And they all lived happily ever after
Esther 8: For Jews it was all sunshine and laughter.
As I wrap up my devotional reading of the story of Esther I find a “happily ever after” kind of conclusion. The tables have been turned on the enemies of the Jews. Their enemies had expected to exterminate God’s people but the Jews were given permission to fight back and they’ve done so with stunning success. The two most important people in Xerxes’ kingdom are now Jews: Queen Esther and his first adviser, Mordecai. The Jews have become so popular that many are converting to their religion. These are good days indeed. Clearly, this is a mere snapshot of history, but it’s one worth remembering so the Jews create an annual holiday to commemorate these events. I think that’s a pretty smart thing to do. We know that life isn’t always filled with happy endings. The very race of people we’re talking about here has a history of way more than its share of loss and destruction. However, they know that it’s good to remember special days of blessing. Frankly, good and bad constantly mix in our world. Even as we celebrate the birth of our Savior we comfort families who have lost loved ones, we make hospital visits, and we pray that for some very good people that the New Year will be better for them than was the old one. Remembering the good days brings balance and perspective to our lives. That doesn’t mean that we pretend all is well when it’s not, but it does mean that we step back and see the whole picture of our lives rather than focusing only on our problems.
Take Away: Don’t let the problems of life blind you to the blessings of life.
My “A” game
Esther 7: So Haman was hanged on the very gallows that he had built for Mordecai.
Esther uses every tool she has in her efforts to save her people. She relies on her intelligence, her beauty, and the support of all those who are fasting before the Lord over the outcome. She issues not one, but two invitations to the King to attend lavish dinners. Xerxes is fascinated and filled with curiosity about all this. Then there’s Haman who’s also invited. His ego is so great that he never sees the trap Esther has laid for him. When the time is right Esther speaks and the end result is that Haman is hanged on the gallows he built for her uncle and Xerxes grants her permission to act in his name to save her people. A few devotional observations can be made here. Esther uses her natural gifts in her service of the Lord. People fast over this and God hears. The result is that the people of God are protected and saved. I’m to bring my “A” game to my service of the Lord, giving it my best while at the same time knowing that it’s all for nothing without the intervention of the Lord. I also need to remember that I’m part of a larger family of believers who will join me in petitioning the Lord for his help. As I give my best and as my family of faith joins me God moves to make all the difference in the world.
Take Away: The Lord loves working in partnership with us.
God’s sense of humor
Esther 6: Haman fled to his house, thoroughly mortified.
If you like a good story with both drama and comedy, you have to enjoy the Book of Esther. Xerxes, upon reading the journal of his kingdom through a sleepless night discovers Mordecai’s heroic deed and realizes that Mordecai was never properly rewarded. The next morning as he’s still thinking about this Haman shows up so Xerxes asks for his advice concerning a proper reward for such a great man. Haman immediately assumes that this “national hero” he’s being asked about is himself, so he describes an honor that he would thoroughly enjoy: a chance to dress up like the king and be treated as the king. To his horror, Xerxes orders him to do it. However, instead of it being Haman who’s honored, it will be the man Haman hates the most: Mordecai. As I imagine this story being told by Jewish people to one another, I can almost hear the laughter at this unexpected turn of events. The picture of Haman leading the horse and the praise of Mordecai brings a smile to the face even when we’ve read the story many times. No big devotional thought here; just a reminder of God’s great sense of humor.
Take Away: The Lord delights in turning the tables on situations.
Sometimes a book is not just a book
Esther 6: That night the king couldn’t sleep.
Even as Haman dreams of power and revenge king Xerxes is having a sleepless night. He decides a cure for his insomnia might be a bit of light reading so he has the daily journal brought to him and as he reads it he’s reminded of Mordecai’s heroism in foiling the plot against his own life. What an interesting set of coincidences! The king can’t sleep, Haman is planning to take Mordecai’s life in the morning, the king asks for some journals to read and some unnamed servant just happens to pick the journal that includes Mordecai’s heroism. We know there’s more going on here than circumstance. In all this we see the hand of God. Does this teach me that every time I can’t sleep God has something to tell me or that everything I happen to read is supposed to remind me of something important? Of course not! Sometimes I can’t sleep because I’m simply too wound up from my day. Sometimes I read stuff that’s just a plain waste of time. But not always. As a worshipper of God I believe that God is active in this world and that he’s a communicating God. Sometimes, therefore, a book is just a book. Other times, though, it’s a message from God. The important thing for me is to be aware of that and to remain open, to paraphrase J.B. Phillips, on the “God-ward” side of life.
Take Away: Don’t be surprised when the Lord shows up in surprising ways!
The extended scepter
Esther 5: He was pleased to see her, the king extended the gold scepter in his hand.
The first great hurdle for Esther is getting an audience with King Xerxes. It sounds crazy to us, but in that kingdom Xerxes is treated like a god. Even his own queen can come into his presence only when summoned. If she or anyone else breaks that rule they can be put to death. However, the king, himself, can grant a sort of “instant reprieve” if he wants to simply by extending his scepter to the uninvited person. Xerxes is just a man, and, apparently, a rather insecure one at that, but that’s how it is in his kingdom. Esther tells Mordecai that she hasn’t been summoned by the king for more than a month, and, in light of what happened to the previous queen when she didn’t come when summoned, Esther is taking a real risk here. However, it’s a necessary one. If Xerxes is unworthy of such deference, there is a King who is King of kings who is worthy of all that and more. However, his relationship to me is so much better than that of Xerxes to his subjects. In fact, I have a standing invitation to come into his Presence any time. This King extended the scepter to me and everyone else long ago, declaring his throne room open for all who will come.
