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Free Daily Bible notes by Rev Stephen Thompson

Month

December 2020

Esther 1:9-22: Vashti puts her foot down!

“9 Queen Vashti also gave a banquet for the women in the royal palace of King Xerxes.10 On the seventh day, when King Xerxes was in high spirits from wine, he commanded the seven eunuchs who served him – Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar and Karkas – 11 to bring before him Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at. 12 But when the attendants delivered the king’s command, Queen Vashti refused to come. Then the king became furious and burned with anger.13 Since it was customary for the king to consult experts in matters of law and justice, he spoke with the wise men who understood the times 14 and were closest to the king – Karshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena and Memukan, the seven nobles of Persia and Media who had special access to the king and were highest in the kingdom.15 ‘According to law, what must be done to Queen Vashti?’ he asked. ‘She has not obeyed the command of King Xerxes that the eunuchs have taken to her.’16 Then Memukan replied in the presence of the king and the nobles, ‘Queen Vashti has done wrong, not only against the king but also against all the nobles and the peoples of all the provinces of King Xerxes. 17 For the queen’s conduct will become known to all the women, and so they will despise their husbands and say, “King  Xerxes commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come.” 18 This very day the Persian and Median women of the nobility who have heard about the queen’s conduct will respond to all the king’s nobles in the same way. There will be no end of disrespect and discord.19 ‘Therefore, if it pleases the king, let him issue a royal decree and let it be written in the laws of Persia and Media, which cannot be repealed, that Vashti is never again to enter the presence of King Xerxes. Also let the king give her royal position to someone else who is better than she. 20 Then when the king’s edict is proclaimed throughout all his vast realm, all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest.’ NIV

Reading this, I feel tempted to tell a joke, but I’ll restrain myself!  Actually, there is more than a touch of comedy here. Xerxes is portrayed almost like a ridiculous pantomime character. This great king, who can control a large part of the world, cannot even control his own wife.

‘’The One enthroned in heaven laughs…’’ (Psalm 1:4)…

…and I think we are meant to laugh too. It is also laughable to imagine that respect and obedience can be legislated. Xerxes wanted to show off his wife, like all his other possessions.I have also heard that there is the thought that he wanted her to show up wearing nothing but her crown. Whatever the actual facts of the matter, Vashti wasn’t having any of it. She drew a line in the sand.

This section of chapter 1 does show that our behaviour (and especially the conduct of those in authority) does affect others for better or for worse. That is not to say Xerxes was right in anything he did, but just to underline the point about example. But note that in all of this the unmentioned and invisible God is preparing the way for His Queen to come to the throne (19b).

Someone said, ‘He moves behind the scenes, and He moves all the scenes He is behind.’

Esther 1:4-8: Getting what you go for

“4 For a full 180 days he displayed the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendour and glory of his majesty. When these days were over, the king gave a banquet, lasting seven days, in the enclosed garden of the king’s palace, for all the people from the least to the greatest who were in the citadel of Susa. The garden had hangings of white and blue linen, fastened with cords of white linen and purple material to silver rings on marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and other costly stones. Wine was served in goblets of gold, each one different from the other, and the royal wine was abundant, in keeping with the king’s liberality. By the king’s command each guest was allowed to drink without restriction, for the king instructed all the wine stewards to serve each man what he wished.”NIV

As we established yesterday, this gathering/banquet was a historical event. But as I read what happened, I see some important Kingdom principles in the story:

  1. Our King – the King of all kings – has invited us into His ‘’enclosed garden’’ (5). It is a place of great beauty (6), but best of all, we get to be with the King; to enjoy His presence; to share His intimate company. What a privilege.
  2. The Kingdom invitation goes out to ‘’all the people from the least to the greatest’’ (5). “Whosever will may come.’’
  3. Every believer is a vessel for the ‘wine’ of the Kingdom, but each human “goblet” is “different from the other’’ (7).
  4. The King is generous and the ‘‘ royal wine’’ is ‘’abundant’’ (7).
  5. In the Christian life, you tend, by and large, to get what you go for. Listen again:

