Created in the image of God, there is no doubt that the main aspect in which God revealed Himself when He came on earth, that of being the Savior, would also be the aspect most admired and priced by humans. Nowhere in history or literature has there been found a virtue of the human race more worthy or notable than this one. Every story needs a savior. Almost every good movie has one or many saviors. The Bible is full of those temporary saviors. Noah participated in saving the world from the flood. Abraham participated in saving the world from false religions. Moses participated in saving Israel from Egypt. King David saved Israel from her enemies. Elijah saved Israel from the influence and corruption of the prophets of Baal. And so forth. Every story needs a savior, because God’s story has One and all the good things that we get to see on earth are only but reflections of who He is. And while there has only been one Messiah to bring life and hope to the whole plot of His story, there have also been temporary saviors bringing threads of inspiration in the overall tapestry. We call them heroes.
The Webster dictionary describes heroes as being people of distinguished valor, intrepidity or enterprise in danger, as the principal character of a story.
The Bible is full of those heroes. Of People that stepped up in the course of history, taking risks, holding firm to their convictions, and making a difference that would impact the entire course of History.
Today we are going to look at one of these heroes, the queen Esther. But before we look at her life, there is something we need to keep in mind.
Bible heroes are also sinners. And while there are aspects of their lives that are worthy of imitation, many other aspects are also sober reminders. Noah was a sinner. Abraham was a sinner. Moses was a sinner. David was a sinner. And while their faith changed the entire course of History, their failures and compromises also brought much reproach to the name of the Lord.
Esther is no exception.
In fact, as we are going to see today, Esther’s life was full of compromises. She had a struggling faith. She didn’t always respond right to the challenges facing her. But what makes her a hero is that when it was time, she stepped up, and risked everything to do what was right for the Lord. That’s what makes a true hero of God.
As we turn to our Bibles in Esther 4, we are going to look at 3 faith-testing challenges that Esther faced, so that we too can be used by God to make a difference.
And this is what I want you to remember today: God will use you, no matter who you are, when you turn your eyes on Him.
Before we begin reading this chapter, let me give you some context.
The story is taking in Persia, at the beginning of the 5th century before Christ. At this point, it’s been about one hundred years since the kingdom of Judah has been conquered by the Babylonian, and Jerusalem and the Temple destroyed. In fact, we read that Mordecai, Esther’s cousin and guardian, is a 4th generation exiled who had come from Jerusalem itself during the deportation.
That kingdom of Babylon did not last too long though, and we all remember from the book of Daniel, the inscription of the hand on the wall during the reign of Belshazzar: Mene, mene,tekel, parsin (numbered, weighed, divided). Cyrus the Persian invaded the capital and then proclaimed an edict encouraging the deported people to go home. We’re at about 539 BC. 40 years later, Esther is born.
So she grows up in Susa, the capital of the Persian Empire, as a beautiful young woman, being taken care of by her cousin Mordecai the Jew as her parents died sometime along the way. And as she reaches up to the age of maturity, something happens that will change her life. She is taken by force to become part of the king’s harem and possibly to become the queen, as the previous queen, Vashti, was rejected for her lack of submission. Eventually she becomes queen, but her cousin Mordecai on his side gets in trouble. For some reason he doesn’t like the vice-president of the country, or the second-in-rank if we might say, Haman the Agagite. The king had commanded all of his servants to bow down to Haman to pay homage to him. But Mordecai could not. We’re not exactly sure why, but he refuses to. Maybe it was because Haman was a Agagite, a descendant of the Amalekites, a people that God had ordered their destruction by Israel because they had tried to kill them when they had just gotten out of Egypt. God had said concerning the Amalekites that He wanted Israel to “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.”
Anyways. The vice-president did not like that. When he learnt that Mordecai did not bow down to him and probably because it was a racial issue, he thought that just getting Mordecai would not be enough, but that he should better kill all the Jews. And so he comes to the king with the promise to give him 340 tons of silver to have permission to kill all the Jews. It’s a crazy amount. It was like 2/3 of the annual income of the Empire. It would be as if someone promised the president 10 trillion dollars (10 million millions) to kill all the Frenchmen – or some other group.
