Many Christians suffer from what I have come to call a “pious bias.” Simply put, “pious bias” is the presumption that all the people we find in the Bible were “pious”. We are therefore reluctant to see Jonah as the scoundrel he is: willful, arrogant, rebellious, and (worse yet) self-righteous. Here is a man who stations himself outside the city of Nineveh so that he can watch the entire city (including innocent children and cattle) go up in flames, even when he knows that God has purposed to save it. We are reluctant to see that Jonah is a prophet in ways other than his short speech to the Ninevites. Jonah, the man, exemplifies Israel, the nation. His self-righteousness, lack of compassion, and disdain for grace is precisely that of the nation he represents.
Many people try to “pietize” Esther, to make her into a great woman of faith and piety. I marvel at what they have to do in order to look upon her in this manner. Here is a woman who is willing to stay in Persia and to sleep with a heathen king, rather than to return to Israel and become the wife of a godly Israelite. Esther never prays, and the name of God is never mentioned throughout the book. Yet some still wish to make her a model saint. Theirs is a monumental task indeed.
I shall not go to such heroic efforts to make this woman look good. She is Jewish, like Jonah, and like her uncle Mordecai. She is a schemer and a manipulator. She has learned well from her uncle Mordecai. Mordecai refuses to show honor and respect to those in authority. His belligerence is not rooted in piety, but in pride and stubbornness. The Book of Esther is a wonderful compliment to the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. The latter depict the return of godly Jews to the Promised Land, under divinely appointed leaders. The Book of Esther makes a unique contribution to our understanding of this period in Israel’s history. It depicts the lives of those Jews who stayed on in Persia during this same period of time. The focus of this book is upon those Jews who knew that God had instructed them to return to the Promised Land, but did not. This book is about unfaithful Jews. The deliverance of the Jews in the Book of Esther is not due to man’s piety, but solely to God’s grace, in spite of Israel’s sins.
I pray that God will give us open minds and hearts to look at this book in a different light, to understand it better, and to see its application to our own lives.
Some of you may remember a television program from years ago called “Queen for a Day.” Several women were selected as contestants and then asked questions, which gave each woman an opportunity to show why she should be “queen.” At the end of each program, one women was selected to be “Queen for a Day.” Among other prizes, her hair was done by a famous Hollywood make-up artist, and she dined at a world famous restaurant.
Now we have moved on to “queen for a year,” the annual Miss America Pageant. Contestants are selected to represent their state, and each young woman has the opportunity to display her talent, intellect, and beauty. The contestants are narrowed down until one lucky woman is selected by the judges as Miss America for the year. She begins her reign with, until recently, emcee Bert Parks singing “Miss America” as she is presented to the people.
When I read the first two chapters of the Book of Esther, I find myself asking, “Where is Bert Parks?” He is the only person who seems to be missing in these chapters. The first section of the Book of Esther opens with a series of banquets and ends with a banquet. It begins with a Persian Queen by the name of Vashti and ends with a Jewess who becomes queen. What a happy occasion this seems to be. It seems that if the rest of the book goes as well as the introduction, it will be pleasant reading. No wonder this book is the all time favorite of all the Old Testament books among the Jews.1 But is this the case? A careful reading and study of our text should be helpful.
1 Now it took place in the days of Ahasuerus, the Ahasuerus who reigned from India to Ethiopia over 127 provinces, 2 in those days as King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne which was in Susa the capital, 3 in the third year of his reign, he gave a banquet for all his princes and attendants, the army officers of Persia and Media, the nobles, and the princes of his provinces being in his presence. 4 And he displayed the riches of his royal glory and the splendor of his great majesty for many days, 180 days. 5 And when these days were completed, the king gave a banquet lasting seven days for all the people who were present in Susa the capital, from the greatest to the least, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace. 6 There were hangings of fine white and violet linen held by cords of fine purple linen on silver rings and marble columns, and couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl, and precious stones. 7 Drinks were served in golden vessels of various kinds, and the royal wine was plentiful according to the king’s bounty. 8 And the drinking was done according to the law, there was no compulsion, for so the king had given orders to each official of his household that he should do according to the desires of each person. 9 Queen Vashti also gave a banquet for the women in the palace which belonged to King Ahasuerus.
10 On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus, 11 to bring Queen Vashti before the king with her royal crown in order to display her beauty to the people and the princes, for she was beautiful. 12 But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command delivered by the eunuchs. Then the king became very angry and his wrath burned within him. 13 Then the king said to the wise men who understood the times—for it was the custom of the king so to speak before all who knew law and justice, 14 and were close to him: Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven princes of Persia and Media who had access to the king’s presence and sat in the first place in the kingdom—15 “According to law, what is to be done with Queen Vashti, because she did not obey the command of King Ahasuerus delivered by the eunuchs?” 16 And in the presence of the king and the princes, Memucan said, “Queen Vashti has wronged not only the king but also all the princes, and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. 17 For the queen’s conduct will become known to all the women causing them to look with contempt on their husbands by saying, ‘King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought in to his presence, but she did not come.’ 18 And this day the ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s conduct will speak in the same way to all the king’s princes, and there will be plenty of contempt and anger. 19 If it pleases the king, let a royal edict be issued by him and let it be written in the laws of Persia and Media so that it cannot be repealed, that Vashti should come no more into the presence of King Ahasuerus, and let the king give her royal position to another who is more worthy than she. 20 And when the king’s edict which he shall make is heard throughout all his kingdom, great as it is, then all women will give honor to their husbands, great and small.” 21 And this word pleased the king and the princes, and the king did as Memucan proposed. 22 So he sent letters to all the king’s provinces, to each province according to its script and to every people according to their language, that every man should be the master in his own house and the one who speaks in the language of his own people.
King Ahasuerus, known by secular historians as Xerxes,2 had been in power for three years. It would seem it took this long to consolidate his kingdom by suppressing a revolt on the part of Egypt and then Babylon.3 He resided in Susa,4 the capital of ancient Elam, in the winter palace which his father, Darius I, had rebuilt as his winter capital. Ahasuerus is the great king of the Persians, the one of whom Daniel had prophesied:
2 “And now I will tell you the truth. Behold, three more kings are going to arise in Persia. Then a fourth will gain far more riches than all of them; as soon as he becomes strong through his riches, he will arouse the whole empire against the realm of Greece” (Daniel 11:2).
No longer is this kingdom of peoples known as the Medes and the Persians (Daniel 5:28; 6:8, 12, 15); now it is the kingdom of Persia and Media (Esther 1:3, 14, 18-19), because Persia has now become the dominant nation.
In the third year of his reign (1:3), the king gave a great banquet which lasted six months. The text does not specifically tell us why the king held such an elaborate celebration, but it seems clear his intent was to display his power and glory to those in his kingdom (1:4). Secular history may shed light on this extravaganza. The following year Ahasuerus will wage war against the Greeks. The celebration may have been something of a pep rally. Noblemen and women from the many provinces (127) of this kingdom were present to behold the great power of this king and to see first hand that he was capable of undertaking great tasks (such as this six-month banquet). It is suggested that this six-month celebration provided the occasion for planning the military campaign which was to be waged against Greece. The king is most certainly out to make an impression on his guests so that they will submit to and support his leadership as he enters into battle.5
As the six months drew to a close, yet another banquet is described. This banquet is shorter—a mere seven days—and for the benefit of all the men who dwelled in Susa, rich and poor alike (1:5). The longer banquet was for the nobility (1:3-4). The opulence was just as evident in this shorter celebration with its abundance of food and wine. While the king provided wine in abundance, he did not force any to drink other than what they wished (1:8).
The women would have been especially impressed with the palace and grounds.6 I am not even sure what the author means by all of his descriptive terms, but we can be sure that the “riches of his royal glory” (1:4) were on display. This included expensive hangings, suspended by ornate cords fastened to massive marble columns by silver rings (1:6). In my mind’s eye, it would seem to be a very expensive tent, providing an outside entertaining area where food was served and guests entertained. Couches were provided for the guests to recline upon while they ate—not couches from a bargain basement furniture store—these were made of gold and silver. Underneath was a mosaic pavement that would have made a Better Homes and Garden reader weep. To top it all off, the wine was served in vessels which were each priceless works of art. I know my wife would have taken note of all these things and more. This was the point of the banquet; the king was letting everyone know he was richer and more powerful than anyone else.
While the men were being entertained by the king, the women had their own celebration with Queen Vashti as their hostess (1:9). At the end of the seven days, the banquets were drawing to a close. Plenty of liquor had flowed over the previous week, and the text informs us the king had his share of it (1:10). We are not told the king was “drunk,” but that his heart was “merry.” The Bible does not prohibit men from becoming merry, but only from becoming drunk (see Deuteronomy 14:24-26). We should be careful not to read too much into this text. Nevertheless, it was when the king’s heart was “merry” that he sent for Vashti to appear before the men who were gathered with him (1:10-11). From all I can tell, he planned this as the grand finale. From what we are told, she was not instructed with regard to her dress other than she should appear wearing her royal crown. She was summoned to display her royal beauty, not to entertain the troops with some kind of burlesque show. Remember, the purpose of the celebration is for the king to display his “royal glory and the splendor of his great majesty” (1:4). The king was not asking; he was summoning his queen. But neither was he demanding she do anything demeaning to herself. She was to appear in all her glory to bring glory to the king.
Many commentators and most Christians seem to read a great deal into this text. They suppose the king has commanded the queen to disgrace herself by acting in an unseemly way or by performing to a crowd of drunks (I wonder how much more sober the women were). For example, J. Sidlow Baxter writes,
The king’s order that Vashti (Vashti means ‘beautiful woman’) should come and immodestly display herself before a vast company of half-intoxicated revellers was not only a gross breach of Persian etiquette, but a cruel outrage which would have disgraced for life the one whom, above all other, the king should have protected. Vashti’s refusal was courageous and fully justified: though we can well understand that such a public rebuff to one who was an absolute monarch, and vainglorious in the extreme, must have been as humiliating and exasperating as it was richly deserved.7
The same position is taken by Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown:
“The refusal of Vashti to obey an order which required her to make an indecent exposure of herself before a company of drunken revellers was becoming both the modesty of her sex and her rank as queen; for, according to Persian customs, the queen, even more than the wives of other men, was secluded from the public gaze: and had not the king’s blood been heated with wine, or his reason overpowered by force of offended pride, he would have perceived that his own honour as well as hers was consulted by her dignified conduct.”8
John C. Whitcomb leans in this same direction but is much more cautious about drawing conclusions not clearly indicated by the author:
On the last day of the feast, the inebriated king sent his seven eunuchs, . . . who constituted his means of communication with the harem, to fetch Vashti. Persian queens usually ate at the king’s table, but not necessarily at great banquets. Presumably fearing for her dignity in the midst of such a drunken group (cf. Herodotus 5. 18), she utterly refused to obey the summons.9
We do not really know what prompted the queen to respond as she did. It is my understanding that this woman was of royal (or at least noble) blood. Secular history does not seem to have great things to say about her.10 Nearly all seem to assume that while the men were drinking themselves into a stupor, the women were the essence of propriety and self-control. I worked for a caterer during my college years, and my experience was that women are no less likely to over-indulge and act inappropriately than men.
In our text, Vashti is certainly not cast in a favorable light. She coolly rejects the command of her husband and her king to appear in her royal splendor. The king’s counselors all find her culpable and recommend she be replaced by one “more worthy” (1:19) than she. Her actions are seen as a bad example which might corrupt the attitudes and actions of the other women of the kingdom (1:17-18). No one really knows why the queen acted as she did nor does it matter. The outcome is that a powerful queen is removed from power and prominence, and the way is prepared for a young Jewess to rise to the throne beside the most powerful king on the face of the earth.
The king may have been “merry” from the wine he had consumed, but he was now just plain mad. Imagine how humiliating this would have been for Ahasuerus. His purpose in all of the festive events of the past six months was to impress his guests with his great wealth and power. He wanted faithful supporters when he began to wage war with Greece. And now, during the closing ceremonies of this six-month extravaganza, the king’s own wife snubs him, refusing to honor or obey him and thereby embarrassing him before all of his guests.
The king was angry at Vashti, but he did not lose control. He did not demand that she be put to death nor decide her fate at that moment. He called for his chief counselors and asked them what he should do. When their advice was given, the king heeded it, carrying it out as they recommended.
The king’s counselors were wise men, men he respected and to whom he listened. These seven wise men were asked what the king should do, because they were men who had a grasp of the times and who also understood “law and justice” (1:13). These men not only understood the wrong Vashti had done, they had a keen sense of justice and thus discerned an appropriate punishment for her rebellion. They also knew the various peoples, languages, and cultures represented in the kingdom of Ahasuerus and how the king’s decision would affect the people.
In spite of what this king may have done at other times,11 we dare not allow this to cloud our judgment and see the king’s actions as the ravings of a drunken mad man. The author of this book intended for us to judge Ahasuerus on the basis of the data he has supplied. Let us beware of judging him on the basis of data supplied by secular historians, who have little or no regard for sacred Scripture or for the message of this book. Our text simply says Ahasuerus summoned his wife, Queen Vashti, to appear in her royal attire as a part of his display of his glory. She refused for an unstated reason. The king was angry but sought the counsel of his wisest and most trusted advisors. They considered this matter according to the laws of the land and in light of the impact of the king’s decision on the entire kingdom. From what we are told, who could have handled this crises better?
One advisor, Memucan, gave his opinion; it was concurred by the rest and implemented by the king. Memucan concluded the queen had done wrong, not only against her king but also against the kingdom. She was the most prominent and visible women in the Persian empire, and, consequently, her actions set a precedent affecting every woman in the kingdom. Vashti had spurned her husband’s authority. He was not just her husband; he was the king! If the king did not deal decisively and sternly with Vashti, there would be a revolt in every household. Wives would have the courage to deal with their husbands just as Vashti had done with Ahasuerus. And we thought the women’s liberation movement was new!
We must pause to point out that the king and his advisors did not deal with the matter biblically. They have approached this situation from the standpoint of their eastern, chauvinistic culture, not from the principles of the Word of God. No doubt they saw women as inferior to men and thus to be used by men for their pleasure. As a result, the advice of the king’s counselors was directed at maintaining the status quo, and was not in obedience to divine commands.
The counsel which Memucan gave the king was simple. The queen was to be removed from her position of prominence and honor. She was to be banned from appearing with the king as his queen and to be replaced by a new queen of the king’s choosing, a woman “more worthy” (1:19) than Vashti. The king’s decision should be irreversible, and it should be made a law of Persia and Media which could not be reversed. The king’s decree was then to be conveyed throughout the kingdom,12 a signal to husbands to stay in charge and for wives to be in submission.13
1 After these things when the anger of King Ahasuerus had subsided, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what had been decreed against her. 2 Then the king’s attendants, who served him, said, “Let beautiful young virgins be sought for the king. 3 And let the king appoint overseers in all the provinces of his kingdom that they may gather every beautiful young virgin to Susa the capital, to the harem, into the custody of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who was in charge of the women; and let their cosmetics be given them. 4 Then let the young lady who pleases the king be queen in place of Vashti.” And the matter pleased the king, and he did accordingly.
5 Now there was a Jew in Susa the capital whose name was Mordecai, the son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, a Benjamite, 6 who had been taken into exile from Jerusalem with the captives who had been exiled with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had exiled. 7 And he was bringing up Hadassah, that is Esther, his uncle’s daughter, for she had neither father nor mother. Now the young lady was beautiful of form and face, and when her father and her mother died, Mordecai took her as his own daughter.
8 So it came about when the command and decree of the king were heard and many young ladies were gathered to Susa the capital into the custody of Hegai, that Esther was taken to the king’s palace into the custody of Hegai, who was in charge of the women. 9 Now the young lady pleased him and found favor with him. So he quickly provided her with her cosmetics and food, gave her seven choice maids from the king’s palace, and transferred her and her maids to the best place in the harem. 10 Esther did not make known her people or her kindred, for Mordecai had instructed her that she should not make them known. 11 And every day Mordecai walked back and forth in front of the court of the harem to learn how Esther was and how she fared.
12 Now when the turn of each young lady came to go in to King Ahasuerus, after the end of her twelve months under the regulations for the women—for the days of their beautification were completed as follows: six months with oil of myrrh and six months with spices and the cosmetics for women—13 the young lady would go in to the king in this way: anything that she desired was given her to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace. 14 In the evening she would go in and in the morning she would return to the second harem, to the custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the concubines. She would not again go in to the king unless the king delighted in her and she was summoned by name. 15 Now when the turn of Esther, the daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai who had taken her as his daughter, came to go in to the king, she did not request anything except what Hegai, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the women, advised. And Esther found favor in the eyes of all who saw her.
16 So Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus to his royal palace in the tenth month which is the month Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign. 17 And the king loved Esther more than all the women, and she found favor and kindness with him more than all the virgins, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. 18 Then the king gave a great banquet, Esther’s banquet, for all his princes and his servants; he also made a holiday for the provinces and gave gifts according to the king’s bounty.
It is not immediately apparent that several years have passed since the events of chapter 1.14 We know this because the celebration of the king was held in the third year of his reign (1:3), and Esther is not brought before the king until the seventh year of his reign (2:16). The king’s anger eventually subsided toward Vashti, and his feelings for her seem to have revived. The queen was in his thoughts, and it seems that he had second thoughts about the action he had taken against her. No wonder the king’s advisors counseled him to make his dealings with her a matter of law which could not be changed. Otherwise, one cannot help but wonder if he would have reversed his decision.
The king’s attendants recognized what was happening and proposed that the king follow through with the proposal to choose a new queen. This encouragement was hardly needed, because Ahazuerus was a womanizer. He needed little prodding to conduct a beauty pageant, especially when he alone was the judge. The most beautiful young virgins in his kingdom were the contestants, and the plan was for him to try out each and every one of them. Those who were not chosen as queen appear to have been kept on as his concubines. The night each virgin spent with the king was not just one of dinner and dancing. The women were brought into the king’s harem and placed in the keeping of Hegai (2:3, 8). She then underwent a year long period of preparation (2:12). After her evening with the king, the young lady was kept in a different harem under the custody of Shaashgaz, a eunuch in charge of the king’s concubines (2:14). I think we may safely assume that when the night was over, the young lady who was the king’s date was no longer a virgin.
Among the contestants was a beautiful young Jewess, whose Hebrew name was Hadassah and whose Persian name was Esther.15 The only qualities mentioned regarding Esther are physical. She was beautiful, in form and face. The words of Proverbs 31:30 should serve as a commentary and a warning. Esther was also an orphan. When both of her parents died, her cousin Mordecai took her and raised her as his daughter (2:5-7). Both Esther and Mordecai were from the tribe of Benjamin, the descendants of Kish (deported from Jerusalem with Jeconiah in 597) and his son Shimei (2:5-6).
“When the command and decree of the king” was proclaimed, many young women were selected as contestants and taken to Susa, where they were placed in the custody of Hegai. Among them was Esther. This young woman found a special place in the heart of Hegai, who gladly favored her above the rest. Some have concluded that she found favor because of her godly character. Surely, if this were true the author would have told us so in a way similar to the stories of Joseph or Daniel. Shirley Temple won the hearts of many too, but it was not for her godliness. We must be careful not to read into the text what we would like to find.
There is no word of commendation for Mordecai, either. We know Esther did not reveal her nationality because she was instructed not to by Mordecai (2:10). One must wonder if she would have even been a contestant had it been known that she was Jewish. Why was Mordecai willing to wear Jewishness as a badge, but not Esther? Mordecai was not trying to become the next queen, Esther was.16
Regardless of the reasons Esther pleased Hegai (and we should note the author does not give us these reasons), this man’s preference for Esther gave her a significant advantage over her fellow-contestants. Hegai gave Esther seven attending maidens who were the pick of the lot, and then provided Esther and her maidens with the best apartment in the harem (2:9). She also was quickly provided with cosmetics and other supplies, which may have given her a head start in the beautification process. Finally, since a number of young women had preceded her in spending the night with the king, Hegai gave her some inside information on what the king liked. Less (makeup or whatever) made a better impression on the king than more, and so Hegai informed Esther (2:15).
Mordecai was far from at ease about the fate of his adopted daughter, Esther. Once she was taken into the king’s harem, she was prevented from contact with men other than the king’s eunuchs who were in charge of the harem. Since she had not revealed either her nationality or her relationship with Mordecai, he could not visit her. And so he stationed himself outside the court of the harem as close as he could get to Esther in hopes of learning how things were going with her (2:11). I think he was worried and with good reason. He seemed about as comfortable with the situation as Abraham must have been with Sarai, his wife, in the harem of the Pharaoh of Egypt (see Genesis 12:10-20). Knowing more about this king’s reputation with women, Mordecai’s fears were justified.
Esther spent a year in preparation, six months with the oil of myrrh and six with spices and cosmetics (2:12).17 Finally, the day for Esther’s “tryout” came. She accepted Hegai’s advice and took with her only those few things he suggested (2:15).18 The routine was that each young virgin spent the night with the king and the next morning was placed in a different part of the harem (2:13-14). If she found favor with the king, he would call for her again. If not, she had a lonely life (so far as men are concerned) in the harem. The woman who continually found favor with the king was most certainly destined to become the new queen.
According to verse 15, Esther found favor in the eyes of all who saw her. I do not think this is the same as saying that Esther found favor in the eyes of all who knew her. I fear that Esther was a strikingly beautiful young woman, and the favorable response she gained was the result of her appearance more than of her character. My conclusion is inferential, I grant, but I must at least point out that nowhere in the book do we find mention of Esther’s character. This is most unusual for a Jew. If the Bible teaches us anything, it tells us to judge a person in terms of their character, not according to their beauty or charm:
7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
10 An excellent wife, who can find? For her worth is far above jewels. . . 30 Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, But a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised (Proverbs 31:10, 30).
15 And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15).
Esther won the heart of king Ahazuerus. He loved her more than all the others combined (2:17). And so she was chosen as the new queen to take the place of Vashti (2:17). In her honor, and in celebration of the event, the king gave yet another banquet, the fourth in these first two chapters of Esther. This was Esther’s hour, her moment of glory. He proclaimed a holiday, and gifts were sent by the king to people in his kingdom (2:18).
What a wonderful, heart-warming story. It could have begun, “Once upon a time . . .” and ended “. . . happily ever after.” But before we feel too good about what we have read, we should give the matter a little more thought. Here are a few questions with which to begin:
(1) Why is the name of God never mentioned in the Book of Esther?
(2) Why is prayer never specifically mentioned in the book?
(3) Why does the New Testament never mention or refer to anything concerning the Book of Esther?
(4) The Book of Esther gives the historical basis for the feast of Purim. Why is this feast never mentioned in the New Testament?
(5) Why have neither Calvin nor Luther chosen to write a commentary on the Book of Esther, and why did Luther indicate he wished the book did not exist?19
(6) Why is the Book of Esther the number one favorite of all the Old Testament books among the Jews?
(7) Why do later Greek translations add so many verses (107) to the Hebrew text (157) and try so hard to change our understanding of the earliest texts?
(8) Since the book concerns Jews living outside the promised land, why is there never any mention of God’s Law, of the Holy Land, or of Jerusalem and the temple?
