‘Kill the Jews!’ declared the edict of Xeres, king of Persia. Yet his own beautiful wife, Queen Esther, belonged to the condemned people. So why pass a decree to exterminate his queen’s own people?
There was a simple reason: Xerxes (also known as Ahasuerus) did not know that his queen came from the Jewish race. Neither did his powerful aide and adviser, Haman, whose hatred of the Jews had hatched the iniquitous decree. God had placed Esther, a Hebrew orphan girl, now queen of Persia, in the right place at the right time, to deliver his people from destruction. God had brought Esther to the palace ‘for such a time as this’ (Esther 4:14).
Esther’s approach to the king can teach us how we may go, in prayer, to a king who is mightier than the tyrant Xerxes, namely, the glorious and gracious King of heaven!
God is sovereign
The future of the Jews lay in the hands of Esther — or so it seemed to the threatened race. Mordecai, the cousin and adoptive father of Esther, knew better. Though he urged the queen to action, he realised that if Esther failed to intercede with the king, then God would deliver his people in some other way. ‘For if you remain silent, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your family will perish’ (Esther 4:14).
‘So why risk my life and plead for my people’, Esther may have thought, ‘if God can rescue them some other way?’ Similarly, we may think, ‘Why bother to pray, if the sovereign God will fulfil his decrees whether I pray or not?’
Because it is through prayer that we become part of God’s plans, the almighty God does not need our service or our supplication, but he graciously chooses to use those who are weak and sinful, to fulfil his eternal decrees. If that isn’t staggering enough, consider this. He even overrules our failure to serve him and to pray, and causes our disobedience to slot into his wise purposes.
About a hundred years before Esther’s time, Daniel also grappled with the question of prayer and God’s sovereignty. Reading Jeremiah’s prophecy he learnt that the seventy-year Jewish exile in Babylon would soon end. He knew God always keeps his word and carries out his plans. So, does he sit back and wait? No; he prays for God to do what he has predestined! So should we (Daniel 9:1-2).
The weakest saint upon his knees
‘If you remain silent … you and your father’s house will perish’ (Esther 4:14). True, we cannot thwart God’s plans but, nevertheless, we are the losers if we do not pray. And so are other people, churches, and the nation.
What do we miss if we do not pray? Most important of all, our closeness to God and our fellowship with Christ suffer. Both are essential if we are to be useful and fruitful in Christian service. Our experience of the comfort of God’s presence and the power of his Spirit in our lives also depends on our nearness to God.
‘You will perish’, Mordecai told Esther. As believers, we cannot lose our salvation, but neglect of prayer means we are spiritually weak. Lack of prayer gives the devil a foothold in our lives and in our churches (Ephesians 4:27). To quote William Cowper: ‘Restraining prayer, we cease to fight’ but, on the other hand, ‘Satan trembles when he sees the weakest saint upon his knees’. How vital, then, it is to pray!
Reasons to pray
The crisis facing God’s people fuelled Mordecai’s appeal to the queen to plead with Xerxes to spare the Jews. What is our reaction when we read the newspaper or watch the television news? Do we shake our heads in disgust, or get on our knees and pray? When we hear about a Christian who has sinned, do we point the finger of accusation or bend the knee in prayer? When we hear of some Christian in distress or suffering stress do we, if possible, stop at once and pray? When we read of churches divided and churches near to closure, do we weep before the Lord and plead with God for revival?
We ought to take seriously Paul’s exhortation to Timothy to pray ‘for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in godliness and holiness. This is good and pleases God our Saviour’ (1 Timothy 2:2).
In her role as the queen, Esther had the ear of the king to speak for her people. We have the ear of the King of kings, because we are the heirs of his kingdom through the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 8:14-17).
Hindrances to prayer
In the hymn already quoted, Cowper writes about the ‘various hindrances we meet’ when we go in prayer to the ‘mercy seat’. Esther faced at least two hindrances in approaching the Persian king to plead for the Jews.
Firstly, there was her lack of courage (Esther 5-7). Nevertheless, depending on God’s help, she speaks to the king, knowing she risks her life for seeking an uninvited audience. ‘I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish’, is the message she sends to Mordecai. Even so, it takes two feasts before she plucks up courage to expose Haman and reveal her own identity.
When we feel afraid of unbelievers we should recall biblical promises, such as Hebrews 13:5-6. ‘God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you”. So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”’ The story of Esther proves the point!
The second problem Esther faced was her lack of confidence (Esther 4:11). Would King Xerxes hold out the golden sceptre to welcome her? Not even the queen could approach the king uninvited. Esther overcomes her lack of courage and confidence by prayer and fasting (Esther 4:15-17). So may we!
Finally, when she goes, the king welcomes Esther and promises to give her whatever she asks (Esther 5:1-3). The heavenly King welcomes his citizens and gives them more than they can ‘ask or imagine’ (Ephesians 3:20).
A picture of Christ
The opening verses of Esther 5 give us a delightful illustration of how to enter, by prayer, the presence of the divine King.
Firstly, Esther puts on ‘her royal robes’ to speak to the king (v.1). We can only approach the king of heaven dressed in the robe of Christ’s righteousness. At conversion, God removes the rags of our sin and clothes us in the royal robe of Christ’s holy life (Zechariah 3:1-5). God treats his own Son as the sinner, and treats us as righteous (2 Corinthians 5:21). He deals with us as if we had never sinned at all.
And, after conversion, we aim to keep ourselves ‘from being polluted by the world’ (James 1:27). By God’s power, we desire to match the imputed righteousness of Christ with the imparted righteousness of a holy life.
Secondly, Esther stands at the door wondering if Xerxes will receive her and grant her request. Esther standing at the door suggests her humility, and we too come with humility to God, because we are sinners who deserve nothing but his anger. The queen feared that she might perish. We would certainly perish if God did not hold out to us the gold sceptre of his mercy and grace.
Thirdly, Esther found favour with the king. Xerxes said to Esther, ‘What is your request? … It will be given to you’ (v. 3). And we find favour with God, the King of heaven, because of Christ’s death for us, on the cross. The King’s Son says to us, ‘I will do whatever you ask in my name … You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it’ (John 14:13-14). God welcomes those who come to him through his beloved Son (Ephesians 1:6).
Fourthly, the king ‘sitting on his royal throne … held out to her the gold sceptre that was in his hand. So Esther approached and touched the tip of the sceptre’ (Esther 5:1-2). Now we may go at any time into his royal presence! As Esther ‘approached’ the king, so we may go to our Sovereign. He will never turn us away — not even when we stand at death’s door. Then he will hold out the golden sceptre and receive us into his immediate presence in heaven!