The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 9/28/97
Text: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 (Psalm 124)
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

The God who is always there. Wonder which God that might be? It could not possibly be the God of Heaven...OUR God, could it? OUR God is on vacation, gone to Spain to see the Ryder Cup...or someplace. So it seems...sometimes. Where is God when life starts to crumble and the burdens begin to crush?

I wonder if Queen Esther ever felt that way? She would have had every reason. Perhaps that is why, in the entire Old Testament book that bears her name, the name of God never appears...not even once.

The scene is ancient Persia during the reign of Ahasueras (also known as Xerxes)...the royal palace. A party is going on...and on and on. For six months this party had been roaring along, and was now being capped off by week-long banquets, one for the men hosted by the king, one for the women hosted by the queen, Vashti. Yes, there was a fair amount of drinking going on, and as is often the case, things got a bit out of hand. The king decided to parade his pretty queen before his buddies (and, according to the rabbis who know most about the story, the parade was to be in the buff).(1) The queen responded with the Persian equivalent of "IN YOUR DREAMS!" Uh oh.

Hey, King, she's saying NO. Are you gonna let her get away with that? Because if you do, there's not a woman in this entire realm who will ever again be obedient to her own husband. Hey, King, you gotta do something!

So the king DOES something - Queen Vashti is banished. After all, this is a dangerous situation. Then to make sure that this "uppity woman" behavior goes no farther, letters went out across the kingdom, as the scripture has it, "to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, declaring that every man should be master in his own house."(2) Case closed.

Now the king starts to miss the beautiful Vashti. So the clever courtiers propose a nation-wide beauty contest to find a replacement. From far and wide they bring the loveliest ladies of the land. One by one and night after night, the beauties are brought to Ahasueras (whose name, by the way, sounds like the Hebrew word for "headache"(3) - I'm not sure what to make of that). Months go by, and finally we meet our heroine, a young and apparently gorgeous Jewish maiden whose Hebrew name is Hadassah (and after whom the Jewish women's organization is named) but whom we have come to know as Esther. She lived right there in the capital, an orphan girl raised by her cousin Mordecai, a minor official in the palace. To make a long story short, she wins. She is proclaimed queen, and all the people love it because, to celebrate the royal wedding, King "headache" grants everyone a tax amnesty.

Now we meet the villain of the piece: Haman, the Prime Minister. Scripture gives a quick clue as to how dangerous this fellow will be by calling him a descendent of Agag, king of the Amalekites, a nation with whom Israel had generations of hostility.(4) Haman enjoyed the trappings of political power, the ancient equivalents of limos, cell phones, and a fawning public. The last part especially - he liked the fact that people were supposed to bow when he passed by. It was a royal rule. POWER!! And he did NOT like anyone ignoring that rule, especially a miserable Jew. Day after day, Haman would come to the king's court, and day after day, this minor official named Mordecai would refuse to bow down, an honor no good Jew would ever accord to a descendent of Agag. Haman went ballistic. He was not content with getting rid of Mordecai; he was going to get rid of ALL the Jews...Holocaust. When? He rolled the dice, drew straws, cast purim (lots) to determine on what day to do the dastardly deed - it would be the 13th of Adar, the 12th month. Nuts. That was almost a year away. Oh well. Destiny is destiny (and that is what casting lots is supposed to show).

Haman comes to the king with a proposal:

"There is a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king's laws, so that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those who have charge of the king's business, so that they may put it into the king's treasuries."(5)
10,000 talents of silver? Hmm. Even a king can use some extra money, and a multi-million dollar "gift" would be a nice lining to any purse, even the royal one. No. Ahasueras thought better of the bribe, declined it, but let the decree go out anyway. Word was sent throughout his kingdom that on Adar the 13th, all of the Jews were to be killed.

As might be expected, the Jews were most unhappy (all but Esther, because she had not heard the news). Weeping and wailing were the most repeated sounds; sackcloth and ashes the fashion statement. Mordecai dressed himself appropriately and camped outside the palace gate. The queen's attendants saw cousin Mordecai in his strange state of dishabille, reported to her, were instructed to find out what was going on, did, and brought back a copy of the royal decree.

What now? Mordecai sent word to Esther that she had better get to the king and QUICKLY to do something about this edict. Esther sent back word that it was not as easy as that - no one just drops in on the king for a little chit-chat; you come to the king when you are summoned and not before. Otherwise, it might be OFF WITH YOUR HEAD! For that matter, it had been more than a month since King "Headache" had called for her, so who knows how long it might be.

Mordecai responded. "Do not think that you will escape this sentence just because you are in the king's palace...Who knows? Perhaps you are who you are and where you are PRECISELY for such a situation as this."

It was a big decision. Confront the king? Go to his throne room without an invitation, not knowing if he would receive her, or if her boldness would cost her her life? And if he DID allow her to live, what would she tell her husband he had done? After all, she had never before mentioned to him that she was Jewish. The subject had never come up.

