Esther - The Invisible God.

We are currently working through the book of Esther as a church. It is a rich and powerful story, and yet there are lot of things that we might not know about the history, characters, and themes about the book. Here is an explanation of some of those things. 

Breakdown:

#1 Esth. 1:1-9 | The King’s Banquet: While King Ahasuerus sits on his throne; there is a greater king who sits on a greater throne and rules a greater kingdom. His name is Jesus.

#2 Esth. 1:10-22 | The Queen’s Refusal: In God’s kingdom people are not pawns to be used but people to be valued and included.

#3 Esth. 2:1-18 | The Queen’s Inauguration: While an evil king uses evil means to accomplish evil plans; the good king is able to bring about his good plan of saving his people through his good will. 

#4 Esth. 2:19-3:15 | The Cousin’s Faithfulness: When God’s enemies threaten to destroy his people; God strengthens them with his own enduring faithfulness

#5 Esth. 4 | The Queen’s Courage: The invisible perfect God uses visible imperfect people to accomplish his perfect plan.

#6 Esth. 5 | The Queen’s Feast: While one seeks to end the lives of those they hate; another is prepared to lose their life to save those they love.

#7 Esth. 6:1-13 | The King’s honour: Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

#8 Esth. 6:14–7:10 | The King’s Verdict: Justice is God’s and he promises to destroy his enemies and turn their evil plans around to accomplish his own good plans.

#9 Esth. 8 | The Jew’s Joy: While powerless and unable to save themselves, God provided Esther and Mordecai to save the Jews.

#10 Esth. 9:1-19 | The Jew’s Triumph: God reverses the evil plans of Haman to be the very means of his own justice.

#11 Esth. 9:20-32 | The Jew’s Holiday: There is no greater celebration than the celebration of salvation. God saved his people and his people celebrate.

#12 Esth 10 | The Lord’s Sovereignty: God loves his people and uses all things to bring about his glory and their joy.

Summary

The book of Esther never mentions God’s name, yet God clearly orchestrated all of its events. The book of Esther tells how a Jewish girl, living among the exiles of Persia, became the queen of the Persian Empire about 480B.C. Haman, a Persian official, sought to eradicate the Jewish minority, but God had prepared Esther “for such a time as this” (4:14) to save his covenant people. She is assisted in this by Mordecai, her cousin and guardian. It also explains how a special festival, called Purim, was established to recall and celebrate the deliverance that the Jews had experienced.

Esther, a Jew living among the exiles in Persia, became queen of the empire in about 480 b.c. Haman, a Persian official, sought to eradicate the Jewish minority, but God had prepared Esther “for such a time as this” (4:14) to save his covenant people. The book was written some decades later to document the origins of the Jewish observance of Purim, which celebrates Israel’s survival and God’s faithfulness. The author is unknown, but some believe it could have been Esther’s cousin Mordecai, who is a key person in the book. Throughout the book we see God’s sovereign hand preserving his people, showing that everything is under his control.

Key Characters

King ahasuerus/Xerxes: There were three Persian kings who bore this name. The king mentioned in the book of Esther is Xerxes I., also known as Ahasuerus. He is remembered by history for launching his spectacular invasion of Greece. Ahasuerus became king of Persia at the death of his father Darius the Great in 485, at a time when his father was preparing a new expedition against Greece. Ahasuerus finally decided to pursue the project of his father to subdue Greece, but made lengthy preparations. The expedition was ready to move in the spring of 480 and Ahasuerus himself took the lead. Herodotus gives us a colourful description of the Persian army that he evaluates at close to two million men and about twelve hundred ships. This campaign included the famous battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans laid down their lives for Greece. Scripture pictures him as a weak man. Manipulated by others [3:8–11], he is proud and self-indulgent [1:4–8], given to fits of temper and rash decisions that he later regrets [1:12, 2:1]. This is the man whom Esther must marry.

Queen Vashti: Her name means ‘beautiful’. As the book opens she is the queen. She is almost immediately deposed and ostracized, however, for disobeying Ahasuerus command to appear for the entertainment of his drunken guests. The person and role of Vashti have caused great controversy among modern Jews. To some she is a ‘feminist hero and has become one of the favourite heroines of the Jewish feminist movement. This much-maligned queen, the argument goes, should be appreciated as a positive role model, a woman who dared to disregard a royal decree that would have her displayed as a sex object before the King’s rowdy drinking companions. To others she is a villain and it is viewed that there was no heroism rather only arrogance. Scripture allows us to judge her action as ‘right’ while leaving the matter of her motives, as so often, a mystery known only to God.

