from sermon series
“Standing on the Shoulders of Giants”
by Pastor Dave Strem
Used by permission
The Book of Esther reads like a made for television movie. It has suspense, intrigue, betrayal, conspiracy, and treachery. The whole story becomes of fascinating interest and meaning to us when we discover that this is not merely a story of ancient past, but is also a divinely inspired, magnificently accurate portrayal of God’s active hand in human history. A reading of the Bible reveals that God intervenes in human history in two distinct ways. He sometimes does supernatural, beyond the natural, deeds that only He can do. Examples of this type of intervention are the parting of the Red Sea, God’s feeding of Israel in the wilderness with manna for 40 years, and Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000. At other times He uses people and objects within His creation and orchestrates and directs them to fulfill His will. These activities by God are more numerous than supernatural miracles. They can be thought of as ‘natural’ miracles. God does not create something out of nothing or use physical power that is only His by divine prerogative, but confines Himself to act within our space-and-time limitations. Examples of this type of intervention are Joseph’s sale into slavery and his eventual use by God to save Israel from starvation, David’s slaying of Goliath, and Caesar’s decree that forced Joseph to take Mary to Bethlehem, fulfilling the prophecy that the Messiah would be born in that city. The story of Esther falls into this category. God’s name is never mentioned in the entire book but God’s guiding hand can be seen throughout it.
There are five major characters in this book—a king, a queen, an orphan girl, a man of God, and a villain. The king is Xerxes, son of King Darius. He ruled a vast empire that covered much of the Middle East, from India to Egypt to the borders of Greece. The first act in this story centers on a fundraising party with hundreds of dignitaries from all over the empire bringing tribute to finance a war with Greece. Xerxes was ambitious to make his mark on the kingdom. He wanted Greece. At the end of the 7-day party, with his judgment impaired by alcohol, he made a foolish and arrogant decision to show-off his beautiful wife to all his guests. He ordered her to parade in front of his guests. Some commentators think that he ordered her to parade in front of his guests naked, wearing nothing but her crown. He wanted everyone to know what he had and, the worst part, how he controlled her. Vashti, his wife, refused. I suspect that what Xerxes wanted Vashti to do she had done for him in private many times before. And that is fine. But Xerxes violated his love for her by ordering her to make their private life public for his own titillation and ambition. Vashti was stung by his betrayal and refused to humiliate herself just for his selfish pleasure. She had standards and refused to lower herself to his level. Esther 1:12 says that “This made the king furious, and he burned with anger.” One can almost sense an undercurrent of a power struggle between Xerxes and Vashti. Was Xerxes trying to put Vashti in her place? Was this a continuation of a behind the scene conflict? His immediate reaction of rage reveals a prior mindset of control and domination. To refuse someone in this mindset provokes verbal and physical abuse.
Persia of Xerxes’ day was much like the Arab countries of today. The husband had complete control over the wife. Women were abused regularly. Vashti’s refusal of Xerxes order was considered scandalous. It was rebellion against an oppressive system that degraded women. One could almost see her as a true feminist, standing up for the dignity of women everywhere. Women should not be made to parade around naked in front of others against their will. It is degrading to make them do it. Vashti had the courage to say “No!” to the evil command. And what happened to her? She was deposed from being queen. Some commentators think she was executed based on Esther’s statement in 4:16. “Though it is against the law, I will go in to see the king. If I must die, I am willing to die.” Is it possible that Esther considered death possible because she knew that Vashti died before her? We do not know for sure, but whatever happened to Vashti we know she paid a great price for her convictions, maybe even her life.
Between chapter 1 and chapter 2, four years pass. During this time the Persians invade Greece. But they failed. Chapter 2 finds Xerxes back in his palace licking his wounds from the Greece defeat and feeling lonely. Xerxes missed Vashti’s company. His attendants sensed his loneliness and suggested a beauty pageant to find him a new wife. “Let us search the empire to find beautiful young virgins for the king…. The young woman who pleases you will be made queen instead of Vashti” (2:4). Xerxes liked the idea. One of the women chosen was Esther.
When Esther was a minor her father and mother died. Her older cousin Mordecai adopted her into his family and raised her as his own daughter. From scriptural evidence, they seemed to have a deep and trusting relationship toward one another. Mordecai did what he believed was best for Esther and Esther listened to Mordecai’s wisdom and direction. When the king’s servants arrived in Susa, Esther’s city of residence, they were impressed with her beauty and chose her as a candidate for Xerxes’ special affection. As the other women chosen, Esther was taken to a special place and given one year’s worth of beauty treatments and health foods to enhance her appearance and vitality. Esther 2:15-18 record what happened when Esther meet the king: “When it was Esther’s turn to go to the king, she accepted the advice of Hegai, the eunuch in charge of the harem. She asked for nothing except what he suggested, and she was admired by everyone who saw her. When Esther was taken to King Xerxes at the royal palace in early winter of the seventh year of his reign, the king loved her more than any of the other young women. He was so delighted with her that he set the royal crown on her head and declared her queen instead of Vashti.” The orphan girl was now queen of Persia.
