There are two main things that seem personally and corporately relevant to me in the first chapter of Esther…
1) The Dangers of Decadence
Persia is the expansive empire at this point as the first few verses indicate, and it’s opulence sounds almost cartoonishly reminiscent of the Capitol in the Hunger Games… life is just one big party flaunting their wealth, materialism, vanity and indulgence in all things of the flesh. When a society reaches a certain point of affluence and ease of life, there is a boredom that sets in and devolves into a desperate attempt to entertain and indulge themselves to scratch the ever present need for life to matter and carry something of significance and possibility. But when a whole culture is fattening and indulging themselves, what else is there to do but to manufacture activity and busyness and pleasure… so the King throws an epic 6 month bender for all the officials and people of self-importance, whose titles make them seem to matter but whose lives are painfully lacking any real mattering.
I say all this to say that we now live in the most affluent society in human history and I’m not so sure we aren’t living in the midst of these tragic circumstances, or that we aren’t ourselves, even as Christians, participating in some the fallout of such decadence. How much of our lives are busied and frenzied activity, or the persistent pursuit of entertainment due to the boredom we have with lives that don’t seem to matter, though God has created us and commissioned us for glory and grandeur… decadence has robbed us of our sense of wonder, purpose and possibility and we desperately need to recover it.
2) The Preservation of Power
The second thing is how a group of men gather together in an oppressively patriarchal social environment to ensure that their power is protected, reinforced and even intensified. The edict to cast the queen aside is motivated entirely by fear of losing power, and the desire to strengthen the grip of men over women. There is so much that could be said here, but I’ll just focus in on the trap here for us personally as Christians and collectively as a community.
Personally, we need to recognize the trap of control. We can absolutely have legitimate authority and leverage that authority illegitimately. God delegates authority to parents, to people in high positions and such, in order to use that authority for the good of those under our authority. That does not mean that we have to make everyone happy who is under our authority, but our ability to control others is never God’s intent for authority. He intends us to influence the will of those we are placed over, not to impose our will on them. We are all vulnerable to anger and rage and wrath when those under our authority resist it or rebel against it outright. Be careful how you wield even the legitimate authority you’ve been entrusted with by God.
Collectively, we are also vulnerable to fearing the loss of any privileged positions we have enjoyed. Whether that is formal positions of power or just social positions of influence, the threat of losing face or losing place is enough to provoke reasonable and humane people to unthinkable acts which we justify with extreme evils that would unfold if we don’t protect the status quo. In Esther 1, there is the fear of every wife in every place becoming assertive and rebellious toward their husbands and women revolting against men on a massive scale. And the fear of that possibility, whether real or imagined, is enough to persuade a bunch of men to further suppress women by using the queen as an example to retain their power through the mechanism of fear.
Jesus uses power to reclaim dignity for the weak and vulnerable. Jesus leverages power to lift up the broken and oppressed, to free the enslaved, to empower the defeated. Jesus uses his power to assume the low place, the place of a servant and the place of a sacrifice, in order turn earthly structures and on their head, and bring a new Kingdom where the powerless are valued, dignified, protected, loved, and lifted up, rather than stigmatized and brutalized. I wonder which Kingdom value system we’re more influenced by.
Esther is famous for never mentioning God, but the first half of the second chapter is starting to lay the groundwork for God’s invisible hand of providence at work. We are introduced to Esther, a Jewish woman whose physical beauty lands her in a place of favor with the King. She is among those women who will finalists in an essential beauty contest to replace queen Vashti. And we see God moving the chess pieces and leveraging his hidden power over earthly powers that be. In their fear, the King and his advisors are leveraging all their power just to preserve their power, while God is using his power to preserve his people and his promises to advance his agenda of redemption.
So, Esther ascends to the throne. He uses the earthly value system and earthly corruption to advance his Kingdom agenda. Esther is made queen… a Jewish woman, married to a Persian King to influence the man whose administration was oppressing her own people, and more importantly, God’s people.
