Is God in This?, Esther

Esther is an interesting book in the Bible. Did you know there is no mention of God in the book of Esther? Not once. Not only that but there are no, what I would call, miracles. There are no events that defy the natural laws. There’s no overt supernatural intervention. There are no angels or demons. There are no visions or prophecies. It seems to be a story of just a natural series of events that occurred in history. For that reason many throughout history have wondered why Esther is even in the Bible at all. Aren’t the books of the Bible about God, about His activity, His dealings with people, His laws, His promises, His will? What is a book that doesn’t mention God doing in the Bible? Martin Luther back in the early 1500s was one who didn’t think it belonged in the Bible. Even further back than him there was a council of Jewish Rabbis in 90 A.D. that met in Jamnia near Joppa to discuss whether a few certain books really belonged in the library of sacred Scripture. And one of those few books they were kind of questioning was the book of Esther for the very reason that there is no mention of God in it. But they decided that since the people of God who lived much closer to the time of its writing believed it was written by a reliable man of God and that God intended it to be in the Scriptures that they should leave it alone and just accept it as part of the holy Scriptures.

This book is like our lives, assuming your life experience is like mine. God doesn’t talk with me directly. I have never actually heard audibly the voice of God. I’ve never received communication from God through dreams or visions or an angel, as far as I know. And I have never seen a miracle. By that I don’t mean just anything amazing. I’ve seen some amazing things in my life. But I’ve never see something that clearly defies the natural laws, like somebody walking on water or an instant restoring of a lepers skin or a withered hand or something like that. I’ve never witnessed something like that. God doesn’t show His presence overtly to me or work supernaturally in my life… like the book of Esther. My life seems to be just a natural series of events that happen because of my choices and the choices of people around me and just the chance circumstances I encounter.

Some people think that the purpose of this book of Esther was give the background for the 2 day annual Jewish feast that became a part of Jewish tradition from this time forward, called the feast of Purim. At the end of the book of Esther it speaks of the establishment of this 2 day feast. It was a celebration of the events described in the book of Esther, events in which the Jews were rescued from total genocide. They never came so close to being totally annihilated as they did in this story and yet they were rescued and not just rescued but they were also able to even rid themselves of their enemies. Purim is commemorates of this triumph of the Jewish people over their enemies.

But is this book just to explain the background of a Jewish feast? Is there really nothing to be learned from this book about God? Is God really absent and inactive in the events described in this book? And is God really absent and inactive in my life and in your life?

The word Purim is a word that means lots, as in the casting of lots, or dice, lots or dice. Part of the reason that they named this Jewish feast Purim was because in the story of Esther there is an occasion where lots are cast to see on what day all of the Jews were to be killed, and yet it turned out instead to be the day of their triumph. But there is perhaps more to the naming of this feast “Purim” than just that one occasion of casting of lots. The whole story of the book of Esther is a remarkable series of proverbial rollings of the dice. There are many events and circumstances in this book that just so happen seemingly by chance, by coincidence, that all work together just right to bring about the exaltation of some good people and this triumph of the Jews over their enemies. The Jews seem to be very very lucky in this book, like rolling of double 6s 10 times in a row.

Is God really absent and inactive in the events of the book of Esther? And could it be that though nothing supernatural, miraculous, spectacular  is happening our lives that God could still be with us and at work in our lives, just in kind of a behind the scenes way?

Well, let’s run through the story of the book of Esther.

The King’s Divorce (1:1-22)

