By Larry Eubanks, Pastor of First Baptist Church, Frederick, Md.
Waiting for the Lord, as Isaiah 40:31 tells us to do, is difficult because the Lord doesn’t seem to be in much of a hurry. Consider that the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt for over 400 years before the Lord sent a deliverer (Moses), and that the conditions of the Exile lasted over 500 years before he sent the Messiah, and that Christians have been waiting over 2,000 years for the return of Christ and the full reign of the kingdom of God.
He’s just not in that big a hurry. And as if that’s not maddening enough, it seems that when we are in the biggest hurry for him to act, that is when he is in the least hurry.
Waiting seems to be a major theme of Scripture, although I’m not sure that it’s recognized as such. The last couple of years, however, I’ve noticed it more and more, and as I’ve paid attention it’s helped to make sense of certain passages.
One such passage is 1 Samuel 13. Saul has been king in Israel for two years, and his son Jonathan has just dealt the Philistines a stinging defeat. All this did, however, was wake a sleeping giant and stir the Philistines up. They mustered up a huge army: 30,000 chariots, 6,000 horsemen, and “troops like the sand on the seashore in multitude.” (1Sa 13:5 NRS)
The Israelites are understandably nervous, and Saul is anxious to prove his worth as a battle-leader, for that is why the Israelites wanted a king in the first place. He can’t lead them into battle, however, until a burnt offering and an offering of well-being is offered to the Lord, and for that he needs Samuel. Samuel is not only a prophet, he is a priest, and only a priest can offer sacrifices.
Saul is a king. He is not a priest.
Samuel had told Saul to wait for him, that he would be there in seven days to offer the sacrifices. All the while the Philistines are gathering about 20 miles away, readying to attack. As each day passes, the Israelites are getting more and more scared. Some of the troops are starting to desert. As the Philistine army gets stronger, the Israelite army is getting weaker.
Seven days pass, but there is no sign of Samuel. With the situation now critical, Saul can’t afford to wait any longer. He calls for the burnt offering and the offering of well-being, and he offers the burnt offering.
And then Samuel arrives. What timing. “What have you done?” he asks Saul, knowing full well what he has done. “The people are deserting, the Philistines are massing, and you didn’t come when you said you would!” Saul replies. “I had to do it. But I’ve not really done anything wrong; I’ve entreated the Lord, haven’t I?”
But Samuel will have none of it. He condemns Saul and rejects him as king, and as the spokesperson for God this carries the Lord’s imprimatur.
I’ve always thought this was unfair. After all, Saul waited; it was Samuel who was late. He knew what was at stake, he knew the crisis that Saul faced, and yet he was in no particular hurry. I have to admit that there have been times when I thought Samuel did this deliberately; after all, he was opposed to the very idea of Israel having a king. So it almost seems like he’s been hiding and watching, waiting for Saul to mess up, and then he jumps out and condemns him.
But I’ve come to notice, however, that whenever people in the Bible get impatient with God, they start doing things that aren’t their job. Sarah, for instance, gets impatient with God because he’s in no hurry for her to get pregnant and give birth to the male heir God promised her and Abraham. Understandably so, because she’s not getting any younger, and the older she gets, the more excruciating the waiting is.
So she usurps her place and gives her handmaiden Hagar to Abraham to have a child with. And of course God will have none of it.
The Pharisees got impatient waiting for the coming of the messiah, so they thought they could hurry things along by imposing a level of law-keeping that would impress God and soften his heart and move him to action. Rather than resulting in righteousness, however, this resulted in self-righteousness, judgmentalism, and ultimately their backing of armed revolt against Rome and the resulting destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple—and the Pharisees themselves, who disappear from history from that point on.
The lesson of the story of Saul is that we are not in the position of knowing when it’s time and when it’s not, when it’s too late and when it’s not. Only the Lord knows that.
Saul thought he knew, and in his impatience he stepped outside of his God-anointed role and took on rights and responsibilities that only belong to God.
This is what impatience with God leads to: idolatry. In it’s most simple form, idolatry is worshiping a god other than the Lord. In contemporary terms we often say it is putting something else #1 in our lives other than God, which seems to me is actually more a matter of misplaced priorities than real idolatry.
In its most basic form, however, idolatry is when humans take upon themselves prerogatives that only belong to God.
· Deciding for ourselves what is right and what is wrong is idolatry (Judges 17:6; Isaiah 5:20-21)
· Judgmentalism—condemning others for their sin— is idolatry (Genesis 3:12-13; John 8:3-1; Matthew 7:3)
· Thinking we can determine for ourselves who deserves to live and who deserves to die is idolatry (Genesis 4:8; Matthew 13:25-29)
· Establishing a justice system based on punishment and revenge rather than restoration and reconciliation is idolatry. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” God declares. (Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:9; Hebrews 10:30)
These and many more are prerogatives that Scripture says belong to God and God alone, and if we think that God tarries too long in judging evil and punishing sin—well, that too is God’s prerogative.
If we think that restorative justice takes too long, tough; it’s God’s prerogative to determine what is true justice and what is not.
God created humanity to steward his Creation, and that’s a big enough job. We don’t have time to do that and try to do God’s job.
Besides, the witness of Scripture is that when we try to do God’s job things very quickly get messed up. We are pretty bad at doing God’s job.
It’s best to spend our time on on our stuff and leave to God what belongs to him.