An amazing turn around

The book of Ezra contains two parts of the amazing story about the Jews return to the Promised Land after 70 years of exile in Babylon. Their initial return started in 538 B.C. when Cyrus declared that the LORD God of heaven had given him all the kingdoms of the earth and charged him to build him a house in Jerusalem (Ezra 1:2). After 80 years of start and stop activity directed at rebuilding the once great city of Jerusalem, a second wave of Jewish settlers returned to the Promised Land. This time, God’s people were led by Ezra, a priest that was a direct descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses. It says in Ezra 7:6, “This Ezra went up from Babylon; and he was a ready scribe in the law of Moses, which the LORD God of Israel had given: and the king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the LORD his God upon him.”

The king referred to in Ezra 7:6 was Artaxerxes king of Persia, the son of Ahasuerus, the Persian king that was married to Esther. At the beginning of his reign, Artaxerxes had ordered God’s people to stop rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem (Ezra 4:23). In the seventh year of his reign, Artaxerxes wrote a letter to Ezra stating:

I make a decree, that all they of the people of Israel, and of his priests and Levites, in my realm, which are minded of their own freewill to go up to Jerusalem, go with thee. Forasmuch as thou art sent of the king, and of his seven counsellers, to inquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem, according to the law of thy God which is in thine hand; and to carry the silver and gold, which the king and his counsellers have freely offered unto the God of Israel, whose habitation is in Jerusalem. (Ezra 7:13-15)

According to Artaxerxes decree, any Jew that wanted to leave Persia and return to Israel was free to do so. Artaxerxes and his counsellers gave of their own wealth a freewill offering to God and supplied everything that was needed for the people’s journey back to Jerusalem. This amazing turn around might best be described as an act of divine intervention because no reason was given in Ezra’s book to explain why Artaxerxes was compelled to go to such great lengths to ensure the Jews were able to return to Jerusalem after having put a stop to their rebuilding effort only a few years earlier. Perhaps, God touched the heart of Artaxerxes or the king saw the benefit of having God on his side. Unlike his predecessor Cyrus, Artaxerxes didn’t claim the LORD had given him his kingdom (Ezra 1:2). Therefore, Artaxerxes motivation may have been to gain favor with God. If so, it appears he was successful because his 40+ year reign was the longest of all the kings of Persia.

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Rest

God designed the world to operate in a state of perpetual motion. The fact that the earth rotates at an approximate speed of 1000 miles per hour on a continual basis demonstrates that humans are wired for activity, but there is also an innate need for us to rest. The example God gave us in his work of creation was six days of activity followed by one day of rest. It says in Genesis 2:3, “And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.” The Hebrew word translated rest, shabath (shaw – bath´) is where the word Sabbath or the concept of a day of rest comes from (7673). God intended rest to be a part of our lives, but very few people understand why it is important.

God did not need to rest after he created the world. The purpose of his rest was to acknowledge the completion of his work, to see that it was finished. The process of ending is important because it shows us that it is possible to complete something from a standpoint of perfection. In fact, the Hebrew word translated perfect, tamiym means complete (8589). When Abraham was 99 years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect” (Genesis 17:1). In other words, God was saying he wanted to bring Abraham to a place of rest or his life to a point of completion. Closely related to the idea of completion is purpose or destiny. When we walk before the LORD, we arrive at the destination he has predetermined to be our place of rest, our perfect ending.

When the Israelites entered the Promised Land, God wanted them to enter into his rest, which means he wanted them to end up at the same place he was. You could say that God’s temple was his house or his place of residence, but it was really just a marker for the entrance of his Messiah into the world. In order to ensure that his birth would occur and not be overlooked by his chosen people, God designated a specific location for his Messiah to be born. In a sense, you could say that location was God’s place of rest,  but technically it was Jesus birth, and subsequent death, that marked completion of God’s work of salvation. When Jesus died on the cross, he said, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

There was really only one requirement for the Israelites’ Messiah to be born. God’s people had to occupy the territory he had designated for an inheritance to Abraham and his descendants. The problem was that the Promised Land was inhabited by other people and the Israelites couldn’t get rid of them. The ongoing battle between Israel and its surrounding neighbors continued until the Israelites were taken into captivity by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. After they were released from captivity, the Israelites were reluctant to return to their homeland because they feared being overtaken again. The Jews were dispersed throughout the Persian Empire when Esther became queen. After Haman the Agagite’s plot to kill all of God’s people was uncovered and stopped, it says in Esther 9:16 that the Jews had rest from their enemies.

