Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
While it is always important to understand the context of a particular scripture text, it is especially critical with this one. The book of Esther is a story, and these brief passages from chapters 7 and 9 deal only with the climax and the ending. Most people in your congregation won’t be familiar with the story, so dealing only with the brief lectionary reading would be, for them, like walking into a motion picture theater toward the end of the movie—frustrating rather than edifying. Let me first introduce the major characters. Then I will try to summarize the missing chapters, as well as comment on the lectionary text.
MAJOR CHARACTERS (in order of appearance):
KING AHASUERUS: Ahasuerus (better known by his Greek name, Xerxes I) ruled the Persian Empire from 486 B.C. (when his father, Darius, died) to 465 B.C. (when he was murdered by one of his advisors). The book of Esther presents him as weak—ruled by his passions—easily manipulated. That corresponds to his public record, which was spotty at best. He spent many years fighting the Greeks, losing in the end.
SUSA: Susa was a city rather than a character. Located in what is today the western part of Iran, it served as King Ahasuerus’ capital city.
QUEEN VASHTI: Ahasuerus’ queen at the beginning of the story.
MORDECAI: A Jewish man—Esther’s older cousin and her adoptive father (2:7).
ESTHER: A beautiful Jewish woman who became queen after Ahasuerus deposed Vashti.
HAMAN: Ahasuerus’ chief advisor (3:1) who becomes Mordecai’s mortal enemy (chapter 3).
SUMMARY OF THE EARLY CHAPTERS:
Queen Vashti incurred the king’s wrath by refusing to obey his order to parade her beauty before the kings’ guests at a grand banquet (1:10-12). Ahasuerus responded by deposing Vashti (1:13-22). He then began looking for a beautiful woman to take Vashti’s place, which led to Esther becoming his queen. When Esther was taken into the palace as one of the girls competing to become queen, Mordecai advised her not to reveal that she was Jewish (2:10). Ahasuerus fell in love with Esther and made her his queen (2:16-18).
Later, Mordecai discovered a plot to assassinate Ahasuerus. He revealed the plot to Esther, who revealed it to the king, telling the king of Mordecai’s role in saving the king’s life. The plot was foiled and the king’s life was saved (2:19-23).
But Mordecai offended Haman by refusing to bow down to Haman as the king had commanded. Learning that Mordecai was Jewish, Haman decided to destroy, not only Mordecai, but all the Jews. He cast lots (pur) to determine a proper time for this action, and “the lot, before Haman from day to day, and from month to month, and chose the twelfth month, which is the month Adar” (3:7)—Adar being the last month of the Hebrew calendar but equivalent of our February or March. Haman then offered the king ten thousand talents of silver and persuaded the king to announce an edict that on that day all the people of the kingdom should rise up “to destroy, to kill, and to cause to perish, all Jews, both young and old, little children and women… and to plunder their possessions” (3:13).
When Mordecai learned of this edict, he “went out into the midst of the city, and wailed loudly and a bitterly” and wearing sackcloth—as did all the Jews (4:1-3). When Esther heard of this, she sent Hatach, one of the king’s eunuchs’ as an emissary to Mordecai. Mordecai told Hatach of the edict and asked that Esther plead for her people with the king (4:8). Esther sent a message to Mordecai that anyone coming before the king unbidden placed themselves in mortal danger. Unless the king held out his scepter, symbolizing his approval, the person who came unbidden would be killed (4:10-11).
“Then Mordecai asked them return answer to Esther,
‘Don’t think to yourself that you will escape in the king’s house
any more than all the Jews.
For if you remain silent now,
then relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place,
but you and your father’s house will perish.
Who knows if you haven’t come to the kingdom
for such a time as this?'” (4:13-14).
