Stand Down

| Esther 4:1-17

Week of May 6, 2018

The Point:  Surrendering to God leads to greater things.

Esther’s Defining Moment:  Esther 4:1-17.

[1] When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and he cried out with a loud and bitter cry. [2] He went up to the entrance of the king’s gate, for no one was allowed to enter the king’s gate clothed in sackcloth. [3] And in every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree reached, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and many of them lay in sackcloth and ashes. [4] When Esther’s young women and her eunuchs came and told her, the queen was deeply distressed. She sent garments to clothe Mordecai, so that he might take off his sackcloth, but he would not accept them. [5] Then Esther called for Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs, who had been appointed to attend her, and ordered him to go to Mordecai to learn what this was and why it was. [6] Hathach went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate, [7] and Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and the exact sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king’s treasuries for the destruction of the Jews. [8] Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther and explain it to her and command her to go to the king to beg his favor and plead with him on behalf of her people. [9] And Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said. [10] Then Esther spoke to Hathach and commanded him to go to Mordecai and say, [11] “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law–to be put to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter so that he may live. But as for me, I have not been called to come in to the king these thirty days.” [12] And they told Mordecai what Esther had said. [13] Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. [14] For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” [15] Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai, [16] “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” [17] Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.   [ESV]

“In a sense, the whole Book of Esther is about the one character who never appears on stage, never speaks, and is never actually spoken to: God. Nowhere is that more true than in chapter 4, where Esther must place her life in the hands of the unseen, unheard, and unrecognized God. The fate of the whole community lies in the balance. Here is how they responded – but notice what is missing: And in every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree reached, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and many of them lay in sackcloth and ashes [4:3]. The previous chapter ended with the city of Susa thrown into confusion by Haman’s plot. Bad news traveled fast, and it wasn’t long before the Jewish community throughout the empire knew the whole story. They responded by putting on sackcloth and ashes as a sign of mourning, with loud cries, fasting, and weeping. Once again, though, we need to be on the lookout for what the narrator doesn’t tell us, as well as what he does. What normally accompanies such fasting, mourning, sackcloth, and ashes? It is prayer. For all the sackcloth and ashes and weeping, there is no mention here of prayer.

Mordecai’s Plan.  Mordecai too mourned the decree [4:1-2]. Even though the empire had turned against him, Mordecai was still carefully law-abiding in everything (except bowing to Haman). He didn’t enter the king’s gate dressed in sackcloth because that was forbidden under Persian law. Yet instead of crying out to God, Mordecai’s first thought was to appeal to the king through Esther. He couldn’t go and speak to her directly, sequestered as she was, so he went to the entrance of the king’s gate in his sackcloth and ashes, knowing that word would get back to Esther of his condition. And so it did [4:4-5]. Esther’s maids and eunuchs brought her the news that Mordecai was in mourning, and Esther was greatly troubled. Yet she didn’t catch on to the seriousness of the situation immediately. Her first response was to send clothes to Mordecai to take the place of his sackcloth, as if her only concern was to stop her relative making an exhibition of himself, not to deal with whatever issues were causing his distress. Only after Mordecai had refused her clothes did she send her servants to find out why he was mourning. Notice how isolated Esther had become from the rest of the covenant community. Every Jew from India to Ethiopia was mourning and lamenting Haman’s edict, but Esther had no clue. Esther was not allowed to remain comfortably in the dark for long. Through her messenger, Mordecai informed her of the details of the plot [4:6-8]. As in chapter 2, Mordecai’s information sources were impeccable: he could both tell Esther everything that went on, down to the exact size of the bribe Haman offered for permission to destroy the Jews, and provide her with a copy of the written text of the edict. But unlike in chapter 2, Mordecai was now powerless to intervene to foil the plot. His purpose in passing the information to Esther was so that she might go to the king to seek his mercy and plead with him for her people. The language he adopts of beg his favor and plead with him is precisely the language of the prayer that would normally accompany fasting and sackcloth [compare Dan. 9:3]. Instead of seeking God’s favor and pleading with him for deliverance, by means of prayer, it seems that Mordecai was placing his hopes on an intervention at the human level with King Ahasuerus.

