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Edward F. Markquart

Books of the Bible - Old Testament

Old Testament Sermon Series    Ester 3:14-17

Today, we continue our series about Old Testament personalities but no longer are we on a mountaintop. That is, no longer are we visiting glorious mountaintops such as Abraham and Moses,  David and Solomon, the great kings and the great prophets. No longer are on the highest mountaintops but we now come down to a lower level of mountains as we approach the end of the Old Testament. Using our analogy, hiking near Mowich Lake at 4500 feet is also absolutely beautiful, even if it is not a mountaintop. As we hike in the lower elevations at the end of the Old Testament, we will study Ester, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Daniel. These are important books but they are not mountaintops.

In and of itself, the story of Queen Ester is a great story. The story is wonderfully told. If you read the story of Queen Ester in one sitting, it will take you about a half an hour. When you read the first chapter of the book of Ester, you will want to read the whole book at one time. That is just the way it is. You want to read the whole story because the plot and characters grab your mind. It gets into you. It has wonderful twists and turns, reversals and reckonings, insights and innuendoes, surprises and serendipitous moments. Simply, the book of Ester is a great book as a literary piece. Ester was such a favorite book that it is the most copied ancient manuscript, copied more often than any other ancient Bible manuscript.  Ester was THE favorite story of the ancient copyists.

Now, why was the book of Ester copied so often? I think for several reasons. First, because it is a great story.  A great story needs to have a great hero or heroine. The great heroine in this story is a woman by the name of Ester. Many people say that a hero or heroine is the right person at the right time. That is not true. There are many people who are the right person at the right time but they do not rise to the occasion. They don’t meet the crisis which is in front of them. A hero or heroine is the right person at the right time but also rises to the occasion and meets the crisis which is there before them. Certainly, Ester rose to the occasion in her life. She has this classic line in the book: “If I must die, I will die.” We like that sentiment, especially from a queen who is willing to die for a noble cause.

But the book of Ester is not only a great story about a great heroine, but it also faces a great crisis. It is one of those common crises which you find very often in the Bible. It is a common crisis where those in authority, the government or dominant culture, want to annihilate the Christians or the Jews. Throughout our three thousand years of history of the Jewish religion and the Christian religion, there have been numerous times where those in authority have wanted to annihilate either the Christians or the Jews. You certainly have found that in the Jewish past such as during the time of the Maccabees, or during the times of Hitler where he wanted to have all Jews killed. Hitler killed ix million Jews. But it has not only been the Jews but the Christians as well. During the times of Emperor Nero and Domitian during the first centuries, the emperors were trying to exterminate the Christians as well. Having come back from Russia I heard similar stories about Kruschev who said, “I will live to see the last Russian Orthodox priest die.” There have always been people who wanted to kill Jews and Christians. There are those critical moments when people have to stand up against the government who wants to kill you. That is what the book of Ester is all about. It has a great crisis to it.

In the book of Ester, you have a great story with a great heroine with a great crisis and you also have a great God in the midst of all of this. It is interesting that the word, God, is not even mentioned in the book of Ester. Martin Luther advised us to take books like Ester and throw them into the garbage. In this book, there is nothing about God. There is no praise of God.  My wife, after reading the book of Ester, asked, “What are you going to do with that one? I thought you were talking about mountaintops. This person doesn’t praise God for anything. What are you going to do with this one, Edward?” she said. In this book, you have to read between the lines and when you read between the lines, you see God working and weaving, entering and intervening in the lives of the characters of the story such as Mordecai, Haman, and Ester. Yes, you sense that God is weaving and working in the twists and turns of this story. Yes, we realize that a great God is involved.

So let’s go to the story of Ester. I would like to tell you the story of Ester because there are many people in our church who are “new time” Christians who don’t know many of the famous stories of the Bible. We also have “old time” Christians who have forgotten some of the classic stories such as Ester. 

