Most of us know the story of Esther, right? She was the favorite of King Xerxes in the province of Susa, and her cousin Mordecai influenced her to use her position as Queen – to risk her life – by begging for the Jews’ safety from a despicable plot perpetrated by Haman. Esther shrewdly set the stage for her request over the course of more than one day, and the scheme of evil Haman was thwarted! Haman was executed in the same manner he had planned for Moredecai. Good won over evil, and everybody was happy. End of story.
Well, no. Not quite.
In fact, I was even confusing the number of chapters in the book of Esther, at that point in my daily Bible reading, with there being just four chapters in the book of Ruth. To my surprise, I discovered I had several more chapters than four to read in Esther. “What more is there to this story?” I was wondering. As I try to communicate the high points of my meditations on the book of Esther, I hope you will discover, as I did, that there is very important material for us to notice even after Esther saved the Jewish nation from the genocide Haman had managed (dishonestly) to get the king to decree.
1. Such a time as this
First, Mordecai told Esther that if she did not do the courageous thing he was instructing her to do, relief and deliverance would come to the Jewish people from another place (through a vessel other than her), but she and her family would perish as the result of Haman’s plot (Esther 4:1). A warning worded thus seems to me either a prediction or an effort to move Esther to obedience. Possibly, both. Mordecai’s plea concludes with the oft-quoted verse 4:14, “Who knows but that you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
2. “Okay, it’s time for this week’s fasting requests.”
Second, Esther agreed to her cousin’s request and said immediately, “Gather the people and fast for me.” (Esther 4:16) Go look at verses 15 through 17. There is actually no mention at all of praying in that passage – just of fasting!
This act of intercessory fasting would be a true, sincere, and sacrificial joining in an appeal to God for His intervention – much more serious than a five-second sentence uttered: “Lord, please give Esther success, for all our sakes.” (“Check that one off; what’s the next request?”) If we are learning from the book of Esther, we ought to be paying attention to the words “Fast for me.” The intercessors fast, and the person in need of healing or protection or success or deliverance fasts, too. I fear that we toss around too flippantly the expression “prayer requests” and assurances to others that we are praying, or have prayed. What if the word “prayer” in all of that were replaced with the word “fasting”? Sunday school e-mail subject lines would read, Fasting requests from Sunday, August 23. “I skipped a meal for you last night while on my face before the Lord” would replace “I prayed for you last night” in our text messages. (However, I suspect that such a revolution in our prayer habits would actually result in proclaiming fewer details, not more, to other people.)
Many in our country and around the world are in a heightened state of concern because of pandemic and of social and political unrest – the epitome of the varieties of collective and personal onslaught that bring people to their knees before God, crying for relief and for change – the degree of oppression frequently described in the Psalms. Never will we solve societal problems or have a satisfactory government until people’s hearts change. Leaders are elected from among the populace, after all. This is where my greatest internal outcry happens in regard to current politics: desiring to know that God’s people are earnestly and consistently fasting and praying, devoting themselves to that more than to any other interest – as they also “put feet to their prayers.” Is praying with such a degree of consistent fervor going on much in the Church gathered or dispersed? I don’t know for sure, of course, but I suspect not. At least, not enough. What I do know is that I am very convicted about this absence of frequent prayer fervor in my own life.
The very admission that I have little to no experience to tell me how fasting will strengthen my praying convicts me. Going on record in this blog post about being thus convicted is a help-cry for accountability. One night while this post was in the process of development, I dreamed that I was fasting through the supper hour. I am always really happy about it when I have a “spiritual” dream because it is thoughts that prompt dreams. Furthermore, I acted out my dream the next evening. In the Bible record, dreams frequently prompted action! I definitely wanted to behave accordingly.
3. Pride “goeth” before a fall – and how!
Third, Haman’s boasting (5:11) about having been selected for a private banquet with Xerxes and Esther was very proud…and unforeseeing! He was totally being set up, and he missed that fact entirely. His pride eventually was “rewarded” with shame; his treachery to annihilate the Jews, with his death (6:12; 7:10). What a villain. What a fall.
