THE book of Esther discloses the secret care of God over His people, the Jews, when He could no longer publicly own them. They had been taken captive to Babylon, and now Babylon had fallen to the Medes and Persians. From the days of Cyrus the Persians prevailed in the empire and in the book of Esther the Persians are mentioned before the Medes.
God is not named in the book for it is a history of His ways in secret, and the Jews were so placed and doing such things as He could not have allowed if He had been openly governing amongst His people. He could not permit His name to be mentioned on the same page with the record of the intermarriage of Jews with Gentiles. Yet there was a low state of faith which acknowledged an unseen hand working for the good of those whom God had once owned. God gave His response to a faith at that low level. The fact of their present preservation showed that God still had them in mind. After two thousand years of obscurity He continues to care for His wandering people, so that His counsels of grace may yet be accomplished, which will take place when, by providential means, He brings His people to know why they are in their exiting state, and they seek Him with repentant hearts.
In the historical books a complete moral history of Israel is given, which, together with the words of the prophets, shows the reason for God's governmental rejection of Israel as His centre of government. The history of Israel and Judah closes with the captivity of Judah, in the days when Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, is made the head of earthly supremacy. Ezra and Nehemiah carry on the history of a remnant of Jews who are sent back to rebuild first the house of the LORD, then the walls of the city. The returned remnant are without a king, and remain under the control of the Gentile monarchy. They formed a connecting link with God until the Messiah came and was presented to them.
Nehemiah is the last historical book. The people, borne along by the enthusiasm of Nehemiah, repaired the walls Jerusalem; but the state of the remnant was anything but happy. The house of the LORD was defiled, the Levites had received their portion, the Sabbath was violated, and the people had intermarried with strangers. Nehemiah felt his own isolation in the midst of such ruin, and he cast himself on the greatness of the mercy of God. The gilt the people brought them all into discredit, and he looked for mercy that God might own what little there for Him (Nehemiah 13: 14, 22, 31). On this minor note the history of Israel ends in the Old Testament.
Such is ever the history of man as man works it out. But whatever man does, and however far God may apparently allow him to shape his own end, He never lets the control of all things completely out of His hand. When God hides himself so that His ways cannot be seen, he still orders the course of all things that His purposed end may he attained.
Daniels prayer of intercession (Daniel 9), at the end the seventy weeks of captivity foretold by Jeremiah, and the faith of those captives whose hearts grace had prepared for the work, opened the way for the return of the remnant of the Jews to rebuild the house of the LORD then lying in ruins. But God had not forgotten those did not return to Jerusalem. Without the intelligence to know the mind of Jehovah, and not having the faith to find the altar their defence, or the presence of the spirit the LORD sufficient protection in an unwalled city, yet they believed that a controlling hand wrought for their reservation. God answers faith no matter how feeble may be its expression.
When God works openly the whole power is seen to be His, the vessel He uses must necessarily be made nothing of, or God would be displaced by what is seen of the vessel. That is why see the vessels of His testimony crushed and rendered powerless, so that God alone may be seen. Only when the soul is brought into communion with God can it endure such a training, and when His presence is all the light of the soul. It is a blessed privilege for a man to be used as the vessel of God's revealed presence and power. When the soul not in communion with God, then providence uses nature where it has full play can work with unlimited power for God's end
Scripture furnishes many striking instances of providence working out the divine will. Moses was providentially kept from destruction at his birth, and was reared as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, awaiting the time until he should be called out into the sphere of God’s open activities
In no case does providence violate nature but uses it. Therefore providence cannot be taken as a guide for the exercise of faith, for faith does not look at circumstances but to God Himself, and faith is governed by the revealed will of God, which is now known by the Word. Faith often has to cut right through the path of circumstances, and seemingly to go against providence. This was so in the case of Moses who enjoyed every advantage in Egypt where providence had exalted him to a place of great influence, which he might have used for the benefit of the children of Israel. Yet he left all to suffer affliction with the people of God and is commended for his faith by the spirit of God (Hebrews 11: 25,26).
