Background of Esther
Author and Date
Like many Old Testament books, Esther is an anonymous work. It is possible that the author was someone like Mordecai, who had access to historical documents (Esther 2:23; 6:1) and an interest in Jewish affairs. Esther belongs to the period after the Babylonian exile, when Persia had replaced Babylon as the ruling power. The story is set in Susa, one of the Persian capitals, during the reign of King Ahasuerus, better known by his Greek name, Xerxes I (486–464 BC). Some Jews had returned to Jerusalem, where they enjoyed a reasonable amount of control over their own affairs. Others, like Esther and Mordecai, were still in exile. As a minority group, the Jews were viewed with suspicion and sometimes faced threats to their existence.
Overview and Purpose
The book of Esther tells how a Jewish girl became the queen of Persia and saved her people from a plot to destroy them. She is assisted in this by Mordecai, her cousin and guardian.
Esther was written to explain the origin of the Feast of Purim and to ensure that it would be observed by all future generations of the Jewish people (Esther 9:28). It has clearly achieved this purpose, since Jews have continued to observe Purim to the present day. The book of Esther is read as part of the celebration of Purim.
Esther is part of a much larger story that runs all the way from Abraham to Christ and, through him, to the church. If Haman had succeeded, the Jewish people as a whole would have been destroyed, and the story of God’s saving work in and through Abraham’s descendants would have come to an end. There would have been no fulfillment in Christ, and therefore no gospel and no Christian church. Christians should read the book of Esther, not just as a story about the Jews but as part of their own heritage. Christians are not obliged to observe the Feast of Purim, but they are to take to heart the truth that God providentially watches over his own (Romans 8:28).
Esther is an entertaining historical story that also reveals important truths about how and why the Jews survived such an overwhelming threat:
1. Divine Providence
God is not mentioned by name in the book of Esther. But it shows clearly that, even when God is most hidden, he is still working to protect his chosen people.
2. Human Responsibility
Esther and Mordecai show great initiative and courage. Their actions are obviously significant. The providence of God does not negate the responsibility of people to act with courage and resolve when circumstances require it.
3. The Absurdity of Wickedness
Ahasuerus and Haman were important people who had considerable power. But the story of Esther often causes laughter at their expense. The proud people of this world are not nearly as powerful as they think they are. When they oppose God’s people they bring about their own destruction. God laughs at such people (Psalm 2:4). The story of Esther invites us to laugh with him.
I. Introduction (1:1–2:23)
II. Main Action (3:1–9:19)
III. Conclusion (9:20–10:3)
The Persian Empire at the Time of Esther
The Global Message of Esther
Esther and the Sovereign Rule of God
The book of Esther is set far away from the Promised Land, on the opposite end of the world in the city of Susa, the capital of the powerful Persian empire (c. 539–331 BC). After the Babylonian empire destroyed the Jerusalem temple and decimated the kingdom of Judah (587/586 BC), a significant portion of the remaining Jewish population was exiled to Babylon. After Cyrus defeated the Babylonians and established his Persian empire, Cyrus granted freedom for the exiled Jewish people to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple (c. 539 BC). Some, but not all, of the Jews returned to the Promised Land and began to rebuild their lives. Others remained in exile and began to build Jewish communities in the Persian empire. Esther and Mordecai, the main characters of the book of Esther, were from families that chose to remain.
The book of Esther is in the Bible to show us that the hiddenness of God is not the absence of God. Even though God is not even mentioned in the entire book, he sovereignly and mercifully preserves his people in the midst of adversity.
Still the Chosen People of God?
After the Jewish exiles returned to the homeland, they entered what is called the postexilic (“after the exile”) period of their existence. It was a time of great uncertainty, and the people had many questions. Were they still the people of God, or was God finished with them? And if homeland Jews were still the people of God, what about those Jews who never returned but chose to remain behind and live among the pagans? Were they still members of the covenant people, or had they forfeited their inheritance?
Therefore, while the immediate purpose of the book of Esther was to explain why all Jews everywhere should celebrate Purim (a festival not prescribed by the Law of Moses; see Esther 9:26–32), its deeper and more significant purpose was to demonstrate that the postexilic Jews—even those outside the Land—remained the chosen people of God. Through them, God was still committed by covenant to accomplish his plan of worldwide redemption and new creation. They were therefore protected by his quiet yet overruling sovereignty from all pagan attempts to destroy them until the “fullness of time,” when Israel gave the Messiah to the world (Galatians 4:4).
