Esther and Providence
The Old Testament book of Esther is much loved by many, especially by Jewish readers. For in it we learn about the remarkable preservation of the Jewish people. It is an altogether providential occurrence, although rather oddly, God never gets a mention in the book.
Indeed, it seems rather strange to talk about the theological message of the book, given this apparent divine absence. Not only is God not mentioned, but neither is prayer, the law, the temple, or other clear religious themes. But both Jews and Christians consider the very heart of the book to be about God’s providence.
It is about how God providentially protects his own people and brings about remarkable reversals of fortune. In what seems to be a bunch of amazing coincidences, we see God at work behind the scenes, accomplishing his purposes. And once we are aware of the background to this book, we can see how very relevant it is to our own situation today.
The historical backdrop is this: Israel had of course been dragged off into captivity because of its sinfulness, and Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed in the process. Roughly from 597-586 BC the Babylonians defeated Judah and sacked Jerusalem.
Many Israelites were taken into captivity in Babylon. But the Persians defeated the Babylonians in 539. Soon after, the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. We read about that in Ezra and Nehemiah for example. However it seems that most Jews stayed in Babylon instead.
This is the setting for Esther. We have God’s people in a strange land, asking hard questions: Has God forgotten us? Does he still have a purpose for us? What about his covenant with us? And so on. Not too unlike God’s people today. Christians live mainly in pagan cultures, and it seems like God is nowhere to be found.
The story is hopefully familiar to you. If not, read the short book – it is only 10 chapters long. Esther the Jewish girl marries the King of Persia, while a major conflict between the pagan Haman and the Jewish Mordecai is taking place. This too is historically important.
Haman was an Agagite, which goes back to King Agag of the Amalekites. Israel and the Amalekites had long been at each other’s throats, and in this book we read of Haman’s plot to destroy all the Jews. Just as Yahweh had been protecting his covenant people all along, so too he would do so here.
A number of “coincidences” result in a major reversal of destiny, when instead of Haman overpowering and killing the Jews, he instead is killed, and the Jews are empowered. Indeed, the literary structure of this book is built upon peripety.
This is a literary device where a sudden, often unexpected turn of events takes place. That certainly occurred big time in this book. The gallows Haman had built to hang Mordecai on instead becomes the means of death for Haman and his sons. The Jewish festival of Purim comes out of all this, and is still celebrated today.
The key passage is 4:14 where Mordecai replies to Esther: “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”
Here Mordecai shows his faith in the fact that the Jews will survive, and that Esther is part of the means to achieve this. At this time and place, there were no prophets, no miracles, no temple and no holy city. They were strangers in a strange land, and moves were underway to get rid of them.
Yet through one strange occurrence after another – even a sleepless night for the King – events turned out with a mighty reversal of fortune. The truth of Romans 8:28 certainly comes shining through here. Even in the darkest hour, God had not abandoned his people, and was providentially working things out for his glory and the welfare of his people.
Plenty of commentators have written extensively about the grand themes of Esther, but let me conclude here by sharing some of the words of wisdom of Karen Jobes in the introduction to her book in the NIVAC commentary series (Zondervan, 1999).
She says, “The book of Esther is perhaps the most striking biblical statement of what systematic theologians call the providence of God. When we speak of God’s providence, we mean that God, in some invisible and inscrutable way, governs all creatures, actions, and circumstances through the normal and the ordinary course of human life, without the intervention of the miraculous.
“The book of Esther is the most true-to-life biblical example of God’s providence precisely because God seems absent. Even in the most pagan corner of the world, God is ruling all things to the benefit of his people and to the glory of his name.”
As mentioned, this book has a special place in the hearts of Jews, and Jobes reminds us of the fact that the Nazis banned the reading of this book in the concentration camps. They knew the power of this story, and what it represented. They did not want their captors to be reminded of it.
Just as in the time of Esther, the enemy meant to destroy the Jews, but they were themselves destroyed. Haman was destroyed while the Jews survived, just as the Nazis were defeated, but the Jews remain. But Christians also take great comfort from this book.
