Until the kingdom of God comes in its fullness on the last day conquering all kingdoms of this world, God’s people must live “in exile” in a particular time, a particular place, and subject to a particular earthly king, while guarding themselves from the dangers of worldly glory, riches, and power.
Introduction – A few years ago my brother gave me a copy of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, former slave in the American south. Shortly after I began to read, I noticed how the purpose of his autobiography was twofold because he wrote for two audiences: those who could identify with his experiences, and those who could not. He aimed to encourage the powerless and confront the powerful; to offer a helping hand to those scarred by the evil of slavery and offer new eyes to those blinded to that evil. The book of Esther aims to do the same thing. If it is just a nice story to you, if you don’t feel God’s healing hand on the wounds you unjustly bear, or if you don’t feel your eyes opened to the plight of the powerless, of people living in exile, then you’ve missed the message of Esther. Are you basically comfortable making this world your home, at ease pursuing the wealth, power, and glory this world offers? Or are you basically uncomfortable, living as if in exile in a dangerous world away from your true home? From the beginning of the story of Esther, God calls you to choose sides. The rulers of this world have much to offer by way of riches, power, and glory, but it is foolish and exceedingly dangerous to seek these things and serve those who offer them. Until the kingdom of God comes in its fullness on the last day conquering all kingdoms of this world, God’s people must live “in exile” in a particular time, a particular place, and subject to a particular earthly king, while guarding themselves from the dangers of worldly glory, riches, and power.
I. Introducing the Book of Esther
The book recounts how a Jewish girl named Esther became queen of Persia, and how with Mordecai’s encouragement she courageously saved the Jews from Haman’s plan to exterminate them. It is a story that celebrates an amazing reversal of destiny as God directs ordinary human events to fulfill his covenant promises for a people in exile who are uncertain of their relationship with God. It explains the origin of the Jewish feast of Purim, which was possibly the author’s reason for writing the book.
A. Author & Date
1. The book’s authorship is anonymous. Mordecai, one of the actors in the story, is a possible candidate for authorship. As a court official, he had access to written records such as court records and royal edicts. As a Jew, he had a keen interest in Jewish affairs.
2. If Mordecai is the author, then he probably wrote the book shortly after the events transpired. Scholars date the book from 460-350 B.C. because its language shows much Persian but little Greek influence. If someone other than Mordecai wrote the book, the author must have been familiar with Persian law and customs since it matches what we know of the Persian period from secular history. The author was likely a near contemporary of the book’s recorded events.
B. Major Themes
1. Providence of God. Although God is not mentioned in the book, the doctrine of divine providence undergirds the entire story. God is at work in Persia, even if he is veiled behind the decisions and actions of men. God orchestrated the radical reversal in the story, and was at work in the wicked devices of his enemies to bring about salvation for his people. The absence of God’s name in Esther (or anything else related to biblical faith) is part of the literary strategy of the author (i.e., God is hidden, but is paradoxically present as he works salvation for his people). Louis Berkhof says the doctrine of providence is “that work of God in which He preserves all His creatures, is active in all that happens in the world, and directs all things to their appointed end” (Summary of Christian Doctrine). In other words, God preserves and upholds all things according to his purposes by normally working through the actions of his creatures and occasionally working supernaturally apart from his creatures. God is always at work in the world. It is not true that God wound up creation to let it run apart from his active provision, only to appear when things go awry.
2. Human responsibility. The story demonstrates that although God is in control of the world, providentially orchestrating all that comes to pass, this does not cancel out human responsibility. People are responsible to God for their actions. We must decide to do right, sometimes at great cost to ourselves. When circumstances require it, we must act with courage and resolve, trusting the outcome to God’s providence. “Let go and let God” is not being responsible.
3. Conflicting loyalties & obedience vs. disobedience. Who will Esther and Mordecai obey—God or man? What will Esther and Mordecai do when confronted with injustice—obey unjust laws or disobey them? What will Esther do when none of her options seem good?
4. Wickedness as absurd (even laughable). The fate of Esther and Mordecai (the heroes) is a literary “comedy,” even providing moments of laughter when juxtaposed against the tragic fate of Haman (the villain). Today when Jewish people retell the story annually during Purim they enthusiastically play their part in the drama by laughing at the ironic reversals, booing and hissing at the name of Haman, and cheering when the arrogant and powerful fall into their own traps.
C. Literary Features
1. A superb short story. Who wouldn’t love a story with “a beautiful and courageous heroine, a romantic love thread, a dire threat to the good characters, a thoroughly evil villain, suspense, dramatic irony, evocative descriptions of exotic places, sudden reversal of action, poetic justice, and a happy ending” (Jobes)? It is a “hero story,” “a patriotic national history story,” a “rescue story,” a “literary comedy.”
2. A “round” main character. Although Esther’s faith is not explicit, it is probably accurate to say she develops from a fearful Jew who keeps her faith private amidst her pagan surroundings into a courageous woman of faith who sacrifices her position and prosperity to save her people.
