A while back, I preached through the Book of Esther. I learned a lot. It was fun. I don’t think Esther is a role model for any Christian woman. With that teaser in place, I’ll have you know I’ve uploaded the audio and PDF notes here, if you wish to listen. I’m outta here. Ciao.
The first chapter of the Book of Esther sets the stage for the rest of the account. It tells us why she even became the Queen of the Persian Empire in the first place. More specifically, it tells a bit about her charming husband, Ahasuerus (other translations usually call him Xerxes). He was not a good man! But first, the text:
Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus, (this is Ahasuerus which reigned, from India even unto Ethiopia, over an hundred and seven and twenty provinces:) That in those days, when the king Ahasuerus sat on the throne of his kingdom, which was in Shushan the palace (Esther 1:1-2).
The Persian Empire which Ahasureus inherited from his father was very large. It stretched from India to the northern Sudan in Africa (e.g. “Ethiopia”).
King Ahasureus reigned from 486 – 485 B.C. Jews had been deported to Babylon in the early 590s, and in 586 B.C. This meant that Jews had been living in exile in Babylon for about 100 years by this point; 4-5 generations is a long time to develop deep roots!
In the third year of his reign, he made a feast unto all his princes and his servants; the power of Persia and Media, the nobles and princes of the provinces, being before him: When he shewed the riches of his glorious kingdom and the honour of his excellent majesty many days, even an hundred and fourscore days (Esther 1:3-4).
We just read that King Ahasuerus had a feast for six whole months! This event involved princes, servants,senior military officials (“the power of Media and Persia”) and civil administrators and leaders. What in the world was going on here?
Secular history tells us that this was a massive military planning session. King Ahasuerus’ father had planned a military expedition against the Greeks, but died before he could pull it off – Ahasuerus wanted to finish what his father had started. This wasn’t a six-month long party – it was a strategy and planning session with his civil and military leaders from all over his massive empire.
It was intentionally lavish (“he showed the riches . . .”) to impress the subordinates from all the far-flung corners of his empire. He needed their troops, their money, and their support to make his proposed military campaign happen. The idea was to cumulatively overawe his subordinates with his riches, wealth and power as this planning session went on. They would be influenced to believe:
“The King is strong!”
“The empire is mighty!”
“This plan could work!”
“I’ll do my part to raise troops, provide funds, and support this endeavor!”
King Ahasuerus spent four years preparing for this campaign. He started immediately when he assumed the throne, three years before the events in the first chapter of Esther. He had this massive planning session to declare his intentions and awe his military and civilian officials into supporting the plan. They actually set out about one year after this event. Esther didn’t become queen until he returned from the expedition – there is a large, multi-year gap between Esther 1 and 2.
Here was his military plan:
(1) Gather an army
(2) March overland to the Strait of Dardenelles (Hellespont)
(3) Have his engineers erect a bridge across a suitable portion of the Strait
(4) March his army across and attack and conquer Greece and burn Athens to the ground
(6) Have his Navy protect the bridge from the Greek Navy during the campaign and destroy the Greek Navy, as well
So, what kind of guy was King Ahasuerus? He was a petty, cruel, altogether worthless man. Here are some examples:
His uncle advised against this adventure, reasoning that if the Greek Navy managed to destroy the bridge, Ahasuerus and his army would be cut off from home and destroyed piecemeal by the Greek army. Ahasuerus called his uncle a “faint-hearted coward” and ordered him to stay home with the women while he marched forth to battle!
Engineers were sent ahead to build the bridge as the army marched onward. When his army finally reached the bridge, a great storm destroyed it! Ahasuerus was so furious, he ordered the water lashed in punishment, rebuking the waves for destroying the bridge! Even more disturbing, Ahasuerus had the construction supervisors decapitated
A trusted elderly servant, accompanying the expedition, had second thoughts about going on. He asked Ahasuerus if he could take his eldest son and return home, leaving his four other sons to continue onward with the expedition. Ahasuerus was furious, told the servant “no,” had the eldest son killed, cut in half, and placed on either side of the road for the army to march past. He then made the servant continue on with the expedition, for good measure!
I say all that to say this – King Ahasuerus was not a kind, godly or nice man!
We’ll examine what happened one particular evening at this feast next time . . .
 “Xerxes was known for his consolidation of the Persian empire ‘from India to Cush,’ corresponding to the regions of modern Pakistan and northern Sudan, respectively,” (Karen H. Jobes, Esther, NIV Application Commentary [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998; reprint, Kindle ed., 2011], KL 960-961).
