A plan to kill the Jews - Esther 2:19 - 4:17
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
There comes a point in every good Western when it is time for the hero to
make a stand. A lady’s honour may have been insulted or the peace-loving
townsfolk may have been threatened by a dangerous villain – at which
point it is time for the hero to act. Enough is enough, a line has been crossed,
no longer can the hero keep himself to himself. He must put down his glass,
pull up his belt, tip back his hat, utter the famous line, ‘A man’s
gotta do what a man’s gotta do’ and then he must directly confront
the enemy of peace.
So far in the book of Esther, Mordecai has been keeping a low profile. His birth certificate would have identified him as a member of God’s chosen people, the Jews, but his lifestyle told a very different story. He may have been a good citizen in a foreign country but he tried his best to keep his Jewish origins well below the radar of Persian detection.
Until, that is, a man called Haman was promoted to the very top of the Persian government. And at this point Mordecai decided to make a stand. It was one of those hero moments. For so long he had kept his Jewish identity to himself. For so long he had lived a double life - in secret a believer but in public, well he was just like everybody else, doing his best to feed his family and survive another day. However, at the beginning of Esther chapter 3 Mordecai decides enough is enough. No longer will he deny his roots. No longer will he disobey his God. He will make a stand. It is late in the day, he should have done it before, but at least now Mordecai decides to make a public confession.
Let’s pick up the story at the end of chapter 2. Verse 19, “When the virgins were assembled a second time, Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate. But Esther had kept secret her family background and nationality just as Mordecai had told her to do, for she continued to follow Mordecai’s instructions as she had done when he was bringing her up.”
“During the time Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate, Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king’s officers who guarded the doorway, became angry and conspired to assassinate King Xerxes. But Mordecai found out about the plot and told Queen Esther, who in turn reported it to the king, giving credit to Mordecai. And when the report was investigated and found to be true, the two officials were hanged on a gallows. All this was recorded in the book of the annals in the presence of the king.”
By this point in the story Mordecai has landed himself a cushy job in the civil service. We’ve just read that he was frequently to be found sitting at the king’s gate but this was not because he was lazy. No this was where the civil servants waited until they were required to do their job. And it was on one of those occasions when Mordecai discovered a plot to overthrow the government. Or more precisely, he discovered a plot to assassinate King Xerxes. We’re not told exactly how he uncovered the conspiracy, we’re not told how he acquired the insider information, but after a thorough investigation his accusations turn out to be true. Two of the royal protection officers were planning to kill the sovereign. But thanks to Mordecai, King Xerxes survives for another day.
We’re told that all this was recorded in the chronicles of the king but for some reason Mordecai received no reward for his priceless information. In a couple of weeks time we’ll discover why but for now please notice who is rewarded by the king at the beginning of chapter 3.
“After these events, King Xerxes honoured Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, elevating him and giving him a seat of honour higher than that of all the other nobles. All the royal officials at the king’s gate knelt down and paid honour to Haman, for the king had commanded this concerning him. But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honour.”
The big question of the chapter is ‘Why?’ Why did Mordecai, who has just saved the life of a Persian king, refuse to honour a royal official? Why did Mordecai decide to stand out from the crowd? Everybody else was doing it, so why did Mordecai decide to stay on his feet when all of his colleagues were down on their knees? It’s the big question of the chapter. And interestingly enough it is the very question Mordecai himself is asked in verse 3. The royal officials say to him, “Why do you disobey the king’s command?” And do you see, verse 4, it’s a question they ask again and again. “Day after day they spoke to him but he refused to comply. Therefore they told Haman about it to see whether Mordecai’s behaviour would be tolerated, for he had told them he was a Jew.”
Well, there is the answer. Why would Mordecai not bow down to Haman? Quite simply because he was a Jew. That’s the answer he gave to his colleagues when they came round day after day. “Why do you defy the wishes of the king? You’re what? You’re Jewish? Since when. We’ve known you for years and you’ve said nothing before.” But a Jew he was and it was his Jewish identity that prevented Mordecai from bowing before Haman.
