I invite you to open your Bibles with me to Esther, chapter 3. Esther 3, beginning in verse 1. Esther is in the Old Testament – after Ezra and Nehemiah and before Job and Psalms. Esther 3, beginning in verse one.
We are listening to God’s Word through the Book of Esther this fall because Esther and her people are in exile. They face daily challenges to live faithfully to God amidst the pressures of a pagan culture. God is consistently at work, but in ways that can be difficult to see without the eyes of faith. Esther’s life mirrors ours in many ways. As we walk through this story, we hope to learn a bit more about living faithfully in this world and how God works in our lives.
So far, Ahasuerus has thrown a drunken bash and called his wife to come be paraded before all his buddies. She refuses, the king gets mad, and Vashti is removed. The good old boys freak out and send out an edict to make sure wives give honor to their husbands. Later, the king searches for a replacement queen – gathering all the beautiful, young virgins in the empire. In a twist of providence, it is the Jew Esther who takes on the mantle of queen, having hidden her ethnic and religious identity. We left off with Esther’s uncle and adoptive father, Mordecai, overhearing a plot to assassinate the king and reporting it, so that those responsible are hanged.
So we pick up the story again in Esther 3, beginning in verse 1. But before we do, please take a moment to pray with me:
Father, may your Word be our rule, your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.
These are the very words of God from the book that we love:
After these things, King Ahasuerus promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him and set his seat above all the officials who were with him. And all the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate bowed down and did obeisance to Haman, for the king had so commanded concerning him. But Mordecai did not bow down and do obeisance. Then the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate said to Mordecai, “Why are you disobeying the king’s command?” When they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them, they told Haman, in order to so whether Mordecai’s word would avail, for he had told them that he was a Jew. When Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow down or do obeisance to him, Haman was infuriated. But he thought it beneath him to lay hands on Mordecai alone. So, having been told who Mordecai’s people were, Haman plotted to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus.
In the first month, which is the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus, they cast Pur – which means ‘the lot’ – before Haman for the day and for the month, and the lot fell on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar. Then Haman said to King Ahasuerus, “There is a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those who have charge of the king’s business, so that they may put it into the king’s treasuries.” So the king took his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews. The king said to Haman, “The money is given to you, and the people as well, to do with them as it seems good to you.”
Then the king’s secretaries were summoned on the thirteenth day of the first month, and an edict, according to all that Haman commanded, was written to the king’s satraps and to the governors over all the provinces and to the officials over all the peoples, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language; it was written in the name of King Ahasuerus and sealed with the king’s ring. Letters were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces, giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods. A copy of the document was to be issued as a decree in every province by proclamation, calling on all peoples to be ready for that day. The couriers went quickly by order of the king, and the decree was issued in the citadel of Susa. The king and Haman sat down to drink, but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
If we are reading this story for the first time, we might be a little surprised by the opening events of this chapter. After all, Mordecai the Jew has just saved the king from assassination. The plot was thwarted and Mordecai’s deeds recorded in the book of the annals in the presence of the king. So when we hear After these things, King Ahasuerus promoted…we are expecting to hear Mordecai’s name. Instead, we hear Haman, son of Hammadatha, the Agagite. By the end of the chapter, we realize the gravity of Ahasuerus’ decision to promote Haman, but at this point it just looks like an oversight.
There are five years between when Esther becomes queen, in the seventh year of King Ahasuerus, and Haman’s plot to kill the Jews, in the twelfth year of Ahasuerus. In those five years, we could easily imagine that Mordecai and Esther assumed that the rest of their lives would go smoothly. Esther is Queen, after all. There is a Jewish Queen in Persia, albeit a hidden one. After the stress and difficulty of Esther’s position in the harem and the constant challenge of living in the empire, it must have been tempting to think, “Yes, it’s finally over. We made it.” But unbeknownst to them, a storm was brewing that would lead to a plot to destroy God’s people. The danger was not over just because one battle was won, the struggle continued because the enemy is always plotting his next attack.
We can tempted to fall into that same place of contentment when life is going well. After periods of struggle, there are often times where God gives us rest and peace. But it does not last forever. The struggle continues, because the enemy, those powers and principalities that Paul speaks of, those forces that seek to oppose God’s will, God’s people, and God’s kingdom, are not at rest.
