A plan to save the Jews - Esther 7:1 - 8:17

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the morning service on 11th May 2008.

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I know this is very unlikely to ever happen to you but if someone ever asks you to pick a movie theme tune for Esther chapters 7 and 8 then let me recommend you chose the memorable soundtrack from the Mission Impossible films. Tom Cruise has starred in three different movies so far but in each one the same theme tune is played at the key moments. I’m sure you remember it. It goes a bit like this.

Of course the same theme tune helps to link the three different movies together but it also tells us that the big theme of each movie is exactly the same - an impossible mission needs to be completed by the hero of the story.

This is a great summary of what is taking place in Esther chapters 7 and 8. The hero of the story is confronted by an impossible mission. God’s people, the Jews, are on the verge of extinction. An official decree has been issued to allow their enemies to completely annihilate them from all corners of the Persian Empire on a single day.

And remember according to the legal system of the Persian Government once a law has been passed and written on the statue book it can never be repealed.

So here is the challenge facing the hero of our story. How will he save the Jewish people from a clear and present danger? 

If you have been listening carefully over the last few weeks you will already know the identity of the hero. A superficial reading of the book of Esther could lead someone to believe that either Mordecai or Esther deserves hero status. However, as we read the book carefully we discover that Esther and Mordecai are far from saintly and are not ultimately responsible for what we read on these pages.
 
Who is the hero in the book of Esther? It is the God who is never mentioned. His name never appears in any of the ten chapters and yet his influence can be seen in every verse. God is the hero in the book of Esther.

And in chapters 7 and 8 he is confronted by a seemingly impossible mission. How will he save his people from complete and utter destruction? In chapter 6 he has certainly humiliated Haman and he has saved the life of Mordecai from certain death but as we turn the page to chapter 7 the threat to God’s people remains. Nothing has fundamentally changed. The day of destruction is just around the corner and the enemies of God’s people are preparing for battle.

Can you hear the music? It’s the mission impossible theme tune. How will God save his people from certain death?

Let’s see how he completed his mission. 7:1, “The king and Haman went to dine with Queen Esther, and as they were drinking wine on that second day, the king again asked, “Queen Esther, what is your petition? It will be given you. What is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be granted.”

This is the third time he has asked Queen Esther what is on her mind and at last she tells the king exactly what he wanted to know.

Verse 3, “Then Queen Esther answered, ‘If I have found favour with you, O king, and if it pleases your majesty, grant me my life – this is my petition. And spare my people – this is my request. For I and my people have been sold for destruction and slaughter and annihilation. If we had merely been sold as male and female slaves, I would have kept quiet, because no such distress would justify disturbing the king.” 

She has been very clever so far. She has chosen her words very carefully. She has not mentioned who her people are and she has not even mentioned who sold them for complete destruction.

I think she had the skill of an expert negotiator. And we see this in verse 5. Listen to the response from King Xerxes. “King Xerxes asked Queen Esther, ‘Who is he? Where is the man who has dared to do such a thing?’”

As I was writing the sermon I couldn’t help but remember a classic Blackadder moment when Edmund Blackadder found himself in a very similar situation to Haman. It was during the third series and Blackadder has managed to fool the prince that he had rescued a French aristocrat from revolutionary France. He had in fact spend all his time in London and has paid a French exile already in England to pretend Blackadder had bravely rescued him from France. Unfortunately, for Blackadder he has, in fact, bribed none other than the Scarlet Pimpernel. And as he stands before Prince George he starts to recount the crimes of an evil man who has dishonoured and deceived the Prince. There is a wonderful moment when he is walking towards Blackadder, speaking about an individual who deserves to be imprisoned and Blackadder, with brilliant comedy timing, turns to look behind him as if the Scarlet Pimpernel must be speaking about someone else.

I just wonder if Haman wanted to do the same as he listened to Queen Esther present her request to King Xerxes. He knew exactly who she was talking about as she made her request to King Xerxes.

Well, unlike Blackadder there was no escape for Haman. His identity would not be hid forever because of a last minute cunning plan.

The king asks his question in verse 5 and the queen provides the answer in verse 6. “Esther said, ‘The adversary and enemy is this vile Haman.’” Not surprisingly we’re told that Haman was terrified as he stood before the king and the queen. Xerxes was furious as a result of what he had just been told. In fact, we see an indication of how angry he was in verse 7. We’re told that the king got up in a rage and he left his wine and went outside into the palace garden. He must have been angry to leave his wine!

