There are few things I like more than to lose myself in the pages of a good book….and if you too are an avid reader, then you know that truly GOOD books are rare. I don’t know about you but when I find a really good book I have trouble keeping quiet about it. I tell my family about it and my friends about it. Excerpts usually end up as sermon illustrations. I just can’t keep the content of a good book to myself!
And in the past few years I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy some wonderful books. Last year I read all four of the novels that make up Jan Karron’s Mitford series. I can hardly wait for her to write the next one! I think its due out this summer. This spring I’ve read all of Sharra’s books about the CIVIL WAR. It was very moving for me to see that great conflict through the eyes of the generals of both sides. Stephen Lawhead’s books on the crusades have been excellent as have his books on the Arthurian legends all of which are written from a Christian perspective. I could go on and on because I love READING and SHARING great books!
Well this week I found another jewel of literature — a very exciting book! In fact I read it and re-read and re-read again-it is a GREAT story! I’m referring to the Old Testament book of Estherand in our time together this morning we will skim over her story but when you get home I highly recommend that you to take the time to read the entire unabridged version! Deal?
Now-one thing that make’s ESTHER’S STORY so thrilling is the fact that it is not fiction. It reads like a novel but it’s non-fiction. It really happened. This book describes actual events that took place when Israel was in captivity in Babylon. And it specifically concerns what happened to those Jews who were not a part of the remnant returning with Zerubbabel to Judah in 536 B.C.
At this time in history Xerxes, the son of Darius I, was on the throne of Persia. He ruled the empire from 485B.C. until his assassination at the hands of his vizier in 465 B.C. Esther’s story opens in the third year of Xerxes’ reign and we should note that he was a king of IMMENSE powers. In fact at this time in history no ruler on earth was as powerful. His kingdom was divided into127 provinces that extended from Asia Minor all the way down to Africa and into parts of Northern India and he ruled this vast empire from his capitol city of Susa.
The first chapter of this book begins with King Xerxes hosting a banquet….and what a banquet it was! It lasted for six months and all the nobles and official and military leaders were present. Verse 4 says that the purpose of this lengthy party was to “display Xerxes’ great wealth.” And, he probably did this to impress the leaders of the provinces of his nation so they would have enough confidence in him to support his upcoming invasion of Greece, which was about the only part of the known world that Xerxes didn’t control.
Well, after the first full-blown 6-month feast Xerxes hosted another bash-this one lasting seven days and according to verse 5 of chapter 1 everyone was invited “…from the least to the greatest who were in the citadel of Susa.” It was held in Xerxes’ palace and everyone sat on golden and silver couches in a garden decorated with white and blue linen fastened with silver rings on marble pillars. The floor of the room was made of marble in-lade with mother-of-pearl and other costly stones. And wine was served in golden goblets…each custom-made for the banquet…no two were alike. And everyone could drink as much wine as they liked-there were no “designated drivers” at this party.
Xerxes turned his palace into a frat house of sorts. And again, his goal was to LOOK good…to IMPRESS his subjects with his power….to make his soldiers proud and his enemies afraid. Well, verse 10 of chapter one says that on the last day of this banquet-when the King was “in high spirits from all this wine”-in other words: when he was drunk-he ordered his servants to bring in Queen Vashti so that all his guests could see her. And again his motive is to impress. He’d been showing off all his possessions: his goblets and his tapestries and his palace and now he wanted to show off is ultimate possession: his lovely Queen! Verse 11 says that Xerxes instructed her to come before them wearing her royal crown and some think this meant this was all she was to wear but regardless of her garb to order her to traipse in front of the king and his inebriated subjects at the height of “Miller time” was a great disrespect and Vashti bravely said “No.”
Now, how did the king respond? Look at verse 12: “The king was furious and burned with anger!”because Vashti had embarrassed him in front of his subjects. She made him look weak at a moment when he wanted to look strong. Well, that simply would not do. So he consulted his sages to get their ruling on this issue. This was sort of like taking the issue to “the supreme court” of his day. And their ruling reminds me of the rulings of the highest court in our nation today for they did not compliment Vashti on her morals.
