October 2, 2013
After finding favor with the king, Queen Esther was in a position to intercede on behalf of the Jewish people. Being in the right spot at the right time was no coincidence, however; while God’s name is not mentioned in the entire book, Esther was where she was by divine providence. Alistair Begg encourages us to remember that God is providentially at work just as much in the ordinary as He is in the extraordinary. In all things, we can trust that He is working out His will.
Sermon Transcript: Print
What we’re about to do is in two sections, and I’d like to read a few verses from the fourth chapter of Esther. We have to jump right into the story here, and so you’ll have to trust me on some of it. I’m going to read from verse 4:
“When Esther’s young women and her eunuchs came and told her, the queen was deeply distressed. She sent garments to clothe Mordecai, so that he might take off his sackcloth, but he would not accept them. Then Esther called for Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs, who[’d] been appointed to attend her, and ordered him to go to Mordecai to learn what this was and why it was. Hathach went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate, and Mordecai told him all that had happened … and the exact sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king’s treasuries for the destruction of the Jews. Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther and explain it to her and command her to go to the king to beg his favor and plead with him on behalf of her people. And Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said. Then Esther spoke to Hathach and commanded him to go to Mordecai and say, ‘All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—to be put to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter so that he may live. But as for me, I have not been called to come in to the king these thirty days.’
“And [so] they told Mordecai what Esther had said. Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, ‘Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?’ Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai, ‘Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.’ Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.”
Thanks be to God for his Word.
If there’s only one phrase in the book of Esther that people know, then it is that final sentence in verse 14: “Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” And that phrase has been in my mind as I’ve thought about Friday, in particular, with the Homecoming and people here celebrating, I think, the tenth anniversary since they had regretfully to leave this wonderful campus. And so, with that in my mind, I have come to this morning as well.
I want to pause just for one more moment and ask for God to help us:
Lord, it’s your Word, and it is to you we look. Give us minds that think properly, hearts that open gladly, and wills that are established in the path of righteousness for your name’s sake. Amen.
Well, I think if anybody were to walk in off the street, they would regard it as incredibly strange to think that a group such as this, on the very forefront of things in America today, with largely all of your lives before you, would take any time at all to pay any attention at all to events that had taken place in Persia five centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ, and if we were to suggest to such individuals that these events that took place in Persia all this time ago, and the lessons in them, actually help us to live life in twenty-first-century America. Underlying that conviction would be what Paul says when he writes to the church in Rome and makes reference to Old Testament events, and he referred to them as follows: he says, “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and … the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” I’m so glad that I’m here, and I think it’s the second occasion when I’ve been here on the Gideon day. Now, we didn’t plan it that way, but I’m glad to be here because of how important that work is and because of what we believe concerning the entry of God’s Word. And it is through the Scriptures that we discover endurance and encouragement. And that is why we look as we do, even today, to this.
Let me help you for your homework and just get you started a little bit. The story is a great story. If you’ve never really read it, or read it with care, I commend it to you. We know from childhood that “Old King Cole was a merry old soul and a merry old soul was he.” Right? So, “he called for his pipe in the middle of the night, and he called for his fiddlers three.” And depending on what era in life you grew up, that had all kinds of connotations, which we will leave alone for this morning. Suffice it to say that even our children and our grandchildren have some notion that there was a king who was a fine old fellow, and when he woke up in the night, he was, essentially, merry.
Well, the only merriness that attaches to this king has to do with how much wine he’s drinking. And King Ahasuerus—or Xerxes, as he is referred to, depending on the translation—this particular king is not a nice person. If you want to do your research, then read Herodotus, or read Josephus, and you will discover just how bad a character he was. The book begins with him having a feast, enjoying his time with his friends, and when they had been drinking together for a little while, he decides it would be a nice thing for him to bring in his wife, Vashti, in order that he might parade her before his friends.
So, in other words, he was obviously proud of his wife, the way she looked, and so on. So he doesn’t say, “Why don’t you come in and join us so we can have a conversation?” He essentially says, “Why don’t you come in so that all my friends can check you out?” So she, as any sensible wife would, said, “Not on your life. I’m not coming at all.” And as a result of deciding not to show up when she’s asked, she gets completely banished. She’s out, she’s off the throne, and she’s gone. In a fit of pique, he banishes Vashti forever.
