A sermon on Esther chapter 3.
The Story So Far
Like any good story, the book of Esther spends its opening chapters introducing its main characters. Chapter 1 set the scene in the city of Susa, one of the capitals of the Persian Empire. We were introduced to King Xerxes, also known as Ahasuerus – a man of great power and wealth with a comical touch of insecurity and indecisiveness that makes him highly dependent on his advisors and susceptible to manipulation. Chapter 2 introduced Mordecai and Esther, two Jews living in Susa. Even though Jerusalem and the Temple have been rebuilt, they’re still living far away in the heart of the Persian Empire. Now that we’ve heard chapter 3 read to us, the final main character of our story has emerged: Haman the Agagite.
Summarizing Chapter 3
About five years after Esther is crowned as Queen, King Ahasuerus elevates Haman to a prominent position in the kingdom. This comes with a heightened place of honor normally demanding that other officials pay homage to him. But for reasons unexplained, Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman. Perhaps the act of bowing and the traditional means of paying homage was too close to an act of worship that ought to be reserved for God alone. Whatever the reason, he remains obstinate. The king’s servants ask him “day after day” why he won’t capitulate, and the way this whole episode is described is a literary throw-back to the story of Joseph in Egypt when Potiphar’s wife keeps coming on to him and he keeps rebuffing her advances. Finally, just as Joseph’s persistent refusals backfired against him, so does Mordecai’s refusal to honor Haman backfire. The servants tell Haman that Mordecai is not paying him homage and they tell him that he’s Jewish. It’s a little unclear why the servants would care that Mordecai’s Jewish; in a royal court as ethnically diverse as this one, there’s no reason to expect some Persian servants would care if someone’s Jewish or not. But Haman would care, and we’ll see why in a minute.
Suffice it to say here that Haman was furious about Mordecai’s refusal to bow to him. And “rage” is indeed an appropriate word for Haman, for the Hebrew word for “rage” is hema, which sounds a lot like Haman. The revenge Haman plots against Mordecai is, to say the least, disproportionate to the crime. He proposes a plan of total genocide. This is definitely an extreme response, and could be another example of exaggeration that the storyteller of Esther is fond of using. But we only need to look back in our own history about seventy years to find another example of Haman’s “final solution.” There have been a number of genocides in history, and an alarming number of them took place in the 20th century, so we should not be too surprised when we hear of a wealthy and powerful man in a wealthy and powerful empire trying to determine the fate of countless thousands of people.
But not only is Haman’s suggestion of genocide morally despicable, but even within the confines of this story it is a slanderous move. Just at the end of the chapter 2, Mordecai uncovered a plot against the king’s life – he should be considered a hero! But instead Haman has turned him into a villain and is slandering Mordecai’s entire race by implicating their guilt along with him. So he goes to cast pur, which is a dice-rolling way of casting lots. It’s not explained how exactly this process of divination works, probably because superstitious casting of lots is one of those “don’t try this at home, kids!” type of activities. However it worked, the story tells us that he spent 11 months consulting the purim (the dice) before finally bringing his plan to the king for royal approval. He butters up the king with flattery and a ridiculously huge pile of money (probably another exaggeration by the storyteller), and true to form the king accepts the advice unthinkingly. “Do with them as seems good to you,” he tells Haman – a chilling echo of the sad end of the book of Judges: “Everyone did what seemed right in his own eyes.” The king has effectively abdicated his power in this matter. The Jews are utterly powerless. All the power is now in the hands of Haman, a man to whom genocide “seems good.”
This is a very dark moment in the story, not just for the Jews, but for all the people in Susa. As I said before, racism (or anti-semitism in particular) was not a major feature of the Persian court, so when this edict of genocide came out, the storyteller tells us “the city of Susa was thrown into confusion.” Another translation for “confusion” is “bewildered.” There was an agitation and unease in the city; why are such extreme measures being taken? Doesn’t this Jewish race have a homeland of their own? What could be so bad about them that we should wipe them all out? The storyteller’s matter-of-fact description of all this only adds to the eerie sense of agitation as the edict is drafted, the people are concerned, and Haman and the king are happy and unbothered. This is one of Israel’s darkest hours, which is why we sang parts of one of the Bible’s darkest psalms – Psalm 88 – after listening to this chapter read to us.
