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).

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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.

Preferential treatment

Daniel was an extraordinary man for many reasons. His ability to interpret dreams and endurance over time in a kingdom that was hostile toward Jews made him not only unique, but also a living testimony to God’s preferential treatment of his people while they were in exile. Daniel was a part of a select group referred to by God as the remnant. Isaiah said of the remnant, “And it shall come to pass in that day, that the remnant of Israel, and such as are escaped of the house of Jacob, shall no more again stay upon him that smote them; but shall stay upon the LORD, The Holy One of Israel in truth. The remnant shall return, even the remnant of Jacob, unto the mighty God” (Isaiah 10:20-21). According to Isaiah, the remnant would survive when God’s people were subjected to punishment and would bring hope for their expected return to the Promised Land (7605).

After Darius conquered Babylon, Daniel was made the first or head of three presidents that presided over the Persian empire. It says in Daniel 6:3, “Then this Daniel was preferred above the presidents and princes, because an excellent spirit was in him; and the king thought to set him over the whole realm.” The Aramaic term yattiyr, which is translated excellent, is related to the Hebrew word for remnant (3493). To remain or be left meant that those who were members of the remnant would not or could not be killed by Israel’s enemies. The Aramaic term netsach, translated preferred, corresponds to the Hebrew word natsach, which means to glitter from afar (5329) or “the bright object at a distance travelled toward (5331). Daniel had an irresistible quality that caused Darius to be drawn toward him as a leader. Even though Daniel was advanced in age, more than 80 years old, he was highly respected and given significant responsibility considering he was a prisoner of war.

Due to Daniel’s popularity with the king, a conspiracy was formed against him to have him killed. The entire governing body decided to implement a law that would ensure Daniel would be found guilty of treason. They told king Darius, “All the presidents of the kingdom, the governors, and the princes, the counsellers, and the captains, have consulted together to establish a royal statute, and to make a firm decree, that whosoever shall ask a petition of any God or man for thirty days, save of thee, O king, he shall be cast into the den of lions” (Daniel 6:7). Later, when it was discovered that Daniel had broken the law, it says in Daniel 6:16, “Then the king commanded, and they brought Daniel, and cast him into the den of lions. Now the king spake and said unto Daniel, Thy God whom thou servest continually, he will deliver thee.” Darius believed Daniel would be saved from punishment because of his faith in God. After spending the night in the lion’s den, its says of Daniel, “no manner of hurt was found upon him, because he believed in his God” (Daniel 6:23).

The fiery furnace

Nebuchadnezzar’ experience of having his dream interpreted by Daniel did little to change his opinion of himself or God. Even though Nebuchadnezzar identified Daniel’s God as a God of gods, and a Lord of kings (Daniel 2:47), Nebuchadnezzar did not believe in God, nor worship him. As a result of having his dream interpreted, Nebuchadnezzar actually became more conceited and arrogant in his behavior. It says in Daniel 3:1, “Nebuchadnezzar the king made an image of gold, whose height was threescore cubits, and the breadth thereof six cubits.” The identity of the 90 feet high image is not given, but it may very well have been a statue of Nebuchadnezzar himself. In his interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, Daniel told the king, “Thou, O king, art a king of kings: for the God of heaven hath given thee a kingdom, power, and strength, and glory. And wheresoever the children of men dwell, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the heaven hath he given into thine hand, and hath made thee a ruler over them all” (Daniel 2:37-38). And with regard to the image he saw in his dream, Nebuchadnezzar was told, “Thou art this head of gold” (Daniel 2:38).

After his golden image was erected, Nebuchadnezzar demanded that everyone in his kingdom bow down and worship it (Daniel 3:7), “And whoso falleth not down and worshippeth, that he should be cast into the midst of a burning fiery furnace” (Daniel 3:11). The fiery furnace may have been symbolic of hell or was a sadistic means of satisfaction to the king who had been given power over everyone on earth. When Nebuchadnezzar was told there were three men in his kingdom that did not bow down and worship the image, he went into a rage. It says in Daniel 3:19-20, “Then was Nebuchadnezzar full of fury, and the form of his visage was changed against Shadrach, Mesach, and Abed-nego: therefore he spake, and commanded that they should heat the furnace one seven times more than it was wont to be heat. And he commanded the most mighty men that were in his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, and cast them into the burning fiery furnace.”

