Esther 1 - 10
A strong woman,
Did you hear the news this week that the United Nations has named a new Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls? And I don’t know who you think would be a good person to drive for equality and opportunity for girls and women, but the UN has chosen, Wonder Woman.
Yes, the fictional comic book heroine is going to be on the front lines of empowering girls and women.
At the announcement, a number of UN staffers protested, with one saying afterwards, “Why do we need to use a sexualised cartoon character?", there are plenty of strong women in the world.
Which, probably, many of us would agree with, and I think there just so happens to be one in the story we’ve read this morning.
And so my plan for us is to look at this story, to see what we can learn from this remarkable woman, but also to see where Esther fits in the long story of rescue, that God is weaving throughout the Bible. And then we’ll kind of zoom in, on a couple of points.
Esther; A story of power, powerlessness, and rescue
The story of Esther takes place early in the 5th Century BC. You may recall that in 597 BC, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to the city of Jerusalem, and carted off thousands of Jews to Babylon as prisoners of war.
Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, the prophet Ezekiel, were among those who were taken off to Babylon.
As always happens, kingdoms rise and fall, kings come and go, and eventually the Persians take over from the Babylonians as world superpower, and this king Xerxes comes to the throne.
We know a little bit about Xerxes from other historical documents, and if you happened to ever go to Iran, you could visit his tomb which is still there today.
So this is a true story, but not only are the events and the characters true, but the message of the story is also true.
But let me share one anecdote that might help us get a sense of who this king is. The Greek historian Herodotus records that in about 482 BC, so maybe just one year before these events, Xerxes built 2 bridges across the Dardenelles, the stretch of water between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, so that his army could invade Greece. This is basically where Gallipoli happened.
However a storm blew up, and the bridges were destroyed. So Xerxes beheaded everyone who was involved in building the bridges, and in order to punish the sea, he had soldiers whip the water, and shout curses at it, while they poked it with red hot iron bars!
Do you get a sense of who we’re dealing with?
So we have this lavish exhibition, in chapter 1, the point of which is for Xerxes to show of his power. It’s a hundred and 80 days! That’s a 6 month long party! And when that’s over, there’s another 7 days of drinking. Verse 7, Wine was served in goblets of gold, each one different from the other, and the royal wine was abundant, in keeping with the king’s liberality.
No expense is spared, in demonstrating to his people and the world, just how mighty and powerful and important the king is.
Now, sometimes when we have guests, I struggle to find enough cups and glasses that match, every person gets a different pattern. That’s just because we’ve smashed so much of our crockery! Here, every person having a different cup is about demonstrating the extravagance and power of the king.
The Queen gets in on the action too. She throws a party for all the women. But this is where things start to unravel for Xerxes.
Verse 10, On the seventh day, when King Xerxes was in high spirits from wine, so we’re not off to a great start, are we, he commanded the seven eunuchs, 11 to bring before him Queen Vashti, just so everyone can have a look at her.
As far as Xerxes is concerned, Vashti is simply one of his many shiny things.
He’s got a completely non-matching set of drinking glasses, and a pretty queen.
But Vashti will have none of it. She refuses to come, and verse 12, the king became furious and burned with anger.
What’s he been trying to demonstrate for the last 6 months? How powerful he is. And yet he can’t even get his wife to come into the room.
I think the narrator wants us to be confronted with the question, “Where does real power lie?”
If Xerxes was the most powerful man in the world, and yet, is ultimately power-less, then actually where does real power lie?
Who is in control?
Who should be obeyed?
I mean, “Who is in control?”, that’s a question we sometimes find ourselves asking, don’t we? And a good question to ask as the most powerful notion in the world goes to an election this week.
Who’s in control?
We’ll come back to that as we go along.
Vashti won’t come and see the king, so the king punishes her and says, “you can’t see me any more.” It’s ironic and pathetic isn’t it?
And so he holds a Miss Universe pageant, into which Esther is rounded up.
This young woman, who was also known as Esther, had a lovely figure and was beautiful. Mordecai had taken her as his own daughter when her father and mother died
God doesn’t particularly care that Esther has a lovely figure and is beautiful, but Xerxes does, doesn’t he? And so for this story, that’s significant. But don’t think for a moment that God’s only interested in the attractive people,
The people others look up to,
Those who have got it all together.
