Thursday, May 24, 2007

Esther, Pt. 1: "Out of the Ashes" (Est 1)

I have little to no interest in crossword puzzles or any other kind of puzzles; it sure is a puzzle why people bother, but it is a sight to see crossword puzzle fans patiently working on the latest puzzle in their newspaper and to see how they cannot get enough of it.

According to Gallup poll, the crossword is the most popular sedentary recreation, occupying 30 million people for part of every day in the States alone. The Times of London, like other English papers, frowned upon it and resisted publishing it until 1930, even though the New York World had put out its first crossword 17 years earlier. In 1924 a fledgling company called Simon and Schuster published a volume of crossword puzzles, priced at $1.35, and it was an immediate hit, selling half a million copies by the end of the first year. At one time, it was so popular that railroad trains even installed dictionaries in each of its car for the convenience of puzzle-solving travelers and addicts. (Bits and Pieces 2/29/96, from Bill Bryson’s “The Mother Tongue”)

Arthur Wynne, the English-born New York journalist, was credited with the invention of the crossword puzzle in 1913. The New York World published Wynne’s first Word-cross puzzle on December 21, 1913, and the New York Times gave in eighteen years later. In London, the first Times Crossword Championship took place in 1970, attracting 20,000 entries. It was won by Roy Dean, a diplomat who solved a London Times crossword in just 3 minutes and 45 seconds, a feat unchallenged for at least 25 years.

Trying to piece together a past gone wrong and pick up one’s life’s broken pieces is more than anyone can handle.

It all went wrong for the Israelites after their beloved king, King David, died. His idolatrous son Solomon’s name was left off the list of kings who did what was right in the eyes of God. Solomon’s son Rehoboam splintered the kingdom into two. The northern kingdom of Israel, with no good king to her name, disappeared in history when the Assyrians carried off the exiles in 722 B.C. After the reign of Judah’s eight good kings was effectively over, the Babylonians carried into exile the southern kingdom Judah, leaving behind the poorest people of the land to work in the vineyards and fields (2 Kings 25:11-12).

All, however, was not lost in the new land. The prophet Jeremiah prophesied: “This is what the LORD says: ‘When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place.” (Jer 29:10). Out of the ashes of the exile and the midst of the suffering appeared Esther, Mordecai and the faithful remnant, people such as Daniel and his three friends (Dan 1). They believed in God and trusted in Him no matter the objection, the opposition and the outcry against them.

Why does God allow His people to undergo trails and testing? How is He present and participating in our suffering?

God is More Informed Than You Think
1:1 This is what happened during the time of Xerxes, the Xerxes who ruled over 127 provinces stretching from India to Cush: (Est 1:1)

Florence Chadwick decided that she would become the first woman ever to swim the English Channel. For years she trained and disciplined herself to keep going long after her body cried out for relief. Finally, in 1952, the big day came. She set out full of hope, surrounded by new people and well-wishers in small boats. And, of course, there were the skeptics who doubted she’d make it.

As she neared the coast of England, a heavy fog settled in, and the waters became increasingly cold and choppy. Her mother encouraged her, “Come on, Florence, you can make it! It’s only a few more miles!” Finally, exhausted, she asked to be pulled aboard the boat - just a few hundred yards from her goal. She was defeated and heartbroken, especially when she discovered how close she had been to reaching to reaching her goal. Later, she told news reporters, “I’m not offering excuses, but I think I could have made it if I had been able to see my goal.” (Business)

One of the most frequently asked questions in the midst of a disaster is “Where is God when it hurts?” or “What in the world is God doing?” Rabbi Harold Kusher addressed this question and did grieving people no favors when he stated in a new way that God is dead.

It really does seem that way at times.

Do you know how many names are there in chapter 1 alone? 16. The king, the queen, seven eunuchs or officers and the seven nobles of Persia and Media who had special access to the king and were the highest in the kingdom (v 14). Beginning from the next chapters, you’ll hear names like Esther, his uncle Mordecai and his enemy Haman. The name of Xerxes occur 30 times, Mordecai 60 times, Esther 55 times and Haman 54 times in the book. Beside named people, the unnamed ones are all the king’s nobles and officials, the military leaders of Persia and Media, the princes and the nobles of the provinces (Est 1:3), all the people from the least to the greatestin the citadel of Susa (Est 1:5) and the Persian and Median women of the nobility (Est 1:18).

After all the names are announced, one is left unmentioned. Whose name is missing? The mystery person is none other than God. The shortest book in the Old Testament, Obadiah, has only one chapter but six references to the name (Obad 1, 1, 4, 8, 15, 18), but none of the words “God” or “the Lord” appears in all nine chapters of Esther.