Faith owns the hand of God in all that happens, though there may not be intelligence enough to see His hand in every circumstance. It looks to God in all the ways of life, and thanks Him for His merciful providence. But the happy and simple path, for faith is that in which the word of God directs the steps in known communion with Him. “I will guide thee with mine eye" is the way of peace and joy; but providence prevents many a fall.
Historically the story of Esther comes in between the end of Ezra chapter 6 and the beginning of chapter 7. The Artaxerxes of Ezra 4:7 is the Pseudo Smerdis, and chapter 7:1 speaks of Artaxerxes Longimanus. The book supplies one of the links in the chain of God's government, without it we should not understand His dealings with His people good and bad alike so that His will might be accomplished. All is made to work His will and for the good of His people, even when they are being disciplined by circumstances, and are not near enough to Him to enquire His will.
The story opens with a picture of Oriental splendour. Though there are scenes of sensuous pleasure depicted, yet the whole history is told in restrained and modest language, most becoming in one who, though out of the current of' the life of more energetic faith in its direct contact with God, has not fallen into the evil ways of those surrounding him.
Ahasuerus, the Persian king, is generally believed to be Xerxes, who led his armies against Greece and met with disaster. It is told of him that when a storm arose and injured the bridge which he had thrown across the Hellespont that he thrashed the sea, and had his engineers put to death. Although the king was a tyrant and cruel, the narrative is never disrespectful to the throne. The writer, possibly Mordecai the Jew, describes the sensual customs of the east, and recounts the slaughter of the enemies of the Jews in simple and chaste language without exaggeration and with no suggestion of romance.
God has been pleased to preserve the record as part of the revelation of His ways in government of the affairs of men on earth. He provides for them even when they break down in their responsibility to fulfil their ordinary duties. His plans must be effectuated though His people may become mere unintelligent actors in the scene. While men war for their own ambitious ends they are still fed, and a shower of rain or a strong wind may turn an imminent disaster into a victory for one side or the other. Everything serves to accomplish the counsels of God. Will-less nature is completely under His hand, and the less men know of God the more easily they may be used by the hand of providence. This shows how unintelligent those are who wait to be controlled by providence, and do not know God through His word for their walk in life.
The first sight that meets the eye is a scene of sumptuous pleasure in Shushan, the capital city of the second empire. The king prepares a feast for his princes, and displays his great riches before his many nobles, for he rules over a vast kingdom. After a number of days he makes a feast for the people of Shushan and no restraint is laid on the appetite for pleasure. It is not a time of fasting, but a time when under the hand of God a king is enjoying his power and prosperity. At the same time Vashti the queen made a feast for the women of Shushan.
At the height of the feast and when the king was merry with wine, he sent the seven chamberlains to bring the beautiful Vashti that he might show her beauty to all the people. The queen refused to come. This angered the king, who, acting on the advice of his ministers and as an example to all other women in the kingdom, deposed Queen Vashti.
We are not at the moment interested in the question whether it was indecorous for a woman of that day to show herself before the public eye, or if the, king were unreasonable; we have what is told as the reason why the Gentile queen was set aside. We do not know if there were other wives, but in the subsequent history we learn that amidst a great deal that was wrong the hand of God was secretly at work. If swift judgment does not fall because God is patient and long-suffering, the ways of men may continue to follow the dictates of their desires, but an overruling hand curbs their activities. Everything runs its course, and man's wilful way tends to check his will.
The ruler is God's authority on earth: he is in the place of human supremacy for God, and charged with the government of men to control the activities of the human will, which without it, and while God is not openly governing, would take unlimited licence. His word is supported by providence while he governs for God and serves God's designs.
The simple narrative is easily understood and need not be repeated here. Another wife is sought for the king in whom to display the glory of the throne. In the field of nature all that is pleasant and beautiful plays its full part. Amongst the virgins of the land a Jewish maid is found, fair and beautiful (ver. 7), “who obtained favour in the sight of all them that looked upon her“ (ver. 15).
Vashti, the deposed Gentile, thought only of herself without regard to the effect of her conduct on others. The Jewish maid, soon to be exalted to the throne, was governed by a passion for the good of her people, and eventually risked life and favour to save them from harm.