Point and Counterpoint.  Esther’s response to Mordecai’s first request was neutral. She didn’t say whether she would or wouldn’t go to the king. However, she underlined the risk that such a strategy would involve for her personally [4:9-11]. According to custom, visitors had to be summoned into the presence of King Ahasuerus; no one could appear unannounced. The penalty for violating this law was death, unless the king extended his scepter in welcome. Everyone knew this, even people from the outlying provinces [4:11]. The implication of Esther’s reference to these outsiders was, “How much more should you, Mordecai, as a civil servant, know the seriousness of what you are asking!” What is more, Esther hadn’t been summoned into the royal presence for thirty days – not a good sign, since doubtless the king had not been sleeping alone. So Esther didn’t actually refuse to go, but by reminding Mordecai of the likely consequences, she implicitly asked him to reconsider his request. Mordecai was not so easily deterred. His second request to Esther was even stronger [4:12-14]. He warned Esther that she should not count on her comfortably isolated position in the royal palace. She too was part of the Jewish community, and her fate was intertwined with theirs. If they were to die, she would likely die too. But the Jewish community would not, in fact, die. Even if Esther were to keep silent, help and deliverance would come from somewhere else. If she didn’t act to help her community, though, she would be judged for failing to do her part and would suffer the consequences. But if she did intervene, things might perhaps turn out well after all. As Mordecai said, Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this? [4:14]. Because we are familiar with the end of the story, we are apt to see the answer to this question as obvious. Would Esther be in such a position of royalty if God had not raised her up? But given the nature of Esther’s rise to prominence through an ethically doubtful marriage to a pagan and the concealing of everything distinctly Jewish about her lifestyle for the past five or six years, the question is real. It is as if someone who has risen up the corporate ladder by shady manipulation of the books, along with neglecting his family and any connection with the church, were to be asked to stand up at a board meeting for his faith over a crucial issue. His response might well be, “Could God really use someone like me after everything I’ve done – or failed to do?” The surprising answer in Esther’s case is yes! God’s providence works through all kinds of sinners (which, after all, is the only material he has available). In his speech, though, Mordecai performed a remarkable feat: he made a request to Esther that was everywhere grounded in the reality and necessity of God’s intervention, but in the process he completely avoided mentioning that fact. Consider: from where else would help arise if Esther didn’t step forward? Mordecai had no plan B, nor did anyone else. There were no other highly placed Jews who could intervene, and a secular universe would have no interest in or infallible commitment to the preservation of the Jewish people. If there were no God, why should the Amalekites not win in the end through the agency of Haman the Agagite? A meaningless world would have no guarantee of a happy ending. The future of Mordecai’s people was assured only if the God who had inextricably linked His name to His people in the ancient covenants would provide deliverance for them for the sake of His name. But instead of stating that fact as the ground of confidence, Mordecai said vaguely, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place [4:14]. In addition, if Esther were to remain silent and the Jews were nonetheless delivered, who would bring the lethal consequences upon Esther of which verse 14 warned? Was Mordecai threatening reprisals from the Jewish community? It is possible that this was his intention, but surely it is more likely that the judgment he envisaged would have come directly from God. Once again, though, the divine name remained uninvoked. Third, when Mordecai said, Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this? [4:14] he was arguing that there is a meaningful course of history. But who can provide such meaning, except for God Himself. Mordecai was saying essentially what Joseph said to his brothers in Genesis 45:5: God sent me before you to preserve life – but once again Mordecai does not mention God. God is the unexpressed presupposition of every one of Mordecai’s thoughts. The theological presupposition remains constantly unexpressed, a rhetorical strategy that might make sense if Mordecai had been addressing a pagan audience who didn’t share his religious perspectives. However, he was speaking to Esther, a child of the covenant people, who ought to share these presuppositions. He was asking her to put her life on the line in response to his case. If ever there was a time to mention God’s name, surely it was now. But again we have silence.

Esther’s Choice.  Esther now had a clear and life-changing choice to make. She could no longer live in the blurred shadows of two worlds. Up until now, she had been living as an undercover believer. Inwardly she still regarded herself as part of the covenant community, but outwardly she had become entirely separated from it. To continue to do so was no longer possible. One option would have been to take her privatized faith a step further and deny her connection to the Jewish people completely, trusting the empire to protect her against itself. The only other alternative was to identify herself publicly with the covenant community in its hour of need and risk her life in an attempt to save her people. Neither option held out much hope. If she appeared uninvited before the king, she stood a good chance of finding herself hanging. On the other hand, if she trusted in the empire and survived alone, it would mean complete and final separation from her community and from any source of meaning in her life, a slow and lingering death of a different kind. Faced with these unpalatable alternatives, Esther made her choice [4:15-17]. Esther agreed to show solidarity with the Jewish community. A mark of this new connection was that she asked Mordecai to gather the Jews in Susa together to fast for her for three days [4:16]. She and her maids would do likewise, and then she would go in to see the king. Now at least the whole community would be involved in this appeal, silently rooting for Esther to succeed. Esther’s fast makes sense only as a community appeal to God to do the miraculous and enable her to find favor with King Ahasuerus. Fasting in the Bible is a means of expressing sorrow over sin and dependence upon God. Community solidarity would do Esther no good without divine intervention on her side. Under the circumstances, therefore, one might have anticipated her to utter a prayer of the kind Nehemiah offered along with his fasting and mourning, seeking success and favor in the sight of the king [Neh. 1:4-11]. If ever there was a time to pray such a prayer, this was it. But once again, we have silence with no mention of God. Esther’s only recorded words were I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish [4:16]. The Hebrew construction makes it clear that she is not talking about death simply as one possible outcome of her obedience to Mordecai, but as an almost inevitable outcome of choosing that course. Esther’s speech is a statement of resignation to the inevitable, rather than one of robust faith.

