Editor’s note: The purpose of this series is to walk our readers through the book of Esther in order to help them understand what it teaches and how to apply it to our lives. This series is part of our larger commitment to help Christians learn to read, interpret, reflect, and apply the Bible to their own lives.
- David Dunham opened the series by looking at Esther chapter one.
- David Dunham looked at Esther chapter two.
- Dave looked at Esther chapter 3.
- Zach looked at Esther chapter 4.
- Dave wrote on Esther 5.
- Dave wrote on Esther 6.
- Today Dave writes on Esther 7.
Esth. 7:3–4, “Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be granted me for my wish, and my people for my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have been silent, for our affliction is not to be compared with the loss to the king.”
Every other week, it seems, the press and television media are rocked by a startling new self-revelation from some celebrity. The process is called “coming out.” For some, it relates to their sexuality; for others to their addiction to drugs; for still others to their relationships with their mothers. Invariably, though, it is more than we ever wanted to know about their private lives!
Queen Esther also had a deep, dark secret—her Jewishness—which she had kept under wraps ever since she was first taken into the royal harem back in chapter 2. She had followed Mordecai’s advice to hide her ethnicity so faithfully, even when elevated to the level of queen, that five years later no one knew who her people were or her connection to Mordecai. Think about that. Everyone knew that Mordecai was Jewish: that is what triggered Haman’s scheme to annihilate the Jews in the first place. But Esther had been under such deep cover that no one (with the possible exception of the odd household eunuch or two) had a clue. To hide her nationality that successfully while living so intimately among pagans, she must have broken virtually every law in the books of Moses. She certainly couldn’t have observed the laws of ritual cleanliness, or of kosher food, or of special times and seasons of thanksgiving and fasting. She couldn’t even have prayed to God publicly. She had blended in completely with the pagan colors of the empire.
Now it was time for Esther to come out of the closet. Haman’s edict threatened the whole Jewish community and, for the sake of her people, she had agreed to go before the king to intercede with him for their lives. That was going to be a tricky proposition, for King Ahasuerus was a dangerously unstable individual. One day, a person might be his best friend; the next day it would be “Off with his head!—and while you’re at it, impale his body on a pole.”
It was all the more tricky for Esther to intercede on behalf of the Jews since the edict she needed to have revoked had been put forward by Haman, who next to the king was the most powerful man in the empire. It was signed by him in the king’s name and stood to benefit the royal treasury to the tune of half a year’s taxes for the empire. This was not simply “Mission Difficult”; it was truly “Mission Impossible.” All Esther had to offer in exchange was a pretty face—and behind it, a smart brain that had been working overtime. Thus, ever since she had agreed to intercede for her people back in chapter 4, she had been pursuing an intricate strategy with the king, inviting him and Haman to banquet after banquet. By almost revealing her request and then backing off, she persuaded the king three times to commit publicly in advance to give her whatever she wished, up to half his kingdom.
Finally, the time had come to reveal all. So this time, when the king asked her what she wanted, Esther was ready to speak:
Esth. 7:1–4, “So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. And on the second day, as they were drinking wine after the feast, the king again said to Esther, “What is your wish, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be granted me for my wish, and my people for my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have been silent, for our affliction is not to be compared with the loss to the king.”
Esther’s words were as carefully chosen as her strategy had been. After the usual court niceties (“If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king”), she asked for a twofold favor to match the king’s twofold offer. What she wanted for her gift was the sparing of her own life and the lives of her people. At this point, Esther came out of the closet far enough to link her own fate with the fate of her people. If they were destroyed, she would be destroyed. If they were spared, she would be spared. She didn’t actually reveal which people she was talking about until the next chapter, but then Haman had never bothered to identify the people to be destroyed when he first asked for the edict. Haman, at least, would have had no doubt about what her request really meant, however. If her petition was refused by the king and the edict stood, Esther had now publicly added her own name to the list of those marked for slaughter. She had irrevocably sided with her people, at peril of her life.
