************ Sermon on Esther 9:21-22 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on February 23, 2003
"The Feast of Purim"
Throughout the centuries the enemies of God's people have plotted their destruction. Time and again they have plotted, schemed, and counseled together, but in the end their treachery has only come to rest on their own head. And, this is the amazing part, each time this has happened the children of Israel have been given a feast day to celebrate the wonders and mercies of God.
We see this at the time of the Exodus from Egypt. All the Jewish baby boys were to be killed at birth but God protected His people and gave them the Passover Feast. We see this with the defeat of Antiochus Epiphanes during the Maccabees and the resulting Feast of Hanukkah. We even see the same pattern in the 20th century. Though the church is now the people of God, I also think of the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews which ended with the death of Hitler but also paved the way for the emergence of the modern State of Israel and its annual Day of Independence.
We see the same pattern in our Scripture reading for today. The Book of Esther tells us about the evil plot of Haman in Persia to wipe out the Jews, the deliverance of God, and the resulting Feast of Purim.
I The Historical Background
A Purim is the Hebrew word for "lots" in remembrance of the pur (lot) cast by the wicked Haman to determine the month and day on which the Jewish people were to be killed throughout the mighty Persian Empire. But, by God's providence, the lots that were thrown for Israel's destruction actually set the date for a new Jewish feast day.
Known as "The Feast of Esther" and also as "Mordecai's Day" (2 Macc 15:36), Purim celebrates the deliverance of God's people through Esther and Mordecai.
B In 539 B.C., Cyrus king of Persia made a proclamation allowing the exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Scripture tells us a little more than 42,000 exiles chose to return (Ezra 2:64). This means the majority of Jews in Persia chose not to return; they decided to remain in exile rather than suffer the hardships involved in returning to Israel.
From all outward appearances, the Jews remaining in Persia were part of Persian society. Their businesses and families even flourished.
Within this setting we meet the two heroes of Purim – Esther and Mordecai. To avoid persecution, they hid their religion and ethnicity from the public eye. We are told that Mordecai had forbidden Esther to reveal her nationality and family background (Esther 2:10,20). And, in public, they both went by their Persian rather than their Jewish names. Esther's real or Jewish name was Hadassah, meaning "myrtle," and testified to her great beauty (Esther 2:7). We are not told Mordecai's Jewish name, but we know it could not have been "Mordecai" because "Mordecai" is derived from the name of the Babylonian god, Marduk.
What we have, then, are two Jews living as Persians, with Persian names; yet, Esther and Mordecai both have a strong Jewish identity and are fiercely loyal to the God of Israel. That's why, for instance, Mordecai refused to kneel down and pay honor to Haman (Esther 3:2); as a good Jew, Mordecai believed such honor should be given to God alone. When questioned by the other royal officers, Mordecai explained he was a Jew and could not bow before Haman.
C We are told that Mordecai was a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin; he was the son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish (Esther 2:5-6). He was of the exact same lineage as King Saul and could trace his descent all the way back to Jacob. Now, that is important to our story.
Mordecai's enemy, Haman, was an Agagite (Esther 3:1). This means he was a descendent of Agag, the king of the Amalekites during the reign of King Saul (1 Sam 15:8). The Amalekites, in turn, were descendants of Amalek, the grandson of Esau (Gen 36:12).
Now, you need to remember that the two brothers, Jacob and Esau, had a bitter rivalry – a rivalry that spilled over into future generations. The Amalekites, for instance, hated the Israelites and treacherously attacked the unarmed Israelites as they passed through the Sinai desert under the leadership of Moses and Joshua. Because of their blind, inbred hatred, the Lord pronounced a curse to blot out the Amalekites (Exodus 17:14,16; Num 24:20; Deut 25:19).
It was King Saul who had been commanded by the Lord to carry out the curse and totally destroy all the Amalekites (1 Sam 15:2-3). But, instead of doing what the Lord had commanded, Saul decided to spare Agag; he also spared the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs in order to sacrifice them to the Lord; Saul lost his throne because of this disobedience (1 Sam 15:15, 22-23). Though Samuel put Agag to death, it seems some of his descendants somehow lived. So, six centuries later we see the descendants of Saul and Jacob engaged in mortal combat with the descendants of Agag and Esau. And, they are still doing battle today in the Middle East conflict between Israel and her neighbors.
