MOURNING OF MORDECAI, AND OF THE JEWS GENERALLY, ON HEARING OF THE DECREE (Esther 4:1-17 1-3). Haman had no doubt kept his intentions secret until the king's consent to them was not only granted, but placed beyond his power to recall The Jews first heard of the terrible blow impending over them by the publication of the edict. Then they became acquainted with it quickly enough. The edict was for a while the talk of the town. Placarded openly in some conspicuous and frequented place, every loiterer read it, every gossip spoke of it, every one whom it threatened could with his own eyes see its exact terms. Mordecai soon "perceived all that was done" (Esther 4:1)—perused the edict, understood whence it had originated, was fully aware that he himself and his whole nation stood in the most awful peril. His first impulse was to rend his garments and put on sackcloth and ashes; after which he quitted the environs of the palace, and "went out into the midst of the city," where he gave free vent to his grief and alarm, "crying with a loud and bitter cry." The signs of mourning were not permitted within the walls of the royal residence, and Mordecai could come no nearer than the space before the gate, where he probably sat down in the dust "astonied" (see Ezra 9:4). Nor was he long alone in his sorrow. In every province—and therefore at Susa, no less than elsewhere—"there was great mourning among the Jews, and fasting, and weeping, and wailing" (Esther 4:3). The proscribed race made bitter lamentation—"lay in sackcloth and ashes," humbled itself before God, and waited. As yet no thought of escape seems to have occurred to any, no resolution to have been taken. Even Mordecai's thoughtful brain was paralysed, and, like the rest, he gave himself up to grief.
Mordecai rent his clothes. Compare Ezra 9:3, Ezra 9:5 with the comment. The meaning of the act was well understood by the Persians. Put on sackcloth with ashes. So Daniel (Daniel 9:3), and the king of Nineveh (Jonah 3:6). Either act by itself was a sign of deep grief; both combined betokened the deepest grief possible. And went out into the midst of the city. The palace was not to be saddened by private griefs (see the next verse). Mordecai, therefore, having assumed the outward signs of extreme sorrow, quitted the palace, and entered the streets of the town. There, overcome by his feelings, he vented them, as Asiatics are wont to do, in loud and piercing cries (comp. Nehemiah 5:1).
And came even before the king's gate. After some aimless wandering Mordecai as returned toward the palace, either his proper place, or with some incipient notion of obtaining Esther's help. He was not allowed, however, to pass the outer gate on account of his garb of woe, and he remained outside (see verse 6).
And in every province. As fast as the news spread, as province after province received the decree, the Jews spontaneously did as Mordecai had done—everywhere there was great sorrow, shown commonly by fasting, weeping, and wailing, while in numerous instances the mourners even went the length of putting on sackcloth and ashes. Thus an ever-increasing cloud of grief overshadowed the land.
GRIEF OF ESTHER. HER COMMUNICATIONS WITH MORDECAI. SHE CONSENTS TO RISK MAKING AN APPEAL TO THE KING (Esther 4:4-17). Esther, in the seclusion of the harem, knew nothing of what the king and Haman had determined on. No one in the palace suspected how vitally she was concerned in the matter, since none knew that she was a Jewess, and state affairs are not commonly discussed between an Oriental monarch and a young wife. It was known, however, that she took an interest in Mordecai; and when that official was seen outside the palace gate in his mourning garb, it was reported to the queen. Not being aware why he grieved, but thinking that perhaps it was some light matter which he took too much to heart, she sent him a change of raiment, and requested him to put off his sackcloth. But Mordecai, without assigning any reason, refused (verse 4). Esther upon this caused inquiry to be made of Mordecai concerning the reason of his mourning, and in this way became acquainted with what had happened (verses 5-9). At the same time she found herself called on by Mordecai to incur a great danger, since he requested her to go at once to the king, and to intercede with him for her people (verse 8). In reply, the queen pointed out the extreme risk which she would run in entering the royal presence uninvited, and the little chance that there was of her receiving a summons, since she had not had one for thirty .days (verse 11). Mordecai, however, was inexorable. He reminded Esther that she herself was threatened by the decree, and was not more likely to escape than any other Jew or Jewess; declared his belief that, if she withheld her aid, deliverance would arise from some other quarter; warned her that neglect of duty was apt to provoke a heavy retribution, and suggested that she might have been raised to her queenly dignity for the express purpose of her being thus able to save her nation (verses 13, 14). The dutiful daughter, the true Jewess, could resist no longer; she only asked that Mordecai and the other Jews in Susa would fast for her three days, while she and her maidens also fasted, and then she would take her life in her hand, and enter the royal presence uninvited, though it was contrary to the law; the risk should be run, and then, as she said with a simple pathos never excelled, "if I perish, I perish" (verse 16). Satisfied with this reply, Mordecai "went his way," and held the three days' fast which Esther had requested (verse 17).
Esther's maids and her chamberlains. A queen consort at an Oriental court is sure to have, besides her train of maids, a numerous body of eunuchs, who are at her entire disposal, and are especially employed in going her errands and maintaining her communications with the outer world. Told her. Esther's interest in Mordecai would be known to the maids and eunuchs by Mordecai's inquiries about her (Esther 1:11) and communications with her (ibid. verse 22).
To know what it was, and why it was. i.e. "to know what the mourning garb exactly meant, and for what reason he had assumed it."
The street of the city. Rather, "the square."
The sum of money. Mordecai evidently considered that the money was an important item in the transaction, and had mainly influenced Ahasuerus. This would not have been the case if Ahasuerus had at once given it back (see the comment on Esther 3:9).
Also he gave him the copy. In the original it is "a copy." Mordecai had had a copy made for the purpose of handing it to Esther. To make request to him for her people. If this was the phrase used by Mordecai to Hatach, Esther's nationality must now have ceased to be a secret, at any rate so far as her immediate attendants were concerned. Probably Mordecai felt that the truth must now be declared. It was only as the compatriots of the queen that he could expect to get the Jews spared.
All the king's servants seems to mean here "all the court," "all those in the immediate service of the king." The inner court. The palace had, as it would seem, only two courts, the "outward court" of Esther 6:4, and the "inner court" of the present passage. There is one law of his to put him to death. Rather, "there is one law for him. 'Whoever he be, there is one and the same law regarding him—he must suffer death. Herodotus excepts six persons from the operation of this law, but in making the exception shows the general rule to have been such as here represented. Except such to whom the king shall hold out the golden sceptre. No other writer tells us of this custom, but it is in perfect harmony with Oriental habits and modes of thought. Some have objected that the king would not always have a golden sceptre by him; but the Persepolitan sculptures uniformly represent him with a long tapering staff in his hand, which is probably the "sceptre" (sharbith) of Esther. I have not been called to come in unto the king these thirty days. The king s passion had cooled, and Esther now, like his other wives, waited her occasional summons to his presence. She had not been called for a whole month, and did not know when a summons might come. It would not do to trust to so mere a chance; and therefore, if she was to interpose on behalf of her nation, she must intrude on the king uninvited, and risk being put to death.
Think not with thyself. Literally, "imagine not in thy mind." That thou shalt escape in the king's house. i.e. "that being an inmate of the palace will be any protection to thee ;" it will be no protection—you will no more escape than any other Jew.
Then shall there enlargemt, or respiration (marg. literally, "breath"), and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place. Mordecai is confident that God will not allow the destruction of his people. Without naming his name, he implies a trust in his gracious promises, and a conviction that Haman's purpose will be frustrated; how, he knows not, but certainly in some way or other. If deliverance does not come through Esther, then it will arise from some other quarter. But thou and thy father's house shall be destroyed. A denunciation of Divine vengeance. Though the nation will be saved, it will not benefit you. On you will fall a just judgment—having endeavoured to save your life, you will lose it—and your "father's house will be involved in your ruin. We may gather from this that Esther was not Abihail's only child. Who knoweth, etc. Consider this also. Perhaps (who knows?) God has raised you up to your royal dignity for this very purpose, and none other, that you should be in a position to save your nation in this crisis.
Fast ye for me. Fasting for another is fasting to obtain God's blessing on that other, and is naturally accompanied with earnest prayer to God for the person who is the object of the fast. Thus here again the thought of God underlies the narrative. It has been supposed that Esther could not have meant an absolute fast—complete abstinence from both food and drink—for so long a period as three days; but Oriental abstemiousness would not be very severely taxed by a fast of this length. The time intended—from the evening of the first to the morning of the third day—need not have much exceeded thirty-six hours. I also and my maidens will fast likewise. "Likewise" is to be taken here in its proper sense, as meaning "in like manner." We also will abstain both from meat and drink during the same Period.
Mordecai … did according to all that Esther had commanded. i.e. gathered the Jews together, and proclaimed a three days fast. Though without authority, he would naturally, under the circumstances, have sufficient influence over his countrymen to induce them to do his bidding.
The cry of a doomed people.
