Old Testament Lesson 31 (Esther)
ESTHER SAVES HER PEOPLE FROM DESTRUCTION
The Historical Setting of Esther
Ancient Persia existed in the area of modern-day Iran. The Persians under Darius conquered all the way up to the Danube River in Europe but were finally turned back when the Greeks defeated Darius at Marathon in 490 BC. The reign of Darius came to an end around 486 BC.
Four years later when Darius died he was succeeded by Xerxes (pronounced ZURK-seez), a young son of Darius who was appointed before his father’s death. He reigned for 21 years and is believed by authorities to be identical to Ahasuerus of the Bible; Xerxes is the name given to him by Greek historians. He practically exhausted his empire trying to defeat the Greeks and avenge the disgrace at Marathon, but he only added three more defeats.
Nevertheless, the grandeur of the rest of the empire remained from Asia Minor to India. The center of all its glory was at Susa (Shushan), about 150 miles north of the Persian Gulf, in a mountainous region east of the Tigris river. This had been the home of Daniel for the latter part of his life and was the setting for the events of Esther.
The Story of Esther
The story of Esther is sacred to the Jews. There are more existing manuscripts of Esther among the Jews than of any other Old Testament book.
Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher (AD 1135–1204), ranked Esther just after the Pentateuch in value. On the other hand, it is the only Old Testament book that was not found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, suggested that there would be no loss if Esther did not exist.
Her story is compelling because of her dauntless defense of her convictions and her people. Her name, in the Persian tongue, means “a star,” which seems appropriate considering her story. She was born to Mordecai’s brother and named Hadassah, which means “myrtle” in Hebrew. Throughout the Bible, however, she is referred to by her Persian name, Esther, which means “star.” When her parents died, Mordecai adopted her and raised her in his home.
Most scholars place the events of Esther between about 482 BC and 478 BC. The Jewish feast of Purim arises from the story in the book of Esther of the Jews’ victory in Persia. Attempts to find an explanation for Purim other than this have provided no clear alternative.
Haman’s Arrogance and Jealousy
● Esther 2:21–23 Mordecai uncovered a plot by the king’s bodyguards to kill him. He informed the King through Esther, and the plotters are hanged.
● Esther 3:1–7 Haman, angered by Mordecai’s refusal to bow to him, sought to kill all Jews.
— King Ahasuerus promoted Haman to his highest-ranking officer.
— Haman demanded not mere allegiance from people, but worship.
— Mordecai claimed exemption on the ground that he was a Jew.
— Since no faithful Jew would worship him, Haman sought to kill them all.
— This is one of the earliest known examples of antisemitism.
— Nisan is our March-April, and “Pur” means “lot” (v. 7). They cast lots to find a day when Haman’s plot would take effect. Fortunately, the 13th–14th
of Adar was eleven months away.
● Esther 3:8–15 Haman persuaded the king to order the annihilation of the Jews by portraying them as rebellious and by promising the king that it would increase revenues.
Esther Was Foreordained to Save the Jews
● Genesis 45:1–8 God placed Joseph in Egypt in order to protect and save Jacob’s family.
● Esther 4 He did the same thing through Esther:
— Jews had been scattered among 127 provinces of the Persian empire.
— Though they had been wicked, he would not permit them to be destroyed.
— Had Haman been successful, there would have been no return to Jerusalem.
— The course of history would have been changed considerably.
— The Lord oversees people and events, and though men commit deeds of wickedness, they cannot alter his divine blueprint.
● Esther 4:1–6 When Esther heard mourning among the Jews, she asked Mordecai what was wrong.
● Esther 4:7–9 Mordecai asked Esther to reveal her ancestry and plead for the Jews before the king.
● Esther 4:10–12 It was dangerous for Esther to go in and speak with the king; the law allowed the king to kill anyone who approached him uninvited.
● Esther 4:13–14 Mordecai believed Esther had been raised up for this purpose.
— President Spencer W. Kimball quoted F. M. Bareham as saying: “We fancy God can manage His world only with great battalions, when all the time He is doing it with beautiful babies . . . When a wrong wants righting, or a truth wants preaching, or a continent wants discovering, God sends a baby into the world to do it.”
— Elder Bruce R. McConkie said: “We are quite well aware that Joseph Smith and Jeremiah and the Apostles and prophets, the wise, the great, and the good were foreordained to particular ministries. But that is only a part of the doctrine of foreordination. The great and glorious thing about foreordination is that the whole House of Israel was foreordained, that millions upon millions—comparatively few compared to the total preexistent host—but millions of people were foreordained.”
— Elder Neal A. Maxwell said: “It does no violence even to our frail human logic to observe that there cannot be a grand plan of salvation for all mankind, unless there is also a plan for each individual. The salvational sum will reflect all its parts.”
“If I Perish, I Perish”
● Esther 4:15–17 Esther resolved to do what was needed to save her people.
— Elder Henry B. Eyring said: “Tragedy, loss, and hurt often arrive unanticipated. How we react when we are surprised will tell our families whether what we have taught and testified lies deep in our hearts . . . When tragedy strikes or even when it looms, our families will have the opportunity to look into our hearts to see whether we know what we said we knew.”
