Esther 9 & 10 – Sorrow Turned to Joy
Sing: Ps 3:1,3; 79:3; 145:1,2,5
In Zechariah 2:8 we read that those who touch God’s people touch the apple of his eye. Well, touching God’s people was what Haman and his supporters had in mind. They were so filled with hatred that they wouldn’t rest until the Jews were completely destroyed. But they forgot about the Lord, and that he would come to the aid of his children.
When the apple of God’s eye is touched, when the serpent lunges at the church, the Lord is roused to defend them and nothing stands in his way. The pagan Xerxes became like wax in God’s hand, conforming to fulfill the Lord’s counsel. The arrogant and evil Haman was executed. Esther and Mordecai became courageous instruments in the hand of the Lord. They played an important part so that God’s purpose would stand and his counsel prevail. That is what we learn from the book of Esther! That is the comfort it provides.
Almost 2500 years have elapsed and much has changed! Jesus Christ has come and finished his work of reconciliation. The serpent suffered a humiliating and total defeat on Golgotha. The church is no longer limited to Israel but is now gathered from all nations. There is no longer a promise that a particular national or local church will continue to exist. Redemptive history has made great strides forward. What hasn’t changed is the enmity against God’s people. Also today the serpent seeks the destruction of the church. His hatred has even intensified for he knows that his time is short.
That hatred is revealed through persecution and cruelty. In many parts of the world the flock of Christ is threatened with annihilation. Scores of believers are dragged to their death like sheep to the slaughter, but Satan cannot prevent their salvation anymore. The cross of Christ is the turning point in history. That is where our salvation was purchased. Even our death cannot separate us from God’s love for it brings us home to our Saviour and it gives us a foretaste of the perfection to come.
Does that then mean that we no longer face any dangers? No, “for our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against… the spiritual forces of evil” (Ephesians 6:12) that assault us via every imaginable temptation. They find a fertile breeding ground in our sinful nature. Just like the Jews of Esther’s days had to stand up against their attackers, so must we! We do not fight with sword and spear, but by defending ourselves with the weapons of God’s armor mentioned in Ephesians 6. That is the only way we can stand our ground. It is the Lord who protects his church, then and now by mobilizing his children. Taking it easy and slacking off in our commitment to him is a sure recipe for disaster.
God’s covenant promises are fulfilled in the way of faith. Faith, by its very nature, reveals itself in hating sin and loving the Lord. That is the way to overcome our sorrow and live in peace and joy! Never mind the rage of our enemies. For just as in Esther’s days, also today it is God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! Back then because Christ would surely come and now because he has come and obtained an eternal salvation for all who trust in him. The victory is given in Christ and that is what makes it so certain! All glory goes to God and yet, he holds us accountable. We are called to fight the good fight of faith.
The Road to Joy (Esther 9:1-17)
The dreaded day had arrived – the 13th of Adar (March); the day Haman’s gods had chosen as the ideal time to kill all the Jews. Throughout the land Haman’s followers – people who, for whatever reason, couldn’t stand the Jews and were determined to eradicate them – took advantage of the decree made law by Haman and attempted to destroy the Jews. The Jews defended themselves with the permission of the decree made law by Mordecai. God worked through it all, and gave the Jews the upper hand.
Though God provided the victory, he worked through human agents. That is why that second decree went out, giving the Jews the right to defend themselves by attacking their enemies who were out to kill them. This wasn’t a civil war; the Jews didn’t take matters into their own hands. Revolution is never a means to a God-pleasing end. Now, they had the law on their side and they used it. They assembled themselves all across the empire, ready to meet their enemies. They were well prepared and no one could stand before them. The great majority of the population were scared of them. The government officials even helped them, for they knew how to secure their political future! Mordecai’s rising star told them to side with him and his people. His popularity kept soaring. He became more powerful by the day. This also was the Lord’s doing.
