Esther: The Hidden Hand of God

INTRODUCTION: THE BOOK OF ESTHER

As the only book in the Bible that does not mention the divine name,[1] Esther’s place in Scripture has been questioned and scrutinized.[2] However, the careful reader will quickly discover that although the name of God is absent, the hand of God is evident in the preservation of His people.

ERA: The events recorded in Esther likely take place sometime between 486-465 B.C. Thus, the story fits chronologically between Ezra chapters 6 and 7.[3] Although a significant number of Jews had already returned from the Exile, many were scattered throughout the Persian Empire. The effects of the deportation were felt around the Persian Empire for generations. However, Esther demonstrates that God had strategically placed people throughout the empire to demonstrate His unmatched power to save and preserve His people.

AUTHOR: The author is likely a Jew who had experienced the Exile first-hand. His understanding and familiarity with both the Persian and Jewish cultures support the theory that he was a Persian-Jew. Furthermore, the author is unapologetically pro-Jewish and surprisingly portrays Persia in a modestly favorable light. He does, however, demonstrate that the Jews have an enemy in the government, Haman, an evil politician, who would stop at nothing to see them annihilated. 

The most likely candidates for authorship of Esther are Mordecai and Nehemiah. Although there are strong arguments to be made that Mordecai was the author (e.g., the conversations with Esther, the behind-the-scenes accounts, etc.), it is more likely that it was a Persian-Jew of the next generation. It is unlikely that Mordecai wrote the book because he is referred to in the third person and the book ends with his career over. Additionally, when the original audience is considered (see below), a strong case can be made for Nehemiah as the author. Nehemiah would have been fluent in both the Persian and Jewish cultures and languages. Furthermore, Nehemiah would have had access to the official Persian records as well as Jewish documents. Additionally, he would have had strong reasons to communicate the theological message of Esther (i.e., God’s preservation of His people) to the Jews who had returned to Jerusalem and were facing opposition in the rebuilding of the city.    

AUDIENCE: The author’s familiarity with the Persian culture (he uses approximately 55 Persian words) as well as his style of Hebrew, supports the theory that the book was written shortly after the events occurred.[4] If Esther was written between 450-400 B.C., then the Jews who had recently returned from the Exile are the most likely audience. Although Geisler believes that Esther was written to the Jews that did not return, the structure and message of the book betray his theory.[5] The theological theme of Esther and the institution of a mandatory Jewish festival (Purim) support the theory that the book was written to the mosaic of Jews in Israel following the return from the Exile. First, the Jews who had not been exiled would need a theological and authoritative basis for the establishment and practice of the feast of Purim. Second, the Jews who had returned from other parts of the Persian Empire needed a context for understanding the feast, particularly how God had providentially spared them from annihilation. Finally, all Jews needed to be reminded that in the face of overwhelming odds that they would survive as a people. That is, God’s promises were the basis for their past, present, and future preservation. Although they may not directly see or be able to measure the work of God in the present, they could confidentially work to rebuild Jerusalem knowing that God was always at work preserving His people. 

MESSAGE: As one of the most carefully crafted narratives in Scripture, Esther communicates significant theological truths in a compelling and exciting story that involves only a few main characters but impacts the known world. Although the overarching message of Esther is that God is actively and powerfully preserving His people to bring about His perfect will, the book also presents several compelling themes that support the primary message. 

1. There is hope, even in the Exile. Hope is one of the most powerful forces known to humanity. If you give a person hope, you give him something to live for, and something worth dying for. During some of the darkest days in Israel’s history, Esther reminds us that there is always hope. There was hope for the Exiles because they served a God who was faithful to His promises and powerful enough to save them. When it appeared that their destruction was certain, Mordecai led the people to fast and repent (and pray?). These actions demonstrated that the people knew that God was their only hope of survival. Because God is sovereign over human history, there is always hope!

