The following is a lightly edited transcript.
I have preached to a church week after week for most of my life. So now I get a chance to step back and think, “What would you say if only had one time?” I find that my mind runs back to formative periods in my life where a truth did something amazing for me. It never stopped changing because it sunk. It just came once and then it was just there for years and years.
I was about 22, newly married living in Pasadena, California. Truths are coming at me as I’m studying Bible and theology in seminary and some of them are simply explosively transforming for me. One of those was the simple discovery, and I think the seeds of it were already there from my family, that God’s greatness is not magnified by his gathering workers to work for him, but rather his greatness is magnified by working for his people.
Acts 17:25 clobbered me: God is not “served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” Get your service right here. You don’t serve him. He serves you. I just never put it like that before I was 22. Second Chronicles 16:9: “the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth.” What is he looking for? To show himself mighty on behalf of those whose heart is whole toward him. He’s looking for somebody to work for. He’s so strong, so self-sufficient, so overflowing with energy. Where is somebody I can show myself strong for.
Psalm 50:15: “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” What does God get glory for? Call on him. You’re the one who has needs. God doesn’t call on you when he needs help. You call on him when you need help. He shows up, he does wonders. Then you spend the rest of your life eternally glorifying him. That’s the deal. He works for you, you glorify him. You get the joy. You get the help. He gets the credit. He gets the glory. That’s the deal.
That was a life changer for me. I used to jog through my neighborhood. I had routes that took about half an hour. And there was a machine shop of some kind. I never figured out quite what it was, and it had a permanent “Help Wanted” sign. Only sometimes there was a big red “No” pasted on it.
Every time I ran by the red “No” I said, “Yes, that’s the gospel.” God never hangs out a “Help Wanted” sign, saying, “I can’t run my shop if you guys don’t show up.” He just never does that. The gospel is: “No help wanted, help available.” I’m adding to the picture now. God’s running out of the shop and chasing me down the avenue saying, “I got help for you. Stop! I want to help you. Don’t run away from me.” These things have stayed with me all these years. God is a God who works for us.
God Is at Work
Now, I’m going to preach for a little while on Isaiah 64:4, which perhaps better than any of those verses I previously just quoted captured this moment of revelation in my life in those early years, which have shaped my view of God ever since. Let’s read Isaiah 64:1–4:
Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains might quake at your presence —
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil —
to make your name known to your adversaries,
and that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome things that we did not look for,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From of old no one has heard
or perceived by the ear,
no eye has seen a God besides you,
who acts [works] for those who wait for him.
When my son, Abraham, was two and a half, I remember coming upstairs to wake up the family. I could wake up all the family by announcing a Bible verse. And the Bible verse I announced was Psalm 20:7: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” That morning, Abraham became a preacher at least for two or three years he did. He stood on the stool in the kitchen later and said, “We’re not boasting on horses, we’re not boasting in chariots. We boast in the name of the Lord our God.” He jumped off the stool. And at church, after I finished preaching, he’d come up on the platform in the old sanctuary and say, “We’re not trusting in horses, we’re not trusting chariots. We trust in name of our Lord our God.”
“God is a God who works for us.”
I watched that with absolute pleasure because I think every family in this church and every single person in this church should have a flag flying over your life, “We don’t trust in horses. We don’t trust in chariots. We don’t trust the Internet. We don’t trust in our health. We don’t trust in our smarts. We don’t trust in our job. We don’t trust in our minds. We trust in the Lord our God.” That’s the banner I think should fly over every family, and here’s the reason: “God works for those who wait for him” (Isaiah 64:4).
I just want to linger over verse four for the rest of our time and help you feel and see the wonder of it. Let’s read it again: “From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him” (Isaiah 64:4).
What We Didn’t Do
If everything that you needed was provided by your work or another person’s work, then preaching would look very different than it does. We would celebrate you and we would celebrate your friends who provided by working out all of the things that you really need. That’s what we would do if the provision of all the things you most need came from people — I would preach people. “Let people be exalted.” We’d sing people songs, but that’s not true.
