Esther, Part One: The Hand of Providence (Esther 1-3)

September 24, 2023, Glynwood Baptist Church, Prattville, Alabama. James Jackson, Pastor

I’m grateful for the teaching ministry of Skip Heitzig, at Calvary Church in Albuquerque. His sermon on Esther formed the backbone of this sermon.

Good morning. Please open your Bibles to the book of Esther.

As we’ve journeyed through the Old Testament together, we’ve met a lot of awesome, fierce, brave women. Throughout the history of the Jewish people, at crucial times in history, God raised up women to save God’s people. There were Shiphrah and Puah– the two Egyptian midwives who defied Pharaoh’s order to kill all the male babies. Jochebed, who put her infant son Moses in a basket and floated him down the Nile River. You can read about them in the first two chapters of Exodus.

There was Deborah the prophetess, the spiritual leader of Israel during the dark time of the Judges. There was Jael—the woman who drove a tent peg through Sisera’s head. They are both in Judges.

There’s Ruth—she gets her own book—who was not only a woman but a foreigner. Her example of faithfulness and loyalty caught the eye of a Jew from Bethlehem named Boaz, and she became the great grandmother of King David.

So it’s only fitting, on our last two weeks in the Old Testament, that we come to the story of Esther. The name Esther is related to the Persian word for star, stara, so you can remember that Esther is the star of Esther.

Now, you might say, no, she’s not. God is the star of this book. Well, of course God is the star of every book in Scripture. But interestingly, the name of God does not appear in this book even once.

And here are some other things that are not in the book of Esther:

  • there’s no reference to prayer,
  • no reference to faith,
  • no reference to the law of Moses
  • There are no overt miracles in Esther.

No New Testament writer ever quoted Esther.

It is the only book of the Old Testament that has not been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Because of all of this, Martin Luther once said he wished the book of Esther had  not come to us at all. He said, “there is no book less worthy of being in the canon than the book of Esther.”

But for me, this is one of the things I love about Esther. Because this book answers a fundamental question non Christians tend to have about the Bible: If the Bible is true and if God exists, how come we don’t see Him doing any miracles like He does in the Bible? How come nobody hears Him speak audibly like He does in the Bible. Is God still at work in the world?

If you have ever asked those questions, then Esther is the book for you. Because Esther is the one book of the Bible where God doesn’t act like He does in the Bible.

Charles Spurgeon compared the book of Esther to portraits in an art museum. There are some faces you don’t recognize, and you have to read the plaque underneath the picture to figure out who it is. Others are so recognizable you don’t need a plaque with the subjects name on it.

It’s the story of a Jewish girl, living in Persia, who becomes the Queen of Persia and ultimately saves the Jewish people from genocide.

Esther divides up into three sections. I’m going to go ahead and give you the three outline points to fill in so you aren’t stressing about it for the rest of the sermon. Chapters 1 and 2, the first section is God’s providence. This is where God moves behind the scenes to set things up.

Chapter 3 through 5, we’re going to call it satan’s plot. We meet an enemy of the Jews named Haman, and we hear about his plan to wipe out the Jews.

And the last part of the book, chapter 6 through 10, God’s protection. God turns the tables, and uses Esther to deliver His people.

Now let me give you a little disclaimer. Today’s teaching is going to be pretty heavy on world history. There’s a reason for that that hopefully will make sense as we get into it, but you may feel like you’re back in a world history class. So let’s pray, and we’ll jump in [prayer]

God’s Providence:

The Book of Esther teaches us the doctrine of God’s providence. We don’t use that term a whole lot these days, so let’s start by explaining what Providence is. Here’s how the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) defined Providence:

The almighty, everywhere-present power of God, whereby, …  by his hand, He still upholds heaven and earth with all creatures, and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed all things come not by chance but by His fatherly hand.[1]

God’s providence is different than God’s miracles—where you see the laws of nature temporarily suspended. In providence, God takes the natural and uses it supernaturally. He takes the affairs of normal everyday human life, decisions that people make, laws that politicians pass, accidents that seem to happen, and He works through all those things for his ultimate purpose.

Providence is the supernatural God working through natural processes..

