As we begin this Esther Bible Study, let’s consider the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. In those books we saw a large group of Jews who returned to Judah and Jerusalem after the Exile. And we can imagine the kind of questions this group might have been asking – “Our fathers and we have sinned against God. We broke his covenant with us which he made with us at Mount Sinai. Are we still his covenant people? Has he rejected us because of our sin? Is he done with the Jews?” And what we saw is that no in fact God was not done with the Jews. They were still his covenant people. Even though they broke the covenant, he continued to keep his end of the bargain. The people who returned to Judah were in the land God promised them. They had the Temple once more. God sent prophets to encourage them to rebuild that Temple. They were sacrificing according to God’s commandments. So it was evident that God was still with them.
But what about the Jews who didn’t return to Jerusalem? Did you know that there were some who stayed back in Babylon and Persia? There were quite a few who did. Were they still God’s covenant people? That’s what the book of Esther seeks to answer. So this week and the next five weeks we’ll be studying the book of Esther and seeing what we might discover along those lines.
The book of Esther is a masterpiece of a book in our Bible. It’s the source of the modern Jewish holiday called Purim. That’s the holiday in which Jews get together and remember the deliverance they received from their enemies. Sometime usually in March all the Jews read this book in their synagogues and make a party of it. They read this very book we’ll be studying. And whenever they hear the name… Haman they boo, hiss, and rattle noisemakers in order to blot his name out. This is a book that I’ve heard the Nazis in Germany banned in the concentration camps. The Nazis apparently didn’t want the Jews to get any idea that they’d be delivered from the Germans’ wicked plot against them. This book is a great story. And it’s all the greater because it’s absolutely true and is profitable to teach us doctrinally, to reprove us, to correct us, and to instruct us in righteousness so that we can be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.
So let’s dive-in to this wonderful book. I’ll state from the beginning that there are 5 main sections in this book. We have an introduction, 3 middle sections that develop and deliver the story, and then a conclusion that wraps things up. Let’s get a broad overview of each of these sections in this book.
Introduction to this Esther Bible Study
We’ll start with the introduction. That covers 1:1-2:23. What do we learn in the introduction? Let’s read 1:1-4.
Esther 1:1 ¶ Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus, (this is Ahasuerus which reigned, from India even unto Ethiopia, over an hundred and seven and twenty provinces:) 2 That in those days, when the king Ahasuerus sat on the throne of his kingdom, which was in Shushan the palace, 3 In the third year of his reign, he made a feast unto all his princes and his servants; the power of Persia and Media, the nobles and princes of the provinces, being before him: 4 When he shewed the riches of his glorious kingdom and the honour of his excellent majesty many days, even an hundred and fourscore days.
So we have a king named Ahasuerus. He throws an extravagant party for his nobles. And this party lasts for a half a year. King Ahasuerus comes across to me as a fairly extreme man. He does things quickly and decisively – or you could say hastily and thoughtlessly. He does what he does to the extreme – a party that lasts a half a year! This man is the king of Persia. He’s actually the one who came after king Darius whom we saw in Ezra. Darius is the one under whom the Temple was finally rebuilt. [explain chronology of the kings]
At any rate, king Ahasuerus throws this party for some elite folks in his circle of influence. Then in verses 5 through 9 he throws a party for everyone – not just the nobles – in the capital city of Shushan. This lasts for 7 days. At the end of this section we are alerted that the king has a queen and her name is Vashti. We see her holding a party for the women who belong to the king – probably the king’s concubines.
Now, even though these first 9 verses of this first chapter seem to paint a really rosy picture of Ahasuerus’ situation, he’s got a problem. What’s the problem? Well, verses 10 and 11 tell us that the king’s heart was merry with wine on the last day of the feast for the folks in Shushan. And in that merriness he wants his queen to come. I’m assigning the best motives to Ahasuerus. I think he’s shown all his royal bounty and the whole time the queen was entertaining other guests. So now Ahasuerus wants to show the people his beautiful queen. I don’t think there are any ulterior motives in his heart about this. Now, how does Vashti respond? Let’s read verse 12.
Esther 1:12 But the queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s commandment by his chamberlains: therefore was the king very wroth, and his anger burned in him.
This is not a good situation. The queen publicly defied the king. King Ahasuerus then asks his wise men and counselors what he should do in response to this disobedience. One counselor in particular advises the king that queen Vashti’s disobedience could have far-reaching consequences. The counselor suggests that when all the ladies in Persia hear of this, they’ll be encouraged to disrespect their own husbands. So, the counselor thinks of a solution. It doesn’t involve executing Vashti or anything like that. It simply involves the king not allowing Vashti to come before his presence. And then the king will find someone more worthy of being queen in Vashti’s place. The king likes that idea and send letters throughout his kingdom declaring what Vashti did and how he handled the situation.