The decree against the Jews was not yet known in the palace; Esther herself was not yet informed of it. And the signs of sorrow and mourning were prohibited within the royal precincts; nothing of ill omen was suffered to come before the king and his household. But in the city evil tidings (which ever travel fast) soon came abroad.
1. THE FIRST NOTE OF LAMENTATION WAS UTTERED BY MORDECAI. The rending of clothes in grief was practised by the Persians as well as by the Jews. The Ninevites in their penitence sat in sackcloth and ashes. It was and is the custom of Orientals to weep aloud in times of mourning. All these expressions of sorrow and lamentation were in the circumstances natural and proper. It was the woe of a patriot. Mordecai was not thinking so much of himself as of his people; he made their sorrows and alarms his own. It was the sorrow of a godly man. He did not simply mourn; he evidently humbled himself before God, and implored Divine pity and help.
II. THE CRY WAS COMMUNICATED TO AND TAKEN UP BY THE JEWS THROUGHOUT THE EMPIRE. The news of a great victory flies and flashes through a land, awakens the universal joy, and the land is filled with gladness and song.. And the tidings of the impending calamity spread far and wide through the provinces of Persia, and created consternation in thousands of hearts. They mourned as they thought of the land of their fathers, and of all the privileges enjoyed in that sacred and fertile territory—their proper home and inheritance. For now they were not only doomed to exile; they were marked for destruction. They fasted, doubtless, as a religious exercise, accompanying their fasting with repentance and with prayers. They wept and wailed, knowing that though their cry could not pierce the walls of the palace at Shushan, it would penetrate the gates of heaven, and reach the ear of the King of kings. They lay in sackcloth and ashes, as permitting themselves no comfort or ease in prospect of their own and their brethren's ruin. Thus they prepared a way for the tender mercy of God to visit them from on high.
Practical lesson:—Sinners against whom a sentence of Divine wrath might rightfully be issued should lose no time in humbling themselves before the Lord, and confessing their sins with contrition and repentance, that they may partake in the mercy of heaven, and, through the redemption of Christ Jesus, be saved from the wrath to come.
Although Esther was lodged in a palace and surrounded with luxury and honour, she did not lose sight of her kinsman, Mordecai. Least of all was she indifferent to his trouble and sorrow. Hence, when informed of his mourning, she sent to him, and, when aware of the cause of his distress, entered into it, taking his grief as her own. A beautiful illustration of sympathy—an emotion and disposition which adorns our humanity, and relieves men of many of their sorrows, and lightens many of their cares.
I. SYMPATHY IS BASED UPON OUR COMMON HUMANITY AND KINDRED. "I am a man, and deem nought human foreign, a matter of unconcern, to me." The sympathies of some are restricted to their own household, or their own nation; but it becomes us to cherish a fellow-feeling for all mankind. Still, as in this narrative, kindred is a proper ground for special sympathy.
II. SYMPATHY HAS ITS SUREST BASIS IN RELIGION. The Scriptures teach us that God has made of one blood all nations of men. We are children of one family. Not only so, but the same Father has pitied us, and the same Saviour has died for us. What emphasis do these facts give to the inspired admonitions: "Look not every man upon his own things, but every man also upon the things of others." "Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ." "Rejoice with those who do rejoice, and weep with them that weep."
III. SYMPATHY IS BENEFICIAL, ALIKE TO HIM WHO DISPLAYS IT, AND TO HIM WHO IS ITS OBJECT. The heart is richer and happier for entering into the feelings of another. And the heart is relieved that feels another shares its burden. Human society is made more bright and blessed by the prevalence of the sacred habit of sympathy. Of this virtue, as of mercy, it may be said, "It blesseth him that gives and him that takes."
IV. SYMPATHY IS THE FLOWER OF WHICH THE FRUIT IS HELP. Mere sentimental, unpractical sympathy is worse than vain; it is a mockery. But where right feeling leads to right action, it proves its intended value. In the case before us, Esther's sympathy with her kinsman's anxiety and sorrow led her to put forth all her efforts, in compliance with his wish, to secure the end dear to his heart.
1. Shut not up your heart from sympathising with your neighbour's woe. To do so will be more harmful to you even than to him.
2. Let sympathy be expressed. It is well that those in trouble should know that you feel with and for them.
3. Let sympathy take a practical form. If tears and prayers are all you can give to show your sympathy, well and good. But if you have more to give, withhold it not, for Christ's sake.
If Haman's influence with the king of Persia was used for harm, why should not Esther's be used for good? It was a natural and happy thought on the part of Mordecai to use his ward's influence with Ahasuerus for the deliverance and safety of the Jews. And the sequel shows the wisdom of Mordecai's counsel, and the efficacy of Esther's pleading. Christ, our High Priest, is, as such, our Advocate with the Father. He ever liveth to make intercession for us. As a figure of our Redeemer, the Intercessor, consider Esther, as possessing two qualifications for successful advocacy.
I. An intercessor should have SYMPATHY WITH, AND INTEREST IN, THE CASE OF THOSE FOR WHOM HE PLEADS. Esther had this qualification; she loved her cousin, she loved her people. She could not think of the destruction of the Jews without distress. She was prepared to plead hard for her people's life. So with Christ. He is the Son of man, bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh. He is touched with the feeling of our infirmities; for he was tried and tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. How fitted is he then to represent our case, to plead our cause! We have in God the Father a Sovereign waiting to be gracious, and in Christ the Son a Mediator and Advocate who will do his part to secure our salvation.
II. An intercessor should have INFLUENCE WITH THE PERSON WHOSE FAVOUR IS TO BE SOUGHT. Esther had this qualification. The king loved her above his other wives, and would naturally be disposed to please her, and receive her requests with favour. So with Christ. He is the Son of God, the "beloved Son," in whom the Father is "well pleased." Him, therefore, the Father "heareth alway." His relation to the Father, his obedience and devotion, all entitle him to the Father's confidence. And, as a matter of fact, he does not, cannot plead in vain. To have the advocacy of Christ is to have the favour of God. Gratefully avail yourselves of Christ's prevailing intercession, and through him let your requests be made known unto God.
The golden sceptre.
The superstitious reverence which surrounded the throne of Ahasuerus is manifest from the whole tenor of this narrative. Capricious and absolute, his frown was feared as the most awful of earthly ills; and his smile was sought, with abject slavishness and adulation, as the herald of honour, riches, end power. Even his wife could not approach unbidden into the presence of the "great king," save at the peril of her life. When he was pleased to stretch forth the golden sceptre of clemency and mercy, all was well. The golden sceptre, which encouraged the timid, assured the suppliant of a gracious reception, and was the earnest of royal favours and blessings, may be taken as an emblem of the merciful regard and purposes of the King of kings. In the gospel of his Son our heavenly Ruler and Lord extends to us the golden sceptre of his grace.
I. It is a sceptre OF ROYAL POWER. Originally the sceptre was the rod of the chief with which he smote the cowardly and the recreant, and thus it became the emblem of kingly rule. All God's acts are acts of a just authority, enforced by an irresistible power. Whilst his sway extends over his whole creation, as a moral sway it is exercised upon righteous principles over his moral and accountable subjects.
II. It is a sceptre OF ROYAL FAVOUR. It is evident from the narrative that Esther had no hope except from the clemency of the king. Her position as queen did not even give her the right to approach the throne unbidden. When Ahasuerus stretched forth the golden sceptre she knew that she was regarded with favour. Our heavenly King extends to us the favour of his royal nature. His word, his gospel, is the expression of his regard for men. His anger is turned away, and he comforts us.
III. It is a sceptre OF ROYAL MERCY. Esther's approach was a presumption, an offence. But the symbolical act we are considering assured her that her offence was overlooked, and she herself accepted. In the gospel God appears not only as kind, but as merciful. He addresses the sinful suppliant, and says, Fear not! I am the Lord that hath mercy on thee! Thou shalt not perish, but shalt have pardon and life eternal.
IV. It is a sceptre OF ROYAL BOUNTY. The act of Ahasuerus was the earnest of further kindness. "What is thy petition, and what is thy request?" She had, in response, only to ask, and to have. God has given us his Son, and the gospel, which tells us of this gift, tells us that all provision is made for us. This is the language of our royal Father: "All that I have is thine!"
Enlargement and deliverance.
What a sublime confidence is apparent m this language of Mordecai to Esther! He took a very different mode of reasoning and persuasion from what might have been expected. Why did he not say, My only hope, the only hope of the nation, is in thee; if thou fail us we are undone? Because he believed Israel's salvation to be dear to Israel's God. This led him to put the matter thus: "If thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place."
I. GOD, IN HIS PROVIDENCE, OFTEN ACCOMPLISHES GREAT WORKS BY THE HANDS OF HUMAN AGENTS.
II. IF THE LIKELIEST FAIL, THEN THE UNLIKELIEST WILL BE RAISED UP AND EMPLOYED.
III. ALL THINGS AND POWERS THAT ARE ADVERSE NOTWITHSTANDING, THE PURPOSES OF GOD SHALL CERTAINLY BE FULFILLED.
IV. IT IS A GREAT PRIVILEGE TO HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY OF CARRYING OUT THE PLANS OF THE ALL-WISE. Especially is this so when we have the means of bringing enlargement and deliverance to the people of God. See to it that you do not mistake the "time to speak" for the "time to be silent."
