The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
On that night could not the king sleep, and he commanded to bring the book of records of the chronicles; and they were read before the king.Esther 6
1. On that night could not the king sleep [the king's sleep fled away], and he commanded to bring the book of records of the chronicles; and they were read before the king [the Persian kings were unable to read].
2. And it was found written, that Mordecai had told of Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king's chamberlains, the keepers of the door, who sought to lay hand on the king Ahasuerus.
3. And the king said, What honour and dignity hath been done to Mordecai for this? Then said the king's servants that ministered unto him, There is nothing done for him.
4 ¶ And the king said, Who is in the court? [what high officer of state attends to-day?] Now Haman was come [early, according to Eastern custom] into the outward court of the king's house, to speak unto the king to hang Mordecai on the gallows that he had prepared for him.
5. And the king's servants said unto him, Behold, Haman standeth in the court. And the king said, Let him come in.
6. So Haman came in. And the king said unto him, What shall be done unto the man whom the king delighteth to honour [in whose honour the king delighteth]? Now Haman thought in his heart, To whom would the king delight to do honour more than to myself?
7. And Haman answered the king, For the man whom the king delighteth to honour,
8. Let the royal apparel be brought which the king useth to wear [to wear it without royal permission would have been a mortal offence], and the horse that the king rideth upon, and the crown royal which is set upon his head [the head of the horse]:
9. And let this apparel and horse be delivered to the hand of one of the king's most noble princes, that they may array the man withal whom the king delighteth to honour, and bring him on horseback through the street of the city, and proclaim before him. Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delighteth to honour.
10. Then the king said to Haman, Make haste [the honour has been too long delayed], and take the apparel and the horse, as thou hast said, and do even so to Mordecai the Jew [stated to be such in the chronicles], that sitteth at the king's gate: let nothing fail of all that thou hast spoken.
11. Then took Haman the apparel and the horse, and arrayed Mordecai, and brought him on horseback through the street of the city, and proclaimed before him, Thus shall it be done unto the man whom the king delighteth to honour.
12. ¶ And Mordecai came again to the king's gate [after honour he returned to service]. But Haman hasted to his house mourning, and having his head covered.
13. And Haman told Zeresh his wife and all his friends everything that had befallen him. Then said his wise men and Zeresh his wife unto him, If [oracular vanity] Mordecai be of the seed of the Jews, before whom thou hast begun to fall, thou shalt not prevail against him, but shalt surely [utterly] fall before him.
14. And while they were yet talking with him, came the king's chamberlains, and hasted to bring Haman unto the banquet that Esther had prepared.
The Request of Esther
"NOW it came to pass on the third day,"—that is, on the third day of the fast. Always observe the significance which is attached to the "third day" in the Bible. The phrase occurs again and again, and is always associated with some event of peculiar interest or solemnity. High above all other incidents of this kind stands the resurrection of our Lord from the dead which occurred on the third day. The Lord works to-day and tomorrow, and on the third day he sets the crown of perfection upon his labour. We cannot hasten the coming of the third day; our whole business is with a good use of the two preceding days. Granted that they are used conscientiously and devoutly, and the third day may be regarded as an assured harvest of honour and gladness.
The fasting referred to was of a distinctively religious kind. There was no element of mere health or bodily discipline in it; the purpose was to chasten the soul before God, and to invest the spirit with a sense of helplessness and submission, so that it might come before heaven in earnest and importunate prayer with every hope of prevalence. If one may so say, the fasting was not only personal but co-operative; the command of Esther being:
"Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day: I also and my maidens will fast likewise" (Esther 4:16).
