The Tables Are Turned
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The Tables Are Turned

Esther 9:1–19  (ID: 2985)

Once King Ahasuerus heeded Esther’s pleas and nullified his edict against the Jews, the tables were turned, and God’s people enjoyed a great victory. Yet while the Jews gained mastery over their Persian opponents, they also showed restraint by not taking any plunder. Their rejoicing was great as they sang the song of deliverance. As Alistair Begg reminds us, God is always working behind the scenes. His providence shows us that He knows what is best for His children.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Esther

The Unseen God Esther 1:1–10:3 Series ID: 11703

Sermon Transcript: Print

We read again from the Old Testament, in Esther and in chapter 9. Esther chapter 9 and from the first verse:

“Now in the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, on the thirteenth day of the same, when the king’s command and edict were about to be carried out, on the very day when the enemies of the Jews hoped to gain … mastery over them, the reverse occurred: the Jews gained mastery over those who hated them. The Jews gathered in their cities throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus to lay hands on those who sought their harm. And no one could stand against them, for the fear of them had fallen on all peoples. All the officials of the provinces and the satraps and the governors and the royal agents also helped the Jews, for the fear of Mordecai had fallen on them. For Mordecai was great in the king’s house, and his fame spread throughout all the provinces, for the man Mordecai grew more and more powerful. The Jews struck all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them. In Susa the citadel itself the Jews killed and destroyed 500 men, and also killed Parshandatha and Dalphon and Aspatha and Poratha and Adalia … Aridatha and Parmashta and Arisai and Aridai and Vaizatha, the ten sons of Haman the son of Hammedatha, the enemy of the Jews, but they laid no hand on the plunder.

“That very day the number of those killed in Susa the citadel was reported to the king. And the king said to Queen Esther, ‘In Susa the citadel the Jews have killed and destroyed 500 men and also the ten sons of Haman. What then have they done in the rest of the king’s provinces! Now what is your wish? It shall be granted you. And what further is your request? It shall be fulfilled.’ And Esther said, ‘If it please the king, let the Jews who are in Susa be allowed tomorrow also to do according to this day’s edict. And let the ten sons of Haman be hanged on the gallows.’ So the king commanded this to be done. A decree was issued in Susa, and the ten sons of Haman were hanged. The Jews who were in Susa gathered also on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and they killed 300 men in Susa, but they laid no hands on the plunder.

“Now the rest of the Jews who were in the king’s provinces also gathered to defend their lives, and got relief from their enemies and killed 75,000 of those who hated them, but they laid no hands on the plunder. This was on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar, and on the fourteenth day they rested and made that day a day of feasting and gladness. But the Jews who were in Susa gathered on the thirteenth day and on the fourteenth, and rested on the fifteenth day, making that a day of feasting and gladness. Therefore the Jews of the villages, who live in the rural towns, hold the fourteenth day of the month of Adar as a day for gladness and feasting, as a holiday, and as a day on which they send gifts of food to one another.”

Well, thanks be to God for his Word.

We pray, gracious Father, that as we turn to some of these truths that stand unchanged, echoing down to us here, events that took place so long ago and so far away, we earnestly ask for your help to be able to consider them and to be considered by them and to be instructed and changed. Help us, Lord, we pray, to this end. For your Son’s sake. Amen.

Well, as we come back to our studies in Esther, as we move towards the close of our studies in Esther, we’re aware of the fact that throughout the book, really, to this point, the odds have been stacked heavily in favor of the enemies of the Jews. And now, at the end of chapter 8 and into chapter 9, we discover that the Jews enjoy a great victory as, in a very dramatic fashion, the tables are turned. And the reverse that occurs is set out very straightforwardly for us in verse 1 of the passage. If you’re just joining us, as some of you may, you will not know that we have been trying to learn that the book of Esther is in part helping us to grapple with what we have begun to affirm in the second question of the catechism—at least at the end of the second answer to the second question—namely, that “nothing happens,” concerning God, that “nothing happens except through him and by his will.”[1]

That, of course, is a great and comprehensive statement to make, because we’re not making it simply about our personal lives, but we’re actually affirming it in relationship to the nations and actually in relationship to cosmology itself, to the entire movement of the planets, to the existence of science and history and geography and all besides—that when we affirm that in the answer that we give, we’re saying far more than simply “God is on the side of those who have come to trust in him.”

