A victory to be remembered - Esther 9:1 - 10:3

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the morning service on 18th May 2008.

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There are some pages of the Bible which have the ability to stop us in our tracks. We read what they have to say and, as a result, we are left wondering if our eyes are working properly. Have they deceived us or were they focused with 20-20 vision? Have we misunderstood what we have just read? And, if not, then why is such a page found in our Bibles? And since it is then what are we to do with it?

I’m not absolutely sure how you were reacting as I read through Esther chapter 9 but I’m fairly certain that if your ears were open then you have now been left with a number of questions. Why is this page in our Bibles? In one day over 75,000 people were killed by the people of God. Was this morally right? Was it morally acceptable for the Jewish people to wipe out so many of their enemies on a single day? And what about us? What can we, 21st century residents of Hull, possibly learn from a chapter of the Bible so full of violent bloodshed?

Well, let me show you what Esther chapter 9 is all about. Have a look at verse 1. “On the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar, the edict commanded by the king was to be carried out. On this day the enemies of the Jews had hoped to overpower them, but now the tables were turned and the Jews got the upper hand over those who hated them.”
We’re told how they did this in verse 2. “The Jews assembled in their cities in all the provinces of King Xerxes to attack those seeking their destruction. No-one could stand against them, because the people of all the other nationalities were afraid of them. And all the nobles of the provinces, the satraps, the governors and the king’s administrators helped the Jews, because fear of Mordecai had seized them.”

And this enabled the events of verse 5 to unfold. “The Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying them, and they did what they pleased to those who hated them. In the citadel of Susa the Jews killed five hundred men.”

Or at least that’s the number they killed on the first day because listen to what Esther says in verse 13, “If it pleases the king give the Jews in Susa permission to carry out this edict tomorrow also, and let Haman’s ten sons be hanged on gallows. So the king commanded that this be done. An edict was issued in Susa, and they hanged the ten sons of Haman. The Jews in Susa came together on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar, and they put to death in Susa three hundred men.” Meanwhile, verse 16, “the remainder of the Jews who were in the king’s provinces also assembled to protect themselves and get relief from their enemies. They killed seventy-five thousand of them.”

You might be thinking to yourself, what on earth are we to learn from this section of the Bible? It seems so bloodthirsty, doesn’t it? And at a first glance it seems so irrelevant to our day to day situation.

However, before we write it off as one of those embarrassing parts of the Bible, let me show you three clues which I think reveal the true meaning of this story. The first clue is found at the end of verse 10. The Jews certainly killed the ten sons of Haman but look at what we are told at the end of verse 10, “They did not lay their hands on the plunder.” And this is what we read again at the end of verse 15. Clue number 2: The Jews in Susa killed 300 men on the 14th day of the 12th month but “they did not lay their hands on the plunder.” And just in case we still haven’t got the point look at what we’re told at the end of verse 16. Clue number 3: The Jews outside Susa “killed seventy-five thousand of them but they did not lay their hands on the plunder.”

The crucial question is, “Why not?” You may remember from last week that the official legislation passed by Mordecai allowed the Jews to do this very thing. Not only were they granted permission to kill their enemies, they were also within their rights to plunder their property. However, on the day of battle we are told repeatedly, three times, that the Jews did not lay their hands on the plunder. The question is, “Why not?”

The answer I would like to suggest to you is that they saw this battle against their enemies as an example of ‘holy war.’

If you know something of the bible story you’ll remember that after the Jewish people were rescued from their captivity in Egypt they had to conquer the promised land of Canaan. At that time it was inhabited by many wicked people and the God of Israel, remember the God who owned the land in the first place, gave his people permission to completely destroy those who were already there. The Israelites were to act as the agents of God’s righteous judgement against the sinners who currently occupied the land. Against Sodom and Gomorrah he had reigned down fire and brimstone directly from the sky but in the book of Joshua he used his own people as agents of his judgement. They were told to conquer the land, to take no prisoners and crucially for us this morning, they were told not to lay their hands on the plunder. The possessions of the conquered people were to be given to God and not kept in the family sideboard.

The plunder was known as the devoted things and these were not to be kept by the people of God but handed over to be used in the tabernacle of God. If you read Joshua chapter 7 you will learn about the consequences when this command of God wasn’t put into practice.

