Bible Commentaries
Esther 6

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 10-11

elete_me Esther 4:1


THE hectic enthusiast who inspires Daniel Deronda with his passionate ideas is evidently a reflection in modern literature of the Mordecai of Scripture. It must be admitted that the reflection approaches a caricature. The dreaminess and morbid excitability of George Eliot’s consumptive hero have no counterpart in the wise, strong Mentor of Queen Esther, and the English writer’s agnosticism has led her to exclude all the Divine elements of the Jewish faith, so that on her pages the sole object of Israelite devotion is the race of Israel. But the very extravagance of the portraiture keenly accentuates what is, after all, the most remarkable trait in the original Mordecai. We are not in a position to deny that this man had a living faith in the God of his fathers; we are simply ignorant as to what his attitude towards religion was, because the author of the Book of Esther draws a veil over the religious relations of all his characters. Still the one thing prominent and pronounced in Mordecai is patriotism, devotion to Israel, the expenditure of thought and effort on the protection of his threatened people.

The first mention of the name of Mordecai introduces a hint of his national connections. We read, "There was a certain Jew in Shushan the palace, whose name was Mordecai, the son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, a Benjamite, who had been carried away from Jerusalem with the captives which had been carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away." {Esther 2:5-6} Curious freaks of exegesis have been displayed in dealing with this passage. It has been thought that the Kish mentioned in it is no other than the father of Saul, in which case the ages of the ancestors of Mordecai must rival those of the antediluvians, and it has been suggested that Mordecai is here represented as one of the original captives from Jerusalem in the reign of Jeconiah, so that at the time of Xerxes he must have been a marvellously old man, tottering on the brink of the grave. On these grounds the genealogical note has been treated as a fanatical fiction invented to magnify the importance of Mordecai. But there is no necessity to take up any such position. It would be strange to derive Mordecai from the far-off Benjamite farmer Kish, who shines only in the reflected glory of his son, whereas we have no mention of Saul himself. There is no reason to say that another Kish may not have been found among the captives. Then it is quite possible to dispose of the second difficulty by connecting the relative clause at the beginning of Esther 5:6 -"who had been carried away"-with the nearest antecedent in the previous sentence-viz., "Kish the Benjamite." If we remove the semicolon from the end of Esther 5:5, the clauses will run on quite smoothly and there will be no reason to go back to the name of Mordecai for the antecedent of the relative; we can read the words thus-"Kish the Benjamite who had been carried away," etc. In this way all difficulty vanishes. But the passage still retains a special significance. Mordecai was a true Jew, of the once royal tribe of Benjamin, a descendant of one of the captive contemporaries of Jeconiah, and therefore most likely a scion of a princely house. The preservation of his ancestral record gives us a hint of the sort of mental pabulum on which the man had been nurtured. Living in the palace, apparently as a porter, and possibly as a eunuch of the harem, Mordecai would have been tempted to forget his people. Nevertheless it is plain that he had cherished traditions of the sad past, and trained his soul to cling to the story of his fathers’ sufferings in spite of all the distractions of a Persian court life. Though in a humbler sphere, he thus resembled Artaxerxes’ cup-bearer, the great patriot Nehemiah.

The peculiarity of Mordecai’s part in the story is this, that he is the moving spirit of all that is done for the deliverance of Israel at a time of desperate peril without being at first a prominent character. Thus he first appears as the guardian of his young cousin, whom he has cherished and trained, and whom he now introduces to the royal harem where she will play her more conspicuous part. Throughout the whole course of events Mordecai’s voice is repeatedly heard, but usually as that of Esther’s prompter. He haunts the precincts of the harem, if by chance he may catch a glimpse of his foster child. He is a lonely man now, for he has parted with the light of his home. He has done this voluntarily, unselfishly-first, to advance the lovely creature who has been committed to his charge, and secondly, as it turns out, for the saving of his people. Even now his chief thought is not for the cheering of his own solitude. His constant aim is to guide his young cousin in the difficult path of her new career. Subsequently he receives the highest honours the king can bestow, but he never seeks them, and he would be quite content to remain in the background to the end, if only his eager desire for the good of his people could be accomplished by the queen who has learnt to lean upon his counsel from her childhood. Such self-effacement is most rare and beautiful. A subtle temptation to self-regarding ambition besets the path of every man who attempts some great public work for the good of others in a way that necessarily brings him under observation. Even though he believes himself to be inspired by the purest patriotism, it is impossible for him not to perceive that he is exposing himself to admiration by the very disinterestedness of his conduct. The rare thing is to see the same earnestness on the part of a person in an obscure place, willing that the whole of his energy should be devoted to the training and guiding of another, who alone is to become the visible agent of some great work.