That stands in direct contrast to many in our culture—and you may be one of them. You may have come today just to consider these things, or you’re not even sure why you’ve come, but if you think about your life, you perhaps don’t see it in those kind of terms. You may think of your life as just a big jigsaw puzzle, and the bits and pieces haphazardly fit together every so often, but there’s no real rhyme or reason to it, there’s no overarching purpose or plan, there’s no obvious pathway through life, there’s no significance to one’s origin, there’s no ultimate destiny towards which one is moving. That kind of contemporary flavor of thinking is directly challenged by what we’ve been discovering in Esther.

And what we’re discovering in the twenty-first century has been iterated throughout the years. In the seventeenth century, John Flavel wrote a book called The Mystery of Providence, and in part of that he makes the observation: “What a world of rarities are to be found in providence!” “With … profound wisdom, infinite tenderness, and incessant vigilanc[e] it ha[s] managed all that concerns us from first to last.”[2]

And so we’re discovering that in the course of events that from one perspective appear to be coincidental and entirely random and yet are so obviously simple and natural, that there is a higher hand at work beyond and in and through all these things. And although God’s name is never mentioned, as we’ve noted each time, nevertheless he is accomplishing his purposes. And that, I think, comes across, if we’re looking for it, in the absences of his name.

Now, let me just point out this to you now while I’m thinking about it: where it says that “the fear of Mordecai had fallen on them,” and then it says that the fear of the Jews “had fallen” on them. This idea of the fear of the Jewish people falling on the surrounding culture makes one say, “Well, what fear was that? And what does it mean, it ‘fell’ on them? And if it fell on them, where did it fall from? Was it something that they engineered? Was it something that they did, and everyone said, ‘Oh, I’m scared of the Jews’?” No, they responded to the political circumstances, but when they went to their bed at night, they said, “You know, it’s a strange sensation that I get. I’ve never felt this way before. And I don’t know what really to make of this guy Mordecai, but he seems to be incredibly influential.” You see, God is at work, speaking even in the silences.

The Great Reversal

So, let me try and help us through this in a way that we were unsuccessful in doing last time. But we need to start where we were, with what we’re referring to as “the great reversal.” The great reversal. You will notice that the verb “reverse” actually occurs in our text towards the end of verse 1. When they were expecting to master the Jews, the Jews mastered them, and so he says, “The reverse occurred: the Jews gained mastery over those who hated them.”

The narrator is very specific about the occasion in which this took place. He identifies this day—“in the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, on the thirteenth day”—then he comes back to the notion of the day by pointing out, “on the very day…” So, it’s important that we understand this. And that takes us back—at least some of us—to chapter 3. Because it was back in chapter 3 that the author records for us that Haman and his friends, who were so opposed to the Jewish people, took a long time determining what would be the best day to kill the Jews. They didn’t just say, “Let’s choose a day arbitrarily.” We’re told in 3:7 that at the beginning of “the first month” in the year, “in the twelfth year” of the king, which was five years or so after the events in chapter 2, they began to cast lots every day. They conducted a kind of lottery every day, and they did it “day after day”—not only day after day, but they also did it month after month—and they went for twelve months doing this in order that they might discover what is the lucky day. They wanted to be sure that they chose the absolute correct day, and they investigated it, and eventually they decided.

