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Tuesday, July 26, 2011
We continue our study in the book of Esther
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Haman is introduced
As in Daniel, there is an evil influence at large, always ready to try to thwart the purposes of God. Even as the unseen hand of God is evident for good, so the unseen hand of Satan is evident for evil. The Devil is going to use Haman, an Agagite, to try and destroy the Jewish nation. This is a reference to the old enemy of Israel, the Amalekites, whom Israel fought after the exodus. They are spoken of as implacable enemies of God who would war with him “from generation to generation” (Exod.17:16). Haman was promoted, and like his evil master, his pride and ego knew no bounds. As evidence of his promotion above all the princes in the empire, he required people to bow and make obeisance to him as he rode past, in accordance with the king’s commandment. But Mordecai refused to bow to him. The exact reason for Mordecai’s reluctance is not given. It could be because, in the society in which he was placed, some high dignitaries claimed honour because of the god they served. If that was the case then there is an echo of the problem that the three Hebrews faced when they refused to bow to the golden image. One Targum suggests that no self-respecting Benjamite would bow to an Amalekite. Whatever the reason, Haman was outraged and plotted his revenge on all Jews. Haman’s actions reveal how deep his anti-Semitic feelings ran.
Haman, described as “the enemy of the Jews” (Esther 3:10), brought an accusation to the king - an accusation that has been regularly expressed by many of those who wish to do them despite. He said, “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom. Their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not to the king’s profit to tolerate them” (Esther 3:8). Haman was a spokesman for the Devil, the true enemy of the Jews, described in the New Testament as “the accuser of the brethren” (Rev.12:10 (NKJV)). His deception is further evidenced inasmuch as the Jewish race is not identified by name, just called ‘a certain people’. Xerxes delegated authority to Haman by letting him use his signet ring. Haman arranged for the ‘pur’, that is ‘the lot’, to be cast, to set the date for the extermination of the Hebrew nation, and they sought to guarantee the cooperation of all other peoples of the empire by declaring the possessions of all Jews to be spoil that could be taken by those engaged in the genocide. ‘Pur’ is a Hebrew form of the Babylonian ‘Puru’ which means ‘lot’ but also means ‘fate’. The casting of the lot would be part of the duty of the astrologers to find the most favourable day in which to carry out this devilish plan. On hearing the news, Mordecai immediately entered into mourning, tearing his clothes and wearing sackcloth and ashes. Esther was advised of Mordecai’s dress and countenance, but did not yet know of the decree. She contacted him through messengers and heard of the plight of her people. Mordecai instructed her to go in to the king, and intercede for them, but she spoke of the danger. She advised Mordecai that those that enter the king’s presence without an invitation could face execution. “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—to be put to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter so that he may live ”(Esther 4:11). In addition she informed her guardian that it was unlikely that she would see the king any time soon because she had not been called into his presence for more than a month.
The response of Mordecai was measured: “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13–14). Mordecai had hit the nail on the head. Even so, Esther’s response was magnificent: “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16).
In the meantime Haman, with the authority of the king, had begun dispatching messengers to all parts of the empire, publicizing the edict and the rewards available to those who would participate in the genocide.
Esther, who was still in good grace with the king, no doubt in part due to her previous communication to him of the assassination plot, was granted an audience in which she obtained a promise that he would join her at a ‘banquet of wine’. Haman also joined them. While she had the good favour of the king, Esther proposed another banquet the following day for the king and Haman. Proud Haman, of course, was delighted to be incorporated into the immediate society of both the king and the queen. Nevertheless his pleasure was tainted because Mordecai would still not honour him. Haman’s wife and close friends advised him to execute Mordecai and be rid of him entirely. That he had the power to do so is evidence that Satan also has followers in high places. But both Satan and Haman are going to realise that one young woman, with God’s help, will be more than enough to overturn any evil plan devised against God’s ancient people for “... God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty” (1 Corinthians 1:27, KJV). Haman decided to proceed with his persecution of Mordecai, and press for an immediate hanging, after which he could enjoy the high honour that was to be paid to him as a special guest at Queen Esther’s banquet. He lost no time in getting a 75 foot high gallows built.