It can be confusing to follow where Esther fits in the biblical storyline, so let me throw some dates at you. All of this is on the back of your listening guide, so you can follow along. We know the Babylonians began deporting the Judeans from Jerusalem to Babylon in 605. That was during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar. This is the period covered by the books of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel.

Then, in 539 BC, the Persian king Cyrus the great conquered Babylon, and the Medo-Persian Empire became the most powerful in the world. On the map, anything in orange is the Persian Empire at its height.

A year into his reign, Cyrus issues a proclamation that the Jews could return to Jerusalem, and about 50,000 Jews returned to Judah.

Cyrus died in 530, and his son Darius took the throne and reigned until 486 BC. then he dies, Xerxes reigns from 486-465.

Xerxes is the Greek name for the Persian king Ahaseurus.  And just because it’s easier to say, I’m going to refer to him as Xerxes for the rest of this teaching, unless I’m reading directly from the Bible. 

So this is where the book of Esther opens. Chronologically, Esther fits between Ezra and Nehemiah. There are still over a million Jews scattered throughout the Persian Empire.

Before we get into the Scripture, I need to tell you about one more thing that is happening on the world stage that is going to help us make sense of what is happening in Esther.

In the west, Greece was becoming a major player. Between 499 and 450, there were a series of battles between the Greeks and the Persians that came to be known as the Greco-Persian War. In 490, King Darius attacked the city state of Athens, and pretty much got his tail kicked. This was the Battle of Marathon. Legend has it that a runner named Pheidippides ran all the way from Marathon to Athens, a distance of 26.2 miles, to deliver the news of the victory. And then he died. So anyone who tells you they do marathons so they can stay healthy, well…

Ten years later, in 480 BC, Xerxes tries again. He invades Greece with an army of 120,000 to 300,000 soldiers. A force of 300 Spartans, led by Leonidas, held them off for three days at pass of Thermopylae. The Persians won, but they took heavy losses, and Xerxes realized that Greece was getting stronger and stronger.

Now, none of this is in the Bible. But since we are talking about God’s Providence, it’s important to put the events of Esther in the context of world history. Because remember, God moves supernaturally through the natural world.. 

Let’s look at the first few verses together:

Now in the days of Ahasuerus, the Ahasuerus who reigned from India to Ethiopia over 127 provinces, in those days when King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne in Susa, the citadel, 

in the third year of his reign he gave a feast for all his officials and servants. The army of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces were before him, while he showed the riches of his royal glory and the splendor and pomp of his greatness for many days, 180 days. 

Why would Xerxes hold a six-month party? Remember our timeline. In three years, Xerxes is going to invade Greece. So he is trying to shore up support.

Apparently it worked, because after the six months of wining and dining all these world provincial governors, Xerxes threw a week long party just for the people of Susa. And by day seven, the king was just sloshed. Verse 10 says he was “merry with wine.” And he commands his servants to bring out Queen Vashti, “wearing her royal crown.” There are some scholars who take this to mean he wanted her to come out wearing only her royal crown.

And Vashti says no. “You think I’m gonna parade myself in front of all your drunk friends? You got another thing coming.” Now, fun fact, history tells us Vashti was not Persian. She was Babylonian. The Jewish commentary known as the Mishna says that she was the great granddaughter of King Nebuchadnezzar, who was overthrown by Xerxes  grandfather Cyrus. So I’m thinking there wasn’t a whole lot of love between these two to begin with, and this request put her over the edge. 

Now, Xerxes isn’t used to being told no. And so he goes to his officials, and he’s like, what do I do? The Queen disobeyed me.

And according to verses 18-22, his officials are like “Well, if our wives find out the Queen got away with saying no to the king, then they might start saying no to us, and we can’t have that. So you gotta kick her to the curb and get yourself a new queen. And while you’re at it, we think you need to issue a decree that every man is to be master of his own household, and their wives better obey them. So he does. End of chapter 1.

Can I just pause and say a word to all the husbands here? If you need a royal proclamation to remind your wife that you are in charge… you’re not in charge.