2. God’s power is unmatched. Although the book opens with an awesome display of the Persian King’s power and splendor, God’s power is unmatched. The most powerful king of the only superpower at the time pronounced an irrevocable law permitting the genocide of the Jewish people. Who could save them in the face of such power? There was no earthly king, politician, or priest that could protect them from annihilation. While the book does highlight Mordecai and Esther’s roles in saving the people, the narrator makes it clear that it was the hidden and powerful hand of God moving through people and institutions to protect and preserve His people. God’s ability to deliver is not limited by any human authority, including the most powerful king of the most powerful kingdom. Only God has the power to rescue His people.

3. God’s perfect will trumps human schemes. God’s plans for His people cannot be hindered, altered, or destroyed by those who hate Him and His people. The Jewish people had to survive as part of God’s plan of redemption. Remember, they were the people through whom the messiah would come. Thus, the story of Esther is a small part of a much larger narrative that will consummate in the salvation of people from all nations.  

THE MAIN CHARACTERS

1. The LORD: Although the LORD’s name is never directly mentioned, His activities are revealed in the events of the book. The narrator goes to great lengths to demonstrate that God is the true power behind the preservation of His people. According to McConville, “The absence of God’s name does not mean that He is inactive, but on the contrary, that He is hidden behind all events.”[6] As the Sovereign over human affairs, God is always at work fulfilling His promises and moving history to its final consummation. Like in every other book of the Bible, God is the real hero in Esther! From the beginning, He has been on a singular mission: the salvation, sanctification, preservation, and glorification of rebellious sinners for His own glory. In the events recorded in Esther, His power to preserve His exiled people is on full display. Furthermore, the episode in Esther demonstrates His kingly reign and divine power are not limited by governments nor geography. Even the greatest King of Persia cannot compare to the power, splendor, and sovereignty of the LORD.

2. Esther (Hadassah): Esther stands in a long line of unlikely deliverers who emerge from places of obscurity and are used providentially by God to rescue His people. Ironically, Esther’s name is related to the goddess Ishtar. However, Esther was also known by her Hebrew name, Hadassah. It is likely that her Persian name would have allowed her to keep her Jewish identity hidden. However, the time would come when she would be called upon to reveal her true identity and align herself with God’s chosen people.

3. Mordecai: The meaning of his name may reveal to some extent the assimilation of the Jews into foreign cultures. His name is a Hebrew transliteration of the Babylonian divine name “Marduk.”[7] It is hard to imagine why a Jew would take the name of a foreign god. However, there are other examples of Jews having their names changed to include references to foreign deities (cf. Dan. 1:6-7). Mordecai, however, is a study in contrasts. On the one hand, he required that Esther keep her ethnicity a secret (2:10). Conversely, he refused to bow to Haman (3:2), and told the king’s servants that he will not do so because he is a Jew (3:3).

4. Haman: He is the evil protagonist who plans to annihilate an entire ethnic group because of his hatred for one man (3:2-6). However, this hatred may have predated Haman’s political rise to the position of the highest-ranking official in the kingdom (3:1). He is an Amalekite whose worldview likely included a deep hatred and resentment toward the Jewish people. The animosity and strife between the Jews and the Amalekites came to its apex when Samuel directed King Saul to eliminate the royal blood line of the Amalekites (cf. 1 Sam. 15:1-33). It is not hard to imagine that this story would have influenced future generations of Amalekites and encouraged such hatred as manifested in Haman. Worse, Haman is a man who believes that he can control history. This attitude makes him the antithesis to Mordecai, a man who recognizes the divine sovereignty and providence of God (compare Esther 3:6 with 4:14).  

