For Such a Time as This

Today around the world many will celebrate Purim. This is a celebration that thousands of years ago God delivered the Jewish people from near certain death. When the writer of the book of Esther chose to tell the story, their method of telling the story was very strange. For centuries Esther has baffled commentators and Bible scholars. It is the only book in the Bible where the word God is not mentioned – not  even once.

How we use our words can be very revealing. The lack of words can also be very revealing. If you have ever been involved in a polite work discussion in the British isles you may have heard the phrase. “That is very brave.” What an American hears a Brit saying is, “They think I am courageous,” when in fact the Brit is trying convey a completely different thought: “You are barking mad.” So it was many years ago, the writer of Esther wanted to convey the feeling that God was hidden and removed from the day to day life of His people. It felt like God was absent.

To top it all off. This book which tells the story of a hidden or surreal God, tells the story of a very real and clear existential threat to the Jewish people. The Jewish citizens living in Persia were faced with a life and death situation and God seemed painfully hidden. In the hiddenness God is actively working. Esther, in vicarious representation of her people, walked into the courtroom of the king and pleaded in proxy for her people.

“If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be granted me for my wish, and my people for my request.” (Esth. 7:3)

Esther risks power, privilege and position to petition the potentate for her people. We know of a true and better prince, who not only risks everything, but actually gave up everything to rescue his people.

Let those Purim words sink in this Lent. Hear Jesus plead on the cross, “Let my life be granted to me … and my people for my request.”

Stand in the Gap

Nehemiah 1:10 They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand. 11 O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.”

Today I walked into a large hardware store. A friend of mine asked me to pick up a sink and construction materials up for him. As I waited for one of the clerks to retrieve all the pre-ordered goods, the floor manager asked me sign a document. “Are you happy for me to sign for him?” By signing for the sink, I now became legally responsible for it in the chain of custody. Whenever we do something for someone, we do it in their place. We are granted power of attorney.

Nehemiah is doing exactly this at the end of his prayer in chapter 1. He is pleading on behalf of the Jewish people. Not only does he intercede with God on behalf of Jerusalem, he vicariously places himself as their representative before the King of Persia, Artaxerxes. If his plea is listened to then all Judah will be listened to, if his plea fails then all of Judah fails.

He is empty-handed, but not uninvited. He knows the threats and promises of Scripture well enough to make a strong, not a tentative plea. He draws on several passages of Deuteronomy (cf. Deut. 28:64; Deut. 30:1–4;Deut. 12:5). At that point in Deuteronomy Israel had been threatened with extinction; now, it seems, Nehemiah sees the situation as hardly less perilous. Like Moses, he must stand in the breach with his intercession.

Nehemiah’s intercession wishes to accomplish two things. He hopes that the response will be immediate (v. 9 “today”). He also trusts the response will be specific (v. 9 “this man”). And Nehemiah has kept a surprise in store for us, who so far have had no inkling of his position or the identity of ‘this man’.

The most surprising thing of this unknown hero, is that we do not realize who he is until he has acted on their behalf. Nehemiah, the unknown hero, turns out to be one of the most influential courtiers in the Persian Kingdom. He will stand in the gap for his people. He does not consider his position something to be grasped, but humbles himself even to the point of losing his job as the royal cupbearer.

Herodotus speaks of the title “cupbearer.” He reports how the Persians held in high honour the holder this office. In other ancient near eastern literature one was not only the cupbearer, but the chief minister of the Assyrian king.

Nehemiah points to the Great Intercessor who not only hazards the loss of position as the Son of God, but also gives his life vicariously for us. Nehemiah loses status, Jesus loses all that we may be returned from exile. Know that today the Great Intercessor is praying for you.