(the following is from a short sharing that took place at Prayer Group on 22 March 2017 and was inspired by passage from ‘Every Good Endeavor’ by Keller. thank God for brothers and sisters who come together to study the Word and to encourage each other towards good works in Christ Jesus 🙂 )
the trying climate of the time
We’re not going to go into a detailed study of the book of Esther today, but it helps to locate it in Israel’s broader story – the book of Esther is placed in a period of cultural and racial marginalization, where what remained of the 12 tribes were under the rule of Xerxes, the Persian king who reigned as Israel was picking herself up from exile.
And the interesting bit about Esther is that, much like her two pals Daniel and Joseph, she was a Jew/Israelite that was plonked into a secular, or even pagan context. All three of them occupied high positions in empires and kingdoms that were Not Israel, and we know that they eventually managed to serve God’s purposes where they were, despite the challenges that they faced. Joseph rescued nations from famine (and his own family too!), and Daniel stood up for what was right though it meant that he had to make his bed among hot coals and hungry lions. But from the outset, we can note several differences in Esther’s narrative.
In Esther 2:10, we read about her entry into the palace as one of the entrants for the ‘Who Wants To Be Xerxes’ New Queen’ tournament that was taking place, and we are told that:
“Esther had not revealed her nationality and family background, because (her uncle) Mordecai had forbidden her to do so.”
When we compare this to Daniel (Daniel 2:28, 46) or Joseph (Genesis 40:8, 41:16), both of whom were immediately and consistently public and open about their lineage and their faith, it can seem rather strange. Aren’t we, as ‘Christians in the marketplace’, called to live out our Christianity loudly and proudly? To be a public witness? To be ‘unashamed of the gospel’? Yet here we have Esther, who won’t even divulge her race.
Then in Esther 2:15-16, we read that:
“Now when the turn of Esther, the daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai who had taken her as his daughter, came to go in to the king, she did not request anything except what Hegai, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the women, advised. And Esther found favor in the eyes of all who saw her. So Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus to his royal palace in the tenth month which is the month Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign…”
Which is a very polite way of saying that the king summoned her so that he could look her over and decide whether he wanted to have sex with her (which he did). And this bit of the story is jarring and painful to read for different reasons to different people – to our feminist sensibilities (a man??? treating women as purely sexual objects??), to our religious rules and upbringing (she sleeps with a married man?? who is also a pagan idol worshipper?! and she’s not married herself??)… and we think – what happened to “taking a stand”, or “living a life that is a testimony to the Gospel”?
The short answer is that we do not know. The book of Esther offers no easy answers to these questions, and in that we see the stark reality of life in a sinful and fallen world. Whether it is Esther and her many struggles, or any one of us in our workplaces, we know (if we are willing to take a long hard look at ourselves) that we fall far short of righteousness. Circumstances are tough, we face pressures on all sides, and oftentimes, we find ourselves caving in to things that we know are wrong.
But the question at the end of all this is: “in such a morally, culturally and spiritually ambiguous situation, does God still work with and through us?”
the cost of obedience
We know that Esther became Queen Esther and saved her people. But let’s take a closer look at how she got there.
After all the stage-setting that we did above, we find Esther in an even more precarious position. In Esther 2:17, under the section titled ‘Esther Finds Favor’, we are told that
“the king was attracted to Esther more than to any of the other women, and she won his favor and approval more than any of the other virgins. So he set a royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.” It looks like she’s lucked out big time, yet if we bear in mind the events of Esther 1, we know that her position is far from secure. At the king’s whim, she could easily be banished. So she is the Queen of all of Persia, but she is also a mood swing away from exile. Immense power, but also immense precarity.
Then we get to the rising action (Esther 4:7-11), and an evil man called Haman has persuaded King Xerxes to destroy the Jewish people (just as they are recovering from exile), and Uncle Mordecai writes to the Queen to ask her to “go to the king to beg his favor and plead with him on behalf of her people”. And Esther’s reply is immensely practical. She tells Mordecai:
“hello uncle, everyone knows that if you anyhow go before the king when he never call you, you will CONFIRM die (unless he point his golden scepter at you)”
And she adds a very interesting line: that she has not been called to come in to the king these past thirty days. We do not know the precise significance of this – did she mean that the king would only call her in every 60 days, and that going in early was unacceptable, or did she use to get called in daily till recent times, when the king had begun to tire of her? However you interpret that line, her point is clear – the king had not called her, and to march into the inner courts would be to court death itself.
Esther had a lot to lose – she entered the palace a humble Jewish girl from the tribe of Benjamin, niece of Mordecai, and now she had a crown and banquets in her favor and ‘safety’ from the coming genocide.
But Mordecai’s reply is simple and piercing: “And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?”
It’s true. Of all the places she could be, she really lucked out!! From exiled immigrant girl to the queen of all the land, which explained why she had so much to lose.
Well surprise surprise – that’s us. And I don’t mean to compare us to our associates, or to other fresh graduates even. What I mean is – people who cannot afford counsel when they appear before the criminal Court, and end up receiving far harsher sentences than they should, or end up misrepresenting themselves because it’s really difficult to appear before a judge and stay coherent, or elderly persons and those from low-income families who queue in long lines to meet their MP but wait for ages and don’t see any change, or just anyone who didn’t get where they wanted to go – to university, or poly/JC.. to be a trainee and a graduate from NUS Law is to have immense financial and social and intellectual capital. We are “in the palace”.
But what are we working towards? With all this capital, all this immense blessing, are we building up a nice nest egg (not wrong), or hunting for big cases and prestigious firms to pad our resume (not wrong either, BUT)… Why have we been placed where we are, with all the knowledge and income that we already have and are about to receive? And I don’t just mean people who are in the Big 4 or offshore firms – any law student with a job at a firm has the immense ability to do good by virtue of the knowledge we possess and the position that we are in.
In ‘Every Good Endeavor’ by Timothy Keller, he quotes the following passage that a preacher preached to college professionals:
“there were poorer people across the city who needed their connections and talents. inside their circles of influence and fields of work, there was corruption that needed their attention. he admitted that if his listeners conducted themselves in that way, they might make less money or move up the ladder slower or run into conflict that could slow or hurt their careers… but that doesn’t matter, he said. don’t just get into the palace and bend every rule you can to stay there. SERVE. you have come to your royal position for such a time as this.”
And that was how Esther eventually decided: I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. If I perish, I perish. (Esther 4:44)
All of us have struggled with compromise, and will continue to struggle. To make unethical choices, to tell clients that we did work in a certain way when we did not, to bill in a way that pads hours so we can meet targets, to stay silent when we should have spoken, and our conscience feels very muddy. Was Esther’s clear? Is anyone’s ever really clear? A message from the book of Esther is that it is never too late – obedience can begin right now, regardless of all that has come before.
“You may think you have been given little because you are always striving for more, but you have been given much, and God has called you to put it into play. It is natural to root your identity in your position in the palace; to rest your security in the fact that you have a certain measure of control over the variables in your life; to find your significance in having clout in certain circles. But if you are unwilling to risk your place in the palace for your neighbors, the palace owns you.”
We are much like Esther – perhaps not quite as brave yet, but certainly as flawed, and perhaps as besieged on every front. But there is a true and better Esther, who did not say, “If I perish, I perish”, but “When I perish, I perish.” And He did it for you and for me. This is the Jesus that we know and love, and it is only through Him that we can have the courage and the love to step up boldly, and to choose to live a life of love and service to others, no matter what that might cost us.
 pronounced ‘Hey Man!’, which partially explains why he struggled to forge a genuine connection with another human being.