God is Sovereign over all the affairs of men and he governs over all things. Nothing escape his eye or surprises him. And yet we all battle fear of the unknown and insecurity about our present circumstances and future hopes. Maybe you’re facing such things today. But Esther is showing us how God intervenes in the affairs of men, and moves the hearts of even those who aren’t submitted to him in order to accomplish his purposes.
2 things to consider about that… 1) What situation is threatening your peace and joy right now? What are you walking through or facing that you need to prayerfully acknowledge your fear, and re-submit your heart to God over? 2) In what circumstances might you be in right now, which may be God’s providential intervention for another? How might you be positioned today to be God’s answer to someone else’s distress and difficulty?
This chapter moves the story forward in a significant way. We start to see God’s mercy and why He positioned Esther the way He did. Israel becomes the target of not just a homicidal plot, but a genocidal plot. And the whole things stems from Haman getting disrespected by Mordecai.
From there, Haman’s hatred and utter disdain for the Jews intensifies. He harnesses that resentment for almost an entire year, waiting for the right opportunity to convince the King to sanction the mass slaughter of innocent Hebrews scattered throughout the land. This would be not unlike the Rwandan genocide that took place in the 90’s. You get a narcissistic leader with violent impulses and unchecked power and things go bad.
I guess there are two things from this chapter that I find important for personal consideration. The first is just my own heart toward violence, injustice, and oppression. Am I willing to feel the burden of that or the reality of that? I can read this text as I can watch the news, or see the headlines, and I am unmoved and unprovoked. What does my callousness and detachment from such real suffering say about my own humanity? That I could aware of present sufferings and threats of violence such as is recounted in Esther 3 and not be unsettled by it is troubling. Or maybe even worse yet is that I could be willfully unaware of such suffering in order to preserve my own comfort. I know it’s out there, but I don’t want to be bothered by it, so I turn a blind eye, a deaf ear, and a numbed heart. I don’t even know how we’re supposed to engage with this kind of stuff when it’s a world away, but I’m reminded today that my desire for plausible deniability is probably less than Christ-like.
The second thing is this… it’s easy to disassociate myself from a crazed lunatic like Haman. Certainly I’m not like him. And you aren’t either. But if we stop and consider our own thoughts, impulses and capabilities honestly, are there not seeds of Haman in our own hearts. Do I not possess something of this inhumaneness in my own soul? Certainly I do have the ability, and God help me, the bent, toward defining people by their worst, or most personally offensive actions. I do have the tendency to narrowly see people through the lens of their negative impact on me. I do have the inner capacity to connect individual characteristics to a larger group of people as a way of diminishing their credibility or humanity. I have narcissistic potential deeply embedded in my heart and so do you… we all do.
Power and position have a way of revealing and magnifying what’s there, and most of us aren’t kings and princes. I’m not saying we’re all Haman, or we’re all racists, or we’d all perpetrate genocide if we had the chance… not by a long shot. I’m just saying that we are all prone toward dehumanizing those people around us in subtle if not severe ways… and that’s the soil out of which the very extreme fruit of genocide grows.
I wonder if we’re willing to see and confront some of the Haman-like sinful seeds and capacities in us… if we're willing to identify and uproot those seeds through confession and repentance and self-emptying humility that serves and elevates others, and takes them at least as seriously as we take ourselves.
We don't get tons of details, but as always, if we pay attention, the Bible is very real about the struggle and tensions in the human soul when dealing in real life. Esther isn't cavalier about her next move... she isn't fearless or brash. She knows what's right, but there is real risk involved in doing what's right. She is in a place of power, but utilize that power actually puts her in a place of vulnerability for 2 reasons: 1) she's breaking the law, and 2) she's identifying herself with the people whose genocide the king has just decreed. Overwhelmingly, the odds are not in her favor.
