Esther’s Dilemma and Decision (Esther 4:1-17)
Years ago, my friend Bill McRae and I attended a funeral in a church which no longer clearly proclaimed the gospel. As we walked to our car after the funeral, Bill commented, “It wasn’t what the preacher said that was the problem; it was what he didn’t say.” Often what is not said may be more important than what is said. Think, for instance, of the wife who yearns to hear her husband say, “I love you,” or the young woman who has dated a young man for a long time and has not yet heard the word “marriage” (or today’s word, “commitment”).
In the Book of Esther, what is not said is vitally important. Sadly, many who read and study Esther (including Bible scholars who write commentaries on the book) “fill in the blanks,” rather than leaving them blank and learning from the silence of the author. As we begin our study of chapter 4, I want to ask you to make a commitment: commit yourself to accept the text just as it is. When the author specifically mentions certain things, take note of them. And when the author omits certain crucial elements, do not think he really meant us to assume them; rather, the author expects us to note their absence. In so doing, you will read the text as it is and learn from what is not said as well as from what is.
The author begins the book with a six-month long royal celebration which king Ahasuerus (Xerxes) holds for the nobility of his kingdom. At the end of this celebration, the king holds a week-long banquet for all of the inhabitants of Susa, the capital city, whether rich or poor. As a grand finale, the king summons Vashti, the queen, to appear in her regal attire to display her beauty and enhance the king’s glory.
For some unexplained reason, Vashti did the unthinkable—she refused to appear. The king was humiliated, for he had spent the last six months displaying the glory and sovereignty of his dominion. Now even his wife would not submit to his leadership. Although deeply angered by Vashti’s blatant disregard for his authority, the king sought counsel from the wisest of his princes. They agreed that Vashti had committed a most serious offense, and that news of her disregard for her husband’s authority would likely have an adverse effect on marriages throughout the kingdom. Consequently, they advised the king to remove Vashti as queen and select another better than Vashti; they also advised this should be made a matter of law sent to every province in the kingdom so all would learn that such actions would not be tolerated.
After some time, the king’s heart was once again inclined toward Vashti, but his valets encouraged him to get on with the process of selecting a new queen. For a man like Ahasuerus, this was a great pleasure and kept him from trying to reverse his previous decision. The process of selecting a queen resulted in the selection of Esther, a young Jewess who had been raised by her cousin and step-father, Mordecai. At his instruction, Esther kept her Jewish origins and her relationship to Mordecai a secret.
For whatever reason, there was a second gathering of young women whom the king was busily engaged in trying out (for queen?). Esther continued to keep her identity from the king. While sitting at the king’s gate, Mordecai became aware of a plot by Bigthana and Teresh to kill the king, which he made known to Esther, who in turn informed the king in Mordecai’s name. Further inquiry proved this report to be true, and these two traitors were hung. The king was usually careful to reward acts of loyalty, but for some reason Mordecai was not rewarded, and the matter was forgotten, although it was recorded in the chronicles of the king as he looked on.
Suddenly Haman, a new character, is introduced. Haman appears as a prince who stands head and shoulders above the rest of his peers, at least in the king’s mind. The king had elevated him above all the rest and clearly placed complete trust in him, a decision which proved to be foolish. Although the king commanded all of his citizens to show respect to Haman, Mordecai refused, which caused the king’s servants to rebuke him. When challenged, he excused his actions by simply saying he was a Jew. For him, that was all that was necessary. But for the king’s servants, this made no sense at all. And so they informed Haman to see if he would let Mordecai get away with his stubborn refusal to show respect to the king’s right hand man, in effect, the prime minister of Persia.
Although furious, Haman kept his anger concealed. He looked upon Mordecai as a typical Jew, and his purpose was not only to do away with Mordecai but to do away with every Jew in the kingdom. At the propitious moment, he approached the king with an indictment and a proposal. He informed the king that a certain race of people in the empire were rebels, who could not be kept in submission (not unlike Vashti) and that the king would do well to be rid of them. He offered a very large sum of money to Ahasuerus to proclaim a certain day as the time when anyone in the kingdom could kill every living Jew they encountered and then confiscate their property. It was a tempting way for people to get ahead, to be rid of their enemies, and to practice their racial bigotry.
