Such a Time as This
The Book of Esther is an engaging piece of literature, with political intrigue, reversal of fortune, a wise counselor, irony, betrayal, heroism, and a despicable villain. If one pitched an Esther script to a movie studio, it might read:
“A stunningly beautiful woman becomes queen, and when her people are slated for genocide through the evil plan of a maniacal royal officer, she saves their lives by following the counsel of her perceptive cousin.”
It is a vivid story, and perhaps you can even imagine which current Hollywood icons could fill the roles of the four main characters. Esther’s book is so good that screen writers from the silent era into the twenty-first century have adapted it for the cinema at least a dozen times—with some that even stay fairly faithful to the Bible.
Esther is great literature, but it is more: It is God’s revelation of historical events directed for a redemptive purpose, namely preserving the Jews to maintain the seed line for the coming Messiah. For some, Esther is good literature providing a good story; for Christians, it not only has literary value, but more importantly it is historical and God’s infallible Word.
At the time of Esther, Ahasuerus ruled the Persian Empire, which included what are currently Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and the land running along the coast of the Mediterranean beyond Israel into Egypt’s seaboard and the Nile basin to Ethiopia. It was an impressive kingdom ruled by a king who has been described as tyrannical, capricious, and (as would be expected) egotistical. As Esther opens it recounts a half year of pomp, parade, and pride in the capital city of Susa as Ahasuerus threw the feast to end all feasts. Having downed too much wine while partying for a week, he wanted the queen in on the grand affair to parade her great beauty before the revelers. He sent an emissary to summon Queen Vashti, but she refused to submit to his bidding. She was having her own feast. Ahasuerus was furious! The queen’s rebuff humiliated him and denigrated the sovereign rule by men over their households. Such a thing must not be tolerated in Persia! Vashti was dethroned, then the king issued a two-part decree—all men are masters of their homes who must assert their authority, and secondly, because a new queen was needed the loveliest virgins of the empire were to be collected in the harem to be considered for Vashti’s vacant position. The young women were assembled and cosmetically enhanced using the finest oils and fragrances in preparation for viewing by Ahasuerus and trials in his bed chamber. The best one of these women would be the next queen.
A Jew named Mordecai was the great grandson of Kish the Benjaminite. Many Jews from the land of Judah and Benjamin were in Persia because they were deported to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar when he captured Jerusalem. Shortly after Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, in later years conquered Babylon, he allowed Jews captured by the Babylonians to return to their homelands. Some of the Jews, like Mordecai, chose not to return. Mordecai was the cousin of a beautiful woman named Esther whom he had taken in as if she were his daughter. Esther was taken by the king’s eunuchs and included with the other virgins gathered from the empire. The chief eunuch, Hegai, favored Esther and moved her to the head of the group candidating for queen. When her opportunity came to go before Ahasuerus “he loved Esther more than all the women, and she won grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen” (2:17). A great feast for all the officials and servants was given and Ahasuerus “granted a remission of taxes to the provinces and gave gifts with royal generosity” (2:18). Such a magnanimous gesture by the king surely endeared the new queen to the people.
Mordecai was an employee of Ahasuerus and whatever his precise job description may have been it included sufficient responsibility to sit at the king’s gate. The gate was the place of social and business gathering, a market for goods, gossiping, deal making, and beggars. While sitting there one day he overheard two eunuchs, Bigthan and Teresh, conspiring to assassinate Ahasuerus. It was a vital piece of information. Mordecai relayed the assassination plan to Esther and she post-haste informed the king. Esther told the king the information came from Mordecai. Investigation proved the authenticity of Mordecai’s evidence which resulted in the two eunuchs being hanged. At this point in Esther, the eunuchs’ conspiracy appears to be an example of court intrigue, but Mordecai’s overhearing the eunuchs would prove invaluable for the future of the Jews in Persia.
The villain in Esther was Haman the Agagite, son of Hammedatha. Reasons are not given but Ahasuerus promoted Haman over all his peers to a place of great prominence. The king issued an edict commanding all his servants at the gate to bow in Haman’s presence, but Mordecai would not comply. When asked why he did not follow the king’s edict, he told them he was a Jew. The antipathy between the two men may have its source in Israel’s history when Samuel executed king Agag when King Saul had spared his life contrary to God’s command. Haman was infuriated by Mordecai’s snub but was reluctant to seize him. Instead, Haman convinced Ahasuerus that “a certain people” within Persia, he did not say Jews, were law breakers that refused to follow the king’s edict to bow to Haman. He paid the king a very large sum so the Jews could be scheduled for destruction on the thirteenth of Adar. Haman distributed copies of the edict in all the languages of the empire with each authenticated as coming from the king by the mark of his ring. Could anything be done to avert the slaughter of the Jews?
