Discovering Esther

Introduction
Though we don’t say it in words, we often live as though the details of our lives are guided by fate rather than God. We expect God’s involvement at church, when we read the Bible and pray, or when we explain the gospel to someone, yet we fail to recognize his involvement in other seemingly mundane ways. A missed train, some unexpected traffic, a difficult class assignment, an unexpected rent increase, or a chance encounter.
Key Concepts
  • Fate means that a hidden power controls our destiny and determines everything that happens. This is an ancient, pagan belief, not a biblical one. It disregards the existence of a personal, powerful God who rules over everything, reveals himself to people, and intervenes in the affairs of the world to accomplish his purposes. We call this providence.
  • Providence is the belief that though we cannot see God, he is personally active throughout history sustaining the universe at every level, providing for the needs of every creature, and guiding the events and details that happen so that his eternal purposes are fulfilled (Matt 10:29). Providence encompasses two important realities.
  • The first is the sovereignty of God. This is the fact that God is the supreme ruler over all things (Psa 103:19). As a result, he has both the right and the ability to bring about everything that he pleases (Psa 115:3). Sovereignty is the basis for his providence.
  • The second is the responsibility of man. This is the fact that God has given people the ability to make choices. In accordance with his sovereignty, God holds people accountable to make the right choices that reflect his character and will (Rom 14:12). Yet because he is sovereign, he still accomplishes his purposes either in spite of or through the wrong choices that people make (Prov 16:9).

The book of Esther portrays these truths in a captivating way. Since God is sovereign, he accomplishes his purposes through the daily events and ordeals of our lives.

Historical Background
The events of this book occurred as Ezra was bringing about religious reform in Jerusalem, during a 58-year gap between Ezra 6 and 7. Only a small group of Israelites had returned eastward to their land, while most had either remained in captivity or moved further westward to seek new opportunities elsewhere in the Persian empire.

The story unfolds in Shushan (Susa), the capital of the Persian empire (Esther 1:2), located in what we know today as southwest Iran, 150 mi. north of the Persian Gulf. Nehemiah would also spend time in Shushan (Neh. 1:1), and so did Daniel (Dan. 8:2). While the books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell us about Jewish life back in Jerusalem after captivity, Esther tells us about Jewish life far away in a pagan land.

The Main Characters
The book of Esther tells one complete story from beginning to end and it features four main characters.

  • Ahasuerus (or Xerxes) was the king over the Persian empire at that time.
  • Esther was a Jewish orphan who rose to prominence when she married Ahasuerus.
  • Mordecai was the cousin of Esther and was also her legal guardian.
  • Haman was a high-ranking government official who hated Mordecai.

An Overview of the Story
The story begins with a grandiose banquet in the palace. When the king was drunk, he ordered his wife, Vashti, to show off her beauty to his party guests, which she refused to do. As a result, he dismissed her as queen and arranged a massive beauty pageant to help him find a new queen.

Esther participated in this pageant and concealed her Jewish identity due to advice from Mordecai. Each participant had one night to impress the king and surprisingly, Esther outperformed all her rivals to be named the queen of Persia.

Mordecai found a spot at the city gates from where he could keep an eye on Esther in the palace. From there he overheard a plot by two government officials who were planning to assassinate the king. He relayed this intel to Esther, who passed it along Ahasuerus. The officials were executed, and Mordecai’s name was written into the government archives.

After this, another government official, Haman, developed a grudge against Mordecai because Mordecai refused to bow down before him. As a result, he devised a scheme to eliminate Mordecai and the Jewish people. He reported the Jewish nation to Ahasuerus as a rebellious faction within the empire. Ahasuerus immediately issued a decree to annihilate them. Based upon some lots that Haman had cast (like rolling dice), he set the date for this massacre on the 13th day of the 12th month of the year.

After hearing this news, Mordecai urged Esther to change the king’s mind. Though she knew that she could die for approaching the king without his consent, she did it anyway and he accepted her request. She asked him to attend a banquet with Haman, and both men attended. Then she invited them to a second banquet, which they also attended.

