All of us face hard situations. Sometimes, the right decisions is not the easy decision. This week we begin our series in the book of Esther and start to unpack a story of God at work...through imperfect individuals...in unique circumstances...who are being used for greater purposes.
When, not if, you (as a Christian) are placed in a complex situation calling for you to use your position or persona to decide to turn things toward right and away from wrong, what will you do? Will you boldly step forward or cowardly move slowly backward, looking for someone else to take the heat for doing the noble, necessary thing? The Lord calls us to be salt to a morally and spiritually decaying world, and to be light to a world in love with darkness (Matt. 5:13-14). Both of these metaphors, by definition, challenge us not to be silent when injustice and sin attempt to be the order of the day.
Is it easy to be courageous? No.
Is it simple to be courageous? No. It usually comes with the fear of being rejected, sidelined, passed over, demoted, labeled with pejorative terms, de-platformed, and canceled.
Yet there is no way of skirting what the Lord calls each of His chosen sheep to do as they encounter evil. We are to act and trust that He will make the crooked path straight before us, His face will shine on us, and He will ultimately reward us.
I remember one situation where I had to decide quickly whether I’d stand for truth, or slink away. Driving through our quiet California neighborhood with the children in the backseat, Liz and I pulled up to a four-way stop. The car in front of us stopped and then pulled out. It never made it past the middle of the intersection. Suddenly, a suped-up motorcycle, traveling around 60-70 mph in a 25 mph zone like a missile, slammed the driver's side of the car. The bodies of the two occupants of the motorcycle flew through the air over the vehicle and landed in the gutter.
I jumped out of the car and ensured the vehicle's driver was okay, and then I walked over to the two street racers. Both of them were in shock but alive. Within a few minutes, a questionable crowd of their gangster friends, who lived in the neighborhood, surrounded them. A California Highway patrolman pulled up as they congratulated their friends for surviving the “awesome” crash. The officer attempted to get the tattooed homeboys and girls to back away from the injured motorcycle riders, but they would have none of that. Instantly, they surrounded the officer and started chanting, “Down with the CHP. Down with the CHP.”
Using his position and presence, the courageous officer got the agitated group back up a little. Then he turned and said to me and another guy standing there, “Do you know if there are any witnesses to this wreck?”
At that point, I looked at the menacing mob and thought, “If I report what occurred, these thugs will come after me and my family because they know where I live.” Next, I thought, “Who will tell the truth and support the innocent person in the car? If not me and this other man, then who?” You can guess what I did. I stepped forward and gave a detailed report as the officer took notes on the paper he laid on his squad car hood. After that, I returned to my car and family and drove away.
The local thugs never did anything to me. God must have assigned a special angel to me that day.
I don’t tell you this story to draw praise to myself. No way. I tell it to show you how quickly you can be thrust into a situation where you will know you must do something as a Christian, a person of morals, and a lover of justice. What will you do? What are you going to do when, not if, a gnarly scenario presents itself?
Along these lines, the story of Esther is a must-read for saints who want answers and motivation about how to live for the Lord in trying, testy times. In her, we have a young Jewish woman living in captivity in the Persian empire. Through a series of unbelievable events, she is moved from being a nameless orphan living with her uncle, Mordecai, to being the queen of the most powerful nation on earth. While in this power position, she becomes privy to a ruthless plot to eliminate her people, Israel, from within the country. Once this shocking information crossed her desk, she was immediately confronted with a decision: Inform the king at the risk of death for just approaching him uninvited, or risk everything by courageously exposing the dastardly, deadly genocidal plan. She chose to speak up and out for truth, and God blessed her courage profoundly. As such, Esther stands as a model for all saints at all times.
Maybe right now, you are facing a troubling dilemma. Will you speak up or stay silent? Maybe you are privy to information about someone that could thwart their evil activity. Will you speak up or stay silent? Maybe you are a parent who is being told to go along to get along regarding the school’s sex and gender policy. Will you speak up or stay silent? Maybe you are an attorney and are intimidated to sit on some critical data. Will you speak up or stay silent? Maybe you are a husband or a wife who knows your mate is having an affair . . . again. Will you speak up or stay silent? Maybe you are an engineer on a project, and your team leader is asking you to hide some detrimental data about the design you are working on. Will you speak up or stay silent? Maybe your buddies on the soccer team want you to engage in some questionable behavior to be one of them. Will you speak up or stay silent? Will you be Esther?
