The Feast of Purim 2002
Sabbath Day Sermon, Saturday 23 February 2002
Brethren and sisters, this is the second year we have celebrated the Feast of Lots, or Purim, and I must confess that I find this, in some respects, to be one of the most baffling festivals of all. We must remember that Yahweh nowhere commands observance of this festival and unlike Hanukkah, which Yah'shua (Jesus) used as a teaching tool, Purim is nowhere mentioned in the New Testament, unless it is the unnamed festival mentioned in John 5:1 that He went up to Jerusalem to celebrate. But somehow I doubt it is. More likely, it was one of the pilgrim feasts of Passover, Pentecost, or Tabernacles to which all male Jews were expected to go. And I do have my doubts that Yah'shua would have acknowledged this feast without first pointing out one of the more barbaric aspects of its history which He most certainly would have wanted to reform in light of His other teachings. But more of that later.
The name Purim derives from the act of Haman who cast a lot or pur to determine the day on which the Diaspora Jews in the Persian Empire would be destroyed. There are many ironies about this word. For one thing, it isn't Hebrew at all, and derives from the Assyrian puru meaning a pebble or small stone that was used for casting lots. Haman, the enemy of Mordecai and of the Jews, was an Agagite, from the royal house of the Amalekites, one of Israel's most terrible enemies. As a pagan he would have worshipped pagan deities and was no doubt resorting to divination through demons. The lot fell on the 13th day of Adar - his lucky day (or so he supposed), a day when Jews traditionally fast prior to the two following days of lively celebration on the 14th and 15th. Rather like the word "Christian", which was adopted as a term of derision by the enemies of the Gospel, the word purim was probably given to the Jews by their enemies in irony (Es.9:24-26).
The festival is mentioned in one of the apocryphal books where it is also called "Mordecai's day" since Mordecai played an important part in the events pertaining to the festival (2 Macc.15:36). And like the pagan Christmas, Purim in modern Judaism has become highly secularised and is used as an excuse for excesses.
Purim is a paradox in many ways. For whilst it is very clear that Esther and Mordecai were true servants of Yahweh because of their integrity and exclusive worship of Him, and whilst it is also clear that the festival was established by Mordecai to honour Him, and whilst the deliverance of the Jews at that time may likewise be attributed to Him, there are some things about Purim that do not rest well either in an Old Covenant or a New Covenant context.
Let us begin our study today by looking at the remarkable woman that Esther was, whose name in Hebrew was Hassadah, meaning a Myrtle, a shrub with pink or white flowers and aromatic blue-black berries. Esther is probably a Persian name and may well be the equivalent in that language of stara which means, and from which we derive in English the word, "star". Both from what the Bible tells us and from the other records that are available, we can pretty well be sure that Esther was a remarkable woman both in terms of character and beauty. And if we are to identify and spotlight her most supreme virtue, apart from her faithfulness to Yahweh, it must surely be her act of submission in presenting herself for marriage to a pagan king for the purpose of saving her people. Her obedience to the Most High and her willingness to sacrifice the possibility of a happy, God-sanctified marriage in order to fulfil a prophetic calling to deliver her nation from extermination, must surely qualify her as one of the great women of the Bible and of sacred history. There have, to be sure, been many loveless marriages, formed to make political alliances or arranged by unfeeling parents, but for a child of the Most High to be placed into the bed of a demonised pagan is no mean sacrifice.
We do not know what her husband Ahasuerus (also known as Xerxes in Greek) was like because the Bible does not tell us, but he was probably no different from any pagan absolute ruler of his time. It is possible that Yahweh softened his heart in order to make marriage more bearable for her, or possibly even converted him like Nebuchadnezzar after his humiliating encounter with the world of wild animals, but the Bible lends no support for such a theory. So I think we must assume that her sacrifice, in terms of not getting true love or spiritual compatibility, must have been great. Had she not been obedient and had the Jews been exterminated, there might never have been a Messiah. For somewhere amongst those Jews was a forefather of Yah'shua (Jesus) whom Satan was anxious to destroy, even if it meant slaughtering a whole nation to achieve that dastardly ambition. Esther is therefore one of those key figures of the past on which the hinges of history has turned.
We recall the beginning of our story in which King Ahasuerus deposes his pretty wife Vashti for refusing to parade herself before all his guests at a national feast. According to the historian Herodotus (vii.114, ix. 108f), the name of Ahasuerus' wife was Amestris. Who could this woman have been? Ahasuerus did, of course, have many wives, and whilst only the Queen Wives would have been recorded for posterity (like Vashti and Amestris) it is unlikely that there were many of them unless he had that tendency to cut off their heads like Henry VIII of England. We don't know if Vashti was his first Queen Wife and Esther his second, or whether there had been others before both of them. Possibly, therefore, Amestris succeeded Esther as Queen after Esther's death, but I somehow doubt it. It is also possible that Esther was only a favourite for a time and was demoted like Vashti to return to the obscurity of the harem. And yet the Bible tells us:
"Now the king was attracted to Esther more than to any of the other women, and she won his favour and approval more than any of the other virgins" (Es.2:17).
