Lecture 18: Esther, Daniel, Ezra–Nehemiah & Chronicles
Course: Understanding the Old Testament
So what follows in the Old Testament canon are two books about people who live in exile. First of all, there is Esther, a woman who lived in exile in Persia; and Daniel, a man who lives in exile in Babylon. Esther unfolds in the Persian capital of Susa. The date of this book is probably about 487 to 465 B.C. because the king featured in this book is Xerxes I. We know of him, not only from the Bible, but from Persian records. So we know that Esther and the events in the book of Esther occurred about 100 years after the events described in Lamentations, the destruction of Jerusalem. Esther and Daniel explain to us how it is we are to survive in exile.
Like the book of Song of Solomon, Esther never mentions the name of God. Yet, as one scholar says, God is always working behind the scenes in the book of Esther. He is the one who can deliver the people. In the book of Esther we find Esther herself becoming queen of Persia in chapters 1 and 2. But she becomes queen of Persia through an unusual set of circumstances. She becomes queen because her predecessor refuses to obey her husband.
So chapters 1 and 2 talk about Esther’s rise to the throne. The previous queen, Vashti, refuses to appear before the king when he commands her to come. He has decided to have a massive party that lasts for six months. There is much drinking and revelry, and he requires the queen to appear to show her beauty to the guests. Perhaps she was to show more than her face, though it is impossible to know for certain. She refuses to come and the king is humiliated before his guests. Drunk and angry, he decides she can no longer be queen. So he needs a new queen. He decides to have a beauty contest and have a new queen chosen. Esther wins this contest. The reader know that Esther is Jewish, she is Israelite, and Israelites have almost no rights as exiles in the land; or at least, they have no rights that are not extended to them by the king. But Esther has become queen.
In 3:1 to 9:19 we have threats against the Jews. These threats begin because of a particular villain named Haman. He gets mad at Esther’s relative, Mordecai, because he will not bow down to him and do what he says. So in chapter 3 Haman plots to have all Jews killed. Mordecai comes to Esther in chapter 4 and asks her to intercede for her people with the king. She is afraid to do so, but she eventually agrees.
And in chapter 5 she takes the request to save her people to the king and the king agrees. Eventually, Haman is destroyed. He is put to death on the very apparatus on which he had prepared to kill his enemy, Mordecai. Before he died, Haman had gotten the king to agree to allow the Israelites’ enemies to attack them.
Persia had a very interesting way of making laws. You could not repeal a law, you could only pass another law that could counteract it. So the king could not repeal his allowing of Israel’s enemies to attack them. But he could allow Israel to prepare for the attack and kill their enemies, and this is what they do. So through the intercession of Mordecai and through the intercession of Esther, the king of Persia allows the Jews to defend themselves against their enemies and thus they are spared.
Esther 9:20 through 10:3 tell us that the feast of Purim, which is still celebrated by Jewish persons today, was instituted to mark the deliverance of the Jews from their enemies.
So, how does one survive in exile? By the grace and the providence of God. It was God’s providence that Esther became queen. It was God’s providence that Mordecai was a faithful person who interceded on behalf of his fellow Jews. It was God’s providence that the king would listen to Esther. God saved the people through these circumstances.
The book of Daniel is a companion piece to Esther. Daniel deals with how you maintain distinctive faith in exile. Daniel was one of the exiles taken to Babylon in 605 B.C. He lives in Babylon until 536 B.C., always serving this foreign government. Chapters 1-6 indicate this was not easy. He was asked to learn Babylonian ways and eat Babylonian food. He learned their ways, but he rejected the food and maintained his purity before God. He was asked to bow down to other gods and to pray to other deities, but he refused to do so. He suffered punishment and embarrassment, but God delivered him out of every single trial.
As a punishment for praying to his God and no other, he was actually put in a den of lions and God delivered him from the lions, even though they would normally have wanted to eat him, of course. God delivers him and Daniel is faithful, maintaining his walk with the Lord under extreme circumstances in exile, thus showing the people how they might maintain their own faith as they live in exile.
In chapters 7–12 of Daniel the book gives us extraordinary visions of the future, of kingdoms that will rise and will fall. These chapters are certainly worth extensive study. But I want to just warn you that these chapters do not give us a roadmap of every current event. Basically they tell us that great kingdoms will rise and fall. Babylon will rise. Persia will rise. Greece will rise. Rome will rise. And they will all fall. But God and his kingdom endure forever. And God’s kingdom ultimately will reside in the Messiah, in the Savior. God gives this person the kingdom.
Daniel 7:13, 14 are very strategic for the book of Daniel and for the New Testament as they think about the Messiah. Daniel writes in 7:13, “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.” The Ancient of Days of course is God. “And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.”