Here is fasting by consent of parties. Those who were outside the palace were required to fast as if instead of, or along with, Esther, so as to make her own fasting a still deeper and more significant abstinence from food. The phrase is altogether peculiar,—"Fast ye for me." Not that Esther was to be exempt from fasting herself, but that the fasting of others was to enlarge her own religious ceremony. Thus men help one another: we pray for one another; we are thus transfused into one another; and so the spirit of selfishness is driven out of us, and we are filled with godly and noble concern for others, that they may be sanctified in all thought, passion, and service. Sooner or later we thus come to the religious line which underlies everything in human life. For many a day we have not a religious thought; we suppose we can manage our own concerns, and that shrewdness is the only religion we require; but life gathers itself up into agonies, crises, and moments of infinite peril, and only when we come to such points in life do we really feel our need of religious inspiration and spiritual sustenance; all externals are torn away, all secondary props are thrown down, all trust to self-inventiveness is discarded, and the soul stands as it were naked before God, pleading with him for mercy and for deliverance in time of need. Not until men are brought to this condition ought they to say anything about religion. Apart from all such experience their conversation can only be controversial, and indeed it may be but merely flippant. The man who has stood face to face with death, who has seen horror in its ghastliest form, who has had demands laid upon him as from the very tyrant of perdition; the man who has felt the intolerable burden of sin, the racking of an angry and tormenting conscience, is alone qualified to speak of the deep things which affect the religious aspirations and necessities of the soul. It is indeed a sacred experience, and may be a happy one, when we are driven beyond the usual lines of life, and are brought face to face with destiny, with eternity, with God. In such circumstances flippancy is blasphemy. We return from the interview blanched and withered, and bent down as if with a burden of years, but the soul is chastened and sweetened, and made more eager for divine fellowship. This is what we rejoice in as sanctified discipline or trial turned to its highest uses. Esther was in very deed in earnest; her soul burned; her spirit was aglow with one overmastering determination; she wrought with the energy of despair, and yet not altogether despair; for in the innermost recesses of the black cloud there were lines of light. The heart still hopes that God will appear even at the eleventh hour, and mightily deliver those who have thrown themselves upon him with all the resoluteness of trust and love.
Esther proved her earnestness by saying that she would "Go in unto the king, which is not according to the law: and if I perish, I perish." This is heroism at its supreme point. Verily there are causes worth dying for. Many a Christian missionary has used the same expression in substance if not in terms. The Christian evangelist has felt that he must under all circumstances go forward to proclaim the gospel, to offer salvation, to magnify his Lord and Saviour; he has been told that if he go forward he will certainly be devoured; he has strengthened himself in God, and has said, I will go: if I perish, I perish. But who can perish if he go in the spirit of God, in the fear of God, and in the love of God? Will God disappoint such trust? Is it not his delight to come forth in a revelation of deliverance in the last extremity, and to magnify himself before his people? "Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? hope in God: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God." The history of personal religion often indeed deepens into the gloom of despair, yet suddenly it emerges from that black night, and glows like a dawn upon the delivered and inspired soul. Better die a noble death than live an ignoble life. What is there in us of what we may call philanthropic venture or enterprise? Who has ever undertaken any great and thrilling task for God or for man? Have we not been content with commonplace duties? Have we not fallen back in the hour of supreme testing? Every man must answer these questions for himself. Blessed is the soul that can recall times of consecration, that could not hesitate as to duty, and of courage that went forward when there seemed to be nothing before it but inevitable and overwhelming danger.
