Understanding the Old Testament - Lesson 29


The book of Esther is a rich narrative that provides insight into life in exile for the Jewish people during the reign of Xerxes, also known as Ahasuerus. Through the study of Esther's plot, we explore themes of providence, hiddenness of God, and faithfulness in exile. The narrative unfolds in four parts, beginning with Esther and Mordecai in Persia, followed by the threat to all Jews by Haman, Esther's intervention leading to the deliverance of the Jews, and Mordecai's exaltation and establishment of Purim, a festival celebrating their deliverance. The narrative intricately weaves together the personal stories of Esther and Mordecai with the broader context of the Persian Empire, highlighting the tension between God's providential care and His hiddenness in the midst of human affairs. Despite the absence of explicit mention of God, the book underscores the profound truth that God works behind the scenes to protect His people, even in the face of adversity and existential threats.

Miles Van Pelt
Understanding the Old Testament
Lesson 29
Watching Now

I. Background and Context

A. Placement in the Hebrew Bible

B. Date and Authorship

C. Historical Context

II. Themes and Theology

A. God's Providence

B. God's Hiddenness

C. Life of Faith in Exile

III. Contents of the Book

A. Overview of Chapters 1-2

B. Threat to the Jews: Chapters 3-5

C. Deliverance of the Jews: Chapters 6-9

D. Exaltation of Mordecai: Chapter 10

IV. Significance of Purim

A. Establishment and Observance

B. Religious Significance and Authority

C. Theological Reflections and Gospel Connections

  • Engage with the Old Testament to grasp its Gospel-centered nature. From Genesis to Ecclesiastes and Psalms, discover foundational truths, wisdom, and insights on suffering. Strengthen your faith and find enduring hope in God's Word.
  • Gain insight into the Old Testament's theological core, centering on Jesus Christ. Explore its diverse genres, languages, and authors, unified by Jesus as its focal point. Understand how biblical evidence supports Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, shaping interpretation.
  • In this lesson, Dr. Miles Van Pelt provides the thematic framework for the Old Testament. The Old Testament's thematic core is the Kingdom of God. Through this lesson, you'll understand its covenantal nature, from pre-temporal arrangements to various administrations like redemption, works, and grace, unveiling God's salvation plan in Christ.
  • Discover the intricate covenantal structure of the Bible, revealing its theological depth and unity, from the division of the Hebrew Bible to its mirroring in the New Testament, all centered around Jesus Christ.
  • Gain insight into the Pentateuch's covenantal structure, Moses' authorship debate, and evidence supporting it. Understand its significance as the foundation of Israel's relationship with God and its relevance for biblical theology.
  • Through this lesson, you will understand the theological, structural, and thematic intricacies of the book of Genesis. You'll grasp its role as a foundational text in both the Old and New Testaments, exploring themes of covenant, creation, fall, redemption, and the fulfillment of promises. You'll gain insights into the genealogical structure of Genesis, its portrayal of key biblical figures like Adam, Noah, and Abraham, and its connection to the overarching narrative of the gospel.
  • Exodus reveals Yahweh's promise—"I will be with you"—unfolding divine presence and covenant. It anticipates Jesus as fulfillment—a better Moses and Tabernacle—ushering in God's eternal presence among humanity.
  • Studying Leviticus unveils the intricate system of laws and rituals at Mount Sinai. It explains sacrificial atonement, priestly consecration, purity laws, and the theme of holiness, prefiguring Jesus as the ultimate priest, sacrifice, and source of holiness.
  • Discover the Book of Numbers' insights on Israel's journey, God's faithfulness, consequences of disobedience, and parallels to Christ, cautioning against questioning God's holiness and emphasizing His desire to dwell among His people through the Holy Spirit.
  • Gain insight into Deuteronomy's covenant renewal for Israel entering Canaan, emphasizing obedience, typology, and its relevance for Christian living.
  • Gain deep insight into the former prophets, exploring themes of Yahweh's faithfulness, Israel's unfaithfulness, and the typological significance of the Mosaic covenant. Understand its relation to the Abrahamic covenant and its fulfillment in the New Covenant under Jesus, revealing God's plan for restoration.
  • Joshua unveils Joshua's leadership, divine promise fulfillment in Canaan, obedience's significance, and Jesus as the ultimate fulfiller of God's promises.
  • Discover the Book of Judges, detailing Israel's history and faith journey. Learn about judges as deliverers from oppression and idolatry, portraying parallels with Christ's ministry. Uncover a pattern of uncreation due to idolatry, emphasizing the need for an eternal judge—Jesus Christ—to save from corruption.
