Believers and unbelievers - what a contrast!

Text Esther 5 Time 19/01/14 Place Childs Hill Baptist Church

We are looking at the Book of Esther and this week we want to look at Chapter 5 where there is a little further development in the story but also a development in our understanding of the character of two of the main characters – first, Esther, our heroine, who takes her courage in her hands and approaches King Xerxes to make her request and is heard, and then, Haman, our villain, who Esther has invited to tea with her and the king and who totally misreads the situation.
Haman is an arch villain, we have said. He is typical of Satan himself and of those who follow Satan. There is a lot to learn from him negatively – how not to live. Esther, on the other hand, gives us an insight into some of the things that should characterise those who are truly followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. Let's look at the two in turn then and let's learn.
1. Consider Esther the believer and the qualities you should seek if you are one
We are told at the beginning of Chapter 5 that On the third day that is after the days of fasting and prayer that had gone on, seeking God for the success of Esther's mission, Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the palace, in front of the king's hall. The king was sitting on his royal throne in the hall, facing the entrance. This is the throne room where Xerxes would sit to receive those he summoned or those who came seeking his favour. We are told that there were 36 pillars before it all 65 feet tall. As we have said, Esther knew that if she came to him unsought and he was not pleased then she would die. But if he held out his golden sceptre to her then she could be sure he would receive her with favour.
Imagine her walking up to the king then. What trepidation, what fears. What a relief it is to read in verse 2 that When he saw Queen Esther standing in the court, he was pleased with her and held out to her the gold sceptre that was in his hand. So Esther approached and touched the tip of the sceptre. What a relief! All was well. But then, how to make the most of this opportunity. When the king asked, What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be given you Esther still had to tread carefully. A law had been passed in a land that prided itself on having unchanging laws. A law had been passed, sponsored by the highest individual in the land after the King himself, Haman.
And so she says (4) If it pleases the king, … let the king, together with Haman, come today to a banquet I have prepared for him. Verse 5 Bring Haman at once, the king said, so that we may do what Esther asks. The throne room was a very public place and Esther no doubt wanted some greater privacy before she raised her question.
So we read the king and Haman went to the banquet Esther had prepared. Verse 6 As they were drinking wine, the king again asked Esther, Now what is your petition? It will be given you. And what is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be granted.
Again she has reached a critical point. Perhaps it is getting easier – perhaps not. 7, 8 Esther replied, My petition and my request is this: If the king regards me with favour and if it pleases the king to grant my petition and fulfil my request, let the king and Haman come tomorrow to the banquet I will prepare for them. Then I will answer the king's question. It all seems so slow but if she did not have the King's ear before she certainly did now. He wants to know what it is all about. He wants to know how he can help his queen. Meanwhile Haman is left all unsuspecting.
Now what we see here, I would suggest to you, are four characteristics that should mark every Christian, every true believer in Christ. We are unlikely to be in a position even remotely similar to the one Queen Esther found herself in but we can still learn from here the sort of character we need to live for God and for the good of his people in these days.
Several things stand out in Esther here. Let's say four things
1. If you are a believer seek a brave faith
How did Esther summon up the courage to go to the king, knowing that it may have cost her her life? Clearly it was an act of faith. She would only go backed up by people praying fasting, It was an act of faith on her part. Brave faith is something you need to go to God and become a Christian in the first place.
Do you know the first prayer of the former communist Richard Wurmbrand? He prayed “God, if perchance you exist, it is Your duty to reveal yourself to me.” Wurmbrand (who died in 2001) was born in 1909 in Bucharest, Romania, the youngest of four boys born into a Jewish family. They lived in Istanbul for a short time but when he was 9, his father died and six years later they returned to Romania. Romania was then very much a communist country and he was sent to study Marxism in Moscow. When he returned, he was already a Comintern Agent, that is a member of the Communist International Organisation bent on fighting to establish communism everywhere by any means. In 1936 he married Sabina and they went to live in an isolated village high in the mountains of Romania. But, as an atheist he had no peace and so he bravely cried out in faith: God, if perchance you exist, it is Your duty to reveal yourself to me.” The next thing that happened was that he met a neighbour, a Christian carpenter who prayed for him and gave him a Bible and he and his wife were converted.
There is a certain bravery or courage about every first prayer, I guess. That spirit of brave faith must go on as we grow as Christians. We need to be unafraid and looking to the Lord do what ever it is that we ought to do.
One writer says
"Christian courage is the willingness to say and do the right thing regardless of the earthly cost, because God promises to help you and save you on account of Christ. An act takes courage if it will likely be painful. The pain may be physical, as in war and rescue operations. Or the pain may be mental as in confrontation and controversy."
Courage is indispensable for both spreading and preserving the truth of Christ. Jesus promised that spreading the gospel would meet resistance: "Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of My name" (Matthew 24:9). And Paul warned that, even in the church, faithfulness to the truth would be embattled: "I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them" (Acts 20:29-30; see also 2 Timothy 4:3-4).
Therefore, true evangelism and true teaching will take courage. Running from resistance in evangelism or teaching dishonours Christ. There is a kind of cowardice that tells only the truths that are safe to tell. Martin Luther put it like this:
If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”
(Quoted in Parker T. Williamson, Standing Firm: Reclaiming Christian Faith in Times of Controversy [Springfield, PA: PLC Publications, 1996], p 5)
Pray for faith, pray for bold faith, courageous faith. Pray to make your stand where you really ought to make your stand.
2. If you are a believer seek a holy wisdom
I think the strategy Esther employed is most striking. She saw the need to work up to her request with subtlety and skill. She managed the whole thing very carefully and very well. Too often we lack such wisdom. We go rushing at things assuming all will be well. We need God given wisdom to know how to act in ways that truly honour God and that are most likely to bring results.
My father-in-law is preaching this week at what is called The Founders Conference in the USA. It is organised by members of the Southern Baptist Convention. Some years ago these people realised that the SBC was far from what it once was – a Calvinistic Baptist denomination. Rather than wringing their hands or leaving the group, they have worked faithfully and wisely to bring about reform and with some success.
3. If you are a believer seek a humble patience
Of course, by employing the strategy she did Esther needed to be patient. She knew that her approach would not solve the problem straight away. Gain, impatience can be a problem for us. We want everything straight away. Too often it is not like that and we simply need to learn to be patient. Are you patiently waiting on the Lord until he answers your prayers?
4. If you are a believer seek a selfless devotion
The other thing that stands out here is the selflessness of Esther. She knew that her approach to the king may well backfire. She was willing to do what she did, however, because she was not concerned only about herself but about those around her too.
Again we need to examine ourselves. Am I living for others? Am I willing to endanger my life an lose my comforts in order to bring blessing to others?
What a challenge!
2. Consider Haman the unbeliever and the qualities you should avoid whoever you are
The rest of the chapter focuses on Haman. We are told in verse 9 that he went out that day happy and in high spirits because he had been invited to tea with the king and queen, which he assumed must be a good thing for him. But when he saw Mordecai at the king's gate we are told and observed that he neither rose nor showed fear in his presence, no change there then he was filled with rage against Mordecai. Nevertheless, we are told Haman restrained himself and went home. He felt like attacking Mordecai there and then (obviously having no idea that this was the cousin of the woman who had just invited him to her banquet).
