Fatalism Versus Faithfulness

Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.

Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head.

Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

11 Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. 12 For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.

13 I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed great to me. 14 There was a little city with few men in it, and a great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it. 15 But there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man. 16 But I say that wisdom is better than might, though the poor man’s wisdom is despised and his words are not heard.

17 The words of the wise heard in quiet are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools. 18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good. Ecclesiastes 9:7-18 ESV

According to Solomon’s way of seeing things, there are two things that can make a man’s life miserable and meaningless: Time and chance. He makes that point clear in verse 11.

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. – Ecclesiastes 9:11 ESV

From his experience, these two things played irrefutable roles in the lives of men, determining their destinies far more often than ability, intelligence, or preparedness. Solomon supports his assertion with a series of observations about life.

The fastest runner doesn’t always win.

The most powerful army isn’t always the victor.

Wisdom won’t necessarily put food on the table.

A surplus of intelligence doesn’t guarantee wealth or success.

And those with know-how aren’t always appreciated or given a chance to show what they know.

Sometimes it’s all in the timing, or it’s simply a matter of chance. Things just happen. The faster runner trips and falls, leaving a slower runner to win the race. The smarter one fails to get the job. The one lacking discernment gets the promotion. It’s like a grand cosmic crap shoot, where no one knows what the outcome will be. It just happens. So, once again, Solomon offers up the sage advice to “So go ahead. Eat your food with joy, and drink your wine with a happy heart, for God approves of this! Wear fine clothes, with a splash of cologne!” (Ecclesiastes 9:7-8 NLT).

As noted in an earlier post,, this is not a recommendation to embrace unbridled hedonism or to spend your days in a drunken stupor. It is counsel designed to encourage the enjoyment of what you already have – your job, spouse, children, and life. Solomon knew what it was like to spend his life in pursuit of what he didn’t have. He had an abundance of God-given wisdom, but he was never satisfied. He had plenty of houses, but he kept building more. He had hundreds of wives and concubines but his harem continued to grow. He spent so much time adding to his already overstocked life, that he never took time to enjoy all that he had. So, writing the book of Ecclesiastes at the end of his life, he passed on what he had learned: Enjoy what you have while you have it because no one knows what tomorrow holds. In a sense, he is telling us to stop and smell the roses. And his advice is supported by a story Jesus told His disciples.

Then he told them a story: “A rich man had a fertile farm that produced fine crops. He said to himself, ‘What should I do? I don’t have room for all my crops.’ Then he said, ‘I know! I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll have room enough to store all my wheat and other goods. And I’ll sit back and say to myself, “My friend, you have enough stored away for years to come. Now take it easy! Eat, drink, and be merry!”’

“But God said to him, ‘You fool! You will die this very night. Then who will get everything you worked for?’

“Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.” – Luke 12:16-21 NLT

There is a danger in always living with our hopes set on tomorrow. This doesn’t preclude planning for the future, but if we do plan, we should not short-change the present day. None of us know what tomorrow holds. In that sense, Solomon is right. But notice the emphasis behind the story Jesus told. His point is that the man in the story was neglecting his relationship with God. He found his significance and satisfaction in material things. And it was only when he thought he had enough, that he believed he would be able to enjoy life. There is a certain dissatisfaction and discontentment portrayed in the man’s decision-making. And that same problem seemed to have plagued Solomon.

But in his latter years, Solomon appears to have learned the lesson of being satisfied with what he had. He recommends seeing your spouse as a gift from God and a reward for all your hard work in this life. He strongly advises that we take time to enjoy good food, the feel of clean clothes, and the fragrance of fine perfume. But there remains a certain sense of nagging pessimism in his words.

Whatever you do, do well. For when you go to the grave, there will be no work or planning or knowledge or wisdom. – Ecclesiastes 9:10 NLT

In other words, this is all there is., so enjoy it while you can. Because once you’re dead, you won’t get the opportunity again. Solomon never qualifies or clarifies his views on the hereafter, but he gives a distinct impression that he prefers the here-and-now. All his emphasis is on what he can see, touch, and feel. He was a man driven by his senses. The pursuit of pleasure was important to him. Enjoyment was a high priority for him. And he seemed to operate on the premise that death would bring all of that to an abrupt stop.

