Esther 9:1-10:3 A World Turned Upside Down

Great literature is filled with great reversals. The Book of Esther is, as we have seen, similarly built around a great reversal of fortunes. Whether Esther is a tragedy or a comedy depends on one’s perspective. For Haman and his allies, it is a great tragedy, as all of their schemes to triumph over the hated Jews come to nothing. For Esther, Mordecai, and the community of God’s people, however, it is a comedy in every sense, with the transformation from imminent disaster to a situation where everyone may live happily ever after and laugh at earlier fears.

This theme of reversal becomes explicit in the very first verse of Esther 9. Finally, the day of decision for the Jewish community in the Persian Empire had dawned on the thirteenth of Adar. The conflicting edicts of Haman and Mordecai against and in favor of God’s people were now put into play, raising the question of which edict would win the day. The writer doesn’t leave us in suspense for long. Those who had hoped to dominate and destroy the Jews were themselves destroyed: a reversal has been brought about in the fortunes of God’s people. The end of the story shows those who had been powerless, the Jews, in complete power, dominant over their enemies on the very day when their enemies had hoped to be dominant over them. After this verse, the rest of the book is wrap-up.

That it is wrap-up, however, doesn’t mean that it is unimportant. The lengthy ending to the story shows us three things: it describes the reversal in detail (vv. 9-16), it shows how the reversal is to be celebrated in perpetuity (vv. 17-32), and then, in a concluding postscript (10:1-3), it invites us to reconsider the reversal’s ultimate impact.

First, we have the outworking of the reversal described in detail (vv. 2-10). Israel’s victory was nothing short of comprehensive, as the extensive detail shows. All Persian officials and royal bureaucracy supported the Jews out of the fear of Mordecai. His position ensured the success of his edict, rather than that of the disgraced and deposed Haman. As a result, the Jews were free to slaughter and destroy all their enemies, just as their enemies had planned to do to them. The large number slain within the acropolis itself highlights the extent of the opposition to the Jews in positions of influence and power. Included in the slaughter were all ten of Haman’s sons, whose importance is highlighted by listing each and every one of their names. The holy war against this Agagite had been carried through effectively, unlike King Saul’s half-hearted assault on his ancestor (1 Sam. 15).

Nor was a single day enough for a victory of this magnitude. When the information of the scale of the slaughter in his capital came to Ahasuerus, he seemed more impressed than perturbed by the news (vv. 11-12). In fact, the king was so impressed that he repeated, unsolicited, his offer to Esther to grant her petition and her request. Whatever she wanted would be given to her – and what she wanted was not a fur coat or a diamond, but more time for pressing the destruction of those who had organized themselves against the people of God. Esther requested one more day for the Jews to carry out the edict, and for the sons of Haman to receive dishonor as well as death (vv. 13-14).

What Esther was doing was pressing through toward completion the practice of holy war against the self-declared enemies of God. That this was her understanding of what was going on is made abundantly clear by the refrain repeated at the end of verse 15. Even though Mordecai’s edict had permitted the taking of plunder, which was merely normal practice in warfare, the Jews refrained from enriching themselves through this conflict because it was a holy war, so the spoils were not theirs to take. The same reserve was shown by the Jews in the countryside around the empire, who likewise took part in the war against God’s enemies but kept themselves from the spoil (v. 16). The end result that flowed from the events initially set in motion by Haman’s edict was that God’s enemies were comprehensively defeated throughout the empire. Instead of being destroyed, as Haman intended, God’s people received rest from those who hated them. The world was indeed turned upside down.

It was not enough to win the victory, however; the victory also had to be celebrated. Sometimes in the closing moments of a sporting event, the commentator will say, “It’s all over but the shouting.” The saying means that the action on the field of play is effectively finished; all that remains as the clock winds down is the celebration in the stands. The shouting is also an important part of the victory in holy war. The shouting provides the opportunity to give praise where praise is due, and go on record with thankfulness to God for victory won and rest received.

