But the other Jews that were in the king's provinces gathered themselves together, and stood for their lives…
This passage, with two somewhat similar passages preceding it, may read at first like the narration of sanguinary cruelty, and the indefensible havoc of human life. Our strongest sympathies were but very lately with the Jews, for whom fearful destruction was devised without the slightest shadow of justifiable provocation. We rejoiced with them when the cloud that overhung burst, and they seemed to be delivered from their former terrible outlook. But already we begin perhaps to repent, and to feel that neither our sympathy nor our gratulation were well merited. Though the destruction that threatened the Jews, and with such aggravating circumstances, is averted, it is little (even though it be true that they were not the side originally in fault), if all that is gained is, that the hands that shed blood are changed from the one side to the other. If no slaughter is spared, if for pity's sake human life be not saved, if those who were the unjustly doomed become in the hour of their own mercy the first to doom others, even though they may do so with tenfold provocation and with some rough sort of justice, we may be inclined to feel for a moment that there was after all not so very much to choose between the two. A little closer study of the context, however, will suffice to show that such is not a fair description of the case. The subject suggests rather the statement of the law of self-preservation, not of the individual, but of the nation. Again, therefore, we have a question of great interest offering itself on the scale of national magnitude. This circumstance will facilitate the consideration of it under conditions in some respects more favourable. When treated as a question affecting the individual, it has often been entangled by casuistry; but when considered in the unusual proportions here presenting themselves, its broader, bolder outlines will perhaps come out to view more plainly. The right of taking life for the sake of self-preservation, or in self-defence, may be sufficiently sketched out of the material of the present narrative. If that right is to be fairly allowed for, and at the same time limited as exactly as may be, it may be said to postulate the following conditions: -
I. THAT THE OCCASION BE ONE OF UNDOUBTED NECESSITY. In the present instance the whole number of the Jews scattered throughout the 127 provinces now subject to Ahasuerus had been threatened with extermination. There could be no doubt of their imminent danger, and of their helplessness. When Esther (Esther 8:5) supplicated the king "to reverse the letters devised by Haman... which he wrote to destroy the Jews in all the king's provinces," the king met the difficulty of his former irreversible decree and irreversible letters by giving authority to the threatened Jews "to gather themselves together, and to stand for their life, to destroy... all the power of the people and province that would assault them" (Esther 8:11). He cannot reverse his own former decree literally, but by a fiction he does so very really, very effectually. Esther and Mordecai would at that time have been gladly content to have simply removed from their own race the decree that doomed them, but from the time that this way of putting the matter was revealed by the king, and the whole responsibility of saving themselves was thrown so far on their own efforts, the occasion became one of undoubted necessity. It was not war, it was not murder, it was not gratuitous massacre - it was a case of self-defence.
II. THAT THERE BE THE LEAST SACRIFICE OF LIFE THAT WOULD ATTAIN THE NEEDFUL END. It is remarkable that the exact number should be so carefully given of the two slaughters in Shushan (vers. 6, 15), and of the aggregate of that (ver. 16) which took effect through the "king's provinces." That Esther asked for another day's opportunity of taking the lives of the enemies of her people in Shushan (vers. 13-15) may safely be understood to be owing to special necessities not given in detail. It need not for one moment indicate any wish that one life more should be sacrificed than should be necessary for the safety of the Jews. Now when the sum-total of the slain are added, amounting to 75,800, first, the number, large as it seems, probably does not reach the number of the Jews who were to have been exterminated; secondly, it is certain there was no comparison between the numbers relatively - for in the case of the Jews the slaughter was to have been of all, while 75,800 were but a small proportion of the entire population not Jews; and thirdly, there not only is no evidence of there having been any indiscriminate slaughter on the part of the Jews, but presumably none were slain except such as rose up to slay. This self-defence, therefore, on the part of the Jews probably left more living men than would have been left under the circumstances if the Jews had suffered their own lives to be unresistingly taken.
III. THAT THE LEAST POSSIBLE GAIN OUTSIDE OF THE ONE GAIN OF LIFE, THE SUPREME OBJECT SOUGHT, BE TAKEN BY THE ACT OF SELF-DEFENCE. In the decree granted by King Ahasuerus special provision was spontaneously made that the Jews should appropriate the spoil on their successful resistance of the enemy. Nevertheless, when the time came they refused to do so. And evidently much significance attached to this conduct. It is repeated as many as three times in this chapter. On every occasion on which a victory on their part is announced, this is added-that instead of laying hands on the prey, they emphatically refrained from doing so. This differences self-defence, and the taking of life in self-defence, very greatly from other occasions in which life is taken.
IV. THAT REVENGE BE THE LEAST POSSIBLE ELEMENT IN IT. In cases of sudden need of self-defence there will be no room for the feeling of revenge. Self-defence, however, will by no means be requisite only in such cases. Where there is long delay it is impossible to predicate that none of the spirit of revenge may enter into the hearts of some out of the many; but there is no need to suppose that now there was any in the hearts of the principals. Esther and Mordecai desired one thing - the safety of their people. They wished for "rest from their enemies." They probably felt that they were the ministers of righteous retribution. They desired that Haman's ten sons "hanged on the gallows" should still drive home on an impressed populace the sense and conviction of what a force righteous retribution was, and how much men ought "to stand in awe" because of it; but there is no proof whatever that in all the relief to the bitterness of their soul revenge played any part. The lessons of this portion of the narrative are not needed for the pulpit on every Lord's day certainly, but it may be they are provided here, in the universality of the use of the Divine book, for some special and solemn crises. - B.
Parallel VersesKJV: But the other Jews that were in the king's provinces gathered themselves together, and stood for their lives, and had rest from their enemies, and slew of their foes seventy and five thousand, but they laid not their hands on the prey,
WEB: The other Jews who were in the king's provinces gathered themselves together, defended their lives, had rest from their enemies, and killed seventy-five thousand of those who hated them; but they didn't lay their hand on the plunder.