Life often seems unfair, doesn’t it? At the end of chapter 2 of the book of Esther, Mordecai uncovered a plot to assassinate Xerxes, the king of Persia. Mordecai alerted Esther, who alerted the king; and the would-be assassins were executed. Mordecai had saved the king’s life! But look how chapter 3 begins. After these events, we’re told, King Xerxes honoured who? Mordecai? That’s what we might be expecting, because Mordecai had saved the king’s life. But that’s not what happened. Instead of honouring Mordecai, the king honoured this man Haman. Life often seems unfair. The people who deserve to be honoured are disregarded and honour goes to someone else.
Verses 1 to 6
So, who is Haman? We don’t know much about him apart from what is recorded here. But we’re told in verse 1 that he was the son of, or he was descended from, Hammedatha, the Agagite. Now this is where you need an electronic version of the Bible with a search function. If you search in the Bible for words related to ‘Agagite’, you’ll discover that there was once a king called Agag, who was king of the Amalekites. We read about him in 1 Samuel 15. At that time, Saul was king of God’s people. And the Lord sent Samuel the prophet to pass on a message to Saul. And this was the message: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt….’
So, we need to do a bit more research, don’t we? We need to go back now to the book of Exodus and to the time when God rescued his people from Egypt and brought them through the Red Sea to lead them, first, to Mount Sinai and then to the Promised Land. And before they reached Mount Sinai, they ran out of food. But no need to worry: God provided them with manna and quail. And then they ran out of water. But no need to worry: God provided them with water from the rock. And then, what happened? The Amalekites attacked them. It was an entirely unprovoked attacked and there was no reason for the Amalekites to attack the Israelites. But, the Amalekites took advantage of the fact that God’s people were tired and weary from their journey. And presumably they thought it would be easy; and they’d be able to kill the Israelites and take their possessions for themselves.
However, winning the battle was not as easy as they might have hoped. You see, this was the battle when Moses lifted up his staff to the Lord; and, so long as he had his staff in the air, the Israelites were winning, but when he lowered his staff, the Amalekites were winning. And so, two men stood either side of Moses and helped him to keep his arms and the staff in the air. And with the help of the Lord, they defeated the Amalekites.
And afterwards, the Lord said to Moses that he was to write it on a scroll, so that no one would ever forget, that the Lord promised to blot out completely the memory of Amalek from under heaven. And so, the Lord would be at war against the Amalekites from that time on. That was in Exodus 17. Forty years later, when the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land, God reminded his people through Moses in Deuteronomy 25 of what the Amalekites had done to them; and he commanded his people to blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. And so, as another preacher (Zach Keele) put it, the Amalekites were Israel’s ‘forever foe’. Because they made an unprovoked attack on Israel, the Lord was determined to wipe them out.
And so, let’s now go back to Esther 3. Who was Haman? We don’t know much about him, but we know at least that he was descended from Agag, king of the Amalekites. In other words, Haman was an Amalekite. He was one of God’s ‘forever foes’.
Now, before moving on, I should say that when God commanded his people to wipe out the Amalekites, it was not a act of ethnic cleansing or genocide. It was not a racially-motivated attack. And it was not an act of terrorism. It was an act of justice. The Lord was using the Israelites to punish the Amalekites for their sins. And therefore it foreshadowed what will happen when Christ comes again to judge the world. At that time, all people from every nation will have to stand before him to give an account of ourselves. And all those who refused to trust in Christ the Saviour will be judged and condemned and punished forever for all their sin and rebellion. But all those who trusted in Christ the Saviour will be judged and pardoned and admitted to eternal life. Commanding Israel to wipe out the Amalekites was not an act of terrorism. It was an act of justice on the part of a holy God who will one day judge us by his Son. And that’s why we must all turn from our sins in repentance and turn in faith to the Saviour, but only those who trust in him as Saviour will be pardoned on that day.