The purpose of power.
"Purpose" is a watchword of modem intellectual warfare. "Cause" and "purpose" are words that awaken keenest intellectual strife. Thinkers are divided into those who believe that the will is the cause of human acts, and that many of those acts are evidence of purpose; and those who believe our acts to be the necessary results of physical antecedents acting upon our nervous system. And those who do not believe in human purpose naturally enough have no belief in Divine purpose. According to them mind counts for nothing as a factor in the universe. Believing in purpose, both human and Divine, we may nevertheless be on our guard against dogmatically affirming that this and that event is evidence of the intention of Heaven. Purpose is in the life of man; yet when we endeavour to fathom its mysteries, it is well that we should propose the question with the moderation and tentativeness which characterised the language of Mordecai: "Who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?"
I. THERE ARE EVIDENCES OF DIVINE PURPOSE IN THE LIFE OF MEN GENERALLY. Whatever doubt we may have of individual cases, however much we may be influenced by our own prejudices and fancies in judging of such cases, it scarcely admits of doubt that human life has a reason for its existence and for its opportunities. Especially in reading the biographies of great and good men we are impressed with this belief. And what strength does it impart to a man to believe that God has a work for him to do. Divine purpose may be wrought out by unconscious agents.
"There's a Divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will!
II. PROVIDENCE SOMETIMES MAKES IT CLEAR WHAT THE DIVINE PURPOSE IS. Observe the expression: "such a time." A crisis is observable in the life of most men. An opportunity opens up. The vocation is made apparent, or rather audible. A relationship is appointed. A service is required. God's finger is visible, and he is heard saying, "This is the way; walk ye in it!"
III. AT .SUCH TIMES THERE IS IMPOSED A SACRED RESPONSIBILITY. The call of Providence may be disregarded. Through negligence, or fear, or distrust persons may shrink from responding to the requirement of Heaven. But at how fearful a cost! On the other hand, to have wrought the work of God is to have lived not in vain. And Divine grace is sufficient for us.
1. Study the indications of God's will. Ask, "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?"
2. Follow the leadings of God's providence. Say, "Lead, Lord, and thy servant shall be found in thy steps!"
Fasting is often mere superstition, as when men suppose that there is merit in their abstaining on certain days from certain kinds of food, thinking that mortification of appetite is in itself a virtue, and that God must needs be pleased with what pains or distresses his creatures. Fasting is sometimes a mockery. It is well known that many religionists keep the letter whilst they break the spirit of a fast. It is certainly difficult to sympathise with the asceticism of those who fast on Fridays upon salmon and champagne. Yet this, like other religious observances that are now largely superstitious, or at all events formal, has its origin in laudable desires, and springs from good tendencies in human nature.
I. A COMMON SORROW NATURALLY SEEKS A COMMON EXPRESSION. When a community is smitten by a general calamity, it is unbecoming that any members of that community should indulge in feasting and mirth. When the Jews were threatened with destruction, how natural that, at Esther's suggestion, the Hebrew population of the city should join in a general fast.
II. A COMMON WANT NATURALLY LEADS TO UNITED SUPPLICATION. Together the people were endangered; together they sought deliverance from their redeeming God. A fast is not only a time of abstinence from pleasure, it is a time of prayer; and God in heaven is gratified by conjoined and blended supplication and intercession. What mercies await the society, the city, the nation which will agree with one heart to seek the Lord.
III. IT IS THE SPIRITUAL FASTING WHICH IS ACCEPTABLE TO THE SEARCHER OF HEARTS. Often, in the presence of fasts which are merely outward, has he addressed the indignant question to formal religionists, "Is it such a fast that I have chosen?" Often has the appeal been addressed to such, "Rend your hearts, and not your garments!" The case of the Ninevites is an illustration of the combination of a formal with a real fast, and is a proof that such a fast is not disregarded by God. Let the words of our Saviour be remembered: "When thou fastest, anoint thy head and wash thy face, that thou appear not unto men to fast; and thy Father who seeth in secret shall reward thee openly."
If I perish, I perish!
The bosom of the queen must, when she uttered these affecting words, have been rent with diverse emotions. The entreaty of Mordecai, the danger of her people, the benevolence of her own nature, all urged her to venture into the presence of the august yet capricious king. Yet her knowledge of the court rules, her fears for herself, must have withheld her from the daring act. She faced the possible consequences, she prepared herself for the worst. Doubtless she commended herself to the care of Heaven, and, forming the resolve, exclaimed, "If I perish, I perish!" Hearers of the gospel have sometimes been convinced of their sin, and yet have not been able to appropriate to themselves the promises of God's word. They have felt that there is no refuge save in the cross of Christ, and no hope save in the mercy of God. After long, sore conflict, such anguished sufferers, with a faith which is half despair, have been able to cast themselves before the feet of the King, whose displeasure they dread, and in whose mercy they scarcely dare to hope. They have ventured all upon Divine compassion, and the earnestness, the distress, the utter helplessness of their hearts have found utterance in the cry of Esther, "If I perish, I perish!"
I. The cry is the utterance of SINCERITY AND EARNESTNESS. The language is full of feeling, of passion. It was no feeble emotion which could prompt to such a determination. This is the spirit in which a sinner should come into the presence of the King, seeking for pardon.
II. It is the utterance of FELT UNWORTHINESS. And none can come aright unto God save he who comes with the cry of the penitent publican, "God be merciful to me a sinner!"
III. It is the utterance of CONSCIOUS NEED. Nothing but the keenest sense of the necessity of the case could have impelled Esther to the course of action she took. Similar is the motive which brings the sinner to the Lord.
"Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling."
IV. It is the utterance of MINGLED FEAR AND HOPE. Uncertainty and dread mingled in the queen's mind with some gleam of hope. It is not unnatural that the poor helpless sinner should shrink from the view of a holy God, should scarcely dare to hope for his favour.
V. It is the utterance of A MIND UPON WHICH THE KING WILL HAVE MERCY. As Esther's fears were dispelled by the attitude and language of her consort, so the penitent, lowly, believing, and prayerful suppliant shall never be rejected by a God who delighteth in mercy. The spirit which God will not disdain is that of the lowly suppliant who casts aside every plea save the Divine compassion.
"I have tried, and tried in vain,
Many ways to ease my pain;
Now all other hope is past,
Only this is left at last:
Here before thy cross I lie,
Here I live, or here I die.
"If I perish, be it here,
With the Friend of sinners near;
Lord, it is enough—I know
Never sinner perished so:
Here before thy cross I lie,
Here I cannot, cannot die!"
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
We have a very vivid picture, in these few touches, of a nation's exceeding sorrow. We are reminded of ―
I. THE HEARTLESSNESS AND IMPOTENCE OF TYRANNY IN REGARD TO IT. The king could cheerfully speak the word which caused the calamity, and then, when its sorrow surged up to his palace wall, shut his doors against the entrance of any sign of it; "for none might enter into the king's gate clothed with sackcloth" (Esther 4:2). The tyrant first becomes responsible for grievous and widespread woe, and then takes measures to prevent its utterance from disturbing his royal pleasure or repose. Such is selfishness in unchecked power. But though heartless, it will discover the limits of its sway; the hour will come when it will find itself impotent as a leaf in the flood; when the loud and bitter cry of a people's wrongs and sufferings will pass the sovereign's guards and penetrate his gates, will find entrance to his chamber and smite his soul.
II. ITS CRAVING FOR EXPRESSION. "Mordecai rent his clothes and put on sackcloth with ashes,.; and cried with a loud and bitter cry" (Esther 4:1). "And in every province.; there was great mourning among the Jews, and fasting, and weeping, and wailing, and many lay in sackcloth and ashes" (Esther 4:3). All strong feeling craves utterance; joy in song, grief in tears. In this case intensity of national distress found expression in the most speaking and striking forms to which Eastern misery and despair were accustomed to resort—in "sackcloth and ashes;" a "loud and bitter cry;" "fasting, and weeping, and wailing" To command ourselves when we suffer pain or stand in grave peril is manly and virtuous. Yet it is but shallow wisdom to say that crying will not make it better. There is real and valuable relief in the act of utterance. In saddest griefs the worst sign of all is a dead silence, the undimmed eye.
"Home they brought her warrior dead;
She nor swooned nor uttered cry.
All her maidens, watching, said,
She must weep, or she will die."
Even the "loud and bitter cry" is not without its worth to the heart that utters it (Esau ― Genesis 27:34). Sorrow may utter itself in many ways; the best of all is in prayer—in hallowed, soothing, reassuring communion with our heavenly Father, telling all our tale of grief in the ear of our Divine Friend. Next best is human sympathy—the unburdening of our souls to our most tried and sympathising friend. We may well be thankful that he has so "fashioned our hearts alike" that we can reckon on true and intense sympathy in the time of our distress. A third channel is in sacred poetry. How many of the bereaved have had to bless God for the hymns and poems in which their own grief has found utterance, through which it has found most valuable relief.
