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Coincidences or God's Providence?

March 22, 2010, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Pastor Daniel Tan (Esther 6:1-14) 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: Esther, 以斯帖记

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

Sermon on Esther 6:1-14

Late in February 1916, a young British student bought a book at a used-book store in a railway station. He had looked at that book and rejected it at least a dozen times before, but on that day he purchased it. It was called, ‘Phantastes’, a fantasy novel that tells the story of dreamlike adventures in a fairyland. The book was written by George MacDonald, a famous English preacher. Reading that book eventually led to that young man’s conversion. His name? C. S. Lewis, probably the greatest and most popular defender of the Christian faith in the 20th century. He later wrote to a friend that he had picked up the book “by hazard”. Lewis claimed that few hours after he began reading it, he knew “he had crossed a great frontier”. In fact, he said “my imagination had been ‘baptized’ by reading it.” So, was it a coincidence for C. S. Lewis to finally pick up this book or God had directed his choice?
Interestingly enough, the book of Esther is characterized by a rather significant number of coincidences that cannot be credited to chance. Someone says it well that the quantity and timeliness of those coincidences are so unusual that they “strain the laws of probability”. We have already covered the first 5 chapters of Esther. For instance, Queen Vashti is deposed as queen shortly before an attempt to destroy the Jews; and Esther, a Jewish lady, is chosen as queen (chaps.1, 2). In other words, is it a coincidence that Esther is in the right place at the right time when Vashti is deposed? Then, by coincidence Mordecai somehow discovers a plot to kill the king and reports it; the report is recorded in the chronicles of the court (2:21-23). And later in chapter 5, Esther goes unsummoned which is against the law to see the king, and instead find favor in his eye. In chapter 6 we have read just now, a series of coincidences featured most prominently that they in fact became the turning point of the whole narrative. That is to say from these events onwards, Mordecai’s fortune and the Jewish people as a whole will change for the better. So, are we to interpret these various outcomes in the book of Esther due to a series of coincidences or help from other source? I therefore entitle this morning sermon: Coincidences OR God’s providence?

(1) In our darkest days, we can trust God in His providential care even when God seems absent.

What are coincidences? We know they are the events happened by chance, not by plan, in a way that is surprising. If we study today’s text carefully, we will notice that the so-called coincidences occur at critical junctures in the story. Without them, the story would have a very different outcome, a very tragic ending. We will examine them in a short while. And often we are told that that in the Hebrew text of Esther, it makes no mention of God at all. But does this mean the absence of God in the story? In other words, the absence of God’s name does not necessarily imply the absence of God in the story. The book of Esther is the most true-to-life biblical example of God’s providence precisely because God seems absent. When we speak of God’s providence in general, we mean that God, in some invisible and or mysterious way, governs all creatures, actions and circumstances through the normal course of human life, without His direct intervention by the use of miracles. So, someone says it well that a coincidence is just God’s way of remaining anonymous. Indeed, in the book of Esther, God’s presence is felt in a series of coincidences, albeit a low-profile role of God. And the most prominent of these is in Chapter 6. We now come to the analysis of the text itself.
hapter 6 has been described as ‘the most ironically comic scene in the entire Bible’ and ‘one of the funniest anywhere in the Bible’. It presents a vivid drama where the rivalry and tension between two main characters, Haman and Mordecai, is acted out. It marks for the first time, the scales tip in favor of Mordecai against Haman. All is because of the beginning verse: That night the King could not sleep.

It is therefore not surprising for most biblical scholars to view this verse as the crucial turning point of the whole narrative. The following schematic overview would be helpful for us to grasp the flow and the development of the narrative:
(A) Opening and background (chap. 1)
(B) The King’s first decree (chaps. 2-3) A,B,C-> Mortal Danger
(C) The clash between Haman and Mordecai (chaps. 4-5)
(D) “THAT NIGHT THE KING COULD NOT SLEEP” (6:1) ----------The Turning Point
(C’) Mordecai’s triumph over Haman (chaps. 6-7)
(B’) The King’s second decree (chaps. 8-9) C',B',A'-> Salvation
(A’) Epilogue (chap. 10)

