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Esther 3, Courage in Dark Times – West Palm Beach Church of Christ


The second chapter of Esther has revealed the darkness of the empire that Xerxes rules over. Esther has been swept up in the collection of young women as Xerxes looks to replace his queen. God has been with Esther, giving her favor in the various situations she finds herself in as life is happening to her. But rather than living happily ever after, more problems are coming for Esther and Mordecai. Esther still has not revealed her ancestry while in the Persian court, at the direction of Mordecai, her cousin and guardian (2:20). So no one knows her background.

In Esther 2:21 we see that Mordecai is sitting at the king’s gate. We noted in the last lesson that Mordecai has some influence because of where he is. He is not far from the palace or in the suburbs of Susa. He has access to hear about how Esther is doing every day (2:11). Here he is pictured as an important figure who sits at the king’s gate. While at the gate, Mordecai comes across some very important knowledge. He finds out that two of the king’s guards who protected the entrance to his personal quarters conspire to assassinate the king. Rather than letting this horrible, wicked, depraved king die, he tell Queen Esther about the plot who gives the information to the king. After an investigation, these two officials are impaled and this is all recorded in their history books.

But the strangest thing happens in Esther 3:1. You would expect the text to say that after these events, the king honored Mordecai and elevated him to highest position above all the other officials in the palace. This is not what happens. Rather, a man named Haman is elevated. Mordecai saves the king’s life and absolutely nothing happens for him. This is the nature of life. This is the nature of life in the empire. The people who do the right things do not get elevated or receive recognition for what they did. Mordecai does the right thing and there is no reward. This is particularly notable because Persian kings immediately and generously rewarded those who showed loyalty. Xerxes made a man governor of Cilicia for saving his brother’s life. Xerxes granted land to two ship captains who assisted in a battle against the Greeks. But nothing happens for Mordecai.

The Problem (3:1-6)

In verse 2 we see a curious situation. Haman has been elevated above all the other officials and servants in the palace. Therefore, all the officials would bow down and show honor to Haman. Carefully notice that verse 2 says that this was because of the king’s command. But Mordecai refused to pay him honor or bow before him. The kings’ servants would ask Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s command?” (3:3). But notice that we are not given an answer or a reason.

The most frequent answer given is that Mordecai is being righteous by refusing to bow to Haman. The reason given is that the people of God are not to worship any human. We worship God alone. But there is nothing in the text that says that this is his reasoning. Further, the text does not say that anyone was worshiping him as a god. The text tells us that they are paying him honor for the position he possesses and because of the king’s command. Even more, we see a number of people in the scriptures paying honor like Mordecai is asked to do. Abraham bowed before the Hittites to show them honor (Genesis 23:7). Jacob’s sons bow before Joseph (Genesis 43:28). Moses bowed before Jethro the Midianite (Exodus 18:7). David bowed before Saul (1 Samuel 24:8). Nathan bowed before David (1 Kings 1:23). The point is that there is no reason to think that Mordecai’s refusal to bow or show honor has anything to do with righteousness or obeying God. This is not worship. One can imagine that Mordecai certainly bowed before King Xerxes when in his presence in the palace.

By contrast, some say Mordecai is being vindictive. Mordecai is mad because he was not elevated and Haman was, so Mordecai’s response is going to be not bow down to Haman. It is nothing more than a personal vendetta. But the text does not reveal this either. If this was the reason Mordecai was refusing to honor Haman, one would imagine that the king’s servants would know this (3:3). But they do not know the reason either.

The only thing that the text gives us that is that Haman and Mordecai are enemies of each other. This is revealed in their backgrounds. We saw in chapter 2 that when Mordecai was introduced, he is described as a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin and a descendant of Saul’s family. Look at chapter 3:1. Haman is introduced as an Agagite. Remember that God had commanded Saul to utterly destroy all the of the Amalekites and failed. The king’s name was Agag of the Amalekites. Now there are two possibilities. Either Haman is a direct descendant of King Agag or being called an Agagite is term to characterize him as an enemy of the Jews. The term “Agagite” was used by Jewish writers in the first century to refer to the Romans. Either way, when Haman is introduced as an Agagite, we are being told the reason for the lack of honor. Mordecai represents the Jews, Haman represents the enemy of the Jews, and the hostility between them is therefore to be expected. This clearly spelled out in verse 10 where Haman is described not only as the Agagite, but “the enemy of the Jews.” The point is to show that there is significant tension between these two people because of what they represent.

Let me illustrate the idea this way. In the 1980 Winter Olympics there was a hockey game between two countries: USA and the Soviet Union. It is a competition that movies have been made about and is considered a historic moment. Why would a hockey game between Americans and Russians be so historic, especially when the match was not even for a medal? The importance and the tension was because of what the two teams represented. This was not a mere hockey game. This game represented democracy versus communism. It represented decades of the cold war all in a simple hockey game. This is what is happening here as Haman is introduced. This is not really about Mordecai and Haman but about what they represented. They represent the long tension and hostility between God’s people and the world empire. This explains what happens next.