I think some people have misunderstood why the Jewishness of Mordecai stopped him giving honour to Haman. It was not that Haman was to be worshipped as a god. We know from Persian history that the normal custom for showing respect to a high official was to prostrate yourself before them. So Mordecai was not being asked to worship Haman as a god. He was simply being asked to follow standard protocol and honour Haman as a high-ranking civil servant.
So why did he refuse? The clue is in verse 1. Listen to how Haman is introduced to us. He’s not simply described as Haman, or Haman the efficient or Haman the king’s blue-eyed boy – he is described as Haman the Agagite.
This means pretty much nothing to us but that’s because we don’t know the history of God’s people. I’ve put a few bible verses on your handout for you to read when you get home but in summary King Agag was king of a group of people called the Amalekites. These people were the constant enemies of the Jews. We first meet them in the book of Exodus and thereafter there is constant tension, indeed constant hatred, between them and the Jews.
So the reason Mordecai cannot stomach kissing the feet of Haman is because he is an Amalekite, indeed he is a descendent of King Agag.
It would be like a German Jew in the 1940s being asked to pay respect to Adolf Hitler. There is something in the very act which would be abhorrent to a Jewish person.
What I find interesting is that for so long Mordecai had kept his Jewish identity under the radar. He had kept a very low profile. But at the promotion of Haman his conscience is suddenly pricked and he finally takes his stand for God. Enough is enough. It is a hero moment. It is, of course, very late in the day but better late than never.
I don’t know how you live your life at the moment. Can you identify with Mordecai? Secretly you believe but publicly you are no different from everyone else. And maybe you think to yourself, “Well, it’s a bit late now. I’ve worked at this place for years or I’ve lived in this street for ages. But nobody knows I’m a Christian. Isn’t it too late to identify myself with the followers of Christ?”
No! It’s never too late to stick your head above the parapet and say not only do I go to church but I’m a follower of Jesus Christ.
If you do find yourself in that situation let me encourage you to pray for a hero moment. An opportunity when you can naturally align yourself with the King you already follow in your heart.
Now when Mordecai did this there was consequences and we read about these in verse 5. “When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honour, he was enraged. 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.”
So he came up with a plan. First of all, he consulted the sacred stones, or as verse 7 puts it, “in the twelfth year of King Xerxes, in the first month, the month of Nisan, they cast the pur in the presence of Haman to select a day and month.”Then stage 2, he went to see the king. And let’s give credit where credit is due, Haman’s speech to King Xerxes was a masterful example of how to get your way.
Listen to what he said to the King. Verse 8, “There is a certain people [notice he doesn’t mention them by name] dispersed and scattered among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom whose customs are different from those of all other people [so far so good but then he tells the lie and says] and who do not obey the king’s laws [which is completely ridiculous – remember what Mordecai has just done!]; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued to destroy them, and I will put ten thousand talents of silver [which is about 60% of the annual income of the Persian Empire] into the royal treasury for the men who carry out this business.”
What did Xerxes do? He held a thorough investigation into the assassination accusations but what does he do the same for the suggested annihilation of an entire people group? Not at all! Verse 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. ‘Keep the money,’ the king said to Haman [I think he means, let’s not give it to the people who carry out the deed, let’s keep it for ourselves], and do with the people as you please.’”
And of course he did. He had been granted his permission so he duly summoned the royal secretaries, dictated his orders and they wrote out numerous documents which were then distributed around the Persian Empire. And so within days the news was spread that in roughly 12 months time, on the 13th day of the 12th month, the Jews were to be exterminated, young and old, women and children, and their goods were to be confiscated.
It’s worth pointing out that by the end of chapter 3 there seems to be little hope for the Jewish people. One of the highest ranking officials in the Persian government has just issued a law in an Empire where laws cannot be repealed which if followed will result in the complete annihilation of the Jews. The situation is desperate and there appears to be no light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
And yet at this point we should remember what the Bible teaches in Proverbs 16:33. You’ll see it on your handout. “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.”
