In the whole Book of Esther there is one character who never appears on stage, never speaks, and is never actually spoken to: God. Nowhere is that truer than in chapter 4, where Esther must place her life in the hands of the unseen, unheard, and unrecognized God. The fate of the whole community lies in the balance. Verse 3 is how the community responded – but notice what is missing.
Mordecai too mourned the decree (vv. 1-2). Even though the empire had turned against him, Mordecai was still carefully law-abiding in everything (except bowing to Haman). He didn’t enter the king’s gate dressed in sackcloth because that was forbidden under Persian law. Yet instead of crying out to God, Mordecai’s first thought was to appeal to the king through Esther. He couldn’t go and speak to her directly, sequestered as she was, so he went to the entrance of the king’s gate in his sackcloth and ashes, knowing that word would get back to Esther of his condition. And so, it did (vv.4-5).
Notice how isolated Esther had become from the rest of the covenant community. Every Jew from India to Ethiopia was mourning and lamenting Haman’s edict, but Esther had no clue. She was apparently the only person in the whole Persian Empire who had not heard the news. Esther was not allowed to remain comfortably in the dark for long. Through her messenger, Mordecai informed her of the details of the plot (vv. 6-8).
Esther’s response to Mordecai’s first request was neutral. She didn’t say whether she would or wouldn’t go to the king. However, she underlined the risk that such a strategy would involve for her personally (vv. 9-11). According to custom, visitors had to be summoned into the presence of King Ahasuerus; no one could appear unannounced. The penalty for violating this law was death, unless the king extended his scepter in welcome. Everyone knew this, even people from outlying provinces. What is more, Esther hadn’t been summoned into the royal presence for thirty days – not a good sign, since doubtless the king had not been sleeping alone.
Mordecai was not so easily deterred. His second request to Esther was even stronger (vv. 12-14). In other words, Esther should not count on her comfortably isolated position in the royal palace. She too was part of the Jewish community, and her fate was intertwined with theirs. If they were to die, she would likely die too. If she didn’t act to help her community, though, she would be judged for failing to do her part and would suffer the consequences. But if she did intervene, things might perhaps turn out well after all. As Mordecai said, “Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
Faced with these unpalatable alternatives, Esther made her choice (vv. 15-17). So, Esther agreed to show solidarity with the Jewish community. A mark of this new connection was that she asked Mordecai to gather the Jews in Susa together to fast for her for three days (v. 16). She and her maids would do likewise, and then she would go to see the king. Esther’s only recorded words were “I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish (v. 16). However, the Hebrew construction makes it clear that she is not talking about death simply as one possible outcome of her obedience to Mordecai, but as an almost inevitable outcome of choosing that course.
The Book of Esther highlights a very real conundrum that pastors wrestle with on a weekly basis. Simply put, it is this: “How can people who confess an orthodox creed week after week so easily and completely lose track of the implications of that theology whenever problems emerge in daily life?” Mordecai’s worldview may have been based on a solid theology, but he had difficulty connecting that theology to the issues of everyday life. If we know people, and the motions of our own hearts, we will not have to travel to ancient Susa for examples of this phenomenon. In times of crisis, for all our orthodox theology, our own first response is frequently the whimper resignation or human strategy rather than the bark of robust faith in God. We believe in God, but in practice react to life’s crisis as if we were virtual atheists. This is a world at enmity with God and at enmity with His people, as Jesus reminded us in John 15:18-21.
Esther’s actions raise serious questions for each of us to answer. Am I still blind to the true nature of the world and the plight of many of God’s people around me? Do I know enough about what is going on in the world to mourn and lament the situation of God’s persecuted people? Often, we not know the burdens of our brothers and sisters in the church well enough or care about them deeply enough to fast and pray. We do not even know enough about what is going on in our own hearts to mourn and lament our sin. We are so blinded by our own good lives that we neither hear, nor heed the cries of God’s people. If our eyes are opened to the true nature of our world, then surely, we will find plenty of reasons to fast and cry out to God.
In fact, our actions will reveal whom we regard as our true community. When those around us in school or at work mock Christianity and we remain silent, we deny that we are part of God’s people by our silence (the dog that didn’t bark), effectively declaring instead that the world is our true community. When we judge ourselves and others according to the world’s values of what is fashionable and desirable, we declare that the world and not the people of God is our true community. What do our speech and our silence say about who our people are?
By itself, however, all the fasting in the world would accomplish nothing for God’s covenant people in Persia. What they needed was a mediator. They needed someone who was willing and able to go and plead their case where they could not go, into the presence of the king. They could not appear in the king’s presence to seek mercy for themselves; someone else had to do it for them.
Esther therefore had to act as well as to fast. She needed to take her life in her hands, risking everything for her people. She did so without any explicit promises from God to protect her, or to bring about a successful conclusion to her mission. Perhaps God would remain hidden and allow many of His people to die, including Esther herself, as He has done on other occasions in history. Yet at another level, Esther’s success was guaranteed. God had committed Himself to maintain a people for Himself, not so that they could be comfortable, but so that they could bring Him glory. No matter what sinful paths had led Esther to where she was, she was undeniably now in a position to give God glory by publicly identifying with her people and, if necessary, laying down her life through that identification. It was up to God how to glorify Himself through Esther’s obedience, whether by delivering the people through her or allowing her to be martyred in His service, but He would be glorified one way or another.
It is the same for us, when we step out in faith, however weak and trembling. We cannot know ahead of time how God will choose to use us. He may heal our diseases, transform our breaking marriages, and plant thriving ministries through us. Or He may sustain us in obedient submission to Him as our earthly hopes are dashed and our lives poured out for apparently little purpose. Either way, though, we have the guarantee that He will use even our faint faith as the means of bringing glory to Himself.
If it is true that a mediator was needed with King Ahasuerus, how much more do we need a mediator to intercede for us with God, the Great King. God is the great King of kings, the sovereign ruler of the universe, against whom we have rebelled. Fallen, sinful people cannot therefore simply saunter into His presence, unannounced and uninvited. On the contrary, His edict has gone forth against us, declaring us worthy of death because of our sin. The truth has been disseminated throughout His empire that “the soul who sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:4). His decree is settled and determined, all the more so because it was not formulated in ignorance and haste, but by perfect wisdom before the foundation of the world. Who then will argue our case? Who will come to bring relief and deliverance for us?
The answer is Jesus Christ! The true Mediator between God and man, in the fullness of time He took flesh and appeared in this world. He went before the Father, knowing that He was not just risking His life but laying it down. There was no other way in which our sin could be judged and we could be saved. Through His death, we have received life. Raised from the dead, Jesus Christ once again appears before the Father, where He continues to intercede for us.
Esther 4:1-17 Study Questions:
As the passage opens, how are the Jewish people responding to the announcement that has just been circulated throughout the kingdom (v. 3)? What is missing from their response? What might that tell you about the spiritual state of many Jews who were living in Persia?
What does verses 4-8 tell us about Esther’s awareness of the decree of the king? How does she seek to comfort Mordecai? What might that attempt at comfort reveal about her initial understanding of the imminent danger that is faced by the Jewish people?
What do you make of Esther’s initial response to Mordecai’s request of her (vv. 9-11)? What seems to worry Esther, as she considers going before the king to make an appeal?
Consider the choice Esther now has before her. What might her fears be? What additional challenge and perspective has Mordecai set before her? What do her final words in the chapter reveal about her heart and intentions (v. 17)?