In stark contrast to Nebuchadnezzar’s blatant disregard for God’s dominion over the earth, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego were completely devoted to the one true God. When they were told they were about to be burned in the fiery furnace, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego replied, “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up” (Daniel 3:17-18). Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego’s miraculous deliverance from the fiery furnace was not only a tribute to their faith, but also a sign that God was with his people even during their captivity in Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar himself testified to the appearance of a pre-incarnate Jesus Christ. It says in Daniel 3:24-25:

Then Nebuchadnezzar the king was astonied, and rose up in haste, and spake, and said unto his counselors, Did not we cast three men bound into the midst of the fire? They answered and said unto the king, True, O king. He answered and said, Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.

The mark

In his divine judgment of the city of Jerusalem, God demonstrated his ability to exercise self-control, in spite of fierce emotions that caused him to destroy everything, including his holy temple. Before he undertook the action to kill everyone within the city walls, God ordered a mark to be placed on the forehead of every person who shared his disgust with the situation. Calling forth the seven guardian angels that protected his people, God gave instructions to set apart those who were faithful to him. It says in Ezekiel 9:4, “And the LORD said unto him, Go through the midst of the city through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof.”

The seventh angel, who was clothed in linen, carried a writer’s inkhorn with which he was to place the mark (Ezekiel 9:2). Although it is not specified exactly what type of mark was made, the Hebrew word translated mark in Ezekiel 9:4, tav or taw, the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, specifies a signature. The signature may have only been represented by an X, but the implication was that the mark was a sign of ownership that was imprinted on the forehead. A similar marking is found in the book of Revelation where it says of the Antichrist, “And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive the mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: and that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name” (Revelation 13:16-17).

God’s judgment of Jerusalem was in many ways the foreshadowing of God’s final judgment of everyone on earth. It says in Revelation 3:12, “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name.” It is possible that the mark placed on the foreheads of those in Jerusalem at the time of the city’s destruction was linked to Christ and was the equivalent of receiving salvation. The remarkable thing about receiving the mark was the only  requirement was to sign or groan, as if in despair (Ezekiel 9:4).

Ezekiel’s visions of God allowed him to see beforehand the outcome of God’s judgment of Jerusalem. In spite of his lenient excusal of anyone that cried out in despair, it appeared that none would survive. After the order was given to slay everyone that did not have the mark, Ezekiel exclaimed, “And it came to pass, while they were slaying them, and I was left, that I fell upon my face, and cried, and said, Ah Lord GOD, wilt thou destroy all the residue of Israel in thy pouring out of thy fury upon Jerusalem?” (Ezekiel 9:8). God’s reply to Ezekiel’s question suggested there were none who believed and were willing to cry out to him for help. “Then he said unto me, The iniquity of the house of Israel and Judah is exceeding great, and the land is full of blood, and the city full of perverseness: for they say, The LORD hath forsaken the earth, and the LORD seeth not” (Ezekiel 9:9).

Compassion

Unfortunately, it’s true that we sometimes don’t cry out to God until it’s too late. The destruction of God’s temple in Jerusalem had a devastating effect on his people. For those people that believed it was necessary for them to worship God in his temple, they saw the destruction of the temple as the end of their relationship with God. At the very least, the temple was a place for God’s people to gather together. It was a representation of the community of believers being united as one. Without the temple, there was no way for believers to connect with each other.

Psalm 74 was written some time after the Babylonians destroyed everything in Jerusalem, including the temple that was built by king Solomon. The Psalmist prayed that God would come to the aid of his people and pleaded with him to “remember thy congregation, which thou has purchased of old, the rod of thine inheritance, which thou hast redeemed; this mount Zion, where in thou hast dwelt” (Psalm 74:2).

In Psalm 74:2, the Psalmist’s reference to “thy congregation” meant the people that had been delivered from slavery in Egypt. The Psalmist was reminding God of the work he had done to bring the nation of Israel into existence. The Psalmist was disturbed because it looked like all God had done was ruined and his enemies had succeeded in destroying God’s kingdom. He said, “Thine enemies roar in the midst of thy congregations; they set their ensigns for signs” (Psalm 74:4).

