I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me;I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me.I said, “Here I am, here I am,”to a nation that was not called by my name.I spread out my hands all the dayto a rebellious people,who walk in a way that is not good,following their own devices; (Isaiah 65:1-2, ESV)
The first verse of this passage teaches the principle that you will not find God when you are on the outside of the covenant community unless God seeks you first. This is because when we are on the outside, we do not seek God. We are blind and cannot see God. Our hearts are dead and we do not desire the presence of God. The things of the Spirit are foolishness to us (1 Cor. 2:14); the “mind of the flesh is hostile toward God” (Rom. 8:7). In fact, we are spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1-3). Dead people don’t seek God, because dead people can’t do anything. This is why Jesus said in John 6:44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” God simply must sovereignly intervene if we are to seek him.
But when God does intervene, and opens our eyes and changes our hearts and gives life to the dead, then we are not only put in a position to seek God, but we really do find him. Paul, quoting Isaiah, puts the text like this: “I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.” For those to whom God has given life, finding God does not just become possible, it becomes a reality. Charles Wesley put it like this: “Long my imprisoned spirit lay/ fast bound in sin and nature’s night/ Thine eye diffused a spiritual ray/ I woke, the dungeon flamed with light/ My chains fell off, my heart was free/ I rose, went forth, and followed thee.” When God frees a person, they must follow Christ; there is no other option!
But the next verse teaches a principle that applies to those who already are in the covenant community. It is this: if you are a member of the covenant family of God, then you must seek him if you are to find him. To Israel, God held out his hands to a disobedient people, waiting for them to seek him and they didn’t. The result was that they were severely punished by God. In Isaiah 64:7, the prophet laments that “There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you” and the result was that “you [God] have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.”
Those who are on the outside don’t know any better. They don’t seek God because they don’t know God. God has not revealed himself to them. But those who are on the inside should know better. They do know God. They have experienced his blessing and presence. Therefore, they ought to seek God when they wander from him in sin.
Over and over in the Old Testament, we hear calls to seek God, and they go like this: “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:12-13). These words are not addressed to Gentiles outside the community of God’s people; they are addressed to Israel. And note the order: seek God and then you will find him. There is no other way. God will not be found by his people when they do not seek him.
Nor is it any kind of seeking that will find God. It is a seeking that is characterized by full devotion: “with all your heart.” In the Bible, the heart is not merely the source of the affections, but the seat of the entire inner man, and includes the mind, the will, and the affections. It is in this sense of the heart that we are to seek God.
It may be asked, if God first finds us, how can we ever lose him? This is illustrated for us in the Old Testament narrative. Israel didn’t seek God initially; God sought them: “But the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage. He found him in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness” (Deut. 32:9,10). But once made a people, Israel often forgot God: “But Jeshurun grew fat and kicked; you grew fat, stout, and sleek; then he forsook God who made him and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation. . . . You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave your birth” (Deut. 32:15,18).
This experience has often been duplicated in the life of the church over the centuries. It has been duplicated in the experience of each believer over and over again in their own life. King David, who is described as a “man after God’s own heart,” was led astray by that same heart into serious sin. Psalm 51 is not the cry of a person who is seeking God for the first time; it is the cry of an old believer who has wandered off and is now seeking to return: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me” (verses 10,11). David, who was sought by God, is now seeking him.
But another thing Isaiah 65:2 teaches is that God is ready to receive those who seek him. This is indicated in the picture of God holding out his hands to Israel. It is a posture of forgiveness and a willingness to receive his people back to himself. The reason it didn’t happen was not because God was not willing; it was because Israel didn’t repent.
The same holds true today. If I have wandered off from God, he is willing to receive me back. We have this great picture of Jesus knocking at the door of the church of Laodicea: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20). But we have to hear his voice; we have to open the door. He is seeking us, yes; but we have to seek him back.
However, we should not take God’s willingness to receive us back for granted. God will not be sought as if he were some inconsequential item. If you lose a watch worth $5, you will probably not spend a lot of time and effort looking for it. Maybe some, but not too much. But if your watch cost $5000, you will probably tear the house apart and not stop looking until you have found it. We should seek God in the same way. This is the reason he says that we must seek him with all the heart. If you have lost the enjoyment of God’s presence and blessing, God doesn’t want you to seek him as if he is a $5 watch. That marginalizes, not magnifies, the worth of God. He demands that we seek him for who he is: infinitely valuable. Why are we surprised when we “seek” God but don’t find him if we are seeking him on the margins of our lives, in our spare time, without very much effort? We don’t find God because we really in fact are not seeking him. Our seeking is a futile exercise in minimum religious effort. We want a God who does not cost us anything. But God will not be found unless finding him costs us everything. Only in this way does seeking and finding God glorify him.
This is, I think, the point of the parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:44-46). Paul is an illustration of the kind of person who sells all to gain the treasure. He writes to the Philippian church: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (3:7-9).
May we be like Paul and seek the God who first sought us.