Esther 1 | Power Play
Esther 1 | Power Play
April 28, 2024 |
Sunday Morning
Esther 1 | Power Play
John C. Majors |
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Well. Good morning, Valley View. It’s great to be with you today. It’s great to be back with you. I was traveling last week, visiting with some friends. Does that mean you were glad I was gone? Are you glad I’m back? I’m not sure which. I‚Äôll assume the better. It’s good to be back. I’m glad to be here either way. Thank you. And I’m glad we’re transitioning to the book of Esther. Right. We’ve been in the book of John. We wrapped that up last week. We spent 16, 18 months in that book working through it. And I’m really excited to get into another book of the Bible, a book from the Old Testament. And as I studied, I saw some interesting connections with all that we’ve studied in the book of John. Some of that will come out today. One of the things I think we’ll see in this book is exemplified in a story you may have heard some share over time. I’ve heard different versions of this story, so I’m going to maybe condense them into one a little bit, share a generalized version of it. But there was this missionary couple they had been serving in Africa for 40 years, and their time was up, and it was time to return to the US, and they’re on their way back. And this was back before airplanes. So they’re on a ship and they’re approaching land, and they see the band out playing, and they see the crowds cheering, and they see the streamers going up in the air and the confetti and the excitement and the joy and they think, is this for us, are people celebrating our return? We’ve sacrificed our lives on the mission field. We buried children behind. Are they here to celebrate, to welcome us back? And then, of course, as they approach land, they realize that there is a famous politician on board or a famous businessman. I’ve heard different versions of this that they’re really there to welcome. And then part of them, their countenance falls. Does anybody care? Does it matter what we’ve done? But then there’s this check of going, this is not our kingdom. We’re not here to please them. In fact, the world tends to operate where they praise power. They praise strength, money. They praise that their realm. But what we’re going to see in the book of Esther is that even when it seems like God, where are you? God, we’re in this world. We’re living in this world. And it doesn’t seem the things we’re living for matter at all. Where are you when it feels that way? We’re going to see in this. Even when he seems hidden, he’s still there. He’s still working. He’s still navigating. He’s still directing, sometimes in imperceptible, seemingly obscure ways. He is still there at work. Part of the reason that’s so interesting with the Book of Esther is just related to where the Book of Esther shows up in your Bible, in your, I’m assuming you brought an English Bible this morning. If it’s in English, then more than likely the Book of Esther shows up on the front half of the Old Testament. It’s going to be before Job, Psalms, Proverbs, and that area. Kind of follows on the historical books, Chronicles, Kings, in that section. And it’s in an era of history when the nation has been divided, they’ve been carried off into exile, they’ve been taken in to other countries, they’ve been subjugated, they’ve been put sort of back into slavery. Not totally, but they’re now under a foreign rule. So that’s where it lands in our English Bibles. But you know, what’s interesting is in the Hebrew Bible and, and, and how the Bible was originally written, the original Hebrew language, they tended to put those books in a different order than we do. We tend to put them in groupings by general category of literature. They tend to put it thematically. So I gave an example when we went through the book of Ruth. You may remember this. Ruth in the Hebrew Bible came after the Book of Proverbs. How does Proverbs end? An excellent woman who can find? It gives the display of an excellent woman, the model of an excellent woman, an excellent woman in Proverbs 31. And then, of course, the implication is you want to know someone like this, read about Ruth. Here she is. And so there were connections between books that were meant to show you certain things. Esther ended the Old Testament originally. It was one of five books that ended the Hebrew Bible. They were lumped together. There was Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Song of Solomon. Ruth and Esther were there. They were called the Five Scrolls, the Book of Five Scrolls, all there together. At the end of the Old Testament. Now, here’s the powerful part of that. I’m going to read you a quote from one of the commentators I read. His name was, his last name was Gregory, and he makes this point about the scope of the Old Testament because the whole Old Testament, you see something occurring gradually occurring throughout the Old Testament until it ends here at the end of it. Gregory