Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Queen Esther: A Destiny Fulfilled. Day 5, Esther Wins The Crown

Queen Esther:
A Destiny Fulfilled
Day 5
Esther Wins The Crown

Esther has been brought to the citadel of Susa and the Lord gives her a special grace in the eyes of Hegai, the eunuch in charge of the virgins recently brought into the harem. "She pleased him and won his favor. Immediately he provided her with beauty treatments and special food. He assigned to her seven female attendants selected from the king's palace and moved her and her attendants into the best place in the harem." (Esther 2:9) 

We don't know what it was specifically about Esther's character that endeared her to the eunuch. She may have had a humility of spirit because of her relationship to the Lord. She might have been kinder and more respectful to him than the other young ladies were. Or it could be that the Lord had spoken to Hegai's spirit, letting him know this was the one destined to be chosen Queen of Persia.

"Esther had not revealed her nationality and family background, because Mordecai had forbidden her to do so. Every day he walked back and forth near the courtyard of the harem to find out how Esther was and what was happening to her." (Esther 2:10-11) Perhaps the Lord had spoken to Mordecai's heart too, and he had an inkling Esther would be chosen as the next queen, but he feared she would be disqualified if the king realized she was a Jew. The land of Babylon was filled with people of various cultures because of all the nations Nebuchadnezzar had conquered, so the men commissioned by Xerxes to round up the beautiful young women would have known the group contained women of various backgrounds. But Mordecai didn't want anything to prejudice the women of the harem, the eunuchs, or the king against Esther. He wanted her to have the best shot possible at winning the crown.

We don't know whether the fathers and guardians of the other young ladies were concerned enough about them to lurk outside the courtyard, but no one questions Mordecai about his behavior. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, an ancient Jewish writer and philosopher, suggests that Mordecai's high position in the king's court allowed him to hang around the palace grounds without appearing suspicious. Mordecai's care and concern for Esther are displayed in his daily trips to the courtyard. I think she was on his mind and in his prayers every hour of the day and night. 

"Before a young woman's turn came to go in to King Xerxes, she had to complete twelve months of beauty treatment prescribed for the women, six months with oil of myrrh and six with perfumes and cosmetics." (Esther 2:12) The women of ancient Persia wore makeup, used dyes and stains, and adorned themselves with scented oils and perfumes. The young ladies brought into the harem were trained in the application of these cosmetics so that, whether chosen as queen or simply appearing in the king's entourage as part of the harem, all of them would look their best. They were trained to enhance all their best features. Some scholars suggest that twelve months had to be fulfilled before any of the girls went to the king in case any of them had been unchaste and was pregnant when brought into the harem. This would relieve the king of the risk of providing for a child that was not his.

"And this is how she would go to the king: Anything she wanted was given her to take with her from the harem to the king's palace. In the evening she would go there and in the morning return to another part of the harem to the care of Shaashgaz, the king's eunuch who was in charge of the concubines. She would not return to the king unless he was pleased with her and summoned her by name." (Esther 2:13-14) A Persian harem was divided into three sections. The most exclusive section was for the queen and her attendants. The second section was for concubines, who were legal wives but of lesser status than the queen. (Generally, the son of a concubine could not be heir to the throne unless the queen was unable to bear a son.) The third section was for virgins brought into the harem who had not yet been with the king. This is where Esther and her companions were housed and, after each one has been called to spend a night with the king, she was then sent to the second section where the concubines lived. Some commentators have criticized Esther for spending her night with the king, as if she was a loose and immoral woman, but we have to keep in mind that a concubine was a legal wife and she would have been considered married to the king. She was not having relations with him outside of marriage. Polygamy is not God's pattern for marriage but it was widely practiced by wealthy men in the ancient world, and Esther was not living in sin when she went to the king. She was a victim of the society she lived in and if anyone was guilty of sinful living, it was Xerxes, not Esther.

"When the turn came for Esther (the young woman Mordecai had adopted, the daughter of his uncle Abihail) to go to the king, she asked for nothing other than what Hegai, the king's eunuch who was in charge of the harem, suggested. And Esther won the favor of everyone who saw her." (Esther 2:15) The Bible doesn't tell us what Esther asked for. Presumably she was free to choose any finery and jewels she wanted, but maybe Hegai advised her to keep it simple. It would have been natural for these ladies to want to stand out as much as possible and to adorn themselves with all the costly clothing and jewels they could, but Hegai may have had an idea that Esther would stand out more if she did the opposite. Then her own natural beauty could shine through.

