Esther’s Endangered Life
By David Wright
Women and small children crowd the waiting room. Most of the patients are pregnant women or new mothers, but some have come to the clinic for a routine checkup. Marlena, who has always dreaded her annual exam, now fervently wishes that she were here waiting for one.
Sitting beside Marlena is Frank, her devoted husband of 12 years. Although a good man, he tends to be a worrier. Just now Marlena almost regrets accepting his offer to take the day off and accompany her. A brave smile touches Frank’s lips every time she looks at him, but she can see anxiety written all over his face. His worry makes her even more nervous. Thankfully, Frank’s mother is keeping the children this morning.
Marlena tells herself that she will feel much better after seeing Dr. Clapton. Her gynecologist is professional, friendly, and optimistic. Marlena will explain to him that she found a firm lump in her right breast yesterday. In his cheerful way, Dr. Clapton will say, “Let’s just have a look.” He will examine her thoroughly, asking several pertinent questions. Then he will lean back in his swivel chair and say, “Marlena, I wouldn’t worry about this if I were you. Women with lumps in their breasts come in here every day.”
Marlena sighs heavily, knowing that she is only kidding herself. Breast cancer has already killed three women in her mother’s family—Marlena’s grandmother, Aunt Sarah, and Aunt Peg. Marlena fears that Dr. Clapton, who is well aware of her cancer risk, will not be happy today.
And she is right. After examining her, Dr. Clapton sits down with a sober look on his face. “Marlena,” he says, “I don’t wish to alarm you, but this lump concerns me. Perhaps it’s benign, but we need to make sure. I want you at the hospital for a biopsy in the morning.”
Marlena lives the next few days in a fog. She cooks, cleans, and cares for her two toddlers, but her mind is entirely absorbed by grief and anxiety. She is only 31, too young to die. What will become of her darling boys? Marlena is frantic to hear the results of her biopsy, but every time the phone rings panic rises in her throat, threatening to choke her.
After what feels like a year, the biopsy results are in. Dr. Clapton himself calls with the bad news. In a daze Marlena clutches her phone, listening to terrifying words such as “malignant,” “oncologist,” “surgery,” and “treatment.” Marlena feels overwhelmed by fear, as if a killer were stalking her in the dark.
Esther, a lovely Jewish girl of the fifth century BC, also experienced the fear of death. But her enemy had a name and face. His deadly plot threatened not only Esther but also her entire race. Worst of all, he seemed to have the political power and money to accomplish his malicious purpose.
Susa, one of the three capital cities in the Persian Empire, probably derived its name from the profusion of lilies growing in the area. The region’s natural beauty and lovely climate made Susa a winter resort for Persian kings. Located on the west bank of the Choaspes River, this city was home to many Jews carried captive from Judah by the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar. One of these exiles was a fine man named Mordecai.
Abihail, Mordecai’s uncle, died prematurely, leaving behind an adorable little girl named Hadassah. This Jewish name meant “myrtle” (an evergreen shrub with fragrant flowers), but her Gentile name was even more beautiful. Esther, derived from the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, meant “star.” Mordecai took his orphaned cousin into his own home, surely never suspecting that his adopted daughter would one day deliver the Jewish people from annihilation.
Ironically, Esther rose to a position of power as the result of a divorce. Ahasuerus, better known by his Greek name Xerxes, ruled Persia for about 20 years (486-465 BC). “In the third year of his reign,” he became furious with Queen Vashti when she refused to parade herself before the king and his intoxicated guests (Esth. 1:3-12). After deposing her, Ahasuerus gathered the empire’s most attractive young women into his harem, planning to choose one of them as the next Persian queen.
Esther, “lovely and beautiful,” was one of the virgins selected to enter the royal harem. Her physical beauty, enhanced by inner grace, instantly won the favor of Hegai, “custodian of the women” (Esth. 2:7-8). Hegai determined that, if he had anything to do with it, Esther would become the next queen. He promptly moved her to the most comfortable quarters in the harem, provided “seven choice maidservants,” and gave her the best food and beauty treatments available (v. 9).
Hegai’s special care of Esther paid off. Ahasuerus loved her “more than all the other women […]; so he set the royal crown upon her head” (Esth. 2:17). Esther became queen of Persia in 479 BC.
