August 31, 2009

Esther and the Scepter

Throughout history the Jews have been uniquely persecuted and uniquely preserved. These days we see extreme anti-Semitism in the likes of radical Islam, which has many different faces. King Abdulla of Saudi Arabia, for example, talks a lot about peace, yet his country upholds radical sharia law. People were a bit miffed when Obama gave the king a deep bow in April, wherein he even seemed to kiss the king's hand. Another example of radical Islam is Iran’s president Ahmadinejad, who called the extermination of 6 million Jews during WWII a “myth.” He also stated "...this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time." Also, he said “Anybody who recognizes Israel will burn in the fire of the Islamic nation's fury.” The use of terrorism against innocent people underlines the fact that the radicals consider the people themselves the enemy, not just the form of government.

The book of Esther deals with the same place, Iran, which was then called Persia, and the same plan, a scheme to exterminate all of the Jews in the region. Though words like “God, worship, prayer, heaven,” or “hell” are not mentioned in the book even once, you do see God’s divine hand working behind the scenes to protect the Jews and stand the evil scheme against them on its head. The scepter is a symbol of the king’s authority and is a good reminder of God’s greater authority which is guiding the king’s moves as well as all the other circumstances.

The “Whole Megillah”

Esther gives the “whole megillah,” as they say, and then some. Megillah is from the Hebrew word “scroll” and refers to the reading of the whole book of Book Esther during the feast of Purim, which is a feast celebrating the salvation of the Jews from genocide during Esther’s reign as queen of Persia. But Esther goes deeper than just giving the historical account; it offers insight into the nature of God and the nature of His plan of redemption for mankind, which is truly incredible.

The historical account of Esther is kind of a long story, but here’s the skinny. The Jews had been exiled into Babylon and then Babylon was taken over by Persia. The Jews were backslidden, not very devoted to God at the time. This is perhaps one reason why words like “God, worship, prayer, heaven,” or “hell” weren’t mentioned even once. But this fits right into the theme. Though God’s people aren’t always faithful to Him, God is always faithful to His people. Esther’s name by birth in Hebrew, Hadassah, has two meanings, one is myrtle, kind of an ordinary plant and another is “something hidden.” In Persian, her assumed name means star. Her uncle/caretaker, Mordecai had her change her name at a young age apparently to hide her Jewish nationality. Anti-Semitism was on the rise and the only outward sign that Mordecai was a Jew was his refusal to bow down to Haman, an anti-Semitic nobleman (Est 3.2). He felt only God was worthy of such a gesture. All the differnt meanings of Esther's name play into the account. She was an ordinary, yet beautiful young orphan woman who was selected from all the women of Medo-Persia to be queen alongside King Xerxes 1, also known as Ahasuerus. She did become a “star” as she helped to save many people. On a spiritual level, Daniel said those who help to save many people will “shine like stars forever.” (Dan 12.3)

A Clueless Heroine

At first, Esther didn’t know the reason why she was chosen, it was hidden. But Mordecai became aware of a plot to kill the Jews by Haman and then realized Esther could help the situation. Like we all can be, Esther was at times a little clueless. When the evil Haman received permission to destroy the Jews, Mordecai and other Jews put on sackcloth and fasted. Apparently Esther didn’t realize what this was all about and sent Mordecai some fresh new duds (Est 4.4). But Mordecai explained to Esther her unique position and ability to bring salvation: “…who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?" (Est 4.14) Before she decides she must risk her life and ask for the king’s mercy, she asks the Jews to fast for a three day period, with prayer no doubt included. (Est 4.16). Though she was an imperfect instrument, God was able to use her, especilly due to her sense of devotion and willingness to lay down her life.

What was the danger? The king had this thing about being disturbed. So much so, there was a law made that anyone who enters his courts unannounced must die, that is, unless the king extends his gold scepter to the person as a sign of acceptance. (Est 4.11) Just to get a feel of how temperamental this king could be, consider historian Herodotus’ account of the king’s reaction when he lost his battle with Greece due to their failed 2 bridges at the Hellespont. The two bridges were made with flax and papyrus cables along with floating pontoons. After a storm came and wiped out the bridges, Xerxes had the engineers beheaded, he had the waters of the Hellespont lashed 300 times, he had a pair of shackles thrown into it, and all the while he commanded his soldiers to shout at the lapping waves. If you thought you had some issues to work out, well, maybe you’re doing better than you thought, relatively speaking. Anyhow, you can see why the queen was hesitant to barge in on the king after not seeing him for 30 days. Would he be in a good mood?