(9) Why are we so easily inclined to look upon King Ahasuerus as evil and to view Mordecai and Esther as godly?
(10) Why are we happy to see Esther on the throne, even though she has misrepresented her nationality and kin, is living outside the promised land, and is married to a heathen king, the winner of a contest which included sleeping with the king?
Something is drastically wrong with God’s people as represented in the Book of Esther. We should not delight in Esther’s “success” in becoming queen; we should be distressed. Consider the Book of Esther in the light of these important observations, which come from the rest of the Old Testament.
(1) From the very beginning of God’s dealings with the patriarchs and then with Israel, God promised to dwell among His people in the promised land of Israel, and specifically in the temple in Jerusalem:
10 Then Jacob departed from Beersheba and went toward Haran. 11 And he came to a certain place and spent the night there, because the sun had set; and he took one of the stones of the place and put it under his head, and lay down in that place. 12 And he had a dream, and behold, a ladder was set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants. 14 “Your descendants shall also be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15 “And behold, I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16 Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” 17 And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” 18 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar, and poured oil on its top. 19 And he called the name of that place Bethel; however, previously the name of the city had been Luz (Genesis 28:10-19; see also Genesis 50:22-26).
17 “Thou wilt bring them and plant them in the mountain of Thine inheritance, The place, O Lord, which Thou hast made for Thy dwelling, The sanctuary, O Lord, which Thy hands have established” (Exodus 15:17).
34 “‘And you shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the Lord am dwelling in the midst of the sons of Israel’ “ (Numbers 35:34).
5 “But you shall seek the Lord at the place which the Lord your God shall choose from all your tribes, to establish His name there for His dwelling, and there you shall come” (Deuteronomy 12:5).
11 “Then it shall come about that the place in which the Lord your God shall choose for His name to dwell, there you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution of your hand, and all your choice votive offerings which you will vow to the Lord” (Deuteronomy 12:11).
(2) When the people of Israel sinned and were thrust out of their land, they were to look toward Jerusalem and the temple and pray to the Lord (see 1 Kings 8:33-53).
(3) While God indicated that the nation Israel would sin and be driven from the promised land and taken captive in a foreign land, He also promised that He would bring them back to the land of promise:
1 “So it shall be when all of these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, and you call them to mind in all nations where the Lord your God has banished you, 2 and you return to the Lord your God and obey Him with all your heart and soul according to all that I command you today, you and your sons, 3 then the Lord your God will restore you from captivity, and have compassion on you, and will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. 4 “If your outcasts are at the ends of the earth, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there He will bring you back. 5 “And the Lord your God will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and He will prosper you and multiply you more than your fathers” (Deuteronomy 30:1-5).
(4) The prophet Isaiah did instruct the Israelites to settle themselves in Babylon for a 70 year sojourn, but then they were to return to the promised land.
3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan, and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, saying, 4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon, 5 ‘Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens, and eat their produce. 6 ‘Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease. 7 ‘And seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.’ . . . 10 “For thus says the Lord, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. 11 ‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. 12 ‘Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. 13 ‘And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. 14 ‘And I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.’ (Jeremiah 29:1-7, 10-14).
(5) In captivity, the righteous did not forget their land or the temple but yearned for it:
1 By the rivers of Babylon, There we sat down and wept, When we remembered Zion. 2 Upon the willows in the midst of it We hung our harps. 3 For there our captors demanded of us songs, And our tormentors mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” 4 How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? 5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, May my right hand forget her skill. 6 May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, If I do not remember you, If I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy. 7 Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom The day of Jerusalem, Who said, “Raze it, raze it, To its very foundation.” 8 O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one, How blessed will be the one who repays you With the recompense with which you have repaid us. 9 How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones Against the rock (Psalm 137:1-9).
(6) While in captivity, those who were godly purposed not to defile themselves but to live according to their faith and the Word of God:
8 But Daniel made up his mind that he would not defile himself with the king’s choice food or with the wine which he drank; so he sought permission from the commander of the officials that he might not defile himself (Daniel 1:8).
The first chapter (and more) of Daniel gives an account of Daniel’s diligence in remaining faithful to his God. The events of Daniel 1 are a dramatic contrast to Esther 1 and 2 in which Esther conceals her identity and lives as though she were a Persian.
(7) At the end of 70 years, God moved in the heart of Cyrus to make a decree that all the Jews could return to their land, just as the prophet Jeremiah prophesied:
1 The word which came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying, 2 “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Write all the words which I have spoken to you in a book. 3 For, behold, days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will restore the fortunes of My people Israel and Judah.’ The Lord says, ‘I will also bring them back to the land that I gave to their forefathers, and they shall possess it.’ “ 4 Now these are the words which the Lord spoke concerning Israel and concerning Judah (Jeremiah 30:1-4).
22 Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia— in order to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah— the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he sent a proclamation throughout his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying, 23 “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and He has appointed me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever there is among you of all His people, may the Lord his God be with him, and let him go up!’ “ (2 Chronicles 36:21-23).
(8) Ezra and Nehemiah are the account of the godly Jews who returned to the promised land and who sought to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple amidst great difficulty and opposition. Esther, on the other hand, is an account of those who became too attached to the land of their sojournings and thus disobeyed God by not returning when it was not only allowed, but commanded.
It is in the light of the rest of the Old Testament Scriptures that we can see the Book of Esther for what it is and appreciate its unique message and contribution. While Ezra and Nehemiah focus on the return to the land by the faithful remnant, Esther depicts the fate of those who remain in the land of their captivity. We should not expect Mordecai and Esther to be godly Jews, for they are living in disobedience. No wonder there is no mention of God, and no wonder that Esther’s Persian name is the name of a heathen God, Ishtar.
Why has God inspired and preserved this book as a part of the Old Testament canon? What does it have to say to us? First, it is a warning to those of us who live our lives not as “strangers and pilgrims,” but as citizens of an earthly realm, as mere worldlings (see 1 Peter 1:1ff.). Second, it warns us not to forget where our “home” is and to live in a way that makes us eager to leave this world and go home. It cautions us about getting caught up in what the world views as success, so that we actually rejoice over Esther’s rise to power and prominence and prosperity no matter how she got there. Third, it teaches us that even when we are unfaithful, God remains faithful to His Word and to His covenant promises.
The Book of Esther is about the sinfulness of those Jews who did not return to the promised land and about God’s providential care of His people, not because of the sins of His people, but in spite of them. Sadly, God is not mentioned in Esther, because God is not thought of in Esther. These “people of God” lived their lives as though there was no God. They were practical atheists, seeking to get ahead or to survive by their own wits and cunning, rather than living by God’s Word and trusting Him to deliver them by His power. The book does not flatter the Persian Jews, nor should it. But it does too often describe us and the condition of our cold hearts. Heeding the lessons learned from the Book of Esther should help us forsake the cares of this world and cling to Him who has prepared the way to the next.
1 “The dramatic reversal of a disastrous fate that had seemed set to wipe out the whole Jewish race so impressed the writer that he applied himself with all his artistic powers to conveying the events in writing, and his account so fascinated Jewish readers that the book became a best seller and went into many languages and variant editions. It continues to be the number one favourite with Jewish communities, and is read in the family every year at Purim, as has been the traditional custom through the centuries.” Joyce, G. Baldwin, Esther: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984, p. 13.)
“He is known to us in history outside the Bible as Xerxes, which is the Greek form of his Persian name. This Xerxes reigned over the Persian empire from 485 to 465 B.C. . . . The name of the son of Darius was deciphered as Khshayarsha, which, when translated into Greek, is Xerxes, and which, when translated into Hebrew, is, practically letter for letter, Akhashverosh, that is, in English, Ahas-uerus. . . .” J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House [reprint], six volumes in one, 1960), Vol. 2, pp. 262.
3 “The son of Darius and Queen Atossa, herself the daughter of Cyrus and sister of Cambyses, Xerxes was born to the purple, and for the last twelve years of his father’s reign served as viceroy of Babylon. No sooner had he ascended the throne than first Egypt and then Babylon rebelled against him. He quelled both revolts quickly and exacted very harsh penalties on the offenders. . . . With this background, he was well equipped on the death of his father to take over Darius’ two unfinished tasks: the conquest of Greece and the completion of the royal palace at Persepolis. As everyone knows, Xerxes failed completely in the first. . . . But as only too few general readers know, Xerxes was highly successful in his second task: the building of the Persepolis.” John C. Whitcomb, Esther: Triumph of God’s Sovereignty, p. 31, citing Carey A. Moore, Esther, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971), p. xxxviii.
4 “Susa (the Greek name), or Shushan (the Hebrew name), was an ancient capital of Elam which Darius I rebuilt as the winter capital of the Persian Empire. It was unbearably hot in the summer, so a summer capital was established at Ecbatana (modern Hamadan) in the mountains two hundred miles to the north (cf. Ezra 6:1-2). . . . It is fascinating to realize that the city of Susa, in which the events of the book of Esther occurred, was visited by Daniel in 551 B.C. in a vision (Dan. 8:1-8) in which he foresaw the rapid rise of the Medo-persian Empire (which began a year later in the great victory of Cyrus over the aged and corrupt Astyages the Mede). Daniel also beheld the later victories of Alexander the Great over the Persian Empire (332-323 B.C.). Another interesting note is that in 446-445 B.C., a generation after the events of the book of Esther, we find Nehemiah serving in Susa as cupbearer to Artaxerxes during the winter months from December to March (cf. Neh. 1:1—2:1)” (Whitcomb, p. 33). Susa is located in modern day Iran.
“Xerxes, being about to take in hand the expedition against Athens, called together an assembly of the noblest Persians, to learn their opinions, and to lay before them his own designs. So, when the men were met, the king spoke thus to them: . . . My intent is to throw a bridge over the Hellespont and march an army through Europe against Greece, that thereby I may obtain vengeance from the Athenians for the wrongs committed by them against the Persians and against my father [7.8]. [Cited from George Rawlinson’s translation in Francis R. B. Godolphin, ed., The Greek Historians, 2 vols. (New York: Random House, 1942).]
6 “The early excavations at Susa by M. A. Dieulafoy lacked the scientific precision achieved today, and had to contend with a confusion of ruins, looted already by Alexander the Great and his successors. Nevertheless the main features of the palace complex have been identified. These include the throne room, the harem and the position of the paradise or garden, watered by the nearby river (cf. Est. 1:5; 7:7). If the author of Esther did not know Susa at first hand he was extremely well informed about the royal residence, as well as about the character of the king.” Joyce C. Baldwin, Esther: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984), p. 20.
“Late in the fall of 479 B.C., now back in Susa, Xerxes again ‘became enmeshed in an amorous affair, this time with Masistes’ daughter Artaynte instead of Masistes’ wife. According to Herodotus, Xerxes was more successful in romancing with this young lady (who had become his daughter-in-law in the meantime) than he was with her mother (Herodotus IX, 108-11). The matter came to a head, however, when he promised Artaynte the desire of her heart. She chose Xerxes’ coat-of-many-colors, which Amestris had woven with her own hands for him (a very unqueenly activity—to ingratiate herself with him again?). Xerxes reluctantly gave her the robe, but Amestris got revenge when the time came to celebrate the king’s birthday. On that occasion she asked Xerxes, Salome-like, to give her Masistes’ wife, and according to the custom of the day he was obliged to comply with her request. Amestris promptly had her mutilated. As a consequence, Masistes attempted to flee to Bactria to raise a revolt against Xerxes, but the king’s men caught and killed him before he reached his intended destination.’” William H. Shea, “Esther and History,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 14, no. 1 (Spring 1976): 227-46, as cited by John C. Whitcomb, Esther: Triumph of God’s Sovereignty (Chicago: Moody Press, 1979), pp. 55-56.
11 What then of Xerxes? This is the king who ordered a bridge to be built over the Hellespont, and who, on learning that the bridge had been destroyed by a tempest, just after its completion, was so blindly enraged that he commanded three hundred strokes of the scourge to be inflicted on the sea, and a pair of fetters to be thrown into it at the Hellespont, and then had the unhappy builders of the bridge beheaded. This is the king who, on being offered a sum equivalent to five and a half million sterling by Pythius, the Lydian, towards the expenses of a military expedition, was so enraptured at such loyalty that he returned the money, accompanied by a handsome present; and then, on being requested by this same Phthius, shortly afterwards, to spare him just one of his sons—the eldest—from the expedition, as the sole support of his declining years, furiously ordered the son to be cut into two pieces, and the army to march between them. This is the king who dishonoured the remains of the heroic Spartan, Leonidas. This is the king who drowned the humiliation of his inglorious defeat in such a plunge of sensuality that he publicly offered a prize for the invention of some new indulgence. This is the king who cut a canal through the Isthmus of Athos for his fleet—a prodigious undertaking. This is the king whose vast resources, and gigantic notions and imperious temper made the name of Persia to awe the ancient world. Herodotus tells us that among the myriads gathered for the expedition against Greece, Ahasuerus was the fairest in personal beauty and stately bearing. But morally he was a mixture of passionate extremes. He is just the despot to dethrone queen Vashti for refusing to expose herself before his tipsy guests. He is just the one to consign a people like the Jews to be massacred, and then to swing over to the opposite extreme of sanctioning Jewish vengeance on thousands of his other subjects. J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House [reprint], six volumes in one, 1960), Vol. 2, pp. 262-263.
12 The Persian empire had what might be called the first “pony express.” Descriptions of this communications system are remarkably similar to what little I know of the pony express. This made for rapid communications, at least for that day.
13 The final statement of verse 22 is puzzling. What does “speaking the language of his own people” have to do with leadership? We know that the confusion of tongues at Babel frustrated the plans of men to build a tower. I take it that leadership and language are related in the mind of our author. Were some men lagging behind their wives in their language? Did the wives speak the language of their people but the husbands did not? The ability to speak the native tongue is power. If the wife spoke the native tongue and the husband did not, the wife had the edge; she had more control than her husband. This statement certainly provokes thought as to what the author intended us to understand.
“In his great campaign against Greece from 481 to 479 B.C., with an army of probably two hundred thousand men and a navy of many hundreds of ships, Xerxes desperately sought to avenge the humiliating defeat suffered by his father, Darius I (522-486 B.C.), at the battle of Marathon (490 B.C.). But in spite of remarkably skillful planning and strategy, his army was nearly blocked by Spartans at the pass of Thermopylae and was defeated at Plataea, northwest of Athens (479 B.C.), soon after his great navy was smashed before his very eyes at Salamis, to the west of Athens (480 B.C.). John C. Whitcomb, Esther: Triumph of God’s Sovereignty, p. 30.
15 “The derivation of the name Esther is disputed. The Hebrew Hadassah (2:7), meaning ‘myrtle’, evidently sounded like the Persian name which comes either from the Babylonian goddess, Ishtar, or from the Persian sitar, ‘star’. The Persian name would enable Esther to keep secret her foreign identity.” Baldwin, p. 21.
16 Later translations of Esther in the Greek language contained a significantly modified text. In addition to the 167 verses of the Hebrew text, 107 more verses are added. In one addition, we are told that Mordecai tried to prevent Esther from becoming a contestant in this beauty queen pageant. I suspect that the opposite may be true, which is exactly why later Jews tried to repair Mordecai’s image.
17 It appears from verse 9 that Hegai may have given her some of these things sooner than the others. The author tells us in verse 12 what the normal schedule was, but we are told she was an exception to the rules.
“LUTHER: ‘Whatever heart is thus minded, will bear ornamentation without danger to itself; for it bears and yet does not bear, dances and yet dances not, lives well and yet not well. These are the heavenly souls, the sacred brides of Christ; but they are scarce. For it is difficult not to have a lust for great ornamentation and display.’”
“STOLBERG: ‘Undazzled by splendour and royalty, the tender virgin rejected all these things. With noble simplicity she took the ornaments, neither selecting nor demanding anything, which the chief chamberlain brought to her. Even after she became queen above all the wives of the king, her heart still clung not only with gratitude, but with childlike obedience, to her pious uncle and foster-father, as in the time when he trained her as a little girl.’” Fr. W. Schultz, “The Book of Esther,” Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, by John Peter Lange, Vol. 4, p. 46.
19 Even so there has been no lack of detractors who would recommend its exclusion from the canon. The most famous of these is Martin Luther, who in his Table Talk said of 2 Maccabees and of Esther, ‘I wish that they did not exist at all; for they Judaize too much and have much heathen perverseness.’ (Martin Luther, Table Talk, xxii., cited by Baldwin, pp. 51-52.).
Some time ago I purchased a car from a young Canadian who had driven down to Dallas to visit his girl friend. Unaccustomed to the heat, the car had died an agonizing death. After resurrecting it, it was necessary to go through customs and then register the car with the County Auditor. I came away from the Customs office with papers in triplicate (or more) and then proceeded to the Tax Assessor’s office for a Texas title.
While standing in a rather long line, no one could help noticing a couple of young children running about unsupervised. A mature woman seemed very concerned about the children and was attempting to move one of the large oak church pews where people waited, which was broken on one end. Stepping out of line, I asked if I could help. She gladly accepted my offer, explaining she wanted to remove the pew for fear the children or someone might be hurt trying to sit on it. We picked up the pew and made our way to the back of the office where the clerks worked.
With the pew safely out of the way, I stepped back in line. As I was not new to the office, I knew the lady at the information desk, who was friendly and helpful. But as she looked through my paperwork, a frown crossed her face. After checking a reference work, she informed me I had not been given “the right papers” at the Customs office. Seeing the disappointed look on my face, she asked me to wait a moment. Leaving her desk, she approached the woman I had helped earlier and quickly returned with a smile on her face. “Your papers are not exactly right,” she said, “but I checked with the supervisor, and she said they would be all right.”
What a delightful turn of events. A few moments before I had helped a lady in distress, without really knowing who she was or what she did. But in my moment of need, this woman came to my aid. Sometimes we do things with no ulterior motive and later discover our actions have greatly affected the future. Such was the case with Mordecai. In our text, Mordecai acts to save the king from a sinister plot by two of his servants. Little did he know this act would dramatically change the future. And his act of saving the king may not have even been from kind intentions toward the king. But wait! It gets worse. If Mordecai’s unintentional actions changed the course of history, his intentional actions put not only himself but the entire Jewish race in jeopardy. We must pay close attention to the text as we continue our study of the Book of Esther.
19 And when the virgins were gathered together the second time,20 then Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate. 20 Esther had not yet made known her kindred or her people, even as Mordecai had commanded her, for Esther did what Mordecai told her as she had done when under his care. 21 In those days, while Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate, Bigthan and Teresh, two of the king’s officials from those who guarded the door, became angry and sought to lay hands on King Ahasuerus. 22 But the plot became known to Mordecai, and he told Queen Esther, and Esther informed the king in Mordecai’s name. 23 Now when the plot was investigated and found to be so, they were both hanged on a gallows; and it was written in the Book of the Chronicles in the king’s presence.
These closing verses of chapter 2 are far from incidental to the story of Esther. Verse 19 informs us of a situation of great bearing on the Jews’ fate, which it seems will soon hang by a proverbial thread. Although Ahasuerus loved Esther and she had been chosen as the queen to replace Vashti, a second gathering of virgins takes place. These appear to be either the first group of virgins who are given a kind of second chance, or yet another crop of beauties found in the kingdom who have just finished their period of preparation (see 2:12). Exactly who these women are does not matter. What matters is that the king seems to be preoccupied with them and not with Esther (see 4:11). If Esther wanted to gain access to the king, this would not appear to be the opportune moment.
The second problem is that Esther has not yet revealed her identity to the king, even though years have passed since she was made queen.21 Knowing Esther was a Jew may have disqualified her from being a contestant in the queen contest. But if the king knew her identity and accepted it, he most certainly would not knowingly condemn all Jews to death. Why Esther is still doing as Mordecai instructs her is somewhat puzzling, as she is now the wife of King Ahasuerus and the Queen (see verse 20). It is almost as though she were still a small child growing up in Mordecai’s house.
Any concerns we may have seem to be set aside by the report given in verses 21-23. Mordecai routinely stationed himself at the gate nearest to Esther’s living quarters. He certainly stayed close to keep informed of her welfare. And since Esther had kept not only her Jewish race a secret, but also her relationship to Mordecai, he had no direct access to the queen, who was surely secluded in the palace.22 Two of the king’s officials, Bigthan and Teresh, who seem to have been on duty there, became embittered against the king and conspired to kill him. In their position, they would have the access and opportunity to do so. Somehow, Mordecai learned of this plot and reported the matter to Esther, who in turn informed the king in Mordecai’s name. Lest we think this an idle threat, some time later the king was killed by an assassination after a number of years on the throne.23
One does not know Mordecai’s motives in reporting this plot to Esther, but the fact that he reported it to Esther suggests Mordecai was probably more concerned about Esther than the king. If Esther happened to be with the king at the time an attempt was made on his life, she would be in grave danger.24 And, if the king were killed, she would most likely cease to be the queen.25 Although Esther did give Mordecai credit for informing her of this plot, she still does not indicate her relationship to Mordecai or her identity as a Jew.
1 After these events King Ahasuerus promoted Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him and established his authority over all the princes who were with him. 2 And all the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate bowed down and paid homage to Haman; for so the king had commanded concerning him. But Mordecai neither bowed down nor paid homage. 3 Then the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate said to Mordecai, “Why are you transgressing the king’s command?” 4 Now it was when they had spoken daily to him and he would not listen to them, that they told Haman to see whether Mordecai’s reason would stand; for he had told them that he was a Jew. 5 When Haman saw that Mordecai neither bowed down nor paid homage to him, Haman was filled with rage. 6 But he disdained to lay hands on Mordecai alone, for they had told him who the people of Mordecai were; therefore Haman sought to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, who were throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus.
7 In the first month, which is the month Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus, Pur, that is the lot, was cast before Haman from day to day and from month to month, until the twelfth month, that is the month Adar. 8 Then Haman said to King Ahasuerus, “There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of all other people, and they do not observe the king’s laws, so it is not in the king’s interest to let them remain. 9 “If it is pleasing to the king, let it be decreed that they be destroyed, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those who carry on the king’s business, to put into the king’s treasuries.” 10 Then the king took his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews. 11 And the king said to Haman, “The silver is yours, and the people also, to do with them as you please.” 12 Then the king’s scribes were summoned on the thirteenth day of the first month, and it was written just as Haman commanded to the king’s satraps, to the governors who were over each province, and to the princes of each people, each province according to its script, each people according to its language, being written in the name of King Ahasuerus and sealed with the king’s signet ring. 13 And letters were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all the Jews, both young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, and to seize their possessions as plunder. 14 A copy of the edict to be issued as law in every province was published to all the peoples so that they should be ready for this day. 15 The couriers went out impelled by the king’s command while the decree was issued in Susa the capital; and while the king and Haman sat down to drink, the city of Susa was in confusion.
Yet another strange twist takes place in the story of Esther. We would have expected Mordecai’s “loyalty” to the king to be rewarded. The incident was recorded in the chronicles of the king, but it was also promptly forgotten even though this king was known for rewarding loyalty.26 Instead of reading of Mordecai’s promotion, a man named Haman suddenly appears from nowhere and becomes the second most powerful leader in the Persian empire. We are given no information as to how this man rose to power. It is noteworthy that once Haman rises to power, we no longer find the princes mentioned from whom Ahasuerus formerly sought wise counsel. This man seemed to have the king’s ear.
