Esther V: The Empire Strikes Back

This is my sermon on the 5th chapter of the book of Esther for Grace Anglican Church.

The fifth chapter of the book of Esther is a bit like Episode V of the original Star Wars movies: you can tell that it isn’t the beginning of the story, the protagonists are making some good progress, but by the end of it the bad guys have the upper hand and it seems to end on a bit of a cliffhanger.  It’s a fun part of the story in terms of plot development, dramatic tension, and character intrigue, but it’s hard to appreciate without the larger context of the whole story in mind.  So, just as the Star Wars movies have those classic scrolling texts at the beginning to give us “the story so far,” let’s go through a little flashback of our own now.

At this point in the story, there are two main characters: Haman and Esther.  Haman is a very high-ranking official in the court of the King of Persia.  He’s the villain you just love to hate: he made a plan to wipe out the entire Jewish race throughout the empire, and got the king to rubber-stamp it without hardly a care in the world.  Esther is a Jew, but also the Queen of Persia.  Through the encouragement of Mordecai, a cousin who adopted her as his legal daughter, she has hatched a plan to convince her husband to save her people from Haman’s genocidal plot.  But there is one big obstacle in the way: nobody can see the king uninvited, on pain of death, unless he makes a special exception on the spot.  So she’s taking her life into her hands by going to see him unannounced.  For the past three days Mordecai and some other Jewish people in the city have been fasting and praying for Esther, and now it’s time for her to take action.

Analysis Part One: Esther’s Plan

That’s the story so far; now we can see how chapter 5 advances those situations.

We begin with the account of Esther’s audience before the king.  This was a very tense moment – this is where she could have simply been executed and the story ended abruptly.  The Greek version of this part of the story really hams it up to capture a heightened sense of melodrama:

On the third day, when she ended her prayer, she took off the garments in which she had worshiped, and arrayed herself in splendid attire.  Then, majestically adorned, after invoking the aid of the all-seeing God and Savior, she took her two maids with her, leaning daintily on one, while the other followed carrying her train.  She was radiant with perfect beauty, and she looked happy, as if beloved, but her heart was frozen with fear.  When she had gone through all the doors, she stood before the king. He was seated on his royal throne, clothed in the full array of his majesty, all covered with gold and precious stones. And he was most terrifying.  Lifting his face, flushed with splendor, he looked at her in fierce anger. And the queen faltered, and turned pale and faint, and collapsed upon the head of the maid who went before her.  Then God changed the spirit of the king to gentleness, and in alarm he sprang from his throne and took her in his arms until she came to herself. And he comforted her with soothing words, and said to her, “What is it, Esther? I am your brother. Take courage; you shall not die, for our law applies only to the people. Come near.”  Then he raised the golden scepter and touched it to her neck; and he embraced her, and said, “Speak to me.”  And she said to him, “I saw you, my lord, like an angel of God and my heart was shaken with fear at your glory.  For you are wonderful, my lord, and your countenance is full of grace.”  But as she was speaking, she fell fainting.  And the king was agitated, and all his servants sought to comfort her.  (Additions to Esther 15)

The king then makes a generous offer of up to half his kingdom for her request.  This is a standard line of generosity that you find not only here, but also in the words of King Herod when Herodias’ daughter dances for his court and he wants to give her a gift.  It also keeps in line with the king’s characterization of someone who takes advice, grants requests, and goes with the flow without making any decisions for himself.

What might puzzle us, listening to this story, is that Esther does not immediately make any request for saving her people from Haman’s plot of genocide.  Instead she invites the king to a banquet.  She knows she has time before the plot goes into effect and so she is using that time to butter up the king with flattery and honors before getting down to business.  After all, Haman had done the same thing when preparing his plot; it makes sense that Esther wants to make sure she does an even better job at pandering to the king’s ego.

It’s amusing, and almost frustrating, to us when Esther still doesn’t make her request to the king at the banquet, but stalls again for a second banquet.  The way the Hebrew text describes her speech in verses 7 & 8 are actually disjointed statements: “my petition and my request… come tomorrow to the dinner.”  It’s as if she’s about to make her request but changes her mind mid-sentence.  There’s a good chance this is part of her plan all along.  By stalling a second time she’s really drawing out the king’s curiosity.  She’s also gaining his interest and garnering his commitment to fulfilling her request before she even asks it!  And best of all, through all this, she is maintaining a sense of her submission to the king’s authority to grant what he desires to grant, so his ego never feels threatened by her assertiveness.  Esther knows how to handle these guys.  There’s also one last practical reason for stalling her request for the next day: they were at the wine course towards the end of the banquet; that was exactly the point at which the previous Queen, Vashti, challenged the king’s authority and was banished from the palace.  Esther didn’t want to be another victim of the king’s drunken wrath.

