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Esther

Faith, Wisdom, and Action, vs. Anti-Semitism
October, 2004

  • Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. 1 Corinthians 10.12
  • “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.” (William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, act 4, scene 3, lines 239–42)

Theme

  • Faith, Wisdom, and Action, vs. Anti-Semitism. God will work through men and women who trust the living God (though their faith may appear to be weak and sometimes uninformed), and who live and make decisions and application based upon biblical wisdom (though they may not seem to know many details of Bible doctrine), and then act because of their faith and wisdom to overcome evil opposition. In this case God worked to preserve his people from destruction.

There are questions that relate to the theme.

  • Were Esther and Mordecai wrong to remain in Persia?
  • If so, what about Nehemiah? Was Nehemiah wrong to stay in Persia and serve the king?
  • Did Esther and Mordecai prepare the way for Ezra and Nehemiah?
  • Did Esther and Mordecai set the stage for Persia to favor the Jews in Judea?
  • Were Esther and Mordecai missionaries?
  • Why is God not mentioned by name in the book?
  • Why is nothing said about the relationship of Esther and Mordecai to the Lord God of Israel?

History Overview

  • Esther, Mordecai, Haman, Vashti, and Xerxes lived in the fifth century BC.
  • Refer to the notes on Ezra and Nehemiah for the general history. Xerxes (r. 486-465 BC) was Persia’s king during the events of the book of Esther.
    • The events of Esther began in 483 BC, during the Persian Empire. The empire stretched into India, Egypt, and North Africa. It began with Cyrus in 559 BC, and ended with Alexander’s defeat of Darius III at Gaugamela in 331 BC.
    • Among Persia’s famous fifth century battles are Thermopyle (victory, 490 BC), The Battle of Marathon (defeat, 490 BC), Salamis (defeat, 480 BC), Plataea (defeat, 479 BC), and the naval battle at Cape Mycale (defeat, 479 BC). Cape Mycale ended phase 1 of the second Persian War Persian and the Persian invasions of Greece.
    • The prophets Haggai (520 BC), Zechariah (520-518 BC), and Malachi (450-430 BC) taught and wrote God’s word during this time period.
    • Pagan religious founders lived at this time.
      • Gautama Buddha (about 550-480 BC) in India.
      • Confucius (551-479 BC) in China.
      • Socrates (470-399 BC) in Greece
    • Recall that Artaxerxes I (r. 465-423 BC) followed his father on the throne. He was king of Persia after Esther and during Ezra and Nehemiah’s service (Ezra 4:6-7).
    • The Jewish people returned to their land in three groups. This was similar to the three groups Babylon exiled (606 BC, 597 BC, and 586 BC.
      • The first group returned to Judah in 536 BC. Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel led them. Cyrus was king of Persia. They completed the temple in 515 BC, during the reign of Darius I (Ezra 1-6).
      • The second group returned in 458 BC. Ezra led them. Artaxerxes was king of Persia (Ezra 7-10).
      • The third group returned in 444 BC. Nehemiah led them. Artaxerxes was king of Persia (Nehemiah 1-2).

Author: we do not know who authored Esther.

  • a.      The author was very familiar with the Persian court and with Persian culture. The author wrote as someone who had witnessed the events. He probably was a Jew. Ezra or Nehemiah could have written this book. It was probably written between 470 BC and 424 BC.

Key Verses: Esther 4:14-16 and 10:3.

  • a.      Esther 4:14. “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. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?”15 Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai, 16 “Go, assemble all the Jews who are found in Susa, and fast for me; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens also will fast in the same way. And thus I will go in to the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.”
  • b.     Esther 10:3. For Mordecai the Jew was second only to King Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews and in favor with his many kinsmen, one who sought the good of his people and one who spoke for the welfare of his whole nation.

