By James Stalker
"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?" Est 4:14
THE book of Esther is not, I should think, one that is much read, although the story it tells is of great interest.
It belongs to that period of Biblical history when the Jews, in exile from their own land, were scattered over the countries of the far East; and the particular spot in which the plot of the book is laid is Shushan, the capital of the kingdom of Persia.
Esther was an orphan Jewess, brought up by a relative of the name of Mordecai; and, by what might be called an extraordinary stroke of luck, but was really a wise pre-arrangement of Providence, she became the queen of Ahasuerus, the Persian monarch.
About the same time as her elevation to this dignity took place, there rose to the head of affairs in Persia-to the place next the king-one Haman, whose star was destined to come into fatal collision with hers. Through a difference with Mordecai, he conceived a deadly hatred against the whole Jewish race, and, through his influence with Ahasuerus, he procured the passing of an imperial edict, by which the Jews were doomed to extermination on a certain day.
This of course gave rise to extreme consternation among the Jews. As the book itself says, " in every province whither-soever 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."
The distress, however, culminated in the mind of Mordecai. It was the ill-will which Haman had conceived against him that lay at the root of the royal edict; and therefore he felt himself to be, in a sense, the cause of his people's danger.
His mind was accordingly roused to devise some means of averting the threatened peril; and, after pondering it every way, he arrived at the conclusion that in Esther lay the only hope. He succeeded in getting information conveyed to her, inside the palace, of the posture of affairs, and implored her to use her influence with the king on behalf of her people.
Esther sent back word that there was an almost hopeless difficulty in the way. It was the law of the palace that, on pain of death, no woman, not even his wife, should approach the king unbidden. It was true that those were excepted from this penalty to whom the king, at their approach, held out the golden sceptre; but events had recently happened which rendered it extremely unlikely that the king would be disposed to overlook anything which might appear an infringement of his rights.
To this Mordecai replied by repeating his entreaty; and, rising to a strain of truly prophetic earnestness, he added the words: " If thou altogether boldest 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 ? "
It was a sublime appeal, and it was effectual. Esther returned answer to Mordecai to gather all the Jews in the city to fast and pray for the success of her adventure. " I also," she added, " and my maidens will fast likewise; and so will I go in to the king, which is not according to the law: and, if I perish, I perish."
Her heroic resolution was carried out, and it met with the reward which it deserved. The king, at her approach, held out to her the sceptre of good-will, and promised to give her whatever petition she might ask. She asked the life of her people, and thus became the Saviour of a nation, while Haman, her adversary, whose wicked plot was laid bare, came to an ignominious end.
But let us return to the prophetic message with which Mordecai summoned her to the great attempt, for there is in it a lesson for ourselves. It sets before us three weighty principles: --
God's cause is independent of our assistance.
"If thou altogether boldest thy peace at this time," said Mordecai, " then shall there arise enlargement and deliverance to the Jews from another place."
How was he so sure of this? He had pondered with almost mortal anxiety to find some way of escape, and Esther's attempt seemed the only opening. Yet he tells her that, even if she should decline to do anything, deliverance would arise from another quarter. How did he know?
Evidently he had drunk deeply of the spirit of the history of Israel. Israel was the people of God it was 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 he, 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. That cause is not dependent on any man; it will brook no man's patronage, however important he may be. If we will assist it, our help will be welcome; but, if not, it can get on without us. We ought to take humble views of our own contributions to it, but very high views of the cause itself.
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. His cause has the omnipotence of God behind it. God has promised Him the heathen for His inheritance and the uttermost parts of the earth for His possession, and, whoever helps and whoever binders, the word of the Most High shall not be broken.
If, indeed, we have identified ourselves with the cause of Christ, our hearts must move in sympathy with its successes and its failures. We shall tremble for the ark of God. But it is quite possible to allow our hearts to tremble for it too much. Never forget that it is God's ark, and that He will take care of it.
Now and then, at some British Association, or in Parliament, or in some other place where the famous or at least the notorious congregate, there is a word spoken in favour of Christ and Christianity; and immediately it is taken up in pulpits and on platforms; it is reiterated in religious newspapers and periodicals, and there is among a certain class of Christians a flutter of congratulation, as if the utterance of the great man had made all the foundations secure. Such snapping up of the crumbs of patronage is contemptible; and the weak people who go into those ecstasies are the very same who quake, as if all the foundations were destroyed, when an attack on religion is made by some clever man.
Ours is an age of majorities. We grow up under the impression, which is borne in on us from every side, that, if the opinion of the majority has declared itself, that which it has declared for must prevail, and that which it has declared against must disappear. It may be a good enough doctrine in some things; but there are important limits to its application. There are things which do not submit themselves to the judgment of the many, or the few. Rather they judge all critics. Do the judges approve of them? Then it is well for the judges; but, if not, they persist all the same. One man, with truth and the promise of God at his back, is stronger than an opposing world. Not unfrequently has this been the predicament in which the cause of Christ has found itself. It has come through crises, when persecution has tried to exterminate it with fire and sword. It has passed through periods of scepticism, when learning and cleverness have fancied that they had blown it away as an exploded superstition. Men have had to stand up for it single-handed against principalities and powers; but, with it at their back, they have been stronger than all that were against them; as one in such circumstances sang, -
"God's Word, for all their craft and force,
One moment shall not linger,
But, spite of hell, shall have its course-
"Tis written by His finger.
And, though they take our life,
Goods, honour, children, wife,
Yet is their profit small.
These things shall perish all,
The City of God remaineth."
II. We are not independent of God's cause.
"If," said Mordecai to Esther, "thou altogether boldest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but," he added, " thou and thy father's house shall be destroyed." Such was the penalty which would follow if, through self-interest, she held back from the service to which he was calling her.
One reason there was which might have tempted Esther to do nothing: she was not known to be a Jewess. We are expressly told so in the narrative. Mordecai and she, at the time of her marriage, had considered it judicious to conceal her nationality. Although, therefore, a massacre of the Jews had taken place, she might have hoped to escape. She had a further protection in the fact that she was an inmate of the palace and the wife of Ahasuerus. What assassin would dare to enter the precincts? Had Esther been disposed to consider only her own safety, instead of, in the spirit of piety and patriotism, thinking of her people, these arguments might have presented themselves to her mind. But Mordecai interposed between her and all such refuges of lies by assuring her that, if the Jews were massacred, she and her father's house would perish with the rest. He may have been led to this conclusion by his knowledge of Haman, whose malignity, once having tasted blood, would seek out its victims in the very last hiding-places. But, more likely, he spoke in the spirit of inspiration, which had revealed to him that, if she did nothing for the cause of God's people, she would lose her life for it.
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 pro-foundest 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 from the end of life we look back on our career, 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?
And then, when from that solemn position we turn our faces the other way-not to look back on our earthly career, but to look forward into eternity-will it not be still more evident that we have lost our life? If there be any truth in Christ's own sayings, He is the first figure we shall meet as we enter eternity; and to those who have lived for themselves, and not for Him, He will say, " I was an hungered, and ye gave Me no meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave Me no drink." In the great day when the Son of man comes forth, in the glory of His Father, and, standing on the mount of God, unfurls the banner of salvation, we shall ail wish to press to His side and be identified with Him. But He will only acknowledge us then if we are drawn to His side by motions of loyalty and generosity now-now, when He goes through the streets and highways of the world hungry and thirsty, sick and naked and despised. " Whosoever therefore shall confess Me before men, him will I confess also before My Father which is in heaven; but, whosoever shall deny Me before men, him will I also deny before My Father which is in heaven."
III. Christ's cause offers the noblest employment at 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: " And who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this? "
There had been something very remarkable in Esther's career. She, an exile, an orphan, a Jewess, had become queen of a realm stretching from India to Ethiopia. To a mature mind it might have been natural to ask, for what purpose Providence had allotted her so singular a fortune. But to herself, probably, this question had never, up to this point, occurred. She had entered the lists to compete for the prize of beauty, and she had won it. This opened up to her a position of dazzling magnificence and a future of boundless enjoyment; and, with the uncloyed appetite of youth, she entered on her heritage, taking everything as a matter of course and as the natural tribute to her gifts.
Now, however, a totally different view of the case was presented to her mind. What if all this had happened to her, not for her own glory and enjoyment at all but to put her in the position of being the saviour of a nation? This thought transfigured Esther. It changed her from a light-beaded and light-hearted girl into a heroine. She regarded herself no more as the mistress of a thousand pleasures, who existed for the purpose of being waited on by hundreds of servitors, but as an instrument in the hands of God for doing a great work for the sake of others.
We all, I suppose, begin like Esther. We are the centre of all things to ourselves; our happiness is the supreme end for which all other persons and things ought to be conspiring. We are proud of our abilities, and eager to shine and command admiration. Perhaps, like Esther, we are brought by circumstances into competition with others, and the verdict of our superiors and our equals confirms the estimate of our powers which we have secretly formed ourselves. The prizes of life glitter ahead of us; we feel confident that we can win them; and we are hungry to taste as many pleasures as we can.
But 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 heading 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 object rose before Esther's eyes in the most vivid and affecting shape. She saw the sword of the assassin at the throat of a nation, and she was summoned to the rescue. Such a time as this could not but evoke the energy of a nature in which any spark of heroism was hidden.
Such crises occur but seldom; yet 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 for 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.
This call saved Esther, for it smote down and annihilated in her the instincts of selfish pleasure and brought up to the surface all the noble elements of her character; and the consequence was, that instead of living and dying as the puppet of an Oriental despot, she now survives through all the centuries as one of those figures from whom noble deeds draw their inspiration.
The same call comes now to you. May it have a like result! Only let me add this one thing. If you would rise in response to this call, do not neglect preparation for the career to which it invites you. Knowledge is the armour of light in which the battles of progress must be won; and, the more closely this armour is fitted on in the years of study, the more ease will there be in your movements and the more force in your blows by-and-bye.
Someone has said that ours is an age when everyone wishes to reform the world, but no one thinks of reforming himself. We must begin with ourselves.
Are we to have aught to give the world? Then we must first have received it. Life for God in public is a mere sounding brass and tinkling cymbal, unless it is balanced by life with God in secret. And, finally, it makes a great difference whether we are going out, in a kind of social knight-errantry, to live for humanity of our own motion, or whether we have met with Jesus Christ in secret, and go forth with His commission and promise at our back, and with His love and inspiration in our souls.