Esther and the Purim Party

I read the book of Esther last week and was struck again by what an amazing book it is. What a true work of literature. There is a heroine, suspense, irony, reversal, and surprising coincidences.
 
Chapters 1-2
Israel is in exile, under the reign of King Ahasuerus. Ahasuerus, as the King of Persia, has a ton of wealth. So he shows his wealth by having a party for 180 days (1:4).[1] With that much partying it is no wonder that he is somewhat of a drunk and pushover. However, it appears that he’s trying to combat his pushover persona (but not his alcoholism!) with the help of his friends and so he makes an example of his wife Vashti who did not obey his every whim.
 
He gets rid of his old wife and throws a lavish beauty pageant to find the most beautiful and pleasing bride in the kingdom (2:2-4). In somewhat of a Cinderella story, the king “fell in love” with Esther more than all the other women and so he put the royal crown on her head and made her queen (v. 17).

Chapter 3
Haman, the antagonist of the story,[2] is promoted (3:1) and it seems like it’s because the beauty pageant was his idea.
 
Haman soon became furious at Jewish man named Mordecai because he would not bow down to him. But instead of just taking it out on him, Haman wanted to destroy all the Jews throughout the whole kingdom (3:5-6).
 
So, Haman decided which day the Jews should be destroyed by casting a lot.[3] Haman was so eager to destroy the Jews that he offered to pay the king ten thousand silver talents (the equivalent of eighteen million dollars[4]) of his own money if the king would allow him to do that. And so the king agreed and a decree[5] was sent and Haman and the king sat down to drink.
 
Chapter 4
Mordecai hears about Haman’s plot to kill the Jews and so he talks to Esther about it. Mordecai says, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. If you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will come for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (4:12-14)
 
Esther replied to Mordecai, “Hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I will also fast. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish” (4:15-16).
 
Chapter 5
Esther has her first banquet with the King. Esther goes to the king and says, “Please join me for a feast that I prepared and invite your friend Haman too” (5:4). Then at the feast Esther says let’s feast again tomorrow and we’ll talk more then (5:8).
 
(It’s funny, is Esther delaying? Is she nervous? Is she buttering him up? We don’t know…)
 
After the feast, Haman leaves and he is joyful and glad. But then he sees Mordecai on the way home and he doesn’t rise in respect before him or tremble before him. And so Haman is ticked off and his wrath is renewed (5:9).
 
Haman was able to contain himself, however, and made it home. When Haman was home he had his friends over and was talking with them and his wife. He was recounting how good everything was going and he told them that he even got to hangout with the King and his new bride (v. 12). “However,” he said, “It’s all pointless to me, so long as I see Mordecai still alive.”
 
So, his wife and friends said, “Build a frame six-stories high and have Mordecai executed on it.” When Haman heard that idea, he said, “That’s it!” And with great excitement he had the structure built so that the entire city could say Mordecai his enemy impaled.
 
Chapter 6
However, in the meantime—as Esther is getting herself together and preparing for her talk with the king—the king couldn’t sleep. So, he did what any self-respecting king would do, he asked for a bedtime story.
 
The king gave orders for the book of memorable deeds to be brought and read to him (6:1). And before the king got bored and fell asleep the story was recounted how Mordecai protected the king from an assassination attempt (6:1-2).
 
And the king said, “What honor or distinction has been given to Mordecai for what he did?” The king was told that “Nothing had been done” (v. 3).
 
That’s when, guess who walked in?…
Haman walks into the king’s palace to speak to the king about having Mordecai impaled.
 
However, before Haman could ask his question, the king asked him a question. The king said to Haman: “What should be done to the man whom the king wants to honor?”
 
And Haman thought to himself, “Who would the king want to honor more than me?!”
 
So Haman said to the king, “For the man whom the king wants to honor, I would get the royal robes out, and the best horse that the king has, and your favorite royal crown. And I would give it to him. And I would have a parade for him and lead him through the street and say: ‘This is what happens to the person that the king wants to honor!’
 
Then the king said to Haman, “Great! Good ideas! Now hurry; and go do all that you just said for Mordecai the Jew! Do everything that you just said!
 
Wow.
 
Haman clearly is not doing very well.
 
Haman eventually goes home (“rough day at the office”). And his wife and friends concur that this is not a good situation…
 
Chapter 7
Haman can’t hide in shame. He has a feast to attend, Esther’s special feast to which he is a very special guest.
 
At the feast, Esther makes a request of the king. She says, “Please let me keep my life and the life of my people. “For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated” (7:4).
 
Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who has dared to do this?!” And Esther said, “A foe and enemy! This wicked Haman!”
 
Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.
 
The king stood up in his anger from his wine-drinking and went into the palace garden, but Haman stayed to beg for his life from Queen Esther. However, the king returned from the garden just as Haman was falling on the couch where Esther was. And the king said, “Will he even assault the queen in my presence?!”
 
At this point, Haman had no hope.
 
One of the servants said, “The six-story structure that Haman prepared for Mordecai is standing at Haman’s house ready to go.”
 
And so, Haman was executed on the stand that he had prepared for Mordecai (7:10).[6]
 
Chapter 8
Esther pleads with the king and finds favor before him and he allows Mordecai to issue a decree with the king’s authority that will allow all Jews to defend themselves.
 