‘’By the king’s command each guest was allowed to drink with no restrictions, for the king instructed all the wine stewards to serve each man what he wished.’’ Do you see that? You could drink as much as you wished. So let me ask, ‘How much of God do you really want?’ ‘How thirsty/hungry are you for all He wants to give you?’ J.O. Sanders (I believe correctly) observed, ‘We are at this moment as close to God as really we choose to be.’ But as someone else said, ‘The devil is always telling us it is dangerous to get too close to God.’

PRAYER: Lord, increase my desire for you.

Esther 1:4-8: Setting the scene

“This is what happened during the time of Xerxes, the Xerxes who ruled over 127 provinces stretching from India to Cush: at that time King Xerxes reigned from his royal throne in the citadel of Susa, and in the third year of his reign he gave a banquet for all his nobles and officials. The military leaders of Persia and Media, the princes, and the nobles of the provinces were present.For a full 180 days he displayed the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendour and glory of his majesty. When these days were over, the king gave a banquet, lasting seven days, in the enclosed garden of the king’s palace, for all the people from the least to the greatest who were in the citadel of Susa. The garden had hangings of white and blue linen, fastened with cords of white linen and purple material to silver rings on marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and other costly stones. Wine was served in goblets of gold, each one different from the other, and the royal wine was abundant, in keeping with the king’s liberality. By the king’s command each guest was allowed to drink without restriction, for the king instructed all the wine stewards to serve each man what he wished.” NIV

Before I make a few comments about the great banquet, here are a couple of scene-setting quotes from Tom Hale’s ‘Applied Old Testament Commentary’:

‘The book of Esther is unusual in two ways: first, it is one of only two books in the Bible named after a woman (the other is Ruth); and second, it is the only book in the Bible that never mentions God…Though God’s name is not mentioned, God Himself is not missing! He is working everywhere ‘’behind the scenes,’’ making things happen that would not otherwise have happened’ (p.768).

‘The events in the book of Esther begin in the third year of the reign of Xerxes king of Persia. His empire stretched from India to Cush (present-day Sudan), and included virtually all the nations of the Middle East. One of his capital cities was Susa, located in what is now southern Iran, and as the book opens we find Xerxes in the citadel of Susa, his fortress and palace in the centre of the city. There he is about to give a banquet for all his nobles and officials, including the military leaders of Media (northern Iran), an important part of the Persian Empire…For six months before the banquet, Xerxes had been displaying the vast wealth of his kingdom to all his nobles, officials, and military leaders; probably he had gathered them in Susa to discuss some important affairs of the kingdom. Then he gave a lavish seven-day banquet, which the writer describes in detail in verses 5-8’ (p.770).

Just one or two observations:

  • B.Meyer thinks that it was this Persian king who conquered Greece, and this may represent the great gathering of leaders to prepare for that military campaign;
  • Nehemiah was later to be cupbearer to Xerxes’ son, Artaxerxes at this same citadel of Susa (Nehemiah 1:1, 11);
  • In recent years God has been moving powerfully in this very part of the world – in Iran. There have been signs, wonders, dreams, and many Iranians have been converted to Christ. It is estimated that there could now be close to a million Iranian Christians. God was at work there in Esther’s day, and He is working there now. As Tom Hale said, ‘God is not missing!’

PRAYER: Lord God, whether your Name is spoken or not; whether you are seen or not, you are the God who is always there. Help me to never doubt it.