The one action in which Mordecai momentarily takes the first place throws light on another side of his character. There is a secondary plot in the story. Mordecai saves the king’s life by discovering to him a conspiracy. The value of this service is strikingly illustrated by the historical fact that, at a later time, just another such conspiracy issued in the assassination of Xerxes. In the distractions of his foreign expeditions and his abandonment to self-indulgence at home, the king forgets the whole affair, and Mordecai goes on his quiet way as before, never dreaming of the honour with which it is to be rewarded. Now this incident seems to be introduced to show how the intricate wheels of Providence all work on for the ultimate deliverance of Israel. The accidental discovery of Mordecai’s unrequited service, when the king is beguiling the long hours of a sleepless night by listening to the chronicles of his reign, leads to the recognition of Mordecai and the first humiliation of Haman, and prepares the king for further measures. But the incident reflects a side light on Mordecai in another direction. The humble porter is loyal to the great despot. He is a passionately patriotic Jew, but his patriotism does not make a rebel of him, nor does it permit him to stand aside silently and see a villainous intrigue go on unmolested, even though it is aimed at the monarch who is holding his people in subjection. Mordecai is the humble friend of the great Persian king in the moment of danger. This is the more remarkable when we compare it with his ruthless thirst for vengeance against the known enemies of Israel. It shows that he does not treat Ahasuerus as an enemy of his people. No doubt the writer of this narrative wished it to be seen that the most patriotic Jew could be perfectly loyal to a foreign government. The shining examples of Joseph and Daniel have set the same idea before the world for the vindication of a grossly maligned people, who, like the Christians in the days of Tacitus, have been most unjustly hated as the enemies of the human race. The capacity to adapt itself loyally to the service of foreign governments, without abandoning one iota of its religion or its patriotism, is a unique trait in the genius of this wonderful race. The Zealot is not the typical Jew-patriot. He is a secretion of diseased and decayed patriotism, True patriotism is large enough and patient enough to recognise the duties that lie outside its immediate aims. Its fine perfection is attained when it can be flexible without becoming servile.

We see that in Mordecai the flexibility of Jewish patriotism was consistent with a proud scorn of the least approach to servility. He. would not kiss the dust at the approach of Haman, grand vizier though the man was. It may be that he regarded this act of homage as idolatrous-for it would seem that Persian monarchs were not unwilling to accept the adulation of Divine honours, and the vain minister was aping the airs of his royal master. But, perhaps, like those Greeks who would not humble their pride by prostrating themselves at the bidding of an Oriental barbarian, Mordecai held himself up from a sense of self-respect. In either case it must be evident that he showed a daringly independent spirit. He could not but know that such an affront as he ventured to offer to Haman would annoy the great man. But he had not calculated on the unfathomable depths of Haman’s vanity. Nobody who credits his fellows with rational motives would dream that so simple an offence as this of Mordecai’s could provoke so vast an act of vengeance as the massacre of a nation. When he saw the outrageous consequences of his mild act of independence, Mordecai must have felt it doubly incumbent upon him to strain every nerve to save his people. Their danger was indirectly due to his conduct. Still he could never have foreseen such a result, and therefore he should not be held responsible for it. The tremendous disproportion between motive and action in the behaviour of Haman is like one of those fantastic freaks that abound in the impossible world of "The Arabian Nights," but for the occurrence of which we make no provision in real life, simply because we do not act on the assumption that the universe is nothing better than a huge lunatic asylum.

