In this Esther 3 sermon we’re going to see the two protagonists in this story – Esther and Mordecai – Live by faith in the unseen God.
This is our 3rd lesson in the book of Esther.
The first lesson we did an overview of the entire book. It was there that we noticed that God leads his people providentially. In the book of Esther God wasn’t in the business of working direct noticeable miracles. In fact as we noted God isn’t even directly mentioned in the book of Esther. I was reading a book this week. And it made the point that King Ahasuerus’ name is mentioned over 100 times in this short book, while the name of God is conspicuously and unprecedentedly absent. What are you supposed to make of that? Again as we saw before — I think the point is that even though God is not mentioned, he’s still active in the lives of his people. But he’s active not with signs and wonders to be observed. Rather, he’s active behind the scenes. Providentially. And isn’t that how you experience him today? He’s not parting the sea for you to walk through on dry ground. These days he orchestrates engineers and city planners to build a bridge over that sea. And yet, he’s behind it all when it comes down to it.
Then last time we saw the introduction to the book in chapters 1 and 2. It was there we noticed some element of humor. Does it shock you that God authored a book in his Bible that’s intended to be somewhat funny? If you’re inclined to not see any humor in the book of Esther you’re going to miss the message God has for you. Now, I have a dry sense of humor as you might have caught onto. I know, it’s hard to believe. There, that’s an example of my humor… Well I work at the library at Maranatha Baptist University. One day I saw a note from our library system that e-mailed one of my student workers telling her she had a book due in a few days. So I responded to her saying something like “return this immediately.” I know it’s hard to see it, but I actually intended that to be funny – again, dry sense of humor and poor execution of it to boot. Why was it funny to me? Well, who can describe such things? Let’s not even try. But here’s what I want to point out. I “encoded” that message, if you will, as a joke. How did my student respond? She did wonder if I was being humorous. But she decided to interpret my weak attempt at a joke as a command. And so she brought the book back and wondered why I was so adamant that she bring it back immediately… Now, what do I intend to highlight with that example? Simply that if you misinterpret the type of writing we have here you will miss the message. My student took my joke which was intended to cause a laugh. And she interpreted it as a command and acted accordingly. So we do need to recognize that there are elements of humor throughout this book. You can’t escape this fact if you read any commentary on this book. They all agree there’s humor in it.
How can there be humor in this book? Because the recipients of the book know the end from the beginning so to speak. They know that their people were delivered from Haman and Ahasuerus. By the way, I read another commentary this week that called Ahasuerus a “playboy”, a “dunce”, “obtuse”, portrayed “satirically”, and one who “is held up to ridicule every time he enters the action.” Not my words. The words of a very accomplished literary and Bible scholar. So the Jews could have seen humor in this book precisely because they know who wins in the end. This isn’t the Holocaust. Certainly there’s no humor in the Holocaust where millions of Jews actually did perish. In contrast, in this book, the plot of the Jews’ enemies never materializes, very thankfully. So we can find humor in this book without shame.
So anyway, last time we saw the introduction to the book. And in it we saw all the glory and splendor of the ancient Persian empire. We had long extravagant parties. The details of the scenery in the palace and court were extraordinary and lavish. The king Ahasuerus – remember that name sounds something like “headache” in Hebrew – the king was powerful and had everything he could need. Although he was missing one thing – namely a wife that would obey him. Vashti doesn’t give her reason for disobeying her husband the powerful and fearful yet ridiculous despot. So we won’t guess why she disobeyed. And we’ll take that silence to indicate that this whole scene intends to show us the behind-the-scenes weakness of this king who seemed to be on top of the world. Yet, he couldn’t keep his own house in order.
But this disobedience by Vashti also providentially allows for Esther to enter the scene. Esther is obedient and honorable in many ways. And so is her adopted father Mordecai. And yet, we see both of them hiding their Jewish identities. This gives us some pause concerning their godliness. But we have plenty of reasons to love these two characters and cheer them on.
So finally Esther in God’s providence becomes queen of the most powerful empire in the world. And at the end of chapter 2 we see Mordecai in the gate – in a position of some authority. Things are looking positive for these two. I wonder if that will last. Let’s read 3:1-3 to start to find out.
The Jews’ good fortune ends
3:1 ¶ After these things did king Ahasuerus promote Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him, and set his seat above all the princes that were with him. 2 And all the king’s servants, that were in the king’s gate, bowed, and reverenced Haman: for the king had so commanded concerning him. But Mordecai bowed not, nor did him reverence. 3 Then the king’s servants, which were in the king’s gate, said unto Mordecai, Why transgressest thou the king’s commandment?
