Fact #1: The Book of Esther presented problems for the Protestant Reformers, and even the Jewish rabbis at one time. And for the same reasons for both groups!
Neither God nor prayer is mentioned at all in the book, at least not specifically. The book's very existence presented problems to Martin Luther (to name just one), at least for a while. He complained: "It hath too much of Judaism, and a great deal of heathenish naughtiness." [Luther's Works, Vol 3]. The book is written in a way unlike any other Bible text. There's a strong strain of patriotism and Jewish nationalism. It also has a distinct element of humor. That's not humorous levity, however. It's still Word of God and it deals with serious topics as it depicts events that occurred in Persia about 475 years before Christ. But since biblical times it has been regarded as canonical by the rabbis. And, according to Maimonides (Judaism's most famous scholar), second only to the Torah in importance.
Fact #2: Esther's husband was likely the same king who fought the Greeks at Marathon, from which we get the marathon foot-race.
This would've been during the reign of Xerxes the Great, (a.k.a "Ahashuerus" in the KJV translation). Xerxes ruled an enormous empire of 127 provinces "from India to Ethiopia" as Esther 1:1 says. He was intent on humbling the Greeks, but was defeated on the plains of Marathon by a combined force of Greek city-states in 490 BC. According to legend, the messenger Pheidippides ran the approximate 25 miles to announce the defeat of the Persians to the Athenians. Then he dropped dead from exhaustion.
Fact #3: Either Xerxes or his father Darius is the same king that Nehemiah received permission from to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
This was likely due to how impressed they were by the amazing acts of the Hebrew God that the Persians heard about during the events of the Babylonian Exile, even as far back as the humbling of Nebuchadnezzar and his conversion to faith in the God he thought his god had conquered at Jerusalem.. The Jews in Xerxes' time were slaves and exiles in Persia, "hold-overs" from their former slavery to the previous empire of Babylon, and its king, Nebuchadnezzar.
Fact #4: Though God is not mentioned in "Esther", it's evident that Esther's uncle Mordecai had faith in Him, and that Esther herself prayed to Him.
Why? Because of these two statements: the first by Mordecai, the second by Esther:
"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?" [Esth. 4:14]
Here it's evident that Mordecai had complete faith that God would deliver the Jews from certain genocide, either with Esther's help, or without her help.
"Go, gather all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me; neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will fast likewise. And so I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish!" [Esth. 4:16]
Here it's evident that Esther and her maidens also prayed. The Bible prescribes fasting for two purposes, and they almost always go together: a) as a sign of deep grief and mourning, and b) as an aid to effective, importunate prayer: the kind of prayer reserved for extraordinary circumstances. When you are "importuning" God, when you are pleading with Him to intervene in a situation that's critical, you fast. The point? Both God and prayer are present in this book that mentions neither one specifically.
Fact #5: The Haman-Mordecai animosity began with a blood feud 500 years before either one was born!
The Book of Esther makes a point of emphasizing the forebears of both Haman and Mordecai. Mordecai was a descendant of King Saul's father Kish. [I Sam. 9:1] [Esth. 2:5]. Haman was a descendant of Agag, King of the Amalekites. [Esth. 3:1]. 500 years before in Israel, King Saul was told by God to exterminate the race of Amalek for their great wickedness. This he refused to do. So 500 years later, Haman attempted to do this very same thing with the Jews! The national moral to the story? Obey God in history, or "history" will catch up with you.
Fact #6: Christ was not the only King ever titled "King of Kings"; Xerxes also was, and his example helps us understand the authority invested in this title!
Shah Mohammed Reza Palevi, the last shah of Iran (modern Persia) ruled right before the rise of the ayatollahs. Palevi's title was "Shah n Shah" ("King of Kings"). It's difficult for people in a democratic society of elected officials to understand lordship and kingship in the ancient world. And even with modern royalty, most Americans have only known of figurehead monarchs such as Queen Elizabeth or Prince Phillip in Europe. Their power is mainly symbolic. But in the ancient world the emperors of Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome had enormous power, even over life and death. In the case of "King of Kings" Xerxes and his father Darius, they owned their subjects. And subject peoples were their slaves. People did not have rights given to them by what we'd call today "natural law". What they had were privileges conferred on them by an absolute monarch who could just as easily take them away. The monarch was practically worshiped as a god upon earth, and was shown the utmost deference and respect. So when the Bible calls Christ "King of Kings", the early Christians knew what that meant, and knew it much better than Christians do today in America.
Fact #7: The Book of Esther shows how God brought revival to his people, conversion to the Gentiles, and inclusion of both peoples into the same Covenant of Israel!
In short, He saved his people through an impending disaster that forced them to look to Him as their only Savior. Through a series of improbable events of divine Providence, He not only saved them, but made them victorious. This so frightened the Persians that many of them called on the name of this God for the first time in their lives. Though Esther 8:17 says that the Persians "became Jews", what the text is really emphasizing is not merely a change of cultural identity, but a change from false gods to the true God..This event heralds the New Testament event of Gentile inclusion into the root of God's Israel, a designation not of race or ethnicity, but of faith. [Rom. 2: 26-29]
"And many of the people of the land became Jews; for the fear of the Jews fell upon them." [Esth. 8:17]
Fact #8: Haman's death, which originally was planned for Mordecai, was by "hanging upon gallows" [Esth. 5:14, Esth. 7:10], but the execution wasn't by rope or strangulation. It was by impalement on a stake.
That's right, Gentle Reader. Not "Western" style, but "Vlad the Impailer" style is the kind of hanging in view here. The Persians were cruel, and the Romans equally so. Neither people practiced the kind of execution we're familiar with in the West. Death by dropping from a platform or even being strung up with a rope noose and asphyxiated is quick and comparatively merciful. But the pagans of antiquity preferred their lowest criminals to die by slow torture. That's what Haman had in mind for Mordecai. Both Persians and Romans also used more merciful methods but impalement upon a stake was reserved for the worst criminals. When the Bible speaks of Christ "hung upon a tree", what's in view here is piercing and slow death on a cross-tee. If Haman had succeeded in executing Mordecai and all the Jews of the known world [Esth. 3:13-15], he would've wiped out the family line of Jesus, and prevented the only "impalement" that could've saved humanity.
The Story Behind Purim
Purim, ALSO known as the Feast of Esther, was on Sunday the 12th. That might not mean a lot to most people. After all, Purim's only celebrated by Jews. But it should mean something to church people because it derives from the Book of Esther. Purim's not a major Biblical holiday, like Passover or Pentecost or the Feast of Trumpets. Purim, like Hanukkah for example, is not mentioned in the Law of Moses as requiring anyone to keep it. Nonetheless it, like Hanukkah, was a national holiday for Israel at the time of Christ. And the Book of Esther chronicles the amazing events that surround it. Here's what happened:
King Xerxes of Persia decides to have a national celebration for the length of six months with all his satraps and princes and governors in attendance. At the end of six months, he then commences a week-long feast of both food and drink. "And ... ", (as chapter 1 verse 10 says...) " ... on the seventh day, when the heart of the King was merry with wine:"... he orders his seven "chamberlains" [the word in the original means the kind of men ideally suited to guard a harem] to fetch his wife Vashti and bring her out so he can show her off to all his drunken princes. And she refuses to come out. So now the emperor of the world has a serious public image problem. He counsels with his wise men, and they tell him that for the sake of the order of the realm he must dismiss Vashi and choose a new queen lest every woman in Persia learns to disobey their husbands. So he has what amounts to a beauty contest and chooses a woman from among the Jewish exiles named Esther. And she wins the contest and becomes the new queen; though he does not know her nationality.
Now the plot thickens: Some time after she's made queen, her uncle Mordecai discovers a plot against the kings life, and he reports it. His good deed is written down in the palace log: in the Book of Records. But Mordecai goes unrewarded and then the event's forgotten and he returns to obscurity until ... he angers a man named Haman.
The King had a Prime Minister named Haman, second only to Xerxes in power. Haman was passing by one day in a procession on the street and people were bowing down to him. Mordecai was there but he did not bow down. Haman noticed that and he became enraged. Finding out that Mordecai was a Jew and a worshiper of the God of Israel, he decides that for this offense Mordecai must die, and everyone like him (all the Jews). So he casts "puru" (a Persian word meaning "lots" or "lottery") to decide the day when all the Jews shall die throughout the entire Persian Empire, which covered most of the known world at that time. Haman then goes to convince the Xerxes to do this, and brings a financial gift to sweeten the appeal. The King then makes an irrevocable and permanent law for the death of all Jews, according to the Laws of the Medes and the Persians [Esth. 1:19, 8:8, Dan. 6:12] This is when Mordecai goes to Esther to tell her to appear before the King and appeal to him, that the Jews' lives be spared.
This, however, is not easy to do: to appear before this King without first being called is a capital offense. Theirs is not what we'd call a "normal" marriage today. Wife or no wife, Esther's husband is called "King of Kings". He's the absolute master of every soul in his realm and has the authority of a god upon earth. And the penalty for approaching him without permission was death, unless he extended to you his golden scepter. But after fasting, Esther approaches Xerxes: "And the king said to her, 'What do you wish, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given to you, up to half the kingdom!' " [Esth. 5:3]
Her request is simple: she wants to have a private banquet between herself, the King, and Haman, where she's planning to tell the King everything. Haman, when he hears this, is overjoyed to be so honored. But as he leaves the palace, he happens to see Mordecai again, who again does not bow down to him. Haman's so enraged at this that he decides to have Mordecai killed before the date set for the rest of the Jews. So he waits that night in the King's outer court, that the King might invite him in to talk.
The plot thickens even more! On that same night, the King cannot sleep. So in order to help him sleep, he has his Book of Records read to him of all the meritorious deeds done in his realm until he discovers that Esther's uncle Mordecai had uncovered a plot against his life, but went unrewarded. The King is distressed at that, and determines to honor Mordecai at the very time Haman is in the outer court, waiting to speak to him about executing Mordecai. So the first thing Xerxes says to him before he can even make his request is: "What shall be done for the man for whom the King desires to honor?" Haman assumes it's himself who's to be honored, and he lays out a whole litany of honors and ends it by saying that such a man should be seated on the King's own horse and led through the capital city by a trusted minister who is to shout aloud: "This shall be done for the man for whom the King desires to honor!" Xerxes approves, tells him it's Mordecai, and appoints Haman to do the job of "town crier". (One wonders if he then asked: "Oh ...and by the way, Haman, what did you want to talk to me about?")
When the date for the banquet arrives and Haman is seated with the King and Queen, Esther reveals everything. And the King is so enraged that he leaves the room for a moment. And Haman, in his absence, throws himself at the Queen, on her couch, begging for mercy. The King returns to find his prime minister pursuing his wife on her own couch with pleas of mercy. Only that's not what it looks like to him: "When the king returned from the palace garden to the place of the banquet of wine, Haman had fallen across the couch where Esther was. Then the king said, 'Will he also assault the queen while I am in the house?' As the word left the king's mouth, they covered Haman's face." [Esth. 8:7]
As a result, Haman is executed on the same gallows he had built for Mordecai. And Mordecai is made prime minister. And the King, who cannot rescind his own law, issues a countervailing order to all the Jews, the covenant people in every land that Persia rules to do a preemptive strike against the forces of Haman; to kill the executors before the genocide is due to begin. And what you have is something like a short civil war throughout the Empire. 300 of Haman's men are killed in Shushan the capital, and 75,000 of his men slain throughout the Empire. "And many of the people of the land became Jews; for the fear of the Jews fell upon them." [Esth. 8:17]