Question: "What does it mean to tarry?"
Answer: To tarry is to intentionally wait for an expected event. Synonyms of tarry are wait, linger, and delay. The word is first used in the KJV Bible in Genesis 19:2 when Lot invited the two visitors to Sodom to “turn in, I pray you, into your servant’s house, and tarry all night, and wash your feet, and ye shall rise up early, and go on your ways.” To “tarry” at Lot’s house was to spend the night there.
Tarrying may carry a more subtle meaning in many passages, and it can be either positive or negative, depending on the circumstances. To tarry implies a more permanent hesitation, as though a person would camp in a spot for a time. If we are tarrying because the Lord or His servants told us to do so, then we are right to tarry. But if we tarry as a means of procrastination and disobedience, tarrying can be sin.
Throughout Scripture, we are told to “wait on the Lord” (Psalm 27:14; 37:34). This kind of waiting means we do not run ahead of God’s timing. If we are seeking wisdom and direction (James 1:5), we are not to quickly toss a prayer skyward before racing off on our own ideas. We are to commit our way to the Lord (Psalm 37:5), wait until a wise option is presented, and then walk toward it with confidence because we tarried before the Lord.
David “sat before the Lord”, tarrying in prayer after God established the Davidic Covenant with him (2 Samuel 7:18). This was not an idle tarrying. David spent that time in focused prayer and thanksgiving.
Tarrying before the Lord involves quieting our hearts, praying about our concerns, meditating on His Word, and listening for His voice. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice . . . and they follow me” (John 10:27, ESV). We learn to distinguish the voice of the Lord from other voices that echo in our minds by spending time in His presence. When we saturate our minds and spirits with God’s Word, worship, and earnest prayer, His voice is easily recognizable. Tarrying before the Lord implies a readiness to obey His command. We can think of tarrying as a runner at the starting line, alert and ready for the starting shot. The runner tarries behind the line but is eagerly waiting for permission to run. If he runs too soon, he is disqualified. So he tarries with expectancy.
We often have a problem with sinful tarrying when we delay after we’ve been given instruction. Some people who wanted to follow Jesus also wanted to tarry before going all in. Luke 9:57–62 records three instances when individuals said they wanted to follow Jesus, but they begged for some tarrying time. In other words, they wanted what Jesus offered, but their tarrying indicated a lack of commitment. Each wanted to postpone his obedience indefinitely until he decided he was ready. Jesus made no exceptions for any of them. His final answer was, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).
For our benefit, Jesus tarries in His return: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9–12).
It is dangerous to tarry in obeying God. Jesus could return at any moment, and we will be caught in whatever situation He finds us (2 Peter 3:10). There will be no excuses. No explanations. No second chances. He tarries to give us time to obey Him, but He will not tarry forever. Romans 13:11–14 says, “The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.” There is no reason at all to tarry in following those instructions.