Bible Studies on Esther: Chapter 3 The Seeds of Warfare Are Being Sown

Scripture: Esther 2:19–3:15

Background reading: Exodus 17:8–16; Deuteronomy 25:17–19; 1 Samuel 15:1–9, 32–33

As we continue our reading in the book of Esther, we might conclude that the events presented are nice, neat demonstrations of coincidence. It just so happens, by chance, that Mordecai happened to be in the right place at the right time to hear about this conspiracy against King Ahasuerus. That would be the secular reaction to this event. But we, as students of God’s Word, reflecting on the messages from Daniel, know that providence must replace coincidence. The sovereign Ruler of nations is controlling and allowing this event, too. He permits it and knows the future. He will direct it for his own glory. Two men conspire to kill the king. Mordecai overhears the plot. For Mordecai, this was an occasion to prove his allegiance to the emperor. For the emperor, it was a fortunate report that spared his life. For Esther, it was probably welcome news that her husband of five years would live for another day. Esther has been queen now for five years (3:7) and probably has become immune to the daily doses of palace politics. Quite naturally, she forwards her uncle’s message to the king. The rumor is validated, the villains are hanged on the gallows, and life goes on. The incident is recorded in the public record, but no rewards are doled out.

We are informed of a second event, but no rationale is offered for it. Ahasuerus, for no apparent reason, elevates Haman to the second highest office in the empire. This is no simple appointment but a significant event affecting the course of history. Matthew Henry reminds us,

The king took a fancy to him (princes are not bound to give reasons for their favours), made him his favourite, his confidant, his prime minister of state. Such a commanding influence the court then had that (contrary to the proverb) those whom it blessed the country blessed too; for all men adored this rising sun, and the king’s servants were particularly commanded to bow before him and to do him reverence (Es 3:2), and they did so. I wonder what the king saw in Haman that was commendable or meritorious; it is plain that he was not a man of honour or justice, of any true courage or steady conduct, but proud, and passionate, and revengeful; yet was he promoted, and caressed, and there was none so great as he. Princes’ darlings are not always worthies.

Haman is given all the trappings of highest royalty and allowed his own throne. When he speaks, he speaks for the king. He expects every person to bow before him, treating him as lord of the manor. The fact that such allegiance was commanded by the king (3:2) tells us something about the king. This king is easily duped. Whether it is blind allegiance to a special friend or greedy desire for the stupendous bribe being offered, he becomes the enemy of God’s people and the enemy of God. His consent to Haman’s horrendous demand confers guilt upon the king, equal to that on his prime minister. Ahasuerus’s behavior reminds us of similar actions by King Darius I, as recorded for us in Daniel 6. Shortly after the Medes and the Persians had jointly conquered Babylon, some enemies of Daniel persuade King Darius to proclaim a rule that all persons must worship him alone and give allegiance to no other. Darius foolishly buys into their scheme and inadvertently condemns Daniel to death. God allowed that, too, but turned it to great advantage by shutting the lions’ mouths. Consequently, the king issued a decree that “in all my dominion people are to tremble and fear before the God of Daniel” (Dan. 6:26). Oftentimes we do not know how sovereignty works, but we relish the outcome. The Jews loved this new edict, but idolaters loathed it. It is the height of irony that Jewish scholars today despise the book of Daniel but love the book of Esther.

Mordecai refuses to bow down. For him, that would be an act of worship. Co-workers and friends persist in reminding him of his duty, but he continues to defy the king’s orders. He has earlier demonstrated his allegiance to the empire, but he will not condescend to worship. The text does not reference the first or second commandments but gives us bold, dangerous, and repeated actions. To defy the king of Persia is to sign a death warrant. In that respect, Mordecai begins to look like the Daniel of old. He is willing to die before he complies with an evil edict.

Upon reflection, the plot thickens. Haman is furious, much like Ahasuerus was when Vashti refused to come at his beck and call. His reaction, like that of the king earlier, is going to shift the course of the empire. Haman is not just a lone, offended individual. He is one remaining vestige of a tribe condemned to extermination by the Lord of heaven and earth. Haman is an Agagite, a descendant of King Agag, the ruler of the Amalekites. God had instructed Moses and Joshua to destroy the entire nation of the Amalekites because of their opposition to the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness. The Lord had been explicit: “I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (Exod. 17:14). The righteous Judge of heaven and earth would not tolerate opposition of that sort. He emphasized that later when he told Moses: “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt.” “You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (Deut. 25:17, 29). God is a righteous Judge whose self-described name is Jealous!

Delayed Justice

Much later, when Saul becomes the first earthly king of Israel, God instructs him to kill Agag, the king of the Amalekites. As we read through 1 Samuel 15, we are struck by the explicit commands coming directly from God through his prophet Samuel: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (1 Sam. 15:1–3). Our Western mindsets, heavily influenced by democratic philosophy, find such commands very difficult to accept. We might concede the guilt of the king in that instance, but we would want to excuse the women, the children, the animals, and the entire nation. But the command comes from God. The Amalekites wanted to destroy the nation of Israel. But Israel is God’s chosen people. Therefore God is jealous. In his wrath, he orders the destruction of the entire enemy nation of King Agag. We need to be reminded of this important truth as we later read about the Persians’ desire to kill all of the Jews in the empire. It will also help us understand and accept the Jewish slaughter of their enemies.