The only thing we are told about Haman is that he was the son of Hammedatha the Agagite (3:1). Mordecai was a Benjamite, a descendant of King Saul. Saul was to have killed King Agag, the king of the Amalekites, but failed to do so. The prophet Samuel slew him instead (see 1 Samuel 15). In the prophecy of Balaam, the promised Messiah was said to be “higher than Agag” (Numbers 24:7). It was as though these former events destined these two men to be arch enemies and that Haman would not prevail.27
Initially, the conflict was not between Haman and Mordecai but between Mordecai and the king’s servants at the king’s gate. Mordecai refused to “bow down or pay homage” to Haman (3:2). The king’s servants could not help but notice and rebuked Mordecai for refusing to abide by the king’s orders. This did not change Mordecai’s actions; he defended his actions by simply telling them that he was a Jew. To him, being a Jew exempted or prohibited him from such acts. This seems to have irritated the king’s servants who informed Haman. Now they would see whether Mordecai’s reason would stand under the scrutiny of Haman himself (3:4).
Haman was furious. How dare this man defy him and the king! Haman took Mordecai’s words seriously. Did Mordecai refuse to bow down to him because he was a Jew? Then this must mean all Jews would act in the same way. If this were true, Haman would not be content to deal only with Mordecai; he would deal with all the Jews. He waited for the opportune time. The first month was looked upon by the Persians as the time for determining the right moment for carrying out future actions.28 This was not decided on the basis of the position of the planets or stars but by the throw of the dice.29 The lot fell to the last month, the month of Adar. Specifically, in the edict which went forth, the fateful day was decreed to be the thirteenth day of the twelfth month (verse 13).30 This was the time for Haman to carry out his plot. It would be worth the wait, because fate was with him. In the providence of God, this delay gave ample time for the reversal of the king’s decree and for the Jews to defend themselves against their enemies.31
Having determined the right time to annihilate the Jews, Haman approached the king. He cleverly avoided mentioning the Jews by name but secured the king’s permission to destroy all of them.32 Haman put two incentives before the king: (1) it would rid the kingdom of a rebellious people who would not submit to his authority and who would likely be the source of a future revolt, and (2) by his generous contribution to the king’s treasury and the confiscation of Jewish assets, the king would be financially prospered.
There is little debate over the financial attraction of this offer.33 While the king appears to turn down the offer of a payment from Haman, many see this as a typical oriental way of bargaining (see Genesis 23:1-16). The king would thus benefit both from Haman’s payment and from a portion of the spoils which were confiscated.
The first matter is of more interest to us. Many look upon the statement of Haman as a mixture of half-truths and lies and see the allegations as unfounded. They find Mordecai to be righteous in his refusal to bow down to Haman:
“When the king’s servants asked Mordecai: ‘Why transgressest thou the king’s commandment?’ he ‘told them he was a Jew’ (iii. 4); so that his refusal was clearly because of his Jewish faith. He would not yield to man that which is due to God alone; even as the faithful Jewish remnant in the final tribulation will not bow to the beast nor receive his mark upon them.”34
“The king has even commanded that every knee shall bow to him. But while others bow the knee there is one who refuses, even ‘Mordecai the Jew.’ Unlike the Persians, who, according to Plutarch, regarded their king as the very image of God, Mordecai will not yield to any man the reverence which belongs alone to the one true God in whom he believes, any more than Daniel would pay Divine homage to king Darius. Haman’s fury at this results in the decree for the slaughtering of all the Jews in the Persian empire, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month.”35
“Had the homage been a simple token of civil respect, Mordecai would not have refused it; but the Persian kings demanded a sort of adoration, which, it is well known, even the Greeks reckoned it degradation to express; and as Xerxes, in the height of his favouritism, had commanded the same honours to be given to the minister as to himself, this was the ground of Mordecai’s refusal.”36
“Haman . . . found it essential to misrepresent the Jews as a rebellious and dangerous element within the empire. Similar accusations were leveled at Christ Himself (cf. Luke 23:2) and the early Christians (Acts 16:20-21; 24:5). It was in anticipation of this very danger that God led Jeremiah to admonish the Jews who had been exiled to Babylonia: ‘Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare’ (Jer. 29:7). It is true that the Jews refused to worship mere creatures (cf. Dan. 3:12; 6:10), but to say that they did not obey ‘the king’s laws’ was a diabolical perversion of the facts for the sake of personal gain.”37
Here is a most important question: “Was Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to Haman an act of stubborn rebellion, an attitude and act which was typical of the Jews?” It is almost amazing to find that many scholars find Haman’s accusations to be false:
Haman used a mixture of truth, error, and exaggerations to convince the king. C. Moore describes it vividly: “Haman’s accusation of the Jews (v. 8) was diabolically clever in its construction, proceeding as it did from the truth (‘dispersed and scattered’) to half-truth (‘customs are different’) to an outright lie (‘who do not obey the king’s laws’).” Those who oppose God’s work use seemingly logical arguments to persuade official (and public) opinion. The method is similar to that found in Matt. 4:1-11 (and Luke 4:1-13).38
I must differ. I do not like Haman nor would I try to defend him. His guilt, in my opinion, is to be found more in what he did not say (naming the Jews specifically) and in his manipulation of the king. But essentially his charge against Mordecai and the Jews is correct. For this conclusion, consider the following:
(1) The Bible indicates the Jews have consistently been rebels against God. This is probably best summed up by Stephen in an indictment that led to his death:
51 “You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. 52 Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become; 53 you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it” (Acts 7:50-53).
(2) The Old Testament indicates Haman was right in saying the Jews of his day were rebellious trouble-makers. Their captivity and the destruction of Jerusalem were due to their rebellion. In an effort to interrupt the reconstruction of the temple, the Samaritans sent a letter to Ahasuerus at the beginning of his reign, making accusations against the Jews who lived in Judah and Jerusalem (Ezra 4:6).39 We do not know what became of this letter, but we do have Ezra’s account of a later letter sent to Artaxerxes, the son of Ahasuerus. In this letter, the Jews are accused of being a race who persistently rebel against their captors and are trouble-makers. When Artaxerxes investigates by looking into the records, he finds this accusation is true:
8 Rehum the commander and Shimshai the scribe wrote a letter against Jerusalem to King Artaxerxes, as follows—9 then wrote Rehum the commander and Shimshai the scribe and the rest of their colleagues, the judges and the lesser governors, the officials, the secretaries, the men of Erech, the Babylonians, the men of Susa, that is, the Elamites, 10 and the rest of the nations which the great and honorable Osnappar deported and settled in the city of Samaria, and in the rest of the region beyond the River. And now 11 this is the copy of the letter which they sent to him: “To King Artaxerxes: Your servants, the men in the region beyond the River, and now 12 let it be known to the king, that the Jews who came up from you have come to us at Jerusalem; they are rebuilding the rebellious and evil city, and are finishing the walls and repairing the foundations. 13 Now let it be known to the king, that if that city is rebuilt and the walls are finished, they will not pay tribute, custom, or toll, and it will damage the revenue of the kings. 14 Now because we are in the service of the palace, and it is not fitting for us to see the king’s dishonor, therefore we have sent and informed the king, 15 so that a search may be made in the record books of your fathers. And you will discover in the record books, and learn that that city is a rebellious city and damaging to kings and provinces, and that they have incited revolt within it in past days; therefore that city was laid waste. 16 We inform the king that, if that city is rebuilt and the walls finished, as a result you will have no possession in the province beyond the River.” 17 Then the king sent an answer to Rehum the commander, to Shimshai the scribe, and to the rest of their colleagues who live in Samaria and in the rest of the provinces beyond the River: “Peace. And now 18 the document which you sent to us has been translated and read before me. 19 And a decree has been issued by me, and a search has been made and it has been discovered that that city has risen up against the kings in past days, that rebellion and revolt have been perpetrated in it, 20 that mighty kings have ruled over Jerusalem, governing all the provinces beyond the River, and that tribute, custom, and toll were paid to them (Ezra 4:8-20, emphasis mine).
This is exactly how the Samaritan enemies of the Jews were able to stop the construction work on the temple. They charged the Jews with being stiff-necked and rebellious against their captors. They encouraged the king of Persia to check it out in the official records. And there he discovered they were right; the Jews were trouble-makers. It appears from their history that allowing them to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple would only serve to equip them for another rebellion. In this way, Mordecai’s actions were typical of the Jews as a nation.
(3) Nowhere in our text is there any suggestion that bowing down to Haman was an act of worship or an acknowledgement of deity. In chapter 3 of the Book of Daniel, it is very clear that bowing down to the golden image is false worship. Such is not the case here. In chapter 5, verse 9, Haman is again angered by Mordecai, because Mordecai would not stand up or move for him as he passed. This is not worship; this is simply showing respect to one in a higher position.
(4) What Mordecai would not do in response to Haman, other godly Jews would and did do in response to their superiors (see 1 Samuel 24:8; 2 Samuel 1:2; 9:6, 8; 14:4, 22, 33; 18:28; 1 Kings 1:16, 23, 31, 53; 1 Chronicles 21:21). It was also done to show respect to pagan authorities:
14 Then Pharaoh sent and called for Joseph, and they hurriedly brought him out of the dungeon; and when he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came to Pharaoh (Genesis 41:14).
A Jew would wear a beard while an Egyptian would be clean-shaven. It is easy to understand how Joseph, a prisoner, would have a beard, but it was also a part of his Jewish identity. Joseph shaved his beard, however, before he appeared before the Pharaoh. He was not worshipping the Pharaoh; he was simply showing him proper respect. But Mordecia seems to have worn his Jewishness as a banner. He would do nothing to show respect to this man Haman, even though the king had commanded it.
Obeying the king of Persia was not simply a matter of necessity—do so or die. It was a command from God. When the false prophets urged the people of God not to serve the king who captured them, it was God who commanded the Jews to serve Him:
6 “‘And now I have given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, My servant, and I have given him also the wild animals of the field to serve him. 7 And all the nations shall serve him, and his son, and his grandson, until the time of his own land comes; then many nations and great kings will make him their servant. 8 And it will be, that the nation or the kingdom which will not serve him, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and which will not put its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, I will punish that nation with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence,” declares the Lord, “until I have destroyed it by his hand. 9 But as for you, do not listen to your prophets, your diviners, your dreamers, your soothsayers, or your sorcerers, who speak to you, saying, ‘You shall not serve the king of Babylon.’ 10 For they prophesy a lie to you, in order to remove you far from your land; and I will drive you out, and you will perish. 11 But the nation which will bring its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, I will let remain on its land,” declares the Lord, “and they will till it and dwell in it.”’“ 12 And I spoke words like all these to Zedekiah king of Judah, saying, “Bring your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon, and serve him and his people, and live! 13 Why will you die, you and your people, by the sword, famine, and pestilence, as the Lord has spoken to that nation which will not serve the king of Babylon? 14 So do not listen to the words of the prophets who speak to you, saying, ‘You shall not serve the king of Babylon,’ for they prophesy a lie to you; 15 for I have not sent them,” declares the Lord, “but they prophesy falsely in My name, in order that I may drive you out, and that you may perish, you and the prophets who prophesy to you” (Jeremiah 27:6-15).
Were the Jews to worship the king? Most certainly not. But they are not being asked to worship him; they are only commanded to show respect to his appointed officials. And this Mordecai would not do. Haman was right; Mordecai was a rebel, and in this he was not much different from his Jewish brethren.
(5) Later Jewish additions to our text betray the fact that Mordecai was being stubborn and rebellious. The Alexandrian Jews, uneasy with Mordecai’s attitudes and actions as conveyed in the Hebrew text, sought to improve his image with this insertion:
“About 100 B.C., Alexandrian Jews, possibly in an effort to vindicate the spirituality of Mordecai . . . put this prayer into his mouth: ‘You know all things; you know, Lord, that it was not because of insolence or arrogance or vanity that I did this, that I did not bow down before arrogant Haman; for I would have been quite willing to have kissed the soles of his feet for Israel’s sake. But I did it in order that I might not put the glory of a man above the glory of God.’“40
If it were not so obvious that Mordecai was a proud, self-willed Jew, later Jews would see no need to tamper with the original text.
(6) Mordecai’s refusal to show respect and honor to Haman is hypocritical. Mordecai lives by a double standard. If bowing to the king (or one of his officials) is some kind of false worship, then he is forcing Esther to be an idolatress by insisting she conceal her identity as a Jew. Mordecai could at least offer his being Jewish as an excuse for disobeying the king’s command. But Esther could offer no such excuse, because she was told to conceal her identity. Thus, Esther must have bowed to her king and to his officials. If doing so is so wrong, why would Mordecai allow—better yet necessitate, her doing so?
It only becomes worse. Mordecai receives what he is unwilling to give. Mordecai will not honor the man whom the king has commanded all the citizens of his kingdom to honor. But in chapter 6, when the king orders Haman to see to it that Mordecai is honored, Haman (reluctantly) obeys, and Mordecai willingly receives this honor:
10 Then the king said to Haman, “Take quickly the robes and the horse as you have said, and do so for Mordecai the Jew, who is sitting at the king’s gate; do not fall short in anything of all that you have said.” 11 So Haman took the robe and the horse, and arrayed Mordecai, and led him on horseback through the city square, and proclaimed before him, “Thus it shall be done to the man whom the king desires to honor” (Esther 6:10-11).
If it is wrong for men to honor a man as God, as many scholars say in defending Mordecai’s rebellion, why is it suddenly right for men to do so to Mordecai and for him to receive that honor? Later, Mordecai will be given Haman’s position and power. I have no doubt Mordecai expected and received the very honor from men which he, as a Jew, would not give to the man who held the same position. Mordecai is a hypocrite!
I am not entirely alone in this conclusion. Whitcomb comes very close to saying that Mordecai is a stubborn, willful, rebellious Jew, whose refusal to show deference to Haman is nothing less than sin:
Although later writers have asserted that ‘Persian kings assume divine honours . . . no such claim on the part of the kings is found in the Persian monuments.’ (Paton, p. 196) Daniel had no problem saying to Darius the Mede: ‘O king, live forever!’ (Dan. 6:21; cf. Neh. 2:3 for Nehemiah’s homage to Artaxerxes). It is therefore preferable to conclude that Mordecai’s actions be seen ‘as an expression of Jewish national spirit and pride rather than adherence to Exod. 20:5.’41
I believe this is what the author wants us to conclude. There is nothing pious about Mordecai’s attitudes and actions. Neither he nor Esther are model saints. They are much more like Jonah than like Daniel. God does not spare His people because of Mordecai or Esther’s faith or faithfulness. He does so in spite of their willfulness and sin. To sanctify the actions of Mordecai and Esther, we must distort the text just as the Jews of the first century did by adding verses which obscured the sins of these individuals, who did not return to the promised land but stayed behind in the land of their captivity.
Haman pulled it off. It is hard to explain what happened to the king’s princes who advised him so well regarding his handling of Vashti. It is hard to grasp how this king could give Haman blank check permission to pass irreversible legislation to exterminate an undesignated people. But it was done. The king gave Haman approval of his plan and then left the details to him. He gave Haman his signet ring so he could seal the document without the king so much as reading it. Haman knew all too well what to do from here, and he did it. The law was written, translated into the languages of those in the kingdom, and then distributed by couriers to all the provinces.
On the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the citizens of the kingdom were given license to kill the entire race of the Jews, men, women, and children, and to take their possessions as spoil (3:12). The law was to be published in all the provinces so all would see it and comply.
The implications of this law are astounding. Not only were Mordecai, Esther, and the residents of Susa condemned to death, but all the Jews throughout the Persian empire. This includes the Jews who have returned to the promised land! Can you imagine the jubilation of the Samaritans when they read the Jews were not only condemned to death, but they could take their possessions as well? It was a dream come true to the enemies of Israel.
This summer a series of disastrous forest fires swept across the Northwest. Tragically, in one of the large fires in Colorado, over a dozen fire fighters died when they were trapped by flames, whipped up by high winds and tinder dry forests. Just recently, the results of an investigation into these deaths was released with a most distressing conclusion. Officials determined the incident was the result of a sequence of human failures. Had policies and procedures been followed, none of the dead would have perished in the flames.
Our passage ends in disaster as well. While the king and his drinking buddy, Haman, sit on the balcony of the palace sipping their drinks, the whole city is in turmoil. How could things have gone so wrong? The answer, in part, is that men failed. Our text is an illustration of the truth of Romans 3:10, echoing Psalm 14:1-3 and 51:1-4: “There is none righteous, not even one.”
It should not come as a surprise that things would go so badly for those Jews who refused to return to Jerusalem and Judah. After all, God had long before warned that those who rebelled against His laws would live in constant danger:
62 “Then you shall be left few in number, whereas you were as the stars of heaven for multitude, because you did not obey the Lord your God. 63 And it shall come about that as the Lord delighted over you to prosper you, and multiply you, so the Lord will delight over you to make you perish and destroy you; and you shall be torn from the land where you are entering to possess it. 64 Moreover, the Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth; and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone, which you or your fathers have not known. 65 And among those nations you shall find no rest, and there shall be no resting place for the sole of your foot; but there the Lord will give you a trembling heart, failing of eyes, and despair of soul. 66 So your life shall hang in doubt before you; and you shall be in dread night and day, and shall have no assurance of your life. 67 In the morning you shall say, ‘Would that it were evening!’ And at evening you shall say, ‘Would that it were morning!’ because of the dread of your heart which you dread, and for the sight of your eyes which you shall see. 68 And the Lord will bring you back to Egypt in ships, by the way about which I spoke to you, ‘You will never see it again!’ And there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer” (Deuteronomy 28:62-68).
A series of fatal failures brought matters to the low point of chapter 3 of Esther. First, the king had failed by showing the same wisdom and discernment found in chapter 1. In chapter 1, the king heeded the wise counsel of his noble princes. In chapter 2, he acted on the advice of his valets. Now in chapter 3, he acts on the sole counsel of Haman. He gives this man complete authority so he can pass laws which the king has never even read (he has the king’s signet ring). The king will later be shocked by the law Haman passed, with his permission. In effect, the king pronounced the death sentence on an entire race, a race not even identified other than in vague, general terms. The king failed to honor a man whose actions saved his life and his kingdom, and he handed that kingdom over to Haman, who intended to kill Mordecai and his entire race. One comes away with the distinct impression that the king’s dullness is the result of his distraction with women (2:19) and his possible abuse of wine (3:15). From a merely human point of view, the king makes some very foolish mistakes in our text.
Esther’s submission to her step-father, even above her husband and king, also puts her in a bad light. She has become the queen of Persia on false pretenses. I do not think she lied; she seems rather to have taken the position, “Ask me no questions, and I’ll tell you no lies.” The king did not ask, as he surely should have (any husband would want to know who his wife’s relatives are), and she did not tell. Had the king known that Esther was a Jew, and that Haman’s proposed action was against all Jews, he surely would have done otherwise.
Of course, Haman is a wicked man. It is not at all difficult to see that he is arrogant and proud and that he hates not only Mordecai, but all Jews. He deceives his king and manipulates him, abusing his power. He seeks the destruction of an entire race. Who can say anything good about this wicked man? Surely he contributes to the chaos and confusion.
But my focus is on Mordecai. I am especially interested in him because he seems to be the central figure of the entire Book of Esther. The book might be more properly called the Book of Mordecai: he is the one who seems to enter her in the contest for queen; he instructs her to keep her identity a secret; he still exercised authority over her rather than her husband, the king. But most of all, Mordecai brought the entire Jewish race into grave danger because of his stubborn pride and rebellion—not because of his righteousness. Haman did not even know about Mordecai until the king’s servants drew his rebellion to this official’s attention. Even when rebuked, Mordecai would not submit or show respect. Even the one good thing he did (inform the king of the plot to kill him) seems to have been an act of self-interest; he was protecting Esther and his interests by saving the king’s skin.
It is bad enough that Mordecai was wicked and endangered his own people. But his hypocrisy in doing so is even worse. In the midst of his sin, he sought to sanctify it so it looked like righteousness. And it worked! It still works today, because Christians are still not only defending him, but are holding him up as a model for all of us to follow as we see in this comment:
“In the characters Esther and Mordecai we find examples of how to live the obedient life. Like Joseph and Daniel in foreign courts, so Esther and Mordecai were obedient to God’s direction and plan. Esther was a model disciple of God we should imitate. She constantly did the right thing, made the right decision, and said the right words. Esther embodied faith.”42
Here is a warning for us. Let us beware of being just like Mordecai, practicing sin in the name of Christianity. Many of us who name the name of Christ have angered others because we were not acting like Christians. But when we defend our actions as being Christian, the unbelieving world sees our hypocrisy and concludes all Christians are like us. Not only do we bring a reproach on ourselves, we bring a reproach on the name of Christ.
This is exactly why Peter wrote these words to Christians centuries ago:
11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts, which wage war against the soul. 12 Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may on account of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.
13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, 14 or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. 15 For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. 16 Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. 17 Honor all men; love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king (1 Peter 2:11-17).
This is exactly what Mordecai refused to do. He was living in Persia, but his behavior was not excellent among these heathen, like Joseph and Daniel and others had been. His behavior did not exhibit respect for those in authority. He used his Jewishness as a “covering for evil.” When we suffer for such sin and folly, we then try to console ourselves by saying we have suffered for righteousness’ sake. Peter has something to say about this in the verses which immediately follow:
18 Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. 19 For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a man bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God (1 Peter 2:18-20).
We should consider how we imitate Mordecai by sanctifying our sin with seemingly righteous labels. We continue to live out the same fleshly characteristics we had as unbelievers, but we change the label on what we are doing. We are pushy and self-seeking, labeling this “zeal for the Lord.” We pursue selfish inclinations, tendencies, and activities, and call this “exercising our spiritual gift.” We give someone a “piece of our mind” and call it admonition. We try to get even by crying out for church discipline. We draw attention to ourselves by acting as though we were crusaders, eager only to preserve the pure truth. We call domineering “spiritual leadership,” and we call spineless passivity and inaction “submission.” In order not to run the risk of losing face or friendships, we do not rebuke those in sin but take pride that we are showing “unconditional love.” We cover up the expression of our hostility by labeling it “righteous indignation.”
We seek to counsel others, not because we care so deeply about them, but because it is a pretext for probing into those secret areas of their lives we would not otherwise have the license to explore, satisfying our own curiosities. We tell others what to do, not so much because God has commanded it and we are exhorting them to obey, but because we love to give our own opinions and direct the lives of others.
We preach in a way that criticizes others and challenges their leadership and contributions to the faith to draw attention to ourselves. We talk about discipleship, but in reality, we are simply persuading men to follow us and not our Lord. We talk about prayer requests, which are sometimes merely a pious label for gossip. We say we are preserving purity by separating ourselves from others, but we may really be creating schisms, which the Lord and His apostles condemn and prohibit.