Back home he called together his friends and Zeresh, his wife, he boasted to them about his vast wealth, his many sons, and all the ways the king had honoured him and how he had elevated him above the other nobles and officials. Verse 12 And that's not all, Haman added. And here we see the irony that often appears in this book I'm the only person Queen Esther invited to accompany the king to the banquet she gave. And she has invited me along with the king tomorrow. If only he had known.
But he didn't and besides he was too pre-occupied with his hatred towards Haman. But all this gives me no satisfaction he says in verse 13 as long as I see that Jew Mordecai sitting at the king's gate. He had a plan to kill Haman along with the whole Jewish race, of course, but His wife Zeresh and all his friends said to him, Have a gallows built, seventy-five feet high, and ask the king in the morning to have Mordecai hanged on it. Then they say in the utter ignorance of the true situation go with the king to the dinner and be happy. This suggestion delighted Haman, of course and he had the gallows built. How far was he from imagining, as he watched the workmen build the gallows, that that was the very gallows on which he himself would one day die.
At the end of Chapter 1 of Charles Dickens masterful novel we read
The marshes were just a long black horizontal line then, as I stopped to look after him; and the river was just another horizontal line, not nearly so broad nor yet so black; and the sky was just a row of long angry red lines and dense black lines intermixed. On the edge of the river I could faintly make out the only two black things in all the prospect that seemed to be standing upright; one of these was the beacon by which the sailors steered -- like an unhooped cask upon a pole -- an ugly thing when you were near it; the other agibbet, with some chains hanging to it which had once held a pirate. The man was limping on towards this latter, as if he were the pirate come to life, and come down, and going back to hook himself up again. It gave me a terrible turn when I thought so; and as I saw the cattle lifting their heads to gaze after him, I wondered whether they thought so too. I looked all round for the horrible young man, and could see no signs of him. But, now I was frightened again, and ran home without stopping.”
If you know the novel the sight of that gibbet is important as throughout the novel the them of hanging for murder is always in the background in one way or another. We can picture this gallows and think of it in a similar way.
1. Beware of an empty happiness
Haman is very happy in these scenes – happy to be sitting down to a banquet with Queen Esther, happy to boast to his family, happy with their suggestion of how to do away with Mordecai. Indeed, Mordecai is the only fly in the ointment, the only one who makes him sad. His emptiness, of course, was entirely empty. His invitation to Esther's banquet did not come about through anything good in him but because of the war on Mordecai's people he had declared. It all looked like it was going fine but the very opposite was the case. It reminds us of people today who are so happy with things in the life not realising how soon it will all be removed.
2. Beware of a hurt pride
Haman's undoing was his pride. If he could have simply overlooked Mordecai's failure to bow down to him all would have been well. But he cannot and so he has to suffer the consequences which is hurt pride bring about.
3. Beware of a self-centred boasting
In verse 11 we read how together with his friends and Zeresh, his wife, he boasted to them about his vast wealth, his many sons, and all the ways the king had honoured him and how he had elevated him above the other nobles and officials. What a self-centred man he was. Did he not see that any wealth he had was given by God? Did he not know that Sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from him? And did he not know that the king had only honoured and given him the position he had because that was God's will? The biggest irony was in his statement And that's not all, ... I'm the only person Queen Esther invited to accompany the king to the banquet she gave. And she has invited me along with the king tomorrow.                   
4. Beware of hatching evil plans
Of course, the other warning is in his evil plan to try and have Mordecai killed. He has already shown his evil nature in planning to have the Jews put to death but here we see it again in his attitude to Mordecai when he is egged on by his family and friends. What wickedness can lie in the human heart, what evil plans we can devise. Thankfully many, like this one, do not transpire, but the very fact that they are in our hearts at all stand against us.
Here are things to repent from then – a false happiness that is not founded on Jesus Christ and what he has done, hurt pride and self-centred boasting, all evil plans. Where we are guilty of such sins let's repent and turn to the Lord seeking forgiveness.
Let's pray instead for brave faith, holy wisdom, humble patience and selfless devotion. These are the trait we see in Christ and in those who follow him. Pray that such traits will also be seen in us by his grace.

What to do in a crisis

Text Esther 4 Time 12/01/14 Place Childs Hill Baptist Church

Crisis? What crisis?” This is a famous headline from The Sun newspaper back in the so called “Winter of discontent” of 1979. The actual words were never spoken by then prime-minister, Jim Callaghan, but he did say when asked, in the middle of a series of union strikes that left rubbish bins unemptied and graves undug, about what others saw as a crisis “I don't think other people in the world would share the view there is mounting chaos”.
People say that one man's crisis is another man's opportunity and that we shouldn't turn a mere drama into a crisis. However, whatever we may call them crises large and small do come on us all at different times. A crisis is literally a judgement and it is the word we use to refer to troubling times when the outcome is uncertain and may be either bad or good, probably bad. Crises cane be personal, they can come to families, they can affect a neighbourhood, a nation, they can even be international.
I raise the subject of crises because here in Esther 4 we find the people of God in a crisis. In Chapter 3 we read how their enemy Haman, who is a very powerful man, has managed to get a law passed that will give the right to people to kill all the Jews throughout the Persian Empire at a certain time on a certain day. Humanly speaking it looked as though the entire Jewish race was going to be wiped out meaning no more people of God and no more hope of Messiah. If it had happened we would not be here now. There would be no hope. There would be no Messiah to proclaim.
The Book of Esther explains both how the crisis came about and how the crisis was averted. In Chapter 4 we learn how they reacted to the crisis, how they coped with it. Here we can learn what to do in a crisis. You may say, “Crisis? What crisis?”. Well, if you are not in one now then you probably will be in one at some point. And even if you escape most crises on the way through life you will still have to face the final crisis when the world comes to an end, the judgement day itself. It pays to be prepared then. $ Remember that story Jesus told about the wise man and the foolish. They both built houses – one on sand, one on rock. For a while all was well with both houses but then a crisis came – a terrible storm and flood. Then it became clear which one could stand the test of time.
I think there are at least five things we can say from this passage on what to do in a crisis?
1. Don't be afraid to engage in legitimate forms of showing grief
We are told in verse 1 that When Mordecai learned of all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly. Tearing ones clothes, wearing sackcloth, putting ashes on your head and wailing loudly and bitterly in public were all legitimate forms of showing grief. We may not engage in them now but we may leave our hair unkempt, wear black or sombre clothing, be sad faced, bury that face in our hands, quietly cry.
A stiff upper lip is traditional in these islands but it is not necessary for us to hold everything in. In fact there is evidence to say it is not good for us to do that.
We must not get out of control, of course. We read that Mordecai (2) went only as far as the king's gate, because no one clothed in sackcloth was allowed to enter it. No doubt there was a law that meant that no-one was allowed to be sad in the king's presence. Many powerful kings have had such rules.
Mordecai's reaction was a common one all over the empire. 3 In every province to which the edict and order of the king came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping and wailing. Many lay in sackcloth and ashes. Here fasting is added to the list. Remember that one of the themes in this book is feasting and fasting. In our culture going without food in a crisis is again typical whether by design or just because the desire for food goes.
We read in verse 4 that When Esther's maids and eunuchs came and told her about Mordecai, she was in great distress. She sent clothes for him to put on instead of his sackcloth, but he would not accept them. We do tend to try and cheer people up when they are in a crisis and that has its place and sometimes works. If Esther had known the problem from the beginning, of course, she would not for a moment have thought she could cheer Mordecai so easily.