No doubt Haman was rather pleased that he had 12 months to organise his Jewish holocaust but remember 12 months is also a long time to prepare a rescue plan. And we see the beginnings of this in chapter 4 verse 1.
“When Mordecai learned of all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly. But he went only as far as the king’s gate, because no-one clothed in sackcloth was allowed to enter it.”
Why did he do this? First of all, it was a genuine spiritual act designed to show repentance and reliance on God. He like many Jews chose to fast in this desperate time. But also, he did this to attract the attention of his adopted-daughter Esther, who at this point was married to the one man in the Persian Empire who might be able to save the Jews from total annihilation.
I just love what happens next. Verse 4, “When Esther’s maids came and told her about Mordecai, she was in great distress. She sent clothes for him to put on instead of his sackcloth, but he would not accept them.”
Esther’s first response was not to find out what was wrong but was to give her dad some new clothes so he would not embarrass her in public. We all know she is not the only daughter who has been embarrassed at her dad’s choice of clothes!
But then eventually she sent her servant Hathach to find out why Mordecai was so upset. And when he arrived, verse 7, “Mordecai told him everything that had happened to him, including the exact amount of money Haman had promised to pay into the royal treasury for the destruction of the Jews. He also gave him a copy of the text of the edict for their annihilation, which had been published in Susa, to show to Esther and explain it to her, and he told him to urge her to go into the king’s presence to beg for mercy and plead with him for her people.”
What is Esther’s response? Well, she’s not exactly a spiritual giant is she? Listen to the message she relays to Mordecai through her servant Hathach, “All the king’s officials and the people of the royal provinces know that for any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned the king has but one law: that he be put to death. The only exception to this is for the king to extend the gold sceptre to him and spare his life. But married life isn’t good Mordecai. It all started well but thirty days have passed since I was called to go to the king.”
Or in other words, her first instinct is not to take a risk and save her people, but to do nothing and save herself.
And that’s why Mordecai turns up the heat in verse 12. “When Esther’s words were reported to Mordecai, he sent back this answer: ‘Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?’”
In the next few weeks we’ll read more about the bravery and cunning of Esther as she begins to work out a plan to save her people from complete annihilation but for now I want to end by pointing out three lessons from what we’ve just read.
First of all, the protection of God’s people. What does Mordecai say? If not Esther then elsewhere.
Why? Because God had made a promise to Abraham. His seed would be multiplied. Time of real desperation. Think of the famine at the end of Genesis.
What happened to Christ. The slaughter of the baby boys at Bethlehem. The crucifixion of Jesus. The resurrection must happen to build his people.
In Christ we are God’s people. His promise is that there will always be Christian people alive in the world.
Local churches may close but the kingdom of Christ will never stop advancing. We need to be reminded of this in the spiritual desert that is Western Europe.
Secondly, I think we should copy Mordecai’s example and tentatively apply the truth of God’s providence. He says, “Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” He doesn’t say, “You have definitely come to it for this reason.” But he has read the signs and can see the advantage of her current position, regardless of the past mistakes which brought her there.
What about us? Two extremes to avoid. Those who make confident statements about everything. But also those who never tentatively apply the truth of God’s providence.
God’s providence is not simply a truth to be believed but a doctrine to be lived.
We know for sure that in every situation God wants us to be godly, to live for Christ and speak for him when opportunities arise. But could there be some particular reason why God has put you where you are? Maybe as a Christian friend you should tentatively apply the providence of God to someone else.
My own example when I was considering being an evangelist. God had ordered things and I knew as I put the pieces together that this was God’s way of instructing me.
The importance of prayer (not on your sermon notes). Assumed. We sometimes think salvation comes from programmes. We need to show our reliance on God. Doing the simple things right.
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