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Citizens of Heaven

March 1, 2010, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee (Esther 4:16-5:1) 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 C (14:1-19) and on Biblical Literalness

12 Queen Esther, seized with mortal anguish, likewise had recourse to the Lord.
13 Taking off her splendid garments, she put on garments of distress and mourning. In place of her precious ointments she covered her head with dirt and ashes. She afflicted her body severely; all her festive adornments were put aside, and her hair was wholly disheveled.
14 Then she prayed to the Lord, the God of Israel, saying: "My Lord, our King, you alone are God. Help me, who am alone and have no help but you,
15 for I am taking my life in my hand.
16 As a child I was wont to hear from the people of the land of my forefathers that you, O Lord, chose Israel from among all peoples, and our fathers from among all their ancestors, as a lasting heritage, and that you fulfilled all your promises to them.
17 But now we have sinned in your sight, and you have delivered us into the hands of our enemies,
18 because we worshiped their gods. You are just, O Lord.
19 But now they are not satisfied with our bitter servitude, but have undertaken
20 to do away with the decree you have pronounced, and to destroy your heritage; to close the mouths of those who praise you, and to extinguish the glory of your temple and your altar;
21 to open the mouths of the heathen to acclaim their false gods, and to extol an earthly king forever.
22 "O Lord, do not relinquish your scepter to those that are nought. Let them not gloat over our ruin, but turn their own counsel against them and make an example of our chief enemy.
23 Be mindful of us, O Lord. Manifest yourself in the time of our distress and give me courage, King of gods and Ruler of every power.
24 Put in my mouth persuasive words in the presence of the lion, and turn his heart to hatred for our enemy, so that he and those who are in league with him may perish.
25 Save us by your power, and help me, who am alone and have no one but you, O Lord. "You know all things.
26 You know that I hate the glory of the pagans, and abhor the bed of the uncircumcised or of any foreigner.
27 You know that I am under constraint, that I abhor the sign of grandeur which rests on my head when I appear in public; abhor it like a polluted rag, and do not wear it in private.
28 1 I, your handmaid, have never eaten at the table of Haman, nor have I graced the banquet of the king or drunk the wine of libations.
29 From the day I was brought here till now, your handmaid has had no joy except in you, O Lord, God of Abraham.
30 O God, more powerful than all, hear the voice of those in despair. Save us from the power of the wicked, and deliver me from my fear."

If you have been following our sermon series so far, we are reading through the exciting story of Esther. We have come to a critical juncture. The Jewish race is in immediate danger of extinction. Their salvation now depends on divine providence in the form of Queen Esther. In three days, she will approach the Persian king to beg for mercy. But she goes without a summon, hence breaking the law and punishable by death. This is a desperate and intense moment. What is going through the minds of our main characters? The Hebrew bible is painfully silent, leaving us utterly unprepared for the suspense that is to follow. But thankfully, in the Greek manuscript LXX, we find consolation in the form of 2 prayers. Last week, we looked at the prayer of Mordecai. Today, we shall study the prayer of Esther.

The prayer of Esther invites us into the inner world of Esther. Before this, we know her from her actions and decisions. But now, we know her from her thoughts and emotions. As we enter this world, we discover what it is like to be a part of the Jewish diaspora. The Jewish Diaspora refers to all the Jews who are scattered away from their homeland. After the fall of the Jewish kingdom of Judah, most of the wealthy and educated Jews were exiled to Babylon. After the Persian empire replaced the Babylonian empire, some of these Jews returned to Israel to rebuild the temple and repair the walls of Jerusalem. We will talk about this side of the post-exilic story when we come to the next sermon series: Malachi. But there were the rest. Many continued to live in foreign land because they have now settled themselves in the new environment. You only need a couple of generations to call a new place home. My own grandfather came from China, but I know nothing about what it feels like to live there. I can’t even speak the dialect. Singapore is my home. I’m sure it would be even more so for my children.

As a people exiled into a foreign land, the common fear is persecution. You do not have the status of the natural citizens, and that makes you more vulnerable to discrimination. But I think the biggest danger is not persecution but assimilation. Assimilation is to lose one’s original cultural identity, and to adapt into a new environment. We’ve talked about this last year when we read Judges, but I think the issue is even more acute in the case of Esther. Now they are a minority. They are fully dependent on the foreign rulers for their welfare and livelihood. They are influenced daily by a rich Persian culture. In the case of Esther, she even married a Persian. Has Esther been assimilated? From her prayer, we now know the answer. She has not. She overcame the lures of Persian riches and the temptations of her new found power. She kept the faith of her forefathers and stayed true to her original race.