The escape from this altogether unexpected danger is due to two courses of events. One of them-in accordance with the reserved style of the narrative-appears to be quite accidental. Mordecai got the reward he never sought in what seems to be the most casual way. He had no hand in obtaining for himself an honour which looks to us quaintly childish. For a few brief hours he was paraded through the streets of the royal city as the man whom the king delighted to honour, with no less a person than the grand vizier to serve as his groom. It was Haman’s silly vanity that had invented this frivolous proceeding. We can hardly suppose that Mordecai cared much for it. After the procession had completed its round, in true Oriental fashion Mordecai put off his gorgeous robes, like a poor actor returning from the stage to his garret, and settled down to his lowly office exactly as if nothing had happened. This must seem to us a foolish business, unless we can look at it through the magnifying glass of an Oriental imagination, and even then there is nothing very fascinating in it. Still it had important consequences. For, in the first place, it prepared the way for a further recognition of Mordecai in the future. He was now a marked personage. Ahasuerus knew him, and was gratefully disposed towards him. The people understood that the king delighted to honour him. His couch would not be the softer nor his bread the sweeter, but all sorts of future possibilities lay open before him. To many men the possibilities of life are more precious than the actualities. We cannot say, however, that they meant much to Mordecai, for he was not ambitious, and he had no reason to think that the king’s conscience was not perfectly satisfied with the cheap settlement of his debt of gratitude. Still the possibilities existed, and before the end of the tale they had blossomed out to very brilliant results.

But another consequence of the pageant was that the heart of Haman was turned to gall. We see him livid with jealousy, inconsolable until his wife-who evidently knows him well-proposes to satisfy his spite by another piece of fanciful extravagance. Mordecai shall be impaled on a mighty stake, so high that all the world shall see the ghastly spectacle. This may give some comfort to the wounded vanity of the grand vizier. But consolation to Haman will be death and torment to Mordecai.

Now we come to the second course of events that issued in the deliverance and triumph of Israel, and therewith in the escape and exaltation of Mordecai. Here the watchful porter is at the spring of all that happens. His fasting, and the earnest counsels he lays upon Esther, bear witness to the intensity of his nature. Again the characteristic reserve of the narrative obscures all religious considerations. But, as we have seen already, Mordecai is persuaded that deliverance will come to Israel from some quarter, and he suggests that Esther has been raised to her high position for the purpose of saving her people. We cannot but feel that these hints veil a very solid faith in the providence of God with regard to the Jews. On the surface of them they show faith in the destiny of Israel. Mordecai not only loves his nation, he believes in it. He is sure it has a future. It has survived the most awful disasters in the past. It seems to possess a charmed life. It must emerge safely from the present crisis. But Mordecai is not a fatalist whose creed paralyses his energies. He is most distressed and anxious at the prospect of the great danger that threatens his people. He is most persistent in pressing for the execution of measures of deliverance. Still in all this he is buoyed up by a strange faith in his nation’s destiny. This is the faith that the English novelist has transferred to her modern Mordecai. It cannot be gainsaid that there is much in the marvellous history of the unique people, whose vitality and energy, astonish us even to-day, to justify the sanguine expectation of prophetic souls that Israel has yet a great destiny to fulfil in future ages.

The ugly side of Jewish patriotism is also apparent in Mordecai, and it must not be ignored. The indiscriminate massacre of the "enemies" of the Jews is a savage act of retaliation that far exceeds the necessity of self-defence, and Mordecai must bear the chief blame of this crime. But then the considerations in extenuation of its guilt which have already come under our notice may be applied to him. The danger was supreme. The Jews were in a minority. The king was cruel, fickle, senseless. It was a desperate case. We cannot be surprised that the remedy was desperate also. There was no moderation on either side, but then "sweet reasonableness" is the last thing to be looked for in any of the characters of the Book of Esther. Here everything is extravagant. The course of events is too grotesque to be gravely weighed in the scales that are used in the judgment of average men under average circumstances.