So, he learned to live in the present, taking in all that he could while there was still time. And what drove that mentality was the recognition that “man does not know his time” (Ecclesiastes 9:12 ESV). He compares man to a fish caught in a net or a bird trapped in a snare. When we least expect it, our end comes. Which led Solomon to resort to his quest for immediate gratification. He seems to have lived his life based on the old Schlitz Brewing Company slogan from the mid-1960s: “You only go around once in life, so you’ve got to grab for all the gusto you can.”

But as Jesus warned, what a waste of time if you don’t seek a right relationship with God.

Solomon next provides us with a real-life example of wisdom on display, but unappreciated. He tells the story of a city that was besieged by a powerful army. The citizens of the city were few in number and their fate seemed sealed. But help and hope came from an unexpected source: A poor wise man.

There was a small town with only a few people, and a great king came with his army and besieged it. A poor, wise man knew how to save the town, and so it was rescued. – Ecclesiastes 9:14-15 NLT

Notice Solomon’s emphasis. The man was wise but poor. Remember Solomon’s earlier point: “The wise sometimes go hungry.” And yet, this impoverished man’s wisdom saved the day. Solomon doesn’t explain how, but this man used his wisdom to rescue the city from destruction. And yet, his efforts went unrecognized and unrewarded.

But afterward no one thought to thank him. – Ecclesiastes 9:15 NLT

So Solomon concludes: “even though wisdom is better than strength, those who are wise will be despised if they are poor. What they say will not be appreciated for long” (Ecclesiastes 9:16 NLT).

The plight of poverty trumps wisdom. The man saved the day but went to bed that night still poor and forgotten. And what insight does Solomon provide us from this story?

So even though wisdom is better than strength, those who are wise will be despised if they are poor. What they say will not be appreciated for long. – Ecclesiastes 9:16 NLT

Wisdom could be beneficial but it couldn’t guarantee food on the table or replace the stigma of poverty. Yet Solomon warns that it’s better to listen to one man speaking quiet words of wisdom, than to the shouts of a powerful king who rules over fools. The citizens of the besieged city had been saved because they listened to the wisdom of a poor man. But once victory was assured, they turned their back on the one whose wisdom had saved them. And Solomon reaches a rather sad conclusion. While wisdom is more beneficial than weapons, it just takes one sinner to destroy all the good that wisdom brings. There was a good chance that the city’s victory celebration would end up being short-lived due to the sinful actions of a single fool.

Once again, you can sense Solomon’s cynicism. The advice of the wise isn’t always heeded. Their efforts aren’t always appreciated. And it only takes one foolish, unrighteous sinner to undermine all the efforts of the wise.

You can see why Solomon repeatedly went back to the recommendation: Eat, drink and be merry. To him, the world was controlled by time and chance. Man is the unwilling occupant of a canoe hurtling through rapids without a paddle. The best he can do is hang on and enjoy the scenes along the way. He knows there’s probably a less-than-pleasant ending around every bend, but he has no way of knowing when it will come. So, Solomon had determined that the best thing to do was to sit back and enjoy the ride. But what a defeatist attitude.

Yes, there is some value in living for the moment. There is truth in Solomon’s assessment that the strong don’t always win and the fastest runner doesn’t always come in first. But the apostle Paul would strongly disagree with Solomon’s assessment, arguing instead: “Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win!” (1 Corinthians 9:24 NLT). And he supports that argument even further in his letter to the church in Philippi.

I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.

Let all who are spiritually mature agree on these things. – Philippians 3:14-15 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Let the Will of the Lord be Done.

1 And when we had parted from them and set sail, we came by a straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara. And having found a ship crossing to Phoenicia, we went aboard and set sail. When we had come in sight of Cyprus, leaving it on the left we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre, for there the ship was to unload its cargo. And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days. And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. When our days there were ended, we departed and went on our journey, and they all, with wives and children, accompanied us until we were outside the city. And kneeling down on the beach, we prayed and said farewell to one another. Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home.

When we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais, and we greeted the brothers and stayed with them for one day. On the next day we departed and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied. 10 While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” 12 When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” 14 And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.”

15 After these days we got ready and went up to Jerusalem. 16 And some of the disciples from Caesarea went with us, bringing us to the house of Mnason of Cyprus, an early disciple, with whom we should lodge. Acts 21:1-16 ESV



In his gospel account, Luke records the following statement regarding Jesus: “Now when the days drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus set out resolutely to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51 NLT). Jesus had begun to reveal to His disciples the fate that awaited Him in Jerusalem. He told them, “Take these words to heart, for the Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men” (Luke 9:44 NLT). As time went on and the day of His betrayal and death drew closer, He became more specific regarding the details surrounding what awaited Him in Jerusalem.

