Esther is a Jewish woman who becomes queen of Persia, and as we have seen and will continue to see, she uses her position to save her people by working for justice in society. She is the protagonist of this story, but today we are going to look at the antagonist, the villain: a man named Haman.
Haman is the most vivid and sustained case study in the Bible of everything the Bible says about pride and humility and what happens to people who let pride rage unchecked. Therefore, it is very vivid; it illustrates so many other places where the Bible speaks about pride and humility. We're going to learn a lot, but I don't want you to think this is hype when I say I really want you to listen, because it might save the rest of your life. I'm not kidding.
There are three things we learn here: the character of pride, then the deadliness of pride, and then the cure for pride.
The character of pride
First of all, we learn from the story and Haman about the character of pride.
Now, we are told Haman was given the highest position; that means he must have been essentially prime minister. It's pretty amazing. He had the highest position in the king's administration, but that other statement in verse two is intriguing. Haman must have been a particularly obnoxious person, because in hierarchical and traditional societies, bowing is absolutely instinctive, totally instinctive. In fact, some of you may come from or know of traditional societies in which you always bow to anybody older than you or anyone who is in a station or social position higher than you. It's absolutely instinctive. Therefore, Haman must have been particularly obnoxious if the king had to command people to bow to him.
But one man wouldn't do it. Mordecai, the cousin of Esther—who was the older cousin who raised Esther when her parents died—refused to give respect where respect wasn't due. And the fact that he wouldn't bow down wasn't galling to Haman simply because this one individual wasn't giving him respect, but it really was a reminder of what Haman certainly knew in his heart of hearts: In spite of this great power he had, in spite of this great position he had, he didn't get the respect and the approval of people that he thought should go with it. At one point in chapter five, he even gathers together his wife and his friends to discuss this.
He's furious. We'll soon look at what he does about it, but right now, let's stop and ask, "What do we learn about pride?"
Pride, according to the Bible, is concentration on the self. Pride is absorption in the self. I'll give you a definition from C. S. Lewis, and I'll talk about him a lot because I think he writes about this subject in a way no one else does. "Pride," he says, "is ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration on the self." This is what pride does. Pride makes you concentrate everything on you so you don't get into relationships, you don't get into jobs, you don't do anything unless it makes you feel good about yourself. Therefore, nothing is about the thing you're doing; everything is about you.
For example, as Lewis writes in his famous chapter on pride, "[p]ride gets no pleasure out of having something, but only out of having more of it than the next person." You may think you're proud of being successful or intelligent or good-looking, but you're not. Because when you're surrounded by other people with as much or more success, intelligence, or looks, you lose all pleasure in them. See? Lust may actually drive you to sleep with a beautiful woman because you want her. Pride, however, drives you to sleep with a beautiful woman just to prove to everyone including you yourself that you can do it and do it over all others. A proud man gets no real pleasure from the woman; it's all about him. Pride turns everything into a means to an end. It's always a means to an end of getting respect and getting approval. That's the reason why Haman gets no satisfaction from his accomplishments. He doesn't care about the position, really. He doesn't care about anything he's doing. What he wants is people to respect him; he wants people to approve of him.
That's why Lewis is right when he says it's sleepless. It's endless ego calculation: You're always adding things up. You're always looking and saying, "Am I getting the thanks I deserve? Am I getting appreciated here? How am I being regarded? How am I looking? How does this make me look?" Everything is about that. You're always saying, "What about me?"
Therefore, since pride is concentration on self—self-absorption—there are two forms of pride. It's very important to see this. On the one hand, you've got the superiority form of pride, and the superiority form of pride is generally recognized as pride by most people—because people with a superior air are constantly doing their calculations, always comparing themselves. You're always thinking, How do I look? How is it going? Am I being appreciated? Am I being regarded? How am I being regarded? You feel like you're making out pretty well. You're doing the calculation, and it's adding up okay. That's one form of pride.
But there's another form of pride: the inferiority form of pride. The inferiority form of pride is when you're down on yourself and you don't like yourself, and you don't like how you look and you don't like how you're doing and you're very self-conscious and you're kind of always beating yourself up. You're just as self-absorbed, don't you see? You're doing all the comparisons, too, but you're not making out as well. But it doesn't matter. We don't think of people beating themselves up as being proud, but they absolutely are by biblical definition. You better get it straight, because those two kinds of people have far more in common than a humble person.