The Book of Esther closes with an account of the establishment of the Feast of Purim and the exaltation of Mordecai to the vacant place of Haman. The Israelite porter becomes grand vizier of Persia! This is the crowning proof of the triumph of the Jews consequent on their deliverance. The whole process of events that issues so gloriously is commemorated in the annual Feast of Purim. It is true that doubts have been thrown on the historical connection between that festival and the story of Esther. It has been said that the word "Purim" may represent the portions assigned by lot, but not the lottery itself, that so trivial an accident as the method followed by Haman in selecting a day for his massacre of the Jews could not give its name to the celebration of their escape from the threatened danger, that the feast was probably more ancient, and was really the festival of the new moon for the month in which it occurs. With regard to all of these and any other objections, there is one remark that may be made here. They are solely of archaeological interest. The character and meaning of the feast as it is known to have been celebrated in historical times is not touched by them, because it is beyond doubt that throughout the ages Purim has been inspired with passionate and almost dramatic reminiscences of the story of Esther. Thus for all the celebrations of the feast that come within our ken this is its sole significance.

The worthiness of the festival will vary according to the ideas and feelings that are encouraged in connection with it. When it has been used as an opportunity for cultivating pride of race, hatred, contempt, and gleeful vengeance over humiliated foes, its effect must have been injurious and degrading. When, however, it has been celebrated in the midst of grievous oppressions, though it has embittered the spirit of animosity towards the oppressor-the Christian Haman in most cases-it has been of real service in cheering a cruelly afflicted people. Even when it has been carried through with no seriousness of intention, merely as a holiday-devoted to music and dancing and games and all sorts of merry-making, its social effect in bringing a gleam of light into lives that were as a rule dismally sordid may have been decidedly healthy.

But deeper thoughts must be stirred in devout hearts when brooding over the profound significance of the national festival. It celebrates a famous deliverance of the Jews from a fearful danger. Now deliverance is the keynote of Jewish history. This note was sounded as with a trumpet blast at the very birth of the nation, when, emerging from Egypt no better than a body of fugitive slaves, Israel was led through the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s hosts with their horses and chariots were overwhelmed in the flood. The echo of the triumphant burst of praise that swelled out from the exodus pealed down the ages in the noblest songs of Hebrew Psalmists. Successive deliverances added volume to this richest note of Jewish poetry. In all who looked up to God as the Redeemer of Israel the music was inspired by profound thankfulness, by true religions adoration. And yet Purim never became the Eucharist of Israel. It never approached the solemn grandeur of Passover, that prince of festivals, in which the great primitive deliverance of Israel was celebrated with all the pomp and awe of its Divine associations. It was always in the main a secular festival, relegated to the lower plane of social and domestic entertainments, like an English bank-holiday. Still even on its own lines it could serve a serious purpose. When Israel is practically idolised by Israelites, when the glory of the nation is accepted as the highest ideal to work up to, the true religion of Israel is missed, because that is nothing less than the worship of God as He is revealed in Hebrew history. Nevertheless, in their right place, the privileges of the nation and its destinies may be made the grounds of very exalted aspirations. The nation is larger than the individual, larger than the family. An enthusiastic national spirit must exert an expansive influence on the narrow, cramped lives of the men and women whom it delivers from selfish, domestic, and parochial limitations. It was a liberal education for Jews to be taught to love their race, its history and its future. If-as seems probable-our Lord honoured the Feast of Purim by taking part in it, John 5:1 He must have credited the national life of His people with a worthy mission. Himself the purest and best fruit of the stock of Israel, on the human side of His being, He realised in His own great mission of redemption the end for which God had repeatedly redeemed Israel. Thus He showed that God had saved His people, not simply for their own selfish satisfaction, but that through Christ they might carry salvation to the world.

Purged from its base associations of blood and cruelty, Purim may symbolise to us the triumph of the Church of Christ over her fiercest foes. The spirit of this triumph must be the very opposite of the spirit of wild vengeance exhibited by Mordecai and his people in their brief season of unwonted elation. The Israel of God can never conquer her enemies by force. The victory of the Church must be the victory of brotherly love, because brotherly love is the note of the true Church. But this victory Christ is winning throughout the ages, and the historical realisation of it is to us the Christian counterpart of the story of Esther.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Esther 6". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".