Queen Esther Character Bible Study Background and Lessons
Name: Hadassah and then Esther
Meaning of name: Hadassah means “myrtle” and Esther means “star.”
Ancestry and family life: Esther was an orphan from the tribe of Benjamin. Her father and mother were not alive. So Mordecai, her cousin, became her guardian. This was 50-60 years after many of the Jews had returned to Judah under Zerubabbel in 538 BC. But it was before the second return under Ezra in 457 B.C.
Mordecai’s great-grandfather was one of the original Jews who were deported to Babylon four generations before. After Babylon fell to the Persians these Jews moved to various parts of the kingdom. Going farther back, Mordecai was descended from the family of Kish, a family name that can be traced all the way back to Saul’s father. It is unknown if Mordecai had a family of his own, but he did adopt Esther, his cousin, as his own daughter when her parents died and left her an orphan.
Thus Esther’s family was living as part of the Jewish diaspora. They had made new homes and new lives away from Judah. Notably, her family had chosen not to return when others did. It could indicate some level of success or contentment for her family in Persia.
As Jews living abroad, they would have faced some level of intermittent persecution as they do in this book. Anti-Semitism is not a new thing. Jews have faced racial persecution for millennia. At the same time, life in Persia would have afforded her family certain opportunities and stability that they would not have had returning to Judah. Many Jewish families fared quite well in their new homes.
When and where she lived:
Esther 2:5-6 – Now there was in the citadel of Susa a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, named Mordecai son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, who had been carried into exile from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, among those taken captive with Jehoiachin king of Judah.
Esther lived in Susa. This was made the capital city of the Persian Empire by Cambyses II. Later Darius the Great built a magnificent palace there that was added to by his successors. Eventually the city was conquered by Alexander the Great. Interestingly, it is famous for weddings. First, for Esther’s wedding with Ahasuerus (Xerxes) and then later for the Susa Weddings, where Alexander the Great married 10,000 Macedonians and Persians in a grand ceremony intended to unite the two civilizations.
Ahasuerus was ambitious and planned a full scale campaign against Greece. It is likely that the royal feasts recorded in chapter one were intended to promote confidence in the government for this war effort.
Training and occupation:
Esther 2:7 – Mordecai had a cousin named Hadassah, whom he had brought up because she had neither father nor mother. This young woman, who was also known as Esther, had a lovely figure and was beautiful. Mordecai had taken her as his own daughter when her father and mother died.
Nothing is written about her occupation prior to selection into the king’s harem. She is described as being a “young woman” with a “lovely figure.” The search was made for “beautiful young virgins.” (Esther 2:2)
As a young woman in that culture, she did not have a choice about the matter. She was selected by the officials who had direct authority from the king.
None of them were given a choice. It was the king’s edict and he was the most powerful man in their world. Their wishes or their family’s wishes were not relevant. Esther is carried away by circumstances outside of her control.
Esther 2:12-14, 17-18 – Before a young woman’s turn came to go in to King Xerxes, she had to complete twelve months of beauty treatments prescribed for the women, six months with oil of myrrh and six with perfumes and cosmetics. And this is how she would go to the king: Anything she wanted was given her to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace. In the evening she would go there and in the morning return to another part of the harem to the care of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the concubines. She would not return to the king unless he was pleased with her and summoned her by name. Now the king was attracted to Esther more than to any of the other women, and she won his favor and approval more than any of the other virgins. So he set a royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. And the king gave a great banquet, Esther’s banquet, for all his nobles and officials. He proclaimed a holiday throughout the provinces and distributed gifts with royal liberality.
Esther was put through a twelve month training and beautifying program. In addition to the beauty treatments, she and the other ladies would have been taught proper palace etiquette and expectations for their role as concubines. For some it was probably a spectacular and bedazzling experience. They were transported from their own normal life to a carefree life of luxury and ease. For others, it would have been terrifying. They were snatched from their homes and families without any choice and forced into a life of isolation (from the outside world) and virtual slavery.
