This is the finale in the of the book of Esther and records the complete victory of Mordecai and the Jews over all their enemies. It describes the Jews defeating their enemies, and it also describes those in power assisting them.
Giving the Jews the authority to take up arms too defend themselves, and the events which transpired, is a very uncomfortable thing to read. That they defeated their enemies in battle and that they “struck down all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying them, and they did what they pleased to those who hated them.” (Esther 9:5), seems unnecessarily violent. We also read that it was reported to the king that in Susa 500 enemies were killed, and that the Jews in the provinces throughout the land killed 75,000 men as they fought to protect themselves.
Clearly the threat against the Jew was a violent one, they would have been fighting for their very lives, but as Christians, we have a real tension both theologically and emotionally between the apparent approval by God of violence and war in the Old Testament and the exhortations of the New Testament to live peacefully with people.
I believe that the teaching of the New Testament about conflict reveals the same God that the Old Testament records do, and I also believe that God doesn’t change, so even though we might perceive a tension between the Old and New Testaments, I believe that it must be possible to resolve this apparent conflict.
caveat: This morning’s message is a controversial one and has the potential to divide Christians. There are some who would hold that any violence at all is inappropriate for a follower of Jesus, they would hold to pacifism and all that means. Some who held this belief refused conscription in the last war and were prosecuted as conscientious objectors. Other Christians would completely disagree and hold up bearing of arms in conflict as a Christian virtue. They would say that owning a gun is perfectly appropriate and acceptable thing for a Christian to do (which although this is something we can’t do in the UK without a legitimate reason we shouldn’t ignore the issue).
I am going to try to tiptoe through this minefield. I am going to try to make some comments from the text which speak to this and then, if I have time, look more generally at what the Bible says about armed conflict.
I want to make a number of comments about these specific events, and then some more general comments about conflict and particularly about armed conflict.
The first thing I noticed as I read through the passage was the presence of fear. The people were afraid of the Jews and of Mordecai after the edict is read out. It affected how people responded.
- Esther 8:17 many people of other nationalities became Jews because fear of the Jews had seized them.
- Esther 9:2 No one could stand against them, because the people of all the other nationalities were afraid of them.
- Esther 9:3 all the nobles of the provinces, the satraps, the governors and the king’s administrators helped the Jews, because fear of Mordecai had seized them.
Interestingly, however, in this narrative, the fear we read about was a level of protection for the Jews. It drove some to become Jews, it drove others to help them. However, it wasn’t complete protection as we see the Jews still had to fight and they killed many thousands of enemies as they did so.
Fear is something which pervades our society at the moment, not just with Covid. There is a great deal of fear aound us, the fear that many people have around Covid is driving all sorts of irrational decisions right up to government level, and there is a great deal of conflict I see about the measures the Government (and the devolved governments) is imposing on people. Many of them are influenced by fear, and certainly the compliance of people is. There is also a general fear in people of saying or doing something which will fall foul of the “wokerati” and result in being criticised and more, so there are a great many of people who self-censor as a result.
Fear is often a motivator for hate and conflict, this is true in my experience. People who are frightened are often far more aggressive than those who are not. In fact I’d go so far as to say aggression is frequently an indication of fear. This may well explain mush of the aggression we see displayed during interviews and discussions on the broadcast media.
Fear has driven people to do all sorts of things over the years, and fear is something which we have to fight regularly. The disciples were frightened, they ran away when Jesus was arrested and they hid in the upper room for fear of the authorities, believing Jewish priests hid their faith for fear of their contemporaries, and Jesus is careful to remind the disciples that the thing to fear is not the humans around us, He says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28).
Fear can drive us to all sorts of actions and reactions, and if nothing else this morning we must understand that it is never a motivation to enter into conflict – or, indeed, to avoid it. I grew up with the understanding that bravery and courage is NOT an absence of fear (that’s stupidity!), bravery and courage is the capacity to overcome fear and do (or say) what is right despite the fear we may have.
There are some accounts of wars being waged in order to gain land or territory, but here in the land, the law made was specific. As we read last week it “granted the Jews in every city the right to assemble and protect themselves; to destroy, kill and annihilate the armed men of any nationality or province who might attack them and their women and children, and to plunder the property of their enemies.” (Esther 8:11).
The restriction to gather and fight is specifically a law written to give the Jews permission to defend themselves against “the armed men of any nationality or province who might attack them, their women and children”. This means that there is not carte-blanche to indiscriminately wage war against anyone they disagree with. It does, however extend to protecting one’s family, not only from physical attack itself, but from the threat of physical attack.
The writer of Esther is very clear that the Jews did assemble, but that their focus was only those who were determined to destroy them. That was the meat of the edict, which I’ve just read, and the narrative says that
Esther 9:2 “The Jews assembled in their cities in all the provinces of King Xerxes to attack those determined to destroy them.”
Esther 9:5 “The Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying them, and they did what they pleased to those who hated them.
Esther 9:16 “Meanwhile, the remainder of the Jews who were in the king’s provinces also assembled to protect themselves and get relief from their enemies.”
In fact when we read the account we notice that although the Jews had the authority to pre-emptively take action, they did not do so.
