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.
- Dave wrote on Esther 7.
- Today Dave writes on Esther 8.
Esth. 8:3–5, “Then Esther spoke again to the king. She fell at his feet and wept and pleaded with him to avert the evil plan of Haman the Agagite and the plot that he had devised against the Jews. When the king held out the golden scepter to Esther, Esther rose and stood before the king. And she said, “If it please the king, and if I have found favor in his sight, and if the thing seems right before the king, and I am pleasing in his eyes, let an order be written to revoke the letters devised by Haman the Agagite, the son of Hammedatha, which he wrote to destroy the Jews who are in all the provinces of the king.”
It was that great baseball philosopher Yogi Berra who came up with the memorable slogan, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” It was, perhaps, Yogi’s own version of the more highbrow saying, “The opera isn’t over till the fat lady sings”—which anyone who has ever endured a full-length Wagnerian opera will recognize as a fairly accurate plot summary.
So too, this biblical soap opera, The Days of Esther’s Life, is not yet at its conclusion. Many issues have been resolved already. The villainous Haman has met his comeuppance—literally, with the aid of his own seventy-five foot pole. Esther and Mordecai also receive their reward at the beginning of Esther 8, in the shape of Haman’s confiscated estate and a promotion for Mordecai: “On that day King Ahasuerus gave to Queen Esther the house of Haman, the enemy of the Jews. And Mordecai came before the king, for Esther had told what he was to her. And the king took off his signet ring, which he had taken from Haman, and gave it to Mordecai. And Esther set Mordecai over the house of Haman” (Esth. 8:1–2). However, Haman’s edict to exterminate the Jews had not yet been reversed: it was still hanging over their heads like the proverbial sword of Damocles. Perhaps it would yet turn out that the laws of the Medes and the Persians really could not be changed, and all of Esther’s efforts would have been wasted. Much still hangs in the balance at this point in the story.
Completely Out of the Closet
Before we proceed further with the story, though, it is interesting to observe what happened when Esther finally came completely out of the closet about her ethnicity and her relationship to Mordecai. Far from being disturbed by the revelation that Esther was Jewish, the king’s response to the news was to promote Mordecai into Haman’s former position as vizier over the empire. This fact should make us wonder once again about the wisdom of Esther’s entire chameleon strategy. Not only was it morally dubious (to say the least) for Esther to hide her Jewishness, since it required her to live as a practical pagan for five years, but now it turns out that even pragmatically it may have been a mistake. Perhaps if Esther had revealed her Jewishness and her connection to Mordecai back in chapter 2, the whole threat to the Jewish community might have been circumvented. The king might even have promoted Mordecai to the rank of vizier at that point, after he uncovered the attempt on the king’s life, and Haman might never have risen to power at all.
Does that scenario seem far-fetched? If so, remember how odd the connection is between chapters 2 and 3 of the Book of Esther: Mordecai saved the king’s life, the deed was carefully recorded in the royal annals, and the king promoted … (in the very next verse) Haman. Perhaps the idea that Mordecai could have been promoted earlier is not so bizarre as it seems, at least in the thinking of the narrator of the story. Far from bringing about the desired result of safety, then, Esther’s hiddenness may have been what unwittingly opened the door to danger for her whole people.
Of course, we are never told what might have been, either in real life or in this story. Certainly God chose to unfold events through precisely this scenario, even through Esther and Mordecai’s sin, so that His redemptive power would become abundantly clear. Whatever may have been the case with Esther, though, it is certainly true that very often we are led into sin because we are afraid of dangers that will never materialize. How often have we failed to bear witness for our faith because of the fear of what others will think, only to discover when we finally timidly open our mouths that the response is not at all what we feared? How many potential dangers and difficulties paralyze us with fright and faithless worry, but then evaporate in front of us like the morning mist? How often are we led into sin by those worries? It is worth reminding ourselves that the sin we think will smooth our path in fact often complicates our lives in unforeseen ways and leads us into even greater difficulties than the ones we feared. The way of the transgressor is not only morally wrong, but frequently it is also far harder than the way of obedience would have been.