There have been repeated festivals of thanksgiving that provide the context and background against which to read the story of the establishment of Purim (vv. 17-19). Seen against the backdrop of the other Old Testament festivals, the horizonal aspects of the festival of Purim are striking. It was established as an ordinance by edicts from Esther and Mordecai, not from God (vv. 20-22, 29-32). In the festival of Purim, the Jews, both far and near, bound themselves to feast, rejoice, and give presents to one another and gifts to the poor. This celebration was to endure forever, rather like the laws of the Medes and the Persians, which never pass away. What the people were to remember was Haman’s plot and the king’s intervention to deliver them (vv. 23-28).

The edict to celebrate the feast of Purim forever is not the end of the story though. Tacked on the end, rather awkwardly, is the little postscript of 10:1-3. What are these verses doing there? How do they round out the story? They serve to put into perspective the great reversal of the Book of Esther by showing us how much remained unchanged after all. The postscript starts out with the notice that King Ahasuerus imposed tribute throughout the empire, to its most distant shores. Mordecai the Jew and Eshter might now be the ones writing the edicts in Haman’s place but Ahasuerus was still king. His own personal interests remained paramount, no matter the cost to his loyal subjects.

The feast of Purim, when properly understood, is more than just a reminder to God’s people of His ability to intervene decisively even while remaining hidden to all but the eye of faith. It also pointed beyond itself to show us the need for a greater deliverance yet to come. The events celebrated by Esther’s generation and their descendants provided a foreshadowing within history of the judgment of the wicked and the deliverance of God’s people, but neither of these was comprehensively accomplished.

What we have not yet seen in Esther’s day, then, is the complete fulfillment of the ancient prophecy in Isaiah 57:19-21. In the Book of Esther, we see the tossing sea temporarily driven back through God’s grace and providence, but not yet finally stilled. That awaited the coming of One greater even than Mordecai, One who would be Prince of Peace, for whom Isaiah looked. This coming One would still the raging sea of wickedness once and for all, and would proclaim full and final peace to those who were far away and peace to those who were near (see Eph. 2:17).

Yet He did so not by waging comprehensive holy war on the historic enemies of God’s people, the Gentiles, and destroying them utterly, but rather by destroying the ancient enmity between them and God (Eph 2:14). He came not as a mighty warrior but as the Prince of Peace. In Christ, former Amalekites and Jews are now brought together into glorious peace that flows to the one new people of God. On the cross Jesus fully bore God’s curse upon our sin. Why? So that we might receive peace through His righteousness and have rest from all our guilt and sin and access into the life-giving presence of God.

What a difference understanding our forgiveness in Christ makes in our lives. Now we have peace with God. We have a peace that transcends any peace this world had to offer because it rests not on a Mordecai to plead our case before a king like Ahasuerus, but on Jesus, who brings us constantly into the presence of the King of kings. Jesus is the One who seeks our good and speaks peace to us as His seed (see Esth. 10:3).

Esther 9:1-10:3 Study Questions:

How does verse 1 summarize this chapter, as well as the entire book of Esther? In what ways does this reversal show us the sovereignty and character of God?

What do you notice about this victory of the Jews as it is described for us (vv. 2-10)? What details does the narrator choose to include, and why might they be significant?

How does King Ahasuerus respond to what is going on in his kingdom (v. 12)? What is his response to Queen Esther? How does she seize the opportunity of the moment?

In what way is this great victory celebrated and commemorated (vv. 17-19; 29-32)? Who, establishes this feast? How is this different from the way other Old Testament feasts and celebrations were initially established?

As the Book of Esther concludes, what positive results for the people of God are specifically noted (10:1-3)? What are the indications, in chapter 10, that His people have not yet received ultimate freedom and deliverance from their enemies? How does the ending of the Book of Esther point us toward the need for a greater King and Redeemer?

The “holy war” that the Jewish people wage against their enemies in Esther 9 serves as a vivid picture of God’s fierce judgment against His enemies. How must we apply this passage to the fact that we, in our sins, are naturally “enemies” of God? How must this passage drive us toward the cross – and to the need for God’s mercy and grace through Jesus?

Esther 8:1-17 It isn’t Over

The 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 seventy-five-foot pole. Esther and Mordecai also received their reward at the beginning of chapter 8, in the shape of Haman’s confiscated estate and a promotion for Mordecai (vv. 1-2). However, Haman’s edict to exterminate the Jews had not yet been reversed: it was still hanging over their heads. Perhaps it would yet turn out that the laws of the Medes and the Persians really couldn’t be changed, and all of Esther’s efforts would have been wasted. Much still hangs in the balance at this point in the story.

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 (v. 3). Before, Esther 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.

Once again, as in chapter 5, the king stretched out his scepter to Esther and received her. This time her request was immediately delivered, without manipulative games. Her words were still carefully chosen, however (vv. 4-6). King Ahasuerus’s immediate response was less than satisfactory, however (v. 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 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 (v. 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.

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 (vv. 9-14). 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 messages must get through in time, even to the most distant parts of the empire.

Once the edict had gone out, so too did Mordecai, leaving the king’s presence dressed in royal splendor (v. 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 chapter 1.

The most poignant transformation of all, however, is surely the concluding note of chapter 8 (v. 17). 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.

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 the king of the Amalekites in the time of Saul (1 Sam. 15). Even in Saul’s time, the conflict between the Israelites and the Agagites had been a long-standing enmity (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. 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 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 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.

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. 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 corpse 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.

God’s judgment can still be escaped. The message is 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? 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.

Esther 8:1-17 Study Questions:

How do the people of God continue to receive favor from King Ahasuerus as the chapter begins (vv. 1-2)? In what ways might we understand even this as the fulfillment of God’s promises to His people?

Describe Esther’s approach, tone, and strategy as She makes this second appeal to the king (vv. 3-6). How is this different from her carefully planned first appeal? Why might this be?

How does King Ahasuerus seem to initially respond to Esther’s request (v. 7)? What might he be implying to her about what he has already done for Mordecai and her?

While the edict prepared by Haman is not exactly overturned, a second edict is quickly circulated throughout the kingdom (vv. 9-14). What is the context of this edict? Why is it so significant for the Jewish people throughout the kingdom?

Esther 7:1-10 Coming out of Susa

Queen Esther had a secret – her Jewishness – which she 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. 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 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. It was all the trickier 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 of 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 (vv. 1-4). Esther’s words were carefully chosen as her strategy had been. After the usual court niceties, she asked for a twofold favor to match the king’s twofold offer. What she wanted for her gift was the sparing of her life and the lives of her people.

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?” (v. 5). Esther focused the king’s anger on the prime mover behind the edict, saying simply, “A foe and enemy! This wicked Haman!” (v. 6). 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” (v. 6). He had been completely out-smarted 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 (v. 7). Already as the king went out, Haman could see that Ahasuerus had determined to do him harm. The king was unlikely to lose 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?

When Ahasuerus returned to the banquet hall, he found that Haman had neatly solved his problem for him (v. 8). During the king’s absence, Haman had tried to beg for his life from Esther. With Haman 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 (v. 8). 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 (vv. 9-10), 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. 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.

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.

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.” 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.

The Bible 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 Eshter 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.

Esther 7:1-10 Study Questions:

What does King Ahasuerus again affirm in verse 2? How does this continue to build Esther’s confidence and credibility as she prepares to make her request?

How does Esther describe the plot of Haman against the Jews (vv. 3-4)? What do you notice about the words she chooses? What does she choose not to include? In what way does Esther climactically call out Haman (v. 6)? What is Haman’s immediate response?

Why might King Ahasuerus have walked out to the garden (v. 7)? How does Haman ultimately seal his fate (v. 8)? Does King Ahasuerus really believe that Haman has attempted to assault Queen Esther?

What surprising and ironic reversal occurs as this chapter concludes (v. 10)? How is this a picture of the ironic reversal of the gospel and the cross of Jesus Christ? What question still remains (and whose lives hang in the balance) as this chapter ends?

For years, Esther had kept her Jewish identity hidden in the midst of the Pagan, Persian empire. Are there ways in which you hide your identity in Christ? How might God be calling you to reveal more boldly your love for Jesus and your commitment to His Word?