We have our questions about Mordecai and his niece. We’re repelled by his shady motives to get Esther enrolled in that beauty pageant and by her willingness to comply. There, sex was glorified and she could have finished up on the scrapheap of discarded lovers. Yet, the Lord wanted to use them! Mordecai did not become Prime Minister by his own efforts. It was God who needed him there for the welfare of his covenant children. That is why the people’s fear was at bottom the fear of Israel’s God. Too much had happened to be explained as coincidences. With Esther as queen and Mordecai as the king’s right hand man, and with the imperial edict that gave the Jews a blank cheque to kill their enemies, you had to be blind as a bat not to see the power and protection of Israel’s God.
In the citadel of Susa alone, the Jews put 500 men to death. That number tells us that this wasn’t a murderous orgy, where the Jews gave free rein to their bottled sorrow and killed indiscriminately. Though Hama’s edict had demanded the murder of all the women and children, the Lord’s people did not to retaliate in kind. They fought a defensive war, aimed at carrying out God’s vow of Exodus 17:14 to completely eliminate the Amalekites from the face of the earth. The people the Israelites fought were Haman’s fellow Amalekites or others who couldn’t stand the Jews. That is why the ten sons of Haman are mentioned by name. They were their father’s pride and glory as chapter 5:11 tells us but they were killed without mercy, effectively putting an end to Haman’s family.
The Jews did not lay their hands on the plunder. This information is mentioned three times. Why? It underlines the defensive nature of the battle. Though Xerxes had given them the right to loot their enemies and carry off their spoils, this wasn’t done. Some commentators claim that they weren’t allowed to do that because it was a holy war (just as Jericho was) so the Israelites were to consign everything to God’s curse. That, however, cannot be the answer, for when Israel attacked Jericho they had to kill everyone including the women and children and the spoil had to be burned. It is more likely that Abraham’s example was followed (Genesis 14). When he returned from rescuing Lot who had been taken captive with all the people of Sodom, he refused to take any of the plunder. What was his reason? It was so that no one could say that his riches came from anyone else but the Lord! Whatever the case, the Jews did not enrich themselves. All they longed for was an end to the threat of extinction. For almost a year they had lived under that cloud and though Mordecai’s promotion and consequent edict had given them great hope, it was not until they had annihilated their enemies that this hope was realized.
When King Xerxes heard of the death toll, he informed his wife, “Did you know that the Jews killed 500 men in Susa alone? I wonder how many were put to death in the rest of the empire. Are you happy now, Esther? Do you have another request? Haven’t I shown you that I’m completely on your side? And even now I’m willing to give you whatever you ask.”
This shows how the Lord bent the unregenerated heart of this pagan king to do his bidding. For it was one thing to allow his wife and her uncle to kill their attackers, but the king could have had second thoughts as he saw the death toll rise. After all, it was his empire! Who knew how this would affect the morale of his citizens! But Xerxes was so keen to please his wife that he granted her wish before she even asked.
Yes, Esther did have another request! “Please,” she said, “Give the Jews in Susa one more day to put their enemies to death and hang the bodies of Haman’s sons on the stake!” What was behind this request? The first one that is, for the second speaks for itself. Hanging underlined the curse of God which was already pronounced on Amalek way back in Moses’ time. Whether Esther knew that or not is irrelevant. It only emphasizes God’s presence in everything that took place. More than one commentary claims that Esther is vindictive and blood thirsty. It is much more likely that she was aware of what had been going on in Susa. After all, it was there where Haman swaggered with importance. His most fanatical supporters would have come from Susa and Esther must have known that. She wasn’t just a trophy queen, she kept her eyes and ears wide open. She must have asked herself “What will happen tomorrow when the edict is no longer in force? Will there be another conspiracy against the Jews? Why not make sure? Why not eradicate every opposition from the side of Haman’s lackeys?” The king obliged and the result was that another 300 men were killed. This is solid proof that Esther’s fears were not imaginary.
In the remainder of the empire 75,000 were put to death, all on the 13th of Adar! The next day the Jews sat back and rested. The danger was eliminated and their survival established. No wonder they made it a day of feasting and joy! What a relief! What a miraculous course of events! A year ago, things looked absolutely hopeless. With Haman in charge and his evil edict in place, all they expected was their extermination. How the Lord had intervened! How he used Esther’s elevation and Mordecai’s promotion! See what one sleepless night could lead to! Remember, that is how this whole chain of events was set in motion. Yes, the Lord’s name isn’t mentioned, not even once, but his presence is so compelling and his providence so obvious that all praise goes to him!