Let me ask you a few questions. Did we work to be created? Did we make our eyes so that we could see? I was eating my cereal this morning, looking down at the granola thinking, “I can see.” Did you do that? You would not take one million dollars for your eyes. You didn’t do that. Did you make your ears so that you could hear the sweetest sounds? Did you make your tongue to taste sweetness and your nose to smell bacon and toast? You didn’t.
Did we supply the earth with water for drinking? Did we make the sun or station it at a perfect distance from the earth so that we would swing in perfect rotations, that there would be day and night with temperatures that are at least manageable and the growth of all the trees? No, you didn’t. Did you surround the earth with air to carry the clouds, and the birds, and the oxygen for your lungs? You didn’t do that either. Do we paint the sunrises or the sunsets that come up every day? No, they don’t just come up every day. They come up every minute somewhere in the world.
There’s always a sunrise and always a sunset happening somewhere in the world and God is doing every one of them, not you. You didn’t have anything to do with that beauty at all and it meets your needs profoundly morning and evening if you have eyes to see. When we come to die, will our labor help us? Will we make it possible for God to equip us for our sins and take away our fear, our pain, and our guilt and give us new resurrection bodies someday, forever and ever? No.
In other words, all the things we need most and love best we did not do. We didn’t make it. Our work is not the key. His work is the key. The truth I want to leave ringing in your ears is that God works for those who wait for him. God works decisively for those who wait for him. I have three things to observe from this verse. One is the uniqueness of this God because that’s the main point. Second is his competence in working for you. And third, what it means to wait for him because it says he will work for those who wait for him. Those are the three paces of the verse that we’ll focus on.
God’s Work Is Unique
Let’s talk first about the uniqueness of this work. Let’s look at the verse again and see if you agree that this is the focus. “From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him” — no eye has seen a God who acts this way because there isn’t one. You can’t see one because there isn’t one God like this. God is unique. God is in a class by himself. The uniqueness of the Christian God is that he doesn’t ask people to work for him. He works for them and all of their service is dependent upon his service.
That’s the uniqueness of our God. That’s what this verse says. In Isaiah 46:1–4, Isaiah contrasts the true God, Yahweh, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus, with Bel and Nebo. That’s the Zeus and the Mercury of the Babylonians. There are so-called “gods.” One of them is called Bel and one is called Nebo and these were the gods of the Babylonians.
Now, how are they different? This is what this text is about. I’ll read the first four verses of chapter 46 and you ask how the difference is like Isaiah 64:4.
Bel bows down; Nebo stoops;
their idols are on beasts and livestock;
these things you carry are borne
as burdens on weary beasts.
They stoop; they bow down together;
they cannot save the burden,
but themselves go into captivity.
“Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
all the remnant of the house of Israel,
who have been borne by me from before your birth,
carried from the womb;
even to your old age I am he,
and to gray hairs I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear;
I will carry and will save. (Isaiah 46:1–4)
What’s the contrast in me? Let me give it to you again. Starting in verse three: (1) “who have been borne by me from before your birth”; (2) “carried from the womb”; (3) “to gray hairs I will carry you”; (4) “I have made and I will bear”; (5) “I will carry you”; (6) “I will save.” Bel and Nebo, what are you doing? You’re making your people carry you on carts. All the gods of the world except our triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are a burden rather than our burden-bearing God because the way of salvation in every religion is work enough for me and you’ll make it. That’s not Christianity. We have a God who works for us. Here’s the difference. It was the difference in the Old Testament and we’re going to see that it’s a difference in the new.
Here’s another verse from Isaiah 30:18: “He exalts Himself to show mercy to you.” This God is unique. He exalts himself in getting down low and treating people better than they deserve. I like a God like that. I desperately need a God who will come to me in my undeserving and show that he’s great by treating me better than I deserve.
And as if this were true only in the Old Testament, it is also true in the new. Here’s a story. James and John come up to Jesus and say, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:37). Jesus says, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized” (Mark 10:38). They said, “We’re able.” And Jesus replies said, “I don’t make those assignments, my Father does” (see Mark 10:40). At that point, the other ten catch what’s going on here. They hear, and they’re really angry.