says it this way, as the Old Testament unfolds, there is a gradual shift from presence to absence, from the presence of God to the absence of God. Now, let me unpack that a little bit, because I’m not saying God is absent. From the obvious presence of God. There’s this gradual shift and it it’s pretty obvious if you take a step back and look at it. In the garden, God was there walking with them. Then they’re cast out of the garden. They’re not there in his physical presence anymore. But then he comes– pillar of fire, guides them to the Promised Land. But then there’s the shift where those go away. And then prophets come and there are miracles performed. But over time there’s less prophets, and there’s this decreasing, obvious presence of God. Till we get to the book of Esther, where his name is not even mentioned. I mean, there’s no obvious reference to God in the book. Some have seen that. And what’s that doing in the Bible then? Why is that even here? What we’re going to see as we study that is he is still there. His providential hand is still guiding everything, but it does leave us feeling like in this day and age, even. I think this is part of the reason this book will be so powerful for us. Part of the reason we can relate to it is many times I find myself wondering, where are you, God? I mean, the world is all about power, all about strength. Their priorities are so different than it seems than anything you care about. Where are you in the midst of all this madness? Have you ever felt that way? Probably every time you open your phone. Where are you God? The world has gone crazy. But we’re going to see his hand. It’s still guiding. It’s still at work. And the Book of Esther really has this series of short stories within one big story. The one big story is God takes Esther. He takes this woman, this Jewish woman, this peasant woman, and he elevates her to the highest office in the land, Queen over the land. And he uses her to save his people, to rescue his people in the midst of crisis, when he seems to be completely absent, he’s still at work behind the scenes. What we’re going to see today specifically, is the issue, the theme of power. Power is all throughout this section, and it’s the issue I brought up to begin with. It’s the issue. It’s the thing that our world praises above all else. Power. We’re going to see three power plays in the story today in Esther chapter one. In fact, if you have a Bible, turn to the Book of Esther. It’ll be on page 382 if you have a church Bible and those are out in the lobby. If you don’t have a Bible, I’ll be reading the whole chapter of the Bible over the course today. And if you want to follow along, slip out there and grab a copy. That’s yours. That’s for you to keep to be able to read from. Grab a Bible reading plan as well. We’re working through the New Testament and Acts over the course of this year, but we’ll be in Esther chapter one. We’re going to see three power plays here in particular, we’re going to see power displayed, power shown off. We’re going to see power denied. And then lastly, we’re going to see power employed, power displayed, power denied, power employed through the course of Esther chapter one. So let’s look, let’s start in the first few verses here. Start at verse one and read a few verses to get the context of the story, the background, a little bit of the setting of Esther chapter one. Now in the days of Ahasuerus– And let me stop there, by the way. Someone clued me in on how to pronounce this because that’s a weird word. You say uh, and then you say Lazarus. Ahasuerus. Does that help? I found it helpful. Now, in the days of Ahasuerus, the Ahasuerus who reigned from India to Ethiopia over 127 provinces. In those days when king Ahasuerus set on his royal throne in Susa, the citadel. In the third year of his reign, he gave a feast for all his officials and servants, the army of Persia and Media, and the nobles and governors of the provinces were all before him, while he showed the riches of his glory, the splendor, pomp of his greatness for many days, 180 days, six month long feast, banquet, over the top. In fact, here’s some of what we saw when the days were completed. The King gave for all the people present in Susa, the citadel both great and small. A feast lasting for seven days. 180 days wasn’t enough. Let’s cap it off with seven more days. In the court of the garden of the King’s palace, there were white cotton curtains, violet hangings fastened with cords of fine linen, purple purple to silver rods, marble pillars, couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, porphyry is like a granite stone with crystals in it. Marble, mother of pearl and precious stones. Drinks were served in golden vessels, vessels of different kinds, and the royal wine was lavished according to the bounty of the king, and drinking was, according to this edict, there is no compulsion, for the king had given orders to all his staff of his palace to do as each man desired. Queen Vashti