At the same time, that doesn’t mean that his children can let things be. The joy of survival is the Lord’s doing yet the road to that joy runs via the responsibility of his people. Also today, how can you and I rejoice in the safety of God’s church? How are we able to exult that our enemies will be defeated and Jesus Christ assures us of life? We fight those enemies tooth and nail and defend ourselves with the weapons God provides. Not just one day like the Jews of our text. Not even two, like the ones in Susa, but every day of our life. Our enemies are more fearsome than the ones in Esther’s days. They are out for our eternal ruin and we can only keep standing when we love God’s Word and arm ourselves against every temptation.
There’s no crown without a struggle and no rest without a fight! There is no joy without pain, exertion, self-denial and a full commitment to the Lord and his service. God’s progress in the history of redemption also has implications for the rest and joy we receive. This is not a rest from human enemies, nor a joy from escaping physical death. It is a rest for our souls that comes from faith in Christ and our joy is of an eternal duration.
How the Jews Displayed Their Joy (Esther 9:18-32)
Imagine the great relief of the Jews! With their enemies eliminated, they had every reason to celebrate and that is what they did. Not for one day, but two! What a joy that must have been. Now the future looked promising again. Their festivities included the giving of presents, much like Christmas in our time. Mordecai, who had a knack for administrative details and whose supervisory skills had taught him the importance of keeping records, got to work and wrote down these events in the nation’s annals. He declared the 14th and 15th of Adar as official feast days to remember their liberation, to be observed from generation to generation. These days were to be marked with joy and gladness, with everyone joining in the festivities. He added the directive to give presents to the poor so that everyone could rejoice in their newfound freedom.
Mordecai’s letter was received with unanimous approval. Throughout the Persian realm these two days became a time of great rejoicing and they received the official name “Purim”. Purim is the plural of “pur”, which means “lot”. It reminds us of the lot that Haman had cast to determine the most suitable day for the extinction of God’s covenant people. That is why the name was very fitting. For generations to come parents would tell their children how the Jewish people were saved from extermination in a most miraculous and unexpected way. Even though the lot had been cast, its decision was from the Lord. He had turned the day of sorrow into a day of great happiness. Today Purim is still celebrated by the Jews. Does it reflect a joy in the Lord? It’s telling that thankfulness to God is not mentioned once. We must be careful in drawing conclusions from silence. We have said that the absence of God’s name in this book does not mean that the Lord wasn’t present. In the same way, just because the book does not say the Jews gave praise to God does not necessarily mean that it did not happen.
However, we cannot find any indication that even hints at praise being given. Yes, the Jews’ sorrow was turned into joy and their mourning into a day of celebration but it all seems so horizontal. It looks as if their physical deliverance alone was the reason for their gladness. Yes, Haman’s evil exploits are mentioned and again he is called “the enemy of all the Jews”. (v.24) Is that perhaps a sign that the Jews remembered the enmity God established between Amalek and them? We are left wondering. It seems as if the Jews looked no further than Esther’s courage and Mordecai’s intellect. At the end of the chapter we are only strengthened in our fear that Purim lacked the depth that must color the celebration of God’s people.
Queen Esther took it upon herself to write another letter, together with Mordecai. That letter confirmed what Mordecai had written in his first one… and added something! Again with the full force of law, Purim is designated as an annual feast of joyful remembrance but now also includes “times of fasting and lamentation.” (v.31) Was that perhaps because the joy could easily turn into just having fun? Was the queen afraid that Purim might turn into a carnival? The history of the Jews since then doesn’t leave us in the dark. Right up till our time, Purim is still celebrated but there is very little, if any, true thankfulness to the Lord. Yes, the book of Esther is read in every synagogue, even twice, but with shouts of “death to Haman!” and “blessed be Mordecai!” It has become a purely secular celebration.