So that's the first thing – let it out. Show your grief in a crisis. Don't be afraid to do that.
2. Look for a solution
We read next that back in the palace (5-8) Esther summoned Hathach, one of the king's eunuchs assigned to attend her, and ordered him to find out what was troubling Mordecai and why. There follows a series of exchanges between Esther and Mordecai who had brought her up through Hathach.
So Hathach went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king's gate. Mordecai told him everything that had happened to him, including the exact amount of money Haman had promised to pay into the royal treasury for the destruction of the Jews. He also gave him a copy of the text of the edict for their annihilation, which had been published in Susa, to show to Esther and explain it to her, and he told him to urge her to go into the king's presence to beg for mercy and plead with him for her people.
Perhaps Mordecai should have tried to contact Esther first. Anyway, Esther contacted him and he was able to set before her the terrible news of the expected pogrom. He emphasised Haman's offer of money to the king and by sending in a copy of the edict he made sure that Esther knew exactly what was going to happen.
That is a reminder that sharing our problems with others is right. We must do it with care, of course but again we must not hide it all inside. Not only did he tell Esther the situation but he began to try and get Esther to go into the king's presence to beg for mercy and plead with him for her people. This seemed to him the only solution and, of course, he proved to be right on that.
The simple point we want to make here is that in a crisis, although we may weep and grieve we also need to try and do something to sort out the problem as well. Our immediate solutions may not be the right ones but we must not neglect to try and think of a way out.
3. Be realistic
The next thing to say is that we need to be realistic in a crisis. Hathach takes Mordecai's answer back to Esther and she sends word to him saying (11) All the king's officials and the people of the royal provinces know that for any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned the king has but one law: that he be put to death. The only exception to this is for the king to extend the gold sceptre to him and spare his life. But thirty days have passed since I was called to go to the king.
Esther is not unwilling to go to the king but there are certain things that Mordecai should know or be reminded of. In those days kings had to be careful about who gained access to them. Someone might easily have evil in mind or just waste his time over some triviality and so a system had been developed. Esther like others could only gain access to the king if he summoned her to his throne room or if she went to him there. A month has now passed, however, since she was last summoned into his presence and she fears that he is not likely to summon her any time soon. If, on the other hand, she goes to him then she will only be heard if he extends his golden sceptre to her showing his favour. If he fails to do that then she will be put to death.
The situation then is that she is unlikely to be summoned and if she goes in through the pillars of the great throne room in Susa on her own initiative she may lose her life and what is apparently their one opportunity to save the Jews will be gone.
When we are in a crisis we need to employ the same sort of careful and thoughtful logic, wisely assessing the options and the likely outcomes. There is no case for acting and then thinking later. Gut reactions can be right but they are not to be followed regardless of consequences.
4. Rely on God but remember that he uses means
In verses 13 and 14 we have Mordecai's further reply to Esther Do not think that because you are in the king's house you alone of all the Jews will escape he warns For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father's family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?
It is a wonderful Scripture and show the keen powers of a mind that is fully anchored in Scripture. Notice his logic.
1. Esther is Jewish and so if she remains silent she and her father's family will perish even though she is in the king's house.
2. Relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from somewhere. The outcome cannot be the one that seems to lie ahead - that all the Jews will perish.
3. Given the situation then it is right for Esther to give careful thought to why she has been given the power and privileges she has. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?
We must never doubt that God will do all his holy will. He will have a people to him who he will save. That is why we can be confident when we preach the gospel – someone somewhere will be saved. If we fail to play our part and act responsibility with regard to this crisis or that, God is not hampered. He can bring about his will by any number of means. It is well worth thinking about our situation though - who knows but that you have come to the position you are in for such a time as this?
God brings people to power for his own reasons. Think of the story of Winston Churchill. In many ways it is a story of failure. Yet he was the man who led the country during the war and he was the man God used to preserve the country through those dark days. Churchill was no Christian but he was raised up, undoubtedly, for such a time as that.
So says Mordecai
What if God had brought Esther to be queen so that he could save his people through her intercession?
And I say
What if God has brought you here tonight so that you could hear about Jesus Christ and the need for faith in him and be saved?
What if he has called me to be a preacher so that you might be saved through hearing this message?
5. Pray pray pray
The final part of the story in this chapter is when Esther sent this reply to Mordecai (16,17) Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish. So Mordecai went away and carried out all of Esther's instructions.
It was a real crisis. People had already been praying and fasting but now they had a realistic plan – dangerous but realistic. Esther was committed to it – even though it may cost her her life. All that was left to do now was to pray and Esther made a special request for this in abundance, which she got. There are many things we do not know or understand about prayer but we do know that it is something God takes note of and that can make a difference. We should never try and face any crisis without it. It must be central. Pray, pray, pray – who knows what a difference it may make!
So the next time you face a crisis keep these things in mind. There may be a few tears at first, you may feel grief stricken. That's okay as long as it doesn't get out of control. Look for a solution, a realistic solution, one that at least has some likelihood of succeeding. If your ever going to succeed you have to rely on God but God uses means. If your crisis is a financial one then there will have to be money, if it is to do with getting someone to change their mind someone will have to speak to them and persuade them. Once you have a possible solution then pray, pray, pray. Don't assume that it will all work out.
We can apply these ideas to the judgement itself, the final crisis we will all have to face. Don't be surprised that thinking about death frightens you, that standing before God to be judged is unnerving. One day we all have to stand before God and give an account. It is only reasonable to think ahead and decide what to do. Some are trying to get ready for the judgement by doing good deeds. But be realistic? How many have you done? How good are they really? What about all the bad deeds you have also done? The truth is that you are really like Esther – you can got to the king when you want but you do not know how he will receive you. Will he be pleased and hold out the golden sceptre or will he be angry and damn you? If you go to him alone there is no guarantee of anything but if you go to him in the name of Jesus then there is hope. Jesus has already died, He has already laid down his life. Anyone who comes with him will not die then. They will be safe, Such a person can face the judgement with confidence. They can be sure that God will protect them then.

The enemy of God's people

Text Ezra 3 Time 05/01/15 Place Childs Hill Baptist Church
We have begun to look at the Book of Esther and we have said what an unusual book it is in that it does not mention God's name. Nevertheless, it has a lot to teach us about God and about how he is at work in every situation.
So far we have looked at the first two chapters and we have considered first man's greatness and wisdom and contrasted it with his weakness and foolishness, drawing attention to the unseen one who may seem weak and foolish but who is truly great and wise. Last time we looked at Chapter 2 where our heroes, Mordecai and Esther, are introduced and at what happens to Esther who becomes queen and Mordecai who uncovers a plot against the king, bearing in mind the implications for both of these events and what happens later in the book.
This week we come to Chapter 3 where we are introduced to Haman, the villain of the whole piece. It is in this chapter that we learn of how Haman hatched his plan to have all the Jews destroyed.
 I have never gone to a creative writing class but I would imagine that one of the first things they would tell you would be that for a good story there needs to be conflict. Just as a pearl is never formed unless a piece of grit first gets into the oyster shell so a great story never gets off the ground unless there is first some sort of conflict or set back. Simply saying that there was once a beautiful princess who grew up to marry a handsome prince, who everyone loved, and they all lived happily ever after is not much of a story. There has to be some dramatic conflict. The princess is not beautiful or she doesn't want to marry or she can't find a prince or the prince is ugly or cruel or her father disapproves her choice, etc. The story then becomes a real story as we learn how the difficulty is overcome.
