Obedience

While the Jews were in captivity in Babylon, they were expected to conform to the laws and customs of the kingdom in which they lived. The book of Daniel records two incidents where disobedience was punished by death. The first was Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego who were thrown into a fiery furnace for not worshipping a golden image made by the king Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3:21) and the second was Daniel who was thrown into a lion’s den because he prayed to his God instead of King Darius (Daniel 6:16). When it was discovered that Esther’s uncle Mordecai would not bow or worship Haman the Agagite, it was not enough for him to just kill Mordecai, Haman decided to have all the Jews exterminated and he was able to obtain permission from the king Ahasuerus to do so (Esther 3:11).

Mordecai’s response to the king’s commandment showed that he was devastated by what was going to happen to God’s people (Esther 4:1) and so, he went to Queen Esther to ask for her help. Esther’s initial reaction indicated that she was more concerned about being killed for breaking the law than she was saving her people. Esther sent a message to Mordecai saying, “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 scepter, that he may live: but I have not been called to come into the king these thirty days” (Esther 4:11). The picture Esther painted of her husband, King Ahasuerus was a tyrant that would kill his own wife simply because she dared approach him without his permission. Esther may have been justified in her opinion of her husband, but it also revealed her attitude toward God. Esther didn’t believe God would deliver her, even though he had delivered Shadrach, Meshach, Abed-nego, and Daniel when they were going to be killed.

Esther’s insecurity may have been due to her awareness that she was out of the will of God. Although Esther didn’t choose to marry Ahasuerus, she was benefitting from her position as queen of Persia. Mordecai’s argument was that it might actually have been God’s will for her to marry Ahasuerus so that she could use her position to intervene with her husband on behalf of her people, the Jews. Mordecai told Esther, “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 knows that whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14). In other words, what Mordecai wanted Esther to know was that God would hold her accountable for her intention rather than her action with regards to her obedience to the Persian law. Mordecai believed God would save his people, including Esther, if she chose to put her trust in him instead of her husband, King Ahasuerus.

Before Esther went in to speak to her husband, she asked Mordecai to have all the Jews observe a fast on her behalf. Esther indicated that she and her servants would fast also. Esther most likely viewed this action as a way of purifying herself. Although the fast may have had some effect in the mind of Esther, it is unlikely God paid any more or less attention to what Esther was doing as a result of their fast. What was important to him was that Esther cared enough to risk her own life to stop what was going to happen to God’s people. It says in Esther 5:2, “And so it was, when the king saw Esther the queen standing in the court, that she obtained favour in his sight: and the king held out to Esther the golden scepter that was in his hand. So Esther drew near, and touched the top of the scepter.” This illustration of Ahasuerus’ mercy toward Esther was meant to display God’s pleasure with her self-sacrifice. Although it was true that the king could have killed Esther for her disobedience, God protected her because she was willing to risk her life to save his people.

True believers

Fasting and praying were common religious practices in the Israelite community that were associated with mourning and repentance. The first mention of these activities is in 2 Samuel 12:16 where it says that king David fasted and prayed because of his sick child. David wanted God to spare the child’s life, but his son died anyway.

Fasting was perceived to be a means of obtaining God’s mercy. As a form of spiritual intervention, it was effective in gaining God’s attention, although the desired result was not always obtained. Isaiah identified right and wrong types of fasting. One of the characteristics of the wrong type of fasting was an attitude of entitlement (Isaiah 58:3).

An indication that a person was fasting for the wrong reason was a desire for vengeance (Isaiah 58:4). The purpose of fasting was supposed to be to humble oneself before God (Isaiah 58:5). Speaking through Isaiah, the LORD declared, “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6).

Fasting was designed to be a tool to break free from spiritual bondage. Instead of focusing on their own spiritual condition, the Israelites had turned fasting into a speed dial to access God’s power. What God wanted was a sincere search for sin in one’s own life. His expectation was, “When thou see the naked that thou cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh” (Isaiah 58:7).

Evidence of genuine righteousness was important to God because he wanted his children to be an example for others. The LORD often referred to himself and his people as a light to the world. Regarding the practice of genuine righteousness, the LORD said, “then shall thy light break forth as the morning…then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noonday” (Isaiah 58:8,10).

Ultimately, God wanted his people to demonstrate the results of following his commands, but in the near term, the goal was to show the world that God’s promises were reliable. After the people of Judah were taken into captivity in Babylon, a remnant was to return and rebuild Jerusalem. The remnant was going to be a group of true believers that would pave the way for the birth of Israel’s Messiah.

During their time in Babylon, the Israelites would be tested to see who among God’s people were truly committed to him. Those who were merely religious would not survive. Isaiah said of these true believers:

And the LORD shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and  like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in. (Isaiah 58:11-12)