5. Ahasuerus (Xerxes): Ahasuerus reigned over the Persian Empire from 486-465 B.C. His empire covered 127 provinces from India (modern day Pakistan) to North Africa. He is widely known as the Persian King who went to war with and was defeated by the Greeks.[8] On the one hand, the audience would have understood his power and authority in contrast to that of the defeated and humiliated kings of Israel and Judah. Conversely, the audience would have likely sensed the irony of an exalted king such as Ahasuerus being made to look foolish in his household as well as his court. Finally, when the Persian King’s sovereignty is compared to that of the unnamed God of the Jews, Ahasuerus is shown to be a pawn in the hands of the real power behind History—the LORD.

THEOLOGICAL THEMES

Is it possible to separate theology from history? According to Baldwin, it is likely strange to seek theology in a book that does not even mention God’s name.[9] History is interpreted through historians’ presuppositions and biases, and ancient writers were no exception. The author, far from just reciting historical facts, is providing the reader with a theological interpretation of the events that unfolded in the Persian King’s palace.

Sadly, many scholars throughout Christian history have chosen to either ignore Esther or down play the book’s significance. In the first seven centuries of Church history, no commentaries were written on Esther. Neither of the great reformers (Luther and Calvin) wrote a commentary on the book. Moreover, the majority of commentators have viewed Esther as nothing more than a historical book. What these scholars have failed to appreciate are the implications of the author’s use of history, his juxtaposition of the characters, and the great reversals that unfold in the narrative, which all communicate significant theological truths. 

1. The Providence of God. The modern reader will recognize that God’s actions were not necessarily obvious to the characters in Esther. At no point in the narrative does God speak. He is not directly revealed to either Esther nor Mordecai. Furthermore, His people were in exile for their rebellion. Yet, the LORD upheld and preserved His people amid overwhelming odds. Although it would have been very easy to ask, “Where was God as the Jewish people faced potential annihilation?”, contemporary readers will easily recognize God’s invisible (providential) hand because they know how the story ends. Knowing that in the end God’s people are delivered and protected allows the reader to see beyond the events with an understanding that God is ultimately orchestrating history. Thus, the great reversals in the Book of Esther are not merely the result of human intervention. Neither Esther nor Mordecai’s acts would have been possible had God not providentially placed them in a position to intervene. Knowing that God was constantly and consistently working “behind the scenes” reminds the audience that God is sovereign over both the means (the strategic placement of Esther and Mordecai) and the ends (the salvation and preservation of His people).

2. The Sovereignty of God. The modern interpreter will likely be struck by the “perfect timing” that permeates the story. Crisis and chaos are countered with perfectly placed individuals who respond courageously and obediently. An unmarried Jewish girl is in the right city at the right time in history. She becomes queen of the right kingdom at the right time. Then she appoints her relative Mordecai to the right position. The right king is reigning in Persia. The ideal villain is promoted to the right position to wreak havoc and create chaos. The actions of each person in the narrative intersect perfectly to demonstrate that their lives are being guided by a powerful and sovereign God. The precisely timed plans of the only sovereign King unfold seamlessly in order that at the end, He alone is the One who receives the glory. Each person has come into a position of power and influence for “such a time as this” (4:14).

The will of two competing sovereigns is on display throughout the book. On the one hand, the King of Persia is presented as a fool who has little control over his own life, family, or court. Contrasting Ahasuerus to the unnamed King of Glory, whose plans unfold flawlessly, is a theological theme that runs throughout the book. Whereas the Persian King is portrayed as a fool whose power is limited by his ignorance and impulsiveness, the LORD is a wise and sovereign King who is consistent and faithful in the execution of His promise. 

3. The Omnipresence of God. In the Ancient Near East (ANE), it was commonly believed that gods were limited by either the people they represented or by geography. Although polytheism (a belief in many gods) was prevalent in the ancient world, Henotheism was very influential. Henotheism was the practice of worshipping one god while acknowledging the existence of other gods. Each god’s abilities or attributes were displayed in the actions of the people that he (allegedly) governed. For example, the god of the oppressing nation was believed to be more powerful than the god of the oppressed. Moreover, when an ethnic group was taken into captivity and deported, it was believed that his or her god was not active or present in the foreign nation. In other words, your particular god’s jurisdiction was limited to the land of your people.  

