Esther 1 - Who? What? Why?
Read Esther 1:1-2:9
Opinions do vary about this book. Some will say that it is a thrilling book in which Mordecai and Esther come out as heroes. Some reckon it to be a romantic sort of book. Some will say that it shows you how ‘earthy’ life can be for believers in a pagan society. Some interpreters see the book simply teaching the providence of God governing affairs in the world, and the explanation for the Feast of Purim. Certainly these things are true. But why a story in which those you might expect to be believers fail to seek Him seriously? As far as the Feast of Purim is concerned, true it did become a popular feast of the Jews, yet it was not instituted by God and is not referred to elsewhere in Scripture.
Now, because it is in Scripture, and we believe that all Scripture is given by God, we accept this too is from God and for our profit. We can agree with Matthew Henry when he wrote: “Though the name of God be not in it, the finger of God is, directing the many minute events for the bringing about of his people’s deliverance. The particulars are not only the most surprising and very entertaining, but edifying and very encouraging to the faith and hope of God’s people in the most dangerous and difficult time.”
However, in eking out the lessons from this book I believe we have to approach it this way: the book shows how the Lord preserves His Church despite our half-heartedness and lack of commitment. This should not make us complacent, but stir us up not to be like that! Yes, we have a picture of how life might be in a pagan society. And we are drifting into a pagan society and are being faced with pressures to be half-hearted and lacking a real commitment to the Lord and His word. If they were silent about the Lord in that society, so can we be in the society in which we live.
The lesson here will be: Look, this is not good enough! We have this form of teaching also in the New Testament. Take the parable of the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8). We are to be like the importunate widow of course. But the judge is a contrast to how God is. Our God is not like that judge, grudgingly giving in to the pleas of the widow. Also, the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11ff). We are to be like the prodigal. But by the same token we are not to be like the elder brother of the parable. We might suggest, broadly, as we look at the book of Esther, that this is not how the Church really should be. But let us look at the background:
1. When and Where does this take place?
It takes place in Persia (Iran, east of Iraq) in the city of Shushan where the Persian King Xerxes (or Ahasuerus in Hebrew) had his winter palace. By this time the Persians under Darius acting for Cyrus had defeated the Babylonians (539BC), as mentioned in Daniel – remember Belshazzar’s feast! (Daniel 5). By a decree of Cyrus at that time exiles were allowed to return to their homeland. The first return under Zerubbabel and Joshua saw the Temple eventually rebuilt (520) (though it took the stirring messages of God through His prophets Haggai and Zechariah to accomplish that end after 18 years of inertia among the returnees!). Many returned from the former Babylonian territories at that time, but some remained where they were in Babylonia or Persia (modern Iraq and Iran, broadly speaking). There were subsequent returns under Ezra (458) and Nehemiah (445). Interestingly Nehemiah himself was based in Shushan at the time of Artaxerxes I. That was some time after the events in Esther’s story which took place around 484-472.
As far as Mordecai is concerned we are told something of his background in 2:5-6. This tells us that his forefather (Kish) was not among the exiles taken in to captivity in Babylon after Nebuchadnezzar’s capture of Jerusalem in 586BC, but some 10 years earlier when Jehoiakim had been taken prisoner (see 2 Kings 24:1-12), around 597BC. Now, that captivity, and the subsequent rule of the Medes and Persians meant captivity for the Israelites of the former Southern Kingdom (Benjamin-Judah) the Northern Kingdom having ‘disappeared’ under the Assyrians in 722BC. In Jeremiah they are told to settle down and make the best of it, but never to forget where their true home was. The fact was that when opportunity arose to return - under Zerubbabel (538), and Ezra (458) and Nehemiah (445) a minority actually did return – but many did not return. They had put down roots in that foreign society that were too deep. This, in fact, is important background to the events described in this book.
2. What Lessons from this first part of the book (1:1-2:9)?
A. How really zealous are you for the Lord’s work?
This is a story of those who did not return from exile. It is a story of those who had settled all too comfortably in the pagan society they had become used to. It is essentially a story of compromise – a compromise all too easy when you find yourself a small minority in a society unsympathetic to the ways of God and truth. The vitals of spiritual religion so easily seep away and consequently there seems little witness for truth. There is a resort to worldliness. You feel it here in the actions of the main Jewish characters. We sympathise that they are away from the homeland and are making the best of it. The fact is, as Matthew Henry comments, “they had not enough zeal for God’s house and the holy land and city, to carry them through the difficulties of removal thither.” They preferred the comfort of the secular society to the hardships of rebuilding God’s work.
This is one great overall lesson for us. They were not living as strangers and pilgrims on this earth. How easily believers can compromise truth and be silent about the claims of the Lord. They get too comfortable with the world. George Smeaton has some challenging words on this: “Are we a comfort to the world by conforming to its ways? Are we the cause of evil to unconverted men by our worldly spirit, by our flattering words? Does the fear of man prevent us from openly walking in Christ and Christ in us, so that he may be set in us for the fall and rising again of many? So far we sink into inaction, content to live in friendly neighbourhood to a world lying in the wicked one, content without further aggression, do we show we want that fiery baptism that made the disciples feel they could not without blood-guiltiness let men alone? O, if we can sit as a church or as individuals, in easy fellowship with sinners, not seeking to save souls, not daring to encounter the adversary, face to face, we show that we are not baptized as with fire!”
B. Worldly people can sometimes act better than believers.
Ouch! We have to look very closely at our lives and ask just what impression we make on others in a positive way. Are we really adorning the things of the gospel? Our previous lesson from this book suggested that the Church and the professing Christian may give occasion for the world to be confirmed in its unbelief because not challenged. This lesson is that sometimes the worldly will set a better standard than the professed believer. Not usually, but sometimes. Here, for instance, we have the case of Vashti, the Queen (at the beginning of the story) (9-12). The story involves for one thing, Vashti being replaced by Esther. But see how it came about. She was famous for her beauty but would not allow herself to be paraded before the people and the officials. You cannot help feeling that she was right. She had some self-respect and modesty. You admire her. Even though she knows she’s going to get into trouble. The exploitation of women is not new. You don’t need to go along with the women’s liberation movement to admit that. Beauty contests, fashion and the seedy areas of film and pornography – these are exploitative. Vashti will not be exploited. She will not display herself.
So, what’s Esther doing in the ‘harem’, and allowing herself to be put forward for a position which for a Jew must involve some compromise of position, dignity and modesty? The truth is Esther’s position exemplifies a feature of this book: she represents the half-heartedness that will not do for the true people of God. Vashti’s position is better than Esther’s! How often what Jesus says of the unjust steward is true: “the sons [children] of this world are wiser [more shrewd] in their generation than the children of light” (Luke 16:8).
So, let it be a lesson: ensure it is not so, but that you work out the law of the Lord as consistently as you can in this life and be a bright and shining light for Christ rather than a half-hearted soul no different, or perhaps even worse, than the world! Even the point that the Lord is working out His purposes through such as Esther and Mordecai does not excuse their lack of principle in their dealings. That simply shows that even our worst actions may yet be turned for the good of the Lord’s cause. His finger is here, but Mordecai and Esther do not shine, and the people of God are to be lights in the world!
We may well recognise how relevant this book actually is for us. We are in a society like the Persian one. The Church is experiencing a ‘captivity.’ There will be positive lessons from Esther of course, but also the dangers of being indistinct and half-hearted without edge or zeal for Christ. Yes, the Lord controls events. This is a strengthening thing for believers. But they are responsible for conducting themselves always in a God-honouring way. Are we conducting ourselves in a God-honouring way? Or are we no different from our ‘neighbours’ and give them cause to continue in their indifference and unbelief, because they see nothing better in us?