A woman rioting in blood that she might gratify her ambition! A mother destroying her offspring that she might possess their inheritance! Jezebel was a depraved woman, but Athaliah was a monster—a woman destitute of all the feelings of humanity, working all evil, and only evil, from the mere love of self. With selfish desires which absorbed all consideration, and in their intensity prompted to unnatural crimes, having no object in view beyond her personal gratification or aggrandizement, there was not even the extenuation to be offered for Athaliah which could be urged for Jezebel; for the policy of Judea was opposed to idolatry, and in the family of Jehoshaphat she was surrounded by influences most favourable to a virtuous course, and influences which had never rested upon her mother. Under the very shadow of the Temple she perpetrated her most flagrant crimes.
Although the depravity of Jezebel led her to adopt a corrupt religion, to reject a pure and holy worship, and to cling to the dark and cruel rites of heathenism, the voice of conscience was not silenced, the light of the soul was not entirely extinguished. She felt the need of some faith—she clung to the altars of her gods. But Athaliah seems to have sunk into the brutishness of those who own "no God." She seems to have trampled upon all faith, as she violated all obligation—insensible alike to the calls of conscience and the aspirations of devotion. She had no womanly sympathies. She had high mental endowments—she had a powerful will and strong passions—but she had no affections. There have been many Jezebels—but few Athaliahs. The affections compose so large a part of a woman's nature that we disown one who is without them. In her deepest guilt, in her lowest debasement, they still cling to her; and raised to the summit of power, they do not often wholly desert her.
The princess of Israel must have been married at an early age, and she was long restrained by the character of Jehoshaphat from the public display of her wishes and inclinations. While he lived, Judah still retained the outward show of reverence for the God of Israel, and doubtless Athaliah often led her train to the temple of Jehovah; yet the infection of the character and principles of the daughter of Ahab was at work. A poisonous leaven spread through the royal family. The younger princes of Judah were contaminated; and when Jehoshaphat died, this influence of Athaliah was first manifest in the character of Jehoram. It is written of him that "he walked in the ways of the kings of Israel, after the house of Ahab, for the daughter of Ahab was his wife, and he did evil in the sight of the Lord."
He commenced his reign by the murder of his brethren, the sons of his father. Jehoshaphat had provided for all his sons, giving them wealth and appointing them to offices of trust, while he left the kingdom to Jehoram. And without pretext or apology, Jehoram put them all to death; and their families were involved, as we may well believe, in their ruin. They were probably proclaimed outlaws, and then murdered wherever found, perhaps while dwelling in perfect security and in profound peace; and with them fell many of the other princes of Judah not so nearly connected with the royal family. The very commencement of his reign, the occasion of so much joyful festivity to the court, was thus marked by crimes which brought utter desolation to the families and terror to the hearts of the people of his kingdom; and we may well presume that the woman who afterwards proved herself so reckless and heaven-defying, prompted to this first crime. She who was herself so ready to commit deeds of blood would be quick to instigate others.
The whole reign of Jehoram was impious and disgraceful. He erected altars on all the hills of Judea, to draw his people into the worship of Baal and Ashtaroth; while he compelled the inhabitants of Jerusalem to join in the corrupt festivals and the abominable rites of this Syrian goddess.
Elijah, the prophet of Israel, was commissioned to reprove Jehoram, and to denounce the impending doom of his house. He was not ordered to present himself at the court of the King of Judah, but to write his message. "There came a writing to Jehoram;" and probably the King of Judah scoffed at the warning, and perhaps referred him to the unexecuted judgments denounced upon the house of Ahab, and to the present prosperity of the family, and the continued stability of the kingdom, as a proof of the fanatical delusion of the pretended prophets of the Lord. Yet the doom of the guilty Jehoram was accomplished even before the woes denounced upon Jezebel were fulfilled. Tributary kingdoms revolted, and in vain he sought to bring them back to obedience. The Philistines and the Arabians made an incursion into Judah, and carried away all his wealth, while they took his family captive; and Jehoram, smitten by a most loathsome and painful disease, died. He was buried without the usual honours paid to royalty. His memory and his person were alike offensive.
Upon the accession of Ahaziah, the next king, the influence of Athaliah is soon recognised. He was the youngest and the only son not carried into captivity. It is said that "his mother's name was Athaliah, the daughter of Omri. He also walked in the way of the house of Ahab, for his mother was his counsellor to do wickedly,"—as wife and mother, alike unholy. "Wherefore he did evil in the sight of the Lord, like the house of Ahab, for they were his counsellors, after the death of his father, to his destruction."
The second son of Ahab had succeeded to the kingdom of Israel, and Jezebel was surrounded by all the splendours of royalty. Peace and prosperity still attended her family. The death of Naboth and his sons, and the denunciations of the prophet, were probably forgotten, or remembered only to be despised. The royal houses, so closely allied, maintained a familiar intercourse, and the King of Judah was on a visit of sympathy to the King of Israel, who was sick and wounded, when the rebellion of Jehu broke out. It came upon the house of Ahab like a hurricane: in the midst of security and of apparently profound peace, the storm swept over and destroyed them.
While the kings were in the palace of Israel, the rapid approach of a messenger awoke the curiosity rather than the apprehension of the King of Israel. With the rashness of a doomed man, he rushed upon his own destruction. As the messengers, whom he had sent to meet the approaching foes, returned not, the two kings hastened to meet the advancing troop. And they met Jehu by the vineyard of Naboth, and there the King of Israel was slain, while the King of Judah fled, mortally wounded, to Megiddo, where he died. All that belonged to the house of Ahab in Israel perished in this hour of vengeance and righteous retribution. Jehu murdered those of the descendants of Jehoram who fell in his way; and Athaliah hastened to complete the fulfilment of the prophetic doom of her house by herself instigating the murder of all who remained of the royal family of Judah, although they were her own descendants! In her ruthless ambition she destroyed her grandchildren, that she might herself ascend the throne of Judah. She seems to have exulted in the blood and carnage which opened her way to royal power. Unmoved by the fate of her mother, with her sons and her brothers scarce cold in their untimely graves, by her cruel treachery she consummated the destruction of her family; and, stained with blood and polluted by crimes, she seated herself upon the throne of David, and usurped the inheritance of her children!
For eight years Athaliah held this usurped position. No compunctious visitings of conscience seem to have haunted her. She felt neither pity nor remorse. She may have well sustained her ill-gotten power while she resided amidst the pomp and pageantry of royalty. Her resolute despotism seems to have held her subjects in awe, and to have quelled them all into subjection. She had herself wrought the fulfilment of the doom of her race. As the last of Ahab's children, the sword of divine vengeance was suspended over her head, and in the time appointed it fell. She was to die the death of her house—a death of blood.
When the kings of Judah apostatized, while the individuals were punished, the race was spared. God still remembered his covenant with David; and, amid all the sin and desolation of Judah, the line of hereditary descent was unbroken. The root remained, and some scion worthy of the stock sprang from it.