That brings us to chapter 2. The king comes out of his anger and remembers what he decreed concerning Vashti. Then he had overseers throughout his kingdom collect – probably by force – beautiful young virgins and bring them to his harem in Shushan. Let’s read about one such young lady in 2:5-7.
One Young Lady
Esther 2:5 ¶ Now in Shushan the palace there was a certain Jew, whose name was Mordecai, the son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, a Benjamite; 6 Who had been carried away from Jerusalem with the captivity which had been carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away. 7 And he brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle’s daughter: for she had neither father nor mother, and the maid was fair and beautiful; whom Mordecai, when her father and mother were dead, took for his own daughter.
So now we’re introduced to two of the main characters in this story – Mordecai and Esther. Esther’s parents were out of the picture. So Mordecai selflessly raised her as his own daughter. And Esther was beautiful. So she’s brought to the harem by the king’s officials. And while she’s there she finds favor with the man in charge of the girls. He gives her whatever she wants, assigns attendants to her, and gives her the best place in the harem. I guess if you find yourself in this kind of situation, it couldn’t get any better than what Esther experienced.
Let me point out an oddity. Did you notice that Esther has two names? Her Jewish name was Hadassah. “Esther” is actually her Persian name. You ask, why would she need two names? Let’s read verse 10.
Why Two Names?
Esther 2:10 Esther had not shewed her people nor her kindred: for Mordecai had charged her that she should not shew it.
No one knew Esther’s Hebrew name. Why? Because she’s keeping her identity a secret. She’s hiding the fact that she’s a Jew. Why? The reason is perhaps somewhat noble. She’s simply doing what she’s been told. That’s in contrast to Vashti. What else do we know about Vashti beside the fact that she disobeyed? Unlike Vashti, Esther was obedient to her authorities. But that kind of puts the burden on Mordecai then. Why did he not want to reveal their Jewish identity? I don’t quite know. He probably thought they might get in trouble if people knew who they were. But whatever the reason, their identity can’t stay hidden for very long. Now, before we get a bad view of Mordecai, verse 11 talks about his extreme care for Esther. He was a man in a tough position. He wanted to protect his adopted daughter. In his mind apparently, hiding her Jewish identity would protect her. He’s trying his best. The question that’s left unanswered is whether it was right for him to do this. Maybe we’ll get the answer in the coming weeks as we study through this book in greater detail.
Now the day came when Esther had her turn to go in to king Ahasuerus. And it just so happened that the king loved Esther more than any other of the virgins. And he made her queen in place of Vashti. Now, there are two reactions to this turn of events. First, we should be amazed that a lowly Jewish girl became queen of the Persian empire! What an incredible chance happening! But second, I’m just a bit uncomfortable with the fact that a Jew would be able to fit in so well with this pagan crowd and their pagan king. What kind of Jewish norms did she have to compromise in order to find the acceptance she found? Just something to think about for now.
And after Esther is crowned queen, it just so happens that Mordecai is sitting at the king’s gate. And it’s there that he just happens to overhear a plot to assassinate King Ahasuerus – his new in-law. Mordecai then relays that information to Esther. Esther tells the king. The king conducts an investigation. And when he finds that Mordecai is right, he hangs the conspirators on a gallows.
So it seems like these two Jews are really having some good luck! Well, eventually their luck seems to run out. Let’s read 3:1.
“Luck” Runs Out
Esther 3:1 ¶ After these things did king Ahasuerus promote Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him, and set his seat above all the princes that were with him.
Well, what’s so bad about this? Why would this indicate the Jews’ luck is about to change? Well, this Haman is an Agagite. Do you know who Agag is? He’s actually an Amalekite king. And he was king in the days of Saul, Israel’s first king. Saul was commanded to utterly destroy Agag. Did he do it? No, he didn’t. Samuel had to do it himself because Saul disobeyed. Here’s the point – Haman, who would turn out to be a most insidious enemy of the Jews, would not have been around if king Saul would have obeyed. But Saul disobeyed and so now Haman was born and is able to oppose the Jews.
So, this is bad news. Haman the Agagite is around. And even worse – he’s been promoted by the king! Everyone bowed to Haman. That was the king’s command. Everyone, that is, except Mordecai. Mordecai refused to bow to this man. Whether or not that was right of him is another story. I tend to think Mordecai was doing right by not bowing. Why? Read 3:4.
