This was my sermon this morning on Esther 9:1-16.
It has often been said that we live, today, in the midst of a “culture of death.” We afford no legal rights to the unborn. We have perhaps the most-armed populace of any developed country in the world. And there are almost weekly incidents now of killings at home and broad – by terrorists, by tribal wars, by border skirmishes, even by policemen. In all this, people generally agree that killing is bad and peace is good, but then you get some people saying that killing is wrong unless I’m really really angry, then it’s okay. Or you get other people saying that killing is wrong unless the other guy had it coming. Forgiveness, peace, and love are nice ideals, but when push comes to shove, sometimes you’ve just gotta shoot the bad guys. That assumes, of course, that we know who the bad guys actually are.
Into this fray of confusion over how to handle killing, murder, and war, comes the Gospel. The Good News of Jesus Christ is a radical message of love, the story of God’s quest to rescue the world from sin and death. You could say that Christianity is a pacifistic religion, showing the way of peace in the imitation of Christ. He taught us to love and forgive our enemies, and demonstrated that by allowing himself to be captured, tortured, and brutally executed on the Cross. The Church ever since has recognized the powerful witness of martyrdom, and most of the great Christian heroes (at least the early ones) were in fact martyrs. Of all the ways someone can come to be recognized as an official Saint in the Church, martyrdom is the most surefire way. A life of radical non-violence instantly became a major feature of the Christian witness.
But soon after, as Christians occupied political offices and the unimaginable happened – one Roman Emperor converted to the faith and another made Christianity the official state religion – and a new dimension of Christian ethics had to be explored: what role does the State have in handling death? When is war justified? Is all killing murder, or can a distinction be drawn? Christian theories of Just War were quickly developed in the Early Church, though how that translated to the level of the individual Christian often remained contentious through history. Despite tolerating and allowing war and even capital punishment under certain conditions, Christianity keeps coming back to its underlying foundation of pacifism. Saint Paul captured this tension perfectly in his letter to the Romans: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (12:18).
These issues of war and peace are not just puzzles of Christian theology, the people of God in the Old Testament also had a long history of struggle with this challenge. So before we get to our sermon text in Esther chapter 9, I want to take you on a brief tour through the Torah – the law and teaching of the Mosaic Covenant which governed the people of God through ‘till Christ’s day.
There is no one single passage in the books of Moses that sets out all the rules for warfare in ancient Israel. Deuteronomy chapter 20 is one of the foundational chapters, but there is information scattered throughout the books of Moses on the subject. Two types of wars can be gleaned from these laws. One is a regular war of defense: God’s people had many enemies and frequently had to defend themselves from invasion. In that sort of war the leaders could draft up an army, the soldiers could be paid, and plundering the enemy encampments or towns was permitted.
The second type of war could be called a Holy War. This was much more restricted in how it was to be carried out:
- All the soldiers were to be volunteers, nobody could be drafted.
- The soldiers were not to be paid; the reward was in the victory itself.
- Even further, no plunder could be taken; everything belonged to God.
- Holy War was only for the conquest or re-conquest of the promised land. No conquest beyond the God-given borders was permitted.
- Holy War could only be waged at God’s direct call.
- Furthermore, it took a Prophet to announce God’s call to war.
- The battle belongs to the Lord. Ideally this meant that the size of the Israelite army didn’t matter, and casualties would only happen if they somehow broke God’s laws in the course of the war.
- Because Holy War was a religious undertaking, prayer and fasting accompanied the battle preparations.
- The enemy was to be totally annihilated. The Promised Land was promised for the people of God, so all the peoples who rejected God were to be removed.
- If any Israelites broke these rules, they became enemies of God worthy of destruction also.
- Exceptions could be made, such as if a people marked for destruction agreed to convert to faith in the true God.
Most examples of Holy War in the Old Testament are found in the books of Joshua, Judges, and Samuel. There you can find examples of when things went well (especially under Joshua’s leadership) and lots of examples of when things didn’t go well. Earlier in this series through the book of Esther I mentioned that Mordecai is a descendant of King Saul of Israel, and that Saul had failed to comply with the Holy War laws of total destruction. By letting one of the enemy kings live, he not only disobeyed God’s laws in subduing the promised land, but also left a family of hostile people who continued their hatred of God’s people which eventually produced Haman, who very nearly wiped out the Jews in return!
Esther’s Holy War
Now, all this talk of Holy War provides us an important backdrop for understanding what’s going on in the first half of Esther chapter 9. As with many stories in the Bible, there are both good examples and bad examples of faithfulness to God’s laws in this story. When Mordecai and Esther wrote up the edict empowering the Jews to wipe out their enemies within the Persian Empire, they both imitated Haman’s edict against them and made subtle reference to a call to Holy War. The goal was good: peace and rest for God’s people. The defensive or retaliatory aspect of the edict was also good, even though it wasn’t specifically about defending the promised land itself. But they made a mistake in authorizing the plundering of their enemies’ goods.
These first sixteen verses of chapter 9 tell the story of how this all worked out when the day of the edict arrived. 500 men were killed in Susa, women and children seemed to have been spared. Haman’s ten sons are specifically pointed out to have been killed. You may recall early in this book there were other lists of names – like the seven eunuchs working for the King – which were written to sound comical and make the kids laugh as they listen to this story being told. But this list of Haman’s ten sons is put together with formal grammar: it’s a solemn list declaring victory. We’re not laughing at this part of the story, we’re listening in relief that such wicked enemies were wiped out before they had a chance to wipe us out instead! It’s also emphatically repeated three times in this passage that the Jews took no plunder. The edict permitted them to do so, but they took the moral high ground, applied the Holy War rules to this fight, and left the wealth and possessions of their enemies alone. This was not a fight for personal gain, but a fulfillment of God’s divine justice. The reward was not to be in money, but in the bare fact of their own survival.
