Chapter four is filled with grief and anticipations of the death the Jews in Medo-Persia were going to experience due to Haman’s decree. Deep mourning is underlined through the use of several expressions:
- tore his clothes (v. 1)
- put on sackcloth and ashes (v. 1)
- cried with a loud and bitter cry (v. 2)
- great mourning among the Jews (v. 3)
- fasting, weeping, and wailing (v. 3)
- many in sackcloth and ashes (v. 3)
- queen deeply distressed (v. 3)
- Mordecai would not accept clothes (v. 4)
Aside from great grief, the passage also brings an interesting progression to the overall narrative. For the first time, a woman speaks. Not only this, she speaks twice—the only character in the episode to speak twice. The person she dialogues with is her cousin Mordecai, and the two are the main characters in this scene.
Esther learns from her maids and eunuchs that Mordecai was crying out loud in the city clothed in sackcloth and ashes. She sends him garments, but he refuses them. At this point, she still has no explanation for his behavior, and she also appears unaware of the great mourning throughout the city of Shushan.
An obscure, yet named eunuch—Hathach—now enters the scene. Queen Esther commands him to find out why Mordecai was behaving as he was. This is the first time we read of Esther giving a command, and it will not be the only time in the story when she does so. Hathach returns with an explanation and a command from Mordecai, who urged Esther to go before the king and plead for the Jews. It is at this point that Esther’s voice becomes audible, as she enters a dialogue with Mordecai through her servant:
All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that any man or woman 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, that he may live. Yet I myself have not been called to go in to the king these thirty days. (Esther 4:11 NKJV).
Esther does not express any thoughts or feelings in regards to the genocidal decree, only that her own life would be in danger, should she dare go before the king. Of course, it has become evident to her that her life was tightly interconnected with the opportunity to save her people. She speaks with a fearful composure and questions the success of Mordecai’s plan, given that she had not been called by the king in thirty days.
Mordecai’s answer is sharp and poignant:
Do not think in your heart that you will escape in the king’s palace any more than all the other Jews. For if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this? (Esther 4:13-14 NKJV).
So far in the narrative, Mordecai had asked Esther to remain silent in regards to her Jewish origin. Two times we read of his command, and both times her obedience is stressed (2:10, 20). Now he is asking her to speak up. The queen, who had kept her Jewish background secret, is to reveal her ancestry at this critical point in the history of the Jews. The hope of the entire people lied in the king’s affection for Esther. Yet the hope is dimmed by the distance between the king and the queen.
For the second time in this episode, Esther gives a command, and this time not to a servant, but to Mordecai, and for all the Jews in the capital. Finding herself between life and death, she decides that the hope to save her people was worth more to her than her own life—if even she would escape.
Go, gather all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me; neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will fast likewise. And so I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish .(Esther 4:16 NKJV).
God has not been explicitly present in the story up until this point, yet here we must pause to notice two things that recall the Jewish faith in God. First, fasting was meant to be a time when faithful people prepared themselves for communion with God.
While this is not unequivocally stated, it is an indication of the Jews’ reliance on God for salvation. Esther herself can be credited with faith since she is the one calling for the fast. For three days and nights, all the Jews in the capital were to not eat, nor drink. The queen and her maids will likewise fast in preparation for the fateful appearance before the king.
It is notable that Esther seems very concerned with obeying the law. While she initially mentions the death law that prevented people from appearing before the king uncalled, in her second speech she again mentions the law, yet this time as a law that she consciously chooses to go against. In so doing, Esther displays astounding courage.
In addition to the fast recalling the Jew’s faith in God, Esther’s choice to risk her life for the sake of saving her people recalls Jesus’ sacrifice. While his death was certain, Esther, like Jesus, valued others first and was willing to take the highest risk. Esther’s description in the previous chapters as a beautiful woman who knew how to gain everyone’s favor has already earned our endearment.
Here she is emerging from silence as a confident and brave woman. Yet the woman who had grown in her confidence as empress is at the same time a God-fearing woman who does not trust her own person to accomplish the task. The distance between her and the king is an additional incentive to hope for God’s intervention.
The same is often the case with us. When we are completely capable of accomplishing something, it is much easier to rely on ourselves and forget to involve God. Yet when our own capabilities appear insufficient, we turn to God for help.
The king, although not directly present in this episode, is a towering character even silent, from the shadows. He is mentioned fifteen times, more than anyone else. Several times his character is recalled in reference to things or people he owns: the king’s gate, the king’s eunuch, the king’s treasuries, the king’s servants, the king’s provinces, and the king’s palace.
No doubt aware of Vashti’s history, Esther’s first speech alone makes mention of him five times. Indeed, the decree signed with his ring is what has caused all this turmoil; he still holds the ultimate power.
|in the midst of the city||1|
|as far as the front of the king’s gate||2|
|in every province||3|
|among the Jews||3|
|in the city square||6|
|in front of the king’s gate||6|
|to the king||8|
|into the inner court to the king||11|
|in to the king||11|
|in the king’s palace||13|
|from another place||14|
|to the king||16|
The spatial markers further indicate the centrality of the king. Mentioned seven times as part of spatial markers, the anticipation of Esther’s appearance before the king becomes the centerpiece of this episode.
|when Mordecai learned all that had happened||1|
|these thirty days||11|
|at this time||14|
|for three days, night or day||15|
|such a time as this||14|
The temporal markers are intriguing. First, we note the repetition of the word “then” four times. This may seem insignificant; however, it is an indication of Esther’s proactive attitude. She immediately takes action after she learns about Mordecai’s strange behavior (v. 4) after Mordecai refuses the garments she sent him (v. 5), and twice after receiving word from Mordecai (v. 10 and 15).
Of course, for those familiar with the book of Esther, the expression “for such a time as this” recalls God’s providence at work in the narrative. While God’s name is absent from the book, his presence in the lives of the Jews in exile will be evident and memorable.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect in this episode is that new characters in the narrative give consequential commands. So far only the king, Haman, and Mordecai gave commands (the king and Haman to the people of Medo-Persia, and Mordecai to Esther), but the queen gains a voice. With authority, she commands Hathach to communicate with her cousin, and later she commands Mordecai to inform all the Jews in Shushan of a three-day fast they were to observe.
At times long silence is needed before using our voice, or before action needs to be taken. Yet, when either of these are necessary, the courage to speak up and take action is critical. Esther is an example of accepting the right time and the right manner of taking action, including relying on God for the success of the endeavor.