Here the queen is, ascending to a place of power, and she can use that power to insulate herself from threats and to protect her interests, or she can leverage that power to identify herself with the vulnerable and try standing up for their cause and well-being. There is rich gospel imagery here, where Jesus, rather than ascending to power, condescended from power, but like Esther, he put himself at great risk and to identify with vulnerable in order to fight for their preservation and salvation.
And this is the challenge we all face... we've all been given influence, a degree of power. And the most natural and normal thing to do is to use our power for our own ends and agenda, to serve our own interests. But the kingdom of God is embodied in an antithetical ethic where influence is stewarded for the advancement of others, and the betterment of others and protection of the powerless. That may be a seemingly small and insignificant sphere for you, but for the few that you're positioned to help, it isn't small or insignificant at all.
We all have different places and parts to play in the story of redemption that is unfolding and it's God's intent to use us where we are to improve the situation for others who are worse off than ourselves. The world needs us to be fully engaged where we are so we can have the impact we're uniquely positioned to have. Those around us - whether they conciously depend on us or are just consciously unable to help themselves in certain ways - need us to make our highest contribution to the world... I wonder what that looks like for you.
Last insight... we're called to submit to governing authorities. There were Christians in Germany who did not stand up against the Third Reich because they were called to "submit to governing authorities." And that's not a trite comparison here... we're talking about a decreed genocide. Obedience to the law has been a real reasons Christians at different times and places in history have been passive observers of grave injustices...
But here, Esther reluctantly but courageously and righteously intends to break the law. Our submission to governing authorities is never intended by God supersede our submission to His governing authority. We aren't called to submit to human institutions and governments in an ultimate sense. But we must be wise and deliberate when we aren't going to obey for righteous reasons, understanding the potential consequences the force of the law can have and being willing to accept those consequences.
We are not bound by God's authority to all civil laws. Instead, we are bound by God's authority to be willing to suffer in some sense, for our repudiation of unjust civil laws. This is what it means to follow Jesus... it means we're willing suffer as he suffered, for the sake of his name, and for the sake of others seeing his sacrificial love and radical grace embodied.
Esther 5 takes a further step into this thing of civil disobedience. We're actually given two very different approaches, both of which seem legitimate.
From Esther, we see her posture as one of humility and graciousness. She is using her own personality and position strategicially and incrementally. She starts with a more subtle gesture to see if she can get the King's attention and ear. And when God gives her favor, she doesn't go straight for the jugular. She wants to serve him in a meaningful way, to soften his heart. She endears herself to him by her kindness rather than exploiting his kindness.
And yes, she is wise enough to use his areas of weakness... she leverages his ego to her advantage. There is a measure of manipulation here I suppose, but it's wisdom on her part to be patient and win his trust, as well as Haman's. There is a time and place for this approach and some people are better positioned for such a strategy. Notice that her approach, and God's favor, and the King's openness to her all came after prayer and fasting... this cannot be overstated.
While God is never mentioned, she and Mordecai and the Jews are pressing into the Lord and depending on him by these practices. And so the invidual tactics applied are not instinctive, or thoughtless... they are deliberate and prayerfully considered.
For Mordecai, he engaged that same process but he has a different personality and position, and thus, a different posture. He takes the passive resistance and non-violent protest approach. When Haman comes in and everyone else honors his status, Mordecai refuses to honor him due because of his illegitimate use of power. Mordecai is acting in humility and courage as well, risking his own life and safety to raise the collective conciousness of the evil being perpetrated. He isn't grandstanding for some personal vendetta... he's resisting in subversive ways a tyrannical use of power on behalf of the oppressed.
This is heroic. He's putting himself in the crosshairs in ways that many followers of Jesus have since in the name of justice. This is what the civil rights movement sought to do, with Dr. King at the forefront. Someone from the oppressed group standing up actively and boldly against the cultural and institutional forces of oppression to make those realities non-ignorable to everyone.
There's a lot we can learn from Esther and Mordecai about what it means to use our place, whatever it is, to do justice and love mercy.