It should therefore come as no surprise to discover that the people of the ANE believed that the LORD was not with the Jewish people in Persia. This worldview was a challenge of the very foundations of the Jewish faith. The Jewish religion (as codified in the Old Testament) taught that God’s presence was not limited by ethnic groups or national boundaries. Thus, God was with the Jews of the Diaspora and that they were never outside of His presence. Thus, the book of Esther is asking and answering the question, “Is God with us here?” with a resounding, “Yes!” They may not hear His voice or see His face, but they are being moved and protected by His hand.

Fasting and the Presence of God. The fasting by the people in response to the King’s edict, which implies the presence of God or one drawing near to God, is compared and contrasted to feasting of the Persians. Although both the feasting and fasting unite different people for different reasons, the Persian feasting is presented as meaningless. Conversely fasting is presented as significant and effective. Furthermore, while feasting in Esther (often) implies universal sin and debauchery, communal fasting in Esther implies dependency on the LORD. Finally, the fast led by Mordecai negates the notion that everything turns on one woman (i.e., Esther). Instead, this collective act of worship demonstrates that the fate of the Jewish people depends on the imminent nature and transcendent power of God.

4. The Omnipotence of God. God’s ability to protect and preserve His people when they received an irreversible death sentence from a governmental superpower will be tested. Esther reveals that, apart from the power and intervention of God, the Jewish people would have been annihilated.

The omnipotence of God is revealed in the great reversals of history. In the larger story of the Old Testament, the people returning from exile is a significant and overarching reversal. In the Book of Esther, several reversals highlight the power of God. First, the plight of the Jews is turned into the triumph of the Jewish people. The people had received a death sentence but by the end of the book they had been delivered. Second, although it may appear to be a lesser reversal, the fact that the king had forgotten about Mordecai but then suddenly remembered him is a demonstration of the powerful way God uses people in power to bring about great reversals for His people. Third, Mordecai and Haman switching roles is another significant reversal. Fourth, the citizens who sought to kill the Jews became causalities of their own violence. Finally, the people of God go from fasting (mourning) to feasting (celebrating). 

THEOLOGICAL ISSUES

1. The Conversion of Gentiles in the Old Testament (cf. Esther 8:15-17).

Although it may at first surprise the casual reader that non-Jews were included in the covenant community of the Old Testament, a student of the Scriptures will quickly recognize that a number of Gentiles confessed faith in the LORD. For example, Rahab the Canaanite (Josh. 2) not only professed her faith in the LORD but she also acted on that faith (James 2:25). Additionally, Ruth the Moabite (Ruth 1), Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5), and Jonah’s Assyrians (Jonah 3) are all examples of non-Jews professing faith in the LORD.

Like in the Exodus when a mixed multitude joined Moses and the Hebrews as they fled Egypt (Ex. 12:38), those who attach themselves to the Jews (Esther 8:17; 9:27) aligned themselves with the covenantal people of God. Thus, they become a part of the believing community and receive the promises and blessings of God. In some respects, they were a foreshadowing of the Gentiles who would be grafted into God’s family (cf. Rom. 11). 

2. What is Purim? (cf. Esther 9:20-32)

The feast is similar to the Passover because it serves as an annual reminder of God’s providential power in delivering His people in the face of overwhelming odds. As the people celebrated the feast, they were invited to symbolically relive the deliverance that God continues to provide and collectively celebrate the fulfillment of His promises.

As the only annual religious holiday originating outside of the Promised Land, Purim also reminded worshipers that God’s providential care and redemptive power are not limited by geography nor restricted by man-made jurisdictions. In the Ancient Near East, gods were thought to be limited by geographical and ethnic boundaries. However, the Book of Esther demonstrates that the LORD is not bound by human limitations. Therefore, the feast communicates to the worshipers that their God had no rival. Their future hope was based on the past performance of the God who orchestrated the redemption of His people through unlikely people in an unlikely place and against unbelievable odds.  

