In October 2001, ITV had a major problem. Fewer and fewer people were watching prime-time TV on a Saturday evening. They had even moved Des Lynam into the 7 o’clock slot with The Premiership, but to no avail. Ratings were below 30%, and they were getting soundly beaten by the BBC. They were losing advertising revenue, and their image was suffering. They needed a solution.
2,500 years earlier, in 479BC, King Xerxes had a similar problem. Since getting rid of his defiant Queen in chapter one, he’d been away in a long war fighting the Greeks. He tried everything, but he too was soundly beaten. He’d come home with his tail between his legs, and with the royal coffers severely depleted. He too needed a solution.
Believe it or not, but ITV and King Xerxes had very similar ideas. In October 2001, ITV launched Pop Idol, a talent show that would give a record contract to one lucky winner. In 479BC, King Xerxes settled for Pop-Bridal, a nationwide competition to find the most beautiful woman who could become his wife. There really is nothing new under the sun.
If you were here this morning, you’ll know we started a series on the book of Esther. This morning, we looked at chapter one, which served as an introduction to the whole book. If you missed it, you’ll find this a little trickier tonight, as we look at the first 18 verses of chapter 2. So if you weren’t here this morning, you’ll have to listen especially carefully to the introduction to bring yourself up to speed.
What we saw in chapter one was the despite of all the shenanigans in the royal household, despite the posturing, the positioning, and the power-plays, it was really God who was directing operations in the citadel of Susa.
The story in Esther chapter one won’t become relevant for nine years, but in that chapter we start to see God moving his pieces into position, so that when crisis strikes God’s people in chapter three, everything is ready for the tables to be completely turned, and an unlikely victory to be won.
But we’re in chapter two of Esther, and, if you like, the pieces are still being moved into their positions. We’re not yet at the point where God chooses to reveal his hand. There are still no prophets, or priests. No sermons, nor synagogues. No mention of the law, nor lambs for sacrifice. And God Himself, still appears silent, even though he can be clearly seen through the eyes of faith.
Tonight we’re going to be looking at the events in the first 18 verses of chapter two, as Esther finds herself winning the talent contest and becoming Queen of Persia. Reading ahead to chapter four will show just how vital her victory was, though no-one knew it at the time.
Tonight, I have two questions for you: Firstly, we’ll ask this: ‘Will the real Esther please stand up?’, Then we’ll go on to ‘What’s a nice Jewish girl like you doing in a place like this?’
Will the real Esther please stand up?
At the beginning of chapter two, Esther is a poor orphan girl, brought up by her cousin Mordecai. By the end of the chapter she’s the Queen of the land, with a host of servants to see to her every need.
More importantly, at the beginning of the chapter, she’s a little Jewish girl called Hadassah, with her own culture, language, religion, and law. By the end of the chapter she’s Queen Esther of the Persian royal family, wearing their clothes, speaking their language, using their beauty treatments, and hiding her Jewish identity.
I wonder, will the real Esther please stand up?
Some of you here this evening will already be familiar with the book of Esther. Maybe you’ve already studied it, and enjoyed it. I hope you have. But if so, you may find that we approach we take in these messages may be slightly different from the approach that perhaps you have taken in the past. You see when we read books like Esther, we tend to identify with the main characters in the story. We tend to form opinions of them, even to judge them as a good example to follow, or a bad example to avoid.
So Esther can get painted in different ways. As some Christians read this book they see plucky young Esther - an orphan girl, snatched from her only remaining family to serve a wicked pagan king. With beauty, intelligence, charm, and quick-wits, plucky Esther saves the Jewish people from the havoc caused by a childish row between Hamaan and Mordecai which spirals out of all control.
But other people see a different Esther. You think it’s bad when you can’t get in the bathroom for your teenage daughter, but Esther was so vain she spent a whole year making herself beautiful. And to what end? So she could seduce the king. She then sleeps with him (even though they’re not married), hides the fact that she’s one of God’s people, flagrantly disobeys the law of God, and only steps into to try and do something to help her people when Mordecai tells her she’s going to get killed anyway.
