Esther, Mordecai and the Purposes of God
David gave this talk at the 2014 Catalyst Festival at Stoneleigh Park. Click here to download the audio version.
The Bible is the story of the mission of God to put everything right in this world, and the whole universe, through Jesus Christ his death and resurrection. All the way God has graciously used various individuals and is people corporately to play their unique role in this great plan. But that’s not the focus of the story today, the focus is on two people (Esther and Mordecai) who are used uniquely and miraculously to fulfil God’s purposes.
This story happened at a time of huge importance in world history. At the same time, as these events, Confucius was teaching in China and seeing China rise with its empire and philosophy; Greece was experiencing a flowering of culture, development of democracy with the great literature of Sophocles and Aristophenes, plays still performed today.
The brilliant story of Esther gives the reasons for the Jewish feast of Purim, still celebrated by the Jewish people all over the world today. It is also a fun story even though recording serious and dangerous events. It is full of surprises and even jokes. A moment in history of the great Persian Empire yet full of humorous exaggeration – feasts that last 6 months, gallows as high as a 6-story building, even the names of the courtiers. It’s demonstrating the achieving of God’s purposes, the rescue of the Jews but also pokes fun at the foolishness of proud rulers and their stupidity in making decisions. Perhaps today the Blackadder view of history or “Horrible Histories”. It is theology told with irony satire and humour.
King Xerxes, ruler over the Persian Empire. A great figure in world history. The Hebrew Bible calls him “Ahasuerus” – nearest English equivalent would be “King Headache”. He throws a great banquet for 6 months for his nobles and then a 7 day feast for all the inhabitants of Susa, the capital city. Clear rules – no restrictions on how much you can drink! Men only together (as was the culture). Queen Vashti was having a separate party for the women. After the 7 days, Xerxes called his queen to parade her beauty in front of all these drunken men, can you imagine?
Vashti refused, she dishonoured and shamed King Headache. Shock! Horror! One of the nobles said if this is allowed and becomes known through the empire from India to Sudan, no woman will respect their husbands (exaggerated humour). So they make a new law that Vashti will no longer be queen and men should rule over their families and translate it into every language in the empire.
Then the search for a new queen begins, they collect together all the beautiful virgins you can find for the King’s harem in the hopes that one of these may please the King and so become Queen. Pleasing the King was not by the power of their intellect but by spending one night with him. Only qualifications to be Queen were beauty and sexual performance. One of the beautiful virgins was a Jewish orphan girl called Esther who lived under the care of her elder cousin Mordecai. She is taken into the harem and prepared for a year to go to the King. This was morally dubious and raises lots of questions: Why didn’t Mordecai hide her? (It’s why centuries ago some Jewish and Christian commentators didn’t really think this book should be in the Bible.) In a totalitarian government, people have to submit to awful things. It was terrible abuse, after a night with the King most of the virgins would stay in the harem, not called for their rest of their lives.
However, Esther was given favour by the eunuch in charge of the harem and then so pleased the King in one night that she was given favour by him and made queen. Nobody knew she was Jewish, she had kept that a secret.
Her cousin, Mordecai, was one of the close advisers in the court and heard of a plot to kill Xerxes and told Esther who told the King. So the coup was foiled. Normally Mordecai would have been honoured immediately but somehow this was forgotten.
Five years after Esther was made queen, another character, Haman, who was an Agagite i.e. a traditional enemy of the Jews, was honoured by the King so everyone had to bow to him. Mordecai refused and so, furious, Haman influenced the King (again the King is seen as simply manipulated by all those around him, not thinking for himself at all) to pass a law (which cannot be changed) on a date chosen by Pur (i.e. lot) that all the Jews could be destroyed.
Horrified, Mordecai put on sackcloth and sent word to Esther to ask the King to rescind the law. Esther said he hasn’t called me for a month and nobody can just go into the presence of the King except a few special advisers. Key statement from Mordecai, “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 4:14. I’ll do it said Esther. Get everyone to fast “if I perish, I perish” Esther 4:16. So Esther stood in the entrance to the King’s hall. She would only be allowed in if he extended his sceptre and if not she would die. The King extended his sceptre. What do you want Queen Esther and I’ll give it you? Esther was very wise and was not direct, after all the King had signed the decree. She devised a cunning plan. Please let me cook a banquet for you and Haman.
It was a great banquet, let’s eat first leave the business to the end – “what do want Esther”? Please will you and Haman come to another banquet tomorrow? Haman boasted to his wife. I am so honoured by the King and Queen. He then saw Mordecai and got so angry that he built a 6 storey high gallows to hang Mordecai on. That night King Headache could not sleep. So he read the history of his reign where it was recorded that Mordecai had saved the King. I never honoured him. He called Haman. What should I do for the man I honour? Haman, thinking it was for him, put a royal robe and let him ride a royal horse – i.e. in US, let him have Air force 1. OK said the King, do that for Mordecai.
