This week we turn to the story of Esther, from the Old Testament. It begins like a fairy-story, has a gruesome twist in the middle, and then a surprise ending, which is commemorated by the Jewish people even today at their annual festival of Purim.
In today’s study, I want to tell you five things about the disturbing narrative of this book, so that you are familiar with the story, then I want to bring you six lesson from that story, that apply directly to your life today as a 21st Century Christian.
Who was Esther?
When we first meet Esther in the beginning of the Bible book which bears her name, she is a young orphan in the care of her uncle Mordecai. Their situation is difficult – they are Jewish people living in exile in Persia after the fall of Judah – one of the central stories of the Old Testament. The story of Esther takes place in Susa, which was the winter capital of Xerxes I who ruled Persia (485-465 BC), and who appears not only in the pages of the Old Testament but is known to secular historians for his battles against Alexander the Great. So Esther has the double vulnerability of being an orphan, and belonging to an exiled minority people.
A Rags-to-Riches story?
The first two chapters of Esther read like a fairy-story from a forgotten age. It begins with the exile of Queen Vashti, the wife of the Emperor. Xerxes, in a fit of drunken revelry with his military mates, demands that the beautiful Queen Vashti comes to their drinking den to parade her body in front of them for their intoxicated enjoyment. This is an appalling way for any woman in any age or culture to be treated. When Paul wrote in the New Testament book of Ephesians (many centuries later), ‘do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery’ – it is this kind of pagan revelry which he had in mind. Yet it presented Queen Vashti with a dreadful dilemma; to defy the King could mean death; yet what was the point of living in order to be demeaned, objectified, and lusted at? – she reasoned. She chose to defy the King; whose advisors fearing a wholescale rebellion of women against their husbands made sure that Vashti was expelled from the kingdom. So Xerxes is without a wife – and begins a search for a suitable bride, which ends with the selection of Esther; who is sent away to prepared for Royal marriage. It looks at this stage like a Disney story (with the caveat that the King in question is not a dashing price, but a boorish pagan!).
An evil plot
The next character we meet in the plot is called Haman. There are two things we need to know about Haman; the first is that his meteoric rise through the corridors of power has made him King Xerxes first minister, wielding enormous power across an empire of around 50 million people stretching from India to Europe. The second thing is that he had a hatred for Mordecai that was visceral and all-consuming. Mordecai had refused to bow to Haman, and offer him the deference he demanded; as such, Haman wanted to use his power not just to persecute Mordecai personally; but to launch a pogrom to eliminate the Jewish population of Susa entirely. He managed to persuade Xerxes that the Jews were a threat to the nation, and must be killed – and the King enacted irreversible legislation to that effect.
A turning point:
Living in the Royal harem, Esther was unaware of the threat to her and her people. The court officials didn’t know that Esther was Jewish, and that this new law threatened the life of the Queen. Everything looked absolutely disastrous; Esther was in the palace, while Haman’s plots to destroy her people went from strength to strength.
The turning point came when Mordecai sent word to Esther, to tell her what Haman was up to. She was horrified and pointed out that there was nothing she could do. She was powerless, had no real authority, and could be killed for approaching the King without a formal invitation. Her initial response was straightforward resignation to the situation, which looked irreversible. But Mordecai said these words to Esther:
“Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. 14 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 your royal position for such a time as this?”
He pointed out that doing nothing would not save her life; he affirms his faith that deliverance would come; but then critically says, “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”
The rest of the story is complex, and many sided – please read the whole ten chapters here – but to cut the climax: Esther manages to get the ear of the King. He is outraged, and passes a subsequent law allowing the Jews to arm for self-defense; and they are delivered from Haman’s murderous plotting. As I mentioned at the start, this remarkable story of deliverance from vicious persecution is still marked by Jewish people every February at the feast of Purim.
But what has this astonishing story got to do with us? Here are five lessons for people who would love to see godly change brought to our nations today.
Six Lessons for Nation-Changers
Lesson One: The Hidden Hand of an Unseen God
“Esther is a remarkably different book: neither the word for God not the name Yahweh occurs in the Hebrew text”, write LaSor, Hubbard and Bush in their “Old Testament Survey”. Yet – God is clearly at work here, albeit in hidden ways, behind the scenes. This is not like the story of Elijah where God intervenes in dramatic ways, or like that of Moses where God’s name is ‘up front and center’ in the text. However, that does not imply the absence of God.
Today when we are tempted to think that God is absent, we must learn the lesson of Esther – that even when God is not named, and his interventions are subtle; He has not abdicated the throne! His love, power, truth, sovereignty and providence remain the driving forces of human history – even when they are unnoticed, and unacknowledged. Never give in the temptation of thinking that in the essentially godless narrative of the TV News, or the cultural commentators of our time; that God has lost His grip. Choose to believe the deeper reality that universe is God’s, and that He is working His purposes out.
Lesson Two: Listen to wise, faithful people
Esther was not ready to step-up and take the decisive action needed to save God’s people from certain slaughter, until she was provoked into action by the wise prophetic-voice of Mordecai.
We too, can find ourselves sitting passively in the face of godlessness, immorality, unbelief, and poor government; doing nothing, saying nothing and achieving nothing too. Then into our world, The Lord, in His mercy, sends someone who prompts us into life. Sometimes people come to us and their passion awakens our conscience. As a young Christian I was impacted by an evangelist who came to our church and asked us how we could sit passively while there are lost people who have never heard the gospel! Dr Martin Luther King Jr spoke to the conscience of America when he appealed for racial equality; and asked us to no longer turn our backs on injustice.
