The Signet Ring and the Cross

The Esther narrative contains no shortage of decrees. The King decrees that his servants bow down to Haman. When Mordecai the Jew refuses, Haman requests that the king issue a decree to wipe out the Jewish population. In chapter 8, a decree is issued that the Jewish people have the right to engage in revenge killing.

Each decree goes only after the signet ring, the king’s seal of approval, changes hands.

10 So the king took his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman the Agagite, the son of Hammedatha, the enemy of the Jews. 11 And the king said to Haman, “The money is given to you, the people also, to do with them as it seems good to you” (Esther 3:10-11).

By the time we arrive at chapter 8, the political power— again symbolized by the king’s signet ring—changes hands.

2 And the king took off his signet ring, which he had taken from Haman, and gave it to Mordecai (Esther 8:2).

Even though multiple characters wear the ring, one thing remains the same: the one who possesses it has a score to settle. In the Persian Empire, whether you have allowed an offense to fester or a grudge to take on a robust life of its own, the answer is the same: reach for the signet ring.

8 But you may write as you please with regard to the Jews, in the name of the king, and seal it with the king's ring, for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king's ring cannot be revoked” (Esther 8:8).

“He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes, 
One for the groin, one for the forehead, temple, eye.
He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.”

- Osip Mandelstam, “The Stalin Epigram”

As it turns out, slipping on the signet ring brings out the worst in you, regardless of what side you’re on. Whether your name is Haman the Destroyer or Mordecai the Preserver, the signet ring stirs up violence. Consider the similarities between the decrees that the king issues for each of them:

Esther 3:12-13
Letters were sent by couriers to all the king's provinces with instruction to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods

Esther 8:11-12
the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, children and women included, and to plunder their goods

We have approached the Esther narrative on at least two levels:

On one level, the Esther narrative shows us God’s sovereignty and provision. We read it rightly as a revelation of God’s justice for the mistreated, his faithfulness toward his covenant people, and his sovereignty. We celebrate this narrative because it reveals important aspects of God’s character.

On another level, we read Esther as a part of a community attempting to know and follow Christ together. As Christians, we read Esther as a part of the overarching redemptive narrative of Scripture that reaches its culmination in Christ, who shows us the Father.

When we look at Jesus, we see no sign of a signet ring. Instead, we see a peaceful assault on the ideologies that have granted the signet ring its power. Listen to how Jesus nullifies the irrevocable signet-ring decrees:

9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God (Matthew 5:9)

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:43-45).

In each of these instances, peacemaking breeds intimacy with the Father. When we make peace, we identify with the Father in a new way—as sons and daughters!

Unfortunately, this is the kind of talk that will get you killed. (The poet Mandelstam, by the way, died an exile in a Russian labor camp in 1938 after his second arrest by the Stalin regime).

Jesus’ death at the hands of a signet-ring-bearing mob provided a once-for-all way out of the cycle of blood-soaked vengeance. The author of Hebrews recognized that retributive violence met its definitive end in Christ:

24 For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25 Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, 26 for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.
(Hebrews 9:24-26)

As readers of Esther 8 who look to Jesus, we can echo the chorus that pronounces an end to cycles of revenge:

For Christ has entered, not wearing the signet ring of a king who orders violence that leads to more violence. Instead, Christ has come to show us the Father. While the rulers of this world search for profit and overlook people, Christ ushers in a Kingdom where freedom reigns and scarcity flees.

When we slip on the signet ring, we are quick to draw dividing lines that we feel pressure to redraw every time we suffer an offense. When we take up our cross, we allow Christ to unify what we’ve insisted on dividing.

When we feel the need to seal our relationships with the signet ring, other people fall into two neat camps: they are either allies or enemies, but either way they are a commodity. When our relationships are subservient to the seal of the signet ring, relationships that don’t profit us are disposable. When we meet one another at the cross, however, we embark on the way of peace to become sons and daughters of God.

When we’re no longer enemies divided by a royal decree from a throne we can’t see, we can become true families united by Christ, who knows the intimate love of the father. But when we follow the way of the cross, our enemies become our family members.

The cross shows us that we don’t need to take offense and hold grudges when we’re wronged—instead, living with the cross in view frees us from the need to slip on the signet ring every time relationships are strained and we don’t get our way.

The cross teaches us to hold fast to relationships, not grudges. It takes us toward the world to love and serve it redemptively, not away from it to sulk and scheme.

The signet ring sanctions repeated violence. The cross shows us the one who suffered in order to end cycles of retribution. May the world in turmoil, grasping for the signet ring and taking up arms, find its respite as it gropes for the cross. Jesus suffered once for all!

Posted on August 12, 2014 .