  • In this lesson, Dr. Miles Van Pelt provides insights into the book of Samuel, exploring its characters, themes, and the transition from judgeship to kingship in Israel. Learn of the significance of the Davidic covenant, culminating in Jesus as the ultimate King of Kings.
  • Gain insights into the Book of Kings, revealing its historical and theological significance. Discover the fulfillment of Davidic covenant, reasons for Israel's exile, and anticipation of the new covenant. Recognize Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of its promises.
  • This lesson reviews latter prophets' insights into Israel's exile for breaking the Mosaic Covenant, the prophetic office's nature, diverse prophecy genres, and the execution of covenant lawsuits, all pointing to God's judgment and hope for restoration.
  • Explore Isaiah's profound prophetic themes, from redemption to impending judgment. Unravel his life and ministry's context, review the debate around authorship, and learn essential tools for study.
  • Enjoy this lesson on Jeremiah, a second Moses figure, and his prophetic message of repentance, redemption, and a new covenant. Explore the book's chiastic structure, historical context, and theological significance, offering hope amidst Judah's fall.
  • Studying Ezekiel reveals its focus on the glory of the Lord and the temple. You learn of Ezekiel's exile, his visions, and themes like covenant theology, creation, and apocalyptic elements, offering profound insights into hope amidst crisis.
  • Discover insights into the minor prophets' diverse genres and themes, from covenant infidelity to divine restoration. Witness Jonah's repentance narrative and prophetic visions culminating in Christ's fulfillment. Embrace Yahweh's justice and compassion, urging Israel's return, leading to Jesus as the ultimate authority.
  • Understand the structure and themes of the Hebrew Bible's writings section. Explore diverse literary forms, intentional divisions mirroring prophets, and the overarching theme of exile and return, illuminating Israel's covenant journey.
  • Discover the depth of the Book of Psalms: 150 songs divided into 5 books, expressing diverse emotions and worship forms. Explore themes, structure, and practical applications for personal devotion and prayer.
  • Gain insights into human suffering and theodicy through Job's trials. Explore themes of faith, resilience, and God's sovereignty amidst adversity. Discover hope in God's incomprehensible sovereignty amid life's trials.
  • Proverbs is a book of timeless wisdom from Solomon, who was gifted by God. By studying this book, you can learn to navigate life with righteousness and discernment, rooted in the fear of the Lord.
  • Journey through Ruth, where redemption, loyalty, and divine providence intertwine. Ruth, a symbol of strength, aligns with Boaz, embodying ancient customs. Their union shapes history, reflecting the enduring legacy of faith amidst life's complexities.
  • Explore the Song of Songs for insights into marriage and intimacy. It navigates the tension between true love and temptation, advocating for unwavering commitment and passionate intimacy, reflecting God's desired relationship. Discover timeless wisdom for modern-day love and marriage.
  • Ecclesiastes reveals life's futility without God, emphasizing the necessity of fearing Him. Through Solomon's wisdom, it prompts reflection on divine purpose amid existential questions.
  • In Lamentations, mourn the fall of Jerusalem and exile, finding hope in God's sovereignty.
  • The book of Esthers contains themes of providence, hiddenness of God, and faithfulness in exile. You will uncover the intricacies of Esther and Mordecai's roles in the deliverance of the Jewish people, as well as the establishment of the festival of Purim. This study will equip you with insights into how God's providence operates amidst human events, even when His presence may seem concealed, and how faithfulness in exile can lead to unexpected outcomes of deliverance and restoration.
  • Through this lesson on the book of Daniel, you'll gain insights into its structure, themes of faithfulness in exile, comparisons with Joseph, and its significance for understanding apocalyptic literature, providing a comprehensive understanding of God's sovereignty and care for His people.
  • Explore Ezra and Nehemiah for insights into post-exilic restoration, intertwining faith, governance, and cultural renewal. These books point towards a deeper longing for true and lasting restoration and echo themes found in apocalyptic literature such as the book of Revelation.
  • The Book of Chronicles traces Israel's history, emphasizing kingship, priesthood, and divine selection. It anticipates restoration, pointing to Jesus as the ultimate priest-king who fulfills God's promises.