As Esther, according to Mordecai’s words in 4:14, was born “for such a time as this,” the same is true of you and me. The world we live in, where we work, the positions we hold over others, and the situations we face, as unsettling as they might be, are not by accident. No. God has sovereignly positioned us to see whether we will seize the moment and advance justice and righteousness. For those who desire to move out for the Lord, studying the book of Esther is certainly in order, especially in light of the times in which we live.
Before we move through the short book in an expositional format, I think introducing it is wise and helpful so you can appreciate its powerful, practical message.
The Background To The Book Of Esther
Many biblical books identify the author. Paul’s name is typically associated with his books; Nehemiah is written in the first person because he probably wrote the book, many of the Psalms bear David’s moniker, and so on. Like 1 and 2 Kings, Esther gives us no clues about the author's identity.
We do know the following facts about the author: (1) He was well-acquainted with Persian politics, customs, geography, buildings, and royal etiquette, (2) He understood the Jewish calendar by his mentioning Jewish months in his work (Est. 2:16; 3:7; 8:9, 12; 9:1, 15, 17, 21 ), (3) He appears to have a strong sense of Jewish nationalism, (4) He did not mention Jerusalem or the rebuilding of the temple that occurred years before his story, and (5) He did possess a positive attitude toward a Gentile king.
Hence, the author sounds like a Persian Jew of the Diaspora, which started in 605 B.C. when Babylon won its first military campaign against the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Their domination and deportation of Jews saw its conclusion in 586 B.C., when Jerusalem fell to the invading forces. . The author, therefore, probably lived shortly after the events of the book because it is written in such a fresh, vivid manner. Had he lived in the period of Hellenistic rule (331-168 B.C.), he would not have possessed a positive attitude toward a Gentile king. The same would apply had he lived in the Maccabean Period (167-135 B.C.) when the Jews threw off the vile rule of the Gentile Seleucids.
He must have been a wise, godly man, for he has given us a book whose impact transcends time. Wise people remember and record God's great movements and actions in and through His saints so future believers are challenged to go and do likewise. Whoever the author of Esther is, I thank God for his willingness to be used by God.
Esther 1 opens with these historical words:
1 Now it took place in the days of Ahasuerus, the Ahasuerus who reigned from India to Ethiopia over 127 provinces, 2 in those days as King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne which was in Susa the capital, (Est. 1:1-2).
Ahasuerus is merely a title like our word President. Ahasuerus is Xerxes, the fourth king in the Achaemenian Empire founded by Cyrus (559-530 B.C.), the king who defeated Babylon and eventually released the first group of Jews under Zerubabbel in 538 B.C. Since Xerxes reigned from 486 to 465 B.C., the book had to be written sometime after this but before the rise of the Greeks under Alexander the Great in 331 B.C. This leaves us with 134 years. During the Persian period running from 423 to 331 B.C., Jewish life was uneventful as the empire slowly unraveled. Hence, this doesn’t sound like a logical time for the book’s pro-Jewish composition. Additionally, the second and third return of Jews occurred under the reign of King Artaxerxes (465 to 423 B.C.), who took the throne after the assassination of Xerses by Artabanus, an influential figure in the Persian court. The “pro-Jewish” nature of this time period seems like the more logical choice for the dating of the book of Esther.
Finally, I doubt Eshter was written during the latter years of the life of Xerxes because Esther 10:1 suggests the book looks back at the reign of Xerxes:
1 Now King Ahasuerus laid a tribute on the land and on the coastlands of the sea. 2 And all the accomplishments of his authority and strength, and the complete account of the greatness of Mordecai, to which the king advanced him, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Media and Persia (Est. 10).
