Sermon Text: Esther 4:1–17
Preacher: Pastor Brian Sauvé
In God's Schoolroom With
Mordecai & Esther
Here at Refuge, we generally like to pick a book of the Bible, then make our way through that book a few sentences or paragraphs at a time from one side to the other. This is our fourth week doing that in the Old Testament book of Esther.
This morning, as we continue to do that, we find that Esther chapter four is a schoolroom where the Lord would sit us down alongside our brother Mordecai and our sister Esther and teach us about faith and repentance.
Reorienting Ourselves in the Story
Ok, so the book of Esther is a historical vignette, basically a short historical story, so let’s reorient ourselves in that story before we move on into new narrative territory.
There’s a king named Ahasuerus, or Xerxes in Greek, who rules the Persian Empire at its peak, a kingdom some 3-million square-miles. We’ve learned that Ahasuerus, though seemingly all powerful in his rule, a man who thinks of himself as a little god on a throne, is really powerless. He can’t rule himself (he’s sexually out of control); he can’t even rule his own wife.
So when his wife refuses to come at his beckoning to be paraded as an object of his glory at a drinking party, he disposes of her, eventually replacing her with a young woman named Esther, a young Jewish orphan raised by her uncle, Mordecai. She was picked from a menagerie of young women whom the king stole away from their families and forced into his bed, then into his harem when they didn’t make the cut.
Last week, as we closed out chapter 2 and then chapter 3, we saw Mordecai save the king’s life by tipping him off to an assassination plot. But his service went unrecognized, with the King promoting a man named Haman to be his grand vizier instead.
Mordecai then got into trouble for refusing to pay homage to Haman, which we saw was likely due to the fact that Haman was an Agagite, likely descended from he Amalekite king Agag, enemy of Israel in general and the tribe of Benjamin in particular—which is relevant because Mordecai was a Benjaminite.
Haman is furious at the slight, and being the most evil man in the whole story—in fact, as we saw, the very embodiment of Satan’s opposition of God’s people—he managed to get King Ahasuerus to issue a decree, not just against Mordecai, but the entire Jewish people!
So chapter 3 ended with Haman and Ahasuerus fixing the date of the Jewish genocide for a day some 11 months future, decided by rolling the Persian equivalent of dice. That third chapter ends with city in an uproar, but with Haman and Ahasuerus sitting unruffled, having a drink as the city is in upheaval.
Now here’s what we’re going to see as we move into chapter four:
The Lord is going to providentially, out of love for Mordecai and Esther, use this evil situation to force them to confront their own sin. God is going to use the evil plotting of their enemies to teach them—and us—about repentance.
Look with me at Esther 4:1–3.
“When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and he cried out with a loud and bitter cry. He went up to the entrance of the king's gate, for no one was allowed to enter the king's gate clothed in sackcloth. And in every province, wherever the king's command and his decree reached, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and many of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.”
This is a key moment for Mordecai. What Mordecai is doing—and it’s been a slow roll towards this moment since the beginning of chapter 3—is repenting.
Repenting of what? Remember back in the first chapter, I told you that one of the key themes of the book of Esther is found in the question: How do we, the people of God’s good Kingdom, live as citizens and subjects of man’s wicked kingdoms?
And we identified basically two wrong answers that we might be tempted to give and to embody: Sinful assimilation or despairing abdication.
We may sin by imitation, becoming like the kingdoms of men we find ourselves in—adopting their gods, their customs, their answers to the big questions about what is good and true and beautiful, their dictionary and definitions of what a human being is and is for.
Or we may sin by despairing abdication—which is giving up, hunkering down, and failing to be a witness of God’s good Kingdom and instead hiding out somewhere, hoping the jackbooted rulers of the world will come for us and our tribe last.
Which temptation has exerted the strongest pull on Mordecai and Esther so far, do you think? Pretty clearly it’s the option of abdication, right? Doing all they can to avoid identification with God’s people. Keeping their heads down. Not rocking the boat of the empire. “Esther, don’t tell them you’re a Jew, ok?”
