Today we begin the book of Esther. Famously, Esther is the book that “does not mention God.” As we have seen, Christ is in the Old Testament countless times without His name being mentioned. He is in this book, too. Esther takes place about 50 years after the exiles returned to the land. Many Jews did not go back to Judah, but stayed in Persia. Among them was Esther.
This is during the reign of Ahasuerus (also known as Xerxes). This is the Ahasuerus of Ezra 4:6. Artaxerxes, his son, is the king who temporarily stopped the building of the Temple (Ezra 4:17-22). The celebration being described in Esther 1:3-9 is likely for Ahasuerus’s recent victory over Babylonian rebels. We will see throughout the book that the Persians were big on these parties. The celebration lasting for nearly six months (v. 4), along with the description of the precious building materials that constructed the palace (v. 6) and the golden vessels (v. 7), shows the lavish lifestyle of the Persian ruling class. We also see the values of the world.
In verses 10 , we see that the king is drunk, and decides that in addition to the party, the palace, and all the excess, he wanted to show off his trophy wife, Vashti (vv. 10-11). Because she was leading a celebration of her own (see v. 9) she refused to come (v. 12). This would have been a public embarrassment for the king, who at this point is the most powerful man in the world. So he asks his counselors what the law says about this (v. 15). The counselors have concerned that perhaps the queen may be setting a less than desirable precedent among the women of Persia (vv. 17-18). Their advice is to strip her of her royal position (v. 19). A drunken fool’s mistake and the desire of his counselors to “keep women in their place” is the basis for the salvation that will be brought through a woman. God has a sense of irony.
In chapter 2, the king is advised to go find a more beautiful wife to be queen (2:1-4). In verse 5 we are introduced to Mordecai, a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin that was taken into exile by the Babylonians. This is Esther’s older cousin (v. 7). We are told that Esther was extremely beautiful, so she was taken into the harem of the king to be a contestant on the Persian version of “The Bachelor.” Mordecai advised her not to tell anyone she was a Jew (v. 10).
In verse 12, we see the lavish beautifying ritual – a year-long one! – that these women had to go through. When appearing before the king, each woman was allowed to wear whatever jewelry and makeup she wanted (v. 13). That the woman of the harem would go in to the king at night and leave in the morning tells us exactly what these women were there for (v. 14). If the king enjoyed their time together, she might even be called again at some point. So we have seen Vashti used as a trophy, Esther described in terms of her body and good looks, the beautifying of these women, and what their duty was to the king. Women are being described as objects, not people. Once again, this is ironically setting up the salvation God will work through a woman.
In verse 15, it is Esther’s turn to go to the king. Note her humility – she doesn’t want to adorn herself lavishly. We also see that Esther was esteemed by those who had met her in her year in the palace. This is similar to Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon and Persia. In all three cases, this was God’s doing. And God also gives her favor in the sight of the king, so much so that he makes her his queen (v. 17). Then more partying happens (v. 18).
In the meantime, Mordecai discovers that two of the eunuchs (servants that were castrated) were plotting against Ahasuerus (v. 21). So Mordecai tells Esther who tells the king (v. 22). The plot is overthrown, and these men are hanged for their crime (v. 23). Note that the whole affair was recorded in the chronicles of the king. So far, the king has chosen a queen that he doesn’t know is Jewish, and because of that, a Jewish man was able to save the king’s life. Things seem set up pretty well for the Jews in Persia!
Until chapter 3, where we are introduced to Haman (3:1). Note that he is called an “Agagite.” This may be a derogatory name given to him by the Jewish writer of the book, or it may indicate his actual lineage. Agag was the king of the Amalekites (see 1 Sam 15:8). The Amalekites were the God-sworn enemies of Israel (see Ex 17:14). Not destroying them was why Saul lost the crown and was sentenced to death (see 1 Sam 28:18-19). This is in contrast to king David (1 Sam 30:16-17). So Haman in Esther 3:1 is held up as the embodiment of Israel’s enemies (see v. 10).
This Haman is made second in the kingdom (3:1-2). He and the king demand that men bow before him in homage. But Mordecai refuses, just like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow in Babylon (see Dan 3:12). He is encouraged to bow (vv. 3-4) but refuses on the grounds that he is a Jew who worships only YHWH. And we then see the character of Haman. As furious as he is that someone won’t acknowledge his superiority (v. 5), he was a coward who would not confront Mordecai (v. 6). He would rather trick the king into killing every Jew.
in verse 7, what is being described is a pagan ritual to determine the will of the gods. Haman is having lots cast to see when the gods want his plot from verse 6 to be carried out (see v. 13). While the ritual is going on, Haman gets in the king’s ear about the Jews, whom Haman says are seditious (v. 8). He then plants the seed to make the king believe it was his own idea to kill them (v. 9). He even throws in a back-door bribe. The king allows the decree to be made official (v. 11). If you haven’t picked up on it, the king is easily manipulated and not too wise.
The decree is written and sent into all the kingdom that the date chosen (by the pagan gods, as it were) would be the day to kill the Jews (vv. 12-14). Note that the Jews were to be killed and plundered (v. 13) – this is likely where Haman was going to get his bribe money. Also note the similarity between what this enemy of the Jews (the embodiment of the Amalekites!) decrees and what God decreed against the Amalekites (see 1 Sam 15:2-3). And, of course, we see some more partying (v. 15). Note that the king and his lieutenant are drinking and making merry while their people were in mass confusion.
In chapter 4, we see that Mordecai has learned of the decree. The sackcloth and ashes show his mourning and praying over the situation (4:1). The same was being done by Jews throughout the whole kingdom (v. 3). To Whom was Mordecai crying out? For Whom were the Jews fasting? Clearly, God is in clear view in this book.
Esther wants to speak to Mordecai (vv. 4-5). Since Mordecai won’t enter the palace, Esther sends a servant to him (v. 6). Mordecai explains, in essence, that this is because of him and his refusal to bow to anyone by YHWH (v. 7). Verse 8 says a lot. Mordecai sends the decree to Esther and commands her to go to the king to ask for grace and plead, literally, “to his face”. He wants her to enter the kings presence on behalf of her people. As we will see, entering the presence of the king like this means almost certain death (see v. 11). What we see in verse 8 is that Esther is a type of Christ. She has to be the one to enter into the presence of the king, and obtain grace for her people, under penalty of death. Christ did all this willingly. So would Esther.
Note in verse 14 that Mordecai points out the absolute surety of God delivering His people. But Esther was brought forth for a time such as this (see Gal 4:4). And she will save her people (v. 16). Note that this salvation will come after three days. The vindication of the people of God will have to wait three days! This is a pointer to the resurrection of Christ, whereby His people were vindicated and freed from the penalty of death.