So many of us girls love a good romance story. We love the drama, the beauty, the glamor, the excitement and the passion. There’s something so compelling about the story arc of two people falling in love. We’re so drawn to this kind of narrative that I think we often subconsciously read it into the story of Esther.
Hers is a classic princess story, right? She’s gorgeous, wins a whole beauty contest, and catches the eye of the king, who chooses to take her as his wife. It sounds picturesque, right? But this romanticized version is simply untrue, no matter how badly we wish it were a classic princess romance story.
Not a Fairytale
To see what I mean, let’s look at an overview of the first chapter of Esther to get a feel for the context.
The book begins with King Ahasuerus (also known as Xerxes) showing off his wealth and his glory to the nobles and governors of the provinces for 180 days. After these 180 days, he invited all the people into Susa for a seven day long feast in his garden. You can read about the display of luxury and opulence in verses 6-8. On the seventh day of his feast, he decided that he wanted to show off his wife so that the princes who were there would gape at her beauty. When Queen Vashti refused to be paraded around like a trophy to be lusted after, the king was outraged and consulted with his wise men about what to do. They told him to be rid of his wife, the queen, because of the example she had set in refusing to parade herself in front of his guests. They told him instead to find another wife, which we’ll get into soon.
All this and we haven’t met Esther yet. However, the author is communicating something important in this first chapter of Esther about what she is up against. This king is pompous, arrogant, easily angered, and treats women like property.
Our picture of King Ahasuerus doesn’t get any better in his search for a wife. He appoints officers throughout his kingdom to forcibly gather hundreds of virgins to his harem in Susa. Once gathered, they would undergo a year of beautifying themselves and then they would be called one by one to spend a night with the king. Whichever young woman “pleased him the most” would become his wife, while the rest were likely kept as concubines for the remainder of their days. It was sex trafficking that was decreed by the king and enforced by officials across the kingdom.
Esther and her cousin/father figure Mordecai lived in the kingdom of Ahasuerus, but only because they had been ripped from their home in Jerusalem when King Nebuchadnezzar had taken them captive. Esther was once again forced from her home when she was gathered with the rest of the virgins into the harem.
Where was God? Esther was a Jew, a believer in God, but had he abandoned her? Her parents died, she was taken into captivity in a strange land, and now she was forced to be part of a harem to bring pleasure to the king. Esther faced tragedy after tragedy and she could do nothing to stop it. I can imagine her crying out over and over, “Why God?”
But in the midst of Esther’s suffering and pain, God was still at work. Even though she could not see it, God was orchestrating a beautiful story and purpose for her life.
As we continue reading through Esther, we see that she was selected to be the king’s wife. So she moved to the palace to be available whenever the king called upon her. Her cousin Mordecai also began spending time around the palace, and through a series of events, eventually found himself in the favor of the king, after foiling a plot to kill him. We are also introduced to a new character, Haman.
Haman was a self-indulgent, pompous man who was greedy for power and respect. When Mordecai refused to bow down to him like all the king’s servants did, Haman started to develop a deep hatred for the Jews. It was a hatred so deep that he devised a plan to kill all the Jews throughout the kingdom. He got the king’s approval, who was somehow clueless about Esther and Mordecai’s heritage.
Now when Mordecai heard of Haman’s scheme, he tore his clothes and mourned. Esther sent a servant to him to provide him with fresh clothing and to hear of what was distressing Mordecai. He sent back to her the king’s decree to kill all of the Jews and commanded her to go to the king to plead for the lives of her people.
Faith over Fear
Esther’s response is one of fear, one that I think we can all relate to. She told Mordecai that she would be put to death for going to the king without being summoned. There was no possible way that she could do what Mordecai had commanded her.
Mordecai’s reply is prophetic, full of confidence that there will be a deliverer. He told her, “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise 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?” (Esther 4:13-14).
God’s hand is at work in Mordecai’s confidence that the Lord will deliver them from destruction. His faith inspires Esther too to have confidence in the Lord. She asks that all of the Jews fast and pray with her for three days, after which she would boldly plead with the king for deliverance.
After fasting with the Jews for three days, Esther mustered up the courage to prepare a series of two banquets for the king and for Haman. As the king dined with her, she continued to gain favor in his eyes. When the second feast came to a close, the king asked her what it was that she wished for. It was at this point that Esther spoke up with courage, grit, and fiery strength against Haman’s wicked plot to kill her and her people. She used her position and influence to advocate for heer people who were defenseless and unable to advocate for themselves.
In his fury, the king ordered for Haman to be killed, and then sent out a decree allowing to Jews to fight back and to destroy anyone who might try to kill them. The Jews were saved.
A God Who Is Always There
Can you see the hand of God carefully weaving this story together? Throughout this book, God’s name is not mentioned once. The outlook is bleak; it seems as though God is absent and doesn’t care about the fate of his people. If we’re honest, we may feel this way when we look at our world or even our own lives. How can God possibly be at work?
But the story of Esther reminds us that even when we can’t see God and even when we can’t feel him, his eyes always see us and his hand never stops working. He was at work when Esther was brought into the palace, when she found favor in the king’s eyes, when Mordecai boldly commanded Esther to go before the king because he was confident that they would find deliverance, and when Esther courageously pleaded with the king on behalf of her people. When all seemed bleak and all hope seemed lost, God was weaving together a beautiful story. God was not absent. He was present and active in the pages of Esther. He is present and active in every day of your life. And he will continue to be present and active in our world until Jesus returns.
MEANING BEHIND HER NAME: Her Hebrew name, Hadassah, means “myrtle tree.” Symbolically, the myrtle tree is associated with peace, love, and prosperity, and she certainly lived up to that meaning. As the Queen of Persia, she was given the name “Esther”, meaning “star”.
AUTHOR: Tradition points to the author as being either Mordecai (Esther’s cousin), but some scholars believe it was Ezra or even Esther herself who recorded the events.
SETTING: Ancient Persia. At this time in history, the Persian Empire spanned the globe from India to Egypt.
DATE: Some scholars date the writing to between the time of the captivity of Judah (586 BC) and before the return of the exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem (circa 535 BC). Other scholars put the date of writing later, between 464 BC and 435 BC.
THEMES IN HER STORY:
God uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Esther was just an ordinary Jew by the name Hadassah. She could have surely died for going before the king. But she risked her life to save her people, and God blessed her bravery.
God has a plan and a purpose: God is not mentioned once in the book of Esther. It’s the only book of the Bible that doesn’t mention Him by name. But God was clearly at work to save His people from the king’s edict.