The Ones Who Honor God

“The people you rescued by your great power and strong hand are your servants. O Lord, please hear my prayer! Listen to the prayers of those of us who delight in honoring you. Please grant me success today by making the king favorable to me. Put it into his heart to be kind to me.”
Nehemiah 1:10-11a New Living Translation

Nehemiah was a man who saw a need and responded to the crisis at the heart of that need. He was serving King Artaxerxes as a cupbearer in the Persian capital of Susa. Many Hebrews had returned to Jerusalem, including, apparently, his brother. When his brother gave him the report of the condition of the wall of Jerusalem and the lack of safety for those who had returned, it caused great distress for Nehemiah. It caused him to mourn the fate of his family’s homeland.

Nehemiah’s first response to the need in Jerusalem was to pray. God had caused something to stir in Nehemiah’s heart and he was compelled to do something about it. Therefore, he turned to God in prayer. After beginning with praise about God’s faithfulness, Nehemiah turns to confession and identifies with the sins of his nation and his family. He doesn’t dismiss the sin as someone else’s problem. He takes ownership of the sins of his people. He, then, reminds God of His promise of restoration once people have repented.

Knowing that it is God’s heart to forgive the repentant ones, Nehemiah takes a bold step. He asked God for favor with King Artaxerxes as he prepares to present his desire to the king. He is confident in God’s character to listen to those who seek to honor Him, even when many have rejected Him before. Not all Hebrews rejected God now, therefore Nehemiah’s call was for the sake of those who sought to honor the name of God. In a sense, they would be the ones who stood in the gap for the rest of the nation.

As followers of Jesus, we have the opportunity to stand in the gap for our communities and nation, as well. When we see society around us reject God’s ways and seek their own direction, we can take the role of those who still seek to honor God despite the rejection of God all around us. In those times we must acknowledge our own part and repent on our community’s behalf. As we do that, though, we can stand confident in God’s character to forgive and desire to hear the prayers of those who seek to honor His name.

God, forgive us for the ways we and our community have turned our backs on you. Give us favor in our desire to honor and represent you to a world that often rejects your ways.

From Self-Assurance To Self-Destruction

When Haman told his wife, Zeresh, and all his friends what had happened, his wise advisers and his wife said, “Since Mordecai—this man who has humiliated you—is of Jewish birth, you will never succeed in your plans against him. It will be fatal to continue opposing him.”
Esther 6:13 New Living Translation

The irony of the fate of Haman in Esther 5 – 7 is hard to miss. He has reached the pinnacle of his career as a noble in Xerxes’s empire. He is second in command with nowhere to go but down. The only way to go higher in the Persian Empire would be to stage a coup against Xerxes and that would probably not end well for him. At the height of his power in the empire, Haman has become obsessed with the destruction of Mordecai. Seeing Mordecai at the palace gate on his way home from a private banquet with the King and Queen upsets him so much that he is unable to enjoy the evening and cannot wait for the appointed day to see this particular Jew dead.

Haman’s rage causes him to plot a new plan that will eventually lead to his own destruction. He erects a tall stake in his backyard to have Mordecai impaled on and plans to ask Xerxes to pronounce the sentence the next day. That night, God reminds Xerxes that Mordecai had saved him from an assassination plot and learns that nothing has been done to honor Mordecai. Xerxes is trying to decide the best way to honor Mordecai at the very moment Haman arrives to ask for Mordecai’s execution. Xerxes asks Haman for advice on how to honor someone he is very pleased with. Haman’s self-assurance is so strong at this point that he assumes the honor is for him and suggests a grand royal parade through the city for the one the king is pleased with. He is horrified to learn that the intended recipient of this honor is Mordecai and Haman would be the one to lead Modecai on this parade. Haman is foiled in his efforts to rid himself of Mordecai and becomes even angrier.

