Simon Bowkett's Podcast

The structure of Esther - are we living on the WRONG side of history?

October 15, 2022 Simon Bowkett
Simon Bowkett's Podcast
The structure of Esther - are we living on the WRONG side of history?
Show Notes Transcript

Twenty-five minutes from at for , on when it feels as if God's cause is finished and is sinking fast.


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         •        Introduction

Do you ever feel that the cause of Christ and the lot of the Christian are at a low ebb? 

On the back foot?

Dare I even say … batting on a losing wicket?

You see, the first half of the book of Esther has got God’s people harried and harassed by the enemies of God … who are therefore the enemies of his people.

As Jesus said (John 15:18-20): “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 

19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. 

20 Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.”

The trouble is that we see the sort of thing Jesus spoke of in these verses happening to us or around us, and we start to think we’re on the wrong side of history.

And if you only look at the first part of the book of Esther, it leaves you thinking that God’s people really are on the wrong side of history without help and without hope.

Their enemies … particularly Haman … are laughing, but God’s people are certainly not.

Then chapter 6 happens and the God Who is always there but never gets mentioned in this book of Esther turns it all decisively around in the stuff in chapter 6.

And the resolution of all the troubles of God’s people begins there.

The structure of the book is REALLY linked into its message … and it goes like this … 

Think of it like this …

You know there’s a nine-branched candle in Jewish symbolism, well …

In the Book of Esther here are four corresponding parts … ones that balance each other up … to each of the downswing and the upswing sections of the fortunes of the people of God described in this book.

Then there’s a single section at the centre of it all where the narrative pivots away from the misfortune towards the restoration of the people of God.

It just seems odd that the pattern of the story corresponds so closely to that nine-branched candlestick … known as a Hanukkah … which lies at the heart of the Hebrew festival of Hanukkah.


But in any event, try to see the structure of the Book of Esther this way … there is a central candlestick which is the turning point of the fortunes of God’s people and you read about that in 6:1-11.

Then there are four branches on each side of that central candlestick,  curving out and upwards from the base of that central one.

And on each of those you have firstly a prologue at the beginning balanced at the end by an epilogue and then  you get a bad situation for God’s people (let’s say on the first candle in on the left) balanced by a reversal of fortunes for God’s people in the corresponding branch (the first one in) on the right.

Oddly enough, at the feast of Hanukkah these candles are inserted into the candle holder incrementally each night from right to left, but lit from left to right … highlighting the correspondence.

The book is all about the disastrous misfortunes of God’s people being reversed, sometimes quite ironically, without fuss or fanfare, by the God Who is never named but Who is always active fulfilling His purposes and protecting His people.

         •        1. The downward slope, 1:1 - 5:14

So the slide down towards the big turning point happens in the first five chapters of the book.

There’s a prologue and then these three things going badly for the people of God … embedded in the big story line.

Firstly … the Prologue.

            •          a) The prologue, 1:1-2:23

In the prologue, we are introduced to the greatness of Xerxes (the King) as Queen Vashti who dared to resist him gets deposed (1:1-22)

Now, Esther (who is Jewish) gets chosen as her replacement in this role that we have just seen is a totally powerless and exploited role.

She even has to keep her Jewishness a secret, such is her powerlessness there at the court of the Persian King (2:1-18).

But in 2:19-23 Mordecai overhears two officers of the guard conspiring to kill the King.

He tells Esther, Esther warns the King giving the credit to her uncle Mordecai and the guards are executed.

But … here’s the thing … nothing is done for Mordecai to reward him or do anything to secure the future of God’s people … on whom God’s plans are based.

This prologue here is the first branch of that nine-branched candlestick … and it is going to be ‘balanced’ by a huge reversal at the end in the epilogue in chapters 9-10, where the feast  given for Esther as she is inducted into this helpless and spiritually compromised position as queen is reversed and the feast of Purim is first celebrated in a totally different situation … but we’ll be coming to that great reversal later.