3. Satire. The book exposes the vice and folly of Haman who is both vengeful and narcissistic.
D. Relevance for Christians
Years ago I had a Christian roommate who loved reading epic fiction and fantasy novels. Books like the Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, and the like. The struggle between good and evil was so exciting to him. In my youthful dogmatism, I once asked him why he didn’t just read non-fiction books about theology, spiritual growth, and the Bible. You know—quit wasting time and cut to the chase! He didn’t respond, but just looked at me funny. He knew that my bookshelf had no place for story. He knew that my worldview had no place for story. He knew I didn’t yet understand that the Christian life is “story”—your personal story lived by faith, struggling to make your life story fit into God’s grand story of conquering all evil in this world through Christ. Christian, don’t ignore the way God normally patterns his works: He speaks, then acts, then recounts his actions through the medium of story, and then interprets. Story is a major aspect of God’s revelation. God chose to shape us by telling stories. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking theology is inherently more spiritual than story. If you are an avid reader of “Christian books,” you may need to adjust your reading diet to include edifying fiction. Many believers testify that it will strengthen your Christian faith and your ability to understand the Bible.
1. The story of Esther is a major act in the epic battle between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent (Gen 3:15), culminating in the cross of Christ where Satan bruised Jesus’ heel and Jesus crushed Satan’s head (Heb 2:14; cf. Rom 16:20). Esther answers the question, “How are we, God’s chosen people, now living in exile, still here after all these centuries?” The answer lies in God’s purpose of preserving a remnant chosen by grace in order to bring Christ into the world and thereby bless the whole world through him and his body—the Church. If Haman had succeeded in his plan to annihilate the Jews, Abraham’s descendants would have died out. There would have been no fulfillment of the ancient promises, no Jesus, no gospel, no Church. No less is at stake in the drama that unfolds in this book. God’s people were in exile, separated from their true homeland and the city of God, Jerusalem, with its temple and messianic king. But God still cared for them. He provided, protected, and delivered them in the midst of their exile.
2. Jews throughout the centuries observe Purim to celebrate God’s deliverance of his people. Christians need not celebrate Purim as an annual feast, but ought to celebrate Jesus as our savior who saves us from our enemies again and again. In a sense Christians celebrate Purim each Lord’s Day. The book of Esther reminds us to celebrate salvation every time we worship. It reminds us that while we wait for Jesus to return, we should expect to suffer for our identification with him. It reminds us that while we live in exile this side of heaven, we should wage spiritual war against God’s enemies utilizing our weapons of warfare—prayer, humility, love of neighbor, preaching the gospel, living according to God’s revealed Word, standing faithfully and courageously for the cause of Christ (Eph 6:10-20). Jesus suffered as if in exile, and his faithful service (even to death) brought salvation to all who follow him (Acts 2:36). His resurrection and ascension after his crucifixion and death was the greatest reversal of all.
II. Living in Exile is Dangerous
A. The setting: a dangerous kingdom (vv. 1-2)
1. Place. An empire from India in the east (Pakistan: the land around the Indus river valley) to Ethiopia in the west (north Sudan: the region of the upper Nile in Africa) was a vast empire stretching across most of the civilized world. It is known to history as the Medo-Persian empire. In the book of Daniel it is known as the second great empire to arise (Babylon was the first; cf. Dan 2:39; 7:5), and it contained the people and lands of the fallen empires Assyria and Babylon. Susa was one of several capitals of the empire. Daniel has one of his visions at Susa (Dan 8:2) and Nehemiah served as King Artaxerxes’s cupbearer at Susa (Neh 1:1). The city was located east of the Tigris River at the foot of the eastern mountains about 100 miles from the Persian Gulf. The city is now called Shush, located in the southwestern part of modern Iran. The palace (citadel) was in a fortified part of the city. We know it was elevated 120 feet above the city because it has been excavated several times since 1851.
2. Time. The third year of Ahasuerus’s reign was 483 B.C. It marked the symbolic end of opposition to the new administration, and was therefore an appropriate time to consolidate the empire by assembling high officials in the capital to secure their loyalty. In terms of redemptive history, it was 103 years after Nebuchadnezzar took the Jews into captivity (2 Kgs 25), 54 years after Zerubbabel led the first wave of exiles back to Jerusalem (Ezra 1-2), and 25 years before Ezra led the second group of exiles back to Jerusalem (Ezra 7).
B. The stage: a dangerous king (vv. 3-9)
1. Kings of this world are dangerous when they display their glory to those who powerfully serve them (vv. 3-4). Ahasuerus was most likely Artaxerxes’s father, a.k.a. Xerxes I, who ruled circa 486-465 B.C. He is renowned for consolidating his father Darius I’s empire (cf. Ezra 4:6, 24-6:22; Hag 1:1; Zech 1:1), for his successful building projects, and for his unsuccessful wars with the Greeks (480-470 B.C., beginning with the Battle of Thermopylae). The size of the banquet was probably in the thousands. It was an immense gathering by any standard, but not an unreasonable number since there are records of Persian feasts with 15,000 guests and Assyrian feasts with 69,574 people! This feast was an opulent display of glory, riches, and power for the “powerful” people in Xerxes’s kingdom. The feast lasted for half a year (180 days). During this time the glory of the king’s empire was paraded before the kingdom’s “movers and shakers.” It was a royal extravaganza. Historians note that Xerxes’s great feast took place shortly before his army invaded Greece. So it was a probably a support rally for his upcoming military excursion. The display of wealth and power would convince the army that Xerxes’s kingdom was able to defeat Greece and reward the vassal nations who gave him soldiers for the war.