III. ITS PITEOUSNESS.
1. We are moved by it. Our hearts are stirred to their depth by the recital of the woes which are endured by great numbers of men and women, when fire, or flood, or famine, or the sword of man comes down upon them in irresistible calamity.
2. Are not the angels of God moved by it, and do not these "ministering spirits" with unseen hands minister then to the children of need and sorrow?
3. God himself, we know, is moved by it. I have surely seen the affliction of my people" (Exodus 3:7). He "heard their groaning" (Exodus 2:24). If the woe of the world is not doubled, it is largely swollen by the sorrowful sympathy it excites. But it is well it should be so, for such sympathy is good for those who feel it, and it is the spring of remedy and removal.
IV. THE DISTRESS OF THE CHURCH OF CHRIST. Looking on the afflicted Israelites at this crisis of their history, we may regard them as a type of the Church of God in its distress. Thus regarding the subject, we remark—
1. That God allows his Church to pass through very strange and trying scenes. It is wholly inexplicable to us, but it is a certain fact that he has done so, and it is probable that he will do so again. There have been, and will be, crises in its history. Persecution will assail it. Infidelity will seek to undermine it. Worldliness will endeavour to corrupt it. It may go hard with it, and its very life be threatened.
2. That in its distress and danger it must seek Divine deliverance. God only can, and he will rescue and restore. At the eleventh hour, perhaps, but then, if not earlier, he will interpose and save. But his aid must be
HOMILIES BY W. DINWIDDLE
An unyielding grief.
I. THE SUFFERING CAUSED BY ONE EVIL ACT CANNOT BE ESTIMATED. It was easy for Haman to draw up the instrument of destruction, and for the king to let him affix his signet to it, and then for both to sit down to drink; but very soon through that easily-performed act thousands of families were plunged into an agony of terror and grief. One sin committed lightly may extend widely, and descend to many generations in its disastrous effects. There is no calculating the issues-of evil. The chief enemy to the happiness of men is man, through the evil that is in him. "Man's inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn."
II. A RELIGIOUS VIRTUE MAY BE BROUGHT TO SPECIAL SUFFERING BY GIVING OCCASION TO THE MALEVOLENT WRATH OF AN EVIL MIND. We can understand how Mordecai, when he learned the diabolic scheme of revenge which Haman had set on foot, should have been almost unmanned by his horror and grief. Was not the decreed slaughter of all his countrymen the result of his own conduct towards Haman? This thought would bite into his soul. Israel might have been in safety and peace but for him. Of all the griefs awakened by the king's proclamation, Mordecai's would be the greatest. See here—
1. How grief varies in its outward manifestations. To us Mordecai's behaviour may seem wild and unreasonable. But in the East such signs of mourning were the rule, and even amongst Western peoples wailings in times of bereavement are not uncommon. Real sorrow is glad to embrace any outlet that may ease its inward burden. Differences of temperament also, as well as of custom, have much to do with differing expressions of grief.
2. How deep grief kills every sense of danger. Mordecai raised his "loud and bitter cry in the midst of the city," and at length seemed about to enter the king's palace, when he was reminded that sackcloth was not allowed to show itself there. Such conduct was very bold; the king and his favourite were set at nought by it. But it must be attributed to the fearlessness of a profound grief which could not but tell itself forth in spite of consequences.
3. How vain the attempt is to enclose any spot or circle of human life from the inroads of suffering. Esther's elevation to the throne did not make the happiness secure which it brought to herself and Mordecai. Neither did the foolish law that prohibited sackcloth or any sign of mourning from entering the king's gate prevent the intrusion of sorrow into that guarded sanctuary of ease and lust. Many hope to avoid grief by avoiding its signs and scenes, and by surrounding themselves with all that is pleasant and joyous. But the hope is vain. Whatever may be their success or failure, there is one visitor which cannot be warded off. Into every palace and cottage alike death perforce enters, and brings its own solemn gloom. Every human life, however resplendent in worldly attributes, must in the end succumb to that assailant. Happy the soul that possesses the life eternal, God's gift to men in his Son, which swallows up death in victory (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).
III. GODLY PRINCIPLE SHOWS ITS STRENGTH BY REMAINING FIRM IN PRESENCE OF ANY SUFFERING WHICH IT MAY BRING ON ITSELF OR ON OTHERS. Amidst all his grief and fear Mordecai never entertained the idea of withdrawing from the stand which he had made against Haman. We find him some time afterwards still maintaining his erect and defiant attitude, and thereby increasing the malignity of the favourite. His example is a noble one, but it is not singular. Our Lord himself forewarned his disciples of the sufferings they would have to endure for his name's sake (John 16:1-4), yet he calmly pursued his course, and laid on his followers all the burden of his cross. Nor were his apostles unlike him. Taking up his cross, they freely laid it on others. They were never weakened in their labours by fear of the persecutions, cruelties, losses, and deaths which resulted from the reception of their gospel. If we do our duty to God we may safely leave results in his hand. Mordecai's firmness in obeying religious principle at all costs ultimately taught him and others this great lesson.—D.
Mordecai's strange appearance at the king's gate made a stir in the palace. It was seen by Esther's "maids and chamberlains," and by them it was described to the queen. When Esther heard of the condition of the man whom she loved as a parent she was "exceedingly grieved." Then she took such measures as she could to show how much she felt and suffered with Mordecai. Let us learn from her conduct—
I. THAT IN TIMES OF TRIAL THE SYMPATHY OF THOSE WHOM WE LOVE IS A PRECIOUS THING. When Esther sent robes to Mordecai to replace his sackcloth, and loving messages with them, she would pour a real solace into his sorely-tried heart. She did not know at first the cause of his anguish, but she did her best to put her own loving heart beside his, and by the sweet contact to comfort and strengthen him in his mysterious sorrow. In many cases of suffering we can do little more than pour into the ear a breath of sympathy. That often is the best blessing that can be given or received. We should all cherish and freely exhibit" a fellow-feeling" with those of our friends who are "in any distress."
II. THAT A TRUE SYMPATHY IS EAGER TO EXPRESS ITSELF IN BENEFICIAL ACTION. Esther's first attempt to comfort Mordecai having failed, she sent a trusted servant to him to ascertain what his so loudly-pronounced manifestations of sorrow really meant. She could not live in peace while he was in such visible unrest. She longed to know all, that she might do all that she could. It is not good to indulge in idle sentiment. Many are content if they feel well, or surrender themselves for a time to tender emotions. No practical good results from their sensibility, nor is any intended. There is a good feeling which is satisfied with itself. Such was not Esther's. Let us beware of it (see Matthew 7:21; Matthew 21:28-31; Luke 10:33-35).
III. THAT THE MOST EAGER SYMPATHY MAY SEEM HELPLESS IN PRESENCE OF THE OBJECTS THAT ATTRACT IT. When Esther learned through Hatach the cause of Mordecai's distress, and received the copy of the royal decree, her sorrow and sympathy would be greatly intensified. They were now extended to all her people. Yet, queen as she was, she felt unable to do anything to give help. There are troubles before which the most powerful have to confess themselves powerless. Few griefs are so keen as that which springs from a conscious inability to satisfy the heart's compassionate yearnings. In connection with Esther's difficulties let us notice here—
1. Mordecai's charge. It was that, after reading the royal decree, Esther should go to the king and make supplication before him for her people (verse 8). This he laid upon her as a solemn duty. The obligations of duty are increased by high position and influence.
2. Esther's strait. However willing to obey Mordecai, Esther was aware of a twofold obstacle to her following his guidance in this instance. It was a universally known law of the Persian court that no one, man or woman, should approach the king uninvited under the penalty of death (verse 11). The life of any intruder, on whatever mission, could only be saved by the king's holding out to him or her his golden sceptre. In ordinary circumstances the unbidden entrance of the queen would be most likely to receive the royal sign of safety and welcome. But Esther had a special fact to communicate to Mordecai on this point. For thirty days, or a month, the king had never sought her company, and she had no hope that he might now give her an opportunity of speaking to him. This forgetfulness of Esther on the part of the king may perhaps have been owing to the vicious influence of Haman.
IV. THAT TESTING OCCASIONS ARISE IN THE HISTORY OF EVERY LIFE. No position, however exalted, is free from them. Many fail to meet them honestly and heroically, and therefore suffer more than they gain by them. Happy are those who, under the power of faith and a sense of duty, withstand and conquer them to good ends (1 Peter 1:6, 1 Peter 1:7).—D.
HOMILIES BY F. HASTINGS
The cry of the wretched.
