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?