And so the president signs the contrast and makes an irrevocable decree in the entire Empire.
I. 1st Challenge: Discerning the Evil Times
Now let’s turn to Esther 4:1-4, where we see the first challenge given to Esther, that of discerning the evil times.
Here we see in these few verses that at the news of Haman’s decree, there is great mourning among the Jews in all the provinces of the kingdom. In all the provinces, we see Jews fasting, weeping, lamenting, and many of them laying in sackcloth and ashes. Just imagine the scene. Imagine going to work tomorrow and one of your co-worker is only wearing a bag made of goat-skin and all of his body is covered with black ashes. It’s not that people had no decency back then too. They were not cavemen. They were desperate. Imagine people like that in every city all over America.
The times are times of desperation. The whole nation of Israel in the dispersion is under a death sentence. We’re talking about thousands and thousands of lives of God’s people, taken away. We’re talking about the only true ambassadors of God in the world, taken away. The times were evil. Death was crouching at the door. The power of Satan was at work to slow down the works of God in making a nation bearing His name.
Mordecai himself, at the news, puts on sackcloth and ashes and goes in the midst of the city, crying out loudly in front of everybody. Then he goes to the gate of the king, as close as he can be to the king’s palace, bringing his mourning with him.
Now, that was a pretty daring thing to do. Back in those days there was no freedom of expression like we have in our days. When people were upset about something, they couldn’t just go to the king and tell him: “you know your highness, I really don’t like what you are doing here.” You’d be killed! There is a reason why people back then greeted their ruler with words such as “Long live the king!” They wanted to please the king.
That’s what we see in the way Esther addresses the king. In 5:4, she starts her speech: “if it please the king” in 5:8 “If I have found favor” in the sight of the king, and if it please the king” in 7:3 “If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king” and again in 8:5 “if it please the king.”
It was all about pleasing the king. In fact, sackcloth and ashes were forbidden in the king’s palace. Showing an unhappy face was like telling the king that he wasn’t doing a good job. Remember Nehemiah? He was the cupbearer of a Persian king as well. He mentioned that before he heard of the bad news of Jerusalem being in danger and without a wall of protection, he had never looked sad before the king. And when the king saw him sad, he was greatly afraid.
But here Mordecai comes and he is willing to risk his life just to show the king his discontent. He is so desperate, it’s almost as if he were dead.
And here we see the first reaction from Esther:
Est 4:4 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.
As Esther sees the desperation of Mordecai, she decides to take action. She hears that Mordecai is in sackcloth, and here is her response: “Oooh, let’s give him some blankees!”
What? Really? She’s the queen of the biggest empire of the world at the time and that’s all she can come up with? Sadly, yes. Pathetically, yes. We’re talking here about the future of her entire nation, and she doesn’t even have a clue.
And the reason why was because she had compromised so much that it was almost as if she wasn’t part of that group anymore.
Est 2:10 Esther had not made known her people or kindred, for Mordecai had commanded her not to make it known.
Unfortunately, she had followed the bad counsel of Mordecai. She had set aside her identity as a Jew in order to pursue queenship. Now, was it a bad thing to want to be queen? As a Jew, yes. God had commanded His people to be a people set apart, a holy people, not mixed with the other nations. When Israel after the exodus intermixed with the daughters of Moab, God judged them and killed 24,000 of them. It was a big deal to Him! Those marriages had caused too much damage. They tore the kingdom apart. Solomon fell for foreign wives and it turned his heart away from God. The results of that were devastating. When Ezra and Nehemiah ministered to the returned exiled, one of their main concerns was to keep Israel pure from those mixed marriages, to keep the people to be unequally yoked. And we understand that. When believers marry unbelievers, it’s usually not a good thing.
But she was a compromised lady. Now, was it forced into this marriage? We can’t deny it. But still, she had a choice. Daniel was in a similar situation. But he stood up to do what was right. He didn’t give up the dietary laws of his people. It was risky. He could have died for this. He was willing to die even for a meal. Talk about convictions. His friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were also in a similar situation. But they did not bow down. They went in the furnace. And God saved them. Death threats did not stop Daniel from praying either.
