This is the first installment in a four-part series on Esther and how to live in a post-Christian culture. Recommended resources:
When you’re a religious minority living in a dominant culture with completely different views from you on almost everything, how do you relate to that culture? Do you withdraw, assimilate, protest, critique?
This is the question Tim Keller asks in his four-part sermon series, “Esther and the Hiddenness of God.” And it’s the question many of us are asking now.
No Mention of God
In the biblical Book of Esther, the Jews are in danger. They’re a religious minority living in Persia, a society dominated by spiritual and moral values at great variance to theirs. They have no king, no army, and no land. And powerful forces want to destroy them.
In the past, when God’s people have been in trouble, he’s sent miraculous signs and wonders. Here, though, he seems completely absent. There’s no mention of God at all—no vision, no dream, no prophecy, no prayer.
Is this an accidental oversight? Or could it be the point?
String of “Coincidences”
The Esther story is one of the most realistic biblical accounts of God’s providence precisely because God seems absent. It shows us how the unseen God often works through human history—“not by his miraculous intervention,” Karen Jobes observes, “but through completely ordinary events.”
In Esther, a string of “coincidences” occur in order for the Jews to be saved—a drunken and boastful king, a self-respecting queen, a beauty pageant, a sensuous girl, an overheard plot, and a timely insomnia. God even uses morally questionable decisions to work all things together for the good of his people.
And through these inscrutable and seemingly insignificant means, he advances his purposes. In the Esther story, God cares less about appearances and more about his sovereignty.
Obsessed with Appearances
The sad irony, though, is that God doesn’t care about appearances, but we do.
Esther opens with a party hosted by the king at the palace—a palace so opulent that its description can only be compared to the temple and the tabernacle. (The original hearers would have recognized this association.) For six months, the king has paraded his power, wealth, majesty, and generosity before his officials and servants, hoping to gain their support and loyalty for the campaign he’s launching against Greece.
On the last day, with the entire city gathered, he commands the queen to come before him so he can show off her beauty. Celebrated by feminists for her self-respect and chided by fundamentalists for her disobedience, she refuses to appear before his drunken audience and, as a result, is stripped of her position. The message is clear: the king’s brashness is to be feared.
The king holds an international beauty pageant to replace the queen and compels “all the beautiful young virgins” to join his harem and undergo beauty treatments for a year. In the end, the “winner” is a Jewish girl named Esther. She’s young, compliant, and afraid—a foreshadowing contrast of the Esther who is to come.
Not Much Has Changed
This entire scene—from the party to the pageant—is a spectacle. It’s written to highlight how much Persian culture loves appearances. Men are measured by wealth and power, women by beauty and sexuality—or, as Keller puts it, a man by the size of his wallet and a woman by the size of her dress.
Not much has changed, has it? The world tells us to judge things and persons by external measures. It tells us that what we have—money, beauty, talent, power—matters more than who we are. It demands “beauty treatments” to get better credentials and sexier bodies.
When we adopt this appearance-driven approach, though, we miss God’s daily faithfulness because we look only for extraordinary miracles, not ordinary providence. As Keller notes:
When you see one of the ten plagues, you know that’s God! But when King Xerxes gets drunk and starts bragging, you don’t say, “Wow. There’s God at work!” But the book of Esther is trying to tell you, “Don’t make that mistake. God is at work.”
Today, if we can’t see God at work in political decisions in Washington or in medical ethics in healthcare or in events in our daily lives, we must not conclude he’s not working. As Keller notes, “His silence is not absence, his hiddenness is not his abandonment.” For Esther teaches that, in his providence, he’s working out the salvation of his people.
Laugh at the Days to Come
The Esther story is a reversal of the expected. What appears inevitable is not. Who appears powerful is not. Appearances are not what they seem.
Esther is written generations after the events have taken place. The original hearers know King Xerxes returns from his campaign in Greece as a defeated ruler. They know how God uses Esther to save them. They know how the one who tries to destroy them is himself destroyed. They know, too, then, that the story is full of irony, satire, and humor. As one commentator writes:
The author teaches us to make fun of the very forces that once threatened—and will again threaten—our existence, and thereby makes us recognize their triviality as well as their power. “If I laugh at any mortal thing,” said Byron, “‘tis that I may not weep.” Jews have learned that kind of laughter.
And Esther points to Jesus. He’s not what the people expect to find in a savior. He’s from Nazareth, not Jerusalem. He’s seen as the son of a carpenter, not a king. Based on appearances, he’s not to be esteemed, but ridiculed. Then they see him on a criminal’s cross and bury him in a borrowed grave.
What a joke.
But that’s not the end of the story. Appearances are not what they seem. The gospel story, like the Esther story, makes clear one of the most basic principles of biblical hermeneutics: “Without divine revelation,” notes Jobes, “the human experience is inherently ambiguous and cannot be rightly understood.”
And that divine revelation is the resurrection. The powers that seek to destroy Jesus are themselves destroyed by him—a reversal that teaches us to make fun of even the greatest enemy (1 Cor. 15:50–58). Against all human expectation, Jesus takes the death we deserve so that we can take the life he deserves.
Today isn’t the end of the story, either. The powers that seem in control are not in control. The trajectory that seems inevitable is not inevitable. As Jobes writes, “Beneath the surface of even seemingly insignificant human decisions and events, an unseen and uncontrollable power is at work that can be neither explained nor thwarted.”