If you travel in China, you will know—and I say this without any disrespect to the Chinese population—but if you traveled in China, you will know that there are many occasions in which they are concerned that they find the lucky day. If they’re arranging a marriage for one of their children, they will often conduct all kinds of investigations to make sure that this day is the right day. And there are other parts of the world that are equally engaged in that. Actually, America’s not too far from it. If you’re a horoscope reader, you’re engaged in it yourself. If you happen to be unfortunately believing that your life is just a jumble, that you’re another brick in the wall, you’ll be tempted in the morning to look in and see what’s supposed to be happening to you. And you may even have determined that such and such a day is a lucky day and another one is an unlucky day. Well, look here, back at chapter 9, and see how lucky this day was for them. Right? They were very, very concerned that they would get the right day, and they chose this particular day. It’s all recorded for you there in chapter 3. You can read it for yourselves later on.

Now we come to chapter 9, and the writer says, “Now in the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, on the thirteenth day of the same, when the king’s command and edict were about to be carried out, on that very day…” It would have been remarkable if it happened in the same month! Frankly, if it happened in the same year, people would have said, “Isn’t it amazing? It was only earlier this year that they spent a long time deciding when they would kill the Jews. And would you believe it? Look what’s happened. What a great reversal!”

The language is emphatic here. The verb that is used points this out clearly. The ESV helps us by saying, “When the enemies of the Jews hoped to gain … mastery over them, the reverse occurred: [and] the Jews gained mastery over those who hated them.” So, they had set a day when they would overpower the Jews, the day dawns, and the Jews overpower them.

I’m gonna leave you to work much of this out for yourselves. You’re students of the Bible by this time. You can enjoy these little flashbacks along with me if you would like. But if you flash back to 5:9, as you think about great reversals, you have the record of Haman emerging from the banquet with the king and Esther the queen, and on that day he went out “joyful and glad of heart.” And despite the fact that he saw his nemesis, little Mordecai, at the gate, he managed not to get derailed by that, because he was on top of the world looking down on creation. And he went home, and he brought his friends and his wife Zeresh, and he spent the evening letting everybody know how fantastic he was and how terrific everything else was.

And, you remember, he “recounted to them the splendor of his riches, the number of his sons.”[3] It’s interesting, isn’t it? You know, “the number of his sons.” When I read that in chapter [5], I said, “Well, why does it say the number of his sons? Why not just say ‘his sons’?” You get to chapter 9, and I just read the list for you. Not an easy list to read! Some of you were holding your breath as I was reading that. I know. I could sense that there was an intake there, and eventually, when I got to the end of it, it went like, “Oh, good, okay.” But they’re actually listed there in the text of history in two columns, to make the point. He said, “You know, my sons are my crowning glory.” “Hey, look at your sons. We just hanged them up on a pole.” That’s a great reversal, from exaltation to devastation—and, in Mordecai’s case, from obscurity and apparent irrelevance to the most powerful man under the king in the entire nation. He starts off as “there was a Jew named Mordecai who sat at the king’s gate.”[4] It doesn’t sound like much, does it? What a great reversal when you get to chapter 9 and you read in verse 4, as we did, “[And] Mordecai was great in the king’s house, and his fame spread throughout all the provinces, for the man Mordecai grew more and more powerful.”

You see, what Zeresh—on the second occasion, when Haman came home—what Zeresh told her husband would happen to him in particular has now happened to the Jews in general. At the end of chapter 6, she said to her husband, “If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of the Jewish people, you will not overcome him but will surely fall before him.”[5] And Haman must have said to himself, “I don’t think so.” But it’s happened. He’s dead and gone, the problem remains, and now those whom he represents are brought underneath the jurisdiction of the Jews.

You see, the real emphasis here—and it is just the big idea, which is the big idea, really, of the whole passage, so if we only got this, then we would have enough—and that is that God reverses things; that that which seems apparently impossible to take place happens under the jurisdiction of God; that that which people on the first day of the first month would have said is going to result in the destruction, the killing, and the annihilation of the Jewish population, would have said, “There’s no way to reverse this. The law of the Medes and the Persians is such that it is irreversible. It has been written down. It has been decreed. It has gone throughout the entire kingdom. Therefore, they’re done. There’s no way you can fix this!” And then, of course, we have a mediator, and Esther steps in and speaks on behalf of the people, and a second edict is set in place to countermand the first edict. But even then we’re left saying to ourselves, “Well, we don’t know whether edict one or edict two is gonna win out when we get to the thirteen day of the month of Adar.” And now here we are, and we make the wonderful discovery.

