Suffering first, and then glory, mark the due path or history of the saint. This has been illustrated from old time. Joseph, Moses, and David may be remembered in connection with this truth. But it is the common history, in a great moral sense the necessary history, of those who adhere to God, in a system or world that has departed from Him, and set up its own thoughts. For such must ever be stemming a contrary current.
But there is more than this. The moment of deepest depression has commonly been the eve of deliverance.
In Egypt, the burthens of the Israelites had grown to their highest, just when the Lord was preparing Moses's deliverance for them. In the ministry of the Lord, just as He was bringing redemption, the devil would commonly throw his poor captive in the midst, or cause him to cry out under a still sorer affliction. Our own souls are led to Jesus and salvation by a light, which has discovered to us our full moral ruin and degradation; and in the latter day, when Israel's "strength is gone," and "there is none shut up or left," and the enemy is coming in like a flood, then the Spirit of the Lord will lift up His standard. "For the hour of preparation, for a better order of things," as has been said, "is not a time of favourable appearances, but the reverse."
All this, however, is happy and encouraging. The bud is bitter, the very moment before it opens to the scented flower. So that it is not only sufferings first, and then glory, but sufferings, commonly, in their sorest form, just before the glory and salvation break forth.
But there is a truth standing in company with this, yet, as I may say, over against it. I mean the pride first, and then the overthrow or judgment of the man of the world, and that too in the hour of his highest, loftiest arrogancy.
The builders of Babel were in one great confederacy, and the proud design which filled their heart, and which their hand was stretched out to accomplish, was nothing less than to raise a tower that was to reach to heaven. But in that hour of proudest daring the Lord comes down in judgment. (Gen. 11) Pharaoh had been raised to be the first man in the world, and in the thought of his greatness, and in the pride of his independency, had forgotten Joseph, and declared that he knew not the God of Israel But it was then that the vials of wrath from the Lord's hand began to be poured out upon him. (Ex. 5) Nebuchadnezzar walked in his palace, and admired his magnificence, and said, "Is not this great Babylon that I have built?" But the Lord was watching upon that evil, and while the word of pride and importance was in his mouth, he that exalted himself was abased. (Dan. 4) And Herod, after all this, was lauded as a god, and in a moment the judgment of God made a spectacle of him. (Acts 12 )
These were awful visitations in the hour of such prosperity and mighty pride of heart. And such things are foretold in prophecies, as well as illustrated in histories. The "Lucifer" of Isaiah, the "Prince of Tyrus" of Ezekiel, the "Man of sin" of St. Paul, and the "Beast" of the Apocalypse, are all prophetic of the doom of a proud one in the moment of loftiest presumption.
These serious and interesting truths - the exaltation of the righteous in the moment of deepest depression, and the abasement of the proud in the hour of their stoutest self-sufficiency - may easily connect themselves with our recollections of the book of Esther. It closes the volume of the historical books of the Old Testament, and it is of all parts of Scripture the most full and vivid expression of these two great principles; and thus, at the close of the histories, we get, in fit and beautiful season, the most complete illustration of the sweet springs of the whole movement.
In the catalogue of those proud ones, who meet their doom in their height of pride, I might have mentioned Haman, the Agagite. He was of the genuine seed of Amalek, with whom the Lord had a controversy for ever, and who of old defied the glory as it began to unfold its brightness in the gloomy desert, in the freshest moments of Israel's history. (Ex. 17) Prosperity had attended him in a remarkable manner. He had the ear, the hand, and the ring of his master, the Persian (the chiefest monarch upon earth) at his command. And his pride, because of all this, could brook no refusal - and if the servant of God will not worship, the whole nation of God's people must pay the penalty.
In the day of this Amalekite, Esther appears in the scene. She had been a poor captive from the land of Israel, and was now in the land of the Persian; not only, however, in the common sorrow and degradation of her people, but with a grief and affliction that were peculiarly her own. She was an orphan, and in every sense a destitute one, save in the kindness and care of her godly kinsman, Mordecai.
In process of time, without any effort or desire on her part, she becomes the favourite wife of the Persian king. Nay, not only without effort or desire, but after she had, like another Daniel, purposed, though in the court of the Gentile, to preserve her Nazaritism, or separation to God from the customs of the people. (Esther 2: 15.) She will be no debtor to man. She will not, as it were, take from the king of Sodom (Gen. 14) beyond the necessary things. It is the Lord, and not ornaments, which gives her favour in the eyes of all who behold her; the king himself is won, and the crown royal is put upon her head.