The defeat of Haman brought rest or completion to the Jews because his death fulfilled the last Old Testament commandment as well as prophecy related to the Israelites’ occupation of the Promised Land before the Messiah’s birth. It says in Deuteronomy 25:17-19, “Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way, when ye were come forth out of Egypt; how he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, even all that were feeble behind thee, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not God. Therefore it shall be, when the LORD thy God hath given thee rest from all thine enemies round about, in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget it.”

No turning back

The Persian Empire stretched from Ethiopia to India and consisted of one hundred twenty seven provinces with varied languages and customs. One of the ways the king of Persia managed communication in his kingdom was to make his laws irrevocable. Once a decree was sent out, there was no turning back. In order to avoid any confusion or mistrust among his magistrates, the king could not repeal a law once it was established. This meant that Haman the Agagites’s order to kill all the Jews would still be carried out even though he had been hanged on the gallows he had built for Esther’s uncle, Mordecai.

King Ahasuerus’ remedy for the situation was to allow the Jews to defend themselves.  It says in Esther 8:11, “Whereas the king granted the Jews which were in every city to gather themselves together, and to stand for their life, to destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish, all the power of the people and providence that would assault them, both the little ones and women, and to take the spoil of them for a prey.” It might seem like self-defense was a natural solution to their problem, but the Jews status (exiled) in the kingdom of Persia prevented them from fighting against their captors.

An unintended, but advantageous outcome of the Jews obtaining permission to fight against the people that wanted to kill them was the destruction of the Amalekites. God had commanded Israel’s king, Saul to utterly destroy the people of Amalek hundreds of years earlier (1 Samuel 15:3), but Saul disobeyed and let some of the household of Agag, the king of Amalek, escape. Due to his mistake, Haman the Agagite was able to threaten the Jews existence. But, after the tables were turned, the Jews finally accomplished a long overdue objective, the elimination of their fiercest enemy.

 

A twist of fate

Haman the Agagite’s plan to have all the Jews in the Persian Empire killed was driven by his hatred for Esther’s uncle, Mordecai. After being personally invited to dine with the king and queen, Haman boasted to all of his friends and wife about what an important man he was becoming. It says in Esther 5:12-13. “Haman said moreover, Yea, Esther the queen did let no man come in with the king unto the banquet that she prepared but myself; and to morrow am I invited unto her also with the king. Yet it availeth me nothing, so long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate.” Haman’s wife and friends suggested that he get rid of Mordecai before the banquet so that he could have a good time and not be troubled by the reminder of his disrespectful behavior (Esther 5:14). Haman liked the idea and had a gallows made that night so he could have Mordecai hanged on it the next day.

That night, while the gallows was being prepared, the king was unable to sleep, so he requested to have some of his kingdom record books read to him (Esther 6:1). In a surprising twist of fate, it just so happened that one of the records that was read that night happened to contain an event that had occurred five years earlier in which Mordecai saved the king’s life. It says in Esther 6:3-4, “And the king said, What honour and dignity hath been done to Mordecai for this? Then said the king’s servants that ministered unto him, There is nothing done for him. And the king said, Who is in the court? Now Haman was come into the outward court of the king’s house, to speak unto the king to hang Mordecai on the gallows that he had prepared for him.” The timing of Haman’s visit was such that he ended up being selected by the king to show honour to Mordecai. Rather than obtaining permission to have Mordecai hanged, he was instructed to put the king’s robe on Mordecai and lead him through the city riding on the king’s horse while Haman shouted out “Thus shall it be done unto the man whom the king delighteth to honour” (Esther 6:11).