After praying and soliciting the prayers of others, Esther went to see the king, who not only held out his scepter, but also said, “What would you like, queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given you even to the half of the kingdom” (5:3). Note the respectful address, “Queen Esther.” However, we should not imagine that the king means her to take his offer literally. His offer conveyed approval—even generosity. He intended to encourage Esther to ask for what she wanted. However, he expected Esther to ask for something reasonable—not for half of his kingdom.
This was a tender moment—a moment when everything turned on Esther’s wisdom. If she made a request that the king could honor, he would fulfill her request and she would remain in his good graces. If, on the other hand, she asked for something that the king was reluctant to give, her over-reaching could set the king against her. So Esther responded,
“My petition and my request is this.
If I have found favor in the sight of the king,
and if it please the king to grant my petition
and to perform my request,
let the king and Haman come to the banquet
that I will prepare for them,
and I will do tomorrow as the king has said” (5:7b-8).
Note her respectful tone: “If I have found favor in the sight of the king, and if it please the king.” Ahasuerus would be accustomed to hearing this kind of language, so Esther incorporated it into her request. Then she asked that the king and Haman attend a “banquet that I will prepare for them” with the promise that she would then tell the king what she wanted. A fisherman would call this “setting the hook.”
The king would be happy to attend her banquet—and Haman would be highly honored to be included. When they comply with her request, Esther will make her true request in a quiet, intimate setting rather than the public setting where she initially encountered the king.
Then there is an “aside,” where we learn that Haman, on the advice of his wife and friends, constructs a gallows to hang Mordecai—a gallows fifty cubits high (75 feet or 23 meters) (5:9-14).
Then there is another “aside” (chapter 6). The king, finding it difficult to sleep, has his servants bring the book of records to read to the king (what a great way to get sleepy). The king then hears the story of Mordecai, whose earlier actions saved the king’s life (see 2:19-23). The king asks what has been done to honor Mordecai. Upon learning that nothing has been done, he sends for his trusted advisor, Haman, and asks, “What shall be done to the man whom the king delights to honor?” (6:6). Haman, assuming that the king intends to honor him, says,
“For the man whom the king delights to honor,
let royal clothing be brought which the king uses to wear,
and the horse that the king rides on,
and on the head of which a crown royal is set.
Let the clothing and the horse be delivered
to the hand of one of the king’s most noble princes,
that they may array the man whom the king delights
to honor with them,
and have him ride on horseback through the city square,
and proclaim before him,
‘Thus shall it be done to the man
whom the king delights to honor!'” (6:7b-9).
We the readers, knowing that the king intends to honor Mordecai, hear the delicious irony as these words come from Haman’s mouth. We can anticipate the next step—that the king will order Haman to robe Mordecai in the king’s robe and lead Mordecai (mounted on the king’s horse) through the public square, proclaiming, “Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor.” That, in fact, is exactly what happens (6:10-11). At that point, Haman realizes that he might be in trouble (6:12-13).
That brings us to our lectionary passage, 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22.
ESTHER 7:1-6. SO THE KING AND HAMAN CAME TO BANQUET WITH ESTHER
1So the king and Haman came to banquet with Esther the queen. 2The king said again to Esther on the second day at the banquet of wine, “What is your petition, queen Esther? It shall be granted you. What is your request? Even to the half of the kingdom it shall be performed.” 3Then Esther the queen answered, “If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request. 4For we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to perish. But if we had been sold for bondservants and bondmaids, I would have held my peace, although the adversary could not have compensated for the king’s loss.”
5Then King Ahasuerus said to Esther the queen, “Who is he, and where is he who dared presume in his heart to do so?”
6Esther said, “An adversary and an enemy, even this wicked Haman!”
Then Haman was afraid before the king and the queen.
“So the king and Haman came to banquet with Esther the queen“ (v. 1). When the king first asked Esther to name her request, she wisely deferred until such time that she could get the king in a more intimate setting. The delay also gave the king time to wonder what she might ask. But two more even more important things have happened in the interim:
• First, Haman has erected a giant gallows on which he intends to hang Mordecai (but in the end those gallows will serve a purpose that he could not have imagined) (5:9-14).
