Esther 1:1&2 “This is what happened during the time of Xerxes, the Xerxes who ruled over 127 provinces stretching from India to Cush: At that time King Xerxes reigned from his royal throne in the citadel of Susa, and in the third year of his reign he gave a banquet for all his nobles and officials.”
The events described in the book of Esther took place in Persia almost 500 years before the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is the only book in the Bible where everything happens in Persia, far from the land of promise. Babylon is about 600 miles east of Israel, and Susa, in what today we know as Iran, is almost 300 miles further east of Babylon. During the fifth century conquered Israel had been removed to Babylon and was absorbed into the vast Persian Empire. It was the largest empire the world had ever seen. It covered Arabia, Libya, the Sudan, parts of Egypt and Ethiopia, Israel, Lebanon, the Jordan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Turkey, 127 provinces in all. The Chinese Empire at the same time was vast but it was smaller than the Persian Empire. It was administered by an army of civil servants and it survived for about 200 years. It was finally conquered by Alexander the Great.
The Persian Empire was the kingdom of man. Old Testament Christians had constantly defied God. Worldly people, they refused to love and serve the Lord even though he sent them prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel who urged them to change their ways. God made the peril of refusing to obey him spectacularly clear to his people, “The city of Jerusalem and its Temple will be destroyed. You will be carried off as a nation of slaves into exile in Babylon.” They disdained this warning and placed their hope of freedom in forming a military alliance with countries like Egypt. However, from the year of their first defeat in 597 and especially in 586 when Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed, the population of the city and it surrounding towns was taken far off into captivity. In Babylon the people of God were a servile underclass for sixty years admiring from afar their great leader the prophet Daniel. Then in 538 the conqueror of Babylon, Cyrus the Mede, issued a decree allowing the various captive peoples to return to their own nations. Hoever, there was a minimal response amongst the Jews. It became evident that Daniel had been one of the lone voices of Jehovahism during his years of leadership. Few Old Testament Christians ever returned to Jerusalem under Ezra and Nehemiah.
What happened to the Jews who stayed in Babylon? The book of Esther is a window on their lives, giving us this vivid example of how they were surviving far from Jerusalem. Weak in faith they were not doing well; they suffered discrimination; they were considered second class citizens; they were intermarrying with the pagans around them. Integration seemed the way ahead; the salt was losing its savour. They were increasingly behaving like the people who surrounded them, retaliating, seeking vengeance, and inordinately taken up with the attraction of physical beauty. There was little desire to return to the land of promise, in fact a number had moved further away from it, 300 miles to Susa.
I believe that the situation confronting the people of God in those days has a number of parallels with what the church of Jesus Christ is facing today in our land, and across much of this continent. Many Europeans are weak Christians, conscious that we live in a world where God has been marginalized and so ignored, hearing increasingly louder rumblings of opposition because of the distinct convictions which we hold concerning Jesus Christ as the only begotten Son of God and the only way to God. What hope is there for us? What lies in the future? Can we survive when we are surrounded by anti-Christian forces and powers? All the layers of government, the media, the press, publishing houses, education at every level, high life and low life is in their pockets. How are we going to cope? One great message of this book of Esther is that God has pledged himself to protect his people always. So what becomes the basis of our future hope as believers in what’s been dubbed a ‘post-Christian’ situation?
At the very end of the book we read these encouraging words, “The king’s edict granted the Jews in every city the right to assemble and protect themselves . . . For the Jews it was a time of happiness and joy, gladness and honour. In every province and in every city, wherever the edict of the king went, there was joy and gladness among the Jews, with feasting and celebrating. And many people of other nationalities became Jews because fear of the Jews had seized them” (Ezra 8:11&16), in other words, at the end of this book the people of God are enjoying protection and the right to assemble for worship. This is where this story is going to take us. Old Testament Christians are being honoured; they are celebrating, and even enjoying a period of success in evangelism because many Persians are converting to faith in the Lord. That was the future for the people of God in those days, and it will be our future too as we are faithful and as God works together all things for our good. This book tells us how God accomplished all of this.
1. THE HEART OF KING XERXES WAS IN GOD’S HANDS.
One of the most elaborate and lengthy parties the world has ever seen took place in the court of the Persian King Ahasuerus better known by his Greek name Xerxes. His grandfather was Cyrus the Great and his father was Darius. There in his citadel in Susa he asssembled all the good and great of the land, his nobles and officials, the military leaders of Persia and Media, the princes, and the nobles of the provinces. For six months we are told “he displayed the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendour and glory of his majesty” in one unending banquet broken only by sleep. Then he held a week-long banquet for all the people, “from the least to the greatest” (v.5) with the offer of free drinks and no strings attached. This was held in the royal gardens. We are told, “The garden had hangings of white and blue linen, fastened with cords of white linen and purple material to silver rings on marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and other costly stones. Wine was served in goblets of gold, each one different from the other, and the royal wine was abundant, in keeping with the king’s liberality. By the king’s command each guest was allowed to drink in his own way, for the king instructed all the wine stewards to serve each man what he wished” (vv. 6-8).