So, Ahasuerus promoted Haman. Well, what’s the big deal? Did you catch whom Haman descends from? What group was he a part of? He was an Agagite. Agag was an Amalekite. Let’s try to remember some biblical history here. I mentioned parting the Red Sea earlier. Well, as you know, there is in the book of Exodus a time when God parted the Red Sea and the children of Israel walked through on dry ground. They were escaping the Egyptians — after God gave them deliverance from that oppressive nation. After Israel got through the Sea they went to Mount Sinai to receive the Law. But between those two points – Red Sea and Mount Sinai – they were attacked by a group known as the Amalekites. This group was actually some of the descendants of Esau, Jacob’s brother. This is the scene in which Joshua fights Amalek while Moses holds up his staff. And at the end of that scene God promises to have war with Amalek from generation to generation and to blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Later when king Saul was over Israel God wanted to punish Amalek. He wanted Saul to utterly destroy all that belonged to Amalek, even his posterity which included this king named Agag. But Saul didn’t obey. He allowed Agag to live and certainly didn’t carry out the utter destruction that God had planned. In fact the prophet Samuel had to kill the captive king of Amalek because Saul wouldn’t do it. And certainly some of Agag’s progeny lived on. And that’s how we have Haman now. So Haman was a descendant of the mortal enemies of God’s people. And now he’s promoted by King Ahasuerus to a place of supreme power. This doesn’t bode well for the Jews…
And notice that the king commanded that all bow to Haman. But did Mordecai? No. In fact he refused to do so even when prompted continually by the king’s servants. They ask him in utter disbelief – “Are you really disobeying the king?” Mordecai was not one to stir the pot. He’s no common rebel looking for any excuse to disobey even secular authority. After all, he’s the one who uncovered the conspiracy on Ahasuerus’ life in the last episode. So this is very unusual for Mordecai – to not obey the king’s command.
People who study this book make a big deal about Mordecai’s possible reasons for not bowing. Some wonder if he was just being stubborn. Others think he had good reason to not bow. Does the text say something about his reason for refusing to bow? Let’s read 3:4-6.
Why Mordecai doesn’t bow
3:4 Now it came to pass, when they spake daily unto him, and he hearkened not unto them, that they told Haman, to see whether Mordecai’s matters would stand: for he had told them that he was a Jew. 5 And when Haman saw that Mordecai bowed not, nor did him reverence, then was Haman full of wrath. 6 And he thought scorn to lay hands on Mordecai alone; for they had shewed him the people of Mordecai: wherefore Haman sought to destroy all the Jews that were throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus, even the people of Mordecai.
So the king’s servants keep asking Mordecai why he won’t bow. This constant questioning finally reveals something very interesting to all those around. Mordecai wouldn’t bow, why? He told them he was a Jew. Isn’t that interesting how sometimes we might be tempted to kind of minimize our association with God’s people? And sometimes God needs to put some pressure on us in order to evoke a confession from us – “yes, please stop bothering me, I’m one of them”. Have you ever had a situation where something you do is bizarre and noticeable to all around you and the only reason you do it is because you’re a Christian? You didn’t do it before you were saved. And it makes you stick out like a sore thumb. Mordecai, because he was a Jew, could not bow to one of the Jews’ mortal enemies. He was under the Old Covenant. And for him as a Jew he would not bow to an Amalekite. So, I’m not inclined to think his motives were wrong. I tend to think Mordecai was acting based on religious principle.
And you see how the enemy of God’s people reacts to someone acting on religious principle – genocidal rage! Haman is a pure villain. We’re not supposed to feel any sympathy for him at all. Don’t identify with him. That’s not why he’s in this story. He was completely opposed to God’s people. If Mordecai knew the Jews’ history with the Amalekites and Agagites, then you can be sure Haman also knew of this historical conflict. And so when Haman hears that Mordecai won’t bow to him he’s filled with rage. But see, at this point Haman could have reported Mordecai’s disobedience to the king’s command. Justice could have been carried out on Mordecai in a lawful and orderly fashion. And really, I think Mordecai would have probably lost his case. The king commanded everyone to bow to Haman. And Mordecai refused. He was in the wrong, legally-speaking, and could have been prosecuted. But Haman is no law-abider. He takes matters into his own selfish hands. He seeks to destroy Mordecai and yet he doesn’t stop there. Haman heard that Mordecai was a Jew. So Haman hates the idea of retaliating against Mordecai alone. He wants to destroy all of the Jews throughout the kingdom of Persia.
Let me just broaden our thinking for a moment. If Haman’s plan goes through he will destroy all the Jews everywhere in the kingdom. Remember, that kingdom spanned from India to Ethiopia. What small nation is included in that? We just read about it in Ezra and Nehemiah. Yeah, the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem would feel the wrath of the enemy if Haman’s plan goes through. This is a big deal with far-reaching consequences… The destructive tendencies of the enemies of God’s people are marvelous in a very bad way. So, Haman is filled with genocidal rage. He wants to destroy the Jews. What’s his next move? Let’s read 3:7.
