Introduction to Esther
Passage: Esther 1:1-3
I mentioned last Sunday that my next sermon series will be a study of the Book of Esther. I am very excited for this study and to see how God uses it.
There’s no doubt that Esther is a well-written book that tells an incredible story. I can remember as a child in SS sitting on the edge of my seat waiting to hear whether or not King Ahasuerus would raise his scepter when Esther walked into his throne room and then breathing a big sigh of relief when he did. Even if you haven’t been in church much, you might be at least somewhat familiar with Esther’s story because it is a great story, and several full-length movies have been made about her. That’s because her story has all of the makings of a great movie.
It is set in the royal palace of a great king. There is romance, betrayal, and an evil villain. And the heroin, Esther, is a captivating character. She is an imperfect, orphan girl of such stunning beauty that she captures the heart of the king, and she grows into a courageous leader who risks her life to save a nation in captivity.
But Esther is not in Bible simply to tell a great story about a fascinating woman. This book is ultimately about a character whose name never appears in the book but whose fingerprints are everywhere. Esther is a story about God and about how he graciously and faithfully works for his people. Like many biblical stories, it takes the facts we know about God, and it puts them in living color so that we can behold his glory with a new perspective and understand more clearly how this great God is active in my life.
And so I pray that all of us will come to this book hungry to see God and to understand his works. Study Esther on your own, and if you miss a week, I hope you will listen online or ask us for a CD. I’d like to begin by reading 1:1–3 and we will spend the remainder of our time today setting the stage for our study of this fascinating story.
Before we get to Esther, I want to take a few minutes to talk in general about interpreting biblical stories.
Introduction to OT Narrative
I would imagine that most of us are fascinated by many of the biblical stories. They are some of the greatest stories that have ever been told, and they are intended to teach us some powerful lessons.
But we sometimes struggle to find the ultimate significance God intended in a story. After all most stories don’t conclude with, “The moral of the story is…” Therefore, we have to come to stories with a good strategy and think carefully about what God is trying to say. Therefore, before we get to Esther, I’d like to make 2 points about interpreting biblical stories and particularly OT stories.
Look at the pieces in light of the big picture.
This is important because so often when we read biblical stories, we immediately get caught up in details. We want to know about every little town or city. We want to know why a character did this instead of that. And dour application, focuses solely on what actions the characters took that we should imitate or reject.
For example, Esther 1 tells quite the story of how Queen Vashti lost her position. It’s filled with greed, drunkenness, lust, and pride, and we can learn a lot about these sins from the story. But if that’s all we see, we have missed the forest for the trees. In particular, we will miss God’s hand in the story.
And so it is very important that when you study a narrative, you immediately begin to think in terms of the big picture. Who was this story written for? What is God trying to tell them? What is the theme of the book as a whole and how does this story contribute to that theme? And so anytime you come to an OT story, it is very important that you step back and look at the pieces in light of the big picture. Second…
Look at the big picture in light of God’s eternal purpose.
The story of the Bible is built around God’s pursuit of his own glory by, as Colossians 1:20 states, the “reconciliation of all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.” God is at work to undo the effects of sin. He is building a kingdom of glorified saints who will live in a perfect creation, and enjoy his presence for all eternity. And Jesus and his work on the cross are at the center of this story. We have to see every part of the biblical story in light of this.
And from Genesis 12 through the end of the OT, Israel takes center stage in this program as God promises to bless the nations through them by raising up Messiah. This is very important to remember when we study Esther because Haman’s plot to destroy Israel is a threat to something much bigger than just one nation. It is a threat to God’s plan of redemption and to God’s ability to keep his promises. Folks, this book is not just about an assault on a weak nation in captivity; it is about an assault on God, the redemption that God promised through Christ, and our eternal hope.
And so as we study Esther, and really any OT narrative, we must see it in light of God’s purpose to provide redemption and establish a righteous kingdom; otherwise, we will miss God’s hand of grace in that story.
That being said, let’s introduce Esther. First, let’s talk about…
The Historical Background
Esther 1:1 tells us that this book takes place during the reign of Ahasuerus. Ahasuerus was another name for the Medo-Persian King Xerxes who reigned from 485–464 B.C.
