Queen Esther, a heroine of the Jews and for the Jews

Who was Queen Esther? What can we learn from the life of Queen Esther in the Bible?

Esther, the queen of Persia, was a beautiful woman. According to the Bible, “she was lovely in form and features” (Esther 2:7, NIV). This can be said without referring to a photograph bearing her image. Esther’s life defines her beauty – she was a shining example of how to love God, how to love others, and how to be more concerned with the welfare of others than of herself. She was the wife of Ahasuerus (also known as Artaxerxes and Xerxes I; he was the son of Darius the Great), but how she became his wife is a great story of trials and tribulations. Her life was filled with faithfulness to God. She is truly the heroine of the book that bears her name, the Book of Esther.

She was a born as a Jewess named Hadassah. Hadassah is a Hebrew name that means “Myrtle.” Esther (her Persian name – used hence forth) is a Persian name meaning “Star.” Like the name of her cousin Mordecai, the name Esther was related to that of a local deity, the goddess Ishtar. Jewish people in antiquity customarily had two names when they lived in regions distant from Israel. One would be their secular name, a name understandable in their adopted culture, and the other would be their sacred name given in Hebrew. Some have suggested that the taking on of these pagan names indicated a spiritual assimilation with the authority under which they were exiled; however, this is doubtful given the immense bravery and faithfulness to God that both Esther and Mordecai possessed.

Her father’s name was Abihail, and he was a Benjamite (Esther 2:15). Years earlier, the Jews, who had previously been in captivity in Persia, were allowed by Cyrus the Great to return to their homeland – but many decided not to return. Hadassah’s family was one of them. Her parents later died, although we do not know from the biblical record how they died. Hadassah’s cousin Mordecai, the nephew of Abihail, raised her and took her for his own daughter. “And Mordecai had taken her as his own daughter when her father and mother died” (Esther 2:7, NIV)

Ahasuerus was married to Vashti, but he divorced her because the king’s council convinced him that she had made a mockery of him by not following his request to dance at one of his parties. After the divorce, at the king’s order, a search was made to find a new queen. Many of the young virgins of the area of Susa were rounded up and taken to the citadel, including Esther. Immediately we see the hand of the Lord at work in Esther’s life as she wins the favor of the King’s Eunuch Hegai. Hegai was in charge of the Kings harem and, due to the sovereign control of the Lord God, quickly realized both Esther’s beauty and her great character.

The final choice among them remained with the king himself. That choice fell upon Esther, for “the king loved Esther more than all the women, and she found favor and kindness with him more than all the virgins, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti” (Esther 2:8-17), about 478 B.C. Many people, including the one cited above, mistakenly see King Ahasuerus as the final authority in who would be Queen. In actuality, the sovereign hand of God was at work paving the way for Esther to be Queen so that she could save her people from the dangers that would befall them.

Not only is God sovereign in the selection of Esther, but He is also sovereign in His timing. Soon after her accession [to the throne of Persia] a great crisis occurred in the history of the Jews. The entire people was threatened with destruction. The name of Esther is forever bound up with the record of their deliverance.

By a course of action which gives her a distinguished place among the women of the Bible, the great enemy of the Jews was destroyed, and her people were delivered. Nothing more is known of her than is recorded in the book which Jewish gratitude has made to bear her name. This threat began when King Ahasuerus appointed Haman, the Agagite, and descendant of Agag from 1 Samuel 15, to be his Prime Minister. The biblical record says that “after these things King Ahasuerus promoted Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him and set his seat above all the princes who were with him (Esther 3:1, NKJV). With this appointment, Haman was given broad powers that would soon be used to bring about the destruction of the Jews that remained in Persia. Esther, Queen of Persia, would soon rise to the occasion and bravely deliver her people from this clear and present danger. Esther would soon go beyond the ordinary to save her people, and would become not just a wise woman of the Persian court, but a hero for the Jews of Persian and a literary hero for the readers [and] hears of the book that bears her name.

