|Topical Bible Study||January 1957|
The People of the Bible
Article XXII—The Book of Esther
Queen Esther, King Ahasuerus, Mordecai, and Haman
THE events related in the Book of Esther occurred subsequent to the decree of King Cyrus, which gave the Hebrew captives in the Medo-Persian kingdom the privilege of returning to their own land of Palestine. Close to fifty thousand took advantage of this provision of liberty, but other thousands did not. These considered it to their advantage to remain in the country to which they had been exiled.
The background of the story, in which Esther is the chief personality, is outlined in the first chapter of the book. In this chapter we are informed of the fabulous wealth of King Ahasuerus, and of a sumptuous feast which be made for the leading families of the city and provinces. These were the power and glory of Media and Persia. Following was another feast for seven days, for all the people of the palace.
In verses 10 and 11 we are told of the natural result of such unrestrained feasting and drinking, for on the final day when the kings and the nobles were partially intoxicated they acted very foolishly, The king sent for the queen (Vashti) to come before the nobles and exhibit her beauty. The queen refused thus to make a spectacle of herself before the crowd. The king’s wrath was inflamed, and together with his lords decided that Vashti should be deposed from being queen, and another chosen in her place. So the great feast ended in folly and trouble for the king’s household.
Chapter two relates the method appointed by the king by which a new queen was to be selected. According to Herodotus there were seven Persian families of the first rank of nobles, and the king usually chose his wives from among these. But this time, and in the Lord’s providence, Esther was chosen. Esther was a cousin of Mordecai, “a Benjamite; who had been carried away from Jerusalem with the captivity which had been carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away.”—vss. 5,6
Esther’s father and mother had died, and her cousin Mordecai “took her for his own daughter.” “The maid was fair and beautiful,” the record states. (vs. 7) Among all the virgins who were brought before Ahasuerus from whom to select a new queen, Esther was the one chosen. “Then the king made a great feast unto all his princes and his servants, even Esther’s feast; and he made a release to the provinces, and gave gifts, according to the state of the king.”—vss. 18
Esther, acting on the advice of her cousin, had not revealed to the king that she was related to Mordecai, and therefore a Jewess. Soon, and doubtless also in the providences of the Lord, Mordecai learned of a plot against the king’s life, informed Esther about it, who in turn reported it to the king in Mordecai’s name. This placed Mordecai in high standing with the king.—vss. 21-23
Chapter three unfolds another facet of this remarkable story. It tells of one of the king’s servants named Haman, and how the king promoted him “above all the princes that were with him.” His exaltation was the preparation by Satan of a plan to destroy the Jewish people. Ahasuerus commanded that all his servants should bow down to Haman, “but Mordecai bowed not, nor did him reverence.”—vs. 2
“Then the king’s servants, which were in the king’s gate said unto Mordecai, Why transgressest thou the king’s commandment?” (vs.3) In replying to this question Mordecai said that he was a Jew, explaining probably that it would be contrary to his religion to bow down to any man, especially a Gentile.
When this information was given to Haman, an insane madness seized him, and he planned to punish, not merely Mordecai, but to destroy all the remnants of the Jewish nation still in the land. Haman reported the circumstances to the king in such a way as to make the Jews seem an utterly pernicious, worthless, and dangerous people. (vs. 8) The falsehoods told to the king were much like those reported against the Jews in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah by the people of Samaria.—Ezra 4:11-16
Haman asked the king for a decree authorizing, at a time appointed, the destruction of all the Jews in the land, offering to pay into the king’s treasury ten thousand talents of silver, probably from the booty expected to result from the slaughter. (vs. 9) The king consented, and “took his ring from his hand, and gave it unto Haman” to be used in signing the many copies of the decree that would need to be dispatched throughout the various provinces of the realm.—vss. 10-15
The king’s ring had the royal seal attached to it, which carried the full authority of the empire behind it. Additionally, he granted Haman all the property of the Jewish families executed. In the East, confiscation usually follows execution. The lives of the whole Jewish people were given into his hands.
