The Empire Strikes Back: The Jews in Iran – A Just and Proportionate Retaliation? (Esther 9) from Stephen Sizer on Vimeo.
This week saw the birth of the newest nation in the world – The Republic of South Sudan. After centuries of slavery and colonialism, 55 years ago, Sudan finally won independence from British rule. But the suffering was only just beginning. In our life time, Sudan has endured two major, protracted, civil wars. Estimates suggest at least two and a half million people died. Quite a price for self determination.
In September, the Palestinian government will also seek UN approval to be recognised as an independent sovereign state, based on the June 1967 borders with Israel. The aspirations of the Palestinian people go back even further than Sudan, at least to the UN Partition Plan of 1947, 63 years ago, another legacy of failed British imperialism. Unlike South Sudan, however, the United States will veto the declaration in the UN Security Council. Israel is presently buying votes in the UN General Assembly to avoid a 2/3 majority endorsing the declaration.
But will that end Palestinian aspirations for independence? Is the Freedom Flotilla, presently detained by the Greek authorities, a humanitarian attempt to relieve suffering in Gaza or is it an existential threat to Israel’s existence? The Israel ambassador to Spain, Raphael Schutz, said this on Friday. There is “no humanitarian crisis” or shortage of food and medicine in Gaza. The Freedom Flotilla should be seen “for what it is: a propaganda event intended to build solidarity with a terrorist group that wants to wipe Israel off the map and kill the greatest possible number of Jews and Israelis.”
Many Jewish people fear there will be further attempts to annihilate them. Unfortunately there has been plenty of historical precedents. Comparisons between Ahmadinejad and Hitler are common, even among the wiki-leaked US diplomatic cables. So how should we respond? Clearly anti-Semitism is evil. Racism is unacceptable and must not be tolerated.
But how should we respond to those who threaten Israel’s existence? Pastor John Hagee is the leader of the 20,000 member, Cornerstone Church in San Antonio in Texas.
His views are broadcast weekly to around 100 million homes through TV and radio. He will also be speaking in Birmingham at a Bible Prophecy conference in August unless the Home Secretary banns his visit. He offers one novel solution. He said recently,
“The United States must join Israel in a pre-emptive military strike against Iran to fulfill God’s plan for both Israel and the West… a biblically prophesied end-time confrontation with Iran, which will lead to the Rapture, Tribulation, and Second Coming of Christ.”
So what is the difference between the pre-emptive military strike advocated by Pastor Hagee and the pre-emptive military strike advocated by Esther 2,500 years ago? Well lets find out. According to the United Nations there are currently over 32 armed conflicts in the world, causing more than 1,000 deaths per year. Although the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ was only coined in 1992, during the Bosnian-Serb civil war, it has clearly been practised for thousands of years. So when we turn to this final episode in the story of Esther, are we not witnessing the same kind of barbaric, tribal, ethnic cleansing we see in places like Iraq, Burma, Ossetia, Kashmir, Indonesia and Botswana?
There is, I think superficially, an element of truth in this. Human nature has not improved over time. I do not imagine the Jews and the Iranians of Esther’s day were anymore righteous than their contemporaries. Certainly we are no more righteous than they. But why does this story of Esther have to end in this way? Why do we recoil from the slaughter? More importantly, why is it recorded here in the Scriptures? We shall find an explanation. It may not be palatable, but it is given. As we reach the penultimate episode in the story of Esther, observe:
The Means of Israel’s Deliverance (Esther 9:1-4)
The Completeness of Israel’s Deliverance (9:5-17)
The Purpose of Israel’s Deliverance (9:18-10:3)
Next week, John Bunyan will expound the last chapter and summarise the book as a whole. For now, lets observe, first of all,
1. The Means of Israel’s Deliverance (Esther 9:1-4)
“On the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar, the edict commanded by the king was to be carried out. On this day the enemies of the Jews had hoped to overpower them, but now the tables were turned and the Jews got the upper hand over those who hated them. The Jews assembled in their cities in all the provinces of King Xerxes to attack those determined to destroy them. No one could stand against them, because the people of all the other nationalities were afraid of them. And all the nobles of the provinces, the satraps, the governors and the king’s administrators helped the Jews, because fear of Mordecai had seized them. Mordecai was prominent in the palace; his reputation spread throughout the provinces, and he became more and more powerful.” (Esther 9:1-4)
Royal authority primarily accounts for this deliverance. But behind these momentous events, the recurring theme uncovered on every page, is the unseen hand of God. What the world calls ‘coincidence, Christians spell ‘providence’. The story of Esther is remarkable for showing us God’s providential ruling in human affairs, guiding, protecting, and saving his people. As Matthew Henry puts it, “God’s unseen hand is clearly at work on every page.”
