Deliverance Is Needed

Introduction: Two Old Testament books do not mention God directly. One of them is Esther. The other is Song of Solomon.  The omission, from a literary standpoint, seems to be purposeful. The intent is to describe a situation of the Jews in exile, in which all earthly power and influence seemed to be against them, but, through an amazing combination of delicately contiguous circumstances, deliverance came.

Even at places where it seems that the mention of God would have been natural and easy, the author avoided it. “He told them he was a Jew” (3:4) and “Their laws are different from every other people” ( 3:8) are purposeful circumlocutions for saying, “They say their God has forbidden them to obey our mandates.” Mordecai’s weeping, lamenting and wearing sackcloth and Esther’s request for a three-day fast in 4:16 on her behalf is hardly a strategy for successful protection unless the sackcloth, ashes, and fast are inextricably connected to calling upon a God who hears and acts in accord with covenant to intervene.

Also, one cannot observe the narrative’s construction without seeing that the writer has another person behind the scenes putting the elements of the plot together with twists far out of the reach of the human actors. Esther wins a beauty contest, she is more pleasing to the king than any of the other women he has made his wives. Mordecai overhears a plot on the king’s life and reports it saving the life of the king; on an evening when the king can’t sleep, he has the chronicles read to him in which Mordecai’s name is mentioned and Haman shows up immediately at that time and gives advice which he thinks is to his advantage but it is to Mordecai’s advantage. Haman builds a gallows for the death of Mordecai, the king grants favor (life instead of death) to Esther, and accepts an invitation to a banquet making lavish promises to any request she may have. Esther rehearses the plot against the Jews and reveals that she is a Jew. Haman, while basking in the glory of his favor with the king and Esther’s invitation to him to attend a banquet, is revealed as the one who hatched the plot to kill all the Jews and he and his sons are hanged on the gallows he prepared for Mordecai, etc.

Piece by piece this story is woven with a key and climactic idea being stated with Providence as the undeniable background, “If you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place . . .Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (4:14) The idea of a critical moment with a critical action clearly has the ambience of a worldview governed by divine purpose, with persons embracing their significance from the proper perception of that purpose.

These events serve as the historical foundation for the Feast of Purim, which in the synagogue is likened to the deliverance from Amalek in Exodus 17. To that event an altar was built in commemoration of the Lord’s posture of hostility toward the enemies of the Jews: “Because the Lord hath sworn that the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Exodus 17:16).

Immediate context:  

Historically, this event probably occurred during the reign of the Persian king Xerxes 1 (486-465 BC). The Persians, under Cyrus, had taken over the Babyloninan kingdom in 539 BC. When Belshazzar was king immediately following Daniel’s interpretation of the handwriting on the wall.

One of the leading characters of this narrative, Mordecai, was a Benjamite whose great-grandfather, Kish, had been carried into exile by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon.

In chapters 1 and 2, a historical circumstance has been described that leads to the prominence of the two leading characters, Mordecai and Esther. Mordecai appears to have been an older cousin of Esther, the daughter of his uncle, and Esther was an orphan. Vashti, a woman of natural but uncommon nobility, has refused to come to a public display of her physical beauty before a drunken group of political sycophants. The king, enraged but confused, got advice, for the sake of family stability all over the nation, to dismiss Vashti and hold a beauty contest to replace her.

Mordecai, a Jew in exile, had an astute political mind and saw an opportunity to gain leverage in the house of royalty. Long term strategy called for the immediate tactic of entering his exquisitely beautiful niece in the contest to replace Vashti. (2:7, 8) She was taken in as a candidate for twelve months of beauty training, and, in the process Esther proved winsome to all those around her (2:9, 15). Then, four years after the party which prompted the dismissal of Vashti (cf. 1:3 and 2:16), Esther was called to the king; She pleased him so thoroughly that he made her queen to replace Vashti. (2:17)

Mordecai made it a practice to hover near the palace precincts to learn news of Esther and to get messages to her and from her. He knew that knowledge was power and wanted to be able to gain advantage for his people any way possible. In the course of his subtle reconnaissance he learned that two eunuchs, Bigthan and Teresh, had been behind a plot to kill the king (2:21). He reported this to Esther, who reported it to the king “in the name of Mordecai.” After investigation it was found to be true and the men were executed. Importantly, as a part of the theme of Providence permeating this book, “it was recorded in the book of the chronicles in the presence of the king” (2:23b)

Ethics: Some have sought to reject Esther as canonical because of its apparent low moral tone and its radical and bloody nationalism. Some consideration should be given these objections that have come in a variety of forms.