When Athaliah was ingrafted on the stock of royal Judah, she so debased it, that it seemed needful to purify it by cutting off all the branches to the very root. Yet one was saved. And, as if to display his own power and grace, God is at times pleased to select from the families the most apostate and unholy, the instrument of his work and the trophy of his grace. So he made the daughter of Athaliah the nurse and the instructress of him who was to reform the kingdom of Judah. Jehoshabeath, wife of the high-priest of the Lord, seems to have escaped the character and the doom of her family. Her's was a task most difficult. She was called to oppose the depravity of her mother and to thwart her bloody policy, and yet not to appear as her accuser and as hastening the execution of the Divine vengeance. Hard is it to the virtuous child to reprobate the character and course of the unholy parent, and yet preserve the reverence due to the relation. Jehoshabeath appears before us in a light which leaves a most favourable impression. The saviour of the infant heir of Judah, the son of her brother, she cherished, instructed and guarded him. At the proper time the high-priest communicated the secret of the existence of the child to the princes of the land, and the son of Ahaziah was proclaimed king. No assault was made upon Athaliah. She rushed, like others of her family, upon her doom, as if she were infatuated. The tumult of the people, the triumphant strains of sacred and martial music, the clashing of the shields of the soldiers as they bore their king aloft, brought the first tidings of the existence of the last of her race to Athaliah.
The daughter of Jezebel was not easily daunted. Her courage rose in the hour of danger. She had purchased the throne at a price too great readily to relinquish the possession of it. She forced her way through the crowds who surrounded the Temple, and through the bands of soldiers who guarded the young king, until she confronted the child whose brow already bore the crown of Judah—a heavy weight for the infant king. In vain she rent her royal robes, and in vain she cried, "Treason! Treason!" None adhered to her—none followed her—none perished with her. She died by the sword,
"And left a name to other times Link'd with no virtue, but a thousand crimes."
The history of modern nations is not without examples of similar evils entailed upon those who, professing themselves the heads of a purified church and a reformed faith, choose (from motives of pride or policy) to seek an alliance with the adherents of a dark, cruel, and persecuting superstition. Such a marriage precipitated the Stuarts from the throne of England, cost one king his life, and the family a kingdom; and the marriages of policy among princes, contravening the rules of God's word, are often followed by most disastrous results, and hasten the evils they are contracted to prevent.
In private life, also, the marriage of those who have renounced this world for a higher portion, with the worldly and the ungodly, is generally a source of sin or of sorrow. There can be little congenial feeling between the spiritual and the earthly; and the servant of God who chooses a wife from the daughters of sin and the devotees of pleasure, places himself in a position of peculiar trial.
The spirit of the wife pervades the household. The husband may rule, but the wife influences. His voice is obeyed, but the wishes of the wife are consulted. Her friends are the welcome guests. His associates gather around his board and claim his leisure hour, but her voice whispers to him in his retirement. She comes between God and his soul. The strongest of men was shorn of his might by the companion of his bosom; the wisest was led into foolishness and idolatry by the influence of a corrupt woman.
We are prone to think of the period to which we have been referring as one of barbarism, and of the nations of Israel and Judah as ignorant and uncivilized. Does it not seem as if the very heavens must have been shrouded and the course of nature changed during the perpetration of such bloody crimes? Does it not seem as if a natural darkness must have overspread the land? And yet it was not so. The sun shone in his brightness, the skies were as serene, the rain and the dew descended, the vine and the olive ripened, and the flowers shed forth their sweetness, and all the bustle and show of life went on, as at other times. The people were oppressed, but the courts of Israel and Judah were splendid and luxurious; and they doubtless boasted of their advancing refinement, even when they were sinking into corruption and depravity. It has ever been the policy of the monarchs who are guilty of the most atrocious crimes, who shrink from no acts of cruelty, to promote that despotism which may banish the remembrance of their enormities, and to dazzle and blind the eyes of their people by the glare and splendour which surrounds their court. And thus these guilty monarchs, by the patronage of the licentious festivals of heathen worship and the alluring rites of a corrupt religion, compelled their people to sin. They drowned the voice of conscience and prevented all reflection.
All history has shown us that, as nations have been verging to their ruin, they have yielded themselves to criminal excess and sensual indulgence; and the boasted periods of splendour and high refinement have been but the preludes to long seasons of national calamity or entire overthrow. Thus we may suppose it to have been with the ancient descendants of Israel. The courts were splendid and all the arts were patronized, while the thin veil of refinement was thrown over deeply corrupt manners. The people, departing from a holy faith, were sinking into a sullen debasement, or giving themselves to sensual indulgence and brutal ferocity.
Modern nations have followed in the footsteps of the ancient world. The same idols are still worshipped under other names—the same passions rule the unholy heart.
When Isaiah wrote, Babylon sat a queen among the nations, in the pride of pomp and power, in the full security of strength; yet he graphically depicted her desolation and foretold her present state, while he pronounced her doom—a perpetual desolation. She shall never be rebuilt! Her towers are fallen and her site marked by ruins.
The decline of Babylon had begun. It was certain, although slow. Years were to pass before the sentence should be fully executed. At the period, when the transactions recorded in the book of Esther took place, Shushan was the royal city of Persia. We are told that in this—the City of Lilies—the king Ahasuerus held a great feast, probably in celebration of some recent success, or in commemoration of some great national event. He assembled all the princes and nobles of his vast empire, extending from Egypt to India, and gave a feast or succession of festivities, which continued for more than the third of a year.
All that oriental splendour and magnificence could contribute, all the expedients that eastern luxury could desire, to multiply the resources and to heighten the enjoyment of pleasure, were brought to aid the designs of the monarch and to add to the festivities of his court.
Yet motives of policy may have combined with the designs of pleasure. In all ages the despot has sought to blind and dazzle the people by a display of power and magnificence; and the princes and nobles around, from distant provinces, have swelled the retinue of their attendants.
The amusements of monarchs and of courts have, through all varieties of manners and degrees of refinement, been much the same. The ancient Syrian or Persian, like the modern British or French monarch, had his royal parks and forests for hunting.
All nations have patronized the various trials of skill and strength, and the mimic fight has ever been an amusement where war was the great business of life. And the royal pageantry was doubtless intermingled with the religious ceremonies which allowed a license to criminal indulgence and at the same time offered a supposed expiation for crime.
While these employed the day, the games of chance, the wine, the music, the movements of the degraded dancing-girl, and the tricks of the buffoon and the jester, amused the late hours and varied the festive scenes of the night.
The feast was drawing to a close, and, at the termination of this long season of hilarity, Ahasuerus extended the pleasures of the occasion to all classes of his subjects at Shushan.
He threw open his palaces and pleasure-grounds, his parks and gardens—always of vast extent around eastern palaces—and admitted all the citizens to a feast prepared for them. Tents had been erected within the precincts of the palace for the tables—and these tents were furnished with all the luxurious appendages of the east—with white and green and blue hangings, fastened with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rings and marble pillars; while the beds—the couches around the tables, against which the ancients reclined—were of gold and silver, upon a pavement of red and blue, and black and white marble; while they gave them to drink in vessels of gold. Until these last days the princes and nobles alone had participated in the festive scenes; but now, as we have said, all ranks were allowed to share, and the citizens of Shushan, subjects of Ahasuerus, thronged the palace and trod the royal gardens, and, entering the tents, enjoyed all that royalty could offer in ancient Persia—far surpassing in costly splendour and elegance the entertainments of modern courts. And surely the monarch must have had strong confidence in the security of his government and the loyalty of his people, as he thus from day to day, for successive days, flung open to them the recesses of his palace.