Analysis – Three major themes are beginning to materialize.
As we seek to understand this chapter, and the story of Esther so far, there are three major themes that I want to highlight: first, trust that God is sovereign; second, honor should be given where it is due; and third, you reap what you sow.
Let’s begin with the sovereignty of God. Last time, when we looked at chapter 2, I made a point of talking about all the passive verbs – the fact that nearly everything in the story happens to Esther and Mordecai. God was (and is) the true actor in world history. While we all do participate in God’s will, we must never forget that He is always present and always involved. This theme shows up here in chapter 3 especially in the timing of events. When Haman consults the pur, it seems like sheer luck is driving his decision-making and timing, but in reality we can see God’s hand in these seemingly-random events. The dice-rolling continued for most of a year, giving more time for Esther to grow in the king’s trust and confidence so that God can use her to save the Jews when the time comes. The edict resulting from the dice-rolling gave another 11-month lapse of time before the genocide was to take place, again buying ample time for God’s countermeasures to kick in. And, best of all, the edict was issued on the 13th day of the month of Nisan, which is the day before the Passover. So, just as this terrible news would reach the ears of the Jews, they would be in the middle of celebrating the greatest moment of their history: the Exodus, the time God rescued his people from Egypt, killing the firstborn son of every nonbeliever, and brought them safely through the Red Sea. If God could save them back then, he could save them now. God is sovereign, He is in control, we have seen him do it before, we can still trust him today.
The second major theme is that of honor and shame. In chapter 1, the King dishonored his Queen, Vashti by treating her like an object to show off, and she dishonored him in return by disobeying his command. When his advisors told him what to do about this, they were in turn looking out for their own honor in front of their own wives, simultaneously deflecting attention from the shaming of the king and failing to protect or restore his honor. In chapter 2, the king honored his new Queen, Esther, with a banquet. But when Mordecai uncovers a plot and saves the king’s life, Mordecai does not receive the honor that was due him. The conspirators were properly shamed according to Persian law, but the king’s savior was not properly rewarded.
Instead, here in chapter 3, Haman receives honor from the king – and for no apparent reason! This is especially ironic because the king has to command that Haman be honored, similar to how he had to command that wives obey their husbands after his wife disobeyed him. As far as our storyteller is concerned, Haman did nothing to earn his high honors from the king. Perhaps that is part of why Mordecai then refused to show that heightened honor to Haman? Whateverso, Mordecai’s refusal to honor Haman is an echo of Queen Vashti’s refusal to honor the King back in chapter 1, so now we can see recent history preparing to repeat itself.
Although this dynamic of honor and shame was particularly prominent in the Persian royal court, as well as a number of other cultures throughout the world, the New Testament does pass on to us a form of this teaching. Romans 13:7 says “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” 1 Peter 2:17 says “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” In both verses, the application of giving honor to others is very broad: we are to respect our earthly rulers, we are to respect God, we are to respect the leaders in the Church, we are to respect our fellow Christians, we are to respect everyone. What that honor and respect looks like is different in each case. Those who study martial arts are taught to bow according to their standing – the lower status you hold, the lower you bow. In Christian worship, various gestures of honor (including different types of bows, nods, signs of the Cross, kneeling, or even prostration on the floor) are used for showing honor and reverence at different times. When the national anthem is sung or the flag is raised, we are taught to stand at attention. The Bible teaches us that Christians ought to show proper honor where it is due, though Mordecai demonstrates that there is room for refusal when a claim to honor is illegitimate, such as Haman’s arbitrarily-invented position.
The last theme that shows up here is “you reap what you sow.” This is a biblical lesson going all the way back to the Garden of Eden, where God warned us we would die if we ate the forbidden fruit. It’s a rule of nature, basically: sin leads to death. That’s why Jesus had to die, after all – he died on behalf of His people so we won’t have to die eternally. What’s reaped in this story is an exaggerated vendetta that Haman puts up against the Jewish people. So what was sown that led to this crazy turn of events? The answer is not immediately obvious to the casual reader, but if you listened carefully to the introduction of Mordecai in chapter 2, and the introduction of Haman in chapter 3, and you read the historical books in the Old Testament, you’ll find the answer.
