by James B. Currie, Japan
The structure of the Hebrew Scriptures as found in the King James Version of the Bible is at once both orderly and instructive. The first 17 volumes, Genesis to Esther, are a Divine record of God’s dealings with mankind, and in particular with the nation of Israel. This historic record is followed by five books generally known as ‘poetic’, which, in turn, lead into a further 17 books, the composition of which is correctly called ‘prophetical’. At the tail end of the books dealing with the history of Israel is the little book of Esther, which is, to some, enigmatic and thought to be unworthy of a place in the canon of Scripture. The contents of the book go far to dispel any doubts with regard to its merit and show the intrinsic historicity of the events it relates. There is no need for a lengthy discussion here as to arguments, pro and con, regarding its veracity. The average reader of these words will find the name of the king, the delineating of the extent of his empire, the luxury of the feasts given, etc, all ringing true for conditions at that time and in keeping with secular records still available. They will also note that towards the end of the book, reference is made to separate records confirming what has been read to that point, 10.2.
Further, the fact that an annual feast, the Feast of Purim, has been observed zealously by the Jewish people from ancient days, just to commemorate the incidents recorded in the book of Esther and to remind the nation continually of God’s unfailing care in times of extreme danger, will help fulfil the purpose for which the book was given; to engender unconditional trust in the God of Mordecai and Esther. In this small volume the moral and spiritual strength and beauty of a young, orphaned girl, Esther, at a time of dire national crisis and difficulty, are used by God to encourage His people who have been destined to face similar problems in every age.
Only two books of Scripture bear the name of a woman; Ruth and Esther. Neither of these are intended to be theological statements, but both are very interesting and readable short stories. That is not to say they lack spiritual content, but to the listening ear, the voice of God is readily discernible in both stories, especially so in the book presently being considered. As is the case in all the 66 books of our Bible, God reveals Himself in Esther in a uniquely characteristic way. He does so in the happenings and personalities forming the essence of the writing itself; thus God clothes His truth in such a way that the reader can easily respond to it. The book of Esther is no mere dry dogma, but by virtue of what is told concerning the young woman whose name it bears, it is alive and vibrant with spiritual meaning for the believer, even in our own evil and dangerous age. Not least is the fact that in this narrative, the threat that God made to hide His face from Israel is being fulfilled, Deut.31.18.
This threat helps explain the unusual, albeit well recognised characteristics of Esther, the fact that the name of God is not mentioned; nor is there reference to any truly religious activity. While this gives rise to the thought that it has no intrinsic value as far as the Canon of Scripture is concerned, our consideration of its contents will show that such is far from the truth. Indeed, alongside the very evident practical value it possesses there are those who believe that the name of God is to be found hidden in the actual words as originally written. In Hebrew the name ‘Jehovah’ is represented by the four consonants J H V H and these occur in 5.4; 7.7 and in reverse order in 1.20 and 5.13. Such, to a Jew, would bring Jehovah to mind. God does not forsake His Own. The Book of Esther underlines that message.
We shall consider the subject in six sections as outlined below:
The Times Described: The despot enthroned; a queen deposed; a nation enslaved
The People Involved: Xerxes, Mordecai, Esther, Haman
The Treachery Defeated: Mordecai’s response; Esther’s petition; Haman’s arrogance; Xerxes’ insomnia
The Nation Secured: A courtier’s reward; Esther’s banquets
The Intercession Employed: Esther’s proposal; Esther’s wisdom; Esther’s willingness
The Victory Enjoyed: Feasting enjoyed; Esther established.
The unabashed portrayal of the vastness and obscene luxury of the Persian Empire is the stage upon which this godly young woman appears briefly in Old Testament history, but with serious impact upon her times. The king is called Ahasuerus, but is well known in the history books by his Greek name, Xerxes. He reigned from 486 – 465.B.C and ruled over the greatest part of the then known world; from India to Ethiopia, 1.1. He was the son of King Darius mentioned in Zech.7.1, while Xerxes himself is referred to in Ezra 4.6 in connection with the opposition to the Jewish existence at the beginning of his reign. This opposition is seen to much greater effect in the book of Esther when at least a partial reason in the greed and unholy ambition of Haman are seen as the motivations. Such was Haman’s hatred of the subjugated people that he was willing to noticeably augment the coffers of the king in order to vent his spleen upon them. But as so many ‘anti-Semitists’ before and since, he reckoned without Israel’s God.
