Scripture: Esther 5 Background Reading: Daniel 10:1–9; Ezra 8:21–32
Whenever we attempt to understand historical events, timing of those events is often important. Queen Esther had commanded Mordecai to gather all the Jews in the capital city of Susa and to hold a fast on her behalf for three days. Traditionally, a fast would last for just one day. But the situation is now desperate. All of God’s people are threatened with death. Edicts are posted in every province and every city. The date for execution is duly noted. The populace responds to Mordecai’s call to action. Dressed in sackcloth and covered with ashes (4:3), the Jewish residents in the city fasted and prayed for three days straight. Although the text does not mention prayer, that was always associated with fasting. Very probably, this massive effort was noticed by neighbors and government officials. Knowing that the Jews were hated by large segments of the population, it might seem surprising to find no overt resistance to it. The text is silent.
To find clarity, we need to look both backward and forward. Looking backward into a slightly earlier time, we find Daniel fasting and praying, not for three days but for three weeks (Dan. 10:2). At the end of that period he receives a vision of a “man clothed in linen” (Dan 10:5) who is clearly the preincarnate Christ. His characteristics match those given to us in Ezekiel 1:26–28 and in Revelation 1:13–17. Daniel had earlier seen images of Christ in the fiery furnace, saving his three friends from incineration. These are obviously reminders to Daniel about the sovereignty of God and the way in which “the stone cut out of the mountain” (Dan. 2:34) would break in pieces the empires that were to follow. Daniel saw that happen during his lifetime when the Medes and Persians descended on Babylon. That message must have become part of Jewish tradition and lore and instruction. Esther and Mordecai should have been familiar with it. That may have intensified their prayers.
We also have the advantage of looking ahead and knowing the book of Ezra. It articulates marvelous ways by which God protected his people. The account of Ezra spending three days of fasting and praying at the river Ahava ought to fascinate us. He had been informing the king that Jehovah would watch over and protect them on their four-month journey to Jerusalem, even though they were carrying vast amounts of gold and silver through crime-infested areas. With no military protection visible, every penny of that wealth was delivered to the Holy City. The invisible hand of the Lord was protecting them all the way. The Lord of hosts was watching over them. The sovereign God was restraining all the highway robbers along their route.
To understand this phase of Esther, we need to transfer that sovereign hand of God to the city of Susa.1 There is the overarching theme of feasting, fasting, and feasting, given to us as a framework for story development. Underneath, however, is the hand of God at work. With the appointment of Esther to the queen’s position, we see another instance where “the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (Dan. 4:17, 25, 32). Esther is not chosen queen because of her physical beauty, but because God wanted her there. Just as God planted dreams in Nebuchadnezzar’s head (Dan. 2:28), so the Father in heaven put Esther in the palace and gave her both courage and wisdom. She does not know if she will live or die when she enters the throne room, but she employs a strategy that will eventually prevent the destruction of her people. That is God at work.
The book of Esther reads like a well-crafted novel. There is progressive character development, giving us personality glimpses into the lives of Esther, of Ahasuerus, of Mordecai, and of Haman. Esther is no longer a virgin waiting to be seduced but a regal commander, relying on prayer, now dressed in elegant robes. Mordecai is no longer a despondent, screaming victim of anti-Semitism but a confident, strategizing leader who knows that God will provide help from some quarter, if not from Esther. The king is sympathetic to the wife he has been ignoring, while fawning over his close friend and delighted that he has been invited to the queen’s table. Haman, meanwhile, is the personification of narcissism and evil. He gloats on his being invited, and, apparently, is ignorant of the queen’s ethnic roots. He is full of conflicting emotions, rejoicing at his exalted position in the empire but full of hatred against the Jew who refuses to bow before him. As Haman gathers an audience to hear his boasts and great accomplishments, he seeks the advice of his equally evil wife, Zeresh. It is his wife, mentioned by name four times, who offers the quickest solution to his quandary. Build a gallows high enough for all to observe and then hang that offensive Jew on it. Let the whole city see who is master and who deserves to die.