The dating of this story? This story happened about four generations after the deportation to Babylonia in 587 BCE. The story happened just before the Persian Empire and Alexander the Great. It was about the year 400 BCE. 400 BCE is at the end of the time of the prophets and almost at the end of the Old Testament.

There are four primary characters in this story. The first is Modecai, a devout Jew, an older man who adopted his younger cousin who was like a daughter to him. He told her never to reveal her Jewish identity because it may be liability for her. Modecai was clear: don’t tell anyone you are a Jew. It will work against you.

The second character of the story is Ester herself. In her younger years, she was known as Hadasseh. Her mother and father died and she was an orphan who was adopted by her older cousin, Modecai. She was gorgeous in form and features. She was radiant, glowing, and glamorous. Today, during the children’s sermon, I introduced to you Ivana Frerichs, who was born in the Middle East and was adopted into the Frerich’s home. Ivana, at age twelve, is enormously beautiful and could be a princess and later a queen.

The third primary character in the story was a man by the name of King Xerxes. We know from secular history that King Xerxes was a very impulsive king. We read that one time, a violent story ripped out one of his bridges and King Xerxes ordered 300 lashes for the workers and beheaded the designers of the bridge. There is another secular story about King Xerxes that is not in the Bible. There was a rich man who offered the king a large sum of money to help with a military adventure and the king was really pleased with that. That same rich man also requested that his son by exempted from the draft or military. What was the king’s reaction?  Xerxes had the rich man’s son cut in two and the army march right down the middle of the street with the body of the young man on either side. You need to remember that King Xerxes was a very temperamental king. He was also called a “wild man.” He ruled 127 provinces, from India all the way to ancient Cush which was the major part of the Middle East.

King Xerxes also had a woman by the name of Vashti who was queen. One day, King Xerxes called Queen Vashti to come to see him and she refused to come. The king called his advisors together and asked what to do. The advisors said that Vashti should be punished because if this information got out into the kingdom, all the women in the provinces would not respect their husbands as they should. The council had a conference and decided to depose Vashti as queen. They decided to have a beauty contest and invite all the most beautiful women from all 127 provinces. The king would select the most beautiful woman to be his queen. To make a long story short, there was this beautiful woman, this gorgeous woman, with what I assume to have was dark brown hair and lovely flashing eyes, who was beautiful of form and feature, who was beautiful inside and outside. She came into the king’s harem and the people were literally entranced with her. They sent her to beauty school for a year. Six months with the oils and six months with the perfumes. She was gorgeous. She was tutored. She was manicured. And she was now ready to be presented to the king. King Xerxes said, “Wow!!!” I’ll take that one, right there.” They put a crown on her head and she became Queen Ester. She never told anyone that she was a Jew.

Very quickly in the story, in the very next chapter, her cousin Mordecai was standing outside the gate. Outside the gate, there were two people planning and plotting to kill the king. Mordecai reported that to Queen Ester; the plot was discovered and the two assassins were executed.  Mordecai’s report saved the king’s life for assassination. Importantly, the account of Mordecai’s information was written into the history of the king.

We move quickly, further into the story, and a new character by the name of Haman is introduced. Haman had become prime minister of all the land and the fourth primary character of the story. He was in charge of everything in all the kingdom. Haman had a puffed ego, a puffed pride a puff conceit. His ego was puffed up as big as a balloon. He arranged for  King Xerxes to give the order that everyone was to bow down and defer to Haman as he entered. But Mordecai, because he was a Jew, refused to do this. All Jews knew that they were not to bow down and kneel and worship any human being as if they were God. Only God receives that kind of worship and deference. Mordecai refused to obey the law to honor Haman in this way. Haman was furious. Haman had a puffed ego, a puffed pride, a puff conceit.  Haman was angry and he asked, “Who is this Mordecai that he refuses to bow down before my royal presence?” Someone said,  “He is a Jew. You know how Jews are. They refuse to obey the law. They have their own customs. They do what they want to do and refuse to defer to the king.” Haman said, “We will not only kill Mordecai. We are going to annihilate all the Jews in all 127 provinces. We are going to kill them all.” Haman was Hitler, before there was Hitler. So…the Jews cast their lots. They call this Pur. They cast their lots, their Pur, from which we get the name of the Feast, Purim. Then on the thirteenth day of that month, they were going to kill all the Jews in all 127 provinces. Haman went before the king and said, “King Xerxes, we have these people called the Jews. They don’t obey the laws. They go by their own customs. Therefore, I think that they should be killed.” The king put his own signet, the stamp from his ring on the order, that they would kill all the Jews in all 127 provinces. An edict went out to all 127 provinces to arrange for the killing of all the Jews.