Having said that, let’s go on with the story. Haman, the descendant of Agag the Amalekite, was honoured by Xerxes. The king elevated him and gave him a seat of honour higher than that of all the other nobles. And all the royal officials at the king’s gate knelt down and paid honour to him because the king had commanded it. So, whenever Haman appeared, everyone was supposed to bow down in front of him. And everyone did, apart from one person. According to the end of verse 2, Mordecai refused to kneel down or pay him honour.
Why wouldn’t he kneel down? The other royal officials were eager to know. And we’re told they asked him about it and they spoke to him about it. But no matter what they said to him, he refused to comply. He would not do it. He would not bow down. but he refused to comply.
So, why did Mordecai refuse to honour Haman? I was listening to another preacher preach on this passage and he suggested that everyone else was treating Haman like a god; and God’s people must only ever bow down before the Lord. And so, that preacher likened Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to Haman to Daniel’s three friends who refused to bow down before King Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image in Daniel 3. However, there’s no suggestion in the text that Haman was being treated like a god. No one was bowing down to worship him. They were merely showing him respect. And there are plenty of examples in the Bible of God’s people bowing before earthly kings and leaders to show them respect. And while we mustn’t bow down in worship to anyone apart from God; we should normally show respect to our leaders.
So, if we should normally show respect to our leaders, why did Mordecai refuse to bow down to Haman? Presumably it’s because of what I said earlier about the Amalekites being the ‘forever foe’ of the Israelites. God had placed this enmity between them; and the Israelites were not to make peace with the Amalekites. In that case, Mordecai was showing himself to be a faithful Jew. He would not honour Haman, because God had declared Haman his enemy.
And the Amalekites, for their part, had demonstrated their hatred towards God’s people when they first attacked the Israelites all those years ago when the Israelites had escaped from Egypt. And what Haman was about to do to the Jews demonstrated that the Amalekites were still bitterly and unreasonably opposed to God’s people.
So, at the end of verse 4, we’re told that the other royal officials told Haman about it to see whether Mordecai’s behaviour would be tolerated, for he had told them he was a Jew. This probably means that Mordecai had explained to them that the reason he would not honour Haman is because he, Mordecai, was a Jew and the Amalekites were their ‘forever foe’. And so, the royal officials wanted to see what Haman would do about it.
And in verse 5 we see the longstanding enmity of the Amalekites towards the Jews begin to emerge once again, because Haman was enraged at Mordecai’s refusal to bow down. And instead of directing his rage towards Mordecai alone, he directed his rage towards the Jews as a whole. He wanted to finish what the Amalekites had begun way back in the days of Moses in Exodus 17. And so, we read that he looked for a way to destroy all of Mordecai’s people throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes. He wanted to destroy the Jews in their entirety.
Verses 7 to 10
So, that’s what he wanted to do. And we discover his plan in the following verses. In the twelfth year of Xerxes’s reign, and in the first month, they cast the pur. That is, they cast the lot. Probably this means they rolled some kind of dice in order to determine the best time to act. By casting the lot, they were relying on fate or luck or the gods to guide them. And we’re told that the lot fell on the twelfth month.
We’re told that he then went to the king, because, of course, he’ll need the king’s permission to carry out his plan. And without mentioning the Jews by name, Haman spoke to the king about a certain people dispersed and scattered among the peoples in all the provinces of the kingdom whose customs are different from everyone else. And that’s true. The Jews were different from everyone else, because God had revealed himself and his laws to them and to them alone. They were his holy people, separate from the rest of the nations. And so, their customs were different. However, Haman then added: ‘and who do not obey the king’s laws’. Now, there’s no evidence that the Jews were rebellious and disobedient. In fact, when they were sent into exile, God said to his people that they were to seek the welfare of the city. In other words, don’t rebel, but be good citizens wherever I send you. And we only need to think of Daniel and his three friends and how they were loyal subjects to the king. Or think of Nehemiah who was cupbearer to the king in his day. Or think of Mordecai who saved the king’s life. Think of Esther who was the king’s wife. The Jews were not a rebellious people. Now, when they were commanded to do something which God forbade — like bow down to an idol — they resisted. But on all other occasions, they submitted to the governing authority like good citizens.
