Simon Bowkett's Podcast

Esther 3:5-15 When the powerful plot to wipe you out ... where is God?

November 19, 2022 Simon Bowkett
Simon Bowkett's Podcast
Esther 3:5-15 When the powerful plot to wipe you out ... where is God?
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         •        Introduction

Have you noticed that when we, the ordinary people, are being oppressed by the high and mighty, we easily resort to feeling helpless, oppressed and mistreated?

And we do that rather than stop for a minute to analyse just who is being manipulated by whom?

That sort of thing is going to affect our behaviour and response to this sort of situation, and shape our peace (or loss of it) in the situation to hand.

There are other, larger considerations to be born in mind in a situation like that, and that is precisely the message of our passage today in the Book of Esther, chapter 3 verses 5-15.

It all kicks off with the fury of a powerful little man.

         •        1) Haman’s fury Vv. 5-6

Vv. 5-6 “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.”

What do you read into that situation?

You see, this is a story, a drama being worked out before our mind’s eye, and we are SUPPOSED to use our imagination to understand what is going on, to inform our understanding.

So, standing back and thinking it over, what do you see here in this man Haman’s response?

What I see here is a little man inhabiting a big man’s position in politics.

We’ve seen already that he is a bit of a social climber … working his way in to get prestige, ‘honour’, by currying favour at the court.

But favour at court and honour are not really the same thing, are they?

You can ‘work your way in’ and be very dishonourable in how you live your life … gaining favour where honour is not due.

So here, when he is not bowed down to by a person who had deserve to be honoured but had been passed over (we’re talking about Mordecai here)  … Haman throws a total hissy fit and over-reacts completely:

“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.”

That’s not the act of a big man.

It’s the vengeful, insecure response of a man who doesn’t amount to much but has wheedled his way into power, and risen to such a height that he can’t even contemplate looking down in case he falls.

He’s not secure enough to just have a word with Mordecai to see if they can sort it out.

Drunk on power but unsteady on his feet … Haman is going to obliterate Mordecai’s race.

Odd, isn’t it, how so many autocratic rulers have been men small of stature?

Haman drops into slow, simmering malice.

         •        2) Haman’s slow, simmering malice, v. 7

Esther had been Queen for five years when Haman brought his malicious accusation before the King.

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 the twelfth month, the month of Adar”

Haman was an insecure and superstitious human being.

Now, of course, there are people of Biblical faith in the Old Testament who also cast lots to discover God’s will.

In those Old Testament days, the Holy Spirit had not yet been given at Pentecost in the way Joel 2 prophesied that He would.

So famously we find Joshua casting lots before the Lord to discover how to divide the land between the tribes of Israel (Joshua 18:6)

What matters at that point in the developing history of God’s relationship with His people is WHO you are casting lots before.

Here (and it’s the only time in the Bible) the Hebrew word is pur and the plural would be purim which we learn later in the book is the name given to the Jewish festival that celebrated the deliverance which finally comes about for God’s people at the end of the book.

But the usual word for these ‘dice’ by which the propitious course of action was discovered is goral … and there’s plenty of that going on in the Bible, and it’s perfectly legitimate in those Old Testament times when it is the God of the Old Testament Whose will is being sought by His pre-Pentecost people.

That’s not what Haman was doing though, and the significant thing to notice here is that whilst Haman started them off casting lots for him in the first month (the month of Nisan when the Jews celebrate the Passover), he had them continuing to cast lots about this day after day and month after month and it is the twelfth month (the month of Adar) before they get the indication from the forces behind pagan Persian religion that now is the time to move against Mordecai’s people … God’s people as we know them to be.

It was a simmering malice, and no doubt Haman had rehearsed thoroughly what he was going to say to the King when his process was complete and he went to raise the issue with King Xerxes.

         •        3) vv. Haman’s approach to the King vv. 8-9

When the time was deemed propitious, ‘A certain people’ were brought to the Persian King’s attention.

And those people are characterised as both (at the same time) inconsequential people AND a threat.

There is a really well thought out bit of monarch manipulation going on here.