But Esther, on her side, gave up everything. In order to hide her Jewishness, she had to compromise with the dietary laws. She had to compromise with dealing with unclean things. And this is why she completely failed the first challenge, that of discerning the evil times. She was clueless, because she was not even part of what God was doing through His people. She was responding to death-threats with blankets.
And that’s all she could do. She couldn’t get to the real need because she was a superficial believer. It’s not that she wasn’t doing anything right. She had a lot of qualities. She was pleasant, she was wise, she was submissive; she does not appear prideful either. She certainly was a sweet and very pleasant person.
In fact, sadly, I think she would have fit very well in most of our American churches. One foot in the church, one foot in the world. A Jew among the Jews, and a Gentile among the Gentile. A sweetheart at church, but a total absence of witness to a dying world. Now please understand me, being sweet is not a bad thing. But if that’s all that we got to give to this evil and dying generation, then we are missing something.
But to this point, Esther could not see the need, because she wasn’t part of God’s working. She had compromised too much. She claimed to be a believer, but did not walk as one. She could not discern the evil of the times. The Jews in the entire kingdom were fasting, but here, even as the queen, did not have a clue.
II. 2nd Challenge: Taking Responsibility
The first challenge was that of discerning the evil times. The second challenge for Esther in the narrative is that of taking responsibility. She failed the first, and she also failed the second one.
Let’s read Esther 4:5-11.
After Mordecai refuses the blankees, Esther inquires to find out more about the situation. And so Mordecai pours his heart out. He tells her about the disproportionate sum of money that Haman promised the king and his plans to destroy the Jews. And then, this kind of interesting, but he commands the queen to go to the king to beg his favor. Mordecai was somehow a fleshly guy. He liked to keep things under control, to do things with his own strength, not always displaying faith.
And unfortunately, the flesh often appeals to the flesh. Mordecai was right to appeal to Esther to take initiative. But it wasn’t his place to give her orders. And to some degree his order was not very good either. It was forceful, and probably not the best approach. The previous queen had taken a stand against the king by being forceful and that cost her the crown. Esther certainly remembered that quite well.
Now, Esther was a wise woman. There is no doubt about that. Her wisdom certainly helped her in becoming the queen. She did not rush to get the presents that were offered to her in the house of the king, but only what had been advised to her. She listened to counsel. She gained favor. She understood people to some degree. But to this point even her wisdom was lacking an important element, that of faith.
And so when Mordecai pleas to her to do something for the Jews, she uses her wisdom only to protect herself. Her response is not unwise, but it is nonetheless completely selfish.
Est 4:11 « 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. »
Up to this point, Mordecai represented the Jewish people to Esther. She does not seem to have any other connection with her people except through him. To some degree, his position makes him become the ambassador of the Jews to Esther. And so when he comes to her with a request, not only she tries to crush his hope, but that of everyone else as well.
“Come on Mordecai. Everybody knows that what you want me to do is risky. It could cost my life. I could die. You don’t want that to happen, do you? I am the queen! You and all the other people in the Empire should know better. So don’t put your trust in me.”
The second challenge given to her was to take responsibility. But she could not and would not, because once again she had distanced herself from her people. Mordecai comes to her asking her to plead for her people, but her answer his “all the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know…” She didn’t like that identity thing. She preferred to stay general. She was only a Jew when she wanted to be.
Her compromises had carried her so far that she didn’t even realize the gravity of her own situation. Mordecai on his side was openly showing his desperation, even at the risk of his life. But Esther was not even thinking being in danger. And because she didn’t feel in danger, she didn’t feel the necessity to step up and do something.
The times were evil and her people needed her. But up to this point she was useless to God and useless to her people, because all the compromises she had made had led her away from living out her faith. She thought, like many of us, that it would be up to someone else to step up to meet the needs of her generation. She thought that it would up to someone else to step up and take the risks necessary to make a difference. She was completely selfish.