Although Ahasuerus found his new queen charming and gracious, he may have noticed that she was reserved when talking about herself. She studiously avoided any reference to her family, customs, or religious beliefs. This reticence was due to Mordecai’s warning that she keep her nationality a secret. Perhaps he had a premonition from the Lord that Esther’s secrecy would one day prove an advantage to the Jewish people. Or maybe he was simply afraid of anti-Semitic bigotry.
Mordecai certainly never intended Esther’s secret to work Ahasuerus any harm. On the contrary, his loyalty to the throne once saved the king’s life. Discovering that two palace officials were plotting to assassinate Ahasuerus, Mordecai promptly reported it. When an investigation confirmed Mordecai’s suspicions, the two disgruntled eunuchs, Bigthan and Teresh, “were hanged on a gallows.” An account of the incident was recorded “in the book of the chronicles in the presence of the king” (Esth. 2:23).
Shortly afterward, “Ahasuerus promoted Haman,” setting his seat above all the princes (Esth. 3:1). This incredibly wealthy Persian noble now had a political position almost as high as his opinion of himself. The king inflated the man’s bubble even further by commanding his servants to bow before Haman and pay “homage” (v. 2). Almost all the palace officials obeyed the king in this matter.
But Mordecai, apparently a minor palace official himself, refused to comply with this royal decree. Bowing before a ruler was not inconsistent with God’s law. The prophet Nathan, for instance, “bowed down” in King David’s presence (1 Kings 1:23). Perhaps Mordecai’s objection to the king’s command pertained to the requirement to “pay homage” (Esth. 3:2). Ahasuerus expected his servants to treat Haman as if the noble were a god, and this Mordecai could not conscientiously do. Or maybe he was conscious of his superior position as the queen’s father.
People noticed Mordecai’s defiance and pressed him for its reason. He explained that he was a Jew. This answer displeased the other palace officials, who decided to inform Haman. They wanted to see whether Mordecai would escape punishment.
Haman, of course, was ignorant of Mordecai’s proven loyalty to the throne and his relation to Queen Esther. All Haman saw in Mordecai was a lowly Jew who dared to insult his own high and mighty person. Burning with angry scorn, he decided that punishing Mordecai alone would fail to appease his appetite for cruelty. Nothing would suffice but the annihilation of Mordecai’s entire people.
In 474 BC (five years after Esther became queen), Haman selected the day of annihilation by casting lots (Esth. 3:7). The time chosen was “the thirteenth day of the twelfth month” (v. 13). What Haman never guessed was that Mordecai’s God influenced the casting of lots, ensuring that the Jewish people would have almost a year to prepare themselves for the coming assault.
After casting Pur, the lot, Haman sought the king’s permission to pursue his plan. He told Ahasuerus that the Jews scattered throughout the provinces did “not keep the king’s laws” (Esth. 3:8). Exterminating this odious people was in the best interest of the kingdom. Haman offered to pay a huge sum of silver into the royal treasury to cover the expense of destroying them (v. 9).
His request granted, Haman sent couriers throughout the empire to announce the royal decree. His instructions revealed how merciless he was. The people in every province were “to annihilate all the Jews, both young and old, little children and women” (Esth. 3:13).
Obviously, the Jewish people were terribly distraught. Mordecai, like many others, “tore his clothes,” “put on sackcloth and ashes,” and “cried out with a loud and bitter cry” (Esth. 4:1). When Esther learned that he was behaving this way, she became agitated. Sending clothes to Mordecai by her servants, Esther urged him to put off his sackcloth.
Mordecai refused to accept the clothing. So the queen sent Hathach, a trusted servant, to find out why her adoptive father was mourning. Mordecai told the eunuch of Haman’s plot against the Jews, and even sent Esther a copy of the decree. Then he instructed Esther to go to her husband, make known the plight of her people, and plead for their deliverance.
Young Esther balked. No one could enter the king’s presence unbidden without risking death. Everyone knows, she said, that any person “who goes into the inner court to the king, who has not been called, he has but one law: put all to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter” (Esth. 4:11). The queen explained that the king had not summoned her for a month. Esther’s fear of approaching her own husband indicated just how capricious and volatile Ahasuerus was. Following Mordecai’s instructions would be truly dangerous.
