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.
- Today Dave writes on Esther 6.
Esth. 6:6, 10, “So Haman came in, and the king said to him, “What should be done to the man whom the king delights to honor?” And Haman said to himself, “Whom would the king delight to honor more than me?” … Then the king said to Haman, “Hurry; take the robes and the horse, as you have said, and do so to Mordecai the Jew who sits at the king’s gate. Leave out nothing that you have mentioned.”
For the past several chapters, things have steadily been getting worse for God’s people. In chapter 3 Haman’s edict for the destruction of the Jewish people was published throughout the empire as a law of the Medes and Persians which could not be changed. Moreover, even though at the end of chapter 4 Esther agreed to step forward to seek deliverance from the king for her people, so far she hasn’t made much progress toward that goal. To be sure, she won the king’s favor when she appeared in his presence unsummoned, thereby avoiding immediate disaster and her own death (Esth. 5:2). And now she is in the midst of putting into effect a subtle plan, which involves inviting the king and Haman to a series of feasts. But it is still far from clear at this point in the story whether she will actually be able to pull deliverance out of the jaws of disaster. She is like an emergency room doctor operating on a critically ill patient: she seems confident of what she is doing and the patient is still alive, but time is running out and it is by no means certain that the operation will be a success.
To make matters worse, the clock was not counting down to zero hour for God’s people alone. That was the problem of which Esther was aware, and which she was seeking to counter. However, in chapter 5 we discovered that a separate clock was ticking for Mordecai’s own fate, a danger of which Esther was as yet totally oblivious. The edict against the Jews still had several months to run, but Haman’s determination to execute Mordecai required only hours to run its course. The pole on which Mordecai’s body was to be impaled had been erected (all seventy-five feet of it), and Haman was set to ask the king to hang Mordecai on it as soon as morning rolled around. It seems that even if Esther’s subtlety saved the Jews, that salvation would come too late to save Mordecai. Things were getting worse every minute and the darkness was deepening! From where would deliverance come to rescue Mordecai? Humanly speaking, there seemed no hope left, no way out.
But in the Bible, we are never simply speaking humanly. Even in a book like Esther, where God’s name is never mentioned and the characters in the story (including His own people) do their best to ignore His existence, He refuses to be written out of the script. Between the lines and behind the scenes, out of focus and incognito, the Lord continued to work to accomplish all His holy will. Esther 6 is a perfect case study in God’s way of working all things together for the good of His people, those whom He has called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28).
Sleepless in Susa
It all started with the king being unable to sleep: “On that night the king could not sleep” (Esth. 6:1). Kings, like the rest of us, occasionally have sleepless nights. Their beds may have been above the average comfort level in the ancient world, but they were well short of current standards for luxury. But notice what it was that kept this king awake: precisely nothing! Unlike Nebuchadnezzar, who was kept awake at a key moment by a dream from God (Dan. 2:1), or Darius, who was so troubled by Daniel’s likely fate in the lions’ den that he found no rest (Dan. 6:18), Ahasuerus simply couldn’t sleep. There were no dreams, nor was he apparently troubled—as he surely ought to have been—by his genocidal edict. Perhaps the noise from the construction of Haman’s spike was what kept him awake. That would certainly have been a fitting irony for a chapter filled with fitting ironies, but the text itself gives no reason for Ahasuerus’s insomnia. There was no apparent reason for it, except God’s sovereign purpose to deliver His people.
God’s sovereignty didn’t end with keeping the king awake. He also directed his choice of alternative activities for the night. In the absence of late-night television, an insomniac like Ahasuerus had no lack of potential entertainments: food, drink, dancing girls … not to mention an enormous harem; all kinds of pleasures waited at his disposal. Yet he chose instead to listen to a reading from the government records, the chronicles of his reign: “And he gave orders to bring the book of memorable deeds, the chronicles, and they were read before the king” (Esth. 6:1). Those who have read the annals of ancient Near Eastern kings will know that these are not exactly riveting reading: they tend to be a stock catalog of victories won, lands conquered, and tribute imposed. It was about as compelling as reading income tax regulations. Perhaps that was the point. If anything would send Ahasuerus back to sleep, it was surely a monotone reading of his own life story!
In the midst of the reading, however, Ahasuerus found himself jolted wide awake. The scribe had come to the part where Mordecai had saved his life by revealing a plot against his life: “And it was found written how Mordecai had told about Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs, who guarded the threshold, and who had sought to lay hands on King Ahasuerus” (Esth. 6:2). It made the king wonder: “What honor or distinction has been bestowed on Mordecai for this?” (Esth. 6:3). Persian kings were famous for their diligence in rewarding those who assisted them; it was good for public relations, to say nothing of personal safety. The reply he received from his young attendants was shocking: “Nothing has been done for him” (Esth. 6:3). Nothing? Who would save the king’s life next time, if there were no certainty of a reward?
We can almost picture the king leaping out of bed impulsively—everything Ahasuerus did was impulsive—and striding out of the royal bedchamber in the dawn’s early light, trailing servants behind him. This omission must be rectified and it must be rectified now! But how? For all his impulsiveness, the king is helpless without his advisors. He counts on them constantly to tell him what to do. So he asks his servants, “Who is in the court?” (Esth. 6:4). In other words, which of my counselors is around to tell me what to do?
Normally at this time of the morning there might well have been no one in the courtyard. But divine providence had been moving the other pieces into place as well, and Haman was in the courtyard, early though it was: “Haman had just entered the outer court of the king’s palace to speak to the king about having Mordecai hanged on the gallows that he had prepared for him. And the king’s young men told him, ‘Haman is there, standing in the court.’ And the king said, ‘Let him come in’ ” (Esth. 6:4–5). Haman had come for an entirely different purpose, intending to speak to the king about hanging Mordecai on his spike so that he could enjoy the rest of his day. Thus he probably thought it a lucky moment when he was called in to see the king so early, for unlike Esther, he wasn’t about to risk his life by appearing unsummoned before Ahasuerus. As events would prove, it wasn’t a lucky moment at all, but rather a providential moment, and Providence had something far different in mind for him than Haman expected. In a delicious irony, Haman himself was asked what should be done: “So Haman came in, and the king said to him, ‘What should be done to the man whom the king delights to honor?’ ” (Esther 6:6).
In making his request for advice, the king left out the crucial piece of information about who was to be honored, just as Haman himself had left out the crucial piece of information about the identity of the people to be destroyed in chapter 3. Haman was not slow mentally to fill in the blank, however, and with his own name. He said to himself, “Whom would the king delight to honor more than me?” (Esth. 6:6). Given Haman’s past trajectory, this was not an unreasonable assumption. He had been elevated above all the other princes and nobles, to become second only to the king. Why shouldn’t the king ask him to name his own reward, while tactfully omitting his name so that he wouldn’t have to be embarrassed about asking for what he really wanted?
Haman imagined that this was his opportunity to ask whatever he wished of Ahasuerus, up to half his kingdom. Yet he showed none of Esther’s subtlety and circumspectness in responding to the king. Far from delaying the moment of request until he was sure the iron was hot, as she did, Haman plunged right in with his request, not even pausing to frame it with the usual oriental phrases of courtly courtesy: “If it seems good to the king”; “If I have found favor in the king’s sight”; and so forth. Haman cut right to the chase, rolling the delicious words around on his tongue, savoring their sweetness: “For the man whom the king delights to honor …” (Esth. 6:7). His request was exactly what we would have expected, given the idolatry of public recognition that we saw in the last chapter. Haman wanted neither wealth nor power, for he had those in abundance already. All he wanted was to be treated like the king in public:
Let royal robes be brought, which the king has worn, and the horse that the king has ridden, and on whose head a royal crown is set. And let the robes and the horse be handed over to one of the king’s most noble officials. Let them dress the man whom the king delights to honor, and let them lead him on the horse through the square of the city, proclaiming before him: “Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor.” (Esth. 6:8–9)
Haman’s parade would process through the populous plaza of the city, so that everyone would see the extent of his honor. This was his dream day.
Haman’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
Then reality rained on Haman’s parade: “The king said to Haman, ‘Hurry; take the robes and the horse, as you have said, and do so to Mordecai the Jew who sits at the king’s gate. Leave out nothing that you have mentioned’ ” (Esth. 6:10). Imagine Haman’s face when he discovered for whom these honors were actually intended! The honors that he coveted above all else were actually to be bestowed on Mordecai the Jew, his prime enemy, and, worst of all, he personally would be the one to proclaim Mordecai’s elevation: “Haman took the robes and the horse, and he dressed Mordecai and led him through the square of the city, proclaiming before him, ‘Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor’ ” (Esth. 6:11). Haman’s own words had come back to haunt him, and the phrase he had so delighted to pronounce must have tasted like ashes in his mouth by the end of a long day of shouting it in front of Mordecai. His dream day turned into his worst nightmare.
At the end of the day, the two men went their separate ways. For his part, Mordecai “returned to the king’s gate” (Esth. 6:12). He seems to have been virtually unaffected by the day’s events. Honor was all very well, but it wouldn’t get his work done for him. We get the sense that for Mordecai, this was nothing special. Mordecai’s nemesis, on the other hand, was completely mortified: “Haman hurried to his house, mourning and with his head covered” (Esth. 6:12). The tables had been turned. Earlier it was the Jews who mourned (Esth. 4:3), but now the balance of power was shifting.
Nor did Haman find much comfort when he got home. His wife and his other advisors had suddenly become the bearers of theological wisdom. Since Mordecai was of Jewish descent (or more literally “from the seed of the Jews”), Haman’s chances of overcoming him were nonexistent: “And Haman told his wife Zeresh and all his friends everything that had happened to him. Then his wise men and his wife Zeresh said to him, ‘If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of the Jewish people, you will not overcome him but will surely fall before him’ ” (Esth. 6:13). Haman’s fall, once begun, would inevitably continue. One wonders why they didn’t share this nugget of revelation with Haman at the end of the previous chapter, when their counsel was the exact opposite, urging him to build a gallows for Mordecai. Perhaps they saw a divine portent in the events of that day, which clearly pointed ahead of itself to things to come, and the final, inevitable victory of Israel’s God. Hindsight is a wonderful thing! As was typical, though, Haman’s counselors did not explicitly acknowledge by name the one from whom this judgment would come.
Tragically, there was no change in Haman’s course as a result of this insight. This was potentially a Psalm 2 moment for Haman. His idolatry had been exposed as empty, his hatred of the Lord’s people shown to be vain. Now was the time to be wise, bow down, and kiss the son, submitting to the Lord and to His anointed one, lest he be destroyed along the way (Ps. 2:12). But Haman was given little time to reflect on his foolish ways: “While they were yet talking with him, the king’s eunuchs arrived and hurried to bring Haman to the feast that Esther had prepared” (Esth. 6:14).
Seeing the Invisible Hand of God
What can we learn from this chapter of Esther? In the first place, once again we see the invisible hand of God changing the course of history. Yes, it is an oxymoron to say that we see an invisible hand, but as with other invisible objects, sometimes the trail left in its wake is unmistakable. As we look outside through a window, we can neither see nor feel the wind blowing, but the bending of the trees tells its own story. So too, here in the Book of Esther, God’s work of providence is so clear that even the pagans cannot miss its significance. Even Haman’s friends are not so dense as to write off this day’s events as mere coincidence: they know that all this must be attributed to the intervention of Israel’s God, and that once He becomes involved in the world, the final outcome is never in doubt. Haman will now surely fall to destruction.
The text doesn’t tell us how this knowledge came to Haman’s wife and friends. Presumably they knew something of the history of their people’s interactions with the people of Israel and their God in the past, but it is striking how quick they were to put two and two together and get the correct answer. Even though the answer was unpalatable to their personal convictions and preferences, Haman’s wife and friends could read the unfolding events with true insight. Their swiftness to believe in the power and final victory of Israel’s God is in marked contrast to the slowness of His own people to turn to him in their hour of need. As we saw in chapter 4, there was plenty of mourning and fasting among God’s people when Haman’s edict was announced, but precious little calling out to God on the basis of faith in his promises. Even in Mordecai’s speech to Esther, in which he implored her to intervene with the king, he made no direct reference to God and His faithfulness as the source of ultimate confidence. The pagans seemed quicker to believe that Israel’s God would act than his own people were!
What about us? Are we as quick to spot the hand of God at work as were Haman’s wife and friends, or as slow to believe as His covenant people? We ought to have an unshakable confidence that, despite all appearances, God will act to bring about the salvation of His people. This confidence should drive us to act boldly in faith. Yet the reality is that we easily get thrown by circumstances that seem to be conspiring to bring about our downfall. Surprising as it may seem, we can learn a more godly response from Zeresh and Haman’s friends.
God’s Hand in the Insignificant
It is striking that such a seemingly insignificant event forms the turning point for the whole narrative. It is not Esther’s decision to stand up for God that turns the course of events around. Things continue to get worse for God’s people even after that decision, all the way through chapter 5. But from the beginning of chapter 6 onward, the enemies of God’s people are on the run and God’s people are on the upswing—not because of their bold faith or fearless action, but simply because of a sleepless night. Esther is completely absent from this decisive chapter and Mordecai is merely a passive participant, but God is invisibly turning things around and restoring His people’s fortunes. In a way, help is arising for the Jews from another place (Esth. 4:14), in such a way as to make it clear that their deliverance is entirely from God!
Yet this decisive intervention by God’s sovereignty does not make human actions meaningless. Esther will still get her moment to stand up for God and His people, and God will use her courageous stand to bring Haman’s scheming to an end. Esther’s faithfulness is important. But Haman’s fate is inevitable by the end of this chapter, as even the pagans recognize, before Esther’s subtle plans play themselves out. God’s sovereign purpose works through His servants, but it does not depend upon their willing obedience. Rather, their obedience itself is part of God’s wonderful work.
Bow Now or Bow Later
This passage poses a serious warning to those who are not willing to bow the knee before God. Haman’s fall was not predictable, humanly speaking. He seemed to have it all: fame, wealth, position, honor. Yet in the space of less than twenty-four hours, he was disgraced, and dead. How could this happen? Haman’s wife and advisors were right in assessing the cause of that fall: it was because he had chosen to attack the seed of the Jews, and thereby to oppose Israel’s God. Haman’s fall may not have been humanly predictable, but it was scripturally predictable. God said to Abraham in Genesis 12:3, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse.” The blessing of the land was promised to Abraham and his seed (Gen. 13:15–16), so to oppose the seed of the Jews was necessarily to make oneself an enemy of God’s promise. This enmity was what had brought the Amalekites, from whom Haman was descended, under God’s curse in the first place. Back in Exodus 17, they assaulted God’s people while they were journeying through the wilderness. Once that curse was pronounced, the Amalekites’ ultimate fate was sealed.
Is it possible that we too are under God’s curse? The Scriptures are clear that anyone who breaks God’s law, even in the tiniest detail, is under God’s curse (Gal. 3:10). This means that if we are relying on our own goodness, we are in serious trouble, even if we think our personal record is well above average. Even outward goodness stands condemned in God’s sight, if it is done to further our own honor and not His. Nothing short of perfect obedience offered from a perfect heart meets God’s standard, and all who fall short are under His curse. Outwardly, the marks of that curse may not be evident in our lives yet. We may be prospering in our business or career, surrounded by people who care about us and respect our integrity, enjoying the good life in every way, just as Haman was. But the seeds of our destruction are still germinating, like a hidden cancer that is waiting to burst out and overwhelm our body’s defenses. Our whole life has been built around serving an idolatry, feeding our own sense of what would make us feel honored in the sight of the world. Our fall could be just as sudden and as inescapable as Haman’s, taking us from our present comforts to face a holy God in an instant. Are we ready for such an encounter?
Unlike Haman, we still have time to turn around. Whereas Haman had no sooner heard the prediction of his downfall than the king’s eunuchs arrived and hurried him off to meet his fate, we still have time to reflect and repent. Where can we turn to avoid such a terrible end? There is only one place to go, and that is to turn to Israel’s God and Jesus Christ, the true “seed of the Jews.” Mordecai’s honor before his enemies was more than just his reward from the Persian king for a job well done. It was also God’s way of foreshadowing the Savior who was to come. The promise to Abraham of land and blessing was not just a general promise to take care of His descendants—his seeds (plural)—but a promise of ultimately bringing through Abraham the Seed (singular): Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16). In Him, the blessings promised to Abraham would find their fulfillment not only for the descendants of Abraham, but even for their traditional enemies, the Gentiles. In Christ, the promised Holy Spirit descends on a new people made up of Jews and Gentiles so that they might receive together all of the blessings that God has planned for His people (Gal. 3:14). In Christ, there is hope even for former Hamans, those whose lives have been lived in enmity to God and His people.
The Man Whom God Delights to Honor
Who is the man that God, the Great King, delights to honor? It is none other than this same Jesus Christ. One day Jesus will be at the head of a great victory parade, leading His enemies behind Him. One day every knee will bow before Him, willingly or not, and every tongue will confess that He is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:10–11). All of our knees will bow before Him one day, whether we like it or not. But why would we not bow before Him even now, because of the great love He has shown us? For we who were once God’s enemies, doomed like Haman to fall to destruction before him, can be adopted into his family through Christ.
How is this great reversal in our lives possible? Ironically, it is possible only because the way of Christ while He was here on earth was not the way of public recognition, but rather the reverse. Mordecai is both a type of Christ in his exaltation and a foil for Christ in his humiliation. Whereas Mordecai was dressed in royal robes, Jesus trod the road to the cross undressed, exposed to public shame. Whereas Mordecai was mounted on a royal horse, which itself was crowned with emblems of royalty, Jesus had to walk, bowed down by the weight of a heavy cross. The only crown in sight on that day was the crown of thorns that His enemies had made in order to mock Him. Whereas Mordecai was proclaimed publicly as “the man whom the king delights to honor,” Jesus was derided every step of that bitter way. “Hail, King of the Jews!” mocked the Roman soldiers (Matt. 27:29). “Crucify him,” cried the crowd; “we have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). “He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him,” said the chief priests and the scribes (Matt. 27:42). There was no public honor for Jesus on that day.
The mocking voices of the crowd and the public shame of the cross were not the deepest darkness that Jesus endured, though. It was the silence from heaven that was hardest to bear. The voice that once split the heavens, declaring at His baptism, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22) was stilled. The voice that repeated at His transfiguration, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him” (Luke 9:35), had nothing to say. Though He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46), there was no answer, no response. Why not? Had God lost His delight in His own Son? Was Jesus no longer the one whom God delighted to honor? How could that be? The unimaginable became reality as on the cross Jesus endured the full measure of the shame and separation from God that our sin deserved. For we too have lifted our voices with the crowd to mock, saying in our hearts, “Yes, I know Christ was crucified, but all this means nothing to me as long as I don’t have this idolatry satisfied.” We too, like Peter at the high priest’s house, have denied, either verbally or by our craven silence, that we ever knew Him. We too have failed to give God the honor He deserves, seeking first our own kingdom and interests. We too have fallen short of the glory of God. It was our sin that required Him to remain on the cross, exposed to public scorn, until His work of redeeming us by paying the full price for our sins was accomplished.
Honor Where Honor Is Due
How should we respond to this reality? Haman unwillingly declared Mordecai’s honor. He was forced to declare his praise. So also some will unwillingly declare the honor of Christ on the last day. But should we who are His people be unwilling to sing His praises? Should we be among those who are slow to glorify God and give thanks to the Lamb that was slain for us? How could that be? How can we not exalt Christ in our hearts as Lord, even now? How can we grow tired of praising and shouting his excellence?
How too can we be slow to trust in God’s providence, seeing that He has sent His beloved Son to the cross in our place? Will He not also, along with Christ, give us everything we need for our growth in godliness (Rom. 8:32)? Maybe we are still in an “Esther 5” situation at the moment, surrounded by enemies on every side, whose plans against us seem to be succeeding. Perhaps we are experiencing the pains and difficulties of living in a fallen world, a world that seems to exist in the grips of the evil empire. Yet even if we are misunderstood or mistreated, every wrong will be righted on the last day. Though the evil empire does its worst, it cannot prevail against those who have taken refuge in Christ (Ps. 2:12). Ultimately, its raging will be in vain. Read this and rejoice!
Indeed, if we are exalting Christ as Lord in our hearts, and are trusting firmly in God’s providence to do what is good for our souls and to bring glory to Himself, why are we so troubled? Why are we so filled with doubts and fears about our own futures, or the future of our children, or the future of our churches? God will accomplish His purposes, often slowly and imperceptibly, but nonetheless certainly. Sometimes He will do it through human agents who willingly submit to Him. Sometimes He will do it by directing those whose hearts are at enmity to Him, so that their sinful motives accomplish His perfect purposes. Sometimes He will do it through the collaboration of a whole series of seemingly trivial circumstances. But in the light of the great and precious promises of God, this we know for sure: our God will save His people. In the light of the cross, we know that His salvation cannot be thwarted. In the light of these heavenly realities, what is left for us to do but to bow our hearts and knees before Him and sing His praises?