Let’s talk first about the significance of these events…
From a Worldwide Perspective:
Verse 1 says that the Persian kingdom stretched from India to Ethiopia. It was a massive empire.
As the king of this great kingdom, Ahasuerus was a very significant figure in world history. You can see on the timeline that he is the fourth king of the Medo-Persian Empire.
We know quite a bit about Xerxes through the Greek historian Herodotus’s History of the Persian Wars. Herodotus took great interest in Xerxes because Xerxes tried unsuccessfully to invade Greece. In fact, his unsuccessful invasion is what Xerxes is most known for today.
In spite of that Herodotus describes Xerxes as among the greatest Persian kings. He describes him as tall and handsome, ambitious and ruthless, and as a cunning general and a jealous lover of women.
He was a proud man. The following inscription was found on a foundation stone of a major palace that Xerxes finished. “I am Xerxes, the great king. The only king, the king of (all) countries (which speak) all kinds of languages, the king of this big and far-reaching earth—the son of Darius.”
He was also a man of low morals. He was cruel to the people he conquered, and we have records of him treating his wives and concubines very poorly.
And so the Book of Esther is set in the very center of world events for that time, in the palace of the world’s most powerful man.
But even more important than what was happening on the global scale is what was happening with God’s chosen people. It’s essential that we understand Esther…
From an Israelite Perspective:
Take a look at the timeline in the middle of the chart. In 586 B.C. Judah went into captivity, and it’s hard for us to appreciate how devastating this was. Israel didn’t just lose their freedom and their home; they lost their temple and the Davidic line of kings. And they really struggled with thinking that God had abandoned them because they couldn’t see his hand anywhere.
But in 538 Cyrus the Great made a decree allowing the Jews to return to Israel, and Zerubbabel led the first wave of returnees. But at the time of Esther, Jerusalem had none of its former glory. They had a temple, but it was much simpler than the one Solomon built. The city had no walls, and it was populated by only a handful of Jews who were really struggling economically and spiritually. You see that clearly in Haggai and Zechariah.
Therefore, if you were a Jew living in Esther’s time, you would have had little to hold onto from a worldly perspective. The great kingdom that God had promised seemed very far away, and the promise that God would send Messiah to redeem the nation seemed hard to believe. And so imagine how it must have felt to hear that the king’s right hand man intended to wipe out your entire nation. You would probably just resign yourself to the fact that this is what we had coming. God has quit on us, and we are all about to die. It’s in this seemingly hopeless context that God raises up a very unlikely deliverer in Esther.
In fact, she is such an unlikely deliverer that many have questioned the validity of this book. I’d like to talk next about…
Esther is such a peculiar book that many early Jewish groups didn’t accept it as Scripture, and from the records we have, the early church basically ignored it. And listen to what Martin Luther said of Esther that he wished it didn’t even exist.
Esther is peculiar in a couple of ways that have grabbed people’s attention. First…
God’s name is never used.
Not once in any form does the narrator or any of the characters mention God’s name. Song of Solomon is the only other book of the Bible where this is true, and it has had plenty of its own detractors over the years. And so it’s natural to ask how could a book of the Bible never use the name of God.
But it’s not just God’s name that is absent. The Book of Esther never mentions the Law, the temple, the land of Canaan or other typical features of Israelite religion. That’s very different from the other biblical books from the period of the captivity and return. The Book of Daniel, for example, talks over and over about the Law, and the last six chapters are all about God’s plan to restore Israel to the land and give them a kingdom. Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, and Zechariah all have the same focus. But Esther doesn’t talk about any of these things.
The second peculiarity is that…
The book’s protagonists, Esther and Mordecai, are flawed characters.
You might be surprised to hear me say that because we sometimes make E & M out to be quite incredible, but when you really dive into the book, they leave a lot to be desired. First it is legitimate to ask…
Why haven’t Mordecai and Esther returned to the Palestine?
It had been 55 years since Cyrus’s decree, and not only have they not returned, they don’t express any concern for the Promised Land or God’s promises to Israel. This is strikingly different from Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and the prophets. To be fair, circumstances may have prevented them from returning, but it does seem that they had settled into a comfortable routine and were very content in Susa. Second…
Esther and Mordecai hide her ethnicity and compromised God’s Law.