When Mordecai heard of this edict, he began weeping. He covered himself with sackcloth and ashes and went into mourning because his race, the people of God, were going to be destroyed, so he thought. Ester sensed that something was wrong and she sent a message to Mordecai and asked, “What is wrong?” Mordecai sent back a message to Ester, “All the Jews are going to be annihilated according to the order of King Xerxes. The King has given the order and ten thousand talents have been set aside to do this. That is 375 tons of silver. The big money has been bankrolled to do this.” Ester replied, “This is terrible. What can I do?” A message came back from Mordecai, “You go and speak to the king.” Ester sent a message back to Mordecai, “I can’t do that. I have not seen the king for thirty days. If anyone approaches the king without his invitation, the king is to take his golden sword and kill that person. It is against the law to approach the king without an invitation, and the golden sword is used to kill such people.” Her cousin Mordecai sent a note back to Queen Ester and said, “For this time you have been born. God put you in this time and in this place to save the Jews. You must go before the king.” That is the key line in the book. You underline that line. You memorize that line. You highlight that line. That line is true for all of us: For this time, for this situation, for this crisis you have been born. Ester rose to the occasion and said, “I will go before the king and if I die, I will die.” Ester was willing to die for what was right. A sign of a heroine.

Ester sent back a message to her cousin. “Fast. Pray for me for three days and nights, and I will be ready to see the king.” So all the Jews in the capital city prayed for her for three days and nights. Ester, then went and took out the most beautiful gown that she had in her wardrobe, and she was dressed in her most elegant dress for the occasion. She dared to do what no other person had done: to approach the king with no invitation. The Bible tells us that Queen Ester stood down at the end of a long hallway and the king was facing her with his hand on the golden sword. The king saw her and motioned for her to come in and Ester did not know what was going to happen. The king gestured for her to touch the tip of the golden sword which she then did. She then knew that she was safe. The king said, “Queen Ester. You look absolutely ravishing today. What would you want from me? I will give anything that you want, up to half of the kingdom.” She smiled at the king and said, “I have a simple request, that you and the prime minister, Haman, are my guests at a banquet this afternoon.” A simple request. And so they summoned Haman, the prime minister who had ordered the execution of all the Jews, to the afternoon banquet. The king was there and asked, “What is the request that you have, Queen Ester. I will give you anything, up to half of my kingdom.” Ester replied, “I request that tomorrow you and Haman come for a second banquet.” They agreed. Haman felt so good. He was there with the king. He was there with the queen. He was there with the biggest big shots of all the kingdom.” Haman walked out from the banquet, and at the doorstep there was Mordecai. Mordecai once again did not get down on his knees and bow to Haman. Haman was angry. Haman was furious. He was absolutely furious about what had happened. Haman went back all stewed up inside and told his family, “We are going to make a gallows seventy feet high so that Mordecai will hang on those gallows tomorrow.”

