The Timeless Plot to Destroy Israel (Esther 3)

One of the surprising features of the book of Esther is that God is never mentioned in the text. He is assumed to be the sovereign hand behind all that is happening and of the preservation of the nation of Israel.

Here is a great quote from the classic writing: Matthew Henry’s Commentary …

But though sinners are permitted to proceed to the point they aim at, an unseen but almighty Power turns them back. How vain and contemptible are the strongest assaults against Jehovah! Had Haman obtained his wish, and the Jewish nation perished, what must have become of all the promises? How could the prophecies concerning the great Redeemer of the world have been fulfilled? Thus the everlasting covenant itself must have failed, before this diabolical project could take place.

Also not mentioned in the text, but also assumed to be behind much of what happens, is Satan himself. In thinking through the career of the evil one, he has worked consistently from the time of his fall into sin to destroy mankind and to particularly thwart God’s plans. When mankind fell into sin, and when God determined even in the Garden of Eden that He would in grace establish a redemptive plan, Satan has worked consistently ever since to disrupt and overturn that design. This is especially true of the nation of Israel, since it was through Israel that the Savior of the world would come.

Let’s give some chronological examples … though far from an exhaustive list …

Cain killing Abel – Satan inspired this action, desiring from the start that the more godly line (presumably through which God’s redemptive plan would come) would be wiped out. But another son was born—Seth.

Intermarriage of angelic beings with the human race (understand that this is not a view accepted by all evangelical theologians) – In Genesis 6, it may be that Satan’s fallen angelic hosts (demons) were intermarrying with humans in an attempt to get into the human bloodline. Perhaps this accounts for the ancient stories of powerful mythological beings and creatures. But in any event, mankind was evil to the extent that a flood wiped out all but the family of Noah.

With Abraham and the family of Jacob decreed as the redemptive line, Satan turned his attention to destroying Israel. There were varied attempts of having the nation eliminated while in Egypt, and subsequently as the nation made the exodus to the Promised Land. Aaron allowed an idol to be built for the nation to worship while Moses was on the mountain receiving the Law.

Under Satan’s influence and the nation’s failure to consult God, the Israelites made a foolish treaty with the Gibeonites, thus allowing Satan to have Canaanite peoples to use to pull the nation toward apostasy.

With David and his family being identified as the royal line for the redeemer, there were varied attempts to wipe out the Davidic household. One of these was the attempt of Ahab and Jezebel’s daughter Athaliah, who married into the Davidic line. When her husband died, she declared herself the queen and sought to exterminate the royal line. But one young child, Joash, was hidden away for six years by the high priest and his wife, ultimately to be crowned king as Athaliah was slain.

The sin and rebellion of the nation caused them to be carried off into captivity by the Assyrians and Babylonians, but God in grace promised to save a remnant to re-establish the nation in Palestine and Jerusalem. And thus we come to the time of Esther, where Haman’s attempt was another Satanically-inspired effort to wipe out the Jewish nation and the redeemer.

In the land, varied attempts were made against the Jews to thwart their rebuilding of the city and temple, with a view toward their annihilation. In the Greek period, Antiochus Epiphanes sought to eliminate sacrifices in the temple and establish a common Greek religion. And after Christ was born, Herod attempted to find and kill him.

But Christ made it to the cross as the sinless sacrifice to atone for sin. But still Satan continues to use apostasy and evil people to turn men away from truth. And his desire is to also thwart the coming again of Christ in judgment and to re-establish the nation of Israel and fulfill his promises to them. So Satan has used varied attempts to also eliminate Israel, such as the Nazi efforts of the last century, and to be sure, the efforts and advances of radical Islam in the Middle East today.

But God’s purposes and plans will not be defeated, even as conflicts rage on until the final day of the Lord’s return.

The story of Esther … of Haman’s attempts that we are studying now … is a chapter of God’s bigger story and purposes. It is not merely an isolated story of its own. And it is good for us to understand this and to see how our faith relationship with God aligns us with eternal truths and protects us as God’s own people in the timeless struggles between darkness and light.

