Sunday, July 9, 2017

ESTHER’S DILEMMA

Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone – especially to those in the family of faith. (Galatians 6:10)
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The story of Esther takes place in the citadel in the city of Susa. Susa was located in present day Iran, and is one of the oldest cities of history. During the days when we read of Esther at somewhere around 460 0r 470 BC, Susa was also probably the most splendid of all cities of the world. This was in the days of the first Persian Empire and the reign of King Ahasuerus, otherwise known as Xerxes I. This is where we pick up the story. 

The Party

Ahasuerus, whom I shall just call by his other name of Xerxes, was throwing a big party. In fact, it was a huge party. The invited guests where the nobles and officials from all of his provinces, and since these provinces stretched from Ethiopia to India, this included a lot of people. In addition to these guest dignitaries were also his military leaders. The king took them all around the area to show them his vast wealth and the marvels of his kingdom.

The party went on for 180 days (if you can imagine), and when this time was over, the king then held a special banquet in his enclosed gardens lasting seven days. The garden was bedecked with hangings of white and blue linen, fastened to rings made from silver and placed on marble pillars surrounding the dining area. The wine was served in goblets of gold, each goblet unique. It was open bar. The king specifically instructed all the wine stewards to serve each man as much as he wanted.

It was a party like no other. The king was eager to show off his great wealth. His queen was Queen Vashti. She also was having separate party in the royal palace for the women and wives of the nobles.

The party seems to have been largely a success until near the end, when things began to go wrong for Xerxes.
 


Part of the difficulty was that all of the wine began to have too much of an effect on the king, as well as on the guests. Xerxes still wanted to show his party-goers something more, so that his friends and the nobles would continue to be amazed at his possessions and his power, but he had nothing left that he could think of to impress them.

Then he thought of one more thing that would be sure to leave them dumbfounded. Xerxes’ wife, Queen Vashti was a very beautiful woman. If she could come into the room adorned with her royal crown, the guests would no doubt be very impressed with her great beauty and marvel at one more thing that Xerxes owned.

I actually do not think that the king meant for his wife to do any kind of exotic dance for his guests. I have looked for some suggestion that this might have been so. In the New Testament, when King Herod was having a similar party, the daughter of his lover danced for the guests, and it has often been suggested that this dance was sexual in nature. But this does not seem to be the case with Queen Vashti. Xerxes simply wanted to display her, just as he did his other beautiful objects.

Whatever was the case, Vashti did not want to do it. She did not want to put herself on display, and she refused to come. Despite the fact that there would be consequences for Vashti’s refusal, I admire her for this. She refused to be treated as an object of possession, and nothing more than that. She also had her dignity, and she would not be cheapened.

However, in that time and in that place, this exertion of her will against that of her husband simply was not done, and King Xerxes did not quite know what to do. Besides being her husband, he was the most powerful king in the world!

His adviser told him that if he would let Vashti get away with this, no wife in the kingdom would listen to her husband. Xerxes could not let this stand! The advisor suggested that Xerxes make a search for a new wife from among the virgins of the kingdom.
 
Enter – Queen Esther

This is how Esther came into the picture. Esther was a Jewess, part of the diaspora of the Jews living in Susa. However, Esther probably knew no other life than the one in Susa. She probably had been born there. She was an orphan and now a young woman, but at the time of the story, she was still under the care of her older cousin, a man named Mordecai.

Esther was one of the young virgins who were brought to Xerxes as a prospective queen. In the eyes of the king, Esther’s beauty and mannerisms surpassed all other young women, so he took her for his wife. However, the king did not know of Esther’s heritage as a Jew.

Meanwhile, Esther’s cousin Mordecai was still able to contact her, even when she was in the palace. This was fortunate for the King Xerxes, because Mordecai had happened to overhear of a plot of two of his officers to kill the king. This news Mordecai transmitted to Esther, who then informed the king, telling him that the leaking of news of the planned assassination came from her cousin Mordecai. The two officers were brought to trial and found guilty and executed. The assassination was averted. All the details of the plot and how it had been discovered was recorded in the king’s records.  