Haman’s humiliation was more than he could bare. He went home with his head covered so no one could see the distressed look on his face (Esther 6:12). Haman knew his plan had backfired and he would not be able to get rid of Mordecai, but what he didn’t know yet was that Mordecai was Esther’s uncle and the reason he had been invited to Esther’s banquet was so that she could tell the king it was her people Haman planned to have killed. Haman’s plot to have the Jews exterminated was the cause of not only his downfall, but ultimately his death. After King Ahasuerus was informed of Esther’s true identity and her relationship to Mordecai, Haman was condemned to be hanged on the gallows that he had built the previous night (Esther 7:10).

Obedience

While the Jews were in captivity in Babylon, they were expected to conform to the laws and customs of the kingdom in which they lived. The book of Daniel records two incidents where disobedience was punished by death. The first was Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego who were thrown into a fiery furnace for not worshipping a golden image made by the king Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3:21) and the second was Daniel who was thrown into a lion’s den because he prayed to his God instead of King Darius (Daniel 6:16). When it was discovered that Esther’s uncle Mordecai would not bow or worship Haman the Agagite, it was not enough for him to just kill Mordecai, Haman decided to have all the Jews exterminated and he was able to obtain permission from the king Ahasuerus to do so (Esther 3:11).

Mordecai’s response to the king’s commandment showed that he was devastated by what was going to happen to God’s people (Esther 4:1) and so, he went to Queen Esther to ask for her help. Esther’s initial reaction indicated that she was more concerned about being killed for breaking the law than she was saving her people. Esther sent a message to Mordecai saying, “All the king’s servants, and the people of the king’s provinces, do know, that whosoever, whether man or woman, shall come unto the king into the inner court, who is not called, there is one law of his to put him to death, except such to whom the king shall hold out the golden scepter, that he may live: but I have not been called to come into the king these thirty days” (Esther 4:11). The picture Esther painted of her husband, King Ahasuerus was a tyrant that would kill his own wife simply because she dared approach him without his permission. Esther may have been justified in her opinion of her husband, but it also revealed her attitude toward God. Esther didn’t believe God would deliver her, even though he had delivered Shadrach, Meshach, Abed-nego, and Daniel when they were going to be killed.

Esther’s insecurity may have been due to her awareness that she was out of the will of God. Although Esther didn’t choose to marry Ahasuerus, she was benefitting from her position as queen of Persia. Mordecai’s argument was that it might actually have been God’s will for her to marry Ahasuerus so that she could use her position to intervene with her husband on behalf of her people, the Jews. Mordecai told Esther, “For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but thou and thy father’s house shall be destroyed: and who knows that whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14). In other words, what Mordecai wanted Esther to know was that God would hold her accountable for her intention rather than her action with regards to her obedience to the Persian law. Mordecai believed God would save his people, including Esther, if she chose to put her trust in him instead of her husband, King Ahasuerus.

Before Esther went in to speak to her husband, she asked Mordecai to have all the Jews observe a fast on her behalf. Esther indicated that she and her servants would fast also. Esther most likely viewed this action as a way of purifying herself. Although the fast may have had some effect in the mind of Esther, it is unlikely God paid any more or less attention to what Esther was doing as a result of their fast. What was important to him was that Esther cared enough to risk her own life to stop what was going to happen to God’s people. It says in Esther 5:2, “And so it was, when the king saw Esther the queen standing in the court, that she obtained favour in his sight: and the king held out to Esther the golden scepter that was in his hand. So Esther drew near, and touched the top of the scepter.” This illustration of Ahasuerus’ mercy toward Esther was meant to display God’s pleasure with her self-sacrifice. Although it was true that the king could have killed Esther for her disobedience, God protected her because she was willing to risk her life to save his people.

Revenge

Esther’s marriage to the king of Persia placed her in a position of influence during a time when God’s plan of salvation for his people was at a critical juncture. Several thousand Jews had already returned to the Promised Land after their seventy years of captivity was completed, but there was little accomplished in the way of rebuilding and strengthening the infrastructure of God’s kingdom. Many Jews were still scattered throughout the Persian Empire and had been integrated into the culture of the Gentiles. The fact that a Jew ended up married to the king of Persia was actually not that surprising considering the degree to which the two cultures were blended. The Jews no longer spoke their native language and were forced to respect the authority of kings that had no allegiance to God. When Esther was taken along with all the other beautiful, young virgins into Ahasuerus’ palace, there was nothing anyone could do to stop it.