Esther also backed up her request with reasons. Why was her petition to the king necessary? It was necessary because she and her people had been sold to be destroyed, killed, and annihilated. Here Esther is simply quoting verbatim from the royal edict. If it had merely been a matter of enslavement, she said, she would not have brought it up at all. Esther was well aware that for Ahasuerus the empire’s needs trumped issues of mere personal freedom. There was no constitutional right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the Persian Empire. Indeed, there is a sharp irony in this sentence, since in a manner of speaking being sold as a female slave was precisely what had happened to her personally. She herself had been enslaved as the personal toy of the king. This was not the issue she was protesting, however. Of course the king’s personal interests would far outweigh any such small injustices. To this point, the king was nodding happily along in agreement with Esther! Her logic appealed to him thus far. But genocide, said the queen, especially a genocide that may very well involve her personal death, is a different story altogether.
Notice how subtly Esther made her points. She skillfully used the passive mood in describing the edict. She simply said, “We have been sold, I and my people,” so as to avoid having to identify the guilty party (Esth. 7:4). First she wanted to make the king angry, and only then to unveil a target for his wrath, in the hopes that he would act before reflecting whether it was harder to find a new vizier or a new favorite wife. She was also softening the way for the realization that doing the right thing would hit the king in the treasury, yet at the same time affirming ahead of time (i.e., before he found out exactly how much it would cost him) that the good he could do would more than compensate for the personal loss he would suffer.
When one intercedes with the empire, one has no choice but to intercede on the empire’s own terms. Esther could not simply appeal to the king’s sense of right and wrong, and point out that genocide is evil, because he didn’t think it was. Obviously the king was not troubled by the idea of genocide as such, or he wouldn’t have signed the edict so carelessly in the first place. The only constitutional given in the empire was the right of the king to maximize his own interests. Therefore, Esther’s case must rest on the fact that even though it would cost the king some inconvenience and financial loss, she did have his best interests at heart in making her request. After all, sparing this people also meant sparing her personally. Now we can see that the conditional clause with which she opened her request—“If I have found favor in your sight” (Esth. 7:3)—is more than mere conventional court flattery. It is the heart of Esther’s argument. If she has found favor in the king’s sight, then an attack on her would also be an attack on his royal person.
The queen’s argument hit home. The king’s anger was stirred and he responded with another double-barreled question: “Who is he, and where is he, who has dared to do this?” (Esth. 7:5). A tempting answer for Esther might have been to say to the king what the prophet Nathan said in his confrontation with David: “You are the man!” (2 Sam. 12:7). After all, none of these events could have happened without the king’s complicity. But that was not the goal of her speech. Not all injustices can be set right in the course of earthly events. As they say, politics is the art of the possible. So instead Esther focused the king’s anger on the prime mover behind the edict, saying simply, “A foe and enemy! This wicked Haman!” (Esth. 7:6). Elsewhere, Haman was identified as “the enemy of the Jews,” and that would be the ultimate reason for his demise (Esth. 8:1); however, this was not a reason that would have had any mileage with King Ahasuerus. Instead, Esther described Haman simply as “an enemy” because his offense before Ahasuerus was not really his enmity to the Jews, but only the fact that his edict had (unintentionally) threatened the king’s favorite wife.
Haman was appalled by this turn of events, shocked into silence, “terrified before the king and the queen” (Esth. 7:6). He had been completely outsmarted by Esther’s cunning strategy, and he could see that the king’s fierce anger had been aroused against him. Meanwhile, the king stalked out into his garden: “And the king arose in his wrath from the wine-drinking and went into the palace garden, but Haman stayed to beg for his life from Queen Esther, for he saw that harm was determined against him by the king” (Esth. 7:7). Why did the king need to take a walk at this point? Not because he needed time to think or because he wanted to cool down. Haman, at least, was in no doubt what the king’s verdict would be when he returned. Already as the king went out, Haman could see that Ahasuerus had determined to do him harm. Nor did that prospect particularly trouble the king. He was unlikely to lose any sleep over Haman’s fate. What was troubling the king was more likely the issue of his own reputation. He had authorized Haman’s edict, and his royal seal had ratified it. So how could he now, without losing face, punish Haman for promulgating a decree that he had approved personally? That was his tricky dilemma.
