With an economy of words, the story-teller transports his
listeners to a fabulous oriental world, and to a time when the Persian Empire was still young.
—Joyce Baldwin, Esther (1984)
Prelude to Genocide
The king of Persian declared a sixth month celebration. Throughout those days, he entertained his nobles and displayed publically the glories of his kingdom. In the last day, his thoughts turned to his beautiful queen, Vashti. He summoned her to appear in her royal apparel and with her crown. He wanted to present her to his nobles in all her beauty and splendor.
But Vashti said no way. She would have none of it. She disobeyed her husband, and she defied her king. And so the festivities ground to a halt.
Remember, the setting is ancient Persia. The king’s word was law. It was that simple. There could be no appeal to rights or equality or dignity. This was the pagan world, and Vashti had willfully crossed a line.
Now, the king had something of a temper, so he proceeded cautiously. He asked his counselors for their advice. They all agreed that Vashti’s disobedience could prove a dangerous precedent for the whole empire, both within the home and beyond. They advised the king to demote his wife, to take away her role as queen and her place at court. The king agreed and made the appropriate decree. But then he began to second-guess himself.
This is the beginning of the story of Esther, the Jewish maiden who became queen of Persia. It is set about the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Esther was an orphan. She lived in the Persian capital and had been brought up by her older cousin, Mordecai, a Jewish official who sat at the king’s gate. Scripture says of Esther, “the maid was fair and beautiful” (2:7). And that beauty drew her into palace drama and intrigue.
The New Queen
The king’s counselors decided to divert his attention from the old queen by suggesting a novel way of finding a new queen. Royal officers would gather the fairest young virgins from all the provinces and present them to the king. The one who found the most favor in his eyes would be his new queen. The king agreed to the plan, and the king’s men began to collect likely candidates. One of them was Esther.
Esther was a godly young woman, discrete and humble. She submitted meekly to the whole rigmarole and listened obediently to Mordecai when he told her not to admit to her ethnicity.
When the young women were brought before the king, he saw Ester and it was over. He made her his wife and queen and threw a great banquet in her honor.
Meanwhile, two of the king’s chamberlains plotted to kill him. Mordecai heard about the plot and told Esther. An investigation confirmed the report, and the two conspirators were hanged. The whole matter was written up in the royal chronicles and quickly forgotten.
The Final Solution
Now the real villain enters the story. His name was Haman. He was a descendent of the kings of Amalek, the ancient enemies of Israel. He was slick, charismatic and rose quickly to prominence in the royal court. Everyone bowed to him and rendered obeisance. Everyone except Mordecai. The king’s servants asked him about his defiance, and he told them that, as a Jew, he would not bow.
Notice, the issue in Mordecai’s eyes wasn’t his religious faith or his abhorrence of idolatry. The issue, as he saw it, was ethnic or national. The Amalekites were Israel’s national enemies, and he wasn’t about to show reverence toward any of them, no matter what custom or law required.
It didn’t take long for Haman to notice Mordecai’s defiance. Then he learned that there was a whole people who would also refuse to bow to him. Haman flew into a rage. He decided he had to “destroy all the Jews who were throughout the whole kingdom” (3:6).
Haman shared the presuppositions of the pagan world. He believed in divination and lucky days. And so he wanted to pick the best possible day for carrying out his project, his Final Solution. Haman began casting lots over the calendar. He received a “no” more than 340 times. Finally, for the thirteenth day of the twelfth month he got a “yes.” Haman should have been afraid . . . very afraid.
But Haman went to the king and delivered his spiel. “There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from all otherpeople’s, and they do not keep the king’s laws. Therefore it isnot fitting for the king to let them remain” (3:8, NKJV).
Haman offered to undertake and fund an ethnic cleansing project. The king gave Haman carte blanche. Haman drew up the order and dispatched it by post to all the provinces of the empire.
For Such a Time as This
The capital was thrown into confusion. Mordecai tore his clothes, put on sackcloth, went into the middle of the city, and cried with a loud and bitter cry. Everywhere throughout the empire the Jews mourned and fasted with weeping and wailing (4:1-3).
Esther didn’t know about the decree until Mordecai told her. He ordered her to go directly to the king and convince him to rescind his decree. Esther hesitated. Only those summoned could enter the king’s presence. Any who came presumptuously would be executed—except those few to whom the king extended a golden scepter as a token of mercy and favor. Esther hadn’t seen the king in a month. She might be out of favor.
