Esther and Providence

Most commentators agree that if Esther teaches any kind of theological “lesson” at all, it is the doctrine of providence. Providence is the term used to describe the way that God orchestrates the seemingly random events of life to fulfil his wider purposes.

The clearest example can be found in Esther 6:1-6. It is the turning point of the book, yet strangely enough, neither Esther nor Mordecai, the book’s “heroes”, do anything in this section. Maybe God is the hero after all in this book that never even mentions him.

At just the right time the king had a sleepless night. He happened to choose just the right thing to do – request that the chronicles be read to him. They happened to read from just the right place – the story of Mordecai. Despite trying to fall asleep, Xerxes happened to be paying attention at just the right moment. He happened to ask just the right question – had Mordecai been rewarded? Haman then happened to show up at just the right time – too late to realise that it was Mordecai who was in line for being honoured. And Xerxes’ question was phrased in just the right way for Haman to misinterpret it.

None of these things were “miracles” in the sense of being scientifically impossible. On their own, there was nothing surprising about them. But in combination, they were highly improbable. An incredible string of “coincidences” combined to reverse the respective fortunes of Haman and Mordecai.

What does this mean for our own lives? It means that we should be willing to look for God in the ordinary as well as the miraculous. Maybe your life has not been marked by dramatic interventions of God. But that does not mean that he is not working through the apparently ordinary. In fact, even in our disappointments (such as Mordecai being overlooked for reward, or Esther having to join the harem), God may be positioning us to be in just the right place at just the right time. Are we ready to believe that, like Esther, we have been placed in the circumstances we currently find ourselves in, not by chance, but by God, “for such a time as this?" (Esth 4:14)

Esther and Anger

When we think about people who have an “anger” problem, we often think of people who lose their temper in dramatic fashion, going red in the face and hurling abuse at people. But even those who outwardly seem never to lose control can still struggle with anger, seething with rage privately while fantasising about the downfall of whoever upset us.

In Esther 5:9 we see Haman in high spirits. Everything is going well for him at this point in the story. Yet when Mordecai insults him by refusing to bow down, his mood completely changes. Now he is furious, and can think of nothing but how to destroy Mordecai.

Haman is an example of how easy it is to let a perceived wrong rob us of our joy and consume us with anger. Rather than simply overlooking and forgiving an offense, we dwell on it, which quickly leads us to an ungodly desire for revenge. Without suggesting that anger itself is a sin, James warns us that anger very often leads to sin:

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. James 1:19-20

Anger often reveals a self-idolatry. We are very quick to become indignant when other people treat us badly, while we expect them to be understanding and patient if we cause offence to them.

When we are angry, it is very hard for us to look objectively at the situation and acknowledge that we have no right to be angry. Jonah’s brutally honest response to God is a case in point:

But God said to Jonah, "Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?" "I do," he said (Jonah 4:9)

Even more ironic though, is the juxtaposition of Jonah 4:1,2. We are told that Jonah is angry. Why is he angry? Because he knows that God is “slow to anger”. He’s angry that God’s not angry!

But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the LORD, "O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Jonah 4:1,2

Whether we are people who explode with anger or bottle it up, we need to recognise that being conformed more into the image of Christ means being people who are slow to anger. Be quick to overlook offences against you. Give others the benefit of the doubt. See things from their point of view. Forgive. Don’t let someone else’s mistake rob you of your joy.

Esther and Guidance

The turning point of the book of Esther happens between the two feasts she invites Xerxes and Haman to. But how did Esther know that two feasts, rather than one would be appropriate? She could never have predicted what would happen in between. Why did she feel it necessary to refrain from making her request at the first banquet?