also gave a feast for the women in the palace that belonged to King Ahasuerus. So here’s the setting King Ahasuerus is over a vast realm, 127 provinces from stretching across the Middle East, across to India. Huge realm. And he throws this 180 day long party and it is over the top. No reserves, whatever anybody wants. And he shows off his army. He shows off his palaces. In fact, the detailed the splendor of the palace. The only really other place where we see this kind of detail described is in the temple, in the Tabernacle. Just overwhelming wealth and beauty. And now some have seen this and read this and have said, what a megalomaniac, what an egomaniac. This guy’s just all about showing off –again, power display. This is the theme. The first thing we’re seeing around power. Let me show off my power. Let me show off how great I am. Let me show off how much I’ve done for everyone to see. What an egotistical maniac. And certainly there was probably some of that going on. I read one Jewish commentator, though, that helped me see this from another perspective. In fact, it’s really helpful whenever you’re studying scripture to take a step back, try to step out of our own culture a little bit. We bring our modern sensibilities in back into old cultures, ancient cultures. They saw things differently than us, sometimes better, sometimes worse, but differently. Try to get your head in the space of where they were at the time. And if you’re this king who has conquered vast provinces, you know no kingdom stays exactly the way it is. It’s constantly in flux. But parts you’ve conquered. And then they gained back their freedom and back and forth. It’s all things are always changing. The country lines are changing all the time now even as well. So at this time, if you wanted to keep those guys, those lands you’ve conquered, if you want to keep those 127 provinces as a part of your kingdom, part of what you’re going to do. In fact, this probably wasn’t just one continuous 180 day party with the same group of people, nobody getting anything done for six months, but just partying. More than likely, this was more of a let me bring in each region. Let me bring in each of those 127 leaders one at a time. Show off. In fact, it says the armies of Media and Persia. So when they come to town, you’re subtly sending a message– hey, don’t forget, don’t forget how strong we are. I conquered you and I’ll come back with all these folks if you try to rebel against me. But also look at my wealth. Look at my splendor. I mean, this is part of the reason you want to be a part of what we’re doing because of how strong and great we are. You see, he’s doing a little bit of wine and dine too. Hey, stay a part of what we’re doing. Don’t make me come back there. Use my army again. There’s multiple things going on here. We. You know, this still happens today, by the way. A friend of mine worked for a company in Silicon Valley, and he’s remote work. And most of their employees are remote work. But once a year, they bring everybody in and they show off the headquarters, and they give them all kinds of stuff. And it’s their way of saying, don’t you love working here? Aren’t we the best? Isn’t this the greatest company? Don’t forget, we’re all together in this. We have one common job. We’re all working together. We still do this kind of thing at times. Now here’s what happens, though. After that 180 days of bringing in the different governors, 127 regions, let them see my might and splendor. Let me show off my power, display my power. He caps it all off with the seven day feast. And by the way, that word feast. That’s one of the major themes of the Book of Esther. It’s so interesting. Something like half of the uses of that word in all the Old Testament, huge body of literature, almost half of those show up in the book of Esther. You see this word feast over and over and over again. We’re going to talk more about what that means feast, feast, feast. But they cap it off with this seven day feast. You know, we do that same kind of thing here. We’re celebrating the Derby for two weeks, but then the derby occurs at the end. It’s a bigger event. It’s the pinnacle of the celebration. Your 180 days of celebration. Let’s cap it off with the seven day celebration. And then what is going to happen here at the very end is interesting, and we get just a hint of the problem. The tension in the story. Every good story has some tension that is introduced where you go, uh-oh, something’s not right. Something is not perfect in the kingdom. This power display, there’s just this hint of problem. If you look back in verse nine, we just get a hint. He’s doing this gigantic feast, showing off everything to the whole world. But Queen Vashti also gave a feast. She’s given her own feast. It’s separate for the women in the palace that belonged to King Ahasuerus. There’s just this hint of why is she off having her own feast? Why are they separated? Why not together? Maybe there’s some problem in the kingdom. We