The Villain

The next character in the story is a man named Haman. Haman had recently been elevated by the king as his highest-ranking political advisor – his grand vizier. Haman loved his new position. He especially loved that the king had decreed that all of the royal officials were to kneel down before him and pay him honor when he passed through the gate that was called the king’s gate. It was probably the one leading into the citadel.

Mordecai however, would not do this. Because Mordecai seemed to be often at the gate, and the gate was the place where the city officials did much of their business, it seems as if Mordecai must have also been some sort of official. However, this is not specifically stated in the text, nor does the text tell us why Mordecai would not bow down to Haman. Some suggestions have been made concerning this, such as the possibility that Haman had images of a pagan god embroidered on his clothing, but there is no sure word as to Mordecai's reasoning for not bowing.

In fact, some of the other officials that were at the gate asked this very question of Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s command?”

They asked him this day after day. I do not know what answer he may have given them, but he simply refused to comply with this order. They thought that it might be something to do with the fact that Mordecai was a Jew, so they told this to Haman, to see if he would make an exception to the order. This bit of news however, made Haman even angrier.

I do not know if Haman had a prejudice against Jews, but it seems likely. The text does mention that he was a descendant of Agag, the king of the Amalekites. These were a people who had long been enemies of the Jews, and ones whom both King Saul and King David battled. When Haman saw that Mordecai refused to kneel down to him or pay him honor, and then learned that he was a Jew, he became enraged to the extent of not wanting to kill Mordecai only, but also all of Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes. 

The Plan

Haman approached King Xerxes and said to him, “There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them.”

Then Haman, who must have had some wealth of his own, offered to pay a great amount of silver for the king’s treasury to have this done. Or perhaps Homan thought that the money would come from the victims' possessions, which would be seized by those who carried out the massacre. But the king seemed almost disinterested in wanting to know the details. “Keep you money,” he responded to Haman, “and do to these people as you please.”

To Haman, what seemed to please him was that this extermination of the Jews throughout the entire kingdom should take place on one single day. In this way it would be a memorable date, perhaps to celebrate every year. But if this was to be done, it would take a bit of planning. We must remember the extent of this kingdom of Xerxes’. It was vast. It stretched from Ethiopia to India. In order for all that Haman had planned to happen in a single day, orders would need to be issued for each province and translated into the proper language for each place, and then couriers would need to be dispatched to each of the far-flung regions to deliver the king’s decree. Haman set the date for the extermination of the Jews in the kingdom far in advance – almost a year. 

Mordecai’s Response

When Mordecai learned of this edict, he of course was in great distress. He dressed himself in sackcloth and covered himself in ashes, as they did in those days to demonstrate that they were in mourning. He sent word to his cousin Esther to approach the king to beg for mercy and plead with him for her people.

Esther was hesitant to do this. One could not simply approach the king whenever one desired. Not even could she, as his wife, do this. A person had to be first summoned by the king. True, If you walked into the king’s sight while he was on his throne, he may accept your call. He would indicate this by extending his golden scepter to the person. But if he did not do this – that person was to be put to death. That was the penalty, and it was as simple as that.

Esther was unsure. She had not been summoned for thirty days so she thought that the king may be holding some sort of grudge against her or something on that order. She sent word to Mordecai, telling of her uncertainties.

But Mordecai sent back this response to Esther:
 
Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. 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? (Esther 3:13-14 NIV)
 

The Impact of Mordecai’s Words

I am going to stop the story there and you will have to read it yourself to find out what happened, but I want to talk a little about these words of Mordecai.

First of all, there is a warning in his words for Esther. “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape.”

Although the king and even Haman may have been presently unaware that Esther was a Jewess; that bit of information would not remain confidential for long. Once the persecution began, word would certainly leak out, and Esther’s heritage would be disclosed to the king and to Haman. Xerxes may have thought Esther was cute, but cuteness would only carry her so far.

But it is the second part of Mordecai’s message that is especially intriguing to me. He said to Esther: 

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?
 

The Inevitable Wrapped Up in Our Choices

Let’s look at this for a moment. First of all, consider the situation. At the time, the Jewish people were in great danger of being annihilated throughout the entire vast kingdom. Mordecai was even in a sort of anticipatory mourning because of this. Yet, at the same time, he was expressing confidence that the Lord would send deliverance from some source. If it was not to be through Esther, then it would be from somewhere else. He did not know how; he did not know from where. But he had this confidence, while at the same time being in mourning.