A Faith Bent on World Domination
But what Mordecai has discovered is that such a strategy is impotent—it bears no fruit. The strategy of cultural abdication, of fearful Christianity, of pretending not to be one of God’s people, that strategy is a gelded colt.
It doesn’t work, it doesn’t bear fruit, you can’t just be a private member of the people of God without obvious, external, public implications, because the Christian faith is a faith of totalizing claims.
It claims all of you, body and soul. It lays claim to your mind, your emotions; spiritual and immaterial you, as well as embodied and physical you. It lays claim to sexual you, emotional you, relational you, political you. To you in your family, you at your job, you in your rest, you everywhere.
That’s why, in 1 Corinthians 6:20, Paul says, “…you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” What the cross of Christ does is purchase you.
And listen, not only you, but the whole cosmos, too! The Christian faith can’t be safely and conveniently privatized, because it is a faith bent on world domination. Maybe you’re like, “Ok, that’s a bit far.” No, it’s biblical. Listen:
“ But truly, as I live… all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD.”
“As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill… I will make the nations [his] heritage, and the ends of the earth [his] possession. [He] shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
“All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.”
“It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the Law, and the Word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples.”
“And the Lord will be King over all the earth. On that day the Lord will be one and his name one.”
“The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”
“And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.”
-1 John 4:14
“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.”
How much time do you have? I could go on. Does that sound like something that can safely be set aside, walled off into a little side room and labeled “Spirituality,” or “My Religion” and left there?
And God has done for Mordecai what he is often faithful to do for us, and that is to wield the hammer of pain, suffering, and even the acts of wicked men to smash up the walls that we use to lock it off into that privatized ghetto. Mordecai can no longer pretend that his identification with the people of God is a small, insignificant thing.
And what he does is to repent. Do you see it? He repents by radically drawing attention to his Jewishness, by radically identifying himself with the people of God, and he does it in the very moment when they are in the crosshairs of the empire.
As the rest of the Jews break forth in mourning, with fasting and weeping and lamenting and sackcloth and ashes, so does Mordecai. Repentance. “I won’t hide any longer. I won’t do everything I can to minimize and privatize that I belong to the Lord.”
Repentance is going back to the point, to the place where you began to wander and to turn the other direction and go instead from the point in obedience to God.
That’s what he’s doing; going back to the point of his sin—hiding his identification with the people of God—and going forward in bold obedience and risky identification with that people.
Esther’s Bad Discipleship
That’s Mordecai and Mordecai’s repentance. But we will see in the next verse that his sin, though it was to attempt to remain private in his faith, did not remain so, but actually affected those around him downstream. Verse 4,
“When Esther's young women and her eunuchs came and told her, the queen was deeply distressed. She sent garments to clothe Mordecai, so that he might take off his sackcloth, but he would not accept them.”
Do you see it? What’s happened is that Mordecai has discipled Esther to answer the key question at hand—namely, how do the people of God’s Kingdom live as citizens of the powerful and wicked kingdoms of men?—with abdication.
He has taught her to answer that question with hiding. With flying under the radar; with belonging to the people of God inwardly, privately, and secretly, and taking no risks to be identified with God’s people. He has discipled to answer that key question in the way that he has been answering it. See just how deep this discipleship has gone.
Her uncle, Mordecai, shows up at the gates, clothed in sackcloth—the sign of death and doom and destruction and mourning—and her instinctual first reaction is to try to get him dressed up in respectable clothes, stop drawing attention to himself. It’s not, “Mordecai, what has happened to distress you?” But rather, “Mordecai, stop embarrassing yourself! Stop putting yourself in danger!”
Many of us have been discipled by the sons of Mordecai, haven’t we? How many of us are deeply embarrassed by the Bible, deeply embarrassed to be identified with God’s people as a Christian? Trained to lie low, avoid identification with God’s people. “How embarrassing! How risky! For my career, my friendships, in my family, my neighborhood!”
Do you need to repent with Mordecai and Esther? Are you trying with all your might to be seen as cool, pretty much exactly like your neighbor, not one of those weird people of God?
