The God of False Starts

What He Does While We Wait

If we are his, God will most certainly finish the work he has started in each of us (Philippians 1:6). That does not mean we will get to finish everything he’s given us to do in this life — or that any work we do complete will be finished when we expected.

In our ministry to lost loved ones, in our marriage or parenting, in our job or career, in our battle against sin, we may look back and groan over how little progress we’ve made. We may wonder why God has held us here, in this uncomfortable and unwanted place, for so long. If God is for us, who can stand against us? sometimes slowly fades to If God is for us, why does everything seem to stand against us? We know what it’s like to work and wait — and then to have to keep waiting.

We can relate to the faithful remnant of Israel who were brought back from exile. After all the wars they had been through, and then decades more of subjection, God had finally and miraculously led them home to Jerusalem. But just as soon as they had started rebuilding the temple, they were horribly derailed again.

For the next fifteen (seemingly endless) years, they were left with only a false start to show for all their suffering, waiting, and praying.

Sweetest Beginning

Their story, like ours, hangs on what God has said. He had promised to punish Babylon (Jeremiah 25:12–13) and to deliver Israel (Jeremiah 29:10).

Then, in his perfect timing, he stirred the God-forsaken heart of Persia’s king:

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom. (Ezra 1:1)

If we haven’t been ripped from our homes and held in a foreign land for decades, we probably can’t feel the weight and wonder of those words. God reached into the heart of a pagan king, turned the key, and freed his people — again.

After half a century, they were finally coming home. Children that were only five when Babylon seized their families now had grandchildren. With tears in their eyes, they prepared to show their grandsons and granddaughters, for the very first time, the land Almighty God had given them.

When they returned, they rebuilt the altar, and made their sacrifices. In the second year, they started rebuilding the temple, the centerpiece of life and worship, designed inch by inch in the infinite mind of God. After they had laid the foundation, they stopped, sounded the trumpets, and sang (Ezra 3:11).

Bitter Waiting

While they built, however, evil men plotted against them. They threatened the builders (Ezra 4:4), and bribed counselors to lie to and demoralize them (Ezra 4:5). When nothing else worked, they wrote to the new king of Persia, maliciously accusing them of sedition (Ezra 4:15).

The new king succumbed to their treachery. Having read the history, he gave in to their demands and declared, “Make a decree that these men be made to cease, and that this city be not rebuilt” (Ezra 4:21). Just as soon as they had laid the foundation, God had allowed another paralyzing interruption. Their work, for now, must end.

Now their dreams lay on the ground with their tools, and they were forbidden to pick them up again. The work did not stop for just weeks or even months. They didn’t know it then, but they would wait there — oppressed and unfinished — for fifteen more years. After five decades of suffering and waiting in Babylon, God had ordered fifteen more.

For many, these must have been the longest years, because they had finally tasted home again. The thrill of beginning had only intensified the pain of waiting. How many who had sung over the foundation passed away before the temple was finished?

Your False Starts

Those fifteen years fit into just three short verses in Scripture (Ezra 4:24–5:2), and yet they paint a picture so many of us know so painfully well. Over and over again, in his wisdom and love, God writes stories that require an awful lot of waiting. How often do we feel a sudden and exhilarating rush of his favor in some area of our lives, only to be left wanting and praying for months, or years, or longer? We fear it was only a false start.

Maybe God wonderfully joins us to a spouse, after years of waiting and wondering and sometimes despairing. The hallelujah chorus of the honeymoon days, however, crashes into something far more staccato. In the first years, we realize just how much work marriage requires — and how much of our sin it exposes. The progress is real and beautiful, but usually slow and often painful.

Maybe God suddenly opens the door for a gospel conversation with a lost loved one. We pray and cry for years, wondering if the dry soil would ever soften. Then, out of almost nowhere, they ask about God. Some crisis has emerged in his life, and there’s this spark of interest, of desperation, of receptivity — the kind of spark that could light our hearts for weeks. Then, the lights go out again. The door quietly (or loudly) closes — for who knows how long.

Maybe God finally gives us significant victory over some besetting sin. We had wanted to win this war for so long, suffering injury after injury, heartache after heartache on the battlefield (Hebrews 12:4). Yet we kept falling, despite all that it cost us. Then God broke through, and temptation waned — for a time. Weeks or months later, we were hurled back into the front lines, refighting a war we thought we’d won — waiting for God to finish what he started in our hearts.

Maybe the marriage never gets easier, or the loved one never treasures Jesus, or the sin doesn’t fully surrender this side of heaven, but if we are God’s, our waiting is never meaningless or fruitless. The false starts are never truly false, but filled instead with profound purpose and lasting good.

Better Temple

Those fifteen additional years, however, didn’t last forever. God sent word, through Haggai and Zechariah, that the wait was over (Ezra 5:1–2). They began to build again.

As soon as they started work on the temple, their enemies furiously pled for the king to stop them. God, again, moves in a miraculous way. The new king, Darius, not only revives Cyrus’s decree (and overturns the suspension), but then orders their enemies to provide whatever the Jews needed to build the temple (Ezra 6:8–9). While they waited and wondered, he not only gave them victory, but he made them more than conquerors. God not only turned the heart of one pagan king, but two (Ezra 7:27). The temple, against all their worst fears, was finally finished (Ezra 5:14).

And yet even the finished temple was its own false start. Those who had seen the first temple knew how far short this one fell (Ezra 3:12). As satisfying and spectacular as the temple was — actual square feet here on earth where God uniquely set his presence — it was meant to leave them longing.

So, they waited another five hundred years.

False Starts and Perfect Endings

After five centuries and many generations, the temple they had waited for was born in a town called Bethlehem (John 2:19–20). The second temple was only a shadow of the first, but they both paled in comparison to the Son of God himself, who took on our own flesh and blood to become our once-for-all sacrifice.

When Jesus met a desperate Samaritan woman caught in an awful pattern of sin, he offered to satisfy and heal her soul (John 4:10). If anyone had been waiting for something to last, she had — ex-wife to five men and now sleeping with a sixth. When he exposes her secret life, she asks a question about the temple (John 4:20). He responds,

The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. . . . The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. (John 4:21, 23)

What the woman says next, in just six words, gives voice to centuries of painful waiting: “I know that Messiah is coming” (John 4:25). Jesus replied with just seven: “I who speak to you am he” (John 4:26). Everything Israel had wanted in and from the temple, over hundreds and hundreds of years, was now utterly eclipsed by all that God was for them in Christ.

Christ is the perfect ending to so many of the false starts in our lives. However our chapters end here on earth, he will far more than make up for any disappointments or trials we endure to have him forever. He is and will be worth all of our waiting.