Because of Esther’s influence, Mordecai was given a position as a palace official. One day Mordecai overheard two palace guards plotting to assassinate Xerxes. He reported what he heard to Esther and she took the information to Xerxes. Upon investigation, Mordecai’s story was found to be true and the two men were executed. But he was soon forgotten for what he did. He received no reward for what he did.
Some time later, we do not know exactly how long, the Prime Minister, Haman, enjoyed special prominence in the king’s sight. The king ordered all to bow down before Haman whenever he passed by. Mordecai refused to do this, despite repeated counsel to do so. Haman was incensed at Mordecai’s snub. Haman was a well-known hater of the Jews. And this incident with Mordecai provoked him to such anger that he committed himself to destroy all the Jews in the kingdom. Haman made elaborate plans for nearly one year to carry out the destruction in a single day. As incentive to motivate many to kill a Jew, the property of the Jew killed would be given to the killer. Official decrees were written and distributed throughout the kingdom.
When Mordecai learned of the plot, he became very distraught and upset. Jews all over the kingdom were fearful and confused. “And as news of the king’s decree reached all the provinces, there was great mourning among the Jews. They fasted, wept, and wailed, and many people lay in sackcloth and ashes” (4:3). Mordecai also covered himself in sackcloth and ashes to mourn for his people. Esther saw him in morning and sent her servant to inquire as to the reason for his sadness. Mordecai gave the servant a copy of the decree and instructed the servant to show it to Esther, as well as a message requesting that she intercede for her people before the king. Esther reminded Mordecai that it was illegal, upon penalty of death, for anyone, even her, to appear before the king uninvited. Mordecai’s response shows the severity of the situation, as well as his belief that God will not allow all Jews to perish (he must, therefore, have believed the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), but that it was a real possibility that he, his relatives, the citizens of his hometown, Susa, and Esther herself were doomed to die. Esther saw the truth of what Mordecai said and sent the following message to him: “Go and gather together all the Jews of Susa and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will do the same. And then, though it is against the law, I will go in to see the king. If I must die, I am willing to die.” Esther was not an aggressive person. All her life she had graciously submitted herself to an authority figure. First Mordecai, as her adopted father, and now Xerxes, the king of Persia. She respected laws and proper submission. She was probably the direct opposite of Vashti, who had the aggressiveness to oppose Xerxes in public. But now at a critical time, she let her responsibility to her people, God’s people, push her to do what she would never have considered doing previously–approaching the king uninvited, putting her life in jeopardy.
Three days later, Esther appeared before the king and found a warm welcome. Xerxes heard her request. “What is your request? I will give it to you, even if it is half the kingdom” (5:3)! Think about this. At this point, Esther could have had wealth beyond her wildest dreams. She could have forgotten about her people, Mordecai, and her God, but she did not. She remained faithful. She requested that the king allow her to arrange a special banquet for just them and Haman. Her request was granted.
Haman was delighted that he would have a special meeting with just the king and queen. He thought he was being honored above everyone else in the kingdom. But he was soon to find out that God had other plans for him.
The night before Esther’s special banquet, Xerxes had trouble sleeping. He ordered an attendant to bring the historical records that perhaps he might gain sleep as the attendant read to him. Providentially, the account of Mordecai’s involvement in saving the king from assassination was read to Xerxes. Xerxes inquired whether Mordecai had ever been rewarded for what he did. The attendant replied, “No.” Just at that moment Haman entered the outer court, which drew the king’s attention. Haman had come to request that Mordecai be hanged on a specially built, 75 foot hanging gallows. Before he could make his request, Xerxes asked him, “What should I do to honor a man who truly pleases me?” Haman thought that that special someone was himself. He advised that royal robes be placed on this person and that this person was to be placed on a royal horse and be paraded around the city, as a dignitary shouted, “This is what happens to those the king wishes to honor” (6:9)!
The king thought that this was a good idea, so he instructed Haman to do all of this for Mordecai. Haman was humiliated. As he mourned with his family, the king’s servants arrived to take him to the banquet Esther prepared. At the banquet, Esther revealed to Xerxes Haman’s evil plot. Xerxes ordered Haman’s execution. And ironically, Haman was hung on the very gallows that he intended to use to hang Mordecai.