The anonymous author of the book appears to have been a resident of the capital city of Susa where these incidents took place. The history, politics and the social life of the metropolis all come well within the parameters of his cognisance and are attested to by other writers. This fact, at least, would lead to the conclusion that the book is not a work of fiction, but of course there are many writers whose bias does not allow them to accept the informative, little volume as part of the Divinely inspired record.
Vashti’s refusal to appear before the princes at the king’s banquet seems, at first glance, to be very harshly punished by her being deprived of her queenly status, but the opulent feast was extremely important to Xerxes. He was about to embark on a gigantic attack upon the up and coming Greek nation and the feast for all his princes was meant to ensure their loyalty at this time of momentous decision. Vashti’s refusal to obey was looked upon as a rebellious act that could have dire consequences throughout the realm; something that the king and his councillors could not allow. In fact, when the battle did take place, Xerxes was roundly defeated.
The ‘gathering of the maidens’ must not be judged according to western or modern standards nor is it to be thought that the Scriptures condone any of the practices described here. Vashti’s reinstatement was out of the question and the only alternative was the choosing of a new queen. The king went about this quest, with the approval of his advisors, in keeping with the customs of the day and his own royal prerogatives. Mordecai "sat in the king’s gate" 2.19, having some sort of official position. It was inevitable that the beauty of his foster-daughter would be noticed and Esther chosen as one of the maidens to be presented to the king. When thus presented she not only won his admiration but his love as well.
In Shushan the palace, there were two houses with two companies involved; the house for the virgins, supervised by Hegai, 2.3,8, and the house for the concubines, supervised by Shaashgaz, 2.14. Esther is first mentioned after Vashti’s downfall and in connection with the gathering of all the "fair young virgins" to the palace. They were placed under the supervision of Hegai, the king’s chamberlain, "in the house of the women" 2.3. There they awaited the king’s pleasure. Among these maidens who were gathered Esther stood out prominently and drew the attention of the chamberlain who was pleased with her. This implies that such was Esther’s demeanour and behaviour that she merited Hegai’s special attention in view of her being eventually presented to the king. Likely because of this she was given preferential treatment in the move to the "second house of the women" or "concubines" 2.14, from where she would go unto the king when and if chosen. To be thus selected was for Esther a very high honour that led to her elevation to the throne as consort to the king. Before that event took place we are given some idea as to Esther’s background in chapter 2. It was inevitable that her outstanding beauty would be noticed and that she would be chosen as one of the maidens to go before the king.
Xerxes was the greatest emperor of the day, reigning over vast domains. A man who was no longer young; of hasty and hot temper; godless and with lustful appetites; whose vast ambitions brooked no opposition.
Mordecai probably was also of mature years and, apparently had a royal lineage. Some of his ancestors were carried away to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar, which may have resulted in Mordecai having been born in captivity. Chapter 2.6 seems to imply otherwise, but the ‘carrying away’ of this verse may refer to his great-grandfather, Kish the Benjamite, 2.5. He was a man of integrity who chose to stay in exile rather than return to Jerusalem as opportunity presented itself.
Esther is the main protagonist of the story; a young woman caught up in unpleasant national and personal circumstances but marked by such features as will be seen in all godly women.
Haman was the inveterate hater of God’s people, even though God’s presence was not openly discernable. Haman’s advancement gave him a position of authority having his seat over all the princes of the realm, 3.1. The refusal of Mordecai to acknowledge him must have been infuriating and fuelled his deep hatred for the Jews.
The evidence of God’s presence with His own, or of their consciousness of it, is not found in the story itself but God is there, "in the shadows, taking care of His own". This can be seen in the vessels He has prepared for the working out of His gracious purpose for the nation. He is not only the God of the Covenant but He is the God of Providence also, "Who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will" Eph.1.11.