Haman is but one example of the reality of living in a fallen world. Until we die and go to be with the Lord, we are never done struggling to be faithful. We never fully arrive. There is a danger when we think we have. When we have faced temptation and come out victorious by the grace and power of God, we can be tempted to think, “Yes, it is done. It is defeated. I will never struggle with that again.” When we finally open our ears and hear God calling us to take one step forward in faith, we can be tempted to say, “It’s done. I made it.” But the struggle continues, whether five years later or five seconds later, the Hamans of this world attack again. People dead on the streets, homes broken apart by divorce, lives destroyed by addiction, corruption and injustice in governments allowing wickedness to go unchecked. Daily it seems that Ahauserus promotes Haman, while Esther and Mordecai struggle to survive and be faithful. The struggle is not over until Christ returns.
While we know that Mordecai was deserving of promotion and recognition, After these things, King Ahasuerus promoted Haman son of Hammadatha, the Agagite. A man named Haman was now in one of the highest positions in the kingdom. Everywhere he went, all the king’s servants who are at the king’s gate bowed down and did obeisance to Haman, for the king had so commanded concerning him. People bowed down to him as he walked by, not necessarily because they respected him, but because the king commanded them to do it. But Mordecai did not bow down and do obeisance.
Everyone else bowed their knees when Haman passed, but not Mordecai. Why? We are not told directly, but there are hints at two possible reasons. One, he refused because of what he was asked to do OR Two, he refused because of who he was asked to do it for.
The first possibility is that Mordecai refuses because by bowing down and doing obeisance (a fancy word for a bow or curtsy to express deep respect), he would be, in effect, worshipping Haman. So the issue is the second commandment – Exodus 20:4-5: You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them and worship them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God” It could be that Mordecai does not bow because he is taking a stand – literally and metaphorically. In a world where the pressure to compromise and assimilate is almost overwhelming, there has to be a line he cannot cross. The Lord alone is God, no one else is worthy of that praise. If Haman was styling himself as some sort of God-like figure, then bowing down to him was one step too far for Mordecai.
But there is another possibility. It could be less about the bowing, for later Esther throws herself at the feet of the king with no concerns about the second command. Instead, it could be about who Mordecai is asked to bow down to. When Mordecai is introduced in chapter 2, we are told that he is the Son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, A Benjaminite. Haman, on the other hand, is listed as Haman, son of Hammadatha, an Agagite. Both have their ancestors listed and not by accident. Where else in the Bible does a Benjaminite, with ancestors by the name of Shimei and Kish encounter someone with the name of Agag? Could it be that what happens between Mordecai and Haman is connected to something hundreds of years earlier? Let me tell you a story of Saul, son of Kish, a Benjaminite from 1 Samuel 15:
Samuel said to Saul, “The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have: do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”
So Saul summoned the people, and numbered them in Telaim, two hundred thousand foot soldiers, and ten thousand soldiers of Judah. Saul came to the city of the Amalekites and lay in wait in the valley. Saul said to the Kenites, “Go! Leave! Withdraw from among the Amalekites, or I will destroy you with them; for you showed kindness to all the people of Israel when they came up out of Egypt.” So the Kenites withdrew from the Amalekites. Saul defeated the Amalekites, from Havilah as far as Shur, which is east of Egypt. He took King Agag of the Amalekites alive, but utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword. Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep and of the cattle and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was valuable, and would not utterly destroy them; all that was despised and motherless they utterly destroyed.
The word of the Lord came to Samuel: “I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me, and has not carried out my commands.” Samuel was angry, and he cried out to the Lord all night.
Saul, son of Kish, was called by God to utterly destroy the Agag and the Amalekites, who had been perpetual enemies of Israel. But Saul did not. He spared Agag and plundered his camp – disobeying God. This refusal to obey God’s command concerning Agag is one of the reasons the kingship is taken from Saul and given to David.
But now, hundreds of years later, the disobedience of Saul has come back to haunt the people of Israel. Haman is a descendent of Agag and Mordecai, whether a descendent of Saul or not, has a lineage that is intended to remind us of him. Past sins lead to present problems. Whether they knew it or not, the struggle between Haman and Mordecai is a continuation of that story of Saul and Agag long ago. As we will see later, Mordecai is able to accomplish what Saul never could. The confrontation between Mordecai and Haman is part of a much larger story.