This individual, this Son of Man, this one born of woman, as Genesis 3:15 promised, will be given the kingdoms of the world and all nations will serve him, as God had promised David in 2 Samuel 7; and as Psalm 2 had promised about the Messiah. This son of man will be given the kingdoms of the earth and peoples, nations and languages will bow down to him. We need to remember, as the prophet said over and over again, as Zephaniah 3:8.9 said, as Isaiah 19:16-25 said, and a host of other passages, God will keep his promise to Abraham. All nations will be blessed through him and it is through the Messiah, the son of Abraham, the son of David, that these promises will be kept.
So as they read Daniel toward the end of their Bible toward the end of the Old Testament they would have seen God giving the kingdom of the earth and the kingdom of heaven to this one called the son of man. So when Jesus called himself the son of man, this was not a minor statement. This was not some comment that he is a human like everyone else. No, he is really saying, he is the son of man, to whom the Ancient of Days gives the kingdoms of the world, that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him. No wonder then in Mark 14:62 when Jesus claimed to be the son of man, that he was the one to whom God would give the kingdom, that those who did not believe he was the Messiah decided to kill him. The Messiah is the one who shall rule.
What shall the people do? Daniel 9:1-19 says that while they are waiting in exile, they can repent of their sins. They can turn to the Lord in faith. And they can put their trust in him. And he will restore them. Chapter 12 ends with great promise to Daniel. God says that great princes will rise and fall, that kingdoms will come and go; but he says in verse 4: “But you, Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book until the end of time. Many shall run to and fro and knowledge shall increase.”
But what shall Daniel look forward to? He shall look forward to the fact, as 12:2 says, “Many of those who sleep in the dust shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” God will raise the dead. He will judge the wicked and the righteous. And Daniel could know that though these great kingdoms will rise and fall, God will give his kingdom to the Messiah, that he will raise those who have died, from the dead. He will make all things right.
So Daniel could know, as all the other exiles could know, how can he live? You live in faithfulness to God’s word. You live expecting God to protect you. You live being committed to his ways, even if it means death. When faced with idolatry or death, Daniel’s friends say in chapter 3: “God is able to deliver us. But even if he will not deliver us, we will not serve idols.” That’s how people should live in exile. They should know that the Messiah will come and they can live for him. They can repent and turn to God and he will receive them.
All the promises of God made to Noah, Abraham, Moses and David will be kept. All the promises of Deuteronomy 30, that if the people return to God, even in exile, he will restore them. Daniel was a faithful man. He did not expect to live to see those promises come true; but by faith, he received the promises; and because of his faith, he lived faithfully in exile.
As we conclude our study, there are some rather long books to go. Ezra–Nehemiah talk to us about how to rebuild the nation. And 1 and 2 Chronicles teaches how to view the past. Just a few words on both. Ezra and Nehemiah describe how to rebuild the nation.
In Ezra 1-6 we are told that prior to Ezra’s time, which is about 450 B.C. – in other words, about the same time as Malachi – the Lord began bringing Israelites back to Judea. You will recall that this began because of the decree of Cyrus in 538 B.C. So several Israelites returned and as you will recall from the books of Haggai and Malachi, they rebuild the temple in 520 to 516. The first six chapters of Ezra summarize that material for you.
But then in Ezra 7-10 we have an emphasis on rebuilding Israel’s spiritual life. Ezra begins to teach the people, to correct the sins that they have been committing and to enforce God’s rulings. Ezra is a priest. He is a religious ruler. He is a teacher of the word. He is a studier of the word and a teacher of the word. In fact, 7:10 summarizes him when it says, “For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord and do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.” This is a summary of all good servants of the Lord, all good priests, all good prophets.
He set his heart to study the law of the Lord, to do it and to teach his statutes, and rules in Israel. Why? Because he knew and loved Yahweh and Yahweh’s people. So he teaches the people the word. He establishes the Levites in the temple. He teaches his people how to be faithful to one another in their marriages in chapter 9; and in chapter 10 he helps them confess their sins.
The book of Nehemiah gives us a good partner to Ezra. Ezra, as I said, was a priest and religious leader. Nehemiah was a builder. He is not secular (in that he doesn’t care about God); but he is not a priest and he is not a prophet. He is a governor. One who does what? Chapters 1-7, he leads the people to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls and to rebuild its population by encouraging people to live in Jerusalem. The idea is for Nehemiah to help Jerusalem become an established city again. He gains permission from the king of Persia and gains funding from the king of Persia to help this process.
When he first gets to Jerusalem, it is very discouraging. The city walls are down. The people are defenseless before their enemies. But soon the wall is rebuilt. The people are organized to guard their land and their city. More people move into the city and the place begins to grow again. Again, all this happens about 450 B.C. So Ezra, Nehemiah, Malachi may have been contemporaries. They may have worked together the same way Haggai and Zechariah might have as they ministered together.
In Nehemiah 8-13 we have the rebuilding of Israel’s spiritual life. In chapter 8 Ezra and the priests read and explain the law while standing on specially built platforms in the new temple area. Nehemiah has the people celebrate instead of mourn when they hear the teachings, according to 8:9-12. After several days of hearing the word of God, see 8:13-18, the people confess their sins and plead for forgiveness in chapter 9. They also make a covenant to follow the Lord in chapter 10. All seems well.