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The Plot is Hatched (Esther 3:7-15)

Our hearts break these days as we see the pictures of the migration of thousands of people fleeing for their lives from the war-torn ravages of Syria. On little more than a raft with a motor, dozens of them brave open waters (having paid a price of like $1500 a person) to escape to some other shore. Pictures of them coming onto the beaches of Greek territory show them celebrating with mobile phone photos being taken of themselves with raised arms, kissing the ground, etc.

It must be a terrible thing to be targeted for persecution, or worse. Sadly, the world has never been completely free of man’s inhumanity to man.

The Jewish people have particularly been targeted for such over the centuries and millennia, and thus it was with our account today from the third chapter of Esther …

3:7 In the twelfth year of King Xerxes, in the first month, the month of Nisan, the pur (that is, the lot) was cast in the presence of Haman to select a day and month. And the lot fell on[a] the twelfth month, the month of Adar.

This is an especially confusing verse without knowing what is being talked about. From the previous verses, it said that Haman scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.  Having determined this was his plan, the question then was when to execute the execution.

Having surely some general belief in some pantheon of gods, Haman cast the pur. This is a bit like rolling the dice to determine by fate (or through the intervention of the Gods bringing up a number perceived thereby to represent good luck) what day would be best to accomplish a determined purpose. He likely used some sort of diviners in this process.

And the result is the 12th month; recall that this was being done in the first month of that calendar year. So, there would be an expanse of time. But going with this number, Haman comes next before King Xerxes …

3:8 Then Haman said to King Xerxes, “There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them. 9 If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued to destroy them, and I will give ten thousand talents of silver to the king’s administrators for the royal treasury.”

So Haman relates a terrible picture of the Jews. He offers a ridiculous amount of money to be paid for the rights to do this — more money than he or anyone else possessed. But it showed the depth of seriousness and conviction that Haman had on the subject. Who would say and do something like this unless what he was communicating was true?

3:10 So the king took his signet ring from his finger and gave it to Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews. 11 “Keep the money,” the king said to Haman, “and do with the people as you please.”

When you are in leadership and have people working under you, you want to believe they are serving well with the interests of the broader community or organization in mind. Haman was surely popular with the masses who bowed down to him, and the King had set him up in this way to be his #1 advisor. It may seem rather ignorant of the King to so simply go along with this, but, Xerxes appeared to be a people pleaser. And so he gives the authority. These Jews were few in number and insignificant to the cause. Xerxes probably had so experience with them (to his knowledge at that time), so he deemed them to be expendable. The kingdom would be better off without them, most likely.

4:12 Then on the thirteenth day of the first month the royal secretaries were summoned. They wrote out in the script of each province and in the language of each people all Haman’s orders to the king’s satraps, the governors of the various provinces and the nobles of the various peoples. These were written in the name of King Xerxes himself and sealed with his own ring. 13 Dispatches were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces with the order to destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews—young and old, women and children—on a single day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods. 14 A copy of the text of the edict was to be issued as law in every province and made known to the people of every nationality so they would be ready for that day.

So the plot is hatched and communicated. It would be 11 months until set into motion, but the king sealed the deal with his own ring, thus making it entirely irrevocable. Why would the other peoples of the empire go along with something like this? What was in it for them? Well, it says that they would be free to plunder the goods of the Jews.

3:15 The couriers went out, spurred on by the king’s command, and the edict was issued in the citadel of Susa. The king and Haman sat down to drink, but the city of Susa was bewildered.

Even in times of antiquity, the majority of people were not sitting around hoping for a legal opportunity to annihilate and plunder their weird neighbors. So the city of Susa was “bewildered.”  This was a strange edict and surely the leading story of the 6:00 news on WSUS, the southern desert voice of Persian TV.

The last sentence gives a little more background as well about Xerxes and his kingdom. This is about the third time that it is indicated he had a high level of interest in imbibing. As I always ask … what good ever comes of this?

The Jews who heard about this must have wondered where God was in this story. How could this be? How could something like this be allowed? Where is God; this makes no sense.

Have you ever felt that way? Ever wondered where God is when things seem to go even opposite of the way they are clearly supposed to? For the Jews who went back to Palestine, this is not what they expected to happen. What was all of this God taking them back there, only to have them get wiped out there by other people — under the kings’ orders?!!?