Are you ashamed of the Word of God? Do you believe it’s true? Do you believe that God has appointed a day when he will judge the living and the dead through his Son?
And listen: Some of you fathers, some of you mothers, have been discipling your people to be little Esthers, hiding.
We’ve done this largely not by active teaching, but rather by example—if your Christianity doesn’t touch your home, doesn’t show up in how you live your life publicly before your kids, if it doesn’t bubble up in ways that your kids see—“Mom and Dad make decisions differently than my friends’ parents. They pray. They read the Bible. They talk about how our lives are shaped by the Scriptures.”
If your Christianity doesn’t show up except for twice a month for an hour in this room, let me love you by breaking the bad news to you: You are discipling your kids and yourself to be a little abdicating Mordecai. And you need to repent. Today.
You need to sit your family down, dads, and call a meeting, and say, “Daddy needs to confess my sin. I’ve been apathetic. We haven’t been following Jesus. And we’re going to be repenting of that. Thank God that he is gracious and slow to anger and loves to forgive.”
And then repent. But as with Esther here, it might take a minute for it to trickle down. You’ve been discipling your people, even in your apathy. Apathy and abdication isn’t no discipleship; it’s rather bad discipleship. And what is needed is what the author of Hebrews calls for in Hebrews 4:14–16,
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” -Hebrews 4:14–16
That’s repentance: Confessing our sin, turning to Christ for grace, and boldly going to his throne for help to continue walking in repentance.
The Stakes Defined
So here’s what’s going to happen: Esther is going to see not only what it will mean for her to repent, what that will look like, but also the stakes involved—that she will have to risk for the sake of that repentance. Look with me at verse 5.
“Then Esther called for Hathach, one of the king's eunuchs, who had been appointed to attend her, and ordered him to go to Mordecai to learn what this was and why it was.
Hathach went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king's gate, and Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and the exact sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king's treasuries for the destruction of the Jews. Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther and explain it to her and command her to go to the king to beg his favor and plead with him on behalf of her people. And Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said.
Then Esther spoke to Hathach and commanded him to go to Mordecai and say, “All the king's servants and the people of the king's provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—to be put to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter so that he may live. But as for me, I have not been called to come in to the king these thirty days.” And they told Mordecai what Esther had said.”
The stakes have been defined. Esther’s decision looks like this:
Option 1, continue to abdicate and hide out and pretend not to be a Jew and do nothing to stop their murder at her husband’s decree.
Option 2, go in to the king and risk her life to plead for the people of God. And it’s very clear now that for Esther this option is one fraught with deadly peril from two fronts: One, she will be identifying herself as one of the people for whom the king has just decreed death. And two, the very act of going before the king unrequested carries the death penalty unless the king explicitly gives permission.
Esther’s Temptation & Hope
So those are the stakes. Now we will see Mordecai continuing to repent, to now repent of his poor discipleship of Esther, and do some biblical teaching, some counter-discipleship, instead. Look at verse 13, if you would,
“Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think to yourself that in the king's palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father's house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
What Mordecai has just done is what good fathers and good pastors do, which is to point out what Esther’s greatest temptation will be to sin and disobey God, and then to point out the reason why it would be utter folly to listen to that temptation.
What is the temptation? “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews.”
There it is. What is her temptation? To comfortably sit back in her palace, protected by the great, big, seemingly impenetrable wall of her riches and power and position, and let the people of God die.
The temptation is to side with one kingdom over the other—the kingdom of Ahasuerus over the Kingdom of God, which is to say, the temptation is to trust that Persia can protect and provide and satisfy her, while the Kingdom of God will fail.
That’s our temptation. To say, “Friendship with the world looks like it will pay the greatest dividends. Friendship with the world looks like it is the safest route.”
And our brother James would warn us in James 4:4, that “…friendship with the world is enmity with God… whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”
Our temptation is her temptation: To look at the surety, the solidity of the world and it’s stuff, and to fail to see what is actually more solid, more lasting—the glory of God’s eternal Kingdom. How did Mordecai fight that temptation?