31 Then Jesus took the twelve aside and said to them, “Look, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. 32 For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; he will be mocked, mistreated, and spat on. 33 They will flog him severely and kill him. Yet on the third day he will rise again.” 34 But the twelve understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what Jesus meant. – Luke 18:31-33 NLT

Jesus had been resolute and steadfast in His commitment to carry out the assignment given to Him by God the Father. He knew why He had come to earth and His work would not be complete until He had finished what He had been sent to do. And, at one point, He spoke the following statement in the hearing of His disciples and to those who had claimed to be His followers, but who had been distracted by worldly concerns: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62 NLT).

Here in Luke’s retelling of the history of the church, he seems to be comparing the determination and dedication of Jesus to that of Paul. We see in this passage, some striking similarities between the two men, as Paul, making his way to Jerusalem, displays a strong sense of calling and commitment to complete the journey, even in spite of the warnings of those who loved him. Paul had no idea what awaited him in Jerusalem, but he knew from experience that the potential for death was a reality everywhere he went.

22 And now, behold, j, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. – Acts 20:22-24 ESV

Paul wanted to finish well. He wanted to be faithful to the assignment given to him by Jesus. And his attitude was that, as long as the Lord allowed him to live, he would share the gospel faithfully and boldly. His goal in life was to please the Lord, whether in life or in death.

So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. – 2 Corinthians 5:6-9 ESV

And Luke, using geographic locations as a sort of measurement device, tells of Paul’s unwavering commitment to return to Jerusalem as the Spirit had directed him. Luke describes their journey from Miletus to Cos, then to Rhodes, and from there to Patara. Their next stop was Phoenicia and from there they sailed to Tyre, passing by the island of Rhodes on the way. There are not stops mentioned. At no point does he describe Paul taking time to minister along the way. This was not normal behavior for Paul. You can sense in Luke’s description of this leg of their journey that there was a certain determination on the part of Paul. Like Jesus, he had set out resolutely to go to Jerusalem.

It was only when he had arrived in Tyre that Paul took time to meet with the disciples there. He stayed for seven days, but this was only because he was forced to wait for this ship’s cargo to be unloaded. During the delay, Paul was once again bombarded with dire warnings from those who cared deeply for him. Luke records that the brothers and sisters, under the influence of the Spirit of God, “were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:4 ESV). This begs a question: If these believers, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, warned Paul not to go to Jerusalem, why did he do so anyway? Was he being disobedient to the Spirit? Does this just display a stubbornness on Paul’s part? It is important to remember that Paul had also received word from the Spirit of God. In fact, he had made that plain when he had said, “I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit” (Acts 20:22 ESV). It would seem that some of the disciples in Tyre had been given a divine insight into Paul’s fate, provided to them by the Holy Spirit. Upon hearing the news, their natural conclusion had been that the Spirit was telling them these things so they could warn Paul and keep him from going. But it much more likely that the Spirit was simply confirming what He had already told Paul. Out of their love for Paul, they were trying to prevent any harm from coming to him, but what awaited Paul in Jerusalem was the sovereign will of God. What what we seen happening here is the very same thing that happened when Jesus had informed the disciples about the fate awaiting Him in Jerusalem.

21 From that time on Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 So Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him: “God forbid, Lord! This must not happen to you!” – Matthew 16:21-22 NLT

Peter had meant well. He loved Jesus and was simply trying to protect him from what he believed to be an undeserved and unnecessary death. He didn’t understand what was going on, but was seeing things from his limited human perspective. And what Jesus said to him provides us with a telling and sobering warning.

23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, because you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but on man’s.” – Matthew 16:23 NLT

The disciples in Tyre were guilty of the same thing. They were setting their minds on their own interests, rather than those of God. They couldn’t bear the thought of losing Paul. It made no sense to them that God would allow anything to happen to someone so vital to the well-being of the church. But that kind of attitude was dangerous. Jesus described Peter as acting like Satan, attempting to stand in the way of God divine will for the redemption of mankind. And the disciples in Tyre, while trying to keep Paul from having to suffer, were unwittingly doing the same thing. They had no idea what God had planned for Paul and what was going to happen as a result. They could not see into the future. All they knew was that something dire was waiting for Paul in Jerusalem and they wanted to prevent it from happening.