And then he suddenly realizes that wasn’t a smart thing to do, and so he looks to some of his friends, and they said, “Well, you just need to get another one. And why don’t we have a beauty pageant, and we’ll get together as many good-looking girls as we can, and then you can just pick the cream of the crop,” and that’s exactly what they do. So they have, essentially, a Miss Persia competition, and they finally bring it around, and this girl Esther—who’s actually Jewish, but she doesn’t tell anyone about it—she comes out top of the pops, as it were, and she is welcomed into not only the palace but into the bed of the king.
She has a cousin, called Mordecai, who’s also Jewish. Mordecai is older than her. She was an orphan. Mordecai decided to essentially adopt her, to look after her, and he had been the one who had positioned her in order that she might present herself for this pageant. And she eventually finds herself in the inside track.
Now, the king, meanwhile, appoints another character, who’s a bad act, called Haman. And Haman essentially becomes the prime minister. He likes to walk around—he’s got a fat head and a fat mouth—and he likes to walk around making sure everybody is paying attention to him, giving him the due that he deserves, or thinks he does. He has a problem, because this guy Mordecai decides he’s not doing it. If you’re supposed to stand up when Haman passes, Mordecai stays seated. If you’re supposed to salute, Mordecai keeps his hands in his pockets. If you’re supposed to bow in obeisance, Mordecai says, “I’m doing none of it.”
Now, when you read for your homework, as I know you’re going to do, you’ll be able to fill in the background on the racial tensions and the tensions between those who oppose the people of God and the people of God themselves that is represented in this unwillingness on the part of Mordecai. And what happens is that Mordecai really sets the cat among the pigeons, as you will discover when later in the day you’re reading the book of Esther—hopefully not in your class when you’re supposed to be studying the New Testament epistles. But anyway, that’s enough for me to get you started, all right? You’re loving it already, aren’t you? You’re all going, “I can’t wait to read Esther; I think I’ll begin just now,” right? That’s good. That’s good. All right.
Now, what you will discover when you begin to read it is that God doesn’t show up, at least not ostensibly. His name is never mentioned in the entire book. The entire narrative is filled with what we might refer to as God-shaped holes, so that you come to places in the book where you would expect God’s name to be present—you would expect God to be represented—and he’s not there. The reason he’s not there is because it is by that narrative style, that genre, that the author of this particular book is teaching us lessons about the way in which God is at work when his name is not forefront and when he is apparently unseen. Because the dramas of other parts of the Old Testament, vis-à-vis the crossing of the Red Sea and all of these other things, are dramatic. And yet, for most of us, we haven’t had a crossing of the Red Sea. Most of us have not seen a burning bush. Most of us are just going to class. Most of us are just phoning home. Most of us are just sending emails. Most of us are just trying to stay alive. And in that humdrum activity of our lives—in those God-shaped vacuums, if you like—we are forced to do what the book of Esther asks us to do, and that is to consider, “What’s going on in what’s going on?” So when you read it, you say to yourself, “What’s going on?” And at the very heart of it is this notion that God is providentially at work in these ordinary things.
Alexander Carson, who lived a while ago, wrote a book called The History of Providence, and this is his summary of the book of Esther: he says, “The book of Esther is peculiarly the book of Providence. … The hand of God in his ordinary Providence has linked together a course of events as simple and as natural as the mind can conceive, yet as surprising as the boldest fictions of romance.” Okay? So we read this book, and we’re forced to consider the possibility that nothing happens except by God and according to God’s will. In the words of the catechism, in the second question in the New City Catechism, at the end of the thing, on the question, “What is God?”: “Nothing happens except through him and by his will.”
Now, allow that just to settle in your mind for a moment as you think about this morning’s newspapers, as you think about the things that you’ve already considered on the internet. “Nothing happens except through him and by his will.” Think about it in relationship to your personal life. Think about it in relationship to sadnesses, to disappointments, to joys, and to encouragements. And then say to yourself, “Now how does that fit in a contemporary perspective in our society today?” And let me suggest to you that when you read contemporary philosophy, contemporary observations, you realize that this kind of core conviction is challenged not only in the things that are written but in the way that life is lived.
In a book called Light of the World, written by Benedict XVI, there is a preface by a man called George Weisel, or Weisel. Veisel. W would be a v sound in German, I guess. And in his foreword, this is what he says: he says we now live in
a world that … has lost its story: a world in which the progress promised by the humanisms of the past three centuries is now gravely threatened by our understandings of the human person that reduce our humanity to a congeries of cosmic chemical accidents: a humanity with no internal origin, no noble destiny, and thus no path to take through history.