There is a scene in the movie The Goonies where the treasure hunting kids finally get to the hidden pirate ship of “One-Eyed Willie.” According to legend, the ship is teeming with gold, precious jewels, and other treasure, but is guarded by deadly booby traps. Many adventurers have died searching for the treasure they imagine as enormous—enough to make them endlessly wealthy. So the kids expect to be fabulously rich. But when their eyes first fall on the treasure, they are awestruck. They couldn’t even imagine what they now saw. Instantly they had a heightened fear of One-Eyed Willie’s power, and they realized their imminent danger in the presence of such wealth and glory. The amount of wealth Persian kings amassed through the life of the empire was staggering. Even Alexander the Great, who conquered Susa a century later, was dazzled to find in the royal treasury 1,200 tons of gold and silver bullion, and 270 tons of minted gold coins!
2. Kings of this world are dangerous when they display their riches and power to those (either great or small) who are impressed by such things (vv. 5-9). There is a false sense of freedom and celebration here. The powerful have a difficult time detecting it, but the vulnerable can see more easily. The feast is not for the guests, but for the king to feed his need for glory and power. Misreading the situation will put one in danger—both physical and spiritual.
III. How to Live Safely in Exile
A. Read between the lines and laugh (with God)
It is ironic that the author presents Xerxes in all his glory. The original audience knew that only four years later he would return from battle a failure, with his wealth, power and glory depleted. The author could have presented Xerxes this way, but he chose this snapshot in time to show the “glory” of Xerxes, perhaps to foreshadow the many ironic reversals of destiny this book entails. “Xerxes the Great, the king of the exiles” is a subtle joke (Pss 37:12-13; 59:8). God is laughing. So should you.
B. Recognize what is dangerous
1. If the king’s glory was impressive to the powerful, it was intimidating to the powerless. The message is clear: Xerxes is all-powerful and therefore dangerous. Imagine the scene: the decorative curtains and hangings were made of expensive fine white linen. The beds and benches were made of precious materials and fabrics meant for reclining, feasting, and carousing (Est 7:8; c.f. Ezek 23:41; Amos 3:12; 6:4). Even the floor underneath their feet was fit for royalty. Everything about the palace was beautiful, ornate, and glorious. Its description is designed to intoxicate and disarm us. This is the spiritual blindness that worldly glory cultivates. Do you sense the underlying trouble brewing? The king’s glory was only on the surface (cf. Prov 15:16-17).
2. Amazingly, the king explicitly decreed that each person was under no compulsion to drink. Each man was to have his fill according to his desire. Usually the king controlled how much his guests would consume by drinking when he drank. But at this feast the king would cater to all his guests with (apparently) no strings attached! Or so it seemed. Read between the lines. Recognize the danger (Prov 23:1-3; 29:5).
3. Verse 9 hints at trouble in the palace. King Xerxes is giving a feast for the men of the city. His wife, Queen Vashti, hosts a separate feast for the women. Although men and women could dine together in Persia, these two feasts are segregated, and there was a lot of wine drinking at the king’s feast. This had the potential for trouble if intoxicated men call on the women.
C. Reject worldly glory for permanent glory
Although Xerxes’s wealth, power, and glory were the envy of the world at the time, he and his kingdom were destined to fall. God had predicted it (Dan 8)! History tells the tale of world empires rising and falling. After the Medo-Persian empire fell, it was replaced by Alexander the Great’s Greek empire. The Roman empire was perhaps the most powerful empire in history, but it too fell. In our day we have seen the fall of Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and lesser despots toppled like Saddam Hussein and Moammar Kadafi. All of these empires and their leaders sought to eliminate God’s chosen people. They possessed all the power and might this world has to offer, but God laughed at their relative impotence. No king or nation in history has been able to destroy God’s people or dethrone the Lord of history.
Conclusion –The rich and powerful may rattle their sabers but the Lord laughs from heaven and scoffs at them (Ps 2:1-4). God continues throughout history to accomplish his plan for the world through inscrutable means. He will turn the tables of history to fulfill his covenant in Jesus Christ. The book of Esther—from the very beginning—warns those who put their faith in prosperity, ease, military strength, status, or political power that there will be a reversal of fortune that will only end in death and destruction. Christians may therefore take comfort in the power and glory of the Lord. He is sovereign. He reigns supreme in every generation, whichever kingdom or king is currently in power. To be united to Christ is to be on the right side of history, the winning side of history, to be victorious even when you are “living in exile” with heaven still before you.