Understanding the Old Testament 
Dr. Miles Van Pelt
Lesson Transcript

We've now come on our journey through the Old Testament to the book of Esther. As you know, the book of Esther appears in the writings, the third section of the Hebrew Bible, which deals with how to think and live in light of the covenant. The book of Esther appears in the second half of the writings where we talk about life in exile. It's followed by the book of Daniel. And these are the only two books in the Hebrew Bible that occur completely in exile. So they're grouped like that, intentionally placed side by side. The second half of the writings begins with Lamentations, as we know, which recounts the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC at the hands of the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar. Lamentations provides the people of God with a theology for life in exile. And here now we're going to see that theology lived out in Esther and Daniel.

In terms of date and authorship, just quickly, neither the author nor the date of composition is specified in the book. According to the Talmud, the men of the great synagogue composed the book. But Josephus states that Mordecai was the author of the book. Now we know that both Esther and Mordecai wrote. They experienced this particular period of time. They had the resources to do it. And so perhaps Mordecai was the one who initially took down the records for it. 

In terms of the date of writing, it would have been sometime after the death of Xerxes, the king in the book. And we know from the Persian annals that he was killed in 464 BC. And then probably sometime shortly after that, perhaps well before 400 BC. 

The historical context of the book. The Book of Esther gives us a very unique glimpse into life among the Jewish exiles who did not go home after the decree of Cyrus in 538 BC. Some of the Jewish exiles decided to stay and live. So long after their companions had returned home to Jerusalem in the years following Cyrus's decree, the Jews in this book continued to live and flourish in a foreign land. The events of the book take place in Persia, which is modern-day Iran, during the reign of Xerxes. He is also known in Esther's as Ahasuerus. And that's one of his two different names. Xerxes is much easier for me to say, so I'm going to stick with that particular designation. 

Now the Persian empire, just so you know, was massive. The Persian empire stretched across the entire ancient Near East. According to Herodotus, the Greek historian, Xerxes was ambitious, ruthless, and intolerant. He had a vast empire. He was a skilled warrior, a jealous lover. This historian Herodotus devotes fully one-third of the history of Persian wars to the years of Xerxes' reign, the years of his landmark invasion of Greece. So Herodotus thought of Xerxes as a remarkable person. Xerxes' reign marked the beginning of the end of the Persian empire, which finally fell in 330 BC to Greece under Alexander the Great. Xerxes was assassinated in his bedchamber in 465 BC. And what's interesting is we don't know what happened to Esther or Mordecai after that, because they would have been a part of that, you know, royal scheme and Mordecai was number two and Esther was his queen. So they may have perished at that time or they may have just fled. We have no historical record either in the Bible or outside of what happened to those two figures. 

Let's consider for a moment the theology of the Book of Esther before we look at some of its contents, the theology. And there are three things we want to think about in terms of its theology. Number one, God's providence. Number two is God's hiddenness. And number three, the life of faith in exile. God's providence, God's hiddenness, and the life of faith in exile. 

