The Old Testament book of Esther is much loved by many, especially by Jewish readers. For in it we learn about the remarkable preservation of the Jewish people. It is an altogether providential occurrence, although rather oddly, God never gets a mention in the book.
Indeed, it seems rather strange to talk about the theological message of the book, given this apparent divine absence. Not only is God not mentioned, but neither is prayer, the law, the temple, or other clear religious themes. But both Jews and Christians consider the very heart of the book to be about God’s providence.
It is about how God providentially protects his own people and brings about remarkable reversals of fortune. In what seems to be a bunch of amazing coincidences, we see God at work behind the scenes, accomplishing his purposes. And once we are aware of the background to this book, we can see how very relevant it is to our own situation today.
The historical backdrop is this: Israel had of course been dragged off into captivity because of its sinfulness, and Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed in the process. Roughly from 597-586 BC the Babylonians defeated Judah and sacked Jerusalem.
Many Israelites were taken into captivity in Babylon. But the Persians defeated the Babylonians in 539. Soon after, the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. We read about that in Ezra and Nehemiah for example. However it seems that most Jews stayed in Babylon instead.
This is the setting for Esther. We have God’s people in a strange land, asking hard questions: Has God forgotten us? Does he still have a purpose for us? What about his covenant with us? And so on. Not too unlike God’s people today. Christians live mainly in pagan cultures, and it seems like God is nowhere to be found.
The story is hopefully familiar to you. If not, read the short book – it is only 10 chapters long. Esther the Jewish girl marries the King of Persia, while a major conflict between the pagan Haman and the Jewish Mordecai is taking place. This too is historically important.
Haman was an Agagite, which goes back to King Agag of the Amalekites. Israel and the Amalekites had long been at each other’s throats, and in this book we read of Haman’s plot to destroy all the Jews. Just as Yahweh had been protecting his covenant people all along, so too he would do so here.
A number of “coincidences” result in a major reversal of destiny, when instead of Haman overpowering and killing the Jews, he instead is killed, and the Jews are empowered. Indeed, the literary structure of this book is built upon peripety [or, peripeteia].
This is a literary device where a sudden, often unexpected turn of events takes place, and it is certainly used effectively in this book. The gallows Haman had built to hang Mordecai on instead becomes the means of death for Haman and his sons. The Jewish festival of Purim comes out of all this, and is still celebrated today.
The key passage is 4:14 where Mordecai replies to Esther: “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”
Here Mordecai shows his faith in the fact that the Jews will survive, and that Esther is part of the means to achieve this. At this time and place, there were no prophets, no miracles, no temple and no holy city. They were strangers in a strange land, and moves were underway to get rid of them.
Yet through one strange occurrence after another—even a sleepless night for the King—events turned out with a mighty reversal of fortune. The truth of Romans 8:28 certainly comes shining through here. Even in the darkest hour, God had not abandoned his people, and was providentially working things out for his glory and the welfare of his people.
Plenty of commentators have written extensively about the grand themes of Esther, but let me conclude by sharing some of the words of wisdom of Karen Jobes in the introduction to her book in the NIVAC commentary series (Zondervan, 1999).
She says, “The book of Esther is perhaps the most striking biblical statement of what systematic theologians call the providence of God. When we speak of God’s providence, we mean that God, in some invisible and inscrutable way, governs all creatures, actions, and circumstances through the normal and the ordinary course of human life, without the intervention of the miraculous.
“The book of Esther is the most true-to-life biblical example of God’s providence precisely because God seems absent. Even in the most pagan corner of the world, God is ruling all things to the benefit of his people and to the glory of his name.”
As mentioned, this book has a special place in the hearts of Jews, and Jobes re-minds us of the fact that the Nazis banned the reading of this book in the concentration camps. They knew the power of this story, and what it represented. They did not want their captors to be reminded of it.
Just as in the time of Esther, the enemy meant to destroy the Jews, but they were themselves destroyed. Haman was destroyed while the Jews survived, just as the Nazis were defeated, but the Jews remain. But Christians also take great comfort from this book.
The grand theme of reversal is found not just in Esther but throughout the Bible. It culminates at Calvary. Says Jobes, “Because of our sin, we, like the Jews in exile in Persia, should expect only death and destruction. Our fate was reversed by the seemingly insignificant death of one man, Jesus of Nazareth.”
She concludes her introduction with these words, “God is working providentially, in the completely secular and ungodly course of human events, to save his people against all expectation and to bring all of humanity to culmination in Christ. There is no plot, no plan that can thwart God’s purposes that stretch from Genesis to Revelation. Esther lies between the two.
“The great paradox of Esther is that God is omnipotently present even where God is most conspicuously absent. Jesus’ last words were, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations … And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’ (Matt. 28:19-20). And then, ironically, he left! Nevertheless, our Lord is omnipotently present even where he is most conspicuously absent.”
It is so easy to get discouraged today. It certainly does not seem like God is still on the throne. And when we read about all the horrendous evil and tragedy taking place around us, it is easy to doubt and start asking really tough questions.
But when we read the book of Esther we are once again reminded that God is indeed still in control, and he is working out his purposes, even if often behind the scenes. Thus we need to keep on going, just as Esther had to keep on going despite all the events around her which made her want to give it all up.
We need to apply to ourselves the words of Mordecai: ‘Who knows but that you were appointed for such a time as this’. We each have an important contribution to make to the work of Christ’s kingdom. So let’s do it for the glory of God.