Queen Esther: Esther has two alternate names; she is introduced to us first by her Jewish name Hadassah which means ‘Myrtle’. Throughout the remainder of the book, however, she is referred to by her Persian name Esther which means ‘Star’. It has always been common for ‘immigrants’ to blend into the host society by adopting some of its labels and customs while retaining their ‘ethnic identity’. Before we meet her Esther has already tasted her share of sorrow. She is an orphan who has been reared and cared for by her cousin Mordecai [2:7]. She is, by any standards, a remarkable woman, and richly endowed by God. She has a beauty that can capture the heart of a king [2:17]. Her attractiveness, however, is not merely physical. She possesses a character that endears her to all she meets [2:9, 15]. She is modest [2:15], dutiful [2:10], intelligent [4:11], courageous and, above all, devout [4:16]. She is also chosen by God to play the major role in the unfolding of the deliverance of God’s people.

Haman: His name means ‘magnificent’ and that certainly reflected his self-perception. He is motivated by pride and anger [3:5]; he is manipulative [3:8], callous and cruel [3:13; 5:14]. Like many such men he is ultimately a coward of the worst sort [7:7]. His meteoric rise to pre-eminence is followed by an even more spectacular fall.

 Mordecai:  His name means ‘little man’ or ‘worshipper of Mars’. Though the latter may have been one meaning of his name, nothing could have been further from the truth. His godly character and faith shine through the story. Scripture reveals him as a man of compassion [2:7], prudence [2:10], integrity [2:22], discernment [3:2], spirituality [4:1], wisdom [4:8] and faith [4:14]. Unlike his implacable enemy Haman, he is not motivated by greed and ambition, neither is he cruel and vindictive. All his actions are dictated by one great purpose—to preserve the people of God from destruction. He may or may not have earned his name by being ‘little’ in physical stature, but he ranks as a spiritual giant and well deserves his place among the great heroes of the Bible.

The Invisible God: No book in the Bible speaks more clearly to us of the gracious, sovereign protection of God towards his people—yet his name is never mentioned. Throughout this book the invisible God can only be seen by his footprints in history. Throughout there are many hints of his presence.The downfall of Vashti (1:10–22), the decision to hold an elaborate “beauty contest” as a way of replacing her (2:1–18), and Mordecai’s overhearing of a plot against the king (2:19–23) all conspire to move Esther and Mordecai into positions of power before the threat posed by Haman emerges (3:1–3). Once it does, the perfect timing of apparently fortuitous events again and again tips the balance in favour of the Jews and against their enemies. The king’s insomnia on the night before Mordecai’s execution (6:1–3), Haman’s entry at the moment Ahasuerus is wondering how to reward Mordecai (6:6), and the king’s return just when Haman is falling on Esther’s couch (7:8) all significantly affect the eventual outcome, but none is knowingly caused by any of the human characters. Moreover, the characters themselves seem to be aware that something more than chance is shaping events. Mordecai is sure the Jews will be delivered in some way or other and suspects that Esther has “come to the kingdom for such a time as this” (4:14). Even Haman’s wife knows that if Mordecai is a Jew, then Haman is destined to fall before him (6:13), and Esther’s calling of a fast before approaching the king can hardly be anything other than an appeal for divine help (4:16). While both Esther and Mordecai are clearly seen as heroes in the story, it is clear the ultimate hero is the Invisible God working all things according to his own counsel.

Key Themes

God is working out his purposes

Esther 9:1 is a key verse: Now in the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, on the thirteenth day of the same, when the king’s command and edict were about to be carried out, on the very day when the enemies of the Jews hoped to gain the mastery over them, the reverse occurred: the Jews gained mastery over those who hated them.

The providence of God is hinted at through the use of coincidence and surprise within the text. Coincidences occur which are left unexplained but which dictate the outcome of the story as it moves towards the moment of reversal and resulting salvation. So, for example, Esther is in the right place at the right time when Vashti is deposed (2:8) and when Haman’s evil plans come to light (4:14b). When the king cannot sleep and asks for his historical records to be read, they happen to fall open at the page that highlighted Mordecai’s role as the one who foiled an evil plot against the king (6:1–2). As the king considers what to do, it just so happens that Haman is standing outside (6:5), and the resulting honour to Mordecai fuels Haman’s anger. The frequency of such coincidences promotes the legitimacy of a theological reading of the text in which the providence of God is at work. Furthermore, because the path of this story does not conform to human expectations and there are elements of surprise that defy human explanation and reason, such a reading seems to be encouraged. In Esther the ultimate surprise is that ‘the reverse occurred’ (9:1).