King of Persia, Ahasuerus, otherwise known as Xerxes I, ruled over an empire from India to Ethiopia just south of Egypt.  He held about a 6 month conference. Historical sources tell us this conference was to decide how he was going to deal with the Greeks, because he wanted the Greek empire as well. At the end of the conference they had a great feast and they got drunk and the king said, “Send for my wife,” presumably to come and dance for them. She was quite young and beautiful and he wanted her to come entertain all his generals. And she sent a message back, “No.” That begins the whole story. Queen Vashti said, “No.” This put the king in a really embarrassing situation. And some of the leaders of his kingdom told him, “If you let her get away with this then just think of what all the other wives of the generals are going to do. These guys are going be in their homes and they’re going say to their wives, ‘Woman, get me a sandwich!’ And their wives are going say, ‘Get it yourself! Queen Vashti doesn’t just do whatever her husband says.’ And we’re going have a women’s liberation movement on our hands, a national crisis, if you don’t do something about this.” So king Ahasuerus divorced Queen Vashti and sent word that she was never to enter his presence again, which I think was a mild reaction for king Ahasuerus. From what we know about him in history he had a violent temper. The ancient Greek historian Herodutus tells about a time when ordered that a bride be built across the Hellespont, a narrow passage of water between the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Marmara, in order that his army might march from Turkey into Greece. The bridges were built but before any troops could cross them a storm came up and destroyed the bridges. Ahasuerus was furious and gave immediate orders that soldiers should go out into the water of Hellespont with whips and give the water 300 lashes for insubordination and then throw shackles into the water and stab the waves with red hot irons. And then he commanded that all the overseers of the project be gathered to together and their heads chopped off. So Queen Vashti I think was fortunate to just be demoted from being queen.

The Beauty Queen Contest (2:1-18)

But king Ahasuerus missed her and his attendants could tell. So his attendants said to him, “Why don’t you have a beauty queen contest and then take the winner to be your wife?” And he said, “Great idea!” So officials all over the empire gathered the most beautiful young ladies that could be found. And Esther happened to be one of those beautiful young ladies that was collected for the king’s beauty queen contest.

She was a Jewish exile of the tribe of Benjamin. She had been left an orphan at a young age. But she was adopted and raised by her older cousin, a man named Mordecai. And she was a good kid the text suggests for us. It says in 2:20 that she was always obedient to her older cousin. Mordecai and Esther happened to live in the capital city of the Persian empire where the king also lived. Before Esther went to the palace for the beauty contest Mordecai instructed her not to tell anybody about her background or her nationality, thinking if that got out it would devalue her in the eyes of the king. Well, as you could probably guess because the book is called Esther that out of an estimated 25 million women in the Persian empire Esther just so happened to win the beauty contest, so she became the queen to Ahasuerus. A Jewish orphan girl just so happened to become queen of the Persian Empire.

Mordecai Saves the King (2:19-23)

Well, then text tells us at the end of chapter 2 that one day Mordecai was sitting by the king’s gate. He liked to stay in contact with Esther, and if he stayed by the gate he’d get to see her on occasion and they could talk. And sitting by the gate he just so happened to overhear 2 of the guards plotting to assassinate the king. The guards names were Bigthan and Teresh. They had to have been thugs with names like that. They were angry at the king for some reason we’re not told.  Mordecai overheard their conspiring. So then Mordecai informed Esther about it, and then Esther went and informed the king in Mordecai’s name, giving Mordecai all the credit. Investigation into the matter was made and it was discovered that these two guards were indeed planning an assassination and so they were both hanged. Then this whole ordeal and what Modecai had done for the king was written down in the royal records. The Persians kept records of all significant events. But it appears that king forgot to thank Mordecai for what he did. And the story moves on.

Then…

Trouble Arises (3:1-15)

A man named Haman was elevated to prime minister in the empire. And he was an Agagite. It says that 5 times in the book, so you don’t miss it. He was an Agagite it says in 3:1,10, two more times in chapter 8 and one last time in chapter 9. Haman was an Agagite. That probably means nothing to you. But this partly explains Haman’s hatred of the Jews. Way back in the days of the prophet Samuel,  God commanded king Saul through the prophet Samuel to go and defeat king Agag of the Amalekites and not only defeat him but kill him for his wickedness. Well, Saul destroyed his city but just captured Agag alive.  And so Samuel the prophet took over and hacked Agag to pieces. That was Haman’s royal ancestor. And Haman presumably knew his family history, that Jews had killed his royal ancestor and many others of his ancestors.