No, they recommended that he punish her for them. They also warned Xerxes that Vashti’s attitude might catch on that unless she was severely punished other wives in the kingdom might start standing up to their husbands and they couldn’t have that so they advised that Vashti be deposed. Xerxes agreed and a royal decree went out, written into the laws of Persia and Media, with no possibility of repeal, removing Vashti and forbidding her ever again to enter the king’s presence.
Now, this all took place in chapter one of the book. And in between chapters one and two four years passed and in that time Xerxes made his ambitious but disastrous attempt to conquer Greece which ended in 479 B.C. He returned home to Susa in disgrace. Picture it — he entered the tall, gilded palace doors, weary from battle, dispirited by defeat. He longed for someone to greet him with arms outstretched, someone who would offer words of comfort and understanding not just a servant or one of his officers eager to please their king but someone who truly cared for him and his feelings. He had long since forgotten his anger at Vashti and now remembered only her beauty, the warmth of her arms and the comfort of her understanding but alas the unchangeable law had gone out and he had no Vashti. He had no queen. Well-his personal attendants noticed his depression and advised that he find a new queen.
Now these attendants were young men, high testosterone body-guards of the king and perhaps this explains the “Queen selection method” that they recommended. Their number one criteria for a queen was not wisdom or poise or maturity. No, look at verse 2 of chapter 2. They said, “Let a search be made for beautiful young virgins for the king.” They suggested girls be chosen from each of the 127 provinces and that they parade in front of the king so he could select his preference for the new queen based on physical beauty. Well, the king loved the idea of this the first MISS UNIVERSE PAGEANT! So that is what happened.
Now one of the girls who was drafted into this beauty contest was a young Jewish girl by the name of Esther. We’re told that she had been adopted and raised by her cousin Mordecai. Well, along with several others, Esther made it past the prelims into the final round of this contest but before Esther and the other finalists went before the king they underwent some very impressive beauty treatments. Now, let me pause her to do a quick survey of the single females present. How long do you take to get ready for a date? I mean including bathing, hair, make-up, wardrobe selection….45 minutes? An hour? Anyone spend more time getting ready for the date than you actually spend on the date itself? Well look at the prep time Esther went through! Chapter 2:12 says, “This was the regular period of their cosmetic treatment: six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and cosmetics…” 12 months-an entire year! That’s a lot of Oil of Olay and Lancome!
Well, after all this prep time each girl went before the king and he made his choice: ESTHER. Verse 17 says that “He loved Esther more than the other women. She won his favor and devotion so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.”
Well, Mordecai apparently followed her to the palace and got a job at the Kings Gate. And one day while he was at work he overheard two of the kings’ officers conspiring to assassinate Xerxes. Mordecai told Esther-who in turn reported it to Xerxes, giving credit to Mordecai. Verse 23 of chapter 2 says, “And when the report was investigated and found to be true, the two…were hanged on a gallows. All this was recorded in the Book of the Annals in the presence of the king.” Now, gallows in those days were not like gallows are today-where people were hung by a rope-no, it was a wooden contraption on which they were impaled-like being hung on a cross.
Well, as chapter 3 opens, for some reason the king honored an evil man by the name of Haman, an Agagite, and elevated him to the seat of honor higher than any other noble. Verse 2 says, “All the royal officials at the king’s gate knelt down and paid honor to Haman, for the king had commanded this concerning him but Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor.” Now, Mordecai wasn’t being rude…it’s just that he was a Jew and to bow down to anyone or anything other than God was against God’s law.