The name of this race was not made known to the king, and neither did he inquire. Ahasuerus gave his signet ring to Haman, which gave him a blank check. He now had the authority to pass any law he chose—in the king’s name. From all we can tell, the king never read this law nor did he sign it. He left these matters to his most trusted official, Haman. While the king and Haman sat drinking their wine, the entire city of Susa was in confusion. Our text takes up the story at the confusion which came upon the citizens and the city of Susa.
1 When Mordecai learned all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city and wailed loudly and bitterly. 2 And he went as far as the king’s gate, for no one was to enter the king’s gate clothed in sackcloth. 3 And in each and every province where the command and decree of the king came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping, and wailing; and many lay on sackcloth and ashes.
Mordecai, we are told, learned all that had been done. This seems to suggest he was on the “inside track” or at least had access to inside information. We also know this was not Esther, for he is the one who tells her all that has taken place.
When Mordecai becomes aware of the law which has just been created and put into effect by Haman, he begins to mourn. He does not mourn in private, but in public; in fact, his mourning could not have been more public. Mordecai goes into the middle of the city to the “city square” and to the “king’s gate.” He does not enter the gate, for this is forbidden for a mourner. The king wanted to keep a distance between himself and sadness. It was not popular with kings to have sorrow expressed in their court (see Nehemiah 2:2). Kings in medieval times did not have “court mourners,” only court jesters.
It seems Mordecai’s mourning is not quite normal. I would have expected him to mourn privately rather than publicly. I wonder if Mordecai was not a leader among the Jewish people, and his public mourning was the cue for the rest of the Jews to join him in mourning. I also wonder if Mordecai did not station himself before the king’s gate in an effort to get the king’s attention as a kind of official protest.
What we are told is that Mordecai mourned, and so did the rest of the Jews, not only in the capital city of Susa but throughout the kingdom. What we are not told is that Mordecai or any of his fellow-Jews repented. We are not told that any prayed. The name of God is not mentioned here or elsewhere in the Book of Esther. There is no specific mention of prayer, no mention of the Jews speaking to God, nor any reference to God speaking to His people through His prophets. Based upon the instruction given to dispossessed Jews in 2 Chronicles 6:34-39, and the example of godly Jews in Ezra 9:5—10:1; Nehemiah 1:4-11; and Daniel 9:4-19, it seems almost necessary to conclude these Jews—including Esther and Mordecai—are not godly. This is further indicated by the words of the prophet Isaiah:
9 Be delayed and wait. Blind yourselves and be blind. They become drunk, but not with wine; They stagger, but not with strong drink. 10 For the Lord has poured over you a spirit of deep sleep, He has shut your eyes, the prophets; And He has covered your heads, the seers (Isaiah 29:9-10).
Isaiah was a prophet whose task was not to call Israel to repentance or to turn the nation back to God. God’s people had rebelled too long; they had passed the point of no return. It was now time for judgment, and Isaiah’s task was to pronounce the doom of impending judgment in a way that would harden hearts rather than break them (see Isaiah 6:9-10). Later in chapter 29, God indicated the hour of Israel’s doom was near when He took away the prophets, once known as “seers.” In taking away the prophets, God took away the eyes of his people, leaving them in their state of spiritual blindness. Their doom was sealed. Their doom was sure. While we read of prophets in Israel in Ezra and Nehemiah, no prophets are mentioned in the Book of Esther. If men are not speaking to God (in prayer), neither is God speaking to the Jews (in Persia).
Esther’s First Contact With Mourning Mordecai
4 Then Esther’s maidens and her eunuchs came and told her, and the queen writhed in great anguish. And she sent garments to clothe Mordecai that he might remove his sackcloth from him, but he did not accept them (Esther 4:4).
