Great Texts of the Bible
If thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place, but thou and thy father’s house shall perish: and who knoweth whether thou art not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?—Esther 4:14.
1. The story is too familiar to need much retailing. Haman, the favourite minister of Ahasuerus, entertained a malignant hatred against the Jews, because one of their number, Mordecai, refused to do him reverence as he passed him daily at the gate of the palace. He promised that if the Jews were handed over to him for destruction, ten talents should be paid into the treasury. The king agreed to his favourite’s demand, and orders were sent out to the governors who were over provinces, and to the princes of every people, “to destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish, all Jews, both young and old, little children and women.”
It is always interesting, when possible, to set sacred history by the side of profane, and identify, if we can, the great actors in both. Considerable discussion has taken place with regard to the king who is here called Ahasuerus, as the chief point in enabling us to fix the probable date of the marvellous events which are narrated. There was a succession of powerful monarchs in Persia at the time about which these events occurred; and of these, two are mentioned by critical scholars as being, the one or the other of them, undoubtedly the ruler mentioned here. Ezra speaks of Artaxerxes, king of Persia, and some incline to the opinion that it is the same man who appears in the Book of Esther under the name Ahasuerus. Seeing, however, that this king must have been unnaturally inconsistent when the edict against the Jews was sent out, since he had just before granted them large favours, and remembering that several historians speak of him as having had a Jewish mother, it seems far more probable to identify Ahasuerus with the preceding king, Xerxes, the great invader of Greece, the son of Darius, whom the Athenians so nobly met and conquered at Marathon.
2. Esther was queen. Vashti, who would not degrade herself by obeying the king’s drunken commands, had been deposed. Esther was queen, and Esther was a Jewess. Her life, therefore, was likely to be sacrificed with the rest. Her kinsman, Mordecai, who seems to have preserved his faith in God through all the enervating influences of this Persian court, saw that the only hope of escape was in Esther.
3. So complete was the retirement of the women in the recesses of the harem, that the queen knew nothing of the calamity which was impending over her people. Mordecai for nine years had abstained from all communication with her lest her position might be compromised, and she should be identified, to her detriment, with her despised people. Now, however, it was peremptory that he should break through the reserve, and he therefore sent a message to the queen informing her of the plot that was on foot, and asking her to go in to the king to make supplication and request before him for her people.
4. Our text contains the argument which Mordecai used to induce Esther to undertake the hazardous duty. It is an argument which has a very wide application. Let us consider it under four statements—
I. We may fail in our duty by simply being silent.
II. If we fail, God gets His work done in some other way.
III. But we suffer for it.
IV. Every opportunity is a call.
We may fail in our Duty by simply being Silent
“If thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time.”
1. Esther was very likely tempted to be silent at a time when to speak was necessary to save her countrymen from destruction. We often bite our tongues because we have sinned in speech, but how often have we sinned by silence. For there is a silence that is sinful: “If he do not utter it, then he shall bear his iniquity.”
It may be that a great cause is in danger. Its advocates and its opponents are pretty evenly balanced. But there is one strong man, who, if he would speak, could turn the fortunes of the day; for men believe in his sincerity and disinterestedness, as well as in his knowledge and insight; and the humbler supporters of the cause are waiting, in hope, to hear what he will say. His gifts, his influence, his experience, not only qualify but entitle him to speak a great word. But he sits in silence, or makes a speech of unworthy compromise. He lets the golden opportunity pass; and it may be that a great injustice is done, or the cause of truth and progress is retarded for years, for want of the word which he could well have spoken.
Just for a handful of silver he left us,
Just for a riband to stick in his coat—
Found the one gift of which fortune bereft us,
Lost all the others she lets us devote;
They, with the gold to give, doled him out silver,
So much was theirs who so little allowed:
How all our copper had gone for his service!
Rags—were they purple, his heart had been proud!
We that had loved him so, followed him, honoured him,
Lived in his mild and magnificent eye,
Learned his great language, caught his clear accents,
Made him our pattern to live and to die!
