Living with certainty in times of trouble
Stories of tragedy and tribulation, trouble and trial, punctuate the pages of Scripture. From Joseph to Jeremiah and from Job to John the Baptist, these stories talk about trouble affecting God’s followers. Even the Messiah, the hope of Israel, whose promise and presence permeates the Bible, is described as a suffering servant—a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3).
So, it is not surprising that the Scripture speaks of “day of trouble,” “time” or “times of trouble” more than 20 times. Throughout these references to times of trouble, the Bible tells a particular story. Its theme is: “A time of trouble such as never was.” This story begins with the fortunes of a woman called “the desired one, the beloved” who was summarily rejected by her husband and continues with the adventures of a little girl called Myrtle.
In many languages it’s common to name girls after familiar flowers: Daisy. Rose. Violet. Heather. Margaret. Myrtle was the pink-and-white blossom adorning the shrub whose branches were used to build booths during the Feast of Tabernacles. But the Myrtle of our story appears at a low point in Jewish history. Life hadn’t been easy for her. If she had ever heard the soothing voice of a mother or known her gentle embrace, it hadn’t been for long. Robbed of both mother and father, she had no ever-present parent to delight in her childish chatter or rejoice in her every advance. But loss, separation, and grief were familiar enough to this child of woe.
The future also would have been bleak for Myrtle had it not been for her older cousin, Mordecai. He took her into his house and assumed the role of surrogate father while she grew to young womanhood under his roof. Little did either of them know at the time that one day she would be appointed by the Lord God of Israel to lead His people through a time of trouble such as never was.
In due course, Myrtle (Hadassah) became Esther, queen of the Medo-Persian empire stretching from Northern Sudan to India. Historians tell us that her husband Xerxes was not quite up to the administrative demands of his empire. Dependent on the wisdom of others, he tended to grab counsel from any available source. Then he would put it into practice with little analysis or deliberation. Thus the king fell prey to the wily machinations of Haman, a favored official who led him to send out a decree and to determine the date when it would be carried out. By this decree not only Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, by whom Haman felt slighted, but also all Jews throughout the 127 provinces of the empire were to be put to death.
A daring mission
Jews had suffered before. Egyptian slavery was atrocious. A ruthless Pharaoh reduced Israel to a band of servile and ignorant slaves. Chased by his chariots to the brink of the sea, they were almost destroyed, but they survived. They endured Babylonian captivity. Their possessions were pillaged and burnt, their temple and city destroyed, and their land occupied by another power. Yet they lived on. But there was nothing in their past to quite equal the severity of Haman’s plot. It was ethnic cleansing—the systematic extermination of an entire nation, a genocide from which there would be no recovery.
Encouraged by Mordecai, Esther rises to the defense of her people and sets out on a highly dangerous rescue mission.
There are many uncertainties. She must stand alone in the presence of the emperor. There will be no mediator, no advocate to act on her behalf. Has she done everything possible to prepare for this moment? Will she be able to succeed? She knows she is his chosen bride. With his own hands he has already placed a crown on her head and given her a place by his throne at his right hand, but will the king accept her on this occasion? Filled with foreboding, Esther struggles with doubt and inner conflict. It is her time of trouble such as never was. She knows she can survive only if her defense is stronger than the greatest challenge. She gathers her resources:
- Potential direct access to the king.
- Personal support from cousin Mordecai.
- Community support and prayers from the fasting Jews.
- Her own faith in the God of Israel.
So, Esther goes forth to meet the king. She walks the distance to the royal audience chamber with measured step—the hope of Israel welling in her heart and the tenets of her faith coursing through her brain. “The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord; he is their stronghold in time of trouble” (Psalm 37:39).* “The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him” (Nahum 1:7). “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights” (Habakkuk 3:17-19).
When the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, he was pleased with her and held out to her the gold scepter.
Victory for God’s people
The plot ends in resounding victory for Esther and the people of God. Their fear gives way to fanfare and their fast is turned into feasting. An annual festival is established, riveting the triumph forever in the memory of Israel.
But there is something missing in this book. Where is the chapter telling us that the man of God, the prophet, strode into the citadel at Susa wearing leather thongs and a camel hair cloak? Where is his piercing gaze and bony finger pointing directly at the king? Where is the record of his message that begins, “Thus saith the Lord…” Where is the record of the vision Xerxes had when he couldn’t sleep? Is there no great image and a stone cut out without hands for him—not even a little image?
Where was God while His people experienced “a time of trouble such as never was”? Curiously, there is no mention of Him at all anywhere throughout the 10 chapters of the Book of Esther. It’s really not so surprising, for God always appears hidden in times of trouble and His presence seems withdrawn. The deeper the trouble, the less we are able to see Him. The greater the trial, the more we struggle to trust the Lord and to believe in His unfailing provision.
It would appear as if Esther and the Jews of her time had no special divine intervention to help them during their greatest trial. They had to rely by faith on their history, the record of God’s dealings with them in the past and on their heritage, the divine provisions that they could rely on in the present. These would always be available to God’s people during centuries of apparent non-intervention and divine silence. The Book of Esther is in the Bible to encourage us to this end.
Carole Ferch-Johnson is the director of Women’s Ministries of the South Pacific Division. E- mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
* All Bible passages are quoted from the New International Version.