The Gospel according to Esther

Those of you who have been following through this series through the book of Esther have been waiting a long time for what happened here in chapters 6 and 7.  If you’re just jumping in now, well, you’ve skipped straight to one of the most exciting parts of the story!  The story’s villain, Haman, has already got a plan in place to wipe out the Jewish people, and now he’s about to enact an additional plan to kill Mordecai, Esther’s cousin.  Esther, meanwhile, is on the verge of revealing her plan to save her people from Haman’s first plot.  Everything has come down to King Ahasuerus, whose side he takes, or simply who gets to him first.  Chapters 6 and 7 are too exciting and interconnected to deal with separately, which is why we replaced the usual Epistle reading with the second reading from Esther.  We’re celebrating the good news in this story of Esther!  And, as we go through this, I’d like for us to see the Good News of Christ in here, too.  This something that we should always do when reading the Bible, and today that’s even the sermon title: The Gospel according to Esther.

Part One: Explanation & Analysis of Esther 6 & 7

Chapter 6 begins with an interesting coincidence that changes the entire course of the story so far: King Ahasuerus can’t sleep.  So he gets up, has his servants read to him from the court records of recent events, and is finally reminded of a little episode back in chapter 2 where Mordecai uncovered a plot against the King’s life.  He realizes that Mordecai was never rewarded for this great service, and decides to set things right.  You may recall that honor is one of the most highly valued things in the Persian court; the actions of the King, Haman, and the other court officials have constantly hinged upon the maintenance of honor.

Verse 4 brings in the next convenient coincidence: Haman is in the courtyard outside hoping for an audience with the King at this very moment.  “Excellent!” says the King, “someone to advise me on how to reward Mordecai.”  So he has Haman brought in, and what unfolds is probably the most ironic and hilarious turn of events in the whole story.  Haman thinks the King is going to honor him, and the King doesn’t know that Haman is waiting to ask for his permission to kill Mordecai.  Like two ships in the night, they talk right past one another and the only people who know what both of them are thinking are us, the audience.  Haman’s suggest of wearing a royal robe and riding a royal horse and parading through the “open square of the city” are pretty serious honors – virtual equality with the King is a big deal indeed!  But it isn’t outside the realm of the King’s generosity.  It’s worth noting here that as Haman recommends parading this hero through “the open square of the city”, he’s imagining himself as the one being honored, and that particular location would most likely result in him being paraded past Mordecai who has been sitting outside the King’s Gate.  Haman think this great bestowal of royal honors will allow him one last triumphal victory parade past Mordecai before he has him killed.

But no, SURPRISE!  It’s Mordecai that the King wants to honor, and so he puts Haman in charge of making sure Mordecai receives all the festive celebration that Haman suggested.  There’s no indication that the King was aware of Haman’s personal hatred of Mordecai specifically, but if he did know then his words in verse 10 might be read with an additional layer of irony.  So now we’ve got this hilarious little scene pictured: Haman leading Mordecai around the city proclaiming to everyone the honor of the King’s favor.  As Psalm 7 says, “Behold, the wicked man conceives evil and is pregnant with mischief and gives birth to lies.  He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole that he has made.  His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own skull his violence descends.”  This is beginning to happen to Haman already – the good that he planned for himself is going to someone else, and the evil that he planned for someone else is about to land on himself!

This bleak view of Haman’s future is shared by his friends and family when he runs home in utter grief and shame.  Even his own wife, Zeresh, thinks that Haman is doomed now.  We don’t even see any signs of sympathy for Haman from his household – he really is the classic villain that everyone just loves to hate!  And then, as if to emphasize the fact that Haman has completely lost control of the situation, verse 14 says that Haman is “hurried away” by the King’s servants to attend another banquet – a banquet hosted by Esther the Queen.

Chapter 7 continues directly from there emphasizing that not only has Haman lost control of the situation, but now Esther has gained full control: her plan is advancing and cannot be stopped.  The King repeats his offer that we heard about last week in chapter 5 – whatever she requests he will grant.  And now, finally, after all her stalling in chapter 5 and the sidebar of Mordecai’s honor in chapter 6, Esther actually tells the King that she’s a Jew and Haman is an enemy of her people who needs to be stopped immediately.  But let’s note how she says all this; the storyteller is very artful in this dialogue.

