We’ve reached the fourth chapter of this unusual book of the Bible. And it’s an unusual book of the Bible because God is not mentioned once. His name never appears. And that’s unusual because, of course, the Bible is all about God. And if the Bible is all about God, what’s this book doing in the Bible when it does not mention God, not even once? However, you might recall what I said when introducing this book a few weeks ago: God’s absence is one of the reasons this book is so helpful, because while God often makes his presence obvious by the things he does, very often — if not most of the time — God does not make his presence obvious.
God made his presence obvious in the days of Moses when he sent the plagues on Egypt and when he parted the Red Sea and when he went before the people in the pillar of cloud and fire. And he made his presence obvious in the days of Joshua when he parted the River Jordan and when he toppled the walls of Jericho. He made his presence obvious when God the Son came to earth as a man and performed mighty miracles and when he was raised from the dead. He made his presence obvious in the days of the Apostles by enabling them to perform signs and wonders.
God sometimes makes his presence obvious. But at other times — if not most of the time — he does not make his presence obvious. And we often find ourselves asking where is God? Where is he and why won’t he help me? And that’s why the book of Esther is so helpful. God is not mentioned. It seemed that he was not there. But though he seemed to be absent, he was not really absent, because he was there, working in the background, to get everything ready to save his people.
And do you remember last week’s chapter and why God’s people needed to be saved? In chapter 3 we read about this man, Haman, who was descended from King Agag of the Amalekites, who were Israel’s forever foes. And Haman — who had become the king’s right hand man — wanted to wipe out God’s people throughout the Persian Empire. And, with the king’s backing, Haman sent an order throughout the empire to destroy, kill and annihilate the Jews on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month. And having issued the order, Haman and the king sat down to drink. They toasted Haman’s plan while the city of Susa was bewildered at what was going on. And no doubt the Jews were wondering where is God? Where is God and why won’t he do something to save us? But though he seemed to be absent, he was not really absent, because he was there, working in the background, to get everything ready to save his people. Already he had placed Esther in the king’s palace as queen. Already he has put her in the right place at the right time to plead with the king for the life of God’s people.
And so, that’s an encouragement for God’s people in every generation and it’s an encouragement for you if you’re a believer, because if ever you think God is missing from your life, and he’s not around to help you, you need to remember and believe that our God is always with us; and he’s the Mighty God who governs all things and who controls all things. And he’s at work in the world, working all things together for the good of his people and for the glory of his great name.
Verses 1 to 5
As we turn now to chapter 4, we read in verse 1 that when Mordecai learned about Haman’s order to destroy, kill and annihilate the Jews, he tore his clothes and he put on sackcloth and ashes. That’s what they did in those days to express their sorrow and anguish to God. And we read that he went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly. Wailing loudly and bitterly was another way people expressed their sorrow and anguish to God. And then take a look at verse 3 now, because the author makes clear that Mordecai was not the only one who tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes and who wailed loudly and bitterly. The author tells us that there was great mourning among the Jews in every province of the empire, with fasting and weeping and wailing. And we’re told that many lay in sackcloth and ashes. So, God’s people throughout the empire began to mourn before the Lord.
Now, some of the commentators criticise the people, because while the text mentions fasting and weeping and wailing, it does not mention prayer. And so, some of the commentators complain that they did not turn to God in prayer. They fasted and they wept, but why didn’t they pray? However, fasting and praying go together in the Bible. When God’s people fasted, they prayed. And so, I have no doubt that the people were praying. When they tore their clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, when they fasted and wept and wailed, I’m sure they were praying to God and appealing to him to save them.
In fact, other commentators point out that the phrase ‘fasting and weeping and wailing [or ‘mourning’]’ is an echo of something we read in Joel chapter 2. Through the prophet Joel, God warned his people of impending judgment. A day of darkness was coming on the land and the stars would no longer shine. The Lord was going to come to punish his people. So, judgment was at hand. But after warning his people, the Lord commanded them to return to him. That is, he commanded them to repent: to turn from their sin and rebellion and to return to him with all their heart. And the Lord commanded them to return to him ‘with fasting and weeping and wailing [or ‘mourning’]’. It’s the exact same phrase in Hebrew.