As they were drinking wine, the king again asked Esther, "Now what is your petition? It will be given you. And what is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be granted." Esther replied, "My petition and my request is this: If the king regards me with favour and if it pleases the king to grant my petition and fulfil my request, let the king and Haman come tomorrow to the banquet I will prepare for them. Then I will answer the king’s question." (Esth 5:6-8 NIV)

I can think of three possibilities. First, she simply lost her nerve and used delaying tactics rather than coming out with the request. It would hardly be surprising as Xerxes was a volatile and unpredictable character. If this is the case, then we see an example of God’s providence at work, sovereignly orchestrating events according to his purpose. What appeared random was all part of the plan.

Second, maybe this is an example of great wisdom on the part of Esther. Maybe she discerned that the king was not yet in a place where he would be receptive to her request, and she needed to delay. Maybe Esther had been praying for wisdom, and this was the way in which God had answered her prayer.

Third, could it be that she was supernaturally led by the Spirit? Perhaps as she had been praying and fasting, God had spoken to her, indicating what she needed to do. This type of guidance is often criticised by non-charismatics since it is notoriously subjective. It certainly does need to be weighed and tested in the light of the Scriptures, but there is ample Biblical evidence that God is able to speak and guide through supernatural means such as visions, dreams and prophetic words.

We cannot know which of these was the case for Esther, but it is worth pointing out that God is able to guide us through our lives using a combination of these methods. Sometimes, the Spirit may prompt us directly to take a specific course of action, but in most instances, we simply have to make the wisest decision we can based on the information we have available to us and the principles of God Word. And at other times, in his grace, God works despite the decisions we make out of weakness, and uses them anyway for his glory.

Esther and Fasting

We have already discussed the curious fact that the book of Esther does not mention God, nor anything explicitly religious. However, we are told that Esther, Mordecai, and the other Jews all fasted (Esth 4:3,16). Since we can be fairly confident that they were not simply trying to lose weight, we can assume that this fasting was accompanied by prayer for God’s deliverance. (Fasting was also associated with mourning someone’s death, but surely the Jews had not yet given up hope of being saved at this point).

As far as I am aware, there are no general commands to fast in the Bible (although it appears the Jews did have certain fasts they observed – e.g. Zech 8:19; Acts 27:9). There is no specified amount of fasting that ought to be done, or special dates on which you ought to fast. However, there are many calls to fast, especially in the Old Testament. These usually happen at times of national crisis, and as people fast together they express their desperation for God to act.

Fasting seems to be associated with devoting yourself to calling on God for a specific reason at a crucial time. John Piper interprets the meaning of fasting as expressing a deep hunger for God – as we fast we effectively say “I need you more than I need food”. He calls it a “homesickness for God”.

Jesus indicates that he anticipated that his followers would sometimes fast (Matt 6:16-18; 9:15), but does not specify when. I suspect that it is assumed that the pattern of leaders calling fasts would continue (e.g. Acts 13:2,3). Also, individuals or smaller groups will find on occasions that they feel the need to devote themselves to serious seeking after God in prayer at significant moments in their lives.

It is surely notable that in a book full of feasting, God’s people are found fasting at the point where humanly speaking, there seemed to be no hope. Whilst feasting is a great way to express our gratitude to God, fasting still has a place to express our utter dependence on him. If we find that we rarely or never fast, does that suggest a self-sufficiency on our part? Is it indicative of a lack of genuine hunger for God?

Esther and Fatalism

It is often suggested that a belief in the absolute sovereignty of God can lead to fatalism. If God has already decided what will happen, why pray? If God has already decided who will be saved, why evangelise?

In Esth 4:14, Mordecai says, “if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place”. What does he mean? He seems to have faith that God will somehow bring about salvation for the Jews, and that even if Esther does nothing, God’s plan would not be thwarted. But notice that he doesn’t conclude that Esther therefore need do nothing. In fact, he concludes the opposite, and goes as far as warning her that she is in more danger by refusing to act than she would be if she did (see Esth 4:13-14).