From the standpoint of the moral tone. that characters who have at times clouded moral vision and less-than-elevated ethical practice receive, nevertheless, divine protection and grace should be a factor in the favor of the canonical status of Esther. From the standpoint of our knowledge of the original intent of marriage and sexuality based on Jesus’ condemnation of the relativism of the religious leaders of the day over similar issues (Matthew 19:3-9) and the pure vision of the apostles on these issues (1 Corinthians 6:16-20; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-7; Hebrews 13:4; 1 Peter 4:2-5), we would judge Esther as below the original norm of the scriptural intent of marriage and sexuality. Mordecai as a facilitator of Esther’s compromise for the sake of political power does not give us confidence that he had the moral and spiritual nerve, of either Daniel or Joseph. That judgment at the individual level of personal responsibility before God seems to me to be justified.

If we allowed that reality, however, to cause us to shun learning from the biblical narrative, or if we let it make us reject the canonical status of such Scripture, we would soon have a very slim Bible and very few examples of the recipients of grace. Esther and Mordecai lived among a people whose father Abraham had fathered a child through the handmaid of his wife for pragmatic purposes; whose feminine heroine, Ruth, the great-grandmother of David, was from the Moabites who descended from the illegitimate son of Lot fathered through his daughter. The sons of Jacob, the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel, were the offspring of his relations with four different women, two of them wives and two of them maidservants of his wives. Solomon, the great and wise king, had wives and concubines virtually without number given him for political alliances as well as for the pursuit of his own pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:1, 8). He was the son of Bathsheba who had become David’s wife through the circumstances of adultery and conspiracy to murder. Their thinking in this matter was not out of balance with their historical context.

In short, if we reject the theological content, the covenantal purpose, and the witness to divine grace present in a writing because its characters fall below the standard of purity and holiness implicit in the Law and worked out in detail in the dominical and apostolic reflections on the Law, then we will forfeit the context in which we learn gospel truth. We will throw away the narrative in which we see the beauty of divine intervention for the sake of sinners displayed; we should lose hope that the worst of sinners, Jerusalem sinners, Gentile sinners, Pharisaical sinners, the rabble, the haughty, the proud, the prurient, the careless, and the punctiliously self-righteous can become children of grace, crimsoned sinners whitened in the forgiveness of Christ’s blood, and channels of God’s providential care to others.

“Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid.” This reality of overcoming grace seen most lucidly in Christ’s own obedience to God’s moral law, both in his own righteous acts and in his submission to the penalty for all of our transgressions of the Law, should motivate us to shun evil wherever it appears. God’s intervention by grace into the sinful estate of humanity does not encourage sin but encourages holiness.

The rabid nationalism of this book is no more than is seen in Ezra and Nehemiah (Ezra 9:1-3; Nehemiah 13:30) nor out of harmony with Exodus and the divine infliction of plagues on Egypt while preserving the sons of Jacob from all such havoc and destruction. This is the pursuit of maintaining the identifiable integrity of a nation through whom the Messiah would come as “a light of revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.”

I. The Haughty exaltation of Haman – 3:1-2a

A. Haman given an exalted position by the king – How soon after Esther became queen these events occurred is not certain. We know that Haman hatched his plot in the twelfth year of Ahasuerus, which would be somewhat after four years of Esther as queen.

We are not told why this promotion of Haman took place. He clearly had an unquenchable ego (6:6) and fed upon public recognition, delighted in reciting his advantages to his family (5:11, 12). It is not too much a stretch of speculation to believe that the king was manipulated by Haman into this advantage.

B. The people are commanded to bow down and pay homage to Haman.

We see that in exile, pagans often made decrees that the Jews would have considered idolatrous. They were aware that idolatry had been one of the major reasons for their exile. See Daniel 3; 6:7-10. Later, during the reign of Greece, Antiochus Epiphanes made decrees that greatly angered the Jews and led to the Maccabean revolt.

II. The purposeful testing of Mordecai – 2b-4

A. Mordecai’s refusal to bow down

Even as the three friends of Daniel had refused to worship the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar had set up, so Mordecai refused to bow to the man set up by the king. Worship of an image or worship of a man is equally abominable.

B. Mordecai questioned by the king’s servants.

They could not imagine a man like Mordecai, who obviously valued his own well-being and had actually taken action to preserve the life of the king, refusing such a minor and harmless action in order to avoid stirring the pot of danger.

C. He continually resisted their reasoning about the necessity of bowing down

The writer has purposefully avoided overtly citing the religious persuasions involved, but if we could have a script of the conscience it would read, “You shall worship the Lord God and him only shall you serve. The God of our father Abraham has preserved us to this day, has promised to bless all nations through us, and requires that we worship and serve him alone.”

