Out of the Silence, Esther 4:1-14, 11/9/14

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Nov 112014
 

Rev. Jeff Chapman, Faith Presbyterian Church

1When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry; 2 he went up to the entrance of the king’s gate, for no one might enter the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth. 3 In every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and most of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.

4 When Esther’s maids 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 was happening and why. 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, explain it to her, and charge her to go to the king to make supplication to him and entreat him for her people.

 

9 Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said. 10 Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, 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—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.” 12 When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, 13 Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14 For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (Esther 4:4-14, NRSV)

The Babylonian exile was a period in Jewish history in the 6th century BC when the Babylonians conquered the ancient kingdom of Judah and took captive a number of the Jews, dragging them back to Babylon.  This exile continued until 539 BC when Persia, led by Cyrus the Great, conquered Babylon and allowed the Jewish exiles to return home to Jerusalem.  Many of the Jews at that time, however, opted not to go home.  These were people who had lived most, if not all of their lives in that area and it had become their home.  It was from among this group that there eventually came to be a young woman named Esther.

Esther was beautiful.  Aren’t all women named Esther beautiful?  Eventually her beauty caught the eye of the Persian king.  His name was Ahasuerus or, more commonly, Xerxes.  One day Xerxes had all the beautiful young women in the kingdom assembled in his court.  This was the ancient version of The Bachelor, only the women in this reality show had no choice in the matter.  You see, the king had just disposed of his first wife and was looking for a new queen.  Because Esther was fair and beautiful, she caught the king’s eye and immediately he presented her with the rose and promoted her to the best place in the king’s harem.  In the end, the king came to love Esther more than all the other women in his household and one day, without knowing of her Jewish heritage, Xerxes set the royal crown on her head, making her Queen of Persia.

 

Esther had a cousin named Mordecai.  He was more of a step-father, really, because when Esther had been orphaned Mordecai took her in and adopted her as his own daughter.  Not long after Esther had become queen, Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate one day and overheard a conversation between two of the king’s servants who had become so frustrated with the king that they were plotting his assassination.  Immediately, Mordecai told Esther who, in turn, told the king who, after discovering that the plot was indeed real, executed the two conspirators.  The whole affair was documented in the official records of the palace.

 

It was around that time when King Xerxes promoted a man named Haman to be the highest official in the land.  This was such a great position of authority that everybody else in the kingdom was instructed to bow down to Haman whenever he passed by.  When Haman went through the king’s gate, for instance, everybody present would prostrate themselves on the ground before him.  Everybody that is, but Mordecai.  Even when the other servants of the king told him he better get down on his knees, Mordecai would not bow.  This infuriated Haman, so much so that he determined to make it his mission in life to destroy not only Mordecai, but all of his people along with him.

 

After calculating that the time was right, Haman approached the king one day and made his case that the Jews within the kingdom practiced different laws and refused to adhere to the laws of the land.  In his view, this should not be tolerated.  In fact, Haman argued, the Jews should be eliminated.  Then, to show his commitment to this cause, Haman volunteered that he would be willing to give an enormous fortune to the royal treasury if he were given the responsibility of carrying out this genocide.  Scholars estimate that the fortune he offered may have been equal to two thirds of the annual income of the entire Persian Empire and that perhaps Haman planned to acquire such a large sum by confiscating the property and wealth of the Jews he was about to murder.[1] Adolf Hitler would have considered this a brilliant plan.  Tragically, so did King Xerxes.  It was a deal he simply couldn’t pass up and at once it was decreed that on the 13th day of the 12th month every Jew in the land of Persia would be executed.

 

As we can only imagine, when word of the decree got out to the public there was great mourning and despair among the Jewish community of that time.  When Esther receives word that something terrible has taken place, she sends for Mordecai to explain to her what has happened.  Mordecai, through a messenger, describes the situation to Esther, explaining to her that she is the only hope her people now have.  As the favored queen, she must go to the king and beg him to show mercy to her people.  Esther immediately reminds Mordecai that nobody in those days, not even the queen herself, just waltzed into the king’s presence to ask favors.  In fact, it was common knowledge that nobody could speak to the king unless he raised his golden scepter towards you indicating you could approach.  To approach the king uninvited would be to sign your own death warrant.  Mordecai is unmoved.  He reminds Esther that she is a Jew and that her life, as well as his, hangs in the balance.  She must go.  “If you keep silence at such a time as this,” Mordecai says, “relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish.  Who knows?  Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this?”[2]

 

In the end, Esther agrees.  She will go and she will beg the king to change his mind.  Before she does, however, Mordecai is to go and ask all the Jews to fast from food and drink for three days as an act of solidarity with her.  After that, she will approach the king.  “And if I perish,” she tells him, “then I perish.”

