We are returning to Esther for one final sermon to address an issue that is lurking under the surface. You may have felt the tension. It has to do with this issue of war, and all the killing in the OT, especially of women and children. Some people like to point a finger at the OT and criticize God for being a God of war, who is mean, harsh, vengeful. Christians and non-Christians shudder and struggle with God’s wrath and judgment in the OT especially when they contrast that with the love and forgiveness of Jesus in the NT. Some go so far as to say the God of the OT is different than the God of the NT. Why does the God of the OT tell His people to fight against their enemies, but in the NT He tells them to love their enemies? Esther eight and nine raise a fundamental moral issue, the ethics of Mordecai’s edict. Was it right for Mordecai to issue a decree permitting the Jews not just to defend themselves but to retaliate against their enemies and their families and households, including women and children? Is there a double standard, what Haman decreed against God’s people was wrong, but the actions of God’s people against their enemies was OK? We are glad that the good guys won, but what about the fact that the good guys turned on the bad guys and then seemed to act like the bad guys? There is a lot of talk these days about the abuse of power. Is Mordecai really any better than Haman when it comes to the use and abuse of power?
Chapter 10 in some ways feels like an awkward, unnecessary, little conclusion. What purpose do these verses serve? Are they a waste of breath by God in His inspired Scripture? Well, we all know the answer to that question, of course not, nothing is wasted or unimportant in God’s Word. So why these words? This chapter is a bit of a wake up, a slap in the face, a way of saying that this life is not some panacea, some kind of utopia, some happily ever afterward story. Unhappily life is back to normal, and nothing says life is back to normal more than taxes going up. King Ahasuerus is still king and is doing the things kings do. He is still acting out of self-interest as he imposes another burdensome tax on all his subjects. When Esther became queen back in chapter 2 the king granted a remission of taxes and gave away lavish gifts. So, this taxation is actually a reversal. Yes, the Jews were granted a great life-saving victory over their enemies but they are still under a king who makes their lives more burdensome. He is still mighty in power and in his own selfish desires. Everything has been reversed and yet nothing has changed. He is completely unmoved by all the providential events that have gone on around him. God has been mightily, even if silently, present and at work, yet the king is clueless to all the signs of grace and faith and spiritual power. But there is good news also. Mordecai is second in power and more powerful than ever and has the favor of all his people and he is not acting out of self-interest, he’s looking out for the welfare of his people and seeking peace (shalom).
How many of us have trouble remembering things? And how many of us can testify it seems to get worse as we get older? But it isn’t just an age thing. We are all prone to forget some things, events and experiences from our past. In school we are taught so many things and teachers know that there are tricks to getting things to stick in our heads. These memory aids are called mnemonic devices, things that help us remember.
I have mentioned before the book of Esther is considered to be one of the greatest short stories ever written. From a purely literary point of view it is considered a master piece of writing. Many of the chapters end with cliffhangers, like those TV shows that end with you on the edge of your seat and wanting to come back. Chapter one ends with a deposed Queen Vashti and who would be next. Chapter three ends with the king’s prime minister, Haman, issuing a decree to kill all the Jews in all 127 provinces of the Persian Empire, which throws Susa into turmoil. At Mordecai’s urging, chapter four ends with Esther agreeing to risk her life and approach the king, saying, “If I perish, I perish.” Chapter five ends with Haman building a gallows on which to kill Mordecai the next day. Chapter six recounts a one-day flurry of activity that throws everything into turmoil and chaos. In chapter eight Mordecai is raised to Haman’s position. He can’t revoke Haman’s decree so with the king’s blessing he issues a counter decree allowing the Jews to defend themselves against their enemies. Chapter nine begins in a dramatic way that captures the building tension, what will actually happen on that fateful day. Ten months of anxious waiting. The enemies of the Jews plot, the Jews prepare. What will happen? Will it work? The previous decree cannot be revoked, will Mordecai’s decree have any effect? Both sides have royal law on their side. Will the unseen and unheard from God of the Jews help them? Is He really present? Is God’s providential care a real thing or not? Notice how Esther 9:1 is written. Five clauses piled on top of each other before we get to the object of the sentence. It’s like the writer wants us to see how much was stacked against the Jews, or how close they came to utter annihilation. What actually happens comes after a long string of the most improbable of events. No one could have seen this possibility coming a year ago.
This is a life and death chapter, two lives hang in the balance. Who will get life and who will get death? Both of them plead for their lives, one before the king, one before the queen. One will be executed, one saved.
