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Light in the Darkness

August 6, 2017 Speaker: Kit Johnson Series: Esther

Passage: Esther 3

Introduction

Christianity is different from other worldviews because of what our God is like, becaue he has given us an inspiraed and authoritative Word, and because of the gospel. But practically speaking there are few doctrines that separate the Christian worldview from the secular worldview more than our belief in the total depravity or sinfulness of man. We believe that we are not born into the world essentially good but essentially evil and that sinners need a radical work of grace, not just education or guidance. 

In contrast liberal ideology is built on the assumption that people are essentially good, though some are unhealthy. Therefore, if someone commits a terrible act, it’s not that they are evil; it’s that they are not well. But most people are essentially good, and liberals believe that through better health and education we can bring peace to the world and fix most people. 

There is an element of truth to the fact that we can improve society through education and health, but history consistently pushes back against this idealism. For example, the world made incredible advances toward modernization in the 20th century, and yet a lot of really bad things happened including a string of massive genocides. 1.5 million Armenians were killed in Turkey (1915–1918), and Joseph Stalin was responsible for 7 million deaths through forced famine (1932–1933). Of course the Nazi Holocaust claimed 6 million lives (1938–1945). Over 2 million died in Cambodia in the 1970s, and 800,000 died in Rwanda and 200,000 in Bosnia in the 1990s. There were also many smaller efforts to wipe out massive populations. We tend to lay the blame for such events at the feet of one man like Hitler or Stalin, but it took many, many people to accomplish such atrocities. 

Therefore, while it sounds good to say that we can fix humanity through education and mental health, people prove over and over the truth of Jeremiah 17:9 that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” And the gospel is the only remedy for this darkness.

Today we will study Esther 3, and we will be confronted again with the darkness of the human soul. This chapter tells us about a plot that is so awful that we may doubt its truthfulness except that it has been repeated over and over throughout human history. Esther 3 is one of the darkest stories in Scripture, and it is very important that we appreciate that darkness because we will only appreciate the light of God’s goodness when we see it in comparison to this evil.

Without further ado, let’s dive into the content of this chapter. Esther 3 begins with…

Haman’s Promotion (vv. 1–2)

Verse 1 introduces us to Haman, and it gives an important hint at his evil character.

Haman’s Identity:

It tells us that Haman is “the son of Hammedatha, the Agagite.” To understand this reference, we have to go back to Exodus 17:8–16. It had only been a couple of months since Israel crossed the Red Sea so they didn’t have much of a military. And to the Amalekites they looked like easy pickings to raid and they attacked. However, God strengthened Israel to fight them off, but what is especially important is what God says in vv. 14–16. God says that Israel must one day destroy the Amalekites but until that day, Amalek will be a constant thorn in Israel’s side. 

And then notice what Moses tells Israel in Deuteronomy 25:17–19. Once they settled in the land, they were to destroy the Amalekites. The time for this destruction finally came in 1 Samuel 15 where the prophet Samuel told King Saul to attack the Amalekites and destroy them. However, he kept King Agag alive, which is where the name Agagites comes from, along with many of the animals. 

God was so displeased with Saul’s disobedience that he rejected Saul and Saul’s line from the throne. This was the beginning of the end for Saul. 

And in Esther 3, this conflict between the Amalekites and Israel, and specifically between Agag and Saul is reignited. Haman is a descendent of Agag, and the narrator already told us that Mordecai is a Benjamite, which was Saul’s tribe. It is even possible that Mordecai was a descendant of Saul depending on how you read 2:5 because Kish was the name of Saul’s father. 

Regardless it’s clear that the narrator intends to associate Mordecai with King Saul and Haman with King Agag. And we can assume that this old conflict will not die easily.

This is especially troubling because of…

Haman’s Promotion:

Verse 1 simply says that Ahasuerus promoted Haman to second in his kingdom. At this point it’s important to remember what just took place in the story. Chapter 2 ended with Mordecai saving the king’s life. We might expect that he will be elevated to a high position in the government. Instead, one of Israel’s worst enemies is promoted to second in command. 

The narrator doesn’t tell us why the king did this. Haman was not among his princes in chapter 1, though 9 years have passed since that feast. Maybe Haman worked his way up, but that doesn’t seem likely. Verse 2 says that Ahasuerus had to give a command for everyone to bow before Haman. If he were actually a great leader, Xerxes wouldn’t have had to force people to respect him. 