Well, that night, everyone went to bed but King Xerxes could not sleep. This is the part of the story where I am talking about God’s involvement. King Xerxes could not sleep. He was bothered and co-incidentally, he started to read the history book of their country and saw the name of Mordecai. He read that Mordecai had saved him from assassination from the two assassins. The king thought to himself, “Mordecai. Was he ever rewarded for saving me? No. Hmmm.” It was interesting that this awareness happened at that moment. The king decided at that very moment that he was going to honor Mordecai. And just then, Haman, who ordered all the execution of all the Jews, walked in. The king said, “I the king want to reward someone with the finest gift. What would you think that I should reward him with?” And Haman thought that he himself was going to receive the reward. Haman replied, “That person would like to wear the king’s coat and ride on the king’s horse with the king’s medallion on it and be pulled through the streets by a nobleman, so that everyone would know that he was a close friend of the king.” King Xerxes said to Haman, “Absolutely wonderful. That is a wonderful gesture. Such a gift shall be given to Mordecai for saving me from the assassins. Mordecai will be honored that way. We will put the king’s robes on Mordecai. We will put him on the king’s horse. And you, Haman, will pull Mordecai through the streets of the city.” (Is that clever? Do you think that God has a sense of humor? Is this story good?) God’s name is not mentioned  but you can see how God is involved in the story. So Haman pulled the king’s horse with Mordecai on it through all the streets of the city. Mordecai, the Jew, on the king’s horse. Mordecai, the Jew, wearing the king’s robes, and Haman humbly pulling the horse. Haman was mortified. Haman went home, back to his family, and said, “Something is going wrong.” Before Haman’s family could figure it out, Haman was swept off to go to the second banquet.

The second banquet. They were all there. King Xerxex, Queen Ester, Haman, the prime minister. The king again asked, “What do you want Ester? I will give you up to half of the kingdom?” She replied, “My people and I.” She identifies herself and nationality for the first time. My people and I have been ordered to be annihilated and slaughtered. Not merely sold as men and women slaves, but to exterminated and all of our goods confiscated.” The king rose up in rage and said, “Who has commanded for this to be done?” She sharply pointed at Haman and said, “That vile man, Haman, your prime minister, has arranged for this.” And the king flew off in rage, as he was so capable of doing. He exploded with rage and stomped out to the outer court, just furious. As he came back in, Haman was kneeling at the sofa, pleading with Ester to save his own life. The king exploded, “See what you try to do? I walk out of the room and you try to molest the queen right in my house. You will die for this.” Someone said “Haman has arranged for gallows to be built, towering gallows which are seventy-five feet high, gallows to hang Mordecai on.” The king shouted. “Hang Haman. Hang Haman on those towering gallows seventy-five feet high.” Haman was hung instantly. Justice, in their minds, was done quickly.

Then the king gave Ester all the lands belonging to Haman, and Mordecai eventually became prime minister. As Mordecai became prime minister, we then get to chapters nine through eleven in the book of Ester. In those chapter, we hear that the Jews dedicated two days for the feast of Purim, pur means that they cast lots. The decision of the lots would no longer be on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month when the Jews were to be annihilated but on the fourteenth and fifteenth day of that month. On those two days, the Jews would be free to go into the land and get their revenge on everyone who had planned to kill them. So the Jews went out on the fourteenth and fifteenth day of that month and the Jews killed eight hundred people in the capital city of Susa and they killed 15,000 throughout the empire, of those people who thought that they were going to kill the Jews. The Jews got revenge on their enemies. They got sweet revenge.

This ends the story of Ester. Ever since that time, in the history of the Jews, the feast of Purim is one of the five annual feasts of the Jews, and they retell the story of sweet revenge.

So, what does all of this have to do with us? In a book that doesn’t mention God.  In a book that celebrate revenge at its conclusion. What does this story have to do with us? 