Mordecai was beside himself when he learned of the edict. He tore his clothes and put on sack cloth and ashes. Other Jews joined him lamenting as each day passed bringing them closer to the massacre. Esther did not know about the king’s decision to kill the Jews until she found out about it from a eunuch she sent to ask Mordecai why he was mourning. He responded by giving the eunuch a copy of the massacre edict for Esther to see. One thing led to another and it became clear to Mordecai that Esther was afraid to go before the king to intercede for the Jews because she had not been summoned to be with him for thirty days—she thought she was no longer in his favor. It was against the law to approach the king without invitation, but there was a way, a risky one for sure. If she went to the courtyard in sight of the king and he stretched forth his scepter to her, she could approach him for an audience, but if he did not acknowledge her—the penalty was death. It was a critical time in Jewish history and a crucial decision was required from Esther. Her fears and reluctance were relayed to Mordecai by envoy.
As chapter four draws to a close, Mordecai responded to the queen. Esther’s envoys told her Mordecai believed that if she did not speak to the king about saving the Jews, then some other means would arise to avert genocide—but she and Mordecai would be slaughtered. Esther would not be spared just because she was the queen. The crucial issue Mordecai wanted her to consider was her responsibility to the Jews and her opportunity to help as Ahasuerus’ queen. He challenged her to think on a question:
And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?
Mordecai raised the question of her place in the history of the Jewish people. Was her rise to the strategic position of queen for the express purpose of interceding for the Jews? This crucial moment is the climax of the book, but more importantly, it was the time to save the Jews from slaughter.
Go gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish. (4:16, 17)
An unusual feature of the book of Esther is that it does not have a single mention of God’s name and it shies from theological-religious terminology other than this mention of fasting. Some have incorrectly seen this omission as reason to exclude Esther from the canon because they believed God’s Word necessarily should in every book have God’s name. The lack of God’s name was so disconcerting for Jewish translators of the Greek version of Esther that they included additional passages using God’s name and religious terms. The key to this omission may be found within Esther itself where it is said that the record of Mordecai was included in “the Chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia” (10:2). Insertion of Mordecai's record into the Persian royal history makes it unlikely that distinctively Jewish theological words would have been used. Ancient rulers would not permit rivalry for their thrones, neither would they put up with God competing with their theology. The death penalty was imposed on Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar because they refused to worship his image, and Daniel was put in the lion’s den by Darius the Mede for praying to God. Exclusion of God’s name from Esther is not so surprising when the context of the Jews’ situation is considered. The gods, whether they were created by Babylonians, Medians, or Persians, were jealous and they tolerated no other gods, especially the God.
Returning to the narrative, the climax has arrived with Esther fearful but hopeful Ahasuerus would grant her an audience. She donned royal finery and went to the courtyard outside the throne room so the king could see her through the doorway. He, thankfully, summoned her by presenting the scepter. The king told her she could ask him whatever she wanted, even if it was half the kingdom she could have it. It should be remembered at this point that Ahasuerus loved Esther, so even though the ancient world of royals was an adulterous, murdering, deceptive, and conniving one, the king in some fallen and fornicating way loved his queen. Esther’s thirty-day hiatus from seeing him must have shaken her confidence in his love. She approached the throne but instead of forth-rightly asking Ahasuerus to save the Jews, she instead invited him and Haman to a banquet. The feast unfolded with the usual drinking and gorging until it was coming to an end when the king asked Esther what she wanted from him. In response she invited him and Haman as her only guests to another feast where she promised she would make her request known.
As Haman contemplated the impending gala, he was once again rebuffed by Mordecai at the city gate. He was absolutely livid. After debating with his family the subject of Mordecai and how he should approach getting even, his wife Zeresh told Haman he should execute Mordecai. So, he ordered a gallows seventy feet high to be built. He wanted Mordecai dead with his execution visible to as many people as possible. Despite his problem with Mordecai, Haman believed things were looking up for him because of the exclusive invitation to a feast for himself and the king. Needing the approval of Ahasuerus for the hanging, Haman believed he could “tell the king to have Mordecai hanged” (5:14). It was dangerously presumptuous and indicative of Haman’s arrogance for him to think Ahasuerus could be told to do anything—he was the sovereign of the Persian Empire.
At this point Mordecai’s eaves-dropping detective work that uncovered the assassination plot by Bigthan and Teresh re-enters the picture. Ahasuerus was suffering from insomnia one night, so he had the chronicles of his reign read. It just so happened that—as so many things just so happen in Esther—the reading included an entry recording Mordecai’s report of the assassination conspiracy by the two eunuchs. Ahasuerus asked if Mordecai had been rewarded for his life-saving work, but the answer was no. Then the king heard the sounds of a visitor in the court. It just so happened to be Haman arriving to present his case for the execution of Mordecai. Ahasuerus invited him in and asked him what should be done for a man "whom the king delights to honor” (6:6). Assuming it was himself who would receive the honor, Haman said that such a man should be dressed in one of the king’s robes, mounted on one of the king’s fine horses, have a royal crown placed upon his head, and then be led in a grand parade through Susa. Ahasuerus thought it was a very good idea, so he told Haman to do it for Mordecai. What irony that Haman had to honor his Jewish enemy! Mordecai the Jew was led by Haman the Agagite through the city for all to see. Haman went home angry, humiliated, and dumbfounded because his hope for Mordecai’s execution ended up instead in his exaltation.
