Preaching from narratives are a lot of fun for me. One of my favorite series that we’ve done at CLF was our series through Judges. I loved it because of all the strange characters, twists and turns, and seeing God’s hand in all of it. That’s why I have loved preaching through Esther. The genius of the book is that God’s name is never mentioned, yet God’s hand is so widely seen. It has been really good for my soul to wrestle out the difficulties in the book and at the same time, seeing how God works things out for His glory and the good of His people.
A long text and the hand of God: One of the issues in yesterday’s sermon was the sheer breadth of the stories that I attempted to cover. In our original plan through this book, chapter 7 was going to be a stand-alone sermon. But with my recent trip to Texas, I felt strongly that we needed to work hard at being done by the end of December. For no other reason than the fact that I’d like for us to get through Paul’s prison epistles (Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians) in one year. That’s a daunting task and I really didn’t want to start the year behind schedule. So, that’s why we covered so much in yesterday’s sermon.
After I began to dive into the study I saw the Lord’s hand in this because the narrative of the book and the pace of the book really picks up in chapter 7 and into chapter 9. So, to delay for another week, might not have fit well with the author’s intent and might not have served us as well. This is one of the challenges of allowing God’s word to reveal itself to us, rather than us putting our stamp on it…when the word of God picks up the pace, so must the preacher…when it’s commanding, so must the preaching be…when it’s humorous, the preaching must match that. So often, the temptation in preaching is to make the text fit something you want to say. But true expositional preaching is saying, what the word of God says, in the way it says it, with the same tone, passion, humor, or whatever else is in the text. I find this part of preaching challenging and exhilarating. My goal is for God to re-speak His word to His people and do with it as He deems best. I love how He does that.
From the cutting room floor: With this sermon covering so much ground with two and one-half chapters, there were quite a few things that I had to cut.
One of those that amazed me and I really did not have time to draw it out because of its length is about Haman being the descendent of the Amalekite king, Agag, and Esther succeeding where King Saul failed. This entire scene is best captures by Karen Jobes in her commentary on this book. Here’s what she wrote:
“By designing the death of Haman the Agagite, Queen Esther has succeeded where her ancestor King Saul had failed, whether or not she was aware of it (see 1 Sam. 15; see also comments on 3:1). Esther is the Jews’ queen during this time of holy war. Holy war is a troubling concept to modern readers, and the role of the monarch in holy war is unfamiliar to most. In Scripture, holy war was initiated by God for his own purposes, and Israel’s king was to be the leader of God’s army and responsible to wage holy war according to the divine initiative.”
The Amalekites had tried to destroy the infant nation of Israel shortly after they left the land of Egypt (Ex. 17:8–15). Because of this, God instructed Israel’s first king, Saul, to attack and destroy the Amalekites, sparing not even women and children. The similarity of these words with those of the edict of Haman against the Jews in Persia, as well as the words of Mordecai’s later counter-edict, is striking (cf. Est. 3:13; 8:11). Saul was to spare not even one of the Amalekites and to show no pity. But when Saul had the opportunity to kill their king, Agag, king of the enemies of God’s people, he spared his life instead. This act of disobedience in holy war disqualified Saul from being Israel’s king. When Samuel heard of Saul’s “mercy” on Agag, the enraged prophet killed Agag in obedience to God’s command, but according to rabbinical tradition, not before Agag slept one last time with his wife. The son conceived in that union had a descendent generations later named Haman, who turned the power of Persia against the exiled nation of King Saul. Because of Saul’s failure, the Amalekites continued to plague Israel throughout its history.
Haman the Agagite wore the signet ring that endowed him with the king’s authority, and he effectively acted as the king of the enemies of God’s people. In the Diaspora setting, God no longer fought holy war through Israel’s king and army, for Israel no longer had either a king or an army. Would God’s people still be protected by his covenant promises without holy war? The story of Esther demonstrates that God worked providentially through Mordecai and Esther to fulfill a promise of protection that previously would have been fulfilled through holy war. Queen Esther killed Haman with her cunning, as surely as King Saul could have, and should have, killed Agag with the sword. Commentators who criticize Esther for her lack of pity on Haman seem to have missed this connection to Israel’s monarchy and its role in God’s promise of destruction against those who oppose his redemptive work.