Now the story of Esther is not fiction. These things really happened about 500 years or so before Christ in the land of Persia. What makes it such a gripping story, however, is that there is a dramatic conflict and it is in Chapter 3 that this first comes out.
The conflict is between Haman and initially only Mordecai but it quickly broadens so that it is Haman against the Jews.
Haman is an evil man, right up there with Adolph Hitler, Josef Stalin and Pol Pot. He is the arch anti-Semite and because the Jews are God's chosen people he is typical of the arch enemy of God's people the Devil himself. From this chapter I want us to learn two important things.
1. God's enemy has honour and seeks honour but we who believe must not honour him
1. Make no mistake about the honour God's enemy has
In 2:1 we read that After these events, after Esther became Queen in the seventh year and the twelfth year mentioned in verse 7 King Xerxes honoured Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, elevating him and giving him a seat of honour higher than that of all the other nobles. We are not given any of the background to this just the bare statement. No doubt Haman was an able man and had found some way to distinguish himself in the eyes of the king and so he was honoured.
It reminds us of the fact that Satan seems also to have been honoured at one point. God, it appears, honoured him elevating him and giving him a seat of honour higher than that of all the other creatures. Of course, in the case of Satan we know he was proud and wanted more and so in due time he was cast down from his position as was Haman.
We would be foolish to underestimate our enemy Satan. He is gifted. He is powerful. He has influence. He is no mean foe.
2. Make no mistake about his desire for more honour
We then read (in verse 2) that All the royal officials at the king's gate knelt down and paid honour to Haman, for the king had commanded this concerning him. This command may suggest some reluctance to bow. Again things are slightly different here anyway. At this point the king is in the dark. God knows everything but Xerxes does not realise what sort of a person he is and so he wants everyone to bow down before this man and pay him honour.
Again, it is not difficult to see him as a Satanic figure. People do not know him. They do not realise what he will shortly seek to do. And so they honour him and kneel before him. They do not speak against him.
We know from a subsequent chapter that Haman loved this sort of thing and we can easily imagine him lapping up the applause. Satan also longs for such plaudits. We know that when he tempted the Lord Jesus Christ in the wilderness one of the things he wanted was for Jesus to bow down before him and worship him. That is what he wants from us all. Many give it not knowing all that lies behind him and his schemes but we must not. That leads us on to Mordecai's example.
3. Be determined not to give him honour
We read in verse 2 the jarring words But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honour. Verse 3 tells us that the royal officials at the king's gate asked Mordecai, Why do you disobey the king's command? They were surprised at his attitude. They knew he was loyal to the king and not a trouble maker. So what was he playing at? Why was he unwilling to do something so simple? There must be an explanation as to why although (4) Day after day they spoke to him yet he refused to comply.
We read later that Mordecai did tell them he was a Jew. Was it simply that Jews do not bow to any human being? That does not seem to have been the explanation. They certainly bowed down to their own kings. Was it that Haman was not a Jew? That seems equally unlikely. Did he know something about Haman's character which made him unwilling to bow down. There is not a hint of that in the text. No, it is far more likely that it is all to do with the fact that this was Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, which strongly suggests that this man (being descended from King Agag) was an Amalekite.
And here we need to know some history. Amalek was the grandson of Esau, the brother of Jacob or Israel, the father of the twelve tribes. In Exodus 17 we read how the Amalekites attacked Israel, when they were in the desert and at their weakest, and were only defeated by God's supernatural intervention through Moses and others. In verses 14-16 we read
Then the LORD said to Moses, Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Moses built an altar and called it The LORD is my Banner. He said, For hands were lifted up to the throne of the LORD. The LORD will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation.
In case the Israelites were tempted to forget this, it is repeated in Deuteronomy 25:17-19
emember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and cut off all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God. When the LORD your God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land he is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
Mordecai knew his Bible and so he knew that verse and he was determined to keep it in mind. He did not try to kill Haman. That would not have been right under a foreign government as he was. But he was determined not to give an inch to Haman the Amalekite, regardless of what the result might be. He was conscious too no doubt of how his own ancestor King Saul had failed to put Agag to death when he had the opportunity and was sternly rebuked for it by Samuel. There was no way he could bow down to Haman.
We also need to be determined not to give him honour either.
One of the things about the great men in the Old Testament is that they knew where to take a stand. Think of Joseph refusing to be anywhere near Potiphar's wife. Think of Daniel and his friends and the stand they took over what they would eat and who they would pray to. They knew where to draw the line and we should too.
4. Do not expect him to ignore such behaviour
We must not miss that last bit either (verse 4) Therefore they told Haman about it to see whether Mordecai's behaviour would be tolerated, for he had told them he was a Jew. Let's be in no doubt. If we set our face against Satan he will know about it. Perhaps Haman would not have noticed Mordecai but others made sure he did know what was going on. Satan is one creature and he can only be in one place at one time. There are many ready to inform him, however, if we stand against him. If you are determined not to serve him or honour him then he will know and you ought to realise that.
That is the first thing to be clear on then - God's enemy has honour and seeks honour but we who believe must not honour him no matter what trouble that may cause us.
2. Consider God's enemy and the nature of his opposition
What characteristics can we say typify the opposition of Satan and those who serve him? Five things
1. Expect hatred
We learn (5, 6) that When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honour, he was enraged. Like Herod this morning he was furious. The writer makes a little pun something like Haman got the hump. Yet having learned who Mordecai's people were, he scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai's people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes. The noble thing would have been to ignore Mordecai's silent protest. The natural thing would have been to seek to have him punished. The evil thing would have been to have him killed. But see how the mind of this Amalekite works. He becomes a Jew hater. He is a racist of the worst sort. God's people can expect the same sort of hatred.
In this country Christians are at best tolerated. In many places they are punished if they do certain things like evangelising, teaching children the gospel or holding large meetings. In some places Christians are likely to be put in prison or killed. In a place like North Korea they are absolutely forbidden.
This is Satan's true aim – to destroy all trace of Christianity wherever he can. Beware of his inveterate hatred.
2. Expect superstition
Verse 7 may strike us a strange In the twelfth year of King Xerxes, in the first month, the month of Nisan, they cast the "pur" (that is, the lot) in the presence of Haman to select a day and month. And the lot fell on the twelfth month, the month of Adar. Superstition is common among the wicked. They love it. Astrology, games of chance, talismans and taboos abound. Why is this? Basically, because they reject God they need to believe that there is some other controlling factor. They usually think it is luck or fortune, chance. Here we see it in action, Haman trying to get beyond himself to something higher. It is a waste of time, of course, because even the lot or the dice is controlled by God. He decides the outcome. That applies to loaded dice as well. The more unbelief the more superstition. That is why we see an increase in gambling (as in the middle ages) the return of things like paganism and witchcraft and so called new age and alternative beliefs.
Superstition is one of the characteristics of false religion – be it old fashioned Catholicism or so-called modern science.
