Expositor's Dictionary of Texts
When Mordecai perceived all that was done, Mordecai rent his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried with a loud and a bitter cry;Not Afraid of Sackcloth
Esther 4:2; 2 Corinthians 3:12
In the book of Esther 4:2, we read, 'None might enter into the king's gate clothed with sackcloth'. St. Paul in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians 3:12 says, 'Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech'. In the first text we read of a refusal to face the facts of life, the hard and painful facts—'None might enter into the king's gate clothed in sackcloth'. In the second we read of an unflinching sincerity of vision, and of a sincerity which does not flinch because it is armed by a great hope—'Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech'.
There are three ways in which we may deal with the harder things of life. First of all, we may take the way of the Eastern King and resolve not to see them, to bar the door against them, to act as if they did not exist. There is a second way. We may face them without the Christian hope. There is a third way. We may face them with the Christian hope, and that is the true and only wisdom. Let us dwell for a moment on those three ways or methods.
I. We may close the eyes and ears, and say that we will not look upon the things that affright and affront us. 'None might enter the king's gate clothed in sackcloth.' We know what that leads to, that life lived in an unreal world, in a world of imagination. We know what it has done in history through all the ages. We may close the doors and curtain the windows and hide, as it were, our faces from misery, but it is in vain. The flaring lights flicker, the storm outside begins to mutter and to break, and the inexorable call comes, and we have to open our eyes and look out on the woe and the wrong and the torture of this world, on all the wretchedness that is rising against us to sweep us from our place. In other words, even the king cannot keep his gate against the dark ministers of pain that insist upon an entrance, and will force it at last.
II. We may look willingly or unwillingly at the facts of life without any hope in Christ. I will not speak of those, and there are many, who look upon the agony of the world simply to find in it the opportunity of new sensation. I wish to speak rather of the hopeless, earnest, despairing outlook on the miseries of life. There are those like the poet whose hearts become as
A nerve o'er which do creep
The else unfelt oppressions of the world.
They meditate upon sin and grief and death, upon the vast sum of human woe, upon their little and slow means for diminishing it, till the heart spends itself in fierce and hopeless throbs. The thought beats upon the brain like as on an anvil. Yet all becomes at last so commonplace and so sad and so far beyond remedy. The waves of mournful thought cannot be stemmed, but they flow in vain. The end is at best a quiet misery.
III. We come to the one wise way of facing the problems and the agonies of life without flinching and without fear. We may face them so as possessors of the Christian hope, and in no other way—'Seeing then we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech'.
St. Paul has been speaking of the comparative dimness of the Mosaic ministry. That ministry had passages of glory, but the glory was transitory and faded away. It was shone down by the everlasting splendour of the new ministry of Christ. In Christ the veil was taken away, and taken away for ever. There was a veil on the face of Moses: there is no veil on the face of Jesus. It is as if the eyes that sought each other with such desire burned the screen that parted them. So, said the Apostle, since we live in light, we speak in light. We declare every truth of the Gospel, we make every claim for our ministry. The future glory will make all our words good. We are not afraid to look on the hostile elements of life and call them by their true names. We need no disguise, no euphemism, no softening. We use great boldness of speech, and are not afraid. Christianity, be it remembered, is the only religion that has fairly measured itself with sin and grief and death. It has undertaken at last to subdue them completely. It recognizes the sternness of the battle; it confesses that the foes are terrible foes. It has no hope save in the might of Christ Who is conquering and to conquer, but in Him it reposes an unshaken and absolute and inviolable trust.
'None might enter the king's gate clothed in sackcloth,' but Christ our King offers His welcome and His heart to those who are clothed in sackcloth, who are weary and heavy-laden. The heart is heavy—
To think that each new week will yield
New struggles in new battlefield.
But if He is with us in the fight, everything will be changed. Said St. Paul once, 'I will abide and winter with you'. He has promised to be with us to the end of the world, and He will winter with us through the dark, cold years until the winter ends, until we pass from the turmoil of this world to the peace of that.
—W. Robertson Nicoll, The Lamp of Sacrifice, p. 37.