Esther ventured into "the inner court of the king's house, over against the king's house: and the king sat upon his royal throne in the royal house, over against the gate of the house." It was a critical moment. Humanly speaking, everything depended upon the mood of the king: if he were complacent all would be well, but if anything had ruffled his spirit, then indeed he would wreak his vengeance upon the nearest object. "When the king saw Esther the queen standing in the court, she obtained favour in his sight." How eagerly she watched for the first token of the king's feeling; how quick she would be in the interpretation of facial signs; how keen her ear in the detection of explanatory tones; happily, "The king held out to Esther the golden sceptre that was in his hand. So Esther drew near, and touched the top of the sceptre." The king was in a right royal mood; he was indeed generous to excess, saying, with Oriental magniloquence, "What wilt thou, queen Esther? and what is thy request? it shall be even given thee to the half of the kingdom." All these were mere words, not meant to be taken in their grammatical import; yet they revealed the existence of a spirit or disposition upon which Esther might hopefully work. Esther answered, "If it seem good unto the king, let the king and Haman come this day unto the banquet that I have prepared for him." Esther did not hasten the delivery of her request. She hastened slowly. Her determination is to secure a favourable opportunity that she may place her request before the king under the best circumstances. It is not only enough to have a good cause, we must watch for the right time for promoting it. Many a philanthropic endeavour or noble enterprise may be thwarted because of the unseasonableness of its introduction. It is hardly too much to regard the offer of the king as in a sense typical of the offer of God to all earnest souls. Here there is nothing of the nature of hyperbole—" God is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think:" "Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it." Let us come boldly to the throne of grace,—as men who have great petitions to breathe in the hearing of a great king: the greater the king the greater the prayer that may be addressed to him: when God is the King who is approached, who can ask too much, provided it be asked with humility, submissiveness, and a grateful spirit? "Be careful for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus." The first banquet was thus held under favourable circumstances. The king said, "Cause Haman to make haste, that he may do as Esther hath said. So the king and Haman came to the banquet that Esther had prepared." We may be going to our death by way of the banqueting-table. Truly, "Things are not what they seem." The festival may be the feast of death. The figure sitting nearest to us when the wine giveth its colour in the cup may be a concealed image of ruin. "At the banquet of wine,"—that is, at the dessert, to use a modern expression—the king said unto Esther, "What is thy petition? and it shall be granted thee: and what is thy request? even to the half of the kingdom it shall be performed." Still Esther was in no undue haste. She was not quite sure that the ground under her feet was solid. In the cautiousness of her movement there was a religious restraint. How deeply she is pondering the king's face all the while: she knows that if she has miscalculated her opportunity by one moment she will unquestionably perish. She is handling two-edged instruments, and she may at any instant inflict upon herself deadly injury. Let us learn from the caution of Esther. In many cases we might have made more progress if we had been less energetic. There is a time for waiting, for silence, for standing still, in the discipline of this mysterious human life. She went no further meanwhile than to propose a second banquet—
"If I have found favour in the sight of the king, and if it please the king to grant my petition, and to perform my request, let the king and Haman come to the banquet that I shall prepare for them, and I will do tomorrow as the king hath said" (Esther 5:8).
This charioteer must keep her team well in hand. God may visit her in the night visions, and show her somewhat of her purpose: who can tell whether God will not also visit the king in the night season and commune with him from heaven?
The one man who was pleased with the arrangements which were proposed was Haman—"Then went Haman forth that day joyful and with a glad heart" Everything was now bright before him; not a cloud hung upon the horizon; not a moan of wind could be heard in the tranquil air. Haman had simply to walk along a path of roses to a throne of gold. Everything seemed to be delivered over to his hand. He was as one standing in the harvest-field, who had only to thrust in his sickle that he might carry away sheaves of joy. It was indeed a thrilling moment in the experience of Haman. Surely it is something to have the whole world given into one's arms, to wear it as a jewel, play with it as a toy, use it as an investment, sit upon it as a throne, and in short do what one pleases with so huge a treasure. This was the spirit in which Hainan went forth that day. Yet even in this history there occurs the suggestive word "but"; so we read:
"But when Haman saw Mordecai in the king's gate, that he stood not up, nor moved for him, he was full of indignation against Mordecai" (Esther 5:9).
Probably Mordecai was himself wrong in this instance; he might have stood up, or in some way he might have moved, in recognition of one so officially great. There is no need to excuse rudeness on the part of any man. Mordecai was probably rude, and by so much is to be condemned. Who could have thought that so slight an incident would have troubled so vast an enjoyment? Yet it did so. We have all had experience of this same emotion in human life. Little things that are awkward spoil great things that are pleasant. "Haman refrained himself," for after all the advantages preponderated over the disadvantages, and arrangements had been made for bringing vengeance upon the head of Mordecai and his people. To this height of magnanimity did Haman rise! Then came Haman's interview with his wife.
