Book Overview - Esther
by Joseph Parker
THE Book of Esther is entitled by the Jews megillath Esther, "the volume of Esther," or simply megillah, "the volume." The Greek translation dropped the term megillah, and retained only " Esther," which thus became the ordinary title among Christians. Concerning the date of the composition there is much controversy. But assuming Ahasuerus and Xerxes to be the same, which is now generally allowed, the date can be at once fixed. Ahasuerus makes the great feast in the third year of his reign ( Esther 1:3), Esther is taken into the royal palace in the seventh year ( Esther 2:16), they cast lots before Haman in the twelfth year ( Esther 3:7), and in the thirteenth year the plan of destruction is broached. The reign of Xerxes lasted from485-464 b.c, therefore the events recorded in Esther range from483-470 b.c.
Biblical authorities are much divided in opinion as to who is the author of the book. Some argue that it was written by Mordecai, from the minute details given of the great banquet, of the names of the chamberlains and eunuchs, and Haman"s wife and sons, and of the customs and regulations of the palace, which betoken that the author lived at Shushan, and probably at court; while his no less intimate acquaintance with the most private affairs of both Esther and Mordecai well suits the hypothesis of the latter being himself the writer. It has, however, been ascribed to Ezra, and to the high priest Joiakim. A Jewish tradition makes it the work of "the men of the synagogue"; while some suppose that it is an extract from the records of Persia. The Asiatic sovereigns, it is well known, caused annals of their reigns to be kept. Numerous passages in the Books of Kings and Chronicles prove that the kings of Israel and Judah had such annals. And this book attests that Ahasuerus had similar historical records ( Esther 2:23; Esther 6:1); from which it appears probable that this history of the Jews under Queen Esther might be derived ( Esther 10:2).
In support of the view that Esther was written by Mordecai in Persia, it is noticed that the name of God in every form is entirely absent from the book, that there is no allusion whatever to the Jewish nation as one exiled from the land of their fathers, to that land itself, or to the newly rebuilt Temple, or, in fact, to any Jewish institution whatsoever. Whether the reserve is to be explained by the writer"s long residence in Persia having blunted the edge of his national feelings, or whether he may have thought it safer to keep his feelings and opinions in the background, it is impossible to say: very possibly both causes may have acted. But though the name of God is not found in the book, his hand is plainly seen anticipating threatened evil, defeating and overruling it to the greater good of the Jews and even of the heathen (chapters1, 2, 4-10). Notwithstanding all this, the best commentators admit the question to be one of great uncertainty, and of all the guesses put forward the authorship of Mordecai is considered the most probable, or at least possible, and this is the most that can be said.
There can be no doubt as to the canonicity of the book, although even to that some objections have been raised. It has been universally acknowledged by the Jews, and placed by some of them in an exceptional position of honour. The saying is attributed to Maimonides, that "in the days of the Messiah the prophetical books and the Hagiographa will be done away with, excepting only Esther, which will endure together with the Pentateuch." To this day the Book of Esther is read through by the Jews in their synagogues at the Feast of Purim, while it was, and is still, in some synagogues, the custom at the mention of Haman"s name to hiss, and stamp, and clench the fist, and cry, "Let his name be blotted out, may the name of the wicked rot!" It is said also that the names of Haman"s ten sons are read in one breath, to signify that they all expired at the same instant of time. Some modern commentators, both English and German, have objected to the contents of the book as improbable; but if it be true, as Diodorus Siculus relates, that Xerxes put the Medians foremost at Thermopylae on purpose that they might be all killed, because he thought they were not thoroughly reconciled to the loss of their national supremacy, it is surely not incredible that he should have given permission to Haman to destroy a few thousand strange people like the Jews, who were represented to be injurious to his empire, and disobedient to his laws. Nor again, when we remember what Herodotus relates of Xerxes in respect to promises made at banquets, can we deem it incredible that he should perform his promise to Esther to reverse the decree in the only way that seemed practicable. It is likely, too, that the secret friends and adherents of Haman would be the persons to attack the Jews, which would be a reason why Ahasuerus would rather rejoice at their destruction. In all other respects the writer shows such an accurate acquaintance with Persian manners, and is so true to history and chronology, as to afford the strongest internal evidences to the truth of the book.