— President Lorenzo Snow said: “In many instances of a similar nature where the destruction of the people of God seemed imminent, and there appeared no way of escape, suddenly there arose something or another that had been prepared for their salvation to avert the impending destruction. . . . So it has been and so it ever will be with us. Notwithstanding our difficulties may appear very great, yet there will be means provided for our escape if we ourselves perform the duties incumbent upon us as the children of God. But it may become necessary in the future . . . for some of the Saints to act the part of Esther, the queen, and be willing to sacrifice anything and everything that is required at their hands for the purpose of working out the deliverance of the Latter-day Saints.”
“Fast Ye for Me”
● Esther 4:16 Esther asked her maidens and the Jews to fast for her.
● Isaiah 58:3–12 Isaiah explained the elements and the benefits of a fast:
— Fasting is a principle of the gospel of Jesus Christ and has always been a means of developing or enhancing spiritual sensitivity.
— Besides voluntary abstinence from food and drink, a proper fast should include fervent prayer, contemplation, soul searching, and other activities that invite the Lord’s spirit.
— Fasting was important in Old Testament times as shown by these examples:
• Moses fasted on Mt. Sinai while receiving the law (Exodus 34:28).
• The children of Israel fasted before important battles (Judges 20:26).
• The children of Israel fasted as part of repentance (1 Samuel 7:6).
• The children of Israel fasted when their king was slain (1 Samuel 31:13).
• The children of Israel fasted again for their slain king (2 Samuel 1:12).
• David fasted while mourning for Abner (2 Samuel 3:35).
• David fasted and prayed for his enemies (Psalm 35:13–14).
• King Jehoshaphat fasted for protection from enemies (2 Chronicles 20:3).
• The city of Nineveh fasted for the forgiveness of sins (Jonah 3:5).
• Isaiah describes the elements of a true fast (Isaiah 58:3–12).
• God ignored the fasting of the unrighteous Jews (Jeremiah 14:11–12).
• Daniel fasted and prayed for all of Israel (Daniel 9:3).
• Ezra and the Jews fasted for help returning to Jerusalem (Ezra 8:21–23).
• Joel called a fast in anticipation of the Day of the Lord (Joel 1:14).
— President Ezra Taft Benson said: “A certain kind of devil goes not out except by fasting and prayer, the scripture tells us. (Matt. 17:21). Periodic fasting can help clear up the mind and strengthen the body and the spirit. The usual fast, the one we are asked to participate in for fast Sunday, is for 24 hours without food or drink. Some people, feeling the need, have gone on longer fasts of abstaining from food but have taken the needed liquids. Wisdom should be used, and the fast should be broken with light eating. To make a fast most fruitful, it should be coupled with prayer and meditation; physical work should be held to a minimum, and it’s a blessing if one can ponder on the scriptures and the reason for the fast.”
The Spirit’s Influence on Timing
● Esther 5:1–3 Esther approached the king, he received her and granted anything she requested.
● Esther 5:4–8 She requested that the king and Haman come to a banquet.
— Esther used her first banquet to enhance her good standing with the king.
— She requested their presence at a second banquet 24 hours later.
— Had she accused Haman directly her accusation might have been rejected.
— What happened during those 24 hours was of the greatest importance.
● Esther 5:9–14 Meanwhile, Haman, angered again by Mordecai, constructed a gallows, hoping to obtain permission from the king to hang Mordecai. The gallows were about 75 feet high—so everybody could see the hanging.
● Esther 7:1–6 At the banquet Esther told the king she was a Jew and also what Haman had done.
● Esther 7:7–10 The angered king ordered Haman to be hanged on his own gallows.
— Haman “fell on Esther’s bed” (vv. 7–8). In the Middle East in ancient times, banquets were served to the guests as they reclined on pillows or couches. The Hebrew word translated in verse 8 as bed may have been a couch or a place of reclining.
— It seems likely that Haman rushed over to Esther at the banquet and fell on her couch to plead for his life. The king’s abrupt departure from the banquet may have been prompted by a desire to check Esther’s story with some of the other aides in the court. When the king returned to the banquet, he interpreted Haman’s position as a sexual advance and ordered his death.
— Thus, with no direct suggestion by Esther about what Haman’s punishment should be, circumstances brought about the swift execution of the man who could have proven, even after his fall from favor, to be a powerful enemy to the queen.
— We will fall into the pits we dig for others (Psalm 7:15–16).
— We will be judged in the same way we judge others (Matt. 7:2).
— The proud will be abased and the humble exalted (Matt. 23:12).
Esther and Mordecai’s Reward
● Esther 8:1 Esther was given the house of Haman.
● Esther 8:2 Mordecai was honored and placed over the house of Haman. Giving the ring to Mordecai made him an official representative of the king (Esther 3:10), second in authority to the king (Esther 10:3).
THE FINAL RESULTS
The Jews were Authorized to Defend Themselves
● Esther 8:3–8 The rule of “irreversible decree” prevented the king from changing his orders.
● Esther 8:9–14, 15–17 A new decree was written, allowing the Jews to defend themselves with arms. Many people converted to Judaism to protect themselves from the Jews’ revenge.
1: Faith Precedes the Miracle , 323.
2: “Making Our Calling and Election Sure,” Brigham Young University Speeches of the Year, 25 Mar. 1969, 6.
3: “A More Determined Discipleship,” Ensign, Feb. 1979, 71.
4: Ensign, May 1996, 64.
5: 1882 General conference Address, in Journal of Discourses, 23:290, 293.
6: In Conference Report, Oct. 1974, 92.