"Haman... called for his friends, and Zeresh his wife. And Haman told them of the glory of his riches, and the multitude of his children, and all the things wherein the king had promoted him, and how he had advanced him above the princes and servants of the king. Haman said moreover, Yea, Esther the queen did let no man come in with the king unto the banquet that she had prepared but myself; and tomorrow am I invited unto her also with the king" (Esther 5:10-12).
This is the speech of a selfish man. Everything turns upon what had been done to himself, and upon what he proposed himself to do. At this moment Haman may be regarded as the very incarnation of selfishness. Let us look steadily at the picture, and see whether we should like to exchange places with this man. The temptation would indeed be great were the offer made to us; at the same time it may be possible to see far enough into this hateful selfishness to make us hesitate whether we should accept his position were the opportunity convenient. Haman's subjects were all little ones—"the glory of his riches—the multitude of his children, the things wherein the king had promoted him, and how he had advanced him above the princes and servants of the king;" not a single great thought, not one dream of human love, not one purpose of human deliverance; the man counts his wealth like a miser; numbers his jewels one by one, takes each up, looks at it in the light of the sun, and sets it down again with a murmur of self-gratulation. It was a poor mean life. Haman the miser is Haman the misanthropist. A man who can thus content himself with external treasures and passing honours is perfectly qualified to drive away from his path every enemy, even though he be called upon to commit murder itself. Nothing will stand in the way of the selfish man when his will is once set upon the accomplishment of a base purpose. Even at this point Mordecai was a shadow upon Haman's glory.
"Yet all this availeth me nothing, so long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king's gate" (Esther 5:13).
Now the disadvantages preponderated over the advantages. A living enemy may one day become an almighty foe. Mordecai is powerless enough to-day, but so long as his root is in the earth there is a possibility that he may grow and become strong. Something therefore must be done to rid the earth of this plague. Zeresh came to the rescue, saying:
"Let a gallows be made of fifty cubits high, and tomorrow speak thou unto the king that Mordecai may be hanged thereon: then go thou in merrily with the king unto the banquet" (Esther 5:14).
"Use thy high privileges for the sake of getting rid of thine enemies, and walk over the body of a dead foe like a hero who has conquered, and go into the feast and make thyself glad with wine." The idea was pleasant to Haman; having an abundance of resources, he commanded the gallows to be made instantly. Is there not a gnawing worm in the heart of every joy? Is there not a Mordecai in the way of every ambitious man? We cannot have all things exactly our own way; there is one nail we cannot extract, one lock we cannot undo, one gate we cannot open, one claim we cannot pacify. In every path there would seem to be a deep gaping grave which even mountains cannot fill up; we throw great hills into that grave, and behold the hills sink in the abyss, and the grave remains wide open still. How near are some men to perfect bliss! If but one thorn could be extracted, then the men themselves would be safe in heaven; but that one thorn abides to remind them of their limitations, and to sting them with a useful sense of disappointment. But there is another woman now engaged in the drama. Esther is working at one end, and Zeresh is working at the other. Yet the battle of life is not conducted by human agents only: all hearts are in the hands of God, and all events are elements which he works into the web of his providence. Where the duel is between two human creatures, its issue might be death; but there is no clash of arms, no moral conflict, in which God himself does not take part. We must wait, therefore, to see how events come to explain the mystery of processes.
Now we come to what may be termed a mysterious spiritual action. We read of that action in the sixth chapter, which thus opens:
"On that night could not the king sleep, and he commanded to bring the book of records of the chronicles; and they were read before the king." (Esther 6:1).
