Video from Desiring God
God loves to work for those who wait for him. So how do we wait for God? Does waiting for God mean that we don’t act? And when do we stop waiting and start acting? Those are the important questions addressed in Pastor John’s sermon on Isaiah 64:1–4, a sermon he preached way back in 1982. Here’s what he said.
In one sense, God works for everybody. He makes the sun rise on the just and the unjust. He sends rain on the good and the evil. He brings seedtime and harvest, even for his rebellious creatures (Matthew 5:45). God does work for all his creatures, and all of this is meant to lead us to repentance. But, in our text, the work referred to is not that common grace given to all, but a special grace that is given to those who have a certain disposition.
No eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him. (Isaiah 64:4)
“Before you make one peep of an effort to solve your own problem or hire a human agency, pray.”
The work mentioned here clearly is not just the work of creation and preservation; it’s not just the meeting of a few natural needs that he does for everybody; rather, it’s the investment of all God’s infinite, sovereign power to do everything his people need to have done for their good. And for whom does he do it? He does it for those who wait for him.
So, the biggest question for us right now is, What’s that? How do you do that? And I want to try to show you from Isaiah how you wait for the Lord.
Wait and Pray
The people to whom Isaiah is talking are in trouble: they’re in danger from enemies, Assyrians and then Babylonians. Now, the danger that God sees is not so much the Assyrians and the Babylonians, but the temptation to run to Egypt for help instead of to God. Instead of waiting for God’s help, he sees the temptation looming large that they’re going to go after human help, and so he says in Isaiah 31:1,
Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the Lord!
So, the first thing that waiting on God means is this: before you make one peep of an effort to solve your own problem or hire a human agency, pray. Seek the counsel of God. What is his way to solve this problem and bring you out of trouble? It says in Psalm 106:13, “They soon forgot his works; they did not wait for his counsel.”
The first act of waiting, therefore, is prayer — before we make one little move to solve our problem. And I know, if you’re like me, you’ve come through many efforts, and an hour into it you say, “I forgot to pray.” And we need to work to form the habit of stopping again and again and again. That’s what Paul means, I think, when he says, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Before you do anything, at every little occasion of your life — every interview, every encounter — whisper a prayer. “How would it go if I relied on you? What do you want me to do?” And then do what the Lord says.
We are like patients. Prayer is like getting on the phone and calling up your doctor and saying, “I’m in trouble; there’s this pain. What should I do about it?” Before you gulp down any medicine or start doing jumping jacks, call the doctor.
“Sometimes we have to be willing to accept the frustrating news: ‘Be still.’”
Now, the doctor might tell you, “Lie down; don’t do anything.” Or he might tell you, “Take the pill; do your exercises.” Now, those two instructions from the Lord involve us in two different forms of waiting. We don’t stop waiting once we’ve called; we wait. There is a waiting of two different sorts. Let’s look at them just one at a time here.
Wait and Rest
The first one is if the doctor says, “Lie down.” Isaiah 30:15–16 goes like this: God says to the people,
“In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” But you were unwilling, and you said, “No! We will flee upon horses”; therefore you shall flee away; and, “We will ride upon swift steeds”; therefore your pursuers shall be swift.
In other words, God was saying on the phone, “Just sit down, and I’m going to work for you. Take it easy and rest, and I’ll be your strength.” But they wouldn’t do it. They wanted to maneuver their own victory for their own glory on horses and chariots. Sometimes we have to be willing on the phone to accept the frustrating news: “Be still.” We need to hear what Moses said to the people as they were about to cross the Red Sea:
Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. . . . The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent. (Exodus 14:13–14)
So, the second thing that waiting for the Lord means is this: after you’ve prayed to the doctor and he says, “Be still,” be still and rest.
Wait and Act
But there’s a third way to wait for the Lord. He might say, “Get up, do your exercises, and take your pill.” Or to bring it back into the Old Testament context, he might say, “Go into battle and fight.”
In my family, we’ve been reading 2 Samuel for devotions in the morning, and just a few days ago, we read 2 Samuel 5:19. Now the situation is that David has just taken over after Saul’s death, and the Philistines are besieging. Here’s what he does: “David inquired of the Lord.” He waited. “Shall I go up against the Philistines? Will you give them into my hand?” Wait. Answer: “And the Lord said to David, ‘Go up, for I will certainly give the Philistines into your hand.’” So, the word to David was not “Lie still”; the word to David was “Fight.” He didn’t take matters into his own hands; he waited.
“No matter how hard you work, there should be a spirit of waiting.”
But now here’s the essence. Now, get this carefully, because we’re so prone to think that waiting means stillness, but as soon as we start acting — preparing a sermon or a lesson, going to work, preparing a report, staying up late to work, work, work — we don’t have to wait anymore. That’s not the case because — and this changes all of life — there is a spirit of waiting in the midst of work. Proverbs 21:31 says this:
The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord.
Do you see the implication of that for the warrior? It means that when the Lord says “Go,” he doesn’t stop waiting. He carries with him into battle a spirit of expectancy, a sense that “Yes, I will fight with all my might, but I must wait on the one in whose hands alone is the victory.” No matter how hard you work, there should be a spirit of waiting, a spirit of expectancy, a spirit that out of and through all this activity is going to come lightning from heaven to do supernatural work. Here’s the way the psalmist put it in Psalm 33:16–17, 20–22:
The king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue. . . . Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and our shield. For our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name. Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you.
If the Lord instructs us to take certain precautions, like locking the door at night, don’t think that you can stop waiting on the Lord. For Psalm 127:1 says,
Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.
“Whether we lie still and sit, or whether we work, let us have this in common: we wait for the Lord.”
Even when we are watchmen doing our duty, we must be waiting for the Lord, for he alone brings safety. So, the third form of waiting is this: even when the Lord says “Act,” we act with a spirit of reliance on his work, and we wait for the Lord in a spirit of expectancy that even though our labor is vulnerable and paltry, the final result of all we do lies in the hands of the Lord. And on that we wait in all our work.
Watch God Work
So, in conclusion, let me sum up those three things:
When circumstances conspire to put you under pressure so that you feel that something’s got to be done — something’s got to be done for safety or something’s got to be done for service — wait for the Lord; that is, pray. Before you do anything else, seek the Lord, seek his counsel. What would he have you do, if anything?
If the Lord says, “Sit down and put your feet up,” if the Lord says, “Don’t go to church tonight to be at the council meeting; stay home and pray; I will work better than your arguments,” stay home.
And if the Lord says, “Go and argue with all your might,” don’t become self-reliant, but go.
And let me stress in regard to that second point that I don’t mean laziness or the shirking of duty. I mean the very frustrating experience that sometimes, when you’re most prepared, when you think the most relies on you, and your zeal is fire, the Lord may say to you, “You just stay home tonight and watch me work.” And you’re a little frustrated because you had it all planned, but he wants to work for you so that he gets the glory and not us.
So, whether we lie still and sit, or whether we work, let us have this in common: that we wait for the Lord, that we have a spirit of expectancy that no matter how paltry our labors are, the final issue is in the hands of the Lord. And he loves to work for those who wait for him.