Esther 4 – The Lord’s Counter-Attack The Lord’s Counter-Attack
During Esther’s time Jesus was not yet present as the human Son of God who would reconcile us to God. Bethlehem, Golgotha and Easter morning were still centuries away. Before Christ could come to this world, a lot had to happen! The Lord used the entire Old Testament history to prepare for his arrival. We often have trouble with that long period of time; we are in a hurry and like to see things happen sooner rather than later. Stop and consider, however, what a gigantic and stupendous undertaking our salvation is. God chooses to work it out in our time and space; it involves a superhuman and divine preparation which spans centuries. It is also violently opposed at every point by the devil, the prince of this world, as Jesus called him more than once.
God’s preparations span centuries also because he works out his eternal counsel of redemption in a world of sin. His plan is not for a handful of people, but a great multitude which no one can count. It takes time for one man, Abraham, to grow into a large nation and for that one nation to be ready to bring forth the Messiah. It takes time for generations of people to come to faith and grow in that faith, and for the gospel to spread all across the world. The book of Esther gives us a picture of the Old Testament history of redemption during the time of Israel’s exile. This is where the war of Genesis 3:15 is in full swing. Just as in our day, this war is fought mainly behind the scenes.
It is so easy to focus on people – what they are doing, and whether they are hero or villain. Let us not forget that it is the Lord who is moving ahead, in Esther’s days and ours. Satan is his main adversary, then and now. If we forget that, Esther becomes no more than a nice story and the human actors in this drama receive all our attention. The Bible will then just become another book and God’s glory is no longer the ultimate goal. Christ will then become no more than a nice person from whom you can learn a lot, including how to get along with everybody.
That would be the end of the gospel, a denial of our sins, and a rejection of God’s grace, since it makes a mockery of the cross. That’s why we don’t boast in Esther or Mordecai but we glory in our sovereign God, who is in full control even when he seems absent. Through God’s work for his covenant people the Saviour may come, to give his life as a ransom for many – including you and me.
God Uses Esther and Mordecai (Esther 4:1-13)
In Esther 3 we saw Mordecai’s refusal to bow to Haman trigger a deep-seated hatred against the Jewish people. Haman determined to eliminate every single Jew, and received a blank cheque from the king to execute his murderous intentions. This was not just an attack against people, but a satanic assault on God’s plan of redemption – a devilish plot to prevent the coming of the Messiah and therefore a wicked effort to prove that God’s promises could not be trusted.
Esther 4 introduces the turning point of the book. In the words of Psalm 68:1, “God rises up and scatters his enemies.” (GNT) The Lord did just that. He didn’t rain fire and brimstone from heaven to give Haman the scare of his life or kill the man by means of an accident or fatal disease. No, the Lord governed via human agents. That’s the normal way God rules, also in our times.
The book Esther shows the interaction of human responsibility and divine sovereignty in a very eloquent manner. The Lord created us with responsibilities, a fact that makes us different from all of God’s other creatures. Just doing your task is very important. Being busy in the daily affairs of this world is your main responsibility, for it is there where you serve the Lord, first of all.
When Mordecai heard about Haman’s wicked plan he tore his clothes and dressed himself in sackcloth and ashes. These were the signs of bitter grief known throughout the East in biblical times. He made his way across the city and stopped at the gate of the palace precincts. There he lamented loudly and cried about the impending doom. He was not the only one; all across the empire the Jews were devastated and filled with grief. They fasted, wailed and wept, many of them dressed in sackcloth and ashes like Mordecai.
It did not take long for Esther to be informed. Imagine the sight! There was Mordecai, quite an important servant of king Xerxes, dressed in rags and covered with ashes, beating his breast and crying loudly, while walking up and down in front of the king’s gate. It was because no one was allowed to enter the palace grounds dressed like he was that Mordecai did not go any further. That would mean a sure death.
