Light and Life | September/October 2008
By Alan Dowd
Long ago, the land of Persia was nearly hijacked by a madman with plans to destroy all Jews. But those plans were foiled by a most unlikely dynamic duo: a godly man named Mordecai, who sounded the alarm, and a hero-in-the-making named Esther, who found her purpose in the world only after facing her fears.
Today, the country the bible calls Persia is governed by another madman. His name is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He declares “Israel must be wiped off the map,” hosts conferences denying what may one day be known as the first holocaust, and boasts about a nuclear program deemed illegal by the international community—a program he promises to use only for “the development of Iran and expansion of peace.”
Amid the wars and rumors of war, the Book of Esther offers a parable for our time.
A Hero in Sackcloth
Mordecai, who took responsibility for his younger cousin Esther upon her parents’ death, was clearly a man of duty. He was morally centered and faithful to God—and stubborn when it came to right and wrong. In fact, it was Mordecai’s goodness and stubbornness that caused the drama described in Esther to unfold.
After Esther became queen of Persia, Mordecai visited the royal courtyards daily to make sure she was alright. During one of the visits, he overheard a plot to assassinate the king and dutifully reported it to Queen Esther.
During another visit to the gates outside the king’s courtyard, Mordecai refused to bow before a powerful royal official named Haman. “When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor, he was enraged”—so enraged that he resolved “to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom.” Haman convinced the oblivious King Xerxes to send couriers across the country “with the order to destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews.”
In response, Mordecai traded his garments for sackcloth, began to intercede for his people and told Esther of Haman’s terrible plans. But Esther initially balked, explaining that “for any man or woman who approaches the inner court without being summoned, the king has but one law: that he or she be put to death.”
Undeterred by Esther’s rationalization, Mordecai answered his wavering cousin with reason and passion. Reminding her that she would not escape Haman’s sword and that she had a special duty because of her special place, he finally convinced her to act with words that still pierce our hearts: “Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?”
With that, she asked Mordecai to gather God’s people to fast on her behalf. “I will go to the king,” she vowed. “If I perish, I perish.”
When Esther spoke to the king, her words were plain and pointed. “The adversary and enemy is this vile Haman,” she explained, confronting her enemy face to face. “Spare my people,” she demanded, revealing her Jewish ancestry. “For I and my people have been sold for destruction and slaughter and annihilation.”
Awakened to Haman’s motives and plans, Xerxes repealed Haman’s mass-murder sentence and issued a new edict granting Jews “the right to assemble and protect themselves.”
Others have noted that God is not mentioned anywhere in the Book of Esther, yet He is everywhere in the story—in Esther’s improbable rise, Mordecai’s words, Xerxes’ sleepless night, the peoples’ prayers, Haman’s undoing. That gives me a strange sense of peace as I absorb the daily dose of bad news from Iran.
The Book of Esther reminds us that even when God seems distant, He is still interested in the world He created. And what interests Him should interest us.
Like Mordecai, we should be aware of what’s happening around us.
For instance, we should know the truth about Iran’s energy needs. Ahmadinejad has enough oil to power his country for 256 years. In other words, Iran doesn’t need nuclear power.
We should know that Iran has called for the destruction of Israel for decades. But since Iran has never possessed the one weapon that has the capacity to erase an entire nation, the threat was just a nightmare. But soon, the nightmare could come to life: Much was made of a U.S. intelligence assessment in late 2007 that Iran had “halted” its efforts to build a nuclear bomb, but that very assessment concluded that “Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons if a decision is made to do so.”
Once he acquires such weapons, is it hard to imagine a nuclear-armed Ahmadinejad giving Israel an ultimatum between a latter-day holocaust and a latter-day Diaspora?
Yet that’s not the only nightmare scenario. Launching a war against Iran to deprive it of nuclear weapons could create a nightmare all its own.
- Tehran could use its existing arsenal to strike its neighbors, Israel and even Europe.
- Tehran has already shown its capacity to wreak havoc in Iraq. But as former Iranian leader Hashemi Rafsanjani warns, “If Iran wanted, it could make their problems even worse.”
- Iran could block oil shipments transiting the Persian Gulf.
- And the fact that Iranian-backed Hezbollah has more agents in the U.S. than al Qaeda did before 9/11 should give us pause.
The good news is that there are options other than war. But the success of these options depends on Europe and Japan taking a risk, as Esther finally did, which may depend on the U.S. shaming them into action, as Mordecai ultimately did.
Japan and Europe account for one-third of Iran’s imports and 45 percent of its exports, which means they can shut off Iran’s existing trade channels. The U.S. can offer no such disincentive to Ahmadinejad and his puppet masters. But America represents the threat of something worse—the loss of their regime.
Working together, like good cop and bad cop, the Americans, Japanese and Europeans have the leverage to force Ahmadinejad to back down, which could avert a regional war. But don’t take my word for it. As French President Nicolas Sarkozy observes, if peace-loving countries don’t close ranks, the consequence will be “an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran.” His foreign minister adds, “It is necessary to prepare for the worst. The worst is war.”
In other words, being prepared to use force against the modern-day Haman in Iran may paradoxically help prevent war, just as leaving the impression that there is disunity among peace-loving nations may make war inevitable.
Many obstacles to a peaceful resolution to this crisis remain:
- Russia, which has supplied Iran with components for its nuclear program, seems intent on blocking any undertaking at the United Nations.
- The head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog agency seems resigned to Iran going nuclear.
- European nations have talked tough but repeatedly backed away from doing more than issuing warnings.
This is where you and I can help. “The real business of your life as a saved soul,” as Oswald Chambers wrote a century ago, “is intercessory prayer.”
We have a responsibility to intercede in prayer for our leaders, our world, and our enemies—to ask God to get us through this looming storm or steer us around it.
Mordecai was an intercessor. He followed the example of Samuel, who “cried out to the Lord on Israel’s behalf,” and of the psalmist, who beseeched God to “bring to an end the violence of the wicked and make the righteous secure.”
In the same way, we can ask the Lord to transform or overcome our enemies, to protect our fragile world, to guide our leaders.
Don’t misconstrue this as an argument that we should ask God to approve America’s foreign policy. Our posture should be like Lincoln’s during the Civil War. “My concern,” he explained, “is not whether God is on our side, but whether we are on God’s side.”
The Bible reminds us that God moves and sometimes doesn’t move in mysterious ways.
Joseph went through hell before he became a prince. The Israelites were enslaved for 400 years before God freed them. Jesus escaped Herod’s mini-holocaust, yet hundreds of other baby boys did not. The early Church waited expectantly for the Lord to return and rescue them from Roman persecution. Six million children of Israel were erased before the Allies destroyed Hitler’s murder machine.
We must remember that we live on the far fringes of understanding the One who created us. “As the heavens are higher than the earth,” He reminded Isaiah, “so are my ways higher than your ways.”
That didn’t stop Mordecai from turning to God. His intercession and God’s intervention changed Esther’s mind and saved countless innocents. Mordecai had the faith to believe that deliverance would come, with or without Esther’s help. And Esther had the courage to do what was right, no matter the consequences.
We should learn from them.