While the king thus feasted the men in the gardens and parks of the palace, Vashti, the queen, held a festival for the women within the secluded apartments appropriated to the female part of the royal household. She made them a feast within the house of Ahasuerus; and this queenly entertainment was conducted with all that regard for retirement and decorum which accords with Eastern manners. But whatever the amusements of the queen and her train of attendants, no rumours passed the carefully guarded bounds of the women's apartments. At length the long season of pleasure came to a harmonious close. No outbreak of the people of Shushan, no rising of distant provinces, no plotting of high-born traitors had marred the festal pomp. Yet the season of pleasure is always a period of trial, and the seeds of remorse and repentance are almost invariably sown in the hours of gayety. Amid all this brightness, a dark cloud hung over Ahasuerus. On the seventh and last day, when the heart of the king was merry—when he had forgotten royalty dignity and personal decorum, by sitting too long at the festive board—excited by pride and vanity, and stimulated by wine, he resolved to dazzle the eyes of the people by presenting to their admiration a gem, brighter and more lovely than any which sparkled in the royal crown. To verify his loud boasts of her matchless charms, he sent his chamberlain to bid the queen array herself in that royal attire which befitted her state while it displayed her beauty and proclaimed her rank, and thus present herself, that the assembled multitudes might admire her loveliness and confess his happiness.
In Western lands, and in modern days, this command would convey no idea of shame or impropriety. The royal consort and her train of fair attendants have often graced the presence and shared the honours of the monarch and his court, and added refinement to luxury. But no offer could be more opposed to all ideas of Eastern delicacy and propriety—more degrading to the woman, or more offensive to the queen.
By thus unveiling herself before the crowd, she would sink herself to the level of the most unworthy of her sex—while the violation of an established usage, in the time of such excitement and excess, might lead to the wildest disorder, and the queen might be exposed to every insult from crowds maddened by wine and ripe for disorder; while the monarch himself might not be able to protect her in a position so strange and unfitting.
The modesty of the woman and the dignity of the queen alike forbade compliance with the strange order—and Vashti might well presume that, in the hour of reflection, when his senses had returned, the monarch would thank her for a prudence which probably alone preserved her dignity and his honour.
But the passions of the king were inflamed. His reason was blinded, and artful courtiers, from motives of intrigue or pique, stimulated his anger. There are ever those who stand ready to administer to unholy passions, and who are watching for the fall of such as are high in place or favour. And still under the influence of wine, the rash monarch, by his own act, placed an inseparable barrier between himself and her whose charms had so lately been his proudest boast, and whose conduct had proved that she well deserved all honour and all affection. Vashti was separated from the king's favour; and flattering sycophants extolled the act of folly, as a measure which gave peace and security to every household in the realm. "All the wives shall give to their husbands honour, both to great and small." And thus the day closed by an edict that brought sorrow to many hearts, and desolation even to the gates of the palace.
The excitement was past. The hour of reflection arrived, and "the king remembered Vashti." His resentment was appeased. "He remembered what she had done, and what was decreed against her." That which had been magnified into a crime and had given such deep offence, was now seen to be an act of wisdom and prudence—the result of true modesty, and that deep affection which sought alone the love of her husband, which shrank from the admiration of the crowd, and which ventured to disobey rather than forfeit self-respect and womanly pride—preferring to lose his love rather than expose his honour. An immutable decree—his own—separated him from one lately so beloved, and so truly worthy of high honour.
The darkened and saddened aspect of the monarch declared his late repentance; and those who had precipitated the fall of the queen, to screen themselves, were prompt to devise methods of banishing the remembrance of the divorced Vashti. They would replace her by a new favourite. Yet, so surpassing was her loveliness, and so rare her beauty, that the courtiers could with difficulty find one whose charms might banish from memory the repudiated consort, until they sought through all the provinces of that vast empire for the fairest of the daughters of men.
Hadassah, a daughter of Israel, a descendant of Benjamin, of the house of Kish, the family of Saul, first king of Israel, won the monarch's favour, and was promoted to the place of the disobedient but high-minded Vashti. Esther was an orphan, but she had been carefully guarded and instructed by her kinsman Mordecai; and while we are told that the maiden was exceeding fair, we may believe that her beauty was of a high order, stamped too by intellect and feeling, and that the soul which often sustained and impelled her in her trying exigencies, breathed through her features and animated her form. Yet Ahasuerus merely bowed to the fair shrine. He sought not to awaken the response of the soul that dwelt within.
When the daughter of Israel was placed upon the throne of Persia, and another royal feast proclaimed the triumph of Esther and the happiness of Ahasuerus, the king displayed his royal magnificence by the bestowal of gifts upon his favourites; and the name of Esther was blended with other and higher associations, as, upon her elevation, the taxes of the burdened provinces were remitted and pardons granted to the condemned.
Mordecai, the relative who had supplied the place of parents to Esther, was, as we have said, of the house of Kish. Mordecai was the Jew rather than the Benjamite. His heart was devoted to his country. When the child of his adoption was taken to the palace, Mordecai displayed his wise forethought in cautioning her against making her parentage and kindred known. He had been as a father to her, and a deep interest in the orphan of his care led him, day by day, to watch the gate of the palace—to mingle with the attendants, that he might catch a view of her train or gather tidings of her welfare. And thus, unknown as the relative of the fair queen, or as especially interested in the king, Mordecai was enabled to detect and reveal a plot for the assassination of Ahasuerus. Esther being informed of the plot, disclosed it to the king—the criminals were defeated and punished—but no reward was conferred upon Mordecai.
The passion of Ahasuerus for his fair bride seems to have soon declined. The fickle voluptuary sought new pleasures, and the bride so lately exalted to a throne was no longer an object of envy. Many bitter tears have been shed by the victims of family pride or state policy, when thus allied to greatness and splendour. The sacred rite has often been prostituted to purposes of ambition and selfishness, and has thus become a source of guilt and misery. Esther, in her elevation, may have shed as bitter tears as fell from Vashti in her banishment and disgrace.
Thus each state has its own trials and its own griefs—and it has its peculiar alleviations too. Perhaps the progress of the narrative will show us the source of that influence which seems early to have estranged Ahasuerus from his bride.
Among the courtiers of the king there was the descendant of a race long at variance with the Jews. The Amalekites had been the enemies of the Israelites from the infancy of the nation. When the tribes came up from Egypt, faint and weary in the desert, the Amalekites had fallen upon them and attempted to destroy them; and during a series of ages there had been a war of extermination between the races. Nor had Amalek been subjected until Saul was raised to the throne and Israel had become a kingdom.
When Israel and Judah had been destroyed or carried captive by the hosts of the Assyrians, the remaining Amalekites seem likewise to have been carried into the east, either as prisoners or allies. And now, from among all his courtiers, Ahasuerus had chosen, as his chief favourite and counsellor, Haman, the son of Hammedatha, a descendant of Agag—that king of Amalek who, as the prisoner of Saul, was condemned to death by Samuel, the judge of Israel. The descendant of a royal line and of an ancient race, Haman was as crafty as he was unprincipled and malignant, and his evil influence seems to have first drawn the king's favour from Esther. He did not know her lineage, but by plunging the king in every excess, by keeping all safe counsellors at a distance, he intended to increase his own influence and perpetuate his own power, while he was accumulating great wealth from the prodigality of his master and from the presents offered as bribes to obtain his favour.
As he did not know the lineage of Esther, he did not persecute her; but as he feared an influence that might compete with his own, he strove to alienate the heart of Ahasuerus from her. Haman was advanced to honours far above all the native princes of the kingdom; even to the first seat in counsel, to the highest honours in the realm, and to constant companionship of the monarch.
