Bible Studies on Esther: Chapter 6 The Turning of the Tide

The Persian palace at Susa is quiet. Queen Esther had graciously hosted a feast for the two most important men in the empire. Attendance was tightly controlled. No great issues had been explored, but wine was in abundance. Tomorrow is another day. Tomorrow is another feast. Again, the attendees are limited to the king and his prime minister. Another delightful time is anticipated. One special attendee is brimming with pride. He is the only one invited!

There is one small problem: the king is suffering from insomnia. He cannot get to sleep. The text does not tell us why but highlights that fact. It does suggest, though, that this is unusual, for it specifies “on that night the king could not sleep.” His predicament reminds us of the plight experienced by King Darius I, who foolishly had consigned his friend Daniel to the den of lions. Darius could not sleep either, but it was because of remorse and sorrow. To address his dilemma he “spent the night fasting; no diversions were brought to him, and sleep fled from him” (Dan. 6:18). In sharp contrast, Ahasuerus called for diversion and asked someone to read from the book of records. Not long after the reading started, the king learned about an earlier attempt on his life by two trusted doorkeepers. When discovered and documented, the traitors were promptly hanged on the gallows (2:23). To the king’s disappointment and surprise, nothing had been done to reward the informant, a man by the name of Mordecai. The king knew that he had to do something. Good deeds must be rewarded.

To fully appreciate this chapter, we need to recognize that the author is employing satiric irony. Irony, says Webster’s dictionary, is “the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning.” On the face of it, we might be inclined to read these words as mere happenstance or coincidence. It just so happened that the king could not sleep. It just so happened that Haman was the only person in the courtyard when the king asked his question. It just so happened that both Haman and the king were focused on the same individual. As earlier stated, these seeming coincidences are, in actuality, demonstrations of divine providence. The author, God himself, controls and directs all these events to accomplish his own ends. The Ruler of nations causes insomnia, just as he plants dreams. He is the one whose Holy Spirit instills in Mordecai the desire to protect his monarch, all the while persuading him to not engage in false worship of the prime minister. The divine choreographer allows evil persons to spew out their hatred. He also controls the behavior of his saints.

We, as believers, immediately recognize the irony implicit in this scene. The wicked Haman arrives at the palace early in the morning, well before the second banquet, with one purpose. He is there to get royal permission to have this despicable Jew hung on his specially prepared gallows. He comes at the instigation of his wife, Zeresh. The king, meanwhile, is looking for someone to honor this very same Jew, one who is doubly scheduled for execution. The Judge of all the earth is probably sitting on his heavenly throne and laughing in derision. We, as readers, are also inclined to laugh. This turn of events is a literary delicacy. We know that God is going to protect his people. He has promised that since the days of Abraham, guaranteeing that “in him all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). Much later, the prophet Jeremiah could utter God’s promise: “I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold” (Jer. 23:3). The great plan of salvation rides on the outcome of this meeting. If Haman is allowed to live and Mordecai allowed to die, the entire Jewish populace will be in peril.

Haman’s narcissism is the very thing that brings about his downfall. When the king asks his most loyal advisor how this person is to be honored, this wicked man assumes that he is to get the reward. He is the one to be honored. When Haman requests a robe that the king wore and the horse on which the king rode, he creates the impression that he wants to be the king. Thinking thus, he suggests a noble procession leading through the streets of the city. He is flabbergasted when he finds that he is to lead this procession honoring his mortal enemy. The king commands it. The king magnifies the disdain when he tells Haman to “hurry . . . and do so to Mordecai the Jew . . . and leave nothing out that you have mentioned” (6:10). Haman obeys without protest. The alternative is probable death, for the monarch demands obedience and wields the sword.

This scene gives us another glimpse into the nature of the Persian monarchy. The king is governed by the law of the Medes and the Persians, which cannot be changed, but at the same time, the king has the power and the authority to execute anyone who does not please him. He does not need a trial by jury. He does not need a judge. He simply, unequivocally, orders the death penalty. Haman cannot challenge his ruling. That kind of power is ascribed to God alone. He is the Judge of all the earth. He is the Ruler of nations.