When Ahasuerus returned to the banquet hall, he found that Haman had neatly solved his problem for him: “And the king returned from the palace garden to the place where they were drinking wine, as Haman was falling on the couch where Esther was” (Esth. 7:8). During the king’s absence, Haman had tried to beg for his life from Esther. The one who had sought unwittingly to take her life, now wanted her to grant him his own. In order to emphasize his request, Haman had fallen down before her, thus neatly fulfilling the prediction of his wife that he would certainly fall to his ruin before the seed of the Jews (Esth. 6:13). But Haman’s falling down on Esther’s couch gave the king precisely the excuse he needed to eliminate Haman without making any embarrassing public reference to the edict: “And the king said, ‘Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?’ As the word left the mouth of the king, they covered Haman’s face” (Esth. 7:8). Ahasuerus can hardly have seriously believed that Haman was preparing to rape Esther in front of him, but it was a convenient charge that diverted attention from the real issue. Ironically, the one who wanted to kill a Jew for not falling down before him was ultimately executed on a charge of falling down inappropriately before a Jew! And then came the cruelest irony of all: “Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, ‘Moreover, the gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, is standing at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.’ And the king said, ‘Hang him on that.’ So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the wrath of the king abated” (Esth. 7:9–10). Thus Haman was taken out and his body was impaled on the massive pole that he himself had built just twenty-four hours before to execute Mordecai. What a difference a day makes!
With that the king’s fury abated. Game over. Issue resolved. Threat to Esther removed. “Now that we’ve taken care of that little unpleasantness, what’s for supper?” we can imagine Ahasuerus saying casually to Esther. Except that from Esther’s perspective, it was far from over. Even though Haman personally had been dealt with, his edict still remained out there, like a ticking time bomb, just waiting to explode and destroy the Jews. Esther herself might be safe, guarded within the king’s palace, but that wasn’t what she had gone through this whole routine to achieve. At this point, she must still have wondered if she would be able to achieve her goal of rescuing her people.
Divine Sovereignty, Human Responsibility
In this chapter, we see the interplay between human responsibility and divine sovereignty. Esther’s intricate plan was a necessary part of the process of bringing Haman to justice, a plan that required a combination of subtlety, boldness, and strength to carry it through. Yet Esther’s plan by itself was not what turned around the fortunes of God’s people. The writer of the story has shown us this by making the king’s sleepless night the hinge on which the whole story turns. Prior to that point at the beginning of chapter 6, the fortunes of the Jews were heading steadily downhill. From that moment on, though, their prospects were transformed. The key event thus had nothing to do with Esther or Mordecai, but instead was a seemingly insignificant detail in which the hidden hand of providence may be discerned—though only with careful hindsight. Isn’t that so often how it is in life? The intricate plans we lay can never come to fruition without God’s providential blessing upon them. As Psalm 127:1 puts it, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”
This chapter shows us the complementary aspect of that truth, however, which is that unless the builders labor, there won’t be much of a house! It is thus significant that the pivotal chapter in the book, from which Esther is entirely absent, is bracketed by two chapters that show her diligently using all of the means at her disposal to bring about her desired end. God’s sovereign act is the turning point, but God works through the faithful efforts of His people, just as much as through remarkable providences.
This is a very practical truth. Do we want to see our friends come to Christ? We can’t reach their hearts and change them—only God can do that. But we can and should plan to talk to them about Christ, to introduce them to Christian friends, to invite them to church. Do we want to find God’s leading for our lives? Progress may depend on his opening the key doors, but there is nothing wrong with our getting out there and knocking. Do we want to have a better marriage? Unless God changes our hearts and the hearts of our spouses, we may have no hope of lasting improvement, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing we can do. Don’t sit back and wait for God to work, if you are unwilling to put yourself out in pursuit of godly desires.
Most Christians err on one side or the other of this equation. Some are sit-back-and-pray types, whose motto is always “Leave it to Jesus.” For such people, the tendency is to wait for God to drop a solution to all of their problems right into their laps. Others have activist personalities and are constantly saying, “If it is going to be, it’s got to be me.” For them, the tendency is to assume that the key to progress is following some three-step strategy. The Bible, however, sets before us the goal of the balance of prayer plus action, of leaning on Christ and leading people to Christ, of resting in the Lord and walking with him. Either one on its own is inadequate. Both together are the goal.
The truly wonderful part of God’s plan, though, is that even when we get the balance wrong, he will still accomplish his holy will. Esther is the perfect example. Where is her balance? Would we say that she has a model prayer life? If she did, it is surprising that the biblical narrator has not shown us this, as we see so prominently in men like Daniel and Nehemiah. On the contrary, in chapter 4 we saw the Jewish community, among whom Esther was raised, fasting and moaning, but there is no word of them crying out to God. They may have gone through the religious motions, but there is no evidence of much true dependence on God. Yet God still delivered them, in spite of their inadequate theology. God chose to deliver His people through Esther’s activity, in spite of the absence of any explicit evidence of her prayerful dependence on Him.