Like Mordecai, these people had a timely-wisdom from God, and spoke to stir people into action, when they were sitting like passive victims of circumstances; rather than as God’s agents of change in a broken world.
Who is the Mordecai that you need to listen to, in order to stop drifting, and to spur you into godly action? Seek out, wise, godly voices from people who do not look at the state of this world in its sin, idolatry, injustice and unbelief and say, “Oh well, what’s new on Netflix, I could really binge-watch another a series!” Rather, these people with a prophetic edge, see this world and are moved by the heart of God to take action and to stir us into action. The lost, the vulnerable, the unborn, those without hope, those without the scriptures in their language, those without food; will not be liberated by inactivity! Listen to the voices of godly wisdom who will say to you… “yes, this world is a mess; and you can’t fix it all. But you could do this…….”
Lesson Three: Count the cost
“I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” Says Esther to Mordecai as she stirs herself into action. She’s well aware that doing this great work is not an easy task, and comes with a huge price tag. As I write this, we are in November, and the poppy wreaths are still on the war memorials around Scotland. We are aware that there are so many people who counted the cost and put themselves in danger in order to protect their people from tyranny and oppression. We are grateful for their courage and willingness to suffer for us.
But let us not fool ourselves into thinking that stepping up for God’s work is a cost-free calling. Jesus said in Luke 14, “27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? The world will hate you when you stand for Christ, the devil will rage against you, and even your own flesh will try and undermine your efforts. Share the gospel in the power of the Spirt, and people will hate you. Stand up for biblical morality and you will be misunderstood and rejected.
Don’t underestimate the cost of discipleship. But then go forth with Jesus to build His glorious kingdom which will last forever.
Lesson Four; Turn to God before you turn to action
Before Esther took action, she called all God’s people to fast. “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 attendants will fast as you do”, is what she said to Mordecai.
Fasting in the Old Testament had a number of functions, which were all directed towards God. Firstly it was an expression of grief, then it was a symbol of humility, then of repentance; all leading to a cry from the heart for God’s deliverance. Obviously the prophets railed against hypocritical fasting where it was not connected to holy living and genuinely seeking God. God cannot be mocked, nor manipulated by ceremonies or religious rites or duties. What we see here in Esther is God’s people giving up food, to turn and seek God’s help.
Like Nehemiah, who prayed before he sought the favor of a pagan King, and led God’s people back to the promised land; Esther did not dare speak to men, before they had spoken to God. Prayer and action go hand in hand. Action without prayer is powerless; prayer without action is useless. In the Bible, powerful prayer always opens the way for powerful action. As it says in the book of Acts “the place where they were praying was shaken and they spoke the word of God boldly”. They didn’t go home and say to each other “great prayer meeting tonight, see you next week!” They went out into the streets proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus, in defiance of decree that said that they were banned from preaching in that name! The lesson is simple. Pray first to the Lord, then get up and do what he puts in your heart. But seek Him first.
Lesson Five: Faith not fatalism!
Esther’s initial response was fatalism. That is, she looked at the overwhelming difficulties, the power of the state, the evil of Haman and looked at her own vulnerable position and just assumed that nothing could be done. Remember Peter who sunk when he looked at the waves, but walked on water when he looked at The Lord? The waves, the situation, the obstacles, the evil of this world present themselves as having unassailable power. It is our calling to challenge that narrative with the voice of faith which says, “Jesus is Lord” over this situation.
This world likes to present itself as the inevitable victor over the Christian faith. That is a lie! Friends, the Roman Empire tried to crush the church with its self-proclaimed unstoppable force. It lost. The Chinese Communist Party tried the same, the Russian communists the same – on each occasion these tyrannical systems have not overcome the church of Jesus; And no system devised by men ever will, for the gates of hell will not prevail against it!
If you look at your calling to change this world in some way for God, and think it is impossible. Meet the Living God who sent fire down on Mount Carmel and who raised Jesus from the dead! Think of the Christ who will return to judge the living and the dead. Imagine if Christ came back tomorrow! Think of the scenes in North Korea, where the 50,000 Christian believers in concentration camps will be liberated, and Kim Jong Un will be crushed by the Lord who comes to judge. Remember whose side you are on. Or read Revelation again, and in the symbolic language of that great book, remember that while the dragon looks scary; it is the lamb who wins!
We serve a God who can change America, who can change Scotland – remember this, and never lie down to fatalism. Esther had been placed at a unique moment in history, with a unique work to do for The Lord. Amazingly so have you, and I. Ephesians 2:10 says: For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
You were born again, for such a time as this. When God brought you to Himself by grace, he also in His grace had a plan of good works which he prepared in advance for you to do! That means that for the action He wants you to take now are part of His plans to build His kingdom; and you are here for such a time as this!
In his epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkein’s hero Frodo is faced with great evil. “I wish it need not have happened in my time”, he says to the wizard Gandalf. Wisely, the old wizard replies, “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
We too do not decide our times. Neither did Esther. All we can decide is how we will respond to the days in which we find ourselves. We can respond with dismay, doubt or despair; but God calls us to a response of faith and action.
Lesson Six: Speak Out, Don’t Bottle-out!
When I first heard the expression, “He’s lost his bottle” – I was puzzled! It’s part of a British slang-term for losing one’s nerve, having a crisis of confidence, and failing to take action because of giving into fear. “He was going to ask her out on a date, but he bottled-out” they might say!
The final lesson is quiet straightforward, when you have resolved to take action for Jesus, and prayed: Speak out, don’t bottle-out! Proverbs 31 says:
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
9 Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy.
Speak out for righteousness, and justice, and truth. Speak out for Jesus. For you were made for such a time as this.