As, with trains of slaves and flatterers, he was hastening to the audience of the monarch, or returning loaded with marks of royal favour, he passed Mordecai the Jew, seated alone—unknown, unheeded, without rank or wealth—by the gate of the palace. "Yet Mordecai bowed not, neither did reverence to Haman." The two men seemed to represent to each other their respective nations; as if all the hate and malice of the race, and of long ages of national bitterness, were concentrated in an individual. They met as the Israelite and the Amalekite; and the memories of centuries of aggression and injuries, of shame and defeat, were crowded into the present moment. Mordecai saw in Haman, not only the foe to his race, but the crafty, unprincipled, unholy counsellor, who had already alienated the heart of the monarch from his youthful bride, and whose pernicious influence was spreading blight and corruption, misery and destruction—through an empire.
Every feeling of the Jew, every principle of an upright, sincere heart forbade Mordecai to pay the homage demanded of him by Haman. Every sentiment of national pride, of family honour, of personal dignity, of self-respect, arose to deter the descendant of Israel from showing honour to the hereditary foe of his people and the persecutor of his faith.
Haman, at the same time, saw in Mordecai the descendant of those who had triumphed over his nation and destroyed his ancestors. The descendant of Agag, the captive of Saul, he might naturally vent his indignation upon the tribe that humbled his house and subjected his nation and destroyed his ancestors. The contempt with which Mordecai regarded him roused all the ancient malignity of the Amalekite, and his hot blood called for vengeance.
Yet he thought it a foul shame to lay hands on Mordecai alone. The ruin of one man would not heal his wounded pride. He meditated a deeper and more deadly revenge. He resolves to sweep the remnant of the Jews from the face of the earth!
The proposed plan displays at once all his cruelty and malignity, and all his crafty influence over Ahasuerus, while it proves the king too much immersed in pleasure, or too much subjected to his artful favourite, to regard the welfare of his subjects or the interests of his kingdom.
Superstitious and idolatrous, Haman cast lots day after day, for successive days, that a fortunate one might decide the day to be chosen for the work of death on which he was bent. And this accomplished, he hastened to secure the edict from the king. Surely the monarch must have been sunk in wine and debauchery who could thus unhesitatingly accede to the proposition to murder, in cold blood, thousands of unresisting subjects, when the worst allegation preferred by their enemy was "that their laws were diverse from all people." Yet here was the very principle of religious persecution; and as sanguinary edicts as these, enacted against God's ancient people, have been too often issued in more modern days, and no Mordecai has sat at the gate of the palace, mutely to plead for mercy—no Esther has staked her life upon the attempt to avert the doom!
By the offer of an enormous bribe, to be collected from the plunder of those doomed to death, Haman sought the acquiescence of the king in his scheme. And though he refused the bribe, yet he bade Haman do with the people and their possessions as seemed best to him; giving him his signet ring, he seems to have divested himself of all care and responsibility, and Haman having issued the edict and commanded the couriers to distribute the royal mandate, they both returned to their pleasures. "The king and his counsellor sat down to drink."
No elaborate essay upon the character of Ahasuerus, no analysis of the arts of Haman, could so display the indolent, luxurious, self-indulgent, voluptuous monarch, or so illustrate the secret of the favourite's power. The companion of his pleasures, he was careful to minister to all the sensual indulgence that could lead him to forget his duty and the obligations of right and justice incumbent upon the ruler of a great people.
Of all the cruel and bloody mandates issued by despotic monarchs, and designed to answer either the purposes of private malice or unholy policy, few, if any, have exceeded this which was directed against the ancient people of Jehovah. The Jews who had returned to their own land were included in this proscription, for Judea was at this time a tributary of the Persian empire.
"Then were the king's scribes called, the thirteenth day of the first month, and there was written according to all that Haman had commanded, unto the king's lieutenants, and to the governors that were over every province, and to the rulers of every people of every province, according to the writing thereof; and to every people after their language, in the name of King Ahasuerus, was it written, and sealed with the king's ring. And the letters were sent by posts into the king's provinces, to destroy, to kill, and to cause to perish, all Jews—both young and old, little children and women, in one day, even upon the thirteenth day of the twelfth month."
Thus we see all the machinery of this powerful government put in motion to crush the Jews—a people widely dispersed and weak from their recent captivity and overthrow. As no crime was specified, so there was no offer of pardon or exemption on any terms; while to make it more distinctly understood, the terms which indicated their fate were singularly multiplied. "To destroy, to kill, to cause to perish." And while the murder of a nation was thus made a legal execution, the mode was left to the option of the executioners; and every torment that malignity could devise might be inflicted, while all were stimulated by the promise of the plunder of their victims—"and to take the spoil of them for a prey."
What scenes of horror, of suffering, would have followed the execution of this barbarous edict! The whole empire had probably been deluged in blood—for man, like the inferior animals, seems maddened by the taste of blood—and one cruelty is but the prelude and provocation of another; and in the time of strife, while all were made executioners of the law, private malice would confound others with the proscribed, and few could be safe in the hour of commotion.
When this edict was published, and while Ahasuerus and Haman sat down to indulge in the pleasures of the table, all the city of Shushan was perplexed, confounded, and troubled—wondering what motives, what state policy, what strange conspiracy, had led to this sanguinary enactment against a people long dwelling among them—a nation who had furnished counsellors and ministers to their wisest monarchs.
When Mordecai saw what was done, he rent his clothes and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city and cried with a loud and bitter cry. He published—he could not conceal—his grief and terror; and his crafty foe perhaps exulted in his misery. The long struggle between the Amalekite and the Israelite seemed now to be concluded. The fall of the Jews seemed to be sealed. All the power of the Persian empire was arrayed against them. They were prisoners in her different provinces, appointed to execution! All human power and authority and presumption of success was on the side of Haman, and against his intended victims.
Mordecai had no hope on earth. His trust was alone in the God of his fathers—the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob—the God often defied by Amalek. In his distress he presented himself, clothed in sackcloth, at the gate of the royal palace; but no one arrayed in the garb of sorrow might enter the haunts devoted to luxurious pleasure. Yet the sight of his distress and the tones of his deep grief arrested the attention of the attendants of the queen, and her chamberlain reported the circumstances to her.
No tokens of sympathy, no expression of condolence, however grateful, could assuage the grief of Mordecai in this hour of terror and alarm; and even though commanded by the queen, he declined to lay aside the tokens of wo, while he diligently sought to convey to the secluded Esther an account of all the machinations of Haman, and the assurance of the imminent danger to which her nation was exposed, and in which she was involved. He not only sent her a copy of the edict which condemned the Jews, but he charged her to supplicate the king on their behalf.
The young queen must have felt like one awakened from a sleep to find herself upon the brink of a precipice. Her situation was full of danger. The flush of royal favour was past. She was neglected and forgotten. Her splendid palace was indeed but a prison, and her lordly consort might prove her executioner. For a long time she had not seen the king or received the least token of royal favour or remembrance, and a new favourite might have succeeded her in the court of the capricious voluptuary. Yet she was sternly charged by Mordecai to rouse herself, meet the peril, and, if possible, save her people, while he taught her to recognise the designs of a wise Providence in her elevation.
"Then Mordecai commanded to answer Esther, Think not with thyself that thou shalt escape in the king's house, more than all the Jews. For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but thou and thy father's house shall be destroyed: and who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?"
In the appeals of Mordecai to Esther, we may recognise the principles upon which he had trained her. The sense of duty, the obligations of religion, the call to self-sacrifice and exertion, had all been instilled while Esther was in private life, and they bear their fruit on the throne. Yet there must have been a conflict in the heart of Esther, before she could adopt the decision which might accelerate the doom of her people, while, if her appeal failed, her own fate was scaled with their's.