The grand theme of reversal is found not just in Esther but throughout the Bible. It culminates at Calvary. Says Jobes, “Because of our sin, we, like the Jews in exile in Persia, should expect only death and destruction. Our fate was reversed by the seemingly insignificant death of one man, Jesus of Nazareth.”
She concludes her introduction with these words, “God is working providentially, in the completely secular and ungodly course of human events, to save his people against all expectation and to bring all of humanity to culmination in Christ. There is no plot, no plan that can thwart God’s purposes that stretch from Genesis to Revelation. Esther lies between the two.
“The great paradox of Esther is that God is omnipotently present even where God is most conspicuously absent. Jesus’ last words were, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations… And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’ (Matt. 28:19-20). And then, ironically, he left! Nevertheless, our Lord is omnipotently present even where he is most conspicuously absent.”
Quite so. It is so easy to get discouraged today. It certainly does not seem like God is still on the throne. And when we read about all the horrendous evil and tragedy taking place around us, it is easy to doubt and start asking really tough questions.
But when we read the book of Esther we are once again reminded that God is indeed still in control, and he is working out his purposes, even if often behind the scenes. Thus we need to keep on going, just as Esther had to keep on going despite all the events around her which made her want to give it all up.
We need to apply to ourselves the words of Mordecai: ‘Who knows but that you were appointed for such a time as this’. We each have an important contribution to make to the work of Christ’s kingdom. So let’s do it for the glory of God.
14 Replies to “Esther and Providence”
A good account, Bill. However, there are some points of query:
“Haman was an Agagite, which goes back to King Agag of the Amalekites.” I know that this has been Jewish tradition, ans isa held by some Christian scholars, but it is by no means universally held, and in my view is drawing a long bow. “Agagite” may be merely an epithet by which to draw a parallel with Agag the Amalekite (1 Sam.15:32-33), and not some historical or genealogical link.
Esther does not mention God, or prayer or anything “religious”, and this seems to be deliberate. The question then is why. Yes we can certainly see God’s providence in the whole Esther story, and that is also what the author intends us to see. But why these omissions, and do they have a lesson for us as we live in a pagan and hostile society?
Esther’s status as queen also has a message: to Christians who are strangers and exiles in a strange land (James 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1) the procedure of exercising an influence when and where the Lord has placed us. This is all the more relevant when we consider that Vashti is likely to be equated with the Amestris of Herodotus (as argued by J Stafford Wright), who accompanied Xerxes on his abortive invasion of Greece, and who was apparently deposed from her position as the king’s favourite wife. So Esther takes her place in a very high position indeed. One thinks here in our own day of the influence Fred Nile has had in NSW over the years, and the influence Sarah Palin is having, and will likely continue to have in the USA in coming years. Let us pray constantly for these folks!
Murray R Adamthwaite
Great article. But since we’re talking about God’s Providence, shouldn’t Providence be capitalised?
Dear Bill, God’s Providence was certainly exercised yesterday in this pagan land! My daughter and son in law had to evacuate Sunday evening from their home in Kelmscott which was threatened by bush fires. There was a real danger that if the wind changed direction or increased its speed theirs and other homes in their street could be burned to the ground. There was also a large hardware shop filled with inflammable material only yards away from other houses in the street just round the corner so the chance of the bushfire ending in an inferno was very real. I would describe myself as a God-fearing person and a faithful Mass-goer but I was over 100ks away and could only wait, hope and pray. The first two I could do but strangely I could not pray even though I wanted to. My inclination to pray had dried up and I could not say any of my usual Catholic prayers like the Our Father and the Hail Mary. Just before I went to sleep last night I spoke to God in the darkness and said that if He could not send the rain to douse the flames would He control the direction and severity of the wind so the flames would be directed away from homes especially my daughter’s. Strangely I fell asleep and slept the whole night through even though I thought I was too worried for that. This morning I found out that the fire which threatened their home had been contained and except for some hard work putting everything they had tried to salvage back in its place they were alright. God obviously didn’t want my 16 year old autistic grandson to be homeless so if that isn’t God’s Providence at work in a pagan land with few prayers being said I don’t know what is.