Why could not the king sleep? Why did the king's sleep flee away? We may attempt to trace this to physical causes, and satisfy ourselves with secondary explanations: the religious mind is not content with such suggestions: the spiritual man has no difficulty whatever in recognising the action of God in all the events of life, even in so trivial an instance as the sleeplessness of the king. Did not the king sleep well the night before? For many a night indeed he may have been sleeping well, but we now come to a point of time,—"that night,"—that particular, special, memorable night,—that night sleep seemed to have fled from the earth, and the darkness was turned into the light of day. Is God working? Is some great visit about to be paid to a human mind? These are questions which bring with them mystery, whether we look upon them from a physical or from a spiritual point of view. The exceptional circumstances of life should always be regarded as having a possibly religious significance. To speak of them as if they were but part of a great commonplace is to degrade them, and to lose all the advantage which might accrue from a right recognition of their import. That night! We have already had occasion to remark upon the wonders which God accomplishes in the nighttime. God could come by day; he could come in the early morning; he could hold the sun in the heavens until he had fought out the battle with man; but it pleases him to come forth under the cover of the clouds, and to walk as if stealthily in the silence of night, that he may commune with men with the greatest advantage. The king "could not" sleep. The words "could not" occur rather significantly in such a connection as this. Remember the power of the king; the man who could not sleep was "Ahasuerus which reigned from India even unto Ethiopia, over an hundred and seven and twenty provinces." Yet this Ahasuerus could not sleep! This is the man who "made a feast unto all his princes and his servants; the power of Persia and Media, the nobles and princes of the provinces, being before him: when he showed the riches of his glorious kingdom and the honour of his excellent majesty many days, even an hundred and fourscore days." Yet this man, with all his might and pomp, could not sleep, could not charm his eyelids to slumber, could not lull his brain into tranquillity. There is a "could not" in the history of all human power. Truly the king might have slept, for he lived in Shushan the palace; "the beds were of gold and silver, upon a pavement of red, and blue, and white, and black, marble;" yet even in such beds no sleep was to be found. How was this? Everything that could be done to give the king rest was easily within command, and yet on this memorable night the spirit of sleep could not be wooed. Surely there is something of mystery in all human life. The kings of Persia were in most cases unable to read, and therefore readers were employed to read before the king. The records opened at a curious place. Why did they not open a page before, or a page later, if we may speak in modern phrase? or why did not the eye alight upon another scroll, instead of this particular writing? Strange indeed that those who read the records turned to the place where
"It was found written, that Mordecai had told of Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king's chamberlains, the keepers of the door, who sought to lay hand on the king Ahasuerus" (Esther 6:2).
Thus there is a resurrection of good works. Things are done and forgotten, and men never suppose that they will come up again; yet after many days they are vivified, and history begins to take up the thread where it was dropped. The plot of the chamberlains "was known to Mordecai, who told it unto Esther the queen; and Esther certified the king thereof in Mordecai's name. And when inquisition was made of the matter, it was found out; therefore they were both hanged on a tree: and it was written in the book of the chronicles before the king." Now the king's conscience was touched, or his sense of justice; so said he, "What honour and dignity hath been done to Mordecai for this? "The result showed that nothing had been done for him. The king was determined to rectify this matter, for he thought that by the pacification of conscience sleep might return. When Mordecai was honoured, Ahasuerus might fall into slumber. Many men are willing to purchase sleep on high terms. Could the murder but be undone; could the evil deed be but blotted out; could the stolen money be but safely returned; could the cruel word but be recalled; in short, could anything be done that sleep might once more come to the house, and fold all memories and anxieties within its healing robes! It happened that Haman was at hand at that very moment.
"Haman was come into the outward court of the king's house, to speak unto the king to hang Mordecai on the gallows that he had prepared for him." (Esther 6:4).
Thus there are two men as well as two women engaged in this plot—the king and Esther, Haman and Zeresh. At that particular moment they were all thinking about Mordecai. The king was about to honour him, and Haman was about to murder him. What a problem is our life! What strange forces contend over the body of every man! The contention as between the angel and the demoniac spirit over the body of Moses is no mere image, or if an image it expresses the tragical reality. God would save us, the devil would destroy us; angels are our ministering servants, yet we have to fight against principalities, powers, and rulers of darkness: all life is a tremendous controversy, and the question often arises, On which side will the issue turn?