Well, the next morning, Xerx sobers up a little, and he’s like, “Now what am I gonna do? How am I going to find a new Queen. And once again, his advisors are there with a plan. And all the while, God is there in the background, supernaturally acting through natural events. Let’s get back to the story.

After these things, when the anger of King Ahasuerus had abated, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what had been decreed against her. Then the king’s young men who attended him said, “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king. 

And Xerx is like, “Ok—I like where you’re going with this, keep talking…

And let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in Susa the citadel, under custody of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women. Let their cosmetics be given them. And let the young woman who pleases the king[a] be queen instead of Vashti.” This pleased the king [of course it did!], and he did so.

Now look at verse 5:

Now there was a Jew in Susa the citadel whose name was Mordecai, the son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, a Benjaminite, 

This is the first time anything about the Jews is mentioned in Esther. Mordecai is a Jew. Not only is he a Jew, but there’s a strong chance that he was of the same family line as King Saul. Saul was also a Benjaminite, whose father was named Kish. The Talmud says he was, that Mordecai was a great great something Nephew. So just put a pin in that for a few minutes.

Mordecai was living in the citadel of Susa, and he was raising his younger cousin Esther (Hadassah in Hebrews) as his daughter. And according to verse 7, she was beautiful—lovely in face and figure.

And one day King Xerxes officials go through the city doing a casting call for the Bachelor:

So when the king’s order and his edict were proclaimed, and when many young women were gathered in Susa the citadel in custody of Hegai, Esther also was taken into the king’s palace and put in custody of Hegai, who had charge of the women.

Now Esther didn’t sign up for this. She was almost certainly forced to be part of Xerxes’ harem. I want to make something absolutely crystal clear. The story of Esther is not a love story. There have been a lot of Hollywood movies that have made this some kind of fairy tale, Hallmark movie. This isn’t The Bachelor. It isn’t The Miss Persia pageant. It’s human trafficking. If Esther wins the beauty contest, she becomes the next trophy queen, unless she stands up for herself like Vashti did. If she loses, then she spends the rest of her life as a concubine in Xerxes’ harem.

This is not a good situation. But go back to our definition of Providence: God working supernaturally through the natural world. This means He is working through world history. He is working through human affairs. Romans 8:28 says that he is causing ALL things to work together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to his purpose.

The women of Xerxes harem were placed under the care of one of Xerx’s eunuchs. And for some “unknown reason” Esther wins his favor, and verse 9 says he moved her up to the prime spot in the harem. I’m not sure what that means, but apparently it gave her an edge over all the other women in the harem, because after a year of beauty treatments, it’s Esther’s turn to go to the palace. And when Xerxes sees her, he’s like, “Ok. Contest’s over. I’ve found the one.” Verse 17 says,

17 the king loved Esther more than all the women, and she won grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins, so that he set the royal crown[b] on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. 

By the way, circle that word “grace.” There are only six times that word shows up in the entire Old Testament, and this is one of them.

Realize that Esther did not do anything to earn the king’s favor. Verse 13 says that when it was a girl’s turn to go to the king, she could take anything she wanted to give to the king to try to make a good impression. But according to verse 15, it doesn’t look like Esther brought anything to the throne except herself.

And if you don’t see God in that, then you probably have never really understood salvation.

Don’t misunderstand me—Xerxes is a bad dude. And yet in this part of the story, Xerxes is a picture of our good God [talk about unmerited favor]

Okay, moving on. We are about to see God’s providence kicking in. God is still in control. God is at work behind the scenes.

Chapter 2 closes with a picture of Mordecai, Esther’s adopted father, sitting in the city gate. This means he has some authority in the royal court. He has a position in the civil government.

So while he is there in the city gate, he hears of a coup to kill King Xerxes. He tells Esther, Esther tells Xerxes, Xerxes hangs the conspirators, and Mordecai gets his name recorded in the official court record.

And that seems to be the end of it. His name gets written down, but that’s it… at least for now. But have you ever heard the phrase, “big doors swing on small hinges?” Well, this little hinge is going to change history for the Jews. This little hinge is going to help the Jews escape genocide. How? Because of Providence. The supernatural God working through the natural world.