Well word of Mordecai’s behavior got back to Haman and he was enraged. But instead of looking for a way to punish just Mordecai he hatched a plot to destroy all of Mordecai’s people…all the Jews on the face of the earth. And, in case you wonder why he reacted like this, remember — Haman was an Agagite. And the Agagites had held a grudge against the Jews since way back in the book of Exodus. It began when the Amelikites attacked Israel after they left Egypt. God told Saul to kill all the Amelikites, along with all their animals. But Saul, pragmatist that he was, saved the best of the enemy’s sheep. He also spared the king..a man named AGAG. And the Agagites, descendants of the Amalekites, got their name from the king that Saul didn’t’ kill. Which should be an excellent reminder that when God tells you to do something, you’d better do it. He always has a reason for His rules!
Well, in all the years since, the Agagites had passed this burning hatred for the Jews down from generation to generation. Apparently these people had been very good at teaching their children to embrace the sin of prejudice. Remember no one is born with grudges. Prejudice is not a package deal that comes with birth. It is something we learn. And Haman had learned his lessons well for, he hated the Jews. So, like Adolph Hitler twenty-five centuries later, he plotted to exterminate them all.
Now apparently at the beginning of every new year the King cast lots…called “PUR” to see which day of the year would be his lucky day. (Remember that word “PUR” for later.) Well when the lots were cast in at the beginning of 473B.C., they fell on the 13th day of the 12th month of the year. And when this happened verses 8 & 9 record that Haman said to the king:
“There is a certain people dispersed and scattered among the people in all the provinces of your kingdom whose customs are different from those of all other people…and who do not obey the king’s laws. It is not in the kings’ best interest to tolerate them…so let a decree be issued to destroy them and I will put ten thousand talents of silver into the royal treasury for the men who carry out this business.”
In other words he said, if you really want luck to smile on you-on this day the lots have selected, then, there’s only one thing to do….get rid of these Jews! Which goes to show that when your life is driven by superstition, you always come up with ridiculous ideas and decisions, stupid things, demonic things as certainly was the case here.
Well Xerxes loved Haman’s idea! It appealed to his superstition and his greed so he gave Haman his signet ring which contained the official seal. And Haman used it to sent the order out. By the way this was another one of those laws of the Medes and the Persians that could not be rescinded the law said that in twelve months time (on the 13th day of the last month of the year) all Jews-even women and little children-were to be killed. Well, Esther was secluded in the palace and unaware of what had happened so Mordecai got word to her and asked her to intercede with the king. She hesitated to go to the king at first. And this point is the climax of this book.
Look at chapter 3 verses 13-16 after Esther’s hesitation. Mordecai sent back this answer: “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 royal position for such a time as this? Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: “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 maids will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”
At this point Esther showed her true self…she was more than just some bathing beauty. Xerxes chose an attractive queen but he really got a woman who wasn’t afraid to fight for what was right.
This reminds me of something that happened a couple of years ago to Mattel toy company. The little voice boxes that were intended for Barbies ended up in G. I. Joes and the ones that were intended for G. I. Joe ended up in Barbies in hundreds of dolls. So there were hundreds of kids that got real confused because they’d pull the little string and G. I. Joe would say, “Let’s shop until we drop.” They’d pull Barbie’s string and she would say, “Hit the ground hard, now , now, now!” Well, at this point Esther began to act more like a G.I. Joe than Barbie because she showed true courage. You see, Esther really did have good reason to fear approaching her husband, the king.
For anyone-even the queen-to infringe upon the king’s privacy unbidden was tantamount to treason. To enforce this law a squad of men armed with axes stood about the throne ready to hack the unbidden guests down unless the king in his mercy extended the golden scepter to restrain them. So Esther’s anxiety was not misplaced. And…the king had not summoned Esther for 30 days so she was right to wonder how much influence she’d have with him at that moment. But Mordecai wisely pointed out that she was not brought to this position in life to accumulate an exquisite wardrobe and precious gems and exotic fragrances. God did not guide her to becoming a “Barbie Doll Queen.”
