I used to work in an open plan office. Just over the five foot partition from me was Shirl – a Jewish cockney secretary who was doing her last stint prior to retirement. Shirl was larger than life, in the mornings she’d sing opera to us and at lunchtime she’d hold court with anyone who wanted to share a joke and a sandwich. The conversation at lunch was sometimes interesting, often crude and always loud. And I sat, separated from her by just 11/2 inches of carpeted hardboard, trying to get some work done.
Every now and then the conversation would turn to religion. Two of the regular crowd were occasional church goers, and they would often get stuck in some spurious debate about the why’s and wherefore’s of different church practices. Occasionally I would hear them trying to explain something of theology to each other.
Do you know how many ‘good reasons’ I came up with for not getting involved in those conversation? I held back because I was too new in the office; because I didn’t want to seem too serious when they were really just having a laugh; because I had too much work to do; because I was just plain embarrassed by the seriousness of my beliefs compared to their frivolity. However, after a while, the excuse became “Well, I can’t join in now, because they’ll wonder why I never said what I believed before.” How easy it is for us to get ourselves into a situation where we’ve kept our identity in Christ hidden from colleagues or friends for so long, that it would now be embarrassing to tell them what we really believe about life, death, them and ourselves.
One of the things I hear most frequently, when I talk to older people about their faith and its place at work, is the lament: “Oh I wish I’d spoken up for what I believed earlier!” or “I wish I’d done more for Christ earlier in my life.” You will never hear an older Christian reflect on their life and say “I wish I’d done less for Jesus.”
Anyway, now to Mordecai – one of the lesser known characters of the Old Testament, who appears in the book of Esther. Mordecai was not the sort of guy you’d instantly think of as hero material. He was a quiet ‘yes’ man who toed the company line and kept what faith he had very much to himself… well, that is, he kept it to himself up to a certain point, as we shall discover.
Mordecai lived in the city of Susa, the capital of the mighty Persian Empire, and he was in effect a civil servant to the emperor Xerxes. He waited day after day, along with other court officials, at the palace gates ready to act on any orders that issued forth from the court
Xerxes, who ruled from 486-465 BC, was the son of Darius, the king who had allowed the Jews to return from exile to get involved in the re-building of Jerusalem and the Temple. Elsewhere in the Bible, we read about the exploits of Nehemiah, Ezra and Zerubbabel who are ‘fired up’ about serving God in tough pioneering places, against violent opposition.
But not Mordecai. We’re never told why he had stayed in Susa, but the little we know about him seems to indicate that he just wasn’t the tough, independent, pioneering hero type. In chapter 2 we read that Mordecai is guardian to Esther, his orphaned niece, and takes this responsibility seriously. However, he hardly seems to let his Jewish identity influence his life or hers. Esther is effectively entered for a beauty contest, where each of the prettiest girls in the empire will have a one-night stand with Xerxes. One of the thousand entrants to this beauty pageant will become queen, while the rest get consigned to the king’s private harem. Mordecai does nothing to oppose the emperor’s plans with regard to Esther, despite the fact that almost every aspect of the process is completely opposed to the Jewish law. In fact, he tells Esther to keep her Jewish identity hidden, seemingly for fear that it will count against her (and against him).
At a time when all the major Jewish activity was going on elsewhere, Mordecai stands out as remarkably ordinary, someone who just doesn’t want to rock the boat, someone whose equilibrium was just how they liked it. Maybe it was still tough to be identified with the Jewish believers, maybe Mordecai thought his Jewishness would prejudice either himself or Esther, we don’t know. All we know is that at a crucial time when we might have expected a hero of God’s people to act in opposing a pagan king, Mordecai is silent.
Despite his apparent weakness, we get a picture of a man who is unswervingly loyal to Esther, he paces up and down outside the palace to see what happens to her. And, at the end of chapter 2, he uncovers an assassination plot on Xerxes, possibly because it might also have threatened Esther’s life.
Then in chapter 3 something strange happens to Mordecai. A man called Haman is promoted by Xerxes to the position of number two in the empire, and a command is given that everyone in the land should bow down to Haman. Mordecai, the man who may well be afraid revealing that he’s a Jew suddenly becomes defiant, he disobeys the king’s direct command and refuses to bow down to Haman. What prompts this apparent change in behaviour?