What the Psalmist was implying was that God’s people no longer belonged to him. Because Nebuchadnezzar had taken the captives of Jerusalem to Babylon, it seemed as if they were no longer citizens of God’s kingdom, but God promised to visit or look after them until the time when he would return them to the Promised Land (Jeremiah 27:22).

Psalm 79 opens with a description of the wasteland that Jerusalem had become after the Babylonians destroyed it. It says in Psalm 79:1-5:

O God, the heathen are come into thine inheritance; thy holy temple have they defiled; they have laid Jerusalem on heaps. The dead bodies of thy servants have they given to be meat unto the fowls of the heaven, the flesh of thy saints unto the beasts of the earth. Their blood have they shed like water round about Jerusalem; and there was none to bury them. We are become a reproach to our neighbors, a scorn and derision to them that are round about us. How long, LORD? wilt thou be angry for ever?

It is likely Psalm 79 was written at the same time or shortly after the fall of Jerusalem. The Psalmist requested that God would show compassion to his people and declared, “for they have devoured Jacob, and laid waste his dwelling place. O remember not against us former iniquities: let thy tender mercies speedily prevent us” (Psalm 79:8).

The Hebrew term translated as tender mercies, “racham expresses a deep and tender feeling of compassion, such as is aroused by the sight of weakness or suffering in those who are dear to us or in need  of help (7356). At the time the citizens of Jerusalem were taken into captivity, they didn’t know if they were going to live or die. The  Psalmist asked that God would “preserve thou those that are appointed to die” (Psalm 79:11).

God’s compassion toward his people was evident in his repeated warnings to them that destruction was coming. Even though Jeremiah made it clear that all who surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar would be kept alive (Jeremiah 15:11), the people didn’t believe him, and as a result, many were slain when Nebuchadnezzar’s army entered and destroyed Jerusalem (Psalm 79:3). Ultimately, the Psalmist’s prayer was answered because God did prevent the nation of Judah from being destroyed permanently and he did preserve the remnant or congregation of his people that were taken into captivity.

A dangerous mission

At the end of king Josiah’s reign, when Jeremiah was probably in his early thirties, the king of Egypt took control of the kingdom of Judah by taking Josiah’s son Jehoahaz into captivity and by placing his brother Jehoiakim on the throne instead. Jehoiakim was loyal to the king of Egypt and taxed the people in order to pay an annual tribute to him of 100 talents of silver and a talent of gold. In the beginning of Jehoiakim’s reign, the LORD sent Jeremiah to deliver a message to the people. It began, “Thus saith the LORD; Stand in the court of the LORD’s house, and speak unto all the cities of Judah, which come to worship in the LORD’s house, all the words that I command thee to speak unto them; diminish not a word” (Jeremiah 26:2)

The LORD was about to give a strong warning to the people of Judah and he wanted Jeremiah to understand that he was not to soften the blow in any way. Jeremiah was to quote the LORD exactly as the message was given to him, speaking word for word what he was told. No doubt, Jeremiah was afraid to confront Jehoiakim, but he understood the seriousness of the situation, and was willing to do what the LORD asked him to. As soon as Jeremiah was finished speaking what the LORD told him to, it says in Jeremiah 26:8, “that the priest and the prophets and all the people took him, saying, Thou shalt surely die.”

Jeremiah displayed great courage in the face of grave danger. When the princes of Judah heard what was going on in the temple, they went to investigate. The priests and the prophets told them Jeremiah should be killed because he prophesied against the city of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 26:11). The charge against Jeremiah revealed the corruption of the temple priests and prophets. As far as they were concerned, the city of Jerusalem was exempt from God’s judgment. Not only were the priests and prophets willing to ignore God’s message, they were also willing to kill Jeremiah in order to make it look like he was not really speaking for God.

In a strange twist of fate, the princes of Judah defended Jeremiah. It says in Jeremiah 26:16, “Then said the princes and all the people unto the priests and to the prophets; This man is not worthy to die: for he hath spoken to us in the name of the LORD our God.” More than likely, the declaration of Jeremiah’s innocence was a result of divine intervention. A prophet named Urijah spoke a similar message to king Jehoiakim and he was hunted down and killed by the king (Jeremiah 26:23). In order to protect Jeremiah, a man named Ahikam became his personal bodyguard. It says in Jeremiah 26:24, “Nevertheless the hand of Ahikam the son of Shephan was with Jeremiah, that they should not give him into the hand of the people to put him to death.”