Esther and the Gospel

Over this summer I have been teaching my way through the book of Esther as a part of a summer school that my church has been running. I’ve also been blogging my way through the subjects we touched on during that series. I wanted to finish my seminar series with a look at the question, “Is the Gospel to be found in Esther”?

At first glance, the answer might be no. Not only is God not mentioned in the book, but given the distinct lack of mercy to be found in Esther, we might despair of finding Jesus in there at all. Even the great Martin Luther apparently felt that there was a distinct lack of gospel to be found in the book of Esther. However, armed with the confidence we get from Luke 24:44-47 that Jesus, the mission of God and the gospel of forgiveness are to be found throughout the Old Testament, I want to briefly summarise various ways in which I, and others, have detected echoes of the gospel story in the book of Esther.

There is in fact no need to immediately resort to allegorical interpretations of the book. At a very basic level, the book of Esther is testimony to the unthwartable purposes of God. Satan has on many occasions attempted to destroy God’s salvation plan by killing off the Jews, and Jesus himself. Satan was behind Haman’s plot to annihilate the Jews in Esther’s time, just as much as he was behind Herod’s plan to destroy the baby boys in Bethlehem. But God is always one step ahead of Satan, and just as Haman’s plan to impale Mordecai on a giant spike backfired horribly, so Satan’s attempt to destroy Jesus at the cross turned out to be a comprehensive defeat. As Jared Wilson tweeted this earlier this week:

Seeing the cross in Esther 7:10. Blows me away. The gallows Satan meant for our defeat is his own defeat.

Some of the echoes of the gospel various people have detected require a somewhat vivid imagination, particularly when the unpleasant king Xerxes gets to represent God. For example, Dave Bish argues that we can see Christ and the church in the way that Esther 1 depicts a powerful, generous and wealthy king longing to gaze upon the beauty of his bride.

Others pick up on Esther 5:1, where Esther has to enter the presence of the king. She first puts on her “royal robes” before entering, and finds that her life is spared and the king is open to her request. This parallels the “robe of righteousness” that the believer has been given, enabling her to walk into the presence of God and be accepted, with no fear of death, and boldly present requests to him.

Sinclair Ferguson’s quote often cited by Tim Keller describes Jesus as “the true and better Esther who didn’t just risk leaving an earthly palace but lost the ultimate and heavenly one, who didn’t just risk his life, but gave his life to save his people.” Jesus didn’t just say “if I perish, I perish”, but “when I perish, I perish for them”.

Let me add a few more ideas of my own (although I am sure they are not unique to me).

One thing that stood out for me is the fact that Esther is doubly chosen. She is chosen for adoption and chosen for royalty. These truth sum up our glorious change of status by virtue of our being chosen by God. We are now his dearly loved children, and we are also a royal priesthood, destined to reign with him (2 Tim 2:12).

Another echo of the gospel story is the way that Haman’s death marked a decisive victory without being the end of the story. The entire Jewish community needed to get involved in the fight against the remainder of their enemies. In some ways this reflects the way that the cross was a decisive and climactic victory against Satan, but now the church, God’s people, must see out the victory as we wage war in the spiritual battle that will be consummated at the return of Christ.

And finally, I think that Mordecai’s counter-edict is a picture of the gospel. Haman’s law which threatened the Jews with death could not be revoked, but Mordecai’s law was more powerful and provided an escape. God’s law that “the soul who sins shall die” (Ez 18:20), restated by Paul as “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23), has effectively sentenced all of humanity to destruction. And God is not going to revoke that law, which is perfectly good and just. Instead, he issues the counter-edict of the gospel. This edict states that “everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life” (John 6:40). By bearing the penalty of our sin in his own body, Jesus took the full force of the first edict upon himself, in order that we may benefit from the provision of forgiveness and deliverance in the counter-edict.

