Sleepless in Susa (Esther 5:1-7:10)
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.
Review of Events
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.
Esther’s Appearance Before the King
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.
The First Banquet
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.
Mordecai Rains on Haman’s Parade
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.
Sleepless in Susa
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.
Esther Makes Her Petition and Haman Gets the Sack
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.