The Sovereign in the Shadows
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The Sovereign in the Shadows
The Rev. Vaughan Smith
Most people would not pick Esther as their favorite book of the Bible.
Many frequent church-goers, including me, have never heard even a single sermon from the book of Esther.
I picked this passage because it’s a Lectionary reading for today, and because I’ve never before preached from Esther.
Since most people do not know the book of Esther very well, I want to begin by quickly reminding us about the book’s key people and events.
The book of Esther opens in the year 483 BC, 1,and it covers perhaps a decade… but the story really begins about a 100 years earlier.
As a judgment against the sins of Judah, the Bible says that God sent the Babylonians against Jerusalem. Jerusalem fell in 587 BC, and the Jews were carted off to Babylon. These years of punishment are called, “The Babylonian Exile.”
The Babylonian Exile ended in the year 539 BC, when Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and Cyrusallowed all the captives of Babylon, including the Jews, to return to their homelands. 2
Incidentally, roughly 200 years before Cyrus, God spoke these words through the prophet Isaiah, (45.13)
“I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness: I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free…”
Roughly 200 years after God spoke those words through Isaiah, Cyrus, the king of Persia, did exactly as God had said.
And just 130 years ago, in the year 1879, archeologists excavating in Babylon discovered part of the royal archives of king Cyrus. If you go to The British Museum, you can see an object called, “The Cyrus Cylinder.” It’s over 2,500 years old… and on it, Cyrus proclaims that he defeated Babylon, he set free the various nations held captive by Babylon, and he helped these newly-freed peoplesto rebuild their homelands.
Archeology has proven what believers have known for millennia… that the Cyrus predicted in Isaiah and mentioned in Ezrareally existed… and he really did exactly what God foretold, 200 years before it happened!
Cyrus set free the Jews—and several other captive groups— but many of these former captives—including many Jews—decided to remain in Babylon—which was now part of the Persian empire.
Esther and her cousin, Mordecai, the two heroes of the book of Esther,are Jews whose parents had decided to stay in Persia, rather than going home to Judah.
The book of Esther opens with king Xerxes, 3 the grandson of king Cyrus, throwing a ridiculously opulent banquet. Xerxes is showing off his wealth and power… and he decides to show off his beautiful queen,Vashti.
Vashti does not want to be paraded around as one of the king’s trophies,and so she refuses the king’s order. For that disobedience, she is deposed as queen and forever banished from the king’s presence.
Xerxes misses Vashti’s beauty, so—much like the prince in Cinderella— Xerxes has all the most beautiful women of the empire brought before him.
Esther, a Jew, is extremely beautiful, so she enters the contest to become the new queen of Persia. ButMordecai, Esther’s older cousin and adoptive father, warns Esther to hide the fact that she is a Jew As we’ll soon see, that is red flag # 1.
Xerxes is captivated by Esther’s beauty, so he invites her to spend the night with him, before they were married.That is red flag #2… and # 3. The Bible says that Esther pleased the king, and as a result, Esther marries the Gentile king.That is red flag # 4.
While Esther is enjoying being queen, cousin Mordecai discovers a plot to murder king Xerxes.Mordecai tells Esther. Esther tells Xerxes about the plot to kill him… and she gives Mordecai the credit for discovering the plot.
Xerxes executes the conspirators… but he forgets to reward Mordecai for saving his life.
A very egotistical, power-hungry man named Haman rises to the position of 2nd in command over Persia. King Xerxes orders all people in the empire to bow, when Haman walks by, just like they do for Xerxes, himself. But Mordecai refuses to bow before Haman.
Honor-hungry Haman is furious that someone refuses to bow before him. When Haman finds out that Mordecai is a foreigner, —a Jew—Haman hatches a plot to kill all Jews in the empire.
Since the Persian empire includes all of Judah and Jerusalem, Haman’s plot is no less heinous than Hitler’s; Haman wants to exterminate Jews from the planet.
Haman casts the pur, the lot, an instrument of divination to set the date for the extermination of the Jews. Fortunately, the pur—something like dice—sets the datefor the extermination of the Jews 11 months in the future. These 11 months give the Jews time to react.