On that night. On that very night, the king could not sleep. How can this possibly be news worthy or Scripture worthy? Lots of people have nights they can’t sleep, even kings and queens. Yet this seemingly insignificant and mundane moment in the hands of God is the turning point of the whole book of Esther. Of all the moments in the book of Esther, this has to be the most insignificant, yet this is the providential pivot point for the great reversal. Haman is riding high, Mordecai is going to hang even higher, the Jews will be exterminated and then the king can’t sleep and everything changes. It’s not Esther’s feast or Mordecai’s loyalty to the king or Haman’s edict. They aren’t in control, they aren’t directing what happens. Clearly this is outside of them, it is the hand of God. Literally sleep fled him, which some interpret to mean God took sleep from him. Maybe the feast with Esther was on his mind, after all he did offer up to half his kingdom. Maybe he is mulling over what she could be wanting. What do you do when you can’t sleep. What happens next is yet another strange coincidence. Instead of calling for one of his harem girls, or asking his cooks to whip up something to eat or bring a glass of warm milk, or going to his office to work on some official business or catch up on e-mail and Facebook, he asks for the Chronicles of the Kingdom to be read to him, administrative records and reports from the 127 provinces of the empire. Frankly, this is the last thing we would expect. I picture this being the equivalence of the President asking for the Congressional Record to be read to him. A sure cure for insomnia. And in fact, that may be just what the king hopes, that the monotonous reading will put him to sleep. Of all the record entries from all the 127 provinces the reader turns to the page about Mordecai. What are the odds? While Haman is preparing to take Mordecai’s life, the king is hearing about how Mordecai saved his life. That nothing was done for Mordecai was scandalous for Persian kings who were known for generously rewarding those who did good to them. They took pride in blessing loyalty. Besides unrewarded loyalty could come back to bit you. Remember there was a huge gap, maybe as many as five years, between the event and this knowledge of it. The timing was very important, though Mordecai could never have guessed it. How often do we get impatient with God’s timing, with God’s apparent slowness in acting? How often do we want God to follow our time table rather than His? God’s timing is always exactly right for God’s purposes. One of the challenges of following Christ and being a Christian is submitting ourselves to God and to His will and His ways. Not my will but thy will be done.
If chapter five was a movie the producer would make these first two verses very dramatic. The camera would move slowly, the music would be foreboding, the tension would be building, Esther’s heart would be pounding, her hands would be shaking, beads of sweat forming on her forehead. She is walking into a life or death situation with no idea which way it will go. Everything is at stake, her life, the life of all the Jews in the empire. Queen Vashti risked her life by refusing to appear before the king, now Esther risks her life by appearing before the same king. This is not unsubstantiated, there has been uncovered ancient art depicting a Persian king seated on a throne with a long scepter in his right hand and an attendant standing behind the throne with a large ax. Going before the king really is risky business especially in light of how unpredictably he has acted in the past and how much he acts on a whim. Will the king hold out his scepter or will she be executed before she can even speak? She really is walking by faith and not by sight. The fact that she is doing the right thing in no way guarantees she will get a good result. Remember the three men being thrown into the furnace in Daniel 3, they said either God would rescue them, or if not, God is still God and still good and He will do what is right to Him. Esther said, “If I perish, I perish.” Faithfulness is what we are to pursue, the fruit is entirely in God’s hands. Esther has no control over the outcome. Have you faced this kind of situation? You know the right thing to do, but you tremble because you have no clue which way it will turn out? It could be good or bad. We experience that in relationships, in work situations, in finances. What in your life is a sign of faith rather than walking by sight? Making a decision to adopt, to go into some ministry, to take a stand at work that may cost you a promotion or even your job, confronting a good friend about a sin, deciding to leave your career to start something new, when to retire or move out of our home. Esther lives in a world just like ours, where we are called to live holy and blameless lives before God but without any knowledge of what God will do or how He will bless, whether in this life or in the life to come.
With the king’s blessing, Haman, driven by an intense hatred of Mordecai and his people, issues a decree for an ethnic cleansing, a killing of all the Jews in the entire empire beginning in about eleven months. Esther 4:1-17. Some of you may have seen one of those TV shows or movies that depict some cataclysmic end of the earth like an impending meteor strike. And then the movie shows all the chaos and confusion and how people deal with the world-ending news. One of the things shows like that do is get us to think about how we would react if we found out that the earth was going to be destroyed next year. It can be a sobering thought experiment, a test of our faith and courage. Chapter 4 of Esther is that TV show. The Jews are going to wiped out in 11 months. How would you respond if the government issues a decree to kill all Christian next September? No wonder the city of Susa was thrown into turmoil and confusion.
Do you remember last week when I asked if you appreciated owning your own Bible and that it is in your own language? Can you imagine not having a Bible and never hearing it in your own language? Can you imagine what the day would be like when you got your very own Bible in your language? It happened to some people last month, and a friend of mine was there to witness it. Listen to what that day was like. “On August 23, in a village in central Tanzania (which is in east Africa), around 600 people gathered to celebrate the dedication of the New Testament in the Burunge language! What a day– music, singing, dancing, preaching, and reading from the Word of God in the Burunge language! There was a moment during the celebrations when the importance of the occasion hit home with me. Several Burunge dressed in traditional clothing were leading a cultural dance and invited some of us to come out and dance with them. With arms around people I had never met before, jumping up and down as we moved around in a circle, tears came to my eyes as I experienced a piece of their joy in receiving the Word of God in their mother tongue. Praise the Lord for the power of his Word and that the Burunge now have the New Testament in their language!” (Johnny Walker). Can you imagine not having the truth of the Word of God in your own language? Can you imagine what a famine of the Word of God would be like?
We are in Susa, one of the oldest cities in the world located in present day Iran. It served as the winter capital of Persia. On a hill in the center of the city was the citadel, or fortress palace, of King Ahasuerus (Xerxes I the Great), emperor of the largest empire up to that time in history, stretching from India to Egypt. He was the most powerful man in the world. Esther was crowned the new queen to replace Vashti and as King Ahasuerus liked to do, there was a huge party to celebrate. Now the story quickly settles into the political life around the palace, stories of promotions and plots, the stuff of our evening news. Life in politics is never all sweetness and light.