Esther’s Second Request
Whatever the “might have beens” in Esther’s case, the reality was that the edict to exterminate the Jews was still in force. King Ahasuerus may have thought that everything had been taken care of with the disposal of Haman, but in fact it hadn’t. So Queen Esther had to go once more before the king to plead for her people’s lives. This time cool, calculating strategy was abandoned as Esther threw herself down in front of the king, weeping and pleading with him to make Haman’s evil plot go away: “Then Esther spoke again to the king. She fell at his feet and wept and pleaded with him to avert the evil plan of Haman the Agagite and the plot that he had devised against the Jews” (Esth. 8:3). Whereas before she had retained her royal dignity, always appearing as the stately queen before the king, now she threw herself down like a common beggar, crying and asking desperately for mercy for her people. The similarities and differences with Haman in the previous chapter are striking: he fell down before Esther, but his concern was simply to plead for his own life, and he was unsuccessful in his petition (Esth. 7:8). Esther fell down before King Ahasuerus to plead not for her own life, but for the lives of her people, and she was granted what she asked.
Once again, as in chapter 5, the king stretched out his golden scepter to Esther and received her. This time her request was immediately delivered, without manipulative games. Her words were still carefully chosen, however:
Esth. 8:4–6, “When the king held out the golden scepter to Esther, Esther rose and stood before the king. And she said, “If it please the king, and if I have found favor in his sight, and if the thing seems right before the king, and I am pleasing in his eyes, let an order be written to revoke the letters devised by Haman the Agagite, the son of Hammedatha, which he wrote to destroy the Jews who are in all the provinces of the king. For how can I bear to see the calamity that is coming to my people? Or how can I bear to see the destruction of my kindred?”
Esther prefaced her request with a long preamble in four parts: “If it please the king, and if I have found favor in his sight, and if the thing seems right before the king, and I am pleasing in his eyes” (Esth. 8:4). Two of these clauses dealt with whether the matter to be discussed was acceptable to the king, while the other two asked whether Esther herself was acceptable. These two themes were inextricably linked, for the only real reason for the king to grant her request was his favor toward her. Esther made no reference to right and wrong, justice and injustice. Those were not categories that registered with the empire. All she could do was to appeal to Ahasuerus’s own self-interest, as it related to her: “If you really love me and want me to be happy, you have to grant my request.” Her people’s destiny hung upon the king’s response to her personally. If watching her people and kindred being destroyed would cause her great pain, how could anyone who loved her endure that?
King Ahasuerus’s immediate response was less than satisfactory, however: “Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther and to Mordecai the Jew, ‘Behold, I have given Esther the house of Haman, and they have hanged him on the gallows, because he intended to lay hands on the Jews’ ” (Esth. 8:7). The king said, in effect, “Look, I gave you all this money and killed your enemy for scheming against your people. What more could you possibly want?” Ahasuerus assumed that Esther was just like him: concerned only about herself and her own interests. But even though Esther had once concealed her identity because her only thought was to protect herself, now that she had identified with her people, she had a new perspective that stretched beyond her own narrow self-interests. Salvation for herself was not enough if it came without salvation for her people.
Seeing that his initial answer was not exactly what Esther was looking for, Ahasuerus went on to tell her that she and Mordecai could write whatever they wanted in the king’s name and seal it with the king’s signet ring, because, after all, the king’s edicts could not be revoked: “But you may write as you please with regard to the Jews, in the name of the king, and seal it with the king’s ring, for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s ring cannot be revoked” (Esth. 8:8). So King Ahasuerus could not undo his former edict because it was irrevocable, but he had no problem with Mordecai and Esther writing a contradictory edict, which would then also become irrevocable. May the best edict win! What is more, even after he had once been manipulated by his top official into signing a deadly edict, Ahasuerus personally encouraged his new vizier to send out another edict, sight unseen. Isn’t that rather silly of him? Of course it is—but that’s the whole point. The empire is so law-bound that it is tied in impenetrable bureaucratic knots, and its emperor cares absolutely nothing about his people. What a world we live in!