 Herodotus wrote, “After the conquest of Egypt, intending now to take in hand the expedition against Athens, Xerxes held a special assembly of the noblest among the Persians, so he could learn their opinions and declare his will before them all,” (The Histories 7.8, trans. A. D. Godley [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920]. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/eafshR).
 Joyce Baldwin suggests that the six-month length may be intentional irony on the part of the anonymous author of Esther: “The banquet then was the culmination of the festivities. Many would consider even seven days too long a time for such a carousal, but the intention is to conjure up an impression (not without irony) of the unlimited resources of the king . . .” (Esther, vol. 12, TOTC [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984], 57).
 Jobes commented, “Xerxes was mustering the nobles, officials, military leaders, princes, and governors of the provinces in Susa to rally support for his military campaign against the Greeks. The vast expanse of the Persian empire, from modern Pakistan in the east to modern Turkey in the west, encompassed many people groups with different languages, ethnic origins, and religions. Maintaining their support and loyalty over such a diverse and far-flung empire was no small feat. During the 180 days of the council, Xerxes displayed his wealth and glory to consolidate the leaders of the many provinces of the empire under his authority and to gain their loyalty to his cause,” (Esther, KL 990-995).
 “For full four years after the conquest of Egypt he was equipping his force and preparing all that was needed for it; before the fifth year was completed, he set forth on his march with the might of a great multitude.,” (Histories 7.20). The four-year preparation ran from 486-482 B.C. The planning session outlined in Esther 1 took place “in the third year of his reign” (Est 1:3) which was 483 B.C.
 “Suppose they do not succeed in both ways; but if they attack with their ships and prevail in a sea-fight, and then sail to the Hellespont and destroy your bridge, that, O king, is the hour of peril,” (Histories 7.10).
 “Thus spoke Artabanus. Xerxes answered angrily, ‘Artabanus, you are my father’s brother; that will save you from receiving the fitting reward of foolish words. But for your cowardly lack of spirit I lay upon you this disgrace, that you will not go with me and my army against Hellas, but will stay here with the women; I myself will accomplish all that I have said, with no help from you,” (Histories 7.11).
 “When Xerxes heard of this, he was very angry and commanded that the Hellespont be whipped with three hundred lashes, and a pair of fetters be thrown into the sea. I have even heard that he sent branders with them to brand the Hellespont. He commanded them while they whipped to utter words outlandish and presumptuous, ‘Bitter water, our master thus punishes you, because you did him wrong though he had done you none. Xerxes the king will pass over you, whether you want it or not; in accordance with justice no one offers you sacrifice, for you are a turbid and briny river,’” (Histories 7.35).
 “He commanded that the sea receive these punishments and that the overseers of the bridge over the Hellespont be beheaded. So this was done by those who were appointed to the thankless honor, and new engineers set about making the bridges,” (Histories 7.35-36).
 “‘Master, I have a favor to ask that I desire of you, easy for you to grant and precious for me to receive.’ Xerxes supposed that Pythius would demand anything rather than what he did ask and answered that he would grant the request, bidding him declare what he desired. When Pythius heard this, he took courage and said: ‘Master, I have five sons, and all of them are constrained to march with you against Hellas. I pray you, O king, take pity on me in my advanced age, and release one of my sons, the eldest, from service, so that he may take care of me and of my possessions; take the four others with you, and may you return back with all your plans accomplished,’” (Histories 7.38).
 “‘Villain, you see me marching against Hellas myself, and taking with me my sons and brothers and relations and friends; do you, my slave, who should have followed me with all your household and your very wife, speak to me of your son? Be well assured of this, that a man’s spirit dwells in his ears; when it hears good words it fills the whole body with delight, but when it hears the opposite it swells with anger. When you did me good service and promised more, you will never boast that you outdid your king in the matter of benefits; and now that you have turned aside to the way of shamelessness, you will receive a lesser requital than you merit. You and four of your sons are saved by your hospitality; but you shall be punished by the life of that one you most desire to keep.’ With that reply, he immediately ordered those who were assigned to do these things to find the eldest of Pythius sons and cut him in half, then to set one half of his body on the right side of the road and the other on the left, so that the army would pass between them,” (Histories 7.39).
What in the world does the Book of Esther have to teach the modern Christian? I believe there are three primary things we can learn from this wonderful book.