Place in history: Esther has a famous place in history. She is only one of two women who have books of the Bible named after them (Ruth being the other.) And she became a deliverer of her people. Through Esther’s efforts, the scheme of Haman was thwarted and the lives of Jews across the Persian Empire were saved.
1. Jewish – Throughout much of the last two to three thousand years of history, being Jewish is risky. For Esther, it was the same. Through no fault of her own, she was born into a group of people who were often discriminated against. That identity as a Jew meant that she was one of God’s chosen people.
As the protagonist of the movie Fiddler on the Roof, Tevia?, once asked, “God, can’t you choose someone else for once?”
It was a great blessing, but it also brought with it a number of particular challenges and even hardships.
2. Beautiful – Esther was exceptionally beautiful or she would not have been chosen for the harem. She also found favor in the eyes of all. So her character was also attractive.
1. Fearful – Esther was slow to come around to the idea of going in to visit the king. Her first reaction was fear and concern for her own life. Perhaps a spiritual giant would have immediately volunteered without second thought. But Esther appears to be a more typical person. And like most of us would have, she too was afraid.
But what is more important than her initial reaction is what she chose to do. And she chose to risk herself to do what needed to be done. So in the end, her weakness (we are all weak) was turned into a strength.
2. Secular? – Esther does not appear to be especially religious or devoted to God in the text. She does call for a fast, which may show a devotion to God. Besides this, there is no direct evidence from the text that shows us she was a devout follower of Jehovah. It could be that it is not recorded.
While this is possible, it is likely that Esther did not attain to the faith of Abraham, the righteousness of Daniel, and the devotion to God of Nehemiah.
It is that “normal” or “average” quality about her that makes the story even more powerful in some ways. Because this is a story about God and not about Esther. It reminds us that God uses all kinds of people, spiritual giants and just normal everyday people.
1. Respectful of Mordecai – On many occasions, Esther listened to Mordecai. Even after becoming queen she still received his counsel and followed it. Esther’s new position did not change who she was. She did not become prideful or develop an ego.
Esther’s secular rank was higher than Mordecai’s. But she submitted to his authority. It is a lesson on the importance of submitting ourselves to wise mentors and counselors. Becoming prideful after success is very easy to be entangled in. But we should not lean on our wisdom for in the “abundance of counselors there is victory.”
2. Discerning – Esther was a deep thinker. One case where this is seen is the first time she went in to the king.
Esther 2:15 – When the turn came for Esther (the young woman Mordecai had adopted, the daughter of his uncle Abihail) to go to the king, she asked for nothing other than what Hegai, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the harem, suggested. And Esther won the favor of everyone who saw her.
Esther did not trust in her own ideas. She knew that Hegai had a lot of experience and would give wise counsel. So she only took to her appointment what was recommended. It is an example that Esther thought carefully and also was willing to take the advice of counselors. In the end, this brought success.
Esther 4:11-16, 5:1-2 – “All the king’s officials and the people of the royal provinces know that for any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned the king has but one law: that they be put to death unless the king extends the gold scepter to them and spares their lives. But thirty days have passed since I was called to go to the king.” When Esther’s words were reported to Mordecai, he sent back this answer: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For 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?” Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: “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.”
On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the palace, in front of the king’s hall. The king was sitting on his royal throne in the hall, facing the entrance. 2 When he saw Queen Esther standing in the court, he was pleased with her and held out to her the gold scepter that was in his hand. So Esther approached and touched the tip of the scepter.
King Xerxes had a rule that no one could appear in his court without first being summoned, at risk of death. There was limited access to the king.
One interesting side note is that as children of God, we have direct access to God’s throne of grace to appear before Him and take our requests at any time. We have much better access than kings allowed even their queen.
Esther clearly feared for her life. So this rule was not just a technicality, but was enforced. It took a special act of pardon or allowance by the king in raising the scepter. Otherwise the intruder would be executed. Remember too how harshly Vashti was treated. She was dismissed and stripped of everything because she didn’t submit herself to the king’s whims.
By appearing at the court uninvited, Esther would place herself under the whims of the king. Would he be in a good mood? Would he want to show how tough he was? Would he be ticked off at a second unsubmissive queen?