So it was a society just like our own, of conspicuous consumption, where the rich and powerful had every thing they desired, sustained by a vast underprivileged underclass. Drinking wine and spirits was considered utterly indispensable for having a good time. Men had all power and authority with women the second class citizens. During this feast the women were having their own banquet away from the drunken men, but then the inebriated king commanded his wife Vashti to leave the women and come to display her beauty to his drinking buddies. This was no ‘request’, it was an order from the throne. Seven powerful men within the government of the king took the command to the queen. They are all named, in fact they are denoted in the Hebrew ‘the seven eunuchs’, and later they are referred to as the men who served before the face of the king, his inner cabinet. Vashti was no beautiful country girl chosen by Xerxes after he had seen her win the Miss Persia competition. She was the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar, a woman who considered herself the legitimate heir to the throne, with more right to it than her husband, and Vashti simply rejected Xerxes’ order. The enunuchs returned empty handed. Evidently there was some dignity and modesty in the royal palace after sixty years of Daniel’s presence.
Yet that stand for purity did not result in Vashti being honoured by the world. You often hear of Christians resisting worldly pressures in their jobs and businesses and nevertheless ending up as the managing director. Maybe that can happen, but here Vashti took this stand, defied the king, and as a result her office as Queen of the Persian Empire came to an end. She was divorced and dumped by Xerxes. It was a message to all the women of the country not to get uppity or what happened to Vashti would happen to them too. Let the women know their place as utterly subservient to their husbands. That is the message agreed on unanimously by the very smartest men in Persia. Wasn’t it a needy and blind society?
That is the sick scene with which the book of Esther begins. Let us remember that Christians have to serve the Lord not because we think we’ll get something from it, but we serve him because it is right, serve him for absolutely nothing at all. We have to live modestly and quietly for possible loss. So here the tone of the book is set. If a native born Persian of such rank is dismissed from her marriage and influence for a righteous stand what hope can there be for aliens and Christians who say no to sinful pressures from the top?
Xerxes is a man to be feared. He is rather a shadowy figure but one thing we know about him, which we are assured of in the book of Proverbs, in the opening verse of chapter twenty one. It is this, that, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.”
2. GOD’S PLAN WAS TO USE THE SINFUL DIVORCE TO BRING BLESSING ON THE PEOPLE OF GOD.
So here is Emperor Xerxes, king over 127 provinces, ruling from his royal throne, a monster of unchallengeable leadership, an absolute tyrant in whose presence his servants tiptoed as if they were walking on eggshells. He was the supreme authority in the whole empire, the mightiest man in the world. Whatever he decrees must be done; this bully, so full of himself, has constrained these weary nobles, officials and military leaders to make approving noises for six whole months in his hearing at the sight of all his possessions and fire power. When he swallows yet another glass of wine no one says, “Now you’ve had enough to drink.” If his own wife dares to challenge his authority then it is all over as she is concerned. She’s kicked out of the marriage bed. The man is a vile and godless egomaniac but I am saying this, that God’s plan for his people’s safety, security and growth embraces king Xerxes and all his henchmen. The vacancy for the new queen is going to be filled by an Old Testament Christian named Esther, and as queen she will be the deliverer of her people. The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord.
We are affirming that God is accomplishing his plan for his creation. At Esther’s time it was that the Seed of the Woman was going to come. At our time God’s plan is that all the elect of God are going to be saved and that Jesus Christ shall return in power and great glory. Nothing shall thwart God’s plan for our own individual lives as his servants.