Pride has two forms, both inferiority and superiority. Then you realize what humility is. According to the Bible, humility is not thinking less of yourself—it's thinking of yourself less. It's not being needy for approval or respect, not caring about approval or respect. You say hello to people, you hang out with people, you go to certain jobs, and you do things not because it makes you feel good about yourself. It gets respect, it gets approval, and you do it for the things themselves. It's not all about you. That means you're un-needy. If you've actually ever met a really humble person, you would never come away thinking they were humble. All you would remember is they were happy and incredibly interested in you. They're not thinking about themselves and how you're treating them and how you're looking to them at all. All that ego calculation … it's gone. They're not doing it; they're relaxed.
C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters is about a senior devil writing to a junior devil, explaining how to tempt people. In this book, you have to understand that the "enemy" is Jesus and the "patients" are us human beings. Once you understand that, it's the devil talking to another devil about how to tempt patients and come against the enemy, which is Jesus, this is a pretty good quote. But you have to get your head into it.
The senior devil says:
You must conceal from your patient the real nature of humility. Let him think of it not as self-forgetfulness, but as a low opinion of his own talents and character. To thwart the enemy we must consider his aims. He wants to bring your man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world and know it to be the best and rejoice in that fact without being any more or less glad at having done it, than if it had been done by another. Our enemy, you see, wants to turn the man's attention away from self altogether, toward him and the man's neighbor. Remember, both vain glory and self-contempt equally keep the mind on the self. Both can be therefore the starting point for some wonderful contempt of other selves, other people, cynicism and cruelty.
Pride is ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration on the self.
The deadliness of pride
So what? "Yeah, okay," you say, "so you define pride rather broadly, and okay, I see your point. So how bad is that?" Very bad.
Haman wasn't satisfied with just killing Mordecai and thereby, as it were, making him bow. Rather, he wants to destroy the whole community. So he goes to King Xerxes and tells him about a group of people who don't obey the king's laws, and he says, "If you give me permission to slaughter them and take their wealth, lots of that will come into the king's treasury." The king, who had depleted his treasury through a very disastrous campaign to Greece, needed the money—and so he gives him the signet ring and says, "Go ahead." He doesn't even find out who this group of people are. Haman makes a law, and the laws of the Medes and the Persians were irrevocable. When a king made a decree, it was irrevocable. Haman designated the day, and on that day, the neighbors of the Jews anywhere in the Persian Empire were able to destroy them and take their wealth as plunder. Thousands of people were going to die, no matter what. As we see in this story, though the Jews are saved, thousands of people still died. Haman himself is going to die.
Everywhere in the Bible, we are told pride goes before a fall. Pride leads to devastation. Pride leads to destruction. Pride is deadly.
This is an extreme case. I want you to see that all pride is deadly—all pride. How? Let me count the ways. First of all—and this might seem low-level, but it's important—pride makes you a fool. How so? It keeps you from ever learning from your mistakes, in general. Why? Because you're self-justifying. A proud heart is always justifying itself. Your relationship breaks up, or there's a falling out with this person, or this job doesn't work out. What are you always saying? "It's him, it's her, it's them, it's the circumstances"—it's never you. You just can't learn from your mistakes. Humble people are not always looking at themselves. They're not always standing on their own dignity. They can laugh at themselves, and as a result, they learn fast. When something goes wrong, they actually look for what they have done wrong. Even if it's not mainly their fault, if it's partly their fault, they find it and learn from it and grow so fast. Proud people don't.
Not only that: Proud people don't just not learn from their mistakes in general, but they don't learn from criticism, in particular.
One of the best ways to grow as a person is to take criticism. But the superiority type of pride is when someone criticizes you, you dismiss them or attack them. In the inferiority form of pride, criticism so devastates you that when people even try to talk to you, you melt down and they say "forget it" and you never learn anything. Because you don't learn from your mistakes in general, and you don't learn from your criticism in particular, you are a fool.
What do I mean? You constantly make bad choices. You choose the wrong jobs, you choose the wrong boyfriends or girlfriends, you choose all kinds of things that are wrong. Why? Because the superiority form of pride makes you overestimate your gifts. The inferiority form makes you underestimate your gifts; you're always feeling down on yourself. The people who are above you? You resent and fear them, and you find them threatening. The people who you think are below you? You tend to disdain them, and you don't learn from them. As a result, you're constantly making miscalculations; you're constantly making wrong moves, just like Haman does here.
But it doesn't just make you a fool. Pride makes you evil. Pride is what made the devil the devil.
Since St. Augustine, Christian theology has understood that pride is not one sin among many, but really the root under all of them. Pride is the hellish spiritual petri dish that grows all kinds of stuff in your life. Let me show you.