Queen Esther was very distressed. After all, Mordecai was her relative, and she owed him a lot. What was wrong with him? Why was he so upset? “Here, give him a set of decent clothes,” she told her personal attendants, “then I might be able to speak to him.” But when Mordecai refused them, Esther became even more distressed. What to do now? She summoned Hathach, a trusted aide, and ordered him to find out exactly what troubled her cousin.
Hathach hurried off to the open square to determine Mordecai’s problem. Mordecai told him everything. He was well informed about the danger from Haman’s side and well prepared too. Somehow he had gained an inside knowledge of what had transpired between the king and Haman. How else did he know about that great sum of money which had Haman promised to pay? When he had informed Hathach of everything, Mordecai gave him a copy of the king’s decree so that Esther could see for herself how dangerous the situation was for the Jews. “Make sure,” he said to Hathach, “to tell the queen everything and please ask her to go to the king so that this great evil may be averted.” Actually, he said it a little different. He wanted Esther to plead for her people! That meant she had to identify herself as a Jew. In chapter 2 Mordecai had ensured that Esther did not tell anyone about her descent, but now is different. Now the survival of the Jewish people was at stake and serious situations often demand a change of strategy.
Once Hathach had informed the queen of all he had heard from Mordecai, and had shown her the king’s edict, Esther sent him directly back to her cousin. “Mordecai,” she said, “Don’t you know that nobody may enter the inner court of the king without being summoned to do so? It could cost me my head! True, there’s one exception. If the king happens to be in a good mood he may extend his golden scepter to me and allow me to meet with him. But Mordecai, I have not been to the king for thirty days! Maybe he doesn’t want to see me at all! What then?”
But Mordecai did not relent. The continuation of God’s covenant people was at stake. “Esther,” he replied, “Do not think you will be exempt from this murderous plan. Do not believe that your position as Xerxes’ wife will allow you to escape. This evil Haman stops for nothing. If you do not act, Esther, relief will come from another quarter, but you and your father’s house will perish! The Jews will be so angry with your betrayal that they will not rest till you have been put to death.” Then Mordecai used his strongest weapon: “Who knows,” he said, “whether you have not been raised to your high position exactly for this purpose?”
Esther realized the seriousness of these words. She could not see any other way but to follow her cousin’s urgent request. That is why she sent him this message: “Gather all the Jews that live in Susa and fast for me.” Not one day, as was common, but three days and nights. “My maidens and I will do the same and then I will go to the king, come what may. If the king kills me, so be it.” The minute Mordecai heard of Esther’s resolve, he got busy and did what she told him.
Now it is also time for us to get busy -- busy finding out what all this means. Let us get busy detecting God’s hand in these events which are so human and so “ordinary”. We must look with the eyes of faith, for if we don’t, life becomes no more than a succession of coincidences. Do you see the Lord at work here? Do you realize that he used Esther and Mordecai to defeat the devil’s assault on his redemptive promises? The Lord still works in that way today! In Esther’s case we get to know all the details. Here the Lord informs us about Haman’s plan and how it eventually came to nothing. In that regard there’s a great difference with our days and with our persons. Jesus Christ has come and what’s more, he has shed his blood for the forgiveness of all our sins. In him, the covenant has been fulfilled so that everyone who believes will not perish but have eternal life!
What has not changed is that also today the Lord uses you and me to oppose the devil’s attacks. God still appeals to our responsibility to speak up for his church and, if need be, to risk our lives for it. Do not say: “But who am I? I am not an Esther, queen of the Persian Empire. I am not a Mordecai, whose position gave him many privileges and allowed him access to the queen. I am only a university student. What can I do for the welfare of Christ’s church?” Or: “I am only an elder in a small congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ. How does my work and input for the good of his flock affect the coming of God’s kingdom?” Our age or place of work is not decisive. What matters is rising to the occasion; getting busy doing what the Lord calls us to do, even when it seems as if it won’t make any difference and when it looks absolutely futile.