Is knowing a date important? Absolutely. Why? If we know an approximate date for the book, we can better understand it by understanding the times it was composed. For instance, if you wanted to understand a book written about a powerful woman within the administration of President Johnson, it would be helpful to know when this particular book came into being. Once you discover it was written in the 1960s, you would naturally want to understand this time period so you could better appreciate the book. After a brief search on the internet, you would be quickly acquainted with Go-Go boots, the Vietnam War, the Tet Offensive, psychedelic drugs and art, the Laugh-in Show, Hippies, Tye-dye shirts, Jimi Hendrix, and Lava Lamps. Dates and times matter where interpretation is concerned.
Finally, since Esther occurred in the period after the Persians defeated the mighty Babylonian military machine, it is biblically classified as one of three post-Babylonian captivity books. Its presence in this canonical three-some balances the construction of the Old Testament.
The setting occurs predominately in Susa (north of the northern tip of the Persian Gulf), the winter capital of the Persian Empire (Est. 1:2). Persia, of course, equals modern-day Iran. The Achaemenid Empire had five capitals: Babylon (northwest of Susa), Pasargadae (southeast of Susa), Ecbatana (north of Susa), Persepolis (southeast of Susa, and just a few miles south of Pasargadae), and Susa. We do the same thing, don’t we? When it is too hot or cold in one area, we move temporarily . . . if we can afford it . . . to another location for comfort. In any event, the setting for the book is within the confines of the royal city and palace of the most incredible power on the planet at the time: Persia (Susa, Esther 1:2, 5; :3, 5, 8; 3:15; 4:8, 16; 8:14, 15; 9:6, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 18; royal palace, Esther 1:9; 2:16, royal house, Esther 5:1, king’s palace, Esther 5:1, royal court, Esther 1:5; 2:11; 4:11; 5:1-2; 6:4-5). During the reign of Cyrus, the empire covered some 2.9 million square miles, which is close to the size of the United States: 3,809,525 square miles of land and water. Persia also ruled over a whopping 44% of the world’s population of some 50 million people. Hence, while the book of Ruth occurs in a farming environment and concerns a poor Moabite widow named Ruth, Esther occurs in the powerful world of politics and is concerned with a Jewish orphan named Esther who rose to great power and prestige by acting courageously. In both books, we readily learn how God can and will work in and through believers in all settings to accomplish His lofty purposes.
Biblically, Esther occurs during the seventy-eight-year gap between Zerubabbel’s first return to Israel to rebuild the Temple (536 B.C.?) with 50,000 Jews (Ezra 1-6), and the second return under Ezra with 5,000 Jews (Ezra 7-10). Israel struggled to rebuild the Temple, which was finished around 516 B.C., and a spiritual revival broke out under Ezra's return. During these trying times on the homefront, when Israel was attempting to rebuild itself as a nation with God at the center, the events of the book of Esther transpired, demonstrating that God was quietly at work in the political sphere to protect and provide for His people. Our day is no different. God is working in the lives of countless no-named saints who stand up for Him in small agricultural settings, and He’s working in and through the lives of saints who work in the halls of power, from the White House to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in Springfield . . . by Costco.
God had promised to send the Messiah to Adam and Eve(Gen. 3:15). In Genesis 12, He promised to send the Messiah through the Jewish people who would descend from Abraham (2100-2075 B.C.). In Genesis 49:8-12, He promised the Messiah would be from the line of Judah, and in 2 Samuel 7, He promised the Messiah would come to rule and reign over His eternal kingdom from the line of David. The Devil also understood these ancient promises and prophesies, and that’s why he has historically attempted to stop the coming of the Messiah by attacking the people of the Messiah, the Jews. However, as we see throughout Israel’s history, and Esther is no exception, the Lord not only sovereignly protected His people, overtly or covertly, but He will fulfill His prophesied plan with them regardless of the foes the Devil whips up against them.
There are various ways to analyze this historical account's careful, thoughtful literary structure.