But the big message of Esther is that God is ALWAYS the quietly active hand behind everything that goes on. He is not asleep or on vacation or disinterested. Sometimes you just can’t see his presence.

It is like my oldest granddaughter said when she was three years old and learned that God can hear everything that goes on… “Grandy — do you know that God hears EVERYTHING?!?  But sometimes when He talks back, it’s not very loud.”

Indeed.

When to Bow and When to Stand (Esther 3:1-6)

There is a picture from the Nazi era that I have seem multiple times on the internet. It shows a crowd of people where every one of them has their arm outstretched in the Nazi salute … except for one man with his arms crossed. His story involves more than this one incident, including his marriage to a Jewish woman.

When everyone bows down, but one person remains upright, that is a rather obvious way of drawing attention. This is what Mordecai did. We’ll take a few shots at why, but first let’s recall the story …

3:1 – After these events, King Xerxes honored Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, elevating him and giving him a seat of honor higher than that of all the other nobles. 2 All the royal officials at the king’s gate knelt down and paid honor to Haman, for the king had commanded this concerning him. But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor.

3 Then the royal officials at the king’s gate asked Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s command?” 4 Day after day they spoke to him but he refused to comply. Therefore they told Haman about it to see whether Mordecai’s behavior would be tolerated, for he had told them he was a Jew.

5 When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor, he was enraged. 6 Yet having learned who Mordecai’s people were, he scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.

The story recalls the similar nature of an event in the life of Daniel not bowing down. Was it for the same high-minded and godly reason? Maybe, though Haman was not seen as deity, it was merely honoring his position as second only to the king; so this would not technically violate worshipping a false god.

Though we cannot say for sure that the following background gives the reason, it certainly is interesting, if not plausible and fitting well with the entire story.

Haman is named in the first sentence as an “Agagite.”  What in the world is that? Do you remember a King Agag? Maybe only slightly? He was an Amalekite king. We think of the Philistines as the #1 enemy of Israel, and they did plenty to be thought of in such a way. But it is difficult to imagine a people group that more horribly — in every way imaginable — treated the Jewish nation worse that did the wicked Amalekites.

Here is some more of the story from 1 Samuel 15, and this will help it come into focus a bit more for you. King Saul was told to completely destroy Agag and the Amalekites and everything belonging to them, but he did not fully follow through; and Samuel the Prophet made a visit to confront him about this. Saul greeted Samuel with the statement that he had obeyed God …

1 Samuel 15:14 – But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?”

15 Saul answered, “The soldiers brought them from the Amalekites; they spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to the Lord your God, but we totally destroyed the rest.”

So Samuel basically says, “So what you’re telling me is that you did not fully obey God!”

20 “But I did obey the Lord,” Saul said. “I went on the mission the Lord assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king.21 The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the Lord your God at Gilgal.”

22 But Samuel replied: “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.”

The story continues with Agag being brought before Samuel, and it says that the Amalekite king thought that this was going to turn out well for him after all. But Samuel did what Saul was supposed to do: Kill Agag. This was the turning point for Saul. From this time forward his life was in total decline as God had decreed that the kingdom would be removed from him.

Do you remember what tribe Saul was from and what was his father’s name? He was from the tribe of Benjamin, and his father’s name was Kish. Have you heard that name recently in our writings and Scripture readings?  Yes, you have … since Mordecai was a Benjaminite whose great-grandfather was named Kish — the ancestor that Nebuchadnezzar had brought to Babylon over 100 years previously.

In accord with Jewish tradition and understanding of this story, Mordecai and Haman were continuing a national feud that dated back some 400 years. And if true, this would explain why Haman scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.

So when does one make a stand? Briefly, I think the answer is that one must certainly do this when it is a matter of obedience to God’s command; that is clear. Beyond that, one might choose to stand in a difficult and hostile situation when it is a matter of personal calling. There may be times in life where God through his sovereign work chooses to use us to be the one to make a stand in a given situation, even though it is not something that every other Christian is obliged to do.