Shakespeare was of us, Milton was for us,
Burns, Shelley, were with us,—they watch from their graves!
He alone breaks from the van and the freemen,
He alone sinks to the rear and the slaves!
We shall march prospering,—not thro’ his presence;
Songs may inspirit us,—not from his lyre;
Deeds will be done,—while he boasts his quiescence,
Still bidding crouch whom the rest bade aspire;
Blot out his name, then, record one lost soul more,
One task more declined, one more footpath untrod,
One more triumph for devils and sorrow for angels,
One wrong more to man, one more insult to God!
Life’s night begins: let him never come back to us!
There would be doubt, hesitation and pain,
Forced praise on our part—the glimmer of twilight,
Never glad confident morning again!
Best fight on well, for we taught him,—strike gallantly,
Menace our heart ere we master his own;
Then let him receive the new knowledge and wait us,
Pardoned in Heaven, the first by the throne!1 [Note: Browning, The Lost Leader.]
2. There are many reasons for silence. Sometimes it is due to real and all but unconquerable diffidence, sometimes to cynicism, but sometimes also assuredly to cowardice. The man may suppose that plain, uncompromising speech might alienate his friends, imperil his influence, or injure his reputation. In any case, the day on which a strong and influential man fails, for such a reason, to lift up his voice for the truth is one of the tragic days of his life. In the Providence of God, that was the crisis for which he had come to his kingdom, and he should have bravely met it.
(1) The silence to which Esther was tempted was the silence of expediency. She knew how greatly the Jews needed relief and deliverance, but she feared lest if she spoke in their behalf her own position might be compromised. It is astonishing how many Christians can preserve a prudential silence when an evil demands denunciation. They are anxious for their own peace. They are slaves of expediency. We need to remember George Meredith’s grand words, “Expediency is man’s wisdom, doing right is God’s.”
The editorial declaration in a popular New York daily paper, that a newspaper’s chief concern should be with whatever will give it a circulation, was merely the brazen statement of what has become with many the real philosophy of life. It is the substitution of expediency for honesty.1 [Note: J. I. Vance, Tendency, 125.]
(2) Esther was tempted to the silence of selfishness. True, her people were imperilled, but she was happy and free! She had newly come to the throne. The glamour of royalty was upon her. Shall she run the risk of losing her delights? By silence she may have permanent pleasure. This type of silence is very common, and we are often tempted to it. We dread to speak lest our ease and enjoyment should suffer thereby. It is the acute remark of one of our present-day writers, that “times of great trouble often reveal the meanness of human nature.” Nothing is meaner than to be silent in presence of wrong for the sake of selfish comfort. Bishop Thorold spoke of people being “buried in self-love.” What a dreadful tomb!
No one enters into the life of Christ’s discipleship who does not seek, not the renunciation only, but the very death of all his old low self and self-life. For life is far more than just ease and gentleness, far more than confession and the endurance of the tests that God sends us. Life is a daily dying and rising—as the old lines run:—
As once toward heaven my face was set,
I came unto a place where two ways met.
One led to Paradise and one away;
And fearful of myself lest I should stray,
I paused that I might know
Which was the way wherein I ought to go.
The first was one my weary eyes to please,
Winding along thro’ pleasant fields of ease,
Beneath the shadow of fair branching trees.
“This path of calm and solitude
Surely must lead to heaven,” I cried,
In joyous mood.
“Yon rugged one, so rough for weary feet,
The footpath of the world’s too busy street,
Can never be the narrow way of life.”
But at that moment I thereon espied
A footprint bearing trace of having bled,
And knew it for the Christ’s, so bowed my head,
And followed where He led.
(3) Esther was tempted to the silence of slothfulness. To speak for the relief and deliverance of the Jews would involve strenuous endeavour. She feared to trample on her ease. Are we not all so tempted? To serve the needy age is to forswear ease. Every great helper of the world has to cry, “Virtue is gone out of me.” And we shrink from such self-depletion.