Esther begins by repeating the King’s question to highlight her respect for his honor and generosity; he’s less likely to change his mind if she panders to his ego and custom.  Then she quotes the edict’s threefold death sentence of the Jews, revealing both her awareness of the legal arrangement and the seriousness of her people’s plight.  She even goes so far as to say that if the edict merely enslaved her people she wouldn’t bother the King with this request, telling him that his money is more important than one measly little nationality within his empire – this again is a rhetorical move to emphasize the importance of the King’s honor and interests and humble herself before him in the course of making her request.  That way she is able to call Haman an enemy not only of her people, but also of herself and therefore also an enemy of the King!  And of course it works: the King is enraged and storms out of the room to cool off.

Haman, meanwhile, is terrified.  He throws himself on Esther’s mercy, which unfortunately for him looks more like he’s just throwing himself on Esther, so when the King comes back in he accuses Haman of molesting the Queen!  As if Haman’s plot against the Jews and use of the King’s authority wasn’t bad enough, he was dishonoring the King further by assaulting his wife.  So, as in almost everything else in this story, it is the integrity of the King’s honor that dictates what happens: Haman is imprisoned and executed shortly thereafter.

But it’s interesting to note some of the odd features of the story here at the end of chapter 7.  First, Esther doesn’t try to correct the King’s false assumption about Haman molesting her.  She allows a false accusation be the “last straw” leading to Haman’s death, which someone people consider a lie of omission on her part.  It’s also amusing to note that the King, yet again, relies on the advice of others to decide what to do with Haman.  And, of course, Haman’s impossibly huge gallows/pole meant for Mordecai becomes the means of poetic justice against him.

As usual, the story-teller doesn’t explicitly bring God into the story, leaving us to read between the lines and recognize the long string of bizarre and humorous coincidences as God’s masterful orchestration of events to the end of rescuing Mordecai from an unjust death.  As earthly events go, it looked like Haman was going to win because he got to the King first, but God saved the day with insomnia!

The last thing to say about these chapters is that the Edict of Genocide hasn’t been dealt with yet – the Jews are still on death row a few months away.  But its mastermind is gone, and now Esther and Mordecai are in good positions to get that last obstacle solved.  That is what we’ll see playing out over the last three chapters of the book.

Part Two: Finding the Gospel in Esther 6 & 7

Now, we’ve heard this part of the story and analyzed it a bit, but the question of truly understanding it has yet to be addressed.  As with anything else in the Bible, we need to ask ourselves how does this portray the Gospel?  Rather than looking at Esther herself, let’s looks at the two main characters in these chapters to whom things happen.

First of all, there’s Mordecai.  Even though Haman never gets to voice his plan to execute Mordecai, the tense suspense built up in chapter 5 and carried into chapter 6 gives the hearers of the story a real sense of fear for Mordecai’s life.  Even though it didn’t make it to the King’s ears, it was as if Mordecai was on death row for a while, until the King honored him at the end of chapter 6.  This puts Mordecai in a situation very similar to that of Isaac, Abraham’s son, in Genesis 22.  There, you may recall the story, Isaac was bound with ropes on an altar to the Lord to be a burnt offering to God until God provided a ram at the last minute.  The lesson, which Abraham himself observed at the time, is the Lord will provide.  And indeed, we know, God has provided a sacrifice – his own Son, Jesus Christ our Lord – to be the atonement for the sins of the world.  The unjust death sentence upon Isaac and Mordecai are glimpses of the most unjust death sentence upon Jesus.

Secondly, there’s Haman.  Haman is a wicked man who plots increasingly evil deeds and is finally punished for his crimes.  Who does he represent?  Everybody.  The Scriptures teach us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  The great Flood in Genesis 6-8 is another Old Testament story highlighting the universal sinfulness of the human race and the justice with which God punishes us.  As two of the psalms say, “there is none that does good, no not one” (Psalms 14:3 & 53:3).  And thus the just penalty is death – death for you, death for me, death for everyone.

But the Gospel (the Good News) is that the just requirement of the death penalty has been willingly taken up by someone else: Jesus of Nazareth.  He’s the only one who lived a perfectly sinless life and therefore he had the right to transfer everybody else’s death penalty upon himself.  All we have to do is accept that offer: acknowledge that he made that sacrifice on our behalf and stand united with him on Judgment Day in witness that his blood was shed so that ours doesn’t have to be.  Among other things, God is a God of Justice, and His demand for holiness is serious and rightful.  But as a God also of Mercy and Love, He stepped down in the person of Jesus Christ to make it possible for people to survive Judgment Day.