• Second, and most important, the king has missed his sleep, which caused him to review the royal records and remember that Mordecai was responsible for saving his life. He learns that Mordecai has not been honored for this, and calls on Haman to honor Mordecai (chapter 6). When the king attends Esther’s banquet, the memory of Mordecai’s service will be fresh in his memory.
“The king said again to Esther on the second day at the banquet of wine, ‘What is your petition, queen Esther? It shall be granted you. What is your request? Even to the half of the kingdom it shall be performed‘” (v. 2). The king repeats, in almost exactly the same words, the question that he first expressed in 5:6.
“Then Esther the queen answered, ‘If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king‘” (v. 3a). Esther begins her request deferentially, using words that acknowledge the king’s position and authority. These are almost exactly the words that she used in 5:4, when the king first made his offer. Some people will find this deferential language repulsive, but it is the kind of language that the king is accustomed to hearing—and the stakes are so high that Esther doesn’t want to take any chances on failure.
“let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request“ (v. 3b). The king has asked, “What is your petition, queen Esther? …What is your request?” (7:2)—two brief expressions of the same thought. The Jewish people used that kind of parallelism in their poetry. We see it over and over again in the Psalms. Perhaps Ahasuerus used that parallelism as a poetic note—or, perhaps, he simply asked in two ways to encourage Esther to tell him what she wanted. He surely didn’t intend for her to ask for two things.
In any event, Esther uses both of his words, petition and request, in her response. She uses “petition” to ask for her own life and “request” to ask for the lives of her people. In one sense, this seems like two requests, but in fact it is one. If all the Jews are to die, Esther will die too. Her request is that all the Jews, including herself, be saved.
“For we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to perish“ (v. 4a). This is a sensitive moment, because it is the king who sold Esther and her people. Haman gave the king ten thousand talents of silver (an enormous sum) to the king in exchange for authority to do with the Jews as he wished (3:9-11). However, if Esther were to use language that would implicate the king, she would succeed only in poisoning her petition—incurring the king’s wrath—securing the king’s rejection. So she uses the passive voice to avoid using the king’s name. Her words, “destroyed,” “killed,” and annihilated,” come directly from the letter sent by Haman (using the king’s name and sealed by the king’s seal) ordering officials in all the provinces “to destroy, to kill, and to cause to perish, all Jews” (3:13).
“But if we had been sold for bondservants and bondmaids, I would have held my peace“ (v. 4b). Slavery, as the experience of the Israelites in Egypt proved, can be difficult, but it can also be temporary. Death, on the other hand, has a ring of finality.
“although the adversary could not have compensated for the king’s loss“ (v. 4c). This is difficult to translate, but Esther seems to be saying that the sum of money that the king received is far too little to compensate him for the damage that Haman’s plot will do to the king and his kingdom. Just imagine the taxes that the Jews would pay this year—and the next and the next. Just imagine the goods that they would produce. Just imagine their creative potential. Consider the fact that they are good and loyal subjects who cause the king no trouble. Can the king afford to sacrifice these loyal subjects in return for only ten thousand talents of silver? Hardly!
Note Esther’s diplomatic skills. She doesn’t try to make the case that the Jews should be saved because they are good people—an argument that might fall on deaf ears with this king. She instead makes the case that the king will be the loser if they are killed. She couches everything in terms of their effect on the king. While we might prefer Esther to deal with this as a human rights issue, Esther understands that the king is more likely to respond to language that addresses his personal interests.
“Then King Ahasuerus said to Esther the queen, ‘Who is he, and where is he who dared presume in his heart to do so?‘” (v. 5). The king, obviously outraged (and having no idea that he is one of the guilty parties), responds by asking three short, pithy questions. It is clear that he intends to render justice as soon as he learns the identity of the culprit.