Esther, whose Hebrew name was Hadassah, which means “myrtle" or "pleasant", was the daughter of a captive from Jerusalem. She was given the Persian name Esther, signifying the planet Venus, no doubt because of her extraordinary beauty. Her parents had died and she was brought up by her cousin Mordecai, who was also a Jewish captive.
Presented at the king's house Esther immediately finds favour with the chamberlain, and after the usual preparation of the day, she is brought before the king who accepts her, and makes her queen in Vashti’s place. Instructed by Mordecai, Esther does not disclose her nationality.
Mordecai, who sits in the king's gate and is probably a servant of the king (ver. 19 & 3:3), discovers a plot against the life of the king. He tells it to Esther and she informs the king. An inquiry is made, the culprits are caught and hanged. A record is made in the books of the state, and the incident apparently forgotten.
Haman, an Amalekite, is promoted by the king above all other princes, and the king's servants, which were in the king's gate, give him honour; all save Mordecai the Jew.
While God's secret preparations are being made to develop His plans, counter measures are being set afoot by the adversary of God and man. Esther is on the throne. Mordecai is an agent in preserving the life of the king. Now one rises to the place of power who will soon show his bitter enmity to those whom God favours. Amalek was the enemy that opposed Israel when they took their first steps, into the wilderness, and God swore that He would wage war with Amalek from generation to generation. King Saul failed to overcome Amalek and it cost him the kingdom of Israel. Mordecai refused to bow to Haman; but here his act is not connected with faith but with national pride, and it serves God's purpose. He uses what He will in the mystery of His ways.
Satan, unnamed here, but active against the work of God, imitates the ways of God and exalts one to the right hand of the king. Satan has a right over the world, not as its creator or redeemer, but he rules through the passions of men, and he has power over the natural life of man through sin. Death is his might by the judgment of God because of sin. This is a terrible thought for the awakened conscience.
When God moves to forward His plans the adversary produces his counterplan, sometimes with more immediate success, but God draws on deeper resources of wisdom and knowledge and overcomes the subtlety of the adversary in the end.
Haman's anger is aroused by Mordecai's refusal of reverence (ver. 2) and he uses the occasion to obtain a decree from the king by which he might put all Jews, his hated enemies, to death under a false accusation.
Mordecai goes out into the city clothed in sackcloth, the garments of humility, and cries loudly and bitterly amongst his brethren. None so clothed may enter the king’s gate, so he remains outside to weep with his people. It was a day of mourning, but it preceded a day of glory. This is God's way with those whom He purposes to bless now that sin has blighted the world. It is His goodness and power that exalts man; all promotion comes from Him (Psalm 75: 6, 7) and the heirs of promise must learn it. When not outwardly in the place where the knowledge of divine dealings brings them joy, the steering of the moment is uppermost. The people of God must taste the sorrows that sin has brought in, and the humiliation of their position.
Esther, grieved with her beloved relative's anguish and degrading dress, seeks to relieve his distress from her apparently secure and wealthy place, but he will not receive her gift. Earthly riches cannot keep away an inevitable judgment; but sometimes providence uses wealth and position for its ends, and here Mordecai, wise in worldly wisdom, and trusting in a supreme control that shapes the destinies of men, reminds Esther of her own nationality, and that she herself is in danger. He tells her to go and appear before the king though unbidden, and adds, "who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this" (ver. 14). Esther bids them fast with her before she appears in the presence of the king.
It seems strange that the Jews could yet seek aid from unseen powers while insensible to their own failure. Esther, married to a Gentile, was not in the secret of divine intelligence, but she blindly counted on help from an unknown God, and being uncertain as to her fate adds, "and if I perish, I perish" (ver. 16).
Esther appears in the presence of the king and is accepted. He holds out the golden sceptre she approaches and touches the symbol of royalty and power and is able to make her request; she invites the king and Haman to a banquet of wine.
