Esther 3 - Gathering Storm
Read Esther 3
We have suggested that this narrative of Esther is a glimpse into the lives of the exiles of Israel in the Medo-Persian Empire between the times of the first return after the decree of Cyrus (538) and the returns under Ezra (458) and Nehemiah (445). It has not been uncommon for interpreters to read good things into this narrative and play down what on the face of it is not so impressive. The Roman Catholic Bible with the Apocrypha, for example, adds additional material to make the main characters seem more pious. These, however, are gratuitous additions and whichever way you look at it, it is hard to make these people pious rather than what seems a more realistic characteristic of compromise and worldliness. It is a difficulty in interpretation that the name of God is not used throughout and things are done clearly contrary to His law. As we’ve said before, this does not mean that God is not there. That, indeed, is a principal lesson of the book: God is there, even in what we might call low times for His people; even in times when its existence is threatened through worldliness and compromise.
Up to the end of chapter 2 there is still no acknowledgement by the main characters even of their Jewishness. All the religious background is a matter of silence. This cannot be because of the danger of persecution, given e.g. what was known of Daniel earlier. That is not to minimise the ‘danger’ in being a believer in a situation in which a government may be utterly unsympathetic or even antagonistic. You do not unnecessarily court persecution. But still the faith has to be maintained whatever the cost or hurt experienced. Of course there will come a point at which a believer’s true colours must be shown. We must show our true colours, if we are Christ’s, for this day in which we live. This is where we pick up the story of Esther (or Mordecai at least). Now, whatever time-lapse between the end of chapter 2 and chapter 3, you will notice a lapse of some 9 years between 1:3 and 3:7. In this period a man called Haman comes in to the picture. He is the catalyst who triggers the reaction (at last?) from Mordecai. Haman is appointed to a senior position in the cabinet – perhaps Prime Minister. Significantly we have Haman’s pedigree: an Agagite. What does that tell us? Well, remember King Agag, Amalekite adversary of King Saul, whom Samuel put to death in 1 Samuel 15? These Amelekites were deadly foes of the Israelites. Mordecai was obviously aware of this and felt natural antipathy. This most likely accounts for his reaction here. The servants in the King’s gate were to do homage to Haman (3:2). How are we to understand this part of the narrative?
1. What are we to make of Mordecai’s reaction?
On the one hand we are inclined to say: not before time. We read in verse 4 that he told them that he was a Jew. We are to understand that that is why he did not pay homage to Haman. A sense of righteous indignation rose up within him about doing such a thing to an Amalekite. There is some sense of history with Mordecai, though it may be little more than ethnic prejudice. We mentioned earlier the Roman Catholic Apocrypha which adds bits in to this book. This is one place. These uninspired writings put a prayer on Mordecai’s lips in which he says it’s not stubbornness or pride that was behind his reaction. He is made to say that he would even kiss Haman’s feet if it would do Israel good because he wished to worship God alone. It would be well if that were Mordecai’s attitude and ours. But the Bible doesn’t say so. However, let us learn here the necessity for making our position clear among our fellows and not letting our light shine under a bushel (basket). There should not be a concealing of testimony, though we need not court persecution.
That’s one thing. On the other hand, consider this: What Mordecai refused was not worship. He wasn’t being asked to worship, but give respect. He may not like it, but there he was in that land and Haman represented the ‘powers that be’ and was to be respected as such. This wasn’t like what was going to be forced on the three young men of the early chapters of Daniel or Daniel himself later. He wasn’t being asked to worship and image or engage in false or idolatrous worship. What Mordecai actually precipitated would lead to great trouble for the Jews. And not just the Jews in Shushan (or Persia) but also among those who had returned! (verse 6). This appears, in short, to be largely a proud and stubborn reaction.
What difficulties we may face when we act out of pride or stubbornness. How often do we react to things in the world and get the faith a bad name? We face a terrible situation with our present government. There is such an anti-Christian aroma in the air these days. We will exercise our right of private judgement on the trends of the times and will not hesitate to speak out against the errors and immorality of the day in which we live. We will not hesitate to take a stand for the Lord when occasion arises. That is the Christian’s righteous duty for Christ and before men. Yet, there must be respect. Think of Romans 13:1-7. Doesn’t seem to me that Mordecai fell in line with that apostolic principle. And when we go against the law of God the whole people of God can suffer.
2. What are we to make of Haman’s reaction?
Haman’s reaction is given in verse 5 and following. What is this about? Well, there are two things:
- There is the shame to the exiles of what is stated as the reason for the action of (essentially) extermination of the covenant people. This is found in verse 8. Why shame? Well, that’s not how they lived in exile. You couldn’t say they were a ‘separated’ people. They had adapted and assimilated and integrated to the world of the heathen land. True, M now made his position known. But it wasn’t out of any distinctive adherence to God’s law. Yet it was enough to raise the issues of these ‘different’ Jews.
- The offensiveness of Mordecai ironically gives opportunity to the enemy of souls to step in to exploit a situation in which the covenant people and the covenant testimony could be suppressed or stamped out. Persecution is one of his ploys. There is a reaction against the separateness of the believer in a conformist world. What Haman says here is true: it is the task and calling of the believer to be distinct in the world, though the world will scarcely tolerate it, except where it is marginalized (as among those in exile). We are to resist the devil and not give him opportunity to do damage among the people of God through our sins. The worldliness of Christians will always be exploited by the devil. Satan is content with Mordecai’s worldliness, but the first slight sign of distinctness gives occasion for a wider strategy of oppression of the people of God. A prayerful, holy people are far more difficult for the world and the devil to handle.
This, then, is a desperate situation. The date is set for extermination. The backs of the covenant people are to the wall. Israel is to be destroyed. The question is:
3. Why should God help them?
Will God give them over to this folly? Here are a people (in exile at least) compromised and now endangering the whole family of the covenant people. And will other Christians not be hurt by our indistinct worldliness? When we become so worldly, will the Lord not just cast us off? Certainly that will be what we deserve. But then we are reminded that He is gracious and longsuffering and slow to anger and plenteous in mercy. We deserve, and ought indeed to welcome, His chastening of us for our sins. But even an Esther and a Mordecai may be used in the struggle against the Church’s enemies. We often ask for trouble and He gives us His love and mercy and protection, despite our errors and reactions and over-reactions which the devil exploits.
We realise that the Church has battles within and without. We have to be aware of that. We are not to be content with half-hearted, limp and compromised lives and lifestyles amongst those who profess. We are not to be content with error in the Church, nor nominality and deadness. We are not to be content with spiritual lives devoid of real life and discernment and burning love and zeal for Christ. But we are thankful that the Lord in mercy brings His Church through persecutions and even heresies and dry and dull periods. Peter foolishly cut off Malchus’ ear out of reaction, but the Lord healed His ear. The disciples forsook the Lord, and fled, but He poured His spirit on them. We are thankful that even when I ask for trouble, His love is not far and His protection is sure.