Absolute Power Corrupting Absolutely (Esther 3:1-6)

If not consciously checked and managed, there is something very bad that happens inside most people when they are elevated through high-level efforts or combined circumstances to a place of prominence among others. In common language we may say that “it goes to their head.”  But it is a very strange place indeed when you find yourself at the very top of the pyramid — everyone comes to you for advice, authority, or simple conversation to be seen close to you.

I can’t say that I have experienced this on any grand scale, though even pastoring a church the size of TSF brings a bit of this into play. Our structure is very much of a shared and team leadership modality, but I do know that there are often more people who would like to talk with me than I have time to chat with at length. I feel badly when I have to move on to catch up with several people who must be seen that morning.

But I have seen truly large church pastors become a top-of-their-world guy. They display such personable and likeable skills in public ministry, and when you engage them personally, it is the same for a moment or two. They warmly greet you like you’re the most important person in the world and it is actually THEIR HONOR to speak to you, not the other way around. That is … as I said … for a moment or two. And then you can see them fading away and their eyes begin to dart around the room. Your time is up, and they have to move on to all the others who want a piece of them.

Too many of these sorts of pastors (I’ll pick on my own profession here for a moment) fall prey to private thinking and evaluation that they have really arrived — they are clearly pretty big stuff. Everyone comes to them, but they don’t have anyone else to go to. And they like the position that they are in and the pedestal they occupy.

Political people are particularly prone to this … no surprise there! Forgive me if you’ve heard this story before, but it was from an event that is at least 10-15 years ago. I was at a Rotary Club luncheon and the speaker was a very bold and brash figure who was a legend in Baltimore and Maryland Politics. I must have arrived late, because I found myself seated that the very front circular table — actually closest person physically to the speaker who was talking at a podium on the line of people sitting at the elevated platform front table. Early in his talk he cracked a political joke that I thought was rather obscure to interpret, but everyone in the room cracked up laughing uproariously … except me … I was just sitting there trying to figure out what I missed that was so terribly funny. And he looked right at me and called me out and said, “You, what’s wrong with you? Why didn’t you think that was funny?”  It was very weird and awkward. Clearly he did not like anyone who did not think he was as 100% awesome as he believed himself to be.

Mordecai ran into a situation a bit like this, and he was the lone man who was out of step with everyone else …

3:1 – After these events, King Xerxes honored Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, elevating him and giving him a seat of honor higher than that of all the other nobles. 2 All the royal officials at the king’s gate knelt down and paid honor to Haman, for the king had commanded this concerning him. But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor.

3 Then the royal officials at the king’s gate asked Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s command?” 4 Day after day they spoke to him but he refused to comply. Therefore they told Haman about it to see whether Mordecai’s behavior would be tolerated, for he had told them he was a Jew.

5 When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor, he was enraged. 6 Yet having learned who Mordecai’s people were, he scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.

For reasons we don’t actually know, Xerxes elevated Haman to a position essentially as the #2 guy in the kingdom. We learn later that he was rich; maybe that had something to do with it. And Haman certainly did not lack for personal confidence and determination. So he is like the Chief of Staff, or perhaps the Prime Minister. And Xerxes bolsters Haman’s position with a decree that all should bow down and honor him.

Everyone did it, except for Mordecai. Why? What was his reason for not doing so? Was it spiritually motivated by faith?  Come back tomorrow and I’ll give you a reason that is based upon Jewish tradition and possible bitterness between the two men. It is a fascinating background.

But today, talking about the delusional power of success; unless a person who gains it actively engages in a humble sort of introspection about how they got where they are, they will have a difficult time of modelling the servant leadership character that is to mark the follower of Christ. It is two entirely different models of introspection when a person says to self, “I am here because my work and talents have brought me to this level of greatness,” versus, “I have found myself in this place because God in grace has put me here to serve him.”  The former is common and natural; the latter is uncommon and learned through an appropriate understanding of the gospel.

Whenever we are up high, we are the proverbial turtle on the fence post … we got put there by circumstances bigger and beyond ourselves. Haman did not understand this, Mordecai and Esther did. There is a sovereign God behind the circumstances.