As you read through the Old Testament, Esther is the first book you reach that doesn’t mention God’s name at all. Curious, that—though you may not even notice it at first because this is such a fascinating story.

While God’s name may be absent, his activity is present in a big way. It shows up in a whole string of ‘coincidences’, demonstrating what theologians call the providence of God.

Don’t let that word baffle you. It simply means God’s activity in manipulating life’s events to bring about through normal processes the results he has pre-determined. Notice the words ‘through normal processes’. We are not talking here about miracles, which are God’s dramatic interventions. Miracles are extraordinary; providence is ordinary—but it still achieves God’s ends. So if you drive to the supermarket on a busy day you may say as you arrive, ‘Lord, I could do with a parking spot, please.’ A car draws out of a space right in front of you, and you pull into it with a contented ‘Thank you, Lord!’ That’s not a miracle, because cars are going in and out of supermarket car parks all the time. But the fact that a space came up when you had just asked is an example of God’s provision ‘through normal processes’—his providence.

The book of Esther has some marvellous examples of this, though they take place in more exalted circles than a car park: the court of the Persian king.

Here’s the background. After the seventy years of exile in Babylon only a tiny minority of Jews returned to Judea and Jerusalem. Most preferred to stay put in what was by then Persia—the Persians had conquered the Babylonian Empire—and the events of our story take place there, in and around the king’s winter capital, Susa.

The king was King Ahasuerus, better known by his Greek name, Xerxes. He was an autocratic eastern potentate with a harem and vast property. He indulged his every whim and could respond to anyone who upset him with, ‘Off with his head!’. He had enormous legal power, too, and the laws he ratified could not be revoked. His queen was named Vashti. She figures in the story, as does an unpleasant man named Haman who was prominent at court. Also in the story, but from the opposite end of the social scale, are two Jews in exile. Mordecai had some minor job at the palace. Esther, his young and beautiful cousin, was adopted by him when she was orphaned.So that’s the cast all in place. I suggest at this point that you take a break and read the little book of Esther right through. If you can use a modern translation like The Message, so much the better. And as you read, look out for instances of God’s providence in the ‘coincidences’ in the story…

Ah, so you couldn’t track down your copy of The Message, eh? Or you couldn’t be bothered to look for it? In that case, here’s a summary of the action.

Queen Vashti did an unforgivable thing: she made her husband look a bit stupid in public. So he gave her the push and went on the lookout for a pretty young thing to take her place. Among the many girls whom his talent scouts brought to the palace for viewing was Esther, who eventually won the king’s heart and became his new queen. She didn’t let on to him that she was a Jewess, on advice from her guardian Mordecai.

Mordecai’s job meant that he was around the palace a lot of the time, keeping his eyes and ears open, and one day he overheard some men plotting to assassinate King Xerxes. He put Esther in the picture and she informed her royal husband, who had the plotters executed. The incident was noted in the official records.

Meanwhile, the grease-ball named Haman was oiling his way up the ranks of the favoured at court. He eventually became the highest-ranking official and insisted that lesser mortals bow down whenever he passed. Most of them did, but not the Jew Mordecai, so Haman decided to vent his rage by exterminating not just Mordecai but the whole Jewish element of the population. To do this he would need royal sanction, which he secured by making a huge donation to the treasury to fund the operation. The deal was done and lots cast to set the most propitious day when the population would rise up against the Jews and exterminate them all.

Mordecai, hearing of this plan, put Esther in the picture and urged her to intervene with the king on her people’s behalf: ‘Who knows?’ he told her. ‘Maybe you were made queen for just such a time as this.’[1] But he was asking a lot of her. It was well known that for anyone—even the queen—to approach the king uninvited meant instant execution, unless he extended his sceptre as a sign of acceptance. So with all the Jews in Persia fasting and praying, Esther took her courage in both hands and stepped uninvited into Xerxes’ presence. He extended his sceptre and, relieved, she invited Xerxes and Haman to a special dinner in her apartments. Haman’s delight at this privilege was overshadowed only by Mordecai’s continued refusal to bow down before him, so he consoled himself by ordering a huge gallows built where Mordecai could be hanged, and by reminding himself that Esther had invited him and the king to a second dinner the next day.

That night the king couldn’t sleep. To pass the time he ordered a servant to bring in the record of recent events and read it aloud to him. Coincidentally, the passage that came up was the account of how Mordecai had foiled the assassination plot, and Xerxes suddenly realised that the man had never been rewarded. As it happened, Haman was nearby at the time, so they summoned him in to advise on ‘what would be appropriate for the man the king especially wants to honour.’[2]

Haman, thinking this could only mean himself, proposed that the man be paraded through the city in royal robes and be publicly honoured before all the people. Imagine his reaction when the king told him that the man in question was in fact Mordecai, and ordered Haman personally to see to its being done! Relief from his embarrassment came only when servants arrived to whisk him off to Esther’s dinner.

At this second dinner, with Xerxes nicely relaxed, Esther told him that she was a Jewess and that every member of her nation in Persia was in line to be massacred. When he asked whose dastardly idea this was, she pointed to Haman, who nearly choked on his caviar and champagne. His doom was sealed. The king ordered that he be hanged on the very gallows he had just built for Mordecai. And so this villain exits the story.