At the end of chapter 5, we know that Esther is planning another banquet for the following day. We would expect that this will be the occasion at which she wins the pardon for her people, that the King would cancel his first decree and not to have all the Jews killed. But at the same time, we also know that upon the urging of his family and friends, Haman has put Mordecai’s execution on an accelerated schedule. Unless something or someone intervenes, Mordecai may well be dead by the time of the banquet. Esther cannot possibly intervene for him before the banquet because she knows nothing of Haman’s plan to have Mordecai executed early in the morning. So, on what could be the last night of Mordecai’s life, King Ahasuerus had a sudden attack of insomnia: The night the King could not sleep. This is the first major coincidence that we find in chapter 6. This coincidence: the King’s insomnia leads to the discovery of Mordecai’s unrewarded loyalty. Unable to sleep, the King calls for the royal records to be read. Of all the passages in the court records to be read, the servant just happened to turn to the record of how Mordecai saved the King’s life. It is all there in glorious detail; even the names of the would-be assassins are duly recorded. Note that in the previous chapter Haman had argued for the destruction of the Jews on the grounds they were unprofitable to the King (3:8). Yet here now is the conclusive proof to the King that one Jew was incredibly profitable to him and had in fact saved his life. This information could not have come before the King at a more opportune time, for unknown to the King, both Haman and Esther are about to make requests to him when the night has passed. Haman’s request is to have Mordecai hanged and Esther’s request is to spare her people’s lives. So, is the King’s discovery of Mordecai’s loyalty another coincidence?

Having been reminded of Mordecai’s loyal service to him, the King wondered what had been done to reward this service. It was common practice for Persian kings to share their own privileges with those who proved themselves loyal. When Persian kings singled out benefactors for privilege, it was also an opportunity for the king to display his generosity. So, when the King’s attendants informed him that no reward had been given to Mordecai, he proceeds to search for a suitable reward. Just as the King begins to ponder his obvious oversight with regard to Mordecai’s reward, something catches his eyes out in the court. What a coincidence again, the third time! It is Haman who is standing in the court. Haman seems to be having a sleepless night himself. Perhaps he is too anxious to see the King to get his permission to have Mordecai hanged. So, the King calls him in. The irony here is amazing. The King wants to ask Haman’s advice about how to honor Mordecai, yet at that very moment the reason Haman is there is to ask permission to hang Mordecai! Haman does not know about the sleepless night the King has had, or how it has been brought to attention that Mordecai has not been rewarded for saving King’s life. The King has no clue as to what Haman wants to talk to him so early in the morning either. So, when asked by the King what should be done for the man the King delights to honor, thinking he would be honored, Haman presumptuously seeks the greatest honor he could think of. Note the irony again. Haman is seeking death for Mordecai and honor for himself, yet on this very day he would see Mordecai receive the very honor that he is seeking and invented for himself. And likewise, he himself would receive the very death that he has planned for Mordecai. And all this is because on that night the King could not sleep.

So, brothers and sisters, my first point of today’s sermon is that in our darkest days, we can trust God in His providential care even when God seems absent. In chapter 6, we have seen that one coincidence has led to another and another. These coincidences mark the beginning of a series of reversals in favor of the Jews by empowering their representative Mordecai and humiliating their enemy Haman. So, did they happen purely by chance? Or they are what biblical scholars’ view that a coincidence is just God’s way of remaining anonymous? These coincidences may not be in the same league as the burning bush that Moses had encountered or God’s parting of the Red Sea. Though these coincidences lack in dramatic flair, they however more than make up for in effectiveness. They are entirely consistent with God’s “behind the scenes” role in the whole story of the book of Esther.

Yes, brothers and sisters, in every age God continues to work through providence, through seemingly insignificant events, to call people to Himself. Is it not true that God has worked in your own life often through events that were unexpected and seemed insignificant at the time? Consider the chain of circumstances that led up to your own conversion to Christ. Maybe you happened to pick up an evangelistic tract that opened your heart to God. Maybe it was your friend who happened to invite you to church or an evangelistic meeting. Maybe it was in your darkest moment that you came to know God. Consider also how God has guided and directed your life. He may have guided you silently, from decision to decision, from situation to situation. He may have revealed His will for your life through ordinary events or people whom you know. God’s providential care for us seldom comes by mighty miracles or signs that will clearly tell us where He wants us to be and what He wants us to be doing. Instead, God’s providential care for us works constantly and inexorably with the unfolding circumstances of each day, as one thing leads to another.

