The meanings of the word “wait” can refer to basically two situations: (1) someone is standing quietly by in anticipation of another person’s joining him, or (2) someone is serving another person or persons, as in being a waiter in a restaurant. Both cases represent a kind of deference shown by the waiter toward the one being waited upon. It is common in Shakespeare’s plays to find an expression like, “We await your pleasure, my good lord,” which is to say, “We are deferring to your right to say what happens next.” Both of these senses of waiting connote subordinating our immediate desires to the needs or desires of another, so it should not be surprising that the concept of waiting has spiritual applications.
Frequently in the poetry of the Old Testament there is the admonition to “wait upon the Lord,” as in the following:
In the morning, O LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation. (Ps. 5:3 NIV)
Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD. (Ps. 27:14, NIV)
Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices! Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land. (Ps. 37:7-11 ESV) The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. (Lam. 3:25-26 ESV)
So we see that waiting on the Lord involves patient expectation, courage, and dependence on God to set things right in the world. In other words, waiting on the Lord means deferring always to God’s will and trusting that He is at work every minute to bring about what will be best for His children. The payoff for this confident waiting on God is inner peace and the experience of His goodness.
Some scriptural examples will illustrate how God’s people in the past have profited or lost by waiting or not waiting on the Lord. One of the most salient examples of losing by not waiting on God is seen in Saul’s desperate offering of the sacrifice when Samuel didn’t show up exactly when he was expected. The prophet Samuel had instructed Saul to go down to Gilgal and wait for seven days for Samuel to come and offer a sacrifice and give Saul instructions from God on what to do (I Sam. 10:8). Some time later Saul finally was able to assemble an army to fight the Philistines at Gilgal. As he awaited Samuel’s promised arrival there, he grew increasingly worried that his army would disintegrate in fear and panic before the battle even began. And since as the seventh day drew to an end, Samuel was not yet there, Saul took it upon himself (although he had no priestly authority) to offer the sacrifice. Immediately after the illicit sacrifice had been offered, Samuel came, and he pronounced on Saul the severe judgment of God:
Samuel said to Saul, "You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the LORD your God, with which he commanded you. For then the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought out a man after his own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you." (1 Sam 13:13-15 ESV)
Why was Saul’s action so wrong? Did he not have a real problem on his hands, with the Philistines threatening and his army scattering? Wasn’t his decision to go ahead with the sacrifice evidence of his recognition that God’s help was needed for the Israelites to succeed in battle? But at the base of Saul’s disobedience was a willingness to put his own understanding and judgment ahead of God’s, and this attitude is incompatible with the patient surrender to God’s will that undergirds waiting on the Lord. Although in his rash self-reliance Saul showed some of the qualities that make a good leader—he made a strategic judgment in a tight situation and followed through with determination and resolve—he mistakenly gave the exercise of those qualities precedence over obedience to God and trust in Him. Waiting for Samuel as he was commanded to do would have required Saul to look beyond what was immediately in front of him in order to “see” with the eyes of faith. Saul’s failure to wait in patient expectation for what God was going to do cost him and his heirs the kingship of Israel and set him on a path of self-destruction.
Let us also look at Abraham. His experience in regard to God’s promise that he and Sarah would have a son shows us how even those who eventually reap the rewards of waiting on the Lord may have to go through stages of waiting and learning. There was a long path between Abraham’s initial response to God’s call and the completion of his journey of faith. When Abraham was first commanded to leave his native country to go to another land (Gen. 12), he went “not knowing where he was going” (Heb. 11:8); and when he got there, he wasn’t allowed to stay, but had to go to Egypt to escape a famine. And when he finally returned to the land God had promised, he merely camped out in it, rather than possessing it, for actual control of it by Abraham’s descendents did not come about until many years after Abraham’s death (Gen. 15:12-16). God’s promise of a son to Abraham was renewed when Abraham quite understandably asked God about it after a number of childless years (see Gen. 15:1-6). But no timetable was set, and Abraham and his wife decided to act on their own to supply a son and heir, setting up an enmity between different branches of his descendents down to the present day. Finally, when Abraham and Sarah were far beyond the normal age for producing children, God told them that the arrival of the promised son was right around the corner (Gen. 17).
But even this miraculous fulfillment of God’s promise of a son who would be the forefather of a populous nation was not the end of Abraham’s waiting on the Lord. In Gen. 22 we see the astounding final test of Abraham’s willingness to serve God in obedience (i.e. to wait upon God), when God ordered him to take his only son, this cherished, promised son, and offer him as a sacrifice to the Lord. Only one who had traveled the long path of cumulative experiences of waiting on God could have met this challenge. We want to say on Abraham’s behalf, “Lord, hasn’t this man already led an exemplary life of waiting on you? Can’t you leave him alone to enjoy his old age with the son you finally sent him?” But the outcome of this final testing of Abraham produced a profound symbol of God’s future redemptive action in giving His one and only Son as a sacrifice.
No wonder Hebrews 11 spends so much time presenting Abraham as a prime exemplar of faith in God. In fact, Abraham was the forerunner of a whole line of descendents who awaited in faith the fulfillment of God’s promises and the final end of His plans. “For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God . . . . These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Heb. 11:10, 13).
That brings us to the present period of human history, and to the archetypal waiting we are called to do as members of Christ’s Kingdom on earth, we who are also heirs of the faith testified to in the chapter of faith in Hebrews. In Romans 8, Paul speaks of the glory of final redemption from the corruption of sin and death:
And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Rom. 8:23-25)
In II Peter 3, this active hope and eager waiting are presented in a context of contrasts: God’s immeasurable eternal time with the mutability of human time; and the present perishable earth with an eternal “new heavens and a new earth” (3:13). God’s purposes will be carried out in His time and in His way, and only after the present earth and its inhabitants have reached the limits of their willingness to repent will God bring “the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (3:7), in which “the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (3:10). But out of this destruction and judgment will emerge the final fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and his physical and spiritual successors. Peter concludes: “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God . . . .” (3:11-12).
When our hope and trust are in the promises generated by God’s providential goodness, our patient expectation will always be rewarded. As the saying goes, God never hurries, and He’s never late.