3. Expect deceit
We read next of how Haman spoke to the King. 8, 9 Then Haman said to King Xerxes, There is a certain people dispersed and scattered among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom whose customs are different from those of all other people that bit is true enough although slanted and he goes on and who do not obey the king's laws; and concludes it is not in the king's best interest to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued to destroy them, and I will put 10,000 talents of silver into the royal treasury (using a Persian word) for the men who carry out this business.
We should not be surprised that the servants of our enemy who is the father of lies are willing to use deceit. They will lie and deceive and do whatever it takes to have their own way.
4. Expect complacency
Of course, the king bears some responsibility. 10, 11 So the king took his signet ring from his finger and gave it to Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews. Keep the money, the king said to Haman, and do with the people as you please.
You know that quote from Edmund Burke “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The Devil does not need to have everyone actively brining about evil. He needs only a few to do evil and the rest to be complacent. This is how he can be as successful as he is.
5. Expect efficiency and organisation
Finally, in verses 12-15, we read of the issuing of the edict. Then on the thirteenth day of the first month the royal secretaries were summoned. The date would strike a chord for a Jew. This was the day before the fourteenth when the Passover lamb was slain. The God who saved them from Pharaoh and the Egyptians would save them from Haman and his plans too.
They wrote out in the script of each province and in the language of each people all Haman's orders to the king's satraps, the governors of the various provinces and the nobles of the various peoples. These were written in the name of King Xerxes himself and sealed with his own ring. Dispatches were sent by couriers to all the king's provinces with the order to destroy, kill and annihilate (a bit of legalese there) all the Jews - young and old, women and little children - on a single day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods. A copy (Persian word again) of the text of the edict was to be issued as law in every province and made known to the people of every nationality so they would be ready for that day. Spurred on by the king's command, the couriers went out, and the edict was issued in the citadel of Susa. The king and Haman sat down to drink, but the city of Susa referring to ordinary citizens was bewildered.
It conjures up for us the orderliness and the efficiency of the Persian Empire, hell bent on this occasion on promoting a great injustice. It is a reminder of the orderliness and efficiency that Satan so often employs. Like a well oiled machine.
So here is a reminder of our great enemy and his characteristics – hateful, superstitious, deceitful, ready to take advantage of complacency and most efficient and orderly. He is a formidable foe. Nevertheless we are assured (in 1 John 4:4) You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, (the world) because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.

God's preparations for the unknown future

Text Esther 2 Time 24/11/13 Place Childs Hill Baptist Church
We began the week before to look at the little Book of Esther. We began by saying that is quite an unusual book and drawing attention to certain of its characteristics.
Most obviously, the name of God is never mentioned - a strange thing - not because he is not in the book, of course, but to stress how he is always at work in the background. Then there is the fact that it is a very Persian book – set in that country and very much with that background central. Yet it is also a very Jewish book – in the modern sense. The word Jew comes up 40 times! Its chief hero is Mordecai, is called six times Mordecai the Jew and its villain, the classic anti-Semite Haman is called five times the enemy of the Jews. One writer says “There is no more stridently Jewish book in the Old Testament”.
We also noted its humour and its banqueting theme. There is another banquet in Chapter 2 and perhaps a little humour and we are introduced to the book's unusual heroes – Mordecai and Esther. The other point I made last time was that the book features unusual heroes in that they are fully immersed in their Persian culture yet maintain their Jewishness, sometimes in what seem to us odd ways. We mentioned Esther ending up in this pagan beauty contest which she wins in order to be married to an uncircumcised pagan.
Chapter 1 introduced us to the king at the time Xerxes (Ahasuerus is the Persian version). 1:1, 2 This is what happened during the time of Xerxes, the Xerxes who ruled (486-465 BC) over 127 provinces stretching from India (really what we now call Pakistan) to Cush: (just north of Ethiopia). At that time King Xerxes reigned from his royal throne in the citadel of Susa. We cannot help admiring his pomp and wealth and generosity and splendour and his power and greatness. However, by the end of the chapter Xerxes has shown himself to be weak and wicked and foolish. At the beginning of the chapter he is rich and powerful, high but generous. By the end he is reduced to drunken, spluttering anger as he can't even deal with a domestic spat without a massive over reaction. It would be a very dispiriting chapter really if it were not for the fact that it provides the background and setting for what is to come and that begins to unfold in Chapter 2 when the Jewish girl Esther becomes queen and her cousin Mordecai uncovers a plot to assassinate the King Xerxes – two vital components in the upcoming story.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Chapter 2 is the way these things happen such that they do not seem to be significant at all. And yet they shape the whole of the rest of the story.
To a certain extent we all see similar things in our own lives. Things can happen to us that seem fairly unimportant, humdrum even, and yet they can be full of future significance. I had a personal instance last week. I was looking through some old magazines in another connection when I happened to see a copy of the Evangelical Magazine of Wales for July August 1976. There was an article in it that I remember reading at the time (when I was 17). It was by Geoff Thomas who is now my father-in-law. It was one of the factors that influenced me to want to go to Aberystwyth University (which led eventually to me marrying my wife, etc).
Now here in Chapter 2 we have two events – Esther becoming Queen and, more briefly, Mordecai uncovering a wicked plot. They are not insignificant events in and of themselves but how very important they were to prove to be could not have been known at the time. It is only after the event that their massive significance can be seen. Such a fact should waken us up to the way God works. He does not wait for a crisis and then begin to act. No, he is the God who sees the end from the beginning and who is already at work long before we even realise there is any need for anything to be done. This should encourage us as we go about our lives, especially when some things seem dull and difficult or when things seem to make no sense or make no real impact.
1. Consider how God makes a woman a Queen and its later implications
1. Consider the wicked ways of ancient kings and their modern counterparts
So in verse 1 we read that Later when the anger of King Xerxes had subsided, he remembered Vashti. We suggested last week that this may have been done with some regret when he also remembered what she had done in refusing to come and be paraded as he wished and what he had decreed about her which was that she should be banished from his presence thus trapping himself with no way out. It goes on (2) Then the king's personal attendants who were plainly eager to carry on as if all was well proposed, Let a search be made for beautiful young virgins for the king. That's the trick – get his mind off Vashti and on to someone new! He also likes to feel that he efficient and thorough so they say to him Let the king appoint commissioners in every province of his realm to bring all these beautiful girls into the harem at the citadel of Susa. Let them be placed under the care of Hegai, (he gets a mention in the Greek historian Herodotus) the king's eunuch, who is in charge of the women; and let beauty treatments be given to them. Then let the girl who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti. The reason I said not much humour rather than none before is that the final sentence in verse 4 appears a little humorous at least - This advice appealed to the king, and he followed it.
So here the machinery of the entire Persian civil service is given over to what was no doubt an apparently efficient but let us be in no doubt an iniquitous enterprise. You have heard of the Thousand and one nights and the story of Scheherazade whose stories were so exquisite that the king had to keep listening rather than killing her, as was his custom, and how he eventually fell in love with her. The story, like this one, can even be told for children. However, what lies behind it is not fit for children to hear.
Eastern potentates would gather virgin women into a harem where they were well looked after by eunuchs (men who had been castrated and so were unable to engage with the women) and given beauty treatments and pampered to a great degree. Then, when the king chose, a virgin would be sent to him and he would sleep with her. The usual form was that she would then be taken as here to another part of the palace, where she would live out her days a virtual widow. Of course, if the woman pleased him she may be the true Queen as Scheherezade is said to have been and as Esther truly was.