At this point, Haman’s wife and friends make this dire prediction. If he continues to seek Mordecai’s death it will lead to his own destruction. Little did they know how soon this prediction would become a reality. He is taken to a second banquet with the King and Queen where Esther reveals her ethnicity and Haman’s plot begins to unravel. Xerxes is angered by Haman and has him impaled on he same stake Haman had erected for Mordecai. Haman’s self-assurance led to his own destruction.

Long before this, King Solomon wrote:
“Pride goes before destruction,
    and haughtiness before a fall.” (Psalm 16:18)
Haman’s life illustrates this reality. When we become too self-assured, it is easy for us to develop too high an opinion of ourselves and think that the whole world should revolve around our agenda. In that process, though, it is easy for us to get caught into a trap of our own making that eventually brings about our own downfall. There is an appropriate place for godly confidence that inspires us to do things that are driven by Kingdom values. Self-focused confidence, though, can often lead to our own undoing.

God, keep our hearts from too high of an opinion of ourselves and our agenda. Help us to remember that our confidence should come from You and be about advancing the agenda of Your Kingdom, not ours.

Danger Of Silence

Mordecai sent this reply to Esther: “Don’t think for a moment that because you’re in the palace you will escape when all other Jews are killed. If you keep quiet at a time like this, deliverance and relief for the Jews will arise from some other place, but you and your relatives will die. Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?”
Esther 4:13-14 New Living Translation

Shortly after Esther became the queen, the purpose of her being in this position became apparent. Because Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, refused to bow down to him, a high ranking noble named Haman created a plan to have all Jewish people in the Persian Empire put to death on a single day. As news of the planned mass execution spread, Mordecai sat outside the palace gate in mourning clothes. This got Esther’s attention and she eventually asked Mordecai what was happening. Mordecai asked Esther to approach King Xerxes and ask him to change the decree. For Esther, this was a risky thing to do. If she tried to enter the king’s throne room without being requested she would be executed unless Xerxes extended his scepter toward her. Mordecai reminded her of the danger of her remaining silent on this occasion. Even though she was the queen, Esther was also Jewish and the decree would apply to her as well. Realizing her silence could also lead to her death, she agreed to approach the king unannounced after three days of prayer and fasting.

There are times in history when the people of God need to speak up against injustice, no matter what the risk is to them. The danger of silence can be just as great.  Martin Niemoller was a German pastor in the 1930s and 40s who supported the rise of the Nazi party early on. He learned of the consequences of his silence and compliance when he was imprisoned for opposing Nazi efforts to control the German protestant church in the late 1930s. His confession in 1946 of the regret he felt over his early indifference to the injustices of the Nazi’s has been summarized in various poems with different groups being listed. Every version of the poem ends with these haunting words:
“Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me”  (First They Came…)

As we look at injustice happening around us, it can be easy to think that we are safe as long as the injustice is not affecting us directly. We may desire to avoid risk to ourselves by just avoiding an issue. The examples of Esther and Martin Niemoller remind us of the dangers of silence and can inspire us to speak up for those who are oppressed, even if we are not personally affected.

Lord, forgive us for our silence in the times when we should have spoken up in defense of others. Give us the strength to speak up against injustice in the world.

God Overcomes Circumstances

“So if it please the king, we suggest that you issue a written decree, a law of the Persians and Medes that cannot be revoked. It should order that Queen Vashti be forever banished from the presence of King Xerxes, and that the king should choose another queen more worthy than she. When this decree is published throughout the king’s vast empire, husbands everywhere, whatever their rank, will receive proper respect from their wives!”
Esther 1:19-20 New Living Translation

It’s easy to get caught up in the romanticism of the story of Esther and lose sight of the context in which the story is told. The story of an orphaned young lady from a foreign nation drawing the attention of the king and becoming queen sounds like a storyline for an animated film by Disney. The context of the story is much darker than this, though, and represents the darker side of fallen human nature. It begins with the story of a woman who lost her honored place in society because she stood for her own dignity and refused to be treated as property to be put on display. The entire incident falls way short of God’s intended design for the relationship between a husband and wife.