"She was taken to King Xerxes in the royal residence in the tenth month, the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign. Now the king was attracted to Esther more than to any of the other women, and she won his favor and approval more than any of the other virgins. So he set a royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. And the king gave a great banquet, Esther's banquet, for all his nobles and officials. He proclaimed a holiday throughout the provinces and distributed gifts with royal liberality." (Esther 2:16-18) Each girl who went to the king had to hope she impressed him enough that he would either choose her as queen or at least remember her name and call for her again at sometime in the future. Xerxes had no trouble remembering Esther's name. There was something about her that impressed him right away, and it could be because she had an inner beauty of the spirit, the type the Apostle Peter praised, "Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight." (1 Peter 3:3-4) I don't think there's anything sinful about taking care of ourselves and looking nice, but outward beauty is of little worth if there is no inner beauty. Outward beauty fades as time marches on. If we are not of good character on the inside, what are we left with? 

God says there is a beauty that never fades. There is a beauty that will never need the nip and tuck of a plastic surgeon. There is a beauty that is invaluable in the eyes of God (and in the eyes of every godly husband). This is the beauty of good character, of a gentle spirit that ministers to others, of a quiet and calming personality that comes from trusting fully in the Lord. This type of beauty only grows as time passes. The world places value only on young, beautiful, and sexually alluring women. The world says that as we age we become less useful. But the world couldn't be more wrong. In the eyes of God there is nothing more beautiful than a godly woman who is mature in the faith and confident of who she is in Christ. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Queen Esther: A Destiny Fulfilled. Day 4, The Bachelor

Queen Esther:
A Destiny Fulfilled
Day 4
The Bachelor

King Xerxes is single again, or as single as a man with a harem but no queen can be. If historians and Bible scholars are correct, he spent the time between Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 waging unsuccessful war against Greece, and now he is back home and has time to think about the mistake he made in deposing the beautiful and brave Queen Vashti.

"Later when King Xerxes' fury had subsided, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what he had decreed about her." (Esther 2:1) He's moping about the palace missing his queen. Now that his anger has worn off he realizes he made a mistake, but he signed her banishment into law and it cannot be revoked. Even if he could call her back, it would make him look weak to the people, and that's the last thing he needs after putting the country through a very expensive war.

His attendants come up with an idea they think will lift his spirits. "Then the king's personal attendants proposed, 'Let a search be made for beautiful young virgins for the king. Let the king appoint commissioners in every province of his realm to bring all these beautiful young women into the harem at the citadel of Susa. Let them be placed under the care of Hegai, the king's eunuch, who is in charge of the women; and let beauty treatments be given to them. Then let the young woman who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.' This advice appealed to the king, and he followed it." (Esther 2:2-4) The ancient historian Josephus states that a total of 400 women were brought into the harem in this contest for the title of Queen of Persia. 

"Now there was in the citadel of Susa a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, named Mordecai son of Jair, the son of Shemei, the son of Kish, who had been carried into exile from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, among those taken captive with Jehoiachin king of Judah." (Esther 2:5-6) Mordecai's great-grandfather had been among those carried off to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. This particular family of the tribe of Benjamin has been there ever since, although King Cyrus of Persia in his first year as king over Babylon gave permission for the Jews to return and rebuild the temple at Jerusalem. A successor, Darius I Hystaspes, gave quite a bit of help to the Jews in their rebuilding efforts. So why was Mordecai still there? And why were so many other Jews still there? The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah both foresaw the downfall of Babylon and the return of the people to Jerusalem and their message, on the authority of the Lord, was, "Come out, come out! Come out of her, my people!" But life back in Judah was difficult and the rebuilding was hard work. In Babylon (now part of the Medo-Persian Empire) the Jews had jobs and homes of their own. Their children received educations. Life was easy and comfortable in Babylon in comparison to life in Judah, especially for those who assimilated into the Persian culture. As we will learn later on in the book of Esther, they had assimilated so well into the culture that King Xerxes was barely aware of the Jews as a separate people. 

We don't know whether the women gathered into Xerxes' harem had any say-so in the matter. In the movie based on the book of Esther, One Night With The King, the commissioners appointed to gather the women simply grab them off the streets. It may have happened this way. It's also possible that fathers of beautiful girls in the nation volunteered their daughters to enter this contest. Marriages were arranged in those days and young women had very little control, if any, in the choice of marriage partners. Fathers may have willingly entered daughters into the contest in the hopes of becoming father-in-law to the king. The women who would not be chosen as queen would remain in the harem for life, being richly provided for by the king even if he never interacted with them again, and there may have been fathers in the land who found this arrangement acceptable for their daughters. 

One young woman in particular is taken into the harem. "Mardecai had a cousin named Hadassah, whom he had brought up because she had neither father nor mother. This young woman, who was also known as Esther, had a lovely figure and was beautiful. Mordecai had taken her as his own daughter when her father and mother died. When the king's order and edict had been proclaimed, many young women were brought to the citadel of Susa and put under the care of Hegai. Esther was also taken to the king's palace and entrusted to Hegai, who had charge of the harem." (Esther 2:7-8) Esther, like Daniel, was known by two names. Her Hebrew name of Hadassah meant "myrtle" and her Persian name of Esther meant "star" or "morning star". It's possible this name is a derivative of that of the pagan goddess Ishtar. 

