Esther 4 Study Notes


4:1-3 Mordecai’s response to the king’s edict was typical for his culture (see notes at Ezr 9:3; Neh 9:1). All who saw him recognized his grief, especially since he cried loudly and bitterly (lit “he cried out a great cry”). The term to cry out (Hb za‘aq) is often used in the OT to describe a heartbroken howl over injustice (Gn 18:20), personal tragedy (2Sm 13:19), or national tragedy (Ezk 9:8). While Mordecai would not get the king’s attention, he did get Esther’s (Est 4:4), which was crucial. A law prohibiting a mourner to come into the palace is not attested in the ancient sources, but in a similar vein, Nehemiah stated that he had “never been sad” in King Artaxerxes’s presence before, and when asked about it by Artaxerxes he “was overwhelmed with fear” (Neh 2:1-2). Mordecai was not alone in his grief. The Jewish people in every province wept and lamented and many lay in sackcloth and ashes. In many ways Mordecai epitomizes, or is representative of, the Jewish people.

4:4-7 The phrase was overcome with fear is from a Hebrew verb (chil) often translated as “writhe, tremble,” occurring often in the context of childbirth. Here it is used to describe intense emotion, and it could be translated as “writhed in anguish” or “was agitated.” The name Hathach possibly means “courier.”

4:8-9 The courier was told to explain the decree. Either Esther was illiterate and the decree had to be read to her, or it was written in Persian and had to be translated into Aramaic. Mordecai was certainly aware of the danger he was putting Esther in by telling her to plead . . . personally with the king, but their situation was desperate. It is interesting how he emphasized that the Jews were her people, the same people he had previously commanded her not to identify with (2:10).

4:10-12 Esther’s response to Mordecai through Hathach was to remind him that to come to the king unbidden was certain death. Such a law was understandable in the Persian Empire with its long history of political assassinations (in fact Ahasuerus was murdered in his own bed less than ten years later). The one exception to this rule was if the king allowed an uninvited person to approach him, signified by his extending the gold scepter. Some assume that Esther’s statement in v. 11 indicated that her absence from her husband was because she had fallen out of favor with him or that his passion for her had waned. Thus, the king might be less likely to respond to her unexpected presence and request. On the other hand, possibly her purpose was only to tell Mordecai that in the normal routine she did not see the king often, and this request would require her to make an unscheduled—and dangerous—visit.

4:13-14 Mordecai’s reply to Esther was direct and to the point: Esther had no safe choices. Appearing unbidden before the king could mean death, but remaining silent, when so many servants and eunuchs knew of her connection to Mordecai the Jew, could likewise result in her death once the genocide was carried out.

Mordecai’s statement that help would come from another place if Esther remained quiet is intriguing. The most obvious interpretation is to understand the phrase “another place” (Hb mimmaqom ’acher) as a veiled reference to God, an interpretation supported by the Greek additions to Esther (Alpha Text 5:9), both Aramaic Targums, and Josephus. Others find it more likely that “another place” refers to a human source of deliverance, possibly Mordecai himself or another well-placed Jewish official similar to Nehemiah, who served Ahasuerus’s son (Artaxerxes) as cupbearer. Mordecai and Esther would regard relief and deliverance, whatever the source, as attributable ultimately to God’s providential care for his people. This conclusion is supported by Mordecai’s famous suggestion that Esther had come to your royal position for such a time as this. As Timothy Laniak notes, this meant God had a “destiny for Esther. Haven’t all of the serendipitous events in the last four years put her in this position for this very moment?”

4:15-16 Often in times of crisis God’s people would fast and pray, seeking God’s help and deliverance (Jdg 20:26; 1Kg 21:9; Jr 36:9). Fasting took on an even more prominent role in the postexilic community (Ezr 8:21-23; Neh 1:4; 9:1-2). But this fast was unusually long, highlighting the severity of the threat to the Jewish people. Esther’s last comment to Mordecai in this chapter (If I perish, I perish) is not just resigned fatalism. As Michael Fox writes, this statement “does not suggest a person seeking an escape route, but one facing and coming to grips with a danger. The statement recognizes the possibility of failure, yet also expresses the hope—though not certainty—of success” (Character).

4:17 Verses 12-17 serve as the turning point in the development of Esther’s character. In 2:20 we are told that she “obeyed Mordecai’s orders, as she always had while he raised her.” Now Mordecai went and did everything Esther had commanded him. “From a dependent orphan, completely submissive to her uncle’s manipulations and the king’s whims, she emerges at plot’s end in control of her own life—and the life of a nation” (G. H. Johnston).