I think it’s much more likely that Haman bought his position. We will see that he was a very wealthy man, and it seems very much in keeping with Xerxes’ character that money would talk much more than ability. And so chapter 3 begins with the fact that Xerxes promoted an enemy of Israel to second in command, and he commanded all of his officials to bow before Haman.

This brings us to…

Haman and Mordecai’s Rivalry (vv. 2b–6)

Mordecai refuses to bow (vv. 2b–4).

We learned at the end of chapter 2 that Mordecai was working in the king’s gate; therefore, there was no way for him to avoid the decree to bow before Haman. But Mordecai didn’t care. Verse 2 tells us that he refused to bow before Haman. 

The “gate” was a rather large area where lots of people worked; therefore, Haman didn’t immediately notice Mordecai. But some of the king’s servants did, and they challenged Mordecai. In fact, v. 4 says that this went on for several days. They were pleading with Mordecai to obey the command, but he would not budge. 

Now when I was a kid I was taught that Mordecai refused to bow because Israel was only supposed to worship God; therefore, Mordecai took a bold stand like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3. But the problem with this is that bowing before a man is not necessarily an act of worship. And we have lots of examples in Scripture of people bowing before leaders as a symbol of respect. Esther will bow before Xerxes in chapter 8.

I believe it is much more likely that Mordecai’s refusal was tied to the longstanding feud between Israel and Amalek and specifically between Saul and Agag. Mordecai was a proud Jew and there was no way he was going to bow before an Agagite even if it cost him dearly.

It’s rather ironic that Mordecai took this stand in light of the counsel he gave to Esther in chapter 2. He told Esther, “Whatever you do, don’t let them know you are a Jew. If that means breaking some laws and bowing before an idol, then do it. But don’t get yourself killed.” Then in chapter 3 he refuses to bow before Haman over an ethnic rivalry. And he doesn’t just put his own life at risk, he puts the whole nation at risk. 

Of course, Mordecai isn’t the only person who has ever struggled with this. Jesus said of the Pharisees that they were “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel” (Matt 23:24). Sometimes we can fight for the most insignificant causes while ignoring important heart issues. It’s so important that we chose our battles wisely and that we major on the majors and minor on the minors.

But Mordecai took his stand, and it ended up being a costly one.  

Haman exploits the situation (vv. 5–6).

Verse 4 says that the king’s servants reported to Haman that Mordecai refused to bow because he was a Jew. And v. 5 says that Haman was “filled with wrath.” We are talking about one man out of maybe hundreds who refused to bow. If you are a strong, secure leader, then who really cares? But Haman wasn’t a strong leader; he was a cruel, heartless man who was very insecure and who desperately craved power. And so just one man’s disrespect threw him into a fit of rage. 

He was mad at Mordecai, but he quickly saw past the opportunity to take revenge on Mordecai to see an opportunity to take vengeance on the entire Jewish nation. 

We begin to see just how evil Haman was. He hated the Jewish people, and he wanted every Jew dead, including every woman and child, as v. 13 will say. You don’t have to think too long to recognize how cruel this plot was.

Verses 7–11 then tell us about Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews.

Haman’s Plot (vv. 7–11):

I’d like to call v. 7…

The Shadow of Chance or Luck (v. 7; Prov 16:33):

Verse 7 tells us that Haman’s first step in developing his plot to destroy the Jews was that he cast lots to determine the best day to carry out his evil plot. The “Pur” as they are called were very similar to dice cubes. Archaeologists have found many such cubes. The Persians would use these cubes to seek the will of the gods. Very likely Haman called on an astrologer or magician to do this. 

He would throw the Pur out like a dice and through a series of rolls, they determined to carry out this cruel plot in the 12th month on the 13th day (v. 13). This was almost a year away, since Haman cast the dice in the first month of the year. And so he planned to get the king’s approval and then send out a decree for the destruction of the Jews. But everyone would have to wait almost a year for it to be carried out. Talk about an anxious waiting period. 

And yet even through relaying these dreadful details the narrator does a masterful job foreshadowing what is to come and really of mocking Haman’s visions of grandeur. You see, Haman used a Pur to seek the will of the gods, but a godly Jew would have understood that the gods didn’t control the dice; not even random chance controlled the dice. Proverbs 16:33 states, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” 

God ultimately determined the date of Haman’s plan. He was at work even though Haman couldn’t see it. And the author also mocks Haman by using the word Pur here. Haman used a Pur as part of his scheme to destroy the Jews, but God will ultimately turn Haman’s scheme against him, and the Jews will establish a feast named after the Pur to celebrate Haman’s demise. Again we are gently reminded that God is never far away, and he is always at work even when things look very dark and hopeless.

