Esther 4:1-17 - Three Reactions To The Terrifying Edict
Let’s begin this morning by recalling what was in the decree that Haman sent out throughout the Persian Empire. We read in Esther 3:13 these words, “Letters were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces with instruction 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.”
If you were a Jew who was living in Persia at this time how would you react to this?
What would your response be?
What would be the very first thing that you would do when you realized that you, your family and all your friends had just received a death sentence?
Would you begin making plans to flee as far away? Would you quickly begin to despair and become hopeless? Would you wallow in self-pity? Would you promptly grab your firearm and fortify your homes?
In Esther 4:1-17 we are shown the reaction of the Jewish people when they become aware of the decree that has gone forth throughout the whole kingdom. Their response should surprise us. The truth is, their response is not really all that common in scripture among those who find themselves in similar situations.
Before we turn our attention to Esther 4 I would like to look at Isaiah 22. In that text we will see how the people responded to a day of disaster and in the day of calamity. It is a day that is described in Isaiah 22:5 in this way, “For the Lord God of hosts has a day of tumult, and trampling and confusion…”.
In the day of tumult the leaders had fled from the city of Jerusalem. Even the ones who had fled far away were eventually captured by their enemies without one arrow being fired from their bows (3). When the enemy surrounded the city of Jerusalem the people sought to reinforce the walls of the city and they looked to their weapons to save them (8-11).
But we read these words in Isaiah 22:11, “But you did not look to him who did it, or see him who planned it long ago.” In other words, they fled, they fortified the city and it’s walls, and they looked to their firearms; but they did not do the one thing that they were supposed to do. They did not respond to the prophets who came preaching to them that through repentance this day of calamity and tumult could be adverted.
This should be a warning for all who would say that they will not repent today. There are many who say that they will repent some time in the future, on a day of their own choosing. They say that they will repent when they are good and ready to do it. They plan to repent at a time, a place of their own choosing. If you won’t do it today, you probably will not find a reason to do it in the future.
In Isaiah 22:12 we see that God wanted to see them repent. We read, “In that day the Lord God of hosts called for weeping and mourning, for baldness and wearing sackcloth…”. Instead of fleeing in fear, instead of fortifying the walls, instead of looking to their firearms for deliverance; God wanted them to repent.
But the picture gets even worse. They did not simply flee, fortify the walls and grab their firearms; but they showed that they had no hope in God at all. God expected to see them weep and mourn. God expected to see them go about with baldness and wearing sackcloth; but instead of these signs of humility and repentance they do something far worse.
Let’s read verses 12-13 because it is all one sentence that exposes a shocking contrast. We read, “In that day the Lord God of hosts called for weeping and mourning, for baldness and wearing sackcloth; and behold, joy and gladness, killing oxen and slaughtering sheep, eating flesh and drinking wine. ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’”
This moment was so shocking that the LORD says in verse 14, “Surely this iniquity will not be atoned for you until you die.” It is as if all of these other sins had led to this great iniquity. In their faithlessness and hopelessness they did what should never have been done (Romans 1:28). It is to their shame that these people prove that they have no knowledge of God and it is evidenced by what they begin to do (1 Corinthians 15:34).
In Esther 4:1-17 we are shown the reactions of the Jews concerning Haman’s command to destroy, annihilate and to kill all of them, and there could not be a greater contrast between the reaction that we see in them and the reaction that we just witnessed in Isaiah 22.
We will approach this text by looking at the three different reactions.
The reaction of Mordecai (1-2)
The reaction of the Jews (3)
The reaction of Esther (4-17)
The Reaction of Mordecai (1-2)
We read, “When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and he cried out with a loud and bitter cry. 2 He went up to the entrance of the king's gate, for no one was allowed to enter the king's gate clothed in sackcloth.”
Notice the contrast between Mordecai and the people that we considered in Isaiah 22. When Mordecai hears of all that had been done against the Jewish people he immediately tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city and cried out with a loud and bitter cry. The last thing on his mind in this moment was that he should flee, that he should begin to fortify his home, or that he should begin organizing his firearms. Immediately Mordecai sought to turn to the LORD and humble himself before Him.
If the LORD was angered and shocked at the response of those in Isaiah 22, then He must be pleased with the way that Mordecai responds in this moment. The truth is, God could have kept any of this from taking place, but He has allowed it to happen so that Mordecai can display his hope and faith in God in this reaction. In God’s providence He has called for this day to be a day of mourning, weeping and the wearing of sackcloth (Isaiah 22:12)
With all of the tumult, chaos and trouble around us, have you found yourself wondering what you can do about it? Each of us can individually needs to decide to humble ourselves in repentance and cry out to God. We can mourn and weep over the sin and suffering that is happening all around us. We can even do this publicaly as Mordecai is doing here.