Such things do not happen in quite the same way today, one would think but take the case of Swaziland. There were reports a few months ago that 45 year old King Mswati III was about to take his fifteenth wife. His new wife 18-year old Sindiswa Dlamini had taken part in a beauty pageant where girls danced topless for the king and his guests. There are plenty of examples of the rich and famous acting in very similar ways.
Now many a single man may imagine he would like to have eligible women paraded in front of him and take his pick but that is not the way God intended things to be. The whole idea of marriage is of a partnership. Yes women are to submit to their husbands but it is their right only to submit to who they choose to submit to and any abuse of that is to be resisted. That is why there are laws against it in many countries.
2. Consider how messy and difficult it is to live in a pagan world
So that is the situation and what do we find but one of God's people caught up in the whole thing. In verses 5-10 we are introduced to Esther and Mordecai. It begins Now there was in the citadel of Susa a Jew by this stage the word Jew is being used not just for people in the tribe of Judah but those of any tribe as here. This man was of the tribe of Benjamin, named Mordecai son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, someone from the same family as King Saul then. Verse 6 could be misleading as when it says he had been carried into exile from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, among those taken captive with Jehoiachin king of Judah this cannot be taken literally as it had occurred in 597 BC over a hundred years before. It refers rather to how his ancestors had been carried off so that he is still in exile. Mordecai appears to be a Jewish form of the Babylonian name Marduka. We are told then that Mordecai had a cousin (not a niece) named Hadassah, the Hebrew word for a myrtle flower whom he had brought up because she had neither father nor mother. This girl, who was also known as Esther, her Persian name (meaning star – think of Estella – the myrtle flower is star like in shape) was lovely in form and features, and Mordecai had taken her as his own daughter when her father and mother died.
In verses 8 and 9 we learn that When the king's order and edict had been proclaimed, many girls (how many we do not know) were brought to the citadel of Susa and put under the care of Hegai. Esther also was taken to the king's palace (willingly or unwillingly) and entrusted to Hegai, who had charge of the harem. The girl pleased him and won his favour. Immediately he provided her with her beauty treatments and special food. He assigned to her seven maids selected from the king's palace and moved her and her maids into the best place in the harem.
A note is added in verse 10 Esther had not revealed her nationality and family background, because Mordecai had forbidden her to do so. Here we see what a godly girl Esther clearly is. She does exactly what her guardian Mordecai tells her to do.
Of course, people are uneasy with Mordecai and Esther in what they did. Why did Mordecai not do something to protect Esther? How was she so willing to live in pagan environment and eat pagan food? It seems to me almost impossible to say that they did wrong. They were not perfect people but they were good Jews trying to live out a godly life in a very pagan world. They are like us who are believers then. I know that some say we cannot live in this world as it is and we simply have to duck down and hide. In fact, if we look to God, he will enable us to live in all sorts of pagan environments – in education, in science, in the world of entertainment and sport, in the military or politics and in business and journalism – and indeed Christians do live and flourish in all those environments. Do not worry that you are in a pagan environment. Most Christians are. The important thing is to be godly in it. You may need to take what seem strange decisions – like not saying at first that you are a Christian – but God will lead you and if you look to him, he will use you despite the sometimes oppressive even dangerous environment.
3. A pagan world is full of danger and we are bound to be anxious but trust in the Lord
Clearly Mordecai was anxious for Esther. We read in verse 11 that Every day he walked back and forth near the courtyard of the harem to find out how Esther was and what was happening to her.
Some of you know that my son Rhodri has been studying theatre for the last four years. Every time he is in a new production I am anxious to know how it will all work out. He is in a play next month. I am hoping he has made the right decision to do it. I don't know. We will see.
We are given more background detail in verses 12-14 Before a girl's turn came to go in to King Xerxes, she had to complete twelve months of beauty treatments prescribed for the women, six months with oil of myrrh and six with perfumes and cosmetics. And this is how she would go to the king: Anything she wanted was given her to take with her from the harem to the king's palace. In the evening she would go there and in the morning return to another part of the harem to the care of Shaashgaz, the king's eunuch who was in charge of the concubines. She would not return to the king unless he was pleased with her and summoned her by name. Here the cruelty of the whole system comes out also its emptiness. The beauty treatments were designed to lighten the skin and remove blemishes as well as making them smell nice.
We then learn that (15-18) When the turn came for Esther (the girl Mordecai had adopted, the daughter of his uncle Abihail) to go to the king, she asked for nothing other than what Hegai, the king's eunuch who was in charge of the harem, suggested. And Esther won the favour of everyone who saw her. She was taken to King Xerxes in the royal residence in the tenth month, the month of Tebeth, a cold wet winter month in the seventh year of his reign. (Four years had passed since the Vashti incident). Now the king was attracted to Esther more than to any of the other women, and she won his favour and approval more than any of the other virgins. There is perhaps some humour here in that Esther was already beautiful without any treatments and taking with her nothing but what Hegai recommended clearly did her no harm. That latter detail also shows her wisdom.
So we read he set a royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. And the king gave a great banquet, Esther's banquet, for all his nobles and officials. He proclaimed a holiday throughout the provinces (as with royal weddings in this country or perhaps it should be that he remitted certain taxes) and distributed gifts probably food with royal liberality.
So things turned out well. There is no guarantee of that. Esther could have been sucked into the luxurious lifestyle and forgot her heritage. She may not have been chosen as Queen. There are no guarantees. But Mordecai's anxiety was put to rest and all was well. We ought to be anxious for a Christian in politics or science or on TV. Think of a Dan Walker or a Euan Murray. Some will fall – remember Jonathan Edwards the triple jumper? But we must commit them to God in prayer and wait on him.
2. Consider how God uses a man to uncover a plot and its later implications
Finally, we learn about what happened to Mordecai himself in verses 19-23. It doesn't seem to fit the story but we will see later on how important this was.
We read in verses 19 and 20 that When the virgins were assembled a second time, Mordecai was sitting at the king's gate. But Esther had kept secret her family background and nationality just as Mordecai had told her to do, for she continued to follow Mordecai's instructions as she had done when he was bringing her up.
That seems a little strange – what does when the virgins were assembled a second time mean? Should it be “when various virgins were assembled? We do not know. When it says Mordecai was sitting at the king's gate does it mean something more than that he sat at the palace gate? It probably does. It probably means that he was made a magistrate or judge. Perhaps this was Esther's influence. The point of But Esther had kept secret her family background and nationality just as Mordecai had told her to do might then be that although people knew Mordecai was a Jew they did not necessarily connect him to Esther as they would have done if he had been brought into the palace itself.
In verses 21-23 we read that During the time Mordecai was sitting at the king's gate, Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king's officers who guarded the doorway, became angry and conspired to assassinate King Xerxes. Servants have often conspired to kill their master and that is how Xerxes apparently died eventually. But here we are told Mordecai found out about the plot and told Queen Esther, who in turn reported it to the king, giving credit to Mordecai. And when the report was investigated and found to be true, the two officials were hanged on a gallows. And then one important note - All this was recorded in the book of the annals in the presence of the king. This and the fact that no reward is given to Mordecai sets us up for what happens later when the King providentially recalls this incident and decides to give Mordecai a reward.
The lesson then is that we should all go about our lawful duties faithfully and well. Mordecai used his connection to Esther to do good not to boost himself. What he did eventually proved to be crucial. Whether our actions matter or not we must be honest and holly in the midst of a pagan generation. If we do that all will be well.

