Their Finest Hour - Esther
John Scarsbrook, Killamarsh, England
If the book of Esther had been the work of a secular writer it would undoubtedly be termed a ‘page-turner’! The narrative draws the reader on, and even for those familiar with the story there is a compelling inclination to continue reading through the book. There is the intrigue of a Middle-Eastern court in which the despotic monarch deposes his queen at a whim, the dubious practice of finding a replacement, which first brings Mordecai and Esther into focus, the plot to harm the king, and the rise of Haman the anti-Semitic psychopath. These all blend together to create a captivating opening to a story in which, though God is not mentioned, the evidence of divine sovereignty is unmistakeable throughout, not least in the fact that the conclusion hinges upon a sleepless night! Truly, ‘the most high God ruled in the kingdom of men’, Dan 5. 21.
There are two lines of truth which, among others, feature prominently throughout the scriptures. The first is that God has a people for Himself in every age, and, secondly, He has a plan and purpose for those who are His own. The two books of Old Testament scripture which bear the names of women underline these truths. The book of Esther is concerned with the preservation of the people of God, while the book of Ruth illustrates the protection of the purposes of God, even through the chaotic days of the Judges.
So, where does the book of Esther fit into the narrative of the Old Testament?
It is evident from the opening verses of the book that we are not in Jerusalem, or anywhere else in Israel, but in Shushan, or Susa, the winter palace of the kings of Persia. In the purposes of God, the Medo-Persians, conquerors of the Babylonian empire, were now the power on the world stage – the breast and arms of silver seen in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, the ram with two horns of Daniel chapter 8. Some years before the time of Esther, Cyrus the Persian had issued a decree allowing as many Jews as so desired to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. The leader of this exodus was Zerubbabel, Ezra 1. 2, and the direct results take us to the end of Ezra chapter 6. There is then a break of some fifty-eight years before the narrative continues in chapter 7 with a second return, led by Ezra. It is widely accepted that the events of the book of Esther occurred during this interval.
The story is constructed around five leading characters: Ahasuerus the king; Vashti, his deposed queen; Esther, and her cousin Mordecai who are Jews living in Shushan; and Haman the egocentric official given position by the king. A number of other individuals play their part: Memucan, the misogynist prince; Hegai, the man with the hardest job in Shushan, ‘keeper of the women’; Bigthan and Teresh, the would-be assassins; Hatach, Esther’s trustworthy servant; and Zeresh, the vindictive but perceptive wife of Haman.
As the book of Esther opens, we are introduced to Ahasuerus, ruler of 127 provinces, from India to Ethiopia. It has been suggested that Ahasuerus may be a title, like Caesar or Pharaoh, rather than a name, as most commentators equate this monarch with Xerxes 1, known from secular history as impulsive, extravagant, and exceedingly cruel. The Persian Empire at this time was at the zenith of its power, but, already, far away to the west, the rough he-goat of Grecia was beginning to flex its muscles in order to advance heaven’s programme in due time. Warning of this would be given to Ahasuerus by Persia’s costly and ultimately Pyrrhic victory against Greek forces at Thermopylae, and the subsequent destruction of his fleet at Salamis. It is suggested that these events are embraced by the phrase at the commencement of Esther chapter 2, ‘After these things’, since Esther became queen some four years after the deposing of Vashti, cp. 1. 3 and 2. 16.
The catalyst for Esther’s rise to prominence is seen in chapter 1. The ostentatious feast lasting six months, followed by a seven-day banquet for the palace staff, led to Ahasuerus calling drunkenly for the queen to parade before the guests. Vashti refused this demeaning suggestion. This gave opportunity for Memucan, a particularly objectionable individual, to ingratiate himself to the king by providing a solution whereby Ahasuerus could save face before the princes, the people, and the nation.
In chapter 2, Ahasuerus, having returned from his military exploits against Greece with mixed success, now turned his thoughts to more domestic matters; he needed female companionship. The suggestion made to the king would doubtless have found acceptance with any despotic ruler, east or west, but unknown to Ahasuerus, or anyone else for that matter, a sovereign hand would overrule the carnal desires of the king to bring Esther to his attention.