“Esther said, ‘An adversary and an enemy, even this wicked Haman‘” (v. 6a). Esther responds to the kings three quick questions with three quick answers. First, she identifies the culprit as a foe and an enemy, presumably not only of the Jews but also of the king. Then she provides the name—”this wicked Haman!”
“Then Haman was afraid before the king and the queen” (v. 6b). Haman is terrified, and we are delighted! The culprit has been exposed and will soon be punished.
Earlier, when Haman was forced to honor Mordecai, his wife told him, “If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of Jewish descent, you will not prevail against him, but you will surely fall before him” (6:13). Now her prophecy has come true.
ESTHER 7: 7-8. WILL HE EVEN ASSAULT THE QUEEN IN FRONT OF ME?
7The king arose in his wrath from the banquet of wine and went into the palace garden. Haman stood up to make request for his life to Esther the queen; for he saw that there was evil determined against him by the king. 8Then the king returned out of the palace garden into the place of the banquet of wine; and Haman had fallen on the couch where Esther was. Then the king said, “Will he even assault the queen in front of me in the house?” As the word went out of the king’s mouth, they covered Haman’s face.
These verses are not part of the lectionary reading, but the preacher will do well to include them. They won’t prolong the reading very much, and are essential to understanding the next verses.
The angry king got up and left the room—perhaps to get his anger under control—perhaps to determine how to proceed. Esther’s request has put him in a difficult position. An edict “written in the king’s name, and sealed with the king’s ring, may not be reversed by any man” (8:8), so the solution to this problem will not come easily. Furthermore, the king now knows that his most trusted advisor (Haman) is the culprit, so he cannot go to Haman for advice, as he usually would. Furthermore, the king might understand that he is complicit himself. He is both furious and confounded. What can he do?
While he is out of the room, Haman pleads with Esther for his life. She is his only hope. Haman knows that he cannot expect mercy from the king, but perhaps he can extract a bit of mercy from this woman.
The king returned to the room to discover that Haman “had fallen on the couch where Esther was” (7:8). Surely, Haman was not accosting the queen, but had only thrown himself at her feet to beg for mercy. However, the king asked, “Will he even assault the queen in front of me in the house?” We will never know whether he really thought Haman was assaulting the queen. It serves his purposes to believe that he was, because that gives him justification for punishing Haman without addressing his own complicity for the edict.
“they covered Haman’s face” (v. 8). This is most likely the preparation of the condemned man for his death. Throughout history, officials have often blindfolded the condemned person before implementing the execution.
ESTHER 7:9-10. THE GALLOWS WHICH HAMAN HAS MADE FOR MORDECAI
9Then Harbonah, one of the eunuchs who were with the king said, “Behold, the gallows fifty cubits high, which Haman has made for Mordecai, who spoke good for the king, is standing at Haman’s house.”
The king said, “Hang him on it!”
10So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then was the king’s wrath pacified.
“Then Harbonah, one of the eunuchs who were with the king said, ‘Behold, the gallows fifty cubits high, which Haman has made for Mordecai, who spoke good for the king, is standing at Haman’s house‘” (v. 9a).
The gallows that Haman constructed is fifty cubits high (75 feet or 23 meters)—high enough that it is visible from the palace. Harbona, one of the servants, draws the king’s attention to it. He doesn’t suggest that the king hang Haman from that gallows—he understands that the king needs only a little nudge in that direction. The king is searching for a way to rid himself of Haman. Harbona needs only to make the king aware of the gallows, and the king can take it from there.
Some people in high places inspire great loyalty among the “little people” who serve them, but more often the “little people” chafe under the selfish rule of their bosses. Given Haman’s grand egotism, we can be sure that Harbona and the other palace servants would be glad to see him go. We can almost see the twinkle in Harbona’s eyes when he mentions the gallows to the king. Harbona mentions that Haman prepared the gallows for Mordecai, and surely delights in the irony that the king will use the gallows to punish Haman.
