Providence, Part 5
Insights from the book of Esther
Bruce A. Hess
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If you would, please take out the word of God and turn in it, in the Old Testament, to the book of Esther and chapter number 8. Today we are giving the concluding message in the series that we have entitled, ‘Providence, Insights From the Book of Esther.’
All along, week after week, we have been defining providence. We said that providence means God is behind the SEEN! The s-e-e-n. And, we have said over and over again that providence is His superintendence of all that happens in life. All that happens remains within God’s control and divine purpose.
But, you know, when you are discussing this whole concept of God’s providence, it tends to illicit different reactions in different people. Part of what we want to do today is to examine some of those common reactions.
For example, just to give you a little preview, our human heart naturally is in love with our personal autonomy, right? I mean, we prefer to see ourselves as in charge of our own lives. We like to view ourselves as having our own authority and there are some people, when you talk about providence, they don’t really like the sound of God’s providence.
Another common reaction is this, that even when we acknowledge that God has a providential plan, on the inside we are thinking, ‘Why doesn’t He fill me in on this providential plan as it is unfolding?’ And, if we are going to be really honest, deep down, we often have thoughts, because He doesn’t inform us, that this seems a little bit unfair. ‘It seems unnecessary to leave me out of the loop when you are doing things in my life.’
Then, there is another common reaction that happens when you talk about providence and that is, when someone is in the middle of a difficult and dark time, we’ve all been there, maybe you’re there right now, you are thinking about what you are experiencing right now and you are thinking to yourself, ‘This just doesn’t really feel like love to me.’ Often times when we are in the middle of those kinds of situations, we begin to doubt His love. We’re going to take a look at those common reactions a little bit later this morning.
I’ve been sharing with you every week some quotes on providence. I want to share another one with you today. It comes from John Calvin and here is what he says, there is a lot of depth to this one, he says, “Ignorance of providence is the ultimate of all miseries. The highest blessedness lies in the knowledge of it.”
The title we have given to today’s message is, ‘Remarkable Reversal.’ It is in the book of Esther, chapters 8, 9, and 10. As we come to chapter 8, Snidely Whiplash, you know, Haman, is gone. He has been executed; he is off the scene. Yet, the D-Day]
for the Jews is still on. That day of annihilation of the Jews, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month is still in place.
As we look at these chapters, again I want to give you an outline. You can go back and look at it more later.
- We have, in chapter 8, verses 1 and 2, Mordecai honored.
- Then, we have Esther’s appeal to the King, in verses 3-8, of chapter 8.
- Then, we have the new decree that comes, in verses 9-14.
- Then, we have the joy of the Jews, in verses 15-17 of chapter 8.
- Then, in the first nineteen verses of chapter 9, we have the military victory of the Jews.
- And, then, in verses 20-32 of chapter 9, we have the Feast of Purim established.
- Then, we have an epilogue to the entire book, in chapter 10, verses 1-3.
Now, as we move through all this, we are actually going to look at less details this week than we have in some other weeks, because I want to take some time to talk about these common reactions to the concept of providence.
Let’s go ahead and move through these chapters. In chapter 8, verses 1 and 2, we have Mordecai honored. Notice it says in verse 1 of chapter 8, “On that day,” this is when Haman is executed, “King Ahasuerus gave the house of Haman, the enemy of the Jews, to Queen Esther; and Mordecai came before the king, for Esther had disclosed what he (Mordecai) was to her.”
So, what happens is, you remember, Haman has an estate, he has now been executed, he has a home, he has possessions, he has wealth. Remember, he was incredibly wealthy. Remember the 10,000 talents of silver he was going to give as a payoff to eliminate the Jews? We don’t know how wealthy he was, but he was very wealthy and the King says, ‘I want to turn over his estate to you now, Esther.’ Probably part of it as a reward for all the trauma the Queen had gone through. But, also, probably a statement of thanksgiving, thanks to her for unmasking someone who could have been a true threat to the King. We learn that she discloses, to the King, who Mordecai was, ‘He’s my cousin, he’s been my stepfather.’
Now, again, if you climb into the story, you can kind of imagine the King, you know, when he hears this. ‘Wow! Are you kidding me? The guy that saved my life four to five years ago is your step-father?’ Mind blowing. Notice what happens in verse 2, the King decides to give his signet ring to Mordecai, the one that he had given to Haman to be Prime Minister, he now gives to Mordecai, to be Prime Minister. And, Mordecai excels in this role.
Look at chapter 9, if you would, very quickly, at verse 4, it says, “Indeed, Mordecai was great in the king’s house, and his fame spread throughout all the provinces; for the man Mordecai became greater and greater.”