You may have heard the expression of keeping one foot in the church and one foot in the world. This is the condition of the Jews in Babylon in Esther's day. They have managed to retain some of their religion and heritage and customs, but they have blended these with the worldly ways of the Persians. They have largely remained a separate people as far as marriage goes, but they look and speak and behave much like everyone around them. This is a great danger to us in our own times. When we, as Christians, become indistinguishable from unbelievers, we have compromised our faith. We have stopped swimming against the stream and are going with the flow, which makes us weak. Daniel stood out in Babylon because he never compromised his faith. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stood out in Babylon because they never compromised their faith. They purposed in their hearts to be true to the one true God and that is why we know their names today. Esther will be faced with the same choice they were faced with: does she integrate herself into the culture and remain silent? Or does she step out in faith and be used for a great purpose by a great God? 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Queen Esther: A Destiny Fulfilled. Day 3, Queen Vashti Deposed

Queen Esther:
A Destiny Fulfilled
Day 3
Queen Vashti Deposed

Yesterday King Xerxes asked his wife, Queen Vashti, to appear before the drunken men at his party so they could see how beautiful she was. She refused and now he is angry and embarrassed. 

Xerxes is not an especially nice man but still managed to find himself a queen of good character, although he doesn't appreciate her. Any man ought to be thankful for a modest wife who isn't interested in dressing or behaving in ways that provoke sexual responses from other men. A woman who dresses provocatively in public is likely not doing so to attract the attention of her own husband, but to cause other men to stare at her. Vashti is not that kind of girl.

Because he's so embarrassed in front of his party guests, Xerxes decides to punish the queen. "Since it was customary for the king to consult experts in matters of law and justice, he spoke with the wise men who understood the times and were closest to the king---Karshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena and Memukan, the seven nobles of Persia and Media who had special access to the king and were highest in the kingdom." (Esther 1:13-14) He speaks with the men who "understood the times"; in other words, they are current on all the laws of the land. He wants to know his legal rights in this matter. What exactly can he do to the queen in return for what he considers disrespect and treachery? 

"'According to the law, what must be done to Queen Vashti?' he asked. 'She has not obeyed the command of King Xerxes that the eunuchs have taken to her.'" (Esther 1:15) Though the Bible places the husband as head of the household, we must assume a wife is excepted from obedience when to obey her husband would be to sin against God. Vashti's gods would have been pagan gods, but the same principle remains. She felt her husband was asking her to do something that violated her morals and her sense of self-worth and self-respect. The Scriptures command the husband to love his wife in the way that the Lord loves the church, but we do not find Xerxes loving Vashti in this way. To him she's nothing but a trophy wife. She's just one more accomplishment he can brag about. She means no more to him than the rich food and the wine he's been serving to his guests. Vashti may not be able to prevent her husband viewing her with disrespect, but she can prevent doing something that will make her disrespect herself, so she remains in the women's quarters with her friends. Xerxes can't see the situation from her perspective and probably doesn't even try; his pride won't allow him to stop and consider the matter from other angles. All he knows is that men of the nation are laughing at him behind his back for not being able to control his own household, so he is going to make a public example of Vashti to salve his pride and gain back the admiration of his men.

"Then Memukan replied in the presence of the king and the nobles, 'Queen Vashti has done wrong, not only against the king but also against all the nobles and the peoples of all the provinces of King Xerxes. For the queen's conduct will become known to all the women, and so they will despise their husbands and say, 'King Xerxes commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come.' This very day the Persian and Median women of the nobility who have heard about the queen's conduct will respond to all the king's nobles in the same way. There will be no end of disrespect and discord.'" (Esther 1:16-18) I have a sneaking suspicion that Memukan is not nearly as worried about all the wives of the land as he is about his own wife. In his mind he pictures giving his wife an order only to have her reply, "If Queen Vashti doesn't have to obey King Xerxes, I don't have to obey you!" So Memukan interprets the problem of Queen Vashti as one of national security. He makes Xerxes feel he will be doing a disservice to all men if he does not punish the queen appropriately.

Memukan continues, "Therefore, if it pleases the king, let him issue a royal decree and let it be written in the laws of Persia and Media, which cannot be repealed, that Vashti is never again to enter the presence of King Xerxes. Also let the king give her royal position to someone else who is better than she. Then when the king's edict is proclaimed throughout all his vast realm, all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest." (Esther 1:19-20) 

