When it Feels Like God is Doing Nothing
In exile, Israel complains to the LORD that their way is hidden from him. It feels like he’s doing nothing. Yet he promises those who wait for him in such times that he will give them they strength they need to endure with joy.
The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction Commentary, Alec Motyer
The Book of Isaiah, chapters 40-66 (NICOT), John N. Oswalt
Isaiah: God Saves Sinners, Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr.
You’re in the grocery store checkout line, and the classic problem emerges: Your line doesn’t seem to be moving at all, while the line an aisle or two over seems to be moving fast. Do you wait, or do you switch lines? You’re waiting for the elevator, and it seems like it’s never coming. Do you wait, or do you opt for the stairs? You’re sitting in traffic on 76, barely moving, with only 2 miles until your exit. Do you wait, or do you exit now and trust your GPS to get you to your destination? You’re in exile in Babylon, away from your homeland, under the dominion of a foreign government, and it seems like God is doing nothing. Do you wait for Him, or do you switch to another god? That’s the situation Israel faced in the passage on which we’re focusing today. Their cry is recorded for us in verse 27: “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God.” And we feel this way sometimes too, don’t we? Maybe you are here today and you have not yet repented of your sins and trusted in Christ, not so much because you object to Christianity, but because it just seems irrelevant. Perhaps it seems to you like there may not even be a true God, or that if he does exist, he doesn’t seem to be doing much. And even Christians sometimes go through seasons where God seems totally absent. They may be seasons of unique suffering, or they may be seasons of boredom, where you feel like you’re just going through the motions of a life in which God is basically absent. What do you do in such situations? In this passage, God, through the prophet Isaiah, directs us to wait for the LORD when it feels like He’s doing nothing, because where else will you turn? And, he will give you what you need.
Where else will you turn?
Verse 12, where we began reading today, begins a series of “who” questions. The first in verse 12 hearkens back to Genesis 1, when God made all these things simply by speaking them into existence, and so here, Isaiah poetically depicts God as the master builder of the earth, and asks rhetorically, who else can do what he has done? Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand? The image here is of all the waters of the earth being held in the palm of God’s hand, like we might get some water in the palm of our hand to rinse out our mouths after brushing our teeth. Who has done that, but with the waters of the earth? The earth is 70% water, and estimates are that all the water on earth adds up to 326 million, trillion, gallons. Who has held those waters in the palm of his hand? None but God. The next question is who has marked off the heavens with a span? The heavens was a kind of shorthand for everything above us, and so that includes our entire galaxy, if not more. But to just take our galaxy, it measures about 100,000 light-years. Bear in mind that one light-year is about 6 quadrillion, that’s 12 zeros, miles. So that would be 750 million earths in a line, times 100,000. Who has gotten out their tape measure and measured that? None but God. There are over 57 million square miles of land on earth. Who has enclosed it in a measure, so as to weigh it? None but God. A typical mountain weighs on the order of billions to trillions of pounds. And there are, well, a lot of them on earth. Who has put them in the scales and measured them in a balance? None but God.
Then verse 13 takes us from the creation to the creator. Who has measured the spirit of the LORD? There the better translation is probably who has “directed” the spirit of the LORD? In Genesis 1, again, it is revealed to us that the Spirit of the LORD was the active agent in creation, implementing what God spoke by his Word. Who was directing him, telling him where to go? No one. Or, who showed him counsel? Who looked at God’s creation plans and gave their input, or signed off on the drawings? No one. Verse 14 continues: Who did he consult, and who made him understand? We have a whole consulting industry now, where companies will hire other companies to consult them, to help them understand some problem. Who is God’s consulting firm? No one. Who taught him the path of justice and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding? Almost everything we know in life we learned from someone else, whether consciously or subconsciously. We learned to speak from our parents’ speaking to us. Typically we learned to read, write, and do basic math from teachers in school. Someone taught us the “path of justice,” what’s right and what’s wrong, the “way of understanding,” what works and what doesn’t. But who was God’s teacher in these things? No one.