Notice Mordecai’s advice to Esther when she is taken into the king’s harem (2:10). Esther followed Mordecai’s counsel so well that no one knew she was a Jew until years later when she had to reveal it.
And consider how competitive the challenge must have been to win her role as queen. When you think about all of the dietary laws, clothing laws, and so on that the Law required of the Jews, there is no way she could have won this competition and hid her identity that long without breaking a lot of commands. And when you consider what kind of man Xerxes was, I think we are safe to assume that during her night with him, they didn’t sit around and play Checkers. She gave her heart to this wicked, pagan man.
But you might say, “Well yeah, but Esther feared for her life.” That’s true, and she was also probably fairly young. None of us have any idea how scary that would be, so I don’t want to be too hard on her. But what did Daniel and his friends do in a very similar circumstance. They were probably also teenagers, but Daniel 1:8 states, that he “purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king’s delicacies, nor with the wine which he drank” because these things violated the OT food laws. If it meant that the king killed him, so be it. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego take the same stand in chapter 3 when they are commanded to worship an idol.
And Nehemiah was the cupbearer for the next Persian king Artaxerxes, and he was so grieved over the broken state of Jerusalem that he appeared sad in the presence of Artaxerxes for the first time. He could have been killed for his countenance, but Nehemiah didn’t hide his ethnicity. Instead, he boldly asked for help in rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls. Now, Esther ultimately made a similar, bold stand, but it took her a long time to get there and for Mordecai to encourage it. Third…
Esther and Mordecai’s vengeful spirit contradicts a biblical understanding of love and mercy.
We are going to see that when the tables turn for Esther and Mordecai and they have the king’s ear, they are ruthless in seeking vengeance on Israel’s enemies. They don’t show any mercy.
And so Esther and Mordecai don’t fit the bill of the ideal deliverer for God’s people. Esther is no Joseph or Daniel. She is a flawed character. But the reality is that all of us are flawed. There is hardly a day that goes by where I don’t feel the weight of my own flaws and wonder how I ended up a pastor. And God uses flawed people all of the time. For all of his strengths, David was seriously flawed and so was Peter. And their flaws are nothing compared to those of Gideon, Samson, and Jephthah.
But God uses flawed people all of the time, not because he wants to minimize the significance of sin but so that we would remember that the glory does not ultimately belong to us but to God. Second Corinthians 4:7 says that God uses humble sinners, whom he describes as jars of clay, so that “the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.” Paul said in our small group text for this week that it is only by “the grace of God which was give to me” that any of us can accomplish any ministry.
Maybe you feel broken and unusable. When thinking about being a good husband, raising your family, or serving in the church you say with Paul, “Who is sufficient for these things?” I’m certainly not.
If that’s how you feel, then you are right where God wants you because the gospel begins with the fact that we are all broken sinners. There is none righteous, not even one. “But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Folks, Jesus died for broken sinners like Esther and Mordecai. Maybe you have never cried out to him for saving grace. You’ve always thought it was up to you to earn his favor. I hope that you will see today that you can never earn his favor, but there is forgiveness in Christ. Believe on him today for salvation.
But maybe you are a Christian, and you just feel discouraged because you don’t feel adequate. I hope you will remember today that you aren’t alone. You are surrounded by blood-bought sinners, and none of us are adequate. Not even Paul was adequate. But God is not limited by our inadequacies. He could use Esther to rescue a nation, and he can use you. And so don’t lose heart. Rest in the grace of God and give him glory. And then go forward in the sufficiency of his grace.
So what is the purpose and theme of Esther?
Purposes and Themes
The Origin of the Feast of Purim:
From an Israelite perspective, this is the most basic purpose of the book. Chapter 9 concludes by describing how the Feast of Purim was instituted to remember how God delivered the Jews through Esther. Therefore, from a very practical standpoint, Israel needed this book so they would know what they were celebrating.
The Jews celebrate Purim to this day, and every year when they observe this feast, they read the Book of Esther. We even have records of Jews who were in the Nazi concentration camps quoting Esther as they remembered Purim and God’s promise to be faithful to Israel.