The reason I’ll read this passage, even though I’m talking about Isaiah, is because what you find in Jesus, the Son of this God that we’re talking about, is the clearest demonstration of that kind of God. Mark 10:41–45:
“God is unique. He exalts himself in getting down low and treating people better than they deserve.”
And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Everybody knows how to be great in this world — have lots of people to lord over. That’s what makes you great in this world. I got lots of employees. They do what I tell them to do. They meet my needs. They serve me. I’m great. That’s true, but that’s the way the world does it. Jesus knows that those who are considered rulers of the gentiles, lord it over them and their great ones exercise authority over them. “But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Let that sink in.
“I didn’t come to gather slaves. I’m not a plantation owner. I didn’t come to get a work force over whom I could exercise my authority. That’s not my greatness.” “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). That’s how Isaiah 64:4 written with blood. Who has ever seen a God like this, who not only works for those who wait for him, but does the hardest, most painful, most despised work there is, namely, crucifixion?
Show me. Come up to me after this service and name me any savior, any god, any deliver, any person, any deity like that. No religion, not Muslims, not Hindus, not Buddhist, not Judaism, nobody has a god like this. Only Christianity has a God who sends his Son into the world and says, “This is what he meant back in Isaiah 64:4 meant: ‘I’m coming not to be served. I’m coming to serve you. I’m going to lay my life down for you. There’s nothing you can do to save yourself. Nothing you can do to work for me. I’m going to do it all, and all you need to do is trust me. Will you trust me? Will you have me as your God or will you insist I’m going to work and be somebody?’” There is no God like this.
He’s unique because that’s what the verse says, “No one has heard or perceived by the ear. No eye has seen a God besides you who works for those who wait for him” because there isn’t any other god who does that — period. Jesus is the proof of it. Most clearly, most powerfully, Jesus is in comparable in the demonstration that God his Father works for you, and does the kind of work that you could never do that you so desperately need to have done, namely, an atonement for your sins.
God’s Work Is Competent
Second, let’s look at the competency of God’s work. I don’t like incompetent work. We got new gutters on our house two years ago, and they still leak. I’ve called back four times over and over. They cannot make these gutters stop leaking during the rain. Incompetent work makes me mad. I do not like incompetent work.
I wouldn’t want a God who is incompetent. Everything’s different with God. There are reasons humans are incompetent. One might be motive. They don’t really care. These are just workers. They don’t even like the boss, so they’ve put in lousy effort because they don’t have a zeal for the name of the company. God has a zeal for the name of the company. God is zealous for the name of the company called God. It is an infinite zeal. He will not suffer himself ever to do anything but the best.
Another reason people are incompetent is because they lack wisdom or knowledge. They do their best. They just don’t know enough. God always knows everything, so he can’t be incompetent because he knows everything.
A third reason people are incompetent is because they don’t have enough strength. They may have all the heart, they have zeal for the name of the company, they may know everything they need to know, but they’re not good at it. Their arms aren’t strong enough. They’re not able. God is infinitely able. In other words, all the reasons that things are done incompetently don’t apply to God ever. All the work that God does is perfect. He’s God. That’s what it means to be God.
Isaiah 46:9–10: “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’” God never fails to accomplish everything he sets out to do. His work is always totally competent, well done, well timed, and you can bank on it with your life. We have a unique God. That’s point number one. There’s no God like this God who works for those who wait for him and we have an infinitely competent God because that’s what it means to be God: “I accomplish everything that I put my hand too because I’m God.”
Perfect Work for Those Who Wait
He does this for those who wait for him. “No eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him” (Isaiah 64:4). What is this prerequisite? Not every work of God for people has this prerequisite. Does it? Does God work for people who don’t wait for him? Well, he does, but not this way. So let’s make the distinction.
Here’s a verse that causes me to reflect on this. Acts 14:16: “In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” These are for people who didn’t even know him or love him. This is called common grace. Common Grace is looking out over the twin cities metro area and realizing, “The sun came up on this city this morning.” Most of them don’t give our rip for God. He did that for this city. He’s done it ten thousand times on the world. That’s common grace. God works for people who don’t love him. But that’s not what this verse is talking about.