During these 11 months, three essential events happen.
First, Mordecai continues to refuse to bow before Haman, so Haman has a 75-foot gallows erected. It is erected for Mordecai.
Actually, from ancient writings, —including the works of Herodotus 4 who chronicled the wars between the Persians and the Greeks— we know that the Persians did not hang people with nooses around the neck. When ancient Persians speak of “hanging” a person, they actually mean impaling a person on a stake. 5
First, you get a bag put over your head. 6 Then, soldiers lift you up…then they slam you onto a sharpened stake.That is what Haman plans for Mordecai.
The 2nd essential event that happens in the 11 months before the extermination of the Jews is this. Just before Haman asks the king for permission to impale Mordecai on a 75-foot pole… king Xerxes has a bout of insomnia. To put himself to sleep, Xerxes orders that his own royal annals be read to him. And it just so happens… that Xerxes hears read to him the account of how Mordecai saved the king from assassination.
Xerxes asks how this man Mordecai was rewarded, and he is told that Mordecai received no reward for saving the king’s life.
And it just so happens… that as Xerxes heard that, he hears someone nearby. The person the king hears is Haman, the Haman who wants to impale Mordecai.
Xerxes invites Haman in and says to him,(6.6) “What should be done for the man the king delights to honor?”
Thinking that the king wants to honor Haman, Haman lists several great honors to bestow on the man whom the king wants to honor.
Then… in a turn of events that must have made Haman gag, king Xerxes says to Haman, (6.10) “…do just as you have suggested for Mordecai the Jew…”
The 3rd essential event that happens in the 11 months before the extermination of the Jews is this. Mordecai asks queen Esther—the secret Jew—to talk the king into stopping the plot to kill all Jews.
At first, Esther resists the idea of asking the king to spare the Jews… but Mordecai eventually convinces Esther to speak to the king on behalf of the Jews.
Esther decides to throw a grand banquet for the king, and to make her request at the banquet, when the king has had some wine and is in a good mood.
With all these events in mind, we are now ready to hear today’s Scripture reading, Esther, chapter 7.Hear the Word of the Lord. [Read Text Here]
After the events in today’s reading, Esther and Mordecai successfully save the Jewish people, and from the 5th century BC, right up to the present time, the Jewish people still celebrate that escape from extermination.
The celebration is called, Purim, a word derived from the fact that the pur, the lot or dice, cast by Haman gave the Jews 11 months to come up with a plan to protect themselves.
The book of Esther is a great story. But over the centuries, many people, including the great Martin Luther, 7 have said that the book of Esther does not belong in the Bible.
The statistics speak for themselves. The book of Esther contains no prophecies…it includes no explicitmiracles… and no prayers. Stranger still, the book of Esther never mentions God, not even once!
The book of Esther does not even contain a single good role model. Some people think Esther is a good role model… but if we read the book honestly, we are forced to conclude that Esther is not a positive role model.
Esther is not a woman to idealize or imitate. She hid the fact that she was a Jew… and in concealing her race and nationality, Esther demonstrated disloyalty to both her people and to her God. 8
Esther slept with a Gentile… an act God prohibited. And after sleeping with a Gentile,
she married him, another act God prohibited.
At the end of chapter 7, Esther allowed the king to wrongly believe that Haman had made an advance toward her…and because she failed to tell the truth,Haman was executed.
True, Esther did risk her life to save the Jewish people… but as the story makes completely clear,
Esther found courage to risk her life for her people only after Mordecai convinced her
that if she did not act,then she would be exterminated along with the rest of the Jews.
People who want to paint Esther as a brave, self-sacrificing heroshould listen to what the text itself says about how Esther came to risk her life.
Please look at the Esther painted in chapter 4. In 4.8, we read these words, “[Mordecai] also gave [Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs] a copy of the text of the edict for [the Jews’] annihilation… to show to Esther and explain it to her, and “[Mordecai] told [Hathach] to urge [Esther]to go into the king’s presence to beg for mercy and plead with [the king] for her people.” 9
In 4.11, Esther gives an excuse about why she cannot help. She informs Mordecai that by approaching the king, she would be risking her own life.