But Paul remained determined. He departed from Tyre and made his way to Ptolemais and then on to Caesarea, where he and his traveling companions stayed in the home of Philip the Evangelist. While there, Paul was once again confronted and warned about the fate that awaited him in Jerusalem. This time, it came from the lips of a prophet named Agabus, who had come all the way from Judea. Using a visual illustration, he revealed to Paul that he would arrested by the Jews, bound up and delivered to the Gentiles. It is obvious that Agabus had also received a word from the Lord. And the text does not indicate that Agabus tried to dissuade Paul from going to Jerusalem. He simply presented the facts as given to him by God. It was the disciples in Philip’s house who heard this news and attempted to persuade Paul to change his plans. And Luke, out of love for his brother, Paul, included himself among those who tried to change Paul’s mind. “When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:12 ESV). 

What they failed to realize was that their passionate pleas for Paul to refrain from going to Jerusalem were actually making things more difficult for Paul. He responded: “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13 ESV). What Paul needed were words of encouragement to stay the course, not emotion-filled pleas to disobey the will of God for his life. His friends meant well, but they were operating out of a sense of selfishness. They were not seeing the bigger picture. For Paul, the plans of God far outweighed any personal aspirations he might have. He was much more interested in seeing the sovereign will of God accomplished than doing whatever he could to keep his life as trouble-free as possible.

Luke, along with all the others who had tried to dissuade Paul from his seemingly ill-fated plans to go to Jerusalem, resigned himself to the inevitable. He simply stated, “Let the will of the Lord be done” (Acts 21:14 ESV). There is a certain sense of failure in Luke’s words. He doesn’t sound convincing. He even admitted that “since he would not be persuaded, we ceased” (Acts 21:14 ESV). They had tried, but had failed. So, they were forced to accept what happened as the will of God. But is that the way we should face the future? Does God want us to simply give up hope and face what may happen with a sense of resignation? What a contrast we see between the words of Luke and those of Paul. “I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13 ESV). The will of God didn’t intimidate Paul. It didn’t depress him. He didn’t feel compelled to resign himself to it. He willing and eagerly embraced it as preferable to any other alternative, because he was fully convinced that God knew best. Paul lived his life in keeping with the words of Peter: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6-7 ESV).

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson


A Case of Providence, Not Coincidence.

When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and he cried out with a loud and bitter cry. He went up to the entrance of the king’s gate, for no one was allowed to enter the king’s gate clothed in sackcloth. And in every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree reached, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and many of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.

When Esther’s young women and her eunuchs came and told her, the queen was deeply distressed. She sent garments to clothe Mordecai, so that he might take off his sackcloth, but he would not accept them. Then Esther called for Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs, who had been appointed to attend her, and ordered him to go to Mordecai to learn what this was and why it was. Hathach went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate, and Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and the exact sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king’s treasuries for the destruction of the Jews. Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther and explain it to her and command her to go to the king to beg his favor and plead with him on behalf of her people. And Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said.. – Esther 4:1-9 ESV

Chapter three ended with the words, “And the king and Haman sat down to drink, but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion.” As news of the king’s edict declaring an official day set aside for the slaughter of all Jews living in the kingdom of Persia, the reaction among the citizens of the kingdom was mixed. There was confusion among many. Others were probably excited about the prospect of being able to take the lives of the Jews and their property and possessions as well. But for the Jews, the news was shocking. They were in Persia because of the destruction of their own homeland, and now they were facing destruction once again. Where was their God? How could this be happening to them? And Mordecai, the uncle of Queen Esther, upon hearing the news, goes into a state of mourning. He tears his clothes, covers himself in sackcloth and ashes and proceeds to wander the streets of the capital city, offering a visible illustration to all who could see of just how devastating this news was to the Jews. And he was not alone. Jews all over the kingdom were reacting in the same way – “as news of the king’s decree reached all the provinces, there was great mourning among the Jews. They fasted, wept, and wailed, and many people lay in burlap and ashes” (Esther 4:3 NLT).