If so, how in the world did it gain a place in the 39 books of the Old Testament? I am sure not a few rabbis were appalled that a book bearing a woman’s name was included in the sacred books! Unlike Ruth, she was no grandma or relative to Israel’s greatest king. The elders responsible for putting Esther into the Old Testament canon had their hands full with answering questions and deflecting criticism about this book’s inclusion. Rabbis and pastors have their hands full. Can you imagine a believer asking his pastor: “Why do we study the book of Esther when God’s name is never mentioned? Why is it included and in the canon while the Gospel of Judas is not?”

The word “God” or “the Lord” may not be mentioned, but His prominence, power and passion are inescapable to the eyes of faith piercing this book. God pens the longest-running play in world history and assembles the biggest cast to perform their parts. He is the director, the screenwriter and the narrator behind the scenes. The world is his opera and playhouse. He shapes the affairs of humanity, schedules actors for their roles and stages the scenes in time. A plaque hanged in homes says it enough: “Christ is the Head of This House, The Unseen Guest at Every Meal, The Silent Listener to Every Conversation.” In a sense, we are all cast into this big human drama and great historical epic. We all have our bit-parts, sound bites, supporting roles, cameo appearances, photo opportunities and brightest moments, but none of us is the consultant, producer and the bigwig behind the story. At best we do our routine, read our lines and exit the stage.

God is More Invested Than You Think
Shortly after his 50th birthday, Einstein gave a remarkable interview, unfortunately, to Nazi sympathizer George Sylvester Viereck, who challenged him, “Do you believe in God?” The Jewish scientist countered, “I’m not an atheist. I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws.”

Viereck responded, “Is this a Jewish concept of God? Einstein replied, “I am a determinist. I do not believe in free will. Jews believe in free will. They believe that man shapes his own life. I reject that doctrine. In that respect I am not a Jew.” (“Einstein & Faith,” Time Magazine Apr. 16, 2007),9171,1607298,00.html

The pessimist, the existentialist, the atheist and the liberal say, “There is no God and there is no rhyme or reason to what is going on in the world today,” but the believer says, “Everything happens for a reason – the good and the bad, the important and the trivial, the planned and the spontaneous.”

On a website was asked this question: Do you believe things happen for a reason? 14,500 votes were cast and 3% said things happen for no reason, 28% said yes to some things and 69% said yes loudly to the question.

The worst thing that could happen to a country happened to Israel. It was more catastrophic than a devastating earthquake or an economic embargo; it was a genocidal exile. 2 Kings 24:14-16 records that all Jerusalem were carried into exile: all the officers and fighting men, and all the craftsmen and artisans-a total of ten thousand. Only the poorest people of the land were left. Nebuchadnezzar took Jehoiachin captive to Babylon. He also exiled to Babylon the king’s mother, his wives, his officials and the leading men of the land. The king of Babylon also deported to Babylon the entire force of seven thousand fighting men, strong and fit for war, and a thousand craftsmen and artisans.

The Chronicles version states that their young men were killed with the sword in the sanctuary. The Babylonians did not spare man or woman, young or aged. All the articles from the temple of God, both large and small, and the treasures of the Lord’s temple and the treasures of the king and his officials were carried to Babylon. They set fire to the temple and broke down the wall of Jerusalem; they burned all the palaces and destroyed everything of value there. The remnant, those who escaped from the sword, became servants to the Babylonian king and his sons (2 Chron 36:17-21).

Yes, the Babylonians exiled Judah, but it was God who gave the Israelites up. Why? According to 2 Chronicles 36:14: “Furthermore, all the leaders of the priests and the people became more and more unfaithful, following all the detestable practices of the nations and defiling the temple of the LORD, which he had consecrated in Jerusalem. The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place. But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy. He brought up against them the king of the Babylonians, who killed their young men with the sword in the sanctuary, and spared neither young man nor young woman, old man or aged. God handed all of them over to Nebuchadnezzar.”

Four times in Hebrew God claims that He will “hand them over” to Nebuchadnezzar (2 Chron 36:17) and their enemies (2 Kings 21:14) and “made them” an object of dread and horror and scorn (2 Chron 29:8, 2 Chron 30: 7) (“hand them over” and “made them” are same words in Hebrew). There is no worse punishment than an exile. Yes, even worse than ethnic cleansing, worse than slavery in Egypt, but it could have been worst. How else could it be worse? The ten tribes of the northern kingdom never returned from Assyria. The Israelites returned seventy years later under Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah, and they never strayed since. Yes, they rejected and crucified the Messiah and their Savior, but they never returned to the idolatrous ways of the fathers. If anything, they overdid it when they returned, exhibiting pride, hypocrisy and legalism! The irony for Israel was the faithfulness of the remnant when faithless Israel was doomed.

God delivered the Israelites to the Babylonians, but He did not destroy them or deny them. Isn’t that amazing?