Christians are to be different from unbelievers. We are to be pious in contrast to the lifestyle of the pagans. When you look at the fruit of the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit, you will discover we are to be different not just by attacking the world, but by living in the world with grace and gentleness and kindness. We are to be different; but we are to be different “like God” is different. Our Lord submitted Himself to earthly authorities, and so should we. Our Lord was gracious and compassionate, and so should we be. Our Lord did rebuke and He did attack, but this was not the rule; it was the exception. Let us give serious consideration to those sins we have sanctified in our lives, rather than casting them aside as wretched and filthy and offensive both to God and to men.
Before concluding this lesson, I must emphasize that while the dire circumstances of the Jews are the result of the sins of men, they are also the result of the providential hand of God, causing “all things to work together” not only for His glory, but also for the good of His people. The story is not yet over. When it is, we will see that while men meant this for evil, God meant it for good. But it is all too clear that no credit goes to men. All the glory goes to God, as it should.
20 “The opening sentence of this section has caused problems, because both its meaning and its significance to the author are unclear. The difficulties centre, i. on the Hebrew word translated the second time (Heb. senit), for there had not apparently been such a gathering before, and there are almost as many explanations as commentators.” Joyce, C. Baldwin, Esther: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984), p. 70.
21 Joyce Baldwin seems eager to justify Esther’s deception when she writes, “If the king was required to take a wife from one of seven noble families of Persia, as Herodotus asserts (The Histories iii. 84), there was every good reason for silence on the subject of descent.” Joyce C. Baldwin, p. 71, fn. 1.
22 Some have speculated that Mordecai was stationed at the gate because he was now some kind of public official, appointed by the king but through the intervention of Esther. This is the position taken by J. Sidlow Baxter:
“Mordecai himself was evidently employed in the service of the royal court, for in chapter ii. 5, where he is first mentioned, we are told that he was resident in ‘Shushan the Palace’ (not just in the city, which was quite separate from the palace, as archaeologists have now clearly shown). No one who was not connected with the royal service would have been permitted to reside within those jealously guarded precincts. In chapter ii. 19, 21 we see him fulfilling a regular duty at ‘the king’s gate,’ and in chapter iii. 2 we see him counted among ‘the king’s servants’ which served at the gate. In chapter vi. 10 we see that the king himself knew him as ‘Mordecai the Jew, that sitteth at the king’s gate.’ Had not Mordecai been there on royal service, the palace guards would have summarily dispatched him on his refusing to obey the decree regarding Haman.” J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1960), Vol. 2, p. 270.
While this is possible, it is neither entirely necessary nor crucial to understanding the story as it unfolds.
23 “Xerxes was killed in a conspiracy in 465 and was succeed[ed] by his son Artaxerxes I (465-424).: Mervin Breneman, “Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther,” The New American Commentary (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), p. 279.
“As a Jew, Mordecai could have let the plot continue and taken a chance on having a new king. Such action, however, would have proven harmful to Esther’s role as queen (also cf. Jer 29:7; 1 Tim 2:2). Therefore, in the interest of his adopted Esther and the fate of the Jewish people, Mordecai foiled the plot of the would-be killers. Mervin Breneman, “Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther,” The New American Commentary, (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), Vol. 10, p. 322-323.
25 To speculate a little more, one must wonder just how Mordecai happened to learn of this plot against the king. If Mordecai were known to be a Jew who would not submit to the king, or to his officials, then he would hardly be considered a threat by the king’s enemies. After all, Mordecai’s spirit toward the king may have been deemed little different from that of a revolutionary.
26 “Xerxes was very concerned that loyalty to his throne be highly honored. In fact, Horodotus informs us that at one battle, ‘whenever he saw any of his own captains perform any worthy exploit he inquired concerning him; and the man’s name was taken down by the scribes, together with the names of his father and his city’ (8.90).” John C. Whitcomb, Esther: Triumph of God’s Sovereignty, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1979), p. 61.
“The fact that he [Haman] is introduced here as an ‘Agagite’ has caused many modern scholars to question the historicity of the account, for it would seem highly improbable that a descendant of an Amalekite king executed by Samuel in Palestine nearly half a millennium earlier (s Sam. 15:8; cf. Num. 24:7) could turn up here as a Persian official. A century ago C. F. Keil cautioned that ‘the name Agag is not sufficient for the purpose [of identification], as many individuals might at different times have borne the name Agag, i.e., the fiery.’ But the problem was already solved, for Jules Oppert published an inscription from the time of Sargon of Assyria (c. 725 B.C.) that mentioned Agag as a place in Media (which later was incorporated into the Persian Empire). ‘In the light of this evidence, it is apparent that Haman was a native of this province (rather than a descendant of the Amalekite king, Agag, as late Jewish tradition has supposed).’” John C. Whitcomb, Esther: Triumph of God’s Sovereignty, pp. 62-63.
I prefer the position taken by Breneman, who writes:
“Haman is introduced as ‘the Agagite,’ an intentional reference to the tension between the Israelites and the Amalekites. This enmity stems from the time of the exodus when Israel fought with Amalek in the wilderness. Exodus 17:15 foretells that the Lord would be at war with them from ‘generation to generation.’ Balaam’s oracle (Num 24:7) predicts that the Israelite king would ‘be greater than Agag’ (The Amalekite royal title). The ancient feud between the Israelites and the Amalekites is reported in 1 Sam 15. Agag was king of the Amalekites. Saul the Benjamite, son of Kish (1 Sam 9:1-2) was directed to destroy totally the Amalekites but failed to do so even though he won the war. He took Agag prisoner, but Samuel the prophet confronted Saul and cursed him for not completing the task. Samuel cut Agag into pieces, and Saul’s downfall began. Such a military conquest of Agag and his army is part of Israel’s tradition, which stands behind the scenes of the Book of Esther.” Breneman, p. 326.
28 “‘The beginning of the New Year was an especially appropriate time for Haman to resort to divination because, according to the Babylonian religion, at that time the gods also come together to fix the fate of men.’” John C. Whitcomb, p. 67, citing Moore, Esther, p. 38.
29 “‘Consistent with the author’s practice elsewhere of explaining foreign words and practices . . . he rightly uses here the well-known Hebrew word goral, ‘lot’ (Isa. 34:17; Neh. 10:34; 1 Chron. 26:14; Psa. 22:19; Jonah 1:7; Prov. 18:18) to explain the foreign word pur.’ In a later article on ‘Archaeology and the Book of Esther,’ Moore states: ‘It is clear that the word pur in Esther 3:7 and 9:24 represents the Babylonian word puru, meaning ‘lot,’ and secondarily, ‘fate’ (J. Lewy, Revue Hittite et Asianique, 5 , 117-24)’ Leon J. Wood calls attention to the interesting fact that ‘M. Dieulafoy, who excavated at Susa [1880-90], discovered a quadrangular prism which has the numbers one, two, five, and six engraved on its sides. This no doubt was the type of die used in this determination.’” John C. Whitcomb, p. 66.
“Thus, Nebuchadnezzar’s great decision to attack Jerusalem in 588 B.C. was determined by several forms of divination (Ezek. 21:21), including hepatoscopy, which is divination by examining the liver of a sacrificed sheep.’” Whitcomb, pp. 67-68, citing, J. S. Wright and K. A. Kitchen, ‘Magic and Sorcery,’ in J. D. Douglas, ed., The New Bible Dictionary (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1962), pp. 766-71.
30 “The date, possibly part of the contents of the official wording, was memorable to any Jew because it was the day before the slaying of the Passover lamb (Ex. 12:6). That memorial celebration, with its rehearsal of God’s deliverance from the Pharaoh, could scarcely fail to provoke the question, can our God not save us in an equally decisive way from death under Ahasuerus?” Baldwin, p. 75.
31 “The final outcome once again confirmed God’s assurance to His covenant people that when ‘the lot is cast into the lap . . . its every decision is from the LORD’ (Prov. 16:33). God’s overruling providence was particularly evident in this case, for as the astrologers and magicians cast the lot concerning each subsequent day of the year, it fell upon the thirteenth day of the twelfth and last month, allowing plenty of time for Haman’s plot to be overcome and a counterdecree to be issued.” John C. Whitcomb, p. 67.
32 “It is possible that Haman did not actually name the subculture he was maligning for fear that Xerxes would remember decrees in the Jews’ favor which had been issued by Cyrus and Darius Hystaspes (Ezra 1:1-4; 6:3-5; 6:8-12). Whatever his motive, ‘by slyly omitting the name of the people involved, Haman himself unwittingly set the stage further for Esther’s unexpected opposition and her victory over him.’” John C. Whitcomb, p. 68, citing Moore, Esther, p. 38.
33 “Although the Jews were, of course, completely impoverished when they were exiled to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar in 597 and 586 B.C., it is quite significant that many were able to give generously to their brethren who returned to Palestine under Zerubbabel in 537 B.C. (Ezra 1:4). In fact, it must have been their growing prosperity in Babylonia that deterred the great majority of the exiles from returning to the desolations of their homeland.” John C. Whitcomb, p. 69.
Years ago, my friend Bill McRae and I attended a funeral in a church which no longer clearly proclaimed the gospel. As we walked to our car after the funeral, Bill commented, “It wasn’t what the preacher said that was the problem; it was what he didn’t say.” Often what is not said may be more important than what is said. Think, for instance, of the wife who yearns to hear her husband say, “I love you,” or the young woman who has dated a young man for a long time and has not yet heard the word “marriage” (or today’s word, “commitment”).
In the Book of Esther, what is not said is vitally important. Sadly, many who read and study Esther (including Bible scholars who write commentaries on the book) “fill in the blanks,” rather than leaving them blank and learning from the silence of the author. As we begin our study of chapter 4, I want to ask you to make a commitment: commit yourself to accept the text just as it is. When the author specifically mentions certain things, take note of them. And when the author omits certain crucial elements, do not think he really meant us to assume them; rather, the author expects us to note their absence. In so doing, you will read the text as it is and learn from what is not said as well as from what is.
The author begins the book with a six-month long royal celebration which king Ahasuerus (Xerxes) holds for the nobility of his kingdom. At the end of this celebration, the king holds a week-long banquet for all of the inhabitants of Susa, the capital city, whether rich or poor. As a grand finale, the king summons Vashti, the queen, to appear in her regal attire to display her beauty and enhance the king’s glory.
For some unexplained reason, Vashti did the unthinkable—she refused to appear. The king was humiliated, for he had spent the last six months displaying the glory and sovereignty of his dominion. Now even his wife would not submit to his leadership. Although deeply angered by Vashti’s blatant disregard for his authority, the king sought counsel from the wisest of his princes. They agreed that Vashti had committed a most serious offense, and that news of her disregard for her husband’s authority would likely have an adverse effect on marriages throughout the kingdom. Consequently, they advised the king to remove Vashti as queen and select another better than Vashti; they also advised this should be made a matter of law sent to every province in the kingdom so all would learn that such actions would not be tolerated.
After some time, the king’s heart was once again inclined toward Vashti, but his valets encouraged him to get on with the process of selecting a new queen. For a man like Ahasuerus, this was a great pleasure and kept him from trying to reverse his previous decision. The process of selecting a queen resulted in the selection of Esther, a young Jewess who had been raised by her cousin and step-father, Mordecai. At his instruction, Esther kept her Jewish origins and her relationship to Mordecai a secret.
For whatever reason, there was a second gathering of young women whom the king was busily engaged in trying out (for queen?). Esther continued to keep her identity from the king. While sitting at the king’s gate, Mordecai became aware of a plot by Bigthana and Teresh to kill the king, which he made known to Esther, who in turn informed the king in Mordecai’s name. Further inquiry proved this report to be true, and these two traitors were hung. The king was usually careful to reward acts of loyalty, but for some reason Mordecai was not rewarded, and the matter was forgotten, although it was recorded in the chronicles of the king as he looked on.
Suddenly Haman, a new character, is introduced. Haman appears as a prince who stands head and shoulders above the rest of his peers, at least in the king’s mind. The king had elevated him above all the rest and clearly placed complete trust in him, a decision which proved to be foolish. Although the king commanded all of his citizens to show respect to Haman, Mordecai refused, which caused the king’s servants to rebuke him. When challenged, he excused his actions by simply saying he was a Jew. For him, that was all that was necessary. But for the king’s servants, this made no sense at all. And so they informed Haman to see if he would let Mordecai get away with his stubborn refusal to show respect to the king’s right hand man, in effect, the prime minister of Persia.
Although furious, Haman kept his anger concealed. He looked upon Mordecai as a typical Jew, and his purpose was not only to do away with Mordecai but to do away with every Jew in the kingdom. At the propitious moment, he approached the king with an indictment and a proposal. He informed the king that a certain race of people in the empire were rebels, who could not be kept in submission (not unlike Vashti) and that the king would do well to be rid of them. He offered a very large sum of money to Ahasuerus to proclaim a certain day as the time when anyone in the kingdom could kill every living Jew they encountered and then confiscate their property. It was a tempting way for people to get ahead, to be rid of their enemies, and to practice their racial bigotry.
The name of this race was not made known to the king, and neither did he inquire. Ahasuerus gave his signet ring to Haman, which gave him a blank check. He now had the authority to pass any law he chose—in the king’s name. From all we can tell, the king never read this law nor did he sign it. He left these matters to his most trusted official, Haman. While the king and Haman sat drinking their wine, the entire city of Susa was in confusion. Our text takes up the story at the confusion which came upon the citizens and the city of Susa.
1 When Mordecai learned all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city and wailed loudly and bitterly. 2 And he went as far as the king’s gate, for no one was to enter the king’s gate clothed in sackcloth. 3 And in each and every province where the command and decree of the king came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping, and wailing; and many lay on sackcloth and ashes.
Mordecai, we are told, learned all that had been done. This seems to suggest he was on the “inside track” or at least had access to inside information. We also know this was not Esther, for he is the one who tells her all that has taken place.
When Mordecai becomes aware of the law which has just been created and put into effect by Haman, he begins to mourn. He does not mourn in private, but in public; in fact, his mourning could not have been more public. Mordecai goes into the middle of the city to the “city square” and to the “king’s gate.” He does not enter the gate, for this is forbidden for a mourner. The king wanted to keep a distance between himself and sadness. It was not popular with kings to have sorrow expressed in their court (see Nehemiah 2:2). Kings in medieval times did not have “court mourners,” only court jesters.
It seems Mordecai’s mourning is not quite normal. I would have expected him to mourn privately rather than publicly. I wonder if Mordecai was not a leader among the Jewish people, and his public mourning was the cue for the rest of the Jews to join him in mourning. I also wonder if Mordecai did not station himself before the king’s gate in an effort to get the king’s attention as a kind of official protest.
What we are told is that Mordecai mourned, and so did the rest of the Jews, not only in the capital city of Susa but throughout the kingdom. What we are not told is that Mordecai or any of his fellow-Jews repented. We are not told that any prayed. The name of God is not mentioned here or elsewhere in the Book of Esther. There is no specific mention of prayer, no mention of the Jews speaking to God, nor any reference to God speaking to His people through His prophets. Based upon the instruction given to dispossessed Jews in 2 Chronicles 6:34-39, and the example of godly Jews in Ezra 9:5—10:1; Nehemiah 1:4-11; and Daniel 9:4-19, it seems almost necessary to conclude these Jews—including Esther and Mordecai—are not godly. This is further indicated by the words of the prophet Isaiah:
9 Be delayed and wait. Blind yourselves and be blind. They become drunk, but not with wine; They stagger, but not with strong drink. 10 For the Lord has poured over you a spirit of deep sleep, He has shut your eyes, the prophets; And He has covered your heads, the seers (Isaiah 29:9-10).
Isaiah was a prophet whose task was not to call Israel to repentance or to turn the nation back to God. God’s people had rebelled too long; they had passed the point of no return. It was now time for judgment, and Isaiah’s task was to pronounce the doom of impending judgment in a way that would harden hearts rather than break them (see Isaiah 6:9-10). Later in chapter 29, God indicated the hour of Israel’s doom was near when He took away the prophets, once known as “seers.” In taking away the prophets, God took away the eyes of his people, leaving them in their state of spiritual blindness. Their doom was sealed. Their doom was sure. While we read of prophets in Israel in Ezra and Nehemiah, no prophets are mentioned in the Book of Esther. If men are not speaking to God (in prayer), neither is God speaking to the Jews (in Persia).
4 Then Esther’s maidens and her eunuchs came and told her, and the queen writhed in great anguish. And she sent garments to clothe Mordecai that he might remove his sackcloth from him, but he did not accept them (Esther 4:4).
Learning that Mordecai is in mourning greatly distresses Esther. Nevertheless, her first efforts are not to learn what has caused Mordecai to mourn but to persuade him to stop mourning. Could this be because it is distressing to others in the city and potentially dangerous (Mordecai comes as close to the royal palace as he can, but does not pass through the king’s gate)? Could it be Mordecai was an embarrassment to Esther so that she tried to quickly silence him? She sent clothing to her step-father, hoping to persuade him to put an end to his mourning. But Mordecai was not dissuaded.
5 Then Esther summoned Hathach from the king’s eunuchs, whom the king had appointed to attend her, and ordered him to go to Mordecai to learn what this was and why it was. 6 So Hathach went out to Mordecai to the city square in front of the king’s gate. 7 And Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and the exact amount of money that Haman had promised to pay to the king’s treasuries for the destruction of the Jews. 8 He also gave him a copy of the text of the edict which had been issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show Esther and inform her, and to order her to go in to the king to implore his favor and to plead with him for her people.
Esther needed to find out what was going on, so she sent a trusted servant directly to Mordecai to inquire why he was mourning and would not cease. This communication between Mordecai and Esther (and eventually others, it seems—see the “they” of verse 12 and the “them” of verse 13) certainly seems to threaten Esther’s ability to keep her identity as a Jew and her relationship to Mordecai a secret. Hathach finds Mordecai in the city square at the king’s gate. It could hardly be a more public meeting, but it seems Mordecai wants his mourning to be public. Mordecai reports to Hathach all that had happened to him (verse 7).43 He informs Hathach of the exact amount Haman has promised to contribute to the treasury and also sends with him a copy of the decree Haman has made an irreversible law. These things Hathach is instructed to convey to Esther, along with the command that she approach the king and intercede for the Jews.
9 And Hathach came back and related Mordecai’s words to Esther. 10 Then Esther spoke to Hathach and ordered him to reply to Mordecai: 11 “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that for any man or woman who comes to the king to the inner court who is not summoned, he has but one law, that he be put to death, unless the king holds out to him the golden scepter so that he may live. And I have not been summoned to come to the king for these thirty days.” 12 And they related Esther’s words to Mordecai.
From all we have been told earlier, Esther was accustomed to following Mordecai’s instructions. We may safely assume Mordecai had also become accustomed to being obeyed, even when Esther was the queen (see 2:20). It must have come as quite a shock to receive Esther’s response, which could be summed up in one word: “No!” This time Esther balks. She first informs Mordecai by Hathach that it was against the law to go in to the king without being summoned by him. The penalty for doing so was death, with only a small chance that the king might show mercy by extending his golden scepter and granting that the intruder might live. Since she could not go to the king uninvited, her only hope was to be summoned by the king. Since she could not go to the king uninvited, her only hope was to be summoned by the king. That was a problem; it had been 30 days since Esther had last been with the king. What other answer than "No" could she give to Mordecai?
Those who hasten to see Esther as a hero should ponder verses 9-12, for she is certainly not quick to take up the cause of her people. The principle reason is her own safety. I do not see the same spirit in Esther evident in Daniel’s three friends:
16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this matter. 17 If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (Daniel 3:16-18).
13 Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not imagine that you in the king’s palace can escape any more than all the Jews. 14 For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?”
I do not know who became involved in the communication between Mordecai and Esther, but now it is indicated that others are involved (see verses 12 and 13). Mordecai finds it necessary to use considerable pressure to persuade Esther to intercede for the Jews with the king. His arguments indicate he is now playing hardball with his step-daughter. The arguments are as follows:
(1) Do not think that you will be safe as a Jew, even in the palace. Esther, Mordecai warns, is thinking wishfully. The decree Haman has made into law encompasses all Jews, no matter where they might be found in the kingdom. Esther seems to believe she is safe and that only others are in danger. She is unwilling to put herself in danger by going before the king unannounced to help her fellow-Jews, believing she is safe. Mordecai’s words are designed to convince her this is a myth. If she would not put herself at risk to save others, at least let her risk saving herself. Mordecai wants her to conclude that the most dangerous thing she can do is to do nothing and hope it will all go away.
(2) You are the only hope of deliverance. If Esther does not act on her behalf and on behalf of her fellow-Jews, there is no other hope. How could I possibly reach such a conclusion? Does the text not indicate just the opposite? Does Mordecai not indicate to Esther that if she does not act to save her people, God will bring about their deliverance in some other way? No. Let me explain how I reached this conclusion.
The text need not be translated as we find it in most versions. A Catholic scholar challenges us to translate and understand it in a very different way, a way he believes is as legitimate a translation which better fits the context. This Catholic scholar’s view is cited in a footnote in Mervin Breneman’s commentary on Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther:
“See J. Weibe “Esther 4:14: ‘Will Relief and Deliverance Arise for the Jews from Another Place?’“ CBQ 53 (1991): 409-15. Weibe argues that this phrase should be translated as a rhetorical question, suggesting that the implied answer is no; help would not arise from anywhere else. Thus Esther was the only hope for their deliverance. Weibe suggests that this translation fits the context of the Book of Esther much better than the traditional rendering. Such a reading would, however, limit the resources of God, who brought this about, and transplant the emphasis from God’s work to Esther’s work. God is capable of using anyone for his purposes. He was not limited to using just Esther, but she turned out to be the one because she answered the challenge.”44
I believe Weibe is right. Mordecai could apply a great deal more pressure on Esther by convincing her that she is the only hope of the Jews than by assuring her that another means of deliverance will be provided. In addition, God is not mentioned in the text (let alone the entire book!). Mordecai is not a godly Jew, trusting in God to save his people. He is a disobedient, unbelieving Jew, who seems hardly to think of God. His panic is because he sees the deliverance of the Jews as the result of man’s initiative. If Mordecai does not mention God in our text, we dare not assume he is trusting in God. Esther is the ace up Mordecai’s sleeve, his last hope, Israel’s last chance for survival. If she fails, all is lost. And this explains why he threatens Esther that her family will be wiped out. If deliverance comes from elsewhere, then why would Esther die? As queen, Esther will most certainly not die first. Mordecai’s warning is that she will die in the end. If this is true, then all Jews will perish, and there will be no deliverance from elsewhere. Mordecai reasons that if Esther is the Jew’s last hope, her failure will result in her death and the death of the entire race. No wonder he is so forceful.
(3) The survival of your family name is in your hands. You will recall that Esther is an orphan. He parents are both dead. Mordecai has adopted her as his step-daughter. If Esther fails to act, and both she and Mordecai perish, then her family will be wiped out. And it will be all her fault, Mordecai warns. This is real pressure. The young Jewish girl has never known pressure like this.
15 Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai, 16 “Go, assemble all the Jews who are found in Susa, and fast for me; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens also will fast in the same way. And thus I will go in to the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.” 17 So Mordecai went away and did just as Esther had commanded him (Esther 4:5-17).