Immediately, Esther’s cousin Mordecai became involved in a conflict with the evil Haman. His appointment to the position of Prime Minister went to Haman’s head to such an extent that he began to require that people pay homage to him. Many people did, but Mordecai refused to. This enraged Haman and caused him to lash out at Mordecai. Esther Chapter 3 says “When Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow or pay him homage, Haman was filled with wrath (verse 5, NKJV). From this point on, Haman was all-the-more determined to annihilate not only Mordecai, but the entire Jewish people who were still displaced in Persia.

But he disdained to lay hands on Mordecai alone, for they had told him of the people of Mordecai. Instead, Haman sought to destroy all the Jews who were throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus — the people of Mordecai. (Esther 3:5, NKJV)

Haman convinced the king to issue a decree ordering the destruction of Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their possessions (Esther 3:13, NKJV). “It is easy to follow one’s faith in a home setting, but what happens in a culture that is ‘openly hostile’?” This was the condition for both Esther and Mordecai – they were in an openly hostile environment.

Chapter 4 of the Book of Esther tells us that this decree brought great sorrow to Mordecai. He was so grieved that he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth, a sign of deep mourning in the Jewish custom.

When Mordecai learned all that had happened, he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city. He cried out with a loud and bitter cry. He went as far as the front of the king’s gate, for no one might enter the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth. (Esther 4:1-2, NKJV).

Esther sent one of her servants to him to find out why he was so grieved. The servant returned to Queen Esther and advised her that Mordecai had not only told her of the date of the destruction, but of the amount of money involved, and he also gave the servant a copy of the written decree to prove what he was saying.

Esther returned a message to Mordecai to the servant that she could not go to see the king about the decree because a law had been passed that forbade anyone from coming into the presence of the king without the king’s golden scepter being held up to them (a sign of the king’s approval). Mordecai told her that she must help, because being Queen would not protect her from the viciousness of Haman and his evil plot.

And Mordecai told [them] to answer Esther: “Do not think in your heart that you will escape in the king’s palace any more than all the other Jews.”For if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. (Esther 4:13-14a, NKJV).

Mordecai went to let Esther know that God had a purpose for the things He allowed to happen, and that God may have placed Esther in her position as Queen for a very special purpose – to save the Jews. He told her, “who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for [such] a time as this?” (Esther 4:14, NKJV). “Mordecai reminded Esther that she is still essentially a Jew and [that] any threat to her community of origin will encompass her also”.

Esther returned a message to Mordecai that involved a request to fast for him and all the Jewish people, and a statement of bravery: “I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish!” She asked Mordecai and the Jews to fast with her while she decided. She entered the king’s presence unsummoned, which could have meant her death. Although the word “test” is not used in Esther’s story, the concept is inherent in the sequence of events: Esther will have to “test” how much the great king supports her. She must put her life and loyalties on the line, since she will go to him unsummoned, threatened by a death penalty.

With courage that is unfathomable to most , Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, across from the king’s house, while the king sat on his royal throne in the royal house, facing the entrance of the house (Esther 5:10), unconcerned with her own life. In this very moment, Esther exhibits the type of love – agape love- that all of God’s people should have for each other. She was willing to sacrifice her own life by violating a law that was punishable by death, in order to save her people from annihilation. But the king, recognizing the beauty, bravery, and the honor Esther showed him, held out to Esther the golden scepter that was in his hand. Then Esther went near and touched the top of the scepter. At that moment the salvation of the Jews began!

Esther invited the king to a banquet so she could reveal the evil plot of Haman and his conspirators. Courageously, Esther invited Haman himself to be a part of the banquet, which would later prove that the wisdom of God was upon her during her decision. The first banquet was held, yet Esther did not reveal Haman’s plot to the king. Although Haman left the first banquet full of joy and in good spirits, he became enraged again once he saw Mordecai again refuse to show him honor – this time by standing in his presence. Haman’s rage against Mordecai was so great that he had a gallows constructed so that Mordecai could be hanged.