Let me illustrate that in considering the example of Job who went through a terrible time in which he lost his business, his children, his health and his reputation. The bedrock of his comfort was his confidence that nothing happened to him by accident or through the devil alone. Almighty God had a plan for Job’s life, and everything that had touched his life was according to the divine plan. Job says these words about Jehovah, “But he stands alone, and who can oppose him? He does whatever he pleases. He carries out his decree against me, and many such plans he still has in store” (Job 23:13&14). Who is the one who stands in the midst of the throne of God? Who has all authority in heaven and earth? Are there two warring gods standing there, a good god and a bad god? When bad things happen to you is it because the bad god got the upper hand? When good things happen to you is it because gentle Jesus got the upper hand? No. Job says that God stands alone; one sovereign ruler of the skies. Then he considers the Lord’s mighty power and he adds, “and who can oppose him?” Who can push God’s arm aside when he reaches out a helping hand to lift us up, or to throw the devil into the bottomless pit? God stands alone in his might among the armies of heaven and over all the inhabitants of the earth. “He does whatever he pleases,” that is Job’s God and our God too. That conviction provided rationality and hope for Job after all he had endured. It was not because Baal or Beelzebub had pushed the Lord off his throne for an hour. God was not helpless when these things happened to Job. He was standing there in the midst of God’s throne utterly alone with none to oppose him, and so whatever happened to Job was, in his words, because of this one great reason, God “carries out his decree against me, and many such plans he still has in store.” “What has happened to me has been according to God’s decree. I don’t know what is going to happen in the future but I do know that whatever I get must be the plan of God for my life.”
Sovereign Ruler of the skies, ever gracious, ever wise.
All my times are in Thy hand, all events at Thy command.
His decrees who formed the earth fixed my first and second birth;
Parents, native place and time, all appointed were by him.”
John Ryland (1753-1825).
God has a universal plan embracing everything and everyone without exception from godless Xerxes to godly Job. Does the Bible insist on this? It certainly does. Let me give you three more of its statements which confirm the fact that what Job says is found elsewhere in the Bible.
i] Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Make no exceptions where God makes none – in all things God works for the good of those who love him. Your wet November Mondays and your summer holidays, your broken heart and your rejoicing spirit, your sickness and your health, your partings and your comings together, your falls and your risings, God works in them all for the good of them that love him. They all must fulfil his purpose of preserving his people and making them like Jesus Christ.
ii] Romans 11:36 “For from God and through God and to God are all things. To him be the glory for ever! Amen.” Again, make no exceptions, all things are from God; that is, he is the author and source of everything. All things are through God; that is, God controls and brings to pass all things. To God are all things; God is the final and purposeful end of all things and that is the mightiest of the three statements because it is saying that God knows what he is doing. His plans and works are never capricious nor arbitrary; they all have a purpose which is like his own nature wise and good and beyond finding out. They are the best possible plans, and when we shall understand them – not through a glass darkly but face to face – we shall say with more understanding, “To him be the glory for ever! Amen.”
iii] Ephesians 1:11 “the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” My length of life; my state of singleness or marriage; how many children I have or do not have; how long I will be married; where I will spend my life; how my last years will be spent, I have this amazing peace that everything will be in accordance with “the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” Someone once said, “If I were as sovereign as God, I would change a lot of things, If I were as wise as God, I would not change a single thing.”
So God has a plan for his people and their preservation and joy and growth. That plan involves employing an anti-Christian tyrant like King Xerxes. Let me set that statement within the context of the whole of the Bible’s teaching about the decrees of God including the sinful acts of men because this book contains many such deeds. Let me give you two examples of this;
i] There is the case of Joseph being sold by his brothers into a life of slavery in distant Egypt. How they hated him! Yet when many years later Joseph confronts them he says these words, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). The brothers of Joseph were as evil in their actions as king Xerxes. They hated Joseph and only intended to do him harm. They never considered that bustling Egypt would be a good place for a job-seeker and that he would do well there. Their motives were only evil, but their hearts were in the hand of the Lord. God’s plan was to use the selling of Joseph, and his purchase by General Potiphar, and the lust of Mrs. Potiphar, and the time in prison, and the dreams of the butler and of Pharaoh himself to catapult Joseph into such a position of power that he would be able to save his whole family from famine. It is fascinating to trace the whole sequence of events right down to the time when Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. They were afraid Joseph would get even, but instead they heard those words of grace. Joseph said that our sovereign God purposed to use their sin to accomplish his own purpose. “You intended to harm me. There was no excuse for what you did in the fact of God using it to make me the Prime Mininster of Egypt. You intended it for evil and it was horrible, but the very same action God intended for good.”
ii] There is the case of Jesus of Nazareth. Hear Peter speaking to the thousands of people gathered in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost; “Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross” (Acts 2:22&23). The death of our Lord was not a surprise to God. It was not a horrible accident that couldn’t be stopped. It was not a victory for the devil over God. Peter really gets under the skins of his great audience in Jerusalem reminding them that Christ had all of the credentials of miracles, wonders and signs proving that he was the promised Messiah. Peter tells them straight that “God worked among you through him. Lazarus was raised and you talked with him. The leper was cleansed and you saw him. 5,000 men ate from five loaves and two fishes and you were amongst the crowd devouring that food. And it was this same God himself who purposed to hand Jesus his Son over to you wicked men knowing full well that what you’d do would be to crucify him.” The Cross was not only an act of barbaric wickedness by the most evil of men, it was also God’s ‘set purpose and foreknowledge.’