But make no mistake; this portrayal is not done to paint a pretty picture of a heroine. For the reverse of assimilation is alienation (疏离). Much of the pains of this alienation had been Lost in Translation.[1] The pressure to conform is a daily struggle, from what you eat, to what you wear, what you have for fun and even how you speak. The saying goes, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”.[2] And that is true everywhere as advice not to stick out like a sore thumb. And when you refuse to assimilate, you alienate yourself.

This alienation is fully evident in how Esther sees her current situation. She detested her marriage to a Gentile. She hated the glory bestowed upon her. She despised her crown as unclean. She calls it a sanitary pad. She only wears it when she is in public. She stays away from Haman, the enemy of her race and does not participate in all the wasteful banquets that we have read from the beginning. Most importantly, she says that she has not drunk the wine of libations, which refers to wine used for the rituals of idol worship. We can read all these as her defense of her purity before God. Yet, it also brings out how alienated she must be as a pious Jewish woman in the midst of a foreign people.

Why does she have to suffer this misery? Can’t she just go with the flow? What’s wrong with assimilation? The reason Esther alienates herself is because she recognizes a sovereignty that is bigger than her Persian overlords. She recognizes a sovereignty bigger than her own authority. She recognizes the sovereignty of God. This is abundantly clear in her prayer. From the beginning she says, help me! I am alone. (Note the alienation.) You are my only help. “My Lord, my King, you alone are God.” Lord, King and God are all titles of ultimate authority. Then later she says, “O Lord, do not relinquish your scepter to those that are nought.” This is a beautiful line because we are reminded of Xerxes with the all powerful scepter to spare her later. Here, the sceptor belongs to God. God is “King of gods” and “Ruler of every power”. And she ends her prayer with “O God, more powerful than all”. To Esther, there is no doubt as to who is in charge. God is sovereign over all earthly power. God is sovereign over all gods and kings. Esther preserves her unique racial identity because she recognizes God’s sovereignty over all others.

However, this is perhaps the biggest pain for the Jewish Diaspora. They recognize that the God they worship is the highest authority of all. But yet they live in shame, a people exiled in foreign land, oppressed by foreign lords and diluted by foreign culture. Where is God in their misery? What is the future for this chosen people? Their answer lies in the prophets. The prophets pronounce that their current plight is because of their disobedience. Esther acknowledges this. They have lost to their enemies because of their idolatry. They are suffering not because there is no God, but precisely because they have one that is real and holy.

And so it is back to this relationship that Esther turns to appeal for help. Yes, they deserve their suffering. But these oppressors have overplayed their God-ordained role. They are now seeking to destroy even true worship to God. They are punishing the Jews for staying true to God’s laws. Esther is referring to Haman. Haman prides himself over God. Esther is appealing to the God of Abraham to save them from the wicked. They are the ones who do not deserve their power over the Jews. The Jews deserved their exile, but they also deserve to be treated fairly. The punishment must be tempered by God’s justice. God is still the sovereign one.

Before I come to the practical applications, allow me to address one issue on how we read the bible. This week, I want to answer the question: How do we know if a bible passage is literal?

There are 2 definitions for the word literal that is relevant to our question. The first meaning of the word literal is non-metaphorical. There is no double meaning. If you kick the bucket literally, you are hitting a big pail with your foot. If a story is literal, it means that all the characters and the events do not have a figurative meaning. If the Animal Farm is literal, then it is a story about a farm. But if it is not literal, then George Orwell is metaphorically speaking about Russia during the era of Stalin.

In this first meaning, we can know if a bible passage is figurative or not by studying literary conventions. Today, if you began with “Dear Sir”, I know you are writing a letter. If you start with “Once upon a time” and end with “And they lived happily ever after”, I know you are telling a fairy tale. Similarly, we can study the literary conventions during the time a bible passage is written. From there, we can make an intelligent conclusion if a bible passage has a double meaning. If an author wants to indicate a double meaning, he will usually leave clues, using certain literary conventions that will cause the reader to think further. By and large, if a passage is written poetically, or uses many symbolic words, it is probably non-literal.

The second meaning of the word literal is factual and historical. Literal means that everything really happened word for word. The question is: How do we know if what is described in a bible passage really happened word for word? My straight forward answer is that we will never know conclusively, unless we have a time machine. There are a few reasons why this is so.