"Then called Esther for Hatach,… and gave him a command to Mordecai, to know what it was, and why it was." Esther hears of Mordecai's grief from her maids and chamberlains. She sends raiment first. She then sends Hatach to ask Mordecai "what his grief is, and why it is." She is much troubled when she learns the real state of danger in which he and herself are placed. She does not seem to have thought so much about her people as about her uncle, who had been unto her as a father.
I. THOSE LIVING IN LUXURY AND EASE, AWAY FROM THE SIGHT OF THE TROUBLES OF THE POOR, OFTEN DO NOT FEEL ANXIOUS FOR THEIR WELFARE. This is the tendency of all luxurious life, that we measure the position of others by our own; or we think not of others as having such fine feelings. We believe it is one of the great evils of the present day that the struggle to attain and maintain what is called refined life and position, society, is crushing out the sympathy once felt for those on the lower levels. An indifferentism to their claims springs up in proportion to the anxiety to gratify personal selfishness.
II. THERE ARE MANY MORDECAIS IN EVERY CITY WEARING THE SACKCLOTH OF POVERTY, AND BEARING THE ASHES OF SORROW, WHO HAVE A STRONG CLAIM ON THE SYMPATHY OF CHRISTIANS. They want something more than mere doled-out crumbs of charity; they need a heartfelt sympathy, and real help. This is what Christ gave them on earth. He, the most intellectual, refined, and sinless Being that ever lived, bent to the lowliest, strengthened the weakest, bore with the frailest, came into closest contact with disease and sin, so that it seemed that he "himself took our infirmities," and became "sin for us." His whole life was a going out of self and living for others.—H.
"Who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" We can imagine Esther saying to herself, "Away with all my cowardice, my weak-heartedness. Why should I fear to go and plead for my people?" She says to herself, "Can I be so unworthy of my descent as an Israelite? Will God forsake me when striving to save and serve his chosen people? Come, O thou that leddest thy people as a flock, and lead me now to a prosperous ending of my hazardous work! O thou that didst break the power of Pharaoh, restrain that of our enemy! O thou that didst go forth with Joshua and help him by hailstorms from heaven against the Amalekites, unsheathe thy sword against this Agagite, this Haman who seeks our hurt! Cause me, O God, like Miriam, to praise thee in gladsome song because the enemy and his designs are alike overthrown. Unworthy am I to be an instrument in thine hands; yet, if I come to the kingdom for such a time as this, make me ready to do thy will."
I. OPPORTUNITIES FOR DOING GOOD COME TO CHRISTIANS IN EVERY PLACE. They can benefit their family, the nation, or the Church.
II. Opportunities of doing good SHOULD BE SEIZED, Gone, they may have passed for ever. Generally the opportunities of doing the greatest good are brief. The time of the death edict is approaching.
III. If opportunities are neglected it is well to have REMINDERS. Parents, friends, or ministers may be as reminding Mordecais.
IV. The thought that an opportunity is SPECIALLY GIVEN BY GOD FOR SERVING HIM has a great effect in leading to the performance of duty.—H.
HOMILIES BY W. DINWIDDLE
A bold faith.
I. DIFFICULTIES DO NOT DAUNT THE STRONG. Mordecai quite understood the force of the twofold barrier to Esther's appealing to the king. Yet if it had been a hundredfold he would have urged her to face it. Neither a legal folly nor any amount of personal risk could justify irresolution or inaction when a whole people might be saved by a bold attempt. Obstacles that seem insurmountable in ordinary times dwindle much in presence of great emergencies.
II. IF WE ARE TRUE TO GOD OURSELVES WE SHALL WISH AND PRAY THAT OUR BELOVED ONES MAY BE TRUE ALSO. No being on earth was so precious to Mordecai as Esther, but his very love would long to see her faithful to her God and country. Esther would have been to him no longer what she had been in the past if now she had failed to undertake the mission which God seemed to lay upon her. Parents send forth their sons to do battle for their country, and they would much rather that they should die on the field than prove recreant to honour and duty.
III. A FAITHFUL LOVE IS RATIONAL IN ITS DEMANDS. We should neither make sacrifice ourselves, nor ask sacrifice from others, without good cause. In such cases we should be clear in our faith and judgment. To Mordecai Esther seemed the one appointed instrument of thwarting Haman and saving Israel. The reasons of this conviction he stated to the queen with great simplicity and force. Let us look at them.
1. As a Jewess, her life was already doomed. Let the edict once be put in force, let blood once be shed, and even she would not escape, any more than Vashti, the immutability of Persian law. Better to risk life in trying to prevent a dreadful iniquity than to expose it by a timid quiescence to almost certain death.
2. If she failed, deliverance would come by another. Here was an expression of a strong and prophetic faith; and in it we learn the secret of Mordecai's persistent opposition to Haman. He trusted in God, and had a firm persuasion that God would yet deliver his people. Esther and her house might be destroyed, but some other saviour would be raised up to testify to the faithfulness anal omnipotence of the God of Israel. God is not dependent on any one instrument, or on any multiple of one. He raises up and casts down at will, and chooses his servants. Amidst all the weaknesses of his people his covenant stands sure.
3. She might have been raised to the throne just for the purpose of saving her people at this juncture. The circumstances of her elevation were peculiar. There was a mystery in them which indicated to the thoughtful Mordecai the hand of God. To some extent the mystery was now explained. Esther was the instrument provided by God for the "enlargement and deliverance of Israel." Every opportunity of doing good is virtually a Divine call. When God points the way we should pursue it, at whatever cost, as the only right way. The providence of God is often remarkably shown in the occasions which demand from us special service for him and his people.
IV. A MIND THAT CLOSES ITSELF AGAINST CONVICTION IS ITS OWN ENEMY. Whether from fear, or pride, or evil inclinations, many harden themselves against the demonstrations of reason and experience; they shut the window of the soul against any fresh light. They take a stand which implies the impossibility of any change or advancement. Reasoning is lost on them. But Esther at once felt and acknowledged the force of Mordecai's argument. She could not resist it, and did not try. Her heart was convinced, and in the answer she returned she frankly confessed it. An openness to conviction is a condition of growth and usefulness; stubborn prejudice is a bar to wisdom and its fruits.
V. CONVICTIONS SHOULD BE CARRIED OUT IN ACTION. We are often tempted to act in opposition to the dictates of our inward judgment. The will may fail to be governed even by the deepest conviction. It is sad when acknowledged truth and actual conduct are at variance with each other. Esther affords us an example of loyal obedience to conviction, in face of the weightiest temptation to set it aside. Having been convinced by Mordecai's representations, she resolved to do what these urged upon her as a sacred duty. And in the words by which she conveyed her purpose to Mordecai she gave a remarkable display of—
1. Piety. The three days' fast which she laid on herself and her maidens inside the palace, and on Mordecai and the Jews of Shushan, was a humble and prayerful casting of the whole matter on Divine help. No mention is made of prayers, but the fast was all a prayer. The queen knew her own weakness; she knew also the true Source of strength; she felt that the work was God's, and that she was but a feeble instrument in his hands; and, therefore, she desired her countrymen to unite with her in humiliation and supplication before the God of Israel. Trial achieves much of its purpose when it brings a soul thus to the feet of God under a sense of dependence on his merciful succour. Victory is really won when endangered weakness feels itself under the shadow of the Almighty.
2. Heroism. All irresolution had now faded from Esther's mind. Having appealed to God, she was no longer doubtful; strength had already been given her. She was prepared for the sacrifice. "If I perish, I perish." A godly heroism!—one inspired by God and fed by communion with him. Esther's words were not emotional, or self-confident, or desperate; they were the result of earnest meditation, and must not be separated from her proposal of a three days' fast. We are reminded by them of the words of our Lord when communing with his Father before he went to the cross: "Nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done." Esther is a type of Israel's Messiah. We see in her conduct at this time the working of that Holy Spirit who led God's Son to the sacrifice of himself for the salvation of men.
VI. THE WAY INTO THE PRESENCE OF THE KING OF KINGS is open and free to all who truly seek him. To the earnest suppliant or loving child the Divine majesty is not hedged round by formalities that create distance and terror. God is near to all who call upon him. He dwells with the humble and contrite. All may come to him by the way that he has consecrated in his Son, and come at any time. None are refused a hearing and a welcome. There is joy in the presence of his angels over every one that seeks his face.—D.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
Resolving to run risks.