Learning that Mordecai is in mourning greatly distresses Esther. Nevertheless, her first efforts are not to learn what has caused Mordecai to mourn but to persuade him to stop mourning. Could this be because it is distressing to others in the city and potentially dangerous (Mordecai comes as close to the royal palace as he can, but does not pass through the king’s gate)? Could it be Mordecai was an embarrassment to Esther so that she tried to quickly silence him? She sent clothing to her step-father, hoping to persuade him to put an end to his mourning. But Mordecai was not dissuaded.
Hathach is Sent To Mordecai
5 Then Esther summoned Hathach from the king’s eunuchs, whom the king had appointed to attend her, and ordered him to go to Mordecai to learn what this was and why it was. 6 So Hathach went out to Mordecai to the city square in front of the king’s gate. 7 And Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and the exact amount of money that Haman had promised to pay to the king’s treasuries for the destruction of the Jews. 8 He also gave him a copy of the text of the edict which had been issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show Esther and inform her, and to order her to go in to the king to implore his favor and to plead with him for her people.
Esther needed to find out what was going on, so she sent a trusted servant directly to Mordecai to inquire why he was mourning and would not cease. This communication between Mordecai and Esther (and eventually others, it seems—see the “they” of verse 12 and the “them” of verse 13) certainly seems to threaten Esther’s ability to keep her identity as a Jew and her relationship to Mordecai a secret. Hathach finds Mordecai in the city square at the king’s gate. It could hardly be a more public meeting, but it seems Mordecai wants his mourning to be public. Mordecai reports to Hathach all that had happened to him (verse 7).43 He informs Hathach of the exact amount Haman has promised to contribute to the treasury and also sends with him a copy of the decree Haman has made an irreversible law. These things Hathach is instructed to convey to Esther, along with the command that she approach the king and intercede for the Jews.
Esther’s Reluctance to Obey
9 And Hathach came back and related Mordecai’s words to Esther. 10 Then Esther spoke to Hathach and ordered him to reply to Mordecai: 11 “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that for any man or woman who comes to the king to the inner court who is not summoned, he has but one law, that he be put to death, unless the king holds out to him the golden scepter so that he may live. And I have not been summoned to come to the king for these thirty days.” 12 And they related Esther’s words to Mordecai.
From all we have been told earlier, Esther was accustomed to following Mordecai’s instructions. We may safely assume Mordecai had also become accustomed to being obeyed, even when Esther was the queen (see 2:20). It must have come as quite a shock to receive Esther’s response, which could be summed up in one word: “No!” This time Esther balks. She first informs Mordecai by Hathach that it was against the law to go in to the king without being summoned by him. The penalty for doing so was death, with only a small chance that the king might show mercy by extending his golden scepter and granting that the intruder might live. Since she could not go to the king uninvited, her only hope was to be summoned by the king. Since she could not go to the king uninvited, her only hope was to be summoned by the king. That was a problem; it had been 30 days since Esther had last been with the king. What other answer than "No" could she give to Mordecai?
Those who hasten to see Esther as a hero should ponder verses 9-12, for she is certainly not quick to take up the cause of her people. The principle reason is her own safety. I do not see the same spirit in Esther evident in Daniel’s three friends:
16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this matter. 17 If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (Daniel 3:16-18).
Mordecai Turns Up the Heat
13 Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not imagine that you in the king’s palace can escape any more than all the Jews. 14 For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?”
I do not know who became involved in the communication between Mordecai and Esther, but now it is indicated that others are involved (see verses 12 and 13). Mordecai finds it necessary to use considerable pressure to persuade Esther to intercede for the Jews with the king. His arguments indicate he is now playing hardball with his step-daughter. The arguments are as follows:
(1) Do not think that you will be safe as a Jew, even in the palace. Esther, Mordecai warns, is thinking wishfully. The decree Haman has made into law encompasses all Jews, no matter where they might be found in the kingdom. Esther seems to believe she is safe and that only others are in danger. She is unwilling to put herself in danger by going before the king unannounced to help her fellow-Jews, believing she is safe. Mordecai’s words are designed to convince her this is a myth. If she would not put herself at risk to save others, at least let her risk saving herself. Mordecai wants her to conclude that the most dangerous thing she can do is to do nothing and hope it will all go away.