First, God's providence. God cares for his people in exile. Esther 4:14 has Mordecai saying this to Esther, "For if you, Esther, keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father's house will perish. And who knows whether you may not have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" Mordecai understands that whatever has happened to Esther here has happened according to God's providence that she might have the opportunity to intervene and save God's people from the terror that is coming."

Number two is God's hiddenness. There is no direct intervention or interaction with God here in this book. There is no prayer. There is no mention of God. There is no talk of God. There's simply, it's void. It's one of the few books that lacks kind of the use of the divine name or the mention of God. Well, what do we take of this God's hiddenness or the lack of God in the book? One of my colleagues, Peter Lee, suggests this. "I suggest, (he says,) that the author of Esther created an awe-inspiring sense of the presence of God by creating a literary theological vacuum. The effect of this vacuum is to remind the reader of the subtle activities of God who would never or not abandon his people when they needed his sovereign grace the most. Indeed, the salvation of the Jews in Esther was due neither to the creative maneuverings of Mordecai nor to the courage of Esther. These heroes of faith were truly steadfast in their resolve, but behind the scenes of the earthly stage was the divine hand of the Lord who orchestrated the totality of what is found in the book for his glory and the well-being of his people." So we have God's hiddenness here, and God's hiddenness is to remind us that even though we don't see God at work, we can understand and trust that he is at work. And that's this kind of literary, that's the literary function of the hiddenness here.

So God's providence, he's caring for his people even when we don't see him, and therefore we know how to live a life of faith in exile. The relationship between the people of God and the people of this world is one of faithfulness both for Esther and Daniel. That is, the life of faith in exile is a life of faithfulness, the life of faith unto death, that is, all the way home. Esther 4:16 states it this way, faithfulness unto death, faithfulness unto death. You could think of Daniel in the book of Daniel, he wouldn't give up praying and he would, you know, or he would not give into the king's food and their life was on the line every time. They were faithful, faithful unto the point of death. That's the life of faith in exile. So those are kind of the three controlling big themes in the book of Esther if you want to have like three things in your mind as you're reading or studying together. God's providence, he's caring for his people in exile. God's hiddenness, is that he cares for us even when we can't see him. And perhaps when you're suffering, that's when you feel like he's not there the most. And then the life of faith in exile is a life of faithfulness unto death.

Summary of the contents. Let's take a look at your screen with this slide here. You can see the Book of Esther consists of 10 chapters and we can divide it into four parts.

First, there begins, the text begins with Esther and Mordecai in Persia where we have the fall of Vashti which is Xerxes queen, and then the rise of Esther, the new queen. This is followed in chapters 3 through 5 by a threat to the Jews. Haman does not like Mordecai or the Jews and he plots to have them all exterminated. So we have Haman's plot in chapter 3, Mordecai's plan to thwart it in chapter 4, and Esther's intervention in chapter 5 which is that part where if she perishes, she perishes. Then we have towards the end of the book, chapters 6 through 9, we have the deliverance of the Jews where we have Haman's downfall, Mordecai replaces Haman, and the Jews are avenged and they institute a festival called Purim. And finally, at the very end, the last chapter, Mordecai is exalted and you have Shalom in exile. In chapter 10, there are only three verses I mark out there. So Esther and Mordecai in Persia, the threat to all the Jews, the deliverance of the Jews, and Mordecai is exalted and Shalom in exile.  Well, what's the story here that you need to know as you work through the book. 

There are 10 chapters, 167 verses, and it's an eight-part plot, an eight-part plot. And I'll run through this plot quickly just so that as you're reading, you know what to expect. Here we go. Number one, this is chapter one. Xerxes was throwing a great party.

 He had a beautiful wife, Vashti. He said, come on out, let everyone see you. She said, no. The king was outraged and all his advisors said, that if Vashti didn't obey the king, all the wives around the kingdom would not obey their husbands. So you've got to depose her and get a new queen. And that's what happens there. So Vashti was deposed because of her pride and arrogance. And we don't know what happened to her if she was deposed via execution or deposed via exile. So it was the king's choice. 

