Don't you love hearing a behind-the-scenes story? Like from a movie, or a famous historical event, or how a couple you know got together. Actually, a lot of times, the behind-the-scenes story is the real story. That is never truer than in our lives with Christ. Most of the time, God works from behind the curtain. It is one reason we need faith. Hebrews 11:1 says, "Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see." We believe God works behind the scenes.
Case in point: the Book of Esther. God is so behind-the-scenes in this story that he is never even mentioned in the whole book. Neither are God-heavy words like "prayer," "Scripture," "miracle," or "worship." But you'd have to be blind not to see that he is there.
It is the same with your life and mine. God rarely lets his glory blaze out, but every believer learns to see what doesn't necessarily meet the eye. Turn to Esther, and let's look for God.
Act I of Esther
Last week we watched Act I of Esther—chapters one through three. The year was 483 B.C., and we met the Emperor Xerxes, who reigned over 127 provinces from India to Sudan. He was vastly wealthy and called a 180-day personal world's fair to show off "the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and glory of his majesty" (Esther 1:4). Then on the last day of the week-long after-party, when he and everyone else was good and drunk, he ordered his queen, Vashti, to come out so everyone could have a good look at what a gorgeous woman she was. When Vashti refused, Xerxes had her banished and passed a law that "every man should be ruler over his own household" (Esther 1:22). He then had an empire-wide star search to find the next queen. He brought the most beautiful young virgins throughout the kingdom to his harem in Susa. That's how we meet Esther.
Esther and her older cousin Mordecai lived in Susa, in the shadow of the king's citadel. They are Jews, whose families were forced out of Jerusalem and into exile more than 100 years earlier. Esther's parents are dead, and Mordecai has been her surrogate father. When she is caught up in the king's dragnet for beautiful young virgins, she immediately finds favor in the harem. When her turn comes to spend a night with Xerxes, "she won his favor and approval more than any of the other virgins. So he set a royal crown on her head and made her queen" (Esther 2:17). Xerxes called a great banquet in Esther's honor, and he even proclaimed a holiday and doled out lavish gifts throughout the kingdom in her honor.
In the meantime, we learn that Mordecai, sitting at the king's gate, overhears an assassination plot and reports it to Esther, who in turn reports it to Xerxes, and the culprits are caught and killed. The whole incident is recorded in Xerxes's big official history. So despite being Jewish, both Esther and Mordecai have won great favor by this larger-than-life emperor, Xerxes.
Now enter Haman, whose people hailed from the same neck of the woods as the Jews, who climbed the royal ladder till Xerxes made him his second-in-command. Huge honor, huge wealth, huge power. Everyone is supposed to bow down to him when he passes by. Everyone does—except Mordecai the Jew, because Haman's ancestors are Israel's oldest mortal enemies, a people so wicked that God had told Israel to utterly destroy them (which, judging by Haman's presence in this story, hadn't entirely happened). When Mordecai refused to bow to Haman, Haman decided he would get revenge—not just on Mordecai, but on all the Jews.
In an act that defines "overkill," Haman persuades King Xerxes to make a decree to "destroy, kill, and annihilate all the Jews" (Esther 3:13), only he never actually tells Xerxes it is the Jews he's going to wipe out. He just tells Xerxes about "a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different … they do not obey the king's laws"—an outright lie. "[I]t is not in the king's best interest to tolerate them," Haman says (Esther 3:8). Xerxes green-lights this "final solution," this holocaust. Then Xerxes and Haman sit down to share a beer, while the Jews—and indeed the whole kingdom—are in shock. The day after this decree is made, in the first month of the year, happens to be Passover: when Jews celebrate how God delivered them from slavery in Egypt. Their national execution day was scheduled by luck of the roll of dice—the pur—for 11 months hence.
But where was God this time? Where is God when powerful people are out of control? Where is God when no one even mentions his name? God was working behind the scenes. In fact, all that really matters in this story—and often in our stories—is unseen. Everything that is really important in the second act of Esther happens behind the scenes, and it is quite a story.
'For such a time as this'
(Read Esther 4:1-3)
Esther, who knows nothing of the king's edict, hears about Mordecai's carrying-on, and there is a back-and-forth through a messenger between them, where Mordecai tells her exactly what the story is. In verse eight, Esther gets the message and replies that no one can walk into the king's presence. It is a capital crime to show up before Xerxes unbidden. By law, she'll be executed: the only exception being if Xerxes notices and extends his scepter to permit her to come into his presence. She says ominously, "But thirty days have passed since I was called to go to the king" (4:11).
(Read Esther 4:12-17)
This story has been pushing God's reluctant people into dangerous places ever since it was first told. The phrase "for such a time as this" (4:14) is a kind of biblical code for, "If not you, who? If not now, when?" Here is the verse that has planted its hand firmly in the backs of God's people—maybe you—and pushed them forward into leadership they didn't want, to blow the whistle on behavior in a company or community that has to stop, to stand up against unscrupulous people and practices at great personal risk, to come to the aid of the powerless when you want nothing more than to go home and put your feet up and watch TV.
We each come to these times when we cannot evade a daunting, even threatening, responsibility. Look again at Esther to see where such courage comes from, because few people see the source of godly courage.
Courage starts when you realize, "I am uniquely positioned to help the helpless, to stop a terrible wrong, to stand in the way of a tyrant." Courage grows when we see that we are positioned to be part of God's "relief and deliverance" (4:14) for others. Remember, Esther wasn't born to royalty. She had no training in leadership. She was an orphan raised in an exile community. She was young and sheltered. But she knew that God was the Savior of Israel, and as Mordecai reminded her, God will never forsake his people. But she also knew there was no divine assurance that she would come out of such a confrontation alive. There were martyrs then, as there are now.
