[first published in the monthly congregational Notes, for February, 2017.]
I have been somewhat surprised at the sudden energy devoted to American politics in the Christian blog-o-sphere and on social media, even from within Australia. In some comments Trump seems the epitome of evil and [amazingly] Mrs Clinton the personification of virtue and dignity!! Yes, Trump can present as coarse and megalomaniacal but the danger is that our culture has deceived us into thinking that sin is worse when it is crude or impolite! Sinful people will do sinful things (despite Trump saying he has no need to ask forgiveness!) but we must not forget that “suave” sins are no less heinous and some-times even more so than those which are “in your face”. All sins, even those we consider polite and understandable, are “in the face” of God.
Ahasuerus (Esther 1:1) or Xerxes I as he is known in secular history, was a powerful and sometimes irrational Persian king whose empire reached from the Indus to Turkey to Sudan. As Cyrus’ grandson, he loved to show off and the book opens with a 6-month public show of wealth and power in the third year of his reign (1:3-4). He loved pretty women and enjoyed putting them on display in ‘beauty pageants’! An impulsive decree for such an event probably resulted in him losing his wife, but it was also how he thought he would find a new one (1:10-2:4)! Despite his bravado, he was an easy mark for an adviser who insinuated himself into a place of influence for a private vendetta and profit (3:1-15 & ff). Such leaders can do irrational things if they believe their own propaganda and according to the historian Herodutus, Xerxes once had the sea punished with 300 lashes for a storm which destroyed a bridge for his army!
Religiously, Xerxes was probably Zoroastrian, but apart from claiming to believe that there was a Good Being, Ahuru-Mazda, who opposed the Evil Ahriman, his ‘faith’ was most likely grounded in the well-being of his empire; Israel’s God was just another way of describing his own, so worshippers of Jehovah were free so long as they did not rebel. He was a “strong-man” and anyone opposed to him should know there would be no mercy (2:21-23). By any measure, Xerxes was not a godly man and every Israelite would know he had seriously transgressed the Laws of God. Yet, strong as he was, he too died and God’s purpose prevailed despite his sin.
God was teaching Israel that He was over all nations, so they should not fear. God’s way with dictators can be a puzzle but He never forgets his elect. He had overwhelmed Pharaoh. The proud and idolatrous Nebuchadnezzar had been humbled and brought to faith (Dan 4:34ff) yet his grandson Belshazzar was godless and blasphemous! Babylon fell. The Persian Cyrus, (another Zoroastrian?) funded the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem and then Xerxes was tricked, almost, into destroying Israel! After Persia? Daniel said Greek then Roman dictators!
God had also told Israel that there was nothing strange about their exile; it was a result of their past sinful neglect of holiness. Yet He had also graciously given them a missionary calling to pray for the their new land and leaders, Seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace (Jer 29:7). This call to prayer was the same as that given to the early church as they declared the gospel in an empire ruled by despotic, megalomaniacal Caesars [1 Pet 2:17, Rom 13:1]. They had no vote and no power other than the witness of their life, times of public instruction in Sunday worship and the occasional public lecture opening up the Scriptures, their prayers, AND the power of Christ with them through His Spirit. Their witness prevailed and Nero and other persecutors after him died. Nero could not Trump the Church either. There is a pattern here!
Yes, godless leaders will act godlessly and we must warn, protest, and even vote. But rather than ridicule, or lose sleep over things we cannot alter, we must be like Habakkuk and ask for a faith sufficient to see something of what the Lord may be doing (Hab 1:12-2:1). Then we watch and pray: for Trump’s genuine conversion and the Lord’s confounding of all wickedness.