Verses 8–9 then describe Haman’s proposal to the king.

Haman’s Proposal (vv. 8–9):

Everything that Haman says here is very calculated and cunning. First, he doesn’t identify which people he wants to destroy. He just says there is a “certain people” living in the empire. 

And then he very carefully mixes truth and lies to win the king’s heart. He was speaking truthfully when he said that they were scattered throughout the entire empire, and he was also right to say that the Jews had different laws. I mentioned last week that one of the purposes of the Law was to make Israel distinct from the nations, to declare that they belonged to God. Those laws had kept the Jews from fully assimilating into the Persian Empire, which was a good thing from God’s perspective, but it did bring the ire of others. 

Of course, it typically does. When we as Christians live holy lives, we will stand out to the world around us. It is a very good thing for us to remain separate from sin, but sinners don’t generally like it do they? Your holy life shines a light on their sin, and they don’t like that. But it’s for their good. The only way they will ever appreciate the grace of God is if they see their sin. And so don’t be afraid to stand out. Live to honor God and to show sinners their need of a Savior. 

Haman used this uniqueness against Israel, like Hitler and many others have done. And then he outright lies when he says they don’t keep the king’s commandments. Now it is true that Mordecai had disobeyed the command to bow before Haman, but it was simply false to describe the Jews as a rebellious people. Yet his is what Haman claims, and as a result, he says that it was not in the king’s best interest to let these people live. In other words, Xerxes would be better off if they were annihilated. Notice that Haman doesn’t appeal to justice, just to the well-being of Xerxes. 

And if this wasn’t enough, he adds that he is willing to pay the king 10,000 talents of silver to make this happen. Now this is a lot of silver, about 330 tons. It was well over half of what Herodotus tells us was the annual tribute he received from the provinces each year. This tells us that Haman was very wealthy and that he really wanted the Jews eliminated.

The king then responds in vv. 10–11, and what really stands out is…

Ahasuerus’s Apathy (vv. 10–11):

Imagine if you were in the king’s seat. Haman comes to you and says, “I want to kill a nation. Is that okay?” You would think this would grab your attention as a pretty significant request, and you would think that you would want a little more information. But Xerxes is entirely apathetic. He doesn’t even ask what nation Haman wants to destroy. He doesn’t even seem all that interested in the money. He just gives Haman his signet ring, which is like giving him the keys of the kingdom, and says, “They are in your hands. Do what seems good to you.” 

Of course, we know that the Jews were not ultimately in Xerxes’ hands or Haman’s. They were in God’s hands and neither of these men had nearly as much power as they thought they did. 

But the coldness of all of this is just incredible. Xerxes wasn’t at all concerned to defend his subjects or to find out the truth about what they deserved. This incident reminds me of Colossians 2:13–15. Like Haman, Satan and his demons are pictured as standing before the Great King with a list of charges against God’s people, though sadly Satan’s list is entirely true. We really are guilty of sin, and we deserve judgment because of our sin. 

But God responded to these charges much differently from Xerxes. Rather than coldly signing our death sentence, he placed our sins on his own Son and signed his death sentence. God nailed our crimes to Jesus’ cross as the text says. And in his death, Jesus wiped them out so that we will never have to face the wrath we deserve and we can have a relationship with Christ. 

Therefore while Haman left with the king’s signet ring, God made a “public spectacle” of Satan. He embarrassed him for his evil plot to seek our condemnation. Praise God that our king is so much greater than Xerxes. He cares for his people, and he is full of grace. And praise God that through Christ, we don’t have to fear condemnation. We can be absolutely secure in the finished work of Christ. Christian, you have much to be thankful for. 

But maybe you are not sure that you are secure in this grace, but you want to know how you can have your sins forgiven and how you can know God as your Father not just your judge. The Bible says that all you must do is come to God acknowledging that your sin deserves punishment and believing that Christ’s death is sufficient for your salvation. This is great news. We call it the gospel, and if you don’t know that this great news belongs to you, I hope you will talk with me after the service about how you can have a relationship with God that is rooted in grace, not works.

Returning to Esther 3, Xerxes signs off on Haman’s plan, and then vv. 12–15 conclude the chapter by telling us how Haman made plans to carry out his cruel plot.