I wanted to make a note about the issue of plunder. Frequently when nations are at war against one another, the victorious army will not only kill the enemy, but it will also plunder its assets. This is common and it is not just an ancient custom. We have records of the Nazis doing exactly that during the Second World War.
However, the Jews on this occasion did not take plunder.
- Esther 9:5–10 “The Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying them, and they did what they pleased to those who hated them … But they did not lay their hands on the plunder.”
- Esther 9:15 “The Jews in Susa came together on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar, and they put to death in Susa three hundred men, but they did not lay their hands on the plunder.”
- Esther 9:16 “Meanwhile, the remainder of the Jews who were in the king’s provinces also assembled to protect themselves and get relief from their enemies. They killed seventy-five thousand of them but did not lay their hands on the plunder.”
“In fact, not only did the Jews NOT take plunder we actually read that in their celebrations they gave presents to each other, “That is why rural Jews—those living in villages—observe the fourteenth of the month of Adar as a day of joy and feasting, a day for giving presents to each other.” (Esther 9:19). and the feast that was established to commemorate the events, Purim, is one where Mordecai wrote to the all the Jews “He wrote them to observe the days as days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor.” (Esther 9:22 )
Taking plunder is about gaining stuff, not giving it away!
Restraint is important in any conflict, whether it is some form of physical conflict or otherwise, so often when people win through, they go too far. Revenge or retribution seems to be the order of the day. restraining yourself especially in victory after a conflict is something we should all do.
Restraint and self-control are almost interchangeable ideas. Self-control is something which we read is one of the fruits of the Spirit. So for example
- We are to control our tongues (James 3).
- We are to control our anger (James 1:19–20).
- We are to control our lifestyles (Titus 2:12 cf. Romans 6:14–20).
- We are to control our desire for revenge (Romans 12:19).
- We are to control our physical bodies (1 Corinthians 9:27).
I would suggest that self-control in conflict is one of the primary markers of Godliness, and in this instance one of the indications of the righteousness of the Jews.
What does the Bible say about war?
Back to what I was saying at the beginning, a superficial reading of the Scripture might lead us to believe that the Old Testament God is vindictive and war-like, whereas the New Testament God is a God of love and forgiveness.
I don’t believe God changes, so there must be a way to understand how God deals with his chosen people and the world around them which is consistent with the teaching of Jesus and the early church.
The teachings of Jesus to love your enemies and do good to those who hate you are always directed at individuals. In fact Jesus’ entire ministry was to people and not to nation states. Is this simply a matter of individual v collective?
He actually said “my kingdom is not of this world”, saying that if it was, soldiers would defend him using the techniques of the world: John 18:36 “Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.’” In Romans 12:18 Paul places a responsibility on us to live in peace with other people. There is a distinction between us and the world which impacts the way we fight war. This is expressly spelt out by Paul “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.” (2 Corinthians 10:3–4).
In other words, I believe that in personal conflicts, we have a responsibility to do everything we can to avoid conflict, and that the way we wage war as Christians is essentially not the way those in and of the world would do so. However, does this responsibility go beyond the personal to the collective? and do the methods we use change as well?
It seems to me that there is a tension between the peaceful nature of our faith, the “love your enemy, do good to those who hurt you” and the fact that often the only way to protect evil nations from harming innocent and good people is to wage war against them. I do not believe for example that the Nazis would have stopped their regime of terror and genocide against Jew, Gipsies, black people and anyone else who was not Aryan had we not gone to and won the second world war.
Biblically the Jews were called to go to war against evil nations BECAUSE of their evil, so for example we read 1 Samuel 15:18 which says “‘Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites; wage war against them until you have wiped them out.’” (Interestingly as I said a few weeks ago, Haman likely descended from the Amalekite king).
War is mentioned in the New Testament, it is one of the marks of the second coming of Jesus for example, Revelation 19:11–21 describes a war with Christ, v11 says “with justice he judges and wages war”, and describes in quite graphic what it will be like. It’s going to be bloody (v. 13) and gory. The birds will eat the flesh of all those who oppose Him (v. 17–18). He has no compassion upon His enemies, whom He will conquer completely and consign to a “fiery lake of burning sulphur” (v. 20).
Jesus predicted war, He predicted that it would come as a result of our faith clashing with the culture of the world around us. He said in Matthew 10:34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” and He went on to describe what that would look like. The war between the things of God and the things of the world would even reach into our families. Romans 3:10–18 reminds us of the evil all around us:
As it is written:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
“Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery mark their ways,
and the way of peace they do not know.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
In a world filled with people who are driven by sin, hatred, and evil, war is inevitable. Sometimes it is necessary to prevent evil from prevailing, and sometimes the only way to do that is through war. Think of the quote attributed to Edmund Burke “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
War is a terrible thing. Some wars may be more “just” than others, but war is always the result of sin, and so very often comes from within us (“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” James 4:1). Ecclesiastes 3:8 says, “There is a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.”
I have no intention of telling anyone which side of this discussion you should fall into, I would merely say that whether you oppose or accept that Christians should be involved in war, you should be able to articulate your own position and understand the reasoning of those you disagree with. In addition, I think it vitally important we don’t summarily dismiss someone holding an opposing opinion simply because we don’t like it.
Let’s remember that treating people with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15), is something we should all do to everyone, not just unbelievers!