Since Jesus has already accomplished our salvation, Christians ought to humbly rely on the Savior’s strength to cultivate courage when the “hour of decision” arrives, trust God for another opportunity if momentarily overwhelmed by fear, and guard against the pride that often precipitates a ruinous fall.
Introduction – During his years as premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev denounced many of the policies and atrocities of Joseph Stalin. Once, as he censured Stalin in a public meeting, Khrushchev was interrupted by a shout from a heckler in the audience. “You were one of Stalin’s colleagues. Why didn’t you stop him?” “Who said that?” roared Khrushchev. An agonizing silence followed as nobody in the room dared move a muscle. Then Khrushchev replied quietly, “Now you know why.” Anyone can act with “courage” when there is no personal risk! How did Esther find the courage to risk her life before the king? What is the key that unlocks the mystery of courage? G.K. Chesterton said, “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of readiness to die.” We can see that courage is one of the classic virtues, but C.S. Lewis argued that “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Perhaps you think of courage like the rugged American John Wayne who said, “Courage is being scared to death… and saddling up anyway.” When it comes to courage in the book of Esther, I think the person who summed up courage the best was Dorothy Bernard, the American actress from the silent film era who quipped, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.”
When your “hour of decision” arrives and it seems life and death hang in the balance, how do you know you will rise to the occasion with humility, wisdom, and courage? Is it possible to find the strength today for the battle tomorrow? Since Jesus has already accomplished our salvation, Christians ought to humbly rely on the Savior’s strength to cultivate courage when the “hour of decision” arrives, trust God for another opportunity if momentarily overwhelmed by fear, and guard against the pride that often precipitates a ruinous fall.
I. Relish the Story: Esther vs. Haman
A. Stark contrasts (vv. 1-2, 8-10)
Esther contrasted with Queen Vashti (vv. 1-2), Haman (vv. 8-10), and Salome (cf. Mk 6:22-25). Vashti refused to appear before the king when summoned and was rejected; Esther appeared before the king without summons and was received. Esther restrains herself (perhaps in fear and humility) and in the course of subsequent events it leads to a perfect opportunity to make her request (7:3-10). Haman restrains himself (in anger and pride) and in the course of subsequent events it leads to a perfectly inopportune time to make his request (6:6-10). At the moment Esther was taking up the cause of her people (the Jews), she was claiming the rights and privileges of her royal position as queen (of the Persians). Esther did not seize upon the king’s gracious offer by asking for Haman’s head on a platter (like Salome the daughter of Herodias did later; cf. Mk 6:17-29)! Such vengeance would have been pointless, for the Jews would still be in danger, and the king might have judged her request unreasonable. Esther would need to be circumspect and shrewd in timing her request.
B. Tense “chess match” (vv. 1-2, 4, 8, 9-10, 14)
Imagine Esther as the ivory queen, Xerxes the ebony king, and Haman the ebony knight. The plot turns on whether Xerxes will have mercy on Esther who has put herself “in check” by appearing in the throne room uninvited. Xerxes grants favor to Esther, who patiently begins maneuvering to eliminate Haman. Will Haman be outwitted by Esther’s covert strategy because of his shortsighted focus in seeking vengeance on Mordecai, an opponent who poses no real threat to Haman? Will Mordecai survive another day while Haman recklessly pursues him and Esther stalls her big move? To change the metaphor: this is a “staring contest.” Who will blink first: Esther or Haman? The lives of Mordecai, Esther, the Jews, and the promised messiah yet-to-be-born now hang on who has greater influence with the king: Esther his queen or Haman his right-hand man. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Will God be “check-mated?”
C. Delicious foreshadowing (vv. 2-4, 14)
(1) Esther’s deliverance in the throne room foreshadows the deliverance of the Jews at the end of the book (celebrated during Purim). (2) The king not only pardons Esther, but also shows her favor as his queen, graciously promising to grant her request. This foreshadows the king’s favor extended to Esther, Mordecai, and all the Jews to permit them a favored position over their enemies. (3) The feast Esther makes for the king foreshadows the great Feast of Purim which annually commemorates the deliverance Esther won for her people. (4) The gallows Haman prepares for Mordecai foreshadows the gruesome reversal of fortune for Haman, who will be impaled on a stake of his own making!
