The story of Esther is a story of commitment. In the book of Esther, we read about Mordecai’s commitment to Esther and Esther’s commitment to her people. What is the cost one must pay to live a life of commitment to a cause? Christians have different levels of commitment to the cause of Christ.
What is required to be truly committed to a cause? Sacrificing one’s life for a worthy cause could be very costly. The book of Esther reveals the story of two people, Esther and Mordecai and the price they had to pay for their commitment to the Jews who lived in Persia.
Haman, the Agagite
The story of Mordecai’s commitment begins with his struggle with Haman, the Agagite: “After these things [events] King Ahasuerus promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him and set his seat above all the officials who were with him” (Esther 3:1). It is unknown why the king promoted Haman nor what he did to deserve the promotion. He did not do anything, either ordinary or extraordinary, to receive such an honor.
The event mentioned in verse 1 was the attempt by some palace officials to kill King Xerxes (Esther 2:21-23). One day, while Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate, he heard about a plot by two eunuchs to kill the king. Mordecai informed Queen Esther of the plot against the king. Esther went before the king and told him what Mordecai had discovered. The king had the matter investigated and discovered that the plot was true and, as a result, the eunuchs were killed. Then, “the matter was written up in the king’s presence in his official record of daily events” (Esther 2:23).
Instead of promoting Mordecai, the king promoted Haman. Haman, the Agagite was a descendant of Agag, King of Amalek (1 Samuel 15:8). The Amalekites were an old enemy of Israel (Exodus 17:8). By divine order, Saul was commanded to fight against the Amalekites and destroy the whole population. Saul conquered the Amalekites, killed their people, but he spared Agag, the Amalekite king. After Samuel rebuked Saul for disobeying the Lord, Samuel killed Agag.
Haman was an important person to the king of Persia. Ahasuerus appointed him to a high position in his kingdom. After the king, Haman had a position higher in authority than all the other officials who were with him. As the number two person in the kingdom, Haman was a very powerful person.
Because of his position in the kingdom and because of the king’s command, all servants of the king had to kneel and bow down to him with their faces touching the ground. Mordecai, however, refused to kneel and bow in the presence of Haman.
The biblical writer does not provide the reason for Mordecai’s refusal to do obeisance to Haman. There are different explanations for Mordecai’s refusal to kneel and bow before Haman. The text says that Mordecai did not kneel before Haman because “he was a Jew” (Esther 3:4). It is possible that Mordecai refused to bow to Haman because he was an Amalekite, since the Jews and the Amalekites had been enemies for centuries. The book of Esther is very explicit in saying that Haman was “the enemy of the Jews” (Esther 3:10).
Another reason may be religious. To a Jew, bowing down means to worship; thus, bowing down to Haman was to glorify a human as one glorifies God. The people of Israel were forbidden to bow before an idol: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Exodus 20:4-5).
Jews bowed before a king, “David bowed with his face to the ground, and did obeisance” to Saul (1 Samuel 24:8), but before Haman, Mordecai was like Daniel’s three friends who refused to bow down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up (Daniel 3:5).
After the Jews were allowed to return back to the land of Israel, Mordecai was one of the many Jews who chose to remain in exile. Many Jews returned from their exile in Babylon back to their homeland after the decree of Cyrus in 539 B.C. The people who returned faced many problems. The city was in ruins, the walls of Jerusalem were destroyed, and the economic situation was very poor due to severe drought and other natural disasters.
In addition, the trip back to Jerusalem was long and dangerous. It took Ezra four months to travel from Babylon to Jerusalem. When Ezra arrived in Jerusalem, he thanked God for his protection and for protecting him and his companions from enemies and bandits along the route back to Jerusalem (Ezra 8:31).
That is the reason Mordecai and many other Jews decided to stay behind. To many Jews, life in exile was comfortable. Some Jews became businessmen and others were involved in agriculture. A few Jews worked in the palace. In Susa, Nehemiah was the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes (Nehemiah 1:11). In her article, “How Bad Was the Babylonian Exile?” Laurie E. Pearce said that cuneiform tablets reveal fascinating aspects of Judean life under Babylonian and Persian rule. She wrote,
“In the city of Susa (Biblical Shushan, the setting of the Book of Esther), cuneiform texts dating to 494-493 B.C.E. record the presence of Judeans with Yahwistic names in the roles of royal courtiers and as children of royal courtiers. These texts record loans of silver exchanged between different members of prominent Babylonian families on their visits to Susa, trips that may have been made for the purpose of an audience with the king. Thus, we know that the Judeans interacted, in specific, limited ways, with members of the Babylonian economic elite.”
