In Vinebranch on Sunday, I encouraged the congregation to read the entire book of Esther. Among other things, it’s an entertaining story—and short, at just 10 short chapters. (By the way, I enjoyed this capsule summary of the book by a Canadian blogger.) But it’s filled with preaching potential, and I’m afraid my sermon barely scratched the surface. The scripture I chose for the sermon, Esther 3:8-11; 4:1-17; 7:1-10, was inadequately brief, but I hope it covered at least the heart of what I preached.
An early draft of the sermon included the following paragraph establishing context for the book, which I had to mercilessly cut in the interest of time. Here it is:
Our scripture is set in the Persian empire during the reign of King Xerxes. Centuries before today’s scripture, after Israel’s King Solomon died, you may recall that Israel split into two kingdoms. In the eight century B.C., the northern kingdom of Israel was defeated by the Assyrians. The ten tribes of the northern kingdom disappeared, although many of their descendents became the Samaritans that we hear about in the gospels. Later, after the Assyrian empire fell to the Babylonians, the Babylonians defeated the southern kingdom and the remaining two tribes of Israel—Judah and Benjamin. This is the part of Israel that we know as the Jews. They were sent into exile in Babylon. Some Jews returned to their native land after Babylon fell to Persia—that’s the story told in Ezra and Nehemia. Other Jews, however, remained abroad, scattered around the Persian empire—which is where we find our two heroes, Esther and Mordecai, in today’s scripture.
In my sermon, I emphasized that when the Jews in Persia heard King Xerxes’ proclamation of the upcoming pogrom, they did what most people do when they are reminded of or fearful for their mortality: they repented. They sought to get their lives right with God. (See Esther 4:3.) The NIV Application Commentary argues that Esther 4 intentionally points to Joel, a prophetic book calling for Israel to repent in the face of a destructive swarm of locusts. The Hebrew phrase translated as “fasting, weeping, and wailing” in Esther 4:3 also appears in Joel 2:12, the only other place in the Bible that that combination of words appears. Also, the “who knows” of Joel 2:14 (“Who knows whether he will have a change of heart…”) shows up in Esther 4:14. This is likely an intentional allusion.
Finally, I wanted to say more in the sermon about Esther’s strange (to our ears) fear of entering King Xerxes’ inner court without a summons in vv. 10-11. We know for sure that Persian kings had these sorts of rules, and given that the king’s ardor toward Esther had cooled (since, as she points out, she hadn’t been summoned in a month), what would stop the king from having his own wife killed? There were plenty more beautiful women where she came from, and Xerxes was a very shallow person.
But if I had more time during my sermon, I would have connected Esther’s fear of entering the throne room with our privileged position as Christians. We have access to the throne room, not of some earthly king, but to the of the King of kings! What exactly do we think is going on when we pray? Do we take this privilege for granted? How thoughtlessly do we often approach our King?