The pressure is too great. Esther gives in, sending word to Mordecai that she will intercede with the king for her people. Now that she has taken orders from Mordecai, she begins to give orders. She instructs him to assemble all the Jews who live in Susa and to have them fast for her. None of them is to eat or drink for three days, night or day. She and her maidens will do likewise, and then she will attempt to see the king. She will break the law of the land and take her life into her own hands. Her final words are most instructive:
“. . . and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16b).
There are those who make a hero of Esther. One might be able to stretch the facts far enough to look upon her as a hero. Statements like these below are not the exception, but the rule:
“And if I perish, I perish.” Both Vashti and Mordecai displayed courage in life-threatening situations, and now so did Esther. Vashti showed courage in her refusal to humiliate herself for the whimsical desire of her husband, and Mordecai did so in refusing to bow down to Haman. Esther proved braver still. She had decided to break the law of her husband and risk her very life for her people (cf. John 15:13). God’s providential care had brought Esther to this point, but Esther accepted the challenge that might cost her her life.”45
“Without explicitly spelling out in detail how he came to his convictions, Mordecai reveals that he believes in God, in God’s guidance of individual lives, and in God’s ordering of the world’s political events, irrespective of whether those who seem to have the power acknowledge him or not. This was, of course, constantly declared by the prophets of Israel (e.g. Is. 10:8ff.; 45:1; Je. 1:15;; Ezk. 7:24), and need not come as a surprise, especially in the light of the return from exile in 538 and subsequent occasions (Ezr. 1-2; 5-6). Every Jew had experienced in the history of his people the guiding and saving hand of God.”46
“Esther’s reply is also a confession of faith, though it is not couched in overtly religious language. She implies that she accepts the suggestion of Mordecai as her duty, but that she is full of apprehension at the thought of fulfilling it. By asking that all the Jews in Susa join her in a fast Esther acknowledges that i. she needs the support and fellowship of others and ii. she depends on more than human courage. Though prayer is not mentioned, it was always the accompaniment of fasting in the Old Testament, and the whole point of fasting was to render the prayer experience more effective and prepare oneself for communion with God (Ex. 34:28; Dt. 9:9; Jdg. 20:26; Ezr. 8:21-23).”47
I would not argue that Esther was regarded as a hero by the Jews and even by the author of this book. It is apparent she is still looked upon as such by most Christians today. And I am willing to grant that Esther and Mordecai are heroes, though I find the evidence far from compelling. But I am not willing to concede that Esther and Mordecai were godly. One can be a hero, a true patriot, without being godly. I think Esther and Mordecai were, at best, ungodly heroes. I conclude this for the following reasons:
(1) Esther is willing to risk her life only when pressured by Mordecai, and only after he informs her that her life is in danger also. In other words, Esther acts reluctantly, and in large measure, in self-interest.
(2) Esther’s words, “If I perish, I perish,” are far from an affirmation of faith; they are, instead, a declaration of fatalism. Many years before Esther’s time, Jacob was unwilling to let his son Benjamin go to Egypt with his brothers. He had good reason to fear for his safety. But when he is finally forced to let Benjamin go, he says, “And may God Almighty grant you compassion in the sight of the man, that he may release to you your other brother and Benjamin. And as for me, if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved” (Genesis 43:14). At least Jacob refers to God, while neither Esther nor Mordecai do. But Jacob’s words fall far short of those of a man of faith.
Years ago a young boy whose father was a liberal minister was tragically killed. At his funeral service, they played a song which was said to be this young lad’s “affirmation of faith.” The song was “Zip-a-dee-do-da,” hardly an affirmation of faith. Neither are Jacob’s words in Genesis 43 nor Esther’s words in our text an affirmation of faith. One who would believe this might also be inclined to accept Dinah Shore as a theologian and her song, “Que Sera, Sera,” as a hymn of the faith fit to be placed alongside “How Great Thou Art” in our hymnals. All Esther is saying is: “What will be, will be.” Any unbeliever can say as much, and often does when faced with similar circumstances.48
(3) One must note that the name of God, any affirmation of personal faith, or any clear reference to prayer or repentance is not even found on the lips of either Esther or Mordecai. To me, the silence on such matters is deafening.
(4) The Alexandrian Jews of the first century must have sensed these problems, and “doctored” the text with additions which made both Esther and Mordecai appear spiritual, while our author informs us they were not. Consider this added prayer of Esther not contained in the original Hebrew text, but added to later Greek manuscripts:
Queen Esther also took refuge with the Lord in the mortal peril which had overtaken her. She took off her sumptuous robes and put on sorrowful mourning. Instead of expensive perfumes she covered her head with ashes and dung. She humbled her body severely, and the former scenes of her happiness and elegance were now littered with tresses torn from her hair. She besought the Lord God of Israel in these words:
“‘My Lord, our King, the only one, come to my help, for I am alone and have no helper but you and am about to take my life in my hands. I have been taught from my earliest years, in the bosom of my family, that you, Lord, chose Israel out of all the nations and our ancestors out of all the people of old times to be your heritage for ever; and that you have treated them as you promised. But then we sinned against you, and you handed us over to our enemies for paying honour to their gods. Lord, you are just.
But even now they are not satisfied with the bitterness of our slavery: they have put their hands in the hands of their idols to abolish the decree that your own lips have uttered, to blot out your heritage, to stop the mouths of those who praise you, to quench your altar and the glory of your House, and instead to open the mouths of the heathen, to sing the praise of worthless idols and forever to idolise a king of flesh. Do not yield your sceptre, Lord, to non-existent beings. Never let men mock at our ruin. Turn their designs against themselves, and make an example of him who leads the attack on us. Remember, Lord; reveal yourself in the time of our distress.
As for me, give me courage, King of gods and master of all power. Put persuasive words into my mouth when I face the lion; change his feeling into hatred for our enemy, that the latter and all like him may be brought to their end.
As for ourselves, save us by your hand, and come to my help, for I am alone and have no one but you, Lord. You have knowledge of all things, and you know that I hate honours from the godless, that I loathe the bed of the uncircumcised, of any foreigner whatever. You know I am under constraint, that I loathe the symbol of my high position bound round my brow when I appear at court; I loathe it as if it were a filthy rag and do not wear it on my days of leisure.
Your handmaid has not eaten at Haman’s table, nor taken pleasure in the royal banquets, nor drunk the wine of libations. Nor has your handmaid found pleasure from the day of her promotion until now except in you, Lord, God of Abraham. O God, whose strength prevails over all, listen to the voice of the desperate, save us from the hand of the wicked, and free me from my fear.’“49
A popular slogan goes like this: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The Alexandrian Jews of the first century B.C. believed Esther and Mordecai were “broke,” and they tried to fix them. Their brokenness is the point our author is trying to emphasize, and it is exactly what we should expect of Jews who chose to stay behind, enjoying the comforts of Persia rather than paying the price for returning to Jerusalem, the place of God’s presence. But this is where the godly Jew yearned to be (see Psalm 137).
If Esther and Mordecai are not examples of godliness and faith whom we are to imitate, what are we to learn from this book, particularly from our text? We are to learn a negative lesson. We are to be warned by what we read in our text.
Why are Christians so inclined to embrace Esther and Mordecai as model saints, examples of faith and godliness? First, because they err in assuming that people recorded in Scripture are all godly. And so wayward prophets like Jonah are “sanctified” by a misreading and mishandling of the text. Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi is embraced as a kind and loving woman rather than a grouchy and bitter old woman. Jacob is viewed as a pious man of faith rather than as a deceiving, self-seeking, con artist. And Esther and Mordecai are just one more example of reading the Bible through rose-colored glasses, seeing people in a way that makes us feel comfortable.
Second, we fail to study books like Esther and Jonah in light of the rest of the Old Testament, especially the Law, and contemporary writings. In the case of Esther, we can study this book and its events in light of the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah and the prophecies of Jeremiah and Daniel. Third, we often “guild the lily” because we have been taught to understand the text a certain way, without questioning whether it is correct.
But as we conclude I wish to focus on yet another reason why we fail to understand this book and its message. That reason is simply our being taken in by the hypocrisy of Esther and Mordecai, because we assume that if the right forms are present, the right function is present as well.
We assume that there was repentance because the Jews mourned in Susa and all of the Persian empire. We also assume that because there was fasting, there must also have been prayer. Since Mordecai spoke of the possibility that Esther’s position as queen might prove to be the means of the Jew’s deliverance, we automatically assume Mordecai had faith in God and in His providential care of His people.
As I understand our text, I believe our author is teaching just the opposite. I believe he wants us to understand that we may go through the right motions and yet never really know God. The Old Testament prophets rebuked the Jews for precisely this. They fasted, but it was a mere ritual with no reality:
1 “Cry loudly, do not hold back; Raise your voice like a trumpet, And declare to My people their transgression, And to the house of Jacob their sins. 2 Yet they seek Me day by day, and delight to know My ways, As a nation that has done righteousness, And has not forsaken the ordinance of their God. They ask Me for just decisions, They delight in the nearness of God. 3 ‘Why have we fasted and Thou dost not see? Why have we humbled ourselves and Thou dost not notice?’
Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire, And drive hard all your workers. 4 Behold, you fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist. You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high. 5 Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed, And for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the Lord? 6 Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, And break every yoke?
7 Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry, And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh? 8 Then your light will break out like the dawn, And your recovery will speedily spring forth; And your righteousness will go before you; The glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. 9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; You will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you remove the yoke from your midst, The pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, 10 And if you give yourself to the hungry, And satisfy the desire of the afflicted, Then your light will rise in darkness, And your gloom will become like midday. 11 And the Lord will continually guide you, And satisfy your desire in scorched places, And give strength to your bones; And you will be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water whose waters do not fail. 12 And those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins; You will raise up the age-old foundations; And you will be called the repairer of the breach, The restorer of the streets in which to dwell” (Isaiah 58:1-12).
The same can be said for the sacrifices the Jews routinely offered:
21 “I hate, I reject your festivals, Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. 23 Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24).
6 With what shall I come to the Lord And bow myself before the God on high? Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, With yearling calves? 7 Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams, In ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my first-born for my rebellious acts, The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? 8 He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8).
Going through the right motions and yet never really knowing God was not just a problem of the Jews in Old Testament days. It was the problem of Judaism in the days of our Lord, and later in the early days of the New Testament church, as described in the Book of Acts and the Epistles. The scribes and Pharisees were all caught up in external things, things which could be seen, while God has always been concerned about the unseen (Luke 16:15). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus took mere outward compliance to the letter of the Law much further, boldly stating that one must have a righteousness greater than the scribes and Pharisees to get into heaven (see Matthew 5:20). The Jews thought the measure of a man was to be determined on the basis of his ancestors (see Matthew 3:9), or by whether or not a man was circumcised (see Acts 15:1). Some were sure that mighty works such as casting out demons, prophesying, and performing miracles were proof of one’s piety. Yet Jesus spoke of those who did such things as those who had never been known by God (Matthew 7:13-23).
In the New Testament church at Corinth, some were convinced those who spoke in tongues (the right form) were most certainly the most spiritual (function). And yet spirituality is not measured in terms of the gifts of the Spirit, but the fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22-23). Paul warned that in the last days there would be those who would still have a “form of godliness” who do not have the power of true faith.
My focus is this: Faith must not be judged so much by form as by function. The Jews were faithful to retain and ritualistically carry out all the proper “forms” of their religion, but the essence of true faith and practice was not there. Without the right functions, the forms are worthless and dead. When accompanied by the right functions, the forms are beneficial. But when we assume that having the right forms assures us we also have the right function, we have gone too far; we have become just like the Persian Jews such as Esther and Mordecai.
This matter not only plagued the ancient Jews and the New Testament church, but we find the same problem very much present in contemporary Christianity. There are those who link spirituality with certain experiences. Some of these experiences appear to be biblical (like tongues), and others have no biblical precedent (such as being “slain in the Spirit”). I may have differences with other Christians about whether such experiences are valid today, but this is not my focus at the moment. When anyone says that having such experiences is what makes a person spiritual, I must strongly disagree. I must not only say this is false, but that it is a continuation of the very error which has plagued true religion through the ages. We must not equate certain forms with particular functions. We must not equate, for example, speaking in tongues with being spiritual, even with being “Spirit filled.”
This error is evident in the area of Christian worship. Some people worship by raising their hands (sometimes without really knowing why). I have no real objection to this. Others worship without raising their hands (perhaps for the same reasons others do—custom or culture). I have no problem with this. But if we dare to say there is no real worship without the raising of hands, or that we cannot truly worship with raised hands, we have equated form and function, and we are wrong—whether we raise our hands or keep them down.
Some people try to tell us our worship is not emotional enough. Perhaps we may be too intellectual, but much of the emotion in worship, or the lack of it, is more a matter of culture than biblical mandate and definition. We are to worship God “in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:23); that leaves a lot of room for variations, does it not? If we worship “in Spirit and in truth” with uplifted hands, fine, but let us not look down on those who worship “in Spirit and in truth” without raising their hands or even their voices. And let us not try to compel others to worship the way we do, as though our way is better.
Many point to David’s worship before the ark when he danced before the Lord. They seem to think this is a pattern we should follow. I think we can see it was not even normal for David, let alone other Israelites. The problem with Saul’s daughter Michal was not that she failed to worship as David did, but that she disdained David for the way he worshipped, and this out of pride. She was too proud to humble herself in worship, as David did (see 1 Chronicles 15:29).
But pointing to David, some think his actions justify a kind of total abandonment in worship. Worship, they think and say, is “letting yourself go.” No, it is not. Paul is very clear on this point in 1 Corinthians. The Corinthians were “letting themselves go,” and they were rebuked for it. Just anything does not go in worship. Just because one feels like doing something does not mean he or she should. Only two or three are to prophesy or speak in tongues, and the tongues speakers were only to speak if they knew an interpreter was present. Paul taught that edification is the guiding principle in participation, not self-expression. Paul taught that everything should be done “decently, and in an orderly way” (1 Corinthians 14:40). If David’s example leaves some room for creativity and spontaneity, Paul’s teaching also requires discipline and order. Let us not rush to one extreme and abandon the other guiding principles for worship. And let me also say, somewhat parenthetically, that for every person who forsakes cold, sterile, emotionless worship for something more stirring and spontaneous, there is another who is tired of frantic, frenzied, undisciplined worship and leaves it for more serene, sober, and disciplined worship.
Our church has some very definite convictions about the way a church should be structured and about its worship and ministry. In other words, we have some strong convictions about “forms,” forms which we believe to be biblical. Having said this, I must also say it is possible for us to have just the right forms and lack the right function. The right forms do not insure spirituality, godliness, or worship. Likewise, there are churches who for one reason or another do not have the same forms we do, but who nevertheless manifest the vitality and function which is biblical and New Testament. Ideally, we should have biblical forms and biblical functions. Practically, it is difficult to have both. Most often, we can still retain the former without even knowing that we have lost the latter. Let us therefore take this text in Esther as a warning to us not to equate form and function, not to think that because we are going through the right motions we are living in fellowship with God.
It is indeed sad when Christians become obsessed with the forms and forget the functions. But it is even sadder when a person goes through life thinking he or she is a Christian because they have observed certain forms. Some may think that because they have walked an aisle, or raised their hand, or prayed a prayer after someone, or been baptized, or joined a church, or attended worship services, or put money in the offering plate, that they are saved. Being a Christian is not so much a matter of form as it is of function. A Christian is a person who has passed from darkness to light, from death to life, from being condemned by God to being justified by God. Being a Christian is not so much a matter of what we do as it is of trusting in what Christ has done. He died on the cross of Calvary for our sins. He suffered God’s punishment in our place. And He offers His righteousness to us, so that we may spend eternity in the presence of God. Do you have this life? Do not trust in forms. Trust in Christ. Rituals will never get you to heaven. Only Christ can do that. Trust in Christ alone today.
43 Does his speaking of recent events as “all that had happened to him” indicate it was because of his actions that these things happened, or does it suggest that Mordecai is thinking too much of himself and the danger he faces?
My wife was raised in Seattle, Washington, and we both attended college there. In its early years, the City of Seattle went through a radical change as the result of one simple device. To be sure, each of us considers this an important device, although we would not expect it to change an entire city. The device which changed the course of Seattle’s history was the flush toilet. Perhaps you have visited Seattle and taken the tour of the underground city which my family and I took some years ago.
How could a toilet change an entire city? A city of several hills, Seattle is located on Puget Sound. In its early years, Seattle was a logging town and consequently was built from the sound inland. Flush toilets were much more popular than outhouses, and so people began to equip their homes and businesses with toilets. But when the tide came in, flush toilets posed a problem in Seattle. Unfortunately, early Seattlites ran their sewage into the sound. When the tide was out, there was no problem, but when the tide came in, toilets backed up. Worse yet, they overflowed.
Obviously, the situation was intolerable. Toilets on upper floors or in houses above sea level had fewer problems. But other toilets were so problematic they were elevated. One had to ascend to the toilet when it was on a low level floor. Literally, platforms were built to raise the level of toilets above sea level. Finally, it was decided the only permanent solution was to raise the level of the city by moving some of the earth from the hills down to the lower levels. Since many buildings already existed, they simply built them higher and filled in dirt around the outside of the buildings, raising the level of the ground ten or fifteen feet. Sometimes, these lower level floors were virtually abandoned. During the prohibition years, they were used for speak-easies. Now, the city has renovated these lower floors and created a kind of underground city of shops, restaurants, and other businesses.
Seattle’s dilemma illustrates how something seemingly insignificant can impact an entire city. Yet in the story of our text, the same is true. A sleepless night for the king changed the course of history and resulted in the deliverance of the Jews throughout the Persian Empire. In reality, it was a divinely orchestrated sequence of events. Those events nullified the law wicked Haman had passed by deceiving the king and spared the lives of the Jews throughout the empire.
This story of Esther’s appeal to the king and its aftermath is one of the great pieces of literature. The story is masterfully told, keeping the reader in suspense with unexpected twists and turns in the plot. Suddenly, the entire course of events is reversed by the king, so that wicked Haman is hanged on the very gallows he had intended for Mordecai, and the man whom he sought to kill is elevated to take his place. It is not just a great story magnificently told, but a story with important lessons for us to learn.
Vashti had been removed as the queen, and Esther had been chosen by the king to take her place. At Mordecai’s command, Esther had still not revealed her identity as a Jew or her relationship to Mordecai. A second group of young virgins was being tried out by the king, and Esther had not been summoned by the king for 30 days. While at the king’s gate, Mordecai became aware of a plot against the king’s life, which he reported to Esther. She in turn reported the matter to the king who investigated and had the two traitors hung. Mordecai’s loyalty was recorded, but for some reason it was not immediately rewarded.
Haman, a man previously unknown to us, suddenly and unexplainably rises to power in the Persian Empire, second in power only to the king. Somehow, the king comes to place his entire trust in Haman and gives him virtually a “blank check” to do as he pleases. Mordecai refuses to show Haman the respect the king had commanded. When rebuked by the king’s servants, he explains only in terms of his identity as a Jew. These servants report Mordecai’s actions to Haman, who comes not only to hate Mordecai but to despise the whole Jewish race. Haman waits for the right moment to exterminate them all. He is able to deceive the king and obtain power to pass a law which gave the enemies of the Jews permission to kill the Jews and seize their property.
When Mordecai becomes aware of this, he and the other Jews begin to mourn publicly. Esther tries to no avail to persuade him to stop. When Esther sends her trusted servant to speak with Mordecai, she is informed about all that has happened and is instructed by Mordecai to intercede for her people by appealing to the king. Esther declines, indicating this is virtually impossible and very dangerous. Only after Mordecai applies considerable pressure does Esther consent to appeal to the king. After three days of fasting, she makes her appearance before the king, an appearance which could very well cost her her life.
Before considering the intrigue of the events surrounding Esther’s two banquets, let us pause to reflect on just how difficult this task is. You may remember the television series, “Mission Impossible,” in which each episode begins with an impossible situation the team is called upon to solve. The obstacles are incredible and the timing flawless. The task Esther sets out to accomplish in our text is truly an impossible mission when you consider these obstacles:
(1) To speak to the king, Esther has to break the law for which the penalty is death. For Esther to appeal to the king, she must break the law of the land and face the likelihood of paying for this crime with her life.
(2) To make her appeal to the king, Esther has to confess she has deceived the king. Haman has endangered the Jews by deceiving the king. Now Esther will attempt to persuade the king to spare her life and the lives of her fellow-Jews. But to do so she has to admit that she, like Haman, has deceived the king. She has reached her position as queen by keeping the fact that she is a Jew a secret. Thus, Esther’s appeal to the king could easily cause him to be angry with her for having deceived him.
(3) Esther is attempting to convince the king to reverse an irreversible law. The edict which permitted the enemies of the Jews to kill them and confiscate their property was executed as a law of the Persians and the Medes, an irreversible law (see 1:19; 3:10-11; 8:8). It does not look as though the king will or can undo the law he has allowed to be decreed in his name.
(4) Esther sets out to oppose Haman, one of the most powerful persons on earth at that moment in time. The king has abdicated a great portion of his power to Haman, which enables him to pass laws the king has not even read. To appeal to the king is to go against Haman, a wealthy power-broker who has the king’s ear, not to mention the king’s ring.
(5) Esther is pursuing a plan which will strike a serious blow to the king’s pride. Haman has deceived the king. He has won the king’s confidence. He has used the king to further his own interests. For the king to deal with Haman as the situation requires, the king will have to admit he has foolishly exalted Haman to power and position and that he has been duped by Haman. This will certainly be hard on the king’s pride and on his image.
1 Now it came about on the third day that Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace in front of the king’s rooms, and the king was sitting on his royal throne in the throne room, opposite the entrance to the palace. 2 And it happened when the king saw Esther the queen standing in the court, she obtained favor in his sight; and the king extended to Esther the golden scepter which was in his hand. So Esther came near and touched the top of the scepter. 3 Then the king said to her, “What is troubling you, Queen Esther? And what is your request? Even to half of the kingdom it will be given to you.” 4 And Esther said, “If it please the king, may the king and Haman come this day to the banquet that I have prepared for him.”
What a tense moment this must be for Esther. Can you imagine the agony she undergoes beforehand—choosing just the right dress, shoes, perfume, and hair style for this occasion? The king is undoubtedly surprised to see her and surely recognizes she is greatly distressed. She touches his heart, and he extends his scepter to her, sparing her life. Knowing she has something to request of him, he assures her that virtually anything she asks will be given her up to half of his kingdom. But Esther does not make her request—not yet. Instead, she invites the king and his prime minister, Haman, to a banquet she has already prepared for them. This must have involved another process of deciding the menu, the wines, and so on. Obviously, she chooses those things the king enjoys. It is not that Esther’s only request is for the king and Haman to attend her banquet. Inviting the king to a banquet is hardly worth risking one’s life. The king knows and understands that she is not yet ready to make her request. If he has only the minimum amount of curiosity, Esther’s delay in stating her request only causes the king to be more eager than ever to know what she wants.
