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Monday, June 17th, 2024
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
Esther 3

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-6


Esther 3:1-6; Esther 5:9-14; Esther 7:5-10

HAMAN is the Judas of Israel. Not that his conduct or his place in history would bring him into comparison with the traitor apostle, for he was an open foe and a foreigner. But he is treated by popular Judaism as the Arch-Enemy, just as Judas is treated by popular Christianity. Like Judas, he has assigned to him a solitary pre-eminence in wickedness, which is almost inhuman. As in the case of Judas, there is thought to be no call for charity or mercy in judging Haman. He shares with Judas the curse of Cain. Boundless execration is heaped on his head. Horror and hatred have almost transformed him into Satan. He is called "The Agagite," an obscure title which is best explained as a later Jewish nickname derived from a reference to the king of Amalek who was hewn in pieces before the Lord. In the Septuagint he is surnamed "The Macedonian," because when that version was made the enemies of Israel were the representatives of the empire of Alexander and his successors. During the dramatic reading of the Book of Esther in a Jewish synagogue at the Feast of Purim, the congregation may be found taking the part of a chorus and exclaiming at every mention of the name of Haman, "May his name be blotted out," "Let the name of the ungodly perish," while boys with mallets will pound stones and bits of wood on which the odious name is written. This frantic extravagance would be unaccountable but for the fact that the people whose "badge is sufferance" has summed up under the name of the Persian official the malignity of their enemies in all ages. Very often this name has served to veil a dangerous reference to some contemporary foe, or to heighten the rage felt against an exceptionally, odious person by its accumulation of traditional hatred, just as in England on the fifth of November the "Guy" may represent some unpopular person of the day.

When we turn from this unamiable indulgence of spiteful passion to the story that lies behind it, we have enough that is odious without the conception of a sheer monster of wickedness, a very demon. Such a being would stand outside the range of human motives, and we could contemplate him with unconcern and detachment of mind, just as we contemplate the destructive forces of nature. There is a common temptation to clear ourselves of all semblance to the guilt of very bad people by making it out to be inhuman. It is more humiliating to discover that they act from quite human motives-nay, that those very motives may be detected, though with other bearings, even in our own conduct. For see what were the influences that stirred in the heart of Haman. He manifests by his behaviour the intimate connection between vanity and cruelty.

The first trait in his character to reveal itself is vanity, a most inordinate vanity. Haman is introduced at the moment when he has been exalted to the highest position under the king of Persia; he has just been made grand vizier. The tremendous honour turns his brain. In the consciousness of it he swells out with vanity. As a necessary consequence he is bitterly chagrined when a porter does not do homage to him as to the king. His elation is equally extravagant when he discovers that he is to be the only subject invited to meet Ahasuerus at Esther’s banquet. When the king inquires how exceptional honour is to be shown to some one whose name is not yet revealed, this infatuated man jumps to the conclusion that it can be for nobody but himself. In all his behaviour we see that he is just possessed by an absorbing spirit of vanity.

Then at the first check he suffers an annoyance proportionate to the boundlessness of his previous elation. He cannot endure the sight of indifference or independence in the meanest subject. The slender fault of Mordecai is magnified into a capital offence. This again is so huge that it must be laid to the charge of the whole race to which the offender belongs. The rage which it excites in Haman is so violent that it will be satisfied with nothing short of a wholesale massacre of men, women, and children. "Behold how great a matter a little fire kindleth"-when it is fanned by the breath of vanity. The cruelty of the vain man is as limitless as his vanity.

Thus the story of Haman illustrates the close juxtaposition of these two vices, vanity and cruelty; it helps us to see by a series of lurid pictures how fearfully provocative the one is of the other. As we follow the incidents, we can discover the links of connection between the cause and its dire effects.

In the first place, it is clear that vanity is a form of magnified egotism. The vain man thinks supremely of himself, not so much in the way of self-interest, but more especially for the sake of self-glorification. When he looks out on the world, it is always through the medium of his own vastly magnified shadow. Like the Brocken Ghost, this shadow becomes a haunting presence standing out before him in huge proportions. He has no other standard of measurement. Everything must be judged according, as it is related to himself. The good is what gives him pleasure; evil is what is noxious to him. This self-centred attitude, with the distortion of vision that it induces, has a double effect, as we may see in the case of Haman.