Very wonderful is the intimate connection, the subtle interaction, between the forces of our physical and our moral nature. It is one of the chief mysteries of our mysterious being. But it is not a mystery merely; it is a fact of infinite practical significance which cannot be ignored without grave peril. The intelligent recognition of it would save many good people from much sorrow, as it would save others from grievous sin.
The moral degradation which comes from physical indolence is difficult to define. Most of us may thank God that the very circumstances of our life keep us safe from this sin. Few men can help working; most men have to work hard. But sluggishness, an indisposition to make any exertion unless compelled to make it, is sometimes to be met with even in this restless and active age, and in every social condition.1 [Note: R. W. Dale.]
During the formation of one of the lines of railway through the Highlands, a man came to the contractor and asked for a job at the works, when the following conversation took place:—
“Well, Donald, you’ve come for work, have you? and what can you do?”
“Deed, I can do onything.”
“Well, there’s some spade and barrow work going on; you can begin on that.”
“Ach, but I wadna just like to be workin’ wi a spade and a wheelbarrow.”
“O, would you not? Then yonder’s some rock that needs to be broken away. Can you wield a pick?”
“I wass never usin’ a pick, whatefer.”
“Well, my man, I don‘t know anything I can give you to do.”
So Donald went away crestfallen. But being of an observing turn of mind, he walked along the rails, noting the work of each gang of labourers, until he came to a signal-box, wherein he saw a man seated, who came out now and then, waved a flag, and then resumed his seat. This appeared to Donald to be an occupation entirely after his own heart. He made enquiry of the man, ascertained his hours and his rate of pay, and returned to the contractor, who, when he saw him, good-naturedly asked:
“What, back again, Donald? Have you found out what you can do?”
“Deed, I have, sir. I would just like to get auchteen shullins a week, and to do that,” holding out his arm and gently waving the stick he had in his hand.2 [Note: Sir A. Geikie, Scottish Reminiscences, 24.]
If We fail God gets His Work done in some other Way
“Then shall relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place.”
1. Mordecai had evidently drunk deeply of the spirit of the history of Israel. Israel was the people of God; the possessor of the promises of God, which had not reached their fulfilment; and sooner could the pillars of the heavens fall than these be broken. 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.
2. There is wonderful encouragement in Mordecai’s message. Somehow God’s great delivering work shall be done! We cannot see how, but it shall yet be. All things are possible to omnipotence. Relief and deliverance shall arise from another place. Incapacitated workers may be comforted by this assurance. The work shall not finally suffer through a particular worker’s disablement.
3. The passage admits of easy application to the Church. One portion of the Church may fail to rise to the height of its duty and, in spite of all the splendid hopes which it enshrines, it may perish. But not so the whole Church, or even the particular purpose which that portion was meant to have fulfilled. Relief and deliverance shall arise to the Church from another place. Men of another sort can be raised up to do the work which we neglected to do.
4. Relief and deliverance shall arise from another place. So it is certain that God from eternity has willed that all flesh should see His salvation. He loves the heathen better than we do. Christ has died not for our sins only, but for the sins of the whole world. God has made of one blood all nations of men. The race is one in its need. The race is one in its goal. The Gospel is fit for all men. The Gospel is preached to all men. The Gospel shall yet be received by a world, and from every corner of a believing earth will rise one roll of praise to one Father, and the race shall be one in its hopes, one in its Lord, one in faith, one in baptism, one in one God and Father of us all. That grand unity shall certainly come. That true unity and fraternity shall be realized. The blissful wave of the knowledge of the Lord shall cover and hide and flow rejoicingly over all national distinctions. “In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth.” This is as certain as the efficacy of a Saviour’s blood can make it, as certain as the universal adaptation and design of a preached Gospel can make it, as certain as the oneness of human nature can make it, as certain as the power of a Comforter who shall convince the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment can make it, as certain as the misery of man can make it, as certain as the promises of God who cannot lie can make it, as certain as His faithfulness who hangs the rainbow in the heavens and enters into an everlasting covenant with all the earth can make it.
