I recently preached through the book of Esther as part of my Bible overview series. Esther was difficult to get my mind around because the main characters were such a contrast to the examples we see in other Jews in exile like Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. So, what can we take away from Esther? At least, three things.
The Inconsistent Character of God’s People
First of all, why doesn’t anyone mention God? We didn’t read the whole book, so it may not have been obvious to you, but nowhere is God mentioned in Esther! We may not expect it from the lips of pagans, yet what about the Jews? What about his own people? Even when Mordecai appeals to Esther for help, he says, “if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (4:14). For many, this one of the most famous verses in the Bible. But notice Mordecai doesn’t say God will give relief or deliverance—only that such things will come for somewhere! Some have suggested it was written from a politically-correct perspective so as not to offend Xerxes. This might be a valid question, but, I would again contrast that with others who had no problem giving God praise in exilic contexts.
More than that, the very dilemma of the book–the threat of the annihilation of the Jews in Persia at the hands of Haman–happens because of Mordecai’s pride. Mordecai is too proud to bow before Haman. Now, he’s not being asked to worship him, but simply to show respect for the king’s advisor. Yet, it’s this pride that creates the central conflict of the story.
This lack of an evident faith is also seen in the means of the Jew’s deliverance as well–Esther. As I was thinking about this book, I was talking with another pastor-friend of mine, asking him if he had ever preached on Esther. And he told me that several conferences and books for women use Esther as an example for instruction on a healthy marriage. That blew me away. I mean, have they read the book? This isn’t some love story–we’re talking about a life of adultery here. After her one night with the king, she may be queen, but she’s not the king’s wife in any traditional sense. It could be days or weeks before she even saw the king, let alone share his bed with him. Instead, she might pass by the dozens or even hundreds of other women waiting to called to bed with the king any night. It’s a perversion of all God says marriage should be, yet she willingly participates in the whole thing.
In all of this, some look to Esther and Mordecai as great heroes of the faith—taking risks and trusting God all along the way, as they sought the preservation of his people. To be honest, I think there is a great ambiguity to their lives. Are they a godly example, or are they an ungodly example? To honest, I don’t know, and I’m not sure we are supposed to know. The more I read it, the more I’m convinced the author wants us to be ambivalent about Esther and Mordecai. We’re to be a little unsure as to how to think about them. And in that uncertainty, we should be certain about two things.
First, that our lives should not leave such a legacy. We should live in such a way that is absolutely clear where our allegiance lies, what our passion is—namely, that we love nothing more than Jesus Christ. Esther and Mordecai were a people living in exile. Perhaps, their apparent lack of interest in godly things (like temple worship, returning to Jerusalem, etc) wasn’t intentional. That is to say, perhaps they didn’t choose to ignore these things as much as they weren’t taught to be concerned for these things as they should have been.
Today, one of the buzz-words of Christianity in some circles is the phrase gospel-centered. That can be good or bad. If it means people are thinking about the message of the gospel itself—the death of Christ as a substitute for his people, bearing God’s wrath in their place, that they might experience forgiveness and life—then it’s a good thing we use that term a lot. But if means that anything that mentions Jesus is labeled gospel-centered and the term becomes meaningless, then it won’t be good. Many have said that history shows it only takes three generation to lose the gospel. One generation believes the gospel, the next generation assumes the gospel, but doesn’t actually emphasize it, and the third will forget it altogether. Just look at several mainline denominations today who call themselves Christians but deny every core Christian belief and only emphasize social justice—they’ve forgotten the gospel.
So, as we look at these people—Esther, Mordecai, and the Jews that chose to stay in Persia—let us purpose to not be like them in this: let us purpose not to leave behind a legacy of uncertainty as to where we stand and what we believe. Let it be clear to the coming generations, as well as to those who know us now—that we live for the glory of Christ. Such a life—a life that Paul describes as being worthy of the gospel—will only be achieved never forgetting the gospel itself. That means reminding ourselves of it, over and over again, so that new desires, new loves, and new commitments push out the old ones, and we begin to desire God more than sin.
Secondly, though we may be uncertain about the character of God’s people, we should be absolutely certain about the character of God himself.
The Faithful Character of God
Despite the ambiguity of his people’s lives, God is not far off. Whether or not they called out to God in prayer during their fast, he was there. As I’ve said before, the Bible doesn’t teach coincidence, only providence. And in Esther, there’s no way all the small coincidences could add up to anything less than God himself being at work to preserve his people.[i]
- Esther just happens to be Jewish and beautiful going into the context.
- She just happens to be favored by the king’s servants and the king himself.
- Mordecai just happens to overhear the plot against the king.
- A report of his loyalty just happens to be recorded in the king’s chronicles.
- Haman just happens to notice Mordecai refuses to bow, and just happens to find out that he is a Jew.
- Haman’s dice just happen to land the wrong way, each day for a year.
- Esther just happens to find favor with the king to make her request—not once, but twice.
- Esther’s delay just happens to cause Mordecai to be seen by Haman, so that he plans for the scaffolding.
- This just happens to put Haman in a good mood the next morning,
- After the king has just happened to have a restless night,
- where he just happened to read the part of the chronicles that recorded Mordecai’s help.
- The king’s servants just happened to remember that Mordecai had never been rewarded for this, even though he had saved the king’s life.
- Mordecai just happens to approach the king when he considering how to reward Mordecai.
- Later, the king just happens to come in as Haman just happens to be at Esther’s feet in a way that just happens to look bad.
- And it just so happens that Haman’s scaffold is finished as the king wants to hang him.
After a while you just want to close the book and says, ‘Maybe there really is a God!’ I mean you can only take ‘it just so happens’ so far before a pattern begins to emerge. And in Esther, the pattern is this: God is at work! Despite the fact that his people may not have been living for him the way that they should have, God was still watching over them, protecting and preserving them as his people. More than that, using them to bring about his plans. Though Haman was plotting to exterminate the Jews, God reversed his plans and literally hoisted him on his own petard.
This should also give us comfort because there are times when we act like Esther and Mordecai—not living as we should for God, not seeking holiness, but allowing sin to build up like barnacles on our soul. Yet, God is still gracious, letting us serve, protecting us and preserving us as his people, even as defeats his enemies who would stand against him.
The Gospel According to Esther
As we think about the book of Esther, this side of the cross, we need to understand that we don’t deserve the kind of protection and preservation that Esther, Mordecai, and the Jews received. Those things were acts of grace and mercy on the part of God. In fact, we deserve what Haman got. Because of our sin and rebellion against God, we deserve to be hung, despised, and defeated.
But just as God was gracious and merciful towards his people, the Jews, he has also been gracious and merciful to us. For God sent Christ to take the punishment we deserve. He was hanged—not on a pole, but a cross—not for his own sins, but for the sins of his people. There he hung, despised and defeated, not for himself, but for us. In this way, the wrath of God the King towards the sin of his people was abated (Esth 7:10).
But Christ did not remain defeated. For God raised him back to life, to reign as king over all things. It’s because of God’s saving work through the death and resurrection of Christ, that we can trust that God will continue to be gracious and merciful to us, even we fail to be faithful to him. Because of that grace, because of that merciful care from God, let us commit to fix our eyes on Jesus and, by faith, pursue of life that is worthy of the salvation we have received.
[i] This list is adapted by the one provided by Mark Dever, The Message of the Old Testament, 455-456.