3. The Book of Esther and the Gospel.

It is vitally important that Christians recognize and appreciate the contribution of the Book of Esther to both the Old Testament and the Bible as a whole. In order to do so, the modern reader must understand how Esther fits into the larger story of the Bible. Although character studies of Old Testament persons have been widely accepted among contemporary Christians, it is (for the most part) an inadequate way of reading the Old Testament. Replacing this man-centered method with a God-centered approach requires an understanding of how the Bible is structured and meant to be read. The Old and New Testaments are parts of a unified story wherein God saves and preserves His people, which will include persons from all nations (cf. Rev. 7:9-12). The hero of this metanarrative is not the flawed and fallible characters, but the God who is faithful to His promises.

Throughout the Bible, the reader is confronted with two inseparable and foundational truths. First, that God is perfect, holy, and consistent (faithful). Second, that humanity is sinful, rebellious, and inconsistent. Thus, the elevation of either Esther or Mordecai (who are fallible sinners) would be inappropriate. Although they played very important roles, had either of them neglected their duties, God would have raised up another deliverer. Mordecai acknowledges this truth when he says to Esther:

For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14).

In addition to identifying the Bible’s real hero, the modern reader must understand its primary theme, which is the salvation and preservation of a people for God’s glory. This salvation would ultimately come through the incarnation, sacrificial and substitutionary death, and glorious resurrection of the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. God’s preserving work throughout the Old Testament, which is clearly illustrated in the Book of Esther, is essential to His saving work that is accomplished in Jesus Christ. God had promised to redeem humanity through the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15), who would be a descendant of Abraham (Gen. 12). If He did not preserve this line of people, God’s promises would have failed and our salvation would not have been secured. However, Esther illustrates that God is continuing to shape history to fulfill His promises and secure the salvation of people from every ethnic group.

4. Why is the name of God absent from Esther?

Jews who lived in a foreign and hostile environment constantly faced unique challenges. Expressing and living according to their religious beliefs, especially when those beliefs were in opposition to the ideological, philosophical, and religious views of the majority, was both difficult and dangerous in the Ancient Near East. In the 5th century B.C., the Jews were one of many ethnic and religious minorities spread throughout the vast Persian Empire. However, their beliefs and practices caused them to stand apart from both the majority and other minority groups (cf. Esther 3:8; Daniel 1:8). These differences made the Jews easy targets for persecution. However, many Jews were entrusted with positions of authority or importance in foreign kingdoms (e.g., Joseph, Daniel, Mordecai, Nehemiah). In the present case, Mordecai who held positions in the Persian government (Esther 2:21, 8:2) had to navigate the complexities of living and worshiping as a minority in a foreign land. It is likely that Mordecai and his successors recorded the events that unfolded in the Book of Esther for the official Persian records (cf. 9:20; 10:2). Therefore, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the name of the Jewish God would be intentionally left out of these official Persian records. Nevertheless, the author remains committed to demonstrating that the preservation of the Jews was the result of the providential work of God (cf. 4:14). Thus, Esther may represent a contextualized account that attempts to proclaim significant theological truths (e.g., God’s sovereignty, power, and presence) that would be recorded in the archives of the Persian royal records.     