At this point in the story it would seem as though Satan had triumphed, that the Jews would certainly be destroyed. But God was watching over them. The strange chain of circumstances by which they were delivered from this plot is one of the most interesting and astonishing accounts in human history. Chapter four reveals that when Mordecai received word of Haman’s plot against him and his people he rent his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city streets with a great and bitter cry.—vs. 1
Mordecai even came before the king’s gateway to the palace, although none could enter the palace clothed with sackcloth. Indirectly the mourning and wailing of Mordecai was reported to Esther. She demanded to know the reason for this untoward behavior. The chamberlain, Hatach, had to go out into the city streets to meet Mordecai, who laid the matter before him, showing him a copy of the decree. He asked Hatach to show the decree to Esther and urge her to make supplication to the king to release the Jews from such a doom.—vss. 5-9
But here arose a difficulty which seemingly made it impossible for Esther to present a petition to the king. The law was that none could enter into the king’s presence, in the inner court of the palace, without the king’s invitation. The penalty for disobeying this law was death. The only exceptions were those to whom the king would hold out the golden scepter to signify that the caller could come in and present his petition. Esther stated this rule to Mordecai, explaining that she had not been called by the king for thirty days, which apparently indicated to her that for the time being she was not standing very high in his favor. The situation seemed desperate.
When Esther’s reply reached Mordecai he realized the seriousness of the situation, but felt sure from the prophecies that God would not allow his people to be destroyed. So he sent word to Esther, saying that if she was not willing to risk her life for her people then deliverance would come to them from some other source. He warned, though, that in such an event, she could not hope to escape, for she also came under the decree of destruction. This message was very emphatic, referred to in the record as a “command.”
But withal, Mordecai had words of great encouragement for Esther. “Who knoweth,” he said “whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (vs. 14) The Lord’s people in all ages have been greatly strengthened in the performance of their privileges and duties by the realization that the providences of God were definitely operating in their lives. Doubtless Esther and her cousin had both been watching the meaning of her exaltation to be queen. Indeed, Mordecai had engineered it, and obviously for the very purpose of being in a position to make conditions throughout the realm more favorable for his people.
Now he sensed how wonderfully the Lord had blessed his efforts, and the suggestion to Esther that God was responsible for the position she occupied, gave her the needed courage and determination to risk her life for the salvation of her people. She sent word to her cousin to have all the Jews of the city fast for her, which doubtless included prayers on her behalf. She added, “I also and my maidens will fast likewise; and so will I go unto the king, which is not according to the law: and if I perish, I perish.”—vss. 15,16
On the third day from the beginning of the fast the time had come to act. Esther put on her royal apparel and stood in the inner court of the palace, opposite to the entry of the throne room. The usual location of the throne in this room was such that from the raised position of the dias the king could look beyond the door into the court, so he saw Esther standing there waiting for an indication from him that she was welcome to enter his presence. What a tense moment it must have been for this beautiful queen!
Not only was Esther’s own life at stake, but the lives of her people as well, including Mordecai. Her faith in the watchcare of Israel’s God over his people was rewarded, for the king extended his golden scepter, indicating that Esther should come in to him to present any matter she might have on her mind. She touched the top of his scepter as she bowed into his presence, which was an acknowledgment of the king’s authority, and a gesture of her own obedience and submission to him. The king was more gracious to her than she could have dared hope, for he offered to grant her anything she wished up to half of his kingdom.—ch. 5:1-3
It must have been strengthening to her faith to have the king make so generous an offer; for, after all, she had a very large and serious request to present to him. The destiny of thousands of her people who had been ordered slaughtered was involved, so she proceeded cautiously. She did not at once reveal to the king the nature of her request, but instead invited the king to a banquet which she had prepared. She also requested that Haman be present at the banquet. She felt that the king would understand that this was but in preparation for her real petition, and he did. At the feast he asked her about it.
King Ahasuerus gave instructions for Haman to make haste to appear with him at the feast which Esther had prepared. While partaking of the wine, the king pressed Esther to make known her request, assuring her again that he was prepared to grant her anything up to half of his kingdom. But Esther was still cautious, and wise. Instead of divulging at once the favor she desired of the king, she asked that he and Haman join her the next day for another feast, promising that then she would make known her request.