As Haman left the first banquet, he was delighted at what seemed to be newfound favor with the king and queen. Then he passed by Mordecai and was angry. Once at home, he told his wife and friends about his fortunes and of Mordecai’s disrespect. His wife and friends urged him to make an example of Mordecai by erecting a 75-ft. tall pole in Shushan

On leaving the banquet, with an invitation to dine with the king and queen the next night, Haman was filled with joy and a sense of his own importance. But when he saw Mordecai sitting in the gate, still refusing to do him obeisance, his anger burned. When Haman arrived home, he summoned his wife and friends to tell them of his good fortune. But then he added an account of Mordecai’s insult, and how it galled him. Haman’s wife and friends urged him to make an example of Mordecai by having a seventy-five-foot-tall pole erected in Susa and either hanging or impaling Mordecai publicly.

That same night, the king suffered from insomnia, so he asked some people to read to him from the government archives. Doing this reminded him about Mordecai, for whom nothing had been done in return for his noble act. At this point the plot develops in a fascinating way. Mordecai had arrived in the courtroom to request the execution of Mordecai, but before he could speak, Ahasuerus asked Mordecai a question. “What should be done for someone the king wished to honor?”

Haman, still caught up in the aura of his dinner with the king and queen the night before, thought that the king was planning to honor him, so he recommended a lavish display. Just as Ahasuerus had responded immediately to Haman’s earlier advice to massacre the Jewish, so he responded to this advice as well. He immediately ordered Haman to find Mordecai and lead him in a royal procession through the city. Haman was mortified!

After this humiliating ordeal, his wife warned him against mounting any further opposition to the Jewish people. Just then, Haman was summoned to his second banquet with the king and queen. During this banquet, she asked Ahasuerus to protect her people from being massacred. Not knowing she was Jewish, he demanded to know who would do such a thing. When Esther accused Haman of this plot, the king left the room to collect his thoughts. While he was away, Haman threw himself on Esther to beg for his life, but when the king saw this, he thought that Haman was accosting the queen instead. Just as quickly as he had made other decisions before, he ordered Haman to be killed on the pole which Haman had erected for Mordecai.

After this dramatic turn of events, the king placed Mordecai into the political office that Haman had formerly held. Even so, the Jewish massacre set for the 13th day of the 12th month was still coming up because it was impossible to reverse a decree made by a Persian king. To counteract this decree, the king issued another decree permitting the Jews to organize and arm themselves to defend against attack. What’s more, Haman’s sons were executed, and the king gave the Jews (at Esther’s request) an extra day to slaughter even more opponents.

In the end, the Jews ended up killing 75,000 people. Haman’s sons were also executed and hanged. This ethnic triumph serves as the historical basis for the Jewish holiday called Purim, named after the lots Haman had cast. They celebrated this day with great rejoicing, gift-giving, and doing acts of kindness for the poor. To this day, this celebration occurs on the 14th and 15th days of the 12th month (Adar).

This is a true story about feasts, banquets, and celebrations.
Altogether, at least eleven such banquets occur throughout the book.

The first five are given by Persian people:

  • Xerxes’ banquet for his nobles (1:3-4)
  • The king’s banquet for the people of Susa (1:5-8)
  • Vashti’s banquet for the women (1:9)
  • Esther’s coronation banquet (2:18)
  • Xerxes and Haman’s banquet together (3:15)

The middle two are given by Esther (a Jew) for Persian people (Ahasuerus and Haman):

  • Esther’s first banquet with Haman and the king (5:4-8)
  • Esther’s second banquet (6:14-7:8)

The last four are entirely Jewish celebrations:

  • The Jews’ banquets on receiving the king’s decree (8:17)
  • Rural Jews’ feast of the fourteenth of Adar (9:17)
  • Jews of Susa feasting on the fifteenth of Adar (9:18)
  • The establishment of Purim as a perpetual feast (9:22-23)

Ultimately, it is the final feast that is most significant, the feast of Purim. The name of this feast borrows an Akkadian word that refers to the lots cast by Haman to set the day of the Jews’ destruction. This small and supposedly “chance” act performed by an arrogant, vengeful government official ended up setting the day for the Jews’ deliverance from and conquest over their enemies.

This insight demonstrates the way that providence works, how God intervenes into the affairs of this world which may seem both ordinary and random, and which our out of our control, and which may even be designed against us. Yet despite all this, God not only overcomes such things, but he works through them instead. The feast of Purim was to be a perpetual celebration so that Israel would always remember that God is providentially at work on their behalf, even to this day.
This insight also highlights another important theme throughout this book, the theme of ironic and dramatic reversals.