So the first half of chapter 5 goes swimmingly well, and things seem to be on the right track.  But then the narrative turns to Haman and the plot thickens.  Just like in Star Wars episode 5, the progress seemingly made by the good guys is suddenly overshadowed by a major setback.  In the movie, Han Solo was captured and frozen in carbonite; in the book of Esther, a gallows is constructed for the early execution of Mordecai.

Analysis Part Two: Haman’s New Plan

As this chapter briefly reminds us, Haman really hates Mordecai.  We explored the reason for this in a previous chapter; the short version is that they have a family feud going back centuries.  Mordecai’s ancestor is King Saul of Israel, and Haman’s ancestor is King Agag of Amalek.  Saul was supposed to wipe out the wicked Amalekites, but didn’t finish the job, and so their descendants survived and carried their hatred of Saul, his family, and the entire Jewish race ever since.  Now through Haman they have a chance to get back at them through Mordecai; the ancient rivalry has been turned on its head.

Besides the obvious wickedness of wanting to kill an innocent man, not to mention his entire race, Haman’s wickedness is expounded further in this chapter when he decides that he can’t wait for the edict of genocide to wipe out the Jews; he wants to kill Mordecai now!  Haman has gone from bad to worse.

This is worth looking at more closely for a moment, since the story itself spends several verses relating to us Haman’s conversation with his friends and family.  He boasts to his supporters about the honor Esther showed him by hosting a banquet only for him and the king, and then wildly swings to the other extreme of lamenting his lack of satisfaction from Mordecai who refuses to acknowledge his nobility.  He boasts of his wealth and power to them, which only adds to the picture of Haman being a megalomaniac – it’s like in a movie where the villain is gleefully showing off his super powers to his poor minions who already know all about it; he’s just stroking his own ego, trying to make himself feel better about himself, and still Haman is filled with hema, the Hebrew word for rage.  There’s also a little twist of ironic humor here for those who already know this story, as he boasts in the invitation he has received to Esther’s banquet the next day at which he will actually meet his downfall!

For the moment, though, Haman is planning Mordecai’s death.  The story-teller uses a subtle plot device here: it is Haman’s supporters who recommend the building of a gallows for hanging Mordecai.  Haman himself doesn’t concoct this plan – it’s a very subtle way of showing that he is already losing control of the situation.  His evil schemes are continuing, but Esther has the upper hand.  The conflict remains unresolved in this chapter, but the outcome is already foreshadowed.  Anyway, this gallows is to be 50 cubits tall, which converts to about 75 feet.  Like many of the descriptions earlier in the book, this is an exaggeration.  Archaeological evidence suggests that the palace itself was probably not even that tall!  The reason for such an enormous gallows is two-fold: first it emphasizes that this death is meant to be a public spectacle for all to witness, and second it highlights the absurdity of the whole plan.  As I said before, Mordecai is already on death row thanks to the edict of genocide; there is literally no reason for this hanging other than Haman’s own sinful impatience.

Now where does this chapter leave us?  We’re very much in the middle of the story; the characters have been established, the plots have been laid, and now everything is coming to a head.  Esther has been biding her time because she knows the edict of genocide doesn’t come into effect for many months yet.  But then Haman has prepared a new plan for an early death for Mordecai.  Both of their plans rely on the king’s final approval, and both of their plans are scheduled to be enacted the next day.  Who will get to the king first?  How will this work out?  To be continued!  Dun dun duhhhhh!

Application Part One: The Lies of the Devil

What do we make of this chapter?  The big picture of the whole book’s story isn’t really in view here; chapter 5 is a pretty detailed close-up of the two main forces preparing to make their move.  Just as, last time, we got to take a careful look at the character of Esther, it now would behoove us to take a careful look at the character of Haman.  Where Esther shows us a picture of growth in the life of faith, Haman shows us a picture of collapse in the life of wickedness.  Most of the time it is better to look at good examples of faithful people who learn to love and obey the Lord, so that we can be inspired and encouraged in the same path.  But occasionally it is useful to take a long hard look at the face of evil to remind ourselves why we are trying to stay off that path.