(2) You are the only hope of deliverance. If Esther does not act on her behalf and on behalf of her fellow-Jews, there is no other hope. How could I possibly reach such a conclusion? Does the text not indicate just the opposite? Does Mordecai not indicate to Esther that if she does not act to save her people, God will bring about their deliverance in some other way? No. Let me explain how I reached this conclusion.
The text need not be translated as we find it in most versions. A Catholic scholar challenges us to translate and understand it in a very different way, a way he believes is as legitimate a translation which better fits the context. This Catholic scholar’s view is cited in a footnote in Mervin Breneman’s commentary on Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther:
“See J. Weibe “Esther 4:14: ‘Will Relief and Deliverance Arise for the Jews from Another Place?’“ CBQ 53 (1991): 409-15. Weibe argues that this phrase should be translated as a rhetorical question, suggesting that the implied answer is no; help would not arise from anywhere else. Thus Esther was the only hope for their deliverance. Weibe suggests that this translation fits the context of the Book of Esther much better than the traditional rendering. Such a reading would, however, limit the resources of God, who brought this about, and transplant the emphasis from God’s work to Esther’s work. God is capable of using anyone for his purposes. He was not limited to using just Esther, but she turned out to be the one because she answered the challenge.”44
I believe Weibe is right. Mordecai could apply a great deal more pressure on Esther by convincing her that she is the only hope of the Jews than by assuring her that another means of deliverance will be provided. In addition, God is not mentioned in the text (let alone the entire book!). Mordecai is not a godly Jew, trusting in God to save his people. He is a disobedient, unbelieving Jew, who seems hardly to think of God. His panic is because he sees the deliverance of the Jews as the result of man’s initiative. If Mordecai does not mention God in our text, we dare not assume he is trusting in God. Esther is the ace up Mordecai’s sleeve, his last hope, Israel’s last chance for survival. If she fails, all is lost. And this explains why he threatens Esther that her family will be wiped out. If deliverance comes from elsewhere, then why would Esther die? As queen, Esther will most certainly not die first. Mordecai’s warning is that she will die in the end. If this is true, then all Jews will perish, and there will be no deliverance from elsewhere. Mordecai reasons that if Esther is the Jew’s last hope, her failure will result in her death and the death of the entire race. No wonder he is so forceful.
(3) The survival of your family name is in your hands. You will recall that Esther is an orphan. He parents are both dead. Mordecai has adopted her as his step-daughter. If Esther fails to act, and both she and Mordecai perish, then her family will be wiped out. And it will be all her fault, Mordecai warns. This is real pressure. The young Jewish girl has never known pressure like this.
Esther’s Consent and Command
15 Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai, 16 “Go, assemble all the Jews who are found in Susa, and fast for me; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens also will fast in the same way. And thus I will go in to the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.” 17 So Mordecai went away and did just as Esther had commanded him (Esther 4:5-17).
The pressure is too great. Esther gives in, sending word to Mordecai that she will intercede with the king for her people. Now that she has taken orders from Mordecai, she begins to give orders. She instructs him to assemble all the Jews who live in Susa and to have them fast for her. None of them is to eat or drink for three days, night or day. She and her maidens will do likewise, and then she will attempt to see the king. She will break the law of the land and take her life into her own hands. Her final words are most instructive:
“. . . and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16b).