Contrasts and Comparisons
One of the dominant themes in the book of Esther is the contrast between feasting and fasting. Esther 1 begins with a feast that lasted for 180 days, only to be followed with another feast that lasted a mere seven days. The king has his ostentatious display, but so does Queen Vashti. Palace décor, table decorations, and wall hangings are highlighted, all to show the splendor and glory of this evil, pagan empire. The menu, however, is ignored, with one exception. We do not know what they ate, but we do know what they drank. Wine was in abundance with everyone encouraged to drink as much as they wished. Varying degrees of inebriation are assumed, further casting a pall over the enemies of God’s people. This vainglorious display of earthly riches results in the deposition of the queen and wholesale kidnapping of young women in every province of the kingdom. Marriage is supposed to follow biblical norms, but not under this administration. Find the most glamorous virgins in the empire, beautify them as much as humanly possible, and put them in my harem.
By contrast, the Jews find it necessary to forego food and beverages as an expression of complete dependence on God. Their symbolic leader, the uncle of young Esther, demonstrates in the city square by loud and bitter cries, setting a very public contrast to all the festivities of the Persians. He remonstrates, not in the confines of his home, but in the heart of the city, at the king’s gate. The gate serves as a wall of separation. There is the implied contrast between Jews and Persians, which will subtly meld into the contrast between good and evil. Esther, meanwhile, is historically compromised by her participation in the harem but emerges as a master politician who is coyly planning the entrapment of her archenemy, Haman.
Esther enters the king’s courtyard dressed in royal robes, designed to arouse the appetite of her husband, who is enamored with finery and regal splendors. He notices and bids her welcome. She does not make her plea or state her case. She is too clever for that. She invites him to a feast that she herself has prepared. She knows his love for feasts. He is known as the master feast planner. She knows his appetite for ostentatious display. When asked what her wish and request might be, she delays and invites him to a second feast. She insists that evil Haman be invited too.
Haman Is Incited to Violence
What happens next appears to be mere happenstance. Haman, brimming with pride and self-aggrandizement, has to pass through the city gate on the way to his luxurious home. There sits that despicable Jew. He won’t rise. He won’t bow. He won’t tremble. Haman’s blood comes close to the boiling point. What is he to do? How can he make this man realize how important he is? The insolence of that man almost drives him mad. But pride dominates. Does anyone know who alone has been invited to the queen’s banquet? Does my family know why I came home late this evening? I have to tell them.
Zeresh and the neighbors have to hear what I have to tell them. As I climb to the pinnacle of self-glorification, I should also tell them about my bank accounts, my promotions within the government, and my extended family. Do you know how many children I have fathered? Do you know my rank in the Persian hierarchy? Do you know that I am going to another state banquet tomorrow? Do you know that Queen Esther has invited no one except the king and me?
Life would be splendid, glorious, except for one thing! I have to pass through the city gate again and be ignored by that despicable Jew. That is worse than rain on a parade. He probably will sit there and pretend as though he did not even see me. What audacity!
His wife, Zeresh, and all his friends offer a simple solution: Have him killed. You can do it. The king will continue to grant you your every wish. Ask him first thing in the morning. In the meanwhile, build a gallows on which to hang him. Make it high, seventy-five feet or so. The Jews will all see it and know that you must honor this noble Haman. He deserves it.
Irony is about to explode in our ears. Human authority seemingly takes center stage, but divine sovereignty is about to rule the roost. God will soon demonstrate that he is the great choreographer!
As you read through the background passage from Daniel 10, did you realize that “the man in linen” was the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ? Did you catch the similarities with the passages from Ezekiel 1 and Revelation 1? How does that help our comprehension of Esther 5?
As you read through the passage from Ezra 8, did you catch the irony of Ezra’s refusal to ask for military escort from King Artaxerxes? What does that say about Ezra’s faith? What does it say about the faith of the thousands of persons who went with him?
Was Esther deliberate and conniving in her plan of addressing the king? Or, was she operating as a pawn in the hand of God? Did God give her a clear plan of action to follow?
The text emphasizes the word “feast” six times in this chapter. Does that give us a clue as to how we should interpret these events?
Mordecai realizes that his refusal to honor Haman is what precipitated the edict to kill and plunder all the Jews in the empire. Could he have changed the course of history if he had stood and bowed whenever Haman came by? Should he have done such?
The text tells us that Haman “was filled with wrath” when Mordecai refused to honor him. What does that tell us about the character of Haman? How is his character further eroded?
Zeresh is mentioned by name and is given credit for offering her husband a solution. Does that make her an accomplice, worthy of death?
What clues can we find in the text to convince us that God is controlling all the events in this potential disaster?
1. One of the more helpful commentaries on Esther is that by Joyce G. Baldwin, Esther: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984). She frequently appeals to the sovereignty of God as the best explanation for various events.
Dr. Norman De Jong is a semi-retired minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.