‘Rend [or tear] your heart’, the Lord said, ‘and not your garments’. Well, Mordecai and the rest of the Jews had torn their garments and put on sackcloth and ashes. But as well as tearing their garments, they were also tearing their hearts as they fasted and wept and mourned before the Lord. And so, they were doing what God commanded his people to do through the prophet Joel. And here’s the thing: having commanded his people through the prophet Joel to return to him by fasting and weeping and mourning, the Lord promised his people that he would relent from sending calamity on them. So, if they turned to him, he would save them. That was God’s promise to his people through Joel.
And so, Mordecai and the other Jews were doing what God commanded. They turned to him in their distress, in the hope that God would do what he promised and would save them. And isn’t that what God’s people must always do? Whenever we face persecution or opposition, whenever we face troubles and trials, whenever the church seems in peril or danger, we should turn to the Lord in prayer and express to him our sorrow and anguish and trust that he will do as he has promised and come to our aid.
Before moving on with the chapter, look with me now at verse 2 and the little note that Mordecai only went as far as the king’s gate, because no one was allowed to enter the king’s palace in sackcloth. That little note tells us what the king’s palace was like. It was not a place for unhappy news. It was not a place for sorrow. Nothing was to disturb the king’s happiness. And means that the king and the people who lived in the king’s palace may have been totally unaware of the bewilderment and the sorrow which Haman’s plan was causing. If bad news was not allowed in the king’s palace, perhaps they were unaware of what was happening outside the palace.
That might help to explain why Esther seemed unaware of what was happening too. Look, for instance, at verse 4: Esther’s maids and eunuchs came and told her about Mordecai. And the news distressed her and she sent him some clothes to put on, which he did not accept. But while she was aware that he was in sackcloth, she doesn’t seem to know the reason for his mourning. She doesn’t know what’s going on. And so, she had to send Hathach, one of her attendants, to go and find out what was troubling Mordecai and why. And in the verses which follow, we see Hathach going back and forth between Esther and Mordecai with messages from one to the other. And this too shows us how Esther has become removed from the outside world and from her people. She’s not able to go out of the palace. She’s not able to speak to Mordecai in person. She’s removed from him. She’s out of touch with the outside world. She doesn’t know what’s happening to her people, because she’s living in the happy-land of the king’s palace. But that was about to change.
Verses 7 to 12
Esther sent Hathach to Mordecai who was in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate. And Mordecai told him everything that had happened to him and how much money Haman had promised to pay into the royal treasury for the destruction of the Jews. Again it’s noteworthy that neither Esther nor Hathach, who lived in the king’s palace, were aware of this. Mordecai was better informed than they were. He also had a copy of the order which had been published throughout the empire and he gave this to Hathach to give to Esther. And finally he told Hathach to urge Esther to go into the king’s presence to beg for mercy and plead with him for her people. So, Mordecai understands that Esther is in the right place at the right time to save God’s people. Perhaps he’s already thinking to himself that this explains everything that had happened in recent years. This explains why Vashti was removed as queen. This explains why Esther was taken from their home and taken to the palace. This explains why she was made queen. In the past, he may have wondered why God had let these things happen. Why had God not prevented Esther from being taken? Why had he not saved her from that? Surely it’s not right that a young Jewish girl should be made to marry the pagan Persian king? But perhaps now he understands what God was doing. And so, it’s time for Esther to act and to go and beg the king for mercy.
According to verse 9, Hathach went back to Esther and reported to her what Mordecai had said. And she then sent him back to Mordecai with a message: Everyone knows you can’t just walk up to the king uninvited. Everyone knows that. You should know that too, Mordecai. And you should know that whoever tries to approach the king uninvited will be put to death. That’s what happens to everyone who tries to see the king without an invitation, unless the king is willing to extend the gold sceptre and spare your life. He might decide to spare your life, but normally the person who approaches the king uninvited can expect to die. So, what you’re suggesting is not simple or straightforward. In fact, you’re asking me to put my life on the line. And she adds at the end that the king hasn’t asked to see her for thirty days. In other words: Perhaps he’s tired of me. And if he’s tired of me, then he’s won’t want to see me.