Mordecai, in 2:5, is given a brief genealogy: “the son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, a Benjaminite.” Like many genealogies, this one skips generations so as to highlight the most important names in the family tree, and the name that stands out here is Kish the Benjaminite. Kish was the father of a strong warrior named Saul, who became the first King of Israel. Shimei was one of Saul’s grandsons – one of the few who survived the dynastic shift when David became King. So Mordecai is a descendant of King Saul. Now for Haman: he is an Agagite. This may be a little more obscure to notice. Agag was an Amalekite king whom King Saul had captured instead of killed. In fact, sparing Agag was Saul’s final act of disobedience to God that finally cost him his throne and prompted Samuel the Prophet to seek out David and anoint him as king instead. Now, even though Samuel executed Agag for Saul, some of Agag’s family survived, and Haman is one of his descendants. If King Saul had obeyed God and wiped out the Amalekites, Haman wouldn’t be around to cause trouble. But because some of Agag’s family survived, they continued their angry vendetta against the Jews, and now Haman is in a position to turn the tables and wipe them out instead! If you think the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is confusing, here’s an extension of that going back several hundred more years through Old Testament history!
You reap what you sow. King Saul’s disobedience resulted in his family failing to establish a dynasty in Israel, many of their deaths, and now threatens the entire Jewish race throughout the Persian Empire! In the same way, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in Eden and eventually died, just as all our sin leads to death as well. For every case, an act of redemption has been provided: Christ has interposed himself and his Cross between His people and ultimate death. Mordecai and Esther together are going to become a picture of Jesus in their generation: the sin of their ancestor, Saul, has come around to haunt them, and it falls on their shoulders to undo that damage and save the Jews from the Amalekites, King Agag, and now Haman, once and for all. Or rather, God is going to save his people, through his faithful servants Mordecai and Esther. “You reap what you sow” is a tough lesson, and is generally a sign of bad news, but thankfully God has raised up a Savior to break that cycle of sin and death.
In light of these three major themes, we receive three similar and related exhortations.
In light of God’s sovereignty, we are exhorted to trust in God. Sure, we can wish people “good luck”, it’s an innocent enough expression. But we need to remember that there isn’t really any such thing as luck. God works in the midst of all things; God is sovereign, God is in control. Sure, theologians can debate the finer points of to what degree God micro-manages everything, but on the basic level we can all trust that God is always working to advance his purposes for his creation, and we can trust Him to do the right thing whether we see it or not.
In light of the theme of honor, we are exhorted to give honor wherever it is due. The Summary of the Law captures this succinctly: “love the Lord your God” with your whole being and “love your neighbor as yourself.” Notice the love we are commanded to give to God is on a different level than the love we are commanded to give to our neighbors; God is perfectly worthy of perfect love, worship, devotion, obedience, and honor. His creatures and creation are worthy of all the same things as God, but on a smaller scale. When we elevate anything or anyone alongside God, we commit idolatry, so we must be sure to keep everything and everyone in their proper place.
In light of the warning “you reap what you sow,” we would do well to remember the words of Saint Paul, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). As with King Saul and the Amalekites, or Haman and the Jews, there can be only one survivor in the end. Either sin will destroy us, or we will destroy sin. The Christian life is a call to battle, warfare waged against the forces that lead us to sin. When we read about the bloody wars, massacres, and genocides in the Old Testament, we ought to be reminded that our dealings with sin have to be taken with the same grave sincerity. Put to death your sinful nature, or else it will kill you. Once again, Christ’s death on the Cross was an act of solidarity with us: he died for the sake of sin so that we won’t have to die on the Day of Judgment. His resurrection from the grave, furthermore, is a victory that both inspires us and empowers us. On our own, we’re too weak to fight against sin; whenever we fight against it on our own strength, it will always have the upper hand. But in the power of Christ’s death and resurrection and in the power of the Holy Spirit given to us, we can be victors. In fact, Saint Paul says “we are more than conquerors,” because nothing can separate us from God’s love.
So keep the faith and trust Him; give Him your utmost honor and respect; and fight the good fight alongside him. Like Esther chapter 3, this life is the darkest hour we’ll ever know. It is easy to lose sight of God, but he has given us all that we need to press on; He has given us himself.