The Jewish Midrash states Xerxes had Vashti executed, although the original text suggests only banishment. I think Xerxes may have done something similar to that which David did when he realized he and his first wife Michal would never have a meeting of the minds or have anything in common spiritually. We find the story in 2 Samuel 6, when the Ark of the Covenant was brought to Jerusalem and David danced in praise before the Lord. The Bible tells us, "Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart." (2 Samuel 6:16) She verbally attacked him when he returned to the house, accusing him of displaying himself in a vulgar manner, having no understanding of the joy David felt in the Holy Spirit when the ark came into the city. She despised David, she despised his faith, and she quite possibly despised the Lord. Verse 23 concludes the matter between Michal and David by saying, "And Michal daughter of Saul had no children to the day of her death." Some scholars interpret this as "she lived as a widow til the day of her death". This would mean that, although David didn't divorce her, he didn't maintain a husband/wife relationship with her. He would have provided for her just as he provided for all his other wives and concubines, but would have had no further contact with her. She lost her position as his first wife and queen, suffering what to Jewish women of her day was the greatest humiliation of all: never becoming a mother of children. This may be the way Xerxes dealt with Vashti. I certainly hope so. I like to think she lived out the rest of her days in the women's quarters in peace, never having to deal with Xerxes and his bad temper again. 

Xerxes thinks Memukan's advice is good. "The king and his nobles were pleased with his advice, so the king did as Memukan proposed. He sent dispatches to all parts of the kingdom, to each province in its own script and to each people in their own language, proclaiming that every man should be ruler over his own household, using his own native tongue." (Esther 1:21-22) Xerxes extended this right not only to the men of Media and Persia, but to all the other men dwelling in the territories the Medo-Persian Empire controlled. He says something like, "Don't let your women get out of hand! You are the king of your castle. I didn't let the queen get away with her behavior; don't let your wives get away with it either. If they disobey you, just remind them what happened to Vashti and that your authority over your household is now the law of the land."

Xerxes is a man luckier in love than he ever deserved to be. The Lord provided him with a queen of good character and high morals, but he didn't appreciate her. He could have learned some valuable things from Vashti's example. He could have looked at the situation from her perspective and realized he was wrong, going to her with an apology and then apologizing to his guests for setting such a poor example of how a husband should behave toward his wife. We've all heard the saying, "Behind every successful man there is a woman," and Vashti could have helped Xerxes be a better man and a better king if only he had allowed her to be more of an equal partner and helpmate in their marriage. 

Xerxes may never have appreciated the noble character of his wife, but the Lord appreciated it. Vashti was a woman the Lord could use as a part of His plan to save the Jewish people from a terrible time of trouble soon to come. If Vashti had been the type of woman who enjoyed flaunting herself in front of other men, she could have remained Queen of Persia for the rest of her life. Instead, the Lord used her modesty to create a vacancy in the role of queen, a vacancy that Esther will later fill. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Queen Esther: A Destiny Fulfilled. Day 2, Queen Vashti Disobeys The King

Queen Esther:
A Destiny Fulfilled
Day 2
Queen Vashti Disobeys The King

Today we learn who the first wife of Xerxes I was and how she fell out of favor with her husband.

"This is what happened during the time of Xerxes, the Xerxes who ruled over 127 provinces stretching from India to Cush: At that time King Xerxes ruled from his royal throne in the citadel of Susa, and in the third year of his reign he gave a banquet for all his nobles and officials. The military leaders of Persia and Media, the princes, and the nobles of the provinces were present." (Esther 1:1-3) By the time of Xerxes, the capital of Babylon had been moved from the city of Babylon to the city of Susa. Xerxes' palace was there and like many ancient kings, he was eager to demonstrate his power and wealth by supplying his top officials with rich foods and free-flowing wine for an extended period of time.

"For a full 180 days he displayed the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and glory of his majesty." (Esther 1:4) If his war against Greece takes place between Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, one of the motives for the feast may have been to prop up the men's morale, secure their support, and encourage them to fight for the glory of their kingdom.

"When these days were over, the king gave a banquet, lasting seven days, in the enclosed garden of the king's palace, for all the people from the least to the greatest who were in the citadel of Susa." (Esther 1:5) It was important to secure the allegiance of the common people as well, for he would spend four years recruiting and conscripting men into his army.

No expense was spared in the courtyard of the palace. "The garden had hangings of white and blue linen, fastened with cords of white linen and purple material to silver rings on marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and other costly stones. Wine was served in goblets of gold, each one different from the other, and the royal wine was abundant, in keeping with the king's liberality. By the king's command each guest was allowed to drink with no restrictions, for the king instructed all the wine stewards to serve each man what he wished." (Esther 1:6-8) With seven days of continual drinking, we can see why so many couches were necessary at this feast! 

"Queen Vashti also gave a banquet for the women in the royal palace of King Xerxes." (Esther 1:9) The wives and concubines of the king were housed in a separate section of the palace where each woman was provided with her own private quarters. According to historians, Persian women were allowed to hold money and property in their own names and were at times even involved in the political careers of their husbands. While not granted equal rights with men, Persian women enjoyed more freedom than that of many other women of ancient times. They were supplied with a high level of education and training in the arts, and they traveled in the entourage of the king wherever he went and enjoyed various cultural experiences. Vashti would have had the freedom to throw lavish parties anytime she chose and would have been able to spend money at her own discretion without asking the permission of her husband the king. 