Then in Esth 4:15, Mordecai utters perhaps the most famous phrase in the book: “who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this”. Assuming that Esther had not wanted to be part of the harem, this was not necessarily a comforting thought. She was effectively being told that God was behind all her own plans for her life being dashed. Yet I wonder if the story of Joseph was in Mordecai’s mind. Joseph was able to see that despite the evil intentions of his brothers, God’s sovereignty had positioned him to be in exactly the right place at the right time (Gen 50:20).

Esther agrees that she needs to take action and in Esth 4:16 she says “if I perish, I perish”. Again this should not be interpreted as a fatalistic “whatever will be will be” attitude. She knows that the future is hidden and she has no personal guarantee of safety. Yet she recognises that the safest place to be is in the will of God.

The story is told that a young William Carey was once told “Young man, sit down: when God pleases to covert the heathen, He will do it without your aid or mine”. Thankfully he knew better than to follow this hyper-calvinist advice, viewing God’s sovereignty as a reason to act, not as a reason to relax and take it easy.

Part of the resolution of this dilemma is the recognition that God has not only ordained what he wants to accomplish, but the means by which he will accomplish it. He intends to include us, to answer our prayers, to use our best efforts despite our weaknesses and mistakes. Faith in a sovereign God should propel us to action, knowing that when we are on his mission we are guaranteed to be part of something that will succeed. Passivity and fatalism dishonours God. Esther and Mordecai, on the other hand, display the kind of faith that is willing to step out and take risks in order to see God’s purposes accomplished.

Esther and Courage

Sometimes it is disputed whether Esther or Mordecai should be seen as the “hero” of the book of Esther. They both get a roughly equal coverage. But for me, it is Esther who nudges ahead by having to do the most courageous thing in the book. She must risk her life by appearing uninvited before the king (Esth 4:11).

I guess if we’re honest, courage does not come naturally to most of us. We typically flee from danger, and avoid risky situations. Situations requiring courage fall into two broad categories. First, those from which we cannot escape, such as the person who has to go into hospital for an urgent operation. In such cases, what is needed is the peace that comes from knowing that God is with us (Ps 23:4).

But Esther had an opt-out. She could have buried her head in the sand. Haman had clearly not linked her to Mordecai. There was every chance she could escape with her life if she continued to keep her Jewish identity secret. The type of courage she needed was the courage to do the right thing and refuse to take the easy option.

Ultimately the secret to this type of courage is the fear of the Lord. This is brilliantly demonstrated by the example of two other courageous women, Shiphrah and Puah. They were the Hebrew midwives asked to terminate the lives of all baby boys. Pharaoh certainly had the power to execute them if they failed to comply. Yet they feared the Lord more than they feared Pharaoh (Ex 1:17).

We cannot fear the Lord if we fear man. Fearing what people will say about us or do to us can paralyse us into inaction. Desiring the approval of people will cause us to make moral compromises. True wisdom begins with fearing the Lord (Prov 9:10) – agreeing with him even if that puts us at odds with others. So the truly courageous person is not fearless, but one who fears God.

n.b. Courage is not portrayed in the Scriptures as an exclusively masculine characteristic. Peter picks Rachel as a role model for women in 1 Pet 3:6 precisely because of her courage. Esther too stands here as a shining example of a woman of faith – who had the courage to do what was right despite the personal danger it meant for her.

Esther and Mourning

When Mordecai hears the dreadful news of Haman’s plans, he immediately starts mourning (Esth 4:1). However, when Esther hears the news of Mordecai’s mourning, her response is strange. Though she doesn’t know why Mordecai is mourning, she attempts to stop him, telling him to cheer up, and sends him a gift of new clothes (Esth 4:4). Her somewhat immature approach to her grieving father seems to be “get over it”.

Are there times when we are insensitive to those who are grieving? Where we effectively tell them to cheer up and get over it? Maybe a Christianised form of this is to tell them to be “full of the joy of the Lord”, which is a fully biblical exhortation but can be delivered in a very shallow way. I by no means consider myself an expert in grief counselling, but here are a few brief reflections on how we can genuinely help those who are mourning.

1. Listen

Possibly the best thing we can do for those who are mourning is to listen with a sympathetic ear. Esther gets round to this in Esth 4:5, where she hears the reason for Mordecai’s sackcloth and ashes.

2. Weep with them

Rom 12:15 calls on us to “mourn with those who mourn”. We are not to remain emotionally detached from one another, but to care deeply. This does not mean that we can never be joyful while another is sad, nor do we let ourselves become crushed by the weight of other people’s sorrow, but we are called to a sincere love that cannot be indifferent to the suffering of others.

3. Pray

In Esth 4:16 we see that Esther joins in the fasting. She recognises the need for God’s intervention. Prayer not only expresses our love for those we pray for, but causes it to grow. It is as we bring our brothers and sisters before God in prayer that we start to see them from his perspective.

4. Help practically

In this case, Esther was in a position where she was actually able to do something practical of use. We are often not able to fix the problem ourselves, but I suspect that in most cases there is at least something we can do of practical benefit, such as cooking a meal. This is another way we express our love for those who are weeping.

5. Encourage

We have already noted the shallowness of simply telling someone to cheer up, but that does not mean we should not seek to comfort them or raise their spirits. In particular, we need to remind one another of the future hope we have in Christ. Paul advises that we encourage those mourning the loss of a loved one in this way (see 1 Thess 4:13,17-18).


Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. 2 Cor 1:3-4 (NIV)

Esther and Persecution

Whilst we can understand Haman’s anger at Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to him, nothing prepares us for the full extent of his malice. He is intent not only to destroy Mordecai, but all the Jews (Esth 3:6).

Of course, Haman couldn’t just go about ethnic cleansing without some kind of legal justification, so he portrays the Jews as being rebellious against the king, following their own laws (Esth 3:8). As with many false accusations, this one succeeds because it contains an element of truth – the Jews did indeed live by another law, but as we have already seen, it was unfair to characterise them as bad citizens. It is interesting to note that Haman’s strategy is to portray God’s people as those who “should not be tolerated” – a phrase we are starting to hear increasingly in our own day.

I’m sure we know that persecution is sadly as prevalent as ever. A couple of weeks ago our church received the shocking news of the murder of pastor Artur from Daghestan (please pray for his family and church). Countless other stories of modern day persecution could be told, ranging from the extreme of martyrdom to more small-scale intimidation and discrimination increasingly faced by believers even in supposedly “tolerant” countries.

Behind this persecution surely lies the devil, who wants to eradicate Christianity. His strategy is threefold: to “kill, steal and destroy” (John 10:10). Literally, in some countries Christians are killed for their faith, as the devil, like Haman, seeks to wipe out the people of God. He also attempts to steal the truth of the gospel from us, to make us powerless and ineffective, and defeat us from within. And he seeks to destroy the church’s witness by undermining its reputation, whether by slanderous accusations, or by tempting its leaders into sin.

The New Testament calls on us to expect and endure persecution (1 John 3:13; Heb 12:13). This does not mean we are not to pray for protection for ourselves or those in dangerous places, but it does mean that we need to be those living with an eternal perspective who can say, with Paul, “to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Phil 1:21).

More resources on persecution

Esther and Luck

Luck is not something Christians often talk about, except perhaps to briefly note that “we don’t believe in luck” (although by sheer luck providence, both Matt Hosier and Marcus Tutt blogged on it recently). Both in ancient and modern times people have ascribed the randomness of life, how some seem to be favoured while others suffer misfortunes, as being down to “luck”.

In Esth 3:7 we see Haman choosing the day for the annihilation of the Jews by casting lots (the “pur”), presumably in order to allow the gods to decide which would be his “lucky day”. As it turns out, God had chosen the day, and it was anything but lucky for Haman.