So in chapter two, Esther comes on the scene and she is exalted because of her beauty, humility, and wisdom. She was taken into Xerxes' harem and she was one of the women who was presented to Xerxes as a potential replacement queen. Indeed, her beauty and her humility exalted her to that position. She became the new Vashti in chapter two. 

In chapter three, Haman becomes enraged by Mordecai. Now Mordecai was Esther's uncle and was raising Esther. And so he was connected to Esther. Now Esther's the queen.And Haman was enraged by Mordecai due to Haman's pride. In some sense, Mordecai becomes a second Vashti figure, this kind of enraged, arrogant person in chapter three. 

In chapter four, Mordecai was exalted because he spoke the truth to the king about assassination. Mordecai employs wisdom to counter the plan of Haman. 

In chapter five, Esther will act with wisdom to counter the plan of Haman. Haman rages and takes counsel from his wife to make the gallows 50 cubits. So Haman is really angry and the anger is as tall as the gallows. A 50-foot high basically stake to impale them on. So that all could see, don't mess with Mordecai or with Haman. 

In chapter six, Haman's pride inflames his jealousy of Mordecai. He becomes enraged. In chapter seven, Haman's plot is unmasked by Esther. And then Haman is the one who ends up hanging on the gallows that he created himself. In the next chapter, in eight and nine, Mordecai is exalted. They instituted a celebration called Purim and there's the welfare of God's people in exile and God will preserve the remnant. 

Well, what is this festival of Purim and how do we understand it? That is instituted here because it's unusual. We'll find out that Purim is the only festival of the Jews not instituted by Moses in the Pentateuch that they celebrate. Purim is the festival inaugurated in the book of Esther and it's the only biblical festival not of antiquity. It was ordered by Mordecai to celebrate the events by which the Jews were able to reverse the edict of death that hung over them by killing their enemies instead. It was also called Mordecai's Day as early as the second century BC because Mordecai was the one who had this plan. So it's kind of like president's day, veteran's day, Mordecai's day.

The name for this festival comes from the rare Hebrew word Pur and Purim would be the plural like cherub, cherubim. That's the plural. That's a loan word from Akkadian. It's just the word for lot, to cast a lot. And so it's not the normal word for a lot in Hebrew. It's a later word and so it's a very special kind of designation. Because why? Haman had cast a lot to determine, or a Pur, to determine the best month for his edict to destroy the Jews. And so they called this celebration the lots or the reversal of the lots. 

In Esther 9:20 to 32, Esther establishes the authoritative religious significance of the festival. That is, it's Esther's power as queen that makes this kind of a national holiday for all time in these ways. First, the word keeper established is used in 9:21, 27, 29, and 31, indicating that the festival is binding on successive generations. That word there to establish is the same in the Hebrew Bible for establishing a covenant. 

Second, the appointed time for the festival is set, the 14th and the 15th days of the month of Adar, which would be February, and March, establishing it as a regular part of the calendar of festivals. So really one of the purposes of the Book of Esther is to describe, what we're going to have in this new plan or this new festival. And this new festival celebrates the fact that God protects his people in exile. And even when we're under the threat of death, God can reverse it. Mordecai and Esther send letters to establish the exact nature in which the festival is to be celebrated. And the festival is fixed in writing in this way. The festival acquired an authoritative status akin to the lot. 

So here's where it is in Esther 9:29 and following. It says this, "Then Queen Esther, the daughter of Abihail and Mordecai, the Jew gave full written authority, confirming this second letter about Purim. Letters were sent to all the Jews, to all 127 providences of the kingdom of Xerxes in words of peace and truth that these days of Purim should be observed at their appointed seasons as Mordecai the Jew and Queen Esther obliged them. And they had obliged them themselves and their offspring about their feasts and their lamenting." The command of Esther confirmed these practices of Purim and it was recorded in writing. Amazing.