Esther 6:1 marks the turning point of the book. Within this chapter [chapter 6] we observe a series of events that unmistakably point to God’s sovereign hand controlling all events. That night sleep escaped the king, so he ordered the book recording daily events to be brought and read to the king. They found the written report of how Mordecai had informed on Bigthana and Teresh, two eunuchs who guarded the king’s entrance, when they planned to assassinate King Ahasuerus. The king inquired, “What honor and special recognition have been given to Mordecai for this act?” (Esther 6:1-3, HCSB).

God’s providential care for His people through His miraculous deliverance is nowhere more apparent [than in this part of the Book]. God always places His servants in the right time and place for doing His work. In Chapter 2, this incident of Mordecai’s simple performance of civic duty was recorded coincidentally. Then at precisely the right moment, the king’s insomnia not only provided opportunity for the unrewarded past deed to be acknowledged beyond Mordecai’s imagination, but it also offered the privilege to him of sharing in God’s redemptive plan to deliver His people. The king acted quickly to do what the Lord had inspired him to do, although he had no idea that the Lord had actually done the inspiring. The king made Haman, the very one who was plotting to kill Mordecai, carry out his plan to honor Mordecai.

After Mordecai was honored, the second banquet (with the king, Queen Esther, and Haman) began and Esther finally has her opportunity to reveal to the king the evil plot in which Haman planned to kill Mordecai and the rest of the Jews who were displaced in Persia. When they arrived at Esther’s palace apartment, neither the king nor Haman knew that Esther was a Jewess. Haman was probably still distressed because of the events of the day, but he composed himself and hoped to enjoy the banquet. This is the seventh banquet recorded in the Book of Esther. Even though Esther probably knew that a decree could not be reversed once issued by the king, she none-the-less pleaded for her people, in hopes that somehow the favor the king found in her would override the previous decree and allow her people to be spared.

The king did, indeed, grant Esther’s wish. That very night, after Esther revealed Haman’s evil plan to the king, Haman pleaded for his very life. He sealed his fate while the king stepped out into the courtyard for a moment. When the king returned from the palace garden to the place of the banquet of wine, Haman had fallen across the couch where Esther was. Then the king said, “Will he also assault the queen while I am in the house?” As the word left the king’s mouth, they covered Haman’s face (Esther 7:8). Ironically, it was Haman who had, a brief time earlier, tried to get the Jews to bow down and honor him – but now he was bowing down to a Jew, pleading for his life.

Haman was immediately hanged both for his evil plot to kill the Jews and for his contempt to the Queen in front of the king. This amazing development is a remarkable testimony to the prevailing will of God, even though there is no direct mention of God in the narrative. Among other things, it is a remarkable illustration of Psalm 9:16: “the wicked is snared in the work of his own hands.” Hebrews 10:30 is a fitting passage to explain who the wrath Haman received came from (For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. And again, “The LORD will judge His people.”). The Lord will judge both His people and those who attempt to oppress His. “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked,” warned Paul. “A man reaps what he sows” (Galatians 6:7, NIV).

Esther, because of her bravery, and because she pleased both God and the king, received the house and inheritance of Haman. Mordecai was promoted to the place of the number two man in all of Persia, under the king. The king issued a decree giving the Jewish people the permission to avenge those who sought to harm them throughout the entire Persian Empire.

Esther appears in the Bible as a “woman of deep piety, faith, courage, patriotism, and caution, combined with resolution; a dutiful daughter to her adopted father, docile and obedient to his counsels, and anxious to share the king’s favour with him for the good of the Jewish people. There must have been a singular grace and charm in her aspect and manners, since ‘she obtained favour in the sight of all them that looked upon her’ (Esther 2:15). That she was raised up as an instrument in the hand of God to avert the destruction of the Jewish people, and to afford them protection and forward their wealth and peace in their captivity, is also manifest from the Scripture account.” The Book of Esther displays her as a woman of clear judgment, of magnificent self-control, and capable of the noblest self-sacrifice.

