In our summer preaching series, we are considering the vitally important questions of identity (who am I?) and vocation, or calling (what am I to do?) from the book of Esther. Last week we saw that identity and vocation are inseperably linked. In other words, it is only when you are becoming who God has designed you to be - who you uniquely are in Christ - that you can begin to live faithfully into your vocation.
We saw, last week, that the Jews who had been deported to Babylon (which became the Persian empore) had assimilated into the Persian Empire, and have compromised their identity as God's covenant people in the context of a vast and overwhelming pagan culture.
In Chapter 2:5, we see this tale of assimilation and compromise more clearly in Mordecai and Esther, our heroine.
We are told that Mordecai is of the tribe of Benjamin. His geneology was well known because he came from the family of King Saul: Kish was his ancestor (I Sam. 9:1; 14:51; I ch. 8:33) and Shimei, his relative, who you may remember out of fierce loyalty to Saul cursed David.
So Mordecai has a claim to royal blood; in fact, his family was taken in the deportation of King Jehoichin to Babylon in 597 B.C. So Mordecai is a member of God’s covenant people, an inheritor of the promises. But we see hints of assimilation, even of compromise, even in his name. Mordecai derives from a name current in Babylon; it incorporates Marduk, the name of the state god of Babylon, and me be a Hebrew version of the common name Mardukaya.
We also see this assimilation and compromise in Esther's name. Hadassah is the Hebrew name of the heroine, and means myrtle. In prophetic symbolism, the myrtle would replace the briars and thorns of the desert, so depicting the LORDs forgiveness and acceptance of his people. But we know our heroine as Esther, the Persian equivalent. Esther, means “star”, and it picks up the sound of the Hebrew, and suggest the star-like flowers of the myrtle. Esther's name also comes from the same root as the Babylon Ishtar, the goddess who corresponds to Venus in Roman worship.
But it is in more then their names that we see hints of assimilation and compromise in their covenant identity as God's people.
First, when Esther is taken to King Xerxes Harem, Mordecai forbids her to share her Jewish identity. And, second, Esther is willing to compromise God's law and, perhaps, her own heart desires in accepting her role in her "one-night-stand" with King Xerxes.
In her book, Lost Women of the Bible, Carolyn Custis James refers to Esther as a "Sleeping Beauty."
“From another angle, we get a truer assessment of Esther when we compare her to other exiles who faced similar situations…Compared with other Israelites – Joseph in Egypt, or Daniel in Babylon – Esther (along with Mordecai) was a compromiser. She didn’t display the same passionate loyalty to God or to his people that drove the actions and flooded the prayers of these steadfast youth. Instead, she shed her Jewish name, concealed her true identity, and morphed into the surrounding culture.”
She goes on to say:
“Once brought to the palace, their sole mission in life was to give pleasure to the king – to please his eye, to satisfy him in bed, and to expand his impressive collection of possessions for others to admire....Esther… entered a yearlong beauty treatment – marinating in oils and perfumes for twelve months before being served up in her tryst with the king, who rated each girl’s performance and decided her fate. The potential for rejection and degradation is difficult to fathom...This marked a turning point for Esther. She chose to play the game. Warned by Mordecai to conceal her Jewish identity, she managed to elude detection and won high marks from everyone inside the palace because she was so pleasing...When her turn came for a one-night stand with Xerxes, she delighted the king more than all the other virgins, won his heart, and walked away with Vashti’s crown. Esther was beautiful and pleasing and she was losing her way. In all her splendor, the beautiful queen was being lulled to sleep. For the next five years, Queen Esther was the perfect woman – the fairest in the land, dutifully complying with the wishes of her husband and king and never making waves.”
But there is a cost to this compromise of their identity.
Mordecai and Esther's compromise leaves Mordecai anxious and pacing back and forth between his home and the harem every day. And it leaves Esther stuck between the two most important men in her life: her uncle and, by adoption, her father Mordecai and her husband, Xerxes, a pagan King.
But we will see as the story progresses that both Mordecai and Esther begin to "own" their identities and thus awake and begin to step into their callings.
For, beneath the story of Esther is the God of Esther, the true King of Kings. He, it turns out, is putting Esther through another kind of beauty treatment. It is not focused on outward beauty that is fading, but the inner beauty of a strong, faithful, godly woman. In God's time, and in his intricate plan, he will force Esther to fully own her identity as one of his covenant people and, as she does, she finally experiences full freedom (from being stuck between the two men) and enters fully into her vocation as a rescuer of her people.
There are many applications of this in our lives. Let me leave you with just one. If you are his child, God is at work in your life, shaping you, forming you, beautifying you, so that you will, more and more, step into the calling he has for you.
Esther went through a one year beauty treatment. But God, the King of Kings, is at work in you through your whole lifetime, to bring about a deep inner beauty in you as his son or daughter. Like Esther, as you own more and more of your identity in Christ (who you are), you will more and more be able to live faithfully into your calling (what he has made you to do).
In his book, To be near unto God, Abraham Kuyper writes:
“A year of your life can never be understood by itself. Every year of your life must be viewed in connection with your whole life in the hereafter, because it stands so, and not otherwise, before God, and is so, and not otherwise, to be explained… But if this year (the child of God) must go through a period when God puts him into a smelting furnace or makes finer cuttings on the diamond of his soul, then, though the tears make his eyes glisten, he will nobly bear up in the exaltation of faith; for then it is certain that he is in need of this, that it cannot be otherwise, and that, if it did go otherwise, his life would be a failure forever.