And yet she is simply the Jewish maiden still, and obedient to Mordecai, as in the day when she was brought up by him in his own house.
This was a happy beginning. She began with herself, with a full purpose to keep herself pure. And such will be found fit for the Master's use. (2 Tim. 2) Jerusalem might have boasted of such a daughter, though in the palace at Shushan. She might have stood a witness of the prophet's truth - "Her Nazarites were purer than snow, they were whiter than milk, they were more ruddy in body than rubies, their polishing was of sapphire." And when in further process of time she heard of the sorrows of her people, like another Moses, or Nehemiah, she forgets all that was her own - the ease and security and honours of the palace - and went forth to look only on their burthens.
This was going on happily. She who had kept herself from defilement was the one to throw herself amid the afflictions of others. She had watched against personal entanglements, and was thus free to serve. She was already girded, and waited only for a call. Right condition of every follower of Jesus. The only due and suited attitude of one called to the holy honour of serving in God's house. Esther, the queen, now carefully acquaints herself with the state of her people throughout the realm of the king's dominion, and casts herself at once under their burthens.
I have before hinted at the occasion of these burthens of Israel, and it is well known. The haughtiness of the great Agagite, who at this time had the Persian monarch at command, had not brooked the holy refusal of Mordecai, the Jew, to bow down to him; and he had prevailed so far as to get the whole nation of Israel (then scattered captives through the Persian provinces) under sentence of death, which was to be executed upon them on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month of that current year. Every Jew therefore, it may be said, carried the sentence of death in himself - a sentence, too, pronounced by a power which thought it scorn ever to change its decrees. (Chap. 1:19.)*
*Persian power affected two divine prerogatives - never to change its decrees - never to allow mourning in the royal presence.
We might say that this same nation has been, after this manner, wonderful from the beginning and hitherto. The burning unconsumed bush was their symbol of old, and is their symbol still. They were a people under sentence of death in Egypt, as much as afterwards in Persia; and have been of late centuries in Christendom, or all the world over. Did not Pharaoh utter another edict for their destruction? and was not God, who raiseth the dead, or who can dwell unharmed in a burning bush, or walk in a fiery furnace, their only helper? And have they not in the times of modern Europe been alike wonderful? This decree of the Persian was but the expression of the common history of this people, scattered and peeled, and meted out and trodden down, whose land all the rivers in their turn, in the pride of their overflowings, have spoiled.
And as to Mordecai, the distinguished and godly Israelite of his day, the present faithful and lovely branch of the tree of God's planting, he seems to have been a genuine son of Abraham. He believed in Him who could raise the dead. "Abide ye here with the ass," said the patriarch (Gen. 22) to his servants; "and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you" - though that lad was at that moment under sentence of death. And so Mordecai can surely count on deliverance coming, though the decree for destruction was speeding its way. (4:14.)
The present therefore was a moment of Israel's deepest depression. But the Lord, as we have been seeing, had an arrow hidden in His quiver, or the appointed, though as yet unnoticed, stone of help, amid the smoothing, polishing waters of the brook, soon to be ready for the sling. (1 Sam. 17:40.)
We have seen Esther beginning well, and going on well. She was in "the school of God." Communion was light and strength from the Lord Himself to her. She had strange and very blessed intimacy with Him. Not that I speak of visions, or audiences, or trances, or any thing of that nature; no, nothing of the kind. "In these days," I may say, "there was no open vision." But there was within her reach, what is within the reach of faith in every age, communion with God.
She could trust God, like another Shadrach. (Dan. 3.) If He pleased, she doubted not that He could deliver her; but whether He pleased it or not, she had but to do her duty. She could, and would, venture all in the cause of service to Christ. Her soul, like Shadrach and his dear companions, was prepared for any consequences. "If I perish, I perish," says she. Precious, beauteous workmanship of the hand of God! fashioned and graven indeed as both a lovely and serviceable vessel of His house.
But more than this. Esther may be observed to stand in very near fellowship with the mind of God. She seems as though she had observed the divine method with these proud adversaries; for she takes God's own way exactly with wicked Haman. She is not in haste. She lays her plans to let the heart of that Amalekite fill itself to the brim with pride, that he might fall, according to the divine way, in the moment of its most. towering presumption.
