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When were you robbed?

March 8, 2010, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee (Esther 5:1-2) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Esther
Preached at a Bilingual (Mandarin-English, Sunday) service

Tags: Bible, Esther, 以斯帖记, 圣经

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Bible passage (ESV) of the sermon can be found at the bottom of the page.

Sermon on Esther Addition D (15:1-16) and Divine Inspiration

1 On the third day, putting an end to her prayers, she took off her penitential garments and arrayed herself in her royal attire.
2 In making her state appearance, after invoking the all-seeing God and savior, she took with her two maids;
3 on the one she leaned gently for support,
4 while the other followed her, bearing her train.
5 She glowed with the perfection of her beauty and her countenance was as joyous as it was lovely, though her heart was shrunk with fear.
6 She passed through all the portals till she stood face to face with the king, who was seated on his royal throne, clothed in full robes of state, and covered with gold and precious stones, so that he inspired great awe.
7 As he looked up, his features ablaze with the height of majestic anger, the queen staggered, changed color, and leaned weakly against the head of the maid in front of her.
8 But God changed the king's anger to gentleness. In great anxiety he sprang from his throne, held her in his arms until she recovered, and comforted her with reassuring words.
9 "What is it, Esther?" he said to her. "I am your brother. Take courage!
10 You shall not die because of this general decree of ours.
11 Come near!"
12 Raising the golden scepter, he touched her neck with it, embraced her, and said, "Speak to me."
13 She replied: "I saw you, my lord, as an angel of God, and my heart was troubled with fear of your majesty.
14 For you are awesome, my lord, though your glance is full of kindness."
15 As she said this, she fainted.
16 The king became troubled and all his attendants tried to revive her.

Peisong shared a joke with us in the worship study group. Unfortunately, nobody laughed because we couldn’t understand it the first time. It is a joke to test intelligence, so you laugh if you are smart enough to understand it. Sadly, all of us in the worship study failed the test. I would like to share the joke with you all. But you might ask, “What if I don’t laugh? Pastor, I don’t want others to know that I’m as stupid as you.” Don’t worry. Just pretend to get it, and laugh at the end of the punch line. “Pastor, how do I know when’s the punch line?” Good point. Before I say the punch line, I will give a dramatic (*pause*) pause. And then you can laugh when I deliver the punch line. Now listen carefully.

To understand the meaning of today’s Greek addition, we have to compare it with the original Hebrew text. The Hebrew text is found in Esther 5:1-2.
“1 On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the palace, in front of the king's hall. The king was sitting on his royal throne in the hall, facing the entrance. 2 When he saw Queen Esther standing in the court, he was pleased with her and held out to her the gold scepter that was in his hand. So Esther approached and touched the tip of the scepter.”

If you recall, the danger of Esther approaching the king without summon was the huge crisis of chapter 4. After an intense debate with Mordecai, Esther resolved to proceed despite being out of favor with the king. If I perish, I perish. If I die, I die. It was supposed to be a life and death moment. Yet in the Hebrew text, it is surprisingly anticlimactic. The moment is over in two simple verses. Esther went into the hall and the king held out to her the gold scepter. If it wasn’t for the discussion in Esther 4, you would not have thought that this was a very critical moment. You would have thought that this was what happened to everyone who approached the king. It is a huge let-down from all the suspense built up from chapter 4. That’s it? Oh, the king held out his scepter. Oh good. ‘Cause if he didn’t, you know, that would have been bad. But he did. So… it is good. Yeah. Hmmm…. It is kind of hard to make a big deal out of two bland verses.

But the Greek addition totally dramatizes this moment. This is how a climax of a story should be. We are shown how Esther went in fully prepared. She prayed to God. Then she looked radiant and royal, with two maids to support her. But most importantly we know her inner world, she must look happy even though she is afraid. It is going to look like a regular visit. It is a life and death moment, but she must appear unaware of it. The breaking of the law must look unintentional. But as she entered, the king was fierce. He was his usual erratic self. He was the one who deposed the previous queen Vashti, who so dared to be disobedient. In his full majesty, he glared at her in anger. And Esther knew that all was lost. She fainted.

But our anxiety is relieved when the angry face turned into gentleness. God changed the heart of the king. Instead of Esther approaching to touch the scepter, the king now springs forward to comfort her. And with tender words he says, “"What is it, Esther? I am your husband. Take courage; You shall not die, for our law applies only to our subjects. Come near." But even though he said so, he touched her neck with the scepter and said, “Speak to me.”

I fear I’ve failed to convey the emotional expressiveness adequately. You have to imagine your favorite Korean actor saying those lines. Only the Koreans are capable of delivering this kind of dialogue without sounding cheesy. "I saw you, my lord, like an angel of God, and my heart was shaken with fear of your glory. For you are wonderful, my lord, and your countenance is full of grace." As she was speaking, she fainted and fell. This double fainting is indeed melodramatic. We can fully appreciate how traumatizing this experience must be for Esther. It is like an escape from death. At the same time, it is also revealing of how clever Esther is. She is playing the victim here to fully leverage on the king’s concern for her. It is from such a dramatic moment that we can understand the king’s next statement in Esther 5:3, “What is it Queen Esther? What is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be given you.” We can now fully understand why the king would make such a passionate statement of love. It arises out of all the sentiments that have unfolded from the drama.