It was Mordecai’s sharp response that motivated Esther to take action. Listen to 4.12 through 14. “When Esther’s words were reported to Mordecai, he 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.”
Mordecai hinted that Esther had been made queen for the purpose of saving her people…and… Mordecai warned Esther that risking her life was the only way she could save it. Only then, did Esther summon up the courageto approach the king and to plead for her people, and for herself.
And Mordecai… Mordecai is not a good role model, either. It was Mordecai who insisted that Esther
hide her Jewish identity. Mordecai encouraged Esther to live a lie.
And… we don’t know why Mordecai refused to bow before Haman. 10 Some people suggest that Mordecai considered it against his religion to bow before Haman… but the Bible does not support such an idea. The Bible does not prohibit bowing before rulers. In fact, it was fairly common for Jewsto bow before authority figures. 11
Consequently, it appears that Mordecai’s refusal to bow before Haman was not based on religious convictions. 12 Mordecai’s refusal to bow before Haman may have been due to a personal conflictbetween the two men. Or… Mordecai may have a problem with pride. We do not know.But we do know that other faithful Jews did bow before Gentile rulers.
And we do know that the plot to exterminate all Jews was a direct result of Mordecai’s refusal to bow before Haman.
An honest reading of the text shows that neither Mordecai, nor Estheris a good role model.
And… the book of Esther contains no prophecies… no explicit miracles… no prayers. The book of Esther never even mentions God!
So… why does the Bible include the book of Esther?
Some people say that Esther made it into the Bible because it records the events leading to the institutionof the Jewish festival of Purim.Recording the institution of Purim certainly helped Esther get into the Bible.
But personally, I value the book of Esther as Scripture, for two different reasons. 13
The 1st reason I value Esther as Scripture is this.The book of Esther invites us to look with the eyes of faithand to see God as, “The Sovereign in the Shadows.”
We sometimes feel the absence of God…or at least a lack of understanding about what God is doing.
We don’t see miracles everyday. And yet… God IS present with us… and God IS accomplishing His perfect plan!
Esther presents a series of so-called “coincidences”that taken together require the work of theinvisible hand of God Almighty!
• Esther just happens to be born with exceptional beauty.
• As a foreigner, she happens to becomequeen.
• Mordecai happens todiscover the plot to kill the king… but somehow, he gets no reward.
• The Persian empire determines to annihilate the Jews, but when they roll the dice to pick the date,
the dice happen to give the Jews 11 months to prepare.
• The king just happens toget insomnia. That night, just before Haman asks for permission to impale Mordecai… the king just happens to hear the account of how Mordecai saved the king’s life.
• When Haman begs Esther for his life, the king happens to walk in and find Hamantoo close to his wife. 14
• And just when the king needs a stake on which to impale Haman, Haman just happens to erected a stake for Mordecai.
Strings of “coincidences” like that point to a God, a God who works behind the scenes… a God whogoverns circumstances in order to accomplish His perfect plan!
The 2nd reason I value Esther as Scripture is this.
Esther and Mordecai are shown to be people of questionable character. Both did several immoral things.
Esther and Mordecai were flawed, sinful people… people like you and me.
The book of Esther demonstrates that God can and doeswork through flawed sinners like Mordecai and Esther; God can and does work through flawed sinners like you and me.
Because God is sovereign, gently directing events, even when we don’t see Him working…because God chooses to work through sinners like us to accomplish His perfect plan… you and I can trust God!
Because God gently directs events… because God works through sinners like us to accomplish His perfect plan you and I can serve God without fear,even when we life is difficult!
Because God gently directs events… because God works through sinners like us to accomplish His perfect plan, we can seek God’s will… we can do our Holy Spirit-empowered best… and we can rejoice in the glorious fact recorded in Romans 8.28… which says,“we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him…”15
Please pray with me…
1. Xerxes reigned as king of Persia from 486 to 465 BC; the date of 483 is based on Esther 1.3.
2. See the section below called, “Appendix: Brief Historical Notes.”
3. A.k.a. “Ahasuerus” in the Hebrew.
4. Herodotus, the famous Greek historian lived a generation after Esther. Herodotus is considered by many people to be the father of modern historical writing. Personally, I consider the author of Joshua through 2 Kings (minus Ruth) to be the father of modern historical writing!