No internal origin, no noble destiny, no path through history.
Go down in Capri. Just engage someone in conversation, someone of your own vintage, and ask them about their origins. Are they going to tell you that they are the product of time plus matter plus chance, that they are a cosmic accident, that they are simply molecules held in suspension? Ask them about their destiny. Ask them if they have a path through history. And then you may be able to tell them of the one who bisects history and who provides that path.
David Myers refers to it as the “American Paradox”—namely, that… And incidentally, it’s not just an American paradox; it is spreading. It’s spreading in parts of Asia, especially prosperous parts of Asia. The paradox is this: that we have never had so much and yet we’ve never had so little. We’ve never had so much and yet we’ve never had so little. Therapists report that that paradox works itself out in the lives of people who come to see them—some of you will know this firsthand—and particularly in the lives of young people. Young people who present themselves for help, whose story is repeated again and again. It goes like this. We’re not talking about people who are really at the bottom of a social pile or a mental capacity pile or financial pile. But these are young people from good homes who have not wanted for much in their lives, who have been able to attend college, have perhaps graduated from college, have gone on—actually, one of the few—to get a job, and yet, what they talk about is that they are baffled by the emptiness that they feel. David Wells, commenting on it, says,
Their self-esteem is high but their self is empty. They grew up being told that they could be anything they wanted to be, but they do[n’t] know what they want to be. They are unhappy, but there seems to be no cause for their unhappiness. They are more connected to more people through the Internet, and yet they have never felt more lonely. They want to be accepted, and yet they often feel alienated. Never have we had so much; never have we had so little.
Now, it all sounds very contemporary, doesn’t it? And, of course, it is. But you know, if you think about it, its manifestations may shift, but at the heart of the matter, you find it everywhere.
You remember Hamlet, when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive, and he says to them, “Good lords, how do you both?”
And the first one replies, “As the indifferent children of the earth.” (That’s quite a good response, isn’t it? If someone asks you in Starbucks, “How you feeling today?” “As the indifferent children of the earth.”)
“How ’bout you, Guildenstern?”
He says, “Happy in that we are not over-happy. How ’bout you, Hamlet?”
“I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise, and indeed, it lies so heavily with me that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory.”
Now, here at the very heart of your education, you really are at the fulcrum, in relationship to a view of the world. Either you were personally created by a God who fashioned you in your mother’s womb, or you have no real explanation for your origin. Either your life is sustained by his providential care, or you’re a cork floating on the Pacific, or you’re held in the grip of blind forces. And the book of Esther, in its enigmatic narrative form, says to us, “Hey, listen. Consider this. Consider the fact that in these God-shaped vacuums you may find God at work in ways which upon first blush just seem as if they’re amazing happenstances, peculiar coincidences. And yet, when you look back, things seems so vastly different.”
Now, I’d stepped away from the ball there and waggled the club for, I think, about seven minutes, okay? The ball being the text and the club just being me standing here. In other words, you know, sometimes you waggle on the tee a little bit before you finally step up and hit it. So, I’ve just been waggling a little. That’s okay, in terms of what’s been going on. You say, “Did he lose his mind there? And what happened in that last section? Or where was that word about Esther?” We’re back. Okay? So, I’m just gonna hit the ball; it’s not gonna go very far, and it won’t be very long either. It never is. But it hasn’t stopped me from hoping.
And so, when you get back to the passage itself, you discover that this decree that Haman had created is a real problem. Simon Winchester has a new book coming out on the fifteenth of October, as you know if you got your Amazon missive this morning. No one ever writes to me except Amazon. Every morning, it doesn’t matter. Amazon: “Hello, Alistair! We love you, Alistair! Yes. Buy another book, Alistair!” If I had no friend in the world except Amazon, I would be perfectly happy. Even if my wife never spoke to me in the morning, at least I know: I go to my phone, Amazon is there. And this morning it told me that Simon Winchester, who happens to be one of my favorite authors—he wrote The Professor and the Madman and a number of other books—he has a new book coming out now. It’s the first time that he, as a naturalized American, has written a book actually about America. Anyways, it’s coming out on the fifteenth. I’m not on his payroll or anything. I’m not advertising. But the reason it’s in my mind is because the book The Professor and the Madman had such a ring to it, and what you discover is that here at the end of chapter 3, you have the king and the madman. And the king and the madman are having a glass together as a result of the issuing of this decree that called for the slaughter of the entire Jewish population.