This I beheld, or dreamed it in a dream:—
There spread a cloud of dust along a plain;
And underneath the cloud, or in it, raged
A furious battle, and men yelled, and swords
Shocked upon swords and shields. A prince’s banner
Wavered, then staggered backward, hemmed by foes.
A craven hung along the battle’s edge,
And thought, “Had I a sword of keener steel—
That blue blade that the king’s son bears,—but this
Blunt thing!”—he snapt and flung it from his hand,
And lowering crept away and left the field.
Then came the king’s son, wounded, sore bestead,
And weaponless, and saw the broken sword,
Hilt-buried in the dry and trodden sand,
And ran and snatched it, and with battle-shout
Lifted afresh he hewed his enemy down,
And saved a great cause that heroic day.
But We shall suffer for It
“Thou and thy father’s house shall perish.”
1. Mordecai’s precise reference is not absolutely certain: probably he foretells that if the Jews are massacred Esther’s Jewish origin will be discovered, and she and her father’s house will share the extermination; or it may be that he merely predicts some indefinite though certain Nemesis.
2. Mordecai’s principle is for ever true: retribution must ensue upon negligence. We cannot save our lives without at length losing them: they are “destroyed” who leave their duty undone. We need neither define nor describe the destruction. Sometimes it occurs in this life; at times it takes the form of the overthrow of our temporal possessions; oftener far it manifests itself in open deterioration of character. But God has a hell of fire for the negligent even on this side the veil.
I know not what of evil may yet come of the negligence of the Christian Church towards the population with which it is surrounded. Those wretched beings who starve in over-crowded rooms will not die unavenged, if nothing more comes of it than the sin which is begotten of want. If you live in a house well-ventilated and well-drained, and you have near you hovels foul, filthy, dilapidated, over-crowded, when the fever breeds there it will not respect your garden wall; it will come up into your windows, smite down your children, or lay you yourself in the grave. As such mischief to health cannot be confined to the locality in which it was born, so is it with spiritual and moral disease; it must and will spread on all sides. This may be a selfish argument; but as we are battling with selfishness, we may fitly take Goliath’s sword with which to cut off his head. You Christian people suffer if the Church suffers; you suffer even if the world suffers. If you are not creating a holy warmth, the chill of sin is freezing you. Unconsciously the death which is all around will creep over you who are idle in the Church, and it will soon paralyse all your energies unless in the name of God you rouse yourself to give battle to it. You must unite with the Lord and His people in winning the victory over sin, or sin will win the victory over you.
3. We cannot hold back from Christ’s cause with impunity. It can do without us, but we cannot do without it. “Whosoever will save his life,” said our Lord, “shall lose it.” If religion is a reality, to live without it is to suppress and ultimately to destroy the most sacred portion of our own being. It is a kind of suicide, or at least a mutilation. If it is possible for man to enjoy in this life intimacy and fellowship with God, then to live without God is to renounce the profoundest and most influential experience which life contains. 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 minus quantity, in the sum of good. It may, indeed, in the meantime facilitate our own pleasure, and it may clear the way for the pursuit of our personal ambitions; but when we look back on our career from the end of life, will it satisfy us to remember the number of pleasant sensations we have had, if we have to confess to ourselves that we are dying without having contributed anything to the real progress of mankind and without ever having seen the real glory of the world?
Not once or twice in our rough island-story,
The path of duty was the way to glory:
He that walks it, only thirsting
For the right, and learns to deaden
Love of self, before his journey closes,
He shall find the stubborn thistle bursting
Into glossy purples, which outredden
All voluptuous garden roses.
Not once or twice in our fair island-story,
The path of duty was the way to glory:
He, that ever following her commands,
On with toil of heart and knees and hands,
Thro’ the long gorge to the far light has won
His path upward, and prevail’d,
Shall find the toppling crags of Duty scaled
Are close upon the shining table-lands
To which our God Himself is moon and sun.1 [Note: Tennyson, The Duke of Wellington.]