I promised a joke. There was a community project working with young people in Northern Ireland, to get the young Catholics and Protestants to understand one another. Part of this involves them visiting one another’s churches. So the Protestants first visited the Catholics. All the young Protestants were very impressed with the rich decorations and beautiful stained glass and artwork. Then the young Catholics visited a Protestant church. As they stepped inside, one of the little boys looked horrified. He asked, “When were you robbed?”

I see all of you have passed the test and proved to be smarter than me. My only consolation is that I can tell a joke better than Peisong. Now, what is the basis for asking the question “When were you robbed?” This is because church décor represents the theology of a church. Some of the traditional Catholic churches were built glorious and splendid because they wanted people to experience a glimpse of heaven within. Traditional Protestants prefer everything bare except the pulpit and the Holy Communion table. It is because we want no distractions from focusing on the word and sacrament. However, both the word and sacrament are revelations of God’s grace. In that sense, we are not very different from the Catholics. A Protestant church might look like a Catholic church that is robbed of all the decorations. But the final message is similar. The church is a place with the presence of God.

In a similar way, the Hebrew and the Greek versions represent two ways to present the narrative. The Greek prefers to dramatize the moment. It gives full body to the climax, even including God’s direct intervention. The Hebrew version however lays it bare. There is no drama in the two verses. But does it mean that the mission is not dangerous? Of course not! Does it mean that God is not involved? Of course not! There is no salvation without God. The final message remains the same because we know from both versions that Esther survived approaching the king without summon. But which is better? I think it is a matter of personal taste. I prefer Hong Kong or Japanese dramas. They are fast paced and are focused on moving the plot. Some however prefer Taiwanese or Korean dramas. Everything is done in exquisite detail and one crisis can drag on for ten episodes. As long as the message remains the same, I guess whichever touches your heart is the better narrative for you.

But you might ask: how can we accept a passage that is not canonical? This is the topic about scriptures that I wish to address today. We believe that our scriptures are divinely inspired. But what is divine inspiration? Paul describes this as “the breath of God” in 2nd Timothy. This means that the scriptures are alive with the creative presence of God. Not every work that is creatively produced is divinely inspired. The Bible is not just a religious literature or spiritual wisdom. For something divinely inspired, God is alive in the text. On the other hand, just because it is the breath of God does not mean that scripture is the dictation of God. Reading through the bible, it is fully evident that the bible is the word of God and also the words of human authors. The bible is not direct divine speech. It is communicated through humanity. It is a human witness that bears the marks of historical and cultural conditioning.

How do we know that the bible is divinely inspired? This is based on the interpretive community during the process of canonization. It was the people of God who agreed that these books spell out the content of what they believe about God. Today, we affirm that the bible is divinely inspired because it is the witness of our religious forefathers. The content in these books authenticate themselves. It is because the people of God see these revelations as true, and this is why they are canonized. The early Jews testified that the OT reveals the relationship between God and Israel; the early church testified that the NT reveals the truth about Jesus Christ. This is why the bible, the canonized scripture has authority. This is because the people of God had given them authority. They are the official standard of the orthodox declarations about God. Because of this, canonization is bound to be a cautious and conservative process. We would rather leave out something we are unsure of than to include something that may turn out to be wrong. Books that are canonized are only the books that are so precious that they cannot be excluded. It doesn’t mean the others are bad, but only these can have authority.

In the Venn diagram, I illustrate four kinds of literature. Circle A represents texts with authority. Circle B represents divinely inspired text. Some texts have authority regardless of whether they are divinely inspired or not. They can be laws of a country or church constitutions or the rule of a monastic order. People abide with them because they govern what is accepted behavior in a society. The Canon has authority because it is universally recognized by the people of God as divinely inspired. Finally, among all the texts that are not given authority, some are divinely inspired and some are not. If a text contradicts the Canon, then we know for sure that it is not divinely inspired. It goes against the collective witness of the people of God on what is divinely inspired revelation. If it does not contradict the Canon, then I think it is within a safe boundary for the individual to decide if a text is divinely inspired. Some may find the words of John Calvin divinely inspired, others may prefer St. Augustine. A text does not need official authority to be helpful. But official authority is there to inform us of texts that are to be avoided for sure.

I received a feedback on this sermon series on Esther. Someone said, “We do not have sufficient time in the world to understand all there is within the canonical text, why do you spend time on the non-canonical additions?” I hope today you understand that we are studying these non-canonical additions precisely because we want to understand the canonical text better. These additions are included in the LXX because the writers feel they add value to the original story. They are like chili sauce or curry in a dish. Some people don’t like it spicy. That’s fine. I want to affirm that what is within the canon is sufficient revelation for us. But some like it hot. The additions may enrich the original flavor of the text and make it more enjoyable. As long as it doesn’t contradict the original message, you may decide if this is divine inspiration for you. This is a rare chance to do an in-depth study of the story of Esther, and I want you to have the choice. The extension of the king’s scepter does not happen by chance. It is divine providence. The Greek addition is like a hot spice that fires up the imagination to picture the critical moment. You hear the words. You see the presence of God. And maybe the drama is what you need to appreciate that moment of life and death. I cannot rob you of this choice. Perhaps it might be divinely inspired. Perhaps it is divine providence. A valuable addition preserved just for you.

Esther 5:1–2 (Listen)

5:1 On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king's palace, in front of the king's quarters, while the king was sitting on his royal throne inside the throne room opposite the entrance to the palace. And when the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she won favor in his sight, and he held out to Esther the golden scepter that was in his hand. Then Esther approached and touched the tip of the scepter.

(ESV)