She has "the golden sceptre" on her side, and with it the king's promise to give her whatever she might ask, even to the half of his kingdom. But she is patient. She bids the king and Haman to her banquet of wine. They come; and again the half of the kingdom is put within her grasp. But she is still patient, and bids them a second time. Is this, I ask, mere patience? Is this mere calmness and self-possession, or nothing more (however excellent that would be) than the contradiction of the heat and impatience of the wicked? Is this merely virtue and a well-regulated heart, as opposed to the passionate way of an Herodias when in possession of the same offer? (Mark 6:23.) It may have been all this; but it was more. It was the way of one who knew and imitated God's way in like cases. The Lord in possession as He is of all power, is patient, and even for 400 years can bear with an Amorite, till the measure of his sin be filled up. (Gen. 15:13-16.) So here, the one who had learnt from Him, the one who had been in the school of communion, can, though in the possession of the resources of a kingdom, be patient also, and let the "man of the earth" go on to the full measure of his sin. She bids Haman and the king a second time to her banquet. And Haman that day went forth joyful, and with a glad heart. He called his wife and his friends, and rehearsed all his greatness and prosperity to them, telling them moreover, as the very climax of his haughty thoughts and self-complacency, how queen Esther had again invited him and the king alone to her banquet of wine on the morrow. This is much to be observed. I need not say how all this loftiness of man was brought down in a moment. The story is known well among us. The day of the Lord was signally upon it all
History has been said to be "the narrative of the prevalence, by turns, of the several counteractive powers that sway the world; and ordinarily it happens that at the very moment when a certain power, as with a flourish of trumpets, is proclaiming its triumph, it does in that blast of pride announce the appearance of its rival. Despotisms have on many signal occasions thus boasted, and thus fallen, in one and the same day." How true is this in God's histories, which a thoughtful, reflective mind thus discovers in the general course of the world's affairs! And how have we found it so in this history of Haman!
Nor need I say how Esther and Esther's people were delivered in the moment of deepest depression, and how the controversy between hope and fear ended in the most glorious and wonderful triumph of hope. The Jews had the sentence of death in themselves; but there is One who raiseth the dead, and turneth the shadow of death into the morning. "The Jews had light, and gladness, and joy, and honour. And in every province, and in every city, whithersoever the king's commandment and his decree came, the Jews had joy and gladness, a feast and a good day." (Esther 8:16, 17.) The month was turned to them from sorrow to joy, and from mourning into a good day. Esther was queen; and as for Mordecai, he was "next unto king Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews, and accepted of the multitude of his brethren, seeking the wealth of his people, and speaking peace to all his seed." (Esther 10:3.)
This I need not more exactly notice. But how profitable is it to watch the spirit and the path of this dear and honoured woman! Her care to preserve herself pure, her deep sympathies with her brethren, her trust in the Lord, with decision of soul to do His will at all hazard! How full and instructive an example does all this set before us. And yet circumstances, as we speak, were much opposed to her. She was, I may say, "of Caesar's household" - a condition in life which must have cost a true Israelite, a real decided Nazarite, much watchfulness of spirit and self-mortifying. But her walk with the Lord was so close and so genuine, that she appears to have reached some of the deepest secrets of His mind, acting on the great adversary, as I was noticing, precisely in God's own way, nay, in very near fellowship with Him; for we see that as soon as her plan had ripened the pride of the heart of Haman, that moment the Lord began to act upon him, and prepare the instruments of his destruction. For it was the very night which intervened between the two days of queen Esther's feasts that the Lord sent that dream into the heart of Ahasuerus, which leads to the humbling of the haughty Amalekite. (Esther 6)
Let none say, then, that their circumstances are against them. Hers were eminently so. But decision of heart and singleness of eye brought her that strength which is a match for all circumstances.
This was a time of crisis. There have been others like it in the progress of the government of the world - a time when the master of the house rose up to shut to the door, or to discern between the righteous and the wicked. And in this crisis, in the days of Haman and Esther, as I observed, the great principles of God were expressed with peculiar decision - the exaltation of the righteous in the moment of deepest depression, and the humbling of the mighty in the hour of their proudest thoughts - characteristics, as I have also said, which are given with striking and seasonable fitness to this little book, which closes the historical volume in the Old Testament.
