Over My Dead Body
Over My Dead Body
Welcome to River City! My name is Rodney, one of the pastors here at River City, and I’m thankful to be here with you all this morning, to worship the Lord of heaven and earth, the God who welcomes sinners and makes a way for us to know him.
Last week, we started a new sermon series on the book of Esther, and we’re calling it: “The Hidden Hand of God.” You’ll see as we go throughout the series why it’s called that. We have three goals over the next seven weeks:
- Last week, we looked at where this book sits in the Story of God. This is during a dark moment in history for the people of God. They have been exiled from their home in Jerusalem because of their sin. Their Temple is destroyed, no more miracles, no more visible signs of God and they are wondering if maybe God has removed his presence from them as well.
- As we go along, we’re going to see what the author wants us to know about who God is and how we should respond to him
- How it points to Jesus.
Today we’re going to meet two more characters in the story of Esther. But even though the story on the surface has main characters, the primary argument I’m making in this series is that not only is God the one in control of all things, God is the leading role in all of human history.
Where we left things last week, we saw King Xerxes, or as the Hebrews pronounced it: Ahasuerus, parading all of his firepower and influence and wealth in front of his military officials and nobles, to give the impression that he was the king of kings who was not to be messed with. But when this king of kings asks for his Queen to come parade her body in front of the king’s drunken employees, she refuses.
We learned that maybe the powerful aren’t as much in control as they think they are. So let’s continue on and see what happens next.
The Queen has refused the king’s request, so he consults his top advisors to see if there is a law in place for how he should deal with the Queen. And this is where it gets a little comical.
16 Memucan said in the presence of the king and his officials, “Queen Vashti has wronged not only the king, but all the officials and the peoples who are in every one of King Ahasuerus’s provinces. 17 For the queen’s action will become public knowledge to all the women and cause them to despise their husbands and say, ‘King Ahasuerus ordered Queen Vashti brought before him, but she did not come.’ 18 Before this day is over, the noble women of Persia and Media who hear about the queen’s act will say the same thing to all the king’s officials, resulting in more contempt and fury.
You think she offended you – how do you think all of us feel!?! If the media finds out about this, all the women in the kingdom are going to say to their husbands, “Hey if the Queen didn’t have to listen to the king, I don’t have to listen to you, and before the end of the day, none of the female employees here in the palace will listen to us either!” And that would kinda ruin our day, like it ruined yours.
So to keep all the women where we want them, here’s what you should do:
19 “If it meets the king’s approval, he should personally issue a royal decree. Let it be recorded in the laws of the Persians and Medes, so that it cannot be revoked: Vashti is not to enter King Ahasuerus’s presence, and her royal position is to be given to another woman who is more worthy than she. 20 The decree the king issues will be heard throughout his vast kingdom, so all women will honor their husbands, from the greatest to the least.” 21 The king and his counselors approved the proposal, and he followed Memucan’s advice. 22 He sent letters to all the royal provinces, to each province in its own script and to each ethnic group in its own language, that every man should be master of his own house and speak in the language of his own people.
Do you see the irony? “Hey, Xerxes – we don’t want anyone to find out about this. So, to keep that from happening, let’s tell everyone and record it in laws that will be remembered forever.” This is laughable! His wisest advisors can’t even get out of their own way.
Once again, for those who have maybe come to idolize the power and wealth of the king who saw earlier in chapter 1 that the powerful aren’t as much in control as they might appear, the message at the end of the chapter seems to be that the wisdom of the world is not as wise as it might appear, and will be a recurring theme over the next couple of weeks.
It’s why the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 3 tells the church, Don’t get wrapped up in human leaders! God doesn’t use worldly standards to measure wisdom. There is one true kind of wisdom, and it’s from God! Anything else is a banquet in the grave! More on that in our Proverbs series this summer. Let’s watch what happens next:
2:1 Some time later, when King Ahasuerus’s rage had cooled down, he remembered Vashti, what she had done, and what was decided against her. (he’s feeling a little regret probably)
2 The king’s personal attendants suggested, “Let a search be made for beautiful young virgins for the king. 3 Let the king appoint commissioners in each province of his kingdom, so that they may gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem at the fortress of Susa. Put them under the supervision of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, keeper of the women, and give them the required beauty treatments. 4 Then the young woman who pleases the king will become queen instead of Vashti.” This suggestion pleased the king, and he did accordingly.
