scripture must be judged as inaccurate. In Balaam’s case, he did not have the written Word; he only had God’s revealed will from previous encounters. But God’s first message was definitive and conclusive. There was no room for Balaam to wonder about God’s intentions. However, motivated by his lust for riches and honor, he chose to ignore God’s revealed will and entered into deception by seeking another word.

2) God seldom changes His mind. 

Balaam wanted to hear that God had changed His mind, so God obliged him. As He explained to Ezekiel, God spoke in accordance with the idols set up in Balaam’s heart. This is an important lesson for us. As the authority structures in our society have become more lenient, many have been deceived into believing that God has also become lenient, changing His will to accommodate our wishes. However, if motivated by our idols we continue to ask concerning His will, we may receive permission, but only at a great cost spiritually.

3) We must carefully judge any “word” from God that contradicts an earlier word, especially f our motives are suspect.

Even though He spoke in accordance with Balaam’s idols, God still provided an angelic witness that going to Balak was against His revealed will. God says to Balaam in verse 20, “If the men come to call thee, rise up, and go with them” (KJV). This should have been an obvious indication to Balaam that what he was hearing was tainted by his own desires. The men were already there! Did God not know that they had already come to call Balaam to go with them? By this obvious discrepancy Balaam should have realized that he was hearing a word contaminated by his own desires. Likewise, we must judge carefully any leading that we “hear” from the Lord which has questionable content.

4) Once we enter into deception it is difficult to get free.

After an encounter with the angel sent to kill him, Balaam still did not forfeit his idols. He was so consumed by the lust for riches and honor that he asked the angel, “If it is displeasing to you, I will turn back.” If it was displeasing? It was displeasing enough that the angel was going to cut his head off! How much more displeasing could it get?

Instead of acknowledging that he was acting contrary to God’s will and turning to go back home, Balaam continues on his journey to Moab. God’s word filtered through the idols of Balaam’s heart comes forth as, “Go with the men, but you shall speak only the word which I shall tell you” (verse 35 NAS). This was the same word that he obeyed, which almost got him killed.

This is a severe warning to us. If we willfully choose to believe a lie, God will allow us to believe it. Self-will can lead to destruction.

5) We must possess the fear of the Lord in order to stay free from idolatry and deception.

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom…” (Proverbs 9:10 KJV). If we do not have the fear of God, we do not really have His wisdom. Without the fear of God, we will probably only have a wisdom that is earthly or demonic and produces confusion (see James 3:14-17). On the contrary having the fear of God will cause us to depart from evil. “By mercy and truth iniquity is purged: and by the fear of the 1mw men depart from evil” (Proverbs 16:6 KJV).

Getting Out of Idolatry

We must deal radically and ruthlessly with any idol or wrong desire that God reveals in our lives. Jesus not only gave us a mandate for dealing with our hands (representing our actions), but also for dealing with our eyes (representing our thoughts).

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; “but I say to you, that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart. “And if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. “And if your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:27-30 NAS).

God will not overlook our lust, and we must not condone it either. Idolatrous thoughts are not only dangerous – they are deadly.

Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren (James 1:15-16 NAS).

We are living in wonderful, but perilous times. We have great reason to rejoice for all God is doing and will do, but we cannot presumptuously allow idolatry to remain in our lives. Do not be deceived: we will eventually do whatever is in our heart, whether it is God’s will or our own, which is idolatry.

We must not only pursue the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, but we must also cast away any idol that is revealed in our heart. We cannot play with sin or sinful thoughts. God is our Father and wants to protect us, but we must not disregard His correction or the warnings from the lives of those who have gone before us. Do not allow yourself to be deceived by deception.

Adapted from: “You May All Prophesy!Practical Guidelines for Prophetic Ministries – Steve Thompson

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