To make matters worse king Ahasuerus commanded that everybody around the palace bow and pay homage to Haman. And Haman really took great delight in that. And yet Mordecai would not bow. I don’t know why. I don’t know if Mordecai just didn’t like Haman or if maybe Haman was presenting himself as a god and Mordecai felt that bowing to him would be unfaithful to God. But for whatever reason Mordecai would not bow. Then Haman found out Mordecai was a Jew and it just further fueled his hatred of Mordecai and all Jews. And he determined to use his power and influence as prime minister to destroy not just Mordecai but every Jew on the face of the earth.

This is where he had lots cast to decide on what day he would arrange for the genocide of all the Jews. Fortunately, it just so happened that the lots so fell that the date was set for the 13th of the 12th month which nearly a year away. Then he went to king Ahasuerus and said, “King, there is a strange people of a certain nationality scattered throughout your empire who don’t abide by your laws. They live by their own laws. They’re really a detriment to your empire. It’d be in your best interest if we just exterminated all of them.” Then Haman even bribed the king. He said, “And I’ll put $2 billion into the king’s treasury. ” Ahasuerus said, “That’s a great idea Haman.” And he handed his signet ring over to Haman so that he could stamp that it on documents that would be sent out to every area of the empire authorizing the annihilation of every Jew, man, woman or child and the seizure of their property on the 13th day of the 12th month. And the thing about the laws of the Medes and Persians was that they could not be revoked, not even by the king. Remember in the book of Daniel when king Darius of the Medo-Persian empire was persuaded to sign a decree that anyone who makes a petition to any god besides the king for the next 30 days would be thrown in the lion’s den. And then Daniel was caught praying and King Darius regretted that he’d signed that decree. He loved Daniel; the last thing he wanted to do was throw Daniel to the lions. But laws of the Medes and Persians could not be changed. So Daniel was thrown to the lions. This decree authorizing the killing of the Jews and the seizure of their property on the 13th of the 12th month could not be changed.

Esther is Compelled to Risk Her Life for Her People (4:1-17)

This decree was not hidden from the Jews. They were fully aware of their upcoming execution. So everywhere there were Jews there was great mourning, weeping, wailing, they tore their clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, including Mordecai. It didn’t take long for the news to reach Esther. Mordecai sent word to Esther that she has to go to the king and plead for the lives of her people. You might think, “Of course she would. No big deal. Just go ask your husband to do something about this.” But it was big deal. For a couple reasons. Esther had not yet revealed that she was Jewish. Revealing that would put her life at stake too. Also, in Persia no one, not even the queen, was allowed to enter into the presence of the king without personal invitation. And if anyone ventured to enter the king’s presence without an invitation they would put to death, unless the king extended his golden scepter to the person which meant they were allowed to live. And he had a violent temper. And the king had not summoned Esther for 30 days. She was maybe a little concerned about their relationship. They’d been married probably a few years now, and you know he had many other women. Was he bored of Esther? Did she still have his affection?

Mordecai sent word to her. Let me read it to you. Esther 4:13-14, “Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not imagine that you in the king’s palace can escape any more than all the Jews.” “Your life is in grave danger here, Esther.” Why would he say that? Nobody knew she was Jewish. He explains, v14, “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.” Sounds like Mordecai did not mean that it would somehow be found out that she was Jewish and then she would be killed along with all the Jews. That’s not why her life was at risk in Mordecai’s mind. Mordecai was confident that the Jews would somehow be delivered from this. But if Esther didn’t do what she could in her position to be a part of that deliverance then she was going to perish. How could he think that? He must have thought Almighty God was present and in control. And God was not going to allow this to happen to His people. The Jews now were finally loyal and obedient to Him like they had not been for many centuries. God wasn’t going to allow them to be exterminated now. And God had promises to keep to the Jews. The Messiah was still yet to come from the Jews. So God would deliver them somehow. Yet Mordecai also believed that God would hold Esther accountable for doing what she could for her people. That’s why her life was at risk here. Then Mordecai made this remarkable statement, “And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” See, Mordecai believed that though God hadn’t acted supernaturally, He was still perhaps at work behind scenes to make Esther queen so that she might be His means of delivering His people. Mordecai believed that God doesn’t have to work miraculously in order to be still very much at work in the lives of people.