Esther and Complementarity

We’re more or less at the end of the book of Esther now. It closes with a postscript that describes how both Esther and Mordecai worked together to write letters and create legislation (e.g. Esth 9:29). Esther has of course grown up from being a girl to a woman during the course of the story. Her relationship to Mordecai is no longer primarily as a submissive daughter, but she now works side by side with him as an equal. It’s hard to deduce exactly which of the two had the most clout in terms of authority – Esther was “royalty”, but it was Mordecai who had the signet ring, and so he probably gave the rubber stamp to new laws. Nevertheless, we don’t see them competing with each other but working as a team.

Now it would be rather dodgy hermeneutics to attempt to extrapolate from this story some kind of Biblical principle for women in church leadership. For one thing, Esther’s role was not ecclesiastical but civil. But we do see here an example of how the genders can work together harmoniously, rather than being at odds with each other.

I believe that Scripture teaches both equality and complementarity. This should not surprise us, since “complementarians” and “egalitarians” are eager to affirm both. The differences between the two camps lie in exactly where the emphasis should be placed. Both concepts can sometimes be pushed to mean more than they ought to.


To start with, the Bible clearly teaches “equality” between men and women. But to say two people are “equal” is meaningless unless you define in which way they are equal. Common sense tells us that people are not equal in every conceivable way – we have different heights and weights, different skin colours, different aptitudes. Men and women even have some different body parts. Women get to bear and nurse children, while men get to, um, pee standing up.

Equality also should not be made to mean that everything must be a perfect “50-50” split. Some feminists have criticised Jesus for picking 12 male disciples. Shouldn’t he have picked at least 6 women if he believed in “equality”? A husband and wife whose idea of equality dictated that they each do no more than exactly 50% of the housework would probably end up fighting all the time because they would always think that other’s contribution was less than half. This approach to equality is actually self-centred, since it is all about me getting “my fair share”.

So how are men and women equal? We are equal in worth and dignity. We are equally bearers of God’s image (Gen 1:27). We are equal in our capacity to be loved and used by God. There is also equality in how we are to be saved (Gal 3:28) and our capacity to be Spirit-filled (Joel 2:29) and recipients of his power. There is no excuse for feelings of superiority then, over the opposite gender.


Complementarity can be misunderstood too. It doesn’t mean that there is a list of strengths that characterise all women which correspond exactly to a list of weaknesses that characterise all men. Women are a diverse group and men are a diverse group. You can make generalisations (e.g. “men like buying gadgets, women like buying clothes”), but they are only generally true. Those who don’t fit the stereotype are not necessarily any less feminine or masculine as a result.

We should also note that just because women complement men, doesn’t mean that harmony is automatic. In fact, the opposite can be true. People with different personalities, strengths, and perspectives can often clash horribly.

So it is not enough to merely say that men and women complement each other. We must actively seek to promote harmony within that diversity. It means male leaders being willing to empower and include women in the life and ministry of the church, recognising that they can contribute something that is lacking in an exclusively male dominated environment. (The reverse is also true, given that in many churches, the women outnumber the men).

An example of this might be the benefit it brings to a small group or youth group to have a mixture of male and female leaders. Not only might they bring different styles of leading or giftings to the group, but one-on-one discipleship or counselling is more effective and appropriate in same-sex pairings (this may be one reason behind Jesus’ choosing 12 male disciples). Aquila and Priscila seem to be a good example of a husband-wife team who worked so effectively together that they are always mentioned as a pair.

A right understanding of the Biblical principles of equality and complementarity should eliminate jealousy and competitiveness between the genders, as we learn to appreciate the unique and valuable contributions that those who are not like us can offer.

Esther and Mercy

We have already looked at the way that Esther didn’t speak up in Haman’s defence despite his pleading with her for his life (Esth 7:7). At least some form of justice was served, even if he was executed on a false charge. But we have a second example of lack of mercy in Esth 9:13, where Esther asks for a second day of slaughter. Clearly she is determined that the task be completely finished, understanding this as a holy war (hence the refusal to take plunder, despite the edict allowing it).

Spiritual Warfare – No Mercy

The New Testament makes it clear that there is to be no more physical fighting against people, but there is a spiritual war to be fought, which is just as real. Holy war is in effect spiritualised.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Eph 6:12

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. 2 Cor 10:3-5

As with holy war, in this spiritual battle, there is to be no mercy. No truce can be made in the battle against sin. The Puritan John Owen recognised this when he said, “be killing sin or it will be killing you”. We have an enemy who is out to destroy us, and therefore to adopt a pacifist stance is tantamount to suicide.

Show Mercy

However, when we consider the New Testament picture on how we are to treat our human enemies, a very different picture emerges. We are called to love our enemies, not destroy them (Luke 6:27-28). And in particular, mercy is held out as a virtue that should characterise the followers of Jesus.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy (Matt 5:7)

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:36)

One question that emerges is whether there is ever a time that mercy should be withheld? Do we always have to let people off the hook, or is there a time for justice to run its course? In 2 Pet 3:9, we are told that God will reach a time where he will execute judgment, but he prefers to show mercy, which explains why there is a delay in the return of Christ. He would prefer people to receive his grace and forgiveness than his wrath and judgment.

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. 2 Pet 3:9

Esther and Remembering

Naturally the great deliverance of the Jews from Haman’s wicked plot was the cause of much celebration and feasting (Esth 9:17-18). But Mordecai and Esther were determined that the story should not be forgotten, so they instituted an annual holiday to commemorate it – the festival of Purim (Esth 9:20-21).

Although Christians do not celebrate Purim, we do have our own annual celebrations of Christmas and Easter, where we remember different parts of the story of the great deliverance we have experienced through the incarnation, sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus. And we have the communion meal, specifically instituted by Jesus himself as a “remembrance” of him (Luke 22:19).

I want to briefly consider a few elements of the way the Jews observed Purim and how they relate to our own times of “remembering”.

First, Purim involved giving. In some ways, Purim is similar to our Christmas, as it was a winter holiday in which they they gave gifts to one another (Esth 9:22). Note however that giving to the poor was explicitly part of it. Sadly Christmas has become a holiday all about giving to those who will give presents back to us.

Second, they told the story. In Esth 9:24-25 we have what some have called a creedal statement, summing up the essence of the story of Esther. We tend to do this well at Christmas, with our nativity plays and carol services rehearsing much of the Biblical account. However, I am not sure we are always so good at this when it comes to communion and Easter. Often we skip past telling the story of the cross and resurrection in favour of teaching the theology of the cross and resurrection. Of course, theology is vitally important, but it is worth considering why each of the four gospel writers devote almost half their books to simply recounting the events of the final days of Jesus earthly life.

Third, it was a celebration. Sometimes our way of remembering can be overly sombre and introspective, such as when we observe a minute of silence held to commemorate the dead. And indeed the Jews did have times of fasting (Esth 9:31), but the overall feel of Purim was a one of joy since their mourning had been turned to joy (Esth 9:22). It is important that when we celebrate the Lord’s supper, it is a genuinely joyful occasion, even if there is an appropriate solemnity to it as we consider the gravity of what Christ endured on our behalf. Like the early church, we should eat with “glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46).

Fourth, it was a community affair – everyone gathered together and celebrated as a community. Though we do have this emphasis on family at Christmas, often the way we do communion is very individualistic, simply due to the logistics of being sat in rows. Maybe we would do well to celebrate communion more often in our homes at meal-times, gathered with small groups of believers, in order that we may remember together.

Esther and Revival

There is a remarkable statement in Esth 8:17 which says that “many people of other nationalities became Jews”. What does that mean? Did they really convert to Judaism, worshiping the Lord and being circumcised? Or is it that they just claimed to be Jews, or were supportive of the Jews, or respectful towards them? A clue to the fact that these conversions may be less than genuine is that we are told that they were motivated by fear.

But why side with the Jews now? In ancient times, it was taken for granted that the gods of a subjugated nation were considered weak and powerless. But all of a sudden, Mordecai the Jew has become Prime Minister and Esther the Queen is also revealed to be a Jew. Suddenly, Yahweh, the God of Israel was recognised to be a powerful God. It is reminiscent of the incident in 1 Kings 18:38-39 where Elijah confronts the prophets of Baal, and as the fire falls on Elijah’s sacrifice, the people cry out “the LORD, he is God, the LORD, he is God”.

Several ingredients common to many revivals are to be found in the Esther story:

  • It starts with a desperate situation. Things reach rock bottom for God’s people.
  • As a result, God’s people start fasting and praying. A recognition that we need God to break in.
  • God raises up an unlikely hero. Often the people God uses in revivals are very ordinary, otherwise unremarkable people, who were simply surrendered to do his will and hungry for him to act.
  • God shows up in power. In the Esther story it is by God sovereignly reversing the fortunes of Haman and Mordecai so they effectively trade places, resulting in the deliverance from annihilation of the Jewish people.
  • People are converted. It is of course uncertain as to how many genuine converts there were in Esther’s time, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to me to assume that there were some. And surely it resulted in many backslidden Jews returning to God wholeheartedly.
  • Society is transformed. Even those who are not converted are often impacted by revival, as Biblical values and practices start to shape community life. We are told that Mordecai continued to use his influence for good (Esth 10:3).

I believe we are living in an time where once again we need to cry out to God for revival. May he stir our hearts to seek his face more and more in these days, that his glory would be seen and his name exalted among the nations (Ps 96:3-5).

Esther and Holy War

Esth 8:11 is one of the most troubling verses in the book of Esther for many Christian readers. Not only does Mordecai’s counter-edict effectively authorize a civil war, but its provisions seem unnecessarily barbaric. Although many English translations smooth things over somewhat, many commentators agree that the edict permits the Jews to kill the women and children of their enemies as well as plundering their property. Have Esther and Mordecai become corrupted by power? Have they sunk to the level of their enemies?

There are a few considerations that help us understand why the edict was framed in this particular way.

First, it was a mirror edict. The laws of Persians were irrevocable – to repeal a law would be tantamount to admitting that the king had made a mistake, which was unthinkable (much like modern-day politicians are derided if they make “u-turns”). Therefore, to counteract Haman’s edict, Mordecai’s edict had to be at least as strong, if not stronger. In other words, everything you can do, we can do too. To compare and contrast the edicts look at Esth 3:13 and Esth 8:11, and you will see that the provisions of the counter-edict are equal and opposite to the provisions of the original edict.

Second, because of its strength, the edict served as a deterrent. Anyone thinking that he might be able to target a wealthy and vulnerable Jewish family and take their home from them would now think twice, since his own family and home would come under threat as a result.

Third, it is important to note that the retribution is permitted against attackers only. In other words, Mordecai’s edict didn’t allow the wholesale slaughter of Haman’s people (the Agagites), but only against those who acted on Haman’s edict and attempted to annihilate the Jews.

But fourth, and most significantly, there seems to be a good chance that Esther and Mordecai see this as an occasion to wage holy war. The very concept of holy war is of course not easy for us to stomach. I will first explain why I think it applies here.

When we are first introduced to Haman, we are told that he is an Agagite (Esth 3:1). To most modern Bible readers, this seems like an irrelevant detail, but it is crucial to understanding the story. By identifying Haman as an Agagite, the author of Esther points his readers to the events of 1 Samuel 15.

In 1 Samuel 15, Israel’s first king, Saul, is commanded by God to wage holy war against the Amalekites and destroy them completely, taking no plunder (1 Sam 15:3). Saul does attack and defeat the Amalekites, but spares the best of the cattle and their king, Agag (1 Sam 15:9). The prophet Samuel famously tells Saul that “to obey is better than sacrifice” and that God will remove the kingdom from Saul as a result of his disobedience (1 Sam 15:22-23).

In fact, the hostility between Israel and the Amalekites stretches even further back. They were the first nation to attack the Israelites, while they were still wandering in the desert. In Ex 17:16 we are told that “the LORD will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation” and in Deut 25:19 specific instructions are given to the generation that would enter the land that they should wipe out the Amalekites:

When the LORD your God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land he is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deut 25:19)

In other words, Saul had missed the opportunity to end a long-running conflict between the two nations and now in Esther’s day it had come back to haunt them. That is why she was so determined to finish the job properly this time.

As distasteful as we may find the concept of holy war, the Old Testament does present it as one of God’s means of bringing judgment on the nations. It certainly was not a reward for Israel being righteous as Deut 9:4-6 makes plain.

For us living in the new covenant, the coming of Jesus has changed everything. We now no longer live in an age where holy war is to be practised or tolerated. Karen Jobes sums up this transition in her commentary on Esther:

The death of Jesus Christ, the Messiah of Israel, provides the only basis for the cessation of holy war, and the infilling of the Holy Spirit provides the only power by which one may love one’s enemies as oneself.

We’ll return to holy war in a couple of blog posts time when we consider the distinct lack of mercy found in the story of Esther

Esther and Finishing

Chapter 7 ends with Haman being impaled on the pole he set up for Mordecai (Esth 7:10). If this was a movie, we might expect the credits to start rolling – the arch-villain has been defeated and now things are surely going to be OK. But there is still work to do. Haman’s edict of destruction is still in force, and the laws of the Persians cannot be revoked (Esth 8:8).

Now at this point in the story, Esther and Mordecai were probably personally safe. As queen and prime minister, they were unlikely to be slaughtered. But their people were still in danger and the job remained unfinished. Esther required great courage to make a second daring request to the king. That she recognised that she could not presume on his favour is clear from the very careful and respectful way she makes her second approach (Esth 8:5).

In the Belbin model of teams, one of the roles identified is called the “completer-finisher”. The completer finisher has an eye for detail and for seeing things right through to their completion. Clearly this type of person is a great asset to any team.

However, we cannot assume that completing and finishing things is the domain of a few specialists. God himself is a “completer-finisher” – when he starts a good work, he sees it through to the end (Phil 1:6). Paul considered his life worth nothing if he didn’t “finish the race” and “complete the task” he had been given. And of course the ultimate example is Jesus, whose food was to “finish the work” the Father had given him (John 4:34), and kept going right until he could say “it is finished” (John 19:30).

Admittedly, not everything we start is worth finishing. There is no point stubbornly persisting down a dead-end. But if God has given us a task to do, we need to stick at it until it is finished. This calls for faith, patience, courage, and endurance. Esther didn’t sit back on her initial success, she pressed on until the job was completed. She even went so far as to make a third request to the king (Esth 9:13) to ensure that the threat of annihilation was completely extinguished. She was a “completer-finisher”.

Esther and Justice

Most action movies climax at the moment where the villain gets his comeuppance, usually by being killed in a particularly gruesome way. But no one is overly bothered by this, since it is understood as justice being meted out.

The story of Esther reaches a similarly satisfying climax, as Haman ends up being impaled on the gigantic spike on which he had planned to skewer Mordecai (Esth 7:10 TNIV). But despite the poetic justice, there is something that doesn’t sit quite right – the charge for which Haman is executed is a false one. Of all the heinous crimes he was guilty of, molesting Esther was not one of them.

Does this, and should this bother us? Most commentators point out that this was a false charge of some convenience to king Xerxes, since he could punish Haman without admitting to his own complicity in the plot to annihilate the Jews.

Yet a fair trial is foundational to justice. For this reason, Christians reject any form of vigilantism, revenge-taking or kangaroo courts. It is interesting that in Old Testament law, which is often thought of as primitive, places a very high premium on multiple eye-witnesses (Num 35:30). It was considered better for a crime to go unpunished than for a miscarriage of justice to take place.

The good news is that the “Judge of all the Earth” (Gen 8:15) always executes just judgments. He is eye-witness not only to every deed, but to every thought and even the motives of the heart. There are no miscarriages of justice with him and we can have confidence, that his final verdict will be the right one.

After this I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting: "Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments. He has condemned the great prostitute who corrupted the earth by her adulteries. He has avenged on her the blood of his servants." Rev 19:1,2 NIV

Esther and Shrewdness

Whilst we have admitted that we don’t know exactly why Esther chose to delay her request until the moment she did, we can certainly say that it was a wise thing to do. She comes across in several places as a shrewd young woman, knowing not just when but how to act. Here she seems to have cunningly got Xerxes in just the right mood and frame of mind to be amenable to her request. Even the way she puts the request to him in Esth 7:3-4 shows how careful she was not to arouse the wrath of the king. Another example of her shrewdness is when she chooses to take Hegai’s advice in Esth 2:15, trusting a man to know what kind of clothes the king would find appealing.

But while “wisdom” is undoubtedly a virtue for Christians to pursue, can the same thing be said of “shrewdness”? One dictionary defines shrewdness as “showing clever resourcefulness in practical matters; artful, tricky or cunning; streetwise”.

In one of his strangest parables, Jesus tells the story of a dishonest manager who nevertheless is commended for his behaviour and used as a positive example:

"The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. (Luke 16:8,9)

It raises the question of when shrewdness crosses the line into dishonesty or deviousness. In Matt 10:16, Jesus plainly tells his disciples that they will need to be shrewd – there are people out to get them. Yet he clearly believes that this does necessarily involve moral compromise – you can be shrewd and innocent:

I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Matt 10:16

I think that the need for shrewdness is especially necessary when living in a culture that is hostile to Christian belief. How can we maintain a Christian lifestyle and witness without unnecessarily getting ourselves into trouble? This is where shrewdness comes into play. It is this kind of “clever resourcefulness” that enables us to fulfil our God-given mission and calling, while staying under the radar of those out to stop us.

Esther and Pride

“Pride comes before a fall” (Prov 16:8), and you won’t find many better illustrations of that than Haman’s humiliation in Esther 6. He went from thinking he was about to be treated like a king, to having to treat his most despised enemy like one.

We tend to assume that pride is all about thinking you are the greatest. A proud person has an overly inflated opinion of themselves. But pride is not only manifest in delusions of grandeur. Pride also lies behind idle daydreams where we imagine ourselves performing heroics or receiving plaudits.

Most of us know we will never be celebrities or sporting heroes or political leaders or billionaire business owners, but it doesn’t stop us dreaming. Our fantasies reveal a deep-seated longing to be first. Haman’s description of how he wanted to be honoured (Esth 6:7-9) revealed his own fantasy of being the king, dressed in royal robes, and being exalted in front of everyone.

Even at our most godly moments, as we minister in church, we can succumb to a similar type of pride. We are so often approval addicts, longing to have our egos stroked by people telling us that what we have done is brilliant. And if they don’t then we resort to fishing for compliments.

There is of course, nothing wrong with desiring to bless people with our gifts. And neither is it wrong to be pleased when we receive positive feedback. But beware the insidious nature of pride. It catches us out when we are most sure we are free from it. It has the potential to undermine even the most noble of deeds, as our initial motivation of love turns into selfish ambition. As Paul points out in 1 Cor 13:4-5, love is not proud, nor is it self-seeking. The loving person dreams not about how he can be honoured, but how he can bless others.

Not to us, O LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory, (Ps 115:1)