With dread then Haman went to the second banquet. Esther what is your request? Please spare our people that a man manipulated you into condemning to death. Who did that? Haman. Full of anger, the King rushed from the room. Haman knew that only Esther could save him and he knelt at her couch (a man was not allowed to be within 7 steps of one of the ladies in the harem – let alone the Queen). The King came back in and saw it and thought Haman was now about to sexually molest the Queen!
Haman was hung on his own 6 storey high gallows. The People of God were rescued and they were told to celebrate this each year at the Feast of Purim – one solemn day, one day of great fun when they sent presents and had a feast, rejoiced and celebrated. The People of God were saved and therefore the Messiah who came from this people would come. God’s purposes fulfilled.
What Does this Teach Us?
Obviously God is in control to work out his purposes to preserve the Jewish people, because he loved them and because the Messiah would come from the Jews to rescue the world. Esther and Mordecai were those God used to accomplish this. God is still working his purposes out through Christ and his people. Therefore he will continue to preserve his people and fulfil his purposes but uses individuals to accomplish those purposes.
What were the characteristics of Esther and Mordecai?
1. They were totally immersed in the Persian culture.
They were not back in Jerusalem amongst the people of God – most Jews didn’t go back after the decree of Cyrus. Most stayed and like Daniel, Esther and Jeremiah’s teaching, became examples to us who now live in non-Christian cultures dominated by another worldview. It is difficult. You have to do things you would rather not do, say or refrain from saying certain things. You can’t always say it as it is. We may feel obliged to make compromises. Not as extreme ones as Esther – appending a night with a pagan King and becoming his Queen but issues we have to think about today e.g.:
- A banker who might not like the excesses of capitalism but still has to do his job.
- A school teacher having to teach in a secular humanistic environment.
- A musician playing often in godless circumstances.
- Working in films – some of which you wish perhaps weren’t made.
- The atmosphere and values in your office or as a company are not what you would want but you have to live it out.
- Selling things that people really don’t need.
(These are issues of personal conscience too.) You may think – if I was in full time Christian ministry I would be more effective. But I’m stuck here. I’ve news for you – by God’s grace, you are in just the right place to accomplish his purposes.
2.They took advantage of “favour”.
Esther had favour with the harem eunuch and with the King. Mordecai saved the pagan King and was honoured. God somehow ensures that his people enjoy seasons of favour even in the most unlikely circumstances. Look out for this. Take advantage of it. It is the hand of God upon you to fulfil his purposes in the future because you are favoured and honoured and respected in a godless society.
3. They seized the moment of destiny at great personal risk.
Esther had largely been passive, accepting what came her way. The preparation in the harem etc. By daring to stand up when it mattered even when at personal risk – she accomplished God’s purposes. There is a time for daring faith. “If I perish, I perish”. That’s more obvious in some parts of the world. Are you a kingdom initiative taker at the right time – or will you remain passive under the culture. You will save people if you take initiatives. You have already gained respect.
Mordecai too knew when to take initiative – telling the King about the coup:
- Knew when to urge Esther to act.
- Refused to bow down to Haman though in other ways he accepted the norms of the Persian court.
God’s mission is accomplished not by passivity but by gracious acceptance of circumstances until it is clearly time to take initiative for the purposes of Christ. For all of us there are times when:
- Faith needs to be bold and active.
- For healing and miracles.
- Knowing that if God doesn’t turn up, you may lose respect or feel a failure.
- For some you may lose financially or career wise.
- In certain parts of the world even your life.
“Some defining moments may come unexpectedly and pass quickly, yet with far-reaching consequences.” (The NIV Application Commentary, Karen Jobes, pg 142.)
4. They mingled daring faith with wisdom.
Esther was indirect – appropriate to the culture. She invited for a meal. She did it relationally – not unnecessarily provocative.
5. They were totally committed to all of God’s people.
It was not just their personal destiny but corporate destiny. We must at times sacrifice individualism for the people of God.
Much emphasis now on who I am in Christ – loved, accepted (not rejected), forgiven (not condemned), fathered – Hallelujah, but even greater than that privilege and therefore to be focussed on more strongly is what it means to be identified with the people of God. That’s what motivates Esther and Mordecai.
6. A woman and a man both equally needed to fulfil God’s purposes.
“To establish these days of Purim at their designated times, as Mordecai the Jew and Queen Esther had decreed for them” Esther 9:31a.
Men and women are equally needed, equally prominent in this rescue of God’s people. Because of our belief in servant headship in husbands and male elders of the church, we have often given too strong a male emphasis in accomplishing God’s purposes. We want to demonstrate and model that not only are men and women equal in Christ in terms of their status but also equally needed in terms of the accomplishment of the purposes of God.
7. People who can have fun as well.
This book is the basis for Purim where there is one solemn day and one great celebration day for all the family.
These Bible stories are so important. Story-telling defines and builds relationship, and changes lives as people identify with the story. Storytelling also defines community because the stories shape who we are. The Book of Esther is like that.
God promises that in a worsening pagan or secular environment His purposes will be fulfilled.
Each one of us should seize the opportunity to be a woman or man of God, to take daring initiatives for the mission of God.