The Constant Threat

Now, I think it is of vital importance, because of the nature of what is said here… Because even in the public reading of this as well as in the private reading of it, there are little phrases in this that just make you just kind of wriggle a little, don’t they? “And they destroyed them, they killed them, and they did as they pleased to those who hated them.” Don’t you find yourselves saying, like, “Whoa, wait a minute”? Yeah.

Now, I think part of that is because we just don’t understand the gravity of the context in which this second edict was issued. For the Jewish people were living under the threat of extinction. Although Haman was gone, the anti-Semitic, oppressive opposition to the Jewish population in Persia was endemic. I mean, if you think of Haman as Hitler, you can take Hitler out, but as long as his views have permeated the consciousness of a nation, then his removal will be insufficient to prevent the holocaust that will have inevitably come. And that is what we discover is confronting us here. And if we misunderstand the extent of the anti-Jewish sentiment, then we will almost inevitably find ourselves standing back from this and saying, “You know, I don’t know quite how to countenance this. This is one of the difficult passages of the Bible. I don’t know what to say.”

No, number one, we need to realize that they lived under constant threat of this—that the Persian population that had embraced with joy the notion of the annihilation of the Jews would have had this on their calendar. They would have been looking forward to it: “Now in the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, on the thirteenth day of the same…” They would say to one another, “I put this on my iPad,” the equivalent of. “You know, I have it flagged, because I’m looking forward to it. It’s gonna be a great day. We’ll finally deal with the Jews. We’ll get them out of here. We never want them here in the first place. I don’t know who brought them in, but we’ll make sure that they go out—feet first!” That’s the extent of it.

And so we’re told that “the Jews,” verse 2, in this great reversal, “gathered in their cities throughout all the provinces.” Now, that verb there, “gathered,” means gathered, but it actually connotes the idea of working on a united front, that they gathered together. They realized that if they try and operate on a kind of ad hoc, individualistic basis, the chances are many of them really will be destroyed; that the strength will be found in their numbers, although their numbers are small in the vastness of Persia. But nevertheless, if they are together in the project, then they have a better chance than they have on their own. We understand that. Nehemiah understood it. That’s why when you read Nehemiah, you have this wonderful picture of the Jews working on the wall side by side, each in front of his own house, each person taking their part, joining hands, as it were, in the venture.[6] We often say in our team meetings that we’re all better together than any one of us is on our own. It’s absolutely true. And that principle runs all the way through the Bible.

When you absent yourself from the choir (which you are), then your voice is missing, and someone fails to derive the encouragement that would be there if they could hear you singing God’s praise.

So, for example, when Paul writes to the Philippians, he says that he is rejoicing with them and he is praying for them, that he might find them—this is what he says—“standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.”[7] In other words, he doesn’t view the Philippian believers as living in splendid isolation from one another. He views them as having been united with Christ and therefore united with one another in Christ. And so, that’s why he writes to them as a church. He conveys this notion, a notion which runs through the people of God all the way and right through to us.

That’s why we’re all better together in singing. I can hear my voice when I’m singing, but it doesn’t sound much good. But your voices sound terrific when I listen to you. And when you absent yourself from the choir (which you are), then your voice is missing, and someone fails to derive the encouragement that would be there if they could hear you singing God’s praise. In the same way, if I isolate myself from the gathering together for the proclamation of the Word of God, I devalue the opportunity by my absence. I’m not coming just to get blessed. I’m coming in order that we might give glory to God, in order that we might encourage one another, and so on. I leave you to work that out for yourselves.