Xerxes has been feasting and drinking for a total of 187 days now and does not have his wits about him, so he makes a poor decision. "On the seventh day, when King Xerxes was in high spirits from wine, he commanded the seven eunuchs who served him---Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar and Karkas---to bring before him Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at." (Esther 1:10-11) The king is sloppily drunk by now and gets the bright idea of parading his queen before all these men. He sends the eunuchs (the only type of men allowed into the women's quarters) to fetch his wife. It's not enough for him that he has made an obscene display of his wealth before all the nation for over six months in order to prove he is the greatest king on earth. He now feels compelled to prove to everyone he has the most beautiful wife on earth. 

An ancient Jewish legend states that the men were arguing over which nation produced the most beautiful women, at which point Xerxes decides to settle the matter by showing them the most beautiful woman he has ever laid eyes on. I picture him lying on his couch with his eyes narrowed to slits in that common expression of inebriation, red-faced with wine, slurring his words and saying, "You don't think Persian women are the most gorgeous girls on the face of the earth? I'll prove it to you! Yeah, I'll prove it to you...Hey, eunuchs! Go and get the queen and tell her to put on her prettiest crown and come out here so I can show these guys who is the most beautiful woman in the world!"

Some scholars have proposed the idea that the king ordered Vashti to appear wearing only her crown, but most of the reputable commentaries and study guides I consulted say this is not indicated by the original text. I tend to believe Vashti was expected to appear before the king and his guests in the finery she was already wearing, but with the addition of the royal crown, which she was likely not wearing at her private party in the women's quarters. I think Xerxes wanted her to make an impression that would take the men's breath away, and he felt the addition of the crown would add to her already majestic appearance.

Things do not go according to plan. "But when the attendants delivered the king's command, Queen Vashti refused to come. Then the king became furious and burned with anger." (Esther 1:12) Wives of high officials in Persia were expected to be intelligent and educated and capable of making decisions regarding their own money and property. They were not expected to be mere sex symbols. Vashti was not brought up to be the kind of woman to flaunt herself in a lascivious manner. She knows she is worthy of honor in her own right and she respects herself too much to be objectified in this way. She will not allow herself to be exposed to the whistles and catcalls of a courtyard full of drunken men who will be undressing her with their eyes and lusting for her in their hearts. No man who respects and loves his wife would ask such a thing, so she refuses her husband's request. 

Xerxes' rage is so great because his embarrassment is so great. He has spent an untold amount of money and a great deal of time proving to his people that he is the greatest king on earth and now his own wife humiliates him in the presence of all these men. How will he ever live it down? How will he lead soldiers into war if he can't even lead his wife to the garden? In their intoxicated state, some of the men may have dared to laugh at this turn of events. The lavish party which was intended to be the talk of Persia for many years to come is going to be the talk of Persia for an entirely different reason, a reason which puts the king in a bad light. If he can't control his household, how is he expected to control the nation? If his wife disobeys him, why should men obey his orders on the battlefield? He knows he must come up with some way to soothe his wounded pride and salvage his reputation. In tomorrow's study his wise men will propose a solution which sets the stage for a young orphan girl named Hadassah to become Esther, Queen of Persia.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Queen Esther: A Destiny Fulfilled. Day 1, Introduction

Queen Esther:
A Destiny Fulfilled
Day 1

The book of Esther is about a woman who is at the right place at the right time. It is about a young Jewish girl who rises from obscurity to a position of power as queen of the Persian Empire in order to fulfill her destiny: the saving of many Jewish lives. Near the beginning of this book we find the young Esther somewhat weak in the faith, reluctant to assume the heavy mantle of responsibility and unwilling to risk her life for the lives of her people. But by the end of the book she will have grown into a woman who is mature in the faith, prepared to surrender her will to God's will even if it means her own death. 

The dating for the book of Esther is likely somewhere between 486 BC and 465 BC because the best candidate for the king whom Esther marries is the Persian king Xerxes I. In the Persian language his name would have been Khshayarsha or Xsayarsa, but was rendered as Xerxes in Greek and Ahaseurus in Hebrew. The name meant something like "king of kings" or "ruler of heroes". Xerxes ruled when Persia was still at the height of her power and he was regarded as a great king, but although the name of God is never mentioned in the book of Esther, we will see that the true "king of kings" is God, not Xerxes. And the real hero of this book is not King Xerxes, but Queen Esther.

We first learned a bit about Xerxes I while still in the book of Daniel. The angel who provided Daniel with prophecies for the future said this about the kingdom of Persia, "Now then, I tell you the truth: Three more kings will arise in Persia, and then a fourth, who will be far richer than all the others. When he has gained power by his wealth, he will stir up everyone against the kingdom of Greece." (Daniel 11:2) Xerxes I is the fourth king. Due to very heavy pressure from his family, his advisers, and his top officials, Xerxes spent four years amassing a huge army so he could attack Greece in revenge for the defeat his father (Darius 1 Hystaspes, also known as Darius the Great) suffered at the hands of Greece in the battle at Marathon. 