This story invites us to a quality of faith for which we are willing to die. Just as Queen Ester was willing to die for her faith, so also, we are to be willing to die for our faith as well. We know the story of Jesus’ death on the cross, his willing to carry the cross and be perfectly obedient until his death. We know of the death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. We have heard about the death of Simon Peter, killed upside down on a cross in Rome. And ever since that time, we Christians have been invited to be so committed to our Christian faith, that we are willing to die for this faith. Similarly, every July 4th we gather together as a nation and we hear stories about people who are willing to die for freedom. If you visit the Korean war monument in Washington D. C., you will read the words etched in the marble headstone: FREEDOM IS NOT FREE. You hear stories about people who are willing to die for freedom. Well here in the book of Ester, you hear stories about a person and people who are willing to die for the Faith. These stories inspire us, because to be honest, we are a bunch of religious wimps. We live here in our comfort. We live here in our softness. We live here in the midst of our compromises and compliance. We are not sure what it means to be a Christian. We, of all people, need to hear that there are times in the Christian faith and in the Jewish faith where people are willing to die for what is good, and right and true. Whether it be in your schools or your homes or your work, you and I need to be willing to stand up for God and the Gospel and be willing to risk your job and risk your reputation and risk your life and risk it all. That is why the story of Ester is so important.

There is a second theme that needs to be lifted up today. It is that line, “God chose Ester for a time such as this.” God often chooses us in our lives in such a way that we do God’s will. God puts us in situations so that we can do the will of God in that situation.

For example, the Virginia Tervo family is facing a crisis, a complex situation, a brick wall in front of them. Virginia is living with and dying of cancer. Dave and Virginia’s daughter, has moved up her wedding from next March to this coming Saturday, so that Virginia can be alive for the wedding and perhaps even attend it. A bridal shower was held the other day, and after the shower, the young women in the wedding party all went to the hospital to show the wedding gifts to Virginia, the mother of the bride. This Saturday, after the wedding ceremony, the wedding party will go to the hospital so the mother of the bride can see the wedding dresses and men’s tuxedos and share in the event. It is important that mother Virginia be part of the wedding. From my point of view, this is a family facing their crisis, their brick wall, their complex situation and doing the will of God in that crisis, in that complex situation.

You are human and therefore you face your crises, your complex situations, your brick walls. And hopefully and prayerfully, you, like Ester, will rise to the situation and be the love of God in your situation. God has chosen you for times such as this, to do the will of God in times such as you are facing.

This morning, Fred and Delores Matthews, were seated here in this church. Delores wanted to attended worship here one more time before she dies of cancer. Fred is taking care of his wife at a time like this and so are all the other people who know and love Delores. These people have been destined. They have been shaped for times just like this. I was talking to Fred one day and he told me that he had fought in World War II, fought in Korea, and fought in Viet Nam but this is the toughest duty I have ever been given, to join my wife in her battle with cancer. And God has prepared Fred for a time just like this. I am not sure what your time is or why God let you live today, but God has chosen you to use your life today to do his work and his will in your life, just as God chose Queen Ester, so God has chosen you as well. For a time just like this.

The third thing I would like to lift up today is that the story of Ester helps us to understand the difference between the Old Testament and New Testament. I am convinced that one of the reasons that this story of Queen Ester is so popular among the Jewish religion is not only because of the intricacies of the story of the Queen but because the book ends with sweet revenge. If you as a nation have been persecuted for centuries, you like the story that ends with sweet revenge for your side. Deep in the human heart there is a desire for sweet revenge. We would just as soon “nail” those people those people who have hurt us. But we get to the New Testament and we hear the teachings of Jesus which are just the opposite of revenge. “You have heard in the Old Testament about an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say you: love and forgive your enemies.” A major difference between the Old and New Testament is God pulling out from us the permission and justification we give ourselves to obtain sweet revenge on anyone who has hurt us. Many world religions promote sweet revenge; the Christian faith does not. 

Ester is not one of the big mountains in the Old Testament. The book of Ester is not like the towering mountaintop of Abraham and Moses and Joshua and Samuel and David and Solomon and the prophets. A little mountain but still the Word of God. Queen Ester and her cousin Mordecai; they are part of the Word of the Lord. Amen.

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