“‘Grant me my life - this is my petition. And spare my people - this is my request’” [Esther 7:3b]
Last night in our Lenten study, we saw the conclusion to the Book of Esther: we saw a woman stand up for what was right in the face of overwhelming risk. Her godly character changed the king’s mind and saved her people. On the same day that all the Jews of Persia were to have been destroyed, the king allowed them to defend themselves, and destroy their enemies. And then, when it was all done, their mourning was turned into dancing.
The Book of Esther is unique in the Bible, because it never mentions God by name even once. One could read the Book of Esther and think God was entirely absent from the proceedings. But reading it through with our Wednesday evening group really brought something home to me: in this way the Book of Esther is a lot like our real, everyday lives. In our real, everyday lives, we don’t see God acting supernaturally (or at least very rarely!); we don’t experience God walking around with us, talking and acting in our lives in an ordinary day. But in the Book of Esther, as in our real lives, God is profoundly active. God is profoundly active in our relationships; God is profoundly active in our character and our choices about how we respond to difficult circumstances; God is profoundly active in the communities by which we support one another and by which we are supported.
On the very first day of our Bible study, we read in the study guide intro that although God is not named in the Book of Esther, God is like the Director of the story. When we watch a movie, every single scene, every artistic choice, many acting decisions have been shaped by the Director - yet the Director is never seen. Similarly, God isn’t “seen” in the Book of Esther, yet God is profoundly active in all kinds of things that happen. We can see God at work in building the strong faith-based relationship between Esther and the uncle who raised her as a daughter, Mordecai. The strength of their relationship is what influences Esther to act on behalf of her people. Mordecai raised Esther to be someone who cares about others. She cares about her family, adopted though she is; she cares about the servants, slaves and Eunuchs she encounters in the Palace; she cares deeply for the king and helps him become a better man; and she cares so deeply for her people that she risks her life for them when Mordecai calls her to take action. God has been deeply at work in that relationship for a long time before these events take place in their lives, building a strong, principled character in each one of them, and having each one of them strengthen each other.
God has also been deeply at work in the hearts of each one of them personally. In the Book of Esther, we see various people responding to difficult, stressful or dangerous situations. How each of them respond gives us a clear picture of their character. Queen Vashti responded to King Xerxes disgraceful request to appear before him naked with strength and self-respect. Her strength and self-respect never wavered, even when it became clear there were serious consequences to her choices; yet she persevered, knowing what was the right thing to do.
Esther, surrounded by jealous, scheming, back-biting candidates for the position of queen, kept her focus on what was most important: respectful relationships with those around her, and an authentic approach to the king. Whether she became queen or not, she was stuck in the Harem for life, surrounded by these servants and Eunuchs, so she built positive, healthy relationships with them - and those relationships informed her choices and brought her to the king’s attention.
When Mordecai discovered a plot against the king, there were many reasons he might not say anything - he might be disbelieved; he might actually benefit from a palace shake-up; he might find his own life on the line instead. Yet he did what was right and took steps to bring the plot to the attention of the king. Then, he did not demand a reward, or bring himself to further notice by the king, because doing what was right held its own reward.
Finally, Esther becomes the hero of her people because of her determination to do what was right, despite the extreme danger to herself. In the end, she takes nothing for herself, and remains living in the palace with the king. And when the Jews overthrow their enemies, they do not plunder their property - for doing what is right carries its own reward.
God has been powerfully at work in the hearts of all these people as they’ve faced incredibly difficult choices in high-stakes situations. How we make choices, and take responsibility, and use our power is at the heart of godly character. All of us face difficult decisions in our lives - the Book of Esther shows us clearly that our faith in God, and our faith practices support us to make the right choice, despite the consequences we may face.
All of this is contrasted with the character of evil Haman, who, when his plot is discovered throws himself (literally) upon Esther to beg for mercy. Having offered no mercy, he now expects to be saved. He never takes accountability for his actions; he offers no justification for what he’s done. He completely caves in the face of this difficult moment. It stands in marked contrast with the godly character of Esther, who behaved with such grace and dignity in the midst of her trials, and who put herself at risk on behalf of others who had no power.
God has been powerfully active in these relationships; God has been powerfully active in the hearts of these individuals; and finally, God is powerfully active in the communities of support that strengthen Mordecai and Esther. Mordecai and Esther don’t overthrow Haman’s evil plot on their own. They are surrounded, supported and encouraged by countless others: the Jews in the city of Susa who fast and pray for Esther before she goes to the king; her attendants who fast and pray with her; the Eunuchs who show their loyalty to her again and again; and of course the wider Jewish community in all the 127 provinces of Persia, who follow the leadership of Mordecai and Esther. There is a fully mutual relationship between these communities and Mordecai and Esther: they support and encourage Esther and Mordecai while Esther and Mordecai support and encourage them. God works powerfully through this kind of respectful, healthy, mutually supportive community.
There are two details we noticed at the end of our study last night that leave us with a final picture of how powerfully God worked through these events. The first is that when the Jews killed those who came to kill them (75,000 + attacked the Jews and were killed in return), they didn’t take the plunder; and the second is that many people across the 127 provinces became Jews as a result of these events. Put together, we formed an idea of the character of the Jews that emerged from this crisis.
First point: Plundering an enemy was a standard practice in the Ancient world. So if the Jews didn’t plunder their enemies, what happened to all the enemies’ livestock, households, wealth, slaves, properties, farmlands, etc? Well, they would have been plundered by others: a massive wealth-redistribution program from the rich to the poor thanks to the self-restraint of the Jews.
Second point: at the end of chapter 8, we read that “many people of other nationalities became Jews because fear of the Jews had seized them.” [8:17b]. In the Ancient world, “fear” was a response to power. For those other nationalities that were now lower down on the hierarchy than the Jews, becoming Jewish was an opportunity to take shelter and find safety in the Persian Empire.
When we add these two items together we get a picture of what Jewish leadership meant in Persia: it meant the poor were less poor, and the disempowered were protected by the powerful. We may think this is rather 20th-century social justice thinking, but these principles are deeply embedded in the Torah, the Jewish Law found in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Here in Persia, we find an image of the Jews living out the deepest heart of the Torah: using their power to provide for the poor, and protect the weak - and it all comes about as a result of Esther and Mordecai’s leadership in doing what was right, consistently, on a daily basis, even in small ways.
We too are called to that kind of godly character: to do what is right, in big ways, but also in small ways. We can practice in little ways every day: these are like muscles that get stronger over time, through little repetitions. By finding ways to practice every day, we open ourselves more and more to God working in our lives. We make ourselves ready for a day when we might be called upon to stand up, and do what is right, even though the consequences we face might be frightening. For if we practice, and if we practice noticing God working in our lives, then on that frightening day, we will be ready to act: for ourselves, for one another, and for a better world for all.
It has been a joy doing this study with you. May God bless us with a deepening sense of his presence in our lives, and help us find ways to practice, every day, living as he would wish us to live. Amen.