God is present and active in the world

It seems undeniable that the world-view of the Esther story includes the belief that God is actively present in the world. This is the hope that makes sense of the story’s ‘lightness’. There is optimism from the outset that the Jewish people will survive, and in this story that belief is not linked to the return to Jerusalem, to the adherence to cultic practices, or to the emergence of an expected Messianic figure. In Esther the active presence of God goes beyond these boundaries of geographical and religious expectations. God is actively present in the world of Esther and Mordecai. They too, in a foreign land subject to secular rulers and régimes, can become instruments of God’s active presence. As Israel’s history unfolded, the story was relevant not only to the original community of its setting but to every generation since. It demonstrated in practice the universal and eternal operational presence of the covenant God who lives up to his name: Yahweh, the one who is eternally active and present in the world

God works with human behaviour and responses to him

Esther’s story illustrates that God can work with or without human co-operation. While it is necessary for Esther to make the conscious decision to take up the challenge to work for God’s people (4:16), it is not necessary for Haman to actively pursue God’s purposes in order for God’s people to be saved. Anderson (1950: 40) puts it this way: ‘even the most disreputable characters and flagrant violators of his will are bent into the service of his ultimate purpose.’ In other words, God’s purpose may include human agents, but its success does not depend on who those agents are or what they do. Esther herself is not flawless in the story: hiding her identity contradicts Jewish law; the process of becoming Xerxes’ queen is unsavoury; instituting laws that are vicious appears morally indefensible. But God works with these human responses as his sovereign will for his people emerges.

God protects and saves his people

The story’s meaning is clearly tied up with the perspective that Israel occupies a protected and privileged place within God’s purposes. This is what gives the story its timeless quality. The Jews would continuously remind themselves of the events in the book of Esther because they are eternally illustrative of a theological reality: God saves his people. The story dramatizes theology, and this dramatic presentation is worthy of the miraculous nature of the salvific act it records.

Theologically the question remains: does the intrinsic value of the text lie in its message about the Jews or its message about their Saviour? In other words, is the story primarily about God or his people? Of course, for the covenant community there was no such dichotomy: God is defined by his people, and they by him, just like a shepherd is known by his flock, and the flock by him (Ezek. 34). So the people of the holy God are called to be a holy people (Deut. 7:6), and the significance and direction of history is tied up with God’s relationship to his people and theirs to him. When God intervenes in their lives, his nature as well as their status are revealed.

These observations are certainly compatible with the view that the purpose of the story’s place in the canon relates to its faith-creating role. It is because God can be trusted as Saviour that his people can exercise faith that is saving. For its original readers, for Jewish people and for Christian readers, Esther becomes part of their Heilsgeschichte (salvation history), the reason for their faith. It promotes trust in a God who saves all people who turn to him in faith. This life of faith and trust is the real promised rest for which his people longed.

God’s people can celebrate salvation

The book of Esther does not hold back: when good things happen, even miraculous things, God’s people will rightly celebrate (8:16–17). The institution of the festival of Purim provides an opportunity for God’s people to celebrate regularly (9:18–22). It reminds them that evil was defeated, and such a victory parades laughter and enjoyment as suitable emotional responses. There is little solemnity in the Purim festival, but lots of hilarity and celebration. The evil context in which victory came is subsidiary and that evil itself is reversed by the generosity that marks the festival (9:22). Within the OT, gratitude to God and trust and confidence in him leads to deep joy that pervades worship. Frequently such trust and joy emerge from dire circumstances, as the Psalms often show us. It is important to note the commendation of celebration in the Esther text. Throughout history, God’s people are called to exercise the faith to rejoice in God in all circumstances, but certainly to respond to acts of deliverance with celebration and praise.

God call his people to live by faith

The Purim festival is a reminder that Jewish history results in a faith that needs to be practised. There is no point knowing history but not living in the light of that history. Faith for the ‘here and now’ makes sense of the ‘there and then’. The purpose of divine activity meeting human behaviour correlates to the faith that is produced. Esther is arguably a role model of faith and piety, but her story is more than that: it promotes faith and piety. It is a story that encourages every reader to understand ‘what is going on’ in ‘what is going on’, and to respond accordingly with a life of faith and devotion. Every situation, whether or not God’s presence and power can be seen or felt, is an opportunity for a divine encounter, a place to experience God’s intervention, and therefore is a situation worth experiencing.

Perhaps the author of Esther is determined that God’s presence remains ‘veiled’ in the text because this is the very point. Perhaps the author’s own faith journey has been one where the presence of God has never been particularly evident. Is the author encouraging us to be people of faith even when our most common experience is at best that God is hidden? Is he in fact saying that this is what life and faith are normally like? Visions and revelations might come and go (as the apocalyptic literature suggests), but the veiled presence of God is a constant that may not be seen and felt but will always sustain his people in good, bad and ugly times. This is the precious truth that Esther’s story celebrates.

The author of Esther is calling readers to ‘do theology’—to reflect on God’s nature and his seen or unseen role in history. But ‘doing theology’ also includes responding to the implications of such a quest, and this responsive task will even today require individual and corporate faith as a heart response to God’s self-revelation.

Jimmy Smith-Cottrell