People, listen. The generation we live in is not any less evil then that of Esther. In the year 2000, a survey asserted that one person died from suicide every 40s. One person died from murder every 60s. One person died from armed conflicts every 100s. In that year, about 57,000 young children died from abuse. 1.6 million people died premature violent death. And for every murder, there were between 20-40 people hospitalized. In America, one girl out of every 6 girls will be raped. Millions of babies die prematurely because of abortion every year.
And obviously statistics only reveal so much. The real evil is much closer than this. We’ve seen it with our lives. We’ve seen the broken families. We’ve seen blatant lies creeping in contemporary worldviews and taking the position of foundational beliefs. Last week I met a man in the street, half-drunk. He told me he was miserable, that he was a wondering soul. His life was just evil upon evil: beating his wife, going to jail, being addicted to drugs. But these things are so common there are almost parts of the norm.
Our world is destroying itself. And it desperately needs the gospel because it is the only thing that can save people from the wickedness of their hearts. Our jails need the gospel. Our schools need the gospel. Our businesses need the gospel. Our families need the gospel. Our neighborhoods need the gospel.
But let me tell you. But let’s be honest. It’s not up to someone else to step up. If we have discerned that the times are evil, then we must also face up the challenge of faith and take up responsibility.
Esther was selfish and that selfishness wanted to stop her from taking action. And we need to watch out for this. You know, when God created the first human relationship, He made it with the purpose that one would be a helper to the other. That’s what relationships are all about. Helping one another. Yet, even in our Christian walk, we often think that if we just help ourselves we’ll be ok. And we spend so little time investing spiritually in the lives of those around us. But let me ask you: what is it that makes us assume that someone else will step up when we fail?
I’ve been helping out church youth group for 2 years now and it breaks my heart to see how so many parents believe in curb theology. “I drop my kid at the curb, and when I pick him up he should be holified enough or me not to have to worry about investing in him spiritually for the rest of the week.” So many mothers and fathers who fail to step up and take action, assuming that someone else will. And the effects are devastating. The students never get over that passive Christianity so well illustrated by their parents.
We live in an evil generation, and we must take responsibility.
This was the second challenge that Esther faced. And she failed it as well. Up to then, she was still not being used by God.
III. 3rd Challenge: Doing the Work of God
The first challenge had been to discern the evil times. Esther failed. The second challenge had been to take responsibility. Esther failed. And here comes the third challenge: to do God’s work. And this time, Esther responds with faith and above all expectations.
Let’s read verse 12-17.
Now, before we go more into details, I need to clarify a few things. For many people, the book of Esther has been very problematic, and it has been a debate over many centuries. One of the reasons for that is that the name of God does not appear even once in the entire book. It is the only book of the Bible like this. It is one of the few books of the Old Testament never to be quoted in the New Testament. Some scholars throughout the centuries were so puzzled by this book that they didn’t know what to do with it. The Jews who wrote the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament, added verses in the book to make it sound more spiritual. Other people, like Luther, did not like the book. He thought it was too pagan and it Judaized too much. It was also the only book of the Bible with no portions of it found at Qumran with the Dead Sea scrolls.
All of that to say that there is been a lot of ink poured on trying to interpret the book of Esther, and there have been many different conclusions that people have taken. Many people believe that Mordecai and Esther were not even saved, and it is true that there is some ground for that.
After doing a fair amount of study on the issue, my conclusion is that the author does not mention God as a way of making a point. I think he is trying to show that although the Jews in the dispersion were not the most holy ones and that they compromised much, that even through their unfaithfulness God was always faithful and prompt to answer their requests. Because even though God is not mentioned in the book, His imprint is all over the book through coincidences, reversals and allusions.
And at the end what we see is quite remarkable. Because even though God is not even mentioned once in the story, He still is the main character.
But let’s go back to our passage and look at what I believe is the true turning point in the book of Esther.
Est 4:14 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? »
I don’t think that we can separate this statement from a deep and profound faith in God. Here we see that Mordecai had a hope that was greater than what was visible, greater than his circumstances. Even though he had just given a written decree to Esther that was talking about Haman’s scheme to have all the Jews destroyed, he still believed that relief and deliverance would come.
This kind of hope would be difficult to separate from the knowledge of the God of the Jews, faithful, powerful, good, steadfast in love, committed to His covenant and to His people.