Here’s what that meant for the women who were chosen:
12 During the year before each young woman’s turn to go to King Ahasuerus, the harem regulation required her to receive beauty treatments with oil of myrrh for six months and then with perfumes and cosmetics for another six months. 13 When the young woman would go to the king, she was given whatever she requested to take with her from the harem to the palace. 14 She would go in the evening, and in the morning she would return to a second harem under the supervision of the king’s eunuch Shaashgaz, keeper of the concubines. She never went to the king again, unless he desired her and summoned her by name.
You understand what’s happening here, right? This is the Bachelor: Persian style. Except instead of group dates, you skip straight to the 1 on 1 time, if you know what I mean.
A woman would start out in the beauty treatment part of the palace, spend a night with the king, and then in the morning she would go to a different part of the palace. The used part. By law, no one who’d been with the king could ever know another man. These girls would be taken from their homes, used once, and locked away in the second harem afterward – never to raise a family or know a normal life again.1
I have a 15 year old daughter, and I think she’s beautiful. I think she would have been a target of the king’s plan. And I would like to think that I would be able to hide her away, or we would quickly move in the middle of the night to another country, or at least dress her up so she looks older. I would like to think that I would have prayed for God’s protection over her, that he would hide her from the eyes of the officials who were doing the kidnapping, that I would stand up to them and say “over my dead body” if they came for her. Even if you don’t have a daughter, that would seem like the natural, fatherly thing to do.
Let’s meet the first of our two main characters:
5 In the fortress of Susa, there was a Jewish man named Mordecai son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, a Benjaminite.
This sentence means nothing to you and me, but remember this is written to an audience of Jews, and they see something we don’t.
First thing to notice, and this will come into play later in the series, is the name Kish. If you know your biblical history, Kish the Benjamite was the father of the first King of Israel, king Saul. Which is to say Mordecai has some royal Israelite blood in him. And if that were the only description of Mordecai, for a Jew reading this, maybe for a second, just for a second, it looks like God’s promise that an Isrealite king would be on the throne of Israel forever might happen in Mordecai.
You’ve got the drunken king of the world’s largest empire on the throne who is slowly disintegrating, and Mordecai’s got the right blood. He’s got the right family tree. Maybe things are moving in the right direction for Mordecai to take over this massive empire and God’s promise is about to come true, and the earth will be filled with the glory of God as an Israelite king takes over!
But something is terribly wrong. Horribly wrong. Go back to verse 5.
5 In the fortress there was a Jewish man named Mordecai. Those 10 words raise the hairs on the back of a Jewish person’s neck. There is a Jewish man in the fortress at Susa. Let me take you back to chapter 1, verse 5, where the king threw the employee appreciation banquet for all who were present in the fortress of Susa.
Do you see the connection? Mordecai, 2:5, is one of those people in the fortress. It sure looks like he’s at the king’s party. If so, he’s drinking unlimited drinks, eating the king’s food, and he’s working in the king’s system. He knows exactly what the king was up to when he called the Queen to join them that night. It wasn’t just so she could say hi.
Put it all together, and it appears like Mordecai might be Jewish in name only. How can you be at the king’s party and maintain Jewish dietary customs? How can you maintain your ceremonial cleanliness when you’re partying with pagans? What do you have to do in terms of clothing, and changing your accent, etc, so that people think you’re one of them? He’s not all bad though.
7 Mordecai was the legal guardian of his cousin Hadassah (that is, Esther), because she had no father or mother. The young woman had a beautiful figure and was extremely good-looking. When her father and mother died, Mordecai had adopted her as his own daughter.
