Absent But Everywhere God is not named in Esther, yet He is the chief character
In some ways the book of Esther is a bit of a mystery for readers. Many Christians have struggled to see why God has actually included it among the other books of the Bible. Some are deeply troubled by the complete absence of the divine name from the book. What can it mean? And yet, a deeper study of Esther reveals just how much God is involved in the entire historical account.
As a reader engages the text, a number of questions inevitably arise. Perhaps the most important of these is where is God in the book of Esther?
God’s name is absent and there are no “miracles” or supernatural events recorded in the story. In that sense, it is no different from a secular narrative. Further, there is no mention of prayer or the Torah. Nor indeed is there any reference to the patriarchs or prophets. There is no Zion here, no temple or priest, no Exodus or Promised Land. Indeed, the Persian Jews are almost in a mode of religious denial, playing down their nationality and their spiritual traditions so they can fit in to Persian society.
But this subtlety is part of a clever literature. The author is able to make his point more powerfully when he implies rather than states things overtly. Readers deduce that the turn of events in the story could never just happen. The unseen hand of the Almighty is obviously working his purposes out. He is conspicuous by his absence.
The last moments of sunset are analogous. The sun is no longer visible. It has disappeared below the horizon, but the stunning effect on orange clouds proves that the sun is still very active. God too is at work beyond our visible horizon and the visible effects are glorious.
This book shows how the king, his empire, and even his sleepless nights are instruments of God. He uses the mundane events of everyday life to fulfill His covenant purposes. Whether it is the evil malice of a scheming politician, or the pretty girls aspiring to become Queen of Persia, or the superstitions of the ancient near-eastern cultures, all are in the hands of Yahweh.
He overrules all things so that when humans do what they freely choose to, they unwittingly accomplish God’s designs, while He remains the author of only good but never evil.
Of course, the absence of God’s name raises a further question in the mind of many readers: why was this book finally recognised by the Church?
While the book is a brilliant narrative about the struggles of the Jews, it has not always been well received. The Jews who returned to Palestine after the exile refused to accept this story of God’s activity in Persia as Scripture. Even in the Christian Church it was regarded as unimportant. Not a single commentary was written on Esther for the first seven centuries! It wasn’t until the 16th century Reformation that a serious commentary of lasting worth was produced. Even prolific scholars like Martin Luther and John Calvin left no commentaries on Esther.
But in reality this book has a five-star rating. Few books will thrill and encourage people like Esther. Once the proper lines of Christology are seen, the rich gospel associations are evident.
Further, Esther is the only biblical record of what happened to the vast majority of Abraham’s seed after Babylon. The history of the few who returned to Palestine is seen in the books of Ezra, Haggai, and Nehemiah. If the danger shown in Esther had not been overcome, the vast majority of Jews would have been exterminated. This has major implications. There would have been no Nehemiah and no rebuilt Jerusalem. What then of the Messianic line?
Many people who pick up the book of Esther for the first time find it difficult to understand the context of the story and the major spiritual issues that it raises. If they are to understand the message, they must find an answer to this question: What, or more precisely, who, is the problem?
The villain is Persia’s chief minister, Haman, a traditional enemy of God and his covenant people. It is crucial that we understand his identity. Haman is an Agagite (3:1). Agag was king of the Amalekites, the descendants of Amalek. Amalek was the grandson of Esau (1 Chron. 1:34-36). So Haman is the current version of Esau hating Jacob, the enemy of the covenant who persecutes the children of the covenant.
As he strutted around the Empire, people were supposed to bow down to him. However, Mordecai (Esther’s uncle) refused. This was not due to any defect in Mordecai. It was his godly conscience. Mordecai recognised Haman as the latest version of Israel’s inveterate ancient enemy. God had repeatedly declared his permanent enmity against the Amalekites (see Ex. 17:14-16, Deut. 25:17-19, 1 Sam. 15:2-3).
Mordecai acted in strict accord with God’s word. Resenting Mordecai’s refusal to bow, Haman went into full “overkill” mode, decreeing the murder of every single Jew in Persia. Readers rightly detect a satanic obsession here.
Haman is the human face of Satan! The serpent always rages against the woman and her seed (Gen. 3:15, Rev. 12). Like Pharaoh before him and Herod after him, Haman leads sinful humanity in its attack against God’s chosen people from whom Jesus the Saviour would be born. The book of Esther has to be understood as another scene in the ongoing enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman.
These lines finally converge upon Jesus in his wilderness temptations. There is the ultimate standoff between the covenant man and his inveterate enemy. Here is the ultimate Israelite and the ultimate Amalekite. There is the ultimate refusal to bow the knee. So Esther is gospel! It is another episode in the drama of redemption. By raising up the right people at the right time, God puts enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, crushing his head. He saves his covenant people doomed in Persia.
All this is helpful theological background. But it raises a question of application: how is the reader meant to interpret the story for himself?
It is tempting to assess history from a moralistic standpoint. When we do this we lock ourselves into a typically moralistic approach: that action is wrong, he shouldn’t have done that, and we shouldn’t do it either, so take heed! But reading the Old Testament like that is fraught with danger. The Bible’s approach to history is covenantal.
It shows us how God works in the midst of human intrigue, through all the actions and intentions of men and women, and through all their virtuous and evil thoughts, words, and deeds. Regardless of their successes, failures, frustrations, hopes and fears, God infallibly accomplishes His eternal purposes. He overrules all things to achieve his promises to us in Christ. Nothing can frustrate him. Yet, in all of this, God does not violate or diminish human freedom, nor does He depend on it.
So Esther is a covenant document. We must avoid the moralistic agenda that has caused many readers to entirely miss the point of this book. It is easy to ask moral questions about this book. Should these Jews have taken the soft option of remaining in Persia rather than the risky hard work of rebuilding Zion? Should Esther have agreed to marry a pagan king? Was it right for Esther and others to hide their Jewish identity?
Whatever value there is in discussing these moral issues, it is not the purpose of the book. The author wants us to see God at work, fulfilling His promises, using ordinary men and women as instruments in all the ordinary scenes of life, both the good and the evil. Esther shows how life’s most mundane details can ultimately prove significant as God keeps His covenant.
The turning-point of the book is a night when the king could not sleep. Since sleeping pills hadn’t been invented, he asked for the next best thing: the official history of Persia. An attendant read it to him. That’s how he discovered that Mordecai had never been rewarded for saving his life. God used this, and the other details involved, to save His people. This serves as a reminder that we should always look for the kingdom of God being advanced as we read history. Esther is classic salvation-history (redemptive history), but not moralistic history. Morals are best taught from texts explicitly designed for that end (like the Decalogue).
Now that you understand the context and some of the major themes of Esther, you might be keen to study it with other Christians in a Bible study group. But where do you go from there? This is a big issue and one that I encountered as I set out to preach a series of sermons on the book. I had to ask, does the book fall into natural preaching or teaching divisions?
My recent book The Guide: Esther (Evangelical Press, 2002) arose from a series of 12 sermons. While every preacher must do his own research and apply the truth to his personal situation, the following expositions were well-received and might encourage others to do something similar.
- Conspicuous by his absence (Overview).
- Drunken paranoia (chapter 1).
- Tomorrow’s problems solved today (chapter 2).
- Haman the horrible (chapter 3).
- “If I perish, I perish” (chapter 4).
- The king and I (chapters 5-6).
- “Hang him!” (chapter 7).
- The oil of joy for mourning (chapter 8).
- “No one could stand against them” (9:1-17).
- Many happy returns (9:18-10:3).
- Should Christians fast too?
- Perspectives on Purim (what worship honours God?).