Esther sends word back to Mordecai, “I’ll do it. But first gather all the Jews in this city and fast for me, don’t eat or drink for 3 days. And I and my maidens will do the same. And then I’ll go to the king and if I perish, I perish.” Now, of course with fasting there was always prayer, and certainly Esther meant, “Let’s fast and pray for 3 days before I do this.” But it is interesting that the text does not mention prayer, it only mentions fasting. I think the writer of this book intentionally left out any mention of God or connecting with God. I think he wanted to leave God totally hidden in the background in this story, perhaps to illustrate how our lives usually are, but then give hints along the way (and we’ll notice some more of the hints here in a bit) that teach us something about life when God is not clearly detected.

Esther’s Strategy (5:1-8)

So after 3 days of fasting (and prayer) Esther boldly walked into the king’s presence. I imagine those were the longest seconds of her life standing there before the king seated on his throne, waiting to see if he would extended his golden scepter to her or not. And well, you know, she found favor in His sight. He extended his scepter and said, “Yes dear? What is it?” She didn’t right there plead for her people. Instead she invited him and prime minister Haman to dinner. I suspect she wanted Ahasuerus to have a pleasant evening, to be full of good food and some wine, to be in the best mood possible when she made her request. And she perhaps wanted Haman there knowing her husband’s violent temper so that he might deal with Haman in his anger and not later on when he’d calmed down some and perhaps let Haman off the hook.

So that night they came to dinner. And Ahasuerus said to Esther, “Now, hun, what is it? I know you didn’t risk your life just to have me for dinner. What’s your request?” And Esther said, “Can we do this again tomorrow? Have another dinner? And then I’ll make my request.” What’s with that?  I don’t know if she just sensed that the timing wasn’t right or if this was part of her strategy, to make the king even more receptive to her request, to impress on him how important this request was to her. So they planned to do it again the next night.

Haman’s Plot Against Mordecai (5:9-14)

Haman left that banquet thinking quite highly of himself. Of all people he alone was invited to two personal dinners with the king and queen. How awesome was he. And as he was leaving the royal place guess who’s sitting by the gate? Mordecai. And as usual Mordecai does not bow. He doesn’t even stand up before him. And Haman was filled with rage and went home and told his wife and his friends, “I have everything, but I can’t enjoy it as long as that filthy Jew Mordecai is still alive. O I can’t wait until the 13th day of the 12th month when he and all the Jews will be killed.” And his wife said, “Well, honey, now why wait? How about you have gallows made 75ft high and then hang him up there for everybody to see what happens to those who do not bow to you?” He said, “Great idea,” and gave orders for such gallows to be made.

Mordecai Saved and Honored (6:1-14)

Well, it just so happened that that night the king had insomnia. He couldn’t sleep for some reason. And it just so happened because he couldn’t sleep that he had somebody read to him from the royal records. And it just so happened that in reading the royal records they read to him about that time when this man Mordecai saved his life. And the king said, “Wait a minute. Has anything been done for that man Mordecai? Has he been rewarded at all for what he did for me?” And his attendants said, “No, nothing has been done for him.”

Good thing he couldn’t sleep that night because guess who was at the palace first thing in the morning to talk with him about hanging Mordecai that day. The king heard that Haman was in the court and sent for him to come on in. Then the king said to him, “Haman, I’m trying to think of a reward to give to somebody who really pleases me. What would you suggest?” Haman of course thought, “Who would the king be pleased with more than epitome of awesomeness mooahh? He’s got to be talking about me.” So Haman said, “O, King, for the man you desire to honor, have one of your royal robes be put on him and put him on your horse and have your highest officials lead him through the city square and proclaim before him, “Thus is shall be done to the man whom the king desires to honor.” And the king said, “Good, let’s do that. Take royal robes and the horse as you’ve said and go do every bit of that for Mordecai.” So Haman who was hoping to hang Mordecai went and arrayed Mordecai in royal robes and put him on the king’s horse and had to lead him through the city square shouting in his praise. Then he went home crying. And then his wife and his advisers  said the most remarkable thing to him. 6:13, they said to him, “If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of Jewish origin, you will not overcome him, but will surely fall before him.” Why did they say that? The events of that day, how Haman set out to take vengeance on Mordecai but instead had to publically honor him, told those people that the God of the Jews, the God whose mighty deeds in history they had heard about, must be present and working for his servant Mordecai, that it wasn’t coincidence that the king couldn’t sleep that night and it wasn’t coincidence that they read to him what Mordecai had done for him years ago in the book of records, and it wasn’t coincidence that years ago the king forgot to reward Mordecai. They saw the fingerprints of God all over those events.