The Old Testament Law was correct in declaring God’s justice to be “an eye for an eye.”  Any act of sin, any infraction of God’s Law, any impugning of God’s honor, is a rejection of God that calls for the rejection of the offender.  When Jesus chimed in on this in the Sermon on the Mount (particularly in Matthew 5:38-42), he called for a halt in our over-zealous application of “an eye for an eye” in our own laws, because the way we tend to do that is not at all like way God does it.  After all, Jesus’ self-offering on behalf of undeserving sinners like ourselves should lead us to reconsider how we deal with those who sin against us!  We instead should be anticipating Judgment Day, when God has the last word, not ourselves.  We should also be anticipating heaven – that perfected world where sin is no more; where we are called to live for eternity hereafter.  There we will finally know the true triumph of both justice and mercy.  A couple of our last hymns will point us in that direction of heavenward focus.

Part Three: Now What?

We have looked at the story of Esther 6 & 7, we have seen how crucial parts of the Gospel are foreshadowed therein, and now all that remains for us to do is look at how all this impacts our lives.  As Martin Luther famously put it, the Christian is simul iustus et peccator.  We are two-faced; one on hand we are still wretched sinners constantly turning away from our Lord; on the other hand we are gloriously saved by the Blood of Christ and clothed with His righteousness.  This double identity is very important for us to understand and recognize, and can be discerned in the characters of the book of Esther.  So let us turn again to Haman and Mordecai.

 

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I think this is the 1st time I found a meme to fit a sermon!

 

As sinners, we should consider ourselves justly punishable like Haman.  We don’t often want to think of ourselves as the villain in biblical stories, but the Scriptures teach us we were all “enemies of God” at one time (Romans 5:10).  Therefore we should pay attention to Haman, his spiral deeper into sin, and his downfall.  We took an especially close look at him last week, and in case you want to revisit it, I’ve made it available online.  The character of Haman serves both as a warning to what can happen to us when we make selfishness our Lord instead of Jesus Christ, and it serves as an explanation for the various failings in our own lives.  For even though we receive the blessed hope of justification on Judgment Day, we do still experience forms of God’s judgment throughout our lives.  In the book of Hebrews this is called chastisement.  It’s worth quoting this at length:

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.  In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.  And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?  “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him.  For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”  It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?  If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.  Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live?  For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.   For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:3-11)

So rather than going to the gallows like Haman, we only experience temporary earthly chastisements for our sins as reminders that we have transgressed against God and need to live lives of repentance.  Sometimes these chastisements are severe and sometimes minor; God’s purpose is not to hound us cruelly into submission but to keep us attentive to the reality of injustice – both within ourselves and in the world around us.

On the flip side of all this, as members of Christ, we should consider ourselves rescued like Mordecai was.  How should this influence our lifestyles?  As a saved people, we most definitely ought to be a thankful people!  The liturgy puts these words into our mouths every time we celebrate Holy Communion: “Lift up your hearts.  We lift them to the Lord.  Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.  It is just and right so to do.”  And then the celebrant continues by repeating the same thing: “It is right and a good and joyful thing always and everywhere to give you thanks, Father Almighty…”  There’s a reason that part of the liturgy is sometimes called the Great Thanksgiving!  We must resist the temptation to turn into robots or parrots here; it really truly actually is just and right and a joyful thing to give thanks to God.  He has rescued us!  It is just and right to thank Him for rescuing us.  It is a good and joyful thing to thank Him for rescuing us.  It’s inevitable that sometimes you’ll just say those words automatically and not allow them to sink in.  But always strive to pay attention to what is said, and bring yourself back to these words of thanksgiving and praise.  God deserves more thanks than we can ever offer Him!

Also, just as Mordecai was rescued, but he and Esther still had yet to rescue the rest of their fellow Jews, we should remember that God has sent the Church to be on a rescue mission too.  Consider the Post-Communion Prayers that we say towards the end of the liturgy.  “send us out into the world to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord,” one of them says.  “assist us with your grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as you have prepared for us to walk in” says the other.  Both of these prayers are sending-out prayers.  They point us beyond the liturgy into the ordinary day-to-day life of the Christian man, woman, and child, in which we are participants in God’s great rescue mission to save sinners from their sentence of death.  Today being the 15th anniversary of the tragic events of September 11th, 2001, perhaps it is fitting to consider the situation in New York City that day – the number of people in danger was much larger than the number of people participating in the rescue missions.  It is the same with the Church: we are not a majority force in the world, but a minority movement reaching into a vast world around us with the love of Christ seeking to bring them into contact with the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

So from this Gospel of Christ, as we are reminded in the middle of the book of Esther, we have cause for somber self-examination and penitence, joyful thanksgiving, and a serious call to mission, since we have traits in common with both Haman and Mordecai.  The life of a Christian is marked by these two big strands of identity – sinner and saint – and the more honestly we reckon with both sides, the healthier we’ll be as individuals, and the healthier we’ll be as a church body.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about spiritual formation, theology, biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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