Why did he go outside into the garden? It may be that he nipped outside to clear his head or perhaps to get some space to contemplate what he had just heard. But the suggestion which makes sense to me is that Xerxes went outside to contemplate how he could solve a tricky problem. By this point the fate of Haman is sealed in the king’s thinking. Xerxes wants to get rid of him. But how can he do it without looking like a complete idiot?

Remember he was responsible for promoting Haman to the office of Prime Minister and he even gave him his own signet ring from his own finger to authorise his edict to wipe out the Jews in a single day. So can you see the problem confronting Xerxes? How can he get rid of Haman without looking like a fool? He gets his answer soon enough. Look at what we’re told in the middle of verse 7. Haman realised that the king had already decided his fate so instead of pursuing the king into the garden he stayed behind to beg Queen Esther for his life. But “just as the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman was falling on the couch where Esther was reclining.” Why? He was begging her for mercy. But the king exclaimed, “Will he even molest the queen while she is with me in the house?” And then before Haman can even articulate a reply, before his vocal cords can muster a sound, what happens? his face was covered leaving him speechless.

Can circumstances get any worse for Haman? He must have leapt out of bed in the morning with a spring in his step but so far his day has been a disaster. He has been forced to lead a person he despised through the streets of Susa, proclaiming Mordecai to be worthy of honour. And now he has just been accused of molesting the queen without an opportunity to defend himself. Can things get any worse? The answer is yes and quickly. Look at verse 9, “Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs attending the king said, ‘A gallows seventy-five feet high stands by Haman’s house. He had it made for Mordecai, who spoke up to help the king.’ The king said, ‘Hang him on it!’ So they hanged Haman on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the king’s fury subsided.”

It is a dramatic reversal of fortunes. The man who had risen to almost the very top of the Persian Empire is hanged on the very gallows he himself had constructed.

Let me ask you a personal question. How confident are you that the future you have planned for yourself will happen?

We do live in a culture where individuals love to be in control. We hate people telling us what to do and how to live. We want to be centre-stage in the drama of our existence. We want to set the course and the direction of our lives.

And yet even though we plan and even though we sometimes do everything we can to protect ourselves from circumstances we would rather avoid – what is the reality? We are tiny and puny creatures who may talk loudly but who are incapable of controlling the future.

We may think our current position is secure but as the story of Haman reminds us our fortunes can change in a moment. The beginning of the day? Haman is on top of the world. The end of the day? He was hanging on a gallows.

Now I am not saying that we should never plan ahead. It is right to be wise as we prepare for the future. But I think God would say the following to us this morning.

If you are not committed to Jesus and love to be in control then wake up to the reality. You are not in control of your destiny. You have an illusion of control. There are so many circumstances in life that you are powerless to alter. Sometimes God will bring you to your knees so that you will see this for yourself. Maybe you have been learning about the Christian faith for a long time and you believe it’s true but your sticking point is that you don’t want to give up control. No one is asking you to give up control. You are being asked to give up the illusion of being in control and follow the one who is really in charge of the world. And this brings great peace. As a Christian you can know that the God who died for you is also the God who cares for you and is now working out the circumstances of life for your eternal good.

We are prone to worry. Do you ever ask why the Bible is full of commands not to worry? It’s because this is what we are prone to. But when we do these sections of the Bible should be very precious to us. They remind us that God is in charge of his world. And just as he can bring down the proud in a moment, he can also make sure his people are kept spiritually well throughout their lives. So take heart if you are worried – God is in charge of our daily circumstances. This is one of the lessons we can learn from Esther chapter 7.

By the end of the chapter God’s people are still in danger. The author of the edict has been dealt with but his legislation to annihilate the Jews is still on the statute books. So the question we are to have as we begin chapter 8 is this: How will God overturn a law that cannot be overturned?

Let’s find out. 8:1, “That same day King Xerxes gave Queen Esther the estate of Haman, the enemy of the Jews. And Mordecai came into the presence of the king, for Esther had told how he was related to her. The king took off his signet ring, which he had reclaimed from Haman, and presented it to Mordecai. And Esther was appointed over Haman’s estate.”