God is More Influential than You Think
I found this on the internet: “If only life could be like a computer!”
- If you messed up your life, you could press “Alt, Ctrl, Delete” and start all over!
- To get your daily exercise, just click on “run”!
- If you needed a break from life, click on “suspend”.
- Hit “any key” to continue life when ready.
- To get even with the neighbors, turn up the sound blaster.
- To “add/remove” someone in your life, click settings and control panel.
- To improve your appearance, just adjust the display settings.
- If life gets too noisy, turn off the speakers.
- When you lose your car keys, click on “find”.
- “Help” with the chores is just a click away.
- You wouldn’t need auto insurance. You’d use your boot diskette to recover from a crash.
- We could click on “send” and the kids would go to bed immediately.
- To feel like a new person, click on “refresh”.
- Click on “close” to shut up the kids and spouse.
- To undo a mistake, click on “back”.
- Is your wardrobe getting old? Click “update”.
- If you don’t like cleaning the litter box, click on “delete”.

Esther is an intriguing book. Critics deny the historicity of the book of Esther but are puzzled by the author’s undeniable knowledge of Persian life and customs. They also charged that Esther, Mordecai and Vashti were merely fictional names, that Xerxes had only one wife in history; further, marriage with a Jewess was unthinkable.

Of course, those same critics also said that all is lost, God is dead and life is meaningless.

The book of Esther begs to differ. Faith, hope and love wakes and stirs in the strangest places when you least expect it.

Esther is stylishly written, opening with a curious introduction. Its opening statement – “this is what happened,” or in Hebrew “now it came to pass” - is characteristic and typical to the books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel and even Nehemiah and Ezekiel in style. Joshua was a bridge and a continuation of the story of the Israelites journey into Canaan after the death of Moses. The book of Judges continued the story after the death of Joshua, Ruth with the story of the Judges, and 1 Samuel with where Judges left off.

The introduction of Esther is also similar to those of Nehemiah and Ezekiel, except that the name of the book’s author or primary character is never stated. Nehemiah the cupbearer and Ezekiel the prophet stated their names and clarified their roles (1:1). Unlike the above books, God can write or begin a new chapter in any time of history and in any place He wants, intervening into history without appending His name.

The ancient Media was an Asiatic country situated south of the Caspian Sea. It extended about 150,000 square miles, being about 600 miles in length and 250 miles in breadth. The Medes paid tribute to the Assyrians. About the time the Assyrians exiled the northern kingdom of Israel, the Assyrians invaded Media and added districts of it to the Assyrian Empire. Some Israelites were deported to the towns of the Medes (2 Kings 17:6; 18:11). Successive kings subdued the Median people and forced them to pay heavy tribute.

Things changed over the next 100 years. About 614 BC the Medes captured Asshur, the ancient capital of Assyria. In 612 BC, Cyaxares, allied with the Chaldeans under Nabopolassar and the Scythian hordes, captured Nineveh. This great event marked the crash of the Assyrian Empire. Nabopolassar’s son Nebuchadnezzar married Cyaxares’ daughter. It was in the era of Nebuchadnezzar (c. 605 BC - 562 BC) that the Median kingdom reached the apex of its power.

By an act of providence, the Israelites were deported by the Chaldean king, Nebuchadnezzar. Do you know who in the Bible is a Chaldean? Abraham and his family (Gen 11: 28, 15:7, Neh 9:7). Essentially the Israelites returned to their ancestral homeland under forced exile, but it could have been worse. They were not treated with the same contempt the ten northern tribes received under the Assyrians and did not become a historical footnote, never to be heard of again. Splinter groups have advocated unconvincingly that the Indians in South America, the British and the USA are the direct descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. Even groups from as far away as southern India and from South Africa claim they are the 10 lost tribes.

Contrary to popular belief, Xerxes is never the person in charge. In truth and according to history, the real king Xerxes was not a good king, his honor (v 4), the word making its Scriptural debut, was not that glorious; his citadel (v 5), again making its first occurrence in the Bible, was not that secure; his life was not that colorful even though these colors of white, green, red (in Hebrew), and black (in Hebrew) (v 6) are new words appearing in the Bible, occurring only in Esther. Xerxes’ bed of gold did not afford him much sleep. Historians tell us he suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of the Greeks before he returned to select his queen. He had more to worry about than women’s “disrespect” to their husbands and “discord” in the home (v 18), both words occurring only once in the Bible; his drunkenness for once.

The king’s fury (v 12), however, served God’s purpose. In a sense, it was déjà vu all over again. That was the same Hebrew word for Pharaoh’s “fury” that sent the baker and the butler into the same cell as the jailed immigrant Joseph (Gen 40:2), an encounter that would propel Joseph to second in power only to Pharaoh! This time the king’s fury was the occasion of a new generation of Josephs and heroes in a much farther land.

Conclusion: God is more active in our lives, more aware of our suffering and more attentive to our needs than we think. He is often uninvited and unexpected, but His peace and presence always linger. Distance, danger and, at times, even disobedience do little to drive him away.

Do you trust Him through good and bad times? Do you act in faith when the chips are down and the odds are stacked? Are you a victim or a victor in the midst of suffering?


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