The three books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther close the section of the Old Testament that we have called the History Books. These three books cover the last 100 years of Old Testament Jewish history. They tell of events between the years 539-433 B.C. You will remember that 2 Chronicles ended with the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C and the Exile in Babylon under King Nebuchadnezzar. The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell about the three-stage return of the Jews from Babylon: 1) in 538 B.C. the main group of Jews returned with Zerubbabel; 2) in 458 B.C. a second group returned with Ezra; 3) and in 445 B.C. a third group returned with Nehemiah. The story of Esther takes place in the land of Persia between the return under Zerubbabel and the return under Ezra. A little history will help us understand better the times and events recorded in these three books. The Jews were exiled in three stages by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar: 605 B.C., 597 B.C. and 587 B.C. when the final destruction of Jerusalem took place. The Jews were settled in colonies in Babylonia and were not mistreated as long as they were quiet subjects to the King of Babylon. Many of them prospered in Babylonia and chose to live there permanently, even after they were granted permission to return to their homeland. The great Babylonian Empire came to an end in 539 B.C. when Cyrus, King of Persia, defeated the Babylonians. As we learn in the opening verses of Ezra, Cyrus gave the Jews permission to return to Judah. The return from exile did not mean that the Jews were completely politically free. They remained a part of the Persian Empire, but were generally treated well. The events of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther all take place during the Persian Empire, which ruled from 539 B.C. until it was defeated by the Greeks in 331 B.C.
THE BOOK’S NAME
The Book of Esther gets its name from the central character of the book. Esther was a young Jewish girl living in Persia who became the queen of King Xerxes (485-465 B.C.) Esther used her God-given position to save her fellow Jews from a plot to exterminate them. “Esther” is the Persian word for “star.” Her Hebrew name is Hadassah, which means “myrtle.”
WHO IS THE AUTHOR?
We do not know who wrote the book. Some say the author may have been Mordecai, one of the heroes of the book. The author probably lived in Persia, since he shows great knowledge of Persian life and customs.
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF THE BOOK?
We could say that the book has a three-fold purpose:
- Serves to show God’s providence in all things. He watches over his people even when they are in a distant land like Persia, far from the land of the promise.
- Shows that believers are to make use of the opportunities to serve which God provides. That is clear from Esther 4:14, “Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?”
- Serves to explain the origin of the Jewish Feast of Purim.
SOMETHING STRANGE ABOUT THE BOOK
Strangely, the name “God” does not appear anywhere in the whole book. That does not mean, however, that it is not an inspired book. God’s providence is one of the great themes of the book even though his name is not directly mentioned. Some have suggested that God’s name is not present so that the book could be freely circulated among the Jews in Persia. It is thought that a book about the Jewish God might be banned in Persia. Another guess is that if the name of God appeared in the book, the Persians might substitute the names of their heathen gods and in that way corrupt the book. We do not know the real reason for the omission of the name “God.”
A GENERAL OUTLINE FOR ESTHER
- Esther is Made Queen (1-2)
- Haman Plots to Destroy the Jews (3-5)
- The Jews are Delivered (6-10)
A BRIEF SURVEY OF THE CONTENTS
King Xerxes (also called Ahasuerus) of Persia gives a great banquet in Susa. His queen, Vashti, refused to appear at the king’s request. Xerxes becomes so angry that he deposes Queen Vashti. Then it is decided that there will be a kingdom-wide beauty contest in order to choose a new queen. A young Jewish girl named Esther (Hadassah, in Hebrew) becomes the new queen, but she does not reveal that she is a Jew. About this same time a cousin of Esther named Mordecai saves the king’s life by revealing a plot to assassinate him (1-2). Mordecai refuses to kneel down before Haman, one of the nobles who had obtained a high government position. Haman becomes so angry with Mordecai that he decides to have all of the Jews destroyed. Mordecai then persuades Esther to use her position as queen to help save the Jews from destruction (see 4:14). Esther thinks of a plan to prevent the Jew’s destruction (3-5). King Xerxes learns that Mordecai never received a reward for once saving his life. He then sends Haman to greatly honor Mordecai, the man that Haman hates with a passion. Esther then pleads before the king for the lives of the Jews. Wicked Haman is hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai. The king sends out a decree permitting the Jews to defend themselves against anyone who would attack them. The Jews are spared, and the Feast of Purim is celebrated to mark their deliverance. Mordecai is made second in rank to King Xerxes (6-10).
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