The Transfigured Sackcloth
Christianity is sometimes scouted as 'the religion of sorrow,' and many amongst us are ready to avow that the Persian forbidding the sackcloth is more to their taste than the Egyptian or the Christian dragging the corpse through the banquet: but we confidently contend that the recognition by Christ of the morbid phases of human life is altogether wise and gracious.
I. We consider, first, the recognition by revelation of sin. Sackcloth is the outward and visible sign of sin, guilt and misery. How men shut their eyes to this most terrible reality—coolly ignoring, skilfully veiling, emphatically denying it! What is popularly called sin these philosophers call error, accident, inexperience, indecision, misdirection, imperfection, disharmony; but they will not allow the presence in the human heart of a malign force, which asserts itself against God, and against the order of His universe. The sackcloth must not mar our shallow happiness, nevertheless sin thrusts itself upon our attention. The greatest thinkers in all ages have been constrained to recognize its presence and power. The creeds of all nations declare the fact that men everywhere feel the bitter working and intolerable burden of conscience. Sin was the burden of the life of Christ because it is the burden of our life. Christ has done more than insist on the reality. The odiousness, the ominousness of sin. He has laid bare its principle and essence—not in the spirit of a barren cynicism does Christ lay bare the ghastly wound of our nature but as a noble physician who can purge the mortal virus which destroys us.
II. We consider the recognition by revelation of sorrow. Sackcloth is the raiment of sorrow, and as such it was interdicted by the Persian monarch. We still follow the same insane course, minimizing, despising, masking, denying, suffering. Nevertheless suffering is a stern fact that will not long permit us to sleep. A man may carry many hallucinations with him to the grave, but a belief in the unreality of pain is hardly likely to be one of them. Reason as we may, suppress the disagreeable truths of life as we may, suffering will find us out, and pierce us to the heart. Christ gives us the noblest example of suffering. He himself was preeminently a man of sorrows; He exhausted all forms of suffering, touching life at every point, at every point He bled, and in Him we learn how to sustain our burden and to triumph throughout all tragedy.
III. We consider the recognition by revelation of death. We have again adroit ways of shutting the gate upon their sackcloth which is the sign of death. Walt Whitman tells us 'That nothing can happen more beautiful than death'. And he has expressed the humanist view of mortality in a hymn which his admirers regard as the high-water mark of modern poetry. But will this rhapsody bear thinking about? Is death 'delicate,' 'lovely and soothing,' 'delicious,' coming to us with 'serenades'. Do we go forth to meet death 'with dances and chants of fullest welcome?' It is vain to hide the direct fact of all under metaphors and rhetorical artifice. Without evasion or euphony Christ recognizes the sombre mystery. He shows us that death as we know it is an unnatural thing, that it is the fruit of disobedience, and by giving us purity and peace He gives us eternal life.
—W. L. Watkinson, The Transfigured Sackcloth, p. 3.
References.—IV. 10-17.—A. D. Davidson, Lectures on Esther, p. 149. IV. 13-14.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxx. No. 1777.
The Story of Queen Esther
Some people are puzzled to discover how the book of Esther comes to be in the Old Testament. It contains no religions teaching. The name of God is not once mentioned in it from the first verse to the last. How comes it in the Bible. No teaching of religion, no prophesying of Jesus, no foreshadowing of the evangelical truths of redemption—true not in pious phrase, but what the book does paint for you is a majestic picture of a human heart struggling against its own weakness, rising to a grandeur that had in it the glory of Christ's own self-sacrifice.
I. You remember the story. A dissolute Persian monarch in a drunken frolic requires of his queen to do a deed that ran against all that was womanly within her, and she refused. Mercilessly he deposes her from the throne, and he sets to to select another queen. The fair maidens of the land are collected, and from among them he chooses the beautiful young Jewess Esther, and makes her his queen.
II. Esther was a Jewess. She owed her birth and her breeding to that despised exiled people. She had won her proud position on the emperor's throne through the planning and toiling and sacrifice of her Jewish guardian. And now her people's destiny hangs on the balance. A deadly conspiracy against them has brought it about that on a given day rapidly approaching there is to be a universal merciless massacre of these defenceless Jews. And through the mouth of her old revered guardian the demand comes to her—the one human being that might have influence with the cruel king to cancel the decree and save the lives of men, women, and children—at the risk and peril of her own life in asking it, to go and intercede for them. Esther began arguing within herself—was she bound to hazard her life for these Jews? Why should she come down from the throne and take her stand among them, exposed to cruel massacre and death? The fact of the matter was, the queen was standing in a false position. She could not see the truth, she could not see the right, where she stood.
III. Mordecai recognized the root of the queen's cowardice, and swiftly and sternly he sent back a reply that shattered those barriers of her selfishness, and lifted her out of her little self-centred world and set her on the pinnacle whence the whole line and way of duty shone out unmistakably. 'Go back,' said he, 'and tell the queen to be ashamed of her despicable selfishness. Go tell the queen that she does not live in a will-less random world where she may pick and choose the best things for herself. If she will not save God's people, then God will find another deliverer and she herself shall be dashed aside.' What a new world we are in now! What a new light floods everything! The queen felt it. All that was noble, all that was good in her waked and seized the upper hand and crushed down her baseness and her meanness and her selfishness. She saw how it was. Wrapped round with that sense of human sympathy, nerved and braved by the thought of all these human lives hanging on her heroism, the weak woman conquered and she could go and do the deed of valour. Esther by that deed of heroism delivered God's people from destruction. In her measure she did the same thing that Christ did perfectly later. Like Him she laid her own life down on the altar. That it was not sacrificed does not diminish the value of the offering. By her deed in her own day and generation she saved God's people from imminent destruction, by that deed preserved in history, she lifted up and made strong the hope and faith of generations after.
—W. G. Elmslie, The British Weekly Pulpit, vol. II. p. 345.
In our daily lessons yesterday we began the reading of the book of Esther, which is so full of instruction upon the law of self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice is the first law of the kingdom of God. Self-sacrifice is the one condition of life, of progress, and of fruitful service. It is by drinking the Saviour's cup of suffering, and shaving His baptism of blood, that men qualify for high honours above. The nearer the Cross now, the nearer the Throne hereafter. That Esther, the young bride and queen, should shrink from risking her life was most natural, and many a young Christian shrinks from following Christ because of the cross involved. But self-sacrifice for Christ is the only way to usefulness and joy. But Mordecai would not accept Esther's excuse. He knew that emergencies call for sacrifices, and that often the bold policy is the only safe one. So he sent back a remarkable reply, containing a warning, an encouragement, and an appeal.
I. The Warning was Candid and Brusque.—'Think not that thou shalt escape in the king's house more than all the Jews.' Esther might well have thought that the queen-consort would escape the general slaughter. Her nationality was not publicly known. Surely if she held her peace, whoever else might suffer she would escape. But Mordecai knew better. 'If thou altogether hold thy peace at this time... thou and thy father's house shall be destroyed.' Yes, nothing would be gained by letting things slide. The policy of silence would not answer. The bold line was the only safe one. It always is so. Be bold for Christ now, and your testimony will be a blessing to many; but if you hold your peace, Satan will some day drive you into a corner, where you must either publicly deny your Lord or be forced into a confession which will have very little value.
II. With the Warning came Encouragement.—'Enlargement and deliverance shall arise to the Jews from another place,' if thou hold thy peace. Mordecai knew that God was fully equal to this emergency. God had never failed His people. He knew that deliverance should arise from some quarter. His only fear was lest Esther should lose this golden opportunity of becoming the saviour of her race. We ought all to share Mordecai's faith. However dark the outlook may sometimes seem, however great the social and political difficulties of our day, there is no doubt as to the final issue. The growing despair of nations is only the surer evidence of the approaching advent of Christ. What part shall we take in preparing the way for the Prince of Peace?
III. So the Message closed with an Appeal.—'Who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?' Esther, the captive Jewess, had been raised to the throne of Persia. You, the slave of sin and death, God has redeemed by precious blood. Is it not for such a time as this, that just when the witness of men who know God is most needed your voice may be raised for Christ? That when youth and vigour and enthusiasm are wanted to free England from increasing irreligion and sin, and to carry the banner of the Cross amongst the millions of heathen in distant lands your life, bought at such a price, should be wholly yielded up to God? It is in time of war that soldiers come to the front. It is in days of darkness and corruption that God's people must prove themselves the light of men, the salt of the earth.
IV. The Decision was Made.—The three days' fast for herself and her maidens and all the Jews was arranged. And at the close the young queen and bride took her life in her hand and went in to see the king. She risked her all, and God made her the saviour of the whole nation.
I. God's cause is independent of our assistance. Mordecai believed that God watched over Israel night and day; many a time had He delivered her, when everything appeared desperate and the help of man had utterly failed; and the record of God's faithfulness in the past gave the assurance that in some way of His own He would prevent the extinction of His people. This was a noble attitude of mind; and it is one which we should seek to cultivate in reference to the cause of Christ. If religion is real at all, then it is the greatest and most permanent of all realities. If Christ's own words are true, then it is no limited or hesitating loyalty we owe Him. One man, with truth and the promise of God at his back, is stronger than an opposing world.
II. We are not independent of God's cause. One reason there was which might have tempted Esther to do nothing; she was not known to be a Jewess. But Mordecai interposed between her and all such refuges of his by assuring her that, if the Jews were massacred, she and her father's house would perish with the rest. We cannot hold back from Christ's cause with impunity. It can do without us, but we cannot do without it. If Jesus Christ is the central figure in history, and if the movement which He set agoing is the central current of history, then to be dissociated from His aims is to be a cipher, or perhaps even a minor quantity, in the aim of good.
III. Christ's cause offers the noblest employment for our gifts. Powerful as were the opening portions of Mordecai's appeal, it seems to me it must have been the closing sentence which decided Esther. It is a transfiguring moment when the thought first penetrates a man that perhaps this is not the purpose for which he has received his gifts at all—when the image of humanity rises up before him, in its helplessness and misery, appealing to him, as the weak appeal to the strong; when his country rises before him as an august and lovable mother and demands the services of her child; when the image of Christ rises before him, and, pointing to His cause struggling with the forces of evil yet leading towards a glorious and not uncertain goal, asks him to lend it his strength—when a man ceases to be the most important object in the world to himself, and sees, outside, an object which makes him forget himself and irresistibly draws him on. This call saved Esther. The same call comes now to you. We must begin with ourselves. Are we to have aught to give the world?
—J. Walker, The Four Men, p. 128.
References.—IV. 14.—J. E. McFadyen, The City with Foundations, p. 63. G. Brooks, Outlines of Sermons, p. 285. Bishop Woodford, Occasional Sermons, vol. ii. p. 55. IV.—A. Raleigh, The Book of Esther, p. 88. V. 1-8.—A. D. Davidson, Lectures on Esther, p. 171. V. 9-14.—Ibid. p. 192.
The Penalty of Hate
And came even before the king's gate: for none might enter into the king's gate clothed with sackcloth.
And in every province, whithersoever the king's commandment and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, and fasting, and weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes.
So Esther's maids and her chamberlains came and told it her. Then was the queen exceedingly grieved; and she sent raiment to clothe Mordecai, and to take away his sackcloth from him: but he received it not.
Then called Esther for Hatach, one of the king's chamberlains, whom he had appointed to attend upon her, and gave him a commandment to Mordecai, to know what it was, and why it was.
So Hatach went forth to Mordecai unto the street of the city, which was before the king's gate.
And Mordecai told him of all that had happened unto him, and of the sum of the money that Haman had promised to pay to the king's treasuries for the Jews, to destroy them.
Also he gave him the copy of the writing of the decree that was given at Shushan to destroy them, to shew it unto Esther, and to declare it unto her, and to charge her that she should go in unto the king, to make supplication unto him, and to make request before him for her people.
And Hatach came and told Esther the words of Mordecai.
Again Esther spake unto Hatach, and gave him commandment unto Mordecai;
All the king's servants, and the people of the king's provinces, do know, that whosoever, whether man or woman, shall come unto the king into the inner court, who is not called, there is one law of his to put him to death, except such to whom the king shall hold out the golden sceptre, that he may live: but I have not been called to come in unto the king these thirty days.
And they told to Mordecai Esther's words.
Then Mordecai commanded to answer Esther, Think not with thyself that thou shalt escape in the king's house, more than all the Jews.
For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; 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?
Then Esther bade them return Mordecai this answer,
Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day: I also and my maidens will fast likewise; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law: and if I perish, I perish.
So Mordecai went his way, and did according to all that Esther had commanded him.