Deep and intense, if not prolonged, must have been the struggle in the breast of the beautiful queen of Persia. The doom that awaited her if she was unfavourably received was terrible, and would be immediately executed. She had not only to do that which was "not according to the law" (Esther 4:16), but also to ask a great boon of the king, to bring before him her Jewish extraction, and to measure her influence against that of the great favourite. She did not seem at this time to be in any especial favour with Ahasuerus (Esther 4:11), and it appeared as if the human chances were much against success. But the nobler motives triumphed in the struggle; she would not refuse to attempt this great deliverance, let come what might. The worst was death, and "if she perished, she perished" (Esther 4:16). These are memorable words; if they are not often on human lips, the thought which breathes in them is often in human minds, and the feeling of which they are eloquent is often in human hearts. Men in every age and land are running great risks, trusting everything to one cast of the dice, imperilling life, or much if not all that makes life dear, on some one hazard. The words of Esther are sometimes found on lips unworthy to use them; they are perverted or misapplied. Sometimes they are
THE UTTERANCE OF MORAL HEROISM. Esther came to her conclusion after serious and earnest thought. Her life was dear to her. She had everything to make it precious and worth keeping if she honourably could, but affection for her kindred and interest in her race weighed all selfish considerations down. She would go forward, and if she did perish, her life thus lost would not be a vain and worthless sacrifice, but a glorious martyrdom. Such struggles men are still called on to pass through, such victory to gain: the soldier as he steps into rank on the day of battle; the philanthropist as he visits the hospital or waits on the wounded ones lying stricken on the field of slaughter; the physician as he goes his round when the pestilence is raging; the sailor as he mans the lifeboat; the evangelist as he penetrates into the haunt of the vicious and the violent criminal; the missionary as he lands among the savage tribe. In presence of this risk-running of ours, we remark—
1. That though we may timidly shrink at first, yet afterwards we may do noble service. Witness this case of Esther, and that of Moses (Exodus 4:13).
2. That if not the greater, yet the lesser risks we should all be ready to run. If not life itself (1 John 3:16), some precious things in life. Something surely, if not much, in health, or money, or friendship, or reputation, or comfort we will venture for Christ and for our fellows. If we never undertake anything but that in which there is perfect security from injury and loss, we shall do nothing, we shall "stand all the day idle."
3. That we have the very strongest inducement to run great risks. The will of Christ (Matthew 16:25); the example of Christ; the example of Christian heroes and heroines; the crying need of the world; the blessed alternative of present triumph, for if we perish we do not perish, but live eternally.
4. That we should sustain the hands of those who are passing through perils for us. Esther s maidens and "the Jews present in Shushan (verse 16) fasted (and prayed), that the end might be as they hoped. We who wait while others labour or fight must "strengthen our brethren;" we must seek by our earnest prayer to touch the hand that turns the heart of kings, and that holds and guides all the threads of human destiny.—C.
HOMILIES BY P.C. BARKER
The suggestion for the hour.
"And knoweth whether the art come to the kingdom for such a time as this? The history is very easily understood as carried forward in the preceding thirteen verses of this chapter. The faith of Mordecai does not always seem at its best, and his apparent suspicion of Esther (verse 14) seems scarcely in close accord with the thought that "deliverance will arise to the Jews" from some quarter. Probably he felt that it was his to use all the means, to let nothing go by default, and to tax himself with an hundredfold earnestness of effort, since by his conduct it was that the present calamity had found its occasion. And, on the other hand, one cannot but notice and admire how his mind evidently searched all round for the providence of the God of himself and his people. This it is which transpires in this passage, "And who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" We may forget awhile the relation which existed between Mordecai and Esther; for it is neither teacher nor taught that need monopolise attention, though in this case they naturally attract it. But let us notice—
I. THE EXACT POSITION WHICH NEEDED STIMULATING HELP AND DIRECTION.
1. It was one that could not have been calculated for or provided against. It was unforeseen, and it would have been unreasonable to exact that it should have been foreseen. As matter of fact, Mordecai's stored memory might possibly have been able to produce historical instances of atrocities in their outside like the present. But, even then, not as the result of the offence of one unimportant individual offered to one courtier. The hand of Mordecai had indeed touched a spring which set going unexpected machinery of fearful kind to unexpectedly threatening effect. But the touching of that spring was not an idle act. It was not an accidental or an inquisitive act. It was better even than an innocent act. For it was right and brave, and full of moral courage. Of the many times we find ourselves involved in perplexity, in unexpected danger, how often can we say as much as this?
2. It was one involving the tenderest considerations. Apprehensions were indefinitely intensified by the interests of incalculable moment which were known to be concerned. Hearts inexpressibly dear, lives innumerable, and invested now more than ever with an awful and mysterious sacredness, were in question. These were the very things to unedge discernment and to unnerve purpose.
3. It was an occasion, the whole weight of which showed now as if gathering into one bulk, and moving over the head and anxious heart of one woman. It is apparent throughout, even when Mordecai seems to urge Esther, and not to pity, that her one. her only unresting desire was to know the rightest, best course to take. She was already a gilded victim, a captive bird that had ever most of all loved freedom, a prisoner in fetters, not less fetters because each link was of wrought gold. How could she tune her harp, and sweep its strings, and sing her song in that strange place? Yet he who loved her dearest and most prised all that she was, helpless to resist the rapacity of those who rifled his honest threshold, kept as near as possible to that prison of a palace, that it was, which held her (Esther 2:11). He found in his heart the undying seed of some faith, and some inexplicable hope, that there was possibly a reason in it all, and a use for it all, and that "somehow good would be the final goal of ill" so hard to bear. In all the inimitable brevity of Scripture, what a tale of love and loss, and of the hanging on to uncertain hope, escapee from within these fewest words! And was it she, the object of this tender solicitude, who was competent to bear the overhanging load of responsibility, and the brunt of blame, in case of failure? Stouter hearts and of sterner stuff than all with which we can credit Esther would collapse before the prospect.
4. It was an occasion distracted by aggravating contradictions. If all is to depend on Esther, as she is now urged to believe, there was every motive for action, but overwhelming reasons for inaction. Love, apparent duty, urgent expostulation, the pressure of beloved command, the impetus of long habits of obedience, all pointed one way, and said one thing. But it was not the merely slothful man's lion in the way that bid her beware of that way, and think of another. No; it was reason, by the dictates of which men not only rightly act, but also rightly abstain from acting. It was calmness of judgment, the more to be admired because the circumstances were enough to unbalance almost any judgment. It was matter of knowledge with Esther, and of universal consent in addition, that the peril was what none but the madman, or the desperate, or the extremity of despair itself would dare to face. Can this be defended then as just ground for moral action, when there are ten thousand chances against you, and what you endanger is your all? There can be no doubt as to the right answer to this, except for the occasion, the emergency of which lies in the fact that some advance must be made. Those passages of life, far from unknown to us, which are of this kind still present the most trying problems of our whole history.
II. THE EXACT POSITION WHICH THE INSTRUCTOR TOOK.
1. It was one that seemed hard, that inclined to the unfeeling. This is exactly what a teacher's position must not unfrequently seem, seem without being so. Even to those who overhear, his tones sound sharp and quick, just as those of Mordecai do now to us. We must do justice to Mordecai. We may justly suppose that he knew the circumstances precisely, the mental character of Esther precisely, the precise point of the dangerous way where she would need a moment's quick help, the momentary stimulus of the master's sharp summons, lest she should yield. "Even as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty." Mordecai knew that history, and dared not take for granted that his Esther was better, safer, stronger than God's Eve. The luxurious palace of Persia was a poor travesty of the charms of Eden, but it had its seductions. And there was no knowing where the serpent did not lurk.
2. It was one that applied itself to move at once that whole description of hindrance to right action which arises from self-regard. This is a native principle, one of the greatest significance, of essential and unnumbered uses. The vast mass of humanity could never be moved along of any external force whatsoever; but this Divine contrivance, this merciful provision—a spring of energy and action in each and every unit of which the mass is made—throws life into it. The unwieldy loses its unwieldiness, its movements are determined, and its advance is irresistible. Valuable, however, as this principle of self-regard, it easily oversteps a certain border-line. All the indications with regard to Esther look another way. She has self-regard, she is the opposite of selfish. At first the tone of Mordecai seems somewhat out of harmony, however, with this supposition. But, on the other hand, it is quite open to us to believe that he had no individual suspicion of Esther. He distrusted not her, but the extreme peril of the situation for human nature. His well-versed knowledge, by experience and by observation, of the dangerous points where human nature was liable to the most sudden and disastrous break-downs made him tremble for the Esther he loved so well. These two things he knew: first, that there was in sight a certain powerful assault of temptation for Esther; secondly, that one of the grandest achievements of any shepherd of souls is when he cuts off the enemy's approach by the simple method of preventing the object of attack from straying away alone.
3. Last of all, when these negative preparations were made a great step in advance is taken. We will suppose that Mordecai had done some little violence to his own feelings and affections, for he had not been accustomed before to use such peremptory tones or personal arguments to Esther. But it was worth while to take some pains, in order to prepare for the moment that was coming. The moment had come. He plies his last argument. He knows it is his best by far. He watches for its effect, but without much doubt as to what it would be. From the lower arguments of policy, of appeal to feeling, of memory dishonoured, he crosses over to religious appeal. It scarcely amounted to appeal. It was a fruitful hint. Let it fall in the right soil, and fertile as the soil, so fruitful would the seed be. A woman's discernment is notably quick, and her sight intuition, and the eye of Esther opened and met the eye of Heaven falling on her and on all her anxiety. This eye, like that of a portrait, followed her now everywhere. And timid, baffled, almost numb faith felt its own hand again, and reached it forth to that which was offered to it. This was the suggestion that solved the problem, exiled hesitation, and decided that action should get the better of inaction,—"And who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?"—B.