When Haman is told that Mordecai does not show him honor, his new purpose is not to deal with Mordecai but “to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom” (3:6). This is not an overreaction by Haman is the typical sense of the idea. Rather, this is what is expected by this tension. The enemy of God’s people wants to wipe out all of God’s people, not just one of them. On the surface this looks like an overreaction, but what we are to see is the cosmic battle of good versus evil, Cain versus Abel, light versus dark, the sons of Seth versus the sons of Cain, and the offspring of the woman versus the offspring of the serpent in this event. Let me frame this with the irony of the event: Israel was supposed to utterly destroy all the Amalekites by God’s command but failed. Now an “Amalekite” (symbolically) is attempting to destroy all of the Jews.

The Plan (3:7-15)

In verse 7 we see that lots are cast for the timing of Haman’s plan. Haman is looking for the lucky day to carry out his plan. The ancients were always looking for omens to determine what plans they should carry out. They believed that in the first month of the year, lots should be cast to choose opportune days for important events (Breneman, New American Commentary). There is great irony here because the scriptures declare that the casting of lots is from God’s hand (Proverbs 16:33). “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” This is truly seen in the result that date of the execution of the plan is set for 12 months from now. Haman’s superstition to his gods is used by God to delay the sequence of events. Haman could have said he wants to do this next week. But it is going to be nearly a year from now. With his date determined, he goes to get permission from the king, mixing truths and lies together to get what he wants (3:8-9). He tells the king that there is a people in the empire who keep different laws, do not obey the king, and it is not useful to tolerate them. Haman offers a ridiculous amount of money for a decree to be issued to destroy this people from the empire. The king agrees, gives his signet ring to Haman (meaning that Haman can write the law in any way he wants), and the plan is put into effect. The chapter concludes with the decree going through the whole empire that on one day, the 13th day of the 12th month, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all the Jews and plunder their goods. The day that is chosen happens to be the day before the Jewish Passover celebration. So while Jews will be preparing to remember God’s deliverance in the past, they will be hoping for God’s deliverance again. The whole city is thrown into confusion while the king and Haman sit down to drink over their accomplishment (3:15).

Applications

As the narrative advances, the message grows darker and darker. How are the people of God supposed to have courage during dark times?

See our place in the cosmic struggle.

The scriptures are constantly trying to wake us up to this truth so that we do not conform to the world around us.

Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets. (Luke 6:22–23 ESV)

Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:12 ESV)

Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. (2 Timothy 3:12–13 ESV)

Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. (1 John 3:13 ESV)

Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:11–12 NIV)

This hostility goes all the way back to Cain killing Abel. Darkness and light will always be in opposition. We can have courage when these things happen because God has always told us that this is the way life is going to be. This is going to happen and we can see this truth more clearly as our culture continues to push further and further from God.

I think another key point is that we would not look to the world to help us in this battle. The world is against us, not for us. The world does not care. The empire was not going to bail out or rescue these people. The king simply agrees to Haman’s plan without care or concern about who these people are that are going to be destroyed. Our hope cannot be in a nation or ruler. Please think about how true this is right now. Do you remember a few years ago when ISIS captured a number of people claiming to be Christians, lined them up in a row beheaded them? It happened a couple of times. Do you remember the outrage over what happened? No? Me either. Countries of the world and leaders of the world did absolutely nothing. Christians are being persecuted and killed in China. What is the world doing about it? What have our leaders done about it? Where are the calls for justice? Where are the calls for reform? Where are the protests? Here is what I want us to see: the empires of the world do not care. The leaders of the empires of the world do not care. They did not care in Babylon, in Persia, in Greece, nor in Rome. They still do not care. This is what the scriptures are telling us.

So what do the scriptures tell us to be ready to do, knowing that this is our circumstance as we live in the empire of the world? Notice what Paul said next to those Christians in Ephesus. “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.” (Ephesians 6:13 ESV) Get ready because you do not know when it will be your time to stand firm. You do not know when you will need to stand for the Lord. You do not know when the evil day will hit so that can withstand the pressure and power that comes against you. Get the armor of God on you so that you can be faithful no matter what difficulties come.

When you were a kid, you likely played the game “Hide and Seek.” Someone closes their eyes and counts to a particular number while the rest of the kids hide. But it did not matter when the kids were ready with a good hiding place in the game. Do you remember what the counter says when the hit the magic number? “Ready or not, here I come.” Those were chilling words if you were not ready and you would just try to duck behind anything. Ready or not, here I come. Ready or not, friends, faith will be tested. The people of God shine as lights in the world which will bring judgment and persecution against them. Be ready. Put on the armor of God so that you can stand as one of God’s people, representing him to the world, even when we are maligned and mistreated for his name.

Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets. (Luke 6:22–23 ESV)



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