by: Denise Robinson
Life Lessons: The Story of Esther
“Between a Rock and a Hard Place”
Esther 2:5-11; 9:26-28 (4:14)
Have you ever faced a time in your life when things just didn’t seem to be going your way? A time when it seemed that things couldn’t get worse until they got worse. I suspect at one time or another we’ve all felt that way but for different reasons. Perhaps it was due to a death or illness, a financial hardship, a job situation, marital difficulties, problems with children – and more. And in those times of difficulty, one question we often find ourselves asking is, “Where is God?” Our life lesson for this morning comes from the book of Esther. It’s a story some of you may be familiar with, and others may not. Esther is a young woman caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place; her life hasn’t been easy and it’s about to potentially get worse. And, where is God?
The book of Esther takes place nearly 2500 years ago (around 483 BC), in the city of Susa, in what is modern day Iran. Israel, at this time, had been virtually decimated as a nation. King David was a distant memory. The Babylonian empire had overrun northern Israel about 100 years before our story begins. The Israelites had been defeated and many of them were taken in exile away from their homeland and relocated to cities and town in Babylon. Over the years, most of them assimilated into the Babylonian society. Then, as inevitably happens in history, the Babylonian empire fell to the Persians. King Cyrus defeated the Babylonians and freed those who had been taken as captives, many of whom opted to continue to live in now-Persian territory rather than return to Israel. After all, after almost 100 years, the Jews now living knew of their homeland only from stories told by their parents and grandparents. Babylon, and now Persia, offered them a standard of living better than what they would find in Israel where cities, homes, means of earning a living, all would need to be rebuilt. Life wasn’t perfect for Jews living in Persia, but better the known than the unknown. And, for some, life was even comfortable. Even if they were required to honor other gods and had no Temple; as long as they didn’t cause trouble, they were generally free to worship the god of their choice in their own homes.
Our story, from the book of Esther, introduces us to five main characters. First, there’s King Ahasuerus or, as he was better known, King Xerxes I, son of Darius the Great and grandson of Cyrus. Esther 1:1 notes that Xerxes ruled over provinces from India to Ethiopia; during his lifetime he would extend the empire into Greece and eastern Europe. Second, there’s Xerxes’ wife, Queen Vashti. Her role is minor, but sets the stage for what is to come. Third, there’s Haman, the Persian prime minister and the villain of the story. Fourth, we have Mordecai, a Jew, Esther’s older cousin who has adopted her as his daughter. And, finally, we have Esther, a young woman who, when we first meet her, is a pawn but then becomes a queen.
Here’s the story, as told in the book of Esther. One day, three years into his reign, King Xerxes decides to give a big party. All kinds of important people are invited – government officials, wealthy businessmen, army officers – and this party is a lavish affair. The party lasts for 180 days and all of the wealth of the Empire is on display. It’s pomp and circumstance to the nth degree. And when the party for the important people was over, Xerxes opened up his palace to all the people, men, women, and children, for seven days of feasting and drinking. On the 7th day, when Xerxes was, according to Esther 1:10, “merry with wine,” he commanded his palace officials to go and get Queen Vashti. This wasn’t exactly an invitation – Xerxes wanted to show off her beauty and parade her in front of everyone dressed in her finest and wearing the royal crown. For reasons unknown, Vashti refused to come and this angered Xerxes so much that he met with his lawyers to find a way to remove her as queen. According to the book of Esther, he was concerned that other wives would hear about Vashti’s refusal to obey and they would all suddenly refuse to obey their husbands. As I sure all of you would agree (cough, cough), this would lead to unimaginable chaos throughout the entire empire and we can’t have that! Bottom line: it’s time to look for a new queen.
So, out goes a summons from the palace looking for the most beautiful young women throughout the empire. In the same city as the palace, the city of Susa, was the house of Mordecai, a Jew, whose great-grandfather had been taken captive by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon when living in Jerusalem. Mordecai had adopted his younger cousin, Esther, when her parents died. Esther, along with, we are told, many young women, were snatched from their homes and taken to the palace where for a year they lived without knowing what was going to happen next. After a year had passed, the women, one by one, were taken to the king. By now we are told we are in the 7th year of Xerxes’ reign, meaning that four years have passed since that fateful party years ago. Long story short, Xerxes favors Esther over all the other women and sets the crown on her head. Then he throws another party which he called “Esther’s banquet.”