Mordecai had now been granted the power that Haman earlier possessed so that he could counteract Haman’s edict. He didn’t waste any time, but immediately sent out an edict of his own to the 127 provinces of the empire:
Esth. 8:9–14, “The king’s scribes were summoned at that time, in the third month, which is the month of Sivan, on the twenty-third day. And an edict was written, according to all that Mordecai commanded concerning the Jews, to the satraps and the governors and the officials of the provinces from India to Ethiopia, 127 provinces, to each province in its own script and to each people in its own language, and also to the Jews in their script and their language. And he wrote in the name of King Ahasuerus and sealed it with the king’s signet ring. Then he sent the letters by mounted couriers riding on swift horses that were used in the king’s service, bred from the royal stud, saying that the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, children and women included, and to plunder their goods, on one day throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar. A copy of what was written was to be issued as a decree in every province, being publicly displayed to all peoples, and the Jews were to be ready on that day to take vengeance on their enemies. So the couriers, mounted on their swift horses that were used in the king’s service, rode out hurriedly, urged by the king’s command. And the decree was issued in Susa the citadel.”
Mordecai’s language deliberately echoed that of the original edict in order to highlight their parallel nature. The main difference is that these messages were not only committed to couriers, but to couriers riding on specially-bred fast horses; the message must get through in time, even to the most distant parts of the empire.
What Mordecai’s edict mandated was measure-for-measure retaliation by the Jews against their enemies. They could kill those who attacked them, along with their families, and then plunder them, just as their enemies had planned to kill the Jews and their families and take their plunder. This was not merely self-defense, but neither was it a license for indiscriminate slaughter: the verb used in verse 13 to describe the action for which the Jews are to be prepared is naqam, which always indicates punitive retribution for a prior wrong. Those who, like Haman, sought to destroy the seed of the Jews, in accordance with his edict, would themselves share Haman’s fate. The authority of the empire now backed up the threats of the Abrahamic covenant against those who sought to harm the descendants of Abraham. However, it was the Jews themselves who would have to carry out the sanctions of the covenant in a kind of holy war against their enemies.
Glory for Shame, Joy for Sorrow
Once the edict had gone out, so too did Mordecai, leaving the king’s presence dressed in royal splendor: “Then Mordecai went out from the presence of the king in royal robes of blue and white, with a great golden crown and a robe of fine linen and purple, and the city of Susa shouted and rejoiced” (Esth. 8:15). Whereas after the issuing of the first edict he went clothed in sackcloth and ashes, unable even to go in before the king, now after the second edict he emerged from the presence of the king clothed in glory. Nor was this merely a temporary glory of the kind he received in chapter 6, as a reward for his previously unrewarded faithful service. Now the attire was Mordecai’s by right as second only to the king. He had become a walking work of the empire’s art, clothed with a richness that paralleled the decorations at Ahasuerus’s great feast back in Esther 1 (compare Esth. 1:6).
Nor was this the only reversal of earlier events. After the issuing of Haman’s edict, the city of Susa was thrown into confusion (Esth. 3:15), but after Mordecai’s edict was published the city rejoiced (Esth. 8:15). The Jewish community that had responded to the first edict with four kinds of distress—mourning, fasting, weeping, and wailing (Esther 4:3)—now responded to the second with four kinds of delight: “light and gladness and joy and honor” (Esth. 8:16). In particular, the fasting and sorrow of Esther 4 were turned into feasting and joy by the announcement of the edict.