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Posted by Mountjoy at 7:58 PM
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
The Providence of God
When the Bible seeks to present God’s reign as universal, it uses examples of how He maintains a strong influence over great empires. The events of the book of Daniel are set in a vast domain ruled over by incredibly powerful men such as Nebuchadnezzar, Darius and Cyrus, yet the message of the book is summed up in the phrase, “… that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men.” (Daniel 4:17). This is repeated several times. For example, Nebuchadnezzar was disciplined for a period: “... you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. You shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and you shall be wet with the dew of heaven, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, till you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (Daniel 4:25). This is rephrased in 4.26 when Nebuchadnezzar is told that his discipline would cease after he came to understand something of the sovereignty of God: “... your kingdom shall be confirmed for you from the time that you know that Heaven rules”.
In the book of Esther we are again in the same great empire, albeit about a century later in its history. The King is Xerxes I (Xerxes is the Greek equivalent of the Persian khsyayʾrsha which is written in Hebrew Ahasuerus). Xerxes inherited the very extensive empire from his father, Darius I. It comprised of one hundred and twenty seven provinces “from India to Ethiopia” (Esther 1:1). At this time there were still many Jews living in exile. Similar to the book of Daniel, Esther is written as a book of encouragement, the lesson being, ‘you are far from home, but God has not forgotten you’ and it repeats Daniel’s message, which is ‘God reigns even when it doesn’t look like it’. To the untrained eye the book of Esther looks like a book of coincidences, but with God there are no coincidences.
God’s First Move – Esther’s Elevation
In the capital of this vast empire, Vashti the queen had offended the king, and was to be replaced. Out of the large number of young women available, Esther was among those that were chosen to be presented to the king. But first, along with many others, she had to be dressed, educated and adorned to be fit to be presented at court. Just as Daniel’s attitude and behaviour brought him into favour with Nebuchadnezzar’s officers, Esther’s beauty, personality and poise brought her into favour with the royal attendants that were caring for the candidates, and she was given all the assistance that could be offered to prepare her for an audience with the king.
God is sovereign and will lift up whom He will and this time it is to be a young Jewish woman to be queen. Early in the book it is anticipated that Xerxes, a Gentile, will be required by God’s sovereign will to elevate God’s choice to a place of influence, and this he does. On instructions from her cousin Mordecai, who had taken the young girl under his protection, she did not, at least at that time, reveal that she was Jewish. But like Miriam, Deborah, and Ruth, this young woman is identified as one who will emerge as a heroine for her people. The mystery of the book is that God is only present implicitly, but not explicitly. By that we mean that He is not mentioned at any time, although we are aware of His unseen hand. Throughout the narrative the will of God is understood to be the force behind events. Although the Hebrew people were oppressed and anti-Semitism was evident, God brought a Jewish woman into the royal court to become queen. Just as Joseph was introduced to the court of the Pharaoh and Daniel to the court of Nebuchadnezzar, Esther came to the court of Xerxes for a similar purpose.
Joseph’s leadership meant food for his famine-stricken family and their eventual prosperity.
Daniel’s leadership led to a new status of acceptance of Jews in Babylonia.
Esther’s leadership would yield similar results.
The common element in all three is that it was God who brought about these results.
The other major character in the book is, of course, Mordecai, Esther’s cousin: “Now there was a Jew in Susa the citadel whose name was Mordecai, the son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, a Benjaminite, who had been carried away from Jerusalem among the captives carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had carried away” (Esther 2:5–6). The relationship of Mordecai to Esther is given. “He was bringing up Hadassah, that is Esther, the daughter of his uncle, for she had neither father nor mother. The young woman had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at, and when her father and her mother died, Mordecai took her as his own daughter” (Esther 2:7). For those who had been orphaned, adoption in the extended family was widely practiced among the Jewish community.
God’s Second Move – Mordecai’s Discovery
Mordecai was probably an official at court, sitting in ‘the king’s gate’. Some suggest that it was Esther, now in a position of influence, who had Mordecai promoted. In a secular record of the same period there is made mention of an accountant who carried out an inspection tour for the king and who had a similar name. Whether it was this Mordecai we are unsure. Nevertheless it is clear that he had access to an area of the palace complex where he would be able to carry out his duties and also be aware of much that took place in higher society. It was in these surroundings that he learned of a plot. Two of the king’s officers, Bigthan and Teresh, conspired to assassinate the king. Mordecai told Esther and she told the king, giving credit to Mordecai for the information. However, the Targums suggest that Mordecai’s discovery of the plot was by God’s design, not by Mordecai’s wisdom. The assassins were caught and punished but Mordecai, in the will of God, received no reward. But it did bring both Esther and Mordecai into the good grace of the king, although at that time it seemed as if Esther’s cousin was overlooked – a bit like Joseph in prison, forgotten by the one he had helped. But God does not forget, although He does expect Mordecai, like Joseph, to exercise patience. The key fact is that the episode was recorded in a book. As the narrative unfolds we will see Xerxes, a man of great power, required to be compliant to the will of God.
More from Esther next time
Posted by Mountjoy at 9:36 AM
Saturday, July 9, 2011
The strong leadership of Moses and Joshua had brought Israel from Egypt into Canaan. Under Joshua the land had been occupied with each of the tribes having their own area to inhabit. For several centuries after Canaan had been divided up and each tribe had settled in a different area, there was hardly a time when the nation was again united. The surrounding nations took advantage of this fragmentation of Israel and mounted invasions against them. The book of Judges is the history of this period. It was a time of testing, permitted by the Lord, to see if the new generations of Israelites would keep the Law that was mediated by Moses, and remain faithful to Him who had redeemed them. But the Israelites did not stand the test. Dwelling in the midst of the Canaanites, they contracted marriages with them, and served their gods, contrary to the express prohibition of the Lord in Ex. 34:16; 23:24, and Deut. 7:3, 4. When this took place, they lost the protection of Jehovah and became servants to foreign rulers. It was only when they repented of their folly and returned to the old paths that they were delivered.
At the time of the book of Ruth, parts of Israel had gone through several such periods of apostasy followed by deliverance.
The oppression by Chushan-Rishathaim of Mesopotamia lasted 8 years before they were delivered under the leadership of Othneil, after which they had 40 years of peace.
The oppression by the Moabites lasted 18 years, before Ehud rose up to deliver them. They then enjoyed an extended period of peace which lasted 80 years.
The oppression by the Canaanitish king Jabin lasted 20 years before Deborah and Barak arose to deliver them. The peace that was then secured lasted 40 years.
The oppression by the Midianites lasted 7 years before God raised up Gideon as their deliverer. The peace obtained lasted 40 years.
Many suggest that the events recorded in the book of Ruth took place during the 40 years of peace that followed the Midianite invasions. The first verse of the book gives the historic location of this personal history of the family from Bethlehem. “In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land” (Ruth 1:1). This places the events of the book of Ruth into the period when Israel’s experience was very unstable. There was no unity among the tribes and the worship of Jehovah was often neglected. It was an uncertain world. There was no prophet to speak a word from the Lord and there was no word from the priest to keep the nation close to God. Even after the remarkable victories achieved by Gideon, Israel was never fully cleansed of idolatry. It was at this time that Bethlehem knew a lengthy and severe famine. It seemed as if the heavens were as brass both physically and spiritually.
The famine had compounded the devastation that seven years of Midianite invasions had produced. Although the invaders had been only loosely organized, there was a clear pattern to their tactics. Just when the freshly seeded crops had begun to sprout, hordes would erupt from across the Jordan, bringing with them their own livestock and camels, and even their tents. The raiders would set up camp at strategic locations, from where they would send their herds out in search of pasture and launch their raiding parties. This extended period of Midianite terror had had a devastating effect on the Israelite economy and emotion. They had been like locusts, consuming every green plant in sight, leaving the land ravaged, with nothing left over for the Israelite flocks and herds. Fearing the brutality of the invaders, as soon as they appeared on the horizon, the Israelites had fled to the hills, using natural geological features as defensive strongholds.
Elimelech lived in Bethlehem with Naomi his wife and his two sons, Mahlon and Chillion. Because of the famine there was little food available. This is especially poignant inasmuch as Bethlehem means ‘house of bread’. There was no bread in the house of bread! Elimelech and Naomi decided to escape to Moab for a while. If they had been caught up in the national apostasy and served other gods, then it would explain the attraction of Moab for them. It turned out to be a disastrous decision. If Elimelech had been an Israelite committed to Jehovah he would have known better. He should have lived up to his name, which means ‘My God is King’. History should have warned him that Moab was not the place to take his wife and children. No doubt he took the course of action he did, because he thought he was doing his best for his family. However, in taking them to Moab he failed in his responsibility. In Scripture, Moab represents the flesh. The father of the nation is the son of Lot who was the child of an incestuous alliance. The activities of Moab in their relationship to Israel also support the sense that it was a sensual nation. When Israel was journeying towards Canaan, on the advice of Balaam the prophet, they offered their prettiest women to the men of Israel. Moses recorded the event. “While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel” (Numbers 25:1–3). Intermarrying between an Israelite and a Moabite was displeasing to God. Elimelech should not have left Israel for Moab, especially as his sons married Moabite women. The story of Elimelech’s family demonstrates what can go wrong when there is a lack of commitment to the Lord.
Posted by Mountjoy at 10:15 AM
Friday, July 1, 2011
Hannah, the wife of one Elkanah, is considered to be one of the most pious women in the Bible. Living at a time when piety was unfashionable, she became an instrument in the hands of God to move His purposes forward. Israel, destined to be a ‘kingdom of priests’, was sinking in a morass of spiritual ineptitude, unrighteous leadership, widespread wickedness, military weakness and pervasive unbelief. The problem is succinctly summed up in the last verse of the book of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25) But God was about to change that. His purposes would require:
(1) a king on the throne who would love Him, love righteousness and obey Him.
(2) a priesthood that would serve Him righteously (descended from Eleazar ben Aaron to replace the descendents of Ithamar ben Aaron) (The house of Eli of the family of Ithamar ben Aaron had brought the priesthood into disrepute).
(3) a location where He could place His Name. (Shiloh, was never to be the permanent site of the Tabernacle – God had always purposed to use Mount Moriah where Abraham had offered up Isaac).
(4) A prophet of the stature and calibre of Moses to convert Israel from a loose collection of warring tribes to a united nation under a king who acknowledged the over-riding authority of the Lord.
By God’s calendar, in the near future, Israel would be a united nation under David (his name means ‘Beloved’) who would be the anointed king of Israel seeking to serve God faithfully. Zadoc (his name means ‘righteousness’), of the line of Eleazar ben Aaron, would be his High Priest, and Jerusalem would be the location that would provide the site on which the Temple would be built.
By God’s calendar, in the further future, great David’s greater Son will sit on David’s throne in Jerusalem and reign for a thousand years with the priesthood of Zadoc ministering in the rebuilt Temple.
But how would God bring about the transition? He first needed the prophet. He needs a Samuel, one of the stature of Moses (Jer.15:1), one who can hear His voice, one who will do His will. He is never caught unawares – He is always able to anticipate and act. He had already identified a woman in the faithful remnant of Israel by the name of Hannah that would serve Him and provide the man who will fulfill all His will.
