A long time ago in a land far away, a little orphan girl looked forward on an uncertain future until an older cousin stepped forward. He took her into his home and raised her as his own child. This cousin taught her to fear God, and God blessed her with charm and beauty that surpassed that of other women. Seeing that God was with her, her cousin did all he could to ensure that she understood God's will.
This is the story of Esther and her cousin Mordecai. In the book that bears Esther's name, God is never mentioned by name, but there may be no other book in the Bible where God is more visible. The providence of God shines through clearly as we see Him working out His plan in its ten short chapters.
We also see the depth of Mordecai's faith and Esther's humble and courageous submission in denying herself and risking her life for her people. Two incidents stand out in particular: Mordecai's mourning for his brethren and Esther's humble self-sacrifice. When we see their examples clearly, our own trials may seem more endurable and conquerable.
Most of us tend to regard Bible characters as "untouchables." We think that we will never have the faith of Abraham, the meekness of Moses, the patience of Job or perhaps the boldness of John the Baptist. These people faced the same challenges that we have today and had to grapple with their carnality just as we do. Human nature has not changed since the Garden of Eden.
It is a good idea, then, when we read stories like this one, to remember that the characters had no great advantage over us. They were human. They did not have halos over their heads. As the saying goes, they put their pants on "one leg at a time" just as we do. Though Esther became Queen of Persia and Mordecai Ahasuerus' prime minister, they were much like us.
From Nobody to Queen
The first chapter of Esther begins with the king of Persia, Ahasuerus, giving a huge feast for all the princes of the land. He wants them to see his great wealth, his mighty army, and as was the case in those times, to show off his harem of beautiful women. The Bible says this feast lasted six months!
After this feast, the king has another, week-long feast for the common people of Shushan, his capital. On the seventh day, King Ahasuerus commands that Queen Vashti appear before him and his guests. For some unknown reason, the queen refuses his command. In those days refusing a command of the king was tantamount to writing one's death sentence. The king, extremely angered by her refusal, signs a decree that she never appear before him again. Her house is taken away and probably everything else she owns as well.
In chapter 2 the king decides to fill the vacancy left by Queen Vashti. Another decree commands young virgins to be brought to Shushan for the king's evaluation. Hearing of the decree, Mordecai brings Esther before Hegai, the eunuch in charge of the king's harem. Hegai is immediately taken with Esther's pleasing demeanor. He gives her seven maidens, the best part of the house of women, and all the perfumes and ointments a girl could dream of!
It is a Persian custom that the virgins be kept in the house of women for one year for purification. After that time, they would appear one by one before the king so he could choose one to become the next queen. Josephus records that 400 virgins were brought to the palace.
When it comes time for Esther to appear before the king, like Hegai, he is also captivated by her and selects her to become the next Queen of Persia. "The king loved Esther more than all the other women, and she obtained grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins; so he set the royal crown upon her head and made her queen instead of Vashti" (Esther 2:17).
Chapter 3 details the promotion of the story's antagonist, Haman, over all the king's princes. From what we read of him, Haman's promotion goes straight to his head, and he considers himself above others. The king commands that all the people of the land bow before Haman just as they would bow to him, but Mordecai refuses. Haman's anger grows each time he has to pass before him.
Haman's hatred may also be fueled by the fact that he is an Amalekite and Mordecai a Jew. The Amalekites and Jews have been bitter enemies since Israel's wanderings in the wilderness (Exodus 17:8-16; Deuteronomy 25:17-19; Judges 3:12-13; I Samuel 15:1-9; II Samuel 8:11-12). Therefore Haman devises a plan that will not only get rid of Mordecai but all other Jews as well. With the king's approval a decree to this effect is written and sent to all the provinces.
The trial that now confronts Esther demands a closer look. What she has to do must have been more difficult than it appears. Esther has lived in the royal palace for several years, and this has detached her from the normal activities of the common citizen. She lives the good life with the world at her disposal. As queen, she has servants, the finest clothing, the choicest food and a great deal of time to pursue her interests. The king even tells her, "What do you wish, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given to you—up to half my kingdom!" (Esther 5:3). What a huge temptation!
For his part, Mordecai comes by the women's court every day to check to see how Esther fares and hear the news of her life in the harem (Esther 2:11). Undoubtedly, he is her closest advisor and keeps her feet planted firmly on the ground (verse 20). He probably suspects that God has put Esther in her position—one of great power and favor—to do a good work through her (Esther 4:14). His constant communication continues to prepare her for what lies ahead.
When Mordecai learns of Haman's wicked plot, he tears his clothes and goes into bitter mourning, lying in sackcloth and ashes at the king's gate. This is as close as he can get to Esther, for it is unlawful for anyone to enter the palace grounds in sackcloth (Esther 4:2). As the king's decree spreads throughout the kingdom, many other Jews also don sackcloth and ashes, weep and fast. Plainly, Mordecai's mourning for his brethren is real and heartfelt, not ritualistic or put on to get sympathy. If anything, he is likely mourning before God for deliverance of his people.
Esther's servants bring word to her of her cousin's state, so she sends him new clothes to cover him. It is interesting that she does not bother to find out why he mourns before she acts. Here is her cousin, whom she loves dearly, perhaps more than even her parents, and she tries to squelch his grief without ascertaining its cause. Perhaps she fears his actions will reveal her as a Jewess, or maybe she feels his public mourning brings embarrassment to her and/or the king.
But Mordecai refuses her tokens of comfort, so she sends a chamberlain to find out why he is mourning. Mordecai responds, instructing her about what she must do, and also sending along a copy of the king's decree. Mordecai charges her to go before the king to beseech him to spare their people's lives.
Esther still tries to avoid becoming involved by sending word back to him, saying that everyone knows that if she goes before the king without being called, she may very well lose her life! Perhaps Esther allows her fears to get the most of her at this point. Just as trials are not easy for us, this is not a "walk in the park" for Esther. She is scared she will lose what she had—terrified that she will die! The "what ifs" are affecting her just as they do us.
Mordecai answers more sternly the third time. He warns her that even though she is queen, she will not be safe from Haman's thugs. His faith, however, never wavers, for he tells Esther that if deliverance for the Jews does not come through her, it will arise from somewhere else. Mordecai knows God is at work.
In the back of her mind, she has probably known all along what she has to do, and the next step she takes is what should come to a godly mind first. She sends word to Mordecai to fast and pray for three days along with all the Jews in Shushan. For her part, she says:
My maids and I will fast likewise. And so I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish! (Esther 4:16).
For Esther there is only one way out, and that is to submit to God's will!
God Lifts Us Up
When we face trials, it is very hard for us to see past what is affecting us in the present to the purpose God is working out just a short time ahead. This shortsightedness is a failing of our human nature and rather self-centered. God's perspective is always long-range and outgoing, and Mordecai's reminder to Esther pointed this out to her. She pushes down her fears and puts her life on the line to help others.
The book of Esther is a perfect example of the love and outgoing concern we should be practicing toward our brethren, the spiritual Jews. Paul writes:
This is a faithful saying . . . that those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable to men. . . . [Again] let our people also learn to maintain good works, to meet urgent needs, that they may not be unfruitful. (Titus 3:8, 14)
Mordecai mourns greatly for the welfare of his brethren. Esther, after much soul-searching, submits to God's will and allows Him to work through her. Both of these are good works that sacrifice the self to bring benefits to others in need.
These works do not go unrewarded. God exalts Mordecai to a position of great wealth, trust, responsibility and prestige over all Persia (Esther 8:2; 10:2-3). Esther remains the loyal and favorite wife of Ahasuerus, and from all indications her wealth and power in the realm increase as well (Esther 8:1, 7-8; 9:29-32). God is certainly faithful and generous to those who humbly live His way of loving concern and self-sacrifice.
James 4:7-10 seems to encapsulate the lessons from the lives of Esther and Mordecai:
Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil [and his plots] and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. . . . Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.
Inset: God—Absent from Esther?
It is a well-known biblical fact that the name of God is not found even once in the text of Esther. This fact has played a part in some people doubting the canonicity of the book. None of the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran contain even a snippet of the book of Esther, probably because the Essenes were primarily a monastic male community that did not look favorably on writings whose main characters were women. Thus, for this reason, along with the absence of God's name, Esther does not appear in their canon.
But is God really missing from this book? Obviously, God and His providence are major factors in the outcome of events, so the argument is strictly over His absent name. However, it may not be so truant after all.
Esther 5:4, almost exactly in the middle of the book, can be considered its pivotal verse: "So Esther answered, ‘If it pleases the king, let the king and Haman come today to the banquet that I have prepared for him.'" At this point Esther has committed herself in faith to her plan of action, and as yet she does not know if the king will intervene. It is in this context, then, that God's name "appears."
In Hebrew the phrase "let the king and Haman come today" is four words: yaabow' hamelek wahaamaan hayown. The initial letters of this phrase forms an acrostic, Y-H-W-H, the consonants that spell the name Yahweh, translated LORD in the Scriptures.
Acrostics, especially those that spell out God's name, are very rare. In fact, Jewish copyists carefully guarded against the accidental acrostic that might spell out this divine name because it was considered inviolate and ineffable. We can only assume, then, that this acrostic is purposeful, including God in the events of Esther's day, though working in the background.