If we are to believe the Bible account, and if she was the pure, principled and beautiful woman that we have every good reason to believe that she was, then my guess is that she survived as Queen to her death.
Interestingly, the first reference by the historian Herodotus is to Amestris' old age. The second, which dates shortly after Asahuerus' disastrous expedition to Greece, probably belongs to an even later date. My guess is that Esther and Amestris are one and the same person. And the reason I believe this is because of what both these women were recorded as doing.
In addition to being obedient and submissive to Yahweh's command that she marry a pagan, Esther also risked her life on at least two occasions (Es.4:11-17). It is written:
"All the kings officials and the people of the royal provinces know that for any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned the king has but one law: that he be put to death. The only exception to this is for the king to extend the gold sceptre to him and spare his life" (Es.4:11, NIV).
But Esther approached the king unsummonsed anyway after she learned of the fate of her people. On the other hand she knew that if she did not intervene she would perish along with all the other Jews too, the king being entirely unaware of her racial origin and bound by the decree Haman had tricked him into signing which ordered the complete extermination of every man, woman and child of Judah ... an order he could not easily rescind.
So although Esther was a brave woman who risked her life to save the Jews, the Bible nowhere commends her encouragement of the Jews to massacre their enemies. The ninth chapter of Esther is a grizzly account of the massacre of 75,000 people whom the Jews considered to be their enemies.
Now, of course, Esther was a child of the age in which she lived. And such things were both permitted and encouraged. Moreover, we must be very careful in how we judge, for we do not know all the why's and wherefore's for this act of extermination. The Jewish action was, after all, in complete accord with the Torah statutes like "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth". And we must remember that the Amalekites, of whom Haman was one, was an accursed race whom Yahweh had ordered exterminated not only because of their hostility towards the Israelites in their wanderings but also because of their extreme depravity. Haman would almost certainly have known of Yahweh's extermination order and therefore nurtured a great hatred for Yahweh's people.
There are those who object that Haman would have attempted the massacre of all the Jewish race simply because one man - Mordecai - defied him, and they say the king would never have permitted it. But such criticism not only shows a strange ignorance of human nature but also ignores the demonic element. Massacres and wars have been sparked off many times through the injured pride of one or two individuals. Persian kings were also easily swayed by the favourites, and in this case Haman represented the Jews as traitors (Es.3:8), enough for any pagan king constantly on the lookout for assassins and pretenders to the throne.
The enormous gallows which Haman had erected for Mordecai gives us some idea of the hatred nurtured by a typically extravagant man thwarted in his quest for power. And no doubt the king's eyes were boggling at the prospect of all the Jewish property being handed over to his treasury upon their extermination. And notwithstanding his oriental politeness when he told Haman he could keep all the wealth of the Jews for himself (Es.3:11), there can be little doubt that so long as the king received a substantial share of the spoil, that he would turn a blind eye to whatever Haman would take for himself.
As New Covenant Christians we celebrate only one day of Purim, the first, and not the second and third days as the Talmudic Jews do. We celebrate the rescue of Yahweh's people from extermination by the acts of a brave and courageous woman and her uncle, but we do not celebrate the massacre of 75,000 souls as the Talmudists do on the second and third days of the festival. Let us remember that the commandment to celebrate this festival came from Mordecai and not from Yahweh, and that it is nowhere upheld in the New Testament.
And so we must ask ourselves: What would Yah'shua (Jesus) have done with this festival? Would He have approved the celebration of the latter two thirds of it, with all the customs that have been added over the centuries? It was changed in the days of the Maccabbees and was combined with the Day of Nicanor, the latter designation being dropped eventually.
Purim is the last of the festivals of the sacred cycle and it seems inappropriate to me that we should end it on a massacre. And the reason I think it inappropriate is because Yah'shua Himself modified the Torah statutes on hating your enemies and told us to love them instead and to bless all who despitefully use us. Though under the Old dispensation Purim ended on a note of violence, surely in the New a different note is required altogether? Here we must use wisdom, especially if we are going to celebrate this festival, which is something we may freely do or not as we please. Personally I think there is much in it that is commendable, which is why we adopted it a year ago having vacillated two years ago when we first started obeying the commandment to obey the seven primary ones.
For me personally, Purim is a warning of a terrible end-time event that has yet to come, and about which I spoke last year, and for this reason alone should be remembered so that we do not grow careless and forgetful. The same is true of Hanukkah, which celebrated yet another delivery from similar antichrist forces seeking the extermination of a people by forced assimilation into paganism. And taken together - Hanukkah and Purim - do they not paint an accurate picture of Jacob's Woe, of the endtime Tribulation that we are preparing our children for whom we believe are going to witness these events? I believe so. Preparation in the light of reality, even if it may seem afar off, is not to lack wisdom, but is indeed, the first thing we are supposed to be doing in donning our spiritual armour as we discussed last week. And you will remember that Yah'shua (Jesus) warned of those who do not prepare themselves in the right way by getting side-tracked by worldly concerns:
""Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses." Then He spoke a parable to them, saying: "The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, 'What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?' So he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. And I will say to my soul, "Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry." 'But God said to him, 'Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?' So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God."