 

On the third day she does go.  She puts on her best royal robes and goes to stand in the inner court of the palace.  The king, who is there seated on his throne, notices her and, filled with favor for her, raises the golden scepter, inviting her to approach.  As she comes he tells her that she can make any request of him, any request up to half of his kingdom.  You see, it would have been highly unusual for Esther to have come to the court uninvited as she did, so the king must have sensed that she came with a pressing need.  Because he loves his queen, Xerxes wants to oblige.

 

Esther does make a request, just not the request we expected her to make.  “If it pleases the king,” she says, “before I give you my request will you first come to a banquet this evening that I have prepared and ask Haman to come along and join us.”  It’s an easy request and, naturally, the king obliges and summons Haman to the banquet.  During the feast that evening the king then asks Esther to now make her request.  But Esther, perhaps trying the king’s favor, begs his patience to allow her to postpone her request just one more day.  If the king and Haman would join her for dinner again tomorrow night, then she will definitely be ready to present her request.  Perhaps because the food was so good, the king once again obliges, unaware that his wife is not only a beauty but also a schemer.

 

Well, when Haman leaves the dinner party that night he’s in a great mood.  And why not?  He has just been invited back to a second evening of enjoying a private dining audience with the king and the queen.  Who else in the entire kingdom enjoys such privileges?  His mood, however, is quickly soured when on the way home he passes by the king’s gate and there is old Mordecai, still refusing to bow down before to him.  It’s a travesty, that this nobody Jew would refuse to show honor to a man who dines at the table with royalty.

 

Infuriated, Haman goes home, calls his wife and his friends together, and launches into a tirade about how all the prestige and honor he has attained are worth nothing as long as Mordecai the Jew continues to show him dishonor.  It taints everything for him.  Luckily for Haman, his wife and his friends have a solution.  “Don’t let Mordecai spoil another lovely dinner with the king and queen.  Go immediately and build gallows in our front yard.  Build them 75 feet high.  And then first thing in the morning go and get the king’s permission to hang Mordecai early in the day so that you can enjoy the festivities tomorrow night.”  Haman loves the idea and as soon as he gives the order to build the gallows he immediately feels much better about things.  We can only imagine how very well he slept that night.

 

King Xerxes, on the other hand, slept terribly.  In the middle of the night, having not slept a wink, he ordered his servants to bring him the official records of the palace.  Nothing like legal documents to put you to sleep!  As he’s reading, however, he comes across an account from several years back of a time when a long-forgotten peasant named Mordecai exposed a devious plot to assassinate the king.  It’s then and there that Xerxes realizes that he never took the opportunity to honor Mordecai for such a noble deed.  It’s an oversight that must be immediately corrected.  So, even though it’s still very early in the morning, the King asks his servants if any of his officials happen to be nearby in the palace court.  As it so happened, Haman had just arrived, eager to secure the king’s permission for a very special execution he has arranged for later that day.  At once, the king summons Haman to his bedside.

 

“Listen,” the king says to Haman, “What shall be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor?”  Immediately, Haman thinks to himself, “The king must be talking about me.  After all, who else would the king want to honor?  It all makes sense now.  I’m the most important and trusted official in the land.  Twice I’ve been invited to dinner with the king.  Now Xerxes wants to make sure everybody else knows how important I am to him.”  Oh, this is a great opportunity and Haman holds nothing back.  “If I were you, king,” he says, “I would honor this ‘special man’ of whom you speak by dressing him up in one of your very own royal robes and then putting him atop one of your very own royal horses.  Then, I would choose one of your noblest officials and ask that man to lead the horse carrying this very deserving man through the city square announcing as he goes, ‘This is what is done for a man the king especially wants to honor.’  If you’re asking me, your highness, that’s what I do for this ‘special person’ you have in mind.”

 

Haman can tell at once that Xerxes loves the idea.  “It’s perfect,” the king says.  “Absolutely perfect.  Let’s do it immediately.  So go quickly, Haman, take the royal robe and the royal horse just as you suggested, and put the robe on Mordecai, the Jew who sits at the edge of the king’s gate.  Do you know him?  Put the royal robe on him and then put him on the royal horse and then you, since you are one of my noblest officials, you lead him through the city square proclaiming aloud to all who are there, “This is what is done for a man the king especially wants to honor.”