Esther’s role as queen of the Jews in this story makes it inappropriate to use exemplary exegesis as the key to understanding this book. Esther is not portrayed as the ideal woman of God living out her relationship with the Lord as a direct example for women today. Her role as the Jewish queen of Persia in a specific stage of redemptive history and biblical theology means that no other woman can or should try to emulate directly her character or behavior, just as no Christian man today would emulate David when he killed two hundred Philistines for their foreskins as the bride price for Saul’s daughter (1 Sam. 18:24–30).
Notice in this quote the emphasis on God protecting His people in enemy territory. I absolutely love that thought. God will never forget His people and even when they are in enemy lands, by their own sin, God still does not forget.
One of the challenging statements of Esther is in 7:4 when she states, “If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have been silent, for our affliction is not to be compared with the loss to the king.” I did not speak about this yesterday for a couple of reasons: 1) I’m not really clear on what the original language says here. There’s so much conflicting analysis that it made it hard to determine. I think what she says is equivalent to, “if we had been sold as slaves, I wouldn’t say a word because that’s not nearly worth bothering you over.” Which leads to 2) I’m troubled by this statement. Why would slavery be considered, “merely”? My first attempt to answer this is because compared to death, then yes, slavery is a “merely”. But in the context of our culture and world, slavery = death. So, I left it out because of how uncomfortable I was with what she was saying and the challenge of describing the Persian view of slavery as compared to ours.
This sermon, unlike many in recent memory, was without quotes. I didn’t have one quote beyond Scripture. Not a bad thing…just different. So here are some quotes I found helpful for sermon prep:
- “Regardless of intent, Haman has undeniably violated harem protocol, a serious affront to the king himself and reason enough to condemn him to death. When Harbona suggests that Haman be hanged on the gallows he had built for Mordecai—the Mordecai who, by the way, had saved the king from assassination—Xerxes concludes that Haman perhaps had secret sympathies with his attempted assassins. This fine point of court intrigue is amplified in the Greek version, which emphasizes that Haman, the king’s closest advisor, will be executed in disgrace for treason.” Karen Jobes
- “Her role as the Jewish queen of Persia in a specific stage of redemptive history and biblical theology means that no other woman can or should try to emulate directly her character or behavior, just as no Christian man today would emulate David when he killed two hundred Philistines for their foreskins as the bride price for Saul’s daughter “. Karen Jobes
- “And from hence I cannot forbear to admire God, and to learn hence his wisdom and justice, not only in punishing the wickedness of Haman, but in so disposing it, that he should undergo the very same punishment which he had contrived for another; as also, because thereby he teaches others this lesson, that what mischiefs any one prepares against another, he without knowing of it, first contrives it against himself.” Josephus
- “When Esther reveals Haman as her mortal enemy, she at the same time reveals herself to be Jewish. In so doing, she not only indicts herself for living a lie in the harem of the king, she also brings herself under the irrevocable decree of death against the Jews.” Karen Jobes
- “Life and death are determined by identification with a people. In that moment of horror when Haman finally sees the truth and realizes the import and consequences of what he has done, he begs for life, but to no avail. The ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise to his people for protection from death is found in Jesus Christ. Identification with him constitutes a people who will be delivered from death and live forever, just as Jesus was.” Karen Jobes
- “The vengeance due to us for our sins against others and due to them for their sins against us has been satisfied in Jesus’ body on the cross. It is only on the basis of recognizing that the penalty has been paid by Jesus that we can forgive others as we have been forgiven. True holy war in human history has ceased because Jesus has fought its last episode on the cross.” Karen Jobes
- “To say that God is too loving to punish the wicked implicitly plays off God’s love for the victim against God’s love for the perpetrator. The full extent of God’s love for all of us can be appreciated only by recognizing the full extent of his wrath poured out on Jesus for the sins of the world (John 3:16). It is on the Cross that God’s love and his justice are reconciled.” Jesus Christ is the only Israelite righteous and just enough to wage holy war with clean hands and a pure heart.” Karen Jobes
And with that comes a wrap to this week’s musings. Next week, our staff asked me to write some musings on the movie we’re going to watch at Family Movie Night (December 30th at 5:00 p.m. at CLF) “One Night with the King”. Their hope is that I can write a few things that are different from the biblical narrative. Should be fun.
Finally, from all of us at CLF, from our Elders, Deacons, and Staff…Merry Christmas! Jesus Christ has come! Praise God that God is with us!
To watch or listen to the sermon described in this post, please click here.