Ok, so clearly no human is even on the same level as God, let alone comparable to him. But what about a big, powerful, conglomeration of humans? Today we might think of massive, multi-national corporations: There’s plenty of people out there who believe such corporations, especially tech and media corporations, functionally run the world. In Isaiah’s day those didn’t exist, but the most powerful conglomerations of people were “the nations”. Israel knew that first hand when they were dominated by Babylon. So what about them; surely they are quite powerful in God’s sight? No; multi-national corporations and nations alike are, verse 15, like a drop from a bucket, and as dust on the scales. When I weigh myself, there is always dust on my scale. So I get the scale out, and despite all the dust on it, it’s not already on and registering the weight of the dust. Why? Because the dust is so light that it doesn’t register! That’s what even the most powerful conglomerations of humans are like to God.
But it didn’t seem that way to Israel. One nation especially, Babylon, seemed like a really big deal to them. And compared to Israel, they were. Back then they didn’t have a digital scale like I do; they had balances, and you would put the weight of a known object on one side, then another object on the other, to see how they compared. So weighing things was an exercise in comparison, whereby you would see which was heavier. And it is from that word heavy that the Hebrews got the word we translate glory. The link conceptually was this: To be glorious was to be weighty, to be possessed of more substance, to matter. Compared to Israel, then, Babylon and the nations were quite weighty. That’s what Israel’s eyes could see. But what Isaiah is doing here, and what the prophets generally were commissioned to do, was to speak on behalf of the unseen realm, heaven, and to give us a window into it through their words. It was, in other words, to acquaint us with the reality we don’t see. And so here, though Babylon and the nations look like a really big deal when Israel is on the other side of the balance, when the creator God is on the other side of the balance, they are as dust that does not even register on the scales. That’s how much he matters, that’s how weighty he is, that’s how glorious he is, and how inglorious the nations are in comparison. When it speaks of him taking up the coastlands like fine dust, the image is of God picking up islands like they’re nothing.
Another nation that appeared glorious on earth that bordered Israel was Lebanon. It was especially known for its “glorious” cedars, yet even these, verse 17, would not provide enough fuel for the fire of a burnt offering worthy of God. In common with Israel, many nations in the ancient world worshiped their gods through burnt sacrifices, and the value of the sacrifice spoke to the value of the one to whom it was given. When someone sacrifices over a thousand of their dollars to go to an event, it communicates the value of that event. And some have enough money to make a sacrifice worthy of that value. But even Lebanon with all its trees cannot cover the value of the creator God, nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering. And so, to summarize in verse 17: All the nations are as nothing before him; they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness. How you like that? Not only are they nothing; they are less than nothing. It is as though when you put God on one side of the balance, and the nations on the other, not only does the balance not move, but the side with the nations on it somehow moves up!
And so, here’s the question of verse 18: To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him? What are you going to put on the other side of the balance, in other words? Humans would probably be your best option, because humans were at least made in God’s likeness, but we’ve just seen that even the greatest conglomerations of humans are less than nothing in comparison to God. It’s not just that God comes out better in the comparison; it’s that God is in a whole other class. The creator God is incomparably greater than even the greatest among all he made. So to whom will you compare him? Or, even when it feels like he’s doing nothing, where else will you turn? Everything that exists is either God or something God made, and that means your only options besides God are things that are incomparably less weighty, less glorious, less powerful, less “matter”ing than God!
Consider the “scales” of your own mind. What seems weighty to you? What seems glorious? Is it the Google, Apple, and Amazon logos? Is it your favorite sports team? Is it the ski slopes of the Rockies? Is it the weekend down the shore? The American flag? The big plot of land? The penthouse on Rittenhouse Square? Dust. All dust, and less than nothing on the scales, in comparison to the one who made it all. To whom then will you compare God? Isaiah considers the option to which the Israelites were most prone in verse 19: An idol! That’s even crazier than comparing God to a human, because idols are made by humans! Yet he saw the people of his day spending their money and skill to make these things that once they are completed, can’t even move.