Many of us struggle a great deal with bitterness: anger toward things that people have done. There are many people whose lives are being distorted by anger. But remember this: You can't stay angry at someone and you can't stay resentful at someone unless you feel superior to them. There is no bitterness without pride, because you're saying, "I would never do anything like that." If your life is distorted by anger, it's because pride is at the root of it. Or what about paralyzing fear? Some people are paralyzed by worry. You know where that comes from? You know exactly how things have to go. You're sure you know what's best to happen in history, and it's got to be this—and if this doesn't happen, it'll be disaster, and you're freaking out about it. Why? Because you know exactly how things have to go. How can you know? You just know. That takes arrogance.
You can't be horribly worried without being proud. You can't be terribly bitter without being proud. Pride leads to being opinionated, which everybody doesn't like. But pride also leads to being indecisive, because that's the inferiority form; you're just afraid of making a wrong move and how you're going to look. Pride makes you too shy—that's the inferiority form. Pride makes you too abrasive—that's the superiority form. And that's the just the personal stuff. Then there are all the great social evils. Racism and injustice and imperialism all come from class pride or racial pride or national pride. This week, some young man is going to be gunned down on the streets of New York, and what will be the cause? Pride.
That's not all. Let me tell you something else that makes pride deadly. On top of everything else, as bad as pride is, it's the one sin that hides itself. Pride is the carbon monoxide of sin, killing you without you having any ability to tell that it's happening. It's odorless. See, by definition, the more proud you are—and therefore the more in its clutches you are—the less proud you think you are. Pride hides itself. You know when you're committing adultery, right? You never say, "Oh my gosh, you're not my wife!" You know when you're embezzling somebody. You don't say, "Oh, how did that $300,000 get into my bank account? You mean I don't make that much every year?" You don't know when you're proud. Virtually nobody ever comes out and says, "I'm proud; I've got a problem with pride." I've listened to all kinds of sins confessed to me over the years. I don't think anybody's ever come and told me about that.
Let me show you how inescapable it is. Joseph Epstein, in his book on pride, says that so many people hate snobs. But you can only hate snobs if you feel superior to them, which means hating snobbery is a form of snobbery because humble people don't feel superior to anyone. Do you look down your nose at snobs? Do you look down your nose at people who look down their nose at people? You see how inescapable it is?
And that's not all. There is one more deadly aspect of pride. This is the worst thing of all. If you get somebody really religious, and they start to be really good and come to church and study their Bible and try real hard to pray and obey God, then religiosity will kill off lust to a great degree, and religiosity will kill off materialism to a great degree, but it makes pride worse. There is no pride like religious pride. There are no proud people like the Pharisees. To be told God is great and you need to obey him doesn't necessarily decrease pride at all.
Jonathan Edwards, in his great sermon on humility in his book Charity and Its Fruits, says that knowing there is this great infinite God of holiness and justice does not create humility, because either you will try to live up to that God standard and become a self-righteous Pharisee, or you will feel like you can't live up to that standard and you'll just feel crushed, and that still makes you self-absorbed. Religion will make you feel more self-conscious and like a failure, or it will make you feel much more superior to everybody else and think you have the truth and look down your nose at everybody. Just obeying God and trying to be a good person can do that all by itself. It's scary. Religiosity can kill off other kinds of sins, but it's like pouring oil on the fire to try to deal with pride that way.
The cure for pride
So are we cooked, to extend the metaphor? No, there is a cure.
At the beginning of chapter six, Haman is coming to see the king, and you know why? Because as we learn here, down in verse four, Haman has not been satisfied to just kill Mordecai, and he hasn't been satisfied to just kill his community. He wants to make a public spectacle of Mordecai, so he has built a gallows in a public place, and he has come to the king to ask for special permission to make a public spectacle of Mordecai and to hang him in that public place on the day in which the Jews are going to be slaughtered.
But God has a different idea. That night the king can't sleep, and he begins to read a book or have a book read to him, and he suddenly remembers that Mordecai had saved his life from assassination and he'd never been rewarded. Haman happens to come in just as the king is realizing this, and the king says, "What should be done for the man the king delights to honor?" (v. 6) And Haman—desperately needing respect, desperately needing approval, desperately wanting honor and glory, and thinking the king means him—comes up with a fascinating proposal.
He says, "[H]ave them bring a royal robe the king has worn and a horse the king has ridden" (v. 8), which of course is the position of a conquering king. He says, "[L]et them robe and horse be entrusted to one of the king's most noble princes. Let them robe the man the king delights to honor, and lead him on the horse through the city streets, proclaiming before him, 'This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!" (v. 9)
Why does he talk about the robes? For the king to put the robes on someone was more than just giving him a high position. When Pharaoh puts the robes on Joseph in Genesis 41, it means Joseph actually partakes of the king's position. And when Jonathan gives his kingly robes to David in 1 Samuel 18, it's Jonathan's way of saying "I love you, and you should be the king, not me." And for the king to put the robes on someone—his own robes—was a way of not just simply saying "I honor this person" but "I delight in this person; I love this person."
