DELIVERANCE OF THE JEWS Esther 1–10
“If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place” (Es. 4:14).The doctrine of providence holds that God quietly works through cause and effect in the natural world to supervise events. The Book of Esther shows how a series of “coincidences” combined to deliver the Jewish people from an early, organized effort to exterminate the race.
The author of Esther is unknown. But the number of Persian loan words in the book, and the lack of similar Greek terms, indicates it was written early, between 450–300 B.C The events described took place in the reign of Xerxes, best known as the invader whose attacks on Europe were thrown back by the Greeks at Marathon. The feast mentioned in Esther 1 is probably the same feast mentioned by Greek historians as one Xerxes called to plan his conquest of the West. The author is careful to let the story carry his message. He points to no event as the handiwork of God, and fails to criticize any of the questionable acts of either Esther or Mordecai. Yet through the story we see that God, even though unmentioned, sovereignly works out the deliverance of His people.
Definition of Key Terms
Providence is a term theologians use to express the conviction that God works out His purposes through natural processes in the physical and social universe. In this universe every effect can be traced back to a natural cause. In the world of cause and effect there is no hint of miracles, and no need to bring God up to explain what happens. In the natural universe the most one can point to is coincidence: “What a coincidence that Esther happened to be queen just when Haman tried to exterminate the Jews!” Or, “What a coincidence that the king couldn’t sleep one night, and that the portion of the annals of his kingdom that were read to him recorded how Mordecai had uncovered a plot against his life.” The believer can say that God arranged the coincidences—the unbeliever scoffs because each event can be traced back to natural causes that “fully explain” what happened without reference to God. The story told in the Book of Esther illustrates divine providence by identifying “coincidences” which led to the deliverance of the Jewish people from a plot to exterminate them. Because this is a book about providence, God is not mentioned. Yet the string of coincidences, leading so naturally to the deliverance, is so striking that His activity is clearly implied. The God of the Old Testament is God of the Covenant. God is committed to care for His chosen people, Israel. Against the background of the covenant relationship of God with the Jews, the story’s “coincidences” testify to the fact of His providential care. What you and I learn from Esther is that God is always at work in the lives of His people. The seeming “coincidences” that mark our lives are not simply products of cause and effect or of random change. The coincidences that mark our lives are ordained by God, and are intended for our good.
Esther was chosen as Xerxes’ queen (1:1–2:23). Her uncle, Mordecai, aroused the hatred of a high royal officer, Haman. Haman determined to destroy Mordecai’s whole race (3:1–15). Mordecai enlisted Esther’s reluctant help (4:1–5:14). Coincidentally Xerxes honored Mordecai for a forgotten service (6:1–14). Esther revealed she was one of the race Haman plotted to exterminate, and Haman was hanged (7:1–10). The Jews gained the right to protect themselves from their enemies (8:1–17). Many enemies of the Jews were slain (9:1–16), and Purim, celebrating deliverance, was instituted (vv. 17–32). Mordecai gained high rank in Persia, and used it to help the Jewish people (10:1–3).
Understanding the Text
“The king and his nobles were pleased with this advice” Es. 1:1–2:18. The first “coincidence” in the book is that of Queen Vashti’s rebellion against her royal husband. The author traces the reasoning of those who advised Xerxes to divorce his wife and choose a new queen. Vashti’s willfulness, and the reasoning of Xerxes’ advisers, cleared the way for Esther to become Queen of Persia. God is able to use the free acts and the uncoerced reasoning of unbelievers to shape events. “Two of the king’s officers . . . conspired” Es. 2:19–23. Mordecai thwarted a plot against Xerxes’ life. This act, though unrewarded at the time, was destined to loom large in the future. Our own actions, and the responses of others to them, become elements in God’s providential plan. Let’s not worry if we are unrewarded at the time. Frequently God’s purposes are long-range. “They cast the pur (that is the lot)” Es. 3:1–15. Haman reacted to what he felt was Mordecai’s insult by determining to exterminate the whole Jewish people. He turned to the occult to fix a day for the attack on the Jews. The lot fell, supposedly by chance, on a distant date, far enough off to give Mordecai and Esther time to counter his plot. God is able to turn even evil practices to His good purpose. “Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” Es. 4:1–5:14 Mordecai enlisted the aid of a reluctant Esther. It was clear to him that God had placed her in a strategic place to influence Xerxes in favor of the Jews. Even Esther’s hesitancy, as she put off the confrontation and invited Xerxes and Haman to supper with her, played a part in God’s timing of events. “What honor and recognition has Mordecai received?” Es. 6 Unable to sleep that night, Xerxes had the annals of his kingdom read to him. The reader “just happened” to read the report of Mordecai’s exposure of the plot against Xerxes’ life, and the king realized Mordecai had not yet been rewarded. The next day Haman was himself forced to walk through the streets of Susa, leading one of the king’s horses on which Mordecai rode! Haman, furious and frustrated, sensed that his plot was going wrong. “This vile Haman” Es. 7–8. That night at supper Queen Esther accused Haman of plotting against her and her people. The furious king ordered Haman’s execution—on the very gallows he had erected intending to hang Mordecai! Mordecai was permitted to write a decree in the king’s name granting the Jews permission to defend themselves if attacked. (The earlier decree was not reversed because by custom Persian laws once made could not be changed.) “Mordecai the Jew was second in rank to King Xerxes” Es. 9–10. The Jews were successful in defending themselves against their enemies. Purim was instituted as a festival of deliverance. And Mordecai went on to achieve the second highest rank in Persia, which he used to aid his people. The plot Haman had against the Jews had not only been thwarted but was turned around, so that its effect was to promote the welfare of God’s people rather than to harm them!
Look Back (Es. 6–7)
It was only looking back that Esther and Mordecai could clearly see the hand of God in what had happened to them. It’s like that for us too. We seldom sense God’s hidden guidance or protection as events unfold. But when we look back, we see His hand more clearly. My mother used to read a magazine called Revelation, edited by Donald Grey Barnhouse of Philadelphia. When I joined the Navy I went to a school in Norfolk, and then, because I had graduated high in my class, picked a duty station in Brooklyn, New York. It just happened that Dr. Barnhouse taught a Monday night Bible class in a Lutheran church in Manhattan. My mother, reading about it in Revelation, suggested I go see him. I began to go each Monday, and was stimulated to begin serious personal Bible study. I started a Bible study on my base, and soon sensed God’s call to the ministry. Coincidences? Mom reading a magazine. Me, stationed in a city where the editor came weekly to conduct a Bible class? Through that class being moved to personal study, and then called to the ministry? The humanist would say, “Yes, nothing but coincidence. A different set of coincidences and you could have been launched on an entirely different career.”,Yet, looking back, I clearly see the hand of God, working providentially to draw me closer to Him, and guide me into my life’s work. And there are so many more ways that, looking back, I can see the good hand of God, even in things that when I experienced them seemed like tragedies. Perhaps this is the secret of discovering God’s work in your own life. Look back. Examine the coincidences that set you on each new course. And realize that God was at work in each, even those which at the time brought pain. You see, the doctrine of Providence tells us that God is at work in the life of each of His covenant people. God’s activity may be hidden. But it is very real. Look back, and you’ll see it in your life. Look back, and you’ll find evidence of the constant love of your Lord.
God is at work on your behalf right now, through the coincidences of your life.