As with many of the numbers in the book of Esther, the 500 killed in Susa on the first day, and the 300 on the second day may be rounded or exaggerated numbers. This is especially true in the last verse when it gives the death toll from the provinces of the Empire. The Hebrew version of this story says 75,000 died; the Greek version of the story says 15,000 died. The enormous difference in reporting suggests that the accurate headcount is long forgotten. And besides, the point of the story isn’t the exact death toll, but the reality of God’s judgment being carried out powerfully and effectively.
Listening to this story and its bloody end, the storyteller directs our attention to the fact that God’s people enjoyed “relief from their enemies” as a result. This, like most Old Testament war stories, gives us an imperfect temporal picture of the perfect eventual divine judgment on the Last Day. Some of Jesus’ last teachings deal with judgment at his return. The book of Revelation also contains a number of pictures of Christ as conquering King and Judge. A number of the songs we’re singing this morning make reference to role of Christ as King and Judge; keep in mind as we sing them that even though stories like these in Esther aren’t perfect in how justice is meted out, God’s justice will be perfect in its accuracy and accomplishment on the Last Day.
War & Peace Today
The challenge now, of course, is to work out how we receive such teachings in our own lives. None of us in this congregation are political leaders (and I would be very surprised if a high-up government official is reading this blog), so the question of when and how and if to wage war is kind of moot; none of us have to make those decisions. We are all affected by such decisions, of course, and a number of you have served this country in a military fashion, and are thus aware of how real and perhaps how difficult the ethical questions can get surrounding war, just war, peace, and forgiveness.
Perhaps I should return us briefly to Deuteronomy chapter 20. Verse 10 there reads “When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it.” Even in the Old Testament, then, which is often characterized as being overly violent, we find a high place for mercy and love. So, please, when you think of the Old Testament Law, don’t think about doom and gloom, judgment and death, as the prevailing themes. Some people say the God of the Old Testament is capricious, jealous, nasty, and violent, while the God of the New Testament is loving, merciful, kind, and forgiving. That is a myth and a heresy, and has absolutely no place in the teaching of the Church. God is a God of grace, and always has been! When you hear the words of Jesus about the Summary of the Law – that it’s all about loving God and neighbor – that is not a New Testament innovation, that is the summary of the law, the Old Testament. When Jesus makes this statement, the scribe agreed with him; love has always been the center of the Law, even before Christ. We would do well to remember that lesson not only as we learn to understand the Bible better, but in our own dealings with those we would consider enemies: the goal of love and peace is never to be absent from war and conflict.
Similarly, war and conflict is not to be engaged in a spirit of anger. It is all too easy to say “those barbarians in ISIS have gone too far, I can never forgive them no matter what!” Even in political conflict, I have witnessed many people, including Christians, who are allowing anger to rule their thinking and decision-making. To this, Jesus has a sharp rebuke: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21-22). I have seen people called out for their anger, only to justify their anger with accusations like “they provoked it” or “I wouldn’t be so angry if they weren’t so stupid!” As if such rationalizations don’t already condemn themselves, Jesus has more hard words for people with such attitudes: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matthew 5:38-42). Is there a point when violent retaliation is justified? Maybe, that is a subject of debate among Christians to this day. Certainly while we are filled with anger we must not attempt retaliation. As the Psalmist said, “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil” (37:8).
“But what about righteous anger?” one might ask. There is indeed such a thing. The wrath of God is a frequent theme in the Bible, including the New Testament. It is not an arbitrary wrath; God does not have feelings like we do. God is perfect – what some theologians call “passionless.” He is not moved by emotions, but by truth. He doesn’t feel love so much as He is love. Same with wrath; He doesn’t feel wrath so much as He executes wrath. When you look at the appearance of the concept of God’s wrath in the Bible, you’ll find that it is tied to judgment – John the Baptist warned people to “flee from the wrath to come” (Matthew 3:7 & Luke 3:7). God’s wrath is his divine judgment against sin. Although we, as Christians, are taught to discern what sin is, it never becomes our job to decide who gets forgiven and who remains damned. St. James, the ever-wise epistle-writer, said “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (1:19-20).
Thus when we try to understand a godly purpose for violence, we find that there is an enormous pile of challenges to overcome: we have to get past our anger, we have to have a clear sense of right and wrong, we have to see if the wrongdoers might repent, we have to discern God’s will for each situation. Some Christians look at this and declare it an insurmountable challenge, swearing off all forms of violence and adopting a philosophy of extreme pacifism. Others take these challenges in stride and pridefully assume that they’re wiser than they think and thus engage in violence and war quickly and lightly. But most of us – or at least I hope it’s most of us – recognize the difficulties and take care to strike the balance. When should we take the sword and when we should we take the bullet?
Striking the Balance
After all, one of the most unique things about Christianity compared to other religions and philosophies is the dignity of suffering. Daniel’s three friends were thrown into the fiery furnace praising God in song. The Apostles rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for the name of Christ, and St. Peter went on to write “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” (1 Peter 3:14-16). And Jesus himself said “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12).
So as we think on the story in Esther 9, hearing of the deaths of the enemies of God’s people, we should both cheer and shudder. We cheer at a victory of God’s justice, the deliverance of God’s people from genocide, and the reminder of the ultimate happy ending in the future. And we shudder at the hard reality that lives were lost, families broken, and that we still see such deaths happening today in Syria, in Sudan, in Nigeria, in Tulsa. Perhaps the only way we can deal with such stories of war and killings, whether we think them justified or unjustified, is to subject them to the Gospel – the much-needed Good News in this world of bad news.
“Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:20-26).