Egotism utilises the sufferings of others for its own ends. No doubt cruelty is often a consequence of sheer callousness. The man who has no perception of the pain he is causing or no sympathy with the sufferers will trample them under foot on the least provocation. He feels supremely indifferent to their agonies when they are writhing beneath him, and therefore he will never consider it incumbent on him to adjust his conduct with the least reference to the pain he gives. That is an entirely irrelevant consideration. The least inconvenience to himself outweighs the greatest distress of other people, for the simple reason that that distress counts as nothing in his calculation of motives. In Haman’s case, however, we do not meet with this attitude of simple indifference. The grand vizier is irritated, and he vents his annoyance in a vast explosion of malignity that must take account of the agony it produces, for in that agony its own thirst for vengeance is to be slaked. But this only shows the predominant selfishness to be all the greater. It is so great that it reverses the engines that drive society along the line of mutual helpfulness, and thwarts and frustrates any amount of human life and happiness for the sole purpose of gratifying its own desires.

Then the selfishness of vanity promotes cruelty still further by another of its effects. It destroys the sense of proportion. Self is not only regarded as the centre of the universe; like the sun surrounded by the planets, it is taken to be the greatest object, and everything else is insignificant when compared to it. What is the slaughter of a few thousand Jews to so great a man as Haman, grand vizier of Persia? It is no more than the destruction of as many flies in a forest fire that the settler has kindled to clear his ground. The same self-magnification is visibly presented by the Egyptian bas-reliefs, on which the victorious Pharaohs appear as tremendous giants driving back hordes of enemies or dragging pigmy kings by their heads. It is but a step from this condition to insanity, which is the apotheosis of vanity. The chief characteristic of insanity is a diseased enlargement of self. If he is elated the madman regards himself as a person of supreme importance-as a prince, as a king, even as God. If he is depressed he thinks that he is the victim of exceptional malignity. In that case he is beset by watchers of evil intent, the world is conspiring against him, everything that happens is part of a plot to do him harm. Hence his suspiciousness, hence his homicidal proclivities. He is not so mad in his inferences and conclusions. These may be rational and just, on the ground of his premisses. It is in the fixed ideas of these premisses that the root of his insanity may be detected. His awful fate is a warning to all who venture to indulge in the vice of excessive egotism.

In the second place, vanity leads to cruelty through the entire dependence of the vain person on the good opinion of others, and this we may see clearly in the career of Haman. Vanity is differentiated from pride in one important particular-by its outward reference. The proud man is satisfied with himself, hut the vain man is always looking outside himself with feverish eagerness to secure all the honours that the world can bestow upon him. Thus Mordecai may have been proud in his refusal to bow before the upstart premier, if so his pride would not need to court admiration; it would be self-contained and self-sufficient. But Haman was possessed by an insatiable thirst for homage. If a single obscure individual refused him this honour, a shadow rested on everything. He could not enjoy the queen’s banquet for the slight offered him by the Jew at the palace gate, so that he exclaimed, "Yet all this availeth me nothing, so long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate." {Esther 5:13} A selfish man in this condition can have no rest if anything in the world outside him fails to minister to his honour. While a proud man in an exalted position scarcely deigns to notice the "dim common people," the vain man betrays his vulgarity by caring supremely for popular adulation. Therefore, while the haughty person can afford to pass over a slight with contempt, the vain creature who lives on the breath of applause is mortally offended by it and roused to avenge the insult with corresponding rage.

Selfishness and dependence on the external, these attributes of vanity inevitably develop into cruelty wherever the aims of vanity are opposed. And yet the vice that contains so much evil is rarely visited with a becoming severity of condemnation. Usually it is smiled at as a trivial frailty. In the case of Haman it threatened the extermination of a nation, and the reaction from its menace issued in a terrific slaughter of another section of society. History records war after war that has been fought on the ground of vanity. In military affairs this vice wears the name of glory, but its nature is unaltered. For what is the meaning of a war that is waged for "la gloire" but one that is designed in order to minister to the vanity of the people who undertake it? A more fearful wickedness has never blackened the pages of history. The very frivolity of the occasion heightens the guilt of those who plunge nations into misery on such a paltry pretext. It is vanity that urges a savage warrior to collect skulls to adorn the walls of his hut with the ghastly trophies, it is vanity that impels a restless conqueror to march to his own triumph through a sea of blood, it is vanity that rouses a nation to fling itself on its neighbour in order to exalt its fame by a great victory. Ambition at its best is fired by the pride of power, but in its meaner forms ambition is nothing but an uprising of vanity clamouring for wider recognition. The famous invasion of Greece by Xerxes was evidently little better than a huge exhibition of regal vanity. The childish fatuity of the king could seek for no exalted ends. His assemblage of swarms of men of all races in an ill-disciplined army too big for practical warfare showed that the thirst for display occupied the principal place in his mind, to the neglect of the more sober aims of a really great conqueror. And if the vanity that lives on the world’s admiration is so fruitful in evil when it is allowed to deploy on a large scale, its essential character will not be improved by the limitation of its scope in humbler spheres of life. It is always mean and cruel.