4. Not all bedtime stories are fairy tales.
Fourth, in the first part of chapter 6, the king was unable to sleep one night, so he called for the “chronicles” of his own reign to be brought in and read to him. How interesting! I’d sure love to call for people to read me back to sleep, although in this case it’s more that King Xerxes was using the awake time to good purpose rather than just trying to fall back asleep. Kind of like my occasional insomnia sewing, knitting, or writing in the wee hours. Anyhow, this is when the king realized (remembered) Mordecai’s service to him in exposing an earlier assassination plot. (Esther 2:21-23)
King Xerxes ordered for someone – Haman, LOL – to honor Mordecai for that good deed which had gone unrewarded. Why “LOL”? Because Haman could not stand Mordecai! Perhaps never in the biblical record do we find a better example of “let the punishment fit the crime.” Haman the villain found himself having to provide elegant clothing for Mordecai and to place him on a horse decked out in royal regalia for a private parade through the city streets showing everyone how much honor the king had bestowed for valuable service rendered. This for the very man Haman most wished dead. What humiliation!
5. “You do realize this is the Jewish nation you’re dealing with, right?”
Fifth, note that the Jews had a reputation for having one powerful God on their side! Haman’s advisers and his wife Jeresh warned him, “Since Mordecai is of Jewish origin, you cannot stand against him – you will surely come to ruin!” (7:13) Perhaps, if Haman had then confessed and renounced his plot against the Jews and had begged for mercy, might he have been spared?
6. Justice mollifies fury.
Sixth, after Haman was not spared, the king’s fury subsided. Justifiable fury about a wrong committed stands a better chance of subsiding after justice is done. Let us not overlook that that is why Jesus suffered such an unthinkably cruel death on a Roman cross – to satisfy our holy God’s justifiable fury over the wicked deeds of the race of humanity. As a result of Christ’s unfathomable (to us) sacrifice – his “unspeakable gift,” as Paul eloquently described it in 2 Corinthians 9:15 – we under grace have the privilege of knowing that God’s fury against us individually need not come upon us, after all! Even though we deserve that fury.
7. That’s not all, folks!
The book of Esther continues. We learn that it wasn’t enough relief or vindication just to dispose of Haman and to reverse his already-gone-out edict that the Jews be killed. Haman’s sons were executed. (In those days, it sometimes did not pay to be related to a thief, murderer, or treacheror!) Additionally, orders were given allowing Jews to assemble and to fight to protect themselves. So, they aggressively killed significant numbers of people known to be their enemies, in Susa and in outlying areas.
Furthermore, they were given the royal go-ahead to plunder the belongings of those they killed, but in two places it is noted that they “did not lay their hands on the plunder.”
How to do Purim and non-Jewish holidays. The resulting annual feast/celebration on days 14 and 15 of the month of Adar (now known as Purim) is described in Esther 9:22 as “days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor.” This seems a very wise and God-honoring way to observe holidays! Turkey dinners given through Jimmie Hale Mission or other food ministries. Toys for Tots. It would be good for families of faith to circle the wagons on this verse, Esther 9:22, examining our traditions to be sure we are living biblically.
Esther casts new light on “old wineskins.” In chapter 8, verse 17, we are told that “many people of other nationalities became Jews because fear of the Jews had seized them.” Many who saw the select, privileged, God-is-with-them nature of the Jewish nation hopped onto that bus! And why not? This does also paint a pretty clear picture to me why Jesus had such a monumental task, arriving on the scene, when He did, as a spiritual Messiah, not a military/political deliverer. The “old wineskins” He spoke about in Matthew 9:14-17 were old and established, indeed! With such a national history as the book of Esther, and all of the Old Testament, describes, how could the people and the Pharisees not be predisposed to expect that their deliver would be a king to reclaim power on earth? But, thanks be to God, Jesus reached many who were able to believe. Their eyes, minds, and hearts were opened to the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Definition of “good leader.” The very last sentence of Esther chapter 10 should not be overlooked. It says the upgrade of Mordecai’s rank (promiment in the palace; honored; renowned; powerful) happened “because he worked for the good of his people and spoke up for the welfare of all the Jews.” And that brings us back to the political discussions of our day: Work for the good of the people, and speak up. We need people and leaders working for good and speaking up – with honorable motivations, honest dealings, humility, and integrity. We need leaders whose words of true wisdom reach us as showers, that we would drink them in as the spring rain!* Then, we could begin to see our nation get somewhere better.
*See Job 29:21-24