just get a hint. It’s introduced. Now, this seven day banquet is wrapping up. How does it wrap up? Power has been displayed. He’s showing off his might, his splendor. The King is showing everyone how great his kingdom is. And look at how he wants to cap off the whole celebration. Everything. Look at verse ten: on the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha — that would be an interesting name, wouldn’t it? Bigtha. Don‚Äôt want that. Abagtha, Zethar and Carkas– I don’t know that I want that name either, especially if I’m a eunuch. The seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus to bring Queen Vashti before the king with her royal crown. So he called seven eunuchs who serve the queen. Go tell her we need her to come out wearing her royal crown. The purpose was to show the people and the princes her beauty, for she was lovely to look at. But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command, delivered by the eunuchs. At this the king became enraged, and his anger burned within him. Some have seen this, and seen that in this moment the king here he is in his power display, showing off the world, is now maybe abusing the Queen. Maybe he is not treating her with respect and kindness. He’s dragging her out to showing her off to everyone again, to show how great he is. Not to honor her, but to make it all about him. Now, of course, again, maybe some of that was going on, but also think about things through the lens of ancient cultures, through the lens of especially monarchy, king and queen, even today. What is the number one responsibility of a king or queen? You hear this phrase make an appearance. You show up for big events. Even in our culture, if there’s a state of the Union address and the vice president won’t come out, that’s a problem. You know, there’s some big tension. Your one job should be to walk out and listen to that. So we don’t know why she won’t come out, but for whatever reason, she won’t. And it doesn’t matter really. That’s why the story doesn’t tell us why. It doesn’t matter. Because no matter, there would be no good reason not to come out when the King calls you. This is the one thing you do. And part of me, I look at this and I think also. Here you have kind of this hint at creation. Seven days of creation. God presents woman to man, seven days of a party. The Queen is brought out as a royal representation of the pinnacle of celebration, of the pinnacle of creation and kingdom. This is a little bit of symbolism. This is inference. This isn’t exactly what’s happening here, but there is this element of this is the pinnacle of me honoring her and showing off my whole kingdom. And she won’t come. Now, the tragedy here. The King thinks that his power is in possessions, in his wealth, in his might, in his strength. I think we’re all tempted to think that at times. Luke 12 reminds us, life does not consist. Real life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. That’s not where life is found. The King thinks he has power. He thinks he has life. And yet there’s a complete break with his very own one that he should love the most. You know, even at a purely secular level, one of the best predictors, in fact, the best predictor of happiness. It’s not money. And I know I’ve heard it over and over again. Yes, money doesn’t bring happiness, I’d sure love to test that theory, though, right? Who hasn’t said that? It’s not. The most miserable people on earth are the richest. They are. I know it’s hard to believe. It’s true. By all measurable account. It’s not money, it’s not possessions. It’s not even job success and fulfillment. Again, just even at a purely secular level. Take the Bible out of it. Take religion out of it. The most powerful measure, the clearest measure of general happiness, is relationships. If you have a great relationship with your family and friends, you are surrounded by people who love you. You’re more than likely going to live a happy, fulfilled life. Now again, I’m taking not this. These are secular studies that are done. These aren’t talking about no one Christ follower in him trusting him. And of course, those are all going to be connected. But one thing we can be sure of life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. And we’ve got a divide here. How is the king going to react? His power has been displayed now it’s been denied. You think you’re so powerful. I don’t have to do what you say. His power has been denied. Now, that doesn’t usually go well. You think of like Henry the Eighth. Multiple wives beheaded. King can do whatever he wants. Probably the more ancient it is, the more violent it’s going to get. How is he going to react in this moment? I’ve shown my power. You’ve denied it. He’s full of anger, full of wrath. Not a good time to make decisions. Anybody been there? That’s not when you want to make your decision. You want to back up. Get a clear head. What does he do? How is he going to react to his power denied? Let’s look. Keep reading with