I suppose there are a number of perfectly reasonable questions which could be raised in connection with both Mordecai and Esther. Why, for example, did Mordecai not take advantage of the opportunity to return to Jerusalem with Zerubbabel? Why did he allow Esther to become a part of the king’s harem, knowing that such involvement would be abhorrent to the Jewish law? No answers are given in scripture, but perhaps it would be fair to say that we have no idea of Mordecai’s age, circumstances, or responsibilities in Shushan, though he did have a position of some authority and ‘sat in the king’s gate’, 2. 21. His great grandfather Kish (not to be confused with the father of Saul), had been carried away captive to Babylon some 120 years before and both Mordecai and Esther had been born into Persian society and had imbibed the Persian culture. As far as Esther was concerned, she lived in Shushan, she was ‘fair and beautiful’, and so would hardly be able to avoid the search for such maidens. There is no suggestion that Mordecai was instrumental in bringing Esther to the palace; the record simply says that, ‘Esther was brought also to the king’s house’, 2. 8; it may well have been a heartbreaking experience for Mordecai.
The due process of choosing a queen takes its course and, ‘the king loved Esther above all the women . . . so that he set the royal crown upon her head’, 2. 17.
With Esther now in the required place, it is time for the next step in God’s plan to preserve His people. A plot to overthrow Ahasuerus is overheard by Mordecai and made known to Esther, maybe for her own safety as well as that of her husband. She, in turn, reports the intended regicide to the king, the conspirators are summarily executed and the matter recorded in the meticulous records of the Persian monarchy, with no reason to think it would ever be referred to again.
A further five years of history pass by, then, enter Haman. Proud, ambitious, arrogant, and one of only three named individuals in scripture to be described as wicked. There was nothing unusual about his promotion; it may have been a deserved military honour. But when it was decreed that all should bow down to him, something stirred in the heart of Mordecai! Persian he may have been in dress, speech and conduct, but deeply ingrained in his conscience was a binding law, ‘I am the Lord thy God . . . thou shalt have no other gods before me . . . thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them’, Exod. 20. 1-3. And so it was that as Haman passed by and all around prostrated themselves, ‘Mordecai bowed not, nor did him reverence’.
Events then began to move rather more quickly. The first three chapters cover a period of some nine years; chapters 4 to 8 no more than a few days. Mordecai’s refusal to acknowledge Haman soon incurred his wrath and a plan to exact retribution formed in his mind. Scorning just a personal vendetta, Haman embarked upon a devious scheme of ethnic cleansing; he would attempt to eradicate all the Jewish people. On the pretext of achieving something of benefit for the nation, Haman embroiled the unsuspecting king in his plot.
There is no doubt that the inspiration behind the scheming Haman was the adversary himself. Seeking here, as on other occasions, to destroy not just the people of God but, more particularly, the line along which Messiah would be born. Little did he realize that the one who carried that line was already safely back in the land in the person of Zerubbabel.
Plans are finalized, dates are fixed, the cost is met and the people notified, somewhat to their confusion. The effect on Mordecai was devastating as, draped in sackcloth and fouled with ashes, he wept before the king’s gate. Before long, news reached Esther in the palace and a dialogue commenced through Hatach, a loyal and reliable servant who faithfully passed on the messages entrusted to him.
Having read the decree, Esther realized that Ahasuerus must be made aware of the enormity of Haman’s scheme. The difficulty of relaying the message lay in Persian protocol: an audience with the king was a rare privilege to which even the queen could not be assured an acceptance. Nevertheless, the deed must be done. Tension builds as Mordecai, through Hatach, makes Esther aware of the alternatives. As a Jew, she would not escape the genocide, but Mordecai was assured that by some means the nation would be preserved. And who could forget his emotive plea culminating in his last spoken words recorded in the book, ‘who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?’
Esther’s finest hour had come! It could be argued that it was in truth when she stood in the outer court awaiting acceptance. However, the firm resolve, after three days and nights of fasting, have characterized this young Jewish woman over centuries of time, ‘I will go in unto the king . . . and if I perish, I perish’.
The die is cast, an audience is granted and, from that point on, Haman’s doom is sealed. But not before his abject humiliation in granting to Mordecai the honour he intended and expected for himself! Haman’s fall is spectacular, from the dignity of the highest ranking official, to the ignominy of the gallows built at the instigation of his scheming wife; the wicked Haman received his just desserts. He foreshadows another who will yet rise up and oppose the nation in a future day; he, likewise, will fall under the judgement of a sovereign God.