It has the ear of the King, but just as with Memukan and the monarch in Esther chapter 1, the manipulation going on here is clear and tangible.


The people to be persecuted are characterised carefully as a threat to the power the King cherishes but has so publicly and so recently failed to maintain.

His capital with his empire’s leaders had suffered in the campaign for the conquest of Greece … a campaign that has for the second time quite recently failed spectacularly.

Haman plays on the insecurity of the King, and his consciousness of the state of the royal finances.

So we know that there’s a people that Haman wants to see wiped out because Mordecai (who is one of them) hasn’t pampered Haman’s ego.

So Haman first characterises and isolates these people to build prejudice against them.

Here are the points he highlights to try and do that to this people.

He tells Xerxes … 

            •          a) They are scattered 

If they are scattered they are going to be vulnerable.

But they are being characterised at the same time here as those with tentacles everywhere … which makes them a threat.

Just think of people groups that have had opinion dangerously turned against them in modern history by being first characterised in this way.

Secondly Haman says …

            •          b) They don’t fit in

Haman is convincing Xerxes that these people are dangerous to the unity of his empire (a unity threatened by the stresses caused by the losses the Empires client Kings have suffered in the wars) simply because this people being stigmatised don’t ‘fit in’.

Here’s how they are said not to fit in: they are characterised as separatist, different and disobedient … a threat to the unity of the state.

            •           i) They keep themselves separate

Now here’s a perennial snag.

I was at a Christian meeting this week where the suggestion was being made that people would understand Christians better if they referred to themselves not as ‘Christians’ but as ‘followers of Jesus’.

And I ventured the view privately with a good brother who raised this with me after the meeting that whilst that might work well in other cultures (and I had in mind the south-western states perhaps of the USA) to do that in our culture here was almost guaranteed to be misunderstood because it really would stand out as being ‘weird’.

And somebody said ‘but as Christians we’re SUPPOSED to be weird’.

Now hold it there!

Because as far as Christian living in our world is concerned, there’s a right and a wrong sort of weird, isn’t there?!

I tend to think it’s the right sort of ‘separate’ the author of Esther has got in mind here, because there is such a strong theme of covenant going on in this book at this time and it was one of God’s covenant simulations that His people should be ‘separate’ from the other nations and consecrated to Him.

But that’s going to be an accusation AGAINST God’s people if you’re coming at it from Haman and King Xerxes’ perspective.

            •           ii) Their customs are different

‘And that’s not all that threatens your position of power here’, says Haman next.

‘Their customs are different from the ones we seek to unite our lovely empire with’.

Insecure rulers seek to bolster their power with a unified culture.

It has been the case throughout history that unity in diversity has characterised the Kingdom of God but insecure despots have sought to impose cultural uniformity in the assumption that this constitutes societal unity.

Now whatever we think of Haman’s motives and objectives, those are two cracking arguments to play on Xerxes’s sense of insecurity in the political situation he was wrestling with! 

But Haman’s stinger has been saved up until last.

            •           iii) They obey their OWN laws

Now then, these people (that he still hasn’t called by name) keep hold of and obey their OWN LAWS!

This strikes a blow - or would be clearly perceived to - at the heart of the Persian state.

If he hadn’t been persuaded already, Xerxes by now would be soundly on-side!

What Haman puts to the King next is simply a consolidation of the already stated arguments.

            •          c) This situation is not in your interests

From everything we already know about Xerxes, we reckon he would be supremely well-motivated by his personal interest.

He is a self-centred person in power.

He’s that dangerous feature on the face of humanity, a leader who can’t say ‘No’ to himself.

So, yes, nicely played Haman!

“Their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not to the king’s profit to tolerate them”

Esther 3:8b (ESV)

Haman’s absolute clincher of a argument is about to be played … as Haman removes the King’s most pressing problem from any consideration of the execution of this evil proposition.

Haman says …

            •          d) I’ll give you money

V. 9b “I will pay 10,000 talents of silver into the hands of those who have charge of the king’s business, that they may put it into the king’s treasuries.”