Jon Moe went to Washington D.C. a couple of weeks ago and he said that there were lot’s of really good street preachers there who were calling the people to repent and to return to the LORD. When he told me this I was really grateful for the people who did this. They are like Mordecai’s who will go into the center of the city and to the king’s gate and honor God and His Word in front of all the citizens.
The Reaction of the Jews (3)
We read, “And in every province, wherever the king's command and his decree reached, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and many of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.”
Notice that in every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree reached, there was mourning, fasting, weeping and lamenting. They could have picked up their things and tried to flee. They could have immediately begun to fortify their houses. They could have reached for their firearms and begun to stockpile needed supplies. They could have displayed utter hopelessness in this moment and said, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’ Instead, they honored the LORD in their humble response.
We are told that this happened in every province. This was a universal response by the Jews. It was not just one area, or section of the city, nor was it a limited pocket of Jews somewhere in the kingdom. It was not just those Jews who lived in the rural hillsides that did this. It was not just the Jews who listened to the teachings of a certain rabbi. It was not a revival only among a certain group or demographic, but it included everyone.
What is it that can unify God’s people in a response like this?
Their response is not normal. Their response is not typical. This trial has come out of nowhere and it has been thrust upon them. One man who experienced this sort of anguish describes this moment in this way, “My grief was not tame. It was vicious. I battled fears, disappointments, and sorrow. On my journey, I discovered the grace of lament, a song I never wanted to sing.”
No believer wants to be tested and tried in this manner but if we are we should respond the way that these Jews did in this moment. Their response is not an accident. It is a Spirit inspired revival that is grounded in the Word of God. What they are doing in this moment reflects what is recorded in Joel 2:12-14 which says,
“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. 14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?
The Reaction of Esther (4-17)
Now let’s consider the reaction that Esther had in this moment. Esther has four reactions as she process these things.
She is distressed when she hears about Mordecai.
She sends Hathach ‘to learn’ about what was upsetting Mordecai.
We see Esther’s initial response and hesitation to go to King Ahasuerus.
Esther’s instruction and her resolve to go to the king.
Esther is distressed when she hears about Mordecai
Look with me at verse four, “When Esther's young women and her eunuchs came and told her, the queen was deeply distressed. She sent garments to clothe Mordecai, so that he might take off his sackcloth, but he would not accept them.
Recently, I watched a biography about Queen Elizabeth. She was very young when she discovered that her father, the king, had died. She was told by her husband Philip while they were far away on a trip. She may have been emotional in front of him; but when she was in view of others, she put on a strong face for all to see. In front others, the princess who would soon be queen, wanted to step right into that new role while displaying great strength.
So far in our story, Esther has been the picture of calm under pressure. She has always done the right things, said the right words, and kept her composure at every turn. We have seen no emotional outbursts of any sort from her. But here we see a very real moment in her life where she is ‘deeply distressed’ when she hears about Mordecai. We read, “When Esther’s young women and her eunuchs came and told her, the queen was deeply distressed.”
Other translations translate this moment as: ‘overcome with distress’, ‘exceedingly grieved’, ‘seized by great fear’, ‘great anguish’, ‘trembled greatly’, ‘very upset’, ‘consternation’.
Esther’s initial reaction was to send out one of her eunuchs with a new pair of garments so that Mordecai might take off his sackcloth, but he would not accept them. Some have criticized Esther for doing this but I have two things to say about this. First, most of the time, in these situations, our first response is not the best. In these moments we don’t always do and say the right thing.
Second, as a parent I can say that the smallest gestures by our kids in these moments is wonderful. For example, recently my daughter and I were in the car when I received some sad news. We stopped and I began to pray and I began to cry. In that moment, she placed her hand on my shoulder and it brought immediate comfort. Any gesture by our kids in these moments is a wonderful comfort even if it is not the best response at that particular time.
Proverbs 18:13 is probably a little harsh for this context, but it might make a good point concerning this moment. It says, “If anyone gives an answer before he hears, it is to his own folly and shame”. The solution to this crisis is not going to be found in a new pair of clothes, wouldn’t it be nice if everything was solved so simply, but by Esther listening to Mordecai to find out what was happening and why he was reacting in this way. This brings us to verses 5-9.