Surrounded by all the splendour of the court, with all the pleasures that pomp and power can command, with troops of menials treading marble halls, with the more genial luxuries of fair flowers and pure fountains and soft music—Esther felt the insufficiency of all that earth can yield in the hour of sorrow and trial. We may almost fancy that we see her, with lofty brow and pale cheek, her dark soft eye fixed in thought, and the compressed lip telling of the firm resolve. She has decided! She will venture the loss of royal favour, and life itself, to secure the safety of her people. "I WILL GO IN TO THE KING, AND IF I PERISH—I PERISH." Words more simple, yet sublime in their high meaning, have seldom been recorded. Strong purpose and high resolve call for but few words.
Yet Esther relied upon a power higher than that of Ahasuerus. She may have recalled the history of her nation; she may have remembered all the interpositions of Divine mercy in past extremities; and doubtless she relied upon those promises for the future which induced in Mordecai a confident hope of deliverance. She remembered that Jehovah—the God of Israel—hears the prayers of the humble and the contrite. She appointed a solemn fast of three days, in which the Jews of Shushan should humble themselves and remember her before the God of their fathers.
A more eminent instance of simple dependence upon the Divine interposition, or of entire reliance upon the voice of prayer, has seldom if ever, occurred. There was no resort to outward ceremonies to awaken a deeper feeling, or to atone for the want of it by a formal observance. There was no altar, no sacrifice, no long procession, no promised offering, no resort to temple or priest, but there was the call upon God from the depth of the soul—the simple, unfailing trust of the heart, the personal humiliation, the individual prayer, the united offerings of supplication and confession from a whole people. There was the simple faith that relies on the Divine power and pleads the Divine promises with submission to the Divine will. It was a strange contrast to the sensual, gross, superstitious, and unholy rites of the heathen, while from its deep spiritual meaning, and from the entire absence of all merely formal observance, it was both a precedent and a model for future ages, and for the holy spiritual worshipper of other days.
It was no heartless service, no formal act of worship rendered by the Jews of Shushan, when Esther called upon them to pray and to fast with her and for her. While the queen and her maidens fasted in the recesses of the palace, in many a lowly home or quiet chamber were gathered the race of Esther, to commit her and themselves to Jehovah, to beseech him to forgive the sins of his people and save them, for his mercy's sake, in this hour of their extremity. Mingled with their personal apprehension and anxiety for their wives and their children would be thoughts of "the daughter of their people"—their beautiful queen—so young, so fair, so lately exalted to the pinnacle of honour and glory; adorned with gems and wreathed with flowers, the pride of a monarch and the ornament of a court; now, neglected, abject, forsaken—included in the doom of her race, prostrate in some secluded apartment of the palace—her royal apparel exchanged for sackcloth and ashes—still cleaving to the God of her fathers, and still identifying herself with her kindred and countrymen. Whether they regarded her royal state, her tender years, her bitter desolation, or her heroic resolution, all the sympathies of the heart, all the purest feelings of the nation, would be called forth in her behalf.
Other feelings would find a place in the hearts of the Jews as they contemplated their present state. The last deed of the Amalekite would bring to recollection the injuries of ages. This Haman, who now, in a time of profound peace and full security—while both races were exiles from the land of their fathers—had plotted the ruin of their nation, the total extermination of their race; who had doomed the feeble and helpless, the little one and the aged, to perish with the strong man in his might; this Haman was the son of those who fell upon the tribes, faint and weary, in the wilderness; who had pursued them with inveterate hatred; who had ever joined with their foes or stood ready to attack them in their defenceless state.
When we recollect that the conspiracy of Haman but closed the long train of injuries inflicted on Israel by Amalek, we shall not so much wonder at the feelings sometimes expressed by the Jew. The character of the tribe was still the same—their course through all years was unaltered. And now, while Amalek has perished and the Jew survives, we can form no just estimate of that national feud. Haman was a type of his race—artful, cruel, treacherous, and bloody; and what the Roman was to Hannibal, what the ancient Persian was to Greece, what the Turk is to modern Greece, what Russia is to the Pole, such was the Amalekite to the Jew.
While Esther had manifested her sense of dependence upon the eternal Ruler of nations, and her faith and reliance upon the God of her fathers, by humbling herself before him and relying upon his protection and interposition in this hour of darkness, she showed, too, a knowledge of the human heart, not often acquired at her age; an instinctive insight into the character and the motives of those around her, with the power of adapting herself to circumstances, that has seldom been displayed in one so young, combined with so many of the higher qualities of the woman.
She knew the weak point in the character of Ahasuerus, and she forgot not the power of beauty, the influence of personal charms, as she arrayed her fair form in the rich and splendid vestments that so well became her, and summoned all the aid of oriental art and elegance to her toilette, that her presumption might be forgiven in her loveliness—that favour won by her beauty might be extended to her nation; and if she felt the hope of pleasing, as she surveyed herself in the polished metallic mirror, decked with the magnificence of a royal bride and adorned with the gifts of him whose favour she would seek, her heart might have sunk too at the remembrance of the favour she had once won and lost. In assuming the crown placed upon her brow by Ahasuerus, there was a tacit claim to her royal rights; for that gemmed circlet was not only a badge of rank, but a pledge of affection—a token of honour and royal favour, which elevated her above the throng of beauties who filled the courts of the palace. Had she arrayed herself in sackcloth, had she appeared as a mourner, an afflicted suppliant, she would probably have found the royal voluptuary more anxious to banish one who disturbed his pleasures, than to redress the grievances that appealed to his justice.
Yet it must have been with trembling limbs and a beating heart that she stood before Ahasuerus; and, by entering his presence unbidden, she made her mute appeal to his mercy.
And strange, at that unwonted place and hour, must have appeared the beautiful vision to the king, while courtiers and attendants stood in silent amazement. There was but one anxious moment before the sceptre was extended; the trembling queen touched it, and thus was encouraged to prefer her petition for any favour that the royal hand could bestow. The presence of Esther seems to have revived at once the fondness of the monarch, and all his coldness and indifference vanished like the mist before the rising sun. All the arts of Haman had been needed to wean him from her and to teach him to forget her. How rarely does a vile, unholy counsellor or companion seek to corrupt a private man, or a prince, or a ruler, without striving first to undermine the influence of the virtuous wife, mother, or sister!
Warily does the royal suppliant present her request, still uncertain of the degree of favour on which she might rely. She offered no petition that could embarrass the king. She made no complaint of past neglects. She uttered no word of upbraiding for forgotten vows; but delicately implying that his presence was the source of her happiness, that this had constrained her to break through all the formal observances of courtly restraint and endanger life itself, she besought him to honour her by attending a banquet which she had prepared. Thus she avoided the awakening of the suspicions of Haman by even asking to see the monarch without his presence. Including him in her invitation, she allayed all jealousy of a wish to exert an influence inimical to his, while she thus offered an additional inducement to Ahasuerus to honour her feast.
By a strong effort and great self-command, the young queen retained her calmness and preserved her grace and gayety. And even when the banquet had closed and the guests had retired, and the king again asked her to prefer her petition, she did not venture to prefer that which was nearest her heart. His favour was too uncertain and his favourite too powerful. She only besought his presence again as a guest, and again his favourite was included in the invitation.