The Jews lived under constant threat. “The Jews gathered [together] in their cities throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus.” If you jump forward to verse 16, where it talks about them “in the king’s provinces,” you’ll notice the phrase “[they] also gathered”—notice the phrase—“to defend their lives”; “to defend their lives” and get “relief from their enemies.” It’s very, very important that we get this: that what the Jews do in this context is operate within the framework, in accord with the edict. And the edict was perfectly written. The lawyers here would be delighted with the way in which they made sure that the language of the second edict tied in perfectly with the language of the first. Verse 11 of chapter 8: the people went throughout the community “saying that the king allowed the Jews who were in every city”—now, notice the phraseology—“to gather and defend their lives.” So, the issue is self-defense. That’s what they are being freed to do. “These people have determined that they are going to annihilate you. We have created a second edict which allows you to prevent your annihilation, and the way you will prevent your annihilation is by killing them. That’s why you will be free ‘to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them.’”

Now, this is very, very important. Because a superficial reading of this passage may say that the Jews then were just free to go out willy-nilly and do whatever they fancied doing. Anybody who happened to be there in the marketplace, “Just chop ’em down! We’ll take care of them.” It’s not that way at all. No, what is undergoing here is strategic. After all, the Jews were in Persia not by choice but by conscription. They were not aggressors. They were worshipping God. They were going on with their lives. They were opposed because of their worship of God in large measure, because they wouldn’t be participants in so much that went on around them. And they were hated. And Haman is at the forefront of the opposition. He’s now gone, but the threat remains.

So, I want to underscore the fact of this notion of self-defense. And don’t be misled by the notion of preemptive strikes. Because a preemptive strike may be done in self-defense. If you’re old enough to remember the [Six]-Day War, you’ll remember that the success of the Israelis in the Seven-Day War was on account of their preemptive strike. They drove the Arab nations back into the wilderness because they went fast and under cover of darkness. Why did they do that? Because they were aggressors? No, because they were under threat. Because their intelligence proved that if they didn’t go first, they were dead men, they would be driven out of their territory. So, the idea of a preemptive strike does not necessarily set aside the notion of a righteous, self-defending response. You’re sensible people. Think it out.

Again I say to you that unless we get under the burden of what was represented here, we will be tempted to operate in the context of twenty-first-century moral morass, whereby we don’t have the political guts to call anything wrong, to call anything right, to call “the wrong people,” “the evil empire,” “the wrong place.” Oh, you couldn’t ever possibly say that, because nobody knows what’s wrong, nobody knows what’s right; therefore, everybody must be a little bit right and all a little bit wrong; therefore, we’ve got nothing really to say. Well, you don’t want somebody that’s refereeing the game this afternoon at half past four, do you, working on that basis? “Well, it looked wrong to me.” “Oh, it looked right to me. I think it was in. I think it was a touchdown.” “I don’t think it was.” “Who’s to say? Let’s just shut it down. Let’s everybody, let’s have twelve touchdowns.” “Let’s have no touchdowns.” It’s in play. It’s out of play. It’s ridiculous! There’s no game. No goalposts, no game. No twelve-yard line, no way of knowing where you are.

Now, the way I got to this in my own thinking, to try and help me—because I find this unsettling as well. Don’t misunderstand me. But Life Is Beautiful, the movie, that starred Roberto Benigni, which is one of my favorite movies, as it turns out—not that you care—helped me with this. If you have not seen—what is in Italian? La Bella Vita?—then you need to see it. The Jewish community are divided as to whether it was a right way to handle the Holocaust or wrong. I can’t speak to that. All I know is it made a tremendous impact on me.