Mordecai insisted. Certainly, the Jews would be delivered in some fashion, whether Esther acted or not. But it was her duty to take the risk: “And who knows whether you are come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (4:14).
Esther went before the king. He held out the golden scepter and welcomed her. He knew she had risked her life and that she must have a desperate request. He freely offered to meet it “to the half of the kingdom” (5:3). But all Esther asked for was his company at a private banquet — his company and Haman’s.
The king came. So did Haman. And at the banquet the king repeated his request: in so many words, “What do you really want?” Esther faltered. She proposed another banquet and promised to reveal her request then.
Haman went his way elated. But when he saw Mordecai, who still wouldn’t bow, Haman fell into anger and depression. He told his family about all the honors he had received from the king and made a special point of Queen Esther’s invitations. “Yet all this avails me nothing, so long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate!” (5:13).
Haman’s wife proposed a quick solution: Build tall gallows, ask the king for permission to hang Mordecai tomorrow, and then you can enjoy your second banquet in peace. Haman had the gallows built.
The Tide Turns
That night the king couldn’t sleep. He called for the royal chronicles and had them read aloud. He probably thought that would put him to sleep if anything would. But instead he learned that Mordecai had saved his life. “What honor and dignity has been done to Mordecai for this?” he asked. The answer was, “None.”
In the morning, while the king was pondering a fit reward, Haman appeared in his court. The king called him in and asked for his advice: “What shall be done for the man the king delights to honor?” Haman, in all his hubris, assumed the king was talking about him. So he proposed an elaborate parade. The king accepted the plan and ordered him to take charge of the reward: “Do so to Mordecai the Jew.”
Full of fear, Haman fulfilled his commission to the letter and then went home to pout. His wife saw the handwriting on the wall. “You will surely fall.” At that point the king’s servants came to conduct Haman to Esther’s feast.
At this second banquet the king pressed his question: “What do you really want?” And finally Esther relented: “I want my life and the life of my people!” She explained quickly: “We are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to perish” (7:4).
The king was angry. “Who is he, and where is he who would dare to do this?”
And Esther answered, “The adversary and the enemy is this wicked Haman!”
Haman was terrified. The king, again wary of his temper, stormed out into the garden to calm his wrath. Haman rushed to the queen to plead for his life. She was reclining on a couch at the banquet table. Haman fell upon her feet and legs. At that moment the king returned. He was amazed.
“Will he rape the queen in my presence, in my house?” he cried out. Before Haman could reply, the king’s servants covered his face, and one pointed out to the gallows that Haman had built for Mordecai, “who had spoken good for the king.”
“Hang him on it,” the king ordered.
The climax came quickly. Esther presented Mordecai to the king, and the king made him his prime minister. There was, strictly speaking, nothing the king could do to alter his original decree, for under Persian law, not even the king could alter his own word. But the king invited Esther and Mordecai to find a creative alternative.
They did. The issued a royal decree authorizing the Jewish people to defend themselves. This shift in royal favor would discourage some from harming the Jews and encourage others to support them. And when the day came, the Jews successfully defended themselves: “Thus the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, and slaughter, and destruction . . .” (9:5).
Esther and Mordecai established the feast of Purim (the days of the lot) to celebrate their deliverance.
Theme and Message
Though the name of God nowhere appears in the Book of Esther, it is nevertheless a Christ-centered book. The promise of Messiah is on the line. If the Jews perish, so does God’s plan of salvation. And yet there are no prophecies, no miracles. God doesn’t turn the rivers to blood or blot out the sun. He works quietly through His providence and through the people He has set up to be in the right place at the right time.
God’s hand shines in the details: A recalcitrant wife. A beauty contest. A forgotten report. A sleepless night. A courageous queen. And everything changes. God protects His people and keeps His promise.
Throughout the Restoration Era, God was preparing His people for covenant maturity. They needed to walk by faith, not by sight; to trust God’s Word and providence rather than His miraculous interventions. They needed to keep His commandments, even in the face of persecution. They needed to be faithful witnesses in a pagan world . . . even before the throne of a king. We are no different. The same calling to be faithful is ours today.