This week we were back in the Old Testament with an overview of the Book of Esther. We read chapter four publically and you can read it online here.
The message is available in an MP3 file by clicking here. For some reason there is a three minute gap from just after three minutes in to just before ten minutes. Sorry.
Update, The gap has now been edited out and as it’s part of the introduction, I was probably waffling anyway.
Esther is an unusual book in two ways. Firstly it is the only book of the Bible where all the action takes place in Persia and secondly, it’s one of only two books where God is not mentioned (the other being Song of Songs). To give an overview of the first few chapters, the book begins with a feast in the Persian King Xerxes. The feast went on for six months and at a point when the king was in high spirits from wine he decided to order his wife Vashti to display here beauty. The Queen refused and this resulted in her being deposed.
By chapter two the King’s anger had subsided. There is a gap of four years between the chapters when Xerxes had led a disastrous campaign in Greece. At this point thoughts turned to finding a new queen so a search is made throughout the kingdom which stretched from Pakistan to Libya for the most beautiful candidates. Mordecai, a Jewish man with access to the palace (he was probably a eunuch) put forward his cousin Esther, and it was she who went on to become the new queen. Mordecai instructed Esther who he had brought up after the death of her parents, to conceal the fact that she was Jewish.
The third chapter introduces Haman, a powerful man of very high rank who hated the Jews. His feud with Mordecai resulted in him gaining through bribery an order to wipe out every Jew in the empire.
The fourth chapter tells of Mordecai’s plea for Esther’s help. She was initially reluctant since to walk into the King’s presence without an invitation carried a possible death sentence but then agreed to make a request to the King.
The rest of the book tells of Haman’s humiliation and eventual death on the very instrument of torture that he had prepared for Mordecai and the complete victory of the Jews. Mordecai and Esther lived as outsiders in a foreign land. Their forebears had been taken into exile more than a hundred years before their time yet they still lived with the knowledge of their special place in the world. We are living in a culture that is increasingly opposed to the Christian message. We too are strangers in a foreign land and can learn from their mistakes and triumphs.
Where women are oppressed. It is disturbing to look into the culture of the Persian court. There appears to be no concept of human rights and in the Esther we see that women are seen as objects to be used by men. In the selection of a new queen hundreds of young girls are lined up for the king to use and then decide if any are worthy of being queen. Those who were not chosen lived as widows for the rest of their lives in the luxury of the harem but had no prospect of marriage or a family.
The incident with Vashti illustrates the powerless state of women, even the queen was unable to resist the king’s request without being banished. Xerxes is in high spirits from wine (Esther 1:11), and called Vashti to display her beauty. There are things going on here, high spirits from wine is a euphemism meaning he was drunk and to display her beauty probably had a sexual element to it. Even if there were no sexual overtones, Vashti is being reduced from a human being with feelings and dignity to an object to be possessed, owned and paraded before a drunken rabble. This is a deeply misogynistic culture.
It makes very uncomfortable reading but before we sit in judgement perhaps we should turn the spotlight on our own culture. There is more equality today than ever before with opportunities women of previous generations could hardly have imagined. Yet along with those good things we have a culture where women are expected to display their beauty, where looks are everything and give power over men. There is more research coming forward pointing to the dangers of the sexualisation of children and unrealistic expectations placed on young girls. Added to this is the fact that our culture is saturated with pornography sending subliminal signals that women can be possessed and used. A survey taken a few years ago found;
“Of the nearly 1,000 girls surveyed, 63% found being a glamour model most appealing. A quarter thought being a lap dancer would be a good profession but just 3% picked the teaching profession.”
I recognise that not all girls fall into this category but so many are being squeezed into these moulds. How did we end up here? It’s inevitable when the young are taught, “Just be true to yourself” or to put it another way “just be selfish.” It means that men and women see each other as objects to be used and discarded or a stepping stone to a better job, relationship or life. Perhaps when we look at the trends in our society, we can resist taking the speck from our brother’s eye when we have a plank in our own.
Where God’s people are sinful. None of the characters are very appealing; there is pride, deceit, revenge etc they could hardly be described as role models. Esther and Mordecai are named after Persian gods. Esther should never have married a gentile. God’s people should have spoken to the nations but here they look like everyone else. It should not surprise us since the Jewish nation were rebellious long before they went into exile, it would have been amazing if they had suddenly started living for God once they were hundreds of miles from their homes.
The people of God have to be different, it was true for the Jews in Susa and it’s certainly true for the church. God has great plans for the church, Paul writes;
“His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 3:10).
Where God’s people are persecuted. There is hatred between Haman and Mordecai that’s rooted in the enmity between the Israelites and the Amalekites that had gone on for almost a thousand years. Haman had a plan to destroy the Jewish nation. God’s people have always been persecuted and this applies to the church as well as Israel. Jesus warned his disciples;
“When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning. “All this I have told you so that you will not go astray. They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me. I have told you this, so that when the time comes you will remember that I warned you. I did not tell you this at first because I was with you” (John 15:26-16:4)
“In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).
Where God is hidden. The fact that God is not mentioned in Esther is not an oversight or an error, it’s a literary device. The writer is saying that even when God’s people are powerless, compromised and sinful, God is sovereign; he is at work behind the scenes. If Haman had carried out his wish, there would be no Israel and no Messiah but God was in control. His promises will be fulfilled and that is just as true today, God is sovereign, he will have his way.
When the moment arrives. Mordecai may be a flawed character but he has a moment of clarity and these are great words. God will save his people with or without Esther. God’s purposes will be fulfilled. “But that you have come to this royal position for such a time as this?” God used Esther, he had been working behind the scenes and at that moment God allowed Esther to be part of his great plan of salvation.
If God can use fallen people like Esther and Mordecai then surely he can use us in the places where we are. He will achieve his purposes with or without us but in his great mercy, he will allow weak people to be part of his plans. The very place where you are today could be the place where God has placed you for his purposes and to bring a message of salvation.
“And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?”