This verse is talking about a different kind of work — a kind of work that God does only for those who wait for him. No eye have seen a God besides you who works in special saving, helping, strengthening, preserving, adopting, saving, reconciling, preserving, joy-giving, eternal life giving ways for those who wait for him.
Pause and Pray
The big question is then, what does it mean? What does it mean to wait for God? In Isaiah, waiting for God usually implied the people were in trouble and they needed to wait for God to work rather than running to Egypt to get help. 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!
The first meaning of waiting for the Lord that I’m going to give you is your first reflex is not Egypt, not chariots, not horses, not horsemen, but God. What should I do? God help me. God show me. I need you. That’s waiting.
Not waiting is like a reflex to run to Egypt or self-reliance. I know how to fix this and that and all those natural causes. I’m going to quick fix it. And then you wake up a half an hour or an hour, a day, or a week later and say, “I never consulted God. I never talked to him. I never prayed. I never asked. I just did what I thought would fix it.” That’s not waiting for the Lord.
One of the reasons we forfeit much divine engagement in our lives in remarkable ways is that we just rule it out from the start. We go straight after our own plans and our own designs how to fix the problem in our life and we don’t get on our faces and linger for just a few minutes. Some decisions you have to make quick. You don’t have three days to take a retreat. You got to get an answer now. But at least you got to tune in on the frequency and say, “God, in five minutes I’m having this meeting and frankly I’m not sure what the right thing to say is or the right thing to do is, and a lot hangs on it. I’m consulting, I’m crying out and I’m hanging on to the promise that you work for those who wait for you.”
The first meaning of waiting is to pause in prayer and consult your God. This is simple. A six-year-old can do this and a sixty-five-year-old can do this. It’s not complex, but it does require a God orientation to your life. Let me just be honest and exhort you to form this habit early because it’s not automatic even when you’ve preached for 33 years. Preach this, believe this. It’s not automatic for John Piper today to have a problem arise in my life and my first reflex be to consult God instead of fix it with ways I know can fix it. Isn’t that a shame? What that shows you is that you can walk with God for 60 years and nothing is automatic. You’d like to think that if you’ve done something and preach something and believe something long enough that all the spiritual impulses would be fairly automatic. They’re not.
Satan is too real. My flesh is too corrupt still, and this age in this world are pressing us into its mold continually and the walk of the Christian life, therefore, is an ever renewed, ever fought through life. I’m just encouraging you in as much as you can, wherever you are in your pilgrimage, form this habit. Do something that begins to help you say, “That’s right. I’m walking through these days, never talking to God about how to help me next. I got to pray.” Do what you have to do. God works for those who wait for him and the first meaning of “wait for him” is to pause and consult with him in prayer. That’s the first one. There is more.
Sometimes when we ask him to help us, to guide us, to work for us, God says, “Pause and do nothing. Let me do it.” Sometimes he says, “Act, and here’s how to act.” I want to argue that in both cases we must keep waiting for God.
So, the first way of waiting for him is you pause and you turn to him, you pray and you ask for his help and his guidance. You consult with him before you run to Egypt for all the human means of solution. You consult with him. Then his two possible answers are stand still or go at it. Use the means I’ve given you and tackle this thing head on.
Be Quiet and Still
The second meaning of waiting for the Lord would be just stand still and watch me work. Don’t enter the battle yet, let me do the work. Isaiah 30:15: “For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, ‘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.”
He said to Israel, “I’m telling you in quietness and trust will be your strength.” They said, “No, we’re getting on our horses and taking charge here.” He says, “I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. You got fast horses Assyrians are going to be faster.” Don’t throw away God’s counsel to be still and expect him to keep working for you.
Exodus 14:13: “And Moses said to the people, ‘Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.’”
The second way you wait for God is when God makes a plan to let you do this. Be quiet, be still. You can think of situations in your life right now probably related to family issues where you feel helpless. You’d like to see some things change — maybe church or family — and you’ve tried everything you know to bring about the change. And it didn’t work.
God is now saying to you, “Lay this down. I will work for you. Trust me. I work for those who wait for me.” You got children, grown children maybe, and you’ve done everything you know to do that. They would be where you’d like them to be. He’s making a plan. “Let me do this. I will do this for you.”