No, God’s providence was at work! Now, up until this point, Esther has been fairly passive. As per Mordecai’s instructions she hadn’t even told anyone that she was a Jew but now she acted on and trusted in God’s provision. She asked Mordecai to gather the Jews for a serious three day fast-no food or water during this time. She pledged to do the same. In other words, she prepared herself spiritually for this task. And then, armed with the courage that only time alone with God can give, she put on her royal robes and went to the king-to his inner court-and waited for Xerxes to see her. Imagine what went through her mind..as she waited. Is it going to be life or death? Well, the king saw her and mercifully reached out his scepter. She would live…at least for the moment. In chapter 5, verse 3 he said, “What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given to you even to the half of my kingdom.“
Now you have to read between the lines here. His statement was really “king talk” for, “What do you want? I’m in a good mood today.” In other words, it was kind of an exaggeration. If Esther would have said, “Okay, I’ll take the northern half of your kingdom,” his tune would have changed real fast. Xerxes was just spouting king talk…more on the level of “Would you like to be in charge of the remote control tonight?” That kind of deal.
So at this point Esther couldn’t blurt out “I’d like to have you revoke the unalterable law of the Medes and the Persians and execute your chief or staff please.” Instead she wisely said, “I’m hosting a banquet…and I’d like for you and Haman to come.” He agreed and the banquet went great. The king had a great time and as he was drinking and feeling good he again said to his queen,
“What is your petition, it shall be granted to you. Even to half of my kingdom.” And here again Esther showed her shrewd wisdom. In verse 7 of chapter 5 she said, “This is my petition and request: if I have won the king’s favor and if it pleases the king to GRANT my petition and fulfill my request.” In other words, if you want to say YES to what I have to ask you….
“…then let the king and Haman come tomorrow to the banquet that I shall prepare for them, and then I will do as the king has said.” In other words, “Tomorrow…at the next party, I’ll tell you what it is that I want.”
See, Esther had been so skillful that the king had pretty much already agreed to her request before he even heard it-amazing boldness and wisdom on her part. This girl was very shrewd! Her beauty was much more than skin deep!
Well even Haman had enjoyed that FIRST banquet & on the way home people were bowing to him right and left but he encountered Mordecai who refused to bow and that just ruined his day.
So when he got home he moped about the house and told his wife: “I’ve got all this going for me. I’m #2 in power in the kingdom. I’m tremendously wealthy. Why…I’ve just come from a private banquet with the king and queen and they’ve invited me back tomorrow night but all this does me no good as long as I see that Jew, Mordecai, sitting at the king’s gate.” His wife suggested that he would feel better if he would build a gallows and have Mordecai impaled on it and that brightened his mood.
So, he instructed the workers to build one 75 feet high for just that purpose. And they got to work and worked all night on the project….constructing the biggest gallows ever! That night the king couldn’t sleep (probably because of all the hammering and sawing going on over at Haman’s house!) So he woke his servants and ordered them to read to him. And they selected a real sleep-inducing book: The Annals of the King! And for some reason they began to read the chapter that told of the time Mordecai saved the king from assassination. When they read that excerpt, Xerxes asked if Mordecai had ever been honored for this brave act and they said “NO,” so he had to do something. Otherwise it would be a blot on his kingly pay-back record. By this time it was early in the morning and the king asked, “Who is in the court?”
And Haman was there bright and early to ask permission to use the gallows he has built on Mordecai. So Haman was brought in and the king said to him, “I need to pick your brain about something Haman. What shall be done for the man to whom the king wishes to honor?” (Esther 6:6 ) This is where the book gets really good. To get the full effect, picture this like a play and Haman is now doing a stage whisper just to the crowd that the other character (the king) can’t hear. Haman whispers to us, “Who would the king wish to honor more than me?