And so, Haman was misleading the king. And he went on to say that it was not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them. Again, that’s not true, because Mordecai had saved the king’s life. However, Haman went on to say that if it pleased the king let a decree be issued to destroy them. Now, that was highly unusual. The Persian kings were normally very tolerant. Since they ruled over a massive empire, they discovered that one of the best ways to maintain the peace of the empire was to let each people-group within it follow their own religion and customs. For instance, Cyrus let the Jews return to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple. He did not persecute them, but gave them freedom of worship. And so, what Haman was proposing was highly unusual. However, to sweeten the proposal, Haman offered to put ten thousand talents of silver — a massive amount — into the royal treasurery.
And the king agreed. He took his signet ring from his finger and handed it to Haman. With the king’s signet ring to sign documents, Haman could do whatever he likes. And remarkably the king told Haman to keep the money, but ‘do with the people as you please’. And do you see how Haman is described in verse 10? He’s now known as ‘the enemy of the Jews’.
Verses 11 to 15
And so, on the thirteenth day of the first month, the royal secretaries were summoned. And they wrote out in multiple languages so that everyone could understand all of Haman’s orders the order to destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews: young and old; women and little children. No one among them was to be spared; every one was to be destroyed; and their goods were to be plundered. All on a single day: the thirteenth day of the twelfth month. Haman’s orders were to become law in every province and made known to the people of every nationality so that they would be ready. Haman was stirring up the whole of the empire to destroy God’s people.
And while the messengers went throughout the empire, the king and Haman sat down to drink. They toasted Haman’s plan to destroy the Lord’s people. The city of Susa was bewildered, we read at the end. That shows us that what the king agreed to was highly unusual. This was never done before. This was not the king’s normal policy. The normal policy was to leave each people-group alone. And so, no doubt they wondered what possessed the king to permit this?
What are we to make of all of this? Well, we can say that Haman’s desire to annihilate God’s people is just another manifestation of the satanic-inspired opposition to God and his people which we read about throughout the Bible. It makes its first appearance in the Garden of Eden when the serpent — who was really the Devil in disguise — deceived Adam and Eve so that they disobeyed God’s clear command concerning the Tree of Knowledge. And whereas God had promised them eternal life in his presence in glory, the serpent was leading them towards death. And then, we see it again when Cain killed righteous Abel. We see it again when Joseph’s brothers hated him because he was a godly man and they were not. And we see it again when the Egyptians oppressed and mistreated God’s people. And we see it throughout the Old Testament when nation after nation rose up against God’s people to attack them and to destroy them. So, think of the Philistines in the days of the Judges and in the days of Saul and David. Again and again unbelieving nations rose up against God’s people and tried to annihilate them.
And then, God revealed to Daniel how this would always be the case; and how, throughout the course of human history, people and nations would rise up against God’s people. For instance, in Daniel 7 we read about a king who will appear who will speak boastfully against the Lord and who will oppress God’s people and try to stop them from worshipping the Lord. And the king in Daniel 7 symbolises every anti-Christian power which sets itself up against the Lord and his people. And what Daniel wrote about matches what the Apostle Paul wrote about in 2 Thessalonians where he spoke of the ‘secret power of lawlessness’ which is at work in the world to deceive and to oppress God’s people. And the book of Revelation speaks to us of the opposition and the troubles and trials which God’s people can expect to endure in these, the last days in which we’re living. And so, from the beginning of the world to the end of the world, God’s people face opposition from an unbelieving world. And, of course, the opposition to God’s people was also displayed when the Amalekites attacked God’s people after they escaped from Egypt.