The fear that Esther displayed shows that she believed her life was at risk. But Mordecai correctly told her that if she did not go, her people’s lives and her own would be forfeit.
Psalm 56:3 – When I am afraid I will put my trust in you.
Fear is a normal response. But how a person responds to fear determines their character. Would Esther allow her fear to overcome and paralyze her from taking action? Or would she decide to act contrary to her feelings and do what she knew had to be done?
She chose the latter. And this is what boldness is. Boldness is not the absence of anxiety or fear. It is a choose to do what is right even when it is risky and difficult.
Esther could have kept her identity a secret and attempted to live out her life in the comparative safety of the harem. Or she could do whatever she could to save her people. She could use her important position to try to win the freedom of her people. And that is what she did.
Reflect: Share about a time in your life when you were afraid. How did you react? Did God give you special strength or courage to face it? If so, how?
4. Prudent –
Esther 5:4-8 – “If it pleases the king,” replied Esther, “let the king, together with Haman, come today to a banquet I have prepared for him.” “Bring Haman at once,” the king said, “so that we may do what Esther asks.” As they were drinking wine, the king again asked Esther, “Now what is your petition? It will be given you. And what is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be granted.” Esther replied, “My petition and my request is this: If the king regards me with favor and if it pleases the king to grant my petition and fulfill my request, let the king and Haman come tomorrow to the banquet I will prepare for them. Then I will answer the king’s question.”
Esther was received with favor by the king. But she did not rashly blurt out what was on her mind. Instead she invites him to a feast. Then at the feast the king again asks her to reveal her request. And then she invites him to another feast.
Ultimately it wasn’t God’s timing for Esther to reveal the situation to the king. He had more work to do.
However, on Esther’s part she shows wisdom and discretion. It has been said that the quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. And Esther seems to understand that. In addition to the food, she wants to wait for the perfect timing. Her banquets put the king in a good and amicable mood. At the same time, she can prepare herself mentally and think carefully about what she wants to say and how she wants to say it.
Nobody would accuse Esther of being rash. She is very deliberate. And she thinks through her plans carefully before taking action. In this manner, she can be compared favorably with Daniel, who also showed a lot of wisdom in his approach to political challenges.
Lessons from her life:
1. God is always working, sometimes unseen (and against Satan) –
The book of Esther is notable in the Bible for being one of only two books (Song of Solomon) which do not mention God. Thus it has even led some to question whether the book should be included in the Bible.
But God is sovereign. If God wanted to include His name He would have. It not being included is also a divine message. It is a message that God is always at work. He is always the center of the story, even when He is not mentioned and even when people don’t recognize it. For the entire first part of the book of Esther it looks like God’s people are losing. It looks like He is absent. But He is not and He never was.
Whether people see Him or recognize what He is doing or not, He is directing history. He is bringing His plan for His people to fruition. Many times He brings up people to accomplish His plans such as Noah, the judges, Samuel, Ezra, Nebuchednezzar, Esther, Mordecai, Daniel, Nehemiah, John the Baptist, etc.
Satan opposes God every step of the way and also has his pawns he is controlling such as Haman, Hitler, and the anti-christ.
The book of Esther is like a spiritual chess match. God and Satan are putting their people and plans into place. Satan launches a powerful opening move by placing Haman in the confidences of the king and influencing the king to agree to such an evil edict. Satan says, “check.”
But God is the master. He is completely sovereign.
Sometimes things look bleak. But the important thing to remember is that God is in control and God will win. In fact, He already won when His redemptive plan for humans was fulfilled on the cross. (Isaiah 14:27, 46:10-11, Psalms 2:4.)
The story of Esther does not contain any stated miracles. And yet it is a miracle. God uses normal people through normal means to accomplish His plans just as, and even more often, than He uses spectacular miracles. Many more people are fed through normal means than through the miraculous like the feeding of the five thousand. More people are healed through doctors than through divine acts of healing. God uses both ways.
Application: Our job is to observe and take note of God’s work in this world and in our lives even when it may not be obvious. We look at the book of Esther and we see that God is the director behind the scenes. What is He doing behind the scenes in your life?