Mordecai minced no words in his reply to the queen. He assured Esther that royal position would fail to protect her if the plot against the Jews proceeded unchecked. He warned that if her failure to act necessitated deliverance from another quarter, then Esther and her father’s house would surely die. Mordecai also urged the queen to consider that perhaps she had come to a position of honor to perform the very duty now thrust on her.
Esther understood Mordecai’s message and agreed with it. She would do the right thing, even if it cost her life. “I will go to the king,” she promised, “and if I perish, I perish!” (Esth. 4:16).
Before approaching the unpredictable Ahasuerus, Esther drew near to the King of heaven and earth. For three days she and her maidens neither ate nor drank, and through Mordecai she asked all the Jews in Susa to fast with her. No doubt, it was a time of fervent and humble prayer.
Mysteriously, though, the author of Esther never mentioned prayer—or even the name of God. For this reason, some have foolishly rejected the authenticity of this excellent biblical book. Probably, the omission of any reference to God was a literary device used to draw attention to the Lord. God’s presence in the lives of his endangered people was made conspicuous by the absence of any direct reference to him. The events in Esther’s experience unfolded so perfectly that mere coincidence could never explain them.
God had blessed his people by making Esther queen of Persia, and now he blessed her as she approached Ahasuerus. The third day after beginning her fast, Esther “put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court” (Esth. 5:1). When he saw his lovely wife, the king held out the golden scepter to her. According to custom, Esther stepped forward and touched it. The king could not have been more gracious and receptive. “What is your request?” he asked. “It shall be given to you—up to half the kingdom!” (v. 3).
Esther wanted only a small favor. Would the king and Haman come to her quarters for a banquet? Ahasuerus promptly summoned his favored prince, and the two men came to the queen’s table. The food was delicious and the conversation lively. Haman immensely enjoyed himself. But the king knew that something other than lunch was on the queen’s mind. “What is your request?” he asked (Esth. 5:6). Esther replied that if the king and Haman would come to another banquet the next day, she would reveal what she wanted.
Completely oblivious to Esther’s true feelings, Haman strutted out of the banquet and headed for home. He was impatient to brag to his family about the special honor accorded him by the king and queen. But on the way he saw Mordecai, the Jew who refused to tremble before him. So Haman gathered his friends and boasted of his riches and honors. “Yet all this avails me nothing,” he complained, “so long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate” (Esth. 5:13). Haman’s wife and friends had the perfect solution. They proposed that he build a gallows 75 feet high “and in the morning suggest to the king that Mordecai be hanged on it” (v. 14).
That night Ahasuerus had insomnia. To pass the time, he asked a servant to read to him from the royal chronicles. By chance, so it seemed, the servant read the account of Mordecai’s loyalty when he foiled the assassination plot of Bigthana and Teresh. Ahasuerus took keen interest in the affair, asking what honor Mordecai had received for his good service. “Nothing has been done for him,” the servants said (Esth. 6:3).
At that precise moment, cruel Haman entered the outer court of the royal palace “to suggest that the king hang Mordecai” (Esth. 6:4). Haman’s timing was poor, to say the least. But Ahasuerus, by asking Haman’s advice, gave the prince no chance to make a fool of himself. What should be done for a man the king wanted to honor highly?
In his great conceit, Haman never guessed that Ahasuerus might have someone else in mind. So consulting the vain desires of his own heart, he gave an answer. Ahasuerus should array the man in a robe the king himself had worn, mount him on a horse the king himself had ridden, and then appoint a high official to parade the man through the streets of Susa on horseback.
Ahasuerus thought the idea was splendid. “Hurry,” he commanded, get the horse and robe “and do so for Mordecai the Jew” (Esth. 6:10). Haman, of course, immediately complied with this order. He paraded Mordecai through the city square, shouting, “Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor” (v. 11).
This humiliation completely unnerved Haman. His head covered in grief, he hurried home to seek comfort and counsel from his wife and friends. They offered no consolation, though. In their opinion, Haman was in serious trouble.
