The book of Esther is one of the most unique books of Scripture, for the name of the Lord doesn’t appear in any form and there are no explicit acts of piety to be found within its ten chapters. Yes, at one point, Esther calls for a fast, but we must infer that coupled with the fast, she and Mordecai actually prayed. In fact, they may not have done so.
Usually when the book is taught, either in Sunday School classes or from the pulpit, Esther is elevated to a level of piety that is frankly unwarranted, and her uncle Mordecai is portrayed as a great hero and defender of the faith. All the attention, in other words, centers on the “greatness” of these two people. That approach, however, misses the entire purpose and focus of the book. As you read Esther, look for evidence of the real theme, which is timeless:
God works graciously behind the scenes to rescue His undeserving people.
Several key ideas emerge from this theme.
First, God works. Though He’s not even referred to in the book, you cannot miss His sovereign control over people and events. You see this in chapter two, for example, with Esther being chosen as the queen. Watch for evidence of this fascinating aspect of the book.
Since He’s not directly given credit for these works, secondly, He is doing so “behind the scenes.”
Third, He rescues His people from Haman’s terrible plot to destroy all the Jews in the Medo-Persian Empire.
Fourth, His people are undeserving, hence His actions are gracious.
This last idea is often lost on most of us as we read the book. We think of Mordecai and Esther as great heroes because of the outcome of things. But do we really understand them and see their lives accurately? Consider some of these disturbing facts.
Somewhere along the line, both opted for names connected to the pagan deities of Marduk and Ishtar, forsaking their given Hebrew names. As we meet the two, we discover they’re cloaking their true identity as Jews, again a major fact in the opening couple of chapters, and they’re still living in the capital city, even though they could’ve returned to Jerusalem with returning exiles.
Regarding the “beauty pageant” for King Ahasuerus, we may not like to know the details, but we should have an accurate picture of what this entailed. Esther was either drafted by authorities or volunteered by her cousin Mordecai to participate in this contest. Essentially, the way this worked was the contestants had twelve months to prepare for their presentation to the king. When their turn came, they spent a night—not an evening, a night—with the king to win his favor. The girl that gave him the greatest satisfaction would become the queen. All others, since they lost their virginity to the king, would be relegated to the royal harem where they would be taken care of for the rest of their lives, and from where the king could call on them for “services” if he so desired. It would seem that if Esther and Mordecai were really concerned with God’s Law, holiness, and the integrity of God’s people, this would be a good place to take a stand, refuse to participate, and accept the consequences.
So much more could be said along these lines. Allow but one more thought related to what we encounter in chapter 3.
Haman was promoted to a position above all the princes, including Mordecai. He was, therefore, deserving of the respect and homage that went with his position. The cultural custom of showing respect was for those under him to bow before him as he came by. Note: this was not worshiping as if he were a god…this was simply a means of showing respect. Mordecai refused to grant him this respect.
Why? At the root of it was envy.
Notice how chapter 2 ends with the little comment that Mordecai foiled a plot to kill the king? What reward did Mordecai get for saving the king’s life? None. He should’ve been promoted to Haman’s position but wasn’t! So, he refused to give homage to Haman, used his Jewishness as an excuse (now he conveniently reveals his true ethnic background—how convenient!), provoked the ire of Haman, and just about caused the annihilation of his own people.
All of these ideas may disturb your previous notions about the greatness of Mordecai and Esther. Well, sorry about that, but if it gets you to focus on the truly Great One revealed in the book—your God—then that’s a good thing. And if you remember the timeless theme (that means it’s still true!), then God’s purpose in giving us this book will be accomplished.