Let me show you one thing that I think you’ll find especially interesting, having spent last week in Ruth! There in verse 9 of chapter 2, Esther pleased Hegai, this eunuch, and won his favour.
Guess what word, is translated favour there?
It’s that Hebrew word hesed, sometimes translated “loving-kindness.” The same word we saw all through Ruth.
God’s loving-kindness demonstrated to his people, often through the actions of others, and it’s already a key part of how God is working to save his people through Esther.
Notice, verse 10, Esther had not revealed her nationality and family background, because Mordecai had forbidden her to do so, already we have a sense of the risk that God’s people face.
But Esther finds favour, with Xerxes, continuing to win everyone’s favour, verse 15, and 4 years after Vashti is banished, Esther becomes queen, and everyone gets a long weekend to celebrate.
Moredecai, seems to have a job in the civil service, sitting at the King’s gate. Maybe this is through Esther’s influence, but being there, gives Mordechai occasion to overhear plans for a plot against the king.
Mordechai tells Esther, who in turn reported it to the king, giving credit to Mordecai.
The Bible Society released a book for the Queen’s 90th birthday, “The Servant Queen and the King she Serves.” It’s a terrific book, and I read in it the other day, about the time in 1981, when the Queen was shot at during the Trooping of the Colour. As it turned out, the teenage would-be assassin had fired only blanks, because he couldn’t get any live ammo!
But this assassination plot is real, and Mordechai’s role in it is recorded in the national archives.
Some time later, this other official Haman, an Agagite, gets a promotion, but Mordechai refuses to bow down to him as everyone else does.
Haman is furious with rage, and, chapter 3 verse 6, decides not just to kill Mordecai, but all of the Jews.
It’s out of proportion,
But remember this, those who are opposed to God and his rule, will also oppose God’s people.
Nothing has changed in this regard, even to today.
Again we find ourselves contemplating this question of control. See, in chapter 3 verse 7, Haman wants to murder all the Jews, but he won’t do it until he’s worked out the lucky day, on which it’s best to do it.
He’s so superstitious that he won’t start his plan until he gets the right omen, so superstitious, that he’s willing to wait nearly a year, to put it into action.
And so Haman manipulates the king.
He says the Jews are a threat, 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 give ten thousand talents of silver to the king’s administrators for the royal treasury.”
Once more the question of “who’s in control?” comes to the fore. Xerxes has been publicly humiliated by his wife, and completely taken for a ride, by his chief official.
Sometimes we’re tempted to think, “with position, and wealth, comes the ultimate power”, well, Esther forces us to think again, doesn’t it?
If it wasn’t so horrific a proposition, it would have the ring of Yes Minister, wouldn’t it? Sir Humphry Appleby manipulating Jim Hacker. Anything he doesn’t like, it’s “very courageous, minister.”
But this is, of course, much more serious.
it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them.
The fact that the king wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for Mordecai is overlooked entirely.
The language is not all that different to some of what we hear in the media today, is it?
“Christians hold views that are incompatible with the things our society values,
Anyone who holds an alternative point of view to the prevailing narrative of our day, must be silenced.”
Don’t you want to know how God’s going to act in a world where his people are marginalised, excluded or threatened?
Well, God’s already got his people in place, hasn’t he?
But make no mistake, this is a terrible threat. The story of the Bible follows the people of Israel, from the time in Genesis 12, when God promised to Abraham, that his descendants would be the means of God’s blessings flowing to the whole world.
And we know that it was ultimately God’s plan to send one man, from among the Jews, the culmination of this rescue plan, to offer all people salvation from sin and death and rebellion.
But the Jews are at risk of being wiped out!
It looks like all of God’s plans for humanity hang in the balance.
The Persian empire stretched from India to Greece and North Africa. It included what’s now Bulgaria, Romania and Russia, all of Central Asia and the Middle East.
If this edict is carried out, there would be almost no Jews left alive in the world.
And so, Mordechai persuades Esther to intervene. Chapter 4 verse 8, he told Hathak, one of Esther’s staff, to instruct her to go into the king’s presence to beg for mercy and plead with him for her people.
But these Persian kings had some strange idiosyncrasies! 4:11 for any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned, the king has but one law: that they be put to death, unless the king extends the gold scepter to them and spares their lives.
For Esther to go in to her husband and say, “Look, dear, there’s something I need to talk to you about”, will likely cost her her life.