Four years after Esther became queen, a plot of revenge began to unfold, beginning with the promotion of a man referred to as Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite. It says in Esther 3:1, “After these things did king Ahasuerus promote Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him, and set his seat above all the princes that were with him.” In other words, Haman was given a position similar to a Vice President. Whereas, previously Haman had been a member of the kings cabinet or counsel, he took on a new role in which he would oversee the activities of all the princes of the Persian Empire. As a result of his promotion, Haman was treated with dignity and perceived to be of equal status with the king. It says in Esther 3:2, “And all the king’s servants, that were in the king’s gate, bowed and reverenced Haman: for the king had so commanded concerning him. But Mordecai bowed not, nor did him reverence.”

Esther’s uncle Mordecai came from the family of Saul, the first king of Israel. During Saul’s reign, God commanded him to destroy the Amalekites. It says in 1 Samuel 15:7-8, “And Saul smote the Amalekites from Havilah until thou cometh to Shur, that is over against Egypt. And he took Agag the king of the Amalekites alive, and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword.” Agag the king of the Amalekites was later killed by the prophet Samuel, but most likely, the rest of his household was spared from death. It appears that Haman was a descendant of this king, due to his identification as an Agagite. Because Mordecai refused to bow before him, Haman planned to have him, and all the other Jews in the Persian Empire, killed (Esther 3:6). Haman used his promotion as a means of access to Ahasuerus and his influence to convince the king that the Jews should be eliminated (Esther 3:8-9). The king’s response is recorded in Esther 3:10-11:

And the king took his ring from his hand, and gave it to Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the Jews’ enemy. And the king said unto Haman, The silver is given to thee, the people also, to do with them as it seemeth good to thee.

Providence

The book of Esther is so much like a fairy tale that it might be hard for some people to take it seriously. The events recorded in the book occurred at a time in history that was actually very well documented, so there is little doubt that it is a true and correct account of what happened to Esther, but how the story may be interpreted varies greatly. In order to understand the details, a context has to be established, and I believe the best way to do that is to look at the accomplishments of the first Persian Empire. It was the first kingdom to establish a centralized bureaucratic administration system that included people of different origins and faith. The Persian Empire had an official language that was used across all its territories which spanned 5.5 million square kilometers, approximately the size of the United States. After its conquest of the Babylonian Empire, a series of kings, beginning with Cyrus the Great, identified themselves as world leaders and attempted to unite all people into a single culture. Ahasuerus reigned “from India to Ethiopia, over an hundred and seven and twenty provinces” (Esther 1:1).

It could be said that the first Persian Empire was similar to the United States during the 1950’s after its victory in World War II. The economy was booming and expansion was taking place throughout the country. A key characteristic that I think is similar between these two cultures is male dominance in the home and sexual pleasure being considered a necessary requirement for a successful marriage. Queen Vashti, Ahasuerus’ first wife, was deposed, which means she was removed from her office suddenly and forcefully, because she refused to appear immediately in his court at his command during a festival the king was hosting. It says in Esther 1:12, “But the queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s commandment by his chamberlains: therefore was the king very wroth, and his anger burned in him.” It is likely Vashti was pregnant with her third child at the time this incident took place. Using Vashti’s disobedience as justification for her dismissal, Ahasuerus launched a search for a suitable replacement that included all the good looking virgins in his kingdom (Esther 2:2).

It is clear from the description of what happened that every virgin that was selected was expected to have sex with the king. It says in Esther 2:14, “In the evening she went, and on the morrow she returned into a second house of the women, to the custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s chamberlain, which kept the concubines: she came into the king no more, except the king delighted in her, and that she were called by name.” A concubine or paramour in today’s language is a lover, especially the illicit partner of a married person. When it was Esther’s turn to sleep with the king, he fell in love with her. It says in Esther 2:17, “And the king loved Esther above all the other women, and she obtained grace and favour in his sight more than all the virgins; so that he set the royal crown upon her head, and made her queen instead of Vashti.” The king’s emotional decision to marry Esther was most likely a result of God’s providence over her life. Even though Esther was out of the will of God, he did not allow her life to be ruined by her circumstances.