Why the delay and intrigue? The king promises to grant her request. Why does she not simply say what she wants? Why the dramatics? In truth, we do not know. Esther may be employing her feminine wiles. She may be reluctant to ask. She may be waiting for the opportune moment. One thing we can say with a fair degree of certainty—what she is preparing to ask of the king will be most difficult for him to grant. No wonder Esther is not eager to appeal to the king. It will take something very dramatic and unusual to deliver the Jews from the danger they are in. It will take a miracle. It does not seem that either Esther or Mordecai believe in miracles. God will work miracles, but not as a result of the faith of men. The hand of God should be evident to us, even if it is not expected by our heroes or even recognized as such after God mightily delivers His people from death.
5 Then the king said, “Bring Haman quickly that we may do as Esther desires.” So the king and Haman came to the banquet which Esther had prepared. 6 And, as they drank their wine at the banquet, the king said to Esther, “What is your petition, for it shall be granted to you. And what is your request? Even to half of the kingdom it shall be done.” 7 So Esther answered and said, “My petition and my request is: 8 if I have found favor in the sight of the king, and if it please the king to grant my petition and do what I request, may the king and Haman come to the banquet which I shall prepare for them, and tomorrow I will do as the king says.”
Esther requests that the king and Haman attend a banquet she has prepared. She surely chooses the king’s favorite dishes and then times her appearance so he will be eager to eat a meal. She also seems to understand the strategic role a banquet can play, because there have already been four banquets in chapters 1 and 2. These festive meals are occasions for drinking, and much is made of the use of wine in our passage and elsewhere in Esther.50
As they are drinking their wine, once more the king asks Esther what she wishes of him. Again, he gives her every assurance he will grant whatever she asks. Once again, Esther declines to make her petition. The text offers no clue as to why she delays. The reason she delays is not as important as that she does delay. For it is during this delay, this interval between the first and second banquets, that God prepares the king to act as He purposes. Esther simply asks the king to attend yet another banquet, which she will prepare for he and Haman the following day. From her words to the king, it is clear that she will then make her petition known. By attending this second banquet, the king gives further assurance that he will indeed grant Esther’s request. It seems as though Esther is seeking assurance from the king that her petition will be granted. Her delays and His repeated assurances (including his attendance at the second banquet) seem to offer this assurance.
9 Then Haman went out that day glad and pleased of heart; but when Haman saw Mordecai in the king’s gate, and that he did not stand up or tremble before him, Haman was filled with anger against Mordecai. 10 Haman controlled himself, however, went to his house, and sent for his friends and his wife Zeresh. 11 Then Haman recounted to them the glory of his riches, and the number of his sons, and every instance where the king had magnified him, and how he had promoted him above the princes and servants of the king. 12 Haman also said, “Even Esther the queen let no one but me come with the king to the banquet which she had prepared; and tomorrow also I am invited by her with the king. 13 “Yet all of this does not satisfy me every time I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate.” 14 Then Zeresh his wife and all his friends said to him, “Have a gallows fifty cubits high made and in the morning ask the king to have Mordecai hanged on it, then go joyfully with the king to the banquet.” And the advice pleased Haman, so he had the gallows made.
I do not know Esther’s intentions in asking that Haman join the king in her two banquets. What is evident is the effect attending the first banquet has on Haman. He is not a likeable man. He is proud and arrogant, as well as deceitful and wicked. Being at Esther’s first banquet is a real head trip for Haman. What a privilege he has been granted! He has not only won the heart and confidence of the king; he has also managed (or so he thinks) to win over the queen. He is on his way up.
His head swimming from wine and swelling from pride, Haman leaves the banquet for home. But in leaving the palace, he exits through the king’s gate, and there, as always, is Mordecai. The king and queen have just honored him by inviting him to their banquet. And now, as Haman passes through the gate, Mordecai is sitting there. He does not stand; he does not even move to acknowledge the position and prestige of this man who is now at the top.
Mordecai is wrong. And Haman is furious. He is too big a man to let this Jew cause him to lose control, and so he holds his anger toward Mordecai in check and goes on home. He will let Mordecai alone for the moment, but his day is coming. It might be a few months wait, but his day will come.
Once home, Haman cannot wait to bask in the glory that is his. His home is his palace, and there his wife and friends willingly stroke his ego. This pompous pagan savours the moment, taking this occasion to sit among his family and friends and boast of his own glory. He recounts “the glory of his riches” (5:11). One cannot help but wonder how many times before this has been done. But the buzz of this moment in the sun is too much for Haman; he has to tell it again, no doubt in great detail. He boasts in the glory which he gains from his ten sons. And he recounts all the instances in which the king has honored him, this banquet being one of his great moments of power and glory. He speaks of the way the king has exalted him above all his peers. And finally he boasts of the banquet he has just attended and the one he will attend the following day. What glory is his. He seems ready to burst with pride.
But his countenance suddenly darkens. The day has not been a total success. A fly is in the ointment of Haman’s happiness—Mordecai. In spite of all the glory which is his, Mordecai casts a large shadow by refusing to acknowledge his power and authority. The satisfaction of all his successes are outweighed somehow by the stubborn rebellion of this one man, Mordecai the Jew.
The solution seems so simple to his family and friends—do away with Mordecai. Don’t wait for the appointed day some months future when all the Jews are to be killed. Let Mordecai be a kind of “first fruits.” Let Haman speak to the king about this one rebel and put him to death immediately. Don’t even let Mordecai ruin his banquet the following day. Let Haman build an impressive gallows that very night, and let him speak to the king first thing in the morning and have Mordecai hung on the gallows before the banquet. Then he can truly savor the moment of glory he shares in the presence of the king and queen.
Now here is an appealing idea to Haman. What a great solution. He takes the advice and immediately sets about to have the gallows constructed so they will be ready in the morning.
1 During that night the king could not sleep so he gave an order to bring the book of records, the chronicles, and they were read before the king. 2 And it was found written what Mordecai had reported concerning Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs who were doorkeepers, that they had sought to lay hands on King Ahasuerus. 3 And the king said, “What honor or dignity has been bestowed on Mordecai for this?” Then the king’s servants who attended him said, “Nothing has been done for him.” 4 So the king said, “Who is in the court?” Now Haman had just entered the outer court of the king’s palace in order to speak to the king about hanging Mordecai on the gallows which he had prepared for him. 5 And the king’s servants said to him, “Behold, Haman is standing in the court.” And the king said, “Let him come in.” 6 So Haman came in and the king said to him, “What is to be done for the man whom the king desires to honor?” And Haman said to himself, “Whom would the king desire to honor more than me?” 7 Then Haman said to the king, “For the man whom the king desires to honor, 8 let them bring a royal robe which the king has worn, and the horse on which the king has ridden, and on whose head a royal crown has been placed; 9 and let the robe and the horse be handed over to one of the king’s most noble princes and let them array the man whom the king desires to honor and lead him on horseback through the city square, and proclaim before him, ‘Thus it shall be done to the man whom the king desires to honor.’“
10 Then the king said to Haman, “Take quickly the robes and the horse as you have said, and do so for Mordecai the Jew, who is sitting at the king’s gate; do not fall short in anything of all that you have said.” 11 So Haman took the robe and the horse, and arrayed Mordecai, and led him on horseback through the city square, and proclaimed before him, “Thus it shall be done to the man whom the king desires to honor.” 12 Then Mordecai returned to the king’s gate. But Haman hurried home, mourning, with his head covered. 13 And Haman recounted to Zeresh his wife and all his friends everything that had happened to him. Then his wise men and Zeresh his wife said to him, “If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of Jewish origin, you will not overcome him, but will surely fall before him.” 14 While they were still talking with him, the king’s eunuchs arrived and hastily brought Haman to the banquet which Esther had prepared.
The king has a miserable night’s sleep. One cannot help but wonder why. All those little ailments we see on television commercials should provide the solution. If I were to let my imagination wander, I suppose that all night long the king is kept awake by the sounds of construction—sawing, hammering, and so on. Would it not be interesting (and amusing) if the king has been kept awake by the sounds of Haman’s construction of a gallows? Of course, this is speculation. The text informs us only that the king does not sleep. We do know the source of his insomnia.
The king is a man known for rewarding those loyal to his throne. And yet somehow Mordecai has slipped through the cracks. His loyalty is recorded in the chronicles of the king, even as the king looks on (2:23). But for some reason, no action is taken to reward Mordecai. And now the king finds that he cannot sleep. He tosses and turns in his bed; he punches his pillow. Finally, in frustration, he calls for his servants to read to him from his chronicles. That should put anyone asleep.
And what should the servant read but the account of the two traitors who plotted to assassinate the king! Mordecai the Jew is identified as the hero who reported this plot to the king. The king might well owe his life to Mordecai. And yet nothing was recorded about any reward for Mordecai. How can this have been overlooked? When the king asks if any reward has been given Mordecai, he is told that nothing has been done in response to his loyalty. That settles it; the king will see that this oversight is corrected. Mordecai will be rewarded.
At that very moment, the king hears something indicating someone has just arrived. The king calls out to his servants to see who is there. Low and behold, it is Haman. Haman is summoned to the king’s presence. He cannot wait to repeat the lines he probably rehearsed all night, the lines which will convince the king that Mordecai is a menace to society and a threat to his kingdom. But Haman cannot get his words out before the king asks him a question. He asks Haman how a loyal servant of the king should be honored.
Blinded by his pride, it never occurs to Haman that the king is thinking of honoring anyone but him. After all, he has just attended one banquet, and later in the day he will attend another with only the king and queen present. Convinced it is he whom the king will honor, Haman proposes a reward which will further stroke his ego. His dreams are coming true. And now he is even being asked how he would like to be honored. And so Haman describes in detail the kind of honor he feels is appropriate for a loyal servant of the king.
Haman seems to view the king’s honor as Satan viewed God’s glory. Haman’s view of honor was to experience the honor of the king himself. He would love to wear the king’s clothing and ride the king’s horse. He would love to wear the king’s crown. He would love to parade about having the entire city bow down to him as they would the king. Is it not evident that Haman really would like to be the king?
This is to be a day of surprises for Haman. One can almost see the face of Haman glow as the king begins to issue the command based upon Haman’s advice. He is already beginning to experience the glory of this event. What a shock when Haman suddenly realizes that indeed he is not the honored servant but Mordecai, his most hated enemy. And worst of all, he (“one of the king’s most noble princes,” verse 9) must carry out his own recommendations for honoring Mordecai. He is to dress Mordecai like a king. He is to lead him around the city. He is to proclaim to all that this man is being honored by the king, this man he had planned to execute that very morning.
But notice that Mordecai accepts this honor, the very same kind of honor he refuses to give to Haman. This incident does not cause us to think fondly of Haman, but neither should it cause us to think too highly of Mordecai. Mordecia is a hypocrite. He is willing to receive that which he is unwilling to give—honor to the one whom the king chooses to honor.
When he returns home early that day, it is easy to see that Haman’s day has not gone well. The day before he had returned home swelling with pride and gushing with words of his greatness and glory. Now he arrives in stunned silence with his face covered, mourning like Mordecai had done earlier. And if he expects to be consoled by his family and friends, this is not to be either. They have no words of encouragement for him, but instead, they interpret the day’s events as a prophecy of things to come. Haman has already begun to fall before Mordecai, the Jew. And this is just the beginning. Not only will he not defeat Mordecai, but Haman will fall before Mordecai.
I would have packed my bags and left town quickly for an extended stay in a distant land. But Haman does not have time. It seems the words of doom have barely been spoken by friends and family when there is a knock at the door. The king’s servants have come to escort Haman to the banquet. He is trapped. His doom is imminent. Even his closest friends and family see it coming. One would hardly think Haman is the life of the party at this second banquet.
1 Now the king and Haman came to drink wine with Esther the queen. 2 And the king said to Esther on the second day also as they drank their wine at the banquet, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to half of the kingdom it shall be done.” 3 Then Queen Esther answered and said, “If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me as my petition, and my people as my request; 4 for we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed and to be annihilated. Now if we had only been sold as slaves, men and women, I would have remained silent, for the trouble would not be commensurate with the annoyance to the king.” 5 Then King Ahasuerus asked Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who would presume to do thus?” 6 And Esther said, “A foe and an enemy, is this wicked Haman!” Then Haman became terrified before the king and queen. 7 And the king arose in his anger from drinking wine and went into the palace garden; but Haman stayed to beg for his life from Queen Esther, for he saw that harm had been determined against him by the king. 8 Now when the king returned from the palace garden into the place where they were drinking wine, Haman was falling on the couch where Esther was. Then the king said, “Will he even assault the queen with me in the house?” As the word went out of the king’s mouth, they covered Haman’s face. 9 Then Harbonah, one of the eunuchs who were before the king said, “Behold indeed, the gallows standing at Haman’s house fifty cubits high, which Haman made for Mordecai who spoke good on behalf of the king!” And the king said, “Hang him on it.” 10 So they hanged Haman on the gallows which he had prepared for Mordecai, and the king’s anger subsided.
The king and Haman arrive at Esther’s banquet and begin with drinks (verse 1). Over their drinks (verse 2), the subject of Esther’s request is once again brought up by the king. He seems eager to hear her request, which may be partly out of curiosity and partly because he is aware something serious is troubling her. Any concern to the queen should be a concern to the king. Again, the king assures Esther he will grant her petition, even before he knows what she will ask.51
Haman’s pride blinds him in yet another way. He looks upon Esther as a new ally. He thinks he has the king in his pocket, but now he believes Esther too is taken with him. If he has both Esther and the king sold on his abilities, how can he fail to achieve anything he sets out to do? He fails to see that Esther is his arch enemy. He does not know she is a Jew, condemned to death by the law he passed. Rather than threatened, he feels safe in her presence. His guard is down. With a little liquor and a great meal, Haman lets down his guard. No doubt he wonders what is troubling her and does not understand the danger of which she speaks. He does not seem to see what is coming until it is too late. Queen Esther (for so our author refers to her here) does not identify Haman as the source of the problem until the very end. His efforts to save himself then are simply too little and too late.
Esther then informs the king of things he should have known, but due to his misdirected trust in Haman, he knows nothing. The king does not know Haman was speaking of the Jews and that they are condemned to death by Haman’s law. Esther now tells Ahasuerus that she has been sold, along with her people, not into slavery but unto death. If it were mere slavery, she indicates, she would silently accept her plight. She would not trouble the king with such matters. But she and her people have been sold for annihilation.
The king’s anger now aroused, he is ready to rectify the situation. Who would do such a thing to the queen? This presumptuous person will be dealt with; all he needs is a name and where this evil person can be found. After keeping the king in suspense, Esther now blurts out the name of the villain—to Haman’s shock and horror. Esther identifies Haman as both a foe and an enemy, as well as a wicked man (7:6).
The king is shocked and angered. One does not know how much wine he has already had to drink, but it probably slowed his thinking. In addition, the implications of what Esther has just told him have yet to sink in fully. And so the king gets up from his wine-drinking and walks out to the garden. He must clear his head and try to grasp what has happened and what he must do.
Had nothing more happened, Haman would still have been in deep trouble with the king. But God’s providential intervention in this matter is not yet complete. Ahasuerus is angry and perhaps a bit confused. Haman is terrified. He sees the anger in the king’s eyes, not to mention Esther’s eyes. While the king is out of the room, Haman makes one last futile effort to save himself. He attempts to plead with Esther for mercy, who has become his only hope. In his panic (and perhaps having drunk too much), Haman falls. He couldn’t just fall on the floor. That would have been bad enough. He falls upon Esther’s couch where she is still reclining. At that very moment while Haman is floundering about on the queen’s bed, the king returns and in his anger assumes the worst—Haman is now trying to sexually assault his wife, the queen.
There is no hope for Haman after this. The king’s servants cover Haman’s face and are about to take him away. Harbonah, one of the king’s servants, is aware of the gallows Haman has constructed on which he had intended to execute Mordecai. He seems to grasp the moment and mention to the king there is a gallows ready for use—at Haman’s house—the very one intended for use in putting Mordecai to death. How fitting it seems to Harbonah and the king that this gallows be used for putting Haman to death. And so Haman is led away to be executed on his own gallows.
The Book of Esther is packed with theological truths and very practical implications. As we conclude, let us consider these principles which apply as much today as they did long ago.
(1) The sovereignty of God.
28 And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).
The Book of Esther is but one of many biblical examples of this truth. God has a plan, a plan which He purposed before the earth existed. He is constantly and progressively working out this plan in history. He employs pagans, like Haman and Ahasuerus, whose motives are far from godly and whose actions often should not serve as examples. He employs the sins of men, and their rebellion against Him and His people, to further His purpose. Nothing hinders or interrupts His plan. God is in control, even when men are doing their best to deny or defeat God’s promises and purposes.
1 The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes (Proverbs 21:1).
10 For the wrath of man shall praise Thee; With a remnant of wrath Thou shalt gird Thyself (Psalm 76:10).
22 And they observed the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy, for the Lord had caused them to rejoice, and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria toward them to encourage them in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel (Ezra 6:22).
27 Blessed be the Lord, the God of our fathers, who has put such a thing as this in the king’s heart, to adorn the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem (Ezra 7:27).
Ahasuerus, the king of Persia, was the most powerful man in the world of that day. He was as sovereign as men will ever become. And yet, the Book of Esther reveals the God of heaven to be sovereign so that Ahasuerus does nothing but that which will serve God’s purposes, and this includes the preservation of His people.
(2) The providence of God. God’s providence is very closely related to His sovereignty. The sovereignty of God refers to God’s independence from men and His power and ability to achieve His purposes through all men, saved or lost, obedient or disobedient. The providence of God, as I understand this concept, refers to the way in which God works. The providence of God is His invisible hand working that which accomplishes His purposes and promises, but which is not recognized as His work.
Have you ever watched someone at work who is very skilled at what they do? It may be an artist who makes every motion of the paint brush work for them. It may be a wood craftsman like John Maurer in our church, who never wastes any motion or any wood in creating a beautiful work. It may be a lawyer or a teacher. But watching someone with skill is a pleasure and a wonder.
God is the ultimate manifestation of skill. He is a wonder to behold as He works. But His work can only be seen through the eyes of faith. The Christian, whose spiritual eyes have been opened, watches God work with wonder and amazement. The unbeliever sees the same results but fails to recognize what has been done as God’s work. When God works providentially, His will and His purposes are perfectly accomplished, but those without faith do not see His handiwork as anything more than the result of natural forces, of great human skill at best. Many look at the deliverance of the Jews in Esther and see no more than the cleverness of Esther at manipulating the king.
Neither Esther, nor Mordecai, nor most of the Jews in Persia recognized the hand of God as it worked in their midst. All we need do is consider their celebration in the chapters which conclude the book. How sad that men fail to recognize the providential hand of God sovereignly achieving His purposes in a way that unbelieving men do not recognize.
This can even happen to Christians. Abram left Canaan and went down to Egypt because of his lack of faith. He (mis)represented his wife Sarai as his sister, a half-truth at best. God had promised that the Messiah would come through Abram and Sarai. It looked as though Sarai would become the wife of Pharaoh, and if she were to bear a child, it would be through this pagan king. Abram spent some sleepless nights agonizing over what was happening in Pharaoh’s bedroom. God was very much at work to protect the purity of Sarai and the promised seed which she and Abraham would bear. But at the time, neither Abram nor Sarai could see this because of their own sin. God’s purposes will never fail. God’s promises will always be fulfilled. But when we fail to trust and obey, our life seems controlled by circumstances rather than by the Creator. When God works providentially, it is often due to unbelief or disobedience. He is still at work, but we fail to recognize it. So we spend our energies agonizing, worrying, and scheming, seeking to save ourselves rather than commit ourselves to the Savior.
Jacob spent much of his life striving with God rather than submitting to him. Unlike Abraham, who willingly gave up his son to God, Jacob tried to save his son Benjamin by keeping him at home with him rather than allowing him to accompany his brothers to Egypt. God was very much at work in the lives of Jacob’s sons, but Jacob did not see that at the time. God’s work was providential. And so, when his nine sons return from Egypt with the report that Simeon has been left behind in Egypt, Jacob responds, “All these things are against me” (Genesis 42:36). How short-sighted. But this is the way it looks when men do not walk by faith, and when God’s work is providential.
In the second chapter of the Gospel of John, we read how Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding at Cana. Nearly everyone enjoyed the “better wine” Jesus had made, only noting that the best came last. Only our Lord’s disciples and those servants who drew the water knew what had really happened. How much better to be servants of our Lord and to see His hand at work than to keep our distance from Him and enjoy the benefits of His grace without knowing it is He who blesses us. Those who demand to see God’s hand at work wrongly suppose God is not at work, when they should confess their eyes are too dim to spiritual things to even see God’s hand at work.
(3) The Book of Esther reminds us that God does what we cannot do, thereby using our actions to achieve His supernatural purposes. As I read these chapters in the Book of Esther, I am more impressed with what Esther and Mordecai did not do and with what God did. They had no control over the king’s “oversight” of Mordecai’s loyalty so that his loyalty was unrewarded for a period of time. They did not orchestrate the king’s sleepless night. They did not determine that the chronicles of the king would be read and that the account of Mordecai’s loyalty would be included in this reading. They did not cause Haman to fall upon Esther’s bed at the very moment the king returned to the room. They did not prompt Harbonah to suggest that the king use Haman’s own gallows on which to execute him.
What men could not do and did not do determined the outcome of Esther’s appeal to the king. It was not that she used just the right technique, but that God used her efforts to achieve His plan and purposes. For some unexplained reason, Esther chose not to reveal her request to the king until the second banquet on the following day. But in this interim period, God gave the king a sleepless night and reminded him from his own records that Mordecai, a Jew, was a loyal citizen to whom he owed his life. And this occurred at the very time when Haman plotted to accuse him of disloyalty and thus hang him.
Our Lord has given us certain tasks to accomplish. He has set down certain commands we are to obey. But it is not our flawless motivation or obedience which achieves God’s purposes, for our works are never free from the taint of sin. God goes beyond our efforts, supernaturally intervening so that supernatural results occur. When we witness to the lost, it is not our logic, not our impassioned appeal, not our persuasive techniques which save men. It is the work of God’s Spirit, who convinces and convicts of sin, righteousness, and judgment. God does what we cannot do to bring about His purposes. But this does not mean we are to be passive. It means we are to do what He has commanded, knowing that it is never enough. This is why we obey His commands and pray in faith that He will accomplish what He has purposed and promised. God uses what we do, doing what we cannot, to achieve His purposes.
(4) The Book of Esther teaches us that God’s timing is perfect. In the Book of Esther, timing is crucial, and it is always perfect. In the normal course of events, Esther would have told the king (and thus everyone else) that she was a Jew, but the timing of our story is such that she does not tell him until just before Haman is identified as the villain. Mordecai should have been rewarded at the time he warned the king of the plot against his life. For some unexplained reason, the matter was recorded in the chronicles of the king, but no action was taken to reward Mordecai. The king’s insomnia came at just the right time so that moments before Haman arrived to accuse Mordecai of being a danger to the king and asking that he be executed as a malefactor, the loyalty of Mordecai was brought to the king’s attention from his own official records. And it just so happened that Haman cast himself (or stumbled accidentally) onto Queen Esther as she was reclining at the very moment the king returned, so that what he saw looked like an attempt to molest her.