That’s the second meaning. We wait after we consult, we get the word, “Stop. You’ve you’ve done, you should do. It’s now mine. Trust me.” There is one more. Namely, he might say, “Act. Get up, do something. Prepare, fight, make war on the situation. Fight your own sin. Fight Sin. Do what you have to do.”
Get Going as You Wait
Then the third meaning of waiting for the Lord is that you don’t say, “Oh good, now I can stop waiting on the Lord and act.” That’s not the right way. You stop waiting one way and you start waiting another way. In other words, as you begin to act you still are waiting.
“God loves to work for people who are expectedly waiting on him in the midst of their life.”
Right now, if my brain has the capacity on two frequencies to send up a little message, which it should, I think in between sentences and here and there to just say, “I need you. I need you still to finish the message.” I’m expectedly walking through my working with a sense that, “God do something. God do something in me.” Do something in you so you don’t ever stop waiting. There are different kinds of waiting, different kinds of expectancies that God will come and work in and through your working, not just telling you to stop.
But as you pour your life out in your job, you should give it one hundred percent. If you’re a Christian, Jesus is in you. There’s this other frequency that’s been tuned in your brain like this and all day long, “I need you. I love you. I trust you. Help me. Anything new here, anything more I haven’t thought of anything? Help me. Strengthen me, guide me.” If I had another sermon to preach here, I’d probably go over to Isaiah 41:10, which is like the war of the gears of my brain: “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
I’ve quoted that a thousand times in my life in the middle of an activity when I needed help in it — in it, not just before it, but just after it, in it. You’re in it. “God help me.” God loves to work for people who are expectedly waiting on him in the midst of their life. 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.” Proverbs 21:31: “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord.”
God called his people to make war often. Get on your horses, and go up against the Philistines. Why? Because I’m going to fight through you. I can fight for you while you stand still and I might fight through David swinging his sling. I guide that rock, I give him courage, I bring down the giant, but I do it with a David. David is waiting upon the Lord, trusting in the Lord. That’s the third way.
Pray, Be Still, and Act
Here are three ways of waiting upon the Lord so that he will work for those who wait for him in all the ways that we especially need. First, seek his counsel by pausing to pray at crucial moments when you have something you need to do, and you’re not sure what to do according to his will or at any moment. Just pause and send up a brief prayer, consult with the Lord. It is amazing. I have done this so many times. It is amazing how much he does for you in those moments. I don’t think I can count. It is a countable number, I just can’t remember. I’m ready to walk out of the house. We go on a vacation or going to some ministry trip or something, and I pause at the door, and I say this, “God, if there’s anything I have forgotten . . . ” and then right into my mind comes my computer cord. Where did that come from?
Second, if he says, “Be still, let me do this for you,” trust him with it. That’s very hard to do. Americans are productive people. We know how to get things done. That’s what we’re known for around the world. We are a make-it-happen-people, and therefore it’s hard for us to be told, “Stand still on this one, and let me work because if you push too hard here, it’s going to backfire on you. Let me do this for you.” The second way of waiting is to let him do it and trust him. It’s not laziness or shirking duty.
Third, when he does say, “Go, move, act, work,” in the very work itself, trust him. One of my favorite verses by the grace of God. First Corinthians 15:10: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” I worked, but it was grace working in me and what was my disposition? Trust in that ever-arriving grace in the work.
Jesus Is Alive and Working
When Jesus said to his disciples, “Don’t try to be great by elevating yourself to have lots of people under you. Don’t try to be great that way. Be great by coming under people, being their servant, lifting them up, laying your life down for them, and giving them life by your sacrifices.” When he said that and then when he illustrated it by dying for sinners and rising again, when he did all of that, we should not respond by saying, “Well, thank you Jesus for working for us then, but now I have work to do, and you’re not working anymore.”
Don’t ever treat Jesus that way. He is alive, and when he said, “I’ll be with you to the end of the age,” he meant all authority in heaven and on earth is his (Matthew 28:18–20). I’m a worker today. Trust me. “No eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him.”