Haman’s job here is now thoroughly done.

Here comes the King’s response.

         •        4) The King’s response, vv. 10-11

Vv. 10-11 “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, “and do with the people as you please.”

From what we know about Xerxes so far, the words ‘keep the money’ are not what we’d naturally expect to hear from him at this point.

What’s going on?

Well, I’ve done a bit of sweating with the Hebrew here and I reckon the English Standard Version, which sticks really closely to the text here, gives us a bit more of a clue about what’s going on:

“And the king said to Haman, “The money is given to you, the people also, to do with them as it seems good to you.”

What money?

The money Haman has just said he’ll give the King … which is FAR more than is going to be expended in publishing the King’s edict and in executing the command that it carries.

‘The silver (i.e. the money) is given to you’ says the Hebrew text.

This money Haman has promised is the only money in the context so it is THAT money.

Now just consider if you would the historical context.

We know the King is pretty fresh back from his military campaigns in Greece that had led up to the disastrous battle of Salamis, the disaster befalling Xerxes which concluded the second Persian war.

And we know that because of that, Xerxes is very much short of funds at this particular point in time.

It looks as if Haman’s offer of a huge sum … far more than needed for the task he wishes to see accomplished … recognises that Xerxes I is having to cut his cloth very much according to his empty pocket and Haman is promising to cover the costs of his plan for the genocide of the Jews.

And so (knowing that the costs entailed are covered) the King most unhesitatingly says:

‘The money is given to you (or ‘for’ you) and the people (or ’nation’), do with it (or ‘them’) as is pleasant to your eye’

It’s as if Haman has been very sensitive to the fact that the King is impecunious and therefore needs to minimise governmental interventions of any sort.

But now that Haman is putting up the sponsorship, Xerxes will be happy for this genocidal project of Haman’s to happen, so he ‘hands over’ the financial gift of Haman and the people or nation Haman wants to clobber ‘to do to them whatever pleases your eye’.

Now … a note of warning … I’m not a great Hebrew scholar and I’ve seen this idea in NONE of the commentaries.

But I’ve sweated over the words on the page and I’ve used my prayerful imagination to try to enter into what’s going on in the story and I reckon what’s going on is that Haman has made it easy for the King … presented a solution not a problem … and thereby manipulated this powerful but impecunious despot to favour Haman the Agagite’s evil plan. 

And THAT’s what underlies the King’s response: "So the king took his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman the Agagite, the son of Hammedatha othe enemy of the Jews. 

And the king said to Haman, “The money is given to you, the people also, to do with them as it seems good to you.”

Haman doesn’t hesitate for a minute but positively LEAPS to put his evil plans in action.

         •        5) vv. 12-15a Administering the malice

V. 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.”

Haman had waited mor than eleven months, while consulting their pagan gods for the propitious day, but immediately he’d spoken to the King he sent out the decree sealing the fate of the Old Testament people of God … ironically on the very day before Passover, the 13th. Nisan, the great day celebrating God’s deliverance of His people from the Empire of Egypt.

The decree orders all Persian citizens to take up arms on the appointed day and slaughter their Jewish neighbours regardless of age or gender.

And the decree is sent right throughout the Empire to every inhabitant in their own language.

The malice of this is highlighted as Haman is again referred to in terms of the ancient enmity between his people and the Jews: v. 10 “the king took his signet ring from his finger and gave it to Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews.

So where have we got to in the unfolding of this story?

The massed citizenry of the Persian Empire is about to come down on the people of God, and that’s about to happen because Haman the Agagite’s pride led him into such great malice.

That’s the thing here.

The immediate cause of this persecution of God’s people is Haman’s need to be honoured and shown outward respect.

It’s very like the situation in chapter 1 where Memukan unmoderated need for honour and respect as the man in the home motivates the king’s decree that wives throughout the Empire should respect their husbands.

It really seems that Memukan’s fear of losing respect at home led him to stir up the situation between Xerxes and Vashti sending the issue reverberating through every pat of the Empire.