The genesis of it was that this Mordecai, the little Jew who sat at the king’s gate, refused to bow down to Haman. Well, you know, all of us have been offended every so often in our lives, right, if someone didn’t do what we expected them to do? But did you ever think of having a decree established? Like, let’s say I say something to you as a Scotsman, and you don’t like that. And so, you’re so annoyed that you decide, instead of just not speaking to me again, you will have a decree issued that calls for the entire annihilation of Scotland. Just everyone in Scotland. “I’ll just get rid of the whole stinkin’ lot. Why, I mean, Begg is an illustration of it. Get rid of him and everybody else.” You say, “That is a reaction of satanic proportions!” That’s exactly what it is. And that was his reaction.
And chapter 3 concludes with the prospect of that. Mordecai, who is, from a human perspective, largely responsible for this holocaust that is now impending, needs to get the information to his cousin, the queen, who isn’t exactly out shopping at the mall on a daily basis. And so, when you read chapter 4, you discover that he dons the sackcloth, and he goes and sits in the public square. And as a result of sitting in the public square, the people who are out doing the shopping for the queen go back and tell the queen, “Hey, Mordecai is down there, he’s making an incredible hullabaloo, and he’s got everybody in the same mess. There’s a lot of wailing and weeping and every kind of thing. And he’s dressed in sackcloth.”
To let you know how out of touch Esther is by this point, she says, “Well, sackcloth’s not good. He doesn’t need to be wearing sackcloth. Here, send him some nice clothes. Well, I’ll fix him! Why don’t we get him a new outfit?” Now, that’s not as strange as you think. Because our shopping malls are filled with people who think that a new outfit will fix them. Right? “I think I’ll buy a new purse.” Not that I’ve ever felt that way. But, “I think I might I buy a new pair of shoes. Maybe I’ll get a new pair of sneakers, and that’ll make me feel so much better.” No, you’re now down $129, and you feel even worse than you felt before you bought them. Because you can’t fix your insides by your outsides.
She says, “Well, just send him clothes.”
No, he sends back, he says, “Tell Esther that’s not the issue.”
She sends back, “Well, what is the issue?”
He says, “Well, let me tell you the issue.” And remember, he sends Hathach back. And Hathach goes back with a copy of the decree. And he says, “Tell Esther to go to the king, beg his favor, and plead with him on behalf of her people.”
Well, that’s just not as easy as it sounds. Because two guys at the end of chapter 2 had ended up dead for not doing what the king wanted. And if you think, again, that this is some kind of clever narrative, then you need to read Herodotus; you need to read the ancient text. You discover that the king of Persia at this time didn’t just have secret service; he didn’t have guys with little things, you know, like, “Hello. Over. Number three. Number three.” He didn’t have that. No. Where he sat on his throne, he had a bunch of guys who stood with axes. Axes! And if anybody came in that wasn’t supposed to come in, whack! Off with the head.
So, she sends word back to Mordecai: “Hey, easy for you to say, Mordecai. You know, how about you going in to see the king? If you go in to see the king and he doesn’t ask you, you get your head chopped off. I don’t like those odds. Furthermore,” she says, “I’ve gone down on his list. I haven’t slept with him in thirty days. I think he’s moved on to someone else in the harem. So I’ve got no leverage at all. So what are we going to do now?”
We pray. We’re done. See you Friday. Do your homework.
Gracious God, sovereign Lord, we bring our lives to you—all the chances and changes, the ups, the downs, the joys, and the sorrows. We remember Psalm 34:
Oh, make but trial of his love,
Experience will decide
How blest are they, and only they,
Who in his truth confide.
Be with us, Lord, in the hours of this day, and in the days of this week. Assure us of your fatherly care when we see it, when we don’t, so that we might rest in your providence. For we ask it in your Son’s name. Amen.
 Romans 15:4 (ESV).
 Alexander Carson, History of Providence (Edinburgh: William Whyte, 1840), 162.
 The New City Catechism, Q. 2.
 George Weigel, foreword to Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times; A Conversation with Peter Seewald by Benedict XVI (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2010), x.
 David G. Myers, The American Paradox (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 1, referenced in David F. Wells, God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-Love of God Reorients Our World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 22.
 Wells, 22–23.
 Wells, 23.
 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 2.2. Paraphrased.
 See Psalm 139:13.
 Nicholas Brady, “Through All the Changing Scenes of Life” (1696).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.