Now it remained to deal with the planned massacre. Since royal commands were irrevocable it would have to go ahead. But the king issued a second decree requiring the Jews to defend themselves vigorously, and also to feel free to confiscate their enemies’ property. This took the wind out of the non-Jews’ sails, and on the big day the whole direction of the conflict was reversed. The Jews came out of it well on top, richer, more widely accepted, and with their principal enemies put to death. Instead of extermination they faced a new era of acceptance and prosperity. And Mordecai found himself promoted in palace circles until he became second in command to Xerxes himself.

Thereafter, the whole great triumph of God’s providential care of his people found expression in an annual holiday, the festival of Purim,[3] celebrated by Jews everywhere to this very day. And as all the best stories say, they all lived happily ever after.

There are some lessons and challenges in this true story for God’s people in every generation, and the most obvious one is that God is well able to look after his people.

He knows how to protect and care for you. ‘The wicked plot against the righteous and gnash their teeth at them,’ observed the Psalmist, ‘but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he knows their day is coming.’[4] But your obedience to him must not depend on his instant deliverance. He works to a higher agenda than your comfort, so your coming through the plots of the wicked unscathed is never guaranteed—as a multitude of martyrs have witnessed down the centuries. Daniel’s three friends got the approach right. When Nebuchadnezzar threatened to throw them into a furnace they assured him that ‘the God we serve is able to deliver us…But even if he does not, we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.’[5] That should be your stand, too.

The story of Esther is also a challenge to you to break out of your personality-limitations. In the early part of the story Esther is a passive figure: subservient, compliant, anxious to please. But the challenge she faces draws out a character-aspect hitherto hidden: she becomes much more proactive. Let this encourage you to believe that you, too, have potential yet to be released. Be ready for circumstances to draw it out of you.

Learn also from her how to face your fears in faith. Esther was understandably afraid to approach the king uninvited, knowing the normal penalty. Hers was a seriously risky situation. But she faced her fears in faith, fasting and praying and then stepping out boldly in defence of a just cause. You must do the same.

Another insight here is the importance of recognising key moments and making the most of them. Mordecai’s famous words to Esther come as a challenge to you also: ‘Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?’ Sometimes life pulls you up short and declares, ‘This is a key moment, one requiring decisive action. Go for it.’ Your future depends on your taking such action, and doing so without delay. William Shakespeare understood the principle:

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in misery.
[6]

Perhaps the main lesson of this book, however, is its reminder that God is in the details of life. Commentator Matthew Henry observes: ‘Though the name of God be not in it, the finger of God is, directing many minute events for the bringing about of his people’s deliverance.’ This controlling by God of ordinary events and their timing, remember, is called his providence.

There are some marvellous instances of it in this book. Like the fact, for instance, that Mordecai, a minor figure around the court, adopted his niece when her parents died and was thus in a position to have her presented as a candidate for queen. Then the fact that Vashti, the original queen, offended her husband, Xerxes, causing her to be deposed. The fact that the eunuch in charge of Xerxes’ harem took a liking to Esther and helped her win the king’s approval. The fact that Mordecai overheard the plot against the king and, via Esther, saved his life, but also the fact that, at the time, the king overlooked a reward for Mordecai.

There are yet more providential happenings. The fact, for example, that when Haman cast lots to pick the propitious date to destroy the Jews, the lot indicated a day twelve months down the line, which gave Mordecai and Esther time to counter the plot.[7] The fact that the very night before Xerxes and Haman were to come to Esther’s banquet, the king couldn’t sleep, and that the reading of the chronicles of his reign just happened to mention the record of Mordecai’s discovery of the plot against his life. And the fact that when Esther accused Haman at the banquet, one of the king’s attendants just happened to mention the gallows that Haman had built for Mordecai, so that the furious king ordered Haman to be hanged on it.

It’s an astonishing accumulation of ‘chance’ events that testified to God’s overall control of the situation. You should be encouraged by that. Your God is the same God. He is in control of the details of your circumstances today.

Maybe you can learn from this book, too, that God rules even over your weaknesses. One question not answered by the story is why Mordecai acted the way he did towards Haman. Why did he refuse to bow down to him when everybody else, including his fellow-Jews, seem to have had no problem doing so? It may have been out of religious conviction, believing that the prostration demanded by Haman was tantamount to the kind of worship that Mordecai could give only to God. If so, God honoured his stand. Or it could have been plain old stubborn pride, in which case God turned this weakness to ultimate good.

You can’t escape God. His ways at times are impossible to fathom, but ‘we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’[8] True for Esther and the Jews in her day. True for you!

Copyright © David Matthew 2009

ESTHER

God In Life’s Details

 

This is one essay in the Windows On The Word series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.

 

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Esther

The gist of this article

The Jews who remained living in Persia instead of returning to their homeland after the exile faced the threat of extermination. But God’s providence led to their enjoying an amazing deliverance. God’s providence is still at work for you today!

1. Esther 4:14 The Message

2. Esther 6:6

3. Hebrew word for casting lots, referring to the act of Haman that decided the day of the massacre.

4. Psalm 37:12-13

5. Daniel 3:17-18

6. From his play Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3.

7. See Esther 3:7

8. Romans 8:28