By Barry Wilkins and Stefan Callow
The book of Esther establishes the secular Jewish festival of Purim (9:20 28), observed to this day, the name based on a borrowed ancient Sumerian word Pur meaning a die for casting lots. Esther is one of two books in the Bible that does not mention God or any Jewish religious practices directly. The other is Song of Songs where we indeed find Christ. Although neither Luther nor Calvin left commentaries on Esther, all Old Testament scripture has its place in a trajectory that is fulfilled in Christ, according to a Reformation maxim, ‘Christ in all the Scriptures’, so we might ask, why should Christians notice Esther? Nothing in scripture is there accidentally. We shall not find Christ here in allegory. But we shall discover pointers to God’s purposes, especially of his love for his people and of justice.
At the end of the terrible exile of God’s people from their homeland, many Jews chose to stay in Persia. Esther takes place there in the reign of King Xerxes, in 483 BC in Susa. If Xerxes’s favourite courtier Haman had succeeded in his plot, the Jews in Persia would have been annihilated. In reading Esther, we can see several themes at work, as follows.
1. Grace. The Hebrew word for grace or favour occurs often, but not of God. Esther is described as winning the king’s (and others’) favour. In a sense, Xerxes is God’s regent, delivering His grace to His people. Another word, used commonly of God, translated ‘steadfast love’ or ‘loving kindness’, is used of the king, and ‘grace’ is found in verb form, ‘beg favour’, like in Daniel’s prayer to God in Daniel 9.
2. Courage and loyalty. Esther exhibited courage in venturing into the court (see photo)* on pain of death if not favoured by the king. Likewise, Mordecai when he refused to bow down to Haman in his bid for power and recognition. As Haman represents pagan religion, the Jewess Esther was pleading on behalf of her people, that is, God’s people.
3. Belief in further deliverance. The Jews who never forgot their great rescue under Moses, deliverances in Judges, the restoration of Joseph, and many others.
4. God’s authority overrules fate. It was pagan practice in the middle east to cast lots to determine important dates. Haman’s auspicious date for the Jews’ destruction depended on fate or the whim of the pagan gods that exist only in the minds of the heathen. Jews reading this book in the late centuries BC would have assumed that the thwarting of Haman’s scheme was God-given. The writer expects readers to understand this. Noting the sequence of coincidences, it is the hidden, guiding hand of God, rather than strategy, that arranges events, as in Proverbs 16:33, ‘The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is wholly from Yahweh’. The irrevocable ‘law of the Medes and the Persians’ might be considered to represent the irrevocable ‘law of sin and death’, but God can reverse the irreversible.
5. God’s providence. When Mordecai entreated his cousin and ward, Esther, to act to rescue her people, he says that if she did not, then rescue would come from ‘another place’. Implying that God would work out their deliverance (the Hebrew word for ‘place’ came to be used as a substitute name for God in the few centuries before Christ). God’s providence is writ large in Esther – it is God who rules events. This had already been at work in Esther’s selection as queen. Because her action was preceded by fasting, and therefore prayer, she must have expected God to act. It is noteworthy that other nationalities appeared to conclude that the reversal of fortunes required supernatural explanation (8:17). As Mordecai observes (4:14), ‘who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?’.
6. Identity. The Jews never lost their identity as God’s people despite their failings and their whoring after pagan gods, resulting in the destruction of their homeland by Babylon a hundred years earlier. Their identity as God’s chosen people was preserved during their exile, especially on account of Daniel’s prayer towards the end of their captivity (Daniel 9). In Esther, God seems to be absent, but He is truly present, invisible and hidden, working for the good of His people. The word for Jew occurs 40 times in Esther, more than all the rest of the OT. God established the Jews’ identity by his grace delivered through the king Xerxes. For us as Christians, God establishes our identity in Christ through his grace to us in OUR KING! And He is here right now supporting us, His people. How should we respond? Christ’s sacrifice reverses the irreversible. So, we do find ‘Christ’ in Esther!
Photo: The ruins of Susa in Iran showing the bases of columns that surrounded a large courtyard. Could this be exactly where Esther stepped out in faith, and could one of the gaps be where Mordecai sat?