Esther 1:1-4: The display of wealth

“This is what happened during the time of Xerxes, the Xerxes who ruled over 127 provinces stretching from India to Cush: at that time King Xerxes reigned from his royal throne in the citadel of Susa, and in the third year of his reign he gave a banquet for all his nobles and officials. The military leaders of Persia and Media, the princes, and the nobles of the provinces were present.For a full 180 days he displayed the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendour and glory of his majesty.” NIV

I have to admit a weakness for visiting National Trust properties. There is something appealing, to me at   least, about stepping back into the past and enjoying these national treasures. One thing I’ve come to realise though is that so many of them were built, and then furnished and decorated, to overawe any invited guests with a sense of the power and wealth of the owner. It was about boasting, showing off. ‘I’ve got more than you and I’m a lot more important than you are!’

But what King Xerxes did puts the majority of these property and land owners into the shade. Talk about the ostentatious display of wealth! It seems this man liked to show off what he owned (including his wife! See verse 11.)

We’ll get to Vashti eventually, but for now I just want to make this observation. I was taking part in a funeral recently, and these familiar words, spoken by the vicar, hit me with stark force: ‘We brought nothing into the world, and we take nothing out of it.’ How true.

Two ladies were talking about a rich man who had died. One asked, ‘How much did he leave?’ the other replied, ‘Everything!’ Where is Xerxes now? I don’t know, but wherever he is he hasn’t got his debit card with him.

I was thinking how different is the case with our God who displays the ‘’vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendour and glory of his majesty’’ in Jesus. Here are infinite riches which will never rust or fade. They are eternal, and they are ours in Jesus

PRAYER: Lord God, as we are so eternally enriched in Christ, may we not live as paupers.

Esther (introduction): The God who is there.

One of the lessons churches have been learning through the pandemic is that we have been, perhaps, too Sunday-focussed. The Bible story is not just about Sundays and what happens ‘in church’. So much of the story takes place in the every day world; and out of doors rather than indoors.  Wendell Berry wrote: ‘I don’t think it is enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is. It is a…book open to the sky. It is best read and understood outdoors, and the farther outdoors the better…Passages that within walls seem improbable or incredible, outdoors seem merely natural…What the Bible might mean, or how it could mean anything, in a closed, air-conditioned building, I do not know.’

Now whether you agree with Berry’s point or not; whether you think it exaggerated or not – he does have a point. Quite a lot of ‘Esther’ does take place indoors, but certainly not in a church building. In this book, God is never mentioned, but His presence is felt throughout. It’s not just about Sundays. It’s about a God who is everywhere, everyday. Whether people are aware of Him or not; whether they feel Him or not; whether the speak about Him or not, He is the God who is there. He is there in the royal court as well as in the temple. He is present in the middle of personal problems and national crises. He is active in the midst of sin, to bring about deliverance and redemption. Whatever moves men may make against His people (and ultimately against Him) He cannot be defeated. As someone once said, when you make a move against God, it’s like moving against a chess grand-master. Even the moves made against Him He uses to defeat His opponents.

‘Though the name of God does not occur in this book, yet his hand is everywhere manifest. His name does not often occur in the daily press, which records the history of our times; yet we may ask whether the workings of God are not also clearly recorded there.’ F.B.Meyer, ‘Devotional Commentary’,p.210.

 

New Bible Book starts next week

Thank you for journeying with me through Nehemiah, I am just taking a break today before starting a new book on Monday.

Nehemiah 13:23-31: And finally…

“2Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. 24 Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah. 25 I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name and said: ‘You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves. 26 Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women. 27 Must we hear now that you too are doing all this terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?’28 One of the sons of Joiada son of Eliashib the high priest was son-in-law to Sanballat the Horonite. And I drove him away from me.29 Remember them, my God, because they defiled the priestly office and the covenant of the priesthood and of the Levites.30 So I purified the priests and the Levites of everything foreign, and assigned them duties, each to his own task. 31 I also made provision for contributions of wood at designated times, and for the firstfruits.Remember me with favour, my God.” NIV

And so with our 107th reading in Nehemiah we bring our look at his book to a close. Tomorrow we will take a break for one day. There will be no notes appearing, so don’t think anything has gone wrong! We will resume with another series on Monday, God-willing.