Fasting.  In biblical times, fasting was a normal means of expressing contrition for sin and dependence upon God in the face of difficulty, whether personal or national. It was also a statement that there is more to this life than mere physical existence. Fasting continues to be an appropriate response for God’s people to personal or corporate problems. When we face overwhelming difficulties in our lives, or in our churches, it is appropriate for us to fast and seek the Lord’s face [Deut. 9:18; Ezra 10:6; Neh. 1:4]. Sometimes it is good for us to fast as individuals, and sometimes as a community of God’s people, reminding ourselves that our normal state of life in this world is not fullness but hunger, and appealing for God to grant us what we so desperately need. We should not just appeal to God implicitly, however, through abstaining from food, as if fasting were simply another technique to accomplish our desires. Rather, we should appeal to the Great King explicitly through humble and persistent prayer, seeking His favor more fervently than a merely human solution to life’s problems. Again, fasting can be an aid to this. If we find that we are forgetful to pray for a particular need, fasting will remind us to pray over and over through the alarm clock of our hunger pangs! If we find ourselves short of time for prayer, fasting creates space to pray in the time we would otherwise have spent eating. So why do we not fast? Perhaps it is because we have comfortably isolated ourselves from the grim realities of the world around us. The Jewish community was not fasting either until the beginning of chapter 4. They didn’t see the need to fast while life was going well for most of them. Being assimilated into the empire, to a greater or lesser degree, was a successful strategy. But in an instant, their world was turned upside down. Or, more accurately, their perception of the world was suddenly re-oriented in line with reality. The empire didn’t suddenly become a hostile place at that point. Rather, the latent hostility that was always lurking just below the surface broke out against them, and so they fasted. Even when most of her compatriots had begun to fast, though, Esther herself was still oblivious of their danger and need. Living in the king’s palace, she was comfortably isolated from her community and either didn’t know or didn’t care what was happening to her people. It was only when Mordecai brought the reality of the threat home to her that she then joined her people in a communal fast. Esther’s actions raise serious questions for each of us to answer. Am I still blind to the true nature of the world and the plight of many of God’s people around me? Do I know enough about what is going on in the world to mourn and lament the situation of God’s persecuted people? Often we do not know the burdens of our brothers and sisters in the church well enough or care about them deeply enough to fast and pray. We are so blinded by our own good lives that we neither hear nor heed the cries of God’s people. If our eyes are opened to the true nature of our world, then surely we will find plenty of reasons to fast and cry out to God. In fact, our actions will reveal whom we regard as our true community. When those around us in school or at work mock Christianity and we remain silent, we deny that we are part of God’s people by our silence, effectively declaring instead that the world is our true community. When we judge ourselves and others according to the world’s values of what is fashionable and desirable, we declare that the world and not the people of God is our true community. What do our speech and our silence say about who our people are? By itself, however, all the fasting in the world would accomplish nothing for God’s covenant people in Persia. What they needed was a mediator. They needed someone who was willing and able to go and plead their case where they could not go, into the presence of the king. They could not appear in the king’s presence to seek mercy for themselves; someone else had to do it for them. Esther therefore had to act as well as to fast. She needed to take her life in her hands, risking everything for her people. She did so without any explicit promises from God to protect her, or to bring about a successful conclusion to her mission. There was no voice from heaven commanding Esther to act. Yet at another level, Esther’s success was guaranteed. God had committed Himself to maintain a people for Himself, not so that they could be comfortable, but so that they could bring Him glory. No matter what sinful paths had led Esther to where she was, she was undeniably now in a position to give God glory by publicly identifying with her people and, if necessary, laying down her life through that identification. She could glorify God by perishing as well as by convincing the king. It was up to God how to glorify Himself through Esther’s obedience, whether by delivering the people through her or allowing her to be martyred in His service, but he would be glorified one way or another. It is the same for us, when we step out in faith, however weak and trembling. We cannot know ahead of time how God will choose to use us. He may heal our diseases, transform our breaking marriages, and plant thriving ministries through us. Or He may sustain us in obedient submission to Him as our earthly hopes are dashed and our lives poured out for apparently little purpose. Either way, though, we have the guarantee that He will use even our faint faith as the means of bringing glory to Himself. With this assurance we can add to Esther’s cry? “If I perish, I perish – simply let me perish in a way that brings glory to God.”  [Duguid, pp. 45-59].

 Questions for Discussion:

  1. What is lacking on the part of Mordecai and the Jewish people in verses 1-3? What do you think the narrator is telling us about the spiritual condition of the people?
  2. Describe the actions of both Mordecai and Esther in these verses. What positive and negative character traits do you see in both people? How is this passage a turning point in the book of Esther?
  3. In this passage we have an event of major importance to the Jewish people. An edict has gone out that will result in the total annihilation of the Jewish people in all of the Persian empire. If ever there was a time to mention God’s name, surely it was now. If ever there was a time to pray to the covenant God of the Jewish nation, it was now. But once again, we have silence with no mention of God. Yet in the midst of this silence, we see God faithfully at work to preserve His people. What do you make of this silence? What is the narrator trying to tell us? Duguid writes: “God’s providence works through all kinds of sinners.” How do you see that truth in your own life? How has God worked out His providential plan for your life even in the midst of your sinful silence?

References:

Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Mervin Breneman, NAC, B & H Publishers.

Esther & Ruth, Iain Duguid, REC, P & R Publishing.

Esther, Karen Jobes, Zondervan.