The couriers went out in haste by the king’s commandment, and the decree was given out in the citadel of Susa. The king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Shushan was perplexed. —v. 16.
Note the contrast between the leaders, Haman and the King, and the rest of the capital city after this lethal decree goes out. Haman and the King apparently celebrate this achievement with a drink, while the rest of the capital ponders the consequences of an open season on one of the many people groups that made up the Empire.
This was not business as usual for the Persian Empire. As mentioned earlier, Persians allowed freedom of religion, unlike the empires before them, and many after. With this decree, that policy seemed threatened. If you were not Persian, the unspoken question had to be, who will be next? As the capital of the Empire, representatives of virtually every conquered nation would be present. The “city of Shushan was perplexed,” indeed.
The Persian Courier Service did indeed move with great haste. In order to make rapid communications across the vast spaces of the Empire, Darius I had built a Royal Road, which spanned the realm from east to west. Much like the famous Pony Express, more than 111 posts with fresh horses lined the Road at intervals, making it possible for the couriers to ride across the entire empire in 7 days. Since Shushan was centrally located, we can assume that Ahasuerus’ decree reached the farthest outposts of the Empire within 4-5 days at the most. Given the tremendous distances traveled with such speed, the courier service was famous in its day. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote of them:
“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
If it sounds familiar, that’s because it’s inscribed on the James Farley Post Office in New York City, and considered the unofficial motto of the U.S. Postal Service.
Now when Mordecai found out all that was done, Mordecai tore his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the middle of the city, and wailed loudly and a bitterly.
He came even before the king’s gate, for no one is allowed inside the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth.
In every province, wherever the king’s commandment and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, and fasting, and weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes.
Esther’s maidens and her eunuchs came and told her this, and the queen was exceedingly grieved. —Esther 4:1-4.
As Esther later makes clear, ordinary people, even in royal employ, did not have ready access to those in the Palace. Since Mordecai could not simply send her a message or go see her, she apparently had those who served her watch carefully to see how he fared. The news of his distress came rapidly to her through her servants. She sent clean clothing to him, but he refused to wear it. Sensing something more serious afflicted Mordecai, she sent Hathach, a eunuch assigned to attend her, to speak with Mordecai.
Mordecai told him of all that had happened to him, and the exact sum of the money that Haman had promised to pay to the king’s treasuries for the destruction of the Jews.
He also gave him the copy of the writing of the decree that was given out in Shushan to destroy them, to show it to Esther, and to declare it to her, and to urge her to go in to the king, to make supplication to him, and to make request before him, for her people.
Jews across the entire Empire mourned, and yet Esther knew nothing about it. How could this be?
As the cordial drink shared by Haman and Ahasuerus while at the same time the surrounding city was “perplexed” demonstrated, the Palace was a world of its own, a place quite apart from the concerns of the ordinary Persian subject. Whatever mayhem may have been planned in the streets, only conquest by an enemy would trouble those in the royal residence.
And besides, Esther had not “made known her people,” at Mordecai’s instructions. Apparently even her closest attendants within the Palace did not know her secret, else they would have informed her. When Hathach returned, not only with his report from Mordecai, but a written copy of the deadly decree, it must have been a terrific shock. And the suggestion that she go to Ahasuerus, unbidden, supplied a second emotional shock. It was too much.
She sent Hathach back, explaining that should she go to Ahasuerus, as Mordecai suggested, she might well die. If Ahasuerus did nothing, she would be killed on the spot. If he extended his scepter to her in welcome, she would then have to somehow persuade him to rescind his decree—something that, by Persian law, he could not do. How could she persuade him? Having already acceded to the extermination of her people, he might well add her to the toll. She concluded her message to Mordecai by saying,
“I have not been called to come in to the king these thirty days.”
During that thirty days, the death decree had been signed, sealed, and dispatched throughout the kingdom. Perhaps the King had become displeased with her; perhaps he had discovered her Jewish heritage. Perhaps Haman had turned the King against her. The Palace was its own small kingdom, with scores of dignitaries and servants, multiple little self-contained dominions with their own internal politics and intrigues. We have already seen that the affairs of state did not always penetrate into the Queen’s domain.
But now that she knew, Esther faced an existential crisis. If she went in to the King without being summoned, she might die. If she did not, tens of thousands of Jews would die. Since those in the Palace did not know she was Jewish, she might be spared if she just kept quiet.