So will the real Esther please stand up?
But why should we judge her? Why should we decide whether she was a goodie, or a baddie? The writer certainly doesn’t. Was she right to sleep with a Gentile King who was not her husband? Was it wisdom that caused her to hide her Jewish identity, or was it cowardice? Those are not questions that the book tries to answer, and therefore we’ll benefit much more from the book if we can look past those questions and see the bigger picture.
So when we ask will the real Esther please stand up?, nobody moves. Was Esther a goodie, or a baddie? We simply don’t know whether she hated life in the harem, or revelled in it. We don’t know if she saw a moral quagmire, or a golden opportunity. We’re left asking questions that simply don’t have answers.
But although we don’t have the information to answer those questions about Esther, we can answer them about ourselves. Too often when we read the Bible or hear a sermon, we are so concerned about the other characters, that we forget the Bible is also a mirror with which we are to look into our souls.
So let’s abandon our first question: will the real Esther please stand up?, and ask another. Will the real Chris, please stand up? Will the real Jessica, please stand up? Will the real you, please stand up.
You see just like Esther, many of us face an identity crisis. There are some of you here this evening who are Christians, but you have managed to hide this fact from many of those around you. Yes, they know you go to church sometimes, I’m not disputing that, but your friends and colleagues have no idea what it really means to be a Christian, because you’ve decided to hide that from them. They don’t know that the Christian faith changes a man from the inside out. They don’t know that a Christian is someone who loves the Lord Jesus Christ with all his mind, heart, soul, and strength. And they don’t know that a Christian believes that everyone who does not put their trust in Jesus will be punished for their rebellion and spend eternity in hell. They don’t know, because you haven’t told them. They don’t know, because like Esther, you’ve hidden these truths from them. So, in work tomorrow, Will the real Rhian, please stand up? Will the real Peter, please stand up?
But there are also some of you here, who are not sure whether you could describe yourselves as Christians. You come to church, you believe much of what we preach here, but the truth of the Bible clearly hasn’t delved deep into your soul in the way that it has with some. Your life is like the book of Esther, while others around you seem more like Daniel’s. Just like in Esther, there is little prayer, little reading of the Bible, little concern for God in the nitty-gritty of everyday life. There are pangs of conscience here and there, and maybe you even regularly say your prayers, but you can’t remember a time when you really prayed.
You’re no longer an outside to the Christian faith, you’re an in-betweener. You believe, but you haven’t yet trusted. You’re sorry, but you haven’t yet repented. You’ve learned to admire Jesus, but you’re not yet ready to love him. You’re watching from the sidelines, but you’re not yet on the Lord’s side. So tonight, while your sitting in your pew, Will the real Stuart, please stand up? Will the real Chloe, please stand up? Will you make your decision? Will you make things clear? Will the real you, please stand up?
At the beginning of our time together, we had another question to ask of Esther. It’s this:
What is a nice Jewish girl like you doing in a place like this?
To answer that question, I want us to stand where Esther stood in Bible history. I want to lift us from 2004AD, and place us in about 479BC. Then, from where we stand, I want us to look out at the great vista of Bible history. From this terrific vantage point, I want us to look back through more than 100 years of history right up until Esther’s day, before taking a glimpse a few years into the future.
Firstly, from where Esther stands, let’s look back 100 years or so. In 586BC, God had finally allowed the nation of Israel to be taken captive into Babylon. For fifty years they were held captive by the Babylonians, until rescue came from an unlikely source. The Babylonian empire itself fell to Cyrus, Emperor of Persia. Then, remarkably, just a few years later, he issued a decree stating that all the Jews could return to their homeland. Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, and thousands of others were among those who returned back to Jerusalem so that once more they could worship God in the way that he had chosen. God’s people were back where they belonged, in Jerusalem, in the temple, back with their God. But Esther, with thousands of others did not return. She remains outside the boundary of God’s promised land. Does that mean she too is outside of his promises?