Esther is young and good looking, but her life hasn’t been easy. She’s lost both parents, and is being taken care of by her cousin. There’s a lot we could say here about her two names. Hadassah is her Jewish name; the name Esther, like the name Mordecai is Persian. The author is exposing a tension here that lives in Esther between her Jewish identity and her Persian identity.
She meets the criteria for what the king is looking for, so in verse 8 and 9, when the command comes down the line, Esther gets taken to the harem for a year of beauty treatments. But, verse 10: Esther did not reveal her ethnicity or her family background, because Mordecai had ordered her not to make them known. Every day Mordecai took a walk in front of the harem’s courtyard to learn how Esther was doing…
And again, if you’re Jewish, you’re thinking, WHAT?! He just lets her go? And then says don’t tell them you’re Jewish?! This is like me telling my 15yr old daughter to go to Daytona Beach for Spring Break and saying hey, don’t let anyone know you’re a Christian. Do what they do, say what they say, eat what they eat, and you know, whatever happens happens. I will be outside if you have any questions. That’s messed up!
Obviously to blend in with the Persians, she’d have to eat their food, celebrate their holidays, talk the talk and walk the walk. But worst of all, if the king ends up making her queen, she would be intermarrying with a Gentile, which is strictly forbidden in the Law of Moses!
Yet the text doesn’t give any indication that they did anything other than go along with the plan. You might say, “well, they didn’t really have a choice.” Maybe. But don’t you think Mordecai, acting as her father, should have said, “over my dead body!” when the officials would have come for her? One ancient Jewish commentator even says Esther should have tried to commit suicide rather than allow herself to be defiled by the king.4
But whether they hated the idea, or thought it was a good way to get a leg up in life, Esther ends up in beauty school getting fast tracked to the king’s bedroom, making a lot of friends along the way. And without further ado:
16 She was taken to King Ahasuerus in the palace in the tenth month, the month Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign. 17 The king loved Esther more than all the other women. She won more favor and approval from him than did any of the other virgins. He placed the royal crown on her head and made her queen in place of Vashti. 18 The king held a great banquet for all his officials and staff. It was Esther’s banquet. He freed his provinces from tax payments and gave gifts worthy of the king’s bounty.
And just like that Esther is queen, and this lavish king throws another banquet and gives the whole country tax breaks.
If you don’t know the rest of the story, there’s not much about this to celebrate is there? There’s not much to be excited about. This has bothered people so much over the centuries that even the Reformer Martin Luther said, “The book of Esther I toss into the River. I am such an enemy to the book of Esther that I wish it did not exist, for it ... has in it a great deal of heathenish naughtiness…”5
He’s right! I mean you read the story of Joseph back in Genesis, he refused to give in to sexual temptation. You read the story of Daniel, and he says the king who captured him: I won’t eat your food and I won’t worship your gods. Throw me in with the lions, I’m not going to compromise. I mean, when I was a kid, we sang an old hymn that said “Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone. Dare to have a purpose true, dare to make it known.”
After walking through chapter 2, no one sings, “Dare to be a Mordecai.” I don’t even know how that song would go. “Dare to be a Mordecai, compromise God’s laws. Let them take your little girl, you’ll get a tax break.”
But before we are too judgmental of Esther and Mordecai, no one sings “Dare to be a Rodney'' either. You don’t have to be alive very long to know that life isn’t always so neat and tidy that it’s super clear what is the right thing to do in every situation. Life isn’t always so neat and clean that we always make the right decisions in the heat of the moment.
- Isn’t it fair to say that every single one of us have rationalized decisions by saying we don’t have a choice?
- Haven’t every one of us chosen to live by certain cultural standards rather than live out our core identity in Christ?
- Haven’t we all made some compromises in the area of sexual immorality or choosing to chase opportunity even at the cost of our family, our integrity, or friendships? Haven’t we all at some point tried to hide who we really are?
- Haven’t we all at some point hidden the fact that we are a Christian in order to fit in?
