‘If prayer is talking to God, which it is’ wrote William Barclay, ‘it is even more so listening to God!’ I agree wholeheartedly. Someone once suggested that the reason why God gave us two ears but only one mouth was because he wanted us to do twice as much listening as talking … which brings us to the subject of this particular blog.
Whilst, by and large, I am an advocate of the use of up-to-date translations of the Bible – the New Testament was essentially written in the common Greek of the day rather than classical Greek – occasionally the Authorised Version (or King James Version) of the Bible gets it just right. Thus when we read in Isaiah that ‘they who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint’ [Isaiah 40:31 AV] the old King James Version of the Bible captures the sense of what the Writer is seeking to convey here much more accurately, in my opinion, than more modern translations. Whilst the New International Version translates part of this verse as ‘those who hope in the Lord’ it is clear from the context that the Writer has more in mind that simply putting our trust in God – even if the Hebrew word for ‘hope’ signifies something more than our Western ‘fingers crossed’ understanding. One could perhaps even argue that for the translators to substitute ‘hope in the Lord’ for ‘wait upon the Lord’ reveals how much we have moved away from this ancient principle of waiting prayerfully on the Lord for understanding, revelation and direction. The Hebrew word ‘wait’ signifies a sustained effort on our part of ‘keeping on keeping on’ in prayer and expectation. In secular use ‘waiting’ sounds like inactivity but in Hebrew ‘waiting on God’ is just the opposite of inactivity. It involves focussing on the Lord, attending to the Lord, asking the Lord to help us and prayerfully waiting upon him until we receive some measure of the understanding, revelation and direction that we need. No wonder that Eugene Peterson translates the word as ‘stay with God’ [Psalm 27:14 The Message].
What we have here is an important biblical principle for both individuals and churches. Thus in the Old Testament narrative we find King Hezekiah waiting prayerfully upon God having received an extremely threatening letter from Sennacherib [2 Kings 18, 19]. In effect Hezekiah simply lays out the letter before God and prayerfully invites God to read it and respond to it [2 Kings 19:14-19]. Here we see that in an extremely difficult situation Hezekiah didn’t panic or react with a solution of his own but spent time waiting prayerfully upon God seeking understanding, revelation and direction. One hesitates to spoil a good story by revealing the ending too soon, but in response God gives Hezekiah a clear prophetic word that Israel would triumph over the Assyrians [2 Kings 19:20-34], and that very night God supernaturally intervened in the situation to fulfil his word and deliver Israel [2 Kings 19:35, 36]. In a similar way, in the New Testament narrative, the embryonic church waits prayerfully on God for the promised coming of the Holy Spirit in response to the command of Jesus [Acts 1:4,5,12-14]. Eventually, some 50 days later, the Holy Spirit is poured out upon the gathered disciples – some 120 of them – and they are both transformed and empowered in a supernatural way and equipped for the ministry to which they have been called [Acts 2:1-4,11]. Both these passages illustrate the important principle of waiting prayerfully on God for every important situation and circumstance in which we find ourselves – personally and corporately – whenever and wherever we recognise the need for understanding, revelation and direction, and perhaps particularly for the help and empowering of the Holy Spirit.
The simple reality in today’s church here in the West is that we rely far too much on our own resources – our own wisdom, reason, finances, natural gifts, and so on. Isaiah 40-55 dates immediately before, and during, the fall of Babylon (c.539 BC), and these events awakened great excitement in the hearts of God’s exiled people, Israel, and stirred latent hopes of release. Here in chapter 40 we see the Writer revealing that God had accepted Israel’s repentance for the sins that had resulted in their captivity. He was about to redeem his people through the meteoric rise of the Persian Cyrus and the impending collapse of Babylon. It was one thing for the Prophet to know this, however, and quite another for the people to believe it also? For the people to really know it in their own hearts – just as Noah knew he had to build an ark, and Abram knew he had to set out for the Promised Land – it was necessary for the people to ‘wait prayerfully on the Lord’ [v.31]. Only in this way could God put that deposit of faith into their hearts whereby it was easier for them to believe God than not believe. Only in this way would they be able to ‘rise up with wings as eagles’ and see things from God’s point of view not just theirs; ‘run and not be weary’ buoyed up by the certainty that God would fulfil his promise; ‘walk and not faint’ conscious that God himself would give them the stamina to keep going until they entered into the liberty and freedom God intended for them.
The Bible is full of all sorts of promises – many of them general and therefore applicable to all of us – promises that cover just about every human need. Some are to do with the freedom from the sin and guilt that cripple many of us, a certain liberty God wants us all to enjoy – ‘If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’ [John 8:36]; ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty’ [2 Corinthians 3:17] are two such examples. All of these promises reveal that God only wants the best for us – ‘ I have plans for you, declares the Lord, plans for good and not for evil, plans to give you hope and a future’ [Jeremiah 29:11]. But we will never know the truth of these things for ourselves unless we give time to waiting on God … listening to him, giving him the space and time to speak into our hearts by his Spirit and through his Word.