Luck and Cards

One question that quickly arises when we think about luck is, “should Christians play games that are largely based on chance”? Calvinists of previous generations opposed card-playing on the grounds that it caused us to move our trust from God onto “fortune” or “luck”. Others argued that it was a gateway drug to gambling. For example, here’s a quote from J C Ryle on card playing:

Concerning card-playing, my judgment is much the same. I ask Christian people to try it by its tendencies and consequences. Of course it would be nonsense to say there is positive wickedness in an innocent game of cards, for diversion, and not for money. I have known instances of old people of lethargic and infirm habit of body, unable to work or read, to whom cards in an evening were really useful, to keep them from drowsiness, and preserve their health. But it is vain to shut our eyes from facts. From simple card-playing to desperate gambling there is but a chain of steps. If parents teach young people that there is no harm in the first step, they must never be surprised if they go on to the last.

Of course, these days, as gospel-centred Christians we are falling over ourselves not to be legalistic, and so would never dream of making such pronouncements. Yet I think the result is that acceptability of gambling amongst Christians is on the increase. It is either dismissed as a harmless bit of fun, or defended as a game of skill (amazing how many people delude themselves into thinking they are skilled at predicting sporting results). However, the corrective to legalism is not to simply to declare that anything goes, but to seek to be led by the Spirit in these matters, and steer clear of things that are “sowing to the flesh” (Gal 6:8).

Luck and Envy

But I don’t think that gambling or games of chance are the biggest evidence of unbiblical thinking concerning luck. Maybe the biggest giveaway to our belief in “luck” comes when we envy others. “He’s so lucky”, we say. It is a refusal to accept the sovereignty of God to give to another what he has not given to us. It manifests itself in ungratefulness as well as jealousy. So someone else is blessed with more money, more gifts, more ministry opportunities, better looks, better health than you. Do we really believe that God knows what he is doing and is in control, or are we just “unlucky”? Can we really trust him, or do we feel the need to “make our own luck”?

Esther and Civil Disobedience

After observing what a good citizen Mordecai was in Esth 2:21-23, it comes as a surprise to us to see him flatly refuse to comply with the king’s law in Esth 3:1-4. In some ways it is perplexing as to why he chose to disobey this particular rule. Commentators have pointed out that he would likely have had to pay homage to other officials as part of his job, so it may not simply be that Mordecai viewed bowing down to someone as idolatrous. Others have suggested Haman’s identity as an Agagite (and one who was decidedly anti-Jewish) as the reason behind his refusal.

Recently, Chuck Colson caused some controversy by suggesting that a time was coming when Christians in America might need to engage in civil disobedience. It raises the the question of what laws are worth fighting against, and what we can endure patiently as a form of persecution.

Do we take a “no compromise” approach and refuse to adhere to every single law that we feel violates a Biblical principle? Or do we save civil disobedience only for the most extreme violations of our Christian conscience?

The issue comes to a head whenever a law commands us to do what is evil (e.g,. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refusing to bow to the king’s statue – Dan 3:12) or forbids us to do what is right (e.g. Daniel flouting the law by continuing to pray to Yahweh – Dan 6:13). For the apostles, obedience to God always trumped obedience to the state:

Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard." Acts 4:18-20 (NIV)

This is a matter that calls for great wisdom and courage, and Christians disagree over where exactly the lines should be drawn. Some will simply comply with unjust laws, and seek to find creative new ways of obeying God without breaking the law. Others will opt for the shrewdness of a passive-aggressive approach, failing to comply but without drawing unnecessary attention to themselves. And yet others will chose to take a public stand against the law and take whatever consequences that come their way.

It is not inconceivable that a time for civil disobedience may arise in our lifetimes in the UK. Thankfully, we still enjoy a good measure of religious freedom. But it is important that we settle our minds on the principle “we must obey God rather than men” in advance, if we are not to respond with compromise and cowardice at the crucial moment.

As usual, I welcome any feedback in the comments. At what point do you think civil disobedience becomes necessary?