For today, note the same approach as in yesterday’s passage. The sin was different, but we see Nehemiah just the same: willing to rebuke, able to apply the Scriptures, and ready for action. (But although he is a great example in many ways, I can’t recommend his strong arm tactics as being appropriate for the average elders meeting!! Verse 25. However, what we should see reflected in his behaviour is the serious of the sin, and his burning zeal for the honour of God and the purity of the land. Also, he was concerned for its safety. He did not want them to again bring judgment down on their own heads).

I leave you with these words from Tom Hale – apposite as ever:

‘Twenty-five years earlier, Ezra had dealt with this same problem of intermarriage with non-believers (Ezra Chapters 9-10); now the problem had recurred in the current generation. Once again it was necessary to deal with the problem decisively. The kingdom of Israel had been split in two because Solomon had married pagan women (1 Kings 11:1-13). He had been a great king in many ways, but this one sin had been his – and Israel’s undoing (verse 26). Why couldn’t the Israelites learn?…One might say this whole chapter is somewhat discouraging: here Nehemiah has had to face four problems that had already been dealt with earlier. But the chapter reveals an important truth: reforms made in one generation do not necessarily continue into the next. Each generation is responsible for its own actions. And each generation needs to be converted, revived and renewed. This is the task of each new generation of Christian leaders, and to help us in this task Nehemiah has given us a powerful example of effective and godly leadership.’ ‘The Applied Old Testament Commentary’, p.767.

PRAYER: Lord, please help us to serve the purpose of God in our generation.

Nehemiah 13:15-22: God knows

“15 In those days I saw people in Judah treading winepresses on the Sabbath and bringing in grain and loading it on donkeys, together with wine, grapes, figs and all other kinds of loads. And they were bringing all this into Jerusalem on the Sabbath. Therefore I warned them against selling food on that day. 16 People from Tyre who lived in Jerusalem were bringing in fish and all kinds of merchandise and selling them in Jerusalem on the Sabbath to the people of Judah. 17 I rebuked the nobles of Judah and said to them, ‘What is this wicked thing you are doing – desecrating the Sabbath day? 18 Didn’t your ancestors do the same things, so that our God brought all this calamity on us and on this city? Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath.’ 19 When evening shadows fell on the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I ordered the doors to be shut and not opened until the Sabbath was over. I stationed some of my own men at the gates so that no load could be brought in on the Sabbath day. 20 Once or twice the merchants and sellers of all kinds of goods spent the night outside Jerusalem. 21 But I warned them and said, ‘Why do you spend the night by the wall? If you do this again, I will arrest you.’ From that time on they no longer came on the Sabbath. 22 Then I commanded the Levites to purify themselves and go and guard the gates in order to keep the Sabbath day holy. Remember me for this also, my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love.” NIV

Speaking truth to powerful people can get you into a whole lot of trouble. In fact, in some circumstances, it could get you killed. It is almost always dangerous to challenge vested economic interests. But if he felt any temptation to keep quiet, Nehemiah didn’t succumb. Again, what an example he is.

  • He had the courage to rebuke. He called out things that were wrong and was prepared to ‘carpet’ those in authority who were leading others astray;
  • He had the ability to apply Scripture. ‘The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.’ Nehemiah forcefully reminded his people that it was sins like these which had landed them in so much trouble in the past. Surely they didn’t want to keep riding this same ghastly merry-go-round?
  • He had the wisdom to act. He knew human nature well enough to realise that some people would still try to bend the ‘rules’. So he erected ‘fences’ (‘electric fences’) you might say. He made it less likely that his contemporaries would transgress. He even used the threat of arrest.

Again, in the wake of this, Nehemiah asked the Lord to ‘’Remember’’ him (22b). There are times when a leader would love to tell the whole story, and explain everything, but they can’t. In some circumstances, even if they did, they would still be misunderstood. So on occasions you just have to say, ‘Well God knows, and that is enough.’