There are a number of different explanations for why Queen Vashti refused to be put on display before the male guests at King Xerxes’s party. Some have speculated that she may have been pregnant with Antexerxes (the eventual heir) at the time. Others have pointed out that the drunkenness of the guests would have put Vashti in a vulnerable situation. Some also point out that being put on display like this was something done to concubines and not the Queen. Whatever the circumstance, Vashti took a stand for her own dignity by disobeying the order of the king, an order that he would later acknowledge as foolish.

The nobles of Persia feared that as news of this event spread throughout the whole empire, their own wives might be emboldened to defy their orders when they felt their dignity was at stake. To prevent this from happening, the nobles encouraged Xerxes to make an example out of Vashti and permanently strip her of the title of Queen and banish her from the king’s presence forever. When the king had second thoughts about his treatment of Vashti, his attendants suggested that they gather more young women to become the king’s concubines until he found one that pleased him enough to replace Vashti. In contemporary terms, the entire process of finding a replacement for Vashti would be seen as a government-sanctioned sex trafficking operation in which young women were taken from their homes and became the property of the king to be used for his pleasure whenever he called for them. It is in this context that Esther is eventually chosen as the new queen.

In spite of the ugliness of the circumstances, God uses the events at that time for the eventual salvation of the Jewish nation from a planned genocide. God did not approve of the circumstance under which Esther became a queen. Still, He used those circumstances to place Esther in a role that would preserve His people and His purposes. We can take comfort that even when God does not sanction some of the circumstances in our lives, He is still able to help us rise above those circumstances for the purpose of doing something good that may even affect the lives of others.

God, thank You that You can even work in the midst of circumstances that are not according to Your plan or design for the world. Help us to trust You to still be at work, even when our culture has gone far away from you.

Not By Force

Then he said to me, “This is what the Lord says to Zerubbabel: It is not by force nor by strength, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. Nothing, not even a mighty mountain, will stand in Zerubbabel’s way; it will become a level plain before him! And when Zerubbabel sets the final stone of the Temple in place, the people will shout: ‘May God bless it! May God bless it!’”
Zechariah 4:6-7 New Living Translation

Zerubbabel faced a number of challenges in rebuilding the temple. Whether it be external opposition from the neighbors, discouragement of the workers, a lack of supplies and resources, or the difficult terrain of the Temple Mount; all these obstacles would feel like mountains that stand in the way of completing the project. As Governor of the region, Zerubbabel would have had legal access to political power and force to address some of these obstacles but God made it clear that the rebuilding of His Temple was spiritual work and it would only be finished properly by the power of the Holy Spirit within the workers. God would make all the obstacles flat like a plain. It was then that the people would acknowledge the greatness of God in helping His people build the Temple. Human power would only produce human results and leave the people thinking that they had accomplished something on their own without the need of God. Anything built by human means would fall short of being a place where God would draw all people to Himself through the coming Messiah.

In our efforts to make disciples and build the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, we face many obstacles. It is tempting at times to give in to the temptation to use human force and power to impose Kingdom values on people. When we resort to political and military power to accomplish the goals of the Kingdom of God, we create something that falls short of the Kingdom that God intends to build. In the same way God spoke to Zerubbabel in the past, He tells the followers of Jesus today that His work will only be accomplished by the work of the Holy Spirit. Our call, as followers of Jesus, is to listen to the Holy Spirit and cooperate with Him. We can trust that He is at work behind the scenes, helping us in the work of Jesus’s Kingdom. Through the Holy Spirit, God is able to change the hearts of humanity and accomplish more than we are able to do through human effort.

Lord, help us to trust Your Holy Spirit to be at work addressing the obstacles in our lives. Help us to be faithful to live by the values of your Kingdom and not to resort to the human effort.