Two other features in the character of Haman may be noticed. First, he shows energy and determination. He bribes the king to obtain the royal consent to his deadly design, bribes with an enormous present equal to the revenue of a kingdom, though Ahasuerus permits him to recoup himself by seizing the property of the proscribed nation. Then the murderous mandate goes forth, it is translated into every language of the subject peoples, it is carried to the remotest parts of the kingdom by the posts, the excellent organisation of which, under the Persian government, has become famous. Thus far everything is on a large scale, betokening a mind of resource and daring. But now turn to the sequel. "And the king and Haman sat down to drink." {Esther 3:15} It is a horrible picture-the king of Persia and his grand vizier at this crisis deliberately abandoning themselves to their national vice. The decree is out, it cannot be recalled-let it go and do its fell work. As for its authors they are drowning all thought of its effect on public opinion in the wine-cup; they are boozing together in a disgusting companionship of debauchery on the eve of a scene of wholesale bloodshed. This is what the glory of the Great King has come to. This is the anticlimax of his minister’s vanity at the moment of supreme success. After such an exhibition we need not be surprised at the abject humiliation, the terror of cowardice, the frantic effort to extort pity from a woman of the very race whose extermination he had plotted, manifested by Haman in the hour of his exposure at Esther’s banquet. Beneath all his braggart energy he is a weak man. In most cases self-indulgent, vain, and cruel people are essentially weak at heart.

Looking at the story of Haman from another point of view, we see how well it illustrates the confounding of evil devices and the punishment of their author in the drama of history. It is one of the most striking instances of what is called "poetic justice," the justice depicted by the poets, but not always seen in prosaic lives, the justice that is itself a poem because it makes a harmony of events. Haman is the typical example of the schemer who "falls into his own pit," of the villain who is "hoist on his own petard." Three times the same process occurs, to impress its lesson with threefold emphasis. We have it first in the most moderate form when Haman is forced to assist in bestowing on Mordecai the honours he has been coveting for himself, by leading the horse of the hated Jew in his triumphant procession through the city. The same lesson is impressed with tragic force when the grand vizier is condemned to be impaled on the stake erected by him in readiness for the man whom he has been compelled to honour. Lastly, the design of murdering the whole race to which Mordecai belongs is frustrated by the slaughter of those who sympathise with Haman’s attitude towards Israel-the "Hamanites," as they have been called. We rarely meet with such a complete reversal of fate, such a climax of vengeance. In considering the course of events here set forth we must distinguish between the old Jewish view of it and the significance of the process itself.

The Jews were taught to look on all this with fierce, vindictive glee, and to see in it the prophecy of the like fate that was treasured up for their enemies in later times. This rage of the oppressed against their oppressors, this almost fiendish delight in the complete overthrow of the enemies of Israel, this total extinction of any sentiment of pity even for the helpless and innocent sufferers who are to share the fate of their guilty relatives-in a word, this utterly un-Christlike spirit of revenge, must be odious in our eyes. We cannot understand how good men could stand by with folded arms while they saw women and children tossed into the seething cauldron of vengeance, still less how they could themselves perpetrate the dreadful deed. But then we cannot understand that tragedy of history, the oppression of the Jews, and its deteriorating influence on its victims, nor the hard, cruel spirit of blank indifference to the sufferings of others that prevailed almost everywhere before Christ came to teach the world pity.

When we turn to the events themselves we must take another view of the situation. Here was a rough and sweeping, but still a complete and striking punishment of cruel wrong. The Jews expected this too frequently on earth. We have learnt that it is more often reserved for another world and a future state of existence. Yet sometimes we are startled to see how apt it can be even in this present life. The cruel man breeds foes by his very cruelty, he rouses his own executioners by the rage that he provokes in them. It is the same with respect to many other forms of evil. Thus vanity is punished by the humiliation it receives from those people who are irritated at its pretensions, it is the last failing that the world will readily forgive, partly perhaps because it offends the similar failing in other people. Then we see meanness chastised by the odium it excites, lying by the distrust it provokes, cowardice by the attacks it invites, coldness of heart by a corresponding indifference on the side of other people. The result is not always so neatly effected nor so visibly demonstrated as in the case of Haman, but the tendency is always present, because there is a Power that makes for righteousness presiding over society and inherent in the very constitution of nature.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Esther 3". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/esther-3.html.
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