Moredechai replies, verse 14, 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 your royal position for such a time as this?”
Esther agrees, She asks all the Jews to fast for her, meaning to fast and pray.
We see Esther’s humility again. Sure she’s queen, but she knows that success will only come through the involvement and intercession of God’s people.
She’s not too proud to depend on the prayers of others. That’s a pretty good example for us, isn’t it?
Well, she concludes, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law.
And if I perish, I perish.”
We’ll come back to this dialogue between Esther and Mordechai in a moment, but let’s just finish with the story.
Esther goes to the king, he sees her, and asks her what could possibly be so important that she’d risk her life to approach him.
She invites Haman and the king to a banquet, and then while they’re having their dinner, she invites them to another banquet.
In the meantime, 2 things happen.
Haman sees Mordecai, and just gets so totally wound up, that he sets up a 23 metre pole in his front yard to impale Mordecai on.
I think anger management classes might have been a better investment, but so be it!
But also, that night the king is unable to sleep, and so he has a read through the royal archives. I mean, how full of yourself do you have to be, that if you can’t sleep, you have someone read to you the story of your life!
But he does, and he hears about the time Mordecai saved his life, and he decides he wants to honour Mordecai.
Haman though thinks the king wants to honour him, and so he has to lead Mordecai through the city, announcing that he is the king’s favourite. And if he didn’t want to impale Mordecai on a pole already, he certainly would now.
But straight away Haman is rushed to the banquet that Esther has prepared and she does the big reveal.
The king asks what she wants, and she says, “My life!”
Chapter 7 verse 3, “If I have found favor with you, that word again, and if it please you, grant me my life, 4 For I and my people have been sold to be destroyed, killed and annihilated.
Still the king has no clue what she’s talking about Who is he? Where is he—the man who has dared to do such a thing?”
6 Esther said, “An adversary and enemy! This vile Haman!”
The king finally realises what’s transpired, how he’s been taken for a ride, and there’s another almost comical moment when someone comes in and says, “there’s a 23 metre pole stuck up in Haman’s front yard”, that’s very convenient for what the king wants to do, and Haman is killed.
The remaining chapters of the story deal with the king trying to undo his stupid decree that he should never have made in the first place, The punishment of those who tried to wipe out the Jews,
And the establishment of the Jewish feast of Purim.
But what are we to make of all this?
What are we to make of a whole book of the Bible that doesn’t even mention God?! Did you notice that?! Nowhere does God even get a mention!
Last week in Ruth after we looked at the story we took a step back to think about how it speaks to us today,
This time we’re going to zoom in.
God will work his salvation out.
Come back to chapter 4 with me, and look at verse 14.
Moredecai says 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
It’s make or break time for the Jews, there’s no doubt about that. But notice Mordecai’s calm confidence that God’s salvation will not be stopped.
He says to Esther, “If you don’t speak up, it’s not going to stop God saving his people.”
Oh, to have such confidence in God’s power and sovereignty, to be absolutely convinced that God will work his purposes out.
Mordecai knew that God had made promises to his people, and if God made promises, then God will fulfil them. God will find a way.
We’ve seen it in this series, haven’t we?
God uses these 4 unlikely women, to save his people.
We see it in the cross of Christ.
I mean, we don’t see it anywhere more clearly than the cross, do we?
That’s where we see most clearly, God’s commitment to his people;,
The lengths God would go to, to rescue us from sin and rebellion.
We have it laid out for us in a way that Mordecai never did, and yet I wonder if his confidence in God’s sovereignty, his confidence in God’s commitment to his people, could serve as a wake-up call to us.
Sometimes I hear Christians talk about things that they see in society, and I’m sure I’m not immune from this! but we see changes in society that we don’t like, that are contrary to God’s pattern for life, and there’s sometimes a bit of a feeling that this is the beginning of the end.
“This is not what not God wants, the world is going to fall apart unless you Christian, sign a petition,
Write to your local member,
Join a protest.”
Now, Mordecai’s not opposed to action, is he? He’s told Esther exactly what she ought to do. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that having a high view of God’s sovereignty means people don’t have anything to do,
Trusting in God’s sovereignty doesn’t mean you don’t make plans, doesn’t mean you don’t strategise.
Mordecai has the highest view of the sovereignty of God of anyone in this book, and he’s also the one who makes decisions, tells others what they ought to do, and strategises.