In spite of her advancement and enthronement as queen, Esther still exhibits the spirit of obedience as she heeds the words of Mordecai. That her cousin would be much older than she, stands to reason since he adopted the orphan girl as his daughter. Even though she is no longer obligated to comply, she is not prepared to forego the attitude of an obedient child with regard to her foster father. That submissive spirit continues to be evident. Then on two occasions, it is noted that in keeping with Mordecai’s charge she does not reveal her Jewish nationality. There is no deceit involved in this but her guardian is acutely aware of the danger of being Jewish, in view of Haman’s hatred. To Mordecai, having Esther, a strong source of influence, right in the palace was something to be highly valued, and in his stepdaughter, he found one who was completely obedient to his superior awareness. The whole story of God’s faithfulness and the deliverance of the nation would have become unravelled if Esther had behaved in a recalcitrant manner with regards to Mordecai’s commands. The spirit she evinces is most commendable. Would that all our sisters and brothers were marked by such a spirit of submission to our Lord!
The relevant word in this connection is found in 2.13, where it is stated that any maiden called into the presence of the king was given whatever she needed or desired to help further her acceptance with the king. Many and various would be the requests of these young women, but Esther’s attitude is a lovely contrast to what would normally be looked upon as necessary to enhance personal promotion. Hegai, keeper of the king’s women, preferred Esther above all the ladies so far chosen and placed her in a favoured position. Thus, assured by his preferment, the young Jewish girl asks for nothing other than what Hegai recommends. On her part, there is neither untoward ambition nor self-seeking of any kind. With what has already been said of her, it is clear that Esther was a woman of surpassing beauty, physically and more especially in spirit as well. She made a deep impression on a man who was constantly used to seeing the distinguishably beautiful women of the whole kingdom come and go; yet it was an orphan girl of an alien culture who made an irreversible impression upon him and upon the king later. It was not merely her natural beauty, but her very character that caused these worldly-wise and satiated men to gasp in wonderment.
Perhaps there is an element of conjecture in what can be said about the next point of consideration in the character of this godly, young woman. At least seven years are taken up with the events recorded, but a much longer period is entailed when we remember she had been orphaned at an age requiring adoption and a guardian. Such was Mordecai’s care of her that no sense of deprivation or loss is hinted at, nor any feeling of bitterness as is found to-day in many who have been raised under similar conditions. Events are noted in such a way as to imply that Mordecai’s promotion to a position of responsibility as a lesser judge in the gate of the city came about after Esther’s enthronement. It was almost certainly Esther’s love and gratitude to Mordecai that paved the way for his preferment. An evident affection and care one for the other existed, and neither Esther’s enthronement nor Mordecai’s advancement in any way diminished them. In spite of her exalted position, Esther continued to be the object of her stepfather’s watchfulness. The warmth and affection of a close father/daughter relationship is requited fully by the newly ascended queen.
Prior to the events involving Haman, the new prime minister, and his scheme to annihilate the whole Jewish nation, another incident takes place of which Mordecai becomes aware, no doubt as the result of his recent promotion. He overhears two of the king’s chamberlains plotting the monarch’s death. He tells Esther of this conniving and she immediately goes before the king to inform him of the treachery. In such cases the faithfulness of the official concerned would be rewarded, but not, at this time, was Mordecai’s part in saving the king’s life recognised. God, of course, overruled in this. Mordecai’s reward was being reserved for a much more needy time when not the heathen king but the people of Israel would be in jeopardy.