Courage grows when we realize that our sovereign God has very likely quietly positioned us "for such a time as this." The very reason you have that job, the very reason you've been given that friendship, the very reason you live in that neighborhood or attend your school, the very reason you lead this church or that ministry is so that God will have his operative "for such a time as this." Though you may have never thought of it before, God mapped your life so that you stand at this crossroads by his plan.
Courage demands that when it is your time to step up, stop and pray. The word "pray" doesn't appear here, but Esther called for a three-day fast. Fasting always went with prayer. This was three days and nights of praying till every shred of the fear has been put before God, till every promise and story of God's care has been mined and lifted like incense, till your heart is as famished for God's glory as your stomach is for food. When courage is called for, fast and pray till the unseen God fills your vision. Then step into the moment that has been waiting for you, and "if I perish, I perish" (4:16).
For Esther, after three days of prayer and fasting, the time has come for action. That's how it works.
(Read Esther 5:1-8)
Esther forms a plan with two parts. Part one: dinner with the king. Part two: invite Haman. What we are going to read next, Esther never saw. She didn't know what was happening. She shows up for the banquet the next day, unaware of all that God has done behind the scenes described here in chapters five and six.
Haman: a portrait of a fool
One of the things Esther cannot see is what Haman does.
(Read Esther 5:9-14)
Do you know where else we've seen Haman? The Book of Proverbs. Haman is the poster boy of the proverbial proud fool.
(Read Proverbs 6:16-19)
But no one around him thought Haman was a fool. That's the thing: few people recognize a fool when they see one. In the Bible, fools are never buffoons and seldom stupid. But they are invariably proud and immoral.
Fools measure life by what they have and see relationships as gauges of power. Bear in mind that Haman's hatred for Mordecai was not just that Mordecai wouldn't bow to him. Mordecai represented a threat; he was a Jew, whose God is the Lord. There was a diabolical dimension to Haman's hatred and revenge. A fool cannot tolerate a God-blessed person.
The most subtle of miracles
Again, God is never mentioned in chapter six, but see if you can spot him.
(Read Esther 6:1-13a)
Did you see him? Few people recognize God's most subtle miracles. God uses two kinds of miracles more than any other—they are astonishing, yet most people miss them.
I like detective stories, and there's a very common line when some hard-bitten cop starts looking at an odd piece of evidence and says, "I don't believe in coincidences." Neither do the people of God. I think God's most common miracle—if there is such a thing—is the coincidence. It's all in the timing. And God has impeccable timing. If I asked for miracle stories, some of you would tell of healings or some amazing sight, but lots of people would tell stories of miraculous coincidences.
I think God favors miracles of timing because he can stay incognito, visible only to those who believe in him. Everything in this story, and so many others, looks ordinary. No one does anything particularly remarkable—but if you see behind the scenes, you see astonishing things. God clearly manipulates these events, yet he does it without ever coercing anyone. No one does anything out of character. No one acts inconsistently. That is the way our sovereign God works. It's miraculous.
The second kind of miracle here is the great reversal. The Book of Esther is full of reversals of fortune. Vashti goes from queen to outcast. Esther goes from orphan to queen. Mordecai is sentenced to death, then he's paraded through the streets in honor. Then there is Haman, who is feeling the ominous creak of the trapdoor. There is nothing more sure in all of life than the fact that, ultimately, God humbles the proud and raises up the humble.
Look at 6:11: "So Haman got the robe and the horse. He robed Mordecai, and led him on horseback through the city streets, proclaiming before him, 'This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!'" And God smiled. Haman was an unwitting prophet—a theologian even. He was begrudgingly speaking of Xerxes, but I'm certain Mordecai rode through the streets thinking of Israel's great King—the Lord—who had honored him even while a death sentence hung over his head. Go figure! Down one minute, up the next.
By the way, what does Mordecai do after this amazing honor? He went back to the king's gate. Back to work, you might say: back to waiting on God the King.
Reversal is almost too modest a word for what's about to happen to Haman. Upheaval might be more apt.
(Read Esther 6:13b-14)
Proverbs 16:18 says, "Pride goes before destruction, / a haughty spirit before a fall." Less than 24 hours before, Haman's wife and friends were basking in his glory. Now they're saying, "You are in big trouble!" They all take a giant step back. Do you see why they said that? Because Mordecai is Jewish, and they know it is dangerous to take on the Jews—or more particularly, to take on the Jews' God. Haman's people, as Amalekites, should have known that better than anyone in the ancient world, because God had said in Exodus 17:14-15, "Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered … I will completely blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven." After that, "Moses built an altar and called it the Lord is my Banner. He said, 'Because hands were lifted up against the throne of the Lord, the Lord will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation.'"
It turns out that Esther and Mordecai were never really the ones in danger—even if they had been killed. The people who face life's greatest threat are those who refuse to bow to God in Christ, and for them, there is no hope of true courage.
Behind the scenes: that's where God works. Most of the time that is where he works in your life and mine. Trust him when you are thrust into a terrifying responsibility. "Who knows but that you have come to your position for such a time as this?"
Never be fooled by the fools. Behind the scenes, they are being set up for a fall by the almighty God. Learn to love and recognize God's subtle miracles of coincidence and reversal.
We'll leave Haman, rushing red-faced and nervous, to the banquet Esther (and God) has prepared for him. Next time: get ready to party!
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.