            •          b) Complication, 3:1-15

The helpless situation of Esther as Queen is exposed in the next ‘panel’ in the book in 3:1-15 where Haman comes up with a plot to destroy the Jews on the day they knew in their calendar as Adar 13.

Esther 3:2 says: “All the royal officials at the king’s gate knelt down and paid honour to Haman, for the king had commanded this concerning him. But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honour.”

So (Esther 3:5-6) “When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honour, he was enraged. 6 Yet having learned who Mordecai’s people were, he scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead, Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.”

That isn’t looking good …

It gets worse though because what happens next is that Haman goes in to see the King and bribes him to issue a decree to get the Jews annihilated.

Now, that’s pretty tough for the Jews but bear in mind that at the time God’s plans and purposes for humanity were tied up in what He was doing with the Jewish people, just as His plans and purposes now focus on what he is doing in the multi-lingual, multi-national new covenant Church.

There’s such a lot more than the history of a particular, exiled, refugee nation in view here.

It’s all apparently very threatened by what goes on in these verses.

            •          c) Response, 4:1-17 

Here’s where Mordecai make his strategic appeal to Esther … the rather impotent-seeming Queen who is both a Jew in hiding and the very publicly recognised play thing of this absolute ruler King Xerxes.

What CAN this woman actually do?

For myself, I see this conversation as very decisive … although the turning point in the story is yet to come.

Let me show you what I mean:

In ch. 4:8 Esther’s uncle Mordecai sends her the edict for the annihilation of the Jews and tells her to go into the throne room and plead with the King to reverse it.

Esther replies saying everyone knows that anyone who goes uninvited into the King’s presence gets killed, and it’s been thirty days since she was called to go to the King … she obviously thinks her call on his affections might have waned a bit so she has even less chance of sorting this out with him and coming out alive!

Mordecai’s response to that is to ask why she thinks she alone of the Jews is going to survive the massacre planned for Adar 13th., and he goes on: (Esther 4:14) “if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”

Now, that’s the verse everyone quotes from this Bible book, but I reckon what comes next is the decisive part of this chapter … and it comes not from the mouth of Mordecai but from the mouth of Esther (4:16-17).

She says:

““Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”


17 So Mordecai went away and carried out all of Esther’s instructions.”

Notice especially Esther’s new-found courage and entrusting herself into the hands of God … again without any direct mention of the Lord Who is the One Who throughout Scripture is the One Who inspires such courageous faith (the Bible uses phrases like ‘the Spirit of the Lord came upon …’ such-and-such a person and they … (fill in the blanks)

Notice also that such courageous faith is the key to leadership because suddenly the impotent plaything of the violent and absolute ruler gives orders to her uncle (unheard of in Jewish culture of the time) and he does as she commands him.

The big turning point then gets set up in the next section in 5:1-14 …

            •          d) Development, 5:1-14

In this chapter Haman sets up a very high pole to impale Mordecai on because of his refusal to bow down to Mordecai and Esther sets things up for her to throw a banquet for the King (and, of course all his courtiers including Mordecai) at which she plans for Haman to get his come-uppance.

As a reader or as a listener, you just know that with those two things going on, things are coming to a head.

But WHOSE head is going to be had … Haman’s or Mordecai’s?

         •        2. The turning point, 6:1-14

Esther 6 goes like this …

“That night the king could not sleep; so he ordered the book of the chronicles, the record of his reign, to be brought in and read to him. 2 It was found recorded there that Mordecai had exposed Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king’s officers who guarded the doorway, who had conspired to assassinate King Xerxes.


3 “What honour and recognition has Mordecai received for this?” the king asked.


“Nothing has been done for him,” his attendants answered.


4 The king said, “Who is in the court?” Now Haman had just entered the outer court of the palace to speak to the king about impaling Mordecai on the pole he had set up for him.


5 His attendants answered, “Haman is standing in the court.”


“Bring him in,” the king ordered.