D. They report this to Haman giving the reason for his refusal that he was a Jew.

These servants of the king wanted to test Mordecai and see if his “words would stand.” Would he back down from his conviction if confronted by the authority of Haman himself?

Involved in the words that Mordecai told them was this tantalizing bit of advantageous information: “He was a Jew.” Given the large number of people obviously inherited by the Persians in their conquering this kingdom, the difference in ethnicity could not have been provocative of disdain in itself. Their religious principle, only one God to whom worship is due, was a principle of rebellion and division in the minds of the pagan. In the first Christian century, the Christian refusal to worship the variety of material representations of the various Roman and Greek deities led to a charge of atheism. Their refusal to acknowledge the title of “Lord” to Domitian led to martyrdom.

III. The cowardly resentment of Haman – 5-6

A. Mordecai’s refusal brought Haman to fury

Haman’s fury shows us the great foolishness and self-destructive power of pride and self-importance. In Acts 12:21-23 we read of the divine judgment on Herod because of his pride. We shall soon see the same with Haman.

B. He seemed to think that dealing with Mordecai individually would appear peevish, splenetic, and childish

That one man could so irritate him, he did not want anyone else to know. To the degree that he gloried in every honor bestowed on him absorbing its façade as a true measure of his intrinsic worthiness of the obeisance of others, so the slight of one person seemed to have power to destroy this rickety structure of self-adulation. How could Mordecai so insult him?

Also his resentment of Mordecai led to a fear of what might transpire in a personal confrontation. Haman could not stomach the possible embarrassment of going straight to a man of conviction for others might hear and believe the words of honest evaluation that would out in such an exchange.

C. He developed a scheme to get Mordecai by plotting to destroy all the Jews “throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus.”

evidently he discovered that Mordecai’s refusal to bow was owing to the principle previously stated immediately related to the Jewishness of Mordecai.

How amazing is sinful human nature that a man, out of personal pride, would be willing to destroy an entire people, over a personal slight and an unwillingness to engage in a personal conversation that held the potential for personal embarrassment.

IV. The murderous plot of Haman – 7-9

A. In the twelfth year of the reign of Ahasuerus, Haman began considering how he would culminate his desire to destroy the Jews. For a full year he waited, superstitiously looking for the most propitious time and carefully planning a scheme by which he would rid the earth of Mordecai and all that hold his conviction.  In the end, so thought Haman, all the Jews would be just as unyielding as Mordecai to his demand for homage.

The casting of lots is another element of the conflict between religious views implicit in this plot. “They cast lots before Haman;” that is, those that were responsible for reading the meaning of these lots went before Haman every day for a full year to find, according to the lots, when his appeal to the king for the destruction of the Jews would most likely be successful.

B. Haman presented his case to the king under the guise of danger to the kingdom posed by the Jewish conviction against bowing to human authority. Note that he speaks in generalities, “a certain people scattered abroad,” so as to avoid identifying them specifically as Jews. “It is not to the king’s profit to tolerate them” nor, it seems, to the profit of Haman’s pride.

C. He bribed the king to arrange for the destruction of the Jews.

Anticipating that the destruction of the Jews would involve the seizure of their property, Haman made promise of an enormous amount of addition to the king’s exchequer.

This shows that the Jews scattered among the provinces of the Persian empire were seen as wealthy. This could be one reason that they still resided there even though many had returned to Israel under the decree of Cyrus. They were comfortable, did not want to disturb either their way of life or their families by uprooting them. They were, however, apparently, maintaining a devotion to their law and manner of worship and it made them distinct as a people.

The king’s implicit trust in Haman is seen in his giving him the signet ring, allowing him to write the irrevocable policy, and seems to have little if any concern to investigate these disturbing allegations.

V. When Isaiah prophesied the exile of the people of Israel, he also prophesied that God would come to the aid of them when it appeared their enemies were going to destroy them. It is instructive to see the book of Esther as a narrative on God’s faithfulness to his promise in Isaiah. 41.

But you, Israel, my servant,
    Jacob, whom I have chosen,
    the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
    and called from its farthest corners,
saying to you, “You are my servant,
    I have chosen you and not cast you off”;
10 fear not, for I am with you;
    be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

11 Behold, all who are incensed against you
    shall be put to shame and confounded;
those who strive against you
    shall be as nothing and shall perish.
12 You shall seek those who contend with you,
    but you shall not find them;
those who war against you
    shall be as nothing at all.
13 For I, the Lord your God,
    hold your right hand;
it is I who say to you, “Fear not,
    I am the one who helps you.”

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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