The only reason given to suggest why Mordecai has turned defiant is that he’s a Jew (v4). We’re not told if Mordecai’s action is prompted by a new devotion to God, or because of his fundamental dislike of Haman. But, it may be that for the first time in his life his belief in God becomes really significant.
To get nearer to understanding what’s going on, we have to go back in history. Chapter 3 v1 which introduces Haman, describes him as an Agagite. This links Haman back to a tribe known as the Amalekites, who appear in Exodus 17 as the first real enemies of Israel. When Israel are trekking from Sinai towards the promised land, this race – the Amalekites – tries to stop them. After the ensuing battle, God vows that he will make war the Amalekites from generation to generation, as punishment for their opposition of His plans.
The annihilation of the Amalekites didn’t happen then, and the story of their destiny is resumed in 1 Samuel 15, when Israel’s new king, Saul, is sent to fight the Amalekites with strict instructions from God to kill every last one of them. Saul disobeys God and spares the Amalekite king Agag. The book of Esther here links Haman back to Agag, and classifies him as an enemy of the Jews (v10). Similarly, if we look to the little biographical comment about Mordecai (Ch2 v5) we can see that he is in fact from the same tribe and clan as King Saul.
So this narrative links back to the history of God’s dealings with his people Israel in around 1280BC. Now Mordecai, in around 470 BC has found himself under orders to bow down to a person who represents the life-long enemies of the Jewish people. No wonder he can’t bow down to him! In terms of Biblical history then we can see that Mordecai’s defiance is part of the age old conflict between God and those who oppose Him, or those who would rather do things their way than his way.
So Mordecai makes his heroic stand in the face of God’s enemy, and that should have been the upbeat end to the story. Mordecai may have thought he’d done his little bit of defiance in God’s name, but God had plans to use this conflict in a far more dramatic and significant manner.
When Haman discovered why Mordecai was being defiant, he tricked the king into letting him kill every Jew in the Persian empire. At the time there probably weren’t any Jews living outside the empire, so Mordecai’s big gesture looks now to have turned into a big disaster. Haman, saw the opportunity to turn the tables on God’s people, by destroying the whole race. But, Haman hadn’t counted on the Lord being real, and the only true God, even though his family say he will never prevail against one of God’s people (ch6v13).
The tables are in fact turned promptly back onto Haman: Mordecai is promoted to number two in the Empire; Haman is hanged on the gallows that he had built for Mordecai; and the Jews are given licence by the king to kill all those in the empire who would otherwise be killing them!
Mordecai kept his faith to himself for a long time, not daring to go against the flow of the world around him. In many respects he reminds me of the times when I have thought it is just so much easier not to stand up for Christ in public or where I work. Yet, in Mordecai’s story there is great hope for those of us who are sometimes cowardly about our faith. Mordecai eventually recognised the need to make a stand as one of God’s people. Despite the immediate repercussions, God was able to use the situation created through Mordecai’s faithfulness to bring great glory to Himself.
I know that I could easily have stood up to be counted as a follower of the Lord Jesus on many occasions such as the one I outlined at the beginning. Only my fear of upsetting the status quo has held me back. Mordecai’s account encourages me to see that even if I have held back in the past it is never too late to stand up
God will use us for His purposes wherever we are, if we’re prepared to stand up for what we believe in Him. What is more, its never too late!
It doesn’t matter really what work we’re doing or where we’re doing it, it presents us with an opportunity to seek God’s glory, and to make Him known to others.
All the action was not back at the front line in Jerusalem, Haman was a hater of God’s people, and could have tried his genocide even if Mordecai hadn’t refused to bow before him. We can so often envy those who seem to be ‘more involved’ in Christian work, and this can cause us to resent where we are now. But Mordecai was in fact more use to God where he was, up to his eyeballs in the secular world of Susa.
The Lord is Sovereign. This should come as no great surprise to us, but the opposition for Mordecai in Susa must have looked far worse than it ever looks for us. Whatever reasons we give ourselves for not speaking up for our belief in the Lord God Almighty they are never good reasons.
Be aware, all may not go well if we start standing up for our beliefs. For Mordecai it got a lot worse before it got better.