2. Hanging Out at the Gate (Esther 2:19-3:15)
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.
A Foiled Plot
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.
(Mordecai’s) Pride and (Haman’s) Prejudice
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.