From time to time, people have come to me with a problem. ‘Don’t worry’, I say. ‘I know just the person who can help you. It’ll be easy.’ But then I go to the person I think can help, and that person explains to me that it’s not as easy as I first thought. Did I consider this? Did I consider that? Was I aware of this and that? ‘I’d like to help, Colin, but it’s not as easy as you suppose.’ Did Mordecai think it would be easy for Esther to speak to the king? If he did, she soon put him right.
Verses 12 to 14
However, Mordecai is not put off easily. Look at his reply which he once again sent to her presumably through Hathach. Firstly, he warns her that she won’t be safe even if she’s in the palace. That’s in verse 13: ‘Don’t think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape.’ And he goes on to say that she and her father’s house will perish. Some of the commentators see in Mordecai’s words a veiled threat that, if she does not speak to the king, he will let everyone know that Esther is a Jew so that she will be killed with the rest of the people. I don’t find that suggestion very convincing. So other commentators think he’s suggesting that she will not escape because God will judge her for doing nothing. If she does nothing, God will punish her. Or perhaps he simply means that since Haman intends to wipe out every Jew in the empire, then she can’t expect she’ll be safe even in the palace. In any case, Mordecai is certain she will not escape.
Secondly, he expresses his confidence in God. So, if you remain silent and do not speak up for your people, I am sure that relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place. In other words, he’s sure that God will raise up another saviour. It’s clear to Mordecai that Esther is best placed to save God’s people. All she needs to do is find the courage to speak up. But if she doesn’t speak up, Mordecai is confident that God will not forsake his people, but will save them in some other way.
This is a remarkable confession of faith, isn’t it? When God delivered the Jews from Egypt, he brought them to Mount Sinai and entered into a covenant with them to be their God and to treat them as his treasured possession and to care for them and to keep them. And Mordecai believed that God would remain true to his promise and would look after them and keep them. Despite Haman’s plan to wipe them out, Mordecai stood firm in the faith and trusted that God would save them. And perhaps in the back of his mind he was remembering the Lord’s promise through Joel that when God’s people return to him with fasting and weeping and mourning, he will relent from sending calamity. So: return to me and I will save you. Mordecai was counting on what God has promised.
And then thirdly, he asks Esther to consider God’s providential control of all things. ‘Who knows?’ he says. ‘Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?’ Think about that, Esther. Consider that, Esther. Everything that happens happens according to God’s holy and perfect will. And so, perhaps the reason God made you queen was to make sure you were in the right place at the right time to save his people.
Of course, reading God’s providence is never easy, because God’s ways are not our ways. And how can we possibly understand his thoughts since he is God and we are not? From time to time, I come across people who claim that they know for sure what God is doing in the world and why he has done it. They claim they’re able to interpret God’s ways. I’m sure you’ve met that kind of person too. But Mordecai’s question is a tentative one, isn’t it? He doesn’t say: This is the reason. He says: Who knows? This may be the reason. There’s a humility there, isn’t there? And we should always display the same humility when trying to discern God’s plans and purposes. While we can be certain about what he has promised, we have to display humility about everything else.
Verses 15 to 17
So, that was Mordecai’s threefold message to Esther. And her reply begins in verse 15. And it seems from her reply that she’s been persuaded by his words. She will go to the king. However, before she goes, she wants Mordecai to gather together all the Jews who are in Susa and fast for her for three days and for three nights. So, do not eat or drink for three days. And she says that she and her maids will do the same. Fasting in the Bible is about humbling yourself before the Lord and confessing your sins and seeking his help. And, as I’ve said, it’s normally accompanied with prayer. And so, we can assume Esther was calling on the Jews to fast and pray. And they were to seek God’s help for Esther because she intended to go to the king as Mordecai had suggested to beg for mercy and to plead with him for her people. Even though it was against the law, she intended to go. So, fast and pray for me!