Of course he must mean me. I better make this really good because I get to write my own check.” So Haman turned and said to the king, “If you really want to honor ‘someone’ then let him wear one of your robes and crowns and sit on one of your horses and have someone parade him through the streets saying this is how ‘someone’ whom the king honors is treated.” And the king said, “That is a good idea! I like it because I want to honor MORDECAI! And Haman, you be the one to parade him through the streets!” Imagine Haman’s humiliation!
That night was Esther’s second banquet and Haman probably just picked at his food after a day of being forced to honor his sworn enemy. But at least the king had a good time and once again he said, “Okay, you’ve been fattening me up long enough Esther. What’s your request? Even half the kingdom. Xerxes was not a real original guy-same offer every time: “even half my kingdom…”
And so Esther, with the amazing wisdom and boldness that only comes from utter dependence on God, informed the king that she and her people were about to be destroyed. The king said, “What? By whom?!” And here again she showed her daring because she didn’t even blink as she replied, “By a foe and an enemy THIS WICKED HAMAN!” Well, the king got up in rage and stomped out onto the balcony and when he did Haman threw himself on the couch where Esther was reclining. He laid there and asked for her mercy. The king walked in and saw him on the couch with her and said, “Will you even molest my queen?” At this point one of king’s “yes-men” eunuchs stepped up and said, “Hey Xerxes, there’s a gallows 75 feet high outside that Haman made for Mordecai.” And the king said, “Hang Haman on it!”
At this point Proverbs 11:8 comes to mind which says, “The righteous man is rescued from trouble, and it comes on the wicked instead.” Well Haman’s estate is given to Mordecai, who takes Haman’s place as #2 in the kingdom and whereas the edict allowing the Jews to be killed could not be rescinded Xerxes consented to another edict giving them the right to defend themselves. And they did. No Jews were even hurt when the 13th day of the 12th month rolled around! And to this day Jews celebrate this event in a festival in February or March which they call PURIM, based on the Persian word for “lots” which you should remember is “PUR.”
Now, there is a great deal that we can learn from the adventures of this woman of the Bible. You could preach and entire sermon series on the life of Esther but in the time remaining I want to point out just two powerful truths for us to take with us today and the first is this:
1. God is at work in our lives…even when we can’t see Him at work.
Scholars have pointed out that God’s name is not even mentioned in this little book of the Bible and that’s true…but His sovereign actions are everywhere! I like how Matthew Henry puts it: “…though the NAME of God be not in [Esther], the FINGER of God is directing many minute events for the bringing about of His people’s deliverance.” God was obviously acting behind the scenes of this story through a number of seeming coincidences. Let’s review them:
- Esther being chosen as queen over all the other 126 beautiful candidates,
- Mordecai discovering the plot to kill the king,
- the casting of lots for the day to kill the Jews resulting in a date LATE in the year, which gave Mordecai and Esther plenty of time to act This “coincidence” reminds me of Proverbs 16:33 which says, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.”
Another example of God’s working behind the scenes was the king’s enthusiastic welcome to Esther after ignoring her for a month as was his patience with Esther in permitting her to hold two banquets before she made her request. And what about the kings’ insomnia that brought to light Mordecai’s deed of kindness…or Xerxes’ apparent lapse of memory that led him to honor Mordecai – one of the Jews he had agreed to slay.
We could go on listing unexplainable acts that in hindsight reveal the activity of God. And, these crucial…pivotal….parts of the story are not just coincidences. They are God at work! Someone has defined a “coincidence” as “a miracle for which God chooses to remain anonymous” and that is certainly seen in this book! You know, we often THINK that God is absent…that He is not involved in our lives…because miracles seem to be so rare these days but Esther’s story shows us that God is just as active in the mundane things of life as He is in the miracles. He is behind the scenes of our life directing things.
God may be invisible but He is always invincible. He is present in every scene and movement of our days. In his book Disappointment With God Philip Yancey points out that humans can only see about 30 percent of the light spectrum whereas honeybees and homing pigeons can detect ultraviolet light waves that are invisible to us. And in the supernatural realm, our vision is even more limited. We get only occasional glimpses of that unseen world. So it follows then that just because we aren’t able to SEE the activity of God doesn’t mean it’s He’s not active. And if you ever feel that God is silent or hidden in your life remember Esther’s story and the words of II Corinthians 5:7 where it says, “We walk by faith….not by sight.” Never doubt the presence and activity of God!
