Mordecai Put On Sackcloth and Ashes

4: 1-3

DIG: The news of the king’s decision probably spread quickly throughout the Jewish community. They were all in shock. How did Mordecai and all the rest of the Jews react? What else could he have done? How did the author of Esther echo Joel’s prophecy saying that with repentance, God may relent the calamity He was about to bring on the Jews?

REFLECT: When you mourn, how do you show your distress rather than putting on sackcloth and ashes? Sometimes we will do the right thing only when it is too painful to continue to do the wrong thing. When you repent, are there any outward signs? How would someone else know that you have repented? If not with fasting, weeping and mourning, how do you show repentance?

Haman got what he desired the most, the king’s unknowing approval to annihilate all the Jews (3:10-11). The picture of the cold-blooded Haman, biding his time until his lucky day (see Av – The Lot Fell on the Twelfth Month, the Month of Adar, in the Presence of Haman), is an obvious contrast with Mordecai’s immediate display of mourning. Even though the ancient feud with the Amalekites was the basis for him not bowing down to Haman, Mordecai had seemingly brought disaster not merely on himself but on all the Jews.53 Haman’s plan was way out of proportion to Mordecai’s offense. Apparently Mordecai’s behavior had merely given the prime minister an excuse to reveal his anti-Semitism. Haman was displaying the same contempt for people of ADONAI that they and the Israelites experienced from Amalek on their way to the Promised Land (see Aq – Haman the Agagite: Enemy of the Jews).54

Lest we think that Mordecai was being melodramatic, we need to understand that his actions were common throughout the biblical period. Joshua and Caleb tore their clothes when they heard the people wanted to return to Egypt rather than to enter the Land that ADONAI had promised to give them (Numbers 14:6). David ripped his clothing on several occasions, for instance, after hearing of the deaths of Saul (Second Samuel 1:11), Abner (Second Samuel 3:31), and Amnon (Second Samuel 13:31). Eliakim and Shebna tore their clothing when Jerusalem was threatened by the Assyrians (Isaiah 36:22). Ezra did the same things to express his distress when the Israelites, including the priests and Levites, had intermarried with pagan Gentiles (Ezra 9:3). The Persians in Susa would have recognized the significance of Mordecai’s behavior, for they too, tore their clothes in grief when they were defeated by the Greeks in the battle of Salamis.

Mordecai’s world turned upside down the day Haman’s decree went out. Like others before him, he spoke through his body language. When Mordecai learned of all that had been done he was distraught. He tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly (4:1). Wearing sackcloth and ashes and crying publically was a sign of mourning (Genesis 37:34; Jeremiah 49:3; Dani'el 9:3; Joel 1:13; Jonah 3:6). By acting in this way Mordecai and all the Jews made sure that their protests were seen and heard by the Persians. Later, when the tables were turned, they would hold a joyous celebration (8:15b).

There is no indication that Mordecai was sorry for his actions in refusing to bow down to Haman. His conviction against honoring a sworn enemy of the LORD and the Jews was unalterable. Rather, he grieved over the death notice that his people would be slaughtered. This verse is the low point in the story. Mordecai knew the amount of money Haman had agreed to spend for the killing spree because he had a copy of the edict (4:7-8). Certain death seemed unavoidable. But ADONAI was working behind the scenes to deliver His people.

But he went only as far as the king’s gate, because no one clothed in sackcloth was allowed to enter it (4:2). Evidently the wearing of sackcloth was known also in Persia, but the king probably didn’t want to be reminded of blunders by having mourners within his gates.

Jews everywhere reacted as Mordecai had done. In every province to which the edict and order of the king came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting (see the Bw – The Fast of Esther), weeping and wailing. Many lay in sackcloth and ashes (4:3). In such situations mourning and fasting were certainly physical acts that were accompanied with prayer, but the author deliberately did not mention any plea to God for help. The spontaneous wearing of sackcloth and ashes, so that the Jews could prostrate themselves in grief, is a moving example of national mourning, similar to that of Nineveh (Jonah 3:3-9), but rarely seen even in the Bible.55

Biblical authors often use phrases from other books of the Bible that are known to them, which presumably would also be known to the original readers. For instance, in addition to quoting entire sentences from the TaNaKh, New Covenant writers used summaries from the Hebrew Scriptures that would have been familiar to the their readers. But there were also similar echoes like these within the TaNaKh itself.

The Hebrew phrase translated with fasting, weeping and wailing in Esther 4:3, also occurs in Joel 2:12 as with fasting and weeping and mourning. It may be true that the original readers of the Esther story would have recognized this Hebrew phrase as indirectly pointing to Joel’s prophecy, but most modern readers would probably not make the connection. Even though the individual words of this phrase occur many other times in the TaNaKh, it forms a textual link between Esther and Joel. Because Joel was written first, Esther's author tells this part of his story by using an allusive echo of Joel 2.

In the threat of impending judgment, God speaks to His people through the prophet Joel, saying, “Even now,” declared ADONAI, “Tear your heart and not your garments. Return (shuwb means to return or to turn back and is the key word in the book of Jeremiah, see my commentary on Jeremiah Ac - The Book of Jeremiah from a Jewish Perspective) to ADONAI your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and have pity and leave behind a blessing – grain offerings and drink offerings for ADONAI your God (Joel 2:12-14).

Since the same phrase found in Joel 2 occurs in Esther 4, it describes Haman’s killing spree as an opportunity for the Jews in Persia, in exile for their sin, to shuwb, or return to their LORD, who, as a result, may relent from sending Haman’s plan of annihilation. The very next statement that Joel makes: Tear your heart and not your garments, echoes with Mordecai’s reaction to Haman’s decree. The author of Esther portrays the Jewish response of fasting, weeping and wailing in the face of this catastrophe as the repentance called for in Joel before the Messiah returned.

In general, prayer is usually assumed to accompany fasting in the Bible. But while the original readers would expect prayer to be mentioned in the same breath as fasting, it is conspicuously absent from this request in Esther 4:3. Notice, however, that prayer is also not explicitly mentioned in the call to repentance in Joel 2:12-14.

If the Israelites fast, weep and mourn, Joel said: Who knows [ADONAI] may turn and have pity. Accordingly, Mordecai’s statement: and who knows but that you have come to a royal position for such a time as this? again echoes Joel’s, suggesting that Esther’s royal position is the means by which God might turn and have pity on His people, relenting from sending calamity.

The prophecy of Joel continues: Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, and call a sacred assembly. Gather the people, consecrate the assembly . . . (Joel 2:15-16a). Whether Esther had Joel’s prophecy in mind or not, she, in effect, echoes the Trumpet in Zion, by commanding Mordecai to call a fast for all the Jews of Susa, to see if the LORD may relent from sending this calamity on her people. For the first time in the story, Esther identifies herself with the Jews of Persia and responds to the prophetic call of repentance by joining with them in the fast.56


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