And now the failure to show commanded respect by one Jew (Mordecai) sends a murderous edict against all the Jews reverberating throughout the entire Persian Empire.

This all leads Karen Jobes to comment: “A sub theme of the Esther story is that when such maniacal need for honour and respect is coupled with absolute power, the result is oppression and injustice.”

If Mordecai had been honoured properly at the time he should have been when he foiled the plot against the King, then Haman would not have been able to rise to power and perpetrate this further gross injustice against Mordecai and the Old Testament people of God.

But while both Esther and Mordecai are in this position because of the injustice and wickedness of others, they have no idea that the position they have been brought to is the very one that enables them to become the future deliverers of their people.

It all lies in God’s good providence, and that’s something it can be really hard to lay hold of at the time.

So … Haman had cast lots to discover from his pagan Persian gods how to get what Haman wanted.

That is what pagan worship seeks and that is how paganism works … it’s about how to get what a person themselves wants.

But Proverbs 16:33 helpfully teaches us “The lot is cast into the lap,

    but its every decision is from the Lord.”

Haman cast the lots to discover the best date to annihilate the Jews … but the Lord had already determined and promised (in Exodus 17:8-15) that after that first Passover in Egypt He would save His people from being destroyed by the Amalekites (Haman’s people) from generation to generation.

And Haman’s plot to wipe out the Jews on Passover Eve, the celebration of deliverance from Egypt (which was going to get thwarted), would be deeply ironic.

There is a Biblical history, you see, to threats against God’s people.

History shows that there is a force at work in the world bent on the destruction of God’s people, working through Egyptian Pharaohs, Agagite sons of Amalek and Roman emperors too.

In the Roman Empire many believers laid down their lives because their allegiance to Christ was viewed as a lack of ‘respect’ shown on their part to Rome’s emperors who demanded that whatever a person’s personal faith they should burn a little public incense to the imperial gods … just to demonstrate respect for the authority of Rome.

And life under worldly rulers can to this day, in very similar ways, be precarious for those who acknowledge God’s supreme sovereign authority, where it is deemed ‘not in the king’s best interest’ to tolerate the people of God.

Revelation, of course, fills in the cosmic background to this theme in world history with its account of ‘the Beast’ in Revelation 13 … it’s worth a read if you have the time and want to understand the background to the perception of the people of God across history and in the present day and how human pride and demands for obeisance made by insecure people in positions of power all serve the destructive purposes of the Enemy of Souls.

But Revelation … and Esther too in its own unique way … goes on to show that above and beyond all this work of the force that is opposed to God and His people (the evil force that demands to be ‘respected’), there nevertheless operates an even greater force, a greater power, the power of the Almighty Who actually directs the entire course of human history and is powerfully at work to save and redeem God’s cause and people.

And we see that supremely in Christ of course Who decisively reversed the reverses of the people of God.

As Paul puts it:

Colossians 2:15 “having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

When He was suffering most, when He was so openly despised and rejected, when He seemed most thoroughly vanquished and defeated (a CRUCIFIED Messiah?!) … He brought about the great reversal and His Cross formed the steps back up to His throne, redeeming His people as He passed by that way!

And all the while the ‘Haman’ types in His world had no idea what it was they had done.

But even amongst those looking on, their actions bred perplexity and confusion … which is precisely where this episode concludes in Esther 3 …

         •        Conclusion of contrasts - v. 15b

V. 15b “And the king and Haman sat down to drink 

but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion.”

There’s a real punch to the way this episode concludes there, and we need to dwell on this a little as we come to a close.

            •          The response of the citizens of Susa

The people of the city of Susa, hearing about this stuff that Haman and the King had done, were stunned, perplexed … some translations go with ‘Bewildered’.

They fell into confusion.

This final statement of v. 15 is a sad commentary on the pathetic disregard of despots for the human misery and suffering that they sometimes inflict on those who are helpless to resist their power. 

Here, while common people braced for the reckless loss of life and property that was about to begin, the perpetrators went about their mundane activities as though nothing of importance was happening.

Why were the people so perplexed?

There could well be more to it.