The events depicted in the story reach a climax in the way Esther reacts to the crisis induced by Haman’s malignant scheming. His venomous feelings are exacerbated by Mordecai’s promotion and by his steadfast refusal to bow, or pay respect to the descendant of Agag, king of the Amalekites. Mordecai, son of Kish, a Benjamite, 2.5, and likely a distant relative of Israel’s first king, was determined not to repeat the mistake of his illustrious forefather. However, Haman was not content to direct his venom at this one troublemaker, but in true Amalekite fashion, sought the complete annihilation of God’s chosen people. Mordecai understood the extent of Haman’s fierce hatred. He then explained it to Esther in no uncertain terms. She may have been sheltered from these unpleasant facts of life by her high position in the palace, even though she was made aware of intrigue in high places by Mordecai’s uncovering of the assassination plot against Ahasuerus. She fulfilled her duty by reporting the plot, which was thwarted and the perpetrators executed. While Mordecai’s major part in this first happening was not acknowledged or rewarded, probably Esther’s part would have been noted and appreciated. With Haman’s elevation to the position of "first minister," he is now capable of bringing about the destruction of his perceived enemy, "the people of Mordecai" 3.6. Haman spent a long time in casting lots, 3.7, to determine the most auspicious day to carry out his nefarious plot of murdering every Jew in the empire. Mordecai, on the other hand, recognised Esther’s unique opportunity to extend aid to the beleaguered nation. The dangers and Esther’s options are described in detail. Haman, full of wrath, has the king’s permission to carry out the slaughter. He was continually casting ‘Pur’ or lots, until the day was determined, some 11 months in the future. Esther is apprised of all that will ensue and has but two options; she can be silent and do nothing, thereby probably saving her own life, although of this Mordecai is not so sure; or, she could go before the king, uninvited, with a strategy to show up Haman for the murdering monster he is. The latter choice is extremely dangerous, with forfeiture of life a distinct possibility. Fully aware of what is involved and of the possible consequence, Esther shows an unrestrained willingness to act as a mediator and advocate for her nation. She does so in words that have rung down the ages as the very epitome of brave self-sacrifice. Her courageous words were, "If I perish, I perish" 4.16. With such resonating words does this young woman express her willingness to sacrifice herself for the blessing of her family, friends and fellow Jews. There is no other spirit that comes any closer to replicating that which was seen in the Lord Jesus, Who in His own Person, exemplified the saying, "Greater love hath no man than this; that a man lay down his life for his friends" Jn.15.13. Such an Esther-like spirit of willing, self-sacrificing service to be seen in the sisters of the assemblies today is something to be fervently desired.
Things reach a climax as Haman gains the king’s permission, together with a royal edict for the complete destruction of the people of Israel. This consent was not hard to obtain, given the tenor of the times. The king appears to know little about his Jewish citizens but in view of the disastrous defeat in the recent war with the Greeks, large expenditures must have been incurred. The offer of 10,000 talents of silver by Haman probably seemed to Xerxes a very simple means of meeting his financial obligations. That a whole nation was to be destroyed meant nothing to him. Neither would the fact that the silver would be obtained from the booty such a massacre would yield. It was Haman’s to do with as he pleased, no doubt with his perception of the needs of the king’s realm in mind.
Once Mordecai knew what was being planned he went into a deep state of mourning, and was followed in this by the Jewish population of Shushan. Esther was told of the situation by her ladies-in-waiting and forthwith sent more appropriate clothes for one who occupied a position of responsibility in the king’s gate; no doubt to save her beloved foster father from incurring the king’s anger. Mordecai had somehow received a "copy of the decree of the writing" 4.8, which he sent to Esther by the hand of her messenger. Together with the copy of the decree, Mordecai sends her a charge that she should go in to the king, uninvited with all its prospective danger, to make supplication for her people. Mordecai had already made known the fact that he was a Jew. Consequently, Esther would be doubly endangered by going before the throne without an invite and her nationality now known to Haman. She prepares to obey the charge and immediately asks for her compatriots’ support in fasting, which lasts three days. While God is ‘in the shadows’ in the story; the Jewishness of both Mordecai and Esther are very much to the fore at this time of crisis. In fulfilling her stepfather’s charge with all its danger, Esther is extremely careful. When the king sees her dressed in her queenly robes, he knows that something very serious is on her mind, and extends to her the sceptre and thus his favour. She does nothing precipitously but carefully planning, she invites the king and Haman to a feast; this latter is invited, no doubt to allay his suspicions, now that he is aware of her Jewish nationality. Esther in this way reveals a devotedness in the face of danger, not only to her stepfather but also to her fellow religionists.
Upon hearing of the king’s commandment pertaining to his people, Mordecai instantly made clear where his sympathies lay. Regardless of his position, he was primarily a Jew and the clothing he donned; the mourning attitude marking him; and almost certainly, the fasting he engaged in; were real tokens of the measure of the man. His convictions were also revealed by the words he spoke to Esther: "For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance come from another place; but thou and thy father’s house shall be destroyed: and who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this" 4.14.