It seems an incongruous or even a contradictory set of responses – confidence in their deliverance while at the same time in mourning. And yet, perhaps not. Let me explain.

Jesus spoke in a similar fashion concerning the knowledge of something that is inevitable, but nevertheless choosing to take action to counter what was unavoidable. In the case that Jesus spoke, it was however in a negative sense. He was speaking to his disciples about the danger placing temptations in front of children and causing them to stumble in their faith, when he said this: 

Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.

Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes! (Matthew 18:6b-7 NAS)
 

Stumbling blocks are those obstacles that are placed either deliberately or though neglect in front of someone that causes them to fall as they are walking. Jesus here is speaking of the walk of faith. Stumbling blocks in the path of faith of the children of the world is inevitable. No child will be able to exist many days without some temptation presented to them.

However, if you are the one who is the cause of the stumbling block, the consequences of what becomes of this little one is upon you. The excuse, “If he doesn’t get it here he will only get it somewhere else!” – That excuse does not work. Better than having the consequences of this child’s sin upon you would be if you had been cast into the sea, wearing a millstone necklace.

Jesus said a similar thing concerning the traitor Judas. “The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him,” Jesus said. It was a fact that all of the prophecies concerning Jesus would be fulfilled, including the prophecy that he would be betrayed by a friend.

Nevertheless, Jesus said concerning that traitor, “Woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” Matthew 26:24 NIV 

The relationship between our own free will and the sovereignty of God is one that we shall never completely be able to understand this side of heaven. But the reality is, God has already determined the future. We know part of this future by what is prophesied in his word, but God has also already determined much about what is to happen that is so far completely unknown to us. We all are living under the sovereign will of God.

However and in addition to this, we also today have the ability to make choices that have real meaning – ones that have real consequences. These are consequences that concern not only our own lives, but our choices also affect the lives of others.
 

Mordecai knew that God would deliver his people by some means. He knew the promises of God, and he knew that God would fulfill those promises. If Esther did not do it, then there would be deliverance by some other source.

However, Mordecai was also in mourning because he did not know if this other way would involve a degree of suffering for his people. Also, and as he told Esther, if she did not take action, he believed that she and her father’s household would perish, even though God would rescue the other Jews. Mordecai believed God had put Esther in her position in the palace for this very purpose, and if she did not fulfill it, it seemed to him that God would allow her to take the punishment. She would be the responsible one.

But Esther had the opportunity to be involved with something that was positive, something that would be of benefit to the people of God. However, even though she was acting in the interest of others, she would find that it also would be for her own benefit.
 

The Apostle Paul

The Apostle Paul looked upon his own work in a similar fashion. Paul was one who spoke assuredly about the inevitability of matters already determined by God. He spoke often of the sovereignty of God. For example, he wrote to the church at Ephesus, “[God]…has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself” (Ephesians 1:3b-5a NAS).

Nevertheless and despite the fact that Paul believed strongly in the sovereignty of God, he put his entire being into the work that God had given him to do. “When I preach the gospel, I cannot boast,” he said, “since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!”

Why then, if he believed that all is inevitable, did he work so hard? Would not God bring it all to pass anyway? At least part of the reason was that Paul wanted to be included in the blessings of God. He wrote to another church, “If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward… I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:16a; 22 NIV).
 

Our Own Dilemma

We may not have choices with the same gravity of consequences as did Esther, but we all at times must make choices that will affect others. We may even sometimes be called upon to intervene in a way that will profoundly affect the life of another.

When faced with such a choice, ask yourself the same question that Mordecai put to Queen Esther. “Who knows but that you have put in this position and given this decision for such a time as this?”

God may have put you in this position because he intends to minister his grace through you, but it may seem to you that if you should do this, you will be doing what seems harmful for you individually. You can do one of two things: You can be cautious and look out only for what you see as your own interests, or you can do what will benefit the other person, even if you think that you will likely be harmed or disadvantaged in some way. 

It is your choice. Your choice may have a profound impact in the life of another.

What will you do?

 

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