You know, there is a pattern that emerges in Scripture that is very interesting, where God grants favor to the Jews. It is all part of His plan to preserve the line so that the Messiah might come. Over and over again you see individuals who are granted favor and end up in influential roles in foreign lands. Do you remember Joseph? There is an example. How about Nehemiah? There is an example. Daniel is an example. And, now Mordecai is an example.
We also learn from verse 2 that when it came to the management of Haman’s estate that been awarded to Esther, she turned that all over to Mordecai and said, ‘You be the manager of the estate for me.’
Then, we have Esther’s appeal to the King in verses 3-8. Remember, the decree to annihilate the whole nationality, the whole race of the Jews, was still on. And, it’s been estimated that there were about a hundred million people in the Persian Empire and it’s been estimated that there were about fifteen million Jews. So, we have fifteen million Jews whose head is on the line. Remember, this decree, that said we are going to annihilate all the Jews, could not be revoked, we learned that in chapter 1 and verse 19. That’s the way Persian law worked, once it was on the books, it could not be revoked.
So, what happens? Well, in verse 8 the King gives permission, with his signet ring, and basically says to Mordecai and Esther, ‘Decree away, figure out a way to counter the first decree, which allows you to be annihilated in some way. Come up with some idea.’
Which leads to the new decree that occurs in verses 9-14 of chapter 8. We learn in verse 9 that this decree, just like the first decree, is written and then it is sent out to all 127 provinces of the Empire. It is sent out to all of the authorities in the Empire. But this time it is additionally sent out to all the Jews. Not just all the provinces and all the authorities in the provinces, but also the decree comes to all of the Jews.
What is the nature of this decree? Well, verse 11 kind of summarizes it. It says, “The King granted the Jews who were in each and every city the right to assemble and to defend their lives, to destroy, to kill and to annihilate the entire army of any people or any province which might attack them, including children and women, and to plunder their spoil.” They are given the right to defend themselves against anyone who might attack them and seek to annihilate them.
Now, in verse 11 there is an interesting phrase that we’re not really sure what to do with. Even the translators of Scripture are unsure what to do with it. That is that little phrase, ‘women and children,’ in verse 11. It is unclear how to understand that. There are two basic ways that it can be understood. One way to understand it is, when the Jews were given permission to defend themselves and to kill anyone who was attacking them, it also included Persian women and children who might join the attack against them. That is one way to understand that phrase. Another way to understand the phrase would be this way, that the Jews were allowed to defend themselves, and not only to defend themselves, that being the men, but also to defend their women and to defend their children.
So, it is hard to know how that phrase gets utilized in the verse. If you have an ESV, and I have a New American Standard, they leave it fairly ambiguous, we’re not quite sure how to apply it. If you have a New King James version, they take the first view, that it is giving the Jews permission to kill not only Persian men, but also women and children who would attack them. If you have an NIV, or a New Living Translation, it takes the second view, that they were being told that they could defend themselves and also defend their women and to defend their children.
Now, whichever way that we take it, we know from chapter 9 and verse 6, chapter 9 and verse 12, and chapter 9 and verse 15, that only Persian men were ever killed in self-defense by the Jews.
The next section then leads us to the joy of the Jews in verses 15-17, when they find out they are now allowed to defend themselves if they are attacked. And, in verse 16 we see part of their response was that of gladness and joy. What a contrast it is from chapter 4 and verse 3, when they find out about the first decree and there is mourning and weeping and wailing.
Interesting thing happens in this section at the end of verse 17. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, if you’ve read this, but it says, “Many among the peoples of the land became Jews.” What an interesting sideline that is in all of this. Many of them became proselytes to the Jewish religion. When the festival is implemented in chapter 9 and verse 27, they are invited to join in on the Feast of Purim, because they were proselyte Jews.
Well, in chapter 9, the first nineteen verses, we have the military victory of the Jews. We learn from verse 6 that there was, in the city of Susa, five hundred men killed as the Jews defended themselves. But, here is what is interesting, we learn from chapter 9, they never took any plunder from anybody. Remember, that is part of the decree, it says you could defend yourselves, you could kill them, and you could take their plunder. But they choose not to do that.
Look at the end of verse 10, in chapter 9, “They did not lay their hands on the plunder.” Verse 15, at the end, “They did not lay their hands on the plunder.” Verse 16, at the end, “They did not lay their hands on the plunder.”
They had the legal right to it, but they didn’t do it. Why do you think that was? I think it is because they didn’t want their motives ever to be questioned. ‘Oh, you’re only in this because you want all their stuff.’ No, they were defending themselves against someone who wanted to annihilate them.