There are those who make a hero of Esther. One might be able to stretch the facts far enough to look upon her as a hero. Statements like these below are not the exception, but the rule:
“And if I perish, I perish.” Both Vashti and Mordecai displayed courage in life-threatening situations, and now so did Esther. Vashti showed courage in her refusal to humiliate herself for the whimsical desire of her husband, and Mordecai did so in refusing to bow down to Haman. Esther proved braver still. She had decided to break the law of her husband and risk her very life for her people (cf. John 15:13). God’s providential care had brought Esther to this point, but Esther accepted the challenge that might cost her her life.”45
“Without explicitly spelling out in detail how he came to his convictions, Mordecai reveals that he believes in God, in God’s guidance of individual lives, and in God’s ordering of the world’s political events, irrespective of whether those who seem to have the power acknowledge him or not. This was, of course, constantly declared by the prophets of Israel (e.g. Is. 10:8ff.; 45:1; Je. 1:15;; Ezk. 7:24), and need not come as a surprise, especially in the light of the return from exile in 538 and subsequent occasions (Ezr. 1-2; 5-6). Every Jew had experienced in the history of his people the guiding and saving hand of God.”46
“Esther’s reply is also a confession of faith, though it is not couched in overtly religious language. She implies that she accepts the suggestion of Mordecai as her duty, but that she is full of apprehension at the thought of fulfilling it. By asking that all the Jews in Susa join her in a fast Esther acknowledges that i. she needs the support and fellowship of others and ii. she depends on more than human courage. Though prayer is not mentioned, it was always the accompaniment of fasting in the Old Testament, and the whole point of fasting was to render the prayer experience more effective and prepare oneself for communion with God (Ex. 34:28; Dt. 9:9; Jdg. 20:26; Ezr. 8:21-23).”47
I would not argue that Esther was regarded as a hero by the Jews and even by the author of this book. It is apparent she is still looked upon as such by most Christians today. And I am willing to grant that Esther and Mordecai are heroes, though I find the evidence far from compelling. But I am not willing to concede that Esther and Mordecai were godly. One can be a hero, a true patriot, without being godly. I think Esther and Mordecai were, at best, ungodly heroes. I conclude this for the following reasons:
(1) Esther is willing to risk her life only when pressured by Mordecai, and only after he informs her that her life is in danger also. In other words, Esther acts reluctantly, and in large measure, in self-interest.
(2) Esther’s words, “If I perish, I perish,” are far from an affirmation of faith; they are, instead, a declaration of fatalism. Many years before Esther’s time, Jacob was unwilling to let his son Benjamin go to Egypt with his brothers. He had good reason to fear for his safety. But when he is finally forced to let Benjamin go, he says, “And may God Almighty grant you compassion in the sight of the man, that he may release to you your other brother and Benjamin. And as for me, if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved” (Genesis 43:14). At least Jacob refers to God, while neither Esther nor Mordecai do. But Jacob’s words fall far short of those of a man of faith.
Years ago a young boy whose father was a liberal minister was tragically killed. At his funeral service, they played a song which was said to be this young lad’s “affirmation of faith.” The song was “Zip-a-dee-do-da,” hardly an affirmation of faith. Neither are Jacob’s words in Genesis 43 nor Esther’s words in our text an affirmation of faith. One who would believe this might also be inclined to accept Dinah Shore as a theologian and her song, “Que Sera, Sera,” as a hymn of the faith fit to be placed alongside “How Great Thou Art” in our hymnals. All Esther is saying is: “What will be, will be.” Any unbeliever can say as much, and often does when faced with similar circumstances.48
(3) One must note that the name of God, any affirmation of personal faith, or any clear reference to prayer or repentance is not even found on the lips of either Esther or Mordecai. To me, the silence on such matters is deafening.