I mean props to Joseph and Daniel and the 1000’s of men and women since who stood up for their faith, but Mordecai and Esther aren’t exactly heroes of the faith. But if we’re honest neither are any of us.
See this story isn’t about Esther. It’s about God. Neither Esther nor Mordecai are the leading role in this story. Remember the big idea of this whole series? God is the leading role in human history.
The Bible isn’t a book about great moral examples, ethical heroes, or spiritual giants. It is the unfolding story of humanity’s brokenness, one sinner at a time, and God’s redemptive grace in the midst of it.6
Abraham lied and doubted, but God still worked through him.
Moses was impatient, but God still worked through him.
Rahab was a prostitute, but God still worked through her.
Ruth was a pagan from the wrong nationality, and God still worked through her.
King David committed murder and rape, but God still worked through him.
Peter denied Jesus three times, and yet God still worked through him.
All throughout scripture, person after person fails God, falls short of his standard for them, and persistently compromises their faith, and by the time you get to the 21st century, 2021 Riverside Iowa the future birthplace of Captain James T Kirk, we are a room full of people who have compromised their faith, lied, doubted, persisted in sin, worshiped the idols of sports and influence and family, and spend more time on social media than in our Bibles. Let’s admit it: we’re a room full of Mordecai’s and Esther’s.
Jesus’ mission when he came to earth was to die and rise again to redeem moral compromisers like Mordecai and Esther and you and me. The glorious news of the gospel is that God is able to gather up all of your moral failures and all of mine and still use them for something redemptive and glorious in the end.7
The darkest moment in human history was not when Mordecai, with the royal blood of Kish the Benjamite was found to be compromised in the palace of Persia. The darkest moment in your history wasn’t even that night you did that thing you regret.
The darkest moment in history was when the King of Kings was nailed to a Roman cross – his body broken, and his royal blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins. Not just sins in general, but your sins. The ones you’ve done and the ones you haven’t done yet. But God took the darkest moment in all of human history, where creation crucified it’s Creator, and turned it into the most glorious event in all of human history, raising Jesus from the dead to proclaim to you and me, that when it was time for the gavel of judgment to come down on you for your compromise, the Judge passed the sentence of death from you to Jesus, and on the third day raised Jesus to life again to say “You. Are. Forgiven! No longer condemned!”
The cross of Jesus says there is hope for the Esthers and Mordecai’s among us! Nothing and no one is un-redeemable! The cross screams the good news that there is hope for your coworkers, your neighbors, that family member who seems like his heart is as hard as a rock.
The cross of Jesus says that God’s grace is bigger than one night, no matter how stupid it was.
God’s grace is bigger than your divorce, an unplanned pregnancy – God’s Grace is even bigger than abortion or addiction or abuse.
The way back into this grace is not to work harder to try to undo the things you’ve done or do enough good to outweigh the bad, you’ll never do enough – the way back into this grace is to fall on your face in repentance and cry out, Jesus! I am compromised to my core. There is not a clean cell in my body – I have nothing to bring to the table that you would find helpful or useful or holy – But your word says you are compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love for people like me. So I’m throwing myself on your mercy and your grace because I have nowhere else to go.
It is by grace you have been saved. It is a gift. It’s free to you, but this grace is not cheap. We don’t celebrate a cheap grace, where God just waves off your sin and says “ah it’s good.” This grace was costly.
- Mike Cosper, Faith Among the Faithless: Learning from Esther How to Live in a World Gone Mad (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2018), 28
- Bryan Gregory, Inconspicuous Providence: The Gospel According to Esther (New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2014), 40-41
- Karen H Jobes, The NIV Application Commentary: Esther (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 101
- Ibid, 95
- James Swan, https://beggarsallreformation.blogspot.com/2006/12/luther-book-of-esther-i-toss-into-elbe.html, November 19, 2016 (accessed April 13, 2021)
- Bryan Gregory, Inconspicuous Providence: The Gospel According to Esther (New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2014), 47-48
- Ibid, 50