Xerxes' war began with two victories for Persia at Artemisium and Thermopylae, after which Xerxes marched on to Athens where he burned the city in a fit of rage when the people resisted him instead of surrendering. The Greeks fled Athens and most of the countryside under the Persian onslaught but assembled their army off the mainland at Aegina and gathered their navy at Salamis. Upon advice of his council, Xerxes engaged the Greek navy at the battle of Salamis and suffered a crushing defeat. Xerxes headed home to his capitol at Susa, leaving his brother-in-law and general of the army (Mardonius) in the Greek territories to continue the assault without him. But Mardonius was defeated the next year in the Battle of Plataea while another detachment of the army was decisively vanquished the same day in the Battle of Mycale, effectively ending Xerxes' war with Greece. For the rest of his life he contented himself with massive building projects and the construction of roads, further depleting the economy and ushering in the decline of the Persian Empire. 

It is believed by many scholars and historians that Xerxes' war took place between Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 of the book of Esther. In Chapter 1 we find Xerxes married to Queen Vashti, whom he deposes from her position as queen when she refuses to appear at a banquet to be displayed as a trophy wife to all the drunken men assembled there. It is thought that several years pass between Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, during which time Xerxes is busy with his war. Chapter 2 will begin by telling us that "later" Xerxes regrets the decision he made in anger to depose Vashti. Seeing how depressed he is by his military losses and how lonely he is without Queen Vashti, his advisers seek to cheer him up by proposing a contest in which young ladies will be gathered from all over the kingdom so he may select his next queen from among them. This is how a young Jewish orphan named Hadassah is brought into the citadel of Susa where she will be chosen as the next queen of Persia. 

God has a great destiny in store for Hadassah if she is willing to be used for His kingdom. If she can find it within herself to take a leap of faith, she is the instrument God will use to save the lives of thousands of Jews. The Lord didn't call Hadassah from her humble beginnings to crown her "Esther, Queen of Persia" for nothing. He invites her to take part in His awesome plan for His covenant people. But if she refuses, God's plan for His people will not be thwarted, for He will point out to her through her uncle Mordecai, "If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place." (Esther 4:14a) If Esther had refused God's calling on her life, Esther would have been refusing the opportunity to grow in her faith and, according to a dire warning from Mordecai, she would lose her life in the genocide that is proposed in this book by an enemy of the Jews. There would be no book of Esther for us to study if she had turned her back on her destiny. Her name would have perished with her.

Esther is presented with a choice, as we all are. Do we surrender our lives to the Lord and submit to His will and thereby fulfill our destinies? Or do we refuse Him and live lives of mediocrity and weak faith? The heroes of the Bible are the men and women who were willing to say "yes" to God. If they had refused Him, we wouldn't even know their names. What might God have in store for us if we decide, as Esther does, to follow Him no matter what the cost? God has placed us exactly where we are on the timeline of history, in our specific families, with our own individual personalities and talents, in order to fulfill our destinies. He is calling us to do kingdom work. He has chosen us for such a time as this. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

Psalm 91

Psalm 91

Tomorrow we begin our new Bible study on the book of Esther. I ran short of free time this week to finish collecting all my study materials, so yesterday and today we are looking at a couple of my favorite Psalms before we begin the book of Esther on Saturday morning. I apologize for the delay, but maybe someone needs the comforting words of Psalm 91 today. I've needed them many times myself.

No author is ascribed to Psalm 91. Some scholars believe Moses wrote it, on account of the tradition of attributing authorship of untitled psalms to the person who wrote the previous one. It cannot be dated with any certainty and this leaves its authorship in question. That's fine with me, because I think Psalm 91 is a psalm for everyone, and we can pray it with the same positive and unwavering faith as its author. It doesn't matter who wrote it because this psalm is for anyone who wants to abide in the shelter of the Most High.

I want us first to take a look at the meaning of the word "abide" (or "dwell" as some translations put it). It means to "reside, inhabit, continue, nest, occupy, remain, rest, settle, stay, tarry, establish oneself, make one's home, to live or continue in a given condition or state, to linger over or ponder in thought, to keep the attention directed upon." We are promised great and mighty things in today's psalm if we commit to abiding in the shelter of the Most High. The psalmist doesn't have just a casual relationship with God but a continual and ongoing communion with the Lord. Like the psalmist, when we abide in the Lord we are living in a constant state of connection with God, with our hearts and minds unwaveringly fixed on Him. It involves living with the sense of His presence at all times, living in a way that honors Him, and putting Him at the forefront of all things.