God’s timing in the Book of Esther, and in our lives, is always perfect. How often we think that God does not hear our prayers because he has not answered them in the time frame we have set. One of the common questions God is asked in the Psalms and elsewhere is, “How long . . .?”52 We sometimes wonder why our Lord has not returned sooner or why we have not been rewarded for our hard work at the office. The answer is that these things take place in God’s time, and His timing is always perfect.
(5) “What a difference a day makes.” Some of you may remember these words to a popular song a number of years ago. While the secular song writer did not intend to teach us biblical theology, these words are especially true in the Book of Esther as well as in the Christian life. Think of it: one day Haman is one of the richest and most powerful men in the world. He sits down to a banquet meal with the king and queen of the most powerful kingdom of that day, swelling with pride and overflowing with talk of his own greatness. The next day this man is stripped of his power and wealth, his head is covered, and he is led away to be executed on the very gallows on which he planned to hang his enemy.
(6) The Book of Esther should be considered as we seek to respond in a biblical and godly way to the evils of abortion. One cannot help but see the parallels between the law which Haman passed legalizing the slaughter of the Jews and the laws of our land which legalize the slaughter of innocent lives, still in the womb. Esther and Mordecai are not examples for us to follow, however. They are negative examples. They remind us that God is able to spare lives from death by His divine intervention in the affairs of men, employing even the wicked and changing the minds of pagan rulers. The Book of Esther also suggests that the saving of innocent lives does not require deception. All too often anti-abortion efforts have employed deceptive methods and misrepresentation, justifying such dishonesty as legitimate in the light of the goal. Our text does not teach us that deceit is a legitimate approach when dealing with evil, even though we think it might produce something we would call good.
(7) The Book of Esther reminds us of the reality and certainty of divine retribution. Retribution simply means “getting what you deserve.” Our contemporary idiom says, “What goes around comes around.” Centuries ago, a pagan king said this after his humiliating defeat by the Israelites:
5 And they found Adoni-bezek in Bezek and fought against him and they defeated the Canaanites and the Perizzites. 6 But Adoni-bezek fled; and they pursued him and caught him and cut off his thumbs and big toes. 7 And Adoni-bezek said, “Seventy kings with their thumbs and their big toes cut off used to gather up scraps under my table; as I have done, so God has repaid me.” So they brought him to Jerusalem and he died there (Judges 1:5-7).
Adoni-bezek received the very same treatment he had given others whom he had defeated. Because of the way he had dealt with those whom he defeated in battle, he could not argue with the treatment he received from the Israelites. He received divine retribution.
Many people object to divine judgment as though it were unjust. Retribution is entirely just. Retribution sees to it that people get what they deserve, no more and no less. Justice and retribution are in perfect harmony; they are nearly synonymous. God is just, and so He judges men according to their deeds (John 5:28-29; Romans 2:5-10; Revelation 20:12-13). This means that some will suffer more in eternity than others (Luke 12:42-48). It also means that Christians will be rewarded individually, according to what they have done. When men are punished by God, God is praised for giving them what they deserve (Revelation 16:4-7). God is a God of retribution (Jeremiah 51:56), and He deals with men so that they receive what they deserve (Proverbs 1:24-33; 5:21-23; 14:14). In biblical terminology, men reap what they sow (Galatians 6:7; see also 2 Corinthians 9:6). Haman reaped what he had sown, and so shall we.
Ultimately, those who resist God will submit to Him. Haman, in setting out to destroy the Jews, not only opposed himself to the Abrahamic Covenant first verbalized in Genesis 12:1-3, he also opposed himself against God. When Haman was forced to “glorify” Mordecai at the king’s command, he illustrated for us the way in which every rebel against God will have to glorify God:
9 Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).
Let us not deceive ourselves about this fact. Someday every single person who has ever lived will bow before our Savior and acknowledge Him as Lord. Unbelievers will do so begrudgingly; the saints will do so willingly and joyfully. I pray that you will be among the latter.
We are reminded by the story of Haman and his demise that the wicked may prosper for a moment, but they will just as suddenly be swept away in judgment, in an instant:
10 Therefore his people return to this place; And waters of abundance are drunk by them. 11 And they say, “How does God know? And is there knowledge with the Most High?” 12 Behold, these are the wicked; And always at ease, they have increased in wealth. 13 Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure, And washed my hands in innocence; 14 For I have been stricken all day long, And chastened every morning. 15 If I had said, “I will speak thus,” Behold, I should have betrayed the generation of Thy children. 16 When I pondered to understand this, It was troublesome in my sight 17 Until I came into the sanctuary of God; Then I perceived their end. 18 Surely Thou dost set them in slippery places; Thou dost cast them down to destruction. 19 How they are destroyed in a moment! They are utterly swept away by sudden terrors! 20 Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when aroused, Thou wilt despise their form (Psalm 73:10-20).
(8) If the Book of Esther teaches us about divine judgment, it also instructs us concerning divine deliverance. In spite of the sins of the Jews, including Esther and Mordecai, God spared them from the destruction Haman had prepared for them. God’s joy is not found in the punishment of the wicked but in the salvation of sinners so that they may spend eternity with Him. Let me point out several lessons we can learn from Esther pertaining to divine salvation.
(a) Salvation is of the Lord. The Jews were spared, not because Esther and Mordecai (or any other Jews) were righteous, but because God was faithful to His covenant with the Jews. As clever as Esther’s dealings with the king and Haman may seem, our text clearly shows us that God was at work bringing about the deliverance of the Jews.
(b) Salvation comes about by means which may first appear to lead to destruction. Haman’s efforts to destroy the Jews were a part of the process by which God spared them. Obviously, Mordecai and Esther thought they were doomed. So it looked. But God had other plans. Jonah was spared by being swallowed by a great fish. At first, this appeared to be the death of Jonah, but in the end it is the way God saved his life. The Jews seemed to be doomed when they were led into captivity by the Babylonians. But in the end this was God’s way of saving His people, even though it looked like their destruction at first. Our salvation comes through the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. At first, even the disciples thought it was all over when they nailed the Savior to the cross. But God had other plans. By putting His Son to death, and then raising Him from the dead, God made it possible for us to have the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. We live by dying, in Christ. We gain our life by losing it, in Christ. Salvation comes through apparent destruction.
(c) Salvation is made possible by God, who grants sinful and undeserving men and women to draw near to Him when this should mean death for us. Sin separates men from God. God cannot dwell in the presence of sinful men nor can sinners approach a holy God. We see this illustrated by King Ahasuerus. The law stipulated that no one could approach the king unless invited by him. Those who came uninvited were put to death, unless the king extended his scepter and graciously spared their life. We cannot approach God apart from His grace in granting that we might come into His presence. And this we can do only because He extended Himself to us in the coming of Jesus Christ. In the righteousness of Jesus Christ, we can approach God boldly.
(d) The king spared the Jews for Esther’s sake. As I read the Book of Esther, I see that the king spared Esther’s life first because he loved her. And because He loved Esther, He spared those for whom she interceded—her people. God saves us for Christ’s sake, because of His love for His Son, Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ approaches the Father and intercedes for us. It is because of our Savior that we receive the blessings of God.
Have you ceased striving against God and accepted His terms for forgiveness, salvation, and fellowship? I pray that you have. And if you have not, I pray that even now you will receive the gift of salvation, which God has provided through the sacrificial death of His Son, Jesus Christ.
50 Earlier, the king summoned Esther when his heart was “merry with wine” (1:10). It is when the king and Haman are drinking their wine at Esther’s first banquet that the king again asks Esther what her request might be. At the second of Esther’s two banquets, we are told that the king and Haman came “to drink wine with Esther” (7:1), and after Esther identified Haman as the “foe and enemy” of the Jews and the king, we are told that the king arose in anger “from drinking wine” (7:7). Did Esther think that a little wine might incline the king to act in her favor?
51 The king certainly seems to be a trusting soul. He entrusts Haman with his signet ring allowing him to act on his behalf without his involvement, and he promises to give Esther whatever she requests without first knowing what she wants. It is his ill-founded trust in Haman which nearly got him into a lot of trouble.
“All’s well that ends well,” the saying goes. If this is the case, the ending of the Book of Esther is crucial to our understanding of the book and its message. How does the Book of Esther end? Does it end well? In my opinion, it does not. Mordecai seems to be like Don Knotts, who plays the starring role in an old movie entitled, “The Love God.” We can easily conceive of Don Knotts as the publisher of a bird watcher’s magazine. That fits what we know of him. But when the owner of a sleazy publication loses its mailing permit, he cons Don Knotts into publishing a new magazine and makes him into a male sex symbol. Frankly folks, my perception of Don Knotts is far from that of a sex symbol. Yet throughout the movie, Don is surrounded by swooning women. The movie’s humor lies in the incongruity of the whole situation.
Mordecai is the “Don Knotts” of the Book of Esther. He is far from being a man of God and far from what the Bible speaks of as a great spiritual leader. Mordecia would not be in the running for a place in the hall of faith as recorded in Hebrews 11. And yet, this is the way he seems to be portrayed in the closing chapters of the Book of Esther. The Book of Esther has not so much as one mention of the name of God, yet it cannot speak often or highly enough of Mordecai. Most Christians accept this representation of Mordecai without a second thought. Although a number of “difficulties” must be explained or set aside to think so highly of Mordecai, few seem to have a problem in doing so.
The final three chapters of Esther carry three prominent themes.
(1) The Jews of the Persian empire and their great victory over their foes.
(2) The two stars of the Book of Esther, Esther and Mordecai.
(3) The origin of the Feast of Purim, which the Jews celebrate even to this day.
Each theme is dealt with in a way which appears to be positive. We are tempted to cheer for and with the Jews as they defeat and destroy their enemies. We want to look up to Esther and Mordecai as heroes and models for us to imitate. We are inclined to think of the Feast of Purim as just one more feast of the Jews like that of Passover or Pentecost. But something is wrong with the picture of each of these themes.
At first, I was inclined to think the author of the Book of Esther had a warped perspective of Esther, Mordecai, and the events surrounding the Jews who remained on in the Persian empire. This is still a possibility. But I am more inclined to believe the author of the Book of Esther did grasp the situation in Persia, and that his work accurately reflects the unbelief and disobedience of the Jews who remained there rather than return to Judea and Jerusalem with that small remnant of faithful Jews. The author deliberately avoids referring to Jerusalem, to the Law, to the teaching of the prophets, to prayer, or even to God Himself. I believe he does so to speak loudly by his silence. And when he speaks in apparently glowing terms of Esther and Mordecai, he does so with tongue in cheek. The author supplies us with more than enough information to conclude that the success and prominence of the “hero” and “heroine” of the book are not really heroes at all. As we study these concluding chapters, let us base our conclusions on what is said, taking it at face value rather than explaining it away. This book has much to say about the Jews of ancient times, of New Testament times, and of our own time. But it also has much to say about those who profess the name of Christ.
1 On that day King Ahasuerus gave the house of Haman, the enemy of the Jews, to Queen Esther; and Mordecai came before the king, for Esther had disclosed what he was to her. 2 And the king took off his signet ring which he had taken away from Haman, and gave it to Mordecai. And Esther set Mordecai over the house of Haman.
We should not be surprised at the downfall of Haman. From what we read in the Book of Proverbs, we would expect him to suffer defeat:
22 His own iniquities will capture the wicked, And he will be held with the cords of his sin (Proverbs 5:22).
27 The fear of the Lord prolongs life, But the years of the wicked will be shortened (Proverbs 10:27).
5 The righteousness of the blameless will smooth his way, But the wicked will fall by his own wickedness (Proverbs 11:5).
22 A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, And the wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous (Proverbs 13:22).
It is not even shocking to find king Ahasuerus giving all that belonged to Haman to Esther and to learn that Esther placed Mordecai over the house of Haman. There is a kind of poetic justice here, although I would not be too quick to think of Mordecai as the righteous man of Proverbs. I am surprised to find the king handing his signet ring to Mordecai on the very same day he removes it from Haman. One would think the king had learned his lesson and would give no man a blank check by bestowing that ring. One would at least expect the king to wait until he knew Mordecai better. But Ahasuerus seems to act hastily these days (unlike what we read of him in chapter 1).
3 Then Esther spoke again to the king, fell at his feet, wept, and implored him to avert the evil scheme of Haman the Agagite and his plot which he had devised against the Jews. 4 And the king extended the golden scepter to Esther. So Esther arose and stood before the king. 5 Then she said, “If it pleases the king and if I have found favor before him and the matter seems proper to the king and I am pleasing in his sight, let it be written to revoke the letters devised by Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, which he wrote to destroy the Jews who are in all the king’s provinces. 6 For how can I endure to see the calamity which shall befall my people, and how can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred?” 7 So King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther and to Mordecai the Jew, “Behold, I have given the house of Haman to Esther, and him they have hanged on the gallows because he had stretched out his hands against the Jews. 8 Now you write to the Jews as you see fit, in the king’s name, and seal it with the king’s signet ring; for a decree which is written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s signet ring may not be revoked.”
When Esther first risked her life by appearing uninvited before the king, she asks not only for her deliverance, but for the deliverance of her people, the Jews. Nevertheless, when the king acts, it is only in Esther’s behalf. This necessitates yet another life-threatening appearance before the king, at which time Esther appeals to him to reverse the decree of Haman by which all the Jews in Persia could have been exterminated.
It does not trouble me that Esther would appeal to the king for the deliverance of the Jews. In and of itself, this is a very noble act. What bothers me is the basis of this petition as recorded in verses 5 and 6. How should a godly Jew appeal to the king? I would expect a man like Daniel to plead with the king on the basis of the Abrahamic Covenant as recorded in Genesis 12:
1 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father’s house, To the land which I will show you; 2 And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; 3 And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3).
God promised to curse those who cursed Abram’s offspring and to bless those who blessed them. If the king were to allow the Jews to be exterminated, he would surely be cursing Abraham’s offspring and would bring him under divine condemnation. On the basis of the Abrahamic Covenant, Ahasuerus should not allow the Jews to be harmed but should seek to protect and bless them. This was to his benefit and the benefit of his empire.
Esther does not appeal to the Word of God. She does not even appeal to the king’s sense of what is right or wrong. She appeals to the king solely on the basis of his affection for her and on what the destruction of the Jews would do to her. She does not know how she can endure if her people are slaughtered. Haman’s plan will break her Jewish heart. If the king wishes to enjoy his relationship with Esther as he has before, he will not allow that which will personally devastate her. I would not dare call this “taking the high road,” morally speaking.
It worked, however. The king reminded Esther of his affection for her, as she could see by the fact that he had hanged Haman and given her his entire estate, and this because of his attempted malice toward the Jews (verse 7). And yet he would gladly go further than this by giving Esther and Mordecai53 permission to draft a law which effectively reversed the law decreed by Haman in the king’s name. Mordecai is given permission to draft the law and then seal it with the king’s signet ring, making it official and irreversible. Once again, the king does not ask to review this law before it is enacted or implemented. This is certainly not the same man who formerly sought the counsel of his princes, taking into consideration the implications of a law which was irreversible (see chapter 1, verses 13-22).
9 So the king’s scribes were called at that time in the third month (that is, the month Sivan), on the twenty-third day; and it was written according to all that Mordecai commanded to the Jews, the satraps, the governors, and the princes of the provinces which extended from India to Ethiopia, 127 provinces, to every province according to its script, and to every people according to their language, as well as to the Jews according to their script and their language. 10 And he wrote in the name of King Ahasuerus, and sealed it with the king’s signet ring, and sent letters by couriers on horses, riding on steeds sired by the royal stud. 11 In them the king granted the Jews who were in each and every city the right to assemble and to defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate the entire army of any people or province which might attack them, including children and women, and to plunder their spoil, 12 on one day in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month (that is, the month Adar). 13 A copy of the edict to be issued as law in each and every province, was published to all the peoples, so that the Jews should be ready for this day to avenge themselves on their enemies. 14 The couriers, hastened and impelled by the king’s command, went out, riding on the royal steeds; and the decree was given out in Susa the capital.
The scribes are called in and Mordecai dictates the law which he wants them to translate as the law of the land. Like the law decreed by Haman, this law is written in the king’s name and sealed with the king’s ring. Let us remind ourselves of the law which Haman decreed in the king’s name:
12 Then the king’s scribes were summoned on the thirteenth day of the first month, and it was written just as Haman commanded to the king’s satraps, to the governors who were over each province, and to the princes of each people, each province according to its script, each people according to its language, being written in the name of King Ahasuerus and sealed with the king’s signet ring. 13 And letters were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all the Jews, both young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, and to seize their possessions as plunder. 14 A copy of the edict to be issued as law in every province was published to all the peoples so that they should be ready for this day. 15 The couriers went out impelled by the king’s command while the decree was issued in Susa the capital; and while the king and Haman sat down to drink, the city of Susa was in confusion (Esther 3:12-15).
Like Haman, Mordecai summons the king’s scribes and directs them as to what they are to write. Like Haman’s decree, the law gives permission to “kill, and to annihilate . . . both young and old, women and children.” Likewise, both laws gave permission to keep the possessions of the defeated as spoils of war. But there is one difference in the way the decree is made public, and it is mentioned twice in the text of chapter 8—the couriers who were sent out by Mordecai rode on “the royal steeds” (8:14), the steeds “sired by the royal stud” (8:10). Why this additional detail? I think this is an added touch to make it abundantly clear that the king stands squarely behind this “new” law and in opposition to the old. The king might not be able to reverse a law of the Persians and Medes, but he can surely let it be known that he is in favor of the Jews. The fact that the messengers rode the royal steeds, the king’s own horses, made it evident where the king stood on this matter.
This new law is just what Esther pled for—a reversal of the decree made law by Haman. And that is precisely what bothers me. I believe the author intended for the wording of the new law of Mordecai to bother us. Revenge is getting even or getting back. The new law of Mordecai does not merely grant the Jews permission to defend themselves; it grants them permission to avenge themselves. Self defense would involve granting the Jews the right to assemble and to fight back if attacked. But the words of Mordecai’s law go much farther. They go every bit as far as Haman’s law, only in reverse. The Jews are given license to “kill, destroy, and to annihilate,” not just those who did attack them, but “the entire army of any people who might attack them.” And those whom they could kill included women and children. I may be reading between the lines, but it seems the Jews were granted to kill virtually anyone they perceived to be a threat—or even a potential threat.
What I am about to say is not popular, but I believe it should be said. The Jews, from the days of Esther to the present, celebrate Purim, and thus the defeat of the “enemies of the Jews.” I think the law which permitted the Jews to kill their Persian enemies was no less a permit to practice genocide than were the German laws or principles which permitted their attempt to annihilate the Jewish race. Genocide is genocide, regardless of whether it is practiced against Jews or by Jews. I find it strangely inconsistent for Jews to fiercely protest against the brutality of the Germans and yet to celebrate the slaughter of Persians. The magnitude of these two atrocities may have been different, but the essence seems similar. The law of Mordecai made it legal for the Jews to practice the same brutality against the Persians as Haman had made legal against Jews.
There is one matter which should be considered. The Jews are given the legal right to keep the plunder of their enemies as spoil (8:11). This is the reverse of Haman’s law (3:13), but it is consistent with the Law of Moses as it pertains to the more distant enemies of the Jews (Deuteronomy 20:14-15). In spite of the fact that keeping the spoil is legal, none of the Jews actually kept the possessions of their enemies (9:10,15-16). This was true for all but Esther, who did keep all that belonged to Haman (8:1). Doing so was not wrong, but it was inconsistent with the practice of all the other Jews in the Persian Empire.
15 Then Mordecai went out from the presence of the king in royal robes of blue and white, with a large crown of gold and a garment of fine linen and purple; and the city of Susa shouted and rejoiced. 16 For the Jews there was light and gladness and joy and honor. 17 And in each and every province, and in each and every city, wherever the king’s commandment and his decree arrived, there was gladness and joy for the Jews, a feast and a holiday. And many among the peoples of the land became Jews, for the dread of the Jews had fallen on them.
Mordecai has his moment in the sun. He goes out from the king’s presence garbed much like a king, garbed much as he was when Haman led him about the streets of Susa proclaiming that the king had chosen to honor him. Only now Mordecai gets to keep his royal robes and his crown. What he was for a few hours, he now is in a more permanent way.54 The city of Susa was troubled and in confusion when they heard of Haman’s law (see 3:15). Now, the city shouts for joy. Was it because Mordecai was such a fine man? He must have been considered a better man than Haman. It may be the people of Susa (a number of whom may also have been foreigners brought there after the defeat of their nation) were troubled by Haman’s law, because they saw that it put all minorities at risk, while Mordecai’s law gave at least one minority an advantage.
Some of the standing of Mordecai and the Jews was due to a more basic and understandable reason—they are scared stiff by the Jews in general and by Mordecai in particular. This we see in 8:17 and later on in 9:2-3. Esther and Mordecai have an inside track to King Ahasuerus, and Mordecai now occupies the place of power formerly held by Haman. Mordecai is a kind of godfather whom no one wishes to cross. It stands to reason that people would profess to be Jews and that people would speak well of Esther, Mordecai, and the Jewish people. But let us not deceive ourselves into thinking that most of these new “Jews” really embraced the Jewish faith. Even the real Jews of Persia seem to have turned their backs on the faith of their fathers. This is why they have remained on in Persia. This is hardly an evangelistic triumph. It is simply a nation of people who are so afraid of the Jews that they try to blend in with them rather than appear to oppose them.
If this is a glorious moment for Mordecai, it is also a triumph for all the Jews in Persia. Everywhere in the kingdom the Jews rejoice with a holiday and feasting. For the Jews there was “light, gladness, honor, and joy” (see 8:16-17). But what does it mean to have light, gladness, honor, and joy? I think it means the Jews were, for the moment, held in high regard (honor) by their neighbors. Gladness and joy seems to describe the response of the Jews to their newly acquired status in the kingdom. There is a feeling of elation, of hope, of optimism, because now they are given the legal right to fight back when attacked by their foes.
I am not sure what is meant by the term “light” (8:16). The Jews were to be a light to the Gentiles, but what does it mean to have “light”? Taken all together, I do not find these terms in Deuteronomy 28-30, nor do they seem to be the words of promise and hope that came from the lips of Israel and Judah’s prophets. In other words, the popularity and happiness of the Jews do not appear to be the blessings which God promised His people for loving and serving Him. I am more inclined to view these terms as those which one would expect in the culture of Susa and even in the false religions of that empire. The beer commercial on television says it this way: “It doesn’t get any better than this.” I think this is the mood which the author is describing among the Jews of the Persian empire at that moment in history.
1 Now in the twelfth month (that is, the month Adar), on the thirteenth day when the king’s command and edict were about to be executed, on the day when the enemies of the Jews hoped to gain the mastery over them, it was turned to the contrary so that the Jews themselves gained the mastery over those who hated them. 2 The Jews assembled in their cities throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus to lay hands on those who sought their harm; and no one could stand before them, for the dread of them had fallen on all the peoples. 3 Even all the princes of the provinces, the satraps, the governors, and those who were doing the king’s business assisted the Jews, because the dread of Mordecai had fallen on them. 4 Indeed, Mordecai was great in the king’s house, and his fame spread throughout all the provinces; for the man Mordecai became greater and greater. 5 Thus the Jews struck all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying; and they did what they pleased to those who hated them. 6 And in Susa the capital the Jews killed and destroyed five hundred men, 7 and Parshandatha, Dalphon, Aspatha, 8 Poratha, Adalia, Aridatha, 9 Parmashta, Arisai, Aridai, and Vaizatha, 10 the ten sons of Haman the son of Hammedatha, the Jews’ enemy; but they did not lay their hands on the plunder.