me. Look at verse 13. Then the king said to the wise men who knew the times, for this was the king’s procedure toward all who were versed in law and judgment, the men next to him being Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven princes of Persia and Media, who saw the king’s face and sat first in the kingdom. He comes to consult them. He asks them this question according to the law, what is to be done to Queen Vashti, because she has not performed the command of King Ahasuerus, delivered by the eunuchs? I’ve just got to pause here and applaud him. You know, didn’t know him personally, but just the example he sets in the midst of his anger, in the midst of his rage, in the midst of his merry heart, full of wine. For whatever reason, he has the wisdom to take a step back and say, I need to go get counsel on this. And there’s a lot of wisdom to that. You know, I don’t I don’t think it’s any coincidence Andrew prayed over marriages here. Too many times when we’re angry, frustrated, we feel disrespected. What do we do in that moment? We run out and pray and find seven wise counselors to get advice and counsel. It’s very quiet in here all of a sudden. That’s not what we do. We react, overreact. Don’t you? How dare you? What? He had, for whatever reason, the ability in the moment to step back and go. I better get some advice here before I react, before I overreact. Man, how many things would be averted if we did that? How many situations would be different if we just hesitated? Sought some counsel, got some wisdom? That’s good to see. That’s a good example in the midst of a lot of bad examples. So he seeks out some of his counselors to get their advice. What should I do? By the way, the contrast here with the book of John is palpable right here. Here we have an unrighteous king seeking out wisdom on how to obey the law rightly. Contrast that with the Pharisees, self-righteous religious rulers, ignoring the law, pushing it aside, not even wanting to follow any part of the law just to get what they want. We want him dead. We want him gone. No matter what. We‚Äôll ignore procedure, we‚Äôll ignore law, we‚Äôll make up laws, we‚Äôll make up lies. Again, that’s a tough place to be. If you find yourself in that arena where you’re feeling like, I want what I want, no matter what, I don’t want to hear what God’s Word, God’s Word, has to say about it. I don’t want to hear what any trusted counselors have to say about it. I just want what I want, and I’m going to keep pressing forward. That’s the place to pause. That’s the place to cry out in prayer. Lord, would you give me wisdom? Would you direct me in this moment? Bring someone into my life that can give me counsel? So he goes to these men. He asks for their advice. What kind of advice do they give him? What do they say? Look at verse 16. Then Memucan said in the presence of the king and the officials, not only against the king has Queen Vashti done wrong, but also against all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For the Queen’s behavior will be made known to all women, causing them to look at their husbands with contempt, since they will say King of Ahasuerus commanded the queen Vashti, to be brought before him, and she did not come. This very day the noble women of Persia and Media who have heard of the Queen’s behavior will say the same to all the King’s officials, and there will be contempt and wrath in plenty. So their observation before they give advice is this is important. This is significant. We can’t ignore this. And again, our modern sensibilities tend to look at this and go, come on, dude, really you’re that power hungry that now you feel like everything in the whole world is going to fall apart because your wife didn’t walk out once when you asked her. Isn’t that a little controlling? I mean, isn’t that a little over the top? Aren’t you overreacting? And we have to put ourselves back in this time. Set aside some of our modern sensibilities. Every culture, every society, has an order, a way it operates, whether you agree with it or not. I’m not defending everything that might have occurred in that culture by any means. But even in our era, I mean, if the president’s wife is disrespectful to him, obviously in public, that’s a problem. It makes the president look weak, which makes the country look weak, whether you like him or not. That’s a that’s a big problem. You don’t want to see that behavior. I remember reading about President Grant, before he was president. He was General Grant, and he was supposed to be at Ford’s Theater with Lincoln. It was supposed to be in the box with Lincoln, but they decided at the last minute not to go because Grant’s wife could not stand Lincoln’s wife. She was notorious for being very difficult to be around. That’s not the kind of reputation you want to hear about the president’s wife. You want to know that they get along, that there’s harmony, that shows that our country is strong. It reflects the state of the country. So at one level, you