God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? —Numbers 23:19
I lied when I was in second grade. No doubt there were other lies before then, but this lie is the first that I can recall. My teacher had sent home test papers and asked the class to return them with a parent’s signature. I had done poorly on the test and was ashamed for my parents to see it. What was I to do as a seven-year-old with his back against the wall? Forgery was the only solution.
I didn’t get off to a good start as a forger. My first problem was rather significant: I wasn’t sure what my dad’s first name was. I knew I couldn’t sign “Dad” at the top of the paper, but should I sign James or Michael or Mike? In my uncertainty I decided to sign my mother’s name. That’s when I encountered a second problem: I didn’t know how to write in cursive. “Maybe the teacher won’t notice,” I thought, as I printed M-A-R-T-H-A in block letters at the top of the test. When the teacher called me up to her desk after seeing the signature, I knew my sin had found me out. I suppressed whatever happened after that. I only know that from that day forward forgery has never been a temptation.
I wish I could say the same for the temptation to lie. My second grade lie may be the first that I can remember, but it wasn’t the last. Some of my other lies have been so shameful that I will not confess them beyond the circle of those to whom I have since repented. My guess is that you understand what I mean. Most of us know how it feels to bear the shame of deceit.
The truth is, all have lied and fall short of the glory of God. We have massaged the truth to make ourselves look better than we are. We have hidden the truth in order to keep ourselves out of trouble. We have said one thing and done another. We have given our word and taken it back. We have broken promises. We have reneged on commitments. We have spoken resolutely and failed miserably.
How wonderful that God stands in contrast to us! God is no forger. He has never represented himself as something that he is not. There is no deceit in him. Not once has he lied. Never has he given his word and failed to deliver. On the contrary, the God of Numbers 23:19 is the Unlying God; the Word-Keeper; the Unequivocal, Decisive, True God.
Speaking of knowing God in contrast to ourselves, Balaam is the man who utters the glorious truth of Numbers 23:19. That such a testimony of God’s trustworthiness comes from Balaam’s mouth is so ironic as to be humorous, given that Balaam is the epitome of equivocation and deceit. To give you an idea of Balaam’s character, one commentator actually describes him as a “numb-skulled, moneygrubbing, heathen seer” (Gordon Wenham, Numbers, TOTC, p. 185). It’s hard to imagine a person more fit than Balaam to tell us that God is not like man.
Even more significant than Balaam’s shady character is the context for Balaam’s pronouncement about God (Numbers 22-24). A foreign king has hired Balaam to curse God’s people so that they may not enter the land. But if Balaam curses Israel, what would that mean about the character and promises of God? Did God lie about giving Israel the land? Has God changed his mind about blessing his people? Will God be unfaithful to keep his word? At stake in Balaam’s potential curse is the trustworthiness of God.
Thankfully, Balaam is constrained by the Spirit to prophesy according to the truth. (God can draw straight lines with crooked sticks.) “God,” Balaam says, “is not man that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” In other words: God is trustworthy! He never goes back on his word! He has promised to bless his people, and so he will bless!
Balaam’s oracle brought blessings that we experience even today. Through Balaam, God promised that “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel,” and that “one from Jacob shall exercise dominion” (Numbers 24:17-18). God has kept that promise. He has given us his only Son who died and rose again, and who now rules over a coming kingdom at the right hand of the Father. Jesus is proof that nothing will stop God from blessing his people—no foreign king, no crooked prophet, no second grade forgery, no grown-up lies. Jesus is the declaration of God: “I do not lie. I do not change my mind. I will bless my people, and nothing will stop me.” A more convincing testimony of God’s trustworthiness cannot be imagined.
Numbers 23:19 is a call to faith—absolute faith—in everything God has spoken. God is trustworthy! Whenever you are tempted to doubt that God will keep his word, look again at his nail-scarred Son sitting at his right hand. In him all of God’s promises find their “yes” (2 Corinthians 1:20).