The Jews were still lying low before their God. When the feast in the palace was broken up, and the gates were shut, the high walls cast their shadows upon the moat. The sentinels still moved with measured tread. The lights gradually disappeared, except those that told of some one watching over the sick or dying, or some chance-beam betraying a late carousal. In the palace, the soft footfall of the attendants in the antechambers, could not disturb the slumbers of the monarch, while strains of sweetest music were ready to lull him to repose, as warder and sentinel kept watch over his safety. But still "that night the king could not sleep;" and wakeful, restless, solitary, he commanded his attendants to bring him the archives of his kingdom, and read to him the records of his reign. Strange request! How few monarchs would care thus to review the past, and force themselves to the judgment awaiting them from a higher tribunal and from future ages!
It was not chance which held the eyes of the king waking. It was not chance which drew his attention to the conspiracy defeated by Mordecai, and to the investigation of the treatment he had received for so high a service. No reward, no honour had been conferred upon one who had saved the life of the sovereign. A strange forgetfulness or neglect of the prime minister of the realm! While Ahasuerus was devising some mode of requiting the obligation due to one who had rendered the state important service, he called for a counsellor, and was told that Haman was without, in the court.
Haman left the banquet of Esther in all the assurance of royal favour. He had attained to honours which distinguished him above all the subjects of the Persian empire. He had received distinctions which elevated him above even the princes and nobles of the kingdom; and in his pomp and power he passed, with his train of attendants, menials, flatterers, and followers, through the gates of the royal palace, "the observed of all observers;" and as he came into the thronged thoroughfare that led from the royal abode, all did him homage and showed him reverence—save one.
Mordecai, the Jew, still sat at the king's gate—probably, still wrapped in sackcloth. His eye met that of Haman, but it quailed not. It was a stern, reproving glance! And while all others did lowliest obeisance, Mordecai neither bowed nor uncovered his head.
There was no word—there was no reproach—but there was a silent defiance, that conveyed to the soul of Haman an assurance of disgrace and defeat, and that told him he was despised, amid all his honours and prosperity. He hastened to his home. He gathered his household around him and told them of his riches, his honour, his prosperity, and the assurance his large family afforded him that his riches would descend in his own line, and that his ancient lineage and royal race should thus be perpetuated. He told them of the high honour that day received at the royal feast, and of a like honour in reserve for the morrow. But still his pride was mortified by Mordecai's course. "All this availeth me nothing," he said, "so long as I see Mordecai, the Jew, sitting at the king's gate." Wretched, malignant man! What a picture of the power and force of evil passions—of that selfishness which could find its happiness in the misery and suffering of others!
His hatred of Mordecai seems the more insane, when we remember that Haman held his fate in his hands, or rather had actually sealed his doom. He might well forego forms of reverence from the man he had doomed to death. Yet the desire for the humiliation of Mordecai, for some token of abasement and fear, seems to have absorbed all other feelings; and as this was the only thing withheld, so it was the only thing desired. To soothe the disgust and allay the indignation of Haman, the family council decreed the immediate death of Mordecai, and they doomed him to the gallows—a most ignominious death. While this instrument of his destruction was in preparation upon the grounds of Haman, he sought Ahasuerus, that the sentence might be ratified. He who had given him the power to murder a nation, would surely assent to forestalling the doom of an individual; and Mordecai's disobedience to the royal order, his disrespect to the minister who represented the authority of the sovereign and the laws of the realm, seemed to offer a fitting pretext.
While Haman was waiting in the antechamber for audience, Ahasuerus was resolving some mode of requiting Mordecai; and, ever prone to rely on favourites and counsellors, he was unable to decide for himself; so he sought advice from his favourite courtier, who was so near at hand. To him the question was submitted: "What shall be done to the man whom the king delighteth to honour?" Ever selfish, ever intent upon his own promotion, and constantly loaded with marks of royal favour, Haman very naturally presumed that fresh honours were destined for him, and that he was to be allowed to designate the very marks of favour which he most desired.
"Now Haman thought in his heart, to whom would the king delight to do honour more than to myself?" And so he answered the king: "To the man whom the king delighteth to honour, let the royal apparel be brought which the king useth to wear, and the horse that the king rideth upon, and the royal crown which is set upon his head. And let this apparel and horse be delivered to the hand of one of the king's most noble princes, that they may array the man withal whom the king delighteth to honour, and bring him on horseback through the streets of the city, and proclaim before him, Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delighteth to honour."
If Haman intended this as a mere vain-glorious display—an impressive pageant, designed to publish to the people the high dignity of royal favour which he personally enjoyed—it would not be without meaning; but we cannot but think that, according to Eastern usage, there was a deeper significance in the ceremony.
The customs of the East are almost immutable, and there was much similarity between those of Egypt, Assyria and Persia. When Joseph was exalted to be ruler of Egypt, he was clothed in royal vestments, and passed in triumphant procession through the city, while all were called upon to bow the knee before him. Daniel was clothed in scarlet and in purple (the badges of royalty) while his honours were announced. But Joseph rode in the second chariot of Pharaoh, and his distance from royal state was clearly defined, while Daniel was declared third in the empire of the Medes and Persians.
In appropriating all the badges of royalty—the crown, the robes, the horse, the princely attendance—Haman seems to have been preparing a claim to higher honour than those of Joseph or Daniel; to be even preparing to ascend the throne. All the homage that could be shown the subject had long been exacted. A nation was now under a dreadful doom because only one of their race withheld it; and now he would take to himself all the appendages of royal state!
A sudden tumult in the palace, a popular outbreak, so common with despotic governments, might easily be accomplished, and Haman might ascend the throne of Ahasuerus—for the lines of descent seem to have been not unfrequently changed in the Persian empire; and in the convulsions of despotic states, even slaves have mounted the thrones of their masters.
Whether, in his designs, he merely sought the gratification of a present vain-glorious ambition or was preparing for a higher destiny, the revulsion must have been most overwhelming, the change and surprise inexpressible, when the announcement and command of the king fell upon his ear.
"Make haste!" said he, "take the apparel, and the horse, as thou hast said, and do even so to Mordecai the Jew, who sitteth at the king's gate. Let nothing fail that thou hast spoken." You have devised the very highest honour that I can render: now confer it on the man I designate.
The Eastern despots are arbitrary; and Haman, confounded and petrified, ventured no remonstrance. He bowed and obeyed. He departed as the messenger of honour to Mordecai the Jew. Whatever the malignant and bitter feelings of his heart, he dared not give expression to them. He was compelled to serve the man he hated, to confer the highest honour on the man he had doomed to the deepest obloquy, publicly to bow before one whom he hoped to trample beneath his feet! With what contending feelings must he have delivered the mandate of the king to Mordecai! What strong emotion must have convulsed his soul! Yet the most powerful feelings are seldom displayed. The green sod covers the pent volcano, and a slight trembling alone denotes the action of the devouring element. It is all repose and calmness on the surface while the billows of flame are raging beneath.
Thus the aspect of the courtier was calm, though sullen, while with his own hands he acted as chamberlain to the Jew and arrayed him in robes of royalty and honour. We may imagine a group for a painter, in Haman, dark, malignant, and sullen—and Mordecai, calm, proud, unbending, receiving service from his enemy. And after having with his own hands arrayed the new object of royal favour, Haman was placed at the head of the proud war-horse, as he slowly bore the Jew through the multitude, who thronged the street "to behold the man whom the king delighteth to honour." We seem to see him—the proudest, the most arrogant of men—with bowed head and averted eye, while Mordecai sits erect and firm, in all the dignity of conscious worth.
