Esther lived in the Persian Empire during the reign of king Xerxes I who reigned from 486—465 BC. Her story is recorded in the Old Testament book that bears her name. Esther, or Hadassah in Hebrew, was a Jewish slave living in exile. Although Esther had little control over her life, God would do great works in and through her life.
At the start of the book of Esther, king Xerxes throws a banquet and asks his wife, Queen Vashti, to look beautiful for him in front of the guests; many think this was a request to appear before the guests naked. She refuses, and after consulting his counsel, Xerxes has Vashti exiled. King Xerxes then orders a search of the entire kingdom for a beautiful virgin to become his next bride. Many young women are taken into the king's palace where they receive twelve months of beauty treatments prior to their turn to go into the king. Esther is chosen as part of the harem, and ultimately as the new queen. Esther had been orphaned and her cousin, Mordecai, cared for her. Mordecai evidently also held some sort of position in the Persian government. Mordecai had also counseled Esther not to tell the king of her Jewish heritage, and she complied.
After Esther is made queen, Mordecai uncovers a plot to assassinate the king and tells Esther, who is able to alert the king in his name. The men involved in the plot are hanged and the event is recorded in the king's chronicles in his presence. Sometime later, a powerful man named Haman is promoted to be the king's top official; the king also commands that his servants at the gate bow down to Haman. But Mordecai will not bow before anyone except God. The others at the king's gate asked Mordecai about this, but he continues to refuse to pay homage to Haman. Mordecai also told the others he was a Jew. The others tell Haman about Mordecai's refusal to bow, and the official becomes furious. Haman is not satisfied to come against Mordecai alone, but wants to destroy the Jews.
Haman tells the king there is a group of people living within the kingdom's provinces with different laws whom the king should not tolerate. He asks the king to make a decree that the people be destroyed. Xerxes agrees and gives his signet ring to Haman to prepare the edict. The people of Persia were instructed "to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods" (Esther 3:13). The edict is sent out into all the provinces and the capital city is awash in confusion.
Esther hears nothing about the edict until it is reported to her that her cousin Mordecai, and many of the Jews, were mourning. Esther sends a messenger to Mordecai to find out what is going on. Through her messenger, Mordecai tells Esther the situation, as well as provides her with a copy of the edict. Mordecai specifically asks Esther to intercede with the king on behalf of the Jewish people. However, even as queen, Esther is not allowed to see the king unless he summons her by name, and he has not done so for thirty days. To go to Xerxes uninvited would be to risk being put to death. Mordecai warns, "Do not think to yourself that in the king's palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For it you 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 have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this" (Esther 4:13–14). Esther agrees to approach the king without being summoned even though she could be put to death and says, "Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish" (Esther 4:16).
After three days of fasting with her maidens, and asking the Jews in Susa to do the same, Esther goes before the king. Xerxes is pleased to see her and says he will give her anything she wants, up to half of his kingdom. She requests to have a banquet with him and Haman. Haman feels proud and honored. That night, Esther asks Xerxes and Haman to join her for a banquet the following night, at which point she will make her request. The king agrees, but he has trouble sleeping through the night. So he asks for the chronicles to be read to him. Providentially, he is read the account of Mordecai uncovering a plot. The king realizes nothing was done to honor Mordecai and he wants to rectify that. Meanwhile, Haman's gladness at the banquet had been tarnished on his trip home when Mordecai refused to bow to him. With his wife and friends, Haman planned to hang Mordecai on the gallows. When Haman went to discuss the matter of hanging Mordecai with the king, Xerxes first asked him for his opinion about "What should be done to the man whom the king delights to honor?" (Esther 6:6). Thinking the king meant to honor Haman, the official suggests such a man be clothed in royal robes and paraded through the city on a horse the king had ridden. Xerxes orders Haman to do so for Mordecai, which Haman does.
Haman and Xerxes both attend Esther's second banquet, at which she exposes Haman's plot to destroy the Jewish people and asks the king to spare her people. Xerxes is aghast that anyone would dare to destroy Esther's people. When he finds out the originator of the plot is Haman, Xerxes leaves enraged. Haman stays behind to beg for his life, but the king returns and thinks Haman is assaulting Esther. So Xerxes has Haman hanged on the very gallows Haman had prepared for Mordecai. However, the issue of the destructive edict still remains; royal edicts in Persia could not be rescinded. Xerxes gives Esther and Mordecai authority to prepare a second decree that gives the Jews the right to defend themselves. Many of the people fear the Jews and the officials help the Jews defend themselves. Some do attack, but the Jews are victorious and are thus delivered from harm. The Feast of Purim is held even today to commemorate this deliverance.
Interestingly, God is never mentioned in the book of Esther. Nonetheless, His hand over Esther's story is evident. Her life demonstrates that when we walk with God, He can do the impossible in our lives. Before going to see the king, Esther, her maidservants, and the Jewish people fasted in submission before God. After bringing their plight before Him, then Esther took action trusting that God's will would be done whether that meant her life would be spared or not. She knew she had to stand up for what was right even though she didn't know the outcome. It's important to note that her action was not spontaneous or rash. She thought critically about how to resolve the issue and did it in a way that both honored the king and God.
One of Esther's strengths was her willingness to be mentored. She sought the advice of the harem director Hegai on how to please the king which assisted her in winning his approval to be crowned queen. In addition, on multiple occasions she trusted her cousin Mordecai and acted on his request. His wise counsel and her application of it saved the king's life from an assassination attempt and later saved the Jewish people from Haman's plot to destroy them. Esther was courageous and humble, and greatly used of God to protect His people.
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