“The king said, ‘Hang him on it'” (v. 9b). Having been prompted by Harbona, Ahasuerus issues a direct order—knowing that his order can be executed without delay and that no judge will countermand it.
“So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai“ (v. 10a). Haman’s death “illustrates the conviction of Jewish wisdom that those who do evil will be punished by the work of their own hands” (see Prov. 26:27; 21:7; 11:19; 12:13) (Roberts).
“Then was the king’s wrath pacified“ (v. 10b). The king is no longer angry, but the danger has not abated. The king’s edict is still in effect. The Jewish people are still in mortal danger.
ESTHER 8-9. ESTHER SAVES THE JEWS
After Haman’s death, the king makes Mordecai his chief advisor (8:1-2). Esther pleads with Ahasuerus for the life of her people, only to learn that “the writing which is written in the king’s name, and sealed with the king’s ring, may not be reversed by any man” (8:8). However, the king allows Esther to write a new edict giving the Jews the right “to destroy, to kill, and to cause to perish, all the power of the people and province that would assault them” (8:11). Therefore, “the Jews struck all their enemies with the stroke of the sword” (9:5) —they do this on two successive days. They also hang the ten sons of Haman on the gallows (9:13)
The Feast of Purim was inaugurated to encourage people to remember these events (9:18-19). The name Purim comes from the casting of the lots (pur) (3:7; 9:28).
“But the Jews who were in Shushan assembled together on the thirteenth and on the fourteenth days of the month; and on the fifteenth day of that month, they rested, and made it a day of feasting and gladness. Therefore the Jews of the villages, who live in the unwalled towns, make the fourteenth day of the month Adar a day of gladness and feasting, a good day, and a day of sending presents of food to one another” (9:18-19).
ESTHER 9:20-22. KEEPING THE FEAST OF PURIM
9:20 Mordecai wrote these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus, both near and far, 21to enjoin them that they should keep the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month Adar yearly, 22as the days in which the Jews had rest from their enemies, and the month which was turned to them from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning into a good day; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, and of sending presents of food to one another, and gifts to the needy.
One of the most significant purposes of the book of Esther is to encourage Jewish people to observe the Feast of Purim each year. These two verses serve that purpose.
“Mordecai wrote these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus, both near and far“ (9:20). Mordecai has both moral and civil authority. His moral authority among the Jewish people has to do with his work to save them from Haman’s edict. His civil authority stems from his position as the king’s chief advisor. In that capacity, he has the power to record these events as part of the royal records. He also has access to the government’s postal and courier systems. He can write for the record, and he can write letters to be distributed throughout the empire.
“to enjoin them that they should keep the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month Adar yearly“ (v. 21). Mordecai could command the Jews to observe the fourteenth and fifteenth of the month of Adar, but he instead enjoins them to do so. He appeals to the community, not on the basis of his civil authority, but rather on the basis of his moral authority. He doesn’t tell them to observe these days—he asks them—tries to persuade them.
He doesn’t specify that the people in Susa should observe one day and the people outside Susa the other day—or that all should observe both days. He probably made that clear in his letters, but it isn’t clear in these verses. However, that isn’t the point. The point is that they should commemorate this victory. They should remember this great moment of their history, and pass those memories on to their children.
“as the days in which the Jews had rest from their enemies, and the month which was turned to them from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning into a good day; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, and of sending presents of food to one another, and gifts to the needy“ (v. 22). Now Mordecai tells them how they should observe the festival. It is to be a time “of feasting and gladness.” They are to send gifts of food to one another—a practice that will heighten their sense of community. They are also to give presents to the poor—a practice that will heighten their moral authority and their relationship to God.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Breneman, Mervin, New American Commentary: Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Vol. 10 (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993)
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(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999)
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Jobes, Karen, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Roberts, Mark, The Preacher’s Commentary: Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Vol. 11 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1993)
Rawlinson, G., The Pulpit Commentary: Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, “Esther,” Vol. VII (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, no date)
Copyright 2009, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan