The story of Esther reads like a movie plot, with a beautiful queen risking her life to prevent genocide. What lessons can we learn from the book of Esther?
Did you know that Esther is mentioned more times in the Bible than any other woman? Did you know that the book bearing her name in the Old Testament does not mention God even once? What lessons can we learn today from studying the book about this very remarkable woman?
Background of Esther
The story of Esther takes place in the Persian Empire during the reign of Ahasuerus, known more familiarly to us by the Greek form of his name, Xerxes I. He was the son of Darius the Great and reigned from 486-465 B.C. He ruled over a vast empire that extended from India to Ethiopia (Esther 1:1).
Esther was a descendant of the tribe of Benjamin, which had been part of the kingdom of Judah. Her ancestors were among the Jews who had been carried captive to Babylon nearly 100 years earlier. There were many Jews who didn’t return to Jerusalem when it became possible, preferring to continue living where they had settled around the Persian Empire.
After the death of Esther’s parents, she was raised by Mordecai, an older cousin (Esther 2:7), who served in the Persian ruler’s palace.
The popularity of the story of Esther is great. Consider this description in The Five Megilloth, a Jewish commentary published by the Soncino Press: “Esther is, among the generality of Jews, the best known of all the Books of the Bible” (p. 193).
There are many reasons for this popularity. The book of Esther tells a compelling story, dramatic and exciting, with clearly defined heroes and villains. It also reveals deep and abiding spiritual truths about God’s power to deliver us from danger and oppression, even when despotic rulers plan to do evil to God’s people.
Though God’s name or a direct reference to the divine does not appear in the entire story, nonetheless, God’s presence and deliverance of His people is clearly felt and implied throughout this story.
Meaning of the name Hadassah
Esther’s Hebrew name was Hadassah, which means myrtle. Esther 2:7 is the only mention of this name in the Bible, though the myrtle tree is mentioned a number of times.
Meaning of the name Esther
“Esther is a Persian name meaning ‘Star.’ Like the name of her cousin Mordecai, the name Esther was related to that of a local deity, the goddess Ishtar. Jewish people in antiquity customarily had two names when they lived in regions distant from Israel. One would be their secular name, a name understandable in their adopted culture, and the other would be their sacred name given in Hebrew” (NKJV Study Bible, note on Esther 2:7).
Who wrote the book of Esther?
The author of the book of Esther is not given, though some attribute the work to Mordecai.
“The text itself fails to indicate either the author or the date of composition. The Jewish authorities record the tradition (as old as Josephus and repeated by Ibn Ezra) that Mordecai was the author of the book . . .
“Whoever the author may have been, he shows such intimate knowledge of Persian customs and of the fifth-century historical situation that he may well have lived in Persia and been an eyewitness of the events recorded” (Gleason L. Archer Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 1974, pp. 417, 419).
Summary of the book of Esther
Chapter 1 sets the scene in the Persian court. The king was offended when his wife Vashti refused to appear before him when he ordered her to do so. There was a great feast taking place at the time, and they were all merry with wine (Esther 1:10-11).
When the queen didn’t appear, the king, egged on by his advisers, removed her as his queen. They then advised him to seek out a new queen by searching for the most beautiful virgins in the land. Then the king would select one to become his queen.
Chapter 2 introduces one of the women taken for this competition, a beautiful Jewish girl named Hadassah. Her name was changed to Esther when she was brought to the king’s court.
Esther received favor from everyone who saw her, especially the king (verses 15-17). The king selected Esther to be his new queen, but Mordecai counseled her to not reveal the fact that she was a Jew, because Jews were still held in some suspicion throughout the Persian Empire.
Shortly after she became queen, a seemingly unrelated incident is recorded in Esther 2:21-23. Two men plotted to kill the king, but Mordecai became aware of the plot and had Esther reveal it to the king. The two men were hanged, and the incident was recorded in the king’s personal history. This incident turns out to have a great deal to do with the rest of the story.
Chapter 3 introduces us to Haman, the villain in the story, who became second in command in the empire.
Haman was an arrogant man, and he demanded that everyone bow down to him. Everyone did, except Mordecai (verse 2). This so incensed Haman that he succeeded in getting the king to issue an edict that all the Jews in the land should be destroyed (verses 8-15).
“For such a time as this?”
In chapter 4 Mordecai implored Esther to intervene on behalf of her people or they would all be killed. Esther reminded Mordecai that anyone who came before the king without being called, even the queen, would be subject to death. The only exception to this would be if the king extended mercy by holding out the golden scepter (verses 10-12).
“For if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”Mordecai then uttered the most famous line from the book when he said, “For if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (4:14, emphasis added throughout).
Esther then agreed to risk her life for her people. She asked Mordecai to have her people fast for her success, and she put her life on the line by going to the king for help (verses 15-16).
Chapter 5 tells us that the king not only held out the golden scepter to save her life, he also said that he would grant anything she asked of him, even to half the kingdom (verses 2-3). She invited the king and Haman to a banquet that day.
At that banquet, she told the king that she would inform him of her desire at another banquet the next day, and she again asked that Haman should be invited to hear her request (verses 7-8).
Haman and Mordecai
Chapter 6 brings back to our attention the incident of the conspiracy to kill the king in chapter 2. The king was unable to sleep that night and asked for his history to be read to him. It seems he just “happened” to hear the part about the plot to take his life and how Mordecai had saved his life. He asked what had been done to reward Mordecai. His servants replied that nothing had been done.
Who should be outside waiting to see the king that morning but evil Haman, who was plotting to kill Mordecai! So when the king called Haman to come in, the two men had totally opposite plans in mind.
The king asked Haman what should be done to someone the king wanted to honor. Of course, in his pride, Haman thought the king was talking about him. So he said that such a person should be treated like royalty and honored by a high official announcing, “Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor!” (verse 9).
Imagine Haman’s surprise when the king assigned him to honor his archenemy Mordecai (verse 10-12)!
Chapter 7 recounts the events of the second banquet that Esther had requested, where she would make known what she wanted from the king. She revealed the plot to destroy her and her people, then dramatically named the mastermind: “This wicked Haman!” (verse 6).
The king was so shocked and incensed by this turn of events that he had to leave the room to calm down. But when he returned, he saw “Haman had fallen across the couch where Esther was,” pleading with her to spare his life (verses 7-8).
The king accused Haman of trying to assault his wife, the queen, and he ordered Haman to be hanged on the very gallows that Haman had built to kill Mordecai (verse 10).
Feast of Purim
Chapters 8 through 10 recount the rejoicing of the Jews for their deliverance and the celebration that was set on the 14th day of the month Adar to commemorate this great event. It has been celebrated by the Jews ever since as a great day of deliverance and is known as the Feast of Purim.
Purim derives its name from the word pur, meaning lot, as in the casting of lots. Haman had cast lots to find the best day to destroy the Jews (3:7).
Lessons from the book of Esther
The book of Esther may not have God’s name stated directly, but His involvement is felt in many ways throughout the story, especially when Esther implored the people to seek help through fasting (4:15-16). Students of the Bible know that fasting was done to draw closer to God and was accompanied by heartfelt prayers (Daniel 9:3; Acts 14:23).
Esther is clearly a story of God’s intervention and deliverance. Even in pagan Persia, even when His people were facing genocide, God is in control. Like in the book of Ruth, God’s hand is visible throughout, even when His name is not.
Many other lessons can be learn from the character and growth of the heroine of the story.
Characteristics of Esther in the Bible
“‘Of all the biblical heroines,’ one scholar has observed, ‘Esther has enjoyed greatest popularity among writers, artists, and musicians, representing feminine modesty, courage and self-sacrifice’” (A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible, 1993, p. 222).
Esther’s beauty and pleasing personality won over the king, and not only that, “Esther obtained favor in the sight of all who saw her” (Esther 2:15).
Through the crisis threatening her people, Esther overcame her fear and devised a plan of action. “Esther showed herself capable of strategizing, executing, analyzing, and modifying a course of action, persevering in its fulfillment” (ibid., p. 225).
Esther is an inspiring story about a remarkable woman who was willing to risk her life to save her people. She was a woman of principle who was willing to put the lives of others ahead of even her own life. She was an outstanding example of serving others even under the most stressful circumstances. Jesus Christ said, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13).
Most of the time our lives may be pretty routine, but all of us have a few defining moments when we may be called on to put godly principle above personal benefit.
What will you do when you encounter those defining moments in your life? What will you do when you face “such a time as this”? Will you choose to do the right thing as opposed to what might give you some personal benefit?
Esther shows all of us the way, and we can be inspired by her example.
For a quick link to all the other books of the Bible, see “Books of the Bible” on the Learning Center.