When we abide in the shelter of the Most High, spiritually speaking it's as if we are living full time in His temple. We are established in Him. We make our perpetual home in His presence. We keep Him in our thoughts and we meditate on His holy word.

This psalm doesn't promise us freedom from all the troubles of this life but it does promise us God's care and provision. It would be easy to misinterpret the writer's words and think that if we live a righteous life no harm will ever fall upon us. But the Lord Jesus Christ, perfect Son of God, suffered in this life and we too will will be confronted with hardship. I think the psalmist is promising us freedom from the fear of trouble. I think he assures us of victory over our trials and over our enemy the devil. He professes peace during the storm, just as baby chicks have peace during the storm while they sleep snugly under theirs mother's wings.

Have any of you ever suffered from panic attacks? Has worry ever attacked you during the midnight hour? Don't our problems and fears seem so much worse in the long dark hours of night? I have read this psalm out loud during long nights of distress. In verse 5 the author will say, "You will not fear the terror of night." This is a beautiful verse to speak out loud to our fears in the night. No lie can stand before the word of God! Fear is a lie, the product of our own mortal minds and an assault from our enemy the devil. But fears are like cockroaches: when we turn the light of truth on them they run away. When we resist Satan he has to flee. (James 4:7) When we hear our own voice speak the word of the living God we can't help but feel strengthened in our hearts. We find the strength to keep fighting the battle. As verse 13 encourages us, "You will tread on the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent".

Our true enemy is a fallen angel who who hates us, but the scripture promises us, "The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet." (Romans 16:20a) In the Bible we find the devil called both a lion and a serpent. Peter says about him, "Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour". (1 Peter 5:8b) And we see Satan taking the form of a serpent in the garden of Eden, where he fired the first battle shot at mankind. But this doesn't mean we have to live in fear of our enemy. We have victory over him in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord! We aren't resisting him in our own power but by the blood of Christ and the glory and holiness of His name. Jesus said to the disciples in Luke 10:19, "I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you." The Lord isn't promising that no bodily harm will ever come upon the disciples, for we know many of them were martyred for their faith. But He promises no enemy can overcome their faith, their courage, their peace, their confidence or assurance. Jesus purchased us with the immeasurable worth of His blood and we are precious to Him. No enemy can have the final victory over the children of the Most High.

If fear finds you in those dark hours of the night, take your Bible and read Psalm 91 out loud. Speak these words of your loving Father to your weary soul. Darkness has to flee before the light. Lies have to flee before the truth. Tell your anxiety that in the name of Jesus Christ and through the power of His blood you will not fear the terror of night. Abide in the shelter of the Most High. Fix your heart and mind on Him.

Let's nest underneath the wings of Almighty God. Baby birds sleep through thunderstorms and lightning underneath their mother's wings, without a care in the world, held close to her heart. The feathers dampen the sound of the wind so it isn't so loud. The warmth of her feathers soothes the baby chicks to sleep. This is how God wants to hold us. He dearly desires to enfold us in His wings and comfort us. Outside the shelter of His wings, the storm may continue to rage. He may not completely still the sound of the thunder or the rain. But our Lord will shield us with His feathers the whole time. Protected and secure as He holds us close to His heart, we can say with assurance, "I will not fear the terror of night, nor the danger during the day, nor the threat that comes against me at noon. I will tread the roaring lion and the deceiving serpent under my feet. I will grind my enemy into the dust, for the Lord Jesus Christ has won the victory over him. Through Christ I have victory over all my fears. I will abide in the shelter of the Most High and find my rest in the shadow of the Almighty."

This is all our Lord asks of us in troubled times: to abide and rest. He is going to take care of everything else.

Psalm 91

The one who abides in the shelter of the Most High
Will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of my Lord, "He is my refuge and fortress,
My God, and I trust in Him."
He will surely save you
From the hidden snare
And from the deadly plague.
He will shield you under His feathers,
And you will find refuge under His wings;
His trustworthiness will be your shield and defense.
You will not fear the terror in the night,
Nor the arrow shot during the day,
Nor the the threat that stalks at noontime.
A thousand may fall all around you,
Ten thousand even,
But it will not come near you.
You will witness with your eyes
As it takes down the wicked.
If you confess, "The Lord alone is my refuge,"
And you make the Most High your habitation,
No misfortune can overcome you,
No adversity will bring down your confidence.
For God will command His angels regarding you
To guard every step you take;
They will lift you in their hands,

So that no calamity overpowers you.
You will tread underfoot the devourer and the deceiver;
You will trample them underfoot like dust.
"Because this one loves me," says the Lord, "I will come to the rescue;
I will be the Protector, for this one acknowledges My name.
I will answer when My children call;
I will be right there beside them in troubled times,
I will be the Deliverer.
I will grant an abundant and satisfying life
And show salvation to My children.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Psalm 27

Psalm 27

Psalm 27 is one of my favorites. It's a good one to read whenever we start to feel anxious and worried. David was the author of Psalm 27 and it displays the confidence he felt in the Lord no matter what came against him. David had learned from experience that he could trust God.