However, as someone has pointed out correctly that it is not possible for us to look at circumstances at any moment and know exactly what God is up to. When we look at current events in our lives, we often find their meaning ambiguous. A given event in our life might be good or it might be bad, and it is most often a mixed blessing. Often we cannot evaluate the significance of an event until years later, if ever. To confuse us further, bad decisions may nevertheless produce good things, and what start out as good intentions may end up in heartbreak. Many times even our carefully laid plans may end up failing us and we are forced to admit that we are not in control of our lives, no matter how hard we try to be. So, we must accept that not all of life’s circumstances are pleasant. Life’s circumstances can be tragic, ugly and destructive, like the plot of Haman to destroy all the Jews of Persia. The serious illness of our love one, our ill health, broken relationship, and shattered hopes and dreams may form an uninterrupted chain in our lives. While none of these things is good in itself, we must hold firm that even in the worst of life’s circumstances God is working to fulfill His promise to care for us. God can do so because His providential care for us will prevail despite human’s effort to thwart it. And this is the second point I would like to touch on.

(2) God’s providential care will prevail despite human’s effort to thwart it.

We now continue the story. At the request of the King, Haman is brought before him. When asked by the King what should be done for one the King desires to honor, Haman can imagine no one more deserving than himself. In the previous chapter (chap.3), we have seen that Haman has already been promoted to the second-highest position in the kingdom. The King has not only made him the prime minister, but has also ordered all the royal officials to pay honor to him. And just because Mordecai refuses to do so, he becomes furious. His anger takes the shape of an unbelievable plan of not just getting rid of Mordecai but the extermination of the Jews in all the provinces of the Persia Empire. Haman is in fact using his conflict with Mordecai an opportunity to consolidate his power throughout the kingdom. His thirst for power, honor and greatness does not take into account ethical concerns. Priority is given to his own dreams and aspirations. Had his plan been successful, it would certainly threaten the very existence of the Jews in Persia and Haman would have become very powerful. But here comes chapter 6, through a series of coincidences the tide has turned against him. Haman is now marching to his own destruction.

In response to the King’s inquiry for what “should be done to the man the King delights to honor”, and believing this honor would go to himself, Haman could not ask for a promotion because he was already second only to the King in his authority over the empire. So, he suggested that this man to be honored be clothed in royal garments that the King himself has worn, and that he be placed upon a horse that the King himself has ridden, and the horse to have a royal crest placed on its head. Then, one of the King’s highest nobles should be assigned as escort to lead the horse with its rider throughout the city square, proclaiming that this was the way the King honored the man who had pleased him. There is some evidence from ancient historians that the Persian royal robes, as well as the king’s bed and throne, were believed to have the power to impart the benefits of royalty in an almost magical way. So, here we see the height of Haman’s ambitions. To wear the King’s own clothing and to ride the King’s horse was to have the power of the King himself. For Haman, no other honor was left to him but to partake of the King’s own power, prestige and stature. When Haman had given his elaborate description, the King was so pleased by it that he commanded that all that Haman had suggested should be done immediately in every detail with no exception. But, instead of this being done to Haman as he had expected, it was to be for the honor of Mordecai, the Jew! Worst, Haman was the one to be assigned to give the honor and be the escort to lead the horse! We can imagine the shock Haman felt when he heard the King’s command. Not only would this great honor not to be given to him as he had planned, but instead it would be given to the one whom Haman considered to be his greatest enemy. And Haman himself would have to give it, give it to a Jew whom he had hated all along. This is indeed a crushing humiliation to Haman.

As ordered by the King, Haman had no choice but to carry out his duty in every detail to bestow the royal honor to Mordecai, the reward he himself had invented. We can imagine how hateful this is for him, and indeed, the narrative tells us that after the parade to honor Mordecai was over “Haman hurried to his horse, mourning and with his head covered”. Haman is indeed punished for his vanity. He himself has tripped over his own pride. Not only that, his plan to have Mordecai hanged has been curtailed by the King. He has not been granted a moment to make his move against Mordecai, but, on the contrary, he has been given every opportunity and every royal facility to enhance Mordecai’s public honor.

So, what is taking place here? Through a series of coincidences, the unexpected has happened. The King is simply doing what he should have done long before: rewarding the man who saved his own life. But, we, the readers, know that the King is doing much more than that: he is saving the life of the man who saved his. The King is totally unaware of what he is doing. So, the question is: If Esther is not in charge for she too is unaware of Haman’s plan, and if the King is not in charge, who is in charge of the events that led to the preservation of Mordecai’s life? As I have mentioned before, the turning point of Esther’s story is: That night the King could not sleep. One might think that the turning point of the fate of Jews is to be found in the second banquet to be held by Esther in the next chapter. In other words, one would think that the climax of the whole story is to be reached during the second banquet, when Esther confronts Haman to his face. But it is not! The turning point of the whole story of the book of Esther is the seemingly insignificant event recorded in the first verse of chapter 6, when the King had a sleepless night. A sleepless night may appear to be an ordinary event which we all have experienced, but it is with this event the tables begin to turn and the reversals begin to occur.