Mordecai does not gloat. He does not plan a celebratory feast. He goes back to his post at the city gate. Haman, meanwhile, runs home to Zeresh to spill out his troubles. He tells “his friends everything that had happened to him.” We expect him to focus on his troubles and the embarrassment that he has experienced. What surprises us is the response from his wise men and his wife. They respond not in anger but in fear. Their fear revolves around the possibility that Mordecai is of Jewish descent. They phrase it thus: “If Mordecai . . . is of the Jewish people, you will not overcome him but will surely fall before him” (6:13). Their question is hypothetical. It is prefaced with “if.” Do these wise men not know that Mordecai is a Jew? Did they not know that King Ahasuerus had dubbed him as “the Jew” (6:10)?

Did they suddenly make a connection between Mordecai, Queen Esther, the Jewish people, and Jehovah God?

The “wise men” of Persia must have had at least some dim recollections of the stupendous miracles that God had performed for his people. They should have known about Daniel being spared in the lions’ den. They should have known that all of Daniel’s accusers were ripped to shreds before they hit the floor of the den. They should have knowledge of King Darius’s command that all residents in their own empire “are to tremble and fear before the God of Daniel, for he is the living God” (Dan. 6:24–26). They should have had some historical inkling of the ten plagues that God had sent against Egypt, and how he had drowned all of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. Had they “suppressed the truth in unrighteousness,” thereby leaving them without excuse (Rom. 1:18–20)? Their pondering is interrupted. Eunuchs are standing at the gate, waiting to escort Haman to this second banquet that Esther had prepared.

The king shows deferential respect to Esther, addressing her as queen. Did he know that she was a close relative of Mordecai, the Jew he had just honored? Had that connection been established, or was that a closely guarded palace secret? In diplomatic double-speak, he asks her to make both a “wish” and a “request,” as though these were two different petitions. Esther politely responds with similar terminology: “let my life be granted for my wish, and my people for my request” (7:3). She, seemingly, is counting on the king’s special favor, remembering that he had graciously granted her audience. She knew that he was inspired by her physical beauty. She knew that he was enamored with royal splendor. She asks what should be a most basic right, that she be allowed to live. She then adopts the king’s language and follows that with a request, that her people, the Jews, be allowed to live also. She couches that request in diplomatic language, asserting that “I and my people [are] to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated” (7:4). She borrows the exact language of the royal edict, signed recently by the king (3:13). We, the readers, see this as a tacit admission that she is a Jew. She is confessing what Mordecai had commanded her not to divulge. At that moment, Esther begins to sound like Ruth the Moabitess: “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die” (Ruth 1:16–17).

At this point the king asks a question that he should not have needed to ask: “Who is he, and where is he, who has dared to do this?” Did Ahasuerus not remember? Did he honestly not recall who had bribed him with ten thousand talents of silver (3:9) and drafted the edict? Did he not see in Haman the very evil antagonist of the Jews? Was the king so blind? So stupid as not to reflect on this edict which he had signed and approved? Esther’s answer is simple and pointed: “A foe and an enemy! This wicked Haman!”

He who sits in the heavens laughs; The Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath,

And terrify them in his fury, saying, As for me, I have set my King on Zion, My holy hill. (Ps. 2:4–6)

Discussion Starters

1. What did King Ahasuerus request on the night that he could not sleep? Was that providential or coincidental? How do you know the answer to that question?

2. How soon did you catch the irony in this chapter? Did it make you laugh? Is laughter appropriate?

3. Does the silence of God imply his absence? How do you know that God is present when he is not speaking?

4. King Darius I and King Ahasuerus are both Persian monarchs. How many years had elapsed between their reigns? Would the people of Esther’s time have known about Daniel and the lions’ den?

5. Was there widespread hostility toward the Jews during Esther’s time? What evidence can you muster?

6. Was King Ahasuerus feigning ignorance about Esther’s Jewish background? Or was his ignorance genuine?

7. What was the source of Zeresh’s fear of the Jews? Did the Persian people have significant knowledge about Jewish history? D

8. Do the enemies of the gospel know the truth? How do they come to know it? Do they deliberately suppress the truth in unrighteousness? Will God hold them accountable?

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.