As they slowly proceed through the thronged thoroughfare, obstructed by crowds who came to gaze upon the pageant, many a significant sneer or half-uttered jest would convey to Haman a sense of his degradation in appearing as the groom of the despised Jew.
When the ceremonies were over, Mordecai again appeared at the gates of the palace. Nothing in the apparent condition of the two was changed, and the pageant may have seemed like a dream to Mordecai. He was only anxious to know the proceedings and fate of Esther. Yet he must have gathered hope for the future, as he still trusted and waited upon God.
But a dark cloud had fallen upon Haman. He foreboded his doom. He was humbled, disappointed, degraded, disgraced. He had been paraded, before the multitudes, the menial of the Jew. He had been forced to confer on the man he hated the very honours his soul most coveted. "And Haman hasted to his house mourning and having his head covered." And he told his wife and the friends whom he had gathered to consult upon the fall of the Jew, all that had befallen him. And clear, far-sighted, daring, and unscrupulous, the wife who had counselled Mordecai's destruction, foretold to Haman his own doom. "If Mordecai be of the Jews, before whom thou hast begun to fall, thou shalt not prevail against him, but shall surely fall before him."
And they were probably counselling some measures for his personal safety; for when they were yet talking, came the king's chamberlain, and hasted to bring Haman to the feast Esther had prepared.
As the feast proceeded, the king entreated Esther to ask some gift that he might bestow as a token of favour, or a pledge of affection. And then Esther, with a simple fervour, force, and dignity, and with the pathos of true feeling, offered her supplication for herself and her nation. "And Esther answered the king and said, If I have found favour in thy sight, O king! and if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request. For we are sold—I and my people—to be destroyed, to be slain, to perish." She quotes the words of Haman's edict, and then adds, "But if we had been sold for bond-men and bond women, I had held my peace, although the enemy could not countervail the king's damage," nor recompense the loss of so many of the king's useful citizens and peaceful subjects. Nothing could be more sweet, gentle, submissive, and truly dignified than her appeal. And the imagination and astonishment of the king are graphically displayed in his answer. Who is he? Where is he that hath presumed in his heart to do so? Who has dared to conspire against one so near my person, so exalted by my favour?
Confounded, amazed—and probably for the first time suspecting the Jewish extraction of the queen—Haman was still speechless when Esther made her direct and firm reply: "That adversary, that wicked man, is Haman," here in the royal presence—here in the full blaze of royal favour.
In the conscious justice of her cause, she had desired to be confronted with the man she accused, and he was present, that he might enjoy every opportunity of defence, if innocent; and if guilty, that he might receive the just reward of his deeds. The king was filled with wrath at this proof of the presumption and malice of his favourite, and he left the banqueting-room and went into the palace-garden.
Haman, quick to read the feelings of his master, "saw that wrath was determined." Unable to escape the watchful attendants, and moved by terror, he approached the royal couch of Esther to beseech her, whom he had greatly injured, to intercede for him. And while he was thus engaged, the king re-entered the banqueting-house. His wrath was rekindled. The imprudence of Haman hastened the doom his crimes had provoked. The excited monarch, witnessing his apparent familiarity, accused him of designs of which his previous presumption might show him capable. His sentence was pronounced—his doom was sealed. The attendants covered his face, (a most significant act, still retained in Eastern courts,) and he was carried from the royal presence-chamber, and hung upon the very gallows he had erected for Mordecai. The flowers which were gathered for the feast and the wreaths entwined for his brow were still fresh.
The succeeding interview of Ahasuerus with his still loved and more than beautiful consort, must have been one of no slight interest. There was much to unfold and to explain; there was something to confess and to forgive; and as the character of Haman was now exposed and his acts were revealed, the king may have regarded himself as the bird escaped from the fowler. Esther revealed her lineage; while the rising favour of Haman, the dangers to be anticipated from his hatred to her nation, well justified the prudent caution of Mordecai. As the queen told the king in what relation Mordecai stood to her, Mordecai was brought before him; and the former honour proved but indeed the installation into the highest offices of trust, while the vast possessions of Haman were conferred on Esther, and Mordecai was appointed her steward.
Yet, while the royal favour and protection was extended to these individuals, the edict was still in force against the race, and again Esther besought the king to interpose his power and protection. The laws of the Medes and Persians, however impolitic and unjust, could not be repealed. The king had no power over the statutes he had made. Like the deeds of life, once passed, they were unchangeable. He might regret the act, he might deprecate the influence thus put in operation, but he could neither recall nor cancel them; and one instance attempted might have destroyed the royal power.
Although Haman was removed, his family were numerous, and there was doubtless a large class of his ancient tribe who viewed him as the lineal descendant of their monarchs and entitled to their allegiance. They expected to share his triumphs, and, disappointed and exasperated, they would be ready to avenge his death. Haman being recognised as the highest officer of Ahasuerus and as his chief counsellor as well as favourite, he had great power and influence, and doubtless had a large party in his interests—either won by past favours or hope of future wealth and honour. At the same time all the discontented and turbulent of the land would be ready to join an outbreak which made the murder of any Jew lawful, where it could be accomplished, and which gave their possessions to those who were their destroyers.
All that Ahasuerus could do to avert the threatened extermination of the children of Israel, was to allow them to defend themselves if any dared to attack them. The whole empire was convulsed with the desperate struggle between the Jews and the faction of Haman; and while the royal authority aided the Jews in Shushan, so that they were entirely victorious, seventy-five thousand of their assailants perished in the provinces, where we are told the Jews gathered themselves together and stood for their lives; and it is recorded to their honour, that upon the spoil of their enemies they laid not their hands. And all this suffering and blood was the result of the policy of Haman. The Jews were not the aggressors, although they came off victors.
It was the last conflict between the nations of Amalek and Israel, and threatening and prophecy were thus fulfilled while both nations were strangers and exiles from their own lands; and while the tribe of Amalek perished, the sons of Haman, who probably led the conflict in Shushan, were condemned to the same ignominious death which their father had suffered. We infer their actual guilt from the fact that they seem to be unmolested until the day appointed for the extermination of the Jews. As leaders of the tumult they deserved the doom they received.
The lot is from the Lord; and the day of vengeance thus deferred from Haman's regard to the casting of the lot, gave the Jews full time to prepare themselves to resist their foes, and defend themselves after the issuing of the second edict, by which they were empowered to act on their own defence, and to repel openly by armed resistance.
The book of Esther is one of the most beautiful and variously instructive and interesting portions of the Old Testament. While it illustrates the providential care of Jehovah over all his people, and his readiness to hear their prayers and interpose for their deliverance, it shows too that he ruleth over all the nations of the earth, and that all the arts of intriguing men in courts and cabinets, the various changes which occur, either affecting nations or individuals, are all allowed to promote his infinite designs—all accomplishing his eternal plans. While his people, like Esther and Mordecai, gladly co-operate in the designs of the Almighty, his enemies are made the unwitting and unwilling instruments of advancing the same designs, and are accomplishing his purposes for the re-generation of a corrupt world—for the establishment of the kingdom of the redeemed, and the complete redemption of the children of God.
As we look at the book of Esther, through the long dark vista of intervening ages, we are presented with a beautiful picture of a past period. Nations have perished and left no memories; and while all the other portion of our world, at that day, is shrouded in darkness or buried in forgetfulness, the light of revelation falls upon the court of Ahasuerus, and we see it in all the gorgeous splendour of oriental magnificence.
