Esther 9 & 10 - Salutary Lessons All Round
Read Esther 9 and 10
We are coming to the end of this saga in the life of exiles in Persia. It has not been impressive in many ways, though it has also been a lesson in divine providence in preserving His people, however backslidden or wayward they be in the face of apparently great odds. Here in chapter 9 and the few verses of chapter 10 we have the record of the day the extermination of the Jews was to take place. By any measure it is one of the goriest of Old Testament incidents. These chapters also explain to us the origins of the Feast of Purim (i.e. ‘lots’). What do we make of it all? How does it square with New Testament teaching? What do we learn for ourselves today?
1. There is a warning here to the world that it is dangerous to touch the Lord’s people
These Jews of the exile were not bright and shining lights in that society for the Lord, whose name is never mentioned by them or about them. Nevertheless they were – however tenuously – among the Lord special people. Whatever the poor state in their religion it was dangerous for the enemy to touch them. Our mind goes back to the incident in 2 Kings in which Elisha is called names by some youths. It was a deep disrespect for the Lord’s servant. Elisha turns round and pronounces a curse, whereupon two female bears come out of the woods and maul 42 youths (2 Kings 2:23-24). Even what appeared strength in numbers did not prevent the solemn outcome. Here we have a case in Esther. Whatever else we make of the detail of the story, one profound lesson must be that it is dangerous for the world and worldly powers to threaten and persecute the people of God.
This is not to say there will be no such thing as martyrdom or severe persecution experienced. In the New Testament Peter speaks of the ‘fiery trial’ that will come upon the Christian: “Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy” (1 Peter 4:12-13).
We feel great enmity and opposition in our day; outnumbered and feeble. The enemies of the gospel may feel very strong. But what is that to the Lord? Now, in our New Testament situation the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but spiritual. Nevertheless these spiritual weapons are “mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds; casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ; And having in a readiness to revenge all disobedience, when your obedience is fulfilled” (2 Corinthians 10:4-6). What are the mighty weapons for us? The gospel and prayer; the gospel and prayer. Of course it is true that the enemy still open themselves to the terrible judgement of God. It is perilous for men or nations to oppose the truth of God and the people of God.
2. There is a warning here to the Church concerning the exercise of mercy
It is the request of Esther in response to the King. She requests another day of slaughter and the hanging of the already dead bodies of Haman’s sons on the gallows (13-14). This seems to be a request for over-zealous revenge. It seems a request not tinged with mercy. There is no evidence that this was required by the Lord, nor that they had sought the Lord about it, nor is it really consistent with mercy. Remember they had already ‘defended themselves’ the day appointed for their own slaughter. It seems a ‘black mark.’ Believers should not leave ‘black marks’ like this (the Crusades?), nor simply act in the way of the world. It is true that we must be careful not to push this too far, for they were justified in defending themselves, and they did not take spoil: they were restrained to that extent.
We do have to be careful not to drive too hard a wedge between the Old Testament and the New Testament. However, it is also clear that the New Testament ethic is more ‘spiritual.’ It is true that the physical survival of the Church was in a way an issue here. Yet the clear New Testament ethic which will drive us is surely this: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45).
There is continuity and advance between Old Testament and New Testament. Of course we must also be clear that such Old Testament incidents do warn us of divine judgement too. People have to realise that the New Testament says much more about hell than the Old Testament. Eternal punishment – far worse than any form of death in this life – awaits all the impenitent and unbelieving as they pass from this life (Matthew 25:41-46).
3. There is joy to be found in overcoming the enemies of God’s people
Whatever reservation we may feel about the joy these Jews expressed here at what they inflicted on their enemy (and remember they were the enemy of the covenant people), there is joy in overcoming the kingdom of the evil one. I’m sure we would all have far more joy about us if day by day we saw victories in our own lives over our sin and spiritual lethargy. I am sure we would all experience more joy if we actually gave ourselves more consistently to prayer and worship. I am sure we would experience more joy if there were, in response to our prayers and witness, with the blessing of the Lord, souls converted in our congregation week by week. Christ has overcome Satan, but we are to resist him and put him to flight in our lives too. He will not have the victory (as the enemies of Esther’s day would not have the triumph over even the weak people of God). But what joy there is when he is evidently put to flight! The truth is that there is perhaps so little real joy with us because he so often gets the upper hand. So, let us be incessant in resisting him and overcoming. This is a spirit encouraged by the Lord in the letters to the Churches (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21). And it will produce more joy in the Lord. “The humble also shall increase their joy in the LORD, and the poor among men shall rejoice In the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 29:19).