In Esther’s and Mordecai’s case we are informed how the Lord used their responsibility to preserve his people and keep the way to the promised Christ open. He blessed their efforts and the great risks they took. In our case, those details are not known on this side of heaven. That does not mean that our responsibility is of little or no value. Who is able to assess the work of thousands of ‘nameless Christians’ for the coming of God’s kingdom? Only the Day of Days will reveal how the faithful exercise of human responsibility averted Satan’s assaults, and how evil conspiracies against God’s Word have been rendered useless. Esther and Mordecai could have kept quiet. They could have tried to ensure their freedom by trusting in their position or kinship to the queen, but the Lord had other plans. He put them to work. He called on their responsibility to oppose evil and to love their neighbour.
No, they were not forced to act. God allowed them the freedom to make choices. Esther could have refused to plead for her people. Mordecai could have gone into hiding, but it was the Lord who inclined their hearts and minds to do what he had in mind, so that his counsel would stand and he would fulfill all his purposes. Does that mean that Esther and Mordecai acted in faith? Must we join the many commentators who praise them for their trust in God and their willingness to do his bidding? No; we must only proclaim what the Lord has clearly revealed.
God does not Act because of Esther and Mordecai (Esther 4:14-17)
Many commentaries praise Esther and Mordecai for their faith. What do they base that on? Why do they speak with such certainty? The book of Esther doesn’t mention God’s name even once; we are also not informed about the religious commitment of Esther and Mordecai. On the contrary, Esther got herself all plumed up to become the wife of a pagan emperor and Mordecai was all too keen to see her there. He took the initiative for his cousin to enter the beauty contest. Was that serving God? Does that show a deep love for the Lord? Though Esther 4 shows a different side of Esther and Mordecai, does that necessarily mean they acted in faith? Are we warranted in drawing such conclusions?
Those who say they acted in faith point to the verses 14-16. “See,” they say, “Mordecai was so sure that the Lord would save his people that even if Esther refused to plead for them, deliverance would come from another quarter. His statement that Esther might have become queen exactly for this purpose proves that he saw the hand of God in all of this. What about the fast Esther asked for? Does it not reveal that she needed spiritual support? Was that not a request for the Jews to humble themselves before the Lord and ask for his blessing?”
Oh, it is tempting! We all like to connect our faith and commitment to God’s blessing. We all love to hear how human actions carry God’s approval and are richly rewarded. It strokes our religious vanity. May we make that connection? Does God’s Word give us solid evidence for a tie between faith and blessing? I’m afraid it doesn’t; not here at least and not elsewhere in the book of Esther. Mordecai’s conviction that help would occur from another place does not have to mean that God would intervene. He could have meant that the Jews would take matters in their own hands. His comment that Esther’s position may have been given for a situation like this, is not necessarily a proof of his faith either. You can also explain that from the circumstances. After all, Esther was the only one who had the opportunity to speak with her husband and convince him to change his mind. What about that fast? Does it strike you, that prayer wasn’t mentioned at all? In the Bible fasting and praying always go together. Fasting was a sign of humility and dependence. Whenever the believers fasted, they always called on God for his help and blessing at the same time. Here there is not a word about prayer!
No, all of this does not have to mean that Esther and Mordecai did not love the Lord at all. We must be careful not to go overboard on the other side either. It cannot be denied that they both had a great love for the Jewish nation, enough to risk their lives – Esther by approaching the king and Mordecai by his public demonstration against the king’s edict. Once again, these facts do not prove that they acted in faith. It may have played a part but it’s not said with so many words. Blind pagans have also sacrificed their lives for others. Nationalistic feelings can also bring a person to put his life at stake. No, we are not comparing Esther and Mordecai to blind pagans but neither do we say that their only concern was to protect the Jewish nation out of national pride. Their faith or non-faith is not decisive here; the point is that the Lord does not protect his people because of Esther and Mordecai, but because of his covenant love and faithfulness!