Granted, on the 13th of Adar the day before Purim, a time of lamentation and fasting is observed. Esther’s addition has been officially incorporated in remembering the survival of the Jewish nation. But again, how deep did it go? If we compare the feast of Purim with other Jewish feasts we notice some very glaring omissions. Passover, the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Tabernacles were all times of great rejoicing but the service to the Lord stood central. Offering sacrifices and bringing gifts to God are specifically mentioned. Esther’s time is completely different than the days of Moses and David. Israel, for the greater part, was living outside the Promised Land. There was no temple to go to and no sacrifices could be offered as a result. Was that a reason not to mention the Lord? Should these facts not make it more obvious and necessary that Purim should be a feast where God was thanked and worshipped before all else?
All we read about is eating and drinking and giving gifts. No, there is nothing wrong with that, as festive days are hard to imagine without it. But if there is no more, if that is all we hear, we ask “Is that how God’s people must celebrate?” Does this reveal that our thankfulness is directed to him first of all? Yes, Purim was a time of great happiness. Mordecai, the always busy scribe, even sent another letter encouraging his fellow Jews with words of goodwill and assurance, literally with “peace and truth”. Was it the peace with God and the truth of his promises or only the peace resulting from liquidating Haman’s supporters? Was it the truth that no enemy would harm them anymore?
Our Concern About Israel’s Joy (Esther 10)
Esther 10 informs us of the great power and glory of King Xerxes. It is mentioned to underline the high position Mordecai occupied. He was held in high regard by all the Jews and that does not surprise. He worked for the good of his people and promoted their welfare wherever he could. Again we ask, what good and what welfare? That purely of a nationalistic nature; only concerned about the people’s material wellbeing? No, we don’t say that Mordecai and Esther had severed every tie with the Lord and had been completely assimilated in the pagan culture of Persia. Their love for their fellow Jews speaks against that. Their willingness to stick up for them underlines it. Their personal involvement in making Purim an annual celebration reveals their thankfulness for the liberation of the Jewish people.
That is where we stop. That is where we must stop! We can’t go along with the many who regard them as committed believers who were motivated by their love for the Lord. There were too many open questions and too many times when we disagreed with Mordecai and Esther. That includes their edict regarding how Purim was to be celebrated. It was too superficial, devoid of any mention of giving thanks to the Lord. Even the fasting and lamentation lacked reference to a broken spirit and a contrite heart. These are sacrifices which delight the Lord; they are tokens of humility which make our joy all the greater and truly pleasing to God.
We have come full circle, and ask again: Why did the Lord give us the book of Esther? What is its main theme? The book displays God’s faithfulness in preserving his people for the day of Christ. It shows how he ensures the fulfilment of his covenant oath that the Saviour would be born from the loins of Israel. It was this glorious truth that seemed far from Israel’s mind. A good hundred years before our text the Jews were exiled from their land. The Lord had at long last run out of patience and punished them with the wrath of his covenant. He hadn’t forgotten them and in his grace and mercy, in his divine love which we can never understand, he even promised them a return to the land of their fathers. The exile was a punishment given to encourage them to confess their sins and return to the Lord. It was divine discipline administered in love.
After the 70 year exile had run its course, what happened? When the Lord inclined the first Persian emperor, Cyrus, to allow the Jews to go back to Canaan, how many went back? Very few. Under Zerubbabel and Joshua only a handful returned. That was about 70 years before our text. Not a very good sign, is it? Doesn’t it tell us that the great majority preferred to stay where they were? Is that not a sure sign they placed more importance on material wellbeing than on serving the Lord where his temple was and where the sacrifices were offered? And yet, the Lord continued to care for them. Oh, the compassion and longsuffering of our covenant God! How great is his faithfulness!
The book of Esther reveals God’s faithfulness in a very profound and miraculous way. The Lord used Esther and Mordecai to overturn Haman’s wicked intent and so he kept the road to the Messianic future open. Thus, he fulfilled his promise to send the Saviour to pay for the sins of men; Israel’s sins in the past and our sins in the present. That is the deepest meaning of Purim! That should have been the Jews’ greatest joy. In the extinction of Haman the Amalakite and his supporters the Lord proved himself to be the God of his Word and of his covenant promises. We know from the Bible that not all the Jews in Persia had forgotten about the Lord. There was a remnant that loved him and that remnant would have celebrated Purim in a God-fearing manner. They would have given thanks to him for his gracious intervention, not just in saving them from death but by assuring them of the coming of Christ.