And behind all of this opposition which God’s people face in the world is Satan, the Devil, who hates God and who hates God’s people; and he’s always at work in the world to try to destroy the church.
And so, Haman’s plot against the Jews was just another manifestation of the satanic-inspired opposition which God’s people always face. Sometimes it manifests itself in outright persecution. But at other times, it manifests itself in the ways an unbelieving world mocks believers and opposes them for what we believe; and it puts us under pressure to conform to its unbelieving ways. Sometimes, as happened in Esther 3, it stirs up the governing authorities to oppress God’s people. And the Devil’s opposition will never end, because we read in Revelation 20 that right before Christ comes again, the Devil will gather the nations for one last battle against the church. So, from the beginning of the world to the end of this world, the Devil stirs up opposition to God and to his people.
Now, in case we start treating everyone we meet as our enemy, we should also remember what the theologians call God’s common grace. God’s common grace is his kindness to all of his creation. And because of God’s common grace, he restrains sin and wickedness in the world and he prevents people from becoming as bad as they might otherwise be. God graciously holds back wickedness in the world. That’s why people who don’t believe and who do not have the Holy Spirit to help them are still able to do good. And so, we mustn’t regard every unbeliever as our enemy. However, at the same time we mustn’t be surprised when we face opposition in the world. We mustn’t be surprised when people despise us for what we believe. We mustn’t be surprised, because God’s word warns us that this is the way it will always be. It began in the Garden of Eden and it will not stop until Christ comes again.
However, lest we become anxious and afraid, we also need to remember that the Lord our God is King over all. Xerxes, who permitted Haman’s plan to proceed, may have been the king of the Persian Empire. But King Xerxes, despite his great power and wealth and authority, was nothing compared to the Lord God Almighty who made all things and who rules over all things. And as we’ll see as we read on in the book of Esther, the Lord God Almighty was at work behind the scenes to ensure that Esther was in the right place at the right time to stop Haman in his tracks and to save God’s people from annihilation.
For his own glory, the Lord who is King over all allows the Devil to stir up all this opposition to his people. For his own glory, the Lord who is King over all allows wicked men and women to arise and to persecute his people. For his own glory, the Lord who is King over all allows them to go so far. But for his own glory, the Lord who is King over all says they may go so far, but no further. So, Haman was allowed to go so far with his plot to destroy, kill, and annihilate God’s people. But he would not be allowed to go any further than God permitted.
And it’s the same in our day. When we hear of the church being persecuted around the world; and when we face opposition and trouble ourselves from those who do not believe; when the world around us despises us for what we believe: remember and believe that the Lord our God is King over all, and that while he will allow the world to go so far, he will not allow them to do everything they want to do; and when the right time has come, the Lord who is King over all will make them stop.
And even if he allows them to do the worst thing, and he allows them to kill God’s people, God has promised his people that he will raise their bodies from the ground and they will live with him forever in glory. And so, even when Satan does his worst, even when an unbelieving world does its worst, they cannot destroy God’s people, because God’s people will live with him for ever and for ever in glory. And so we need not be afraid of what they might do to us. And we can always look to the Lord for the help we need to stand firm.
And the final thing to say today is that when God sent Esther into Xerxes’s palace to save his people from Haman’s plot, God was foreshadowing the good news of the gospel and how he was going to send his Only Begotten Son into the world to save his people from our sin and misery and to give us the hope of eternal life in his presence. God sent his Son into the world as one of us to give up his life on the cross to pay for all that we have done wrong; and to shed his blood to cleanse us from our guilt. And though we are by nature enemies of God and deserve to be condemned by God and punished forever, God declares peace to all who believe in his Son; and instead of condemning us, which is what we deserve, he pardons us. And having pardoned us, he invites us to come to the Lord’s Table and to eat and to drink and to rejoice in the salvation which Christ has accomplished for us by his death on the cross; and to look forward in hope to the day when we’ll come into God’s presence in glory.