(4) The Alexandrian Jews of the first century must have sensed these problems, and “doctored” the text with additions which made both Esther and Mordecai appear spiritual, while our author informs us they were not. Consider this added prayer of Esther not contained in the original Hebrew text, but added to later Greek manuscripts:
Queen Esther also took refuge with the Lord in the mortal peril which had overtaken her. She took off her sumptuous robes and put on sorrowful mourning. Instead of expensive perfumes she covered her head with ashes and dung. She humbled her body severely, and the former scenes of her happiness and elegance were now littered with tresses torn from her hair. She besought the Lord God of Israel in these words:
“‘My Lord, our King, the only one, come to my help, for I am alone and have no helper but you and am about to take my life in my hands. I have been taught from my earliest years, in the bosom of my family, that you, Lord, chose Israel out of all the nations and our ancestors out of all the people of old times to be your heritage for ever; and that you have treated them as you promised. But then we sinned against you, and you handed us over to our enemies for paying honour to their gods. Lord, you are just.
But even now they are not satisfied with the bitterness of our slavery: they have put their hands in the hands of their idols to abolish the decree that your own lips have uttered, to blot out your heritage, to stop the mouths of those who praise you, to quench your altar and the glory of your House, and instead to open the mouths of the heathen, to sing the praise of worthless idols and forever to idolise a king of flesh. Do not yield your sceptre, Lord, to non-existent beings. Never let men mock at our ruin. Turn their designs against themselves, and make an example of him who leads the attack on us. Remember, Lord; reveal yourself in the time of our distress.
As for me, give me courage, King of gods and master of all power. Put persuasive words into my mouth when I face the lion; change his feeling into hatred for our enemy, that the latter and all like him may be brought to their end.
As for ourselves, save us by your hand, and come to my help, for I am alone and have no one but you, Lord. You have knowledge of all things, and you know that I hate honours from the godless, that I loathe the bed of the uncircumcised, of any foreigner whatever. You know I am under constraint, that I loathe the symbol of my high position bound round my brow when I appear at court; I loathe it as if it were a filthy rag and do not wear it on my days of leisure.
Your handmaid has not eaten at Haman’s table, nor taken pleasure in the royal banquets, nor drunk the wine of libations. Nor has your handmaid found pleasure from the day of her promotion until now except in you, Lord, God of Abraham. O God, whose strength prevails over all, listen to the voice of the desperate, save us from the hand of the wicked, and free me from my fear.’“49
A popular slogan goes like this: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The Alexandrian Jews of the first century B.C. believed Esther and Mordecai were “broke,” and they tried to fix them. Their brokenness is the point our author is trying to emphasize, and it is exactly what we should expect of Jews who chose to stay behind, enjoying the comforts of Persia rather than paying the price for returning to Jerusalem, the place of God’s presence. But this is where the godly Jew yearned to be (see Psalm 137).
If Esther and Mordecai are not examples of godliness and faith whom we are to imitate, what are we to learn from this book, particularly from our text? We are to learn a negative lesson. We are to be warned by what we read in our text.
Why are Christians so inclined to embrace Esther and Mordecai as model saints, examples of faith and godliness? First, because they err in assuming that people recorded in Scripture are all godly. And so wayward prophets like Jonah are “sanctified” by a misreading and mishandling of the text. Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi is embraced as a kind and loving woman rather than a grouchy and bitter old woman. Jacob is viewed as a pious man of faith rather than as a deceiving, self-seeking, con artist. And Esther and Mordecai are just one more example of reading the Bible through rose-colored glasses, seeing people in a way that makes us feel comfortable.
Second, we fail to study books like Esther and Jonah in light of the rest of the Old Testament, especially the Law, and contemporary writings. In the case of Esther, we can study this book and its events in light of the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah and the prophecies of Jeremiah and Daniel. Third, we often “guild the lily” because we have been taught to understand the text a certain way, without questioning whether it is correct.
But as we conclude I wish to focus on yet another reason why we fail to understand this book and its message. That reason is simply our being taken in by the hypocrisy of Esther and Mordecai, because we assume that if the right forms are present, the right function is present as well.
We assume that there was repentance because the Jews mourned in Susa and all of the Persian empire. We also assume that because there was fasting, there must also have been prayer. Since Mordecai spoke of the possibility that Esther’s position as queen might prove to be the means of the Jew’s deliverance, we automatically assume Mordecai had faith in God and in His providential care of His people.