Here’s a little bit of the historical background:

In 550 B.C., Cyrus, king of Anshan, founded the Achaemenid Empire by conquering the kingdom of Media. 

During Cyrus's reign – from 550 until 530 B.C. – the Achaemenid territory stretched from the Balkans to Central Asia … it was HUGE by either ancient or modern standards.

In fact, the Achaemenid Empire was the largest empire by percentage of world population in history; approximately 59 million of the world’s 112 million people at that time, i.e. 44 percent of what we reckon to have been the world’s population at the time, lived under its rule. 

Why am I telling you this?

The thing is, as well as being the largest and most far-flung it was also the most diverse and pluralistic empire in the world in antiquity, unifying different nations, tribes, languages, cultures and religions. 

And cultural and religious tolerance was one of its clearest defining characteristics.

There’s the thing.

It was an Empire built and held together in such diversity not on an enforced unity created by repression, but on a unity born of remarkable tolerance.

How do we know this?

One of the most important events that happened during the reign of Cyrus was his defeat of the Babylonian king Nabonidus and the subsequent conquest of Babylon. 

This conquest was important for two reasons. 

First, it gave Cyrus control of strategic trade routes in the region.

Second, it spurred Cyrus to issue a charter, known as the Cyrus Cylinder, through which he proclaimed his views on the rights of the nations and peoples under his rule. 

That Cyrus Cylinder first of all describes how Cyrus and his army conquered Babylon and defeated Nabonidus. 

It then promises freedom of religion and worship for the diverse groups of people living in the Achaemenid Empire. 

Lastly, the Cylinder grants permission to those who were transferred to Babylon as prisoners of war to return to their homeland. 

And, of course, one of the groups allowed to return was the Jewish people … we read about that in the book of Ezra.

The emperor even gave the Jews financial and political support to return to their homeland and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem … and that wasn’t uncommon.

For these reasons, the Cyrus Cylinder is an important legal document in history that supports religious freedom and tolerance.

It was part of the Laws of the Persons and Medes which cannot be changed, but here is Xerxes I in these verses running roughshod over his grandfather’s ‘cylinder’ rule, which was far more than a piece of legislation … it was the very foundation on which the peace and unity of the Persian Empire had been built.

It was going to be serious for the Jewish people … of course it was.

But the perplexity of the people of this cosmopolitan city of Susa is totally understandable when you realise the seriousness of what these bad-boy despots who were now running the show at Susa had just done.

It made no sense even in the context of contemporary politics.

It was clearly wrong and unwise, even to contemporaries living outside and watching the political process.

(My, that sounds familiar!)

But all the while the insecure despots partied on, oblivious to their lack of wisdom and of the forces at work in the world that were actually manipulating them …


            •          The response of both Xerxes and Haman

V. 15b “The king and Haman sat down to drink, but the city of Susa was bewildered.”

So the rulers, who had just legislated to begin total genocide against God’s people, saw nothing odd about what they were doing and went back to business as usual.

It was party time again at the heart of Persian politics, but even the peasants could see the Persian Empire was both out of order and heading for serious trouble here.

The elite’s sense of ultimately being in control is about to be revealed by their experience in life as the vain illusion that it actually is.

Oh, they party on.

They have no CLUE about the realities of their situation.

The harem is full of girls and the cellars are full of wine and LOOK at what big wigs we are … that’s their philosophy of life … fake-secure in their supposed mastery of ‘doing life’!

Now, I see the citizens of Susa as like the chorus in a Greek Tragedy … they see the fragility of the whole house of cards of such arrogant human life, as if from the edge of the stage, while down-stage front centre the self-centred, self-righteous and self-sufficient dream-walk, and party on.

Esther shows us there’s a God, Who is over all, and works omnipotently but almost silently so that HIS plans and purposes prevail, guarding the security and the final destiny of His plans and people.

And if YOU are of His people and are puzzled and perplexed today about what’s happening to you and around you and don’t know how you can fathom it or comprehend it … or how you will weather this storm … this message of the Book of Esther is here for YOU.