One Reason to Stop Praying

[Esther replied,] “I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” — Esther 4.16
We hold prayer to be one of the most sacred and powerful acts of faith. “It is the insight into the mystery of reality, the sense of the ineffable, that enables us to pray,” remarks Abraham Joshua Heschel. Remarkable things blossom when the prayers of the saints join in the work of the Spirit.

It is almost shocking not to see prayer in this part of Esther’s story. She is told she must risk her life and approach the king—that her people will be murdered if she isn’t successful. Her reply is bold and decisive; she responds without pause for prayer, “I will go to the king… if I perish, I perish.” It’s at this point that Charles Swindoll, in his book Esther: A Woman of Strength and Dignity, remarks:
Is that a great answer or what? Is this a great woman? She’s had only a few moments to consider what Mordecai had told her, a brief slice of time to weigh his counsel. It was all she needed. She is determined to make a difference, no matter what the consequences to her personally:

‘If I perish, I perish. If a guard drives a sword through my body, I die doing the right thing.’ She has changed from fear to abandonment and faith, from hesitation to confidence and determination, from concern for her own safety to concern for her people’s survival. She has reached her own personal hour of decision and has not been found wanting.
Esther calls her people to fast—not so she can discern what is proper to do, but so God would sway the heart of the king. She knew what must be done—her prayers weren’t spent on discernment, but upon building faith and trust for the result.

It was in the middle of another miraculous rescue, as the Egyptians were closing in on Israel after their exodus, that God asked Moses, “Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward.” Moses needed
confidence like Esther. Prayer for what action to take wasn’t needed—the time had come for courageous faith.

Esther didn’t pray to discern what action to take. We find her seeking God, calling her people to fast, as she realizes her actions alone will be insufficient in meeting the deepest needs of her people.

Today’s Reading
Esther 4 (Listen – 2:53)
Acts 27 (Listen – 6:09)

Finding Blessings In Chaos

And the king and Haman sat down to drink, but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion. — Esther 3.15
The word tragedy is used to describe the chance-events which permanently reshape normal life. From a costly professional error, the death of a loved one, or the horrors of terrorism, tragedy leaves its scars on both soul and culture.

The story of Esther chronicles Haman’s attempt to exterminate the Jewish people exiled in Persia during the fourth century B.C.E. Haman believed he was divining the will of Persian gods when he set the date of the massacre by casting lots. The very thought of genocide occurring by such happenstance sent Susa, the town where many exiled Jewish families lived, into chaos.

The Hebrew word translated as confusion is also used for wandering—the state of Israel’s lostness in the wilderness. The similarities between the stories of Exodus and Esther are remarkable. In both stories Israel is held captive in a pagan land, an adopted child with a concealed identity is empowered by God, and the enemy is slaughtered as Israel is redeemed. Esther is the story of a new exodus, Exodus a story of a new creation.

The overt lesson of the creation account in Genesis 1 is that God enters chaos and makes beauty. God’s creative act is generative—formlessness is structured under his will, void is filled by his grace, darkness driven out by light, and the depths of evil brought into submission by his Spirit.

Faithfulness in Esther’s story might be understood as providence (Esther and Mordecai both rose in power); but we cannot miss that Israel’s deepest longing—to return home—went unmet. Remarkably, this reality did not shake their faith. God’s presence with them in suffering became something cherished.

For thousands of years Jews have celebrated Purim, a holiday which is named after the Hebrew word for “lots.” It is a reminder of God’s faithfulness when the lots of the world fall against his people. Even when things seem haphazard, when the world looks like it is likely to be overcome by evil, when the innocent suffer, God is faithful.

God’s faithfulness didn’t result in an attitude of escapism among his people. When the Babylonian exiles cried out to God he instructed them to invest where they were—for though their pain was immense and their longings unmet, the eternal weight of glory awaited.

Today’s Reading
Esther 3 (Listen – 3:12)
Acts 26 (Listen – 5:17)

Overcoming Self-Rejection

In the evening Esther would go in, and in the morning she would return to the second harem… She would not go in to the king again, unless the king delighted in her and she was summoned by name. — Esther 2.14

The ache of self-rejection resides in the depths of the human heart—somewhere beyond the reach of other people’s affection. It grows through the pain inflicted by others, but most rapidly through personal failure. Remarkably, even the misplaced compliment of others can deepen the wounds of self-rejection.

Given the course of Esther’s life, it’s far more likely the book bearing her name should chronicle the story of a broken woman than the hero God chose to save his people. Even today some commentators stammer as they write of her story, noting her “unspiritual lifestyle,” and “unfaithfulness” to the law (it is recorded that she ate unclean food, had intercourse with a man who was not her husband, and married a pagan). The judgment upon her would have been even greater in her day.

The role of an ancient harem was to exist in perpetual beauty—ready for a king who might summon any of the women at any moment. After a preparation period in a harem for virgins, the woman would be summoned to the king’s chambers for one night. Following this she would go to a second harem, to be called again only if she performed well the first time.

Esther must have wept often—staying alive under the rule of a brutal pagan king required she repeatedly compromise her faith. Though diplomatic acumen becomes the highlight of her story, she is judged primarily by her body and taken in as a sex slave.

“Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection.” writes Henri Nouwen. He continues:

When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection.

As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am nobody.”

And yet Esther’s story does not stop here—she is redeemed and empowered by her God. She is celebrated because her faith endured in brokenness. Her victory obtained not by her ability to overcome, but by God’s ability to restore her wasted years. It cannot be missed, as Nouwen concludes, that:

Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.

Today’s Reading
Esther 2 (Listen – 4:31)
Acts 25 (Listen – 4:40)

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