Some see it as a class chiastic structure where the middle section of the chiasm represents either a turning point or a central theological motif. Yehudah Radday certainly sees the book structured in this fashion:
Opening & Background (chap. 1)
A. The King’s First Decree (Chaps. 2-3)
B. The Clash Between Haman and Mordecai (Chaps. 4-5)
X. “On that night the King could not sleep” (Esther 6:1)
B. Mordecia’s triumph over Haman (Chaps 6-7)
A. The King’s Second Decree (Cahpts. 8-9)
Epilogue (Chap. 10).
The emphasis here rests on the night King Xerxes couldn’t sleep and just happened to start reading boring political records of things that transpired historically in his empire. This is when he encounters the fact that Mordecai once saved his life by informing him of an impending coup. From this reading and knowledge, the story is fact-tracked in the remaining chapters to the destruction of wicked Haman and the elevation of the righteous Mordecai. While this structure is helpful, it fails to highlight the significant turning point in the book in chapter 4. At the close of this emotional and moving chapter is Esther’s decision to put her life on the line, along with that of her powerful position, for her people:
14 "For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father's house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?" 15 Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai, 16 "Go, assemble all the Jews who are found in Susa, and fast for me; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens also will fast in the same way. And thus I will go into the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish" (Est. 4).
While the chiastic structure is tempting to embrace, I think it wiser to side with Roland Murphy, who sees the book as a series of various scenes:
- The royal banquets (1:1-9)
- Vashti’s disobedience and the result (1:10-22)
- Esther becomes Queen (2:1 – 20)
- Mordecai’s discovery of a palace conspiracy (2:21 – 23)
- Mordecai brings down upon himself and his people the wrath of Haman (3:1 – 7).
- Xerxes approves and proclaims the pogrom proposed by Haman (3:8 – 15)
- Mordecai commissions Esther to intercede with the king (4:1 – 17)
- Esther’s first dinner invitation (5:1 – 8)
- Proud Haman’s plot to hang Mordecai (5:9 – 14)
- Mordecai is honored, and Haman is humiliated (6:1 – 13)
- Esther’s second dinner invitation (6:14 – 7:10)
- The elevation of Mordecai (8:1 – 2)
- Esther and Mordecai achieve the deliverance of their people (8:3 – 17)
- The first victory of the Jews (13th Adar) over their enemies (9:1 – 10)
- Through Esther’s request, a second victory of the Jews (14th Adar ) is achieved in Susa (9:11 – 19)
- Mordecai establishes the feast of Purim (9:20 – 28)
- Esther’s regulation for the Purim celebration ( 9:29 – 32)
- Epilogue (10:1 – 3)
If you’d like a much simpler approach, I devised one. This chart allows you to see how the book is laid out quickly and is a good portrayal of how life goes. As we make our earthly pilgrimage, we vacillate between times of danger, followed by times of divine deliverance. Further, regardless of which season we live in, the Lord works sovereignly to use us to propel His kingdom and truth forward.
Who are the leading players in this story? Before we identify them, let’s ask and answer the question: Why does God use stories to communicate His truth? For one, narrative literature is the dominant theme of the Word of God. For another, God knows that people love stories.
I grew up in a storytelling Southern family. Whenever we met, men and women shared stories about anything and everything. My father typically led the way. To this day, I can still remember countless colorful and humorous stories that he told about life. Stories stick with you because you can identify with them. The book of Esther will be no exception. The trauma that she experienced in her position is similar to the trauma you experience as you move through life. The wisdom and counsel she received from Mordecai, a trusted relative, is identical to the wisdom and counsel you receive when you face tough, complex decisions. The hatred that Esther and Mordecai experienced at the hand of Haman is similar to the hatred you sense from those who openly oppose the things of God. Not much has changed in the last 2500 years.
Who are the protagonists, antagonists, heroes, heroines, and villains in this ancient historical account? While there are multiple and significant people in the book who are mentioned one or two times, there are four main characters:
Character One: Xerxes, the King: what was he like?
- Easily swayed by others
- Possessed a low view of women and is a womanizer
- Quickly caved to political pressure
- Loved to party and get drunk
- Looked upon the outer worth of a woman, not her inner worth
- Ignored details
- Ruthless and cold
- At time, teachable
Xerxes is always walking the planet, especially in political or power circles.