And just to reinforce the utter insanity of such a thing, Isaiah reminds the people that they know better in verse 21. From the foundation of the earth, God has been clearly revealed in the things that have been made. We all intuitively sense until we are taught otherwise that this world was made by someone greater than it. And it is he who sits above the earth, so far exalted above it that its inhabitants look like little grasshoppers to him. Ah, but what about the greatest of the inhabitants? We talked about nations, but what about rulers of nations, princes, as verse 23 mentions? God also brings them to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness. In verse 24 Isaiah points out how much like a flower of the field they are: Scarcely are they even planted when God blows on them, and they are gone, along with all their power. Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Gengis Khan, Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler…dead. All of them, reigning over nothing to this day, for dust they are, and to dust they returned. Vladimir Putin, President Biden, Xi Jinping, all seemingly powerful today, all will be gone in the blink of an eye on God’s timeline, along with the nations they lead, including America. And then, verse 26, we meet one more candidate for comparison with God: The stars. It was common in the ancient world to name the stars and worship them. Even Israel was tempted in this way. At least that idol is not one man made, and yet even it is still simply something God made. He calls out their host by number, he gives them their name, and because of the greatness of his might, not one is missing. They are his servants, not his competitors, just like the rest of creation.
And so again, verse 25, but this time God gets personal: To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like them? When you feel tempted to turn to an idol instead of waiting for the LORD, consider him speaking personally to you the words of verse 25: “To whom then will you compare me?” Idolatry is a personal offense to God, but furthermore, and this is really Isaiah’s emphasis in these verses: It’s just crazy. Whatever else you’re turning to, however great it may seem, here’s what we know about it for sure: It’s as dust in comparison to the creator God. It is incomparably weaker than he is, and it is incomparably less glorious than he is. Why, then, give so much of your money and abilities to it, as the Israelites gave their money and abilities to statues that couldn’t even move? Wait for the LORD instead, even when it feels like he’s doing nothing, because where else will you turn?
Now, maybe you say, “Ok, sure, God as creator must be incomparably greater than anything else, but if he’s not doing anything in my life, and he won’t do anything in my life, I might as well turn to something else, right?” And there’s where verse 26 is a helpful transition. There we see that God is not only greater than the stars; we see that he cares for the stars. He calls them by name, and because he is strong in power, not one of them is missing. And if he so cares for the stars, how much more will he care for you? So wait for the LORD when it feels like he’s doing nothing, because he’ll give you what you need.
He’ll give you what you need
So in verse 27, Isaiah responds to Israel’s charge against the LORD, the context for this whole passage. And their charge against God is not that he is impotent, or even inglorious. Their charge against God is that he is apathetic, absent, or even unjust. They say, “My way is hidden from the LORD,” i.e., he does not see, or he does not care about, what I’m going through. Then they add, “My right is disregarded by my God,” i.e., he’s not just, he’s not giving me the good I deserve, or delivering me from the evil I don’t deserve! Do you recognize yourself in that cry? I know I do. And here’s something interesting: God could easily reply to that by saying: “Not giving what you deserve?! Not giving you your ‘right’? I’m giving you exactly what you deserve. You’ve sinned against me, and you’re receiving the promised curse for doing so.” And he does make that basic point elsewhere in Isaiah. It’s true, but it’s not what he chooses to say here. Just as it’s true that idolatry is wrong, but God instead chooses to emphasize here that it’s crazy, so here, though it’s true that God was perfectly just in all he did to Israel, he chooses to speak a word of comfort instead of a word of a rebuke. Do you see how compassionate of a God he is? He has compassion on our cries, even when those cries are mingled with unbelief.
So through Isaiah, he reminds us next of who he is. He is the everlasting God, and the Creator of the ends of the earth. In Himself he is without beginning or end, and He is the one who made everything else. So He does not faint or grow weary. Every day we grow weary. Moment after moment comes, and eventually, even for the night owls among us, we faint and grow weary. It happens over the span of our lives. We age, and so faint, grow weary, and eventually die. But in the words of G.K. Chesterton: We have sinned and grown old, and our heavenly father is younger than we. He’s never on break from his job, or slacking off a bit as retirement approaches. Just as he knows the stars by name and not one is missing, so he knows his people by name, the hairs of our heads are all numbered, and even when it feels like he’s doing nothing, our way is not hidden from him, nor is our right disregarded.
That said, precisely because he is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth, and we are finite, temporal beings, mere creatures, his understanding is unsearchable, as verse 28 ends. That means though we can know that he is always working in our lives, we cannot always detect how he is working in our lives, and therefore even the godliest, most spiritual people among us hit these points in their lives when it feels like God is doing nothing. One small step toward joy and peace in such times though is simply to remember that God is God, and you are not; so it actually makes total sense that you do not get what he’s doing. Don’t demand of God a detailed explanation of why you are where you are in life and what he will do next before you’ll receive comfort from Him.