Haman’s Fall (7:1-10)

Well, now it was time for Esther’s second banquet. At the banquet as they drank their wine, king Ahasuerus said, “What is your petition, Queen Esther?” She so respectfully and cleverly said, “O king, if I’ve found favor in your sight, my petition is for my life and the life of my people. We’ve been sold to be destroyed, to be killed, to be annihilated. If only were sold to be slaves I would have kept quiet and not bothered you, but we are sold to be killed.” Ahasuerus couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Somebody is going to kill the queen and her people?! He was furious, “Who is he, where is he who would do this?” Esther points her finger at Haman sitting right there at the table and says, “The foe and the enemy is this wicked Haman.” The king was so engaged he stormed outside for a minute. Haman began to beg Queen Esther for his life. And it just so happened that when king Ahasuerus came back in, Haman begging Esther for his life, fell on the couch where Esther was sitting and it looked like he was trying to assault her. Ahasuerus said, “Will he even assault the queen with me in the house?” The guards standing by knew what to do. They immediately covered Haman’s face. They knew he was done for. One of the attendants said, “You know, at outside Haman’s house are these 75ft high gallows that he built for the purpose of hanging that guy Mordecai.” And the king said, “Hang him on it, and, honey, you can have his house and all his stuff.”

Salvation of the Jews (8:1-9:17)

Esther tells Ahasuerus who Mordecai was to her, that he was her older cousin who adopted her and raised her. So then the king gave Mordecai Haman’s job, made him prime minister, gave him his signet ring which had taken from Haman. And then Esther gave him Haman’s house.

But there was still the problem of that decree that went out authorizing the killing of the Jews and the plundering of their possessions on the 13th of the 12th month. It was still 7 1/2 months away. They couldn’t change that law. So the King  said to Esther and Mordecai, “You have my signet ring. Write a new decree, whatever you want, to counteract the previous decree and seal it with my ring and send it throughout the empire.” Mordecai wrote that on the 13th of the 12th month the Jews were allowed to assemble and defend themselves and kill anyone who tries to attack them and plunder their enemies’ spoil. The new decree and the news of the new Jewish prime minister spread throughout the empire. And I love the end of chapter 8. It says, “And many among the peoples of the land became Jews, for the dread of the Jews had fallen on them.” People all over the empire were being circumcised and becoming Jews. Why? Because they believed that the God of Jews is not just a wee god in the hills of Palestine. He is a mighty God present even in the capital of the Persian empire, and though He’s not doing anything overtly, He is orchestrating the affairs of man for the good of His people.

Over the next 7 months Mordecai as prime minister became greater and greater and more and more famous, and the princes and satraps and governors and many others respected and feared him and decided to side with the Jews and help them on doomsday. Doomsday came according to our calendar March 7th 473 B.C. In every city where there were Jews, people who hated the Jews came to attack them and take their property, but the Jews with the help of many of their neighbors defeated their enemies in every place. Over 75,000 enemies of the Jews were killed that day throughout the Persian empire. And they showed great character, great lack of greed and trust in God to take care of them, by not taking any of the plunder from those they killed. Toward the end of that day King Ahasuerus said to Esther, “Anything else I could do for you, honey?” She said, “Here in the capital city let’s have one more day of this.” Word was spread that evening in the city, and the next day the Jews in the capital assembled and killed another 300 of their enemies.