I also find it significant that, after rebuking the sins of others, Nehemiah also asks for God’s mercy himself. He wants holiness among the people, but he is not ‘holier than thou’. Some words of a hymn come to mind:

‘And those who fain would serve him best are conscious most of sin within.’                                                     Whilst wanting less sin in the land, Nehemiah knew that he was not sinless. Where would any of us be apart from the mercy of God?

Nehemiah 13: 14, 22b, 31b: An ‘audience of one’

“14 Remember me for this, my God, and do not blot out what I have so faithfully done for the house of my God and its services. 15 In those days I saw people in Judah treading winepresses on the Sabbath and bringing in grain and loading it on donkeys, together with wine, grapes, figs and all other kinds of loads. And they were bringing all this into Jerusalem on the Sabbath. Therefore I warned them against selling food on that day. 16 People from Tyre who lived in Jerusalem were bringing in fish and all kinds of merchandise and selling them in Jerusalem on the Sabbath to the people of Judah. 17 I rebuked the nobles of Judah and said to them, ‘What is this wicked thing you are doing – desecrating the Sabbath day? 18 Didn’t your ancestors do the same things, so that our God brought all this calamity on us and on this city? Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath.’19 When evening shadows fell on the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I ordered the doors to be shut and not opened until the Sabbath was over. I stationed some of my own men at the gates so that no load could be brought in on the Sabbath day. 20 Once or twice the merchants and sellers of all kinds of goods spent the night outside Jerusalem. 21 But I warned them and said, ‘Why do you spend the night by the wall? If you do this again, I will arrest you.’ From that time on they no longer came on the Sabbath. 22 Then I commanded the Levites to purify themselves and go and guard the gates in order to keep the Sabbath day holy. Remember me for this also, my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love. 23 Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. 24 Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah. 25 I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name and said: ‘You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves. 26 Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women. 27 Must we hear now that you too are doing all this terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?’28 One of the sons of Joiada son of Eliashib the high priest was son-in-law to Sanballat the Horonite. And I drove him away from me.29 Remember them, my God, because they defiled the priestly office and the covenant of the priesthood and of the Levites.30 So I purified the priests and the Levites of everything foreign, and assigned them duties, each to his own task. 31 I also made provision for contributions of wood at designated times, and for the first fruits. Remember me with favour, my God.” NIV

When my daughter, Christel, was younger she had some music on disc, composed and recorded by Dave Godfrey – an extremely talented children’s worker. One of those songs included the words, ‘I’m living for an audience of one. The audience is Jesus!’ I thought about that song when I read Nehemiah’s brief, pointed prayers in this chapter. We have seen from the beginning how prayer was interwoven with Nehemiah’s whole life; how he often shot up these ‘arrow prayers’ in the midst of life and its duties.

These prayers show Nehemiah as a man conscious of God; someone living out his life before God. We don’t know whether much came his way in terms of appreciation, but his main concern was to please God. It is certainly possible to receive a sense of the Lord’s affirmation; to sense His ‘smile’. This matters more than any human accolades.

Again, Matthew Henry writes so helpfully:

‘Having no recompense (it is a question whether he had thanks) from those for whom he did these good services, he looks up to God as his paymaster (v. 14): Remember me, O my God! concerning this…on every occasion he looked up to God, and committed himself and his affairs to him. 1. He here reflects with comfort and much satisfaction upon what he had done for the house of God and the offices thereof; it pleased him to think that he had been any way instrumental to revive and support religion in his country and to reform what was amiss. What kindness any show to God’s ministers, thus shall it be returned into their own bosoms, in the secret joy they shall have there, not only in having done well, but in having done good, good to many, good to souls. 2. He here refers it to God to consider him for it, not in pride, or as boasting…Observe how modest he is in his requests. He only prays, Remember me, not Reward me—Wipe not out my good deeds, not Publish them…Yet he was rewarded and his good deeds were recorded; for God does more than we are able to ask.’

PRAYER: Help us Lord, to be content to live our lives before you and seek only to please you.

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