What is in Esther?
Esther is the 17th book of the Bible, which describes a plot against the Jews living in the early 5th century B.C., and their deliverance from it.

King Ahasuerus (also known as King Xerxes) was a lavish king of Persia in this time. When his queen disobeys a direct order from the king to come out before him and his court (the reason for the refusal is never given), she is banished from the court and the king sent out notices in order to search for another women to be queen. In Esther 2, we are introduced to Mordecai and Esther. Mordecai was a Jew who was caring for his orphaned cousin Esther. Esther is brought forth before the king and becomes queen because of her beauty. Through this, Mordecai instructs her to keep her Jewish ancestry a secret.

King Ahasuerus gets a new servant, Haman. All the other servants bow to Haman as the king ordered, but Mordecai, who had been able to protect the king from angry servants earlier, does not bow because he was a Jew. Haman gets angry, but doesn’t want to singlehandedly punish Mordecai. Instead, Haman starts scheming to destroy ALL the Jews in the land. Haman comes before the king saying that ‘a certain people’ will not keep the King’s laws. The King accepts Haman’s request to destroy them, and decrees it into law that on a specific day, all the Jews should be destroyed. This notice is circulated around the kingdom, causing panic. Mordecai learns of this and starts to pray and mourn, explaining to Esther the decree. Mordecai displays his faithfulness to God by saying two things. First, if Esther should not play a role in stopping the decree, the Jews will be saved in another way. Secondly, Esther may have gotten this close to the King precisely BECAUSE she was to play a role in stopping it. Esther promises to go before the king, even though going to the king without being summoned would mean risking her life, as that was the law. In the meantime, she instructs the other Jews to fast for three days.

At the end of the fasting period, it so happened that the king specifically summoned Esther after all. The king asks Esther what she requests, even if that request is half of the kingdom. Esther plans a feast and invites both the king and Haman to it. After the feast, the king again asks Esther for her wish, and she plans another feast the next day. By this time, Haman is in a great mood, and suspects nothing, while planning to kill Mordecai on the gallows.

The king recalls what Mordecai did to save him earlier, and realizes he was never honored because of it. While not mentioning Mordecai’s name, the king asks Haman what should be done to honor him. In an interesting reversal, Haman himself is forced to decorate Mordecai and parade him throughout the city, secretly mourning when he returns home. His servants and his wife Zeresh predicts that Haman will continue to fall under Mordecai and the Jewish people.

In chapter 7, the time finally comes for Esther to reveal to the king what Haman’s decree was. At another feast, Esther points the finger at Haman, while revealing that she herself is a Jew, one who will be killed under the decree. The king becomes furious and Haman is hanged on the gallows Haman himself built for Mordecai. The decree cannot be taken back, however, so a new decree is written that allows and encourages the Jews to fight back. Mordecai is honored, and the Jews are relieved. Chapter 9 says that nobody could stand against the Jews, and they managed to defend themselves against all their enemies. Mordecai also initiates the holiday known as Purim to remember how the Jews were saved.

Who is in Esther?
Four people prominently feature in Esther. Mordecai cares for Esther, his orphaned cousin. They are both Jews who stayed in the foreign lands after the Jews first started to make their way back to Jerusalem after the exile. King Ahasuerus is king of Persia, and Haman is his wicked servant.

Who wrote it?
The book of Esther does not name an author, but some believe that Mordecai could have written it.

When does it take place?
Since we don’t know the author, we have to fall back on the reign of King Ahasuerus, which was from 486 to 464 B.C. The book likely took place within this timeframe.

Why was it written?
Esther represents a great victory for the Jews in a foreign land, one that had the signs of being orchestrated by God (more on that below). Even more specifically, the feast of Purim was organized to remember these events, so a written record would have been necessary.

How does Esther apply to me today?
Even in a foreign land, God’s people were protected. God’s people were brought to a place where they could counter the bad events happening to them. Mordecai illustrates faith in God to a point where he believes that he and Esther had roles to play in saving the Jews. In a similar manner (but maybe not with quite as much worldly significance as saving an entire people group), God appoints each person even today with a purpose in the world. For example, Ephesians 2:10 says that good works have been prepared for us—all of us—to fulfill.

Other notes:
Esther is a unique book in the sense that it doesn’t mention God directly, but God is nevertheless present, and that conclusion only becomes clearer the more acquainted one is with the OT. The Jews fast and mourn in a fashion consistent with the rest of the OT after being alerted to their plight, the coincidences like the one with Haman and Mordecai switching roles in chapter 6 remind one of the general change in fortune of the Jews when they were allowed to return to Jerusalem after their exile, and Mordecai’s reply to Esther in chapter 4 about salvation for the Jews very strongly presupposes belief in God.

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Recommended resources:

As for all posts in this series, a book introduction in a good study Bible will provide more information than listed here. The ESV Study Bible is one recommendation.
The Bible Project video on Esther

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Biblical illustrations by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Sweet Publishing, Ft. Worth, TX, and Gospel Light, Ventura, CA. Copyright 1984. Released under new license, CC-BY-SA 3.0