As I understand our text, I believe our author is teaching just the opposite. I believe he wants us to understand that we may go through the right motions and yet never really know God. The Old Testament prophets rebuked the Jews for precisely this. They fasted, but it was a mere ritual with no reality:
1 “Cry loudly, do not hold back; Raise your voice like a trumpet, And declare to My people their transgression, And to the house of Jacob their sins. 2 Yet they seek Me day by day, and delight to know My ways, As a nation that has done righteousness, And has not forsaken the ordinance of their God. They ask Me for just decisions, They delight in the nearness of God. 3 ‘Why have we fasted and Thou dost not see? Why have we humbled ourselves and Thou dost not notice?’
Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire, And drive hard all your workers. 4 Behold, you fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist. You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high. 5 Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed, And for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the Lord? 6 Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, And break every yoke?
7 Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry, And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh? 8 Then your light will break out like the dawn, And your recovery will speedily spring forth; And your righteousness will go before you; The glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. 9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; You will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you remove the yoke from your midst, The pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, 10 And if you give yourself to the hungry, And satisfy the desire of the afflicted, Then your light will rise in darkness, And your gloom will become like midday. 11 And the Lord will continually guide you, And satisfy your desire in scorched places, And give strength to your bones; And you will be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water whose waters do not fail. 12 And those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins; You will raise up the age-old foundations; And you will be called the repairer of the breach, The restorer of the streets in which to dwell” (Isaiah 58:1-12).
The same can be said for the sacrifices the Jews routinely offered:
21 “I hate, I reject your festivals, Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. 23 Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24).
6 With what shall I come to the Lord And bow myself before the God on high? Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, With yearling calves? 7 Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams, In ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my first-born for my rebellious acts, The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? 8 He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8).
Going through the right motions and yet never really knowing God was not just a problem of the Jews in Old Testament days. It was the problem of Judaism in the days of our Lord, and later in the early days of the New Testament church, as described in the Book of Acts and the Epistles. The scribes and Pharisees were all caught up in external things, things which could be seen, while God has always been concerned about the unseen (Luke 16:15). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus took mere outward compliance to the letter of the Law much further, boldly stating that one must have a righteousness greater than the scribes and Pharisees to get into heaven (see Matthew 5:20). The Jews thought the measure of a man was to be determined on the basis of his ancestors (see Matthew 3:9), or by whether or not a man was circumcised (see Acts 15:1). Some were sure that mighty works such as casting out demons, prophesying, and performing miracles were proof of one’s piety. Yet Jesus spoke of those who did such things as those who had never been known by God (Matthew 7:13-23).
In the New Testament church at Corinth, some were convinced those who spoke in tongues (the right form) were most certainly the most spiritual (function). And yet spirituality is not measured in terms of the gifts of the Spirit, but the fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22-23). Paul warned that in the last days there would be those who would still have a “form of godliness” who do not have the power of true faith.
My focus is this: Faith must not be judged so much by form as by function. The Jews were faithful to retain and ritualistically carry out all the proper “forms” of their religion, but the essence of true faith and practice was not there. Without the right functions, the forms are worthless and dead. When accompanied by the right functions, the forms are beneficial. But when we assume that having the right forms assures us we also have the right function, we have gone too far; we have become just like the Persian Jews such as Esther and Mordecai.
This matter not only plagued the ancient Jews and the New Testament church, but we find the same problem very much present in contemporary Christianity. There are those who link spirituality with certain experiences. Some of these experiences appear to be biblical (like tongues), and others have no biblical precedent (such as being “slain in the Spirit”). I may have differences with other Christians about whether such experiences are valid today, but this is not my focus at the moment. When anyone says that having such experiences is what makes a person spiritual, I must strongly disagree. I must not only say this is false, but that it is a continuation of the very error which has plagued true religion through the ages. We must not equate certain forms with particular functions. We must not equate, for example, speaking in tongues with being spiritual, even with being “Spirit filled.”