Esther’s response once again bespeaks a commendable submissiveness, and she is prepared to risk the king’s wrath, and even death, once more by going in to the throne room uninvited. That she was relying upon God, is seen in the three day fast, together with her maidservants, and asking her fellow Jews in the city to join with her in this token of deep sincerity. Her words still call forth our admiration as we think of her steadfast courage: "If I perish, I perish" 4.16. She was prepared to sacrifice everything in order to save her people.
What a strange petition it was. She and her fellow Jews were all under the sentence of death, to be carried out before the end of the year. Her request was that she might be allowed to prepare a feast, to which the king and the man who was the instigator of the commandment to exterminate the Jewish nation, were invited. He was not the first to attempt the destruction of the Jewish nation, nor has he been the last but God, still in the shadows, was looking after His own. Still, it was a most unusual request given the circumstances of the time. Even when her desire was granted she was loath to voice what was really on her mind, and asked that a further banquet under similar conditions, be allowed for the next day. This was also permitted, giving her time to gather up her courage to let the king know what she truly had to say. Such was Haman’s feeling of euphoria that he returned home that first day full of joy, boasting in the special favour shown him alongside the king and rejoicing in the suggestion of his wife and friends that a high gallows should be erected upon which to hang Mordecai.
The King’s Insomnia
Just as Vashti’s fall from favour was orchestrated by God for the preservation of His people, so one night king Xerxes cannot sleep. God was in this event as well. The answer to sleeplessness often is to read. In this case the king has the "book of records of the chronicles" of the empire read to him, 6.1. What had been overlooked and forgotten concerning Mordecai’s intervention to save the king’s life is suddenly recalled with the resulting desire on the part of the king to reward the man who saved him from assassination. The king’s gratitude knows no bounds and he is prepared to act accordingly. Xerxes’s question is "what shall be done unto the man whom the king delighteth to honour?" 6.6. Again, the God of Providence intervenes. The king’s ‘first minister’ is to hand to give advice. It is to him that the king’s query is addressed.
"The enemy of the Jews" as Haman is called in 9.10, is marked in this story by an overweening pride. As he answers the king, his natural arrogance knows no bounds. He thinks in his heart "to whom would the king delight to do honour more than to myself" 6.6. Centuries later the apostle Paul writes of those who, "being lifted up with pride … fall into the [same] condemnation of [as did] the devil" 1Tim.3.6. Haman, the emissary of Satan for the destruction of the people of Israel, is a clear example of such a one. His vitriolic hatred goes along with his exaggerated sense of his own value. In this he is a replica of the one who controls him in their senseless desire to thwart the purpose of God for the remnant of Israel. Since he thought himself to be the object of the king’s bounty he aimed as high as he could: royal robes, the king’s own mount, the crown royal and a public proclamation. The next step the imperial throne itself!
Haman’s prejudice against Mordecai and his people, his inveterate pride, his inordinate presumption are all to no avail on account of Esther’s courageous intercession. Neither Esther nor Mordecai are seeking anything for self but for their people, who are facing grave danger. With this in view, Esther goes before the king, and with Mordecai’s full support, she puts her life in danger to supplicate the king on behalf of the whole nation. It is almost certain that Haman knew of Esther’s Jewish background since he must have known of her relationship to Mordecai but, likely, for the first time Xerxes is made aware of the fact that the destruction of the Jews would include his beloved Esther as well. She could not ask for a reversal of the law that allowed for the annihilation of her kindred. That law must stand having been sealed with the royal seal but she could request that another law be promulgated which would allow the Jews to defend themselves from their enemies. The thirteenth day of the twelfth month was the fatal day determined by Haman in his constant casting of lots. The twenty third day of the third month, Haman’s punishment having been meted out, the second law was sent forth giving the Jews ample time to prepare their defence. They did so with the king’s authority as their bulwark.
Haman was not to be allowed to go scot-free. He had been invited to both of Esther’s proposed feasts and here, too, Divine control comes to the fore, to bring about the complete downfall of this evil man. Esther clearly names Haman as the perpetrator and the king’s tremendous wrath is directed against him. Such was the fierceness of the king’s wrath that the sentence of death does not even need to be overtly pronounced. One of the chamberlains reminds Xerxes of the gallows Haman had prepared for Mordecai and the king’s response is "hang him thereon" 7.9. If ever there was an illustration of the words "whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" Gal.6.7, this is it. With Esther as the remnant’s advocate, their enemy’s invitation to Esther’s twin feasts was, in reality, Haman’s death sentence.