Take a Bow?
Esther 3:4 Now it came to pass, when they spake daily unto him, and he hearkened not unto them, that they told Haman, to see whether Mordecai’s matters would stand: for he had told them that he was a Jew.
What’s most important is that last verse. Mordecai gave the reason to his fellow citizens of Persia for not bowing to Haman. The last phrase of verse 4 – he was a Jew. So, Mordecai is finally pressured into revealing that he was a Jew.
Haman picks up on that fact. Now, Haman is a proud and arrogant man. We’ll see that throughout the story. He can’t stand the fact that Mordecai won’t bow and tremble and pay homage before him. So, Haman wants to destroy Mordecai. But, now he knows Mordecai’s people. So, Haman steps up his antagonism and wants to destroy all the Jews – not just Mordecai alone.
So Haman casts lots to determine when to carry out the destruction of the Jews. The lot somehow falls on the 13th day of the 12th month. Haman goes to the king, tells the king that there is a group in his kingdom who doesn’t obey the king’s laws, and asks permission to destroy them. King Ahasuerus rather mindlessly gives his permission. So, Haman writes up an edict declaring that all the Jews throughout Persia (Judah, too) must be destroyed on the 13th day of the 12th month.
The reaction is pure sorrow all across the kingdom. There was confusion in the capital city of Shushan. Mordecai himself put on sackcloth and mourned loudly in the street. News of this event reached queen Esther and she writhed in great anguish. So, she sends a messenger to Modecai to find out exactly why this is happening. And this leads to this really engaging correspondence between Esther and Mordecai in 4:6-16. We won’t read it for the sake of time, but what ends up happening is that Mordecai tells Esther that she must go before the king and ask him to deliver the Jews. She puts up some excuses as to why that would not be a good idea. So Mordecai needs to remind her that she is also vulnerable even in the palace. She is a Jew after all. And Mordecai tells her that if she doesn’t act, she’ll be destroyed and yet deliverance for the Jews will come from somewhere else. And then that famous line, “and who knows if you’ve attained royalty for… such a time as this.”
This is a real turning point I think for Esther herself. Would she identify with her people and bear the reproach and danger associated with that identification? And we know that she did. She’s ready to own up to her identity as a Jew and approach the king. And if she perishes, she says, she perishes. She tells Mordecai and the people to fast three days. She will also fast. And during that time she hatches a plan.
And here’s how the plan unfolds. Esther first comes to the king. Remember, she could be executed on the spot for coming in uninvited. But it just so happens that the king extends mercy to her and asks her what she wants. So she tells him she’d like to invite him and Haman to a banquet. The king commands for Haman to be brought quickly. At the banquet, the king again asks what Esther would like from him. She says that she’d like both of them to attend a banquet again tomorrow and then she’ll tell the king her request.
Haman, the arrogant and easily-flattered man that he is, goes away rejoicing that he had the great privilege of dining with the king and queen. But on the way to his home, Haman saw Mordecai at the gate. Mordecai as usual did not bow to him. So Haman became very angry once again. When Haman returned home he got together his wife and friends and was telling them all about his accomplishments and fame. He told them exuberantly how even queen Esther invited only him and the king to her banquet and that she invited him tomorrow as well! But all this seem worthless in his mind because that one Jew Mordecai won’t bow to him!
So his wife and friends suggest that he have a gallows constructed to hang Mordecai and that he should ask the king if he can hang Mordecai tomorrow before the banquet. Oh, Haman liked that idea. And so he had a gallows constructed and made his way to the palace.
But it just so happened that during the night the king couldn’t sleep. So what helps a king sleep better than having a book of records read aloud to him? So he’s lying there having this book of records read and the reader comes to where it was recorded that Mordecai saved the king’s life by uncovering that assassination plot we read about earlier. The king asks what has been done for Mordecai. The servants say that nothing has been done. So the king asks if anyone is in the court. Indeed, it just so happened that Haman was in the court on his way to ask the king if he could kill Mordecai. So the king summons Haman into his room.
The king asks Haman what he should do to the man he wants to honor. Of course the king is thinking of Mordecai. But Haman, the proud man, is thinking of himself. So Haman gives the king a great idea as to what he should do for the man the king desires to honor. So the king tells Haman to go do that for Mordecai. Haman is humiliated. He hurries home mourning while Mordecai just returns to the gate.
Now this was the turning point in the story. Up until this point the Jews are in grave danger. They’re going to be annihilated. But this reversal of fortunes in Haman being forced to honor Mordecai is the beginning of the end of that.
And Haman’s wife and friends even say as much. Read 6:13.
Haman’s In Trouble!
Esther 6:13 And Haman told Zeresh his wife and all his friends every thing that had befallen him. Then said his wise men and Zeresh his wife unto him, If Mordecai be of the seed of the Jews, before whom thou hast begun to fall, thou shalt not prevail against him, but shalt surely fall before him.
Haman’s doom is sealed. He has begun to fall before a Jew. And this is going to be his end. You just wonder if Haman’s wife and counselors recall the promise made in the Old Testament to blot out Agag’s memory from under heaven. At any rate there seems to be no hope for Haman.
As Haman’s wife and counselors are speaking to him, messengers come to whisk Haman away to Esther’s second banquet. It is there that the king asks Esther again what her petition is. Now is the time! Esther asks that her people be saved from certain destruction. The fact that someone has plotted against the queen’s people seems to surprise and anger King Ahasuerus. Let’s read the rest of the exchange in 7:5-6.
The King’s Anger
Esther 7:5 Then the king Ahasuerus answered and said unto Esther the queen, Who is he, and where is he, that durst presume in his heart to do so? 6 And Esther said, The adversary and enemy is this wicked Haman. Then Haman was afraid before the king and the queen.
The king, true to his character, storms out of the room angrily. Meanwhile, Haman begs his life from Esther. But as he does this, he’s falling on the couch where Esther is. So when the king returns it looks like Haman is assaulting Esther. This enrages the king even further. Someone points out to the king that Haman constructed a gallows for Mordecai – remember? The Mordecai who saved the king’s own life?! So the king commands that Haman be hanged on the same gallows that he constructed to destroy the Jew Mordecai.
But we still have to deal with this edict that had been written in the king’s name to destroy all the Jews everywhere in the Persian empire on the 13th day of the 12th month. And basically, that’s what the rest of the book covers. Briefly, what happens is that the king allows Mordecai to write another edict stating that the Jews can defend themselves and destroy anyone who hates them. So when the 13th day of the 12th month comes, the Jews avenge themselves on their enemies, killing several tens of thousands throughout the kingdom. But they don’t take the plunder. They’re not using this as an excuse to get rich. They’re defending their own lives.
The rest of the book after that gives us a summary of the whole story and tells us that this is the reason the Jews celebrate the festival of Purim. And they still do to this day.
So, that’s the book of Esther in a nutshell. We’ll take the next 5 weeks to work through each chapter in more detail. But this gives us a good introduction to the plot and characters.
Now, it’s hard to teach a Sunday School class without mentioning the words “God” or “Lord”. But if you’ve been keeping track I’ve only said the word “God” 6 times in the introduction. And I haven’t mentioned the word “Lord” at all. Why, you ask? I was trying to do like the book of Esther does. Did you catch how many times the book of Esther uses the words “God” or “Lord”? 0 times. There is no direct reference to God anywhere in the book of Esther. There are veiled references, like when Mordecai tells Esther that if she doesn’t help the Jews, the Jews will be delivered from some other source. Or when Esther tells Mordecai to fast. In these situations, God is implied. But he’s not pictured as directly intervening in their situation at any time. He’s not sending prophets. He’s not rending the heavens and working miracles. God is conspicuously silent. And yet, he’s not inactive. There’s no doubt that God was behind all of these “chance happenings”.
What are we to make of this fact? God isn’t mentioned and yet his handiwork is written throughout this book. Can we apply this situation to our lives? As Christians in the church age after the passing of the apostles, we don’t have miracles. Don’t believe the ridiculous claims of gold dust flying around in some of these charismatic churches. God in this day is not typically in the business of working miracles. He wasn’t in that business in Esther’s day either. So how does God work today? Not through miracles, but through his providence. He arranges for his will to be done through normal, every-day circumstances. And because of this, sometimes it seems like he’s not there. Do you know what that’s like? To be beside yourself with some care or concern and to have God conspicuously silent? It’s very troubling. You can wonder if you’re truly God’s child. This is, no doubt, how the Jews of Esther’s day felt. “Are we really still God’s covenant people? He’s silent to us these days.”
But have you also experienced God delivering you from your trials – not through direct supernatural means – but through his normal ordinary every-day providence? Do you ever look back at such deliverances and marvel at how God orchestrated every piece to fall into place at the right time? Again, this too is what the Jews of Esther’s day experienced… So, the book of Esther should resonate with us. It’s a book about a God who is pretty much silent… and yet active. This silent God leads his people through normal – yet, sometimes amazing – circumstances and thereby shows them that they are still his people… So, the message of this great book is: God leads his people providentially.