2. And then the second thing this story teaches is…the power…the potential impact…of one person…
Look, what Esther…ONE young woman…was able to do! God used her to save an entire race!
And we need to read this story because in our overpopulated mass-media driven world it is easy to underestimate our power as individuals. We wonder what we alone can contribute to the overwhelming needs of our world. As this story illustrates one person can make a HUGE difference! I like the way Edward Everett Hale addresses this point. He writes: I am only one….but I am still one…I cannot do everything….but still I can do something…and because I cannot do everything…I will not refuse to do the something that I can do!”
In his book on Esther’s life, Charles Swindoll points out that history is full of accounts of single individuals who have made a difference. Think of the decisive military battles that have turned on the axis of one heroic person. Think of the contributions of the individual lives of artists from Michelangelo and da Vinci to Brahms and Beethoven. Think of the scientists, the inventors, the explorers, the technological experts who have literally changed the course of history. Think of the impact on the church that has been made by individuals like Augustine, Bunyan, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Edwards, Spurgeon, Moody, and Graham to name only a few. Or to look at it from another angle, think of the difference even one VOTE can make.
- In 1645 one vote gave Oliver Cromwell control of England.
- In 1776 one vote gave America the English language instead of German.
- In 1845, one vote brought Texas into the union.
- In 1868 one vote saved President Andrew Johnson from impeachment.
- In 1875 one vote changed France from a monarchy to a republic
- In 1876 one vote gave Rutherford B. Hayes the U. S. Presidency
- In 1923 one vote gave Adolph Hitler control of the Nazi party
- In 1941 one vote saved the selective service system just 12 weeks before Pearl Harbor.
You know when we read God’s Word…we don’t find that many stories about God using a mass or throng of people to do His will. No from Genesis to Revelation we see God’s hand on the lives of individuals who made history because they did what was right-regardless of the outcome! And even today God….more than the United States Marine Corps…is looking for a few good men and women who will stand up for His truth. II Chronicles 16:9 says, “For the eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart (singular) is completely His.” In Jeremiah 5:1 God gives him this command, “Roam to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, and look now and take note. And seek her open squares, if you can find a man, if there is ONE who does justice, who seeks truth.” In Ezekiel 22:30 God says, “And I searched for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the gap before Me for the land, that I should not destroy it but I found no ONE.”
This little book of the Bible records that God used one woman who was willing to make a stand and He will use you if you let Him. The world has yet to see what God can do with ONE person who is totally committed to Him. Think of where you work, where you live, where you shop. It is no accident that you are where you are so ask yourself the same question Mordecai asked Esther, “Who knows but that YOU, one individual, have come to this position for such a time as this!”
You know our world desperately needs individuals like you and me to be willing to follow Esther’s example and stand in the gap for God. Our culture grows more decadent and sinful every moment and I think much of the blame falls on those of us who hesitate to speak up and act for God’s truth. Remember all it takes for evil to prosper is for good people to do nothing and these days many good people ARE doing nothing. The people in your sphere of influence-that little “congregation” that God has given you, needs you to be salt and light. They need you to speak the truth in love…to guide them to faith in God. This morning many of us may need to make commitments to God to be as courageous as Esther.
Remember it is no accident that you are where you are. God has been at work! And if you are here this morning and are not a Christian then I believe that also is no accident. God has acted, maybe behind the scenes, to bring you to this place so that you can have an opportunity to come to faith in Him. Whatever your decision, to profess faith in Christ, to join this church, even to make a public commitment to stand up for God in some way. I invite you to make any of these decisions public by walking forward and sharing them with me as we stand now and sing.