King Ahasuerus said, “Write as you please with regard to the Jews, in my name, and seal it with the my ring, for an edict written in my name and sealed with my ring cannot be revoked. And “the king took off his signet ring, which he had taken from Haman, and gave it to Mordecai” (8:2).
 
So, Mordecai wrote that the “Jews were to be ready to take vengeance on their enemies” (8:13). “And in every province and in every city, wherever the king’s command and his edict reached, there was gladness and joy among the Jews, a feast and a holiday. And many from the peoples of the country declared themselves Jews, for fear of the Jews had fallen on them” (8:17).
 
Chapters 9
The Feast of Purim was inaugurated. They set apart Purim as a day to remember and celebrate that the “Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness” (9:22). “Purim, like Passover, celebrates the salvation of Jewish people, the preservation of God’s chosen ones.”[7] So we see the story goes from fasting to feasting for God’s people.
 
Chapter 10
The story ends by recounting how instead of Haman being elevated, “Mordecai the Jew was second in rank to King Ahasuerus, and he was great among the Jews” (10:3).
 
Takeaways
Esther is the unexpected star[8] of the story. “Esther is an orphaned, exiled female. She is a most unlikely leader. Her only qualification is that she has won a beauty contest. Yet she joins a long line of unlikely heroes in the history of Israel.”[9]
 
God uses unlikely people and deliverers in unexpected ways. It’s actually kind of His standard operating procedure. God used Moses, a man with a stammering tongue. He anointed David to be king, the youngest and most unexpected of his brothers. God uses small armies to bring deliverance. God puts His treasure in jars of clay so that it will be clear that the power and glory belong to Him (see e.g. 2 Cor. 4:7). And God uses the foolishness of the cross to bring salvation and shame the “wise” (see 1 Cor. 1:18-31).
 
The book of Esther amazingly goes from fasts to feasts! So we also see that God brings about all sorts of unlikely plot twists. Like the first shall be last, and the last first. And victory through the cross. God works, and has always worked, in unexpected and glorious ways.
 
God “is able to use marginalization and weakness for his missional purposes, and the church in the post-Christendom age needs to embrace this very Esther-like perspective at its core as it seeks to be the people of God in a foreign culture.”[10]
 
In the book of Esther we also see that God is present even when it seems like He’s not. “The book of Esther asks us to trust in God’s providence even when we can’t see it working. That requires a posture of hope, to believe that, no matter how horrible things get, God is committed to redeeming his good world and overcoming evil.”[11]
 
And so, we need to trust like Mordecai. We need to not bow down to any earthly powers. And we need to fast and pray and ask others to fast and pray in times of need. We need to rely on God even when He seems absent. We need to lay our lives down in service to God with a heart that says, “If I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16). Especially as we consider that Jesus did perish to purchase our salvation.[12] 
__________________
[1] Of course, it may not mean that the party was 180 consecutive days.
 
[2] Haman is an Agagite which means he was a Canaanite which were longtime enemies of the Israelites. This comes into the plot of the story later on but this point is not made explicit.
 
[3] Lot is the word “pur,” so that’s where the name Purim the Jewish holiday comes from. Because Haman cast lots to decide what day the Jews would be destroyed. However, as Proverbs 16:33 reminds us that the lot (pur) is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord. And so we see, even when the name of the LORD is not mentioned we see He is sovereign over human affairs and He will keep His covenant. He will not let His people be wiped out.
 
[4] Charles F. Pfeiffer, Old Testament History, 489. That book, however, was published in 1973 so the figure would be higher today.
 
[5] “Letters were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces with instruction to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods. A copy of the document was to be issued as a decree in every province by proclamation to all the peoples to be ready for that day. The couriers went out hurriedly by order of the king, and the decree was issued in Susa the citadel” (Esther 3:13-15).
 
[6] “Reversal seems the most important structural theme in Esther” (Dumbrell, Faith of Israel, 300 as quoted in Schreiner, The King in His Beauty, 224).
 
[7] Thomas R. Schreiner, The King in His Beauty, 224.
 
[8] The name Esther even means “star.”
 
[9] Lee Beach, The Church in Exile, 79.
 
[10] Beach, The Church in Exile,79
 
[11] Illustrated Summaries of Biblical Books by the Bible Project. “Even though God is never mentioned, Yahweh is King, and the Jews are his people. No plot to annihilate them will ever succeed, for Yahweh made a covenant with Israel and will fulfill his promises to them. The serpent and his offspring will not perish from the earth until the final victory is won, but they will not ultimately triumph. The kingdom will come in its fullness. The whole world will experience the blessing promised to Abraham” (Thomas R. Schreiner, The King in His Beauty, 225).
[12] Esther and Jesus are similar in some ways but also very different. Unlike Esther, Jesus had “no beauty that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected” (Is. 53.2-3). And unlike Esther who brought an amazing plot reversal akin to resurrection, Jesus actually brought resurrection, and final victory over Satan, sin, and death. 

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About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 9 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)

2 responses to “Esther and the Purim Party”

  1. Rebekah Durham says :

    Great post. Esther is one of my favorite books of the Bible.

    Liked by 1 person

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