But human sin is persistent. While Nehemiah is back in Persia, the people sin again. The high priest allows enemies of the people to live in the temple. Support for the Levites and temple worship wanes and the Sabbath is broken. So Nehemiah has to come back and correct these errors. We have to wonder, will Israel ever live like a restored people? But the books of Ezra and Nehemiah show us that though human failure is a constant in this fallen, sinful world, God never quits. He always sends his faithful servants like Ezra and Nehemiah to rebuild the religious life of the people, to rebuild the physical life of the people, until such time as the Messiah comes and teaches the people and builds them up and heals their sicknesses and gives them that which they need: Ezra, a true student of the word of God, a great teacher of the word of God; and Nehemiah, a great leader of the people, one who truly shows God’s best strength to the people.
Nehemiah and Ezra work together to restore the people in the land. How shall they live in the land? In faithfulness to God’s word, in faithfulness to one another, with hope for the future. J. I. Packer has written a wonderful book about Nehemiah entitled, A Passion for Faithfulness, published by Crossway Books. One could say the same about Ezra. He had a passion for faithfulness. Packer’s book stresses Nehemiah’s leadership skills and his greatness. I think most everything one could say about Nehemiah, one could also say about Ezra. They were God’s instruments for helping rebuild the nation.
1 & 2 Chronicles
I conclude our study with just a few comments from 1 and 2 Chronicles. This is a marvelous book that tells us how to view the past. It focuses on the positive things of Israel. The first nine chapters are one long genealogy that connects the history of Israel clear back to Genesis. We find genealogies from Genesis and other books here. And it brings us from Adam to David. Then after we read about Israel’s ancestors and genealogy in chapters 10-29, the book focuses on David’s reign. Chapter 17 repeats the promises of God made in 2 Samuel 7. David is the main character in the history of Israel, according to 1 Chronicles. God’s promise to David is the mainspring of all Israelite hope.
Second Chronicles 1-9 tells us about Solomon’s reign and about all that God did for Solomon and the positive elements of Solomon’s reign. When I say Chronicles is a positive book, I can illustrate it by telling you, there is nothing about Bathsheba and David in Chronicles; and there is nothing about Solomon’s great idolatry in Chronicles. The positive is focused on. But you see, the writer of Chronicles expects you to know 1 and 2 Kings because he quotes the book repeatedly. So he knows you have that book in hand. He is not trying to pull the wool over your eyes or be phony about the history of Israel. He just expects that you know that. So he is highlighting God’s promise to David and he is highlighting God’s promises to Solomon.
Then in 2 Chronicles 10–36 you have the division, the fall and the defeat of Israel. The focus at all times is on Judah because David is from Judah, Solomon is from Judah and the promises of God for a Messiah come through Judah. There is very little about the northern kings in this book.
First and 2 Chronicles were probably written as late as 300 to 400 years before Christ. It may be the last book written in the Old Testament. If so, it is a marvelous summary, from the genealogies of Genesis to the life of David, to the life of Solomon, to the life of Hezekiah and Josiah, all these faithful kings, clear on down to the fall of the nation. And how does the book end? It ends with Cyrus allowing Israelites to go home and rebuild their temple.
And when we open the New Testament, we find promises of the Savior and this Savior being brought to the temple to be circumcised when he is a baby. And we find people at the temple, Anna and Simeon, proclaiming who he is, God’s Messiah. We find the temple restored as the central representative of God’s presence among the people. There we see this temple has greater glory than the first, just as Haggai promised, because the Savior comes to this temple.
The book of 1 and 2 Chronicles tells the people how to view the past. It is to view it in light of God’s promises, and it would remind us as we conclude our study, to remember to view the Old Testament and the whole Bible in view of God’s promises. That God is moving from creation to new creation. That we have sinned against our creator. But he has made covenants with Noah, that all nations should respond positively to him. He has made a covenant with Abraham, that all nations will be blessed through Abraham. He has called Abraham’s descendants to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation to declare his glory to the world. He is a God who is saving and just and gracious, according to Exodus 34:5, 6. And he is a God who has made a promise to David that his kingdom will rule forever; his descendant, the son of man, will be on the throne. He will die for the sins of the people. He will be raised from the dead, and he will rule forever. Sin will not always mark this world. God will remove sin. He will restore purity. There will be a new creation.
So as we conclude our study, as we think of what 1 and 2 Chronicles teaches us, let us view the past through the lenses of the promises of God and see in the Old Testament that God has given us one united message of moving from creation to new creation through the promises to Noah, the promises to Abraham, the promises to Moses, the promises to David; and now, because we read the Scriptures, promises to us; and that these promises are breathed out by God and profitable for every aspect of living today. So may God bless you as you read the Scripture in greater detail and learn more about God’s promises.