Self's supreme capitulation.
"If I perish, I perish." The suggestion of Providence being concerned in the matter was like life from the dead to Esther. The idea of Providence having been now some time working up to this point was an immense comfort and impulse to her mind. It was a flash of light that lit up the whole scene for one moment. And when that one moment was sped, the darkness that returned was not. as before, unrelieved. There was a distinct line of light athwart it. Confidence as to the final issue of all was far from present. Nothing like absolute conviction that in the end all would be well could Esther boast. Suspense in some shape still prolonged its unwelcomed sojourn. But it was no longer the agonised suspense of not knowing what to do, of not knowing whether to move at all. The pent-up heart is bad enough, but solitary confinement must make it much worse. Pent-up hope is a terrible strain, but the strain becomes much worse when it must be tolerated without one active effort, one healthy struggle. This phase of things had now passed by for Esther. She had gone faithfully through it, and was none the worse for having treated it as a thing that needed to be gone through faithfully and unhurriedly. Mordecai was not necessarily in the right when he seemed to wonder at Esther's hesitation. Though we credit him with being a wise man, a good man, and very full of pride in Esther and love to her, Esther very likely felt that he had not put himself quite in her position, and could not do so. But it was because she had gone faithfully through the struggle, and well looked at the question on both sides, and considered its alternative difficulties and perils, that when enough light did come she used it in a moment; and when thought had done its fair amount of work, hesitation fled, and determination succeeded to its place. To wearied human inquiry, to exhausted human resources, to bewildered human wisdom, comes in most welcome the ministry little thought of before, of the Invisible. You are immediately disposed to gift it with omniscience and all power. And the theory of a Providence, anticipating, interposing, overruling, becomes faith. It is embraced with ardour, and soon shows that it possesses the highest stimulus to duty. This never fails to answer obedient to its call, even though when it answers obedient it brings this exclamation to the steps of the altar, "If I perish, I perish!" Let us observe that this is the impassioned exclamation—
I. Of one WHO FELT THE RELIEF OF AT LAST SEEING DUTY. The mind must have groped about in darkness, must have been distressed by doubt, must have known conflict even to anguish, before it would have expressed itself thus, and here is some part of its relief. Esther had come to see it, not "through tears," perhaps, with their more purified light, but through the most painful obscurities and harassing incertitude.
II. Of one WHO SAW DUTY TO FOLLOW IT at its proper cost. The sight of duty is often the signal for shutting the eyes, for turning the back, for filling the mind with diverting occupation, for trying, by one method or another, to forget it. Not so here.
III. Of one whose fixed resolve WAS NOT DUE TO DESPERATION, nor to stoicism; not due to over-wrought feeling, nor to blunted sense and affection and faculty. The fixed determination here betokened was that of one who had "counted the cost," who evidently felt the cost to be that denoted by a very large price, and one which merited consideration first.
IV. Of one WHO HAD SO ESTIMATED THE TASK WHICH SHE WAS TO ATTEMPT THAT SHE BEGGED HELP, begged sympathy—begged that chiefest kind of help, the union of all kindred souls in religious exercises, in religious prostration before the Unseen, in the faith unfeigned which believed it possible and right to strive with all conceivable endeavour to influence and prevail upon the sovereign Disposer of all things.
V. Of one WHOSE ENTERPRISE, IF FATAL, WAS BOUND TO WIN THE CROWN OF THE MARTYR. Whose enterprise, if not fatal, but yet unsuccessful, bore testimony to the will, the courage, the spirit of the martyr. Whose enterprise, if neither fatal nor unsuccessful, but, on the contrary, leading the way to more abundant glory and joy here, yet still had this testimony about it, that it had practically shown the best part of any sacrifice, and through the cross had reached the crown.
VI. Of one WHOSE SPIRIT BREATHED RESIGNATION WHERE IT DID NOT REACH TO THE SUBLIMER HEIGHT OF TRUST. For whatever reason, Esther had not attained to the exercise of a calm trust. She more distrusted the badness of the circumstances than she trusted the goodness of her cause; the badness of the king's whim than the goodness of the purpose which was far above his; the badness of the earthly law than the goodness of that mercy which is "high as the heavens and vast as the clouds." It would seem evident that her knowledge was not clear. One of the people of God, yet, for want of priest and prophet, of sacrifice and of temple-worship, of dream, of oracle, of seer, times went hard with her religious education. The "word of God was precious in those days," and in that land of her captivity; and she the sufferer thereby.
The lessons suggested by the language of this supreme scene in the conflict of Esther are numerous, and of a remarkably diversified kind.
1. The figure of human virtue here is impressive in its consent to bow to vicarious suffering, though it were only consent; in its love, and solicitude, and obedience, and in the conduct of its own struggles.
2. The reproach is ever memorable which it conveys to how many—whose knowledge is light itself, yet whose thought and deed fall so far below those of one whose knowledge was manifestly very partial, very clouded.
3. The cry is arresting because of its strong sympathy of tone with the cry of one who feels himself a real sinner against the law of God, and finds himself as yet more "driven" because of the conviction of that sin, and the overshading dread of its liability to punishment, than he finds himself drawn of the mercy of his God, and able to repose deep, calm trust in his Saviour. The soul urged by conviction of sin, oppressed with the sense of its desert of wrath, and tremblingly afraid of death, has often found its way aright to the cross, though to use words carrying the most impossible of significations for any, once arrived there—"If I perish, I perish!"
4. Whatever we may justly admire of the spirit of Esther here displayed, and of the steps by which she rose to it as she contemplated her own possible and, as she thought, likely sacrifice, how glad we are to turn away to the tremendously favourable contrast of him whose vicarious sufferings, whose infinite love, whose eternal sacrifice, was certain, was voluntary, was cheerful amid surpassing anguish, and patient with the patience of the lamb sacrificed.—B.
HOMILIES BY F. HASTINGS
Prayer and resolve.
"Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me," etc.
I. ESTHER'S FAITH IN PRAYER. She looks to God, not to man. She has faith not only in her own prayers, but in those of others. She feels her need of the prayers of others. She is ready to share that which she enjoins on others.
II. ESTHER'S PIETY KNOWN IN THE PALACE. Her maidens are so under her influence that she knows that they all will be ready to join in the observance of fasting and in offering prayer to the God of Israel. This was a remarkable thing, remembering that these maidens belonged to an Oriental and pagan court.
III. ESTHER'S DECISION TO DARE ANYTHING FOR THE SAKE OF OTHERS. Great her decision of character! She will not let the opportunity for helping others pass, and then strive to atone for her neglect by useless regrets. How great her devotion! "If I perish, I perish!" She would certainly have perished if she had not gone in to the king. The decrees of a Persian monarch were unalterable. Remember how Darius was sore displeased with himself, and set his heart on Daniel to deliver him, and laboured to the going down of the sun to deliver him. He doubtless sought to devise means of maintaining the law and yet evading its import. Into the den of ]ions Daniel, the king's favourite, was cast, and to the slaughter Esther, though queen, would have been, by ruthless decree, when the time was come; but prayer, fasting, decision, saved her. God interposed to soften the heart of the king, as well as to give him a sleepless night, perhaps from a disturbed conscience.—H.
HOMILIES BY D. ROWLANDS
Providence and human agency.
We are very apt to under-estimate the value of our own lives. When we contemplate the countless worlds which constitute the universe, the countless ages which make up duration, how unspeakably insignificant do we and our affairs appear l But we must not be misled by such reflections. Even as the presence of the least particle conceivable affects all material existence, so the most insignificant human life influences in some measure the eternal course of events. Mordecai wished to impress Esther with a due sense of her own responsibility. She was not an ordinary individual, but a queen; she was allied to the man who swayed the destinies of nations; her position invested her with boundless power for good or evil. The time had come when she must either act in a manner becoming her resources, must use the opportunities at her disposal to save her people, or incur the guilt of neglecting her duty at the most momentous crisis. As a Jew, Mordecai believed in Providence, but not in a Providence that weakened human responsibility. Let us consider the main points emphasised here.
I. THAT PROVIDENCE IS INDEPENDENT OF HUMAN AGENCY. "For if thou altogether boldest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place." These words suggest—
1. That Providence is a well-established fact. The confidence of Mordecai was doubtless begotten of a conviction that God governs the affairs of men. To him this was not a matter of speculation; for, apart from the teaching of reason, he enjoyed the light of revelation, and was familiar with the wonderful history of his people. Some profess to derive comfort from their atheism. They rejoice to think that there is no God; or, if there be one, that he has left the world to manage for itself. As well might the passengers in a railway train be jubilant because they had got rid of the engineer, and were left to the mercy of an unguided locomotive.