This is a true story about dramatic reversals.
From a big-picture perspective, the entire book is written as one major reversal. The first half of the book describes the growing threat of Israel’s destruction, but the second half describes the growing influence and deliverance of Israel over her enemies.

The feasts and celebrations theme certainly follow this theme as well, with the first feasts being Persian and the final feasts being Jewish, illustrating how God and his people – though they endure many setbacks – always enjoy the last laugh.

Other dramatic reversals also occur, many of which occur to Haman. These include:

  • Though Haman was exalted to a seat of high authority (3:10), Mordecai later replaced him (8:2).
  • Though Haman hatched a plot to kill the Jews, he and his sons were executed instead.
  • The court messengers first when out swiftly to announce the king’s decree against the Jews (3:15), they later did the same thing to announce protection for the Jews instead (8:14).
  • Haman erects a tall wooden pole for hanging or impaling Mordecai (5:14), but he ended up being executed on that same pole himself (7:9-10).
  • Haman believed the king wanted to honor him (6:6-9), but the king wanted to honor his enemy, Mordecai, instead (6:11-12).

Other reversals apart from Haman also occur in this book:

  • Early in the story, Mordecai tore his garments and wore sackcloth and ashes (4:1), but he would go on to wear royal robes instead (8:15).
  • The Jews mourned when they heard the first decree (4:3), but they rejoiced when they heard the new decree (8:17).
  • Though the Jews were going to be slaughtered and destroyed (3:13), they ended up slaughtering and killing their attackers instead (8:11).

These reversals teach some important lessons about the providence of God.

You get back what you give out.
Reversals in life are a common theme in the Old Testament (OT), especially in poetry and wisdom literature such as Proverbs 26:27, which says, “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and he who rolls a stone will have it roll back on him” (see also Psa 7:15-16 and 57:6). This truth assures us that every injustice in the world which has ever occurred will be made right, either in this life or in the end.

The New Testament (NT) teaches the same principle when it says that “you reap what you sow” (Gal 6:7) and, “Give, and it will be given to you … for with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you” (Luke 6:38). Do you believe this? This is not due to some mystical, magical force of fate that hovers over the world. It happens because our sovereign God who providentially guides the affairs of this world also happens to be just (Gen 18:25).

If you make good choices, especially when you suffer for them, this is an encouraging principle. If you make bad choices, this is a scary principle, even though it may seem like you’re getting away with things for a while. Which is it for you?

The proud will be made low.
This is one iteration of the principle I just mentioned, but it deserves to be mentioned specifically because it appears frequently throughout the Bible.

  • “Surely he scorns the scornful but gives grace to the humble.” (Prov 3:34)
  • “Before destruction the heart of a man is haughty, and before honor is humility.” (Prov 18:12)
  • “A man’s pride will bring him low, but the humble in spirit will retain honor.” (Prov 29:23)
  • “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matt 23:12)
  • “He has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly.” (Luke 1:52)
  • “He gives more grace. Therefore He says: ‘God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.’” (Jam 4:6)
  • “You younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another and be clothed with humility, for ‘God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.’” (1 Pet 5:5)

God rules over the rulers of this world.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah, written in this same time in history, make this point as well. Through pagan kings like Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes, God guided and governed his people and accomplished his divine purposes (Prov 21:1). The same dynamic occurs in Esther. King Ahasuerus (Xerxes) was arrogant, lustful, impulsive, and uninformed, yet God worked through him and in spite of him to protect his chosen people Israel.

Esther emphasizes this point by highlighting the irrevocable nature of a Persian decree. Twice the book mentions that the law of a Persian king can be neither changed (as with the decree to banish Vashti, Esther 1:19) nor reversed (as with the decree to slaughter the Jews, Esther 8:8). Daniel faced a similar problem and even Darius, the Persian king, wanted to reverse his own decree but could not since it was the “law of the Medes and Persians” (Dan. 6:8, 12, 15).

There is only one who can overcome the irreversible decrees of people – God himself who is sovereign and rules over all. He preserved Daniel’s life by closing the lion’s mouth. For Esther and the Jewish people, he guided ordinary events and circumstances – parties, dice rolls, government records, insomnia, and even the choices of hateful people.