 

Haman has no choice.  He had planned all along to leave the palace that morning to go and to summon Mordecai from the king’s gate but certainly not for this purpose.  As he goes, he realizes that there is no way that all this can end well.

 

That evening, after the parade through town has finished, the king’s servants go to summon Haman to the banquet which Esther has prepared.  During the feast, just as the wine has begun to flow freely, King Xerxes turns to his queen and asks if she is finally ready to make her request of him.  “Whatever it is I will grant it,” he reminds her, “up to half my kingdom!”  And wouldn’t you have loved to have been there to watch what happened next?

 

“O King,” Esther says between sips of wine, “if I have won your favor and if it pleases you to do so, spare my life, and the lives of my people.  That is my only request.  For we have been sold away to be destroyed.  If we had been sold as slaves, I would have held my tongue.  I would not have bothered you with this request.  But since have been sold to be murdered I must ask you for this one favor.”

 

“What?  Who?” the king demanded.  “Who did this to you and to your people?”

 

“He did it,” Esther answered.  “A foe and an enemy did this.  Wicked Haman is the one who has brought this about.”

 

At once the king exploded in anger.  He rose from the feast and charged into the palace garden, unsure of his next move.  Haman remained there and did the only thing he could do.  He threw himself on the couch where the queen was reclining and begged for his life.  At this point, she was his only hope.  When the king returned a moment later he couldn’t believe what he saw.  “Will you even molest the queen while I’m just around the corner!”  At once, Haman knew that his fate was sealed.

 

There was standing nearby a servant of the king who picked that very moment to mention to the king that Haman just happened to have freshly constructed some gallows in his front yard which he had prepared to use for Mordecai before he realized Mordecai would be preoccupied at a special royal parade.  “How convenient,” said the king.  “Take him and hang him there.”  And that is exactly what happened.

 

On that very day, while the body of Haman still hung from the gallows, King Xerxes determined to give the household of Haman to Esther who, in turn, gave it to her cousin Mordecai.  We can only wonder if he left the gallows in the front yard as a reminder.  Then, since it was in fact less than half his kingdom, the king honored Esther’s request and signed an edict sparing the Jews from extermination.  To boot, he then placed them in a position of authority over any enemies that stood against them.  Not content with simply saving their people, Esther and Mordecai ultimately then used their newly given authority to orchestrate the slaughter of over 75,000 of their old enemies, including Haman’s entire family.  As the story of Esther ends, she and Mordecai made a holiday, a day of feasting to celebrate their salvation, a holiday called Purim which is celebrated by Jews right up to today.

 

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What does one say about a story like this?  Where is God in such a story?  Seriously, where is he?  In fact, God is never mentioned.  Esther is the only book of the Bible where there is not even one single mention of God.  No one speaks to God.  God speaks to no one.  On the surface, God is literally absent from the entire story of Esther?

 

In rabbinic tradition, Esther’s name, which can be translated literally “I will hide”, is taken as a subtle message from God.[3]  Some have believed that God is hiding here, as God sometimes does.  Maybe his hiding represents divine judgment.  Maybe his hiding is meant to force his people to have faith.  We’re not told.  All we know is that God is not mentioned, that for some reason he is hiding.

 

Naturally, those of us who see this story through the lenses of faith have no trouble imagining God at work behind the scenes, manipulating Xerxes and Haman for his own purposes, placing Esther in the right position at the right time to work for the salvation of her people, giving courage to those who need courage and hard hearts those who deserve hard hearts.  Faith naturally leads us to these conclusions but how can we be sure?  How much here can be attributed to divine providence and how much should be attributed to coincidence and dumb luck?  The story itself never tells us.

 

In our own lives many of us ask these same questions.  As you look back over the years of your life and all the circumstances you have faced, where has God’s hand been at work behind the scenes?  Maybe you come here this morning wondering where in the world God has been in your life lately.  There are points along the way when it seems the perfect time for God to speak or act and yet God remains silent and still.  At other times, we like to believe that some thing or another was a “God thing”, or that in some hard situation God came and worked it all out, or that in looking back in retrospect we realize that we had been given a divine appointment.  Mordecai asked Esther to consider if perhaps she had been put on the throne for “such a time as this.”  The scriptures themselves often speak about things coming to pass in “the fullness of time”[4] as if they have all been prearranged by heaven.