Neither Mordecai nor Ester really know what God is doing right now, but Mordechai’s content to throw his lot in with God, based on what God has revealed in the past;,
The character that God has demonstrated,
The word that God has revealed.
We have so much more;,
More of God’s actions to look back on,
God’s final, completed Word to speak to us,
The ultimate revelation of God in Jesus, God with us.
We have no reason at all to doubt God’s commitment to us as his people,
No reason at all to doubt that God can save those he chooses,
No reason at all to think that we can’t live lives that are pleasing to God, even if we don’t have some voice from God telling, explaining to us, what he’s doing in any given situation.
But there are even hints in the narrative, that let us know that ultimately, Haman’s cause is not going to triumph,
And so in this situation, he’s probably not going triumph.
We were told back in 3 verse 1, that Haman was an Agagite. Agag was a king of the Amalekites, and so Haman is from this nation.
Back in Exodus chapter 17, the Amalekites had attacked the people of Israel, and so we read this, the Lord will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation.”
But also, Mordecai, we’re told, was a descendent of Kish. Kish was the Father of Saul, the first king of Israel. And Saul, as it happens, was removed by God as king, because he didn’t fight against the Amalekites when God instructed him to.
Do you see, God had promised to protect his children from this wicked group of people. They will not triumph.
I wonder if you find the same comfort in the promises and sovereign hand of God that Moredecai did.
And we see just how completely God was able to turn these events on their head by the fact that not only was Haman “hoisted on his own petard” as Shakespeare would say, being killed on the pole he had erected for Mordecai’s murder,
But this whole episode which was supposed to annihilate the Jews, becomes the reason for a celebration among the Jews that continues even today. In March next year, millions of Jewish people will celebrate Purim, which takes its name from the word for casting lots.
Even the name of this festival, still being celebrated 2 and half thousand years later, reminds us that no person can stand in the way of the sovereign God.
Maybe you’re here for such a time as this
The second thing that comes up in this interaction between Esther and Mordecai, is the most famous line in the book, and the one that we chose as the title for our teaching series.
And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?
What he’s saying is “Maybe, this moment right here, is the very reason that you were made queen in the first place!”
It’s not entirely clear that Esther has had really any say in becoming the queen. She may have been an unwilling, or at least, not an eager participant in the events of her life.
But maybe, maybe this moment is the reason that God has brought her into the palace.
Perhaps God created Esther with her uncommon beauty,
And put her in the family of Mordecai,
And made her find favour in the eyes of Hegai, and with the king,
Maybe it was all for this moment, so that she could be God’s instrument in saving her people, continuing the line of God’s people that would ultimately reach its fulfilment in Jesus.
But the “who knows” with which the questions begins is entirely appropriate.
As I said, nobody here knows exactly what God is doing right here, because God doesn’t speak! He doesn’t even get a mention!
And it’s the same with us. We can’t often tell in the moment, the reason we’ve found ourselves in a particular place,
Or a particular relationship,
Or with a particular job.
In Esther’s case, God used her beauty to achieve his ends. You know, that’s not a way in which I’m expecting God to use me!
But maybe he’s given you particular opportunities, or skills, or relationships, that perhaps he’s working towards one significant moment or series of moments in your life.
A few years ago, I was on my way to speak at an event, when I narrowly avoided a serious accident on the Freeway. It ended up with an out of control semi-trailer jack-knifed in the middle of the road, and I escaped it literally by centimetres.
I mentioned it to someone at some point later, and they alluded to this verse in Esther, and said “Well, clearly God is keeping you alive for something significant in the future!”
But see even if God kept me out of that accident for one specific reason, I probably won’t know even at the time, what it is.
God may have kept me alive solely to speak evangelistically at the event that I was driving to when the accident happened.
Half an hour after that truck ran off the freeway, my usefulness might have been all used up!
We may not know, what particular purpose God has in mind for, when he brings us into a workplace,
Or a family,
Or into a new country,
Or a new job,
But we need to be ready to act, to obey, as if it is,
Because it might be.
Mordecai is wise enough not to say, “this is the moment for which God made you queen”
He asks, “Who knows?”, but then he tells Esther to act as if this is, the moment.
Do you see that? Esther acts as if it is! As if this is the highest purpose and calling in her life.
And God honours her faithful obedience, and achieves his purposes through her.
