Irony, Esther, and the Cross

Reposted from The Cripplegate.

There are three major kinds of irony: verbal, situational, and dramatic.

Verbal irony is when a person says something that they think is true, but while it turns out to not be true as they meant it, is still in fact literally true. For example, when Donald Trump—before becoming president—told President Obama that Obama would be “remembered as one of the worst Presidents” President Obama responded, “at least I’ll go down as a President.” While that statement turned out not to be true in the way President Obama meant it, it still was true in an even more ironic way. For an example more famous than American Presidents, in Star Wars Episode IV, Ben Kenobi tells Luke that Darth Vader killed Luke’s father. While that is not true in the way it sounded, it was nevertheless true in an entirely different and more profound way.

Situational irony is when the outcome of a narrative is the opposite of what was expected. For example, in To Kill a Mockingbird, the children spend the book fearful of Boo Radley, only to be rescued by him in the end. Situational irony is when the tables are turned in the grand finale. An example from real life: last year the fire station behind my house burned down. In terms of situational irony, that is about as extreme as it gets.

Dramatic irony is when the audience knows something that the characters in a book or play do not. The quintessential example of dramatic irony is from Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo does not know what the audience does—namely that Juliet is merely faking death. Or, to circle back to Luke again, the audience figures out that Luke is Darth Vader’s Son long before Luke does.

The effective use of irony is one of the distinguishing features between mediocre literature and a masterpiece. To use irony powerfully requires a careful construction of the narrative, and a deliberate and restrained progression of the plot.

With that in mind, the use of irony in the Bible not only testifies of the beauty of the Bible as literature, but to the sovereign and providential control that God exercises in the world. There are two sections of Scripture where irony is a dominant feature of the text: in Esther 6-7 and Matthew 27.

In Esther 6-7, the narrative of Esther reaches its peak. All that had been carefully hidden by the narrator throughout the story is finally revealed, and the story comes to a crashing conclusion though a cascade of irony. Haman was asked what should be done for the man whom the king wished to honor, and his answer—while true—ends up to be the opposite of what he meant. Mordecai would be paraded around town on the king’s horse, and by the end of the section would literally have Haman’s job. Meanwhile, Haman discovers what the reader has known all along—that Esther was a Jew, and the plot he had orchestrated would have ended up costing the Queen her life. His patriotic plot turned out to be treasonous treachery.

While irony is on full display in this section, consider these three examples. Dramatic irony: Haman, arrives at the second banquet entirely unaware that his plan to kill the Jews was known by the Queen, a fact the reader has known all along. Haman thought he was going to be the honored guest, and while the banquet was certainly for him, it was not for his honor. Verbal irony: When Haman discovers that he has been trapped, he falls on Esther’s lap to beg for his life. The king exclaimed “shall he assault the Queen even in my presence?” Of course Haman was not assaulting the Queen in the way the King implied, but it was nevertheless true in an even more profound way. Situational irony: The man who was going to kill a Jew for refusing to bow at his feet, ends his life bowing at the feet of a Jewish woman.

The entire scene is brought to a close in a particularly ironic fashion. Haman was crucified on the very pole he had engineered for Mordecai. The closing verse of the Esther 7 foreshadows the gospel by explaining that by hanging the guilty sinner on the tree, “the king’s wrath was propitiated” (Esther 7:10—ESV uses “abated,” but it is the same concept).

Later in the Bible a different man will be condemned as an enemy of the state, and he too will be crucified in a passage replete with irony. As Jesus is led to be crucified, the sign declares him to be “king of the Jews.” This example of dramatic irony is profound. The reader knows that the sign is true—he is the king of the Jews. Practically everything the crowd jeers at Jesus is situationally ironic. “He is the King of Israel, let him come down from the cross,” “He saved others but cannot save himself,” “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross,” and finally “You would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself!” All of these statements are true, but none in the way the speakers mean.

Of course the ultimate dramatic irony is saved for last. Some expected Elijah to come save Jesus, and instead Jesus descended to the grave and saved Elijah. Guards were posted at the tomb, but Rome’s best were powerless to stop the resurrection—the ultimate reversal.

Meditate on the irony of Esther, and the providential way God’s providence was on display—working every thread of the story for his own glory. Then rejoice that the hidden hand of God is revealed on the cross. What was hidden has been unmasked, and God’s glory is ironically shown through the inglorious death of God himself.

Can there be any more ironic twist than the author of life, crucified for sinners, then resurrected from a guarded grave?

Jesse Johnson bio

Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master’s Seminary Washington DC location.

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