Pressed for her petition Esther answers with a further invitation to continue the feast on the morrow. Haman is overjoyed, and on the blindness of his pride follows the advice of his wife, Zeresh, and all his friends to erect a gallows upon which to hang the unsubdued Mordecai.
Esther in waiting for the second day is governed by providence; it gives time for Haman to prepare the means of his own destruction.
To fill the hours of a sleepless night the king calls for the state records that they might be read to him. He discovers that Mordecai had not been rewarded for his services to the crown. Again the hand of providence is at work; Haman is in the court, coming to ask permission to hang Mordecai. The king calls him, and asks what should be done for the man whom the King would honour.
A mind without God has only itself for the centre of all its thoughts, and Haman, full of self-conceit, pronounces the honour due to a true servant of the king, and he is compelled to honour Mordecai accordingly. Haman's wife and friends, wise in the ways of the world, can read the signs; they see his star waning in the rising of Mordecai's sun.
At the feast on the second day Esther declares her petition and Haman's treachery. The king, an eastern despot, whose feelings are quickly stirred, is roused to anger, and he condemns Haman to be hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai.
The king honours Mordecai, and Esther the queen sets her cousin over the house of Haman which the king had given her (ver. 7).
In the name of the king, but according to the word of Mordecai, the commands of Haman (chapter 3: 12-15) are reversed, and the Jews in every province are told to prepare to defend themselves and to slay their enemies on the appointed day.
The fear of the Jews fell on their enemies, and the officers helped them through fear of Mordecai. The Jews attacked those who hated them, even those in the palace. The ten sons of Haman were hanged, and all who had sought to exterminate the Jews were themselves destroyed. From that time the Jews have kept the feast of Purim to celebrate their deliverance.
Mordecai was raised to the second place in the empire, next to the king, and he was great among his brethren, the Jews, "seeking the wealth of his people, and speaking peace to all his seed".
In this interesting history we can see that God used the means at hand to accomplish His end without altering the life or customs of the people. He neither commended the Jews nor blamed them; nor did He send a prophet to speak a word of warning or encouragement. The people kept up an outward show of piety when times of trial made them feel their need of help beyond human strength. Their fasts were but forms, and the wearing of sackcloth indicated an integrity of a kind. But these outward demonstrations of piety were not connected with the more immediate work of God going on at Jerusalem, where the prophets Haggai and Zechariah were encouraging the people to continue in the work and worship of Jehovah.
Providence was also working at Jerusalem (see Haggai), but to produce a different result. At Shushan God concealed His government and He is not even named. How could His name be mentioned when the people whom Jehovah had so greatly favoured in the past were indifferent to Israel's hopes and God's promises, and were totally insensible to the claims of the law? The returned remnant at Jerusalem mere in a place where blessings were to flow as the result of the pleasure God found in their worship. They were forgetting Him so came under His providential dealings for discipline. There was a great contrast between what God wrought providentially, and that which the Spirit of God urged and helped the remnant to do when they counted on the conscious presence of God. (See Haggai 2: 5; the Spirit of the LORD remained among them as at the first).
Christians discover that when communion is lost and they are not near enough to receive counsel in the presence of God, He has to resort to the bit and bridle of circumstances. It is well that God keeps the reins in His hands. But God delights in those who find in Him their hiding-place. He opens their ears to instruction and their hearts to receive the word for the obedience of faith.
The spiritual mind may learn by these pictures of old the ways of God, and end in the moral history of the Church the same principles at work. “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope“ (Romans 15: 4).
For Vashti to flaunt her beauty before the world would have been wrong and most unbecoming to her sex, but to appear in the power of the throne and covered by the royal glory was safe. She was, disobedient, and thought only of herself as a woman. In thinking of what it meant to her personally, she fell beneath the dignity of her position, instead of being in her queenly majesty superior to any indignity.
This is what has taken place in the outward life of the Gentile Church; she has failed to show to the world the glory of her exalted Head, and she will be set aside so that Israel, the earthly bride, may wear the earthly glory. It will be made good by the ordering of God. He will bring it about when He publicly takes up the government of the world. Meanwhile Israel is provided for providentially and the Jews to-day are preparing, under God's hidden hand, to take up the course of their history in connection with the government of the world. Esther is beautiful in the eyes of Him who rules the world.