Haman left the feast with a very exalted opinion of his own importance. He thought that surely he must be on the road to a very high position in the government in order to be thus honored by the queen. “Pride goeth before destruction,” the Scriptures tell us.(Prov. 16:18) Instead of wondering what could be the motive for such unusual honor—for so it seemed—being bestowed upon him, Haman gloated over his experience, and especially in the fact that he had been invited to appear with the king at another feast on the following day.
But Haman’s joy was somewhat lessened by the fact that as he left the king’s palace and passed by Mordecai in the king’s gate, this obstinate Jew—as he had concluded him to be—refused once more to recognize him.(vs. 9) But for the moment Haman refrained from any outward act of violence. When he reached home he sent for his friends, and his wife, Zeresh, and told them of the wonderful thing which had happened to him, rehearsing, as a reminder to them, the wonderful way he had previously been promoted by the king; gloating also over the fact of the further invitation for the next day.
But with it all he was depressed and frustrated, and said, “All this availeth me nothing, so long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate.” (vs.13) Quickly Hay man’s wife, who seemingly would stop at nothing in order that her husband might be made happy, suggested that a gallows be erected on which Mordecai could be hanged. And to this all his friends consented, as the account shows. Do this, she said to Haman, then “go thou in merrily with the king unto the banquet.” In other words, why should a mere Jew stand in her husband’s way of complete satisfaction and joy? (vs. 14) This solution to his frustration appealed to Haman, and he gave orders to have the gallows erected.
That night King Ahasuerus was unable to sleep. To pass the time away, and probably also with the thought of inducing sleep, he commanded that the book of records of the affairs of state be brought and read to him. In the reading he was reminded of the time when. Mordecai had reported a treacherous plot against him, and thereby had saved his life. He inquired, “What honor and dignity hath been done to Mordecai for this? Then said the king’s servants that ministered unto him, There is nothing done for him.”—ch. 6:1-3
Whether as a matter of custom, or as a token of genuine appreciation, the king decided that some great honor should be bestowed upon Mordecai, and inquired who was in the court, as though to choose one who would properly carry out his instructions in this matter. Perhaps the king had even heard the approach of footsteps, and knew that some high dignitary in his government must be in the court.
Ironically it was Haman, seeking an audience with the king to get permission to hang Mordecai. But before Haman could voice his request, the king asked him what, in his opinion, should “be done unto the man whom the king delighteth to honor? (vs. 6) Haman concluded that surely the king must be referring to him, so outlined a procedure which he thought befitting to a personage so wonderful as to be the only guest to share two feasts prepared for the king by the beautiful queen, Esther. He said to the king:
“Let the royal apparel be brought which the king useth to wear, and the horse that the king rideth upon, and the crown royal which is set upon his head: and let this apparel and horse be delivered to the hand of one of the king’s most noble princes, that they may array the man withal whom the king delighteth to honor, and bring him on horseback through the street of the city, and proclaim before him, Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delighteth to honor.”—vss. 8,9
Even while speaking these words Haman was doubtless gloating over seeing himself thus being honored by the king, concluding also that one standing so high in the king’s favor would have no difficulty in obtaining consent for the murder of Mordecai. But his selfish and murderous delight was short lived, for hardly had he finished outlining the procedure when the king ordered him, as one “of the most noble princes” whom he had recommended, to carry out the ceremony, naming Mordecai, the Jew, as the man whom he was thus delighted to honor.—vss. 10,11
Haman obeyed the instructions of the king, humiliating though it was to do so. Then he hastened home “mourning, and having his head covered.” (vs. 12) He related to his wife and friends what had happened to him, but this time they had no comforting words to offer, nor suggestions to make as to how he might counter the king’s action and get rid of Mordecai. Instead, they said to him, and very truthfully, “If Mordecai be of the seed of the Jews, before whom thou hast begun to fall, thou shalt not prevail against him, but shalt surely fall before him.”—vs. 13
How right they were! Doubtless the background of this prediction was their knowledge of the manner in which God had protected his people throughout their captivity in Babylon, and in connection with the return of many of them to Jerusalem. They probably knew of the experiences of the three Hebrews in the fiery furnace, and of how Daniel had been delivered from the mouths of the lions. From what they knew of the past they realized that the Jews had a power to protect them with which it was not wise to trifle.
