As the young boy nervously tiptoed to the bedside, his dying grandfather motioned for him to hold his hand. In his final moments, this family elder wanted to make sure the next generation understood a most important lesson. He pointed to the cross-stitch sign above his head and asked the lad to read it. The sign read: God is nowhere. The young boy, wiping tears from his eyes, struggled to make out the third word, and so broke it up: God is now-here?
It seems that God can speak in the most unusual ways.
There are times in life when it feels as if God is nowhere. As we all know from painful experience, that is usually when we are suffering. It is in our times of need that we cry out ‘How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?’ Maybe you are asking that question now. Yet, when we look back through our lives and the Bible, we can see that God was always there. As the Puritans said, ‘Providence is like Hebrew, you can only read it backwards.’
The Book of Esther is a most engaging and mind-boggling example of a gut-wrenching God is nowhere crisis becoming a glaring God is now-here celebration. The absence of God is so stark in both the grammar and drama of the book that theological heavyweights like Athanasius and Luther questioned whether it should be in the Bible. Just think about it: God isn’t mentioned in the book, not even once, and God’s special people are lined up for genocide! Where is God?!
Yet when we read the book in one sitting and plot the structure, we start to see that God is now-here. He is everywhere in the book. He is there at every twist and turn, in the grammar and the drama, the macro and the micro.
God is on every page
Every good story has a structure. However, there is a danger in pointing out the structure as we can end up missing the enjoyment of experiencing the book, play or film. No one wants to see a diagram of the latest Marvel blockbuster or Margaret Atwood novel (well, maybe a few of us do!). Therefore, I am nervous to point out the structure of Esther in a devotional article, not least because different theologians claim a few different structures, all of which seem plausible to me!
Yet, I actually think that seeing the structure of Esther will help us see the God who is not named, not just in Esther, but on every page of our history. It will enhance our experience, not just of this gem of history, but of the gospel of his-story.
Why not open up the Book of Esther and read it through in one sitting with the following outline that is used by many commentators.
Ok, are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin:
- The greatness of Xerxes: Chapter 1
- Two feasts of the Persians: Chapter 1
- Jewish Esther identifies as a Gentile: Chapter 2
- Haman is elevated: Chapter 3
- An edict is sent out against the Jews: Chapter 3
- Conversation between Esther and Mordecai: Chapter 4
- Esther holds a banquet: Chapter 5
This is the point where everything changes.
- Mordecai is honored: Chapter 6
- Esther holds a banquet: Chapter 7
- Conversation between Esther and Xerxes: Chapter 7
- An edict is sent out for the Jews: Chapter 8
- Mordecai is elevated: Chapter 8
- The Gentiles identify as Jews: Chapter 8
- Two feasts of the Jews: Chapter 9
- The greatness of Xerxes and Mordecai: Chapter 10
The entire story is a mirror, a great reversal. Let’s zoom in to see how some of the seeming ‘coincidences’ are actually God-incidences. Walk back through chapters 3 to 8 to see what happened. This structure is taken from a commentary by Karen H. Jobes.
3:10 The king gives Haman his ring
3:12 Haman summons the king’s scribes
3:12 Letters written, sealed with ring
3:13 The Jews, even women and children, to be killed on one day
3:14 Haman’s decree publicly displayed as law
3:15 Couriers go out in haste
3:15 The city of Susa is bewildered
4:1 Mordecai goes through the city crying
Then, in chapter 6 we have the mysterious movements of God – Providence. It just so happens that the king can’t sleep at this time (6:1); the book he decides to read talks about Mordecai (6:2); Mordecai hadn’t been thanked (6:3); Haman just happens to walk in (6:4); and he just so happens to get it all wrong (6:6).
This is when things really speed up. Through amazing courage, Esther is able to stand up for her people, and God turns the tables. In chapter 7 Haman is impaled on a pole, the pole he built for Mordecai.
Chapter 8 comes with a long list of reversals.
8:2 The king gives Mordecai the same ring
8:9 Mordecai summons the king’s scribes
8:10 Letters written, sealed with that same ring
8:11 The enemies, even women and children, to be killed on one day
8:13 Mordecai’s decree publicly displayed as law
8:14 Couriers go out in haste
8:15 The city of Susa rejoices
8:15 Mordecai wears royal robes
Everything has been mirrored. Everything has been reversed and this reversal leads to much rejoicing (8:15-17).
God’s fingerprints are everywhere
What are we seeing here? God has been in control at every twist and turn. It seems to me that the beauty of Esther is the fact that though God is never named, his fingerprints are everywhere. This real history is like a wonderfully crafted novel, because our God is the great Author of life and history.
We see this most clearly, beautifully and profoundly on that first Good Friday, when it looked as if the powers and authorities of this world and hell had defeated Jesus. Yet, in the very moment of his crucifixion, Jesus was winning a victory that would change everything forever.
That is the Great Reversal.
The Jewish people went on to celebrate the story of Esther with a yearly festival designed to engage all the children in re-enacting and understanding the history. It is a loud and fun festival called Purim. You see, God wants us to make sure that we tell the next generation that, even though it may look like God is nowhere, he is right here, right now.