Her Family Circumstances were not ideal
Elkanah was a good man. Even in the uncertain age in which he lived he still attended at the Tabernacle in Shiloh bringing his offerings every year. This would suggest that their home life would have been stable and godly, just as Hannah would have wanted, but he also had a second wife, Peninah. Peninah was very fruitful and had borne Elkanah several children while Hannah was (in the will of God) barren (1 Sam.1:5). For Hannah, as it would have been for most godly women, this was a reproach – made more unbearable because Peninah would use her fertility and Hannah’s sterility to verbally abuse her. To remain composed and fulfill the duties of a loving wife under such duress must have been difficult, but this she did to the satisfaction of Elkanah.
Yet God through Hannah was going to change the course of Israel’s history. His over-ruling sovereignty was to be displayed when He used one of Israel’s weakest and least significant individuals (a rural and barren woman) to change the culture and the future of the nation. Like Job, her trust in the One who engineered the circumstances of her humiliation, brought rewards that surpassed the pain she experienced earlier in her life and demonstrated the Lord’s awesome ability to bless anyone who possesses tenacious, risk-taking faith in him. Her experience stands in contrast to that of Deborah, another significant woman of Ephraim. Deborah was a political and military leader whereas Hannah epitomizes the principle “… that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty” (1 Cor. 1:26–27). True power is not dictated by one’s position in society but one’s posture before God.
For the Lord of Hosts was her God
For Hannah (her name means ‘Gracious Woman’), it began with the annual journey to Shiloh. She is the only woman of the Old Testament of whom it is recorded that she went up to the Lord’s House. At the door of the Tabernacle Hannah prayed a prayer and made a vow. “O Lord of hosts, if You will indeed look on the affliction of Your maidservant and remember me, and not forget Your maidservant, but will give Your maidservant a male child, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall come upon his head.” (1 Samuel 1:11) This heartfelt cry came from the heart - that if God was gracious to her and grant her a son she would dedicate him to the Lord for the rest of his days. Hannah’s commitment required the support of her husband to enable her vow to be fulfilled, and he demonstrates his piety by being fully committed to his wife’s revealed purpose. Under Torah regulations he could have over-ruled her decision, but he also stands out as a man of honour by supporting Hannah in her course of action. The vow of Hannah stands in sharp contrast to the vow of Jephthah. Jephthah’s rash vow made his daughter a ‘burnt offering’ – Hannah’s vow will make her son a ‘living sacrifice’. While Eli (the High Priest) was unable to discern her anguish of soul, God marked her heart and indicated ‘here is a woman I can work with’.
Her faith also encompassed her yet unborn child, for the Nazarite vow (that is, someone dedicated fully to the Lord, in the terms that Hannah expressed) would need to be fulfilled by the child, the youth and the man. The regulations expressed in the Torah give the details (Numbers 6.2-21). The last thing she wanted was a Nazarite like Samson who regularly broke his vow by unseemly conduct.
Her prayer, out of bitterness of soul, displayed a knowledge of God that was surprising. She petitioned the Omnipotent Deliverer of those in distress as ‘the Lord of Hosts’. She is the first character in Scripture ever to use this name of the God of heaven. She recognized that the Lord alone was the giver and sustainer of life. She also bowed in humility before Him, three times referring to herself as ‘your servant’. Her vow also stands out – since she is the only woman in the Hebrew narrative to make such a promise (Torah regulations permit it for a married woman). The narrative reveals that Hannah had a more intimate relationship with God (seven times she used His personal Name), than even Eli, the spiritual leader of the nation. Nevertheless, Eli, when made aware of Hannah’s true purpose fulfilled his office and offered a word of encouragement:“Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition which you have asked of Him.” ” (1 Samuel 1:17) Hannah left the area of the Sanctuary as an example of ‘faith triumphant’ - her tears had been wiped away - her spirit was elevated - and she was able to enjoy the festival meal in peace and hope.