 

So which is it?  Is God behind every movement and action in history, manipulating the strings like a puppeteer?  Or is God standing at a distance letting things play out as they may in our lives, perhaps intervening only occasionally if at all.  Can we ever know for certain when God’s hand is at work?  Maybe we’re not supposed to know.  In the end it’s a bit unsettling, this story of Esther which can so often resemble the story of our own lives.  Does the silence of God necessarily mean the absence of God?  The story of Esther ends without explicitly giving us the answer.

 

I don’t pretend to know how God may have spoken to you this morning.  I hope he has.  I believe he can.  Though not mentioned by name in this story, I do believe God is present in this story, even at its retelling this morning.  Are you open to what he might want to say to you?

 

Perhaps you have been convicted by the ignorance of Xerxes or the pride of Haman and so, in turn, been warned about the consequences that come to those who refuse to change their hearts?  Or, perhaps you have been inspired by the courage of Esther, or emboldened by the convictions of Mordecai, sent out now from here this morning ready to take some daring new step following God’s lead?  Maybe you have begun to ask yourself if you have been placed in some position or another, in some relationship or another, in some opportunity or another, for such a time as this.  Or, maybe you have been given the opportunity to examine the circumstances of your own life and ask if perhaps God, though silent, has been at work in more ways and times than you ever before imagined?  Just because God was not mentioned in the story does not mean that God has not spoken to you this morning out of this story.

 

One thing I do know is that nobody in this story is innocent.  Even Esther and Mordecai show themselves, in the end, capable of horrible spite and vengeance.  Nobody here is deserving of God’s salvation.  And yet, Esther and Mordecai belonged to a people, the Jews, to whom God had long before promised his favor.  They had been chosen by God, not out of entitlement but out of grace.  And when God chose them God promised never to forsake them, even if they forsook him.

 

In the end, generations of Jews following Esther believed that though God was silent in her story he was not absent.  In fact, the feast of Purim first instituted by Esther and Mordecai continues to be celebrated right up to today in observant Jewish communities.  As some of you may know, Purim is, in fact, the most raucous, most playful, most subversive of all Jewish feasts.  It’s the Jewish version of Mardi Gras, a carnival when all the laws and authority structures are undermined for one wild day.[5]  As people remember the story of Esther, as they face the troubling silence of God in tension with the wonderful ways the Jews were nonetheless delivered, as they remember other times in history, most notably the Holocaust, when there was no Esther given for such a time as this, as they remember all this mystery, and this trouble, all these unanswered questions, in the face of it all they celebrate.

 

And I would ask you, do we not do something quite similar in our gathering this morning?  We live in a world where so often God seems silent.  There are so many unanswered questions in my life and, I suspect, in your life if you’re honest about it.  What is divine providence and what is happenstance?  How can we ever be sure in the moment?

 

And yet, in the midst of it all we know that we also belong to a people, the church, to whom God has long before, through Christ, promised his favor.  We have been chosen by God, not out of entitlement but out of grace.  And when God chose us, at the cross and at the empty tomb, God promised us, in Christ, never to leave us or forsake us.  Which at the very least means this, that even during the darkest seasons of life, seasons when we may not hear or see God anywhere, we gather together anyway Sunday morning, the morning of our deliverance, to celebrate in the face of the mystery.

 

We may not know where God is in all of this.  Our hope is that he is.  Our promise is that someday we will see that he was.

 

Amen.

 

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The Next Step

A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application

Re-read the passage from Esther 4:1-14.  What stands out to you?

 

Who do you most admire in this story?  Who do you least admire?

 

Is there anything about this story that you wish would have turned out differently?  Why?

 

Mordecai tells Esther that perhaps she has found herself in this position of queen “for such a time as this?”  What do you think he means by this?

 

God is not mentioned even once in the entire story of Esther.  What do you make of this?

 

It’s been said that just because God is silent does not mean that God is absent.  Do you agree?  Have you found this to be true in your own life?  Are you able to go through seasons in life when God is silent and still retain hope and faith that he has not left you alone?

 

Some people imagine that God’s hand is at work behind every situation or circumstance in life.  Other people tend to think that a lot of life is simply chance or coincidence.  How do you feel about it?

Can you look back on a time in your life when you did not believe God’s hand was at work in your life at the time but in retrospect you see that it was?  How can you be sure it was God’s hand?

 



[1] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 4, edited by Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 813.

[2] Esther 4:14 (NRSV)

[3] The Renovaré Life With God Bible study notes, p. 704.   

[4] See, for instance, Galatians 4:4, Mark 1:15, Ephesians 1:10.

[5] Renovaré Life With God Bible, study notes page 705.