Character Two: Haman. What was he like?
- Power-hungry (He’d do anything to stay in power)
- Highly deceptive and an outright liar
- Possessed a deep-seated hatred for Jews
- Lived to silence opponents
- Nasty and ruthless
- Did I say control freak?
- Blinded by arrogance
Sad to say, but Hamans are running all around our world today. All of those demonstrating in favor of Hamas are kindred spirits with godless Haman. Perhaps you have met one. Maybe you are having to deal with one. I pray this book will teach you how to respond to the Hamans in your life.
Character Three: Mordecai. What was he like?
- Caring and compassionate (Remember, he took his cousin, Esther, in as his daughter when she became orphaned)
- Highly sacrificial
- Wise and astute in his appraisal of people
- Fearless (Remember, he exposed the plot to kill the King, Esther (Est. 2:19-23)
- Deeply spiritual (When faced with trouble, he immediately shifted to a fasting mode)
- A fighter and man of true gusty grit
- He wouldn’t suffer a fool like Haman, nor would he bow before him
- A motivator for justice and righteousness
God is always looking for people like Mordecai to lead others to accomplish great things for Him. Will you be a Mordecai?
Character Four: Esther. What was she like?
- Inner beauty
- Outer beauty
- Very patient
- Extremely loyal to people and to God
- Obedient to the person in authority
- Team player
- Sensitive to God
- Courageous to the core
- Industrious and intelligent
- Highly sacrificial for others
- Plans well before she executes the plan
- Open to wisdom and counsel
Once more, God is always looking for people like Esther, who will be fearless. Is that you? Will it be you?
The Purpose & Themes
What is the purpose of the book? I think the book has a primary and secondary purpose.
The book's primary purpose is to demonstrate that God providentially works behind the scenes to protect His chosen people (Israel contextually/historically, and then the Church). While His name is not mentioned once in the book, you can see His fingerprints everywhere in all of the statically impossible happenings. Whether it is the perfect timing of Mordecai’s hearing of the proposed coup against the King (Est. 2:19-23), or the wee hours of the morning when King Xerxes chose to read from dry, boring historical political records, which resulted in him bumping into the data point about how Mordecai had once been instrumental in saving his life (Est. 6:1ff), God is profoundly in the details.
Think about it. In Exodus, God moved ominously, magnificently, miraculously, and publicly to save His chosen people. In Esther, the divine trail seems to have grown cold, but when you consider how countless strategic events seem to line up to accomplish His purposes effortlessly, you know in your mind He is there, and He is not silent (to quote the late Francis Schaeffer). It is the same with our lives; sometimes God works in noticeable ways, while at other times He seems remote and distant; however, whichever way He chooses to work, He is ALWAYS with you, and He goes before you. Never forget that as you chose to step forward and give a report to the Highway Patrol officer.
The secondary purpose of the book was to provide Israel with the origin of the Feast of Purim, a feast like Hannukah, which was not tied to the Mosaic Law. The Feast of Passover called Israel to remember how God’s wrath had passed over them and struck the firstborn of Egypt so the Pharoah would be moved to free them. The Feast of Purim has reminded the Jews for the last 2,500 years that while God may seem silent at times, He’s always working in time to protect and provide for His people. And He does His best work through people. In Egypt, He sent an old, weathered, former soldier who was educated in the Egyptian way. His name? Moses. In Persia, He sent a young, orphaned young woman who her cousin raised. Her name? Esther. With God’s power and her willingness to be courageous for Him, God took a nobody and made her into a somebody.
God always sends His children into challenging, testy situations to push back evil and promote holiness. Today, He is sending you. Are you prepared to represent Him well?
 “Map of the Persian Empire,” Bible Study, https://www.biblestudy.org/maps/persian-empire-at-its-height.html.
 Yehudah T. Radday, “Chiasm In Joshua, Judges and Others,” LB 3 (1973), 6-13.
 Roland E. Murphy, Wisdom Literature: Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Canticles, Ecclesiastes, and Esther (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1981), 153.