Eunuchs went to Haman’s house to escort him to Esther’s feast with Ahasuerus. The usual extravagant courses of food and drink once again proceeded until the end of the second day when Esther asked Ahasuerus for her life and those of her fellow Jews. As Esther pointed at Haman in disgust, she told the king that it was Haman who connived to kill the Jews. Haman was terrified. Ahasuerus was enraged and left the room leaving Haman alone with Esther. Scripture does not say it, but it seems likely that the king remembered Haman’s request to massacre “a certain people” and it inflamed his anger. Haman had not given the king all the information. While the king was away Haman begged Esther for his life and laid prostrate on her couch groveling. It just so happened that Ahasuerus returned at that time and saw Haman with Esther and believed he was attempting to assault the queen. A eunuch informed the king that gallows just so happened to be available for immediate use, so Haman was hanged on the gallows built for his arch-enemy, Mordecai. The king gave Esther Haman’s property for her own and then she made Mordecai its manager.
But it was not over yet. Esther returned to the king for an audience because the future of the Jews had not been resolved. She fell before him and begged for Haman’s genocide plan to be reversed, but there was a significant problem. According to the law of the Medes and Persians once an edict was written in the king’s name and sealed with his ring, as Haman had done acting for the king, it could not be reversed. All appeared hopeless until the king informed Esther that she could write any edict she desired “with regard to the Jews, in the name of the king” (8:8). Wise Mordecai came up with a solution. An edict was distributed from one end of the empire to the other allowing the Jews to do whatever was necessary to defend themselves against their attackers. So, beginning on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar the Jews fought those seeking their destruction and were victorious. Because of Mordecai’s influence in Persia and his edict to save his people other ethnic groups came to fear the Jews and allied with them in their fight. Esther concludes with institution of the Feast of Purim to remember God’s deliverance of the Jews through the queen’s intercession and a rehearsal of how great Mordecai had become in Persia.
Esther is a great literary work with wonderful cinematic appeal, but it is included in the Bible to show how God preserved the Jews to continue the seed of Judah through which the Messiah would be born. Esther was faced with a crucial decision requiring apprehension of the unique opportunity she had to save her people. It was Mordecai’s discernment of the situation and then encouragement given to her that persuaded Esther to risk her life for the Jews. The redemptive-historical significance of Esther saw its fulfillment in the life and work of Christ, but even though the word providence is, like names for God, nowhere to be found in the book, it is in fact everywhere. J. S. Wright said of Esther, “The absence of the name of God does not mean the absence of the hand of God. The whole book traces how the right person was in the right place at the right time.” Esther provides a vivid example of the doctrine of providence. Providence is God’s “most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions” (WSC, Q 11). Mordecai had a sense of providence, the seed plot, the covenant, or all three as he informed Esther that even if she did not intercede, God would provide another means to save the Jews. His confidence was absolute; God would not allow genocide of the Jews. Without discrediting the crucial and focal intercession by Esther, more recognition needs to be given to Mordecai because he discerned the times and was confident the Jews would be saved. Life is providential—Christians should recognize it; non-Christians will not. It is not only great events such as the one accomplished by a Benjaminite Jew serving the king and an orphaned lovely woman, it is the phone call the Christian discerning the times makes to bring comfort and gospel grace to a friend fearful of COVID-19. Providence is the ordinary things of life that sometimes become extraordinary. Unfortunately, the believer does not always know the significance of trials, blessings, opportunities, and tragedies, but the Lord knows and he is directing all through providence. For such a time as this, Christian, be faithful, discern the times, and have patient compassion on a very, very troubled and fearful world locked in the shackles of sin.
Barry Waugh (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is the editor of Presbyterians of the Past. He has written for various periodicals, such as the Westminster Theological Journal and The Confessional Presbyterian. He has also contributing to Gary L. W. Johnson’s, B. B. Warfield: Essays on His Life and Thought, 2007, and edited Letters from the Front: J. Gresham Machen’s Correspondence from World War I, 2012.
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The information about Esther films was aided by “Bible Films Blogspot” https://biblefilms.blogspot.com/2006/02/films-about-esther.html. The article, “Ahasuerus,” by Robert Dick Wilson in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, edited by James Orr, volume 1, 1915, identifies Ahasuerus with Xerxes and briefly addresses occurrences of the name not only in Esther, but also Ezra and Daniel. I have chosen to use “Ahasuerus” because that is his name in the Hebrew Old Testament and to use Xerxes would be to use the name given him by his Greek enemies. Unfortunately, I used to have Joyce Baldwin’s fine commentary on Esther, but it has disappeared over the years. Also, Ian Duguid has published a commentary on Ruth-Esther. Dillard and Longman’s An Introduction to the Old Testament¸ Zondervan, 1994, has a fine presentation of the book of Esther and a good theological perspective. E. J. Young’s An Introduction to the Old Testament, Eerdmans, 1949 etc., would have been nice to see, but it appears my copy has vanished as has Baldwin.