6 When Haman entered, the king asked him, “What should be done for the man the king delights to honour?”


Now Haman thought to himself, “Who is there that the king would rather honour than me?” 7 So he answered the king, “For the man the king delights to honour, 8 have them bring a royal robe the king has worn and a horse the king has ridden, one with a royal crest placed on its head. 9 Then let the robe and horse be entrusted to one of the king’s most noble princes. Let them robe the man the king delights to honour, and lead him on the horse through the city streets, proclaiming before him, ‘This is what is done for the man the king delights to honour!’”


10 “Go at once,” the king commanded Haman. “Get the robe and the horse and do just as you have suggested for Mordecai the Jew, who sits at the king’s gate. Do not neglect anything you have recommended.”


11 So Haman got the robe and the horse. He robed Mordecai, and led him on horseback through the city streets, proclaiming before him, “This is what is done for the man the king delights to honour!”

Now that’s humiliating for Haman, and we could just see it as a personal set-back, but the author really wants us to know for sure that the lot of God’s people has decisively changed:

“Afterward Mordecai returned to the king’s gate. But Haman rushed home, with his head covered in grief, 13 and told Zeresh his wife and all his friends everything that had happened to him.


His advisers and his wife Zeresh said to him, “Since Mordecai, before whom your downfall has started, is of Jewish origin, you cannot stand against him—you will surely come to ruin!” 

14 While they were still talking with him, the king’s eunuchs arrived and hurried Haman away to the banquet Esther had prepared.”

The turning point has been reached as these characters … ironically Haman’s support team … proclaim it to us.

The upswing in the fortunes of God’s people is about to begin.

God is ABOUT to turn things completely and unexpectedly around … although no-one has yet mentioned His Name.

         •        3. The upswing, 7:1-10:3

The central theological point here is that the God of the Bible operates behind the scenes in a fallen world to turn the fallenness around, and as His people are crucial to His restorative plans and purposes, that means He turns things around for His covenant people.

And He does it EVEN when His people’s imperfections are obvious.

Firstly then, as this upswing He’s engineered behind the scenes comes into play, Esther throws a SECOND banquet.

(Who says God isn’t for party girls?!)

a) Consequence, 7:1-7:10

Esther welcomes the King and the bad guy Haman to her banquet, the scene has been set in chapter 5 for her pitch to be made for God’s people and as the guests gather, the King bowls the full toss to her leg stump:

(Esther 7:1-2)

“So the king and Haman went to Queen Esther’s banquet, 2 and as they were drinking wine on the second day, the king again asked, “Queen Esther, what is your petition? It will be given you. What is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be granted.”

Esther is now ready to present it:

“I and my people have been sold to be destroyed, killed and annihilated. If we had merely been sold as male and female slaves, I would have kept quiet, because no such distress would justify disturbing the king.”

5 King Xerxes asked Queen Esther, “Who is he? Where is he—the man who has dared to do such a thing?”

6 Esther said, “An adversary and enemy! This vile Haman!”

Then Haman was terrified before the king and queen.”

The King is absolutely fuming and goes out into the garden t fume in private and consider his response … which is not characteristic of his behaviour until now … he’s normally a guy who fires from the hip in a drink-fuelled fury … but that really sets things up for Haman’s demise …

“Haman, realizing that the king had already decided his fate, stayed behind to beg Queen Esther for his life.

8 Just as the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman was falling on the couch where Esther was reclining.

The king exclaimed, “Will he even molest the queen while she is with me in the house?”

As soon as the word left the king’s mouth, they covered Haman’s face.”

A eunuch standing by suggested impaling Haman on the pole he’d set up for Mordecai and the rest is history.

What a reversal!

Well, at one level that’s Haman dealt with but there’s still a legal problem with the Royal Edict Haman had got the King to issue to annihilate the Jews.

            •          b) Unfolding, 8:1-17

‘Well, it’s not too complicated’, says Mordecai to the King … when Mordecai highlights the problem.

The law of the Medes and the Persians couldn’t be cancelled, but it would be fine if a second decree could be issued to say the Jews should oppose and slay anyone who tried to enact the first decree.

That second decree got issued and the Jews in Susa rejoiced.