The most poignant transformation of all, however, is surely the concluding note of the chapter: “And in every province and in every city, wherever the king’s command and his edict reached, there was gladness and joy among the Jews, a feast and a holiday. And many from the peoples of the country declared themselves Jews, for fear of the Jews had fallen on them” (Esth. 8:17). How ironic! No sooner had Esther conquered her fear and revealed her true identity with respect to her Jewishness than many of the pagans around her apparently chose to pretend to be Jewish, motivated by precisely the same type of fear. Some may indeed have been genuinely converted, motivated to join God’s people by the fear of the Lord. But others were motivated more by their fear of the Jews.
Once again, we should notice how much of our behavior is driven by perceptions about what the future holds rather than by reality. The actual fortunes of the Jews did not change significantly throughout the story. Their livelihoods were not ruined by Haman’s edict; there were no instant pogroms, leading to killing and looting. Nor were their futures radically transformed by the new edict, which simply gave them the right to defend themselves and their property. Yet they had thought that their lives were threatened by Haman, and so they fasted and mourned. Now they felt that threat to have lifted, and so they responded with joy. The empire in which they lived was no better a place at the end of the book than it was in the beginning, but compared to their outlook in the middle of the story, it was a wonderful new world. It is the same experience we have when we go to the doctor for a routine physical and he points out a spot on the X-ray. For weeks we may torment ourselves with a variety of imagined futures, until a second opinion gives us an all-clear. Our health hasn’t actually changed over this period, up or down, but our emotional responses surely have, going up and down like a yo-yo.
Right to Rejoice?
But should the Jews have been so quick to rejoice at the news of the second edict? The empire had not changed, even though Mordecai was now the vizier. Today they had a friend in high places, to be sure, but Haman’s fate illustrated the insecurity of that position. What was to prevent Mordecai from suffering a similarly rapid demise from power, and the people from finding themselves right back in fasting mode? It made sense for them to rejoice only if their deliverance was not simply one of the random oscillations of the wheel of fortune, but rather the expression of a more fundamental principle in the universe. Rejoicing was warranted only if their deliverance was an expression of God’s unshakable commitment to protect His own people and to bring judgment upon their enemies, as promised in the Abrahamic covenant: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse” (Gen. 12:3).
We might expect, then, that the Jews’ praise would be God-directed. Once again, though, this vertical dimension to their thankfulness is not exactly prominent. Just as their earlier fasting and wailing didn’t seem particularly heaven-directed, neither do their rejoicing and feasting. It seems that there was plenty of relief that disaster had been averted, but precious little genuine praise for the One who averted it by the directing hand of His providence. The same is often true of us, though, isn’t it? When life goes badly, we are so quick to become anxious and despairing about the future and so slow to bring our concerns before God in believing prayer. Meanwhile, when life goes well and our trials are removed, we rejoice and celebrate the good news of deliverance, but all too often forget to give thanks to the One to whom it is due. What a narrow vision of the world we have!
Mordecai’s Holy War
So far though, we have not addressed the fundamental moral question that the passage raises in the minds of many readers. It is this: “Was Mordecai right to issue an edict that permitted the Jews not just to defend themselves against their enemies, but to carry the battle to them, executing not only combatants but their women and children too?” Does this Scripture suggest that genocide is permissible and right when carried out by the Jews and reprehensible only when carried out by their enemies? It seems as if there is a moral double-standard here.
In order to understand these events, we need to see that what Mordecai was authorizing in his edict was a form of holy war. Haman’s edict against the Jews was not merely a matter of personal animosity; it was an expression of the age-old enmity between the Amalekites and God’s people. That connection is underlined for us twice in this text by the designation of Haman as the Agagite, the descendant of King Agag, who was king of the Amalekites in the time of Saul (Esth. 8:3, 5; 1 Sam. 15). Even in Saul’s time, the conflict between the Israelites and the Agagites had been a long-standing enmity. The Amalekites first attacked the Israelites at Rephidim, when they were on the way out of Egypt in the time of Moses. That unprovoked attack led to a commitment on God’s part that the memory of the Amalekites would be erased from under heaven (Ex. 17:14–16). King Saul’s attack on Agag in 1 Samuel 15 was part of that ongoing war between God’s people and His enemies, the Amalekites, rather than a personal vendetta. Yet Saul failed to carry it through completely, a failure that led to the present difficulties of God’s people. Now Mordecai planned to finish what his ancient kinsman (Esth. 2:5) had left incomplete. His edict was a continuation of that same ongoing struggle, of holy war. That is why even though Mordecai’s edict, in line with Haman’s, gave the Jews the right to plunder their defeated enemies, the text makes it very clear that they refrained from doing so (Esth. 9:10, 15–16). This was holy war, and therefore the spoils were not theirs to take.
What, then, is holy war? In holy war, the Israelites acted as the agents of God’s righteous judgment against sinners. At Jericho and certain other cities during the conquest of Canaan, they were instructed to destroy the city and to kill all its inhabitants outright (Josh. 6:21). They functioned as a kind of human equivalent to the fire and brimstone from heaven that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, along with all of its residents, young and old, or the flood of Noah’s day, which wiped out an entire generation of humanity. In all of these cases, the people were not destroyed because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but because they were sinners steadfastly opposed to God. The sentence for such opposition to God is death, and it applies to all, regardless of age or gender.
Fortunately, God does not always carry out His sentence immediately. God reveals Himself as “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Ex. 34:6–7 NIV). Out of the midst of the flood, He rescued Noah and his family; out of the midst of Sodom and Gomorrah, He rescued the family of Lot; out of Jericho, He delivered the household of Rahab. Yet God is also the one who “does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation” (Ex. 34:7). As one writer comments concerning Sodom and Gomorrah: “The Lord waits long to be gracious, as if he knew not how to smite. He smites at last as if he knew not how to pity.”
Holy war was not executed just against non-Israelites, however. When Achan violated the terms of holy war at Jericho by coveting and taking some of the spoil, he found himself and his family liable to the same destruction (Josh. 7). Similarly, the later devastation of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the exiling of God’s people from his land were the result of their long-standing unholiness (2 Kings 24:2–4). The land that had once vomited out the Canaanites for their lengthy history of sin now spat out the covenant people. Holy war targets sinners for destruction, whatever their ethnic affiliation.
Yet holy war was not a universal practice in the Bible, not even throughout the Old Testament. It is distinctively part of the Mosaic era of redemptive history. Jesus rebuked James and John for their desire to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritan village that would not welcome Jesus (Luke 9:54–55). He taught them and us in no uncertain terms that this kind of holy war is not part of our calling as Christians. We are not engaged in an evangelical jihad in which we take up the sword and tell our non-Christian neighbors to convert or die.
It is important that we see why we are not called to this kind of holy war. It is not because holy war was somehow wrong in its original historical context, or was a sub-Christian procedure, unworthy of the followers of Christ. It is not even because holy war seems out of date and old-fashioned, a barbarous and uncivilized practice. We have not abandoned holy war simply because we have become modern people and have grown more civilized. Rather, we have abandoned holy war in its Old Testament form because we live in a different era in the history of redemption. We live in the era of the outpouring of grace, in which we fight with spiritual weapons to bring the gospel to the nations, defeating God’s enemies by seeing them graciously transformed into His friends. Now we fight with the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, which instead of turning live foes into dead corpses can transform dead sinners into live saints. Now we wrestle in prayer, seeking God’s enlivening work in the hearts and souls of our friends and neighbors.
What gives urgency to our task, though, is the fact that God’s nature hasn’t changed and His edict of death against rebellious sinners still stands. All men and women, young and old, must ultimately bow the knee before Christ or be eternally damned. There is no middle ground: we are either part of the Lord’s people or among His enemies, and the wrong allegiance will be eternally fatal. The Mosaic-era practice of holy war was itself a foreshadowing within history of the last judgment, a warning to men and women everywhere not to presume upon God’s grace and mercy, just as the physical blessings of the Promised Land foreshadowed the blessings of the age to come. There is still a judgment to come, when Christ himself will go out dressed in a blood-stained robe as the rider on the white horse, armed with a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations (Rev. 19:11–15). Holy war is not obsolete; it has just been temporarily suspended during this era of grace.
Escaping God’s Judgment
God’s judgment can still be escaped. Unlike Haman’s edict, which would have allowed for no escape for God’s people, Mordecai’s edict condemned only those who attacked the Jews and their families. Those who were not hostile to God’s people were not condemned by the edict. Many people from other nations joined the Jews and thereby avoided the fate of their enemies. The message was clear: there is a way out of judgment through identification with God’s people.
How can that be, though, given that God’s own people are themselves as guilty of rebellion and sin as those who are not God’s people? How can any of us stand in the presence of a holy God, when we ourselves have rebelled against Him in thought, word, and deed? Who will deliver us from the edict of death that still stands against us in the heavenly court? What we need is an Esther of our own, someone who will put aside personal interests and safety and risk dignity, honor, even life itself, in order to plead our case before God, the Great King.
Such a mediator is ours in Jesus Christ. He left the glories of heaven and took on the form of a servant, not simply humiliating Himself, but going all the way to death for us. Long before the day in which he will don a blood-soaked robe to go and wreak vengeance on His enemies, He first soaked robes in His own blood to protect those who are His own people. God put His own Son under the curse of holy war, and cut Him off because of our sin. As the prophet Isaiah predicted, He had no family or descendants of His own (Isa. 53). He was bruised for our transgressions, wounded for our iniquities, dishonored for our glory, and plunged into darkness that we who are rebellious sinners might see the light. This is the Grand Reversal to which all the reversals in Esther’s story point.
But the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, crucial though it was, is not the end of the story. It wasn’t over when the women gathered at the tomb to mourn. It wasn’t over until the angels sang, celebrating Christ’s resurrection and his ascension to glory. What is more, He now stands before the Great King of the cosmos, pleading with the Father for all of His spiritual children. There He says, “Father, this is one of my people! How could I bear to see the destruction of this one for his sin? Yes, I know that is what each deserves—but I died so that this one might live!”
How does the Great King respond? Not for Him the answer of Ahasuerus in Esther 8:11: “I don’t care. Do whatever you think best.” No, He says to His Son, “Welcome them in! Bring them into my presence forever, because of the love I have for you. Your people are my people. Your spiritual family shall be clothed in glory and honor, with all of the splendors of heaven, because of your faithful obedience. Their sorrows and pains will soon be forgotten, their fasting swallowed up in feasting, their darkness turned forever to glorious light.” The Father delights to honor the servants of His Son (John 12:26).
Every Lord’s Day is a day of feasting when we celebrate the great reversal of our eternal fate. Are we celebrating that reality in our hearts Sunday by Sunday? Like the pagans of Esther’s time, people still go to church and identify with the covenant community for all kinds of different reasons (Esth. 8:17). Just being in church on a Sunday is no evidence of our genuine status as belonging to Christ. We must ask ourselves directly, “Am I trusting in Christ’s death in my place? Am I a genuine part of His community today? Will he say of me personally on the last day, ‘This one is one of mine’?”
If the answer to these profound questions is yes, then where are our joy and our peace? The Jews celebrated their deliverance, even though they still lived in a hostile empire in which their fortunes could change for the worse again at any moment. How much more, then, should we celebrate, since in Christ our eternal fortunes have been definitively changed in an irreversible way. God’s edict of life for all who trust in Christ can neither be revoked nor challenged. There is no other edict that can be issued to countermand it. God’s settled decree is “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). No one and nothing in all creation can ever separate us from his love. So let us daily celebrate our deliverance with unshakable and glorious joy! Let the peace that comes from Christ’s completed victory daily guard our hearts and minds against the vicissitudes of our experiences in the fallen world! Look forward to the Day when the end will indeed come, when we too will be able to sing along with all the redeemed saints to the praise of God the Father and the risen Lamb.