Haman’s next move
3:7 ¶ In the first month, that is, the month Nisan, in the twelfth year of king Ahasuerus, they cast Pur, that is, the lot, before Haman from day to day, and from month to month, to the twelfth month, that is, the month Adar.
Here’s what I think this is saying. Haman was seeking “wisdom” to know when to execute his genocidal plan against the Jews. So he cast Pur or the lot. Casting lots was something practiced even by good characters in the Bible. And the understanding was that even when the lot is cast to help people decide what to do, it’s decision is ultimately and providentially from the Lord. That’s according to Proverbs 16:33. This isn’t to say that we ought to be casting lots today to figure out how to order our lives. I’m just trying to explain how this worked in those days.
So Haman casts a lot to discern when to destroy the Jews. And I think what that last line means is that the lot somehow indicated that the 12th month was the time to do it. That’s the month Adar. So with this time frame now in mind, Haman goes to the king with his plan. Let’s read 3:8-9.
Haman tells the king his plan
3:8 And Haman said unto king Ahasuerus, There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from all people; neither keep they the king’s laws: therefore it is not for the king’s profit to suffer them. 9 If it please the king, let it be written that they may be destroyed: and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the hands of those that have the charge of the business, to bring it into the king’s treasuries.
Haman proposes the destruction of the Jews. Only he doesn’t mention them by name to Ahasuerus. Haman only mentions their reportedly-lawless behavior. This proves that they’re incompatible with the king’s realm and rule. So they need to be destroyed. And if this alone was Haman’s proposal it may not have gone far. But he sweetens the deal with basically a bribe. He offers the king 10,000 talents of silver. 1 talent weighs 75 pounds. We’re talking then about 750,000 pounds of silver. Today this would amount to something like $220 million USD. $220 million to destroy all the Jews. Haman offers to pay this much to the folks who carry out this unjust task. Well, how does this “noble, wise” king respond? Read 3:10-11.
The king responds
3:10 And the king took his ring from his hand, and gave it unto Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the Jews’ enemy. 11 And the king said unto Haman, The silver is given to thee, the people also, to do with them as it seemeth good to thee.
Did you see how much thought the king gave to this momentous decision? Hardly any. He just takes his ring off, symbolizing his authority to carry out this order, and gives it to Haman. And then he says something very interesting. “The silver is given to thee.” But I thought Haman was the one who was giving the silver. That’s right, he was. So what the king is really saying is “The silver is yours. And just like the silver is yours, and because you’re going to line my pockets with it, the people – whomever they may be – are yours to do with them whatever you want.” So much for nobility from Ahasuerus. Apparently he didn’t read the proverb in Scripture that says it’s the glory of a king to search out a matter. Because he didn’t even so much as ask a single question to Haman. He’s really going to allow Haman to exterminate a whole people group without so much as a question? Not wise. And yet that’s what happened.
Isn’t it frustrating when wicked men are promoted to positions of power and from those positions they oppose God’s people? It sometimes doesn’t take much for them to win over incompetent, thoughtless authorities to carry out their wicked plans on the godly. And Haman wastes no time in carrying out his satanic plan. Read 3:12-15.
Haman carries out his plan
3:12 ¶ Then were the king’s scribes called on the thirteenth day of the first month, and there was written according to all that Haman had commanded unto the king’s lieutenants, and to the governors that were over every province, and to the rulers of every people of every province according to the writing thereof, and to every people after their language; in the name of king Ahasuerus was it written, and sealed with the king’s ring. 13 And the letters were sent by posts into all the king’s provinces, to destroy, to kill, and to cause to perish, all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day, even upon the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, and to take the spoil of them for a prey. 14 The copy of the writing for a commandment to be given in every province was published unto all people, that they should be ready against that day. 15 The posts went out, being hastened by the king’s commandment, and the decree was given in Shushan the palace. And the king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city Shushan was perplexed.
So we’re still in that first month. I believe this is the month in which Haman started casting lots. The same month he approached the king with his genocidal plan. In this very month he quickly gathered all the king’s scribes together to write out this edict. This edict has full authority. It’s sealed with the king’s ring. And it goes to everyone in the empire – to the lieutenants, governors, and rulers – in descending hierarchical order. And this edict is brutal – notice the three words used to describe the destruction of the Jews – destroy, kill, cause to perish. And Haman wants everyone everywhere to be involved in this. He wants them to be ready against that day.
On to our Esther 4 commentary…