Mordecai’s trek through the city took him all the way to the gates of the palace, but he is refused entrance. The king’s sumptuous lifestyle and celebratory mood was not to be disrupted by some despondent and disheveled Hebrew. It is interesting to note the contrast between the opening of this book and the current state of Mordecai’s demeanor. The story began with a royal party, a festival that lasted more than 180 days and was marked by wine, food, fine linens and an overall mood of celebration. Now we have Mordecai and his fellow Jews fasting, mourning and covering themselves in soot and coarse garments. The original party was a result of the king’s command. His word produced a festive occasion and a non-stop celebration where the food and wine flowed non-stop for nearly six months. Now, by his decree, an entire population of people found themselves in deep and bitter mourning, because their lives had been declared worthless and their future, hopeless.

The news of Mordecai’s presence outside the city gates was taken to Esther. She seems to have had no idea as to what was going on. In her isolated and insulated world within the palace, she had not yet heard about the decree. She offered Mordecai a change of clothes, but he refused. She sent a trusted confidant to Mordecai in order to ascertain the cause of his distress. What she would learn would rock her world. Her fairy tale-like rise from obscurity to wealth, power and royal prestige was about to come to an abrupt halt. Mordecai told her everything. He withheld none of the sordid details. She may have been safe in her cocoon of comfort and ease within the palace, but Mordecai wanted her to know just how dangerous her position really was. But he also wanted her to realize how vital and obviously God-ordained her newfound role was going to be. He told her of Haman’s plan, even sending her a copy of the king’s edict.

But his real motive for appearing at the gates of the king’s palace was to get Esther to use her position as queen to appeal to the king on behalf of her people. It was time for her to reveal her true identity to the king. Mordecai had been the one to counsel her to keep her Hebrew heritage a secret. And to this point in the story, Esther had done just that. King Xerxes had no idea that his new queen was actually a Jew. But given the dire change in circumstances, Mordecai has changed his tune and begs his niece to drop the charade and use her access to the king to make an appeal. Mordecai believes that she is where she is for a reason. She has been put in this place of royal influence for a divine purpose that is far greater than either one of them could have ever imagined. All the pieces of the story are starting to come together. All the characters in the story have had their parts to play. From King Xerxes to his recalcitrant queen, Vashti; Mordecai and his adopted niece, Esther, and the two plotting assassins to the pride-filled, and revenge-obsessed Haman. Nothing has happened by chance. And while God has yet to be mentioned, He has been there all along. And Mordecai seems to sense that there is a divine agenda at work in this seemingly hopeless scenario. His niece is the queen of Persia. Who could have ever imagined something so far-fetched and unlikely? You see, we read this story and automatically wonder why God would allow someone like Haman to rise to power and have the power to demand the destruction of the people of God. But what we should be wondering is why God would allow Esther, an inconsequential, orphaned Hebrew girl to ascend to the queen’s throne. Mordecai didn’t waste his time worrying about Haman and his need for vengeance. He saw a God-given opportunity in Esther and wasted no time in begging her to see her role as a godsend.

Carried Away.

After these things, when the anger of King Ahasuerus had abated, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what had been decreed against her. Then the king’s young men who attended him said, “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king. And let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in Susa the citadel, under custody of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women. Let their cosmetics be given them. And let the young woman who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.” This pleased the king, and he did so.

Now there was a Jew in Susa the citadel whose name was Mordecai, the son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, a Benjaminite, who had been carried away from Jerusalem among the captives carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had carried away. He was bringing up Hadassah, that is Esther, the daughter of his uncle, for she had neither father nor mother. The young woman had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at, and when her father and her mother died, Mordecai took her as his own daughter. So when the king’s order and his edict were proclaimed, and when many young women were gathered in Susa the citadel in custody of Hegai, Esther also was taken into the king’s palace and put in custody of Hegai, who had charge of the women. And the young woman pleased him and won his favor. And he quickly provided her with her cosmetics and her portion of food, and with seven chosen young women from the king’s palace, and advanced her and her young women to the best place in the harem. Esther had not made known her people or kindred, for Mordecai had commanded her not to make it known. And every day Mordecai walked in front of the court of the harem to learn how Esther was and what was happening to her. – Esther 2:1-11 ESV

The story begins a new chapter. The king has had time for his anger to abate and to think about what he has done. Queen Vashti has been banished from his presence and he is now having second thoughts about his decision. She was obviously beautiful and now that he is sober, he is experiencing regrets about having issued his decree. But no worries, he is surrounded by those who are more than willing to help him get over any remorse he may be feeling. After all, he is the king and he can have whatever he wants. So he is given yet more advice in how to deal with his problems. Yes, Queen Vashti was beautiful, but she was also replaceable. He could have his pick of any woman in the kingdom and no one could refuse him. So he listens to his advisors and issues a command to “gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in Susa the citadel” (Esther 2:3 ESV). He will choose his new queen from among the many viable candidates. Not only that, he will enjoy the company of all the others as they join his royal harem.