Saul’s army begins to destroy that nation, but Saul foolishly chooses to spare Agag and disobeys God’s explicit command. For that disobedience, Saul pays a heavy price. At that point, Samuel, the prophet of God, becomes the executioner for God. He draw his own sword “and hacked Agag to pieces before the Lord in Gilgal” (1 Sam. 15:32–33). The wrath of God against disobedience is then graphically portrayed once again. We do well to learn from this biblical account and recognize that most of the Persian nation resembles Agag. God, the ultimate author of this book, introduces us to Haman as a role model, driven by pride and self-centered worship. The antagonist is Haman, representing Agag. The protagonist is Mordecai, representing King Saul. The seeds of war are sown.

Ten Thousand Talents of Silver?

The seeds of warfare are watered when Haman discovers that Mordecai is a Jew. His hatred is intensified. Now, he must not only kill Mordecai. He must also kill every Jew in the empire. He probably recognizes that Queen Esther is also a Jew. He is committed to genocide. Like Hitler in our day, he is devoted to their extermination. Such a campaign takes time, not only to plan but also to execute. Scheduling a date for such an empire-wide campaign is important. Trusting to a roll of the Pur (dice or lots), they roll them day after day and month after month until the Pur settles on “the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar” (3:7). Again, there is no accident or happenstance. God, the sovereign, controls even this. With the timing settled, the enemy of God’s people makes his move. He needs the approval of his friend, the king. In his attempts to persuade the king, Haman admits that “their laws are different from those of every other people” (3:8). Without realizing it, Haman is acknowledging their special character and the uniqueness of the laws by which they live. To cement the deal, he offers the king a bribe: ten thousand talents of silver. If the king had any accounting sense, he would have laughed in scorn. That enormous amount would be approximately equal to two-thirds of the annual revenue for the entire empire. Where would Haman ever acquire such wealth? The king asks no questions but further implicates himself in this evil scheme. Is he duped again, or is he co-conspirator?

Very probably Ahasuerus knew exactly where such wealth could be found. The edict that he signed included the plundering of all Jewish property. That included the temple in Jerusalem, with all its gold and silver. That included the property of every Jewish family in the entire empire. Much of that wealth had originally been the property of Persia, but King Cyrus had given it to the Jews who were returning to Jerusalem (Ezra 1:8–10). Haman must have chafed at the thought of paying taxes to support the worship of this Jewish God. These evil characters knew about Cambyses’s attempt to stop the rebuilding of the temple in 530 BC, but they also knew about Darius I’s finding Cyrus’s edict which allowed the Jews to tax the provinces and accumulate whatever they needed (Ezra 6:6–12).

Official proclamations fan out over the empire, to all 127 provinces. Every Jew must be destroyed, killed, and annihilated, young and old, men, women, and children. And their property is to be plundered. Take whatever you can grab! The edict was announced in every language, in every script, in every city and town, probably “on swift horses.” The date is set and publicly proclaimed: “on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month” every citizen is given the right and the duty to murder every Jew that they can find and “plunder their goods.” Nothing secretive! No stealth! Just wholesale slaughter. The chapter ends on a sordid note: “the king and Haman sat down to drink, but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion” (3:15).

The decree of guilt is not confined to Haman, wicked and evil though he be. King Ahasuerus and the Persian nation have cast themselves as enemies of God’s people. Thereby, they have become the enemies of God. They will pay a price. Rest assured.

Discussion Starters

1. The discovery of the assassination plot against the king appears to be mere happenstance. How do we come to recognize it as providence?

2. Who is the author of Esther? Is he formulating a master plot that will culminate in his advantage? Does the book of Esther begin to read like a suspense novel? What qualities demonstrate that?

3. How does the repeated description of Haman the Agagite portray him as an evil person, an enemy of God’s people?

4. Is it probable that both Haman and Ahasuerus knew about Cyrus’s generosity to the returning Jews? How would they have known? Would they be inclined to approve such generosity?

5. In trying to understand the political climate in Persia, would Haman have been a follower of Cambyses or of Darius? Would he have given support to the Samaritans’ efforts?

6. Ezra tells us much about the positive treatment of the Jews by Cyrus and Darrius but does not mention the Persian attempts to kill them and take their property. Why this significant omission?

7. What advantages are gained by having the correct chronological sequence of events? Does that chronology help us understand the nature and background of this war between Persia and the Jews? Does knowing that Esther occurred before Ezra help us gain a correct perspective?

8. Does the fact that Ahasuerus asks no questions about the ten thousand talents of silver implicate him as a co-conspirator?

Dr. Norman De Jong is a semi-retired minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.