I preached a short 12-sermon series through the Book of Esther a while back. I really enjoyed the study, and I hope at least a few of the folks in my church did, too! I’ll be re-producing that study in a series of posts on this blog.
The Book of Esther was written by an unknown Jew in Persia around 400-450 B.C., and it is set during the time of the Medo-Persian Empire (in modern-day Iran). It takes place from roughly 483–464 B.C. Many Christians are very fuzzy on their Old Testament History (and the entire Old Testament in general!), so let me give you some dates so you know how Esther and Mordecai found themselves in their situation:
- 722 B.C. – the Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians
- 586 B.C. – the Assyrians, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah, were conquered by the Babylonians
- 538 B.C. – the Babylonians were conquered by the Medo-Persians
Incidentally, the rise and fall of both the Babylonian and Medo-Persian Empires were prophesied by Daniel (Dan 2:36-45; 7:17-28).
As a direct result of the Babylonian’s victory over Judah, there is a large Jewish population in Babylon – descendants of the untold tens of thousands deported by the Babylonians. Their tactic was to conquer an area, then deport all but the poorest people, thereby ripping them from their homes, religion and heritage. The idea was that, within a generation or two, they would simply assimilate into their culture and forget about their national heritage. This is exactly what has happened to the Jews in Esther’s day in the Persian Empire – many of them didn’t bother to return to the Promised Land when they had a chance to, because they liked their lives in Babylon.
The first wave of exiles returned to the Promised Land from Babylon from 537-538 B.C. the Book of Ezra tells us all about it:
Ezra 1:1-4 Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying, Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, The LORD God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Who is there among you of all his people? his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the LORD God of Israel, (he is the God,) which is in Jerusalem. And whosoever remaineth in any place where he sojourneth, let the men of his place help him with silver, and with gold, and with goods, and with beasts, beside the freewill offering for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.
Isn’t it amazing that God used a pagan king to return His chosen people to their land, to prepare them for the coming of the Messiah in about 538 years!? Almost 50,000 (Ezra 2:64-65) Jews returned, less than 60 years after the Babylonians destroyed the Southern Kingdom. This gives you an idea of how many Jews lived in this area.
The second waves of exiles returned to the Promised Land from exile Babylon in 457 B.C.
Ezra 7:11-13 Now this is the copy of the letter that the king Artaxerxes gave unto Ezra the priest, the scribe, even a scribe of the words of the commandments of the LORD, and of his statutes to Israel. Artaxerxes, king of kings, unto Ezra the priest, a scribe of the law of the God of heaven, perfect peace, and at such a time. I make a decree, that all they of the people of Israel, and of his priests and Levites, in my realm, which are minded of their own freewill to go up to Jerusalem, go with thee.
This time, only 1500 men returned (generously figuring wives and three children for each, you still only have 6000!).
The third wave of exiles returned to the Promised Land in 444 B.C.
Nehemiah 2:4-6 Then the king said unto me, For what dost thou make request? So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said unto the king, If it please the king, and if thy servant have found favour in thy sight, that thou wouldest send me unto Judah, unto the city of my fathers’ sepulchres, that I may build it. And the king said unto me, (the queen also sitting by him,) For how long shall thy journey be? and when wilt thou return? So it pleased the king to send me; and I set him a time.
Why are these dates necessary? Why should you care? The events from the Book of Esther took place approximately 51 years after the first wave of exiles returned to Israel. It’s important you know that any Jew in Esther’s day, living in the old Babylonian (now Medo-Persian) Empire, could have returned to the Promised Land if he had wanted to!.
The temple was being re-built. The priesthood was being re-instituted. God was being worshipped at Jerusalem, which was what the Old Testament commanded! And yet . . . Esther and Mordecai didn’t go – they voluntarily cut themselves off from the divinely-appointed way of worshipping and serving God! This is very similar to a modern Christian, who claims to love God, but never joins a local church in his life, and moreover, never attends church, either! You wouldn’t necessarily say such a person isn’t a Christian without more information. What you could say, immediately, is that such a person isn’t a very good, very dedicated or very obedient Christian.
This leads us to draw some brief sketches of the main characters, which may be a bit shocking, because Esther and Mordecai are usually given very high marks for spirituality that they don’t deserve.
More on that next time . . .
 Substantive commentaries on Esther are surprisingly hard to find. The best are (1) John Whitcomb (Esther: The Triumph of God’s Sovereignty [Chicago, IL: Moody, 1979], (2) Joyce Baldwin (Esther, vol. 12, TOTC [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984], and (3) Karen H. Jobes (Esther, NIV Application Commentary [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999; reprint, Kindle, 2010).
 Gleason L. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, revised and expanded (Chicago, IL: Moody, 2007), 395-396. Whitcomb observes that the author betrays a first-hand knowledge of King Ahasuerus’ temple at Susa, which was destroyed in 435 B.C. This goes even further to pin down the date of composition (Esther, 13).
 The following dates for the various exilic returns are taken from Leon Wood (History, 333-338).
 See especially Whitcomb (Esther, 22ff). “There seems to be no evidence that Mordecai or Esther harbored any desire to relate to the heart of God’s theocratic program by journeying to Jerusalem, offering the prescribed Mosaic sacrifices on the altar through Levitical priests, and praying to Jehovah in His holy Temple. Nor is there any evidence given that they were in any way prevented from going.”
 Charles Smith observed, “Their triumph over Haman is their single great achievement. How much honor does it shed upon them? Let us give them all the credit they possibly deserve! To Mordecai, astuteness, statesmanship, courage, leadership; to Esther, fortitude, prompt action, the power of beauty, queenliness, patriotism. But does either touch the high level of prophet or saint? Is Mordecai a David, a Daniel, a Zerubbabel? Is Esther a Deborah, or a Ruth? By no means. We can admire her as a superior woman, who, at a critical moment, acted with promptness and good judgment so as to save her own life and that of many others. But she was not a champion of God’s righteousness, or a savior of souls. Her success was in that lower realm where success or failure does not seem, in the long run, a matter of much importance,” (“The Book of Esther,” Bibliotheca Sacra 082:328 [Oct 1925], 400-401).