He counters that temptation with faith.
“For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father's house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
Faith in God’s promises and God’s providence is the ammunition with which we make war against temptations and attacks of the enemy. That’s what Mordecai is saying.
He’s saying, “The temptation to side with Empire for the sake of safety and comfort is an illusion. That safety is an illusion. The position that puts you in the way of danger in order stand with the Lord is actually the position of safety. The position that puts you in the way of safety at the expense of standing with God is actually a place of great, terribly peril—who can contend with the living God?”
Listen: We fight temptation with faith. With faith in God’s promises and God’s providence. We fight temptation with faith in God’s promises—“I know that what I see right now seems insurmountable. I know that right now it looks like preserving my life, my reputation, whatever, at the cost of obedience to God looks completely reasonable. But if I stop and I think about the absurd promises of God, his reward, his love, his faithfulness, his sufficiency—I’d be crazy to listen to that temptation.”
That’s why Hebrews 11:6 teaches us that “…without faith it is impossible to please [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”
What is that saying? That faith fights temptation by trusting in the better reward of God, of God’s Kingdom, identification with God’s people, God’s way, God’s law, than with all of the make-believe, flimsy, plastic, counterfeit rewards of the empires of men.
And we fight temptation with faith in God’s providence, that we will never find ourselves in a position where we are outside of his sovereign hand, outside of his ability to protect, provide, reward, and preserve—whether that means facing down death or just dislike.
Esther’s Decision & Ours
Let’s see what Esther decides to do, whether she will give in to temptation, or rather obey God and walk in repentance. Verse 15,
“Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.”
Esther determines to risk her life for the sake of the people, to stare down death for the sake of life. She determines to trust in the promises and providence of God, and to do so before she knows what the outcome will be.
Esther doesn’t know if her repentance will result in death or life, but she determines that it would be better to die in faith than to live in sinful mistrust of God’s goodness.
You are likely not facing that kind of decision this morning. And at the same time, all of our lives come down to these kinds of decisions.
Remember that line of questioning that we began last week, as Mordecai faced opposition: How do we win? How does the gospel advance? How does our sin die? How is our flesh put to flight? How are our neighbors evangelized and loved? How are our kids raised up to know and love and fear the Lord Jesus? How is your wife loved and cherished and protected and provided for? How is your husband respected and submitted to and helped?
By dying. By risking death, by putting down what seems like your best shot at controlling your way into future safety, giving up that illusion of safety, and dying to yourself. Like our Lord, we win by dying.
What that means is that we believe that God’s promises are good before we see the substance of them, then risk everything on those promises. Give away your life today for the sake of the other, why? Because God has promised life to those who will lose theirs.
That’s the promise of the Lord Jesus that I would point your heart at this morning, his words in Matthew 16:25, “…whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Our Esther moments are unlikely to hold the future of a couple million lives in the balance. Maybe your day to day battle with self-preservation isn’t “If I perish, I perish,” but rather, “If I’m uncomfortable, I’m uncomfortable,” or “If I offend my neighbor, I offend him,” or “If I don’t get to get back at my husband for being rude to me by being rude to him all day, I don’t.”
We are always being confronted with this decision, daily—as often as we are faced with temptation! Will I believe God and disbelieve sin, or will I believe sin and disbelieve God? That’s the question, isn’t it? Will I confront my sin, face to face, lament it, confess it to my brothers and the Lord, and repent? Or will I hide? Will I abdicate?
Listen: You have nothing to fear in repenting. The cross has declared perfect amnesty for your sin. You have everything to fear in refusing to do so. What are you trying to hide, to conceal? What are you trying to avoid making eye contact with? What are you scared will come out? Be scared, rather, of it not coming out.
Don’t be scared of being found out by the Lord—what grace! The Lord is so good that he never lets his kids walk in the dark without faithfully throwing up obstacles. He did it here for Mordecai and Esther; he will do it for you.
When he does, thank him for his grace, look to the cross where your sin was finished, and run to the throne of grace for mercy and help in time of need.