Your life may not look how you want it to look, it may not look how you always thought it would look, and it may feel like God is doing nothing, but in verse 29 we start to see this glorious promise that God will give you what you need to live this very life, the one he’s assigned you, the only one you’ve got. Not only is he omnipotent in himself, but he gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. He does not faint or grow weary, AND he gives power to those who do, and those who presently are, fainting and weary! And it’s not even as though you must bring him some of your strength, and he’ll kinda get you the rest of the way there, like you have to get the bar up off your chest an inch or two on the bench press, and then God will come in and spot you so you can get it all the way there. No; it’s to him who has no might that God increases strength. It’s more like him putting his power in your arms, so that by his power alone, you can lift the weight. Isn’t that what we really need? We often think we need a different life, and so we want God to show up and give us that life. But what we really need is strength to live this life in a way that’s pleasing to Him. And guess what? We don’t have it! Don’t you feel it? I feel it. And that’s why we think we need out of it, and that’s why we try to escape it through an idol. But there is another option, because there is an omnipotent God, incomparably more powerful than any of us or our idols, who increases strength to those who have none.
But for him to give us his strength, he would first have to become weak, and carry a weight that even with his help, we could never lift. When God the Father sent God the Son to take on human flesh in Jesus Christ, the everlasting God entered into time, and the Creator of the ends of the earth became a creature. The one who does not faint or grow weary took on the need to sleep, in order that he might offer to God the one truly acceptable sacrifice, the sacrifice incomparably greater than all the trees and beasts of Lebanon. If the creator God is the one of infinite glory, as he reveals himself here to be, then we who have sinned against him have incurred an infinite debt. If you spit on the ground, people may think you a bit impolite, but if you spit in someone’s face, they are rightly offended in a far greater way, because they recognize they are of greater glory than a piece of concrete. They matter more. So when we sin against God, when he comes to us and says, “To whom then will you compare me?” and we still choose to turn to an idol instead of him, he is rightly offended, for he is of infinitely greater value than anything else. And so we have this infinite debt already incurred, and it’s why even if God gave us the strength to never disobey him again from here, we would need a sacrifice. And we would not need just any sacrifice. The only way to pay down an infinite debt is to offer a sacrifice of infinite value. The trees and animals of Lebanon cannot suffice for that, but God, the only being of infinite value, became man, and offered himself as the sacrifice in our place. On the cross Jesus took our sins upon himself, and here’s one of the ways he describes that experience, speaking as a man to God: “my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death” (Psalm 22:15). And God did lay him in the dust of death for our sins. He was not only faint; he was dead, truly without might.
And yet, to this one who had no might, God increased strength when he raised him from the dead. He now reigns in power, and has in himself all we need for our salvation. Therefore we read this promise in Romans 4:5 – “And to the one who does not work (i.e., to the one who has no might, no work), but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” Believe in Christ, and your faith will be counted as righteousness, not because of the strength of your faith, but because of the strength of the object of your faith: Jesus Christ. Jesus does not simply give us the strength to accomplish our salvation; he accomplished it by his own strength, and we who have no strength receive and rest upon him for our salvation. Then he sends his Spirit, the very Spirit with the power to raise Jesus from the dead, to live in us and empower us to live the life he’s assigned us until the day the strength of our flesh fails, and we die. Then Christ will come again to give us power when we have no might, and will raise our bodies from the dead to be like his glorious body. This is the hope for which we ultimately wait.
And, as verse 30 puts it, even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted. Youths and young men are among the most vigorous in strength, but even they, when they run hard enough, eventually fall down exhausted. But those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. The Spirit of God supplies to those who wait for the LORD an infinite supply of strength, flowing from his own infinite strength, that even the flesh of youth cannot produce or sustain. That’s what we really need, and that’s what God promises to give to those who wait for him. What does it mean, then, to wait for the LORD?