Wisdom and foolishness, greatness and weakness

Text Esther 1 Time 10/11/13 Place Childs Hill Baptist Church
Do you now the story of how Hudson Taylor, the great 19th century missionary to China, was converted? “On a day which I shall never forget, when I was about fifteen years of age,” he later wrote “my dear mother being absent from home, I had a holiday, and in the afternoon looked through my father`s library to find some book with which to while away the unoccupied hours. Nothing attracting me, I turned over a little basket of pamphlets, and selected from amongst them a gospel tract which looked interesting, saying to myself, 'There will be a story at the commencement, and a sermon or moral at the close: I will take the former and leave the latter for those who like it.' I sat down to read the little book in an utterly unconcerned state of mind, believing indeed at the time that if there were any salvation it was not for me, and with a distinct intention to put away the tract as soon as it should seem prosy. ...” In fact he carried on reading and was eventually converted. That reminds us of the power of a story to draw people in.
You won't find a more intriguing story than the one found in the Book of Esther. The Book of Esther is one of the most unusual of the Old Testament books. Perhaps the most unusual thing about it is the fact that it never mentions God's name. Imagine that - a book in the Bible with no mention of God! It is full of God in fact, as we shall see, but the actual name is not mentioned even once. The only other book like that is Song of Solomon but even that book mentions God at least once near the end.
The Book comes from the days when Israel was in exile and it tells of how due to the efforts of one particularly malicious man, a man called Haman, it looked as though the Jews were going to be wiped out as a people. In an amazing series of providences, however, God was able to turn the tables on Haman and through his servants Mordecai and his cousin, Esther, after whom the book is named, the Jews were saved. The book tells not only the story but explains why the Jews have annually celebrated ever since the feast of Purim. The Jews really love this book and read it every year Purim comes around. I'm told that the children especially have a lot of fun booing whenever the villain Haman is mentioned and cheering whenever Mordecai is mentioned. I remember doing it with my own kids once. Christians were rather slower to appreciate this book, no doubt because of its failure to mention God. They say that for the first seven centuries no Christian even bothered to write a commentary on the book and it was only at the time of the Reformation that people began to appreciate it again. It is a very important book, however, as it teaches us about God's providence and deals with a crucial moment in history when (like at the time of the Exodus from Egypt) God's people the Jews were in danger of being wiped out. If that had happened then there would be no Messiah and so no salvation and we would have nothing at all to celebrate tonight.
1. Consider these characteristics of the Book of Esther
I want us to look at Chapter 1 tonight but let me begin by mentioning some of the characteristics of the whole book.
1. God not named. As we've said, it doesn't mention God's name at all. Nevertheless, it is full of God. It is a series of striking coincidences or providences that leads to the Jews being saved from Haman. First the Jewess Esther becomes queen and all that leads up to that; next Mordecai, her relative, overhears a plot against the king; then in Chapter 6 the king is unable to sleep, which is important. That's followed by Haman coming to the palace to ask for Mordecai to be hanged at the very moment the king is looking for someone to advise him on how to honour Mordecai. Then there is the moment Haman throws himself on Esther in an attempt to beg for mercy just as the king returns so that he thinks Haman is molesting the queen! The Jews are saved not by their own ingenuity but by God's providence. Haman and his friends cast the pur or lot early on displaying their belief in fate and chance but it is clearly God who is actually in control.
God is not mentioned nor even prayer to him but there is the fast that Mordecai and Esther call, implying a rejection of fate or chance for trust in God to act or not act as he should choose in line with his character and promises.
The book then is highly theological. What it shows is that, as it has been put, “God is most present when he is most absent”. My boys have all attended a humanist school. I used to ask them (I still do sometimes) “Did they mention God at all today?” Nearly always the answer was no. So why did I ask the question? Well, once you have that question in your head, you keep noticing where God should be mentioned. You go into school and you have an assembly all about being kind and helping each other or whatever but not mentioning God. First lesson is design and technology and the teacher talks about aerodynamics and mentions birds as a good example; then its science and again there's some aspect of God's creation under the microscope and you are confronted by him again, and so on in history and English and Maths, etc. In a Christian school all this would be drawn out but not there. So Esther is a story of deliverance not like Exodus where God clearly takes centre stage but more like the story of Joseph or Ruth where he stays in the background but is most clearly at work.
2. Persian. It is a very Persian book. The book begins and ends in Persia unlike Nehemiah which begins in Persia but ends in Jerusalem. Jeremiah had told the Jews to settle in the lands where they were exiled and to seek God's blessing for those lands. In Mordecai and Esther, ad with Daniel and his three friends, we people working that out in practice. Just in this first chapter we have Persian names, references to the Persian empire, Persian wealth, Persian law, etc. There is some quite exotic about it. Its Persian-ness is part of what gives the book its charm and the fact it takes place in a basically hostile environment is one of the way in which we can identify with it as Christians today.
3. Jewish. At the same time it is a very Jewish book. That may sound a strange thing to say about an Old Testament book but when I say it is very Jewish I mean Jewish in a way more recognisable to us today as Jewish than in other parts of the Old Testament. Take the word Jew itself (from a word referring to being from Judah or Judea). It is only towards the end of the Old Testament that this word begins to be used. It is only once in 2 Kings, twice in Daniel then 9 times in Jeremiah and 7 and 8 times in Ezra and Nehemiah. In Esther it comes up 40 times! More than that Esther is about the Jewish people and their deliverance as a people and at the end a Jewish feast. Its chief hero is Mordecai, called six times Mordecai the Jew and its villain is the classic anti-Semite Haman is called five times the enemy of the Jews. One writer says “There is no more stridently Jewish book in the Old Testament”.
4. Unusual heroes. The book features, in Mordecai and Esther, quite unusual heroes. Both are fully immersed in their Persian culture and yet they maintain their Jewishness, sometimes in what seem to us odd ways. Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman thus emphasising and drawing attention to his Jewishness (something he urges Esther not to do). Esther, of course, end up in a pagan beauty contest which she wins only to end up marrying an uncircumcised pagan.
5. Humour. There certainly does appear to be some humour in this book. We will see it in the first chapter where the king of 127 provinces cannot control his own wife and it is there in some of the providences we have mentioned including the king having the annals of his reign read to try and help him sleep and proud Haman's shame and final desperate lunge.
6. Banqueting. One final theme worth mentioning is that of banqueting. The book begins with a banquet and ends with a feast and in between Esther organises two special banquets to which Haman is invited. In the same book, of course, it is a special fast that is called that is so crucial to the outcome of the story.
Coming then to the opening chapter at last I want to say three more things
2. Consider man's greatness and wisdom
As suggested, the opening verses have a very Persian feel. One writer says “with an economy of words the story-teller transports his listeners to a fabulous oriental world, and to a time when the Persian empire was still young.” We are immediately taken to long ago and far away with the words (1) This is what happened during the time of Xerxes, (that is his Greek name, his Persian one Ahasuerus is used) the Xerxes who ruled (486-465 BC) over 127 provinces stretching from India (really what we now call Pakistan) to Cush: (just north of Ethiopia). At that time we read in verse 2 King Xerxes reigned from his royal throne in the citadel of Susa. He was the son of Darius and a great builder. He also took on the Greeks but was defeated in 480 and 479 BC. Susa had been the capital of Elam but the Persians had taken it over and rebuilt it with a fortified citadel at its heart 120 feet above the surrounding area. Xerxes had fought of Egyptian and Babylonian opposition to retain the throne.