Meanwhile, while all this is going on, Mordecai, who has been hanging around outside the palace trying to see what’s been going on with Esther, hears of a plot to kill the king. He gets word of the plot to Esther, Esther tells the king, and the conspirators are killed. That would be the end of the story but now in comes another of our main characters, Haman. The king makes Haman his prime minister and Haman decides to dictate that everyone will bow down to him just like to the king. As bad luck would have it, one day he crosses paths with Mordecai and Mordecai refuses to bow to him. Haman is so enraged that when he discovers Mordecai is a Jew, he decides to destroy all Jews throughout the empire. More than a slight over-reaction it seems, but he enlists the king’s support by convincing him that the Jews, as a people, present a danger to the kingdom. A proclamation issues for all Jews – men, women, and children – to be killed. Mordecai hears of the proclamation and gets word to Esther asking for help. Esther is now truly between the rock and the hard place. She is queen, but knows her title can be taken from her as easily as it was the previous queen. She is known to the king by the Persian name of Esther, but her true name, her Hebrew name, is Hadassah. The root of the name Esther in Hebrew means “to hide or conceal.” Not only has her true name been hidden – her entire Jewish heritage has been kept a secret. Finally, under the laws of the day, the wives of the king could only come to him if summoned by him. Esther was his queen, but one wife of many. And if he was angered by her disregard for the law, she could be killed. The Jews go into hiding and Esther, setting aside her fears for her own safety and status, goes to the king. In the end, Mordecai’s role in uncovering the plot years before to kill the king is discovered. Haman is executed, Mordecai is elevated to prime minister, the proclamation to kill the Jews is revoked, and Esther is remembered for saving her people. Esther 9:26-28 tells us that the days of deliverance for the Jews will be called Purim and that two days every year will be set aside and remembered throughout every generation, never to cease as long as there are Jewish descendants. The year, the festival of Purim was celebrated on February 25 and 26, and Esther’s courage and faith were remembered and honored.
That’s the story of Esther. But are there life lessons in her story for us? Imagine all in life that this young girl, probably somewhere around 15 years of age when taken to the palace, had endured. Her parents had both died. She was raised by an older cousin who adopted her. She lived in a land where her heritage, even her real name, were kept secret. She was forcibly taken from family and friends to the palace where, for over a year, she simply existed not knowing what would happen to her. Finally, amazingly, she, out of everyone else, was selected as queen. Selected to be married to a man she didn’t know, no ability to say no, and fully aware that there had been a queen before her who was removed simply for not coming when the king called. Now she is told of a plot against her people and she is asked to use what influence she has – assuming she has any at all – to get the king to change his decree and go against the man he trusts above all others, the man he has placed in charge of his kingdom. Esther 4:14 tells us the words of the message sent to her by Mordecai: “For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Mordecai, perhaps remembering God’s promises to Abraham and to David, tells her he has faith that the Jewish people, at least some of them, will be delivered somehow; but she is arguably in a position to be of the most help, the one best positioned to save many, if not all, of her people, and she has a decision for herself as to what she will do.
This is something interesting thing about the story of Esther that’s important to our life lesson this morning. Did you know the book of Esther is one of only two books in the Bible where no mention is made of God? There’s no word from God to either Mordecai or Esther, no words from a prophet, no miracle performed, no assurance that if they act in faith, they will be rewarded. God, it seems, is absent. God, from all appearances, is silent. And yet, there’s a lot of “coincidence” going on if you take time to read the entire book. It just happens that out of all the women brought before him, Esther, a Jew, is chosen by the king. Then it just so happens that the king has trouble sleeping so he sends for a history book of his reign (history books have always been good for insomnia I guess), and then he just happens to turn to the page in the book where a man named Mordecai overheard and disclosed an assassination plot against him. And it just so happens that all of that comes to light just as Haman is planning to execute Mordecai out in the palace courtyard. To everyone caught up in this story it seems like life is a made up of a series of unrelated events that are just happening. No one sees there is a pattern.
At some time or at various times in our lives, we face decisions when it comes to faith. Will we keep our trust in God? Is our faith something we do in secret or are we willing to let it be known to others no matter the cost (which, for most of us, is certainly not our lives or even our jobs, just how others might respond)? Are we willing to speak up for those who are unable to speak, who cannot be heard? Just how far are we willing to let this thing we call our Christian faith really take us? And, just like in the book of Esther, when we are called upon to answer these questions it seems like life is just randomly happening around us. When we are busy living our lives, we don’t see God or a pattern. Just as with Esther, God is seemingly absent and silent. But God is present and there is a pattern even if we can’t see it … and each of us has a part in God’s plan. We have influence on others. We have opportunities that no one else has. God is calling each of us – you and me – for such a time as this. To paraphrase Esther 4:14: “For if you keep silence at such a time as this, God’s kingdom will still come, relief and deliverance will come from another quarter, but who knows how many you could have influenced will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to faith for just such a time as this.” How will you answer?