The Lord rewarded her faith
In the course of time the son was born – what joy his birth must have brought – not only to Hannah who had waited so long for this blessing but also to Elkanah who now had a first born son from his most beloved wife. Hannah nurtured the child at Ramah until Samuel (his name means ‘asked of God’) was ready to be left in the charge of those who cared for the Tabernacle at Shiloh. The Bible summarises records the handover - “Then Elkanah went to his house at Ramah. But the child ministered to the Lord before Eli the priest” (1 Sam. 2:11). It must have been a great wrench for his mother but her godliness is evident in her explanation: “For this child I prayed, and the Lord has granted me my petition which I asked of Him. Therefore I also have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives he shall be lent to the LORD” (1 Samuel 1:27–28). Hannah’s sacrifice was Israel’s gain and she must have felt compensated, certainly if she lived long enough to see him grow into a godly servant of the Lord at Shiloh.
Hannah’s Prayer of Thanksgiving
Hannah’s delight in the goodness of the Lord overflowed into a prayer of thanksgiving. One hundred and twenty words long it is composed something like a Psalm. It begins on a highly personal note describing her delight in the Lord. Set against the early background of Peninah’s taunts Hannah boasts of the Lord’s deliverance, although the object of her delight is neither herself, because she has overcome the reproach of barrenness, nor her son – it is the Lord who is the source of both her son and her happy circumstance. The most important section of her prayer describes the Lord’s actions. Some are extremely positive: he “makes alive” (v. 6), “raises … from the dust” (v. 8), “lifts … from the ash heap” (v. 8), “lifts up” (v. 7), causes people to “inherit the throne of glory” (v. 8), seats people “with princes” (v. 8), “makes rich” (v. 7), “will guard” (v. 9), “will give strength” (v. 10), and “brings up” from “the grave” (v. 6). In contrast, the Lord also “makes poor” (v. 7), “brings low” (v. 7), “will thunder” (v. 10), “will judge” (v. 10), and “brings down to the grave” (v. 6). Yet the Lord does not perform these actions indiscriminately. As judge of “the ends of the earth” (v. 10), he brings the worst against His “adversaries” (v. 10), while bestowing protection, strength, and exaltation to “His saints” (v. 9; Hb. ḥăsîdîm, “pious/godly”) and “His king”/“His anointed” (v. 10).
Whether Hannah knew the full import of her use of ‘king’ is not clear. However, Samuel was to be the vehicle which God would use to bring in the kingdom, and the throne. In addition, it is Hannah that first speaks of a Messiah, ‘His anointed’ and points to a future period when God’s Messiah, His King, would sit on the thone reigning in righteousness in the Messianic Kingdom.
Lessons from the Life of Hannah
1. Circumstances of life may not be ideal, but they can be ‘in the Lord’s will’ and if our attitude to God is one of humility and faith, they can be used to His glory.
2. First we need a walk with God. Hannah was a woman of prayer as is evidenced by her use of the personal Name of God.
3. We need to have a faith like Hannah. Her God was able to accomplish anything – He is ‘the Lord of Hosts’.
4. We need to be prepared to be used to move the purposes of God forward. We may not be the last link in the chain, but let us be a link somewhere in the chain.
5. We need to know that God’s purposes will be accomplished with or without us, so let us get involved.
6. We need to have perseverance. Not only to begin, but to continue right to the end. Do not get discouraged. While Samuel went on to be a sharp instrument of God, Hannah returned to Ramah and present Elkanah with more children, no doubt to raise them to love the Lord.
7. In times of apostasy when less and less people believe in God, and fewer and fewer wish to live righteously, it is increasingly important to emulate Hannah and keep believing and keep following.
Keep us Lord, oh keep us cleaving,
To Thyself and still believing,
Till the hour of our receiving
Promised joys in heaven.
Posted by Mountjoy at 8:01 PM