Scripture: Esther 4 Background Reading: Matthew 16:21–23; 17:22–23; 20:17–19
The opening line of Esther 4 is revealing. It is the key to understanding this chapter. The text tells us that “Mordecai learned all that had been done.” Mordecai is apparently an official in the Persian government. He has insider information. He knows exactly how much money Haman had offered in his bribe to the king (4:7). He knows that his co-workers had informed Haman about the fact that he, Mordecai, is a Jew and would not bow down to him. He knows that his co-workers want to use him as a test case, wanting to know whether a Jew could refuse to bow down and get by with such behavior (3:4). He knows, too, that his refusal had made Haman furious. He probably surmised that his personal actions had initiated the decree to slaughter all the Jews in the empire. His behavior was going to cause the death of millions of Jewish people.1 He also knew that Haman was an incredibly evil person, willing to use a single personal offense as a pretext to annihilate hundreds of thousands of innocent women and children. Haman’s depth of wickedness knows no bounds. The king is complicit in his evil plan.
Mordecai is not confused, but everyone else probably was. Decrees had been issued in every province, in every language, in every script. There were pamphlets posted in Jerusalem in the Hebrew language. Everybody on the street could read them. Millions of Jews must have been wondering:
What have we done to deserve this? Why is King Ahasuerus issuing an order to have us all killed? Why are the people around us, our neighbors, given the right to come into our villages, our homes, our cities, with a license to kill us? Why are they being encouraged “to plunder our goods”? Have we done something to bring this about? What crimes have we committed? Why are so many of our neighbors consenting to such genocide? Why did they choose the “thirteenth day of the twelfth month” (3:13)? What is so special about that date? Also, this edict was issued on the thirteenth day of the first month (3:12). That gives us essentially a full year before this will happen. Why announce it so early? What is significant about the thirteenth day?
Mordecai’s reaction is fully expected. He is stunned. He is distraught. He takes off his clothes, puts on sackcloth and ashes, walks into the central square of Susa, and starts screaming. He “cried out with a loud and bitter cry.” He is not ashamed, but he is terribly torn. He caused this. What must he do? He heads for the palace gate. He knows that even though he is a government official, he cannot enter. Going through the gate dressed in sackcloth is a ticket to death. Only nice clothes are permitted within the palace walls. If he so much as passes through the gate, the guards will kill him. If someone dressed appropriately approaches the king without being called, that person will, ordinarily, also die. This king has no mercy.
The reaction among the Jewish population, scattered across the empire, is similar to that of Mordecai. They, too, lay in sackcloth and ashes. There was great “mourning, with fasting and weeping and lamenting” (4:3). The Jews were a minority within the empire. There was no prospect of defeating the government forces or winning such a war. To understand their predicament, it would be helpful to reflect on the genocide that occurred in the African nation of Rwanda in 1994. Ever since this little country had gained its independence from Belgium in 1962, there had been ethnic tension. The Hutu tribe, comprising 85 percent of the population, had gained control of the government. The Tutsi tribe represented only 15 percent of the population and was excluded from the halls of power. In 1994 the Hutu government officials, without justification, encouraged ordinary citizens to take up arms against the Tutsi people, kill them, and plunder their goods. Before peace was restored, eight hundred thousand Tutsis lay dead in the streets and another three million had fled the country.
That is the type of situation the Jews faced in Persia at this point in their history. Political tensions had been boiling just beneath the surface, with Cambyses sending the Persian army to stop the rebuilding of the temple in 530 BC. Before that, the citizens of Samaria tried to take over the worship of Jehovah in Jerusalem (see Ezra 4). Now, for reasons not understood by the masses, there is an edict issued for the slaughter of all the Jews in the empire. Naturally, they weep and mourn and lament.
One of the mystifying aspects of this book is that there is no call for repentance and no message from God. There is no confession of sin, even though it appears that the Jewish population had become acculturated within this pagan society. Seemingly, there is no prophet of God assigned to this place or time with clarion calls for repentance. This lack of spiritual fervor may help to explain why the books of Ezra and Nehemiah make no mention of Esther or the Feast of Purim, even though they follow soon after. One possible explanation might lie in the book of Joel, which does call for repentance and describes some situations comparable to that during the time of Esther. But no definitive date for Joel has been established, so this explanation remains as mere conjecture.
Queen Esther is confused. She has been sheltered and protected and ignored within the palace walls. She is the queen of Persia, but in name only. Her husband has not confided in her. The eunuchs in charge of the harem are not informing her. Her husband has not invited her to his bed for a month. Her closest confidant is acting very strangely. Why is her cousin ranting and railing in sackcloth and ashes in front of the palace gate? Does he not know the consequences? I better bring him some appropriate clothes, something regal and soft and appealing. She sends him some clothes, but he refuses to take them. Why?