3. MEN ARE HELD RESPONSIBLE FOR ALL THAT THEY DO.
People argue about who was responsible for the crucifixion of Christ. There were the men who engineered Christ’s death – Judas, Caiaphas, Annas, the Sanhedrin, Pontius Pilate, the squaddies who nailed him to the cross and thrust the spear into his side. There were people who knew in their hearts that he was innocent and did nothing. All of those men and women will be held accountable on the day of judgment, but in the last analysis it was God who was in total charge that day. You see the mighty empires of the ancient world raised upon foundations of sin and evil. The empires of Cyrus, Xerxes, Alexander and Nero and the hearts of every one of those men were in the hands of the Lord.
One can imagine the Jews who helped crucify Christ responding to Peter’s words this way: ‘Aren’t we glad to hear you say it was all God’s plan? That means we’re not accountable for what we did.’ One can imagine King Xerxes saying that he was glad to hear Christians saying that God’s plan to protect them in Persia involved his drinking, and his sending for his wife to parade herself in front of his chums, and the callous way he divorced her. If all of that was God’s plan then surely Xerxes couldn’t be held responsible. Whew! God would smile at him at the Day of Judgment! “Please come inside heaven and grace us with your presence. What an honour for my humble heaven to be the eternal dwelling of the mighty Persian Emperor!” No! Not at all. Dumping the queen was indeed God’s plan, but Xerxes with wicked hands had freely written the bill of divorce. 100% God plus 100% man equals 100%. On the day of Pentecost Peter acknowledges God’s plan and sovereign purpose in embracing all those evil men and yet he goes on to tell them, “You with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” In other words, “You have done the most wicked act this world has ever seen and you will answer to God for it.”
No one can deny that the death of Christ was the event that brought this world the greatest possible blessing, namely, the reconciliation of a holy sin-hating God. That death was planned in eternity. Jesus was the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. He was born in order that he might die on the cross. His death was his highest act of obedience to his Father, but everything that must happen to make the Lamb of God suffer and die on Golgotha was done freely and willingly by wicked men out of a hateful motive. Yet at the same time it all perfectly fulfilled exactly what God had sovereignly ordained.
4. WHAT GOD DECREES IN ETERNITY MAN WILL DEMAND IN TIME.
It was John Reisinger who discovered a fine quotation in a Puritan work. I don’t know which Puritan divine said these words but they sum up what I am saying, and have been a help to me since I first read them in John’s grand booklet, The Sovereignty of God in Providence. This is the quotation; “What God sovereignly decrees in eternity, man will always demand in time.’ Man’s ‘free will’ will always decide to choose the very thing that God has sovereignly ordained, and thus God’s purpose will be fulfilled. 100% God plus 100% man equals 100%. God’s sovereign will is done just as surely man will be responsible for his every act of sin.
One passage that sets this forth clearly is Matthew 27. The whole chapter is loaded with vain attempts by men to deny personal responsibility. What do we find there?
We meet Judas who is trying to deny his own responsibility for the death of Christ by pleading Christ’s innocence. He gave the thirty pieces of silver back to the chief priests and elders. They, in turn, replied, “What’s that to us? That was your responsibility.” Wasn’t it their duty to be certain that Christ was indeed guilty before condemning him to death? Surely it was.
Pilate knew that Jesus had done nothing worthy of crucifixion and yet he deliberately distorted and destroyed law and justice in punishing him. He tried to absolve himself from responsibility. Pilate went along with the ‘free will’ election of Barabbas by the crowd. Remember, they had the power and authority to choose any prisoner to be released. It was entirely up to them. Matthew writes, “Now it was the governor’s custom at the Feast to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd” (Matt. 27:15).
The choice was left entirely up the ‘free will’ of the crowd, and the crowd knowingly and deliberately chose a notorious criminal named Barabbas. Over the protests of Pilate’s wife, his own conscience, and the prohibitions of Roman and Hebrew law, Pilate still refused to stop the injustice. He caved in to the cry of the mob. When asked what they wanted done with ‘Jesus who is called Christ,’ the crowd screamed in unison, ‘Crucify him!’ Pilate tried every trick in the book to get the crowd to change its mind, but he only managed to make them shout louder, ‘Crucify him!’