And there are certain scenes that are actually indelibly fastened in my brain, such as the scene when Roberto Benigni and his boy are on the bicycles, and they go down over the cobbled squares into the town, and they come on the daubing of Nazi slogans on the walls. And the son says to the dad, “Why does it say ‘No Jews or dogs allowed’?” And the father, not wanting to crush his son by the reality of what is there on the wall, makes light of it, purposefully, to save his son from the implications of it. And he says to him, “Everybody does what they want to do.” He says, “You see that hardware store over there? They don’t let Spanish people in there. Spanish people on horses are not allowed in there.” And he says, “You know, there’s a store over here as well, and I have a Chinese friend who has a kangaroo, and we were going to go in there, and they told me, ‘No! No Chinese, and no kangaroos!’” He says, “So you see, son, people do what they want to do. Some people don’t like Jews and dogs, some people don’t like Chinese and kangaroos, and some people don’t like Spanish and horses. That’s really all it is.”

He’s trying to safeguard his boy from the reality. Because you only go a moment or two before the trucks come, before the division takes place, before the girls are sent away by themselves, before you have that classic scene where Roberto is running behind the truck shouting, “Is there somebody called Dora here? Is there a Dora here? She’s Italian. She’s my wife. She’s called Dora.” And eventually her face appears from the morass of humanity, and he identifies her, and he shouts to her, “Get off the truck, Dora! Jump off the truck, Dora, as soon as you can.” You fast-forward, and he comes back out of the emaciated condition of the hard enslavement of the camp, and his boy is hidden up in the rafters. You remember, he keeps him up there. And his boy dangles his legs over the side, and he says, “Daddy, they make soap and buttons out of us.” “They make soap and buttons out of us.”[8]

Now, when you get that, you’re starting to approximate to the context in which the second edict says, “You go and take care of that situation.” Our failure is often because we are just as unprepared to recognize the gravity and demonic nature of what it means to live in a sinful and rebellious world where men are utterly opposed to God and his goodness. And finally, the ultimate judgment of God awaits us. It has been imported into time in the atonement of his Son, but in the ongoing events of life, it is perfectly obvious that there are occasions in which these kind of events unfold in the providence of God. Hence the great reversal.

A Great Restraint

There is also a great restraint, and I want to mention it, ’cause I never got to it last time. And the great restraint is very straightforwardly there in the repetition of a simple phrase in verse 10 and in verse 15 and verse 16. And that phrase is “And they took no plunder”: “They laid no hand on the plunder.” Well, they don’t need to tease this out. The reason that it’s there, I think, is straightforward. If they had taken the plunder—which they were justified in doing according to the edict, incidentally. Verse 11 of chapter 8 says, “You’re allowed to take the plunder.”[9] There’s a history to this that you have to do on your own. You remember in chapter 3, Haman was described as “the Agagite,”[10] and we mentioned in passing that that was significant. The reason it was significant was because Agag was the king of the Amalekites, and in 1 Samuel 15 we have the record of Saul being told to destroy the Amalekites. He’s told, “Destroy the Amalekites, and don’t take the plunder.”[11] He doesn’t destroy the Amalekites, and he does take the plunder.[12] So Esther says, “We’re not gonna do it like Saul did it before. We’re allowed to take the plunder, but we won’t take it—but we will destroy these folks.”

That’s the significance of the ten sons of Haman. Nobody would be able to say, “The reason the Jews did what they did was so they could get our stuff, so they could just have aggrandizement, so that they could just take possessions.” They would be able to say to their children, when their children said, “Dad, why didn’t you take the man’s sword? I mean, you defeated him. Why didn’t you take him? That would have been a nice sword. We could have had that in our in our family room. It would have looked good. Why didn’t you take his rings? Why didn’t you take his bracelets?”

“Son, I could have. But that wasn’t why we did what we did.”

“Well, why did you do what you did?”

“Because these people threatened our lives, our further existence, and would have taken you in a moment if I’d allowed them. But I didn’t do it to get stuff.”

