An unreasonable and desperate situation

gateway in ancient city of Susa
Photo by Humay Ismayilzada on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

December 4, 2022

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Commentary on Esther 4:1-17

One temptation when preaching on this passage is to turn it into a hero story. Another temptation is to focus on searching for divine providence hidden in the narrative. A third temptation is to minimize the danger and confusion that resonate through the chapter and permeate the book of Esther.

The chapter begins with loud and visible grief. Mordecai tears his clothes, dons sackcloth and ashes, and walks through the city of Susa—up to the king’s gate —loudly and bitterly wailing. The cause of the mourning is an edict prepared by Haman, a senior royal official, “written in the name of King Ahasuerus and sealed with the king’s ring … giving orders 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 … and to plunder their goods” (3:12-13). Mordecai was a Jew and throughout the empire the Jews joined in “great mourning … with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and most of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.”  

The decree was personal—Mordecai did not bow down and do obeisance to Haman, as the king had commanded (3:2) and that infuriated Haman (3:5). Instead of bringing charges and investigating Mordecai’s behavior, Haman “plotted to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom” (3:6). When Haman sought the king’s approval for the Jews’ destruction, he never identified the targeted group by name and never mentioned that his hatred stemmed from his encounter with Mordecai and was projected on the Jews as a group. Haman spoke to the king of “a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces … [whose] laws are different … and they do not keep the king’s laws” (3:8). Though no evidence was provided, the king did not question Haman’s conclusion “that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them” (3:9). Chapter 4 begins with loud wailing and distress befitting “all that had been done” (4:1). 

In a post-Holocaust world—sadly—a pogram against Jews does not surprise, but in the context and content of the Book of Esther it is completely unanticipated and unprecedented. The Jews in Persia are among many peoples of varied ethnic and religious identities who were deported/exiled when their home kingdoms were conquered. Mordecai and Esther are identified as descendants of persons “carried away from Jerusalem” (2:6) by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BCE. They are part of the Jewish diaspora, in other words, Jews who remained in the lands to which their families had come as exiles, as distinguished from the Jews who returned, when the Persians came to power, to the territory that had been the Kingdom of Judah to rebuild the Temple and reestablish a Jewish presence and identity.

In the Book of Esther, there is great diversity in the kingdom. Royal notices are sent “to every province in its own script and every people in its own language” (for example, 1:22, 3:12). There is no evidence to support Haman’s assertion about “a certain people … [who] do not keep the king’s laws” (3:8). The Book of Esther is strikingly void of any identifiable “Jewish” identity markers. Mordecai discloses that he is a Jew (3:4). He instructs Esther not to disclose her Jewishness (2:10, 20). In the Book of Esther there is nothing separating Jews from or setting them in opposition to other peoples in the Persian kingdom. Haman’s enmity toward the Jews (3:10) is a projection of his anger toward Mordecai (3:5-6). There is nothing religious or ethnic behind it.  

Esther 4 opens with loud sounds of individual and communal broken-heartedness, fear, shock, and confusion. When her “maids and her eunuchs came and told her … [Esther] was deeply distressed.” Her initial attempt to restore public orderliness is not a surprising first response, but re-dressing Mordecai does not address the calamity. It takes multiple messengers (maids, eunuchs, Hathach, “them”) and detailed information for Esther to grasp the nature of the situation and the lives under threat. Who are individuals and communities written out and targeted for elimination today? Who are the messengers and what are the avenues for hearing, investigating and addressing their cries?  

Hathach was responsible for delivering Mordecai’s instruction that Esther “go to the king to make supplication to him and entreat him for her people” (4:8). The Jewish identity—designated for attack—that she had been instructed not to disclose is now the identity she is to present to the king in making an appeal to halt the decree “written in the name of King Ahasuerus” (3:12). Her identities as queen, wife and daughter/cousin are also being engaged. What are the multiple identities we bear? With whom do they link us? What identities are prominent in how others view us? In how we view others? What identities might place someone in danger? Why?

The news of the decree, the request to identify with the intended victims, and the notice of Haman’s leadership in the effort—coming together in the exchange facilitated by Hathach—can only be received with shock and incredulousness. This is an unreasonable and desperate situation, prompting multiple considerations. 

  • Esther recalls that “if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called … all alike are to be put to death.” To this she adds that she has “not been called to come into the king for thirty days.”
  • Mordecai sees no sanctuary or escape for Esther or her “father’s family,” even when “relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter” (4:14).
  • Mordecai poses the possibility that Esther has “come to royal dignity for just such a time as this” (4:14).  

The exchanges between Mordecai and Esther do not align in a logical argument. They “reply” to one another but they do not respond to the content of the multiple considerations. Esther’s having attained royal status does not address the king’s lack of contact with her. The danger of unbidden entry to the inner court applies to everyone, including the queen. Mordecai posits that failure to speak will lead to certain death for Esther and her “father’s family.” Speaking might also lead to certain death. 

Mordecai indicates that “relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter.” Is this based on information Mordecai has, or an assertion of hope in a desperate situation? Here is where it can be tempting to insert God into the narrative, as the one who will rescue the Jews if Esther does not risk her life going to the king. The Book of Esther does not reference God. It is appropriate to ponder how our language about God might relate to the crises revealed in Esther 4, and to the absence of mention of God. There is also reason to be cautious about suggesting divine deliverance is contingent on Esther’s actions.

The chapter ends with a resolve to action, a grim recognition of vulnerability, and a collective act of solidarity. Esther announces that she will go to the king, though she may perish. She will be breaking the law. Esther’s decision is bold and—in the broader scope of the narrative—heroic. In this chapter, however, there is no surety. The wailing ceases, but danger and the threat of death remain. The chapter has provided space to grieve, discern, express hopes and fears, build resolve, connect, and offer support. Esther instructs Mordecai to gather the Jews in Susa to fast on her behalf for three days, along with Esther and her maids, as she prepares for her audience with the king.  

Esther in the Advent Context

In the Narrative Lectionary, Esther 4:1-17 coincides with the Second Sunday in Advent. While it may seem curious to have a text with no reference to God in the Advent season, the reading invites us to consider the nature of our world, the cries for deliverance, and the shape of our community at “such a time as this” (4:14). Our Advent journey includes honest assessment and judgment, coming together with hope and anticipation of Christ’s coming again.


God of justice, you sent your servant Esther into a life of privilege so that those without would be taken care of. In our privilege, show us how to advocate for those who have less, so that your world might be peaceful and just. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.


Rejoice, rejoice, believers ELW 244
Creator of the stars of night ELW 245, H82 60, UMH 692, NCH 111


Advent Litany, Peter Hallock