One of the reasons I think Esther chapter 9 describes a holy war is because we are told repeatedly that the Jews did not lay their hands on the plunder.

A second reason why I think Esther chapter 9 describes a holy war is because of what happened to the ten sons of Haman on the second day of the battle. Do you remember what happened to them on day 1? Alongside five hundred men they were killed by the sword. Verses 6 and 7, “In the citadel of Susa, the Jews killed and destroyed five hundred men. They also killed Parshandatha, Dalphon, Aspatha, Poratha, Adalia, Aridatha, Parmashta, Arisai, Aridai and Vaizatha, the ten sons of Haman son of Hammedatha, the enemny of the Jews.” So that was on day 1. But on day two, Esther made a most unusual request to King Xerxes. Verse 13, “If it pleases the king,” Esther answered, “give the Jews permission to carry out this day’s edict tomorrow also, and let Haman’s ten sons be hanged on gallows.”

Why do this? Was she simply a mixed up woman with macabre tendencies who needed to spend a long time on a psychiatrist’s couch? I don’t think so. It could be that she simply trying to make a public example of these ten individuals but I think the best answer is found when we look again at the book of Joshua. Do you remember what Joshua did to a number of kings when he conquered the land of Canaan? After they had been killed by a sword their bodies were hung on a tree. It was another practice of holy war. The bodies of dead leaders were supposed to be hung up for all to see. So it seems that in Esther chapter 9 we are being presented with a holy war between God’s people and their current enemies.

Let me say that if you struggle with the concept of a holy war then you are not alone. Countless numbers of Christians find it difficult to reconcile their view of God with a God who would sanction his people to engage in such activities. So let me say a few things to help you understand the place of holy war in the Bible.

The first thing to note is that holy war is not sanctioned in the New Testament and can never be a legitimate option for those who claim to follow Jesus Christ.

Which, of course, means that whatever the crusades during the Middle Ages were, they were not Christian activities.  The Christian faith was hijacked by wicked individuals who had a lust for power and wealth.

Listen to what Jesus says in Luke 6:27, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you…If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that.”

Do you remember the conversation Jesus had with James and John after they were not welcomed into a Samaritan village? Jesus wanted to visit one of the villages in Samaria and he sent messengers to prepare for his arrival but the people didn’t welcome him. Do you remember how James and John reacted to this put down? They turned to Jesus and asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” We’re told that Jesus turned and rebuked them.

The first thing to note is that holy war is not sanctioned in the New Testament and can never be a legitimate option for those who claim to follow Jesus Christ.

We are still in a battle but it is a spiritual battle that we wage with different weapons. Who are our enemies? Let me mention two. The enemies of God and our sinful desires.

When we are not friends with Christ we are enemies of God. The enemies of God are our enemies. But we are ambassadors of the King on a reconciliation mission. There is a day planned in the heavenly calendar when all resistance will be crushed but now is the time when we take a message of forgiveness and reconciliation to a perishing world. We fight with the weapons of truth and prayer and loving deeds. This is how we love people.

We live in the age of salvation history when we are called to love our enemies and indeed to speak the gospel to them so they can become friends with God.

All this is surrounded by deeds of mercy. Not just for the church family but also for our enemies. As Jesus says, “If you only love those who love you what good is that? Even sinners do this.” So we help those who are our enemies. They are enemies not because they have done something wrong to us but because they are currently rebels against God.

One of the practical examples of this mercy ministry is our plan to partner with Christians Against Poverty.

Together, in word and deed, we witness for Christ and proclaim the news that he has already won a victory against the consequences of sin and now we can all have an opportunity to become friends with God.

We are to have a battle mindset. This is not a private club or a holy huddle. We are the army of Christ with a battle to win. Let us win friends for the kingdom of God!

Are you feeling a little dry as a Christian? Perhaps it’s because you are getting fat and not exercising to keep fit. So get stuck in and change the eternal destinies of people you encounter.

We are also fighting a battle against our selfish desires. Sin still lurks below the surface and needs to be fought with military determination. Often we play with sin and don’t put it to death.

How is our self-discipline? Are we more likely to be described as chilled or courageous in our battle with sin? Are we drifting through life or determined to get rid of those destructive habits?