II. Rehearse the Proverbs: Humility vs. Pride (Prov 11:2; 15:33; 16:18; 18:12; 22:4; 29:23)
A. Godly humility cultivates wisdom and courage (vv. 1-5)
1. Wisdom: Esther didn’t chicken out by extending the dinner invitation. She carefully planned her course of action. By inviting the king to a feast made for him, she obligated him to herself. By inviting Haman to come along, she flattered his pride and set him up for his fall from grace.
2. Courage: Esther responded to the king’s conventional generosity with conventional deference. The king has displayed his graciousness; now Esther displays her humility. Esther is referred to as “Queen Esther” 14 times in the book, and only once before 5:2. For just the second time in the story (so far) Esther is addressed as “Queen Esther,” implying the importance that her royalty played at this point in the narrative. This illustrates that Esther assumes the dignity and power of her royal position only after she humbly decides to see herself as a child of God (cf. Moses in Ex 3-4). Esther identifies herself with her people the Jews now that they are under threat of extermination. Only now does she truly grow into the role of queen. God has prepared her for such a time as this (4:14). Once she identified herself with God’s people, her decision empowered her to action as she was personally transformed to fit the crown she bore—dignified, courageous, and powerful. Humility cultivated courage.
B. When fear of man overwhelms courage (vv. 6-8)
Sometimes the fear of man, fear of death, or fear of conflict stifles you. You know what is right, you want to do the right thing, you even plan and prepare to act in righteousness, but the hour of decision overwhelms you. You shrink back defeated, afraid, and wondering if you lost your last chance to act.
Let me give you a little insight into what preachers wrestle with when thinking through how to apply a sermon to their congregation. Say the sermon has a particularly sharp application that I know is going to rub Mr. So-and-so the wrong way, or is going to convince Mrs. So-and-so that I’m preaching right at her. This makes it tempting to soften the application, or side-step it altogether. In my optimistic moments I’ll tell myself that I’ll be courageous next time, but I know the cycle of fearing man rather than God will begin anew next time around.
You know the feeling too. (1) Your aging parent is making foolish decisions that are spiritually harming him. But you hold your tongue hoping God will spare him the consequences. (2) Your spouse is developing a prideful attitude, but you’re afraid to step into the fray for fear of straining your marriage. (3) Your father harshly criticizes you and you’re slowly losing respect and trust for him, but every chance you get to say something you don’t, hoping for more courage next time. (4) Your boss schedules you to work on Sunday because “it’s just another day,” but you’re too timid to identify yourself as a Christian who needs to worship God in church on the Sabbath. Pray for humility that cultivates courage. Pray the same for your pastors.
Esther certainly felt the fear of man, and she may have succumbed to it at her first feast (the text is not explicit). But take courage: God is in control of our failures and is able to strengthen us again (Prov 29:25). Remember that Peter denied Jesus three times and later was restored by Jesus three times (Jn 21:15-19).
C. Sinful pride cultivates foolish confidence (vv. 9-14)
1. Pride works like spiritual blinders. Haman waited impatiently with blinded eyes for the first moment to strike with his request at no perceived risk to himself. He requested judgment for Mordecai and for the Jews. Haman’s self-restraint was of a type that revealed his foolishness and selfishness. Haman had 10 sons (9:7-10) and boasted about his glory displaying his enormous pride. The biblically-informed reader knows this likely spells doom for Haman. Pride comes before a fall, and the bigger they are the harder they fall!
2. Haman is the archetypal “overreacher.” His goals and plans are so extravagant and overreaching that he is doomed to failure. His personal ambition is too excessive to succeed, although he is lulled into a sense of invincibility when he considers the glory and position he has managed to achieve.