But not with a Disney-style fairy tale ending. We see here the raw and brutal reality of fallen human existence. The means of Israel’s deliverance.
2. The Completeness of Israel’s Deliverance (9:5-17)
“The Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying them, and they did what they pleased to those who hated them. In the citadel of Susa, the Jews killed and destroyed five hundred men. They also killed Parshandatha, Dalphon, Aspatha, Poratha, Adalia, Aridatha, Parmashta, Arisai, Aridai and Vaizatha, the ten sons of Haman son of Hammedatha, the enemy of the Jews. But they did not lay their hands on the plunder.” (Esther 9:5-10)
Two questions we must ask: Israel’s deliverance may have been complete but was the vindication justified?
2.1 Was the Vindication Justified?
The official authorisation for Israel’s deliverance is explicit.
“A copy of the text of the edict was to be issued as law in every province and made known to the people of every nationality so that the Jews would be ready on that day to avenge themselves on their enemies.” (Esther 8:13)
How can Christians who take Jesus seriously when he said “love your enemies” not feel uncomfortable. Countries blessed by a Judeo-Christian heritage were largely responsible for drawing up the Geneva Conventions which specify how war may be conducted and explicitly protect the rights of non-combatants, medical personnel and prisoners of war. It is to be regretted that the British Parliament is being coerced into allowing the government to decide who may be charged with war crimes, rather than leaving it to the impartiality of lawyers and judges. Although not always practised, it has long been part of our Western heritage that enemies should be treated with kindness. As the 16th Century proverb insists, “The noblest vengeance is to forgive.” Surely avenging oneself, however just, is uncivilised, even primitive?
It is essential that we realise we bring our cultural conditioning (and baggage) to our reading of the Bible. We must therefore make a conscious effort to understand the situation of God’s people at this moment in their history. But first, it may be helpful to see how our language has adopted two sets of words with a common origin but with very different meanings. “Avenge” and “vengeance” came into English from the Latin “vindicaire” via the French equivalent. However, the word “vindicate” came into English direct from the Latin. Although the words have a common ancestry, something happened in the translation from Latin into French then into English and so the words now have very different meanings. So, the verb “to vindicate” has altogether commendable overtones, e.g. “a good judge vindicates the innocent”.
However, the verb “to avenge” and “vengeance” have negative overtones. We associate them with emotional reactions prompted by hatred. In Esther 8:13, the word translated “avenge” does not mean to take vengeance but to inflict authorised and justified punishment, even pre-emptively, to avoid greater suffering. So what the king authorises was vindication not vengeance. It is true that the word is used in the Hebrew scriptures of acts of personal revenge, but in over half the cases it is used of God’s righteous vindication, bringing justice. In this case we are not witnessing acts of personal grievance, or mob rule but, if you like, a judicial decision to avert genocide.
In one single day, the entire Jewish race were going to be wiped out. Their enemies had royal sanction and months to prepare. They had made their lists, chosen their weapons, planned their strategy, and locations. They had also probably decided how they were going to spend the plunder. But at this critical and decisive moment, God brought deliverance and vindication. The fact that this surprising change in their circumstances had taken place was awe-inspiring.
It pointed to a providential ordering of their affairs. To be sure it was wonderful and a cause for rejoicing, but not for arrogance or presumption. The taking of personal revenge to a ‘settle score’ would elicit God’s punishment. But on this occasion and in these circumstances, there was no other way to deal with the enemies of God’s people. It would indeed be complete and justified. But would it be proportionate? So here is our second question:
2.2 Was the Destruction Proportionate?
“On the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar, the edict commanded by the king was to be carried out. On this day the enemies of the Jews had hoped to overpower them, but now the tables were turned and the Jews got the upper hand over those who hated them. 2 The Jews assembled in their cities in all the provinces of King Xerxes to attack those determined to destroy them… 5 The Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying them, and they did what they pleased to those who hated them. 6 In the citadel of Susa, the Jews killed and destroyed five hundred men. 7 They also killed … the ten sons of Haman son of Hammedatha, the enemy of the Jews. But they did not lay their hands on the plunder.” (Esther 9:1-2, 5-10)
Notice who is targeted for destruction.