However, the stronger argument is that the author, who writes under divine inspiration, is using the absence of God’s name as a literary device to make a theological point.[10] The divine name of God revealed in the Old Testament is transliterated as YHWH. Although the divine name wasn’t pronounced for centuries, the Hebrew word is commonly pronounced as either Yahweh or Jehovah and is translated in English versions of the Bible as LORD. The name roughly means, “I am that I am” or “I am the self-existent one who needs no one or nothing else to exist.” The name, like other names of ancient deities, was intended to communicate the attributes or characteristics of God. Namely, that the LORD alone is self-existent, eternal, and is completely independent of anything or anyone that He created. In other words, no human name or word can truly capture the full nature and power of the Almighty. Thus, His name reveals that He is not limited by human will or actions. The absence of His name in Esther or at any other time in history in no way limits His ability or activity. Therefore, His powerful and effective work in the absence of any human declaration of His name demonstrates that He is truly self-existent and completely independent from His creation. The message, therefore, is that the unchanging and all-powerful God who revealed Himself to Moses has no rival. What other god would or could actively preserve a people without being acknowledged? Esther answers this question in a peculiar way. That is, by not mentioning the divine name but instead demonstrating the LORD’s divine activity.

WHERE DOES ESTHER FIT IN SALVATION HISTORY?

The one story of the Bible unfolds over thousands of years, in a variety of contexts, and includes the most unlikely people. Although there is a great deal of diversity in the story, which includes different people groups, regions, and kingdoms, the Bible must not be read as a collection of stories. Instead, Christians read and understand the Bible to be one story: the redemption of God’s people by grace through faith in His person, promises, and work. As Christians, we are grafted into this story, which makes it our story (cf. Rom. 11). Thus, when we come to any book of the Bible we must ask:

(1) How does this book fit into the unveiling of the story of redemption (i.e., salvation history)?

(2) How do we (as those grafted in by faith in Christ) view this story?

Chronologically, the events in Esther unfold near the very end of Old Testament history. In fact, the only events that take place after Esther are recorded in the second part of Ezra and the book of Nehemiah. Thus, the reader is given a glimpse of how the promises that God made to Abraham are fulfilled throughout the ages leading up to the time of Christ (Gen. 12:1-3, et. al.; Gal. 3:8-18). Esther, therefore, is a reminder that God has not forsaken His people and that He will fulfill His promise to Abraham.

Christians should not relegate the Book of Esther to the status of a character study. The book is not about Esther’s character, it’s about God’s. The God who was providentially working behind the scenes and through unlikely people continues to work in mysterious ways. Thus, Christians should be encouraged to know that God is not limited by human wealth, authority, or power. Regardless of the circumstances, God is always actively shaping history, which includes people and events, to bring about His will.

RELEVANT PERSIAN KINGS

KINGREIGNBIBLICAL REF.
Cyrus II “The Great”559-530 B.C.Ezra 1:1-2
Cambyses II530-522 B.C.Not mentioned
Gaumata522 B.C.Not mentioned
Darius Hystaspes522-486 B.C.Daniel 6:8-15
Ahasuerus (Xerxes)486-465 B.C.Esther 1:1
Artaxerxes I464-424 B.C.Nehemiah 2:1

[1] Although it has been suggested that Song of Songs does not mention the name of God, a form of the divine name appears in 8:6 (Yah), “the very flame of the LORD” (ESV).

[2] See, Baldwin, J.G., “Luther, who in his Table Talk said of 2 Maccabees and Esther, ‘I wish that they did not exist at all; for they Judaize too much and have much heathen perverseness’” (quoting Table Talk, xxii.), 52.

[3] Geisler, Norman L., A Popular Survey of the Old Testament, Baker Book House (Grand Rapids, 1977), 171.

[4] See, Baldwin, J.G., 49 footnote 1 (quoting H. Striedl).

[5] See, Geisler, N.L., 172.

[6] McConville, J.G., Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Westminster John Knox Press (Louisville, Kentucky, 1985), 153.

[7] Merrill, Eugene. Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel, Baker Books (Grand Rapids, 1996), 501. 

[8] Baldwin, 55-56.

[9] Id., 36.

[10] Some Greek versions of Esther include prayers and notations that contain God’s name (these are latter additions to the text). However, the Masoretic Text (MT) does not contain these additions. The MT is the primary source for modern translations of the Old Testament. 

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