Key People

Xerxes

  • Xerxes (Ezra 4:6; Esther 1:1, 2, 9; 2:16; 3:1; 8:1; and others; Daniel 9:1) was the son of Darius Hystapes and king of Persia from 486-465 BC. He was Persia’s king during Esther’s story. He succeeded his father as king of Persia in 486 BC, at his father’s death. Prior to this, Xerxes was governor of Babylon, so he had experience in leadership and administration.
  • Xerxes had certain interests and priorities: he wanted to complete the royal palace at Susa (Shushan); he also wanted to enlarge and beautify the Persepolis palace; and he wanted to conquer Greece. His construction projects occupied much of his 21 year reign.
  • When he came to power Egypt revolted. He had to solve that problem. In doing this, he alienated the priestly caste by suppressing the Egyptian religion—not a good move. But, he was able to bring Egypt under control.
  • The next major job that he undertook was a vast military expedition to the west—Greece. This was a continuation of his father’s plans. The 6 month long banquet of Esther 1:1-4 was probably to rally support for his coming Greek military expedition. He began in 481 BC. Xerxes was victorious at first, but then Greece won a series of victories that eventually sent Xerxes home. Among famous fifth century battles were Thermopyle (victory, 490 BC) and the Battle of Marathon (defeat, 490 BC)—both during his father’s reign. Xerxes was king during Salamis where the Persians lost over 200 ships (defeat, 480 BC), Plataea (defeat, 479 BC), and the naval battle at Cape Mycale (defeat, 479 BC). Xerxes blamed the losses on his Egyptian and Phoenician mercenaries. They were not about to take his blame, so they quit the war. Xerxes put General Mardonius in command and returned home. Mardonius lost a number of battles and was killed at the battle of Plataea. In 479 BC, at Mycale, the Greeks defeated the Persians and ended any hope of Xerxes for domination of Greece.
  • When Xerxes returned home in 479 BC, after his military defeats, he recalled his domestic trouble with Queen Vashti. At this point he searched for a new Queen. Esther entered the harem and Xerxes chose her to be the new Queen (Esther 2:1-17).
  • After Xerxes lost face due to his failed military expeditions, he gave his time to construction projects, drinking parties, chasing women of the court, and his harem. His behavior was often unpredictable. He would have fits of anger. In 465 BC, Artabanus, his vizier, murdered him and put Xerxes’ son, Artaxerxes I on the throne.
  • We see in Xerxes instability, quest for recognition and self-glory, lack of self-discipline, a low value on human life as evidenced by his decree that allowed Haman to destroy the Jews in 474 BC, and a king who did not seem to search below the surface for causes of problems and the solutions. On the plus side he allowed Esther to present her case for the Jews and against Haman. He allowed the Jews to defend themselves in the face of the decree Haman got from him to destroy the Jews (474 BC). He also promoted Mordecai, a Jew, to Haman’s position.  On the whole, Xerxes was probably no worse or no better than most of the rulers of that time.

Haman

  • Haman is the villain of the book of Esther. He was the son of Hammedatha the Agagite (Esther 3:1, 10; 8:3, 5; 9:24).
    • Josephus (Antiquities 11.209) says that Haman was descended from Agag and was an Amalakite. Haman or his father could have come to Persia as captives.
  • Agag was a title for Amalekite kings; the Amalakites were enemies of Israel. Saul, against God’s command had spared Agag, king of the Amalakites, in battle when the Lord told Saul to destroy him. This sin demonstrated Saul’s negative attitude toward the Lord, and as a result of this disobedience, the Lord rejected Saul as king of Israel (1 Samuel 15).
    • Against this view, an inscription by Sargon II, an Assyrian king (721-705 BC), notes that Agag was a district near Media and became part of the Persian Empire. "Thirty-four districts of Media I conquered and I added them to the domain of Assyria: I imposed upon them an annual tribute of horses. The country of Agazi (Agag).... I ravaged, I wasted, I burned."  (John Urquhart, ISBE, 2003). Gleason Archer also understands Agagite to mean Haman was from this province instead of a distant relation to the Amalekite king (Survey OT, 421).
  • Haman had gained favor in Xerxes’ service so that the king promoted him to prime minister of his Persian kingdom (Esther 3:1).
  • Haman had such an inflated ego that when Mordecai would not bow to him (probably as a recognition of divine status), his hatred for the Jews exploded and he devised a plot to have Mordecai and all the Jews in the kingdom destroyed (Esther 3:8-15). Furthermore, if Haman was in fact descended from the Amalakites, the longstanding animosity between Amalakites and Jews would partly explain his hatred of Jews (Esther 3:4-6).
  • By God’s providence, Mordecai and Esther used Haman’s own plans and actions to expose him. Xerxes ordered him hanged on the gallows that Haman had built for Mordecai (Esther 7:1-10).
  • We see in Haman a man utterly controlled by quest for recognition and glory. He was vindictive to anyone who might stand in his way (Mordecai in Esther’s story). Haman was actually quite cowardly as shown by his exchanges with his family and friends and when Esther revealed his plot to Xerxes. His anti-Semitism seemed to be arbitrary in that he opposed any group who might appear to hinder his quest for power and glory. As happens to most Hamans in the world, he eventually brought about his own destruction.

Mordecai

  • Mordecai was a Jew with a job that kept him near the Persian palace in Susa during the reign of Ahasuerus—Xerxes (Esther 2:5). He is mentioned 57 times in the book. Mordecai was Esther’s cousin and guardian (Esther 2:7, 10, 11) He was in Benjamin’s tribe, as was King Saul.
  • He advised Esther about how to act during the year long preparation of the king’s potential queen (Esther 2:10-11). After she became queen and Haman’s plan was known, he challenged her take action to protect the Jews (Esther 3:13-14). Mordecai had also discovered and told Esther of a plot to assassinate the king (Esther 2:21-23). We see that Mordecai was alert, loyal, careful, and one who acted in the face of trouble.
  • Mordecai would not bow in worship of Haman. The text does not say, but Mordecai likely was a Jew loyal to the Lord God of Israel. In retaliation, Haman devised his plan to kill Mordecai (Esther 3:2-6; 5:9). In the face of Haman’s vengeance, Mordecai was steady in his support and protection of his Jewish people (Esther 4). Once Xerxes hanged Haman, he promoted Mordecai to Haman’s position (Esther 8:1-2). Mordecai’s faithful work in Susa brought him promotion and honor.
  • Mordecai, along with Queen Esther, wrote a decree that allowed the Jews to protect themselves (Esther 8:7-17), with the result that the Jews defeated those who hated them (Esther 9:1). He also ordered the annual celebration of the Jews’ victory—Purim.
  • The last notice about Mordecai was that he was great, wise, and patriotic to his own people and to Persia (Esther 10:1-3). He combined faith—and as with Esther, we do not know the personal relationship he had with the Lord God of Israel—wisdom, and action for the welfare of Esther, the Jews, and the Persian people. As to why he did not return to Judah, we do not know. Was he wrong by not returning? We cannot say. Certainly the Lord put people in different places to protect the Hebrew people. Mordecai seems to have been one of these.

Esther

  • Esther is one of the heroes of the book bearing her name. She lived during the fifth century BC. Her exploits occurred during the reign of Xerxes I (Ahasuerus), who ruled Persia from 486 to 465 BC. The name, Esther, either comes from the Persian word which means star or from the Babylonian goddess, Ishtar. She is named 55 times in the book (Esther 2:7, 8, 10, 11, and others). Her Hebrew name is Hadassah, which means myrtle. The Babylonian Talmud claims that she is one of the four most beautiful women in the world. She is the cousin of Mordecai; Mordecai became her guardian after her parents died (Esther 2:5).
  • She entered the historical record at a time when Xerxes was in turmoil because of military defeats and Queen Vashti’s rebellion. Xerxes looked for a queen replacement. Apparently Esther did not apply for the job, but due to her beauty and reputation she was selected to join the group of women from whom Xerxes would choose his queen (2:8).
  • She, as with Joseph and Daniel, had something about her character that impressed her superiors. Probably her looks, grace, intelligence, humility, and ability made her stand out from the others (Esther 2:9, 15). She also impressed Xerxes and she was chosen as queen (Esther 2:16-17).
  • Cousin Mordecai advised her throughout her year of preparation (Esther 2:10-11, 20) and later advised her to seek an audience with Xerxes because of Haman’s plans (Esther 4:13-14). From this we can see that she was teachable and humble.
  • Once Esther decided to help her people (Esther 4:15) she planned and put the plan into action (Esther 5:4, 8). She ordered two banquets with the king and Haman as the guests. The first set up the guests, and the second exposed Haman (Esther 7:6). Not only did Esther possess outstanding character traits and physical beauty, she was a quick thinker and leader when necessary. Esther’s plan to reveal Haman’s plot and to save her people indicated patience, steadiness of purpose, and planning.
  • With Haman out of the way, Esther told the king that Mordecai was her cousin (Esther 8:1). With the king’s permission she made Mordecai the administrator of Haman’s estate (Esther 8:2). Esther then appealed to the king a second time (Esther 8:3-5); this time to reverse Haman’s decree. Since he could not, he told Mordecai and Esther to write up a legal decree that would get around his original decree (Esther 8:8).  This decree allowed the Jews to defend themselves (Esther 8:11-12, 17). The second decree was published and carried out resulting in the Jews destroying those intent on purging Persia of Jews according to Haman’s plan (Esther 9:1).
  • Purim comes from the word for “lot.” Purim became the name of the celebration that remembered the Jews victory over the anti-Semitic enemies. The date set was Adar 14 and 15 (usually the latter part of March). Esther and Mordecai authorized this remembrance (Esther 9:20-22, 26-29).
  • Esther, then, was a young Jewish woman of wonderful character, intelligence, beauty, and initiative. She understood submission to authority and then how to use authority when she was in a position to do so. She was teachable and also a leader. We wonder why she kept her Jewish heritage secret at first. There is probably more beneath the surface that we do not understand. Possibly her action anticipated “There is a tide in the affairs of men Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune” (William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar). She waited to take the right action at the right time. If this is true, she was a woman of faith, wisdom, and action. If she hid her identity out of fear; if she failed to speak of the Lord because he was not a personal part of her life; then we still have a picture of a woman with faith (though not a personal relationship with the Lord), wisdom, and action. Either way, she demonstrated intelligence and courage.

Key Words Used

  • Pur, 3X (Esther 3:7; 9:21, 26). Pur is the word for a lot which is thrown to determine a decision (often from the gods of the day). To cast a lot today would be like throwing a coin to see if heads or tails would show or like throwing dice.
  • Purim, 5X (Esther 9:26, 28, 29, 31, 32). Purim comes from the word “lot” which was the way Haman chose the day for his purge of the Jews. The lot chose Adar 13, in 2004. Purim is the celebration remembering God’s deliverance of the Jews from Haman’s intended massacre. Purim is on Adar 14 (usually March 7). Adar is the sixth month of the religious calendar (February-March) and the twelfth month of the civil calendar. Shushan Purim was set on Adar 15 because Shushan was a walled city and their deliverance was not completed until the 15th. On Purim the Jews have parties. They send food and drink gifts to friends and give gifts to charities. They read the book of Esther and each time Haman’s name is read they hiss, boo, stamp their feet, and use noise makers. So, Purim is a happy celebration in remembrance of God’s deliverance from Haman’s pogrom.
  • Defend, 2X (Esther 8:11 and 9:16).
  • Decree, 8X (Esther 2:1, 8; 3:9, 15; 4:3; 8:8, 14, 17).
  • Jew or Jews, 52X (Esther 2:5; 3:13; 4:16; 8:13; 9:25; 10:3).

Overview Outline

  • Xerxes replaces Vashti with Esther (Esther 1-2).
  • Haman plots against the Jews because of pride and anti-Semitism (Esther 3-4).
  • Esther bravely intercedes for her people (Esther 5-7).
  • The Jews defend themselves (Esther 8-10).

Chapter Titles

  • Chapter 1: Replace Queen Vashti
  • Chapter 2: Esther chosen; Mordecai reveals a plot
  • Chapter 3: Decree: kill the Jews
  • Chapter 4: Mordecai asks Esther to help
  • Chapter 5: Esther invites Xerxes and Haman
  • Chapter 6: Xerxes honors Mordecai, not Haman
  • Chapter 7: Esther’s banquet; Haman hanged
  • Chapter 8: Counter decree: Jews can defend themselves
  • Chapter 9: Jews kill enemies; Purim
  • Chapter 10: Greatness of Mordecai

Trace the Theme: Faith, Wisdom, and Action, vs. Anti-Semitism.