When Esther was taken into the palace of King Xerxes, Mordecai advised Esther not to reveal her nationality or family background (Esther 2:10). After Esther became a queen, she still did not reveal her family background or nationality. After Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman, the king’s servants asked Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s command?” Mordecai had to explain the reason for his refusal; he did not bow down to Haman because he was a Jew.
After several days of asking Mordecai to pay obeisance to Haman, and because Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman, the king’s servants informed Haman of Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to him. The king’s servant wanted to know if Haman would tolerate Mordecai’s refusal to honor him (Esther 3:4).
When Haman was informed that Mordecai refused to kneel and bow to him, Haman was furious. When the king’s servants told him that Mordecai was a Jew, Haman decided to kill Mordecai and all the Jews who lived in the kingdom of Xerxes. Haman was an important person in the empire, but he needed the approval of the king to carry out his intent to kill the Jews, “Mordecai’s people” (Esther 3:6).
Haman went to Xerxes and said to him, “There is a certain race of people scattered through all the provinces of your empire who keep themselves separate from everyone else. Their laws are different from those of any other people, and they refuse to obey the laws of the king. So it is not in the king’s interest to let them live” (Esther 3:8). Haman offered to pay for the expenses of those who would carry out the killing of the Jews.
Haman offered the king ten thousand talents of silver to pay the men who would carry out the execution of the Jews (Esther 3:9). Ten thousand talents of silver are equivalent to 375 tons of silver, more money than a Persian province would pay to the empire in one year. The king agreed with Haman’s request. He took his signet ring from his finger, gave it to Haman, and told him to keep the money. Now, the fate of the Jewish people was in the hands of Haman, the enemy of the Jews.
When Mordecai heard what Haman had done and how the king had approved his request, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes. Then he went into the middle of the city lamenting and crying bitterly (Esther 4:1).
Mordecai was now facing a nightmare; a holocaust had been ordered for all the Jewish people who lived in the Persian empire. He was trying to do what was right, but his decision not to bow to Haman affected not only him, but his whole people.
My pastor, Jeff Griffin, Senior Pastor of The Compass Church in Naperville, Illinois preached a sermon on November 8, 2020 titled Esther: For Such a Time as This – “Our Nightmare.” The post above is based on his sermon.
In his sermon, Jeff used the experience of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Daniel’s friends to illustrate the power of commitment. The three friends refused to bow down to the image that Nebuchadnezzar had made. For their refusal to worship the image, they were condemned to die in a blazing furnace. As they faced death, they told the king, “If our God, whom we honor, can save us from a blazing furnace and from your power, he will, Your Majesty. But if he doesn’t, you should know, Your Majesty, we’ll never honor your gods or worship the gold statue that you set up” (Daniel 3:17-18).
Daniel’s friends believed in the providence of God and they were committed to die for their God. Mordecai also believed in divine providence. Mordecai believed that in the providence of God someone would help and rescue his people (Esther 4:14).
Commitment to Christ requires the best of every believer. The enemy of the believer is indifference to the cause of Christ. The Christian life should be a life of devotion to Christ. Christians must be willing to sacrifice and even to die for God’s cause in the world.
Jeff finished his sermon by relating the experience of Nik Ripkin. Nik’s story is told in his book, The Insanity of God: A True Story of Faith Resurrected. Below is a review of the book provided by the publisher:
“The Insanity of God is the personal and lifelong journey of an ordinary couple from rural Kentucky who thought they were going on just your ordinary missionary pilgrimage, but discovered it would be anything but. After spending over six hard years doing relief work in Somalia, and experiencing life where it looked like God had turned away completely and He was clueless about the tragedies of life, the couple had a crisis of faith and left Africa asking God, ‘Does the gospel work anywhere when it is really a hard place? It sure didn’t work in Somalia.’”
“How does faith survive, let alone flourish in a place like the Middle East? How can good truly overcome such evil? How do you maintain hope when all is darkness around you? How can we say ‘greater is He that is in me than he that is in the world’ when it may not be visibly true in that place at that time? How does anyone live an abundant, victorious Christian life in our world’s toughest places? Can Christianity even work outside of Western, dressed-up, ordered nations? If so, how?”
The Insanity of God tells a story—a remarkable and unique story to be sure, yet at heart a very human story—of the Ripkens’ own spiritual and emotional odyssey.
Esther: For Such a Time as This – “Our Nightmare.” A Sermon by Jeff Griffin.
Other Posts on Esther
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Laurie E. Pearce. “How Bad Was the Babylonian Exile?” Biblical Archaeology Review 42:5 (September/October 2016): 48-54, 64.
Nik Ripen. The Insanity of God: A True Story of Faith Resurrected. Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2013.