A Courtier’s Reward
Because of Esther’s bravery and his own integrity, Mordecai is elevated to a position next to the royal throne. Unlike Haman, his ambition was centred, not on his own promotion, but on the welfare of his people. In this Esther shared. Her petitions to the king included nothing personal but were meant to procure the safety of her fellow Jews. The New Testament corollary to this is found in Phil.2.4: "look not every man [one] on his [or her] own things, but every man [one] also on the things of others". Unless some catastrophe took place Mordecai’s pre-eminent position assured Esther’s queenly status, so all was well.
What a contrast between the two prime ministers. The first, seeking riches and power for himself only: the second man pursuing only a path that would bring peace and prosperity to his nation. The outcome for both men was also so different.
To this day, when the Jewish people celebrate the joyful feast of Purim, the Book of Esther is read and each time Haman’s name is mentioned one or other of the participants expectorates. At the time of deliverance it is written concerning Mordecai the Jew that he "was next unto king Ahasuerus [Xerxes], and great among the Jews and accepted of the multitude of his brethren" 10.3. It remains so to this day.
In the last three chapters of the book we have the record of Esther’s further intercession, this time with tears, on behalf of her beleaguered people. The golden sceptre is once again graciously extended to her and her petition is heard. Haman’s device which he had devised against the Jews must be reversed and the only way is to legislate a further irreversible "law of the Medes and the Persians" that would allow them to deploy a full defence. This, under the terms of the first legislative enactment, was denied them. Now they have the king’s authority to act in his name. Mordecai is promoted to the pinnacle of political power in the kingdom and, having written letters to officials in all 127 provinces, the messengers are sent, by every means of conveyance, to inform them of this development. The "thirteenth day of the twelfth month" 8.12, was no longer a day of dreadful expectation but now queen Esther’s people are filled with "light, and gladness, and joy, and honour" 8.16. Such was the evidence of the power resident among them, even though covert, that many of "the people of the land", (Gentiles) converted to being Jews, 8.17.
On the fateful day many of the king’s officers, who would have helped carry out Haman’s edict, now lent their authority to the Jews. Whether the non-Jewish segment of the population were fully aware of the later legislation is difficult to say but it would appear that the Jews were caused to do battle with their enemies in order to benefit from Mordecai’s law. Many there are who criticise the Jews for the slaughter that took place at this time but, surely, it was a case of kill or be killed on this occasion. The enmity did not end just because a new law had come into being. The ten sons of Haman were also executed with the obvious object of ending that family’s deep-seated hostility to the Jews. Esther is sometimes accused of cruel vindictiveness in the deaths of these ten sons but note, the record does not say she was responsible for their deaths but only that after their execution by the Jews, 9.12, she requested that "men be allowed to hang them upon the gallows" 9.13 (margin). This was to be a grim reminder of what happens to those who seek the destruction of the queen’s kinsmen. Further, at a time when passions must have been running high, the Jews refused to enrich themselves with the spoils of war, 9.10,15,16. The wicked devices that Haman had purposed against the Jews returned upon his own head and upon his family, all of whom were, almost certainly a part of the deadly conspiracy.
Esther, as queen, is now endowed with wondrous authority. She and her foster parent contacted their kinsfolk scattered throughout the whole empire with a confirming and authoritative letter calling upon the nation to commemorate these events by setting aside two days, one in which the prospective danger would be called to mind and the other to celebrate the miraculous deliverance they had experienced. "A day of gladness and feasting, and a good day, and of sending portions [gifts] one to another" 9.19.
Esther, a young woman of unenviable background, in a time of severe national crisis, who was characterised by submissiveness, selflessness and devotedness is, in the overruling ways of God, a vessel whose courage and bravery became the source of peace and prosperity for fellow Jews. It is no coincidence that, in the A.V., the book that follows Esther is that of Job. Both of these books declare the same truth. One, though God is in the shadows (Esther), the other (Job) with the presence and power of God clearly evident, affirm that "all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose" Rom.8.28.