In Romans 10:20 Paul quotes God’s words from Isaiah 65:1, “I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.” Displaying this verse in two parallel lines is most revealing:
“I was found by those who did not seek me”
“I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me”
Starting at the end of the verse, God is speaking about those “who did not seek me” and “who did not ask for me.” From the context of Romans 10, it is clear that Paul applies Isaiah 65:1 to Gentiles. In fact, Gentiles must be the referent because Paul begins Romans 10:21 with the words, “But concerning Israel.” So Romans 10:20 is about Gentiles, and Romans 10:21 is about Israel.
Gentiles, then, are those “who did not seek” God nor “ask for” God. Yet clearly there are Gentiles (e.g. me!) who are in the people of God by virtue of Christ’s new covenant work on the cross. Or to say it how Paul says it, there are Gentiles who have “found” God. Now here’s the apparent strangeness about the wording of this verse: normally finding something is the result of seeking after it (“I finally found my keys after two days of searching,” for instance). But God said these Gentiles “found” Him without “seeking” or “asking for” Him!
So how do you find something you’re not even looking for? The key is the parallel phrase to “I was found,” which is “I revealed myself.” God was “found,” then, not because the Gentiles were seeking Him but because He chose to reveal Himself! In fact, unless God revealed Himself first, no duration or intensity of Gentile “seeking” would have ever led to God. Why? “There is no one who understands, no one who seeks God” (Rom 3:11). People may do a lot of seeking, but it’s not in God’s direction. We seek the fulfillment of our own wicked desires, inevitably following the ways of the Evil One (see Eph 2:3).
When God says, “I was found,” we are to understand those words in light of the parallel phrase “I revealed myself.” Our knowing God depends entirely on a divinely initiated revelation of Himself to us. Since, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17), Paul understands that God reveals Himself to Gentiles through the message of the gospel. Knowing God depends on God revealing Himself to sinners through the proclamation of the gospel (see Rom 10:14-15). Without God revealing Himself through the gospel, a sinner cannot know (or “find”) God.
People don’t find God because they search for years and years and finally claim a victorious discovery. People “find” God because (and only if) God first reveals Himself. Perhaps Jesus’ words will best conclude our discussion: “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt 11:27).