Does it make any difference then, whether a person lives by faith or not? Does the Bible not teach that obedience to God will be blessed while disobedience will be punished? Since the Lord blessed the actions of Esther and Mordecai does that mean that they acted from faith? Not necessarily. When you live in sin, you may not expect God’s blessing but his wrath, and when you love the Lord you may trust that the Lord will reward it. Yet blessings still come purely by grace and are never a reward of merit. That is the glorious truth which the book of Esther proclaims. It is God’s faithfulness that carries the day! It was his covenant love that averted Haman’s wicked plan. It was his wonderful grace and mercy that assured the Jewish nation of its survival and kept the way to Christ open.
God did not protect his people because of Esther and Mordecai’s willingness to put everything on the line. Nor did he act because of their love for the Lord and their deep trust that the Lord would come to his people’s aid. That doesn’t make faith irrelevant and love for God a non-issue; the Word of God is clear that without faith and love for the Lord, we will perish. But faith and love are not decisive! They are not the ground of our deliverance. Consider how often we let the Lord down, even though we love him. Even though we believe in him, how poorly do we often live? That is why the grace of God becomes such a great treasure for sinners. That is why we can never understand his faithfulness. What did the Lord see in those Jews of Esther’s days? The great majority refused to return to Canaan because life in Persia was so good. Were Esther and Mordecai any different? Did their lives reflect a deep commitment to God? Were they living close to the Bible and averse to all that belonged to this world and its desires? It seems unlikely!
What about us? Why does the church of Jesus Christ still exist? Why have the modern Hamans not been able to destroy every trace of Christianity? Is that because we are so faithful? Is that the blessing which our commitment has earned? On the contrary! We bow our heads in shame because of our many sins and shortcomings. Oh, the faithfulness of our God! Oh, the riches of his mercy! Oh, the depth of his grace! Who does not love such a God? Who does not say “Lord, if it wasn’t for your covenant faithfulness, where would I be?” Let us not even consider that God’s love for his people is occasioned by our faith and commitment. He already loved us when we were still sinners, and that is why his love is centered in the Christ! That is why Jesus’ sacrifice allows a church to be gathered, defended and preserved.
When there was no other way out, Esther said “All right, I will go to the king.” Yes, it was heroic. She put her life on the line for her people, but it was done because she had no other choice. If she hadn’t, she would have been killed by the Jews. Compare that to Jesus Christ who laid his life on the line willingly! Did the people who crucified him love him? Could he be proud of them? No way! They were his enemies. They were not in the least concerned about him. Yes, they hated him, yet God sent him to this world. He laid his divine glories aside and became one of us, to die for us and so to give us everlasting life. Can you fathom that? Can you even begin to understand that? Such a divine love and covenantal faithfulness he has for us. He suffered the curse we deserved, in order to fulfill the promises of God and to demonstrate his great love for sinners.
This is the God we serve! This is the God we may profess as our faithful Lord and Saviour. This is the God to whom we may go for all our needs. Not only as an elder when you begin your work in a congregation but also in your illness, your sorrow, your tensions and your struggles against sin and temptation. How great are the mercies of our God, who made Israel his people for no other reason but his grace and love. Who liberated them from Egypt while they were serving strange gods. Who brought them to Canaan, while they did nothing but complain and gripe, and who saved them from Haman’s genocide while they lived in exile far away from the Promised Land. That is why we say with Psalm 115:1 “Not to us O LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness.”
The Lord’s Counter-Attack Includes Esther and Mordecai
It should be clear that Esther and Mordecai’s actions did not produce the preservation of God’s people. Though they played an important role, it was the Lord’s sovereign good pleasure to use them for his own purpose, in the same manner as he wants to use you and me. Esther and Mordecai’s role stopped there. They were the pawns; God was in control. His Name, trustworthiness and covenant promises were at stake! That’s the reason why Haman failed and the devil suffered another defeat – so the Lord could proceed to the day of Jesus Christ and the full salvation of his church. So we see that the glory of God’s Name and his people’s wellbeing are very intimately related. God’s glory reaches its fullness in the redemption of sinners and thus we must never contrast the two. What the Lord has joined together we may and must not separate.