But God knows the true Church in the secret of His counsels of grace as He knows Israel also in the counsels of His will. Christ has bought the Church; He gave Himself for her. She is His, and is set apart for Him, and having purified her by the washing of the water of the word, He will present her to Himself without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, when He comes to receive her. As Esther of old was cared for in the days or her purification, so Christ now cares for His Church during the days of her waiting. The world does not know the heavenly citizenship of the Church, but it will be known in the clay of her glory with the heavenly Bridegroom. The Church already knows the love of her heavenly Husband. She is redeemed, and by the Spirit come down the union is formed, and the revelation He brings gives the knowledge of a present relationship, to be entered into fully when she is presented to Him in the day of glory. While she awaits that day she is nourished and cared for, so that she may lose nothing of her beauty, but be found a suited companion for Christ in all His heavenly glory and splendour. His riches and magnificence will be the wonder of all created beings, and the Church, while adoring her Beloved, will share His glory. Wearing the loveliness of God's creative skill and the preciousness of redemption's price, she will shine in the glory of her glorious Husband. As His wife she will be in the nearest place of affection. He is seated above all, and the Church, as the body of Him who filleth all in all (Ephesians 1:23), is set in the highest place of dignity.
The wonderful story of grace which the calling of the Church is rehearsing reveals the richness of the resources of grace in God.
The Church has outwardly, and in the sight of the world, irrecoverably departed from her first estate; but Christ cannot fail. He remains faithful, not merely to a promise, but to a relationship which cannot be annulled or dissolved. The Church has suffered through her failure, but Christ has always met her need by bringing forth the light of truth as it was first given to the Church, to encourage the hearts of the faithful. When everything was ready to perish, He reminded the Church of her heavenly calling and near relationship to her heavenly Head. Without re-establishing the order of the Church as once administered by the hand of Paul, the beloved apostle to the Gentiles, Christ presents Himself as the ever faithful One that He might be the true and only object of the affections of His suffering Church, and the attractive power to draw her away from the world of distractions surrounding her. The vessel that holds the truth may break but the treasure which it contains cannot be harmed.
The Lord has not left His people to the full consequences of their failure; many know a measure of blessing and taste something of His goodness, but mingled with the sorrows of this earthly scene, which they would be spared if they entered into the path of faith and understanding of the purpose of God. The faithful will know grief while they remain here, but of a very different kind from those who blindly trust uncertainly in a providence which they hope will do them good. The faithful suffer but their sorrows are known with Christ. It is a blessed privilege to steer with Christ in the pathway of faith and obedience, where the Spirit often leads in a way contrary to all visible signs and apparently opposed to providence.
Jacob of old learned much of God outside Canaan, but he knew nothing of communion until he returned to the land. The place of communion is where God dwells. Canaan is for the Christian a type of the heavenly places (Ephesians), and all outside Canaan is the world of providential care and circumstance.
For those who understand the figures of scripture, Mordecai is clearly a type of the despised One who entered into the circumstances of His people. The enemy sought to destroy Him, and the world awarded Him a gallows: but He, by dying, overcame the power of the adversary whose might is death, and in resurrection was exalted to the right hand of God on high. And as Mordecai found favour in the eyes of his brethren, so Christ will yet be owned and honoured by His earthly brethren in the day when He comes to do them good, and delivers them from their enemies by the power He has shown in resurrection.
When God begins a course for man by the revelation of Himself in some measure, the energy of faith is striking, but always in the history of man enthusiasm dies down, and God retires and works behind the scene through circumstances to direct the way. Grace is mingled with His ways though for the most part unobserved by its subjects. In providence God is not seen, and is only acknowledged by man in a general way if at all. In the vast workings of His providence God is as wonderful as He is in His more open ways with men. It is man who is without understanding and is incapable of grasping the immensity of His activities. Men build great systems out of God’s providential dealings when they are not at home in the open ways of His government.
“O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and know ledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.“ (Romans 11: 33-36.)