The Global Message of Esther

Esther and the Sovereign Rule of God

The book of Esther is set far away from the Promised Land, on the opposite end of the world in the city of Susa, the capital of the powerful Persian empire (c. 539–331 b.c.). After the Babylonian empire destroyed the Jerusalem temple and decimated the kingdom of Judah (587/586 b.c.), a significant portion of the remaining Jewish population was exiled to Babylon. After Cyrus defeated the Babylonians and established his Persian empire, Cyrus granted freedom for the exiled Jewish people to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple (c. 539 b.c.). Some, but not all, of the Jews returned to the Promised Land and began to rebuild their lives. Others remained in exile and began to build Jewish communities in the Persian empire. Esther and Mordecai, the main characters of the book of Esther, were from families that chose to remain.

The book of Esther is in the Bible to show us that the hiddenness of God is not the absence of God. Even though God is not even mentioned in the entire book, he sovereignly and mercifully preserves his people in the midst of adversity.

Still the Chosen People of God?

After the Jewish exiles returned to the homeland, they entered what is called the postexilic (“after the exile”) period of their existence. It was a time of great uncertainty, and the people had many questions. Were they still the people of God, or was God finished with them? And if homeland Jews were still the people of God, what about those Jews who never returned but chose to remain behind and live among the pagans? Were they still members of the covenant people, or had they forfeited their inheritance?

Therefore, while the immediate purpose of the book of Esther was to explain why all Jews everywhere should celebrate Purim (a festival not prescribed by the Law of Moses; see Est. 9:26–32), its deeper and more significant purpose was to demonstrate that the postexilic Jews—even those outside the Land—remained the chosen people of God. Through them, God was still committed by covenant to accomplish his plan of worldwide redemption and new creation. They were therefore protected by his quiet yet overruling sovereignty from all pagan attempts to destroy them until the “fullness of time,” when Israel gave the Messiah to the world (Gal. 4:4).

Universal Themes in Esther

The sovereign rule of God. The primary theme of Esther that is universally applicable to global Christians is the sovereign rule of God, even amid seemingly insignificant events. The book of Esther is noteworthy for its complete lack of any mention of God. This has caused some to question whether it belongs in Scripture. The lack of reference to God, however, works as a literary device to make the reader realize that God is on every page. Throughout the book, God is controlling, directing, and working through all the seemingly trivial circumstances in order to protect his people and accomplish his ultimate purpose of cosmic redemption.

Coincidences? Note how the following “coincidences” work in the book to attain God’s purposes. First, how wonderful that Esther was so beautiful and that King Ahasuerus chose her from among all the young women of the kingdom to be his next queen (Est. 2:17). Second, how fortunate that Mordecai overheard the plot against the king and rescued him from assassination, and that Mordecai’s valiant deed of loyalty was recorded in the royal archives (2:21–23). Third, note that when Esther presented herself before the king (which, in Persian law, was punishable by death), she “won favor in his sight” and was spared and allowed to speak (5:2). Fourth, it was quite a stroke of good fortune that the king could not sleep and therefore ordered that the chronicles of memorable deeds should be read to him; that the scribe just happened to read about Mordecai and his heroic act; and that the king was alert enough to ask whether Mordecai had been rewarded for his deed (6:1–3). Fifth, how ironic for Haman to walk in just as the king was considering how he might honor Mordecai for his deed (6:4–12). Sixth, how unfortunate for Haman that he “was falling on the couch where Esther was” to beg for his life just as the king returned, and the king interpreted Haman’s move as an assault upon Esther (7:8). Seventh, how interesting that Mordecai was made second in command in place of Haman over all of the vast Persian empire (8:2; 10:2–3).

God works all things together for good. Are these events insignificant circumstances? Are they merely chance? Or are they examples of God quietly yet sovereignly working on behalf of his people to accomplish his purposes? The Lord so governs situations that he overrules and thwarts the schemes of those who would seek to destroy his chosen people and works them instead for ultimate good (see Rom. 8:28).

The Global Message of Esther for Today

Living in exile. The contemporary church around the world has much to learn from the book of Esther concerning empire and living in exile. With the church now a global faith, it finds itself located increasingly within countries that are unfamiliar with the Christian tradition or even hostile to it. The global church in many places now lives an “exiled” sort of existence under pagan rule or tyrannical leaders, in circumstances similar to those faced by Esther and Mordecai under Persian imperial rule. In the New Testament, the book of Acts narrates how regularly the church had to navigate the precarious waters of a pagan empire. In fact, the Roman empire crushed the key figures of the New Testament. Pontius Pilate, a Roman procurator, crucified Jesus. King Herod Agrippa beheaded James (Acts 12:1–2). Caesar executed Peter and Paul in Rome. Roman power exiled John to the island of Patmos (Rev. 1:9).

Global sojourners. The letter of 1 Peter teaches the global church that its members are “exiles of the Dispersion” and “sojourners” (1 Pet. 1:1; 2:11). As disciples lived out their new faith before their pagan neighbors, this at times resulted in misunderstanding, suffering, and persecution (1 Pet. 2:12; 4:12–13, 16, 19; 5:9–10). Undoubtedly, this felt like “exile,” as Christians realized that they no longer fit in with the immoral and idolatrous culture around them. The Roman empire was no longer their true home. They lived in the Roman empire, and they were Romans citizens (or freedmen, or slaves), but they no longer acted like Romans in numerous and important ways. Ultimately, however, Peter meant something more significant when he called the early Christians “exiles” and “sojourners.” He has theological exile in view. Like Abraham, who wandered as a homeless “exile” and “sojourner” in the very land that God had promised to him (Gen. 23:4), Christians are exiles and sojourners in the very land that they will inherit—the whole world (Rom. 4:13). They do not inherit it now, as it lies broken in its present and fallen state, but they will enjoy the liberated and renewed world when all is accomplished in Christ (Rom. 8:18–25; Phil. 3:20–21).

Working for justice and compassion. The book of Esther illustrates that, while the Christian community journeys in this exiled existence and waits in hope for “relief and deliverance” (Est. 4:14), some believers may find themselves in positions of government within the empires in which they reside. Christians should not be anxious about working in such contexts, but should instead use the God-given opportunity to work for just and compassionate legislation, which promotes peace and stability for all citizens. In this way, they anticipate the life of the new creation and bring a glimmer of light to a dark world.