We’re going to be introduced to two of God’s dubious heroes in Esther chapter 2. And we’ll see that they’re far from unusual in the Bible. This, it turns out, says much about God and is a huge encouragement to us.
As a church, we regularly pray that the Lord would send workers into this harvest-field, to multiply his own gospel witness. We need to be careful, though. Are we praying for super-duper “born evangelists” who will let the rest of us off the hook, as new Christians come streaming through the door? What are we praying for (assuming you are praying)?
The truth is, you will always be the first answer to that prayer, because you’re already here, a worker.
Meet God’s dubious heroes
Last time we saw king Xerxes throw a great big party for everyone in his capital city, Susa. All the men were drunk after a whole week of partying, and Xerxes commanded his drop-dead gorgeous wife, Queen Vashti, to parade herself in front of all the men. She wouldn’t do it, so she was dropped as queen.
Now in chapter 2, Xerxes has come to his senses but his laws can’t be revoked – Vashti is gone for good.
So in v1-4 he does what any hot-blooded young king with unchallengeable authority would do: He sets up a Miss Persia contest. Winner is to be Queen.
The writer switches in v5-7 to introduce Mordecai and Esther. Mordecai was exiled in 597 BC to Babylon, which means he was one of the important and influential people in Jerusalem. (The final destruction of Jerusalem was 10 years later.) All we’re told about Esther is that she was (lit.) “beautiful of form and good to look at,” and that Mordecai had taken his niece in when her parents died.
In verses 8-9 Esther is “taken” to the fortress of Susa in accordance with the king’s orders. It’s not clear whether she had a choice or not, though it’s hard to ignore the comparison with Vashti. If her heart wasn’t really in it, maybe she could have made herself less appealing in some way. But v9 makes it plain that she threw herself into the life of a beautiful young virgin in the king’s harem.
Amazingly, no background checks were done on this prospective Queen so she never revealed her Jewish family connection (v10-11), even though Mordecai came and checked on her every day.
Women as objects
If you thought that Xerxes treated women as objects based on what he’d asked Vashti to do, v12-14 multiply that by 1,000! He had (at least) two harems. Virgin girls would spend a year in beauty treatments. Then they’d go to him for one night for his pleasure. Afterwards, she’d be dumped in another harem. There, women would waste away – untouched, unloved. A comfortable but empty existence.
In v15-18, it’s Esther’s turn for a night of passion for the king. He was smitten, declared her Queen, and set off a series of parties and celebrations.
Esther is a pretty dubious heroine.
- She submits to a sordid beauty contest, showing rather less nobility than the non-Jewish queen Vashti had.
- Esther works towards the big night, and ultimately has sex with a pagan king – quite against the laws on inter-marriage for Jews.
- She feasts with him, with no hint of restraint (quite unlike Daniel who refused some of what was put before him).
Still, what’s the moral of the story? Is it, “Young women, make yourselves gorgeous and available to rich powerful men”?! No, it is not. In fact, we make a mistake if we try to look to Esther as a role model at all. This is not a “moralistic” fable.
Mordecai isn’t a role-model either. Esther was in his care, yet he counsels her how to make the whole situation work (“Don’t tell them you’re Jewish”). He does do a good thing, though, and foils a plot from two eunuchs to harm the king. (All very Jeremiah 29:7.) Mordecai tells Esther, she tells Xerxes. There’s an investigation and the two men are executed for treason.
But here’s the key point: The hero is the one not mentioned.
We end Esther 2 with Esther and Mordecai exactly where God wants them – despite their morally dubious actions: Esther now has unique access to the king; Mordecai is now in Xerxes records for unrewarded service to the king.
God is sovereign over your actions
What we’re seeing here is actually a pattern that repeats throughout the whole Bible. Let’s review some examples.
Joseph (of the technicolour dreamcoat fame) was an idiot.
- He had a dream that his father, mother, and brothers would all one day bow down him. What does he do?
- “Hey, everyone, let me tell you about my dreams!”
- The brothers sold him to slavery in Egypt; none of them are heroes or role-models.
- In the very end, Joseph could say to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good.”
King David was powerful and rich and married, but also capable of being an idiot. He took a married woman for himself.
- He added to that the murder of her husband to try to hide his tracks. Of course, God saw and challenged him.
- Out of all this comes Psalm 51, a model of a repentant heart and a clear lesson on the offence that sin is to God
- More, Bathsheba ended up being the mother of Solomon and finds herself in the genealogy of Christ himself (Matt 1), a statement from God about his love for her, for outsiders, and for the abused.