Universal Themes in Esther
The Sovereign Rule of God
The primary theme of Esther that is universally applicable to global Christians is the sovereign rule of God, even amid seemingly insignificant events. The book of Esther is noteworthy for its complete lack of any mention of God. This has caused some to question whether it belongs in Scripture. The lack of reference to God, however, works as a literary device to make the reader realize that God is on every page. Throughout the book, God is controlling, directing, and working through all the seemingly trivial circumstances in order to protect his people and accomplish his ultimate purpose of cosmic redemption.
Note how the following “coincidences” work in the book to attain God’s purposes.
First, how wonderful that Esther was so beautiful and that King Ahasuerus chose her from among all the young women of the kingdom to be his next queen (Esther 2:17).
Second, how fortunate that Mordecai overheard the plot against the king and rescued him from assassination, and that Mordecai’s valiant deed of loyalty was recorded in the royal archives (Esther 2:21–23).
Third, note that when Esther presented herself before the king (which, in Persian law, was punishable by death), she “won favor in his sight” and was spared and allowed to speak (Esther 5:2).
Fourth, it was quite a stroke of good fortune that the king could not sleep and therefore ordered that the chronicles of memorable deeds should be read to him; that the scribe just happened to read about Mordecai and his heroic act; and that the king was alert enough to ask whether Mordecai had been rewarded for his deed (Esther 6:1–3).
Fifth, how ironic for Haman to walk in just as the king was considering how he might honor Mordecai for his deed (Esther 6:4 –12).
Sixth, how unfortunate for Haman that he “was falling on the couch where Esther was” to beg for his life just as the king returned, and the king interpreted Haman’s move as an assault upon Esther (Esther 7:8).
Seventh, how interesting that Mordecai was made second in command in place of Haman over all of the vast Persian empire (Esther 8:2; 10:2–3).
God Works All Things Together for Good
Are these events insignificant circumstances? Are they merely chance? Or are they examples of God quietly yet sovereignly working on behalf of his people to accomplish his purposes? The Lord so governs situations that he overrules and thwarts the schemes of those who would seek to destroy his chosen people and works them instead for ultimate good (see Romans 8:28).
The Global Message of Esther for Today
Living in Exile
The contemporary church around the world has much to learn from the book of Esther concerning empire and living in exile. With the church now a global faith, it finds itself located increasingly within countries that are unfamiliar with the Christian tradition or even hostile to it. The global church in many places now lives an “exiled” sort of existence under pagan rule or tyrannical leaders, in circumstances similar to those faced by Esther and Mordecai under Persian imperial rule. In the New Testament, the book of Acts narrates how regularly the church had to navigate the precarious waters of a pagan empire. In fact, the Roman empire crushed the key figures of the New Testament. Pontius Pilate, a Roman procurator, crucified Jesus. King Herod Agrippa beheaded James (Acts 12:1–2). Caesar executed Peter and Paul in Rome. Roman power exiled John to the island of Patmos (Revelation 1:9).
The letter of 1 Peter teaches the global church that its members are “exiles of the Dispersion” and “sojourners” (1 Peter 1:1; 2:11). As disciples lived out their new faith before their pagan neighbors, this at times resulted in misunderstanding, suffering, and persecution (1 Peter 2:12; 4:12–13, 16, 19; 5:9–10). Undoubtedly, this felt like “exile,” as Christians realized that they no longer fit in with the immoral and idolatrous culture around them. The Roman empire was no longer their true home. They lived in the Roman empire, and they were Romans citizens (or freedmen, or slaves), but they no longer acted like Romans in numerous and important ways. Ultimately, however, Peter meant something more significant when he called the early Christians “exiles” and “sojourners.” He has theological exile in view.
Like Abraham, who wandered as a homeless “exile” and “sojourner” in the very land that God had promised to him (Genesis 23:4), Christians are exiles and sojourners in the very land that they will inherit—the whole world (Romans 4:13). They do not inherit it now, as it lies broken in its present and fallen state, but they will enjoy the liberated and renewed world when all is accomplished in Christ (Romans 8:18–25; Philippians 3:20–21).
Working for Justice and Compassion
The book of Esther illustrates that, while the Christian community journeys in this exiled existence and waits in hope for “relief and deliverance” (Esther 4:14), some believers may find themselves in positions of government within the empires in which they reside.
Christians should not be anxious about working in such contexts, but should instead use the God-given opportunity to work for just and compassionate legislation, which promotes peace and stability for all citizens. In this way, they anticipate the life of the new creation and bring a glimmer of light to a dark world.