And her words here also echo what we read in Joel 2, because after commanding his people to return to him with fasting and weeping and mourning, and after promising that he would relent from sending calamity on them, God said that they should declare a holy fast. So, gather the people for a fast; and let them say: ‘Spare your people, O Lord’. That’s what Esther was calling Mordecai and the other Jews to do.
And then she added at the end of her message to Mordecai: ‘if I perish, I perish.’ She’s prepared to go before the king, but she’s not assuming anything. The king may spare her; but it’s just as likely, if not more likely, that the king will not spare her. She has no way of knowing what will happen, because none of us knows what the future holds. But even though she may die, she’s prepared to go to the king to see if she can save her people.
As we think about the significance of this passage, let’s go back to the end of verse 14. ‘Who knows?’ Mordecai asked. ‘Who knows but you have come to royal position for such a time as this?’ Aren’t those challenging words? And don’t they apply to every believer? None of us have come to royal position, of course. But the point still stands that God is the one who determines all things; and therefore he has determined your place in the world. He has placed you wherever you find yourself: in your home with your family; in your workplace with your colleagues; in your school or college with your teachers and classmates; in your community with your neighbours; in your church with your fellow believers. Wherever you find yourself, God has placed you there. And he calls on you to serve him in that place.
Now, we sometimes say: ‘If only…’ If only I had a different family…. If only I had a different job…. If only I were in a different school or college…. If only things were different, serving God would be easy. And no doubt Esther thought the same: ‘If only I wasn’t here in the palace, serving God would be so much easier.’ But God had placed her in the palace to serve him there. And your family, your workplace, your school, your college, your community are the places where God has put you. And he’s put you in those places to serve him. But he doesn’t leave you on his own, because he gives you his Spirit to help you and to renew you in his image so that you’re able more and more to do good and to do all things for his glory. Again, Mordecai was challenging Esther not to live for herself, but to think about her duty to God. And God by his Spirit helps us to think about our life in those terms, so that instead of putting ‘me’ first, we put God first in our lives. And in whatever we do, whether it’s at home or at work or in school or college or in church, we should put God first.
God has put you there. And he hasn’t put you there so that you can live to please yourself. He has put you there so that you can live for him. And so, how can you honour him there by the things you say and do for his glory?
But let’s also think about how Esther, who was removed from her people in the palace, finally decided to identify herself with her people and to speak up for them in order to save them.
And in this way she foreshadows the Lord Jesus Christ. Though he’s the Only Begotten Son of God, who from all eternity was enthroned in heaven and worshipped by angels, he was prepared to come down from heaven to earth as one of us. And so, he identified himself with us, becoming like us in every way apart from sin, just as Esther identified herself with her people.
And the reason he came down to earth and identified himself with us was in order to save us from God’s wrath and curse which we all deserve because we’re sinners who sin against the Lord continually. And so, just as Esther identified herself with her people in order to save them, so the Lord Jesus identified himself with us in order to save us.
But the Lord Jesus did not merely risk his life, as Esther did, because the only way for him to save us was for him to lose his life by dying on the cross to pay for our sins and to satisfy the justice of God on our behalf. And so, he took the blame for us and he suffered the punishment we deserve. He did not merely risk his life, but he gave up his life for us and for our salvation.
And then, just as Esther appealed to the king on behalf of her people, so the Lord Jesus appeals to Almighty God, the king of all empires, on our behalf. So, after he died, he was raised from the dead to live forever. And now he lives to intercede for his people and to seek from God all the mercy and help we need. We ask other people to pray for us; and it’s always an encouragement to us when we know people are praying for us. But how much more encouraging it is for us to know that the Lord Jesus is always interceding for us at God’s right hand. He’s always appealing to God on our behalf for the help we need each day. And he promises forgiveness and eternal life to all who believe in his name.