When king Xerxes was murdered in the year 465, he was succeeded by his son Artaxerxes. It was under his reign that Ezra returned to Canaan with a second group of exiles, about 20 years after our text. Nehemiah, the cupbearer of Artaxerxes was also allowed to go to the Promised Land, thirteen years after Ezra, with 2000 men and their families. This is sufficient proof that not all the Jews had drowned in the pagan culture of Persia and that Purim had kindled in some a heartfelt joy in God.
The rest of the Jews remained in Persia and the majority were never heard of again. They retained their own customs and religion, right up till our time, but they became estranged to the spiritual truths of the Bible. That is why they are still waiting for a Messiah. Not to set them free from their sins but to restore their national glory of the past. Not to die for their iniquities but to elevate the Jewish race above all others.
Even in their dispersion the Lord kept a remnant of grace for himself. On Pentecost we hear of Jews from the Persian Empire who were present when Peter preached Jesus Christ and him crucified. The great majority refused to repent. They had no time for Christ and they persecuted his church in many ways.
That is why we have our concerns about the joy of Purim. We have our reservations about the festivities that colored it. Purim became an annual occasion where drunkenness and gluttony were encouraged. Yes, the Bible is still read, but that only makes it worse. The Word may not have been read in Esther’s time but the seeds of it were present. If our thankfulness is not directed to God and our celebrations are not defined by his Word, sooner or later it degenerates into sinful carousing. That is why the book of Esther cries out for Jesus Christ. It is only in him that our sorrow truly changes into joy.
Time has not stood still. Esther and Mordecai died long ago as have all the Jews of that period. Yet, what can we learn from it? How does it help us to live for the Lord? We should not get lost in human feats and accomplishments, or stand amazed at Esther’s courage and daring, and Mordecai’s brilliance and generosity. We must see God at work and rejoice in him for his covenant faithfulness. He sets his people free for a purpose! To bless them with the Christ and that is the constant that connects our days to the days of Esther. Our need for Christ!
For whatever else has changed, our need for Christ has not. Also today we must read our Bibles in the light of him. Our festive days must revolve around him. Esther teaches us that it is a great blessing to belong to God’s covenant people but that is only half the truth. It also underlines what a great responsibility that brings along. The joy of the gospel, the blessings of Christ, the rest that he gives and the assurance that he will always be with us, are only ours when we take up the battle against our enemies, the world, the devil and our own sinful nature.
We must reveal that joy in giving thanks to the Lord before all else. We should remain alert because this joy is constantly under attack. If we don’t live close to the Lord, if our faith does not zero in on the cross, if we do not know what a contrite heart and a broken spirit means, then we start to focus on the incidentals of the Christian religion. Then we may rejoice but it’s not the joy the Lord is after. Though we give thanks for many things we have lost the greatest blessing – God’s grace for miserable sinners, delivering us from sin and death and giving us eternal life.
- Why is there no longer a promise that a particular national or local church will continue to exist? How can we tell if our local congregation is in danger of disappearing?
- In what areas of the world is persecution occurring today?
- How do we see that the Christian church in general is being persecuted, even in areas where individual members of a church are not being martyred?
- Our death gives us “a foretaste of the perfection to come”. What does this mean? Don’t we go to heaven as soon as we die? Isn’t it perfect there?
- We must fight temptation using the weapons of armor from Ephesians 6. How do we do this? Practically, what does this involve doing?
The Road to Joy
- What texts support the statement that “revolution is never a means to a God-pleasing end”? What other means can we use to cause change?
- “There’s no crown without a struggle and no rest without a fight!” It doesn’t seem to be a struggle to live our lives as Christians in North America. Is that perhaps a sign that we compromise our faith too much?
How the Jews Displayed Their Joy
- Research today’s Purim celebrations. Is there anything to suggest that it is a day of thanksgiving to God?
- Are our Christmas celebrations as superficial as Purim appears?
- The book Esther doesn’t mention the word “God” even once. Yet what have you learned about him?
- In review, how do you see the theme of God’s faithfulness throughout this book?
- The entire Bible points to Christ. Where did you see him most clearly in Esther?