The institution of Purim by Esther and Mordecai forms the basis for the Talmud. The Jewish kind of commentary in the Scriptures elevated Esther to the level of the Torah since these are the only two portions of Scripture that establish and give instructions for biblical festivals.

The book concludes with three verses that talk about kind of the end of the matter. It's kind of the biographical appendix of the book. There are a couple of very important things here that we can see. And I want to read these three verses to you and in some sense, show you one, how they relate to Daniel, the book of Daniel is coming, and two, what they say about the future of God's people. 

Esther 10, one to three, "King Xerxes imposed tribute throughout the empire to its distant shores and all his acts of power and might together with a full account of the greatness of Mordecai, to which the King had raised him. Are they not written in the book of the annals of the Kings of Media and Persia?" 

Remember, Daniel was raised to second in the empire. Mordecai rose to second in the empire. Esther is the Queen. This is very interesting to think that these people who are living a life of faith in exile, were not just living off in some podunk distant town, you know, quietly working and waiting for the Messiah to come. They were at the center of the powers that had oppressed and controlled God's people. And at the heights of their power, for example, and we'll talk about this later when Nebuchadnezzar was away destroying Jerusalem in 586 BC, Daniel was back running the kingdom in Babylon. That's a very difficult thing to think about in terms of how that works. 

Mordecai, the Jew was second in rank to King Xerxes, preeminent among the Jews and favored by many of his fellow Jews, seeking that which is good for his people and speaking peace or shalom to all of his people or all of the Jews. Now, what's interesting here is that, again, you know, translations can be traitors sometimes, that the end of the text does not say to all, that he was speaking peace to all of his people or all the Jews at all. It says he was speaking peace to his seed. Now, if you're tracking the biblical-theological themes here, remember it's the seed of the woman who is going to crush the seed of the serpent. And all through the book of Genesis, we have these genealogies, as we've discussed, that are tracing the seed, the seed, the seed. Remember in Esther, we're tracing the seed, the seed, the seed. And here what's happening is that in the book of Esther, the seed of God's people, the Jews, was under attack. And now this seed is preserved. This book ends with the fact that God's seed is intact and that they have shalom. God's seed is intact and they have shalom, that it's not wiped out because the crisis of the seed is a theme that runs throughout the Scriptures. Even in Genesis where God says to Abraham, I'm going to give you an offspring, a seed, and then they're barren. And Isaac. And then Jacob's wives and stuff like that. So with Rebecca, this is also the theme of Rachel. And so all these, this barrenness, these seeds are under attack. And here you have this reminder that amid exile and the threat of death, God is preserving the seed, the seed.

So how is this the gospel promised beforehand? Did Jesus skip the Book of Esther on the road to Emmaus? Many people may say yes. But I say, certainly not. One, Jesus is the seed and the preservation of the one true seed. That's the testimony of the New Testament. As with Esther, it comes in the form of ironic reversal, this time from death to life. The Gentiles plotted to destroy the seed and its destruction brought about life through that seed. And the explosion of that seed in those who are the children of Abraham by faith. So now the seed has, because of the death of the one seed, Jesus, now we have the seed, his offspring exploding all over the world. The children of Abraham are more than the sand of the sea. 

Secondly, too, people often point out, and I think this is a good one. Esther's line, if I perish, I perish. She was willing to give her life for her people. And this is exactly like Jesus, but Jesus did not say, if I perish, I perish. He said, when I perish, I perish. That is, he knew that he wasn't just going to possibly offer his life to save his people or his seed. He knew that he certainly was going to offer his life for his people and his seed. He did that, which was truly the sacrifice that Esther was willing to make for him.

The book of Esther, it's about the hiddenness of God, the providence of God, and how we live a life of faith in exile. We see that God's seed is imperiled by an edict of destruction. And once again, it is reversed and the people of God get life.