Nearly nine months pass between the end of chapter 8 and the beginning of chapter 9 (see 8:9 and 9:1). The Jews of the Persian empire are elated by the new law which Mordecai has enacted in the king’s name. It gives them the right to fight back when their enemies attack them on the 13th day of the 12th month. It gives them the right to counter-attack and to rid themselves of their enemies, including women and children. They can start over with a clean slate once their enemies are destroyed.
Verses 1-10 of chapter 9 describe the victory of the Jews over their foes on that fateful day of battle, the 13th day of the 12th month. On the day Haman intended to bring about the destruction of all the Jews in the empire, the Jews rout their enemies. The Jews assemble on that fateful day (could it have been a Friday?) and gain the upper hand over their enemies. No one can stand before them. All who try are defeated. The reasons for this are given to us by the author. First, the dread of the Jews has fallen on their enemies. The Jews now terrify their enemies. They appear to be undefeatable. Second, the people are terrified by Mordecai. Mordecai’s power, and perhaps the fierceness with which he “attacks” every task, is enough to demoralize any opponent. Mordecai is a powerful man in the king’s administration, and his power is growing. News of his greatness has quickly spread throughout the kingdom. He is a Goliath to his Persian foes, and news of his power takes the wind out of the sails of those who once boldly opposed him.
When the Jews assemble, they find they are able to do whatever they please to their foes. Not only are they able to do so, they do what they please to them (9:5). One must remember that the odds are not even. The odds are stacked in favor of the Jews. Not only are the Jews given permission to assemble and to fight back, they are clearly favored by those in positions of power. All those in power do what they can to assist the Jews. Anyone who opposes the Jews is fighting a losing battle; they are taking on the Persian government (9:3). On that one day, 500 of the Jews’ enemies are killed in Susa alone. Included among those are the 10 sons of Haman (9:6-9).
11 On that day the number of those who were killed in Susa the capital was reported to the king. 12 And the king said to Queen Esther, “The Jews have killed and destroyed five hundred men and the ten sons of Haman in Susa the capital. What then have they done in the rest of the king’s provinces! Now what is your petition? It shall even be granted you. And what is your further request? It shall also be done.” 13 Then said Esther, “If it pleases the king, let tomorrow also be granted to the Jews who are in Susa to do according to the edict of today; and let Haman’s ten sons be hanged on the gallows.” 14 So the king commanded that it should be done so; and an edict was issued in Susa, and Haman’s ten sons were hanged. 15 And the Jews who were in Susa assembled also on the fourteenth day of the month Adar and killed three hundred men in Susa, but they did not lay their hands on the plunder.
When the king learns that 500 Jew-haters have been killed in Susa, he proudly announces the news to Queen Esther. This must surely indicate that similar successes have been achieved throughout the rest of the empire. They are on a roll. All Esther has requested or suggested has prospered. The king is ready to grant any other request she might make, and so he asks her what else she desires. Esther does have a request. She wants the king to grant an extension to the Jews who live in Susa, granting them a second day to rid themselves of even more of their enemies. Further, she wants the bodies of Haman’s sons hung publicly on the gallows he has built and on which he was executed.
Her request is neither encouraging nor comforting. Why does she request a one-day extension only in Susa, the capital? Why not ask for an extension throughout the empire? Was it because this is where Mordecai’s enemies live? Does this grant Mordecai another day to seek revenge on his enemies? Perhaps even worse is the fact that the Jews of Susa will have a distinct advantage over their foes on this extended day. The enemies of the Jews are given but one day to destroy the Jews and confiscate their property, the 13th day of the 12th month. That day is over. Now it will be illegal for anyone to seek to attack or to kill a Jew, simply for being a Jew. But it will be legal for a Jew to seek and destroy anyone he perceives to be his enemy. This is hardly fair. It gives the Jews the right to kill anyone they suspect of being their enemy and to do it to one who cannot legally fight back. It exactly reverses Haman’s law, only now the Jew is favored and the rest are disadvantaged.
The king grants Esther’s request. The bodies of Haman’s ten sons are hung from the gallows he had constructed on which he intended to hang Mordecai. The Jews in Susa attack their enemies, and another 300 are killed on this second day of fighting. None of the spoils of war are kept.
16 Now the rest of the Jews who were in the king’s provinces assembled, to defend their lives and rid themselves of their enemies, and kill 75,000 of those who hated them; but they did not lay their hands on the plunder. 17 This was done on the thirteenth day of the month Adar, and on the fourteenth day they rested and made it a day of feasting and rejoicing. 18 But the Jews who were in Susa assembled on the thirteenth and the fourteenth of the same month, and they rested on the fifteenth day and made it a day of feasting and rejoicing. 19 Therefore the Jews of the rural areas, who live in the rural towns, make the fourteenth day of the month Adar a holiday for rejoicing and feasting and sending portions of food to one another.
The situation in the city of Susa is unique. Only there are the Jews granted an extra day to rid themselves of their enemies. Elsewhere, the fighting ends at the end of the 13th day of that 12th month. And so while the Jews of Susa are pursuing their enemies, the rest of the Jews in the Persian empire are celebrating their victory. They have killed 75,000 of their enemies. In contemporary terminology, it is “Miller Time,” a time for feasting and rejoicing—a holiday. The Jews in Susa will have to wait an additional day and have their celebration on the 15th day of the month. This is the author’s way of explaining why the Feast of Purim is observed on two different days.
20 Then Mordecai recorded these events, and he sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, 21 obliging them to celebrate the fourteenth day of the month Adar, and the fifteenth day of the same month, annually, 22 because on those days the Jews rid themselves of their enemies, and it was a month which was turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and rejoicing and sending portions of food to one another and gifts to the poor. 23 Thus the Jews undertook what they had started to do, and what Mordecai had written to them. 24 For Haman the son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, the adversary of all the Jews, had schemed against the Jews to destroy them, and had cast Pur, that is the lot, to disturb them and destroy them. 25 But when it came to the king’s attention, he commanded by letter that his wicked scheme which he had devised against the Jews, should return on his own head, and that he and his sons should be hanged on the gallows. 26 Therefore they called these days Purim after the name of Pur. And because of the instructions in this letter, both what they had seen in this regard and what had happened to them, 27 the Jews established and made a custom for themselves, and for their descendants, and for all those who allied themselves with them, so that they should not fail to celebrate these two days according to their regulation, and according to their appointed time annually. 28 So these days were to be remembered and celebrated throughout every generation, every family, every province, and every city; and these days of Purim were not to fail from among the Jews, or their memory fade from their descendants. 29 Then Queen Esther, daughter of Abihail, with Mordecai the Jew, wrote with full authority to confirm this second letter about Purim. 30 And he sent letters to all the Jews, to the 127 provinces of the kingdom of Ahasuerus, namely, words of peace and truth, 31 to establish these days of Purim at their appointed times, just as Mordecai the Jew and Queen Esther had established for them, and just as they had established for themselves and for their descendants with instructions for their times of fasting and their lamentations. 32 And the command of Esther established these customs for Purim, and it was written in the book.
Whether celebrated on the 14th or the 15th, the celebration of the Jews is a great success—so much so that Mordecai declares these two days to be national holidays for the Jews. It is made a matter of law, as were the earlier decrees of Haman and of Mordecai.
Three things trouble me greatly about the Feast of Purim as described in these verses:
(1) The Feast of Purim was not established by God, but by men. The author tells us plainly that “the Jews established and made a custom for themselves” (9:27). Other feasts, like Passover and Pentecost, are biblical feasts, feasts which God established and which He instructed men to observe (see, for example, Exodus 12:1-20). The Feast of Purim is a purely Jewish invention, which Mordecai decrees the Jews are to observe. There is a vast difference between divinely initiated holidays and humanly devised holidays. Passover is the former; Purim is the latter.
(2) The Jews are celebrating their victory over their enemies. The author informs us that the Feast of Purim was celebrated on both the 14th and the 15th day of the same month “because on those days the Jews rid themselves of their enemies (9:22). The Jews celebrated their victory, not God’s victory. This celebration is more like the celebration of a football team which has just won the superbowl. There is no talk of God or of grace, but only such words and thoughts as, “We are the greatest.”
(3) The Feast of Purim is celebrated in a very different manner than the feasts which God has ordained. Exodus 15 or Judges 5 reveals the response of the Jews of an earlier time after God had granted them a great victory over their foes. But in each instance, the resulting “celebration” is not one of self-indulgence nor even of generosity and gift-giving. It is one of worship. God is worshipped and praised for the victory He has accomplished. In our text, Mordecai prescribes the way in which the Jews should celebrate the newly established Feast of Purim: “they should make them days of feasting and rejoicing and sending portions of food to one another and gifts to the poor” (9:22). No biblical Jewish holiday is celebrated in precisely this manner. There are no sacrifices, no references to God, to His deeds, to His character or His Word. There is no worship, only celebration. It is more like New Year’s Eve in New York City or the New Orleans’ Mardi Gras than the Passover or Pentecost in Jerusalem.
If it seems I am exaggerating, allow me to quote a contemporary Jewish Rabbi, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, who writes about the observance of the Feast of Purim by the Jews today. Is this anything like any biblical feast of which you are aware?
Perhaps the oddest commandment in Jewish law is the one associated with Purim in which Jews are instructed to get drunk until they can no longer differentiate between “Blessed is Mordechai,” and “Cursed is Haman.”
Although recovering alcoholics, people with health problems, and those planning to drive are freed from observing this commandment, a fair number of Jews do get drunk on Purim. After all, how often can one do something normally regarded as wrong, and be credited with fulfilling a commandment?
The obligation to drink stems largely from Purim’s being one of the happiest holidays in the Jewish calendar. Haman, an ancient Persian forerunner of Hitler, plotted to kill all the Jews. They foiled his plan, however, and then avenged themselves on this would-be mass murderer and his supporters (see Esther).
The rabbis were so enamored of Purim that they declared in a maxim, “From the beginning of Adar [the month in which Purim falls], we increase our happiness” Ta’anit 29a). In fact, they predicted that Purim would be observed even in the messianic days, when almost all other Jewish holidays would be abolished (Midrash Mishlei 9).
Purim is observed on the fourteenth of Adar, just a month and a day before Passover; in Jerusalem, Hebron, and the Old City of Safed, the holiday is observed one day later. This odd scheduling is because a statement in the Book of Esther (9:18-19) ordains that Purim be observed one day later in walled cities (Jerusalem was still a walled city at the time Esther was written). Thus, in Israel anyone so inclined can observe Purim twice, on the fourteenth of Adar throughout most of the country, and on the fifteenth in Jerusalem, Hebron, and the Old City of Safed.
Women as well as men are commanded to hear the public reading of the biblical scroll of Esther. The reading is conducted in the synagogue amid much revelry. Almost all children, and some adults, come to the service with groggers (noisemakers), which they sound whenever Haman’s name is read. Since Haman is mentioned more than fifty times in Esther, the reading is constantly interrupted by shouts, screams, boos, and the rattling of groggers. Because Jewish law requires people to hear every word of the scroll of Esther, the person chanting the book is forbidden to resume until the noise abates.
While Jews normally come to synagogue in suits and dresses, their attire on the playful holiday of Purim is more likely to be costumes and masks. Although many women model themselves on Queen Esther and many men on Mordechai, I have seen people come to services dressed as robots or as members of the Women’s Liberation Army of Shushan (the Persian city where the Purim story takes place).
The synagogue service is usually followed by a party where the command to get drunk is carried out. Very often, members of the congregation perform skits based on the Purim story (see Esther). At many yeshlvot, Purimshpiels are performed, and fun is poked—through plays and skits—at the school, its teachers and rabbis, as well as at traditional texts that are usually treated with reverence.
Another Purim commandment is to send mishloakh manor (gifts of food and drink) to other Jews. The minimum gift one must give is two portions of different foods; they must require no preparation but be ready to eat. In recent years, as the Jewish community has become more affluent, mishloakh manot have grown more elaborate, and many people send them to large numbers of friends.
On Purim one is commanded to be charitable to everyone, even to beggars whose requests for charity one has reason to believe are bogus. On this day of unbridled joy, no questions are to be asked. When I was a student at Yeshiva University, there were two women who used to accost students every morning and afternoon, asking for money. A rabbi I knew there—a generous man—never contributed to them; he told me he knew for a fact that they had independent and substantial means. Nonetheless, on Purim he made sure to give them a donation.
Throughout Jewish history, many communities and families established their own special Purim holidays to commemorate annually the anniversaries of events in which Jewish communities or individuals were saved from death at the hands of antisemites. In the 1970s, a prominent American rabbi was among those kidnapped and held hostage by Muslim terrorists at the B’nai B’rith headquarters in Washington, D.C. All the hostages survived, and ever since the rabbi conducts an annual special Purim celebration with his family on the Hebrew date on which he was released.
Another commandment associated with the holiday is to enjoy a large, festive repast known as the Purim se’udah (meal). The dessert normally served at this meal, and eaten throughout the whole holiday, is hamantashen, small cakes of baked dough filled with prunes, apricot, poppy seed, or other filling. During the Birkat ha-Mazon (Grace After Meals), a special prayer is recited, thanking God for the miracles that occurred during the days of Mordechai.
The observance of Purim was apparently well known to the Nazi leadership. Julius Streicher, perhaps the most vicious antisemite among the defendants at the Nuremberg Trials, shouted out as he was marched to the gallows, “Purimfest.”55
1 Now King Ahasuerus laid a tribute on the land and on the coastlands of the sea. 2 And all the accomplishments of his authority and strength, and the full account of the greatness of Mordecai, to which the king advanced him, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Media and Persia? 3 For Mordecai the Jew was second only to King Ahasuerus and great among the Jews, and in favor with the multitude of his kinsmen, one who sought the good of his people and one who spoke for the welfare of his whole nation.
King Ahasuerus (also known in secular history as Xerxes) is the most powerful man on the face of the earth, king of one of the greatest empires of all time. And yet in these closing verses of the Book of Esther, all we are told of Ahasuerus is that he laid a tax on the kingdom. Political leaders are not praised for such things. Taxes are the basis for protest, not praise. But this is all our author says about the king in his final reference to his rule.
In contrast, Mordecai receives a great deal more attention. While our author barely gives the king one line of editorial exposure, he gives Mordecai nearly five. Instead of writing any tribute to the king, our author gives a great closing tribute to Mordecai. He speaks of his authority, his accomplishments, his strength, and his greatness. This sounds more like a spot commercial for a man running for political office.
Mordecai, we are told, was a great man. He was great because he was second only to the king himself in power. He was great because of his accomplishments, authority, strength, and greatness. He was great among the Jews because his fellow-Jews highly esteemed him. He had the favor of his people because he sought their good, and he spoke for the welfare of his whole nation.
This all sounds mighty good, does it not? I know how this will sound, but say it I must. Almost the same things could have been said of Jimmy Hoffa by those who were members of the Teamsters’ Union. Being great in the sight of men is not synonymous with being great in the eyes of God. Being great among men is not the same as being godly. Mordecai was great, but we have no reason at all to assume that he was godly. How could a godly man take credit for saving his people without even mentioning God?
Something is wrong with this picture. There has been a great deliverance, but that deliverance came about through the providence of God, not through the power of men. The Book of Esther should remind us of the greatness of God and warn us about being too impressed with the greatness of men. And lest we become too enamored with Mordecai as the deliverer of his people, we should be reminded that it was through his stubbornness and folly that the Jewish people were endangered in the first place.
We must interpret the Book of Esther in light of the entire Bible. And yet it is here that we come upon a very serious problem. Esther speaks of the deliverance of the Jews throughout the Persian Empire. It speaks of the greatness of Esther and Mordecai. It introduces us to a new Jewish feast, the Feast of Purim. If all these matters are of such great importance, why is there no reference to the Book of Esther or to any of the key persons or events of this book in any other book of the Bible? Why are the Book of Esther and its events ignored in the rest of the Bible? When we read the books of Ezra and Nehemiah—the books immediately preceding Esther which fall in the same general time frame—why is there virtually not even a hint of anything from the Book of Esther?56 If it were not for the Book of Esther, we would know absolutely nothing of this period of time or of these people. Why?
I think for me the reason is finally beginning to sink in. Those things which the Jews thought to be important, those things which are predominant in the Book of Esther, are not the things of God, and they are not really of any eternal significance.57 The Jews who remained on in Persia did not return to Judah and Jerusalem because they had too much invested in Persia. At this period of time, the scene in Susa (Esther 1:1-9) is far more glorious than the scene in Jerusalem, where a small group of Jews (50,000 or so) dwell in the ruins of a once great kingdom (see for example Ezra 3:10-13; Nehemiah 1:1-3).
In that day, there were two kingdoms. One was the great and glorious kingdom of Persia. The problem is that this kingdom was temporal, and even worse, it was a kingdom under the influence of Satan (see Daniel 10:20). The other “kingdom” was the earthly and eternal kingdom of God. It was in Jerusalem that God promised to dwell and to manifest His presence. It was to Jerusalem that people of all nations were to come to worship Him. While the earthly kingdom was far from impressive, it was the place of God’s presence and blessing. It is the kingdom which the Persian Jews rejected, choosing to remain in the prosperity and splendor of this pagan realm.
Everything we read about Esther and Mordecai and the Jews of the Persian empire inclines us to assume that these Jews had little regard for God’s kingdom and an excessive attraction to this temporal kingdom. The reason the rest of the Bible ignores the people and events of the Book of Esther is because the book is an account of Jews who are preoccupied with the wrong kingdom, a kingdom which is not eternal. Oh, the God of Israel is at work in the Book of Esther, but neither Mordecai, nor Esther, nor the Jews, nor the Persians recognize it. In contrast, we see the Pharaoh recognizing the hand of God upon Joseph and Nebuchadnezzar acknowledging and worshipping Daniel’s God. Not so in Persia!
As I reflect on the closing chapters of the Book of Esther, I am reminded of the temptation of our Lord:
8 Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world, and their glory; 9 and he said to Him, “All these things will I give You, if You fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Begone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only’ “ (Matthew 4:8-10).
Satan offered our Lord the earthly kingdoms, hoping that He would give up His commitment to the Father’s eternal kingdom. Satan was not successful in his temptation of our Lord. But it seems to me that Mordecai gave in to this very temptation. At the end of the Book of Esther, we read of Mordecai’s great power and glory, but it is in the wrong kingdom. We are told that the account of his greatness is to be found “in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Media and Persia” (Esther 10:2). A number of Bible students point out the similarity of this statement to those found in biblical history. Allow me to point out one crucial difference. There is a world of difference between having one’s deeds recorded “in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Media and Persia,” and having one’s deeds recorded in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel and Judah. Just so, there is a world of difference between having one’s name recorded in the Book of Life and having one’s name recorded is some other book, even a famous history book.
The Book of Esther is a picture—and not a very pretty one—of the Jew who is in unbelief and in disobedience. No wonder the Jews of the Persian empire are in peril. No wonder Mordecai and the Jews act little differently than do the pagans of Persia. No wonder that neither prayer, nor repentance, nor the Scriptures, nor faith, nor God are mentioned in this book. The book is a description of pagan Jews, Jews who have become attached to “Vanity Fair.”
How can we not think of the words of our Lord, when He says,
36 “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? (Mark 8:36).
The position, power, and prestige of Esther and Mordecai (not to mention the rest of the Jews who remained there) were of no eternal benefit. Consequently, in spite of the seemingly glorious account of Esther, these people and events are lost to the rest of Scripture. Significantly and sadly, we find neither Esther nor Mordecai listed in the “Hall of Faith” as described in Hebrews 11.
This error of the Persian Jews regarding the kingdom of God is seen in the Jews of Jesus’ day. They too were caught up with the secular kingdom of their day and with the power that came with it. They were afraid of the “kingdom” of which our Lord spoke. They feared they would lose their position and power in this world, and they had little concern about God’s kingdom in the next. They were not laying up treasure in heaven; they were laying up treasure on earth, even taking advantage of widows to do so (see Matthew 23:14). Not only did they refuse to enter into God’s kingdom, but they tried to keep others from entering as well (23:13). Not surprisingly, they too were into banquets (23:6).
Even the disciples of our Lord reflect the same secular thinking in regard to the kingdom of God. They were interested in the power and prestige of our Lord’s kingdom. They wanted to have a prominent role. They were eager to establish the kingdom and disinclined to wait (or suffer) for it. It took a long time for them to grasp and then to accept what our Lord had to say about the kingdom of God.
And we are no different. We are all too similar to Esther and Mordecai, to the Jews who opposed Jesus, and to the disciples. We find that this present temporal kingdom has a great attraction to us. It sometimes seems real, while the kingdom of our Lord seems distant and far-fetched. Are we critical of the way the Persian Jews added to the Word of God so that their worship became perverted, self-indulgent celebration? Do we think that only the Jews of ancient days failed to recognize the hand of God and took credit for what God has done? We do exactly the same thing today.
I am thinking of the Corinthian church as it is depicted in the New Testament. In the very first chapter of 1 Corinthians, we find the church has already become too man-centered. Christian and biblical morality has all too quickly and easily been set aside so that even the pagans are shocked by what these saints are doing (see 1 Corinthians 5:1-8). The sobering “celebration” of the Lord’s Supper had degenerated into a secular and drunken celebration which brought about sickness and death to some of the Corinthians (see 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). Worship, which is characterized by sacrifice, all too easily becomes characterized by self-indulgence and sin (see Exodus 32; 1 Corinthians 11).
For the Old Testament saints of Esther’s day, worship and service were to be governed by the Law. God’s Law set the standard not only for the Jew’s conduct but also for his warfare and for his worship. The Law is not once mentioned in the Book of Esther. Our conduct, service, and worship is likewise to be governed by the Word of God. How quickly the heathen culture in which we live begins to encroach on our thinking and on our behavior, until we are worshipping in a way that is precisely opposite to that which God requires and enables. Would we scoff at those Jews who celebrate the Feast of Purim by enthusiastically doing those things which the Old Testament forbade? Let us take time to ponder our own practices. How much of what we do in serving God and worshipping Him is contrary to His Word?
Let us not leave the Book of Esther looking down our spiritual noses at Esther, Mordecai, and the Persian Jews. Let us leave the Book of Esther asking ourselves how we are like them and asking what we should do to be the people God has called us to be. Let us seek first the kingdom of God, and let all other things take a secondary place in our lives. Let us not exalt men and forget God. Let us recognize that the Book of Esther describes the dark side of Judaism in those days and that Ezra and Nehemiah set down for us examples which we should follow. Let us look for the hand of God, even in the events of a secular world and through heathen officials and politicians. To God be the glory, great things He has done. Great things He still does and is yet to do.
53 The reason I say that both Esther and Mordecai were given authority to draft this new law is because the “you” in verse 8 is plural, indicating that the king was speaking to both Esther and Mordecai.