The Feast of Purim
On March 5 of this year the Jewish world celebrated the Feast of Purim. This of course goes back to the Old Testament book of Esther, and commemorates the saving of the Jewish people through a remarkable series of events. Although God is not directly mentioned in the entire book, we see his providential hand throughout.
In this short book of only ten chapters we learn how a Jewish girl became the queen of Persia. Along with her cousin and guardian Mordecai, they help to save the Jewish people from impending destruction at the hands of the wicked Haman.
In Esther 4:13-14 we see how Esther is urged to play the role divinely appointed for her:
Mordecai told them to answer Esther: “Do not think in your heart that you will escape in the king’s palace any more than all the other Jews. For if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
A key part of the book is found in Esther 6:1-4, where the King is reminded of how Mordecai foiled a plot against the King:
That night the king could not sleep. So one was commanded to bring the book of the records of the chronicles; and they were read before the king. And it was found written that Mordecai had told of Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs, the doorkeepers who had sought to lay hands on King Ahasuerus. Then the king said, “What honor or dignity has been bestowed on Mordecai for this?” And the king’s servants who attended him said, “Nothing has been done for him.” So the king said, “Who is in the court?” Now Haman had just entered the outer court of the king’s palace to suggest that the king hang Mordecai on the gallows that he had prepared for him.
In the next few chapters we read about the King’s banquet, and how Esther told the King of Haman’s evil plot. Then a great reversal takes place: Mordecai is honoured while Haman is humiliated. The hanging scaffold Haman had prepared for Mordecai is instead used on Haman.
In chapter 8 we learn about how the Jews are allowed to defend themselves and how they destroyed their enemies. In chapter 9 we read about how the Feast of Purim is established as a result of all these amazing things. So this is the origin of a feast still celebrated today.
Of major interest is how just a few days ago Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to this as he addressed the US Congress. He too spoke of the need for Israel to defend itself, and he even quoted from this amazing book of the Bible. He said:
We’re an ancient people. In our nearly 4,000 years of history, many have tried repeatedly to destroy the Jewish people. Tomorrow night, on the Jewish holiday of Purim, we’ll read the Book of Esther. We’ll read of a powerful Persian viceroy named Haman, who plotted to destroy the Jewish people some 2,500 years ago. But a courageous Jewish woman, Queen Esther, exposed the plot and gave for the Jewish people the right to defend themselves against their enemies. The plot was foiled. Our people were saved. Today the Jewish people face another attempt by yet another Persian potentate to destroy us….
I discussed his moving speech elsewhere: billmuehlenberg.com/2015/03/04/netanyahu-at-the-us-congress/
But let me finish by looking a bit more closely at the theme of God’s providence. And let me do so by quoting from a devotional book. Now, I am not usually a fan of devotionals, but if you are looking for one that is super-solid biblically, theologically, and spiritually, the 2-volume For the Love of God by D. A. Carson (IVP, 1998, 1999) is a terrific set.
And in his second volume, for the reading on January 29, he discusses this very matter. Here is what he writes:
“THAT NIGHT THE KING COULD NOT SLEEP” (Esther 6:1). What a great dramatic line! Are we supposed to think this is an accident?
Both the Bible and history offer countless “coincidences” brought about in the providence of God, the significance of which is discerned only in hindsight. Even in this chapter, Haman chooses this particular morning to present himself early in the court—to obtain sanction for Mordecai’s execution, at that!—and that makes him the man to whom the king puts his fateful question (Esther 6:4-6). In the meditation for January 25 we observed that the peculiar timing of Agrippa II’s visit to Porcius Festus meant that Paul was forced to appeal to Caesar—and that brought him to Rome. Likewise, in God’s providence, Caesar Augustus, more than half a century earlier, had decreed that the Roman world face a census, and under the local rules that decree brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem just in time for the birth of Jesus, fulfilling the biblical prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2).
History entirely removed from the canon provides numerous circumstances where the tiniest adjustment would have changed the course of events. Suppose Britain had not broken the “Enigma” code machines.
Would the Battle of Britain, and even World War II, have gone another way? Suppose Hitler had not held back his panzers at Dunkirk, sending in his planes instead. Would 150,000 British soldiers have been captured or killed, once again changing the face of the war? Is it not remarkable that Hitler’s persecution of Jews drove some of the best scientific minds out of Germany and into the United States? Had he not done so, is it not entirely possible that Hitler would have invented an A-bomb before America did? What then would the history of the past fifty years have looked like? Suppose Khrushchev had not blinked at the Cuba missile crisis, and a nuclear exchange had followed. What would be the state of the world today? Suppose the bullet aimed at Kennedy had missed. Suppose the bullet aimed at Martin Luther King had missed. Suppose the bullet that took out the Archduke in Sarajevo had missed. Christians cannot possibly suppose that any of these events and billions more, small and great, were outside of God’s control.
So the first verse of Esther 6 sets the reader up for the dramatic developments in this chapter, plunging us into many useful reflections on the matchless wisdom and peculiar providence of God. Then, at the end of the chapter, comes a line scarcely less dramatic: “While they were still talking with him, the king’s eunuchs arrived and hurried Haman away to the banquet Esther had prepared” (Esther 6:14). What profit should readers gain from reflecting on this turning point?
Here we see not only events of two and a half millennia ago which speak so powerfully of who God is, but we see in our daily headlines the same book, the same themes, and the same truths being mentioned today. Esther was indeed raised up “for such a time as this” by the providence of God.
And I don’t doubt for a moment that in these very dark days with weak and traitorous leaders like Obama on the scene, that God has providentially raised up a man like Netanyahu to be a beacon of strength and light for this beleaguered nation.
Three cheers for God, and at least a good two and a half cheers for Israel and for Netanyahu.
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