You might not know why God’s given you those particular skills, or relationships, or opportunities, but it might just be for what’s going to happen tomorrow.
And if not tomorrow, then maybe Tuesday.
And if not Tuesday, who knows, maybe Wednesday.
You’ve just got to keep using them for God’s honour and God’s purposes, because one day you’ll be right.
We can’t read the story of Esther without reaching the conclusion that God achieves his purposes through the actions of people.
And we may not know or understand what God is doing, or how he’s wanting to use us, but we absolutely have to be faithful and obedient, in whatever situation we find ourselves.
If I perish, I perish
Lastly, I want us to hear the challenge of Esther’s words at the end, 4 verse 16, if I perish, I perish
Esther chooses to break the law about approaching the king, because of her concern for the people of God.
She knows she could be walking to her death, but such is her love for God’s people, that she willingly takes that risk.
Of course she’s not the only one who risks a lot by choosing to do what is right.
Mordecai, in refusing to bow to Haman has already put his life in jeopardy. Although Jews did bow down to people they wanted to honour, in Persian society, bowing was sometimes seen as equivalent to worship, and Mordecai knows he can never do that to Haman.
But Esther’s example is incredibly brave, and shows a tremendous love for God’s people.
Esther is obedient to God, even when she knows that obedience has a significant cost.
In the book “Fraud Examination”, the authors tell the story of Abraham Lincoln, when he was working as a lawyer, being offered a bribe to throw a case. And the man kept upping the price, before Lincoln physically threw him out of the office. “What’s the matter?” the man cried, “Every man has his price!”
“Yes” Lincoln replied, “and you were getting too close to mine.”
Every man has his price,
But I think every person has their cost, the cost, beyond which, we consider obedience to Jesus just too costly.
See I reckon lots of us, say we’ll be obedient to God, to a point, up until a certain cost.
“I’m willing to obey God,
I’ll go to church,
I’ll read my Bible,
I’ll serve his people
I’ll even put some money in the collection,
But when that obedience reaches, whatever the line is that we’ve decided is a cost too much, then our obedience wavers.
God’s asking too much of my time,
Too much of my money,
Expecting too much of me, in the service of other people.
What great faith Esther has, that she’s willing to do what is right,
She’s willing to act for the people of God even if the cost, is her life.
I wonder if we would pray, that God would give us faith like this.
Would you pray, “Dear God, please do whatever it takes to grow my faith in you, so that I will obey you whatever the cost?
Of course, what’s God going to do if you pray a prayer like that?
He’s going to teach you from his Word that he’s a faithful God, who can be trusted utterly,
And then he’s going to put you in situations where your faith will get tested and stretched!
That’s a brave prayer to pray. “Courageous” as Sir Humphrey Appleby would say!
And what if you pray, “Dear God, please do whatever it takes to grow my love for your people, such that no cost is too high for me to serve them.
Give me a love for your people at TMB, like Esther had for her people.”
Well, pretty sure that if you pray like that, God will remind you from the Scriptures just how much he has loved you and all his people, and then he’ll put you smack bang in situations where you’ll have all sorts of opportunities to love people in our church family, even in ways that are costly.
If I perish, I perish.
Over the years I’ve been involved in interviewing people who put themselves forward for overseas missionary service with CMS, the Church Missionary Society.
And I remember in an interview with one young lady, who wanted to go and help people come to know Jesus in a war zone, one of those parts of the world that’s in the headlines even today.
In the interview, one of the other panellists said to her, “Why do you want to go to this place when there’s a reasonable chance that you’ll be killed?” And there was a reasonable chance that she’d be killed, because the person she was hoping to replace had been killed by militants.
And this young woman responded, “So what if I do?
Just because I might die for the sake of the gospel, doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do! In fact, Jesus said that sort of thing would happen.”
And she was exactly right, wasn’t she?
Some of you will know when you shop online, sometimes the web pages have a little bar you can slide, to specify the maximum cost you’re willing to pay.
“I know they sell jeans for $400 dollars, but don’t bother showing me them!” So you move the cost slider down.
Have we, moved the cost slider down?
Have we said, obedience to Jesus, can cost this much and no more?
Or do we allocate different limits to different parts of our lives?
Obedience can cost me this much of my time, but only that much of my money.
Have we moved the cost slider down?
Oh for faith like Esther’s, and a love for God’s people, that we would obey, whatever the cost, even if it costs everything.