The second thing to realise is that if we had lived in Old Testament days then we may have been required to be involved in holy war. Today we have abandoned holy war not because we see it as immoral or because we are somehow more sophisticated but because we live in a different stage of salvation history.

Why is it that we struggle with the concept of a holy war in the Old Testament? A number of reasons. Let me mention a few.

We often want to think of God in our image and not let him speak about himself. How many people have you heard start a sentence about God as follows, “I like to think of God like this…” Who cares what you like to think about God. What matters is what’s true.

Secondly, we often have a very low view of human wickedness and aren’t always convinced people are as bad as the Bible makes them out to be. We struggle frequently with the notion of a deserved judgement for all. Yes we are quite happy for certain people to face judgement, those we consider very bad. However, we often struggle with the idea that all people everywhere deserve judgement for the way they have treated God.

We must realise that God does promise a future day when the wicked will be judged with justice. This will be even more destructive than the accounts we read about in the book of Joshua. We cannot say the God of the Old Testament is a God of judgement and the God of the New Testament is more cuddly and cute. There is only one God of the Testaments and he is both loving and holy.

It is a challenge to let God be God and rid our thinking of the “I like to think of God like this…” kind of statements. My friends, we must let God be God.

The people of Esther’s day had a victory to be won. Christ has won a victory for us and now before the final judgement we have a victory to be proclaimed.

The second lesson we can learn from this chapter of the Bible is that victories need to be celebrated. We know that straight after their initial victory of their enemies the Jews were full of joy and thanksgiving but let me remind you of what Mordecai did in verse 20 of chapter 9.

“Mordecai recorded these events, and he sent letters to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Xerxes, near and far, to have them celebrate annually the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month of Adar as the time when the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month when their sorrow was turned into joy and their mourning into a day of celebration. He wrote to them to observe the days as days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor.”

Or in other words, Mordecai wanted to ensure the days of celebration continued long into the future. Human beings easily and quickly forget the past and so here was a way to ensure God’s victory for his people was not forgotten by the generations to come.

This celebration still happens in Jewish communities today and it is known as the festival of Purim. We are told why it is called Purim in verse 26, “These days were called Purim, from the word pur.” The word pur means ‘the lot’ and it was the method Haman used to determine the exact date for the annihilation of the Jewish people. Wonderfully God had reversed the outcome and changed what could have been a dreadful day of sorrow into a day of victory and celebration.

What you cannot miss in this chapter is the emphasis on the need to continue the celebration of a past victory in future years.

There are lessons here for us. The need to remember the past victory of Christ. How easy it is to be swamped by the busyness of the present, neglect any contemplation of what Christ has done for us.

Let’s make use of the means of grace. Bible, prayer, church and the Lord’s Supper.

Let’s also realise that spiritual malnourishment is harder to spot than physical malnourishment. Stop eating and it won’t be long until you see the results. I think it takes a bit longer to notice spiritual malnourishment – which is why it is so dangerous! Stop feeding your soul but withdrawing from the means of grace and you might not see any effects. So the pattern of behaviour gets worse until you get to the point when you withdraw altogether. We must realise that there are consequences of spiritual withdrawal. Our souls are damaged.

At worst it may be evidence that we are not genuinely committed to Christ and at best we will just about survive spiritually but not thrive as we should.

If we do this we will be in constant danger of neglecting to thank the Lord for the greatest rescue mission of all. 

We have a victory to be celebrated.

Lastly, we also have a victory to be expected.

Why not end with chapter 9? Why do we have chapter 10? Certainly Mordecai was in prominence but in many ways nothing had really changed. They were still captives in a foreign land.

They were still expecting a greater victory. A Messiah was still expected.

We know his name. It is the carpenter we read about in the four Gospels. Jesus has come to bring that greater victory.

Even we live in the tension. The victory has happened and yet we are still surrounded by worldly kings and worldly empires. We bless the civilizations we are part of by living godly lives but we are to look forward with eager expectation to a future return of our King.

We are to prepare for it and we are to make sure other people are prepared for it.

Are you prepared for it? Even today it is possible to walk out of this church as a friend of Jesus.

For those of us who are then let’s be encouraged by the big truths from Esther. God is in control. Our lives have significance. We will not know the full impact until later but knowing that nothing we do for the Lord is in vain then let’s fight our battles with full determination and courage.

Let’s pray.

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