God’s Faithfulness to His Covenant
This assurance is a wonderful truth! God will certainly deliver His people, whether or not they are faithful. We can be sure of this truth because his action stems from His character, not ours. As Paul reminded Timothy, “if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13). It was possible to be certain all along that Haman would never ultimately triumph, not because we have confidence in the greater cunning of Esther, but because we have confidence in God’s covenant promise to Abraham and his seed. God declared back in Genesis 12 that those who bless Abraham and his offspring will be blessed, while those who curse them will be cursed. Even a pagan like Haman’s wife recognized the significance of that reality in the previous chapter, when she told her husband that since Mordecai was from the seed of the Jews, Haman would certainly fall to ruin before him (Esth. 6:13). Haman was not simply taking on the Jews but their God. What we see in this chapter, then, is simply the outworking of the negative side of the Abrahamic covenant. Haman had assaulted the descendants of Abraham and would face the consequences. Being executed and impaled on the tree—the sign of a cursed death in the ancient Near East—was the consequence of his having offended God, the Great King, more than of his having offended Ahasuerus, the king of Persia.
This truth means that even at this point in the story, when everything still seemed to be hanging in the balance, the Jews had no need to fear. For if the negative consequences of the Abrahamic covenant were still in force, then surely so too was the positive goal of the covenant: that the Lord would be Israel’s God and they would be his people. Patience might yet be required to see how exactly God would deliver His people from their enemies, but His commitment to do so was not in doubt. The Lord does not change.
What confidence this reality should give us! It should give us great hope for our children. The promises made to them in baptism are not simply our commitment to raise them to the best of our ability. Our ability to raise our children will frequently be flawed, sometimes enormously so. They inherit our sins and failings, sometimes magnified. If their spiritual destiny rested entirely, or even mainly, in our hands, they would have little or no hope of finding God. But our God has not simply committed himself to us; He has also committed himself to our children. On the day of Pentecost Peter declared that the promised Holy Spirit, the fundamental gift of the new covenant era, is not just for the descendants of Abraham, who by birth are near to God, but also for Gentiles, who by birth are far off, and for our children (Acts 2:39). Of course, having the promise of God does not allow us to be idle. We are not to sit back waiting for the Spirit to descend and smite little Joey with fire from on high. We scheme and plot and plan and draw our children to the gospel as earnestly and seriously as we possibly can. But we also pray for them with boldness, for they are not outsiders to grace but insiders, those who can look to God’s promises as made to them personally.
Likewise for our churches, we may have great hope. We don’t have great hope because of the vast wisdom and ability with which God has gifted our elders, or because of the gifts and abilities of the pastors. If our hope rested in these things, we might as well shut the doors of the church right now. We could perhaps draw a crowd and build a large program based on these elements, but not a ministry that effects real spiritual change in the hearts of men and women. That only happens through the powerful work of the Holy Spirit. Rather than resting on human resources, our confidence rests on God’s promise to build His church in such a way that the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Again, we cannot sit idly by, waiting for God to bring in the multitudes to our church. We are to be as skilled and active as we can be in presenting the good news to our neighbors and friends. But we also pray for them with boldness, knowing that God will surely accomplish through this church exactly what it is His purpose to do, in spite of our many sins and shortcomings.
Just as importantly, we may have hope in our struggle against sin. Our hope lies not in our own progress or personal strength. Not at all! We cannot pull ourselves up by our own efforts, and the further we progress in the Christian life, the more evident that becomes. As we grow in spiritual maturity, we see the depths of our sin and the deceitfulness of our hearts ever more distinctly. Yet we may have confidence that we will make progress in godliness because God has promised his Holy Spirit to be at work in our hearts, generating His fruits of righteousness and holiness. The work may not progress as fast as we would wish, but its progress is assured because God has promised it. We are not simply to sit back, to “let go and let God”; we are to strive with every fiber of our being toward the holiness for which God has designed us. But once again we do so with confidence, knowing that God will work His righteousness in us on the day we stand before Him. In the meantime, He will also use our awareness of our own sin to drive us again and again to the cross in thanksgiving for his long-suffering and grace with such unprofitable servants as ourselves.