Among those five hundred killed in the city of Susa were the ten sons of Haman. Their names are actually listed for us in verses 7-10 of chapter 9. What is really interesting is, when you look at those ten names, every one of Haman’s sons were named after Persian demons. Isn’t that interesting? It tells you where the heart of Haman was coming from. It gives you some insight into who was actually directing Haman to destroy the Jews. We learn from verse 16 that throughout the Empire a total of 75,000 men were killed in self-defense by the Jews.
And, after all this occurs, we have the Feast of Purim. It is established in chapter 9, verses 20-32. It is kind of interesting, there are only two non-Mosaic feasts that the Jews have, that means feasts that Moses implemented, during Moses’ era. There are only two that are non-Mosaic. You have this one, the Feast of Purim and then you also have the Festival of Lights, which we also call today, Hanukkah. Why did they call it the Feast of Purim? Well, the Persian word for ‘lot,’ remember how they drew lots on which day are we going to eliminate, annihilate, the Jews, the Persian word for ‘lot,’ is the word, ‘Por,’ P-u-r. And, in Hebrew, if you want to make anything plural, you add, ‘im’ to it. You know, you have cherubs, and when you have more than one cherub, you would have cherubim, in Hebrew. We would just add an ‘s’ in English, but they would add an ‘im.’ So, when it talks about the Feast of Purim, it is talking about the feast, literally, of lots, the lots that were drawn on the day that they would be annihilated.
So, we have this feast established and for some twenty-five centuries, guess what? Jews have been celebrating the Feast of Purim, which was first started during this era of Esther. When they have the Feast of Purim, it is a tremendous celebration. There is singing and there is feasting. They have a tendency to wear masks and put on costumes. They will exchange gifts, often exchanging baskets of food, back and forth. Then, one of the things they like to do is, they like to bake hamantaschen. Now, hamantaschen are little cookies and little pastries. By the way, that title, hamantaschen, the first five letters are the word ‘haman,’ in there. These cookies and pastries, they say, are three cornered because it is imitating Haman’s hat that he used to wear as he was Prime Minister.
Another thing that they will do at the Feast of Purim is, they will write, ‘Haman,’ a lot of people, in chalk, on the bottom of the soles of their feet, so as you are walking around pretty soon his name is just wiped out.
Of course, as part of this celebration they read out loud the book of Esther and when it is being read, when the name of Mordecai is mentioned everybody cheers, and when the name of Haman is mentioned everybody boos and hisses and they will do these ugly sounding noise makers out loud. But, this is the celebration that began 25 centuries ago, that we see in the book of Esther.
Then, the book ends with the epilogue in chapter 10, verses 1-3. In particular, I want you to notice what it says in verse 2. It says that, “The full account (of all of these things) are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Media and Persia?” Translation: this is not a made-up story. You can go to the Congressional Record of Persia and Media and it is in the Congressional Record. It really happened.
Now, what I want to do is, it is an incredible story, isn’t it? What a thrill it is to be able to even witness it. But, I want to pull back for a few minutes, in our time that we have left, just for some more life reflection. We’ve done this several times. You know what I think is interesting is, frequently, we look in the mirror and we think this thought, ‘Can God really use me? Can I really make a difference?’ We see everything going on around us and we think, ‘Can one person really make a difference?’ You know, the influence of one is very obvious in history.
You know that in 1776, it was only one vote that led to the adoption of English as our national language over German, just one vote. In 1845, it was just one vote that led Texas to joining the Union, and many of us in Oklahoma wish that vote had never been cast [humor here: there is a sports rivalry between Oklahoma and Texas]. In 1868, it was just one vote that kept Andrew Johnson from impeachment, just the value of even one. So, here is the question we ask ourselves, deep down inside I know we ask ourselves this question, can I really make a difference? Can I really make a difference? Can God use me to really make a difference? And, you know what?
Noah would say, yes.
Joseph would say, yes.
Esther and Mordecai would say, yes.
In fact, Jesus would say, yes.
If you know Jesus as your rescuer from sin and judgment, He has left us all here for a reason. He has plans to use you in your sphere of influence. Here is what is interesting, as we try to make a difference in our sphere of influence, here is what is interesting, we never really know the impact. Can you think of them ever dreaming that the impact would be felt twenty-five centuries later? I even think about, I think about this all the time with Children’s Ministry and Student Ministry, we have no idea the potential impact.