These opening lines of chapter two portray the power and the immoral decadence of King Xerxes. Women are nothing more than possessions, intended for his pleasure and examples of his power and wealth. These young women will be forcibly removed from their families and treated like personal slaves of the king. In fact, when the author says the girls were “gathered together” (verses 3 and 8), the Hebrew word he uses is qabats. It literally means, “to grasp with the hand.” They are going to be snatched up and placed at the disposal of the king, to do with them as he sees fit. They will become his personal play things, his sexual slaves.

But there is something else going on in this story. The king’s power is on display, but there is another power at work behind the scenes. Once the decree has been made and the gathering of the virgins begins, we are introduced to two new characters. Esther, a young Jewish girl, is living with her older cousin, Mordecai. We are told that he is a Hebrew, of the tribe of Benjamin “who had been carried away from Jerusalem among the captives carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had carried away” (Esther 2:6 ESV). He was an exile, part of the group who had been taken captive when Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed Judah and the city of Jerusalem. The phrase “carried away” is used three times in verse six and it is the Hebrew word, galah and it means “to carry away into exile.” The book of Jeremiah records the details of this event.

This is the number of the people whom Nebuchadnezzar carried away captive: in the seventh year, 3,023 Judeans; in the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar he carried away captive from Jerusalem 832 persons; in the twenty-third year of Nebuchadnezzar, Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried away captive of the Judeans 745 persons; all the persons were 4,600. – Jeremiah 52:28-30 ESV

Mordecai is an exile, part of the Hebrew contingent who had been taken captive and forced to live in Babylon, far from their homeland and loved ones. And Mordecai has the added responsibility of caring for his orphaned younger cousin, Esther. We are not told what happened to her parents, but only that they had died. And as a result, she had become Mordecai’s ward. We are also informed that she “had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at” (Esther 2:7 ESV). This particular trait was going to make her a prime candidate for King Xerxes’ kingdom-wide “talent search.” And she would soon find herself “snatched up” and living in exile from her uncle and family, as part of the king’s harem.

So when the king’s order and his edict were proclaimed, and when many young women were gathered in Susa the citadel in custody of Hegai, Esther also was taken into the king’s palace and put in custody of Hegai, who had charge of the women. – Esther 2:8 ESV

There is a sense of helplessness and hopelessness in this passage. Mordecai had been carried away into exile years earlier. Now Esther is being carried away into another form of slavery and exile as part of the king’s harem. There was nothing Mordecai could have done to prevent his capture and exile. And there was nothing Esther could do to stop what seemed to be the inevitable. And yet, there is something going on that is far greater than the personal whims of a pagan king. There is a divine plan being put into place that is perfect in its timing and that supersedes even the will of the king. He only thinks he is in control.

Esther catches the attention of Hegai, who was in charge of the king’s harem. She is given special treatment and advanced to the top of the long list of potential candidates to be the next queen. Is it all the byproduct of good genes? Is this just good fortune or a case of fate? It would be easy to see all of this as simple coincidence, but the author will not allow us to reach that conclusion. As Esther’s fate unfolds, she is under the watchful eye of her uncle. He has instructed her to hide her Hebrew identity. We are not told why he made this decision. But it seems that Mordecai knows there is something greater going on in this story. He appears to have a sense that this is far more than fate or kismet. His God is at work. Mordecai may not know exactly what God is up to, but he seems to know that there is a greater force at work than that of the king.

It Just So Happened…

On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha and Abagtha, Zethar and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus, to bring Queen Vashti before the king with her royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the princes her beauty, for she was lovely to look at. But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command delivered by the eunuchs. At this the king became enraged, and his anger burned within him.