Here's why Haman is excited. Haman is saying, "If the people out there saw that I'm loved like that by someone as great as that—I'm loved by the king—then they'll know and I'll know my worth, my value."
See, that really is what we need. We don't just want love. We want someone whom we think the world of thinking the world of us. Or as one writer put it, "The praise of the praiseworthy is above all rewards." That's what Haman is saying: "If I had that, if I have the king putting his robes on me, the king loving me like that—if I was loved like that by someone as glorious as that—then I would know. Then everyone would know."
But to his absolute shock, the king says, "Do that to Mordecai, and you take the role of the servant leading the horse along." It's astounding to Haman. It's the most incredible and astonishing reversal of fortunes. Mordecai was literally about to be trampled into the dust, but suddenly he's up high on the pinnacle. Haman was about to go up into the pinnacle, but he's down in the role of the servant. But he's down worse than even the king knows, because he realizes now he couldn't possibly move against Mordecai or his people, now that they're doing this to Mordecai. Haman knows he's doomed. There's been a total reversal, and Haman also knows that it's because he tried to put himself up there that he's been brought down.
This is exactly what the Bible says everywhere. This goes across the board; this is part of life. If you humble yourself, you will be exalted. If you exalt yourself, you'll be humbled. In fact, C. S. Lewis writes about it. He says, "Lose yourself to find it." Does that sound strange? It works in everyday matters, as well. In social life, you will never make a good impression on people until you stop trying so much to make a good impression on people. In literature and art, you will never be original until you stop trying so hard to be original. The principle runs through all life from top to bottom: "Lose your life and you will save it." Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ, and you will find him, and with him everything else thrown in.
Why is this a principle of the universe—that if you seek to lift yourself up you'll be brought down? I'll tell you why: because it's the nature of God, and he made the universe. And how do we know this is the nature of God? Like this: Haman did not ask for the wrong thing. What Haman was asking for is something we all want. We want someone of ultimate glory loving us. Not love in general: What we need is this ultimate assurance of who we are, this ultimate assurance of our worth. We need someone like that loving us like that. We need someone we think the world of thinking the world of us. We need the praise of the praiseworthy. He didn't ask for the wrong thing; that's what's wrong with us. That's why we all have a problem with pride. We all have this problem, and that's why we're so needy all the time.
He didn't ask for the wrong thing; he asked the wrong king. He went to the wrong king. There's a better king. There's a king with ultimate glory who, believe it or not, came to Earth and stripped himself of his glory. When he went to the cross, he wasn't just stripped of his clothes, but he was stripped of his Father's love. He was stripped of his Father's approval, of his Father's respect. Why? He was reversing places with us. Mordecai was saved only because Haman reversed places with him, but it was involuntary. Jesus does it voluntarily. There's the ultimate king. There's the king of glory. Jesus Christ is the king you can go to because he, at infinite cost to himself, reversed places with us. "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus Christ was stripped naked so we could be clothed in the righteousness of God's Son. Jesus Christ exchanges places with us; he takes what we deserve so we can get what he deserves.
In John 17, there is a place where Jesus actually says, "Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world" (v. 24). That's unbelievable. Glory isn't just some kind of divine phosphorescence. Glory is delight; glory is honor. Jesus says you must realize that the praise of the ultimate praiseworthy—the glory and honor and robes of the ultimate king—are yours, and when you know he loves you like that, when you know he went through all that for you, that's the one-two punch the ego needs to make it finally self-forgetful and at rest, to distill it so it's not needy anymore.
It's not enough to say, "Oh, I believe in God." That doesn't make you humble. That will make you either superior or inferior. What you have to say is that God came all the way down and reversed places with us at infinite cost to himself. On the one hand, to know that he had to die for you humbles you; to know he was glad to die for you affirms you infinitely.
Jesus Christ was strong enough to be weak. He was so strong that he was able to do the right thing. If you see him doing that for you, you will be strong enough to be weak. You will be strong enough to learn from your mistakes, strong enough to take jobs and have relationships that don't just make you feel good enough about yourself but that are the right thing to do. Finally, you won't be snubbed all the time, and you won't always be looking at yourself and always be down on yourself or up on yourself. Don't you want that?
Here's how it will start. Here is what Lewis says is the first step to take that down into yourself to the degree that you understand he did that for you, to have that inner assurance and glory and joy that will enable you to move out with the blessed self-forgetfulness that we all need: "If anyone wants to acquire humility I can, I think, tell him the very first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud." And a big step it is, too. Nothing whatsoever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.
Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. He is also the Chairman & Co-Founder of Redeemer City to City, which starts new churches in New York and other global cities, and publishes books and resources for ministry in an urban environment.