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In Sackcloth And Ashes
When Mordecai perceived all that was done, Mordecai rent his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried with a loud and a bitter cry; and came even before the king’s gate: for none might enter into the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth. And in every province whithersoever the king’s commandment and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, and fasting, and weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes” (vers. 1-3).
In such solemn manner was the decree received by the condemned Jews. To Haman, and to the king, the slaughter of a nation for the gratification of a prince’s vanity might be a thing indifferent; but to the people thus devoted, it was the cause of heartrending scenes. They believed the word of Ahasuerus. The proclamation was sealed with the royal signet. They knew they were under sentence of death, and their hearts were filled with grief and anguish. In this, how like the condition of awakened sin- ners! All unsaved men are under a far worse condemnation than that which darkened the sky of every Jew in the Persian dominions. Yea, more: because “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” that condemnation is, unlike the present instance, an intrinsically righteous one. Every honest man must side with the dying robber on the cross, and confess, “We indeed justly!” “Death passed upon all men, because all have sinned.” Therefore “it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment.”
If this be really true, how is it that men and women in general are so indifferent to the solemn fact? Alas, alas! though God has given His Word, men will not believe it. Wherever that Word is believed the result is prostration of soul before the offended Majesty in the heavens, as in the case of the repentant publican, who cried from the depths of an anguished heart, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” It is because men do not believe God they can go on so carelessly with the dark clouds of doom gathering ever in greater density directly over their heads.
Is my reader one of this class? If so, I pray you, receive the testimony of God against yourself ere the judgment falls. You have grievously sinned, and righteously fallen under the ban of the Holy One. He has published broadcast the proclamation, “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them.” You have not so continued. Therefore you are under the curse! Do not, I beg of you, try to forget it. How foolish would it have been for the Jews in the days of Esther to have instituted a series of games and popular amusements in order to banish from their minds the awful fact that their death-warrant had been signed, and was about to be put into execution! In such manner did the citizens of infidel Paris act in the days of the plague. Dancing, reveling and debauchery held full sway. The gay carnival went on as though all was well; but it was only the effort of a terror-stricken people to forget the presence of the dreaded and insidious foe. Hundreds fell, stricken on the ball-room floor; hundreds more dropped, grotesquely masked, amid the gayety of the romping crowds upon the streets. The fun and the forced merriment did not stay the hand of the destroyer; the death-cart ever followed the carnival parade! And in some such foolish manner do men, over whose heads eternal judgment hangs, act every day. Oh, the folly of it! Better far to join with Mordecai and his weeping countrymen, and “wear the sackcloth and ashes of self-condemnation.
“No room for mirth or trifling here,
For worldly hope or worldly fear,
If life so soon is gone:
If now the Judge is at the door,
And all mankind must stand before
The inexorable Throne!”
“Because there is wrath, beware lest He take thee away with His stroke: then a great ransom cannot deliver thee” (Job 36:18).
There was no levity on the part of the wailing multitude in our chapter. They were in desperate earnestness. They wished to be delivered from the condemnation. Nothing else would satisfy them. Sackcloth and ashes speak of repentance and self-judgment. In this garb Mordecai and the Jews arrayed themselves.
“So Esther’s maids and her chamberlains came and told it her. Then was the queen exceedingly grieved; and she sent raiment to clothe Mordecai, and to take away his sackcloth from him: but he received it not” (ver. 4). How little Esther entered into the terrible circumstances! “A physician of no value,” she would fain strip her aged cousin of the coarse and ugly garb of repentance and robe him in some beautiful court attire, as though a change of clothing would assuage his grief. But are there not many who deal in a similar manner with troubled souls to-day? How common is the thought that outward reformation, a change of habits, will give peace to an anxious soul! O be persuaded, dear reader: no religious ceremonies; no ordinances, however scriptural in themselves; no turning-over of new leaves will ever give a sinner peace with God. Something more than an outward change is required. Mordecai might well have cried, Take away your beautiful garments! How can they give peace to a man under the death-sentence? Does one find delight in fine raiment on the gallows? It is deliverance from condemnation I want, not a mere change of attire. And for the sinner to-day there is no true deliverance until he sees the blessed truth that Another has borne the wrath, endured the condemnation, exhausted the judgment of God against his sin,-then, and then only, does he find rest and peace.
“Mordecai received it not;” so the queen, realizing at last that his must be a grief she has failed to fathom, sends Hatach the chamberlain to him, to learn the cause of his strange behavior. “So Hatach went forth to Mordecai unto the street of the city, which was before the king’s gate. And Mordecai told him of all that had happened unto him, and of the sum of money that Haman had promised to pay to the king’s treasuries for the Jews, to destroy them. Also he gave a copy of the writing of the decree that was given at Shushan to destroy them, to show it unto Esther, and to declare it unto her, and to charge her that she should go in unto the king, to make supplication unto him, and to make request before him for her people. And Hatach came and told Esther the words of Mordecai” (vers. 6-9).
Nothing but the knowledge that he and his people are freed from the ban will satisfy the man into whose soul the iron has so deeply entered. Esther is furnished with the evidence of the direful state of things, and doubtless well understands at last why Mordecai wept so bitterly, and why her fine raiment had no charm for him.
He would have her go in before the king and supplicate his favor for her afflicted people. She is, however, in a dilemma as to this, being herself, although a queen, subject to the iron-clad laws of Persian court etiquette. Doubtless genuinely distressed, but apparently helpless, she returns answer that “All the king’s servants, and the people of the king’s provinces, do know, that whosoever, whether man or woman, shall come unto the king into the inner court, who is not called, there is one law of his to put him to death, except such to whom the king shall hold out the golden sceptre, that he may live; but I have not been called to come in unto the king these thirty days. And they told to Mordecai Esther’s words” (vers. 11, 12).
It has evidently not dawned upon her that the king’s proclamation, unwittingly, had included herself. But so the word ran: “All Jews … both men and women.” She had kept her nationality a secret; therefore, unknown even to Haman, she had been included in the bloody edict so soon to take effect if a means of deliverance is not discovered. She therefore hesitates about risking her life, by going into the dread sovereign’s presence uncalled.
Mordecai replies with spirit: “Think not with thyself that thou shalt escape in the king’s house more than all the Jews.” Yet, such is his faith at this moment in the certainty of God’s counsels that he adds, “For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but thou and thy father’s house shall be destroyed: and who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
It is a stirring message, and one that has the desired effect upon the queen, for she rises in the greatness of utter self-abnegation and devotion; and, with the sentence of death now in herself, “Esther bade them return Mordecai this answer: Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day: I also and my maidens will fast likewise; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law: and if I perish, I perish” (vers. 15, 16).
A greater than Esther not only took His life in His hand, but gave that precious life in order to deliver all who would confide in Him from the curse of the law and the just judgment of an outraged God. But though Esther’s action gives us just the faintest hint of this, it is altogether admirable as showing on her part a growing moral elevation, hitherto unmanifested by her. That her confidence is in the unnamed One is clear, else why the summons to fasting in the city, and her own abstinence in the palace? It is here one is so struck by the absence of all reference to prayer, where one would naturally expect it. It is as though she has a sense in her soul of the unowned condition of herself and her people; so nothing is said about crying to the God of her fathers. Yet surely He heard the unuttered petition of the heart, and answered it, too, in His own way and time.
“So Mordecai went his way, and did according to all that Esther had commanded him.” The appeal is to be made to the One they dare not mention. The sequel will show how deep is His concern for the chosen nation.
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Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on Esther 4". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. https://studylight.org/
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