As I’m sure you all know, sin is fun.  If it wasn’t fun, we wouldn’t do it so much.  The trick, of course, is that for all sin’s promises of fun, it doesn’t pay off in the long run.  We can get quick short-term enjoyment from sin and wickedness, but in the end evil can’t satisfy us.  You may have heard the popular analogy – we all have a God-shaped hole in our hearts, and try as we might to fill it, nothing will satisfy that longing, desire, and need, but the love of God Himself.  As a result of this, the pursuit of sin, the path of evil, is one of constantly seeking “more.”  Sure, sometimes we can settle into a sin and feel comfortable with it for a long time without it seeming to grow bigger and bigger.  But at the root level, because sin cannot satisfy, it is always accompanied by a desire for more.  Whether we increase our repetitions of that sin, or expand into other types of sin, or grow our commitment to that sin, it’s always drawing us in.  The character of Haman demonstrates this in his hatred for Mordecai.  At first, he decides to kill Mordecai through the general edict that will wipe out all the Jews; but after a while Haman isn’t satisfied with that plan, and wants to get Mordecai killed immediately.

Another lesson about sin here is that wickedness is narrow-minded.  As Haman sits on his hatred for Mordecai week by week, month by month, it consumes his attention, destabilizes his emotions, and gives him a sort of tunnel vision.  Even though he was established as a crafty character earlier on, there is now no hint that he even suspects Esther of being up to something.  He’s losing his edge.  All he can think about is getting rid of Mordecai.  That’s something sin does to us: it consumes our attention more and more.  Sometimes it’s in an overt manner like Haman’s pursuit of killing Mordecai.  Sometimes it’s in a secretive manner as we spend more and more effort trying to keep our sins covered up.  Either way, our attention and focus is drawn in by wickedness, and the blinders are pulled over us more and more.

Application Part Two: The Grace of God

Grace, by contrast, gives us a wider perspective.  The three theological virtues – faith, hope and love – are spiritual gifts that open our eyes and broaden our horizons.  When Esther began her plan to rescue her people from the edict of genocide, she proceeded deliberately and unhurriedly.  She had perspective; she knew how much time they had left; she was not a slave to her emotions and passions.  Yes, she was able to be passionate about her cause, but her passions did not rule her.  This is a sign of the Holy Spirit at work!  Last week’s Epistle reading was from Galatians 3, and included a list of fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, and so forth.  Today’s Epistle reading from Galatians 6 has a similar reminder: we are to glory in the Cross of Christ, not in “the flesh,” which is one of St. Paul’s terms for the sinful tendencies that we all carry around inside.

When we glory in the Cross, we are focusing on the big picture – the epic work of God throughout history culminating in the person of Jesus Christ to bring about righteousness in his people and peace on the earth.  Our lives are kind of like chapter 5 of the book of Esther: everything is in place, God’s plan is unfolding around us, and even though we can’t see his victory in our own lives just yet, it is but a chapter away.  We see people around like Haman, devoted to sin and wickedness, and it just consumes them bit by bit.  Perhaps we can even see that type of situation in our own lives, past or present, as we struggle against the crafty wiles of the world, the flesh, and the devil.  But Esther is a picture of who we are called to be in this life: full of peace and patience, moving through life deliberately, with God’s plan of salvation the object of our highest attention and passion.

By this point Esther has reached a level of maturity that reflects today’s Gospel teachings (Matthew 6:24-34) that we cannot serve two masters, that we are not to be consumed by worry, that we need not be anxious about tomorrow.  We need to know, like Esther finally learned, that following God is more important than seeking comfort, and that God knows our needs and can provide for them.  The grace of the Holy Spirit within all who believe and are baptized is meant to open our eyes, widen our vision, broaden our perspective, helping us to see just how great and good our God truly is.  The more clearly we see and believe and trust in the Lord, the more readily we recognize just how empty are the promises of sin and wickedness.  The more we become like Esther’s character, the more Haman looks silly, sad, and even pitiful.

For our own Christian lives and for those of others, let us pray to the Lord.

Keep, we beseech you, O Lord, your Church with your perpetual mercy: and, because the frailty of man without you cannot help but fall, keep us ever by your help from all things hurtful, and lead us to all things profitable to our salvation; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
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