  • In chapter 1, the story begins with Xerxes, in 483 BC, giving a six month banquet. At the end he ordered Queen Vashti to show off her beauty. She refused. Memucan advised that she be replaced. At this point Xerxes went on his Greek military expeditions. Both Xerxes and Vashti are upset (1).
  • In chapter 2 Xerxes returned from defeat at the hands of the Greeks in 479 BC. He began a search for a new queen. Mordecai advised Esther to conceal the fact that she was a Jew. She would later reveal this to the king. Was this wise waiting for the right time? Probably. Later on, Mordecai uncovered and a plot against the king and saved the king’s life. Mordecai did not benefit at the time. He was patriotic and humble. He just did what he should have done (2).
  • In chapter 3 Haman wanted Mordecai to bow before him. Mordecai would not, possibly because Haman wanted god-like recognition. This of course made Haman furious. Haman plotted to kill Mordecai and all the Jew in the Persian kingdom. Power lust and ego drive Haman (3).
  • In chapter 4, Mordecai mourned at the death decree against his people, but he stayed cool. He informed Queen Esther and challenged her that God may have been made her queen in order to preserve her people—to stop anti-Semitism against the exiles. Mordacai’s faith, wisdom, and action show themselves. Esther answered in effect “let’s roll—I will lead the action” (4).
  • In chapter 5 Esther approached the king to plead for the Hebrews. But, she wisely did not say what was on her mind. She knew, but patiently played out her plan. She acted courageously; Xerxes could have had her killed for coming without invitation. She invited Xerxes and Haman to a banquet. At that first banquet she requested that the king and Haman would attend another banquet the next day. She did not betray her plan. She was patient, humble, honest, and direct. Haman took her bait (5).
  • In chapter 6 the king had insomnia. He asked for reading material—chronicles of palace activities. Here God worked Mordecai and Esther’s faith, wisdom, and action together for good. Mordecai was honored with honor Haman expected (6).
  • In chapter 7 Esther opened up. She exposed Haman; Haman exposed himself. The king hanged Haman on the gallows built for Mordecai. God worked. Who could have guessed it (7)?
  • In chapter 8 Mordecai is honored for his patriotism, for his faith that God would do something, for his wisdom through out, and for his active role in exposing Haman and helping Esther. Esther was also honored. She took another courageous step. She asked that Haman’s decree be revoked, knowing that her request for impossible. But Xerxes did something for her and her people. He had Esther and Mordecai write up another decree—they could word it how they wanted. This shows his trust and respect for Mordecai and Esther. The Jews could defend themselves (8).
  • In chapter 9 the plans of Esther and Mordecai brought victory for the Jews in Persia. Those who hated the Jews feared. The Jews took courage. They killed 75,000 anti-Semites but did not take another’s property. The Jews celebrated with a feast called Purim. Mordecai again showed his wisdom by making the Purim celebration an annual festival to recall their deliverance from the Persians (9).
  • In chapter 10 Mordecai was recognized as second only to the king in the Persian kingdom. The Jews, too, honored him as wise and good for them. Should Mordecai and Esther have returned to Judea? Maybe so, but God used them to work protection and blessing for the exiles in Persia. And not only that, Xerxes and others learned the greatness of Israel’s God.

Key Doctrines

  • God works through people to preserve Israelites outside of their land. God will always have Jewish people alive on earth.
  • Readiness, timing, wisdom, and patience, combine with enthusiasm, energy, and action to accomplish the right purpose in the right way at the right time.
  • A person trusting God, gaining and using biblical wisdom, and acting in keeping with faith and biblical wisdom will honor the Lord, preserve and benefit people, and may bring proper honor to himself.
  • One can follow the Lord and still be a patriot of one’s country. In fact, spiritual patriotism and national patriotism work together.

Lessons for us today.

  • Am I good for my country—an informed and believing believer who understands God’s word and therefore possesses biblical wisdom and then acts based upon my faith and biblical wisdom?
  • Am I prepared, ready, and willing to risk my personal life and reputation to do what is biblically right in the life of the United States of America.
  • Do I know when to keep silent and when to speak; when to patiently wait and when to act; and how to act when the opportunity arises?
  • Can I handle unjust criticism, personal attacks, and politically correct adversaries and at the same time continue to trust God, gain God’s word, and serve him?
  • Can I handle honor, praise, and fame; and, can I handle wealth and power?

Closing Scripture

  • Esther 4:14. “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. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?”15 Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai, 16 “Go, assemble all the Jews who are found in Susa, and fast for me; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens also will fast in the same way. And thus I will go in to the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.”
  • Esther 10:3. For Mordecai the Jew was second only to King Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews and in favor with his many kinsmen, one who sought the good of his people and one who spoke for the welfare of his whole nation.
  • Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. 1 Corinthians 10.12