So, what is the significance of this insignificant event when the King has a sleepless night? By making a turning point of this insignificant event rather than the point of highest dramatic action elsewhere, the author wants to take the focus away from human action. That is to say, had the turning point been at the scene where Esther approaches the King uninvited or where Esther confronts Haman, the King and/or Esther would have been spotlighted as the actual cause of the reversal. In other words, the characters of the story, either Esther or the King, are not to be spotlighted as the cause of the reversal. Instead, it is God who is behind the scenes who causes the reversal to happen. So, no one in the story, not even the most powerful person in the empire, is in control of what is about to happen. An unseen power is controlling the reversal of destiny. The author thus emphasizes that beneath the surface of human decisions and actions is an unseen and uncontrollable power at work, which can be neither explained nor thwarted. The King, who does not seem to be fully aware of the God of Israel, is used by a power beyond himself to destroy Haman’s evil scheme. On the night the King could not sleep together with other coincidences found in the book of Esther, they all converge upon one point; that of the salvation of the Jews in Persia through the reversal of events. It would thus be difficult to deny that, for the author and readers, the Mastermind behind the series of coincidences is Yahweh, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Yes, brothers and sisters, God’s providential care will prevail despite human effort to thwart it. The story of Esther illustrates that God’s providential care ultimately does not depend on what we do, but on what He does. It depends not on our character, but on His character. God may not use miraculous events to show His care for us, but He would certainly guide us through insignificant or ordinary events that happened in our daily lives. It is true that very often we struggle to respond wisely and faithfully to difficult circumstances that come our way, and we have little or no control over them, but let us rest assure that God is behind these scenes and He is in charge. There is nothing in this world that can thwart God’s providential care for us. In fact, chapter 6 ends with a foreigner’s confession that serves as an assurance to God’s people. Returning home with his head covered with grief, Haman tells his wife and all his friends everything that has happened to him. Instead of comforting him, they waste no time in distancing themselves from him. As foreigners, they made a strange confession saying: “Since Mordecai, before whom your downfall has started, is of Jewish origin, you cannot stand against him—you will surely come to ruin!” The triumph of the Jews, represented by Mordecai, is thus recognized by these foreigners, for it is Yahweh who makes them indestructible. Yes, as children of God, God has likewise guaranteed us of His providential care that nothing can thwart it. In the Cross of Jesus Christ, we have already experienced the ultimate reversal of the fate of our lives. As Paul says it in Roman 8:35,38-39: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Yes, God is working providentially day after day to care for us, even when He seems absent to us. All because He has called us to be His children, and He will certainly take responsibility to care for us as our loving Father!

Esther 6 (Listen)

6:1 On that night the king could not sleep. And he gave orders to bring the book of memorable deeds, the chronicles, and they were read before the king. And it was found written how Mordecai had told about Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king's eunuchs, who guarded the threshold, and who had sought to lay hands on King Ahasuerus. And the king said, “What honor or distinction has been bestowed on Mordecai for this?” The king's young men who attended him said, “Nothing has been done for him.” And the king said, “Who is in the court?” Now Haman had just entered the outer court of the king's palace to speak to the king about having Mordecai hanged on the gallows that he had prepared for him. And the king's young men told him, “Haman is there, standing in the court.” And the king said, “Let him come in.” So Haman came in, and the king said to him, “What should be done to the man whom the king delights to honor?” And Haman said to himself, “Whom would the king delight to honor more than me?” And Haman said to the king, “For the man whom the king delights to honor, let royal robes be brought, which the king has worn, and the horse that the king has ridden, and on whose head a royal crown is set. And let the robes and the horse be handed over to one of the king's most noble officials. Let them dress the man whom the king delights to honor, and let them lead him on the horse through the square of the city, proclaiming before him: ‘Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor.’” 10 Then the king said to Haman, “Hurry; take the robes and the horse, as you have said, and do so to Mordecai the Jew, who sits at the king's gate. Leave out nothing that you have mentioned.” 11 So Haman took the robes and the horse, and he dressed Mordecai and led him through the square of the city, proclaiming before him, “Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor.”

12 Then Mordecai returned to the king's gate. But Haman hurried to his house, mourning and with his head covered. 13 And Haman told his wife Zeresh and all his friends everything that had happened to him. Then his wise men and his wife Zeresh said to him, “If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of the Jewish people, you will not overcome him but will surely fall before him.”

14 While they were yet talking with him, the king's eunuchs arrived and hurried to bring Haman to the feast that Esther had prepared.

(ESV)