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.

Esther 5:6-8, “And as they were drinking wine after the feast, the king said to Esther, “What is your wish? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” Then Esther answered, “My wish and my request is: If I have found favor in the sight of the king, and if it please the king to grant my wish and fulfill my request, let the king and Haman come to the feast that I will prepare for them, and tomorrow I will do as the king has said.”

In the British science fiction series of the same name, Dr. Who battled a series of terrifying alien menaces. At the conclusion of each weekly episode, there was always a cliffhanger ending, with the Doctor or one of his assistants finding themselves in deadly peril just as the picture faded from view and the theme music sounded out. A whole week would pass by before viewers could find out how the Doctor would evade seemingly certain destruction.

The end of Esther 4 provided a similar cliffhanging moment. Esther declared her commitment to put her life on the line by appearing unsummoned before King Ahasuerus. Humanly speaking, such an act was playing Russian roulette, for those who appeared before the king without invitation were liable to immediate execution. This was no empty threat. Contemporary depictions of the Persian king excavated at Persepolis show him seated on his throne holding his scepter, flanked by various officials, including a soldier with an ax. The Jewish community fasted, along with Esther, and we hold our breath.…

A Cliffhanger Resolved

Chapter 5 quickly takes us to the resolution of that tension:

Esth. 5:1–2, “On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, in front of the king’s quarters, while the king was sitting on his royal throne inside the throne room opposite the entrance to the palace. And when the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she won favor in his sight, and he held out to Esther the golden scepter that was in his hand. Then Esther approached and touched the tip of the scepter.”

After her three-day fast, Esther dressed in her royal best and presented herself before the king. Against all expectations, she won favor in his sight and he extended the scepter to her in a gesture of recognition and welcome. At this point, we breathe a corporate sigh of relief. The threat of death is now removed: Esther will not die, but live.

Actually, though, in some respects we have breathed too soon. Just as in the Dr. Who series, the resolution of the immediate cliffhanger does not mean the complete end of danger. The direct threat to Esther’s life from King Ahasuerus may have been defused, but behind that threat was the far greater danger to Esther and her whole community posed by the edict to destroy the Jews. This decree was issued by Haman in the king’s name. It had now become a law of the Medes and Persians, which according to custom could not be changed. It would take all of Esther’s skill and subtlety to unpick this Gordian knot. In antiquity, the famous knot of Gordius was held to be impossible to untie. According to legend, the man who untied it was destined to become lord of Asia. Alexander the Great was shown the knot and, being unable to untie it, proceeded to cut it with his sword. The rest is, as they say, history. But Esther could not and did not adopt nearly such a direct approach.

Hooking and Playing the Fish

The difficulty of the task facing her seems to be the reason why Esther did not respond directly to the king’s invitation to unburden her heart. The king was doubtless aware of the enormity of the risk Esther had taken in appearing unbidden in his presence. Something important was clearly troubling her, so he invited her to name her request: “What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given you, even to the half of my kingdom” (Esth. 5:3).

Anything Esther asked would be given to her, up to half a kingdom. It might have seemed tempting at first for Esther to lay out her request immediately, while the opportunity was there, but consider the numerous challenges that faced her. First, she was asking for the reversal of an irreversible law, which had been sponsored by the most powerful man in the empire and signed with the king’s own signet ring. Granting her request would cost the king ten thousand talents—less than half his empire, to be sure, but as much as half the annual tax revenue of his empire, and so no small sum. Perhaps even worse, though, it would be hard for the king to accede to her request without losing face, since the edict had been officially authorized by his own royal person. Finally, in order to make her request she would have to reveal her hidden Jewish identity, risking a potential backlash from the husband she had been deceiving for the past five years.

Nothing short of a miracle would enable Esther’s request to be favorably received, and even though she had spent three days fasting and (implicitly) requesting divine assistance, she was in no position to presume on extraordinary assistance from on high. Unlike Moses and Elijah, she had no dramatic signs and wonders that she could call upon to convince a skeptical audience. Instead, she would have to follow the best strategy she could come up with and rely on God to make it effective in changing the king’s heart.

In response to Ahasuerus’s invitation to unburden her soul, therefore, Esther merely invited her husband to come to a feast that she was arranging that day, bringing Haman in tow: “And Esther said, ‘If it please the king, let the king and Haman come today to a feast that I have prepared for the king’ ” (Esth. 5:4). Ahasuerus kindly accepted Esther’s invitation: “Then the king said, ‘Bring Haman quickly, so that we may do as Esther has asked.’ So the king and Haman came to the feast that Esther had prepared” (Esth. 5:5). More literally, the king acted “according to the word of Esther.” So much for his earlier decree that each man should be master in his own house (see Esth. 1:22)!

At the feast, the king once again invited Esther to reveal her request: “And as they were drinking wine after the feast, the king said to Esther, ‘What is your wish? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled’” (Esth. 5:6). Ahasuerus must have recognized that she hadn’t risked her life earlier in appearing before him simply in order to get a date for the evening! Once again, it seemed to be a prime opportunity: the wine had been served, the king was in a mood of expansive generosity, again offering Esther anything she desired, up to half his kingdom. Esther seemed almost about to comply, starting to say, “My wish and my request is …” (Esth. 5:7). But then she broke off and merely asked the king and Haman to come to another feast the next day, at which all supposedly would be revealed: “If I have found favor in the sight of the king, and if it please the king to grant my wish and fulfill my request, let the king and Haman come to the feast that I will prepare for them, and tomorrow I will do as the king has said” (Esth. 5:8).

Why didn’t Esther strike while the iron was hot? Did she simply lose her nerve and so fail to make the request when the opportunity was there? Perhaps, but there is a more likely explanation. Esther was playing the king like a trophy fish, taking her time and not rushing to reel him into her net. She was carefully maneuvering him into a position where he would be virtually obligated to do whatever she asked, without his even being aware that he had been hooked. He had now twice publicly offered to grant Esther whatever she desired, up to half his kingdom. Her response was a study in meekness, an attribute she knew the king valued in women. She began, “If I have found favor in the sight of the king, and if it please the king …” (Esth. 5:8), making the king feel as if he were in full control of his fate. Since all she was overtly requesting the king to do was to come to another feast the next day, it is hard to see how the king could reasonably have refused her invitation. This is all the more true, since the purpose of the feast was to “do as the king has said”—that is, to reveal her petition. Curiosity alone would have made it hard for the king to stay away.

Yet if the king came to her second feast, he was implicitly agreeing in advance to grant her wish and fulfill her request, whatever it was (Esth. 5:8). If he tried to back out at that point, there would have been three public strikes against him. He would lose a great deal of face if he went back on such a public and repeated promise. It seemed that Esther had laid her plans well and executed them with patience, care, and cunning. All that now remained in this desperate game of chess was to wait until the pieces were in exactly the right position before making the decisive move that would (hopefully) checkmate Haman. It might still be a long shot, but she had done everything in her power to give it the best chance of success.

Haman’s Highs and Lows

Haman, meanwhile, was as unaware as the king that he was being played. He went out from the feast in high spirits, not just from the effects of the alcohol but also from the intoxicating effects of prestige. What Haman craved above all things was not simply significance, but rather being seen to be significant. It was quite an accolade, he thought, that he alone was summoned to this unprecedented and intimate party with the king and queen. Surely his star was now rising to unparalleled heights.

It didn’t take much to spoil his happy mood, however, because on the way out of the banquet Haman saw Mordecai sitting calmly at his desk: “And Haman went out that day joyful and glad of heart. But when Haman saw Mordecai in the king’s gate, that he neither rose nor trembled before him, he was filled with wrath against Mordecai” (Esth. 5:9). Once again Mordecai failed to show Haman proper respect by rising before him or trembling with fear in view of the recent edict. Haman’s failure to instill either fear or respect in his enemy pricked his bubble and turned his joy into wrath. Haman’s whole world revolved around his fragile ego. When it was stroked (as when the invitation came to Esther’s party), he felt blessed, even though nothing in the real world had actually changed. His power had not actually increased, yet Haman rejoiced. Likewise, his power was not really diminished by Mordecai’s refusal to bow, yet Haman was incensed by it. His emotional strings were being pulled by his idol, which was public respect. When that idol was fed, he felt good; but when his idol was challenged, it led him to malice and anger, the same malice that caused his earlier decree to eliminate the Jewish people. His joy and his anger were simply the outward expressions of his heart’s idolatry. For now, however, he simply bided his time: “Nevertheless, Haman restrained himself and went home, and he sent and brought his friends and his wife Zeresh” (Esth. 5:10).

Once home, Haman set about the task of boosting his dented ego. He summoned his friends and his wife and required them to listen to a lengthy recitation of his exploits: “And Haman recounted to them the splendor of his riches, the number of his sons, all the promotions with which the king had honored him, and how he had advanced him above the officials and the servants of the king” (Esth. 5:11). His wealth, his sons, his promotions—all of these were listed in detail, even though this was all old news for the audience (presumably his wife, for one, had not forgotten how many sons they had!). Then he announced the plum piece of news: “Even Queen Esther let no one but me come with the king to the feast she prepared. And tomorrow also I am invited by her together with the king” (Esth. 5:12). Haman alone, in company of the king, had been summoned to Esther’s banquet that day and was invited to another of the same tomorrow. But as far as Haman was concerned, even this was of no consolation as long as Mordecai refused to worship him. “Yet all this is worth nothing to me,” Haman said, “so long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate” (Esth. 5:13).

Counseling Haman

Haman is a case study in what happens in our hearts when our idols are challenged. He had made public recognition his idol, and the result was that as long as he was receiving adulation he felt great. However, when the achievement of his goal was challenged, he responded by lashing out in rage and seeking to feed his idol through boasting. Even though he still possessed unparalleled power in the kingdom, that wasn’t enough. There was a void at the center of his life that no amount of success could fill.

Haman is an unsympathetic character in the story with little to make us feel sorry for him, so we are unlikely to feel his pain. Yet at this moment in the story he was crying out for someone to guide him and direct him as to how he should handle his overpowering negative emotions. What he needed was wise biblical counsel. This is a situation with which we can all identify, whether in dealing with our own hearts or seeking to help others work through anger issues in their lives. It may be salutary, therefore, to use this case study to advance our own counseling skills. What would we have said to Haman, had we been his wife, or one of his friends? What words might have led his life in a different, more positive direction?

A skilled counselor would have advised Haman to trace back his negative and positive emotions and discover what was driving his life. His rage was an opportunity to discern the condition of his heart, to uncover what was filling the God-shaped hole in the center of his life. What was it in life that made him feel overwhelmingly joyful? What were the events that triggered such inordinate anger in his heart? If Haman had been as little in touch with his emotions as many men, then on most days he might not have been able to give an answer. Looking back over that particular day, however, Haman wouldn’t have had far to search to discern his need for public recognition.

Once he had recognized his idolatry, Haman might have been shown how the reign of his idol was being challenged by the day’s events. He could have been directed to repent of that idolatry by seeing how the gospel answered his need for true significance, the kind of value in life that is not challenged by what people think of us. He could have been introduced to the God who loves his people unconditionally, in spite of their sin. He could have been shown that he needed to abandon seeing the world revolving around him and his successes and instead see a world revolving around God, in which his achievements had value as a means of bringing God the glory he deserved.

Such counsel might have saved Haman’s soul, and perhaps even his life, if he had indeed been willing to turn from his idol to the true and living God. Unfortunately, Haman did not seek biblical counseling, but rather was content to receive the wisdom of his wife and his friends. Their counsel was simply to “go with the feeling” and give full vent to his rage: “Then his wife Zeresh and all his friends said to him, ‘Let a gallows fifty cubits high be made, and in the morning tell the king to have Mordecai hanged upon it. Then go joyfully with the king to the feast’ ” (Esth. 5:14). This idea pleased Haman, and he had the gallows made. But the problem with this advice was that it sought to eliminate the negative emotion of anger by feeding Haman’s idolatry rather than by mortifying it. It sought to bolster Haman’s need to feel important by going for a “giant size” vengeance.

Even superficial thought should have shown that this solution would never deal with Haman’s underlying problems. Indeed, the very size of the gallows would have unintentionally elevated Mordecai to a position of significance: his very death would have drawn all eyes to him (and away from Haman) in a way that a smaller gallows would not have done. Inevitably that is what happens when we seek to deal with our idolatries by feeding them rather than by starving them. We end up emptier than ever, in even greater bondage than before, and it is only a matter of time before something else reignites our negative emotions. The counsel Haman received led him nowhere.

The idea of counseling Haman is an exercise in historical imagination. Haman is beyond our help, and would probably never have received such counsel, even had it been available in a city in which God’s own people had forgotten many basic biblical truths. But our purpose in pursuing this idea is essentially practical. Our hearts face the same temptation to bow to idols, whose identities are likewise most easily exposed by analyzing our strongest emotions, both good and bad. What is it that causes us to be angry out of all proportion to the offense? There is a clue that one of our idols is being threatened. What is it that makes us feel an unusually strong sense of achievement? It may be one of our idols being stroked. Our strong emotions are clues enabling us to read our own hearts better. Though we cannot counsel Haman, certainly we can counsel ourselves and others who find themselves in similar turmoil.

Esther’s Subtlety and God’s Sovereignty

This chapter also shows us that dealing with the empire sometimes demands great subtlety. Some portions of the Bible might seem to suggest that a simple, straightforward, direct approach is always the best. “Dare to be a Daniel” and let the chips fall where they may. And often that is the best approach. However, there are times in the providence of God when a more indirect approach will yield greater results. A direct confrontation isn’t always the wisest response to conflict with the world. Sometimes subtlety and meekness are more effective in the long run.

In the light of Esther’s dilemma, it is instructive to consider Peter’s counsel to the wives of unbelievers: “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives—when they see your respectful and pure conduct” (1 Peter 3:1–2). Peter here counsels these women not to go in with verbal pyrotechnics or outward adornment (royal robes?) but rather to win their husbands over with holiness, gentleness, and meekness. There are times to be direct and times to be indirect.

That having been said, however, it was not Esther’s subtlety alone that ultimately transformed the situation. God used Esther’s subtlety, to be sure, but he also used Mordecai’s stubborn refusal to bow and Haman’s self-centeredness to bring each protagonist to the exact place where He wanted them. Regardless of her intent, Esther’s invitation to Haman puffed up his pride. Mordecai’s presence at the gate when Haman went home, and his continued refusal to bow the knee, pricked Haman’s happy mood. The counsel of Haman’s wife and his friends in response to his inner turmoil led him to build the massive gallows and seek an audience with the king early the next morning. All of these events were necessary for the unfolding of God’s plan. If Esther jumped the gun, as it were, and presented her request too soon, the king’s memory of Mordecai’s act in saving him would not yet have been stirred. Nor would the gallows yet have been constructed on which to hang Haman with such perfect poetic justice. It was undoubtedly God’s plan for the whole scenario to play out the way it did, so that He could bring the individual conflict between Haman and Mordecai to its perfect denouement before the wider conflict was also resolved.

Notice that God’s plan in this case was worked out without thunder and lightning, or a parting of the sea in order to save his people. No one was delivered from a fiery furnace or miraculously preserved in a den of lions. God’s work here is every bit as subtle as Esther’s. It proceeds by unobtrusively nudging each of the characters in the story to behave exactly in accord with their own wishes and temperaments, while at the same time they do exactly what he has decreed.

So God’s plan proceeds in the world around us. It goes forward, not in spite of our desires and inclinations, whether sinful or righteous, but precisely through shaping us to be the people we are. A little girl once asked: “If God is in control of everything, does that mean that he plays with us, like we play with the dolls in the dolls’ house?” The answer is yes and no. Yes, God is in control of all things and He works all things according to His holy will for His glory and our good (Rom. 8:28). However, we are not passive and helpless in this process, like the dolls in the dolls’ house. On the contrary, we do exactly according to our own desires and temperaments. God’s sovereignty operates in such a way that our freedom and responsibility to act are not compromised, yet the end result is still exactly what God has purposed from the beginning. Just as Esther, Mordecai, Haman, and Ahasuerus were not compelled to act contrary to their wills, but still did exactly what God had planned, so too we are never mere robots, yet we see God accomplishing His purposes in and through us. It was this truth that led the Apostle Paul to write: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12–13). What is more, God achieves His perfect goals not just through our best intentions and most self-sacrificing acts, but even through our greatest sins and compromises.

The Welcoming King

Once again, when we consider the empire of Ahasuerus and the Kingdom of God side by side, we cannot but be struck at the contrast. Praise God that we serve an altogether different king than the one that Esther knew. Approaching God is not like approaching Ahasuerus, with our knees trembling and hearts wondering whether we will survive the encounter. Who can predict how such a capricious ruler will respond? One day suppliants might find favor in his eyes, and he would welcome them in; the next day it would be “off with their heads”—literally!

Our God, however, invites us to come into His presence regularly, indeed frequently, so that we may make known to him our petitions and requests. No special subtlety is required in framing our desires. We don’t need flowery court language or crafty psychological maneuvers to trick God into giving us what we need. On the contrary, He is a Father to us, and if even earthly fathers provide good things for their children, how much more will our heavenly Father give us the things we need to grow and prosper? What a contrast in tone there is between Mordecai’s admonition to Esther to put her life on the line in order to seek favor with Ahasuerus and Paul’s command to the Philippians: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6). Or the exhortation in Hebrews: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). Our King has an open-door policy.

This contrast is not because there is no cost to gain access to the King, however. Our entry to the heavenly court is free, but it was not cheaply bought. As sinners, a death is required before we can enter the presence of the all-holy One. God can hold out the golden scepter of favor to us only because the fierce rod of His judgment has fallen upon Christ. Our peace with God is paid for in Christ’s blood. However, having been paid at such a high price, our peace has thereby been purchased once and for all. No one and nothing can now separate us from God’s favor and the right to bring all of our concerns directly to the throne of grace. Neither death nor life, neither heavenly forces nor earthly trials, neither adversity nor prosperity—in short, nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:38–39).

What have we done with this privilege? We have an entry card, signed in blood, which gives us access to the throne of grace. We can bring our prayers and petitions to the Lord of the universe, whose word accomplishes all His holy will. What have we done with that glorious invitation? If we are honest, most of us have to admit that we have done precious little with it. It may not even have had the impact on our hearts that Esther’s invitation had on Haman’s, filling us with abundant joy. We ought to be constantly on our knees before God, rejoicing with overflowing hearts for all of His undeserved favor. Yet all too often we live as practical atheists, as if the future of our lives depended entirely on our ability to extract the right response from the empire through our personal subtlety and skill. Often it is only when the situation is absolutely desperate that we will be found crying out to God.

The truth is that our emotions are not lastingly shaped as they should be by the unexpected and undeserved invitation we have received to the royal banquet. Haman’s elevation by the king and the honors that continued to be poured out upon him should have insulated his heart from the impact of minor difficulties. Instead, his thoughts were rapidly transformed from joy to despair by the perceived slight to his honor and status that Mordecai represented. What a ridiculous overreaction! Yet are not we equally fickle? Shouldn’t our joy in our salvation be far more impregnable than Haman’s, because it is based on the unparalleled glory of God’s incredible goodness to us? In reality, though, how often have we said to ourselves, “Yes, I know that God has made me his child, and a coheir of Christ’s glorious inheritance, yet all this is worth nothing to me as long as I do not have —— [fill in the relevant comfort, security]”? Perhaps our joy is lost because of lack of love at home, or lack of respect from our peers, or lack of acknowledgement at work. We are cast down by minor earthly setbacks because we have lost sight of the incredible glories of our heavenly inheritance.

Perhaps the first petition we need to make to the Lord, then, is to transform our hearts. It is not coincidental that when Jesus compares His heavenly Father to earthly fathers, the good gift He promises to those who ask is the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13). Above all else, this is what we need from God. We need for Him to grant us His Spirit that we may have our hearts and lives increasingly reoriented in a God-centered direction. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to lift up Christ in our hearts, to fill us with a desire to worship and to pray, and to bring to fruition the slow work of sanctification in our souls. If we receive this gift from God, then our hearts will gradually become more and more filled with gratitude for the privilege that we have in Christ. Then any worldly slights or setbacks that face us when we leave the throne room to go back into the world will make but little impression on us. If we have the King’s favor, who cares what those around us think of us?

We have the promise of God Himself that he will answer our prayers when we ask Him for the Holy Spirit. We are to ask, then, with boldness and confidence, so as to receive freely from the King.

Yet for now we receive God’s precious gift only in part. He has promised His presence with us, and He will not leave us or forsake us. Nevertheless, we are still left longing for the fullness of that presence that is yet to come. Here we may experience God’s presence with us in part, but only in part. The gift of the Spirit is itself only the down payment on our great inheritance (Rom. 8:23). Knowing God is still the richest treasure that this world affords, even when only partially experienced. But the fullness of knowledge awaits us beyond the veil of death, when we shall know even as we have been fully known (1 Cor. 13:12). This is the hope for which we wait and long; then we shall indeed know Christ fully, and the power of his resurrection (see Phil. 3:10–11).

In the meantime, while we wait for Christ’s return, we continually wrestle with our hearts as unmortified idolatries constantly rise up to challenge our peace and joy. And in the meantime we also wrestle with the empire, exercising all of our subtlety and strength, while still recognizing that God is the only One who can bend the empire to do His will. But we do not wrestle alone: God gives his Holy Spirit to begin His work in us, producing His fruits in and through us. What is more, we do not wrestle forever: one day, our wrestling work will be done and we will be ushered into God’s immediate presence forever. For those who are in Christ, there will be no fear on that day, for Christ Himself has opened the door to us, and no one and nothing can shut it in our face. What unconquerable joy and peace will be ours then! What unconquerable joy and peace should be ours now!