I like the exhortation of Chuck Swindoll here, he says this, it speaks well to us, “You have been created to live as a kingdom disciple, heaven’s representative on earth. Attending church is not your purpose. If that’s the entirety of your spiritual life, you have merely added a weekly gathering to your social calendar in the name of Jesus. No, God put you on the earth for much more than that. You have been called to the kingdom for such a time as this. For such a time in our culture where decay has taken root. For such a time in our families where millions of young people exist without so much as a mentor to help steer their way. For such a time in our communities where the lost go without hope and the hurt go without healing.”
God wants to use you. Now, very few of us are ever going to become Queen or Prime Minister, but God still wants to use you. Think about this, in your sphere of influence there may be a future Esther, there may be a future Mordecai. We never know. So, often times, we are just hesitant to believe that God wants to use me.
There is an old saying that goes like this, a turtle only makes progress when it sticks its neck out. Has the Holy Spirit been nudging you about some area that He wants to use you?
Another thing we want to do as we do some life reflection is, tackle some of these common reactions. Remember, we mentioned the first one, where the human heart is naturally in love with personal autonomy. We don’t like the sound, some of us, of God’s providence, because, why? I like to do what I want; I like to go where I want, I don’t really want to answer to anyone, I just want to be my own authority. When it comes to God’s providence, some of us may choose to deny it, some of us may choose to ignore it, we may complain about it, we may rebel against it, but guess what? It does not negate it in any way.
Tony Evans does a good job here of challenging us on this point. Here is what he says, “Like it or not, God exists for His own glory. Now you can fight that truth, fuss at it, argue it, not want it, reject it, accuse it, or anything else you want to do. But whatever you do about it, it’s not going to change it. God exists for God. So does everything He made. He made it for Him. That’s the reason it’s here. That’s the reason we’re here. We are made for God. Our lives are not about us; they are about Him and His glory.”
Isn’t it interesting, you know, I think sometimes we have this resistance against God like He was some kind of an ugly ogre. ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t want Him having…’ But, you know what He really is? He is a loving rescuer. Part of what He really wants to do is rescue us from ourselves, that’s part of what He’s about.
We mentioned another common reaction against this concept of providence that is often had and that is, ‘Okay, I understand God has a providential plan, but why doesn’t He just fill me in as this thing unfolds? I mean, can’t I get an e-mail or a text or could there be some writing in the sky?’ Have you ever looked up at the clouds thinking, where is the writing so I can see what God has in mind? I mean, let’s be real, at times we’re confused and spiritually dazed. We don’t really know what to do and how to even respond to the situation.
It kind of reminds me of the character, Walter, in Crocodile Dundee 2. Have you ever seen that movie? Walter is this guy and he comes to this situation, in the movie, where he doesn’t know what to do and he doesn’t know where to go, like a lot of us. In the movie, what happens is, Dundee is sort of hiding under a bush and he leans his hand out and he writes in the dirt, ‘Jabba Point.’ That is where you need to go, Jabba Point. And then, Walter goes, ‘Yeah, Jabba Point is this way.’ And, Dundee is going, ‘No, it’s that way’ [and he points in the opposite direction]. That is really, often the way we feel. Things are happening to me; I wish He would just write the message in the dirt.
You know, we’re not the first people that have experienced that. In the book of Job, the way, it is interesting to me that the book of Job comes in our Bibles, right after the book of Esther. And, Job, in chapter 23, verses 8 and 9, is very real here. He says, ‘What I am trying to figure out is what God is doing through this incredible mess that I’m experiencing, he says, “I go forward but He is not there, and backward, but I cannot perceive Him; when He acts on the left, I cannot behold Him; He turns on the right, I cannot see Him.” He says, ‘I don’t have a clue what is going on at all.’ Do you identify with that? Because, you see men and women, we are all Job.
Later on in the book of Job, Job and his friends begin to demand explanations from God and what is interesting in the book of Job is, God is silent for thirty seven chapters, but in chapter 38, God steps up to the mic and in His omniscience and omnipotence and omnipresence and His perfect holiness, and His wisdom and His justice and His goodness, here is basically what He steps forward to say, ‘I just kind of want to remind you that I am the Creator and you are the creatures. My universe is way beyond your universe.’
Remember the words in Isaiah 55:8-9, “My ways are higher than your ways and My thoughts are higher than your thoughts.”
Paul asks the question in the New Testament, in Romans 11:34, “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” The answer is, nobody. Because, He is the Creator and we are the creatures and whether we see it or not and whether we understand it or not, He is always in control, He is always at work, He is always moving in the events of our life. What He really says to us is, trust Me, I have a plan. He says, I want to remind you, it says in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, “The just shall live by____.” What is the word that goes in the blank? Faith. ‘And, My grace is sufficient for you.’