2. God providence – Providence is when God works favorably through circumstances for His people. And we see that in the life of Esther. God used negative events to bring about a positive outcome for the Jews. God used Esther becoming an orphan, her being forcibly taken to join the king’s harem, her being selected as the queen, and the king’s good mood to extend the scepter to her. All of these circumstances were used by God for good in Esther’s life and the life of her people.
3. God uses every kind of person – Mordecai and Esther do not appear to be as holy as Daniel or as dedicated as Ezra and Nehemiah (other diaspora Jews).
Their family did not return to Judah, but chose the life they had in Persia. Esther is advised by Mordecai and does keep her identity a secret (unlike Daniel).
There is no record of them praying to God when facing potential disaster. Prayers of Nehemiah, Ezra, and Daniel are all recorded showing us their intimate relationship with God. Esther does request her people to fast with her, but does not state the purpose of the fast as approaching God for help.
Both of them appear to be quite assimilated into the culture and kingdom around them.
To be fair, it is possible that they did have deep relationships with God, which are simply not recorded in Esther. It is not an exhaustive record of their lives. But if God was paramount to them, you would expect that it might show forth in the story.
So what does all of that mean? It means that God uses every kind of person to bring His plans to fruition. Often times He uses exceptionally righteous and dedicated people. But not always. He also uses normal men and women. Some of these have average faith. And some even have no faith at all.
Wherever Esther fit on this spectrum, we know that God used her in a great way. And that means that God can use you too. Esther was willing to be used at great risk to herself. She was willing to sacrifice herself for her people.
Application: Write down one specific way you think God wants to use you for building His kingdom. How can you begin to accomplish that this week?
3. The kings’ heart is like channels of water –
Proverbs 21:1 – The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes.
God is the unseen force behind this story. He not only puts His people into the right place at the right time, but He also moves the hearts of world leaders.
King Ahasuerus couldn’t sleep one night. So he decided to read. And then he learned of Mordecai’s faithfulness in exposing a plot against him. This happens right in the middle of all of Haman’s scheming, the very night before he plans to ask the king to have Mordecai killed. Coincidence? No. God was directing King Ahasuerus’ heart.
At the end of the story of Esther the king agrees to all of the plans offered by Esther and Mordecai.
The king may have thought that he was in complete control, but what we see in the Book of Esther very clearly, is that the king was only a pawn. Satan tried to use him as a pawn. But in the end God used him as his own pawn. World leaders may take their stand against God, but He who sits in heaven laughs.
Application: The world is filled with hatred and division these days, much of it centered on politics. In the US, many people are so caught up into politics that they focus on this more than on God. Some are worried for the future. That is understandable. Many love their country. That is good. But our hope should never be placed in politics or politicians! Our hope is in Christ. God is sovereign. He has His plan for every country. The hearts of even the most wicked rulers are in His hands and He will ultimately bring about his perfect purposes.
Therefore you should not fret. Neither should you stoop to anger, hatred, division, or rudeness. Vote? Sure. Care? Yes. But be a good testimony and put your trust in God.
1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 – And to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.
4. Boldness should be combined with prudence – In Esther we see a healthy combination of bold steps taken with prudence. She was bold, but first she fasted and thought carefully how to proceed with maximum care. A prudent person need not discard courage. And a courageous person need not throw caution to the wind.
Reflect: In what area of your life can you combine boldness with prudence?
5. God works both through miracles and normal means – Some stories in the Bible are miraculous, clearly showing God’s power and might. Others are more mundane, recording the details of everyday life. And others still are miraculous in the way that God brings about great things through the mundane.
Do not make the mistake of believing that because you do not see a miracle, God is not at work. Miracles are the exception and no the rule, and that is why they are called miracles. Far more often God works through the laws and people He has put into place.
Key Verse Summary:
Proverbs 19:21 – Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.
Haman had his plans, but God’s purposes were the ones accomplished.
Character Study E-book Study Guide
Mordecai and Haman
Joseph step-father of Jesus
John the Baptist
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