2. Tidal the designs of Providence are never thwarted. The Jews had not yet fulfilled their mission. The great Deliverer of mankind who was to come out of Judah had not appeared. Mordecai knew that until the Divine purposes were accomplished the nation could not be destroyed. Hence the sublime assurance of his speech. The Jews had passed through a similar crisis before, when Pharaoh pursued them through the Red Sea. Profane history abounds with like instances. The Greeks were about to be. crushed by the iron heel of the invader when they won the battle of Marathon. The English nearly lost their independence through the Spanish Armada, which the tempest scattered to the four winds of heaven. We should never be bowed down by calamities. If we are children of the great Father we need not fear. Above, beneath, and around us there are unseen powers which steadily carry out his eternal decrees.
3. That Providence is the refuge of the oppressed. To no other power could the Jews have appealed in their dire distress. The wealth, and rank, and influence of the greatest empire in the world were against them. We need not wonder if they gave way to despair. But the God of Abraham had arranged for their sure deliverance. The labours of legislators, philanthropists, and divines had been powerless to release the negro race in the United States of America from their intolerable bondage. Their wrongs seemed to multiply, and their fetters to be more securely fastened, as the years rolled on. But an incident as terrible as it was unexpected—the civil war—led them to liberty. Let the oppressor tremble, and the oppressed be encouraged; for the triumph of might over right cannot be permanent.
II. THAT PROVIDENCE AVAILS ITSELF OF HUMAN AGENCY. "But thou and thy father's house shall be destroyed: and who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" Providence is not a synonym for fate. While it employs human agency, it never interferes with individual liberty; it leaves every man accountable for his conduct, whether of omission or commission. The words of Mordecai imply—
1. That Providence places men in certain positions for definite ends: "Who knoweth," etc. The supposition in this case was natural. The elevation of Esther, just before the threatened destruction of the Jews, was most significant. It pointed out to her the way of duty with unmistakable precision. Are we in difficulties as to what our own life-work may be? If so, it must be due to want of reflection. Rulers and subjects, rich and poor, learned and unlearned, have their distinct spheres of action in reference to material interests; their work is cut out for them, so to speak, by the very circumstances in which they are placed. In like manner we might nearly always answer the question, "Lord, what wilt thou have us to do?" by answering another question far less profound, "What can we do?"
2. That Providence chastises men for their unfaithfulness. "But thou and thy father's house shall be destroyed." Mordecai felt certain that if Esther failed to do what lay in her power to avert the coming calamity she would be singled out for retribution. To be in a position of influence at the very time when that influence could be turned to such a noble account, and yet remain culpably inactive, would have been to invite the reproaches of men and the anger of God. Deliverance would doubtless have arisen from another quarter, and in that case she might have persuaded herself that her own efforts were superfluous; but the sophistry which so easily deluded her own mind would have been powerless to arrest the course of righteous punishment. The ways of Providence are very mysterious; things come to pass in the most inexplicable manner; but we need not be baffled thereby. What is to be will be, in spite of our negligence, in spite of our indolence, in spite of our opposition; but woe be to us, for all that, if we fulfil not the duties of our position. In the checking of war, in the progress of civilisation, in the diffusion of knowledge, in the advancement of religion, we have each his allotted share, and there is a tribunal before which we must all answer for the manner in which we acquit ourselves. The Jews in the time of Deborah and Barak triumphed over their enemies, but Meroz was not therefore excused for its cowardly inactivity. "Curse ye Meroz, said the angel of the Lord, curse ye bitterly the inhabitants thereof; because they came not to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the mighty."—R.
The absence throughout this book of any reference to God is a most peculiar feature. Some have, on this ground, gone the length of denying its Divine authority. But the religious spirit is so prominent in this verse as to deprive such an objection of its force. Note that the proof of piety should not be sought in the language men employ, but rather in the principles which guide their conduct. There are circumstances which compel men to be real. In the presence of a great disaster, a great sorrow, or a great danger they manifest their true character. Esther had at this time comprehended the awful possibilities of the situation; cruel, speedy, certain death stared her in the face; and the first thing she did in her agony was to appeal to God, the God of her fathers, whom she now openly acknowledged as the arbiter of events. Observe—
I. THAT THE BELIEVER NEVER ENTERS UPON A SOLEMN UNDERTAKING WITHOUT INVOKING THE FAVOUR OF GOD. "Go and gather all the Jews," etc. The fast was to be long and general, such as became the solemnity of the occasion. Fasting must be regarded as an Oriental custom, which well suits the demonstrative disposition of the people, who give vent to their griefs, their joys, and their religious ardour in extravagant outward manifestations. The custom is not enjoined upon us in Scripture, though doubtless it ought not to be prohibited in cases where it may be of spiritual advantage. But the principle which underlies the custom is universal, namely, that increased devotion gives strength for the performance of duty.
1. Esther desired others to interest themselves in her behalf. "Fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day. The human heart craves for sympathy, which, when obtained, gives courage in the hour of trial. Thus the missionary in foreign lands, when he remembers that thousands of his brethren are pleading his cause with God at a certain appointed season, forgets his isolation and nerves himself afresh for his work. Besides this, we have reason to believe that the fervent prayers of righteous men, even when offered for others, avail on high.
2. Esther, while she sought the sympathy of others, was careful also to perform her own part. "I also and my maidens will fast likewise." The aid of others is liable to be over-estimated, and thus may become a snare to those who seek it. No scene on earth is more deeply affecting than that presented by a minister of religion kneeling at the bedside of a dying sinner, praying God to have mercy upon his soul; but if the dying man relies solely upon what the minister can do for him he is the victim of a terrible delusion. "The consolations of the Church," administered to the impenitent in his extremity, are sometimes worse than a mockery; for a notion is entertained that the priest relieves him of all responsibility as regards his spiritual condition. The prayers of others may help our own, but can never make them unnecessary. Observe again—
II. ESTHER'S APPEAL TO THE KING AS COMPARED WITH THE PENITENT'S APPEAL TO GOD. "And so will I go unto the king," etc. We are struck, in the first place, by several points of resemblance.
1. Esther was bowed down by a crushing load of sorrow. Her nation, her kindred, and even her own life, were in jeopardy. Their enemies were already making preparations for the ghastly carnival of blood. The thought of innocent babes and helpless women being dragged to the slaughter, amidst the derisive shouts of furious crowds, thrilled her heart with unutterable anguish. The penitent has been brought face to face with his lost condition. Ruin, death, despair, encompass him round about. Like the publican, he smites upon his breast and cries, "Lord be merciful to me a sinner."
2. Esther felt that no one besides the king had power to help her. To propitiate Haman would have been impossible, for the infamous plot was of his contrivance. To gain the favour of any other prince would have been useless so long as Haman occupied such an exalted position. There was no one left but the king to whom it was advisable to appeal. The penitent looks up to God as his only refuge. He abandons indifference, he renounces pleasure, he spurns self-righteousness; for he perceives how utterly powerless they are to shelter him from the wrath to come. He is persuaded that if he is to be rescued it must be through the intervention of the Almighty.
3. Esther was willing to stake all upon one bold appeal. "If I perish, I perish!" She knew the stern law which ordained certain death for those who came unbidden into the king's presence, unless he held out the golden sceptre to them. She knew also the capricious temper of the king, who, after such ardent professions of attachment, had not wished to see her for the last thirty days. Still she had sufficient faith in his generosity to put it to the test, in spite, of unfavourable appearances. The penitent is probably not without some misgivings when he first turns to God. Not that he doubts for a moment the goodness; mercy, and loving-kindness of God, but because he sees the enormity of his own guilt. Yet he ventures into the Divine presence; and when he remembers that God spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, he is confident that his suit will not be in vain.
But we are struck, in the second place, with several points of contrast.
1. The penitent is encouraged by God's express invitation—Esther had no encouragement of the kind. For various reasons the king desired that his privacy should be undisturbed. Hence the severity of the law in reference to intruders. But God's heart yearns over the penitent, and, like the prodigal's father in the parable, eagerly watches for his approach. "Look unto me," saith he, "and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is none else." "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."
2. The penitent appeals to God with the certainty of being heard—Esther had no certainty of the kind. Her confidence at best amounted to no more than a hope; and we can easily conceive that this hope varied in strength, from hour to hour, according to her frame of mind. But not a shadow of doubt need ever cross the penitent's mind. He can lay hold on the Divine promises—promises whose foundations are firmer than those of the eternal bills.
3. The penitent can appeal to God whenever and wherever he will—Esther had to wait her opportunity. The king, no doubt, had his own way of spending his time, with which Esther must have been well acquainted. He would not be seen anywhere and at any time even by those who might venture into his presence without permission. And had he been far from home at this very time, a circumstance which sometimes happened, access to him would have been absolutely impossible. But God is not subject to the limitations of time and space. At midnight as at midday, in the wilderness as in the city, in adversity as in prosperity, the penitent can always find him. "Out of the depths," saith the Psalmist, "have I cried unto thee, O Lord."—R.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Esther 4". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany