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I want to tell you a story. It’s about a young orphan girl who changed the course of history. Growing up I loved Disney princesses and perhaps that’s why I fell in love with the story of Esther. It’s what I consider to be the original princess story.
We have a young girl without parents who is cared for by a cousin. She is beautiful beyond compare and her beauty gets her into the presence of a very powerful ruler – King Ahasuerus - and eventually he chooses her to be his queen. Our heroine is young and level-headed but she has a big secret that could compromise her royal position.
We have a villain named Haman who is prone to overreaction and provides humour with the ridiculousness of his plots.
There’s the all-important ball, or in this case the feast, where the story comes to a climax and the plot takes a turn.
And finally, coursing through the veins of this story is an unseen power that is greater than any earthly power. Divine providence is a key player and reminds us that even when we can’t see God at work, he is there.
Over the centuries many Jewish and Christian scholars have questioned what place Esther has in the Scriptures. The book blurs the line between secular and sacred. In fact, it’s the only book in the Bible that makes no mention of God or prayer.
The story takes places in Persia, a large empire comprised of 127 provinces. Persia was the super power of its time and the Jews living there had been in exile for four generations. The Jews had been told by the powers that be that they could return to their homes but some, those who had put down roots or risen to positions of power, chose to remain living in Persia.
King Ahasuerus of Persia is giving a party in Susa. The party is for all the officials in the 127 provinces that he rules and it lasts for 180 days. One historian tells us that Ahasuerus’ kingdom stretches from Israel to India and now he wants to go after Greece. This party is an opportunity for him to recruit soldiers so he can build his kingdom. Near the end of the festivities, he summons his wife, Queen Vashti to come so he can show her off to his guests. She refuses and Ahasuerus all but loses his mind. He asks his advisors what he should do and they suggest he banish Vashti and that he write an edict stating that every man must be ruler over his own household. Ahasuerus heeds their advice and Vashti is queen no more.
Right away we see there are many problems in the Persian empire. We have a king given to excess that wants to flaunt his wife in front of his guests. When she refuses he banishes her from the kingdom and writes a law that oppresses half the empire. Ironically, in an attempt to contain the humiliation of the situation, Ahasuerus makes it worse by making the incident public knowledge. This is a king who lacks wisdom.
Back to our heroine. Esther and her guardian Mordecai have been living in this society all their lives. They’re Jews trying to remain faithful in a culture that goes against everything the Torah teaches. Being in their own home would allow them some freedom to live according to their laws but that doesn’t last long. In an attempt to find a new queen, Ahasuerus holds a something akin to a beauty pageant to choose his new wife. Esther is taken to the palace for one year of beauty treatments before she is presented to the king. Esther pleases the king more than any of the other young women presented to him and he chooses her to be his queen, not knowing that she is Jewish.
After Esther’s ascent to Queen is described, the author takes a few verses to describe a seemingly random detail. Mordecai, while waiting to hear how Esther is doing hears two officers plotting to assassinate the king. Again, we see the dysfunction in the palace. Two officers, who were presumably at the king’s six month-long party, are now trying to kill him. Mordecai quickly tells Esther about it who relays this message to the king giving Mordecai all the credit. The officers are executed and the royal crisis is averted.
Mordecai’s actions are quite honorable here. What stake does he have in the king’s life? He could easily ignore what he hears and let the king be killed but he chooses instead to honour the authority that has pushed his people to the margins of society. Mordecai is living faithfully in an unfaithful land.
His faithfulness does get him into trouble when he refuses to bow down to Haman, who is the epitome of evil in this story. Haman is enraged and decides that all Jews must die. There again is that tendency toward overreaction that we saw in King Ahasuerus. Haman’s pride is hurt and so he decides to commit genocide. And somehow the king agrees to this crime. Persia is a place where evil reigns. But it does not have the final say. Mordecai informs Esther of the threat against their people and urges her to go to the king. “Who knows,” he tells her, “but that you have come to a royal position for such a time as this?”. He goes on to say “If not now then deliverance for the Jews will come from another place”. He urges her to say something.
Mordecai understands hope. God will not break his covenant to his people. It’s not a matter of ‘if’ God will deliver them, it’s a matter of ‘when’. In the books of the prophets God promises many times that he will send a Messiah from the line of David. This is what Mordecai is remembering when he tells Esther that deliverance will come. Who knows what God is doing? Mordecai doesn’t claim to have insight into God’s divine plan. He just knows that God is faithful to keep his promise of deliverance and in order for that to take place, the Jews need to be alive.
Esther now has a choice to make. She is afraid that if she goes in to see the king uninvited, she’ll be killed. Yet if she doesn’t appeal to him on behalf of her people, the Jews will be slaughtered. Accepting the impossibility of her situation, Esther decides to go see the king and says “If I perish, I perish”.
Now we see that Esther has taken on that fierce loyalty displayed by Mordecai. This is really the first time in the story that Esther can make a choice for herself and she chooses to risk her life for the sake of her people. Perhaps Mordecai’s “Who knows?” question is lingering in her mind. Is there some unseen hand at work in all of this and if so, why would this divine power choose a Jewish orphan girl married to a gentile king to do his work?
We know that God tends to choose the least likely characters to bring deliverance to his people – Moses, Rahab, Jonah, and David were all unlikely choices for bringing about God’s deliverance. We shouldn’t be surprised that God would choose an orphan girl living in exile in Persia to save his people from genocide.
Esther goes to see the king. We read in chapter five that she puts on her royal robes and stands in the inner court of the palace which is in front of the king’s hall. And then she waits. Now there are two possible outcomes here, 1) the king extends his scepter to her and welcomes her into his presence or 2) the king does not extend his scepter and Esther is executed for being so bold as to approach the king without an invitation. When the king sees hers he is pleased. He invites Esther to come into his presence and offers her anything she wants, even up to half his kingdom. And what does she ask for? Not for a change to the law condemning her people but instead she invites him to a banquet and asks him to bring Haman along. Her request seems odd. We go from talking about life and death to talking about lunch. This request shows us how different Esther is from the king. She is patient and wise. In contrast to the culture in which she lives, her actions are careful and calculated.
Now, something interesting happens before Esther goes in to see the king. After her conversation with Mordecai, Esther and her maids fast and she instructs Mordecai to gather all the Jews in Susa and to do the same. For a story that seemingly ignores religion, this is a very religious event. In the Old Testament, people would fast in times of disruption and restoration. Fasting points toward hope. It shows that those who are fasting are depending only on God to restore what has been broken. To fast is to ignore the ordinary so you can focus on the extraordinary.
Esther has been living in the palace but she has not forgotten who she is. Her identity, though hidden, is suddenly more important than ever as it brings her to the One who has been orchestrating events from an unseen place. In this time of crisis, Esther remembers her identity.
Upon being introduced to Esther in chapter two, we were given her Hebrew name, Hadassah. Hadassah means compassion. In the Bible, the word compassion is used sparingly. In the Old Testament it’s used only a couple times to refer to God’s character. In the New Testament it’s mostly used to describe Christ and once to describe the Good Samaritan. The word refers to the disposition that fuels acts of kindness and mercy. It is a response to suffering.
In Colossians 3:12 Paul gives instructions on how we, the Church, should live. As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion…
Esther is an example of how we should live with compassion. Like Mordecai and Esther, we are living in an unfaithful world. We’re surrounded by injustice and evil but there’s another power at work. It’s often unseen and hard to identify, but we know that God is working to build his kingdom. And as much as divine providence is at work, God gives us an opportunity to act as well. He will work out his plans with us or without us but he invites us to participate in this kingdom building. Just as we see with Esther, there is an element of human responsibility. We can ignore suffering or we can do something about it. We live in a culture that is sick. Consumerism is in vogue and accumulation and competition are encouraged. Life is devalued and relationships are viewed as commodities. We’re trying to remain faithful while living in a culture marked by faithlessness and God is urging us to say something. We’re invited to join the psalmist and proclaim the good news of righteousness in the assembly. “I do not restrain my lips” he writes, “I have declared Your faithfulness and Your salvation.” These words have power. These are words for the Church to speak.
I see Esther as a representation of the Church. She’s caught in between two kingdoms – a worldly kingdom and the kingdom of God. The world recognizes Esther’s beauty but it’s not enough. She has to go through a year of beauty treatments. She has to transform. This brings us back to Disney movies. Cinderella needs her fairy godmother to transform her appearance before she can go to the ball. Ariel transforms from a mermaid to a human so she can be with her prince and Aladdin’s genie transforms him from a pauper to a prince so he is acceptable for the princess. Esther’s attendants are focused on outward transformation to make her presentable. And it works for Esther but what about all the other women who were brought to the palace? They’re left to live in the king’s harem where they may or may not see him again. After a year of outward transformation, they’re told that they are not enough. Essentially, they’re used and then discarded. This is what the worldly kingdom does.
The kingdom of God in contrast, works inner transformation. It’s hard to detect but we see it in Esther’s wisdom. She doesn’t rely on her beauty to get her past the king a second time but instead, she wisely relies on God. The transformation that happens in her ripples out to affect her, the community she lives in and the larger nation.
There is also a contrast in the place of words in these kingdoms. Ahasuerus’ word is law and gets everyone, including himself, into trouble. God’s Word is love and frees people from the law that condemns. Does that sound familiar at all? Could this story be a foreshadow of what is to come with the arrival of the Messiah?
Reading the Old Testament is a little bit like reading a Where’s Waldo book. We should always be looking for Jesus in the text because everything is pointing to him. The good news for the Israelites reading this was that God’s promise of a Messiah was not thwarted. Haman’s plan to exterminate the Jews would make a Messiah from the line of David impossible. The salvation of the Jews meant that God’s plan of salvation for all people could come to fruition.
That’s where we find God is in the Esther story. Working quietly but powerfully. What about in your own story? Can you easily point out where and how God is working or do you feel like you’re searching? The truth is that most of us won’t find God in a burning bush or get swallowed by a whale when we stray. Seeing God in your story might be a challenge. You know he’s there, but you’re desperate for him to make himself known. You know he loves you and is faithful, but you’re holding the promises of God in one hand and your unanswered prayer in the other.
There’s a song that came out a couple of years ago by A Great Big World.
Say something, I'm giving up on you
I'll be the one, if you want me to
Anywhere, I would've followed you
Say something, I'm giving up on you
And I am feeling so small
It was over my head
I know nothing at all
And I will stumble and fall
I'm still learning to love
Just starting to crawl
These lyrics remind me of my walk with God at times. I desperately want him to say something but he appears to be silent. In times like these, we really have to look for him. Isn’t God always telling us to search for him? Seek me and you will find me. Those who seek me will rejoice and be glad. This is God’s promise to us. We need to get in the habit of searching for God.
One of my quirks is that I’m slightly obsessed with cute furry animals, dogs in particular, and I’m always on the lookout for them. Whenever I’m sitting in Starbucks having coffee or out for a walk, I can’t help but notice all the dogs that go by. I tend to give Bruce a tally at the end of the day too – today a saw a bulldog, two dachshunds and some kind of a doodle. For some reason this brings me joy.
I need to be just as attentive in searching for God. We all do. Ask each other “Where did you see God today?” “How is God weaving your story together?”. Talk about it at home, at work, sitting in Starbucks, make it a habit. The more you look for God, the more you’ll see him. This is a beautiful paradox we get to live in – to have God within us and still be in constant pursuit of him.
As far as I know, all the Disney princess stories end in ‘happily ever after’. Esther’s story ends with the Jews being saved and a promotion for Mordecai. Esther and Mordecai send out words of goodwill and assurance to all the provinces in Persia and the festival of Purim is established, a festival that is still celebrated today. Most of us probably don’t celebrate Purim, but we do have cause to celebrate. Our stories may not unfold as predictably as certain feature films but we know that regardless of circumstances, salvation is ours. We have a book full of goodwill and assurance to remind us of this truth. And we have each other’s help to search for God and to find him in our own stories.