Thankfully, God at least did not forsake his people in Jerusalem, nor his covenant to them. He sent prophets like Haggai and Zechariah to make sure that the people knew that God had not given up on them.
They reminded the people that it was their own disobedience that had caused them to be exiled in the first place. God had rightly punished them because they had broken his covenant.
But at just the time when the Lord’s prophets were reminding the people of God’s covenant with them, trouble was brewing. No-one in Jerusalem knew it at the time, but hundreds of miles away there was a young-man rising through the ranks of the Persian political hierarchy. His name was Hamaan, and he was an Agagite, an enemy of the Jews.
It would be just a few years after the events of Esther chapter 2 when Haman starts to put his hate into direct action. If the Jews in Jerusalem had been able to look into the future, and see the events unfold in Esther chapter three, they would know they had little just a few years to live.
But they had no crystal ball, and frankly they had enough worries of their own, to worry too much about King Xerxes in Susa.
Esther got in this position partly because of choices she had made, and partly because of the sin of previous generations. But ultimately, the nice Jewish girl was there, because God had put her there. Since chapter one, he had been moving his pieces around the board, and incredibly, but inexorably Esther is moved slowly towards the citadel of Susa.
Clearly, much of what brought Esther to this incredible position was outside her control. But none of it was outside God’s control.
Read quote from pages 46-47 of Karen Jobes' Commentary.
But not only was much of what brought Esther to this incredible position was outside her control, but some of what brought Esther to this incredible position was down to her own free choices, whatever they were. And none of that was outside God’s control, either.
And because Esther was just like every other human being on planet earth, some of what brought her to this position was her own wicked, sinful actions. And none of that was outside of God’s control, either.
Ultimately, we don’t really know how Esther got to the Pop-Bridal final. We don’t know whether she was driven by greed, or by the point of a Persian spear. The writer tells us nothing of what was in her mind, and leaves us frustrated in our quest.
But again, he has more important things to deal with. The writer wants to show us that when it comes to God’s providence and power, it doesn’t matter whether Esther was acting out of selfish motives or Godly ones. It doesn’t matter whether Mordecai was a godly guardian, or wicked-step father. It doesn’t matter whether Esther chose a path of sin, or was the victim of sexual abuse.
When it comes to God’s providence and power, none of these things matter, because he is always in control. He will see his purposes through, and nobody will be able to thwart him. Nothing can stand in the way of God’s providence.
Let me speak to those people who are Christians here this evening, and who in the past have failed their Lord. Maybe you feel that because of sins that you have committed in the past - sins, maybe that only you know about - because you have done these things, then you have walked clear of God’s plan for your life. You’ve fallen off the tightrope of His will, and there is no-way back for you.
If that’s how you feel, then the writer of Esther has got a message for you. Nothing can stand in the way of God’s providence.
If you feel that your conduct over the last few years means that your testimony is forever tarnished, and that now family and friends can never be saved, then the writer of Esther has a message for you: Nothing can stand in the way of God’s providence.
If God wants to use you to convert your Christian friends, then your past sin is not going to stop him! If God wants to heal broken relationships, to restore shattered lives, to restore faith, then nothing you have done in the past can stop him.
And if God wants to bring you to faith in him, then your wicked life is no barrier to his grace.
So let’s forget about asking ‘Will the real Esther please stand up?’. Let’s remember that it doesn’t really matter ‘What a nice Jewish girl like you doing in a place like this?’
What really matters to the writer of the book is that God is in control of all these events. And what really matters to the God who inspired the book to be written, is that you will take a stand for Him, and that you will be willing to go to whatever place He would have you go.
You see, this book is not about Esther at all. It’s about Him, it’s about His plans, His Sovereignty, His Providence, and His grace.