“the enemies of the Jews… those who hated them” (Esther 9:1)
“those determined to destroy them…” (Esther 9:2)
“their enemies… those who hated them.” (Esther 9:5)
“the Jews killed and destroyed five hundred men.” (Esther 9:6)
“the ten sons of Haman… the enemy of the Jews.” (Esther 9:10)
This pre-emptive move specifically targeted the sons of Haman, the men and those who hated them, those determined to destroy them. And to demonstrate that this was restrained and not fuelled by the desire for personal gain, verses 10 tells us,
“But they did not lay their hands on the plunder.” (Esther 9:10). There was no personal gain over their enemies. Although 75,000 dead sounds rather a lot of people, remember this was less than 10% of the number of Jewish people living in exile.
The number killed was therefore far, far fewer than would have been killed a day later. Israel’s deliverance. It was complete but it was also justified. There was no other way round the King’s edict than to issue another edict to precede and counter the first. It was decisive but proportionate because it was only directed at their enemies.
We have seen, the Means of Israel’s Deliverance (Esther 9:1-4), and the Completeness of Israel’s Deliverance (9:5-17). We have answered two questions: Was the vindication justified? Was the destruction proportionate? Finally, and as a taster for the concluding episode next week, lets consider,
3. The Application of Israel’s Deliverance (9:18-10:3)
3.1 That God’s People Remember
“Mordecai recorded these events, and he sent letters to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Xerxes, near and far, to have them celebrate annually the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month of Adar as the time when the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month when their sorrow was turned into joy and their mourning into a day of celebration. He wrote them to observe the days as days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor.” (Esther 9:20-22)
We have no difficulty remembering certain dates when we have an incentive to do so. Our birthday. Christmas. “Remember, Remember, the 5th of….” Repeatedly through history,
God gave his people anniversaries, he gave them feast days and fast days to remember his saving acts. Why?
Because without them, we easily forget, and we forget God’s goodness, his grace and mercy. The purpose of Israel’s deliverance? That God’s people remember God’s saving acts.
3.2 That God’s People Worship (9:23-32)
“So the Jews agreed to continue the celebration they had begun, doing what Mordecai had written to them.” (Esther 9:23)
It had begun spontaneously (Esther 9:18-19) and that was both natural and right, nut it was important that the event be recorded and remembered so that future generations would continue to be grateful and give thanks. The fact is, when we forget God’s hand at work to save in the past, we are more likely to lose sight of his presence in the present and fail to trust him with our future.
The Feast of Purim, so popular today with Jewish children, was so that God’s people would remember, remember to thank him, remember to praise him, remember to worship him for his saving acts.
3.3 That God’s People Learn (10:1-3)
“Mordecai the Jew was second in rank to King Xerxes, preeminent among the Jews, and held in high esteem by his many fellow Jews, because he worked for the good of his people and spoke up for the welfare of all the Jews.” (Esther 10:3)
That God’s people learn – learn from the examples of Esther and Mordechai. Three things we are told of Mordechai in Esther 10:3.
He was held in high esteem
He worked for the good of his people
He spoke up for their welfare
In every generation, we look to our leaders for inspiration and direction. This week some within the news media have fallen short.
When critical tough decisions are needed, we need strong leadership that acts with integrity deserving our trust and respect.
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8).
There is nothing complicated about being this kind of person God can use. Esther and Mordechai were used so mightily, so providentially by God to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people because they were prepared to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with their God. And that is what the Lord requires of you and me this week. Perhaps we can see now why this book has been for the Jewish people, their ground for hope in the future. They looked for vindication and in God’s time, it came. Without Esther and Mordecai, there would have been no Messiah. The providence of God continues to be seen in the survival of God’s people today. Ironically, the church it seems is strongest where it is most persecuted. That is why the story of Esther is not only precious for Jewish people. It is part of our history, our heritage and should strengthen our hope. The question is, will we be the Esther’s and Mordechai’s of our generation? For it is no accident that you are here tonight. It is no coincidence that God placed you here in this family. It is not by chance that God has placed you in your family, your work and community. God has a purpose for you, a redeeming purpose within his cosmic plan.
The question is: Do you discern that and will you be part of it, or will the Lord have to look elsewhere to bring deliverance to others?
Perhaps Mordechai’s reply to Esther is God’s word for you tonight:
“Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13-14)