Esther needs to know what is happening. She sends one of her loyal servants, Hatach, to inquire. Mordecai holds nothing back. He tells Hatach “all that had happened to him” (4:6). He provides a full dossier for his cousin, including the full amount of the bribe that Haman had offered her husband. He sends a copy of the written decree, signed by her husband, the king. She had to experience a deep sense of betrayal, knowing that her husband of five years was willing to have her killed in exchange for wealth. She must have wondered: Does he love me at all? Why has he not called for me these many weeks?
About this point in the story, an interesting development occurs. Prior to this point, Mordecai issues all the commands. He is the one who “commanded her not to make it known” that she was a Jew (2:10). Later on, we are told that “Esther had obeyed Mordecai just as when she was brought up by him” (2:20). Mordecai continues in that role and now “commands her to go to the king to beg his favor and plead with him on behalf of her people” (4:8). The order itself is a reversal: Do not hide your identity any longer. Acknowledge your lineage. Admit that you are a Jew, scheduled to die. Esther is a stunningly beautiful queen of Persia, but she is also an obedient orphan girl. She does whatever her cousin tells her to do, until she reads the edict and learns about her impending death. Esther suddenly reverses roles. She becomes the queen, worthy of the title. She knows the laws of the land. She sends a message to Mordecai, informing him of standard operating procedure in Persia. The king has the power of the sword. If he does not want to see you or hear from you, he can have you put to death on the spot, no trial and no judge.
In one sense, Esther is offering an excuse. She does not want to risk her life. She does not want to tempt the king, who has been ignoring her and finding satisfaction with others. She reminds us of Moses, who pleaded with God to recuse him from confronting Pharaoh (Exod. 3:10–19). Moses knew that Pharaoh had put a price on his head and wanted to kill him (Exod. 2:15). But Moses eventually went, not once but multiple times. Esther’s reluctance also reflects the initial reaction of Isaiah, who is confronted, not by King Ahasuerus, but by the King of heaven. In contrast to the power of God, Isaiah pleads, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5). Isaiah capitulates, too, knowingly risking his life as he confronts the evil kings of Israel and Judah.
God did not accept the excuses of either Moses or Isaiah. Mordecai does not accept the excuse of Esther. He offers her one of the most powerful arguments found in the entire book: “Do not think . . . you will escape any more than all the other Jews” (4:13). If you go to the king, you might die. But if you do not go to the king, you will surely die. He follows that with a statement asserting the sovereignty of God. If you refuse, “relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place” (4:14). He might have been reflecting on the writings of Jeremiah. He might have recalled messages from the book of Daniel. The implication is clear: God will preserve a remnant of his special people. God will not allow the Jewish people to disappear from the earth. Mordecai continues with a dynamic challenge: “Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (4:14). My dear sweet orphan girl, you might have been chosen because of your beauty, but there may be a greater purpose behind it all.
Esther’s response is most appropriate. She commands her cousin, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day” (4:16). The text does not mention prayer, but that is historically associated with fasting. Esther has confessed that she is a Jew, one of those despised by the masses and scheduled to die, but she also acknowledges the power of God. She specifically demands a fast for “three days,” not unlike the three days from Good Friday to Easter. In one real sense, Esther is a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ.2 She is willing to die so that she might save her people. She is not the sinless, perfect Lamb of God, but she is one who carries the sins of her people. She is willing to die, just as her Savior willingly and repeatedly told his followers why he had to go to Jerusalem. Her commitment is adequate reason to give Jewish scholars an excuse to treat her as a heroine of the faith.
Why did Mordecai command Esther not to reveal that she was a Jew? Why does the text inform us that Mordecai was a Jew (2:5)? What does that tell us about Jewish acceptance within the empire?
What evidence do we have for concluding that Mordecai was a government official?
How might Mordecai have learned the amount of the bribery offered by Haman?
How might the Jewish population have reacted to the publication of the edicts against them? Could they have fled the empire and gone elsewhere?
What possible plans might the Jews have devised once they realized that there was a time lag of one year before their scheduled execution?
What might the Jews have decided concerning their possessions, their houses, their animals, their jewelry, knowing that the Persians would plunder them?
How would one account for the role reversal between Esther and Mordecai? What precipitated it?
Is it consistent with Scripture to think of Esther as a foreshadowing of Christ? Are there other women in the Bible who might also earn that distinction? Sarah? Miriam? Ruth?
1. The number of Jewish people in the empire can only be estimated. We know that fifty thousand had gone to Jerusalem when Cyrus issued his decree in 538 BC. We know, too, large numbers chose to remain in Persia at that time. We also know that large numbers had fled to Egypt when Nebuchadnezzar had attacked Jerusalem. We know, too, that David had conducted a census and had counted “800,000 valiant men who had drawn the sword” (2 Sam. 24:9).
2. I hesitate to refer to her as a type of Christ, but see some obvious similarities that would qualify as foreshadowing.