Take Away: We have a standing invitation to enter the throne room, let’s take advantage of it.
Long range planning
Esther 4: Who knows? Maybe you were made queen for just such a time as this.
I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that Haman probably hated the Jews long before Mordecai gets under his skin by not bowing down to him. I think that when the old man at the gate doesn’t feed his ego Haman takes note of him. When he finds out that he’s a Jew it triggers his plan to do away with a race of people he already hates. And, clearly, Haman has been on the elevator upward in Xerxes’ kingdom for some time now. Haman is a schemer who willingly bypasses small gains if doing so fits in with his bigger plans. If these two guesses are correct, Mordecai’s words here are especially accurate. That is, he doesn’t think that God gave Esther her beauty and then engineered her being made queen as a “just in case” measure. He believes God has been aware of the circumstances of all this all along. With that in mind, the Lord began putting together a plan of his own and that plan is what brings Esther to the position she now holds. Up to now Mordecai and Esther have tried to react to the unexpected events of life as a people of God should. Now they realize that God is depending on their faithfulness to accomplish his own purposes. This passage reminds me that even when I can’t see the big picture that God can and when unexpected things happen (both good and bad) they might just be a part of something bigger than I know.
Take Away: Even when I don’t see the big picture I can trust in the One who can.
Resistance is futile
Esther 3: There is an odd set of people scattered through the provinces of your kingdom who don’t fit in.
On the TV show “Star Trek the Next Generation” Captain Picard’s big enemy is the Borg. This mechanical-biological menace goes around “assimilating” people. Once the poor person is captured, they are melted into the Borg and lose their self-identity. When Jerusalem falls its citizens are relocated to various places in the Babylon Empire in an attempt to assimilate them. Conquered people are expected to lose their self-identity and simply see themselves as part of that vast kingdom. However, the Jewish people were called by God Almighty to be a “chosen people” centuries earlier. Obviously, there were many failures, still they resisted assimilation in Egypt and again when they moved into the Promised Land. Now, they insist on seeing themselves as, not just part of Xerxes kingdom, but as a people in exile. Haman is a bad guy who wants revenge on Mordecai by eliminating both him and his entire race, but he’s right when he says they “don’t fit in.” Okay, from Star Trek to Babylon to today…we too are a called out people. We’re the Church and we’re called to be in the world but not of it. As the fictional Picard resists being assimilated and as the historical Jews resisted, so are we to resist. We interact with our culture, influence it, and confront it — but as God’s people we must never be assimilated by it.
Take Away: Resistance is not futile.
Good versus evil
Esther 3: When Haman saw for himself that Mordecai didn’t bow down and kneel before him, he was outraged.
The final person we meet in the story of Esther is Haman. Every good story needs a villain and Haman fits the role quite well. He has it all: pride, revenge, selfishness, godless ambition. Haman rises to a position of great power in government and he expects all the perks that come with power. He especially likes it when the “little people” bow and scrape before him. And that is what sets this story in motion. Each time Haman arrives at the palace to see the King he enters the gate with a flourish. Everyone plays along except for one senior adult Jew. Mordecai doesn’t think Haman is worth honoring and his refusal to pay homage infuriates him. He could respond by killing Mordecai but Haman has grander ambitions than that. He knows Mordecai is a Jew, so he schemes a way to do away with the whole Jewish population. Haman and Mordecai are polar opposites. Haman’s a very bad man and Mordecai’s a very good man who loves and serves God with all his heart. It’s a classic conflict: good versus evil.
Take Away: Evil is real and it’s especially evident in the presence of good.
A pretty girl is like a melody
Esther 2: The girl had a good figure and a beautiful face.
Having met king Xerxes and Mordecai, we now meet the star of the story, Esther. Right off we’re told of her natural beauty, something absolutely necessary for her to play a role in these events. Throughout the Bible we see that good looks aren’t necessary for true beauty. Even when we aren’t told that specifically, the failure of Scripture to describe just how people look except for those times when looks are a part of the story convinces us that appearance isn’t a big deal to God. However, it’s an advantage from a human point of view. (By the way, I speak an observer here and not from personal experience!) In Esther’s case, her looks are a necessary asset, and her appearance is used by God to bring deliverance to his people. Different people have different gifts: looks, intelligence, talents, or resources. If we consecrate those things to the Lord, he’ll use them to advance his Kingdom. God doesn’t desire that a good looking person exploit that attribute for their own benefit any more than he wants a wealthy person to use their wealth only to please himself. In Esther, we see a beautiful woman using her beauty, not for selfish purposes, but for the Lord’s.
Take Away: If we’ll surrender our gifts and attributes to the Lord he’ll use them for both our benefit and the good of his Kingdom.
Just doing the right thing
Esther 2: Now there was a Jew who lived in the palace complex in Susa. His name was Mordecai.
The second character we meet in the book of Esther is Mordecai the son of Jair. Mordecai is a “Jew of the Jews.” He comes from the family tree of Benjamin and in this story he’s spoken of in only positive ways. He’s compassionate in taking his niece in and raising her after she’s orphaned. Clearly, he has a godly influence on her as this story shows. Mordecai doesn’t want the spotlight but he’s reluctantly brought into it by the unexpected circumstances that are revealed in the book of Esther. He stands up to the powerful Haman and shows himself to be a loyal subject to Xerxes. Mordecai is one of those people who quietly goes about living for God for many years, and then, at just the right time is used by God in some very specific, positive way. Mordecai does the right thing when the spotlight of history is turned upon him because he’s been doing the right thing all along.
Take Away: Do the right thing in the everyday events of life and it will be easier to do the right thing when the pressure is on.