by Israel Steinmetz

In 1967 screen legend Clint Eastwood starred in one of his best-known films, The Good, The Bad & the Ugly. A few years ago, while reading the book of Esther I discovered how apropos this movie title was to the people around Esther who contributed to her emergence as one of the most important leaders in Scripture.

The book of Esther is a drama with three players exercising leadership and a fourth player caught in the middle and faced with a choice, “What kind of leader am I going to be?” The leaders surrounding Esther are Mordecai (the good), King Xerxes (the bad), and Haman (the ugly). Each one models a drastically different style of leadership. The young peasant girl turned queen is given an opportunity to embrace one of their approaches.  The stakes are high as her decision will impact the lives of an entire nation—God’s chosen people.

A Time of Captivity

The story is set during the captivity of God’s people under Persian King Xerxes. He rules over one of the largest kingdoms in human history. It contained 127 provinces stretching from modern-day Ethiopia across the Middle East all the way to India. The story begins with Xerxes earning his reputation as a pleasure seeker. He is throwing a party would put to shame the debauchery and excess of today’s lavish celebrations. At the height of his arrogant drunkenness is a demand for his Queen Vashti to appear and parade herself in front of the lecherous eyes of his guests.

Whether she was ordered to appear naked or not is in doubt, but there is no question that Xerxes called her simply to show off his most valuable “possession” alongside the rest of his extravagant wealth. Vashti refuses, and Xerxes is petulant and primed for manipulation. The manipulation comes from his counsel of “yes” men, hand-picked sycophants ready to indulge his anger, appetites, and avarice. With their encouragement, Xerxes banishes Vashti and embarks on a ridiculous crusade to overflow his harem with beautiful young virgins in search of a more submissive queen.

The Bad – Xerxes

Xerxes is a bad leader. He’s not particularly malicious or evil—he’s simply selfish, immature, and controlled by his passions. He’s easily manipulated by the very people he’s surrounded himself with in hopes of manipulating them. This includes Haman, who monopolizes on Xerxes’ shallow pride and undisciplined appetites to use his power against Haman’s personal enemies. When Haman’s plot throws the capital city into an uproar, Xerxes is once again eating, drinking, and exercising a Marie Antoinette-esque disregard toward those he rules. He’s not just a slave to his belly, but to his anger as well. He is granting genocidal wishes and indulging personal vengeance on a whim. The last word about Xerxes is that he raised taxes—a fitting epitaph for a politician who lived off the wealth of those he ruled.

The Good – Mordecai

But if Xerxes is bad, Mordecai is good. Mordecai is a Jew living in exile. After his aunt and uncle pass, he takes in his cousin, a beautiful young girl named Hadassah, treating her like his own daughter. When Hadassah is rounded up in the kingdom-wide virgin grab by King Xerxes, Mordecai hangs close to the palace gates to be available to encourage and advise her. When he discovers an assassination plot against the King who took his adopted daughter from him, Mordecai passes the word via Hadassah (renamed Esther) and saves Xerxes’ life. No immediate appreciation is shown and none is demanded.

Mordecai’s integrity runs so deep that he refuses to bow down to Haman. Why? Haman was a descendant of King Agag, the Amalekite that King Saul was supposed to kill along with his family. Mordecai, a distant relative of Saul, holds a long grudge on God’s behalf. While Haman and Xerxes got full and drunk when the city was in an uproar, Mordecai joined his people in mourning. He challenges others to do what’s right, trusting God’s providence. When he’s honored he remains faithful to his habit of looking out for others’ welfare. Any position or power he received was used to bless others and create a better future for them. The last word on Mordecai was that he ascended to be second only to King Xerxes but continued to care for his people to the end.

The Ugly – Haman

If Xerxes is bad and Mordecai is good, then Haman is downright ugly. Where Xerxes is weak and easily manipulated, Haman is strong and calculating. His ambition and lust for power drive him to attempted genocide. He used his increasing positions of power to manipulate, deceive, bribe, and serve his own selfish ends. His pride is driven by insecurity—he must have the glory and will literally kill anyone who stands in the way. Blinded by selfish ambition, he won’t listen to good advice, even when it comes from family and trusted counselors. Time and again he proves the truth of Proverbs 26:27—falling into the very traps he sets for others. The final word on Haman finds him at the end of the hangman’s noose he built for Mordecai.

Humble and Honorable – Esther

In the midst of these three men stands Esther—the young Jewish exile turned conscripted concubine. Esther was humble and teachable, listening to her adopted father Mordecai and the counsel of the head eunuch Hegai. Her humility and wisdom earned her favor everywhere she went. Even shallow King Xerxes saw something in her that was more than skin deep, elevating her to the place of Queen. But promotion and position didn’t change Esther’s character—she kept listening and learning, remaining humble and honorable.

Like Mordecai, she wept and felt the pain of her people—choosing to give up the privilege of her anonymity and power to join them in their struggle for survival. Esther is unlike Xerxes and Haman who both lashed out in rage. Instead, she sought detailed information from reliable sources to understand problems and create solutions. The key moment in her leadership journey comes when she issues a call to all the Jews to pray and fast in preparation for her biggest challenge. She doesn’t seek the fleeting strength of pleasure like Xerxes or the limited power of ambition like Haman but instead relies on God’s provision.

Godly Leadership

After giving Esther commands her whole life, Mordecai gladly takes commands from Esther as she exercises godly leadership.  Her courage is borne out of prayer and fasting. She honors authority and navigates politics shrewdly to persuade, rather than deceive. She uses her influence to promote and protect others and delegates duties to those more qualified than her. Esther works alongside other leaders to send letters promoting peace and truth with her widespread authority. Mordecai proves prescient and Esther seizes the day. She rescues the Jewish people, having indeed come to the kingdom for “such a time as this.” The final word on Esther is that she saved her people and created an annual celebration giving God the credit.

Esther emerges as one of the greatest leaders of God’s people, exercising leadership on a greater geographical scale than any other biblical leader. In Esther, we find a woman who performs the role of savior for God’s people, as several others had been called to do before and after as shadows of Christ. On her way to becoming a savior, she demonstrates the humility and self-sacrifice that characterize Christian leadership. Like us, Esther was surrounded by competing approaches to leadership: good, bad, and ugly. As Christian leaders, we have much to learn from Esther’s decision to pursue godly leadership.