#1 – God uses imperfect people to do important things, even if they don’t realize it
He used the Assyrians to punish the Northern Kingdom. He used the Babylonians to punish the Southern Kingdom. He used a Medo-Persian King, Cyrus, to destroy the Babylonians, even going so far as to call Cyrus “his anointed” (Isa 45:1). He used Cyrus to send a huge wave of exiles back to Israel.
More specifically, He used secular, probably unbelieving Jews like Esther and Mordecai to save the Jewish people from genocide at Haman’s hands. They weren’t “good,” pious and faithful Jews like Daniel, Ezra or Nehemiah. The name of the one, true God isn’t even mentioned in the book by anyone, certainly not Esther or Mordecai – do you know why?
It’s because they were secularists who weren’t very worried about God, His covenant promises, or obedience to Him. If they were, they’d be in Jerusalem helping to put the community back together with their fellow Jews! But . . . God used them anyway. God uses all kinds of people – even sinful and disobedient ones.
#2 – God keeps His promises
This book is about how God protected the Jewish people from certain destruction. Satan had been trying to destroy the Israelites, by any means necessary, for a very long time. If Satan had succeeded, Christ wouldn’t have come. After all, Haman’s edict of genocide included all the Jews in Jerusalem, too!
#3 – God is in charge of this world
Behind all the free and admittedly un-Godly actions of Esther, Mordecai, King Ahasareus and Haman . . . God was working and was in charge of what was happening. I’ll elaborate on this more as we begin our study of the text itself next time!
 Whitcomb wrote, “Why, then, were God’s name and all the theocratic ideas obviously and meticulously avoided throughout the book? It was not because God’s presence was vague or uncertain. Nor was it because thousands of Gentiles died at the hands of Jews. Nor was it even because the Jewish hero and heroine of the book were probably unregenerate. The true reason is that Mordecai, Esther, and the Jews of Susa not only were outside of the promised land but, moreover, were not even concerned about God’s theocratic program centered in that land,” (Esther, 25-26).
 “It must not be forgotten that if Haman’s plot had succeeded, not only Jews in Susa but also the theocratic community in Jerusalem would have been wiped out. As Jacob Hoschander observed, no Purim would have meant no Israel, which would mean no Christianity,” (Whitcomb, Esther, 25).
We stopped last time just as I was about to introduce the two most important charactersa in the Book of Esther – Mordecai and Esther herself. Let’s do that now
Esther was a secular Jew who was not a passionate follow of God. She doesn’t have many positive lessons to teach us. Instead, we’d be better off learning how not to act from her! Please take time to re-read those last three sentences again!Many people have a warm, friendly view of Esther. Some Bible study books even trumpet Esther as a role model for young women. That is a terrible thing. If you want your little daughter to be like Esther, then you haven’t read Esther very closely! Here is why, and this will be explained more as we go through the book:
#1 – She actually wanted to be the wife of a pagan king
We now this because she made sure she pleased the man who took care of the young virgins who were gathered for the king:
Esther 2:8-9a So it came to pass, when the king’s commandment and his decree was heard, and when many maidens were gathered together unto Shushan the palace, to the custody of Hegai, that Esther was brought also unto the king’s house, to the custody of Hegai, keeper of the women. And the maiden pleased him, and she obtained kindness of him . . .
#2 – She didn’t eat kosher food when she entered the king’s harem, like Daniel did
#3 – She hid the fact that she was a Jew, because the king allowed Haman to issue a decree that all Jews in the kingdom should be killed!
If she concealed the fact she was a Jew for so long, it must mean that she didn’t live her life like a Jew. She may have even worshipped pagan gods along with her husband; if she hadn’t, it would have at least raised a few eyebrows. Contrast this with the faithfulness of Daniel. Contrast this with the faithfulness of Ezra.
Ezra 7:6 This Ezra went up from Babylon; and he was a ready scribe in the law of Moses, which the LORD God of Israel had given: and the king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the LORD his God upon him.
Don’t believe that Esther had to hide her Jewish faith upon fear of death – that’s not true and the exilic returns prove it. It’s not as though Jews would be killed if they lived their lives as Jews – after all, Ezra did was a renouned scribe raised in the Jewish community in Babylon. Jews had their own little communities all over the Persian Empire – that’s why Haman was able to issue his decree to kill them all, because they knew where to find them.
The very best that could be said about Esther is that she was a secular Jew. She was born as a Jew, she knew about God and the various covenant promises. She was a brave woman, no doubt – and good for her. But, her faith was lukewarm – if it even existed at all. Her piety and devotion was practically non-existent. She probably worshipped pagan gods, or at the very least pretended to.
Mordecai was Esther’s older cousin (Est 2:7). He was a secular Jew who was not a passionate follower of God. He doesn’t have many positive lessons to teach us. Instead, we’d be better off learning how not to act from him! Here is why:
#1 – A godly Jew wouldn’t tell Esther to keep conceal her Jewish identity
Esther 2:10 Esther had not shewed her people nor her kindred: for Mordecai had charged her that she should not shew it.
Christians who read Esther usually assume that her life would be in danger if she lived like a Jew. This is nonsense. As I mentioned above, Ezra was trained as a scribe in the Jewish community in Babylon, and earned the king’s favor. Cyrus had instituted a policy of kindness and tolerance towards Jews about 100 years earlier. Nehemiah lived as an open Jew and was the cupbearer to this king’s son.
Nobody really knows why Mordecai told her to keep it a secret. We do know that her life wasn’t in danger. We also know that it might have been a political calculation on Mordecai’s part – i.e. she’d have a better shot at being the new Queen if she concealed her Jewish identity and simply assimilated.
Esther 3:1-4 After these things did king Ahasuerus promote Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him, and set his seat above all the princes that were with him. And all the king’s servants, that were in the king’s gate, bowed, and reverenced Haman: for the king had so commanded concerning him. But Mordecai bowed not, nor did him reverence. Then the king’s servants, which were in the king’s gate, said unto Mordecai, Why transgressest thou the king’s commandment? Now it came to pass, when they spake daily unto him, and he hearkened not unto them, that they told Haman, to see whether Mordecai’s matters would stand: for he had told them that he was a Jew.
Don’t get the idea that Mordecai was a pious man because he refused to bow and “worship” Haman. Bowing wasn’t a form of worship; it was a mandated sign of simple respect for their culture. Mordecai simply didn’t like the man.
#3 – Mordecai kept his Jewish heritage a complete secret until the feud with Haman started (Est 3:4)
He only told them he was a Jew when his co-workers asked him why he wouldn’t bow to Haman. He was likely just using his Jewishness as an excuse – compare that to Daniel’s real piety!
The best you could say about Haman is that he was a secular Jew. He raised Esther as a secularist. He was a secularist. He knew about God and the various covenant promises. He had a high sense of national, Jewish pride. He may not have even been a saved man – only God knows.
More on why the Book of Esther should matter to you next time . . .
 Ronald Pierce wrote, “. . . one finds here a diaspora Jewess who desires a chance at the throne so greatly that she is willing to betray her heritage at the advice of her cousin without a hint of resistance. Moreover, she participates in the contest with no evident reluctance, resulting in the king being pleased with her more than all the other women and thus giving her the crown (2:16),” (“The Politics Of Esther And Mordecai: Courage Or Compromise?” Bulletin for Biblical Research 02:1 , 85).
 “If it seems incredible that the Jews who remained in exile should have so utterly lost all knowledge of God and all religious habits and instincts, as the book of Esther indicates, we have only to recur to the testimony of the prophet Jeremiah and Ezekiel to have all doubt removed. Esther becomes only the natural and necessary sequel to the appalling apostasy and depravity to which both these prophets testify,” (Smith, “Esther,” 399).
 Joyce Baldwin observed, “It is still part of eastern courtesy to bow in recognition of age and honour, and there is evidence that Israelite culture was no exception. While obeisance was given supremely to God and the king, suppliants bowed when seeking favour (so Jacob to Esau, Gn. 33:3) or when expressing indebtedness (e.g. David to Jonathan, 1 Sa. 20:41). Mordecai stubbornly refused to submit for any reason to Haman; indeed there seems to have been a general lack of respect for this man, otherwise there should have been no need for a royal command that people should bow down to him,” (Esther, vol. 12, TOTC [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984], 72). See also Whitcomb (Esther, 63-64).
 “Probably this persistent (day after day) refusal stemmed more from pride than from religious scruples. For several years Mordecai had not let Esther tell the king she was a Jewess (2:10, 20), but now Mordecai was using their national heritage as an excuse for not giving honor to a high Persian official,” (John A. Martin, Esther, Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1 [Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985], 705).
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).