I can’t tell you how difficult I have found the doctrine of hell to accept. I doubt I am the only Christian who feels this way. A friend of mine packed in his faith after someone he knew died without trusting Jesus. It can be very difficult to understand how the Jesus of love will come back one day and condemn all those who have refused his offer of grace and mercy. It is particularly difficult to accept when so many of our friends see absolutely no need for Jesus in their lives.
I should say that if you struggle with the doctrine of God’s judgement you are in good company. You do not struggle with this doctrine on your own. You struggle with Jesus, who wept over Jerusalem when he considered the judgement that was coming to it, and who reminded them that while God longed to gather them under his wing, they were not willing (Matthew 23:37-39). You also struggle with the apostle Paul, who saw the unbelief of his people, the Jews, and said that he felt great sorrow and unceasing anguish in his heart (Romans 9:2). There are times when it is appropriate for the doctrine of God’s judgement to make us miserable!
God’s judgement comes on those who refuse his grace and mercy
Maybe we should begin by remembering that God’s judgement comes upon those who refuse his grace and mercy. In our last reading we saw that many people turned to God when they realised that he was coming in judgement (8:17). There was a way to escape the judgement, but many people refused to take it.
The Bible tells us that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but would rather they repent and live (Ezekiel 33:11). But people continue to try to justify themselves and refuse to come to Jesus in repentance and faith. In the gospels, Jesus doesn’t seem to be shocked by the existence of hell, but he is dismayed over people’s stubborn turn to him for rescue. To people who don’t want to accept God’s mercy and live for Christ as their king, God says, ‘have your way!’ The New Testament places the responsibility for being judged firmly in our court. Paul explains that people perish because they refuse to love the truth and so be saved’ (2 Thessalonians 2:10).
God’s judgement will be seen to be just
As we move on to this morning’s reading, we see God’s people killing over seventy-five thousand people in one day. That is enough to upset the sensitive reader. But they were not acting out of spite or malice. They knew that they were being used as an instrument of God’s justice. You may have heard the repeated emphasis on the fact that the Jews did not lay a hand on the plunder (10, 15 and 16). When God sent the Israelites into the Promised Land, God was very clear that this was a judgement on the wicked nations that lived there, and so they were not to take the plunder. There is an echo of that here!
The fact that what is happening is a judgement of God is further emphasised by another repeated emphasis. Again and again we read that the people they killed were their enemies, who planned to gain mastery over them and who hated them (1, 2, 5 and 16). This judgement was being carried out on the very people who had planned to annihilate them. These verses may be severe, but they are unquestionably fair.
God no longer sends his people out as his agents of judgement. Indeed, Jesus forbids the use of the sword as a means of extending his kingdom (Matthew 26:52). But there is a day of judgement coming when Jesus will punish sin. Those is heaven will look at the existence of hell and agree that the judge of this world has done what is right (Genesis 18:24). Indeed, even those in hell will not be able to deny that their punishment is just.
Those who have been rescued will celebrate
While the Israelites may have been the instruments of God’s justice, the battle truly belonged to the Lord. No-one could stand against them because fear of the Jews overtook them (2). The officials of the provinces helped the Jews because fear of Mordecai had come upon them (3). This victory did not depend on the military power of a people that had been scattered across the nations. The Lord was rescuing his people from annihilation. So what should a rescued or saved people do? They should celebrate! That is why they instituted the feast of Purim.
In the second half of chapter 9 we have the arrangements for Purim. The feast is called Purim because the wicked Haman had cast the lot (or ‘pur’) to determine the day that he would kill all the Jews. Yet God had turned the tables and that day become the time of their deliverance.
Purim was celebrated on the last day of February and the first day of March this year. If you had been in one of the suburbs in north London where there are large Jewish populations you might have witnessed the party. Children would have been running around in fancy hats, dressed up and waving swords. There is plenty of food, including funny little triangular cakes called Haman’s ears. Mock beauty contests are held. The story is acted out—with heroes like Esther and Mordecai being cheered, and Haman being booed and hissed.
We too are a rescued people. The doctrine of judgement leaves us with nothing to boast about. It was for our sin that Jesus bled and died. We are not good people whose lives have made us worthy of heaven. We are forgiven people whose Saviour endured the punishment we deserve. We will spend all eternity celebrating a greater Purim—Jesus came and rescued his people!
The kind rule who cares for his people (10)
This wonderful book finishes with a picture of Mordecai. Mordecai is given the position that Haman had once held. He is made second in power in the empire. But notice how different a ruler he is! He was great among the Jews and popular with his people, for he sought the good of his people and spoke up for the welfare of the Jews (3).
Given the role that Mordecai had in delivering the people and his subsequent rule, I think it is fair to see here a picture Jesus here. Jesus is indeed great amongst his people and he does indeed work to ensure our temporal and eternal welfare. Jesus is wonderful to save you from the coming judgement. He is also wonderful to care about our every need as he watches over us as our loving ruler.
I want to finish by looking to a verse that I came across recently. In Isaiah, God says to the enemies of his people, ‘I am not angry … let them come to me for refuge, let them make peace with me, yes let them make peace with me’ (Isaiah 27:4-5). Our God delights to make peace with his enemies (Romans 5:10). He gives those who have set themselves against him opportunities to repent (Revelation 2:21).
Thomas Chambers, a Scottish pastor of the 1800s, speaks on these verses in Isaiah and explains that "the tone of God's invitation is not a tone of anger - it is a tone of tenderness. The look that accompanies the invitation is not a look of wrath - it is a look of affection ... it may well be said of God to all who are now seeking His face and favour, that there is no fury in him.”
Yes, there is a day of judgement when Jesus will come back and condemn those who have spurned his mercy. But the Jesus who will return as judge looks at the world in love and invites all people to come to him. Now is the time for the wicked to ‘forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them, for he will freely pardon’ (Isaiah 55:7). Tell people that you were his enemy but are now a beloved child. Show them the way of rescue and of peace.