Haman was so preoccupied with his dismay that he lost track of time. He was almost late for the banquet Esther had prepared. He now took his place at the table, but his confidence had evaporated.
Esther, on the other hand, was becoming more and more certain of the Lord’s presence in her life. Yesterday she had felt so anxious as she entertained the king, wondering how he would respond to her accusations against Haman. But today she was in awe of God. In just 24 hours, the Lord had highly honored Mordecai in Susa and made Haman a nervous wreck.
After enjoying the good meal prepared by Esther’s servants, Ahasuerus once again asked the queen what she wanted. This time Esther did not hesitate. She revealed her Jewish identity and charged Haman with plotting to annihilate her people.
Speechless with fury, Ahasuerus took a walk in the palace garden to cool down a bit. While the king was gone, Haman threw himself on the couch where Esther reclined and begged for his life. When the king returned and saw Haman, he said, “Will he also assault the queen while I am in the house?” (Esth. 7:8). A eunuch named Harbonah volunteered that the high gallows “Haman made for Mordecai, who spoke good on the king’s behalf, is standing at the house of Haman.” Ahasuerus commanded, “Hang him on it!” (v. 9).
Dr. Clapton gives Marlena the bad news about her biopsy on a Wednesday afternoon. She immediately calls her husband’s office. Frank promises to be home in 15 minutes.
Marlena squeezes between her two sons, who are on the couch watching cartoons. Her arms encircle their tiny shoulders, drawing them close. They are so engrossed by the TV that they fail to notice the tears running down their mother’s cheeks and staining her blouse.
When Frank gets home, he leads Marlena into their bedroom and shuts the door. Holding her close, he kisses her wet cheeks and assures her of his unwavering love and commitment. Then he asks Marlena to kneel with him in prayer at the foot of their bed.
Strengthened by Frank’s tenderness and faith, Marlena decides to attend midweek Bible study this evening as usual. The idea of getting into bed, curling into a ball, and never moving again is appealing, but Marlena loves the Lord and her Christian family. One day soon she may be physically unable to attend church services, but tonight she will be there. It is a decision Marlena never regrets.
The ladies’ Bible class meets every Wednesday evening. Bonita, an elder’s wife, begins each session by asking for prayer requests. Marlena clears her throat and says, “I have a request. I need everyone to pray for me.” A sob chokes her. The two sisters sitting beside Marlena take her hands and hold them as she pours out her story. Then everyone in the room holds hands while Bonita leads them in a fervent prayer.
Afterward, Bonita addresses the class. “I’ve been studying the Sermon on the Mount,” she says. “In Matthew 6 Jesus talks about giving and praying – and we do those things. But he also teaches us to fast. He doesn’t say, ‘If you fast,’ but rather, ‘When you fast.’ It seems to me that Jesus assumes his disciples will fast sometimes, but most American Christians never do.”
Bonita looks around the circle of women. Every face shows deep interest. “I have an idea,” she continues. “Would all of you be willing to fast tomorrow and pray for Marlena?” When every woman in the class murmurs assent, Marlena cries again – but this time for a different reason.
Esther’s Endangered Life
Esther was adopted by her cousin. What might have happened to this young girl if Mordecai had refused to care for her? What does the New Testament say about caring for needy children? Why are most women afraid to adopt or provide foster care?
2. How did racial prejudice contribute to Haman’s contempt for Mordecai? Discuss whether the Jewish people of biblical times were free of scorn for their Gentile neighbors. How significant is the problem of racism in the 21st century church? What can mothers do to protect their young children from Haman’s evil attitudes?
3. God so perfectly orchestrated the deliverance of Esther’s people that the Jews saw his hand in every detail. Describe a time when the Lord rescued you from a threatening situation. What led you to believe that mere coincidence could not explain his deliverance?
4. Marlena, one of the fictional characters in this chapter, has breast cancer. What common diseases are actually more likely than breast cancer to take a woman’s life? Why do most women find the prospect of breast cancer so threatening?
5. Marlena’s Christian friends offer to fast and pray. In her place, how would such an offer affect you? Why is fasting so infrequent in the modern church? What are the spiritual benefits of fasting now being missed? Would you be willing to fast and pray for a short time if a few others promised to join you?