The Timeless Jewish Context of the Book of Esther
Updated: Sep 14, 2021
By Kevin Vigus
Suffering is an important theme of our Bible. We have been looking at the significance of the Suffering Servant in Scripture - the One who suffers for the sin of the world.
The consequences of sin has caused much suffering for the Jewish people. Isaiah 63:9 is a sobering little verse that is worth reflecting on: “In all their affliction He was afflicted.” Wow!
I particularly want to focus on a book of the Bible that focuses on the Jewish suffering, and the key themes that emerge from it. But from the start, I want to ask you to stop for a moment and consider the significance of this truth: God devoted a whole book of the Bible to the suffering of the Jewish people in dispersion!
This should cause us to sit up and take note - we who believe the entire Bible is inspired and thus the carefully chosen revelation of God. God included a whole book of the Bible to give us understanding of the Jewish people in the diaspora.
Each year in February Esther becomes a focus of mine. At the end of February is the Jewish celebration of Purim, so I spend the month considering the text while I am arranging Purim songs for our Israeli band. By the time Purim arrives on the 14th of Adar (exactly 1 month before Passover….!), I have let God guide my thoughts for this celebration as I play Jewish songs that every Jewish kid is raised to know and sing.
So let’s have a look at the key themes in the Book of Esther… and allow the LORD to impress upon us why He devoted a whole book to Purim that will be celebrated “without fail” and its memory “should not perish.” (Esther 9:28).
1. Provide the historical background for the feast of Purim
This is so important! The basis for the Purim celebrations that continues to this day is revealed in God’s Word. Hence, the Jewish requirement over the 2 days of Purim is to hear the entire Book of Esther read through at least twice. So, like Passover, regardless of whether Jews identify as religious or secular, the enduring purpose of the Purim celebration is integrally and inherently biblical. It is a witness to the faithful and enduring Word of God.
This final feast on the Jewish calendar (Passover being the first) is a Biblical witness - faithfully celebrated by the Jewish people worldwide to this day.
That it is preserved in the Christian canon, not solely the Jewish canon, must impress upon us of what God wants to speak into our hearts regarding the Jewish people.
2. Emphasise the continuing, ongoing, religious significance of the Jewish people
This is such an important purpose in the modern Christian world where God’s ongoing purposes for Israel are strongly debated (and sadly also denied)!
Consider the challenge of this statement: The book of Esther provides the strongest canonical warrant in the whole Old Testament for the religious significance of the Jewish people in an ethnic sense. This comment by Brevard Childs goes further: “The inclusion of Esther within the Christian canon serves as a check against all attempts to spiritualize the concept of Israel--usually by misinterpreting Paul--and thus removing the ultimate scandal of biblical particularity.”
The preservation of the Book of Esther in Scripture is a clear witness that speaks directly to the issue of ethnic Israel. It makes no sense to try make this Jewish narrative anything other than the preservation of Israel in the time of their dispersion. And I would argue the fact that it is to be celebrated “without fail” (9:28) every year is a witness to their preservation. There is no mention of specific Jewish practices in the book (no mention of law or even prayer!) yet “Someone” anonymously preserves them (and not just preserves - actively curses those who curse them, cf. Gen 12:3!) and leaves a permanent record before the world: Purim!
Even when God is silent (God is not mentioned in the entire book) history is still His! And as a number of theologians have noted regarding the Book of Esther, God’s fingerprints are everywhere in the book, even though He remains anonymous.
Does this not also apply to modern history? While some see that “God’s fingerprints are everywhere,” others argue “coincidence” and that history is purely about individual response to the Gospel. To be sure, personal response to the Gospel is essential - but could it be that God is also pursuing global salvation through history? Did not World War 1 recognise the land of Israel for His chosen people (Witness: The Balfour Declaration and San Remo Conference)? Did not World War 2 recognise the chosen people for the land (Israel’s statehood in 1948)? Did not the greatest victory of all time (1967 Six Day War) reunite Jerusalem as Israel’s capital after 2,000 years?
Is not the return of Jewish people to their homeland that was particularly heightened in the 1990s particularly prophesied in the Scripture and recognised as such by the world (a unique phenomenon given a unique term, “Aliyah”)? Is not the 2020 “Abraham Accords” a unique bringing together of Jew and Arab that has made the world gape in awe - yet prophetically must take place for a future unified world government? God is silent - but it seems to me “His fingerprints are everywhere”! Even when God is silent, History is still His!