For whatever reason, Mordecai does not bow to Haman and Haman is not pleased. When Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow down or do obeisance to him, Haman was infuriated. But he thought it beneath him to lay hands on Mordecai alone. So, having been told who Mordecai’s people were, Haman plotted to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus.
Haman is not content to hurt only Mordecai or his family, he wants to wipe his entire people off the face of the earth. Haman’s rage is incredibly imbalanced. He responds to a small slight to his pride with genocide. Haman’s wounded pride surfaces as anger. In his rage, he plots. He casts lots to determine the proper date and then goes to the king with a sly proposal. “My King, there are a people in your empire who are different than the rest of us. They do not do things like the rest of us, they don’t fit in, you should not let them be here. If you’d like, give the command to get rid of them, and I will make it worth your while.” Haman offers a sum over half the annual tax revenue of Persia so that these people will be destroyed. All because Mordecai refused to bow. All because Mordecai didn’t give him the respect he thought he deserved. But the reason he gives the king is that these people are different than everyone else. How many times throughout history have the strong told the weak that they must assimilate or die? How many times have governments and dictators seen people being different as a threat to be crushed? And the king – ever-suggestible and foolish – gives Haman all the power to see his vision done. He takes off his signet ring – the symbol of his royal power – and gives it to Haman. Couriers go out to the four corners of the empire declaring the thirteenth day of the twelfth month a they day for the destruction of the Jews. The king and Haman sat down to drink, but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion.
We are left stunned by the turn of events in this chapter. It is no wonder the capital city is thrown into confusion. How could this happen? How could the King give Haman permission to do such a thing? How could Haman’s rage blind him so that he would think genocide is justified? How will God deliver his people from this Haman’s threat?
As the story unfolds, we will see that God has been working to bring deliverance before Haman even burst on the scene. Esther’s place as queen, the lot falling on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, giving 11 months of time for Esther and Mordecai to work around this decree, as well as a host of other events will show God’s hand clearly at work. We will see that God makes a way where no way seemed possible. God brings deliverance where there appears to be sure destruction.
Is that not the way of God? Bringing hope and life where before there was only destruction and death? Making a way where before there was no way? We will see God bring hope and deliverance to his people in exile, doomed to die, which points ahead to that great event of redemption, the cross of Christ, where God brings the ultimate hope and deliverance to his people exiled in sin.
We will see all these things in the weeks to come, but today we are faced with Haman – his anger, his wounded pride, and his vindictiveness.
But as we rightly condemn Haman for his hateful actions and Ahasuerus for handing him the power to inflict his anger on the Jewish people, we must be careful we are not condemning ourselves in the process. None of you are Haman – you are filled with compassion. I have seen you give countless hours to serve others, often intentionally without recognition. I have known your love and care for me, for each other, and for this world God so loves. I am proud beyond belief to be your pastor and see God’s love evident in your lives.
We are not Haman, but there is a bit of Haman in each of us. I occasionally tell people that we are a community with big hearts and short fuses. We will give you the shirt off our backs and buy you five more, but if crossed, watch out. Like Haman, our damaged pride, our pain, our feelings of being disrespected, often show up as anger and that anger is destructive. How many relationships do we have that are still damaged today because of something that was said a year ago, five years ago, ten years ago? How many of us can name times where we have been hurt and then lashed out in anger – leading to more pain, more sin, and more regret? I know I can.
If as I am saying this, you feel anger bubbling up in you, maybe take a moment to examine what God might be telling you through this.
The one thing Haman seems to want is that everyone would get on their knees before him. But we can do what he did not, get on our knees ourselves. He wanted everyone to humble themselves before him, but we have the opportunity to humble ourselves before a gracious God and pray that God will change our hearts.
Those wounds we carry as well as those wounds we have caused can only be healed by Christ. Apart from God’s grace and his healing hand in our lives, we will continue to act like Haman. We will continue to let our pain show up as anger that hurts and destroys.
Carry your wounds to Christ. Let him heal you.
Carry your anger to Christ. Let him turn your anger away from your brother and toward the sin that tears you apart.
At the close of chapter 3, Haman’s words have thrown the city into confusion, but by the end of the story, Haman will not have the last word. God will. Through Esther and Mordecai, God will overthrow the work of Haman and establish deliverance and peace. In our lives, trust that God’s redemption will also have the last word, that Jesus’ work in your life can and will overturn the Haman outside of us and the Haman within us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.