"Then He said to His disciples, "Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; nor about the body, what you will put on. Life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing. Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap, which have neither storehouse nor barn; and God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds? And which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature? If you then are not able to do the least, why are you anxious for the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If then God so clothes the grass, which today is in the field and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will He clothe you, O you of little faith? And do not seek what you should eat or what you should drink, nor have an anxious mind. For all these things the nations of the world seek after, and your Father knows that you need these things. But seek the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you. Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Luke 12:15-34, NKJV).
Purim is a warning to us not to get complacent. People will occupy themselves with personal advancement in the world, and with riches, and fame, and power, and they will do so right up until the very last moment when it is too late to have a change or heart and give themselves to the Kingdom of Yahweh. Will you be like the rich man storing up wealth, hoping for an early retirement so that you can enjoy your life's work? Yah'shua (Jesus) says this is a complete waste of time! It is sheer folly! Or will you be wise, and learn to store up spiritual treasures for yourselves in heaven, which is our ultimate destination?
My mother always taught me to save wisely, to "save half, and spend half", and her teaching has helped me in difficult circumstances more than once. I have tried to follow this teaching all my life. But more than that I have seen in it a valuable spiritual application, for unless our eyes are focussed in the heavenly realms as our goal, no matter how far away in the distant future that time may appear to be, we are surely going to miss the way. There will be times when you can't "save half, and spend half" because you need it all right away to meet your basic needs, but there is never a legitimate reason for abandoning this principle on the spiritual plane. We are not, in any case, to view the next life as something in the distant future, but to invest in each day the kind of activity and purpose that most people would if they knew it was their very last day on earth. None of knows when our hour will come. Some live into their 80's and 90's, some even into their early 100's, but there is also a very high percentage of people who die young, because that is what God, in His loving wisdom, has ordained for them. Only fools behave as though there was no tomorrow.
And for the Jews of Esther's day who likely had much of the same mentality, that illusion was abruptly shattered with the news that within a few days they were to be entirely exterminated! I guarantee that those people suddenly became the most mentally and spiritually focussed people in the world! The threat of death usually does that to humans. And yet Yah'shua (Jesus) says we are to be always focussed in that way because Yahweh does not announce in advance when He is going to take you home, except in very, very rare cases.
I would like to think that Purim will be used by us in the future to get our priorities right. Indeed, are not many of the festivals designed by Yahweh to encourage us in that way? Our Heavenly Father, knowing our carnal tendency to get distracted on useless things, has to remind us time and time again of what is really important. I remember when I was a teenager being only interested in getting decent Hi-fi equipment, tapes, air rifles, books, and other things which, though not silly in and of themselves, are quite ridiculous when they consume so much of your time, interest and energy. Men do of course need to become salary earners, and women to prepare for marriage, though these days to survive women often need to be salary earners too in order to maintain the kind of standard of living which most people expect. But as Christians, ought we not to be setting our priorities a little differently?
I consider it my duty to help prepare my children as future bread-earners, homemakers, and fathers and mothers, but far, far ahead in my priorities is the burning desire I have that they find salvation and consecrate their lives to the service of their Maker. Without that, all the rest is just a futile game. What use is it educating and preparing people for a futile life in which they teach their children the same things, and their grandchildren, and so on, when there is no purpose but to simply do these things? Such a philosophy is, to my mind, utterly depressing because it is so meaningless. The only thing that really matters is that we use this life for what it was originally intended - to be a preparation time to meet God.
Please don't be caught as those Jews nearly were in Esther's day, or as they were caught when Hitler murdered three million of them. And remember that the next victims will be Christians. Don't forget the lessons of history. Remember them well. Don't forget the million or so Armenian Christians massacred by the Muslim Turks in the First World War. Don't forget the tens of thousands of Christian Sudanese being massacred by Muslim Sudanese today, or the many Christians being tortured and murdered today in the Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, central Asian republics, and in other places. You may not believe it, but the same thing is going to happen here in the so-called civilised "West". And if you think that the débâcle at Wacco, Texas about 10 years ago, was just the work of some crazed cultists who committed suicide, think again, because the truth is they were murdered by an élite military force of the government.
So this Tuesday let us celebrate for one day the deliverance by Yahweh of those who trust in Him and who obey Him, but let us not forget what may happen if you procrastinate the day of your repentance and then find yourself in that place of darkness. It's not worth it. Why play Russian roulette with your soul? Repent, receive Christ as your Saviour, be baptised and live a life of consecrated obedience, and get a foretaste of the joys of that wonderful world which awaits the faithful. Amen.
This page was created on 22 February 2002
Last updated on 22 February 2002
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