Establishment of the Feast of Purim (9:20-10:3)

It was certainly a couples days and a year to remember. So prime minister Mordecai made the 14th and 15th days of the 12month holidays for all the Jews, days to feast, to remember, to rejoice, and to give gifts to the poor. “The feast of Purim,” they called it, the Feast of Lots, the Feast of Dice.

Some would say the dice just happened to keep rolling just right for the Jews, the lots just happened to be drawn just right for them. They were just really lucky. But that’s not what Mordecai believed, that’s not what Haman’s wife and friends believed, that’s not what many all over the Persian empire who were becoming Jews believed. They believed God has an invisible hand that was working that was putting the right thoughts in people’s minds, putting people in the right places at the right times, causing people to forget things at the right time, keeping a king awake at the right time, causing the pages of the royal records to open to the right place. They believed God was moving and directing these events.

I wanted to show you another little fascinating thing about the book of Esther.

Acrostics in Esther

If a Jew, who could read this book in its original language in Hebrew, paid careful attention as he read it, he would see the name of God in this book 5 times. God’s name is in this book 5 times in acrostic form. An acrostic is when the first or last letters of consecutive words or lines correspond to the letters of either the alphabet or a word or a phrase. The ancient Israelites seem to have been fond of acrostics. You find them in a number of the Psalms, the most familiar probably that really long one, Psalm 119. The first 8 verses start with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The next 8 verses start with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet. And so on through the whole Hebrew alphabet. Proverbs 31, the description of the ideal wife, is another acrostic. In the book of Lamentations the first 4 chapters are alphabetic acrostics. Well, in the book of Esther God’s name is in acrostic form 5 times.

Now, God’s name in Hebrew has 2 forms. Most often it is 4 letters brought over into English as YHVH, Yahveh, which means literally “He is.” Another form of God’s name is EHYEH, which means “I am.” That’s what God called Himself at the burning bush when Moses asked for His name. God said, “Ehyeh Ehyeh. I am I am.” And then He went on to also call Himself Yahveh, He is. So, I am, He is, Ehyeh, Yahveh, 2 forms of God’s name. (Like Dave and David, James and Jim). Sometimes the acrostics of God’s name are backwards and sometimes they’re forwards, and it alternates, backwards, forwards, backwards, fowards. And interesting when it’s backwards it’s a Gentile speaking and when it’s forwards it’s a Jew speaking. The first 2 have God’s named formed by the initial letters of 4 consecutive words, the n the next 3 have God’s name formed by the last letters of 4 consecutive words.

Now in the examples here, which didn’t originate with me, the name of God is substituted with the word “Lord.” But it gives you an idea of the acrostics in the book of Esther. So in 1:20 you have something like “Due Respect Our Ladies shall give their husbands, great and small.” 5:4, “Let Our Royal Dinner this day be graced by king and Haman.” 5:13, “Yet remains my mooD faR toO fouL, as long as Mordecai the Jew sits at the King’s gate.” 7:7,  “For he saw that there was eviL  tO  feaR  determineD against him by the king.” 7:5 “WherE  dwelletH  the-enemY  that-daretH presume in his heart to do this thing?” From what I read there are 3 ancient manuscripts that actually have the acrostic letters in all 5 cases written larger than the other letters so that they would stand out.

God is in the book Esther, isn’t He? He’s just hidden in the background. And I’m convinced that if we are servants of God, God is very much in our lives and working in our lives just hidden in the background. Things are accomplished by our prayers, though we do see miracles happen, our prayers accomplish things. Our trials come to us not by unfortunate accident, but by His permission to test us or discipline or refine us or whatever His purpose is. The things we enjoy in life are not things we’re just lucky to have, they are gifts of His kindness, and they are stewardships He’s entrusted to us. The just so happened things of your life are not just so happened things. God is behind the scenes of our lives giving and taking and guiding and directing and protecting for His purposes, molding us into the image of His Son, and for our ultimate good. And we can rest in that. We have no enemy in all universe to fear, because He is present and active for us. I believe Hebrews 13:5, “He will never desert us, nor will He ever forsake us.” And Romans 8:28, “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”

– James Williams

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