Esther again pleaded with the king and fell at his feet, shed bucket loads of tears and begged for his mercy on her people. Now rather encouragingly in verse 4 he again extends the golden sceptre to her but in reality what can he do? A decree has already been issued in the law of the Medes and Persians and laws in this judicial system can never be repealed. So the king could not simply withdraw the previous edict. The very constitution of the Persian Empire prevented this from happening. What could he do? Well, look at what he says in verse 7, “Because Haman attacked the Jews, I have given his estate to Esther, and they have hanged him on the gallows. Now write another decree in the king’s name on behalf of the Jews as seems best to you, and seal it with the king’s signet ring – for no document written in the king’s name and sealed with his ring can be revoked.” Or in other words, he passed the buck. He cannot repeal the old law and he is not clever enough to think of a new law. So he said to Esther, over to you sweet heart. Here’s my signet ring to use when you’ve written what you need but from this point onwards you’re on your own.

At once the royal secretaries were summoned, the typing pool were at the ready and Mordecai dictated the wording of the new edict to save the Jews from total extinction. We find it summarised in verse 11. “The king’s edict granted the Jews in every city the right to assemble and protect themselves; to destroy, kill and annihilate any armed force of any nationality or province that might attack them and their women and children; and to plunder the property of their enemies. The day appointed for the Jews to do this in all the provinces of King Xerxes was the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar.” Or in other words, the very day when permission was granted to attempt a holocaust of the Jewish people.

Next week, we’ll think more about this edict and the precise way it was implemented but for now I want to focus our attention on three things.

1.    The way God solved the problem.
2.    The response of the Jewish people.
3.    The reason some people became Jews.

First of all, the way God solved the problem. It looked like game-over for God’s people but what these chapters remind us of is that nothing is impossible for God. He can deliver his people from any danger they are facing. And in this chapter of the Bible he did by using the ordinary decisions of human beings, who all acted responsibly, but in the end they achieved God’s perfect plan.

When we come to the New Testament we are presented with the answer to yet another seemingly impossible mission for God. All the way through the Old Testament God has declared himself to be thoroughly just and yet amazingly loving. He declares his intention to punish human sin and yet grants complete forgiveness to any rebel who gives up their rebellion.

The big question is: How can this be done? How can God simultaneously remain a God of justice and a God of forgiveness?

Frequently we don’t see this as a big deal but I suspect this is because we minimise the magnitude of our sin against God and we how important it is for God to be just. When we hear of serious crimes we want justice to be done in our courts. We would be outraged if punishment was not conferred. But when we think about our sin against God we generally consider it to be of small importance.

The Bible has a more realistic view of sin and God’s holiness and so it presents a seemingly impossible mission for God to solve. How can he be simultaneously just and yet forgive human rebels?

The answer is the death of Jesus Christ on a cross. Why did Jesus die? To show love? Yes. Good example? Yes. But one of the answers we don’t often say is to demonstrate God’s justice. Listen to what Paul says in Romans 3: “God presented Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished – he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”

We remember this today as we take bread and wine. The message is wonderful. Nothing is impossible for God! Again he completed the mission by using the ordinary decisions of human beings who all acted responsibly but in the end they achieved God’s perfect plan. Jesus was killed for all sorts of human reasons but at just the right time he was killed so the justice of God would be satisfied once and for all.

This leads me on very nicely to talk about the response of the Jewish people to the news of their salvation. Look at what we’re told in verse 15.

“Mordecai left the king’s presence wearing royal garments of blue and white, a large crown of gold and a purple robe of fine linen. And the city of Susa held a joyous celebration. For the Jews it was a time of happiness and joy, gladness and honour. In every province and in every city, wherever the edict of the king went, there was joy and gladness among the Jews, with feasting and celebrating.”

No wonder. They had feared for their very lives but they were certain of their salvation and so they were filled with joy and began to celebrate. 

I was wondering how much these emotions are part of our Christian life. The Bible has a range of emotions that are to be experienced by Christians but one of them is joy. We have even more reasons to be joyful that these Jews in the book of Esther. Think about all the blessings we have as Christians. If these do not make us joyful then what will? I want to encourage us to let our joy be evident for others to see.

The last thing I want to say today is based on the very last sentence of Esther chapter 8. We’re told that “many people of other nationalities became Jews because fear of the Jews had seized them.”

Is this a good motivation to become a Christian?

One way to God, but many ways to Jesus.

There are other reasons but this is still a good one.

Jesus speaks about the blessings but listen to what he says in Luke 12:4-5, “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.”

You might be sitting there thinking to yourself – I can’t become a Christian if the only reason is because I’m afraid. Why not? Jesus says this is a very good reason.

For those of us who have let this be a day of joy. We trust a God who controls the future and a God who has completed a seemingly impossible mission.

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