The contents of the Book of Esther may thus be briefly summarised: It relates the royal feast of Ahasuerus, and the divorce of Vashti (chap1). The elevation of Esther to the Persian throne, and the service rendered to the king by Mordecai, in detecting a plot against his life (chap2). The promotion of Haman, and his purposed destruction of the Jews (chap3). The consequent affliction of the Jews, and the measures taken by them (chap4). The defeat of Haman"s plot against Mordecai, through the instrumentality of Esther; the honour done to Mordecai; and the execution of Haman (chaps5-7). The defeat of Haman"s general plot against the Jews; the institution of the Festival of Purim, in commemoration of this deliverance; and Mordecai"s advancement (chaps8-10). The book shows how these Jews, though scattered among the heathen, were preserved, even when doomed by others to destruction. "The whole narrative of Esther is striking and graphic. The writer loves to dwell on details, and sometimes by numerous and careful touches produces an effect like that of a finished picture. He excels in the dramatic exhibition of character, Ahasuerus, Haman, Esther, and Mordecai being vividly portrayed by their words and Acts, without any formal description. The style in which he writes is "remarkably chaste and simple;" the constructions are mostly easy; and the sentences clear and unambiguous. The vocabulary, on the contrary, Isaiah, as might have been expected, not altogether pure, a certain number of Persian words being employed, and also a few terms characteristic of the later Hebrew or "Chaldee" dialect."—The Speaker"s Commentary, to which, with Bishop Ellicott"s Commentary, Angus"s Bible Handbook, and Smith"s Dictionary of the Bible, I am indebted for the foregoing.
Almighty God, we come to thee for all we need, but first we come to praise thee for all we have received. We stand in thy goodness, and to thy mercy we owe our life; we are spared criminals. We have done the things we ought not to have done: every one of thy Ten Words we have turned into a sin against thee. Thou didst set before us an open way, and we have stained it and corrupted it from beginning to end, and have rebelled against thee with stoutness of heart Yet all the while we have taken things out of thy hand, for we are dependent upon thee, and we have nothing that we have not received. We are well aware of our ingratitude, yet it presses upon us as if by cruel necessity; even whilst we repent of it we repeat it, whilst we know how horrible a thing it is we go back to it as if we found some joy in grieving God: we cannot stand upright, we cannot go straightforwardly, we have no command over our feet, our hands, our eyes,—yea, our tongue befools us, and every sense we have makes a victim of us day by day. Yet still we would live, and we would be men, and we would not descend into beasthood; we would accept the lot into which thou hast sent us, and work out all its obligations with patience and hopefulness. But on how critical a ground we stand: the ground gives way under our feet, and we are threatened with eternal loss; all things are to-day against us, and tomorrow they combine on our behalf as if the whole universe were on our side as a hired ally. Amid such mysteries we live and work and wonder and pray; what if sometimes we should be intoxicated with delights that drive us towards madness, and sometimes be depressed with melancholy that threatens to deepen into despair? Our life is filled with variety: now it is a great storm, and now a calm sabbatic day. Hast thou not provided for all these changes? Does anything happen which thine eyes have not foreseen? Behold, our delight is to believe that God knows everything, has arranged everything, and is working out of our life, though so confused and disorderly, a purpose beautiful in architecture, temple-like, a thing that is yet to be a sanctuary in which we shall worship God, and commune with him evermore. How poor we are, how full of vanity and folly; how our conceit runs away with us, and mocks us, and scatters what little strength we have: how easily is the eye dulled, how soon do we succumb to the fascination of the senses;—then how proud of heart, how conscious of self-righteousness, how vain of our little morality; what pedants in respectability; how we boast the fineness of our garments and forget the rottenness of our hearts! God be merciful unto us sinners! Give us a right view of ourselves, as thou dost see us; then shall we know the meaning of the cross, and flee to it as the one remedy for the disease which slays us. Blessed cross, holy cross, all-sufficient cross: on it is crucified the Son of Prayer of Manasseh, from it ascends the Son of God. Would that we might live in its Spirit, acquire all things by its mastery, and endure all things according to the submissiveness which it represents. We bless thee for what thou hast done for us—many things, all things, things that are great and things that are small; behold the minutest work of life is the work of thy fingers, and when our life rises towards grandeur, behold it is thy hand that supplies the majesty. Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power; yea, riches, majesty, dominion, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever! May we live in our higher faculties, and walk along the noblest levels of thought, contemplation, worship, and service, so that when we come to die we may know nothing of death, and walk from the wilderness into the paradise. Amen.
the First Week after Epiphany