Every Opportunity is a Special Call
“Who knoweth whether thou art not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
1. Mordecai sees the exigency of the time. He sees something more. He believes in an over-ruling Providence. He has watched the gradual grouping of events, and knows they have not come by chance. A little while ago it might have struck him as strange that a Jewess should sit upon the Persian throne; but now he understands it. One higher than Ahasuerus circled with the coronet Esther’s brow; One who does nothing without a meaning and an end. The man, in his high-souled faith, reads God’s reason, and understands why Esther has been exalted. “She has come to the kingdom for such a time as this.” The life of thousands is placed in her hands. Now she has an opportunity of accomplishing her Divine destiny, and shall she not be equal to the occasion?
These words instantly lit the whole career of Esther with a new and solemn meaning. It was, then, not for nothing that she was queen, and it was not an accident that had set her upon the throne. This was the crisis to which, throughout the brilliant, happy years, she had all unconsciously been borne; and now she was to prove to the world whether she was a queen in name only or also in deed and truth. The honour of queen she had enjoyed; the higher honour of the heroine she had yet to achieve. The appeal of Mordecai flashed a light upon her destiny. In a moment she saw the drift of the past, the meaning of the present, the vastness of the opportunity; and she swiftly made up her mind. “I will go,” she said. “Let all the Jews fast for me; and, though it is against the law, I will appear before the king; and if I perish, I perish.”1 [Note: J. E. M‘Fadyen.]
2. God’s providential purpose; man’s present opportunity: that is how we are to read the lesson of this marvellous history. A purpose clearly written on the face of events, and to be readily deciphered from their grouping; but still so written that men must open their eyes if they would see it, and open their heart if they would understand it. In former days, when the people were hurrying from their bondage, when they stood in danger, with a sea in front, and an army behind, a Voice spoke bidding Moses stretch his rod over the sea, that a way might be made for the ransomed to pass over. Now we have no voice, but circumstances gather about us; the rod is thrust into our hand, and we miss our deliverance if we do not see that we must wave the rod. In olden time Moses was bidden strike the rock, and water gushed forth. Now we see the thirsting multitudes, and again the rod is put in our grasp. There comes no water if we do not see that we must strike. We are not in intellectual and religious infancy. We ought to be able to discover without any warning voice what God’s purpose is, and what our opportunity is worth.
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
There is nothing that stands still in time, so that no duty at all admits of delay; each is strictly the duty of the moment. The act of social kindness, which is a gracious attention this week, becomes an overdue debt the next, and is presented with sad apology instead of being received with glad surprise. The wounded tenderness to which we spoke not the timely and soothing word, passes into permanent soreness instead of healing with grateful love. All round our human existence, indeed, does this same thing appear. Each present conviction, each secret suggestion of duty, constitutes a distinct and separate call of God, which can never be slighted without the certainty of its total departure or its fainter return. Our true opportunities come but once; they are sufficient but not redundant; we have time enough for the longest duty, but not for the shortest sin.1 [Note: James Martineau.]
Farewell, fair day and fading light!
The clay-born here, with westward sight,
Marks the huge sun now downward soar.
Farewell. We twain shall meet no more.
Farewell. I watch with bursting sigh
My late contemned occasion die.
I linger useless in my tent:
Farewell, fair day, so foully spent!
Farewell, fair day. If any God
At all consider this poor clod,
He who the fair occasion sent
Prepared and placed the impediment.
Let him diviner vengeance take—
Give me to sleep, give me to wake
Girded and shod, and bid me play
The hero in the coming day!2 [Note: R. L. Stevenson, Songs of Travel.]
(1) Life is an opportunity.—It is coming to our kingdom. To live physically, intellectually, spiritually, to exist, is our call. Do we understand the wonderful possibilities of our life? Often it drops down into a dull routine, monotonous, mechanical. We seem to be within the grasp of a savage power, which puts us here and there, forcing us through daily exercises of one sort and another in a way over which we seem to have no control. But it is possible to have this seeming iron destiny placed under the control of a still higher Power.
Our days have fallen on a time different from all that has gone before, unique in this particular, if in nothing else—the power of public opinion. In former days, only one man here and there seemed to have a kingdom to enter upon, a few men swayed the nations, a few men seemed to be inspired to deeds which raised them into leaders of the people. But now the rulers in name are the ruled in fact. The government is governed, and the people, as freedom has broadened slowly down from precedent to precedent, control everything. It is a great thing to live now. Are we equal to the occasion? We may know much. Literature pours its wealth out before us. Science teaches us how to look away into space, and follow the stars in their girdling orbits; to look down into little things, and see how great a world of being exists in points and specks which our eye can scarcely discern. It tells us how the earth is made, and reads off to us the story of its framing. Are we equal to our time?
We need it every hour—
A purpose high,
To give us strength and power
To do or die.
We need it every hour—
A firm, brave will,
That, though hate’s clouds may lower,
Shall conquer still.
We need it every hour—
A calm strong mind,
Enriched by reason’s dower,
Nor warped nor blind.
We need it every hour—
A patient love,
Which shall all souls endower
From heights above.
We need it every hour—
A conscience clear,
That shall be as a tower
Of strength and cheer.
We need it every hour—
A true pure life,
Which failure cannot sour
Or turn to strife.1 [Note: Sara A. Underwood.]
(2) Christian life is an opportunity.—As Christians we have come to a kingdom. Shall we prove ourselves equal to the times on which our lot has fallen? Christianity, ever since its birth, has presented two aspects—the offensive and the defensive, self-assertion and aggression. At the building of the wall round Jerusalem men worked with the sword in one hand and the trowel in the other, watchful to resist attack, watchful that the work should make progress. So has the new spiritual Jerusalem been built, from the time of the early Fathers of the Church down to the latest contributors to Christian apology, from the time of St. Paul the Apostle down to the latest heroes of missionary enterprise.
No time is without its own pathos and its call for patriotic and self-sacrificing work. Certainly ours is not. The wonderful progress of science in the last two generations has supplied means of helping the world such as have never existed before. The problem of the degraded and disinherited is pressing on the attention of intelligent minds with an urgency which cannot be disregarded. It is intolerable to think that a noble population like ours should forever lie sodden and stupefied, as it now does, beneath a curse like drunkenness; and events are rapidly maturing for a great change. The heathen world is opening everywhere to the influences of the Gospel. And perhaps the most significant of all the signs of the times is the conviction, which is spreading in many different sections of the community, that the average of Christian living is miserably below the standard of the New Testament, and that a far broader, manlier, more courageous and open-eyed style of Christianity is both possible and necessary.
Cumming (J. E.), The Book of Esther, 110, 139.
Farningham (M.), Women and their Work, 111.
Gore (C.), in The Pulpit Encyclopædia, i. 234.
Hamer (D. J.), Salt and Light, 279.
McFadyen (J. E.), The City with Foundations, 53.
McGarvey (J. W.), Sermons, 232.
Maclaren (A), Expositions: Esther, etc., 14.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xxx. (1884), No. 1777.
Stalker (J.), The Four Men, 128.
Talmage (T. de W.), Sermons, vi. 167.
Welldon (J. E. C.), Youth and Duty, 233.
Wilson (S. L.), Helpful Words for Daily Life, 289.
Young (D. T.), Unfamiliar Texts, 218.
Christian Age, xxviii. 4, xl. 116 (Talmage).
Christian World Pulpit, xxxi. 386 (Townsend); lv. 321 (Meyer); lxiv. 280 (Gore); lxxvi. 222 (Jeffs).
Church of England Pulpit, lii. 62 (Lang).
Church Pulpit Year Book, vi. (1909), 160.
Churchman’s Pulpit: Mission Work, i. 27 (Lang).