Years ago I sat in my company’s interviewer chair listening to candidates squirm for their first job out of college. I was only a couple years removed from squirming for that first job myself, so I identified with them. I tried to put each candidate at ease as best I could although I was prepared to make the hard decisions of granting second interviews. I don’t remember any of the job candidates except one. He was the most arrogant, self-assured, foolishly confident job candidate I had ever seen! His resume was padded, his manner and speech was boastful, and his plan for this job was to use it as a stepping stone to another company! He basically thought he was in control of the hiring process. Needless to say he inadvertently eliminated himself from consideration. That interview later became the stuff of office legend! Classic overreacher!
Ironically, Haman as the devious royal adviser has appeared thus far to be in control of the king’s decisions. Now Haman appears to be controlled by the decisions of his wife and friends. He is confident that the king will grant his request to execute Mordecai tomorrow morning. But unbeknownst to Haman, he is actually being led to the slaughter, and on his own gallows. Poetic justice!
III. Rely on the Savior: God vs. Idols of this World
A. The king’s favor on Queen Esther pictures God’s favor on Christ as our redeemer (v. 2)
King Xerxes protected Queen Esther from the law when he extended the golden scepter to her. She touched its head and accepted his pardon. This is the turning point in the book, prefiguring the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the turning point of redemptive history, and foreshadowing the general resurrection on the last day. The general resurrection is prefigured in the salvation of the Jews across the Persian Empire at the end of Esther. An analogy—“Esther’s salvation : the Jews’ salvation :: Christ’s justification before God the king : the Christian’s justification before God the king.” The king’s favor on Esther prefigures God’s favor on Christ the obedient son of God (cf. Mt 3:17; 2 Pet 1:17). Esther and Christ both represent their people as redeemer.
B. Haman’s pride pictures the foolish confidence of those who rely on false gods (v. 11)
People rely on “false gods” whenever they cease to trust in the Savior. False gods take many forms.
1. Literal (Worship of a human leader, false god, true God by false means)
2. Blatant (Devotion to sex, power or money)
3. Subtle (“Christian” compromises)
4. Universal (Root motivations such as pride, fear, lust, pleasure, greed, knowledge)
Haman trusted in the idols of position, power, and influence. He worshiped the gods of happiness and honor, coveting them above his riches and glory. Haman is an example of what a lack of humility ultimately cultivates—a heart puffed up with pride, a foolish confidence in ourselves and others, and a life that teeters on the precipice of ruin (Prov 14:12, 27). All who rely on false gods walk in darkness (Eph 5:3-8) and will fall (1 Jn 2:11).
Conclusion – The Bible doesn’t say, “Be courageous like Esther, not Haman.” Esther is first and foremost a savior, and secondarily an imperfect example of humility, wisdom, and courage for us. The Jews celebrate the Feast of Purim to celebrate Esther their redeemer, not to imitate her. Celebration precedes imitation. Humility precedes courage. Only people who rely on Jesus the Savior in humility will cultivate the courage to follow and obey him. Now someone will say, “But how can I gain God’s favor? Jesus is God’s righteous Son! Of course he gained God’s favor!” Yes, God’s favor was on Jesus as our redeemer, but God’s favor on Jesus didn’t deliver him from his gallows, it delivered him up to the gallows! Sinful men filled with pride hung him on a cross. They were foolishly confident that Jesus, their hated enemy, had been dishonored and destroyed. God’s enemies had “checked” Jesus in the Great Chess Match (or so they thought). But in his final maneuver, Jesus used the cross to “checkmate” his enemies! The cross was the maneuver God used to redeem his people. Jesus faced the gallows in your place. He hung on the cross as a humble, wise, courageous, and perfectly righteous man to take the wrath that sinners deserve. Don’t you see that if you believe you are forgiven even though you deserve the gallows, and that Jesus has taken the wrath you deserve for all your selfish pride and reliance upon false gods, then that will create a genuine humility in you? It has to. That humility will begin to shape you deep inside at your most fundamental level, transforming your fear of man into a fear of God, which by God’s grace will cultivate in you courage to act with a bold faith in the hour of decision. God the king extends his scepter today to you. That scepter is the cross of Christ. Jesus is the only way for you to gain God’s favor. Won’t you humble yourself, reach out, and take hold of him? May God give you courage to do so!