Jeremiah lived in brutal, terrible times. And he was angry with God.
He went from proclaiming God as “living waters” to calling him nothing but a “mirage”. He was so angry, and he was wrong.
- Still we have Jeremiah’s words and they are a stark reminder to you and me to be honest in prayer.
- They are also a reminder that God will not have his honour, goodness or wisdom challenged.
- And – most importantly – Jeremiah was still used by the Lord to write to the exiles in Babylon a message of great hope: There will be a New Covenant.
James & John
In the New Testament, James and John were hot-heads.
They asked Jesus if they should call down “fire from heaven” in judgement.
- They went through more after that, including witnessing the death and resurrection of Christ.
- James was executed by Herod, but John went on to write his gospel, his letters, and Revelation.
Not to forget how the great Pharisee Saul persecuted Christians to death and imprisonment, only to be transformed and used so greatly by Christ.
All of these examples show that God’s people have always been far from perfect, and yet God is sovereign.
God works through even the imperfections of his people to achieve his plans and purposes.
- His great plan is to dwell on the earth with his people.
- And nothing can go against that.
The believers in Acts 4 were beginning to come under persecution from the Jewish authorities. They prayed, “Herod Antipas, Pontius Pilate the governor, the Gentiles, and the people of Israel were all united against Jesus, your holy servant, whom you anointed. But everything they did was determined beforehand according to your will.” (Acts 4:27-38)
God works all things to accomplish his purposes:
- He works even the direct opposition of wicked people
- He works even the incompetence and sinfulness of his own people
This is something you need to know, if you are working against him. He will accomplish his aims with you or without you. Your offence and rebellion damage you, not him. The Good News is that you can still come to him. His great plans and purposes are for your good, if you will turn to him – repent of your sin, ask his forgiveness. He’s ready for you.
But all these examples are, in the end, very much encouraging for the average Christian like you and me.
Be alert, be willing, be useful
It’s fair to say that neither Esther nor Mordecai knew that what they were doing was under God’s sovereign control. They were just doing what they could – imperfectly, in a foreign culture.
And we’ve seen how that’s true of many of the people we meet in the Bible – they’ve no idea of the far-reaching implications of their actions.
And then there’s Jesus. The ultimate true hero. He very much did know that everything he did was part of the overall plan to save a people for himself. But that didn’t mean everything was smooth and easy. In fact, he knew that being wholly in the will of God, moving completely in God’s great plans and purposes, was to go the way of the cross.
Now, glorified, he has sent the Holy Spirit into the world and continues to work out these great purposes – Good News to the nations, calling sinners to repentance. His plans succeed.
So take encouragement from the simple fact that you can’t derail God’s plans by your sin or incompetence. That doesn’t excuse sin. Ever. Nor does it give you a ticket for slapdash incompetence. But God is glorified in your weakness as he accomplishes great things even through you – Paul could even say that he rejoiced in weakness for that very reason.
When you’re faced with a difficult decision and want to do the right thing, sometimes the right thing isn’t as clear as you’d like. The right next step might be to pause, and wait. Often, the right next step is to move forward, trusting God either to correct you or help you on the journey. Trust God to be sovereign, and do something for him (though perhaps not a beauty competition!).
He created a “vacancy” for Esther to move into. He made it just so that Mordecai overheard a plot to kill the king. These open doors, opportunities, were from God for his people.
Be ready to see him open doors for you, for his kingdom. And be willing to step forward, to take those opportunities.
You might think you can’t – but he prepares you for the tasks he has planned for you.
- Did Esther make herself lovely of form and beautiful to look at? No, that’s how God made her – for this task.
- Remember Ruth. We’re never told whether she was lovely or not, but she was commended for remarkable faithfulness and extremely hard graft.
- Your temperament, healthy, looks, skills – as imperfect as they may be – are preparation for work for the Lord only you can do. (None of these are excuse to sin; they’re reason to do good.)
So you can’t derail his plans; he equips you to do the work he has planned. So step forward, remembering that as you do your faith will be tested, worked like a muscle, growing stronger. Your faith must be expressed in action. For Jesus, that meant his cross. Likewise, you must bear your cross to do his work, knowing that glory awaits.
God is sovereignly in control. Take steps forward; be bold in the power he supplies, knowing that he as good works prepared for you – and that he equips you do to them.
Pray for workers, certainly. Remember that you are one. Don’t waste time, thinking you can’t do what he calls you to. You can. Because he will work in you to do his will.