And not only he has hope of relief, but he also knows that God judges those who oppose His plans. And here he is basically telling Esther: “If you keep being stubborn in ignoring the fact that you are a Jew and that the Jews need you, God is going to ignore you as well when He gives relief and deliverance to His people. If you keep on hardening your heart without taking responsibility, God will not let you go unpunished.”
First he appeals to God’s steadfast love, secondly he appeals to His judgment, and thirdly he appeals to His sovereignty. “And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this? »
Esther had failed her first two challenges, that of discerning the evil times and that of taking responsibility, and here she was given a third and final challenge, that of doing God’s works. At this point, it comes almost as an ultimatum. “Listen! You are either with us or against us!”
It’s the turning point. Either Esther completely forfeits her Jeiwshness and her faith, or else she embraces it fully and assumes that risks that come with it. And here comes her response:
Est 4:16 « 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. »
No more superficiality. You want some commitment? What about three days of fasting without food or water? You want some leadership? What about gathering an entire city in fasting? You want some courage? “If I perish, I perish!”
This is my favorite part about the book. Esther displays faith. She accepts to step in the dark. To be dependent on God’s goodness. To risk even her own life.
She fixes her eyes on God, she dies to self, she embraces His purposes, and then He uses her to save thousands of lives.
We know all the story ends. Through a series of “circumstances” the plot comes to resolution. First Esther is received favorably by the king, then it just happens that the king has insomnia and decides to have some chronicles read to him. And then he finds out that Mordecai who had saved his life from a conspiracy had never been honored for doing so. And then it just happens that the first person who shows up in the court is Haman, who gives the king suggestions on how to bring honor to someone thinking it’s going to be for him. And then it just happens that Haman’s after getting in trouble is found pleading for mercy at Esther’s feet and it is taken by the king as an act of assault on his part. And it just happens that Haman had already set up a gallows to hang Mordecai and that he gets hanged on it himself.
Yes, God takes care of His people. And when they seek His face, He doesn’t turn His away. But listen. God used Esther, even though she was far from being a saint. She wasn’t holy. She wasn’t perfect. She didn’t have everything under control. In fact, she’s a lot like us. Her example should inspire us. She wasn’t an example of strength. She was an example of weakness that God transformed into strength. In fact, that is His specialty. God uses the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He desires to use people whoever they are, even people who are not where they should be in the faith.
But listen. If you turn your eyes to the Lord, He will use you. And He will use you much more than you think.
But we need to step up! We can’t wait for someone else to do the work that God has for us. We’ve got to assume what God has laid ahead of us. The times are evil.
Now let me ask you a final question. Did God have to save the Jews? Would He have been less righteous for not doing so?
To this day, August 24th 1572 marks the darkest day of French history. This date is known as the massacre of St-Bartholomew. At the time, there was no separation of church and state. And as the gospel and the Reformation had penetrated the country, many nobles had turned to Christ made a stand for salvation through faith alone. After trying in vain to keep the Reformation out of the country by the means of armed conflict, the Catholic authorities finally decided to make a compromise by arranging a marriage between a Catholic princess and a Protestant prince.
The whole thing was a scheme. As all the Protestant nobility was gathered in Paris for the wedding, the houses and hotel rooms of the Christian Huguenots were marked down on maps of the city. A couple days after the ceremony, a group of 300 hundred men of the royal guard burst in to the streets of Paris during the night, going from house to house as they had assigned to kill the Protestants. All that were found were slaughtered, included women and children.
The massacre soon extended to the other regions of France, as royal letters were sent throughout the country mentioning a conspiracy. Conservative numbers attest for 2000-4000 people killed in Paris alone. The numbers of people murdered in the rest of France vary among different sources from 20,000-100,000. Soon afterwards it became forbidden to be a Christian in France, and the Protestants were killed and exiled. To this day, the country is still considered one of the most difficult mission fields in the world.
“If I perish, I perish!” said Esther. Do we commend this? If so, are we willing to give up our compromises, even at such a cost?
God spared her and her people. But others have died. Christ wasn’t spared either. He didn’t come with “ifs.” “When I perish, I perish.”