5. K. Jobes, NIVAC, Esther, p. 166.
6. Blindfolding a person before execution, or placing a bag over the head of the person to be executed, is a long-standing practice that is common to many cultures, both ancient and modern. While the Persians may not have always bagged the heads of people before executing them, Esther 7.8 suggests that this was done to Haman.
7. Jobes, pp. 14, 21.
8. Unlike Daniel and his friends who were in a similar situation in the court of a Gentile king, Esther seems to have ignored the Old Testament food laws.
9. Esther 4.8, with pronouns replaced by their antecedents as supplied by the preceding verses; these substitutions are indicated by brackets [ ].
10. Jobes, pp. 119-121 has a helpful discussion.
11. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Abridged Edition comments, “There are many examples of God’s people prostrating themselves before a king or other superiors (cf. Ge 23:7; 27:29; 1Sa 24:8; 2Sa 14:4; 1Ki 1:16). It is unlikely that Mordecai could have been elevated next to the king if he had refused to kneel before Xerxes. The most probable reason was Mordecai’s pride; no self-respecting Benjamite would bow before a descendant of the ancient Amalekite enemy of the Jews.”
12. Jobes, p. 119, reaches this same conclusion.
13. While the phrasing and development of these 2 points is my own, many Esther scholars also see in the book of Esther a beautiful illustration of the outworking of God’s sovereignty by means of non-miraculous events and through imperfect people.
14. In ancient Persia, men were not to come within 7 steps of a member of the king’s harem (Jobes, p. 165).
15. As 8.29 shows, the ultimate good for which God works in all things is the amazing good of conforming us to Christ! Other verses proclaiming God’s sovereignty include Gen. 50.20 and Dan. 4.35.
16. Other major archeological finds which support history as it is recorded in the Bible include—but are not limited to—various Assyrian records (c. 8th cen. BC) from kings Sennacherib, Shalmaneser, and Sargon which dovetail with the accounts in 2 Kings 17-19 and with several passages in Isaiah and 1 + 2 Chronicles.
Appendix: Brief Historical Notes
The Babylonian Exile came to an end in 539, when Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and allowed all the captives of Babylon to return to their homelands. Cyrus conquered the city of Babylon by wading up the Euphrates and through the canals of the city; there was very little fighting because according to both Dan. 5 and the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 450 BC), Belshazzar, was throwing a party and was intoxicated when Cyrus and his army arrived (K. Jobes, NIVAC, Esther, p. 23).
The Edit of Cyrus which freed the captives of Babylon has been found! 16 It is inscribed on “The Cyrus Cylinder,” which was discovered in Babylon in 1879; it can be seen today in The British Museum. The Cyrus Cylinder offers unassailable archeological proof for the Bible’s claim that Cyrus conquered Babylon and put an end to The Babylonian Exile in 539 BC, exactly as God had foretold through Isaiah in the 8th century BC (Isa. 44.28, 45.1,13; fulfillments of these prophecies and mentions of Cyrus’ decree are recorded in Ezra 1-6, especially chapter 1, and 2 Chr. 36).
Regarding the length of The Babylonian Exile, 2 Chr. 36.21, citing God’s Word to Jeremiah in Jer. 25.11-12, 29.10 (also Dan. 9.2; Zech. 1.12, 7.5) speaks of the Babylonian Exile as lasting, “70 years,” but from 587 (the fall of Jerusalem) to 539 (“The Edit of Cyrus,” which ended the Exile, Ezra 1.1-4) is only 48 years. That may sound like a major discrepancy; however, the first wave of Exiles (which included Daniel and his friends) were taken to Babylon in about 605. From 605 to 539 is 66 years, much closer to the predicted “70.” Given that all dates from antiquity are a bit fuzzy due to changes in calendars and other anomalies, it is possible that our dates of 605 and 539 are off by a sum of 4 years. It is also possible that The Babylonian Exile lasted exactly 66 years and that God chose to use the round number of 70 when speaking of it.
Copyright 2009, Vaughan Smith. Used by permission.