Now we shall discover what a man would do for himself were a suitable opportunity created for the indication of his desires. The king said unto Haman, "What shall be done unto the man whom the king delighteth to honour?" What could Haman imagine but that he himself was the object of the king's complacency? Yet Haman could answer the question without appearing to associate it with his own fortunes. He could be magnificently generous, and yet be all the while offering incense to his own vanity without appearing to be doing so. Had the king said, "What shall I do unto thee, O Haman?" so modest a person as Haman might have been troubled by the inquiry; but seeing that the inquiry is anonymous Haman is enabled to speak out of his own inflamed imagination:
"And Haman answered the king, For the man whom the king delighteth to honour, let the royal apparel be brought which the king useth to wear, and the horse that the king rideth upon, and the crown royal which is set upon his head: and let this apparel and horse be delivered to the hand of one of the king's most noble princes, that they may array the man withal whom the king delighteth to honour, and bring him on horseback through the street of the city, and proclaim before him, Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delighteth to honour" (Esther 6:7-9).
That is all that Haman would have done! He meant himself to be the hero of the hour, and this was the little and modest programme which he drew up! He must have been speaking generously for a rival or a friend, for surely there could be no taint of selfishness in so large a scheme! Fix upon Haman's answer as showing what man would do for himself if he could. We may study ourselves by studying others. Every human heart should be a looking-glass in which we see ourselves. Haman's answer did not displease the king; on the contrary, the king was ready to fall in with the generous suggestion. But did ever thunderbolt fall more suddenly from heaven than fell this answer upon the ears of Haman?
"Then the king said to Haman, Make haste, and take the apparel and the horse, as thou hast said, and do even so to Mordecai the Jew, that sitteth at the king's gate: let nothing fail of all that thou hast spoken" (Esther 6:10).
Is not life a series of surprises? Is not the moment of highest ambition often next the moment of saddest humiliation? "Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall." Haman had been lifted up to heaven by his own vanity: how awful to drop then into the abyss of shame! But the word of Ahasuerus did not admit of contention. Eastern kings were not accustomed to be argued with: they knew nothing of the eloquence of remonstrance. It was as much as Haman's head was worth to offer one single word of opposition to the will of the king.
"Then took Hainan the apparel and the horse, and arrayed Mordecai, and brought him on horseback through the street of the city, and proclaimed before him, Thus shall it be done unto the man whom the king delighteth to honour" (Esther 6:11).
Truly it would be curious to analyse Hainan's feelings at this moment! Could he believe that what he was doing was a reality: was it not rather a hideous nightmare to be shaken off by some violent effort? Had Haman been doing all this unconsciously, leading up almost to the coronation of the man whom he hated most? Again and again we see that we cannot tell what we are doing. Haman went home a sad-hearted man, and "told Zeresh his wife and all his friends everything that had befallen him." How he stumbled in the story, how he cried and whimpered, how his face interpreted his tones, and his whole attitude indicated his shame! The people understood the whole perfectly; they said:
"If Mordecai be of the seed of the Jews, before whom thou hast begun to fall, thou shalt not prevail against him, but shalt surely fall before him. And while they were yet talking with him, came the king's chamberlains, and hasted to bring Haman unto the banquet that Esther had prepared" (Esther 6:13-14).
A banquet without a blessing, a feast without satisfaction, glaring pomp and circumstances that mocked the eyes that had looked upon their own humiliation. These are the ironies of life, which plague and perplex the heart and vex the imagination. Haman would rather have been in the wilderness, crying aloud in solitude to relieve himself of pain of heart It is cruel to be forced to go to a feast when the heart is in a mood of sadness. "He that seeketh his life shall lose it." Let all ambitious men read the story of Haman, and take warning. His story may not be repeated in its Oriental details, all the flash and colour may be wanting; yet, even when they have vanished, there remains enough in the tale to remind us that we too are ambitious, that we too may have ignoble thoughts towards our fellow-men, and that even we are not above resorting to the foulest practices to get rid of the Mordecai who stands in our way as a stumbling-block. Will it be regarded as commonplace or as trite, if here we venture once more to say, Beware of jealousy: it is cruel as the grave; it poisons every feast, it turns every goblet of wine into a fountain of poison: check it at its very beginning; better die to live than live to die.