There’s another whole train of thought here, isn’t there, about the nature of possessions? It makes me think of Gehazi, remember? Naaman. That’s it, isn’t it? It’s Naaman. I shouldn’t do this. But anyway, remember—yeah, Naaman wants to get healed, and then Gehazi lies about things and takes the stuff,[13] thereby causing the question to be raised, “Are you doing this for the right reasons or for the wrong reasons?” You’ve got it in the story of Abram as well, with the king of Sodom, where the king of Sodom, back in around Genesis 14, says to Abram, “You can have a bunch of stuff as well,” and Abram says, “No, I don’t want any of your stuff. I serve the God of heaven. I’ve made a vow to the God who possesses everything in the universe, and I won’t take even one of your sandals—not one of them. And I’ll tell you why: so that you will never be able to say ‘I made Abraham rich.’”[14]

“I’m not gonna muddy up what’s going on. I’m not gonna go on TV and tell you that I can heal you because I really just want to fly in a private plane.”

Great Rejoicing

The restraint is clear, and the rejoicing is great. We have to leave rejoicing for later on, but let me just get you started on it. It’s really wonderful. I’m looking forward to talking to my Jewish friends this week, because I want to get Purim very clear in my mind. I’ve a sneaking suspicion that it’s a wonderful occasion, and this feasting and gladness and holiday and the gifts going to one another, it’s a lovely thought, isn’t it? Essentially, what has happened is that God has turned the curse into blessing. Somebody said to me a few Sundays ago, “You know, I think the best psalm to summarize what’s going on here at the great reversal is Psalm 30.” And I said, “You know, I think you’re right,” and I looked it up, and I’m more convinced that this person was right. This is what Psalm 30:11 says:

You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
 you have loosed my sackcloth
 and clothed me with gladness,
that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.
 O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever!

This is kinda like Mordecai’s psalm, isn’t it? “You have turned for me my mourning into dancing.” Don’t you love the way Jewish people are able to dance when they have weddings and everything? It’s not like kinda corny gentile dancing. It’s really… It’s always, it’s so good, you know. It makes you want to be Jewish. You’d see Mordecai and Esther, and they’re holding hands. They’re not gloating over the destruction of their enemies. They’re not hanging scalps up on the wall and going, “Look what we did to those people.” No, they’re holding hands and saying, “You know, I used to sit at the gate of the king’s palace. I was dressed in sackcloth. I’m the prime minister! I’m in charge of this whole place! How in the world did that happen? This is God’s doing, and it’s marvelous in our eyes. Sing with me.”[15] You see, it’s the song of deliverance.

If we had time, we could advance this. I could point out to you that the notion of the ten sons hanging there was representative of the curse that is represented in those who hang upon a tree, for cursed are those who hang upon a tree. It’s an expression of the curse of God. You can read it in Joshua chapter 10 and elsewhere.[16] And then you fast-forward to the book of Galatians, and you encounter the notion of Jesus, who becomes the cursed of God and who hangs upon a tree.[17] Why would the sinless man be cursed of God? I thought “the wages of sin is death”?[18] But he was sinless; therefore, he had no sin; therefore, no death; therefore, no curse—unless, of course, he took the curse so that we might enjoy the blessing, which is the story of the gospel. So that the deliverance is a comprehensive deliverance. Do you know that deliverance? Do you know the things we sang about this morning? I mean, did they really express your heart, or are you really just a big jumble of jigsaw pieces?

One of the first times I got in trouble as a boy was for joining the library. How can you be in such a family that you get in trouble for joining the library? That’s a strict mother! “I joined the library.” “Go to your room!” The problem was I joined it without asking her, and I’m not allowed to do things if I didn’t ask. I understand that, so that’s fine. But the book I got out, I remember, was Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. A great story! And at one point, remember, Robinson Crusoe is shipwrecked, he’s on the island—Man Friday is not involved—he’s got a fever, his life has been a complete shambles, and in the context of all of that deprivation he reaches into a chest, and out of the chest he pulls out a Bible. And he fastens on Psalm 50:15, which says, “Call upon me in the day of trouble, and I will answer you.”[19] Daniel Defoe knew what he was doing. He was a Presbyterian minister, actually. Have you ever called upon God in the day of trouble?