But this book does much more than give the history behind a feast. It illustrates 3 important truths about God. And this brings us to an incredible irony in this book. I said earlier that one reason some have questioned the place of Esther is because it never uses God’s name. But even though God’s name is never mentioned, his fingerprints are all over this story as he works providentially to accomplish his purpose.
Therefore, the primary theme of Esther is…
Providence is God’s mysterious work through ordinary means to accomplish his will. The key word is ordinary, which is the opposite of miraculous. For example, when God protected Israel from the Egyptians by parting the Red Sea that was a miracle. God suspended natural laws and made the water’s part. But there’s nothing like that in Esther. However, in Esther, Israel is delivered by an incredible series of events that clearly demonstrate God’s guiding hand. I can’t say it any better than Longman & Dillard do in this statement.
“(Esther) is built on an accumulating series of seeming coincidences, all of which are indispensable when the story reaches its moment of peak dramatic tension at the beginning of chapter 6. How ‘lucky’ the Jews were that Esther was so attractive, that she was chosen over other possible candidates, that Mordecai overheard that assassination plot, that a record of Mordecai’s report of the assassination plans was written in the royal chronicles, that Esther had concealed her identity, that the king would have seen her without having called for her, that the king could not sleep that night, that he asked to have the annals read, that the scribe read from the incident several years earlier concerning Mordecai, that the king was wide awake enough to inquire as to whether he had rewarded Mordecai…Luck indeed! What the writer of Esther has done is to give us a story in which the main actor is not so much as mentioned—the presence of God is implied and understood throughout the story, so that these mounting coincidences are but the by-product of his rule over history and his providential care for this people” (Longman III & Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 221).
What a blessing it is to know that God’s hand of providence is also guiding our lives. He is quietly working to accomplish his good and wise plan even when we don’t see him at work. Sometimes we get down the road, and we can look back and see what God was doing, and it’s amazing. But we don’t know half of what God has done or is doing. What a blessing it is to know that God is at work in the shadows and that we can trust him.
The Book of Esther is an incredible testament to the fact man’s evil intentions cannot overcome God’s sovereign purpose. On the contrary, God is able to use even evil to accomplish his will. Haman devised an evil plot to destroy the Jews, but God used it as an occasion for Israel to be delivered. Maybe even more incredible is the fact that God used the spiritual shortcomings of Mordecai and Esther to deliver Israel.
We are going to see in Esther that we serve a mighty God and that no man, no matter how powerful he may be, can stand against his will. God’s purpose will be accomplished, whether that be on a national scale like it was in Esther or on an individual scale like when God sustains us through temptations and trials. We can trust God to accomplish what he determines to do.
Haman wanted to destroy the Jewish people, and, at the very least, his plot had the potential to result in many Jews being murdered. But God simply would not allow that to happen because he had made promise after promise to Abraham, David, and prophets that he would send the Messiah through them and that he would give them a kingdom. And God never breaks his promises. God is always faithful and good.
God will never fail you. He may not always give you what you want, but that’s because he knows so much better than we do what is good. And so keep trusting him, keep following him, and someday in glory you will look back on your life with a much fuller perspective, and you will see the beauty of his plan and be amazed.
Many of you are familiar with the incredible story of Corrie ten Boom. She was a Christian women from the Netherlands, and during WW II, her family used their home for almost 2 years to hide many Jews who were trying to escape the Gestapo. But in February 1944, they were found out and arrested. She was placed in solitary confinement for 3 months and then spent several months in a concentration camp where she watched her sister die. I can’t imagine the horror of what she and so many experienced, but after she was released, she continued to dedicate her life to serving others and talking of God’s work in her life. She wrote a poem about her life which she entitled, “God’s Tapestry,” which is significant because the back side of a tapestry looks like a mess of thread, but the front presents a beautiful picture. Here is wrote she wrote.
My life is but a weaving
Between my God and me.
I cannot choose the colors
He weaveth steadily.
Oft’ times He weaveth sorrow;
And I in foolish pride
Forget He sees the upper
And I the underside.
Not ’til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly
Will God unroll the canvas
And reveal the reason why.
The dark threads are as needful
In the weaver’s skillful hand
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned
He knows, He loves, He cares;
Nothing this truth can dim.
He gives the very best to those
Who leave the choice to Him.