Finally Pilate tried to deny his personal responsibility by washing his hands in front of the crowd. He said, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood. It is your responsibility.’ The peple responded without hesitation and gladly took responsibility for the whole thing. They answered in defiance, ‘Let his blood be on us and on our children.’ Could anyone be more guilty and more responsible for their acts than that crowd was? Did anyone better fulfil in more details (although totally unknowingly) the secret purpose of God in the death of his Son, than Pilate and that mob did? Yet we know that everyone was responsible, Judas, the chief priests, Pilate and the crowd.
There are two simple questions and two clear answers in Matthew chapter 27.
i] Exactly what did God Almighty eternally decree would happen to his Son? He would be crucified. Exactly what did that crowd vehemently demand to take place? The crucifixion of Christ. What God sovereignly decrees in eternity men will freely choose in time.
ii] What is the only thing that will satisfy the wrath of God revealed against man’s ungodliness and unrighteousness? The shed blood of Jesus! What is the only thing that will satisfy the hatred and passion of the crowd? The shed blood of Jesus Christ! What God sovereignly ordains in eternity man will choose by his own free will in time.
5. GOD WILL USE HIS SOVEREIGN POWER TO PROTECT HIS PEOPLE.
Here in Persia the people of God are facing persecution and are in danger of losing their identity. The powers that be are threatening their very existence, but God is our Sovereign Protector. The hearts of all the nobles and officials and military leaders of Persia and Media are in the hand of the Lord. They cannot think a thought, feel a feeling, decide a decision, act an action without the Lord because we all live and move and have our being in God. He is the first great Cause of everything that happens in the world, and when we are distressed because of what evil men have done to us and how they are persecuting the church we must go back to the First Cause and say to ourselves that God allowed this to happen. We are so tempted to say to people, “Now don’t blame God,” as if God weren’t there when it happened, as though God’s hands were tied and all he could do was spectate in mute horror. What we need in our hour of grief is to know God is with us. We don’t know whether Vashti were a true believer, but she behaved like a godly woman, and when she was delivered the bill of divorce the things she needed to know were firstly that the God of Daniel “does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:33). In other words, God does not afflict us for pleasure or excitement, for no reason, or for something to do. God takes no delight in the death of sinners nor in the disquiet of his people. He has a certain reluctance to destroy our joy, and he never gloats over our afflictions, rather he is touched by the feeling of our infirmities. He is our Redeemer, our Father and our Husband. His goal is our eternal lasting good not our fleeting delights. Secondly Vashti needed to be sure of this, that the God of Daniel had a fine plan for her future after the wrench of this dreadful divorce. He was in control of her life.
You should begin to acquaint yourselves with Puritan writers and one of the best is Thomas Watson. He has extraordinary ability to put great truth into short, concise statements. If you can grasp what he says in these words you have understood this first message on the book of Esther. Thomas Watson says, “God always has a hand in the action where the sin is, but he never has a hand in the sin of the action.” It doesn’t matter what happened, where it happened, when it happened, or to whom it happened. If it took place at all then it didn’t happen in a vacuum. God had a hand in it; God controlled it all, but he is never guilty of the sin of the action. It is impossible for God to sin. He never tempts people to act sinfully. The contemptuous drunken anger and hurt pride in Xerxes that made him decide to divorce Vashti – God was not guilty of that sin. That was Xerxes’ sin alone. The hatred in the brothers that made them sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt – God wasn’t guilty of that sin. That was his brothers’ alone. The unthinkable action of Jews and Romans in crucifying the blameless Jesus Christ – God was not guilty of that sin. That was man’s alone, but it was the action of men who live and move and have their being in God. It was the action of men whose hearts are in God’s hand. God always has a hand in the action where the sin is, but he never has a hand in the sin of the action.
Vashti might weep and say, “It is so unfair,” and it was unfair. Many of the things that happen to us in life are unfair. God never indicated that all our lives as Christians would be a fair sailing to heaven, quite the reverse. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and say all manner of things against you falsely for Jesus’ sake. It was not fair for Joseph to be sold into slavery; it was not fair for Job to lose his family and health and possession; it was not fair for Jeremiah to be put in the pit; it was not fair for Stephen to be stoned or James to be killed with a sword; it was not fair for Nero to feed Christians to the lions. Many of the things that have happened to the most godly Christians have been horribly cruel, but the promise is that we will not suffer above our ability to bear them. If we are thrown in the furnace the Son of Man will be with us there. When we pass through deep waters they won’t overflow us and drown us. We shall survive; we shall be more than conquerors. Take courage and trust the God of hope. If you are not a Christian, then remember, this is the God against whom you rebel. How can you be so foolish and fight against such a God? Be reconciled to him through Jesus Christ today. Lay down your weapons of rebellion and sue him for peace.
4 February 2007 GEOFF THOMAS