The final common reaction we want to address for a few moments is this idea, God what I am experiencing now, (and some of you, if you are in the middle of it, you really understand what I am talking about) what I’m experiencing now doesn’t feel like love! We begin to think in our minds, does He really love me when He has allowed such and such, whatever it could be, to happen to me? The enemy of our souls, oh, he takes advantage of this. God doesn’t really love you, he’ll whisper in our ears. Have you been there recently? Could it be you are there right now?
Tim Keller helps us in this regard. He writes this, “If we ask the question; ‘Why does God allow evil and suffering to continue?’ And we look at the cross of Jesus, we still do not know what the answer is. However, we know what the answer isn’t. It can’t be that He doesn’t love us. It can’t be that He is indifferent or detached from our condition. God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that He was willing to take it on Himself…so if we embrace the Christian teaching that Jesus is God and He went to the cross, then we have deep consolation and strength to face the brutal realities of life on earth.”
See, when we even have the mental thought towards God, do You care? His response was, look at the bruises, the beating, and the blood shed by My Son. Look at the scars on My Son and you will have the answer. See, He proved His love to you and me at the cross.
That is why it says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
Romans 5:8, “God demonstrates (that means to set forth in a clear manner) His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
See, when we begin to wonder, does He really love me in light of everything I am experiencing? He says, refocus on the cross, refocus on the cross.
I want to share with you two quick Bruce thoughts, okay? Bruce thought number one, ‘If God is able to use the suffering of Christ for eternal good then certainly, He is able to utilize our suffering for eternal good.’
Bruce thought number two, ‘When you cannot trust what you see, you must trust who you know.’
John Calvin, “Ignorance of providence is the ultimate of all miseries; (because we think everything is random, there is no rhyme or reason) the highest blessedness lies in the knowledge of it.’
Embracing providence breeds trust and rest and peace. It anticipates there will be a divine outcome to what I am having happen in my life. We need to remember that no matter how challenging the circumstances, how precarious the pathway, when we wrap ourselves with God’s providence we have hope when days are bad and we have humility when days are good. When we know Christ, all of our suffering, all of our struggles, all of the storms of our life, all the trouble and all the trauma will ultimately end in joy and triumph.
I want you to know, if you are here today without a relationship with Christ, I want you to know that He gave Himself for you. He loves you. He desires to be your rescuer and the shepherd of your life. How does that happen? We make a life choice by faith, to trust and believe in His death for you, His resurrection for you. He wants to be your living hope. I will tell you this, if you turn to Christ, you will never, ever, ever be disappointed.
Let’s pray together. Father, we just thank You again for this dynamic book, for the truth and the lessons of Your providence that we learn. Help us to remember that You are always at work. May we rest in Your providence in our life as life happens to us. And, so we say, now to the King Eternal, Immortal, Invisible, the only God, be honor and glory, forever and ever. Amen.
Questions for Reflection
Providence (Esther) – Remarkable Reversal
1. Bruce shared this quote by John Calvin:
Ignorance of providence is the ultimate of all miseries;
the highest blessedness lies in the knowledge of it
What practical life truths do you think Calvin was seeking to highlight by this statement?
2. Isn’t it incredibly comforting to know that God is never out of touch? He is never fretting or panicking, never bumfuzzled and bewildered, never perplexed, distressed or flustered. He is never impotent, baffled or disoriented; nor ruffled or rattled.
It is astonishingly true that He can work even in selfish, secular, and sinful settings to accomplish His providential plans. He is always at work even in hostile situations, even amidst irresponsible, greedy businesses, even in the face of selfish, misguided leaders. He is always grieved by wrong and injustice (and always holds those responsible accountable), but life is never beyond his providential control and sovereign working.
Why then is it so hard for us to trust Him?
3.. God desires for each of us to influence others for His eternal kingdom. We may not ever achieve the recognition of a Queen Esther or a Martin Luther, but He desires us to influence others.
As Ephesians 2:10 highlights, there are good works that He has prepared for each of us to accomplish. To that end, He presents us with opportunities among our family, our neighborhood, our work, school, church, the community, even the world.
Where has the Holy Spirit been nudging you recently about stepping up and making a difference in the lives of others? Elaborate.
How much does the dictum “A turtle only makes progress when it sticks its neck out” apply to you?
4. One of Bruce’s thoughts was: “When you cannot trust what you see, you must trust who you know.” What does that mean practically in everyday life?
5. Bruce closed in prayer citing 1 Timothy 1:17. Take some time to praise God for who he is.