This error is evident in the area of Christian worship. Some people worship by raising their hands (sometimes without really knowing why). I have no real objection to this. Others worship without raising their hands (perhaps for the same reasons others do—custom or culture). I have no problem with this. But if we dare to say there is no real worship without the raising of hands, or that we cannot truly worship with raised hands, we have equated form and function, and we are wrong—whether we raise our hands or keep them down.
Some people try to tell us our worship is not emotional enough. Perhaps we may be too intellectual, but much of the emotion in worship, or the lack of it, is more a matter of culture than biblical mandate and definition. We are to worship God “in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:23); that leaves a lot of room for variations, does it not? If we worship “in Spirit and in truth” with uplifted hands, fine, but let us not look down on those who worship “in Spirit and in truth” without raising their hands or even their voices. And let us not try to compel others to worship the way we do, as though our way is better.
Many point to David’s worship before the ark when he danced before the Lord. They seem to think this is a pattern we should follow. I think we can see it was not even normal for David, let alone other Israelites. The problem with Saul’s daughter Michal was not that she failed to worship as David did, but that she disdained David for the way he worshipped, and this out of pride. She was too proud to humble herself in worship, as David did (see 1 Chronicles 15:29).
But pointing to David, some think his actions justify a kind of total abandonment in worship. Worship, they think and say, is “letting yourself go.” No, it is not. Paul is very clear on this point in 1 Corinthians. The Corinthians were “letting themselves go,” and they were rebuked for it. Just anything does not go in worship. Just because one feels like doing something does not mean he or she should. Only two or three are to prophesy or speak in tongues, and the tongues speakers were only to speak if they knew an interpreter was present. Paul taught that edification is the guiding principle in participation, not self-expression. Paul taught that everything should be done “decently, and in an orderly way” (1 Corinthians 14:40). If David’s example leaves some room for creativity and spontaneity, Paul’s teaching also requires discipline and order. Let us not rush to one extreme and abandon the other guiding principles for worship. And let me also say, somewhat parenthetically, that for every person who forsakes cold, sterile, emotionless worship for something more stirring and spontaneous, there is another who is tired of frantic, frenzied, undisciplined worship and leaves it for more serene, sober, and disciplined worship.
Our church has some very definite convictions about the way a church should be structured and about its worship and ministry. In other words, we have some strong convictions about “forms,” forms which we believe to be biblical. Having said this, I must also say it is possible for us to have just the right forms and lack the right function. The right forms do not insure spirituality, godliness, or worship. Likewise, there are churches who for one reason or another do not have the same forms we do, but who nevertheless manifest the vitality and function which is biblical and New Testament. Ideally, we should have biblical forms and biblical functions. Practically, it is difficult to have both. Most often, we can still retain the former without even knowing that we have lost the latter. Let us therefore take this text in Esther as a warning to us not to equate form and function, not to think that because we are going through the right motions we are living in fellowship with God.
It is indeed sad when Christians become obsessed with the forms and forget the functions. But it is even sadder when a person goes through life thinking he or she is a Christian because they have observed certain forms. Some may think that because they have walked an aisle, or raised their hand, or prayed a prayer after someone, or been baptized, or joined a church, or attended worship services, or put money in the offering plate, that they are saved. Being a Christian is not so much a matter of form as it is of function. A Christian is a person who has passed from darkness to light, from death to life, from being condemned by God to being justified by God. Being a Christian is not so much a matter of what we do as it is of trusting in what Christ has done. He died on the cross of Calvary for our sins. He suffered God’s punishment in our place. And He offers His righteousness to us, so that we may spend eternity in the presence of God. Do you have this life? Do not trust in forms. Trust in Christ. Rituals will never get you to heaven. Only Christ can do that. Trust in Christ alone today.
43 Does his speaking of recent events as “all that had happened to him” indicate it was because of his actions that these things happened, or does it suggest that Mordecai is thinking too much of himself and the danger he faces?