We will get to that part of the story next week, so come back!

Satan’s Plot

In Esther 3, we move from a focus on God’s providence to a focus on Satan’s plot.

Chapter 3:1 “After these things, King Ahasuerus promoted Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite.” Circle that word Agagite.

You may remember that back when we were in 1 Samuel, God commanded Saul, the first king of Israel was given a command to destroy the Amalekites. He tells Saul to devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”(15:3)

But instead, Saul brings some of the animals for himself, and he spares the king.

Guess what the king’s name was? Agag. And while Samuel does kill Agag, King Saul was not obedient to God in destroying the Amalekites. They continued to be a burr in the backside of the Israelites from that time on. 

Disobedience to God has far-reaching consequences. Now, over six hundred years later, it is an Agagite that poses an existential threat to God’s people.

Haman the Agagite is promoted to a high position in Xerk’s court. And the king had commanded everyone to bow whenever Haman passed by. But Mordecai the Jew refused to bow. Maybe he remembered the history, and he was thinking, if my ancestor Saul had wiped out your ancestors when God told him to, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Maybe he had just decided that he wouldn’t bow to anyone but God.

But his refusal to bow infuriates Haman. Haman decides its not enough to just kill Mordecai. He decides he wants to kill all the Jews. He  goes to Xerxes and says, “I will contribute 10,000 talents of silver to the royal treasury if you will issue a decree that every single Jew in Persia will be killed. Remember that was a million people. a complete genocide of the Jewish nation.

And according to verse 10, Xerxes immediately agrees. You ever wonder why? Well, for one thing, 10,000 talents of silver was about a third of the entire revenue of the Persian Empire. And Xerxes is coming off the Battle of Themopylae, he’s seen a preview of what the Greeks are capable of. So he’s thinking, 10,000 talents of silver could buy me a lot of soldiers.

Meanwhile, Haman is thinking, if I kill all the Jews, then I can take all their property for myself. I’ll pay Xerxes what I promised and still be a rich man.

So from a human standpoint, Xerx and Haman are planning a genocide that is going to benefit both of them. Haman hates the Jews, Xerxes is scared of the Greeks, it’s a win win.

But listen, just as God is working behind the scenes, you need to realize that so is Satan. Because Satan’s been trying to wipe out the Jews ever since Genesis 3:15, when God told Eve that one of her descendants would crush his head.

Satan’s thinking, “How to I avoid getting my head stomped?” By killing Eve’s descendants. You’re thinking, but wait—isn’t that the entire human race? And the answer is yes—Satan hates all of us and according to John 10:10, wants to destroy all of us. He almost did it through a great flood. But God preserved a remnant of the human race through Noah and his family.

Then, a few hundred years later, God narrowed it down to one family. Beginning in Genesis 13, he started telling Abraham that through his descendants, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. From that point on, Satan knew that if he didn’t want to get his head crushed, he had to get rid of Abraham’s descendants.

And for the rest of Biblical history, he tried. He tried in Egypt, when Pharaoh ordered all the Hebrew boys to be thrown into the Nile. Didn’t work. God worked behind the scenes, with two Egyptian midwives, to make sure that wouldn’t happen.

He tried with four hundred years of evil kings of Israel and Judah, when it looked like the people were going to completely turn away from God. Didn’t work. God always kept a son of David on the throne of Judah.

He tried again by having Israel scattered by the Assyrians. By having Judah exiled by the Babylonians. And now, Haman’s plot is just the next plan to keep the one who would defeat Satan from ever being born.

You know what this is like? It’s like all the sequels to the Terminator. Every single sequel has been all about how to keep John Connor from being born!

This is the Terminator.

And it never works! Why? Because of Providence.

Next week we are going to see how God used Esther to deliver the Jews. But not only that, you are going to see how God used all of these events to set up the events of the New Testament.

I want to close by reminding you of our definition of God’s Providence. Remember, God’s providence is his supernatural activity through natural processes. And sometimes we think that because we don’t see miracles that God isn’t at work.

I want you to spend some time thinking about the major events of your life—how have you seen God at work through those circumstances?

[1] Piper, John. Providence. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2020, p. 33.



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