Sometimes that is done and God’s glory is put in opposition to the preservation of his church. Our love for the Lord must not be detached from our love for our brothers and sisters, for that is wrong. It is sinful! Is not God’s glory the honour and adoration that he receives from his covenant people? We do not know how great or small Esther and Mordecai’s love for the Lord was. We do not need to know that either. What we do know is that God has a love for his people, for those who serve him with joy and commitment, but also for those who show little interest in him.
Faith is important. Very important! Without faith there is no future. What is not true is that God gives up on his people the moment they get entangled in sin and fall for the temptations of the world. Our Lord is longsuffering and his compassion is much greater than we tend to think. Do we not read that in the prophecies of Hosea? He lived and labored during a time when Israel was living in gross sin. There was very little, if any, love for the Lord. Yet God sent them prophets to plead with them to repent. In Hosea 11:8 we read those heartrending words, “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? ... all my compassion is aroused.” Aroused for whom? For God-fearing Jews? No, for disobedient covenant children.
That is also the case in the book of Esther. The Lord saved his people from death and annihilation so that they could serve and love him. Including Esther and Mordecai! That is what the Lord is after. Always! The preservation of his covenant people is not an end in itself but it calls them to repentance and a life of faith and obedience. Not only then but also today. We do not know how the Jews’ survival impacted their love for the Lord. We are left in the dark whether Esther and Mordecai turned to God and took pains to serve him. We do know that this was one of the reasons he saved the Jewish nation from annihilation.
The same goes for our times. True, the church in Canada is not threatened with physical death, not yet anyway. That does not mean that there are no frightening powers of wickedness at work which are out for her destruction. The devil does his utmost to kill the people of God, first of all spiritually. Does that have to frighten us? Are we going to question God’s promise that the gates of hell won’t defeat his church? (Matthew 16:18) No, we are not, because the Lord will not forsake his people. God’s protection calls us to a life of repentance and faith. The Lord’s preservation is at the same time an urgent appeal to break with sin and repent from unrighteousness.
When you cling to him, when you pray him for strength, wisdom, and perseverance, he will hear, for that is why he came – to save sinners. He came to save people who are just as lost as everybody else, but who turn to him in humble faith. He will sustain you and he will watch over you! He will bring you and all his children to the Promised Land, where our exile is over, and where God’s glory will be sung.
1. Humanly speaking, our salvation is a “gigantic and stupendous undertaking”. Can you identify some world events that have allowed salvation to come to us in this time and place?
2. Why is it so important that we do not focus on Esther and Mordecai when studying this book? What is the danger in using Biblical figures as inspirational examples of Christian living?
God Uses Esther and Mordecai
3. “The book Esther shows the interaction of human responsibility and divine sovereignty.” How do these two work together? How do we know in our lives where one ends and the other begins?
4. Where else do we read of people putting on sack cloth and ashes? What does this symbolize? Do we have actions or traditions today that indicate the same emotions?
5. The outline describes Mordecai as being an important servant of Xerxes, even before his promotion in Esther 5. What evidence supports this?
6. Does the phrase “relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place” (v.14) mean that Mordecai trusted God to provide assistance? If not, what does it mean?
7. At the beginning of the chapter, Esther did not want to risk her life for her people. Do we also struggle with the fear of exposing ourselves as children of God? How can we conquer that fear?
God does not Act because of Esther and Mordecai
8. Did God bless the actions of Esther and Mordecai because they were faithful children?
9. Why is there still a faithful church today? Is it a blessing for our commitment? Is our lack of persecution a blessing for being faithful?
10. What is the link between grace and good works?
The Lord’s Counter-Attack includes Esther and Mordecai
11. “God’s glory reaches its fullness in the redemption of sinners.” What does this mean in everyday words? How can we live this out in our congregational life?
12. What are some means that Satan currently uses to attack and destroy God’s church today?