We know the word of God is true and that He encourages us to trust Him, but until we have walked through the fire we haven't experienced the truth of His word. Many of you know exactly what I mean. Before difficult times ever came into our lives, we may have believed the word of God was true, but it hadn't been tested by our circumstances. But once we have experienced the faithfulness of God in our times of trouble, we can say along with David, "The Lord is my light and my salvation---whom shall I fear?"

Many hundreds of years later the Apostle Paul said a similar thing about the Lord in Romans 8:31, "What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?" Paul was another man who, like David, had walked through fiery trials but had found the Lord faithful.

These two men came from very different circumstances and had very different lives but they served the same Lord. David was a young man tending the sheep when Samuel came along and anointed him the future king of Israel. David was so humble that he went back to tending the sheep until he was called to play music for King Saul. For a while there it looked like he was going to inherit the throne because he became a mighty general in Saul's army and even married Saul's daughter. But jealousy entered Saul's heart and he persecuted David for about fifteen years, seeking to kill him. Yet during all that time David was kept safe by the Lord, because God was for him. Eventually the Lord took King Saul out of the picture and placed David on the throne just like He had promised. Though David failed miserably several times in his personal life, we find him repenting and coming back to God. Even then he still had several trials left to face. His little baby with Bathsheba died. Some of his own children turned against him. He had battles to fight against the enemies of Israel. But til the end of his life I believe David had a heart for God and he ended up dying peacefully in bed at the age of seventy. I don't doubt that his final thoughts in life were about God and what God had done for him.

The Apostle Paul was born into an upper-class family and studied under one of the best tutors. He was part of the very elite sect of the Pharisees and was moving up through the ranks, even faster than most men his age. Paul thought he was doing great things for the Lord when he persecuted the Christians. He was fairly prideful and self-righteous and believed his observance of the Mosaic law and his zealous persecution of Christians would gain him high favor with the Lord. But then one day he came face to face with the risen Lord on the road to Damascus and he was humbled and overwhelmed. In spite of all the sins he had committed against the Lord's people, God wanted to offer him a better way of living. So for the rest of his life we find the Apostle Paul giving up everything from his former life to serve the living Lord. He trusted that no matter what came against him, God was for him. Ancient tradition tells us that the Apostle Paul ended up being martyred for the gospel but, just like David, I feel certain his final thoughts were about the Lord and about how faithful the Lord had been.

I doubt any of us will ever have to face being on the run fifteen years from a vengeful king, and most of us will never be called to gives up our lives for the gospel. But we do come face to face with troubles in this life. If we don't face them with the attitude of a King David or an Apostle Paul, our troubles might lead us to believe that God isn't for us. But He is for us! A God who didn't withhold His own precious Son from us has to be for us! If ever we have moments of doubt, all we have to do is look at the cross and what our Lord accomplished for us there. Who can come against the children of a God like that? Even when we walk through the fire, and even if we lose our lives, God will be with us. His grace is going to be be sufficient. He is going to provide exactly what we need every step of the way. I know many of my readers have faced terrible things in life, but wasn't God faithful? If you're still breathing, He's still being faithful. He's not finished with you.

We can't judge all our tomorrows by the way we feel today. We mustn't believe the lie that things will never get better. We can't judge the goodness of God by how dark the road looks right now. In this dark and fallen world, we must stand on the one thing we know to be true: the word of God. The word of God promises us that He loves us and is for us.

Psalm 27

The Lord lights my way and saves me---
Why should I fear anyone?
The Lord is the One who protects my life---
Why should I be afraid?
When wicked ones come against me
To do me harm,
They are the ones who
Will come to harm.
Even if an army comes against me,
I won't be afraid;
Even if war breaks out all around me,
My trust will be in the Lord.
I only want one thing of God,
This is all that I care about;
That I can dwell in His house
Every day of my life,
That I can enjoy His beauty
And kneel before Him in His temple.
When days of trouble come
He will Hide me under His wings;
He will protect me from the wicked ones
And lift me up above the enemy.
Then I will rule over
Those who tried to hurt me;
I will shout for joy in victory;
I will sing and praise the Lord.
Hear my prayer, Lord;
Have mercy on me and answer me.
My heart tells me to seek You
And that is what I will do.
Don't ever close Your eyes,
Or turn from me in anger;
You are the One who helps me.
Do not leave me or forsake me,
For You are my Savior.
Even if my own parents reject me,
The Lord will be my Father.
Teach me to do Your will, Lord;
Lead me in the right direction
Because my enemies would love to see me fall.
Please don't let my enemy have the victory,
Because they do nothing but lie,
And they accuse me of things I didn't do.
My confidence is in this:
The Lord will give me good things in the future
And will bless me in this life.
Wait for the Lord;
Be strong and brave
And wait for the Lord.