Esther finally agreed she had no choice. Word was sent back to Mordecai to get all the Jews in the capital city to fast for three days and nights (not just days, as was the ordinary custom), as a sign of rigorous discipline. The queen and her attendants would do the same. Finally, after the fast, her courageous visit would be made. She said, "If I perish, I perish."(6)

Esther arrayed herself in her finest garments, hoping to look as lovely as the day Ahasuerus had chosen her to be his bride. She passed through the corridors of the palace until at last she came to the throne room. There was the king. Would she be kissed? Or would she be killed.

Ahasuerus lifted his face. A smile. The golden scepter was quickly raised. What a surprise. "What is it, Esther? What brings you here? Something you need? Anything you want...up to half my kingdom."

It would have been too brash to just blurt out the problem, so she responded with an invitation to a private dinner party, just for the king and his most trusted advisor, the Prime Minister, Haman.

"Sure. Now? OK. Somebody go get Haman." Esther's home cooked dinner was on.

"More wine, my love?"

"Sure. Now, what is it that has prompted this sumptuous spread? What can I do for you?"

Esther still had not figured how to say what was on her mind. "Ahem. Well, how about another dinner for you two tomorrow?"

So they agreed. Haman was particularly pleased at the thought. A private dinner with the king and queen two days in a row - if anyone had any question about who is really who in this kingdom, it should be answered now. Suddenly, as Haman leaves the palace, he sees Mordecai - again, no bow. Haman seethes. He gets home, tells his wife and friends about his second-in-a-row private royal dinner invitation, adds a word about Mordecai's daily insult, and hears advice to build a huge gallows, 75 feet high, just outside the palace, have Mordecai impaled on the top of it in the morning (impaling, not hanging, was the customary mode of execution), then enjoy dinner with the king and queen right afterward. ALL RIGHT!!!

Meanwhile, the king has insomnia that night. He calls for some bedside reading, The Book of Memorable Deeds, and in it he sees a story that he had forgotten - one of his minor palace functionaries, a man named Mordecai, had once saved the king's life by uncovering an assassination plot among some servants. What had ever been done to reward Mordecai? Nothing.

Early in the morning or not, Haman is already at the palace (got to get that gallows built). The king calls him in and asks, "What should be done for a man the king wishes to honor?" Haman smugly figures Ahasueras is talking about him, so he suggests beautiful robes, a fine horse, a royal crown and a parade through the city. The king responds, "Good idea. Do it for Mordecai the Jew." Oops.

Haman does as he is ordered, but not happily. He goes home after the parade and seethes again. Suddenly, the king's servants are at his door saying it is time for dinner at the palace. Back he goes.

The scene is a repeat of the day before. "More wine, my dear?" Esther asks.

"Sure. Now, what can I do for you, my beautiful queen? What can I give you?"

Esther answers, "How about my life...and the life of my people?" Then she explained what was happening.

"Who is he and where is he who would do such a thing?" thundered the king.

"Right there." She pointed to Haman.

The king was furious. He walked out the double doors to the garden to gather his thoughts. Meanwhile, Haman was left alone with the queen. What could he do now but beg? He knew his life was on the line. He came over to Esther's couch, fell on his knees, put his head in her lap, face imploringly toward hers, and arms around her waist in a bid for mercy. At that moment the king comes back, sees his Prime Minister groping at the queen, and TOTALLY loses it. "Assault the my my own house? Get 'im outta here. Impale him on that new gallows outside the palace."

That was the end of Haman. Who would become the next Prime Minister? Who else? Irony of ironies. Mordecai.

As for the decree about killing the Jews on the 13th of Adar, that could not be changed - a royal decree is irrevocable...even by the royal who decreed it. But a second decree was issued allowing Jews to defend themselves against any attack. Who would want to mess with that? That was enough to prevent the Holocaust. To this day, the Jewish people remember the treachery of Haman, the wisdom of Mordecai, and the bravery of Esther in the annual joyful celebration of Purim (remembering the lots Haman used to determine Hebrew Homicide day).

Where was God in all that? As we said in the beginning, God is never mentioned in the narrative. Did the story turn out all right? Yes. Was evil defeated? Yes. Did justice triumph? Yes. Hmm. What can we conclude but that God was there all the time, making things come out right.

We ask again what we asked at the top of this: where is God when life starts to crumble and the burdens begin to crush? Listen to the psalmist's celebration: "Who was on our side, when our enemies attacked us, then they would have swallowed us up alive, when their anger was kindled against us...Blessed be the LORD, who has not given us as prey to their teeth." Where is God? Right there. Always there. Always there.

Let us pray.

O God, too often we wonder if we have been left to fend for ourselves. We see so much in this world that ought not to be, and we wish your presence were more obvious. Help us to remember your unfailing presence. Lord, we believe; help our unbelief. We pray in the name of Jesus. Amen!

1. Michael Williams, Ed., The Storyteller's Companion to the Bible, Vol. 4, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993), p. 156

2. Esther 1:22

3. Williams, p. 156

4. Exodus 17:16

5. Esther 3:8-9

6. Esther 4:16

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