The Decree (vv. 12–15):

Notice again in v. 13…

The Cruelty of the Decree (v. 13):

It’s important for understanding what is to come that Haman didn’t intend to have government officials carry this out. Rather, he called on the citizens of Persia to rise up against the Jews and kill them. Haman motivated them to do so by saying that they could plunder their goods. Basically he called on all the greedy scum to kill a Jew so that they could become more wealthy. 

And notice how Haman stacks verbs. He doesn’t just say to kill them. He says, “destroy, kill, and annihilate.” And then he says that no one is to be left behind he wanted every Jew dead—the “young and old, little children and women.” I can’t imagine reveling in the death of a child, but that’s what Haman desired. 

And so this awful decree went out, and imagine how devastating it would be as a Jew to suddenly have this dropped on you for no apparent reason. We feel the hatred of unbelievers sometimes in our day, but it is nothing compared to this. But there is another interesting irony here. Notice…

The Timing of the Decree (v. 12):

The 13th day of the first month is significant because the 14th day of the first month is a very important to any Jew. It is the first day of Passover—a feast that celebrated God’s deliverance of Israel. Imagine what it would be like to read this decree and then turn around and celebrate Passover. I bet that was the most sober Passover those people ever observed. But what a powerful reminder that God had been faithful in the past and that he would be faithful to the end. But still, how devastating this news must have been. And notice finally…

The Coldness of Xerxes and Haman (v. 15): Verse 15 moves from empire wide perspective back to Susa. It says that when the decree was read, all the people, not just the Jews, were perplexed or confused. This seemed so senseless, random, and cruel that no one could comprehend it. But the narrator adds that while the city grieved, Xerxes and Haman sat down for a drink. There was no grief or remorse. 

I picture them sitting on a rooftop with sounds of wailing all around them but deaf to it all while they drink and laugh. What a heavy ending to a horrific chapter.

So what does God want us to take from this story?

What’s the Point?

Do not despair when life is dark because God is at work in the darkest of times.

It’s kind of fun, knowing the end of the story, to think about what must have been going through Haman’s mind as he sat on that rooftop or wherever they were drinking a glass of wine. He thought, “I have arrived. I have the most powerful man in the world wrapped around my finger, and I got rid of those awful Jews who have been the bitter enemy of my people for almost 1,000 years. No one can stand against me, and there is no God who can deliver the Jews now, not when the forces of Persia stand against them.”

But even while he sat there celebrating his own victory, he had no idea that 5 years earlier God had already planted a virus in his plan. He had put beautiful young Esther in the palace and in the heart of King Ahasuerus. He had no idea that there was a debt in the king’s chronicles to that dreadful Mordecai just waiting to be paid. 

Of course none of those Jews who were weeping all over the city knew that either. All they saw was darkness, but God was moving in the shadows, and he was about to display his glory in defense of his people. 

Maybe you only feel darkness today or at least quite a bit of it. You are dealing with circumstances that are just awful, and you have no idea what God could possibly be doing. I want to plead with you not to lose faith. God is good and faithful, and he is at work even if you can’t see it right now. Do not lose heart. Trust God that he has a good purpose, and keep going.

Never underestimate the darkness of sinners, but especially never underestimate the mercy of God.

When you look at a story like this or think of the genocides I mentioned in my introduction, they are all incomprehensible. We can’t imagine how anyone would ever do such things. 

And yet the Bible teaches that it’s not just the Hamans and Hilters whose hearts are deceitful and desperately wicked; it’s all of us including you and me. It is only the grace of God that prevents sinners from ripping each other to shreds more often. And so when we see a Haman or a Hitler, we should see them as a reminder from God of what the human heart really is without his common grace. 

Of course that leaves us in a position of terrible despair and hopelessness. We are really bad, but that’s not the end of the story because God’s mercy is always greater. And we will never appreciate grace until we appreciate our own darkness. Maybe you see for the first time today just how sinful you are. I hope you will see as well that there is mercy with God in the cross of Christ. And I hope you will come to him today for salvation. 

And Christian continue to rest in the mercy of our Savior. Maybe you came to church today weighed down by how you failed the Lord this week, and you wonder, “Will God really forgive me?” He promises that he will always be faithful to forgive. Praise God.

More in Esther

September 10, 2017

Remember God’s Works

September 3, 2017

God Is Our Defender

August 27, 2017

Sowing and Reaping