God continues His purposes through His chosen people! Any doubts? - time to reread the Book of Esther!
3. Encourage the Jews in dispersion of God’s providential ability keep his covenant.
Bible commentators put it in these terms, “God’s ability and willingness to preserve them against their enemies. But I think this is understating it a bit!! For me, it’s a bit soft on two counts:
First, a natural reading through the text makes many of us wince at Esther’s brutality in chapter 9 (note vss. 13-15), where she calls for another day of slaughter against her enemies. This is not God just preserving His people, this is actively cursing enemies. Genesis 12:3 makes sense of this - “those who curse you I will curse.” While it is true that in the Book of Esther God showed He could and would preserve His people, the consequences that play out better demonstrate God’s providential ability to keep his covenant. Even in silence God is working through history to fulfil the ancient covenant/s with His people.
The second reason it is a bit soft for me is this. I believe a key theme is “the pleasure/the will” of the king. (There is little difference between these terms in practice!). Everyone notes the parallel between “the king” (Ahasuerus) and “The King” (of the universe, who remains anonymous). Thus, I believe chapter 1 is so important - because it displays for us how “the king” is limitless in accomplishing his pleasure/will (and again there is little difference between these!). This sets the stage for how “The King” is limitless in accomplishing His good pleasure/will - as revealed in His covenants. So for me, this third purpose is to encourage the Jews in the time of dispersion of God’s pleasure and deep desire for His people. It is this that makes sense of the reversal of mourning to joy, and fasting to feasting that are essential aspects of the account. God is not just revealing his ability to preserve, He is showing His unstoppable will, His passion to fulfil all that He desired for His people when He cut a covenant with the forefathers of national Israel back in Genesis 12. God’s passion to keep His covenant with Israel is even greater than the display of Ahasuerus in chapter one - though of course much, much purer in nature!
Time for some reflection as we conclude…..
It is so important to let these themes shape how we see our world. As followers of Messiah, we are learning to see the world according to His purposes. One of these is our personal acknowledgement and surrender to Him as the Saviour - the Suffering Servant. Another is to follow Him as He works through history to claim what is rightfully His because He suffered and died to purchase our personal salvation and the global salvation of our world. The Suffering Servant is also the King of the coming Kingdom.
Currently we are in a time of suffering - both for Jews and Christians. 80 million more Christians are being persecuted this year than 12 months ago for their faith. That is astonishing and must impact our perspective of our place in history. The second most prominent persecution in the world is the Jewish people. It is should not escape our attention that the enemy knows who to attack to oppose God’s purposes - Christians and Jews.
Just before Purim, every year begins for the Jewish people with Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan 27) and with it the latest research on antisemitism across the world. It is a sobering read. This year there was a report by Colonel Richard Kemp on the systematic removal of Jews from academia in the UK; and in Australia - in the same week of Holcaust Remembrance, 34 neo-nazi youth marched through the Grampians yelling antisemitic slogans. Isaiah 63:9 - “In all their affliction He was afflicted.”
So, let Purim speak to you and inform your faith as you follow the purposes of Messiah. Let ethnic Israel speak to you, to inform your faith, also. What does the Book of Esther teach you about the place of the Jewish people in God’s plans - even in their dispersion? Even in God’s silence? May the Jewish encouragement of the Book of Esther be your encouragement - God is faithfully passionate and willful in keeping every word of His covenants. All those who put their faith in His plan - including you! - through His Suffering Servant who is the Messiah of Israel, will find the suffering turned to celebration.
We don’t know what lies ahead for us in 2021. But we do know what the future holds for us through faith - and it will be more wonderful than the Jewish celebration in Shushan! More wonderful than all the 2021 Purim celebrations around the world combined! More wonderful than we can even conceive! (1 Cor 2:9)
One final thought: Purim reminds us that even in the years of persecution and suffering, we should make sure we set aside times to celebrate - both to look back and look forward to the times of God’s great salvation.
May such thoughts lead you throughout 2021.
Kevin is the Ministry Representative with The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry in Perth, WA. If you would like to contact Kevin, email him at email@example.com