But the subject addresses itself to us. There is to be another crisis in the earth's history, fearful and far extended beyond all. Every previous crisis will have been but a rehearsal and a shadow of it. Deep and deadly security; like that in which the generation of Noah was folded, who "knew not" in the midst of their marriage feasts, and buying and selling speculations, till the flood came, will be one feature of that day. Prosperity, and its companion pride, will give form to that day also. And, I ask, is not the mystery of such a day now working? Are not things taking a strong direction that way? If one may speak for another, the heart is conscious that the world is prospering. Are not the accommodations and embellishments of human life increasing to a wonder? Is not this generation very loudly congratulating itself on what it has attained, silently pitying those who spent their days before present advantages were known, and boasting in expectation of refining and multiplying the resources of every future hour?
I believe these things are so, and that the heart is conscious of it. The world is prospering; and we know not how soon it may be that if any one refuse to help forward the common self-satisfaction, he must be treated as a common enemy. And what a mistake we may judge it to be (as another has expressed it), to think "that the suavity, the tolerance, the blind indifference, and the enlightened liberality which now are the garb of the infidel spirit belong to it by nature, or would be retained a day after it had nothing to fear."
This is all solemn. The sentence of death has not gone out yet from the wounded pride of the Amalekite against the whole nation of the godly. No; it has not worked to that. The day will not come yet, but the mystery of it is abroad. The pride itself has begun to labour in the heart; the throes and energies of that passion, which is to be the parent of such a decree, may, even now, be moving secretly, and be felt, and welcomed, and nourished.
Where is strength to be gathered? If pride and intolerance be nourished in some hearts, is faith in ours? Esther may read us a lesson upon victory in an evil day. She stood in such a day, and stood more than conqueror. Before it came she had kept herself, and refused to defile her garments. She had been in "the school of God," and learnt the way of strength and victory there, in communion with Himself, when circumstances were all against her.
And let me add, that this communion is to be simple and affectionate, not such as will feed itself with high thoughts and strange thoughts, but such as will find Christ in the sureness and perfectness of His work for sinners the great thought, the precious thought, animating, the invigorating, though simple truth, that tells upon the heart with divine and wondrous virtue. There is danger (as another has warned us) of this ceasing to give character to an age like the present, where there is a vast and varied quantity of qualifications and arguments, rather then fervour and simplicity of spirit, where, as the natural result of intellectual and religious progress, "the glory of Christ, as Saviour of man, which should be always as the sun in the heavens, shines only with an astral lustre." But times of difficulty demand simple, nutritious, strengthening truth; "a different order of things around us would presently bring into play the more powerful elements of the moral life. Events may be imagined which would mar our levity, and break up the polished surface that reflects our case, and lead us home to the first principles of the gospel, and quite sicken our taste for everything but those principles; and it is under such an impression that the gospel (simple, plain truth of God's grace and salvation,) will assume its just dimensions in our sight, and the glad tidings of mercy be listened to with a new and genuine joy."
True, and also seasonable in this day of many a busy speculation, are these meditations. And most seasonable are the words of the blessed Lord Himself to His disciples, in the day that He began to talk to them of their coming troubles. "What is a man profited (said He to them) if he should gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange, for his soul?" (Matt. 16: 26.) Here is truth for the strengthening of the heart against the day of evil. For these words speak the excellency and the value of the glories which are to follow the day of evil. Our Lord uses the language of the merchant. He speaks of profit, and loss, and exchange. He contemplates a bargain, and for the comfort of the believer He decides that a bad bargain that man would make, who would take the whole world (supposing that he could get it) in exchange for a share in the glory that is to be revealed. He is not (though this is the general apprehension) in this passage so much settling the question of personal safety, as of profit and loss.
And we all know the power of bright and sure expectation, though they may be still distant. Man will toil through dangers, weariness, and mortification, to reach such. And the Lord here witnesses to us the sureness and the brightness of our expectations, affirming His word, shortly after, by unveiling for a moment, on the holy hill, the very region of these promised glories. And if we believe His competency to handle these weights and measures, and to try comparative value, and then if we believe His truth in giving in the result of such trial or the judgment, our hearts will be further fortified for "every trying hour."
Peter, as it were, unconsciously vindicated the Lord's verdict on the value of the glory when he said, "Lord, it is good for us to be here." Oh, can we look to Him, and say, "Thou shalt choose our inheritance for us."