Although the Book of Esther is purely historical, it is remarkable that the name of God does not occur within it. This is remarkable because the hand of God can be seen all though the pages of the Book and all through the scenes in the life of the Beautiful Queen Esther. Although Esther’s story does not mention God by name, it helps readers to recognize God by His work, His providential nature, and proves that God is always sovereignly there through its many biblical echoes and its ongoing theological significance.

The Jews established a yearly feast in memory of their deliverance called Purim, which is observed to this day (Esther 9:20-32). The annual feast of Purim of the Jews was established by Esther and Mordecai as two days “of feasting and joy, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor” (Esther 9:22), in commemoration of their remarkable deliverance from their imminent annihilation as a people and nation. The name Purim, meaning “lots,” seems a strange name for a holiday, but it was based on Haman’s evil device to “cast Pur, that is, the lot, to consume them, and to destroy them” (Esther 3:7; 9:24) when the month Adar (February–March) came. This decision by the lots (possibly specially marked stones), rather than helping Haman, turned out to have been so ordered by the Lord that a wait of almost a full year was required. It thus provided ample time for all the events to be set in motion which would finally bring Haman’s evil scheme back on his own head.

Since God Himself moved the authors of Scripture to write, one should expect to find evidences of purposeful intelligent design woven into the fabric of biblical narratives of this story, and indeed one does. The book of “Esther provides ‘a clarifying lens’ through which its author’s message can be viewed: the message of the providential hand of God working even when He appears to not be visible. The narrator of Esther did not explicitly identify his message, but the “overt theological statements in the book suggest that the author wanted his readership to deduce his message”: a message about the heroic features of Esther and Mordecai, the great risks they took, and the rescue of their people from annihilation. Although there is an initial “major conflict consisting of the genocide plot against the Jewish people”, the story “culminates in the joyful victory of the Jews over their enemies.” Disaster was averted, mourning and fasting were turned to celebration, the evil villain was caught, humiliated, and executed, and the objects of his rage, Mordecai, Esther, and the Jews, were honored and elevated, all by the hand of God was working behind the scenes.

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Bibliography
Bechtel, Carol M. Esther. Westminster John Knox, Louisville KY, 2002.

Criswell, WA. The Believer’s Study Bible. Electronic Edition STEP Files. Nashville, TN: The Criswell Center for Biblical Studies Special Study Helps, Thomas Nelson, Inc, 1983.

Easton, M.G. Easton’s Bible Dictionary. Quickverse, FindEx 7 Edition. N.p.: Ellis Enterprises, Inc, 1993.

Halton, Charles. “Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48, no. 4 (December 2005).

Holman Bible Dictionary. 3rd ed. Edited by Trent C. Butler. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, a Division of Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1991.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. First. Edited by James Orr. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Parsons Technology, 1998.

McGeough, Kevin M. “Esther the hero: Going beyond ‘wisdom’ in heroic narratives.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 70, no. 1 (January 2008).

Mills, Mary. “Household and table: Diasporic boundaries in Daniel and Esther.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68, no. 3 (July 2006).

Morris, Dr. Henry. Defender’s Study Bible. Second Edition, Electronic Edition STEP Files. Nashville, TN: World Publishing, Inc, Nelson Publishing Co, 2004.

Nelson’s New King James Study Bible. 2nd ed. Edited by Earl Radmacher. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006.

Tollington, Janet E. “Esther.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 30, no. 5 (June 2006).

Unger, Merrill F. The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary. Rev. ed. Edited by Pearl C. Unger. Chicago, IL: The Moody Bible Institute, 1966.

Weiland, Forrest S. “Literary Clues to God’s Providence in the Book of Esther.” Bibliotheca sacra 160, no. 637 (ja – mr 2003).

Wiersbe, Warren. Be Series: Be Committed. Electronic Edition STEP Files Copyright. Grand Rapoids, Iowa: Parsons Technology, 2004.

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