Firstly, it is the literary convention during ancient times to record history in an embellished style. The historian is expected to interpret history and to bring out a message when relating it. Therefore, details are exaggerated and speeches can be rephrased so as to better amplify the gist of the story. That is considered good intelligent history writing. Biblical history is most certainly embellished to better bring out the theological message. Secondly, cold hard factuality is seldom a concern for the ancient people. They live in a world where myths, legends, ancient tales and spiritual experiences intertwine and they are more concerned about describe reality as they feel it, than reality that is pure facts but without life. Today, we stress on facts and figure. We have data and information. But do we really have wisdom on what is really going on?

However, despite the difficulties, there are 3 ways we can know if a passage is literal, in the sense of historical. The first is through archaeology. This is a slow and painful way to dig up the past. The second way is to use comparative literature. If a historical event is also recorded in other civilizations or other historians, then we know that it is more likely true. The third is to use internal interpretation. The creation of the scriptures spanned over many centuries, so we can now know how the later biblical writers thought about the earlier writings. Like I said before, most of them are not concerned with historicity. But when they do see an event as historical, that helps our interpretation quite a lot. For example, we can establish the historicity of certain events of Jesus when later gospel writers interpreted the earlier gospel writers.

Thankfully, as Christians, literal as historical is not as important as literal as non-metaphorical. If there is a double meaning, we need to know. But as Christians, but we don’t need to know if an event happened word for word, because we are supposed to read it as if it is historical. That is simply how it works if we are to use the narrative parts of the bible correctly. “We read in order to get in on the revelation of God, who is emphatically personal; we read the Bible the way it comes to us, not in the way we come to it; we submit ourselves to various and complementary operations of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit; we receive these words so that we can be formed now and for eternity to the glory of God [3]…. For Scripture is the revelation of a world that is vast.”[4] Simply put, to understand the Bible, we have to enter its world. We have to subscribe to God’s reality, and not God becoming a part of our own reality.

So is the story of Esther literal? Well, using literary conventions, we can deduce that it is not metaphorical. In that sense, it is literal. But it is quite difficult to prove that everything happened historically word for word. However, if we want to understand the message as it is intended, then we must read it as if it is historical. We must enter into its world and experience what it has to say.

So what can we learn after we enter into Esther’s world as a Jewish Diaspora. “If you are a Christian, you are not a citizen of this world trying to get to heaven; you are a citizen of heaven making your way through this world.” [5] Even though you may not be a foreigner adapting to a new country, but as Christians, we know that our citizenship is already elsewhere. It is not coincidence that Peter says, “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.” (1 Pet 2:11) The key to a successful defense against assimilation into the ways of the world is to submit to the sovereignty of God alone. Sometimes you may be pressured. If everybody is doing it, why can’t I do it too? You must understand that God is ultimately in control. You abide by God’s principles, not others’, not your own.

Besides the main theological message, I wish to end with an appeal while we are on the subject. Living in a globalized city-state, there are many aliens and strangers among us. Let us be mindful of the difficulties they have to face and accommodate their uniqueness with graciousness. I believe that we are all kind at heart, but sometimes we overlook some sensitivities because we assume too much. I conclude with a humorous poem “When in Rome”, by an African American writer about a maid and her madam.

Marrie dear
the box is full . . .
take
whatever you like
to eat . . .
(an egg
or soup
. . . there ain't no meat.)
there's endive there
and
cottage cheese . . .
(whew! if I had some
black-eyed peas. . . )
there's sardines
on the shelves
and such . . .
but
don't
get my anchovies. . .
they cost
too much!
(me get the
anchovies indeed!
what she think, she got --
a bird to feed?)
there's plenty in there
o fill you up . . .
(yes'm. just the
sight's
enough!
Hope I lives till I get
home
I'm tired of eatin'
what they eats in Rome . . .)
[6]

_____________________________________________

Footnotes
[1] This is a hidden reference to recommend this 2003 Sofia Coppola film about 2 Americans’ sense of alienation in Japan. 华语片名是《迷失东京》。
[2] The Story behind It: When St. Augustine arrived in Milan, he observed that the Church did not fast on Saturday as did the Church at Rome. He consulted St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, who replied: "When I am at Rome, I fast on a Saturday; when I am at Milan, I do not. Follow the custom of the Church where you are." The comment was changed to "When they are at Rome, they do there as they see done" by Robert Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy. Eventually it became "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."

[3] Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book, pg. 30
[4] Ibid, pg. 45
[5] Vance Havner
[6] Mari Evans

Esther 4:16–5:1 (Listen)

16 “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” 17 Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.

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.

(ESV)