It means, first, that even when we feel like God is doing nothing, we cast off all sinful helps, and any dependence on other helps. In the Westminster Larger Catechism, question 105, two of the sins the assembly saw as forbidden in the first commandment were “using unlawful means, and trusting in lawful means.” So waiting for the LORD means not using unlawful means, nor trusting in lawful means. For example, it means even when I feel like God is doing nothing, when I’m hurting, lonely, or anxious, I’m not going to turn to the escape of sexual sin or drunkenness for relief. Those are examples of unlawful means, sinful helps. But then I’m also not going to depend on lawful means, and you can usually tell when you are depending on lawful means when 1.) Your peace rises and falls with them, 2.) your use of them becomes excessive, and 3.) They start to crowd out the means of grace God has provided. I recall a season of depression in my life when one of the lawful means I used to lift my spirits was watching the NBA playoffs. So let’s just use that as an example. It’s not a sinful help, it’s not an unlawful means. But lawful though it is, dependence on it could be detected if on a given night there were no games, and my peace was gone. Or, it could be detected if I didn’t just watch one game on a given night, but I watched 3 or 4 games every night, giving a significant chunk of my waking hours to it. That’s really what drunkenness is: It’s taking a lawful means of comfort, alcohol, and overindulging it, thus demonstrating a dependence on it for comfort, rather than on the LORD. Finally, a dependence on basketball could be detected if I was so committed to watching it that I could always find time to do so, while not having time to pray, meditate on scripture, attend church gatherings, or spend time with other Christians. That would demonstrate that I was dependent on it, not on the LORD.
And the nice thing about something like watching an NBA playoff game for me, or whatever the comfort might be for you, is that you don’t have to wait for it. It gives you an immediate hit, which can be especially powerful in times when you feel like God is doing nothing. And in its proper place, there’s nothing wrong with that, but anything like that is incomparably weaker than the LORD, and none of those things can give you the strength you need to live the life God has assigned you. And don’t you kinda sense that? Don’t you kinda sense you were made for something, or better yet someone, incomparably greater, the Creator, not the creation, and that you need a strength these things cannot provide? Dave, our pastoral resident, put it like this to me: “Those things gratify, but they don’t satisfy.” It’s like when I get McDonald’s: It’s immediately enjoyable, it gratifies, but it’s not deeply satisfying, and I know my body can’t run on that stuff. So as immediate as unlawful and lawful means are, waiting for the LORD means casting off unlawful means entirely, and casting off dependence on lawful means.
But then, on the flipside, waiting for the LORD means faithfully using the means of grace God has provided for communion with him, even when it feels like he’s doing nothing, and trusting that he will, in his timing, give you the strength you need to live the life he’s assigned you until this life gives way to the life to come. That means getting up early to pray, that means putting yourself around other Christians who will speak the truth to you even when you barely believe it, that means coming to church and listening attentively to the preaching of the Word, even when it feels like you’re just going through the motions. Don’t do such things hypocritically; when you pray, tell God that you feel your way is hidden from him, and your right disregarded. Maybe you’re thinking, “I’ve tried that and it’s not working,” but have you really? Have you renounced all unlawful means and all dependence on lawful means? Have you faithfully used the means of grace God has provided? Don’t expect strength from the LORD if you aren’t willing to wait for the LORD. And one more question to consider: Are you willing to receive strength from the LORD? Sometimes the only thing we’re willing to accept from the LORD is a different life than the one he’s assigned us, so we refuse to receive strength from him for the one he has assigned us. So we may use the means of grace, cast off all unlawful means, and all dependence on lawful means, but insist on doing so in a grumpy manner. That’s not waiting for the LORD; that’s resisting the LORD, telling him what you need and demanding he give it, instead of receiving from him what you really need: strength for this life.
To those who do wait for Him, though, the promise is not merely of enough strength to get you to heaven grumpy. That’s not the picture of verse 31. The picture is of vitality, fullness, joy, peace, and faithfulness until the day we receive new bodies that truly will never faint or grow weary. The God who promises it is none other than the everlasting God himself, the Creator of all things. Even when it feels like he’s doing nothing in your life, wait for Him. Where else will you turn? To whom will you compare him? A ruler? He brings them to nothing. The nations? They are dust. An idol? A craftsman makes it, but God made the craftsman and everything else. Only his power is infinite, and he gloriously displays his power by giving it to those who have none. In Christ he exerted his power to save those who have no righteousness of their own. In Christ he has given us his Spirit, to strengthen us to live the life he’s assigned us in way that’s pleasing to him. And in Christ he will come again to raise our bodies from the dead, never to grow weary or die again. So cast off all unlawful means, cast off all dependence on lawful means, and apply yourself to the means of grace God has provided, trusting that in his timing, he will give you the strength you need to endure with joy until he comes again.