God knows what is best for his children, and he knows you, and he loves you, and he cares for you, and his heart towards you is rich in compassion and vast in power.

And for those of you who believe, don’t let’s be so glib about things that we affirm a notion of the providence of God which skates thinly over the realities that we face. Even the song we sang this morning—and it was written by my friend, you know, Brenton Brown: “[’Cause] in your presence all [my] fears are washed away.”[20] I’m not convinced of that one. I guess I must have spent a lot of time not in God’s presence, ’cause I can wake up at night with all kinds of fears. And I know that ultimately, when they’re set within the framework of God’s overarching providence, there is no basis for fear. We understand that. But I haven’t discovered that all my fears are washed away. Have you?

Some of you have faced things this week that have just struck fear into your core. And the Evil One comes to you and accuses you, says, “You know, if you were really in his presence, then you wouldn’t have any of those fears.” That’s neither true to life nor is it true to the Bible. You would say, “Well, I should just be singing, you know, ‘Great is thy faithfulness, the sun is out, the sky is blue, there’s not a cloud to spoil the view, great is thy faithfulness.’” But the thing that makes “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” so great is that Lamentations 3:22 comes after the previous verses of Lamentations 3. And you can read them for yourself, ’cause we must stop. But he says, “I feel like I’m eating gravel. I am oppressed. I am overwhelmed. I’m devastated.” He just goes through a whole litany of these things: “This is my experience.” And then he says, “But then I start to think about things, and I remind myself: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end. So they’re new every morning. Great is your faithfulness.” But I feel like I’m eating gravel! “Great is your faithfulness.” But my life is spiraling in a downward cycle! “Your mercies never come to an end.”

The history of the doctrine of providence is filled with all kinds of mysterious elements. The underlying reality is this: that God knows what is best for his children, and he knows you, and he loves you, and he cares for you, and his heart towards you is rich in compassion and vast in power. And the name of the Lord is a strong tower, and the righteous, you can go and run into it, and it’s safe there.[21]

Father, thank you. Thank you that you are the God of providence. We recognize that “blind unbelief is sure to err and try your works in vain,”[22] that we cannot get to these things from the position of detached curiosity, that only when we humble ourselves before your mighty hand, only when we come in childlike trust, will we begin to get an inkling of the mystery of your dealings with us and be able to affirm, when the thing is upside down, when the picture doesn’t fit our design or our desire, that we then are gonna have to either change you to fit our picture or we’re gonna have to submit ourselves to you and to trust you with the picture. Achieve your purposes in us and through us, O God, we pray, for your name’s sake. Amen.

[1] The New City Catechism, Q. 2.

[2] The Mystery of Providence, in The Whole Works of the Reverend Mr. John Flavel (Glasgow, 1754), 2:93.

[3] Esther 5:11 (ESV).

[4] Esther 2:5 (paraphrased).

[5] Esther 6:13 (ESV).

[6] See Nehemiah 3:1–32.

[7] Philippians 1:27 (ESV).

[8] Life Is Beautiful, directed by Roberto Benigni, written by Vincenzo Cerami and Roberto Benigni (Miramax, 1997).

[9] Esther 8:11 (paraphrased).

[10] Esther 3:1 (ESV).

[11] 1 Samuel 15:2–3 (paraphrased).

[12] See 1 Samuel 15:4–9.

[13] See 2 Kings 5:15–27.

[14] Genesis 14:21–23 (paraphrased).

[15] See Psalm 118:23–24.

[16] See Deuteronomy 21:22–23.

[17] See Galatians 3:13.

[18] Romans 6:23 (ESV).

[19] Psalm 50:15 (paraphrased).

[20] Brenton Brown and Paul Baloche, “Hosanna (Praise Is Rising)” (2005).

[21] See Proverbs 18:10.

[22] William Cowper, “God Works in a Mysterious Way” (1774). Lyrics lightly altered.

Copyright © 2024, 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.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.