Glad to hear your family is safe.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
The story of Esther is extremely relevant today. I wrote, along with about 10, 000 other people, a few years back to our Queen Elizabeth II, asking her to save children from being forcibly adopted by gay people, and to stop our Bishops from being harassed and humiliated by Stonewall. I reminded her of Queen Esther and that it was time now for her speak up, especially in view of her Coronation oath which was to uphold the Christian faith and the protect her bishops. Her response, or rather that of one of her ladies in attendance was vintage pusillanimity. I would not be surprised if the union jack flying over Buckingham Palace does not soon bear a pink swastika or rainbow.
As for Haman, there can be only one candidate for that role and that has to be the chief executive of Stonewall, Ben Summerskill OBE and his henchmen, like Sir Ian Mckellen of “The love that Dares to Speak its Name” fame, Sir Trevor Philipps OBE and Angela Mason OBE.
Ben and his mates are constructing gallows onto which Christians are supposed to be suspended. All I can say is, “Build it high Ben, build it high.”
David Skinner, UK
Hard to believe that God has abandoned the Jewish people today after reading commentary like this.
A very timely reminder. Thanks.
Is providence a way of maintaining both God’s sovereignty and human responsibility?
“When we speak of God’s providence, we mean that God, in some invisible and inscrutable way, governs all creatures, actions, and circumstances through the normal and the ordinary course of human life, without the intervention of the miraculous.”
Yes the Book of Esther certainly seems to give that impression – as does so much of the rest of Scripture.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
Damien, perhaps that’s because he hasn’t!
Ewan McDonald, VIC
Thank you Bill for showing the beauty of one Old Testament character. No wonder the Jewish nation cherishes this book. Haman had Hitlerian fury for the Jewish nation, scheming to wipe out the entire race world-wide. Despite the strictures on this present nation, God will overshadow them with His sovereign presence.
The entire book allegorises God’s position and plan of salvation. God is Father above all. Mordecai is adviser to Esther as her parakletos. Esther is the bride (like the church is His beloved bride) and King Ahashuerus is husband to Esther. Unlimited joy followed.
In http://www.biblestories.stellaris.com.au the study of Esther is expanded.
I have just read Esther, after Nehemiah as I read through the Bible. I have only done this a few times but for the first time it struck me that Nehemiah, and Ezra before it, conclude with the tradegy of returned Israelite’s choosing to give their sons and daughters to those not of the chosen people.
I have never seen any commentary – maybe it is in the commentary mentioned – how Mordecai and Esther regarded her marriage to heathen Xerxes, something that so distressed Ezra and Nehemiah?
Greetings Bill, and others.
God certainly may never abandon the Jewish people but under the curses of the covenant there is an reoccurring and ever increasing judgment upon Israel throughout the centuries until that one final time, the time of Jacobs trouble, where Jacob is taken to task for thousands of years of apostasy and backsliddenness in the “severest trial ever”. And then and only then for the “first time in history” the Jewish people give up all hope as a distinct people with their own nation.
What is the catch cry of present world Jewry? “Never again” and if that is not shaking a fist in Gods face nothing is. Sadly the present church is foolishly thinking present day Israel will go onto success as a nation because of her natural brilliance and ability at warfare. But surely God only comes on the scene when all natural strength has gone, like in the story of Lazarus, their eyes are opened and they see their sin in the rejection of their Messiah the Lord Jesus. Then a nation a holy nation comes into existence in a day. A nation where all know their Messiah
The cup of hatred that is nearly full to overflowing in the Muslim nations surrounding them at the moment has not just happened without reason. And most likely the antichrist (distinguished by his hatred for the covenant) comes out of the midst of the descendants of Ishmael and Esau (see psalm 83) maybe even a charismatic leader over a (little horn) Palestinian state. It is only after that day (obviously yet to happen) that some of these nations go completely out of existence. Like in the days of Esther God delivers Israel, but only after it seems to late and when they are already in their grave. as far as the world is concerned. Present day Israel should more rightly be called Jacob. Want to see an end to abortion and homosexuality? Like the story of Esther we have to have to get the wrong man out and the right man on the throne. How fascinating that just when the right man, God chosen man was to be executed the tables miraculously turned, Haman and his sons were killed and peace fell upon the land.
It is about to happen all over again.
I’ve read Esther many times and it always sounds fresh. Nice review.