            •          c) Resolution, 9:1-19

On the 13th. Adar the Jews destroyed their enemies (9:1-5) along with Haman’s dangerous family (9:6-19) … but that wasn’t quite the end of the matter.

            •          d) Epilogue, 9:20-10:3

The epilogue institutes the festival of Purim to remember and to annually celebrate the victory of God on behalf of His people … still without even mentioning His Name!

Esther authorises Purim, her Jewishness is displayed and now things are better than they were at the beginning of this tortuous experience for God’s people because now representatives of God’s people sit at the heart of the institutions of the state where they can serve God’s interest in the interest of His imperfect, but covenant people.

         •        Conclusion

We’ve been highlighting the structure of this book which is illustrating the message … the theological purpose … of this book.

It is showing us something really important about the character of God … particularly important for people living in times when faith seems to be under the hammer.

God could have told us the relevant truth about Himself for His people enduring such times of crisis using just a few sentences to express the proposition this book makes.

But He didn’t.

He tells a story to reveal the truth about Himself which His people need to know when God’s cause seems to be going backwards.

This makes sense.

Think about it.

To work WITH somebody, you need to get to know them.

You know that from the lives you’ve already led, don’t you?

It’s very hard to work effectively with someone until you get to know them a bit.

And when you are getting to know somebody, you don’t exchange your personality profile … the output from a psychological profiling exercise … with one another.

You sit down almost socially and in one way or another you are saying to that person: ‘what’s your story?’

In some (very direct) cultural contexts you might find people putting precisely that question to one another when they first meet.

In our culture we fish for it more indirectly but that’s fundamentally the question we are dancing around: ‘What’s your story?”

And the reason we have Biblical narrative, like the book of Esther, is that  we are discovering the answer to the ‘What’s your Story’ question to find out what God is like. We discover what He is like in the way He relates to people in a similar range of experiences to the experiences that we ourselves might encounter.

So, what is the story with God in a situation where God’s people are on the back foot and coming under the cosh?

Firstly, God isn’t One for writing stuff on the sky, but secondly He is One Who acts (often behind the scenes) to prosper His cause through His people.

And He does that almost imperceptibly a lot of the time, but nonetheless this book has got this set of ironic reversals of the fortunes of God’s imperfect people, that run right through its structure.

Think of the nine branched candlestick called the Hanukkah from Jewish culture again.

First branch curves up on the left with the Prologue at the top of it where there’s the awful Persian festival in 1:1-2:23 … the awful festival where the King demands his queen comes out to flaunt herself for his guests to gawp at, she refuses and is replaced (after another gawp-fest to select Queen Vashti’s replacement) by Esther who should have been a good Jewish girl and not up for that.

And at the end of that there’s the non-ideal situation in which Esther ends up being the King’s next woman on display.

None of this is good … but by the epilogue God has reversed this fruit of the Fall with God’s people elevated from the flesh pots of Susa to the two highest positions in the Kingdom … and with a Festival established to celebrate the God Who does such things to protect both His people and His purposes.

In 2:19-23 there’s a plot against the King which Mordecai foils but doesn’t get any reward of benefit from for him or God’s people, but on the corresponding branch of the candelabrum opposite we read in 9:20-28 of the feast instituted to celebrate the failure of Haman’s plot and the rescue of God’s people.

Now those contrasts continue right through the book as one reversal after another for God’s people gets turned back later … and that’s the structure of the book throughout as we will see as we work through it.

The message quite simply is this:

The experience of God’s people is coloured by the fallenness of this world and its opposition to God’s people and His purposes.

But God is at work constantly but often invisibly behind the scenes, when His imperfect people muster the courage born of trusting Him, to act sacrificially and decisively to follow what they know to be the passions of His heart.

And when that happens, He acts to decisively turn back the reversals that a fallen world seems to inflict on the fulfilment of the passions of His heart.

And that is a powerful message for those of us who are seeking to live faithfully for the Lord in a culture like ours where it is all too easy to start thinking that Christians are somehow living here on the wrong side of history.