Evidently Haman’s wife and friends had overlooked this when they suggested that Mordecai be hanged. Or they might have reasoned that the Jews who did not return to Jerusalem when given the opportunity were no longer subject to the care of their God. But when they realized the very strange turn of events which compelled Haman to be the instrument in honoring Mordecai instead of hanging him they sensed what was happening and advised Haman accordingly.
Even while Haman’s wife and friends were warning him against making further attempts against Mordecai, the king’s chamberlains came and hurried him away to attend “the banquet that Esther had prepared.” (vs. 14) At this second banquet the king again asked Esther to present her petition. “Then Esther the queen answered and said, If I have found favor in thy sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request; for we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to perish.”—ch. 7:1-4
The king had not expected a request of this sort. First of all, he had not known that his queen was a Jewess, and perhaps for the moment did not associate her petition with Haman’s decree that all the Jews in the realm be slaughtered. But he loved the queen, and regardless of who was involved he demanded further information. Then it was that Esther pointed out Haman as being the man responsible for the plight of her people. She said, “The adversary and enemy is this wicked Haman.—vss. 5,6
“Then Haman was afraid before the king and the queen,” and well he might be. (vs. 6) The king, too angry to reach at once a conclusion as to what should be done, left the room and went out into the palace garden to consider the matter. Two surprises had been presented to him by his queen, and all in a very few words. He learned that Esther was a Jewess, and that his trusted Haman was a wicked plotter. No wonder he needed a little time to think things over.—vs. 7
Meanwhile Haman used these moments of escape from the king’s wrath to petition Esther for his life. In his anxiety he even threw himself across the couch on which she was reclining, and there the king found him when he returned from the palace garden. Attributing an evil motive to this, the king said, “Will he force the queen also before me in the house?” At the king’s bidding his servants quickly rushed in, covered Haman’s face, and at the king’s command he was hanged on the gallows which he had prepared for Mordecai.—vss. 8-10
Now there was no doubt in the mind of any Jew at the time who knew the circumstances that Esther had “come to the kingdom for such a time as this. “ Nor did the king love her any less when learning that Esther was a Jewess. She now explained to the king her relationship to Mordecai, and he was exalted to take the place of Haman in the government, while Esther was given Haman’s house, which she turned over to Mordecai.—ch. 8:1,2
But the threat against the Jews of the realm had not been fully set aside. The law of the Medes and Persians was “that no decree nor statute which the king established could be changed.” (Dan. 6:15) King Ahasuerus had issued the decree calling for the slaughter of the Jews, and it could not be changed. The best that he could do under the circumstances was to authorize his new prime minister, Mordecai, to issue in his name any sort of counter decree that might seem best to deal with the situation.
Acting upon this, Mordecai dictated a decree to the king’s scribes authorizing the Jews to make suitable preparations, and when the day of slaughter mentioned in the former decree arrived, to defend themselves. With two decrees in force, the result naturally was that only those who really hated the Jews would act on the former, while all others in the realm would either remain neutral or else assist the Jews.
The day for the attack had been set far enough in advance to permit a knowledge of the decree to reach every province in the realm, and while the counter decree was issued some two months later, there still was sufficient time for it also to be dispatched to every corner of the empire. When the fatal time arrived, there was a mild sort of civil war in which the enemies of the Jews suffered most. But it was soon over, and the vast majority of Esther’s people were saved.—chs. 8 and 9
The Jews still commemorate this great victory over their enemies by the “Feast of Purim,” from the word “pur” meaning lots,—from the fact that lots were cast by Haman and his friends to set the date for their planned slaughter of the Jews. Since it was turned into a day of deliverance, the Jews properly continue to commemorate the event with feasting and rejoicing.