can relate. You can understand why they would be concerned about this. If word gets out, we’re going to have big problems. So what’s the advice they give him. What should we do. Keep reading here with me. Verse 19. If it pleases the King, let a royal order go out from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, so that it may not be repealed, that Vashti is never again to come before King. Ahasuerus, and let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she. So when the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, for it is vast, just throwing that in there as a remembrance of how powerful I am. It is vast. All women will give honor to their husbands, high and low alike. This advice pleased the King and the princes and the King did as Memucan proposed. He sent letters to all the royal provinces, to every province in its own script, to every people, in its own language, that every man may be master in his own household, and speak according to the language of his people. All right. There’s a couple of a couple of things going on here. One is just the irony of the law. They were concerned that word would get out that Vashti had shunned the king. And so what did they do? They spread the word everywhere. Let’s do a preemptive strike so that the word doesn’t leak out. And let’s make sure everyone knows about it. Secondly, the other irony here is that her punishment was the very thing she wanted. You don’t want to be in front of the king. You’ll never see him again. She may have delighted in knowing that. So you have these two ironies, but the tragedy here in this punishment, I think the challenge for us to contemplate. Is that somehow and the temptation is to think that laying down the law will change people’s hearts. I mean, if you have to say, if you’re at the point where you have to say to someone, you will respect me. You know you’ve already lost it at that point. That’s not how you gain respect. You gain respect through love, through service, through relationship, through care, for, through trust over time. And to think that by creating a law that husbands will respect, wives will respect their husbands at all time. Of course, some will respect for that reason, but that’s not the kind of respect you want. And what we’re always striving for here, it’s not just laying down laws. Yeah, there are clear commands in Scripture, but we don’t follow the commands in order to say that we kept the command perfectly. And look at me, I did what God said exactly. Therefore he owes me. No, we obey him because he loved us and we love him. As a result, it’s out of love. It’s out of gratitude that he has completely changed my life. Look, we’re all constantly changing. Just this week, I was mountain biking with a group of guys. I get together with them every year. We sharpen one another, and one of the guys said to me, John, you’re a different guy than you were even eight years ago. And he meant it in a good way, by the way. You’re a different guy. I said, oh, you mean my mountain biking skills? No, no, no, there’s more joy. There’s more delight. I was a Christian eight years ago. You see, we’re always growing and the overflow with what we do. I love Julie, not because I’m afraid of what might happen if I don’t. You know. It’s a joy. It’s a delight. There’s a mutual respect and honor and love. And that doesn’t come through law alone. That doesn’t come through power. You will love me. That doesn‚Äôt– power displayed. Look at all this stuff I have. Don’t you want to love me? Look at how much money I have. Aren’t I loving, aren’t I lovable? Look at my boats, my yacht, my whatever. No power is displayed. That’s not where we find love. Even in the midst of power being denied. That doesn’t mean we’re rejected by God. And here we saw power employed. When the powerful are threatened, what do they respond with? Power. Strength. Don’t tell me. I’ll show you. But the pattern we’re going to see in the book of Esther, and the pattern that is set for us, and the pattern we saw in the book of John is God continually chooses one person, the weak, to shame the wise, the foolish to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong. He takes Moses, who can’t even talk, takes one man to rescue his people. He takes Noah, one righteous man, to rescue his people. He takes Joseph, the one cast aside by his family, lowly in the kingdom to rescue his people. And we’re going to see in the book of Esther God’s people in a culture where they are hated and despised, and he takes one lonely person and he uses that person to rescue his people. It’s the same thing we saw through the book of John. Jesus came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. We live in a world where everything is about power, strength, might, prestige, but we’re called to live differently. We’re called to love, to serve, to serve from a place of weakness and to watch him move through that. That’s what he did for us, loved and served us. We’re called to do the same. Let’s pray.