Esther sends Hathach ‘to learn about what was upsetting to Mordecai’
In verses 5-9 we read, “Then Esther called for Hathach, one of the king's eunuchs, who had been appointed to attend her, and ordered him to go to Mordecai to learn what this was and why it was. 6 Hathach went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king's gate, 7 and Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and the exact sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king's treasuries for the destruction of the Jews. 8 Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther and explain it to her and command her to go to the king to beg his favor and plead with him on behalf of her people. 9 And Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said.
Esther sends Hathach to Mordecai to learn what this was and why it was happening (5). As a result of this, Mordecai provides her with a lot of the details that she will need to know to respond to the request that he makes that she should go to the king to plead on behalf of her people.
I appreciate the end of verse 8 which says, ‘...that he might show it to Esther and explain it to her and command her to go to the king…’. In other words, Mordecai gives her all of the facts so that she will be able to obey his command.
Doesn’t this remind us about how the gospel operates in our lives. The Good News is given to us, it is explained, and the facts are laid out so that we can respond in faith to the gospel imperatives and to the gospel commands.
Esther’s initial response and hesitation
This now brings us to verses 10-11, “Then Esther spoke to Hathach and commanded him to go to Mordecai and say, 11 “All the king's servants and the people of the king's provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—to be put to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter so that he may live. But as for me, I have not been called to come in to the king these thirty days. And they told Mordecai what Esther had said. 13 Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think to yourself that in the king's palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14 For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father's house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
We can all appreciate Esther’s response in this moment. She is scared and apprehensive about going before the king because of a law that forbids anyone to come to him unless they are called by him. If any man or woman comes to the king without being called they will be put to death. The only thing that will prevent a person from being killed is if the king raises the golden scepter so that they may live.
I really appreciate Mordecai’s response in this moment. He begins by saying, ‘Do not think to yourself…’. Then Mordecai, who has raised Esther as his own daughter and knows her intimately, addresses the subtle lie that she may be prone to believe in this moment. He says, “Do not think to yourself that in the king's palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews.” Mordecai reminds her that she is in danger even though she is queen and lives in the palace.
We ought to be grateful for those who will confront our thoughts and our presuppositions in moments like this. We should be thankful for the person who reminds not to think certain things that will ultimately lead us to destruction. When trouble comes and the pressure is increased we often think poorly. Consider the wisdom of Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths.”
We often talk to one another about wanting to be used by God; but we must remember that most examples in scriptures of those who were used by God faced these difficult moments. They experience the most pressure, the most stress, the most tension, the most danger. Do we really want to be used like Esther, Obediah, Moses, Paul and others? Paul says that he felt that he had received the sentence of death so that he would rely upon God and not upon himself. This is what we all must do. (2 Corinthians 1:9)
I always ask people who desire to teach a Sunday School class if they are ready to go home and struggle in preparation, to cry concerning their implementation of the study and to do it all again each week? It is a challenge to be used by God. But, like Esther, ‘who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?’
Esther’s Resolve and Instruction for Mordecai and all the Jews (15-17)
‘Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.’
We began by talking about Isaiah 22. When that generation of Jews encountered trouble they utterly failed to respond in a Godly manner: they fled, they fortified the walls, and they grabbed their firearms. But God wanted them to repent and to turn to Him. Instead we read, “In that day the Lord God of hosts called for weeping and mourning, for baldness and wearing sackcloth; and behold, joy and gladness, killing oxen and slaughtering sheep, eating flesh and drinking wine. ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’”
In Esther we are seeing that these Jews are responding in a godly way. Esther and all the Jews will not eat and drink; but they will fast, mourn, pray, and weep. They will not give into hopelessness and despair; but they will remember the LORD and turn to Him in this moment. This generation of Jews will do what so few other generations have done. What will our generation do? How will we respond to the challenges that are before us? Will we be like the Jews in Isaiah 22 or like the Jews in Esther’s day?
Let me end with this admonishment from Isaiah 31:1-2, 3, 6-7.
‘Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the LORD!’
‘The Egyptians are man, and not God, and their horses are flesh, and not spirit. When the LORD stretches out His hand, the helper will stumble, and he who is helped will fall, and they will all parish together.’
‘Turn to Him from whom people have deeply revolted, O children of Israel. For in that day everyone shall cast away his idols of silver and his idols of gold, which your hands have sinfully made for you.’
Let us be one of the rare generations of people who will resist the temptation to flee, fortify and grab our firearms; and who neglect to turn to the LORD who can save us. Let’s leave here today remembering the words of Proverbs 3:25-26, “Do not be afraid of sudden terror or of the ruin of the wicked, when it comes, for the LORD will be your confidence and will keep your foot from being caught.”