The Earthly Emperor and the Great King
But perhaps the most profound truth in this chapter of God’s Word lies in the vivid contrast between the Lord our God and King Ahasuerus, between the heavenly King and the earthly emperor! King Ahasuerus is ignorant, shallow, fickle, and weak. He can be manipulated by Esther to do her bidding, just as he once was by Haman. He is apparently content to fabricate charges against his own right-hand man in order to avoid the personal embarrassment that the real charges would have caused. He has no concern for anyone except himself, no morality except his own personal interest. Yet this is the one in whom Haman placed his trust. Haman’s life was built around the pursuit of power and achievement, and he achieved both to the full extent that this was possible within the bounds of the empire. He had reached the top of his career path. No one apart from the emperor himself matched Haman’s glory and status. Yet all that he had gained disappeared completely in the space of a few minutes, along with his life itself. At the end of his life, what did he have to show for all his striving after wealth and recognition?
Such is the downward path of all who have placed their trust in the empire. Our fall may not be as dramatic as Haman’s was, but if our trust is in things that will burn or rust, or things that can be stolen or destroyed, then ultimately they will let us down. Even good things, such as the love of family and friends and the respect of our colleagues, cannot survive the test of the grave. If that is all we have, then when all is said and done, we have nothing. So why would we build our lives around nothing?
God’s people are those who have built their lives around the only truth that will last, the truth of a King who is utterly different from Ahasuerus. We have a King who doesn’t need to be manipulated and cajoled to do what is right. Our King does what is right because He himself is righteous—He cannot do anything other than the right. We have a King who instead of being consumed with Himself and His own interests has staked His name and reputation upon a people whom He would always call His own, even when it was costly for Him to do so. We have a King who, far from inventing charges against us, took the charges that we had deservedly incurred for failing to serve him as we ought and laid them upon his dearly beloved Son. It was our King’s own Son who was taken and impaled on a tree, bearing our curse all the way to death (2 Cor. 5:21). Our King’s wrath was poured out in full upon His own Son on the cross.
And if God’s fury has been poured out in full upon Christ, now there is none left for us (Gal. 3:13). If our debt has been paid in full, now we are free to go. What is more, we are free to come into the King’s presence as a dearly beloved son or a precious daughter, welcomed for Christ’s sake (1 John 3:1). No one and nothing can separate us from the love of this King (Rom. 8:38–39). He won’t love us today and leave us to hang tomorrow, no matter what we do. Why not? It is because his love for us rests in his character, not in ours.
Furthermore, the basis for our appearing before the Father is not “if I have found favor in your sight,” but rather, “if Christ has found favor in your sight.” Our destiny is bound up in Christ’s, if we are Christians. Having loved us and given his Son for us, while we were still sinners (Rom. 5:8), will God the Father give us up now that we are justified by the blood of his Son (Rom. 5:9)? Can His enemies snatch us out of His hand? Can Satan’s accusations remove us from His care? Can death itself drag us out of His presence? Not with a King like the one we serve. No one and nothing can take us away from His great love. There is no condemnation for us, if we are in Christ Jesus, if our faith and trust are placed in Him as Savior and Lord (Rom. 8:1).
Do you know the sure and certain love of that King? Some have built their entire lives around their career, or their family, or their reputation, or their own personal goodness. It’s not enough. Perhaps you have experienced a Haman-like fall, and for the first time you are beginning to see that success is not sufficient. Perhaps you haven’t yet had that experience. One day, though, we will all inevitably discover that it is the truth. Whatever we give our lives to apart from the true and living God, we will invariably find out sooner or later that it is not enough. But why would we give our lives to anything or anyone other than this God who has loved us so much? Why wouldn’t we want to follow such a King, who is so kind and gracious and good to His people? Why wouldn’t we bow down before him willingly and surrender our whole lives to him, for richer or for poorer, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, whatever it takes? He has loved us so much; is He not worthy of all our praise and indeed of our very hearts?
All who believe this gospel need to hear over and over again those precious words: “No condemnation; Christ has found favor before the Father for you.” Christ has made peace between us and God, a peace that nothing in heaven or on earth can destroy. Is He not worthy of receiving afresh today all our praise from the bottom of our hearts? Is He not worthy of all of our trust? What a wonderful King we serve!