Then the king said to the wise men who knew the times (for this was the king’s procedure toward all who were versed in law and judgment, the men next to him being Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven princes of Persia and Media, who saw the king’s face, and sat first in the kingdom): “According to the law, what is to be done to Queen Vashti, because she has not performed the command of King Ahasuerus delivered by the eunuchs?” – Esther 1:10-15 ESV

A mere 187 days into his non-stop partying, we are told the not-so-surprising news that the “heart of the king was merry with wine.” By this time, he had to have been virtually toxic from all the alcohol he had consumed over the last six months. As a result, his ability to think clearly was virtually non-existent. He allowed his vanity and pride to get the best of him and, in an attempt to further flaunt his wealth and power, he demanded that his queen in all her royal finery in order to show her off. And rather than make the request personally, he sent his seven eunuchs. This was not to be seen as a request, but a royal dictate, a command from the king himself. He wanted to put her on display so that everyone could get a glimpse of her great beauty.

But the queen was far from flattered when the seven eunuchs showed up in her royal chambers. She knew exactly what the king was up to and why he was demanding her presence. She was to be nothing more than another example of his greatness. She was simply a trophy to be displayed to boost his royal ego and solidify his reputation as the luckiest man in the world. But Queen Vashti flat-out refused the king’s command. She was not going to allow herself to be put on public display and paraded around like a nothing more than one of the king’s possessions.

But Xerxes was not used to being refused. After all, he was the king. He tended to get what he wanted. His word was law. His commands were non-optional. And so, when Vashti refused to show up, he blew up. He lost it. He “became enraged, and his anger burned within him” (Esther 1:12b ESV). But rather than take up this matter with his wife, he called in his wise men. He sought the advice of his counselors. What should have been nothing more than a domestic dispute quickly escalated into a national affair. King Xerxes would have never dreamed his 187-day feast would end this way. Queen Vashti could have never anticipated the reaction her refusal was going to create. This whole thing should have never happened, but it did. Why?

This is another point at which the author is attempting to reveal the hidden hand of God, working behind the scenes in ways that no one could have anticipated or planned. Everything in the story has a purpose and a place. Nothing happens by happenstance or chance. The 180-plus days of feasting, the over-the-top opulence, the vain displays of wealth and power – all of it has a divine influence about it. The foundation is being laid for the rest of the story’s unfolding. A variety of people are going to become actors in God’s sovereign plan. Xerxes, the all-powerful, pride-filled king will be have a major role to play. Queen Vashti, though somewhat a bit player who enjoys little in the way of real stage-time, will prove a key character in the plot. Her refusal to appear before the king sets up all that is to come. Had she simply showed up as commanded, this story wouldn’t be a story at all. Had the king personally requested her presence, this might have all been avoidable. If the king had not sought out legal counsel, this whole affair could have ended much differently. But all that happens in this story happens for a reason. There is a reason behind the madness.

This story almost begs to be read with a sense of incredulity. It is as if we need to add in the phrase, “It just so happened…” before every event.

“It just so happened that the king decided to throw a great feast.”

“It just so happened that the king commanded the queen to appear.”

“It just so happened that the queen was in no mood to be put on display.”

“It just so happened that the king got angry and blew it all out of proportion.”

“It just so happened that the king called in his royal counselors.”

All these seemingly disparate decisions were inseparably linked together, creating an unbroken chain of events that would result in an unforeseen outcome that no one could have ever imagined. God was at work. He was behind the scenes orchestrating events and individuals in such a way that they were oblivious, like passive pawns in a divine game of chess. Each was free to act according to their will, but only according to the greater will of God. What might appear as luck or fate is actually the sovereign hand of God. This will become increasingly clear as the story unfolds. Though the name of God is never mentioned, His presence will be repeatedly sensed. He is invisible, but not absent. He remains unseen, but not uninvolved. The chapter opens up with King Xerxes’ sovereignty on display. He is powerful and influential. His realm extends over 127 provinces on several continents, from India to Ethiopia. And yet God, the one true King, is not even mentioned by name. He chooses to display His power in more subtle, yet significant ways. Throughout the story, He will remain in the background, operating incognito and invisible to the naked eye. But He is there. He is always there.

I look up to the mountains—

does my help come from there?

My help comes from the Lord,

who made heaven and earth!

He will not let you stumble;

the one who watches over you will not slumber.

Indeed, he who watches over Israel

never slumbers or sleeps.

The Lord himself watches over you!

The Lord stands beside you as your protective shade.

The sun will not harm you by day,

nor the moon at night.

The Lord keeps you from all harm

and watches over your life.

The Lord keeps watch over you as you come and go,

both now and forever. – Psalm 124