D The events of the Book of Esther take place mostly in the king's palace in Susa, the Persian capital, located just north of the Persian Gulf in modern day Iran. King Xerxes I is the ruler. The mighty Persian Empire is at the height of its power and glory with 127 provinces stretching from India to the upper Nile (Esther 1:1). And, Haman is the king's right-hand man, his prime-minister. He is the second-most important man and the second-most powerful man in the kingdom.
Haman takes note of Mordecai's refusal to bow before him. And he becomes angry. He decides to kill not only Mordecai but all Jews everywhere. Haman reasons that if one Jew will not bow down before him, then no Jew will bow down before him. His inflated ego and honor are at stake. Haman casts lots to gain direction from the Persian gods as to the best date for the planned massacre. The lots fall on Adar 13, giving Haman 11 months to work out the plans and details for his demonic plot (Esther 3:7). He gets the king to issue a decree to destroy, kill, and annihilate all the Jews – young and old, women and little children – and to plunder their goods on that day (Esther 3:13). Since the decree is written in the king's name and sealed with his ring it cannot be revoked (Esther 8:9).
In God's providence, Esther – the Jew – becomes Queen and intervenes with her husband, King Xerxes. Haman is killed on the gallows he has prepared for Mordecai (Esther 7). Esther is given the estate of Haman. Mordecai takes Haman's place and becomes the king's right-hand man. And, the king issues an edit granting the Jews in every city the right to assemble and protect themselves; to destroy, kill, and annihilate any armed force of any nationality or province that might attack them and their women and children; and to plunder the property of their enemies (Esther 8:11). All the nobles, satraps, governors, and the king's administrators help the Jews because fear of Mordecai has seized them (Esther 9:3). You know what happens. On the day the enemies of the Jews hope to overpower them, the tables are turned and the Jews have the upper hand over those who hate them. The Jews kill 800 of their enemies in Susa and another 75,000 in the king's provinces (Esther 9:12,15,16).
II Observance of Purim
A Adar is supposed to be a month of sorrow and mourning; instead, it ends up being a month of joy and celebration. And, Adar 13 is supposed to be a day of destruction and devastation for the Jews of the Persian Empire; instead, on that day they get relief from their enemies.
The day after the tables are turned becomes a day of feasting and joy (Esther 9:17). And, a day for giving presents to each other and gifts to the poor (Esther 9:19,22). Of course it becomes a day of feasting and joy and presents and gifts because God's people are saved from destruction. They are so happy and so joyful they just have to celebrate.
Mordecai commands that from then on the Jews are to celebrate annually Adar 14 and 15. It is called the Feast of Purim, to remind Israel that the lots Haman cast end up costing his own neck and saves the Jews.
B The Feast of Purim continues to be celebrated by Jews today. The Book of Esther gives no commands for its celebration other than a time of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor (Esther 9:22). So, many Purim traditions have developed over the past 2,500 years.
The principal ceremony of Purim is the reading of the Book of Esther in the synagogue. Through these readings, the listeners relive the miraculous events of Purim. During Purim, the divine command to blot out the name of Amalek is taken literally. When Haman's name is read from the scroll of Esther, it is met by a thunderous roar of clapping, stamping feet, booing, and the grinding noise of twirling noisemakers.
During Purim, a plate full of cake, pastries, fruit, and nuts is sent to friends. It is also customary to give charity to at least two needy individuals during Purim so that they too may be able to enjoy the festival.
Purim is a time of rejoicing and gladness, the merriest holiday on the Hebrew calendar today.
III Purim's Lesson for Us
A As we look at the Feast of Purim, we see a number of lessons for us.
The first lesson goes back to the time of Abraham and even before that to the Garden of Eden. Remember the words of God to the serpent? God said,
(Gen 3:15) And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel."In Persia, we see that the struggle between Haman and Mordecai is part of that age-long struggle between the spawn of the Devil and the offspring of the woman. Purim celebrates that the serpent's head has been crushed. Purim ultimately celebrates the victory of Christ – because of the cross and the grave – against Satan and the forces of darkness.