4. There is a folly attached to introducing rites and ceremonies without the express commandment of God
The chapters introduce us to the Feast of Purim. Now, there is an important principle here, and again, as with so much in this story, it is a ‘what not to do’ lesson. Did God require this Feast? Was it His express will that there be such a Feast? There is no evidence of that. Here is another case of people introducing some ceremony (like ‘Christmas’ and Easter) which has no warrant directly from the Lord. It seemed good to these people. We can understand that. We don’t come down on them too heavily. Yet, it was without warrant and it is no surprise that (a) it is not mentioned elsewhere in Old Testament or New Testament; and (b) that it never became any part of the Temple ritual. The Church has to be careful not to introduce any element in its worship which is not appointed by the Lord and His revealed will.
Unfortunately we are in our generation in a highly confused state in the area of worship. Elements are introduced which have no basis in divine appointment. Apart from specific ‘festivals’ like Christmas or Easter, there are things like hymns and drama and musical bands and performances in worship services. We are to rejoice in the simple New Testament pattern. We ought to seek only to have what is warranted in the Word, though it may be against the trend. But we remember of course, that this does not ensure a pure spirit of worship; it does not ensure our hearts are right; it does not warrant pride at thinking ourselves better than others. Yet we will seek to avoid as far as possible what is merely man-centred in worship.
5. There is preservation of the Church notwithstanding the apparent weight of worldly power against it
The story of Esther ought to motivate us to faithfulness in our age. At the beginning of the series we spoke of the flaw in these people being half-hearted. This book addresses half-heartedness among the people of God. It encourages them to believe that the gates of hell will finally not prevail against Christ’s Church (Matthew 16:18). But we must search ourselves as to personal faithfulness. As someone has commented, and we leave of the study of the book with this: “The message the book of Esther leaves us is not one of carnival fun. Rather it is a message that should lead us to confess our gratitude, for we see God still gathering His 144,000 [the elect]. Satan loses the match, as all the successors of Haman go down to defeat. But the accommodating attitude of a church that has ‘arrived,’ a church that tries to turn religion into a private matter, will also have to come to an end.” Yes, how thankful, for all our failings, that Christ will finally triumph!
6. There is a final lesson in the over-ruling providence of God (10:1-3)
There is no doubt that in the context of the captives who remained in Persia Mordecai was used by God to ensure their protection. He did seek the good and peace of his people (3). We are not surprised that he was an honoured man in the end. Of course it is one thing to be mentioned in the annals of the worldly nations (2). More important is having one’s name written in the Lamb’s Book of Life (Revelation 21:27)! If the commendation of Mordecai can be received even in a compromised situation, this should stir the people of God up to greater consistency and reliance upon the Holy Spirit of God so that they may be even more useful for the Lord’s cause in their generation. The professing people of God should desire to be the harbingers of great good and blessing as Christ’s instruments on His people and in His cause in the world.
It is interesting that Ahasuerus and Mordecai are mentioned in the final chapter, and not the one whose name this book bears. However, it is after all a ‘for all their faults’ saga. And we would miss the point if we failed to recognise what truly is ‘behind’ this chapter: “It speaks…,” says one writer, “to those of us who are already experiencing the bitter consequences of such worldliness. It assures us that we are not too late! As we repent of our sins, God is still able to take them up and somehow bring good out of them. He is able to work out the whole situation for His glory and our blessing.”
The final lesson must be that He reigns. This never excuses an attitude or practice of indolence or worldliness on the part of the professed people of God. Such things indeed must be repented! However, it does provide this perennial comfort and assurance: The Lord God over-rules all in His sovereign providence so that notwithstanding our weak efforts, He will accomplish all His pleasure. That is an over-arching lesson of this book.