This is a true story about the faithfulness of God.
The dramatic reversals of Esther do more than show God’s power to overcome insurmountable obstacles. It also shows the unrelenting faithfulness of God to his people. Not even an irreversible decree by a powerful world leader can prevent God from fulfilling his purposes. Two characters in the book of Esther acknowledge this fact:

  • Mordecai said this to Esther: “If you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish” (Esther 4:14).
  • Haman’s wife, Zeresh, said this to him just before he attended the second banquet: “If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of Jewish descent, you will not prevail against him but will surely fall before him” (Esther 6:13).

Consider God’s promise to Abraham (Gen 22:16-17):

“By Myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son – blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies.”

This promise is based upon the faithful, unrelenting character of God himself. He promised that Israel would multiply astronomically, not be destroyed. It is also interesting to note the statement about “possessing the gate of their enemies.” Perhaps the book of Esther alludes to this promise by emphasizing Mordecai’s placement at the gates to the palace of Shushan (Esther 2:19, 21; 3:2-3; 4:6; 5:9, 13; 6:10, 12).

Consider also God’s promise to David of an everlasting kingdom: “Your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before you. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Sam 7:16). For better or for worse, whether in Jerusalem, the capital if their nation, or Shushan, the capital of a pagan empire, God remained faithful to his promise to preserve the Jewish nation forever.

Centuries before, as Israel prepared to settle Canaan for the first time, the bad prophet Balaam tried to curse them, but he could not. Here was his conclusion (Num 23:19-20):

“God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should repent. Has he said, and will he not do? Or has he spoken, and will he not make it good? Behold, I have received a command to bless; he has blessed, and I cannot reverse it.”

Knowing these things, we should conclude that it is always wrong to adopt or endorse antisemitic views and policies. God has made an everlasting commitment to this nation. What’s more, he promised to Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you” (Gen 12:3). This does not mean that we should endorse the false religious views or the corrupt behavior and morals of any Jewish people we may know who are characterized by such things. Yet we should “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” do what we can through prayer and outreach to bring them to salvation in Christ (Psa 122:6; Rom 10:1-4).

Now the same irreversible commitment of God applies today for anyone who has believed on Jesus Christ as God and Savior, whether you are a Jewish person or not. Nothing at all, whether in the material universe of the spiritual realm, can separate you from “the love of God which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:31-39). Once Jesus is your Lord, your salvation is eternally secure.

Just verses before this passage, Paul also makes an important statement about the providence of God. He says, “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28).

  • God’s purpose is to rescue you from sin and all its evil, corrupting effects forever.
  • His purpose is to bring you into perfect, unhindered fellowship with him forever.
  • His purpose is for you to display his glory with your life forever.

As the Jewish people suffer many things in a political and social sense, so all who follow Christ suffer in this world in a variety of ways. Yet since God is sovereign and faithfully works out his purposes through the events and circumstances of this fallen world, we know that he is faithfully working out his eternal purposes through our lives. Most importantly, he is doing this not just when we read the Bible and pray. He is doing this through and in spite of the many difficult things that we face. Do you believe that?

Conclusion

By way of conclusion, you should know at least one more fascinating fact about this story. From beginning to end, it never mentions God in any way. It tells the story from the viewpoint of someone who is observing the details of life as an ordinary human being going through life. There are difficult people and difficult circumstances. There are awkward situations, unexpected opportunities, and details beyond anyone’s personal control. Even King Ahasuerus and the high-ranking government official Haman are limited in their knowledge and authority. Throughout this story, no one person may take credit for what happens in the end.

But if you have read the Pentateuch, the OT books of Israel’s history, and the prophets, then you know what’s going on. A true story from history like this should also bring us to a verse like Romans 1:20, which Paul wrote to Christians in another capital city of a pagan empire centuries later: “Since the creation of the world his invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.” No one can see God, but we can see what he is doing in the world through providence to accomplish his purposes. We are not at the mercy of fate but under the providential care of a loving God who rules over all.

You don’t have to see God to know what he is doing, and you don’t need awesome miracles either. You only need believe in the unrelenting faithfulness of God to his people and to recognize that he works through the ordinary details, unexpected opportunities, and even the difficult circumstances of your everyday life. What details, opportunities, and circumstances is God weaving together for good in your life today? This is truth worth celebrating!

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