While the chief enemy of the Jews was dead, the threat was still present. The day that was set aside for the mass slaughter of the Jews was near. The decree designed by Haman had gone out to the entire kingdom, a vast area. Swift action was needed to prevent a disaster. Esther appealed to the king for the right for Jews to protect themselves against those who would kill them. Scripture records that on the exact day Haman had planned the Jewish extermination, the Jews killed five hundred people in Susa alone, and also Haman’s ten sons. The next day they killed three hundred more of their enemies in the Susa area. In total, 75,000 enemies of the Jews were killed throughout the kingdom. Thus, assuring their future safety in the kingdom.
The author of the book of Esther closes the book by emphasizing the greatness and future blessings of both Xerxes and Mordecai. Mordecai became Prime Minister, behind only Xerxes in authority. Esther 10:3b says this about Mordecai: “He was very great among the Jews, who held him in high esteem, because he worked for the good of his people and was a friend at the royal court for all of them.” Mordecai received the blessing of God because he was faithful to God’s purposes and plans. Xerxes, a gentile, received the blessing of God because he was friendly and protective toward God’s specially chosen people, the Jews.
The story of Esther and Mordecai can be used to teach many different lessons, some moral and some spiritual. But one primary lesson revolves around God’s ability to use ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Esther and Mordecai were Jews in a foreign land. But God was able to use them for a special task because they had both good character and a faith and love toward the Creator God of Israel. True, Esther’s beauty helped put her in a position to be considered for queen, but it was her character and humility that gained the position. Xerxes trusted her to help run palace affairs and not to embarrass him in public. Mordecai had wisdom and a kind heart. He took care of an orphan girl and loved her. And continued to love her even when she became an adult. There were probably other Jewish people living in the Persian Empire that had the qualities Esther and Mordecai had. But God chose them for the tasks and roles we read about in the book of Esther.
God can work great things through ordinary people. In Esther, He works through a drunken husband’s outrageous demand, a pagan beauty pageant, a villain’s hateful and arrogant plot, a king’s insomnia, a king’s absentmindedness, and a boring congressional record. He weaves all of these together and redeems His nationally adopted people from destruction. God had a plan for Esther’s and Mordecai’s lives and used them by grafting them into the historical tapestry that is the book of Esther. What if they refused to listen? Refused to stand up for what is right and moral? They would have missed God’s blessing, but God would have found another way to complete His task. He would have used other people or arranged other sets of circumstances. But there is biblical evidence that when God has to alter His best plan to accommodate human unfaithfulness there are negative consequences. The Bible is full of stories of the consequences of rejecting God’s first and best plan.
What would this world be like had Adam and Eve followed God’s best plan by not eating of the tree in the center of the garden, or if Cain had followed God’s admonition to bring a more worthy sacrifice, or if Abraham had not brought Lot with him on his journey, or if Abraham had waited for God’s promised child, Isaac, and not had Ishmael, ancestor of the Arab tribes of today, which are Israel’s sworn enemies, or if Moses had not brought Aaron on his deliverance mission, or if David had not committed adultery with Bathsheba, or if Solomon had stayed away from pagan wives whom eventually corrupted him, or if Israel listened to God and did not introduce idol worship in their midst, or if the Jewish leaders had listened to Jesus and not Caiaphas the high priest. There are more. Do not think that because something happens it was fated to happen. Sometimes things happen in this world because someone does not do something. He or she does not fulfill God’s best plan for their lives. Instead of putting God, family, and country first, too many men and women chose career and money as their priority. Negative consequences follow for their children and their culture.
Esther and Mordecai are examples of two individuals who did fulfill God’s best plan for their lives. The results are all positive. Nothing negative came out of the Esther-Mordecai story. As James 1:17 states: “Whatever is good and perfect comes to us from God above, who created all heaven’s lights. Unlike them, he never changes or casts shifting shadows.” God authored the plan and it worked perfectly, with no negative consequences. Except, of course, for Haman, Haman’s family, and those who hated the Jewish people, God’s nationally-chosen people. And for this reason James continues by saying, “So get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives, and humbly accept the message God has implanted in your hearts, for it is strong enough to save your souls” (1:21). God does not promise us riches and a carefree, comfortable life, but if we follow His perfect plan for our lives we will have His praise and no negative consequences that will harm His kingdom and people. Many who are listed in the Hebrews 11 Hall-of-Fame of faith suffered greatly for their faithfulness. But the kingdom of God was advanced by their faithfulness. And God praised them for it. They did not hurt God’s testimony in this world but advanced it. By their faithful sufferings they inspire others to persevere during hardships and trials. God’s perfect plans further the kingdom without negative consequences for the kingdom. Human-polluted plans always leave negative consequences for the kingdom and human history.
The example of Esther and Mordecai’s character and faithfulness to God’s ways and plans teach us to follow after God perfectly, so that no negative consequences might be created by us, consequences that hinder God’s testimony in this world. We need to strive to fulfill His plan for our lives in a pure and holy manner so that He can work out His plan in the best possible way, free of negative consequences created by us!