The prosperous monarch of a powerful empire—munificent, prodigal, not deficient in capacity or heart, but indolent, and fond of luxury and feasting, he yields himself to the influence of the favourite; and when ready to rush into the seductions of pleasure, he still, at times, rouses himself and executes his own will, asserting his authority by some act of despotic power, of justice or cruelty, as the impulse prompts—he is a type of a large class of those to whom the destinies of more modern nations have been committed.
In Haman we see the courtier—crafty, proud, vain, ambitious, aspiring—intent upon personal aggrandizement, and the acquisition of wealth; gaining his influence over the mind of the monarch by ministering to his pleasures, and maintaining it by banishing all pure influences and crushing all nobler feelings. The history of Haman is replete, too, with instruction, in displaying the absorbing power of the selfish and malignant passions, and their fatal influence upon character and happiness.
One unsatisfied desire will embitter all the most coveted possessions. There will ever be something to be achieved—some enemy to humble, some higher elevation to attain, some Mordecai in the gate, whose reverence withheld is more desirable than all the homage of the multitude bestowed.
He who cherishes in his heart a hatred of a class or an individual, is nursing a scorpion which will poison every kind feeling. We must love, not only to make others happy, but that we may be happy ourselves. We may withhold all marks of approbation from the unworthy, and still regard them with the benevolence required by the law of love.
Thus while Mordecai saw in Haman the same persecuting spirit that had marked all his race; while he saw him, unholy, unprincipled, securing by his acts an influence over his master, which he abused; prostituting the royal authority to the ruin of the kingdom, making it subserve the purpose of his own unhallowed ambition; alienating the monarch from the queen, and inducing the disregard of the duties of private life as of sovereign power—Mordecai, as an upright, honourable, high-minded man, refused to render one, whose course he deprecated, whose character he abhorred, the honour accorded even by royal favour. He neither bowed nor did him reverence. But he did not assail him. He did not form any dark and treacherous plots against him. He did not revile him. All that he sought was to lead the blinded monarch to a calm investigation into the proceedings of his treacherous counsellor. And Haman had every opportunity of repelling accusation and justifying himself, as he was ever allowed to be present when Esther made her charges against him. There is a world-wide difference between the firm, indignant disapprobation with which a virtuous mind regards an evil man, working ill to all, and that malignant hatred which arises from selfishness and envy, and which pursues with bitterness and cruelty all that does not minister to its indulgence.
If it should seem strange to us that the national antipathy should so long be cherished, we may remember that it is quite as strange that national character should be thus faithfully transmitted through so many generations; and those who so confidently predict a change of character from the mere change of the circumstances of a people, may do well to ponder the facts presented by the past history of the races of the earth.
There are other contrasts between the characters of Mordecai and Haman. Haman was superstitious, yet not religious. He was artful, selfish, treacherous, bloodthirsty, corrupt himself and corrupting others, ambitious and vain-glorious. Mordecai was pious, upright, conscientious; fulfilling every duty, yet seeking no selfish aggrandizement, no wealth, no personal honour—even when placed in circumstances where he might claim them as a just reward—and never exerting an influence for selfish purposes; still ready to forego and sacrifice all that was demanded at the call of duty.
While we see in Mordecai the devoted worshipper of the true God, the high-minded patriot, the man of inflexible integrity—an integrity that scorned the bad acts that would minister to the pride of false greatness—and a nobleness that rose above the desire for court favours, the strong features of his character are softened into beauty by his love for the orphan relative, his watchfulness over her childhood, and the interest displayed by his daily inquiries for her welfare. His affections were kind and tender, while his principles were unbending; and we feel that we love the man, though we are constrained to render a deeper homage to the patriot.
Esther is one of the most beautiful characters in the gallery of Scripture portraits. Her character is peculiarly feminine; and while her path is marked by events of moment, it appeals to our hearts in each vicissitude of her lot. Youth and beauty always throw a charm around the possessor. Faint, perishing, transient as they are, they awaken all the sympathies of our nature; a deep compassion, a foreboding of the future; while the knowledge of the sorrows and trials which await those to whom the present is so bright, heightens our interest. Thus in each stage of the narrative, Esther comes to us with all that can awaken sympathy and excite interest.
The fair flower is transplanted from Judea to the lands of the East—a scion of a stock soon removed—sheltered, watched, nourished by the pure dews of Divine truth; taken from seclusion and loneliness, where but one eye beheld its opening beauty, to the gardens of royalty; and there, among gayer and gaudier flowers, like the pure lily of the valley, winning royal favour by purity, sweetness, and graceful loveliness.
We follow her from her lonely home to the palace, and think how many fears and alarms mingled with the triumph of her beauty, the consciousness of her power, when an empire blessed her name and celebrated her beauty. And a deeper feeling is roused for the royal bride, lately so flattered, caressed, and honoured, now suddenly forgotten, neglected—left to the loneliness of her apartments or the companionship of her formal attendants, while her lord pursued his career of pleasure, apparently unmindful of her existence.
A bitter lot it is to the young, to be loved and then forgotten. And sad the contrast to the royal Esther, between her late elevation and all the incense of homage and affection then offered, and her present desolation. Yet it was a season of needful humiliation. It awoke her from the dream of splendour and gayety, and brought her back to the sober realities of life and its stern duties; and it was also a season of preparation for the trials that awaited her. It brought her to seek a happiness higher than could be found in palaces or courts, a favour more desirable than that of an earthly monarch, a love that is unfailing, a faithfulness that should be enduring—and thus, when the day of trial came, she was prepared. She could cast herself upon the arm that never falters, she could seek the interposition of the God of her nation, and of each individual who trusteth in him and relieth upon his mercy.
There was something beautiful in the blending of her conscious helplessness, her sense of loss of the favour of her royal lord and of the love and courtly honour she deserved, of her entire dependence upon the protection and interposition of Heaven, and her resolution to venture all for her people.
IF I PERISH—I PERISH! If we can recall the recollections of our childhood, we shall remember the breathless interest with which we attended her, in fancy, to the presence-chamber and awaited the extended sceptre. All the excitement of romance is concentrated in the story of Esther. And as we follow the narrative of her final triumph, her restoration to the love of her husband, the salvation of her people, and the exaltation of her family, we cannot but pursue the train of thought and feeling, and fondly hope that the influence of Esther and Mordecai might redeem Ahasuerus from the vices of youth, inspire him with higher motives, elevate him to a loftier standard, and rouse one, not deficient in natural kindness or nobleness of capacity, from a selfish voluptuary to an enlightened, able, and just ruler of a great people.
The Jews still commemorate the feast of Purim, and celebrate their deliverance from Haman; and in all the climes and lands to which the race have been transported, they have carried the remembrance of the daughter of their people—the beautiful queen of ancient Persia, who ventured her life to ransom her race.
We would learn from the whole history lessons of sobriety, of contentment with an humble lot, of the duty of cherishing the spirit of love, of kindness, of benevolence, of repressing the first germ of selfishness, of malignity, of envy; of dependence upon an over-ruling Providence; of encouragement to prayer, to trusting and waiting upon God.
"Call upon me in the day of trouble, and I will answer thee," is said to each contrite heart now, as truly as to Israel of old; and none who have thus truly sought the Lord in lowliness and penitence, ever sought him in vain. His care and protection are still around his people; and although the enemies of his church may try her, they shall never triumph over her.