So here is this powerful and wealthy king ruling from Susa over 127 provinces stretching from Sudan to Pakistan. Perhaps we can pick up on an implied criticism of the court being for the rich not the poor but mainly the writer is simply telling it as it is. It is grand and impressive.
We read (3) and in the third year of his reign 483 BC he gave a banquet for all his nobles and officials. The military leaders of Persia and Media, the princes, and the nobles (|Persian word) of the provinces were present. (In Daniel it was Medes and Persians but by this stage it is Persians and Medes). For a full 180 days we are told he displayed the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendour and glory of his majesty. It is unlikely that the banquet lasted 180 days. Rather, he displayed the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendour and glory of his majesty then When these days were over, the king gave a banquet, lasting seven days, in the enclosed garden of the king's palace, for all the people from the least to the greatest, who were in the citadel of Susa. Susa was hot in summer and an outdoor setting would have been most conducive. The garden had hangings of white and blue linen, fastened with cords the royal colours of white linen and purple material to silver rings on marble pillars. You can picture the luxuriousness of it all perhaps. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and other costly stones. In days where food and drink was not as easy to come by as it is now Wine was served in goblets (more like large hunting horns) of gold, each one different from the other, and the royal wine was abundant, in keeping with the king's liberality. By the king's command such laws were considered most important in Persia each guest was allowed to drink in his own way, for the king instructed all the wine stewards to serve each man what he wished.
Queen Vashti (Herodotus calls her Amestris) also gave a banquet for the women in the royal palace of King Xerxes. Men and women often ate together in Persia as with Esther's later banquets. Perhaps it was sheer numbers that led to this division.
The whole description speaks of opulence, luxury, pomp, wealth, grandeur. Here is a king who is great and who is wise and whose word is law. There is a generosity and a dignity at work here. Had there ever been a king as great as this man Xerxes ever before? Well, perhaps there hadn't. We don't have to be churlish and deny it. There was a greatness and grandeur about it and a certain amount of power and wisdom too.
We see similar things today. It was the Lord Mayor's show yesterday, quite an impressive display with a gold coach, etc. Tomorrow is the Lord Mayor's banquet at which the Prime Minister will speak – again all very grand. A certain amount of pomp and circumstance is in itself no bad thing.
3. Consider man's weakness and foolishness
So far so good then. However, just as the party is in full swing so things begin to unravel. We read in verse 10 that On the seventh day, when King Xerxes was in high spirits from wine, he was a little drunk we might say he commanded the seven eunuchs who served him - Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar and Carcas - to bring before him Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at. Xerxes is aware of his power and now he wants to make use of that power and so he commands his queen to be brought before his guests. Now we do not know exactly why but we are told in verse 12 But when the attendants delivered the king's command, Queen Vashti refused to come. And here is an irony. Here is a man with all power and every thing he could desire, it seems, but his own wife will not do as he tells her. He is not God.
And how does he react? Here is another bad sign. First we read (12b) Then the king became furious and burned with anger. That only serves to diminish our view of the king and excite our sympathy towards Vashti.
Next we read (13) that Since it was customary for the king to consult experts in matters of law and justice, he spoke with the wise men who understood the times and were closest to the king – and we get another very Persian list of seven Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena and Memucan, the seven nobles of Persia and Media who had special access to the king and were highest in the kingdom.
Xerxes is really at a loss what to do. He has been made a fool of and it is his own fault. How is he going to get out of it? According to law, what must be done to Queen Vashti? he asked. She has not obeyed the command of King Xerxes that the eunuchs have taken to her. It is clearly her fault, he says, but his only quandary is exactly how the law of the land can best deal with this.
We then read how one of these men Memucan, a star politician if there ever was one (16ff) replied in the presence of the king and the nobles, Queen Vashti has done wrong, not only against the king but also against all the nobles and the peoples of all the provinces of King Xerxes. For the queen's conduct will become known to all the women, and so they will despise their husbands and say, King Xerxes commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come. This very day the Persian and Median women of the nobility who have heard about the queen's conduct will respond to all the king's nobles in the same way. There will be no end of disrespect and discord. Like many a speech by a politician, it is at the same time very clever and complete bunkum. He paints the situation in lurid and alarmist colours as politicians often do. What on earth are they going to do? He draws the heat off Xerxes by suggesting that the real problem is with Vashti and the precedent she has set for other women. He knows his audience – all men, who are hardly going to argue with him.
Memucan has a plan Therefore, if it pleases the king, he says let him issue a royal decree and let it be written in the laws of Persia and Media, which cannot be repealed, that Vashti (she is no longer Queen Vashti for Memucan) is never again to enter the presence of King Xerxes. (She refused to come once, let her never come again). Also let the king give her royal position to someone else who is better than she (that is the crucial line for the rest of the story) Then when the king's edict is proclaimed throughout all his vast realm, and this is the nut that this particular sledge hammer is designed to crack all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest.
It is a massive over-reaction and utter madness, of course, but we read (21) The king and his nobles were pleased with this advice, so the king did as Memucan proposed.
And so suddenly without further ado the great might of the vast Persian bureaucracy that existed swings into action and we read that (22) He sent dispatches to all parts of the kingdom, to each province in its own script and to each people in its own language, proclaiming in each people's tongue that every man should be ruler over his own household.
And so in one chapter, in one man, Xerxes, we see both man's greatness and wisdom in all its splendour and man's weakness and foolishness in all its ridiculousness. At the beginning he is rich and powerful, high but generous. By the end he is reduced to drunken, spluttering anger as he can't even deal with a domestic spat without a massive over reaction.
The Persians were proud of their unchanging law but it proves an Achilles heel here. “There ought to be a law against what Vashti has done”. That was their reaction but law cannot deal with every issue. What a contrast with the way later in the book Esther risks her life to come to Xerxes. She says (4:16) I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish. She thus shows that despite what Xerxes thought law is not everything and it cannot solve everything.
Memucan and his team may have been clever but they were not wise. Not only did they turn what could have been a minor matter into a major one but they made sure that the story of Xerxes and Vashti went everywhere, showing Xerxes up as a fool and closing the door to any reconciliation between him and Vashti. Chapter 2 begins Later when the anger of King Xerxes had subsided, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what he had decreed about her. There is a hint there that may be Xerxes regretted what happened. But there was no going back in his world, no saying “I made a mistake. I was wrong.” What a cruel, cruel world that is.
4. Consider the unseen one who may seem weak and foolish but is truly great and wise
One commentator writes about this chapter pointing out the subtle way the writer of it has shown Xerxes as he has. They then say “The security and confidence of the author, who could comment in this way on the highest ruler in the contemporary world as well as on the court and its intrigues, is striking, and witnesses in a totally unconscious way to the efficacy of faith in the Living God. This writer knew nothing of an identity crisis, nor was he dismayed by the inadequacies of human government of which he was so aware, because of the overarching government of the one he worshipped but did not name.” We too must learn to look at the world with a similar insight. See its wisdom and greatness, see it weakness and foolishness. See too that God is all wise and great, as foolish and weak and even not there as he may seem to be