A Matter of Life and Death
As noted in a previous article, the book of Esther is built upon the theme of life and death. Lives are threatened (the king’s life by the doorkeepers, Mordecai’s life by Haman, and the lives of the Jews by Haman), lives are lost (the doorkeepers, Haman, Haman’s sons, and the enemies of the Jews), and lives are saved (Ahasuerus is saved by Mordecai and Esther, while Mordecai, Esther, and the Jews are saved by Ahasuerus with the aid of the queen and her cousin). The irony is that, in each situation in which someone’s life is sought, the plotters end up losing theirs instead.
The 180 degrees turn echoes the great controversy between good and evil, in which Satan’s plan to destroy humanity will be thwarted and the plotter will be defeated and annihilated. Divine providence is no stranger to the events in this book, just as it is no stranger to the entire history of humanity. The works of God, even when hidden from our eyes, are visible in their effects.
It wasn’t merely a historical accident that Esther ended up at the Persian court, or that Mordecai saved the king’s life, or that the king listened to Mordecai’s saving actions before a fateful day. Yet divine providence plays its role within human history, a history also shaped by human agents.
That Esther and Mordecai are significant in the Jewish and Christian history through their influential decisions and actions is no question. A little more reflection on each character may help orient us towards similar choices in our own circumstances.
Esther – The Queen of Courage
Also noted in previous articles, Esther is the only woman who speaks in the book, and this occurs only when her voice becomes critical. Known mostly for her queenly status, Esther’s upbringing was marked by the loss of both parents–events that certainly would have left a mark on her–and by life in exile, in a foreign country, under the dominion of Medo-Persian kings.
These aspects would have made her an unlikely candidate for the throne, had she allowed her circumstances to dictate her attitude towards life, self, and others. Yet she appears to have overcome her situation and eventually found her purpose not only despite the circumstances but in the circumstances surrounding her.
Evidently, Mordecai, her cousin, had a great positive influence on her. From taking her into custody to raising her in fear of the Lord, to instructing her on key aspects of her life at the court (such as to not reveal her Jewish origin), Mordecai’s presence in her life was crucial to Esther fulfilling her calling.
It may be strange to some to hear me refer to her intervention as a “calling.” After all, God never condoned polygamy (and therefore the king’s custom of keeping a harem was not in line with the divine ideal), and he would not endorse the way Esther’s marriage occurred. Yet, God works out the best in the circumstance that we create.
By continuously breaking the covenant with God, Israel had brought the exile upon itself, and this meant that hundreds of thousands of lives were affected, some with irreversible effects. Esther’s life was one such affected life, and yet God worked out through her journey in providential ways so that He could accomplish His goals through her. In this sense, she had a calling, one which she chose to accept and honor even at the risk of death.
It is interesting that, in the biblical narrative bearing her name, Esther gains voice only as her mission becomes clear. It is not much different for some of us today. Coming from a variety of unfavorable life circumstances, our stance becomes firm and our voice strong when our vision becomes clear.
A little math and some historical facts can help put Esther’s role in biblical history into better perspective. In 536 BC Cyrus conquered Babylon, founding the Persian Empire over which he ruled until succeeded by his son Cambyses II in 529 BC. Cambyses II was succeeded by Bardyia, another son of Cyrus, who ruled from 522 BC until 521 BC when Darius I took over the throne. During Darius’s long rule (until 486 BC), the empire reached its height both in power and in territory. Cyrus and Darius were both favorable to the Jews, authorizing their repatriation and assisting with the process of rebuilding Jerusalem.
At the age of 35, Xerxes I (Darius’s son, credited with being the biblical king Ahasuerus), took over the empire at its peak and ruled until 465 BC, when his son Artaxerxes I acceded to the throne. In 457 BC, Artaxerxes issued the third and last decree allowing the return of the Jews, and the biblical text offers a hint of a woman’s possible influence over this decision in Nehemiah 2:6, which mentions the queen’s presence during the conversation between Artaxerxes and his cupbearer Nehemiah regarding his return to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls:
Then the king said to me (the queen also sitting beside him), ‘How long will your journey be? And when will you return?’ So it pleased the king to send me; and I set him a time.
It is not clear whether the queen is the king’s wife or the mother queen, but if she was the mother queen, she would have been Esther. Assuming Esther was eighteen or so when she became queen (in Ahasuerus’s seventh year as king, roughly 478 BC when he was about 42), she would have been around 40 years old in 457 BC when the decree was given.
Few of us may know that the Medo-Persian Empire was so extensive and powerful that it made it into the Guinness World Records as the most powerful ancient empire!
By share of population, the largest empire was the Achaemenid Empire, better known as the Persian Empire, which accounted for approximately 49.4 million of the world’s 112.4 million people in around 480 BC – an astonishing 44%. Originating in modern-day Iran, the empire … included parts of Central Asia, the Mediterranean, North Africa, and even European territories such as ancient Thrace and Macedonia.
Imagine today’s world split in two and imagine becoming the queen of an empire comprising almost half of the world’s population! Imagine also having to go before the king of such a powerful empire in order to petition him for your life and lives of your people, knowing that your life depends on a simple gesture on his part!
To say that Esther displayed courage is an understatement. But her courage was more than personality, character, and upbringing. Esther could go before the most powerful man on earth because she first went before the King of the universe. She knew that her life ultimately belonged to God and was ready to put all her faith in him no matter the outcome.
It may also be worth noting that, if Haman was the same as Memucan, as some sources suggest, then a situational irony becomes evident: the prime-minister who suggested Vashti’s dethronement died at the speech of the queen that replaced Vashti. We could even say that the dishonor Vashti, the voiceless queen, experienced, was avenged by the next queen whose courageous declaration brought about the death of Haman.
Having read through the book of Esther and paused to reflect on some details in the text, we are left with an important question to ask ourselves: what are we willing to risk for the cause of God? As we begin to recognize the work of providence in our lives, how willing are we to accept our calling? How ready are we to let God use us in our own circumstances for the furthering of His mission?
When things look dim, or the routine doesn’t leave much room for hope or for a change of situation, can we trust God fully and allow His hand to guide history in whatever way He deems best for the advancement of His kingdom?
Mordecai – The Man of Humility
Mordecai’s role in the book of Esther is somewhat shadowed by the queen’s, but his part in Jewish history is certainly not small. His story is reminiscent of Joseph’s life in Egypt and Daniel’s in Babylon. Once persecuted for his faith, Mordecai raised to the status of prime-minister by being persistent in his values, putting his trust in God, and using his wisdom to establish the proper course of action in delicate circumstances.
His description is even more extensive than the queen’s. Three times Mordecai is presented as an honored man by the Persian power: first in chapter six when Haman paraded him through the city on a royal horse, dressed in a royal robe, then in chapter eight, when, after drafting and signing the letters allowing the Jews to defend themselves,
Mordecai went out from the presence of the king in royal apparel of blue and white, with a great crown of gold and a garment of fine linen and purple; and the city of Shushan rejoiced and was glad. (Esther 8:15),
and lastly in chapter ten, where the book’s conclusive words make reference to Mordecai’s influence:
Now all the acts of his power and his might, and the account of the greatness of Mordecai, to which the king advanced him, are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia? For Mordecai the Jew was second to King Ahasuerus, and was great among the Jews and well received by the multitude of his brethren, seeking the good of his people and speaking peace to all his countrymen. (Esther 10:2-3).
Mordecai took under his wings his younger cousin, demonstrating generosity and a spirit of sacrifice. He knew the proper time for silence and the proper time to speak up. He put God first, honored his Creator above any human, and, when brought in a position of power, did not abuse it, but used it for the benefit of others and not for self-aggrandizement.
There is much to learn from his person as we consider how, in our own current circumstances, we can display some of the characteristics that have made him a trustworthy relative, an honorable and cherished prime-minister, and most importantly, a devoted follower of God whose priorities were firmly grounded in his knowledge of the true God, to the profit of many.
 2 Chronicles 36:22 – 23 and Ezra 6:15
 Esther 6:5-11