Do you remember, too, the words God said when He first called Abraham to leave his country, people, and father's household? God said,
(Gen 12:2-3) "I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. (3) I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."This verse helps to explain the irony of what happened to Haman. Haman built the gallows for Mordecai, but he himself was hanged on it. Haman sought to solidify his position, but his position was given instead to Mordecai. Haman sought to kill Mordecai's people, but he and his whole family and all those who hated the Jews were killed instead. Haman sought to wipe out the worship of the one true God which prevent people like Mordecai from bowing to him, but instead "many people of other nationalities became Jews because fear of the Jews had seized them" (Esther 8:17). Purim celebrates that the Haman who cursed the descendants of Abraham was himself cursed. Purim ultimately celebrates the defeat of those who hate Christ. Purim gives hope to persecuted Christians everywhere!
That's the first lesson of Purim – we celebrate that God's enemies are and will be defeated.
B But there is also a second lesson of Purim – a lesson that is even better than the first. It is a lesson that God delivers His people. It is only when Mordecai and Esther have given up all hope, it is only when they go into the king's presence armed with nothing but God and prayer, that God brings about the salvation of His own. It is not by human might, not by sword, not by politics, but only by God's might that deliverance is accomplished. The Jews of Persia are helpless to save themselves. Deliverance is found only in the Lord.
That's the second lesson of Purim – we celebrate that God brings deliverance to His people. And, we know He does this only in and through Christ.
C And then there is also a third lesson of Purim. For 11 months things have been looking dismal indeed. Each day the deadline comes closer. Each day the demise of God's people looks a little more certain. And, when those enormous gallows go up, the future looks completely bleak. Everything seems lost. Each new morning only deepens the ache and pain in the hearts of Persia's Jews because the rising sun means another day has been crossed off their calendar and Adar 13 is creeping closer, ever closer.
But then in the space of a few hours everything is changed. Just before the curtain call, just before the executioner's axe is about to fall, just before the fateful day arrives, the Lord God intervenes and the tables are turned. What a relief! What wonderful news! Good-bye to fear and pain and sorrow and grief, and hello to relief and pleasure and joy and celebration.
Now, after all of this can you imagine for a moment that there is a single Jew in Susa or any of the Persian Provinces who continues to be gloomy and depressed and upset, bemoaning Haman and his evil ways, instead of rejoicing and being glad? Can you imagine any Jew continuing to walk around with a sad and sorrowful expression? Can you imagine any Jew with a frown on her face after all of this?
I think we all agree the answer is "No."
As Christians we have so much to rejoice in and so many things to be glad about, yet there are Christians who continue to wear frowns on their faces. Our Hamans have been defeated and destroyed, yet these Christians choose to see only tough times rather than fun times. Instead of enjoying reward and relief they choose to experience stress and anxiety. It is almost as if they are happy in their misery and enjoy seeing everything from a negative point-of-view. Deep within they have a bad news mentality that sees a glass as being half-empty rather than being half-full.
God does not desire our lives to be a grind. He has given us joy rather than sadness and has exchanged our tears for smiles. Yet, many still find themselves more comfortable with mourning and fretting than rejoicing and celebrating.
Yes, the past has been awful, and the present may not be all that great either – there may be cancer, heart attack, death, bankruptcy, poor prices, financial struggles, conflict with a family member. But, in Christ, the future is glorious. So how do we respond? We are to celebrate the feast. We are to rejoice that God's enemies have been defeated and that God's people have been delivered.
Are you one of those who sees nothing but gloom and doom? Do you always see the dark side of things? Do you have a hard time seeing past the looming deadline? Then Esther speaks to you.
That's the third lesson of the Feast of Purim – we are to rejoice in what God has done.
We are in the middle of Mission Emphasis. What does Purim say to us? The same lesson that we are to bring to the world: God's enemies are defeated, God brings salvation to His people, and we are to rejoice in what God has done.
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