A Higher Authority

To make a long story short, the king does extend the gold scepter to her and warmly agrees to her request to meet with her and Haman at a dinner get together she has prepared. After they arrive, Esther senses it’s not the right time to spill the beans so she invites both of them to another dinner party the following day. In the mean time, Haman builds a huge gallows intended for Mordecai and the king becomes inspired to read the history books where he finds that Mordecai was never rewarded for saving the king’s life from some assassins. This shows how God is ultimately in control and his authority is over and above the king’s. Proverbs 21:1 states “The King's heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases. (NIV) This is where the tide starts to really turn against Haman. Xerxes decides to honor Mordecai and later that evening Esther does spill the beans and requests that she and her people, as a Jews, be spared from death at the hands of Haman. The king sides with her and has Haman hung on the gallows he prepared for Mordecai. God is ultimately in control of everything and “causes all things to work together for good” for His purposes (Rom 8.28). The king did not annul the law allowing the attack on the Jews but he does allow the Jews to battle their enemies and with the king’s support they are victorious. But what about today? What is the trend in terms of anti-Semitism, etc.?

A Worsening Condition

The conflicts in the Gaza strip have led to an increase in anti-Semitism worldwide, according to the ADL. When US president Obama bowed down apparently to kiss the hand of the king Abdulla of Saudi Arabia, many thought it was beyond unnecessary. There is zero religious freedom in the country and sharia law is in full force. That’s the Muslim religious/legal system that calls for the crucifixion of non-believers based on the Koran: “Those who wage war against God and His Messenger and strive to spread corruption in the land should be punished by death, crucifixion, the amputation of an alternate hand and foot or banishment from the land: a disgrace for them in this world, and then a terrible punishment in the Hereafter,” (The Qur'an, Oxford, 5:33, UP, 2004).

In the past, the US has supported Israel. But this support seems to be fading in keeping with international trends. The scripture prophecies show that eventually all the nations will be against Israel: “I will gather all the nations to Jerusalem to fight against it…”(Zech 14.2) (See also Rev 16.14-16, 19.17-21, Jude 1.14:). This battle, also known as Armageddon, will occur before the millennial reign of Christ (Rev 20). But even before these things, according to scripture, there will be a spiritual revival among the Jews. Like the book of Esther, there is truly a sense of suspense in the chapters of history.

A Complete Redemption

Since the modern nation Israel was formed in 1948, it has been miraculously victorious against military attacks from its Arab neighbors against seemingly impossible odds. But even more incredible than this salvation militarily, will be the salvation of the nation spiritually. Paul wrote that most Jews were by and large blind to Jesus as the Messiah but that God has not forgotton the Jews, there are better days still yet to come. The Jews were like branches broken off so that new branches, the Gentiles, could be grafted in (Romans 11.1-24). "...Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in." (Rom 11.25). But one day, Paul wrote, "all Israel will be saved." (Rom 11.26). We see this described in Revelation 7, during the future great tribulation, when 144,000 Jewish evangelists preach the gospel throughout the world. This awakening to the true identity of Jesus Christ by the Jews is also described in prophecy in Zechariah 12.10.

A Greater Purpose

In spite of the worsening conditions in the world and the increasing anti-Christ and anti-Israel attitudes, God has given us the prophecies to reassure us, to know that things will indeed get worse before they get better. God has also given us the book of Esther to know that He is always working behind the scenes, though it may not be obvious to the naked eye. God uses all things for His good and His glory. Take heart and have peace in Him and the assurance of His word. As with Esther and her king, our King Jesus has given us, His bride the Church, His authority in order to go into all the world to be agents of salvation (Mat 28.19). This is his heart (Lu 19.10) as well as His mandate. The main thrust of history is God’s work “to reconcile all things unto Himself.” (Col 1.20) The greatest aspect of this purpose is the spiritual redemption of God’s remnant. May we be fully devoted to God as Esther was, ready to lay down our lives for His greater purpose. May we be used by Him in “such a time as this!”

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