By Reverend Charles Edward Smith, D.D., Fredonia, N. Y.
This book has long been, probably has always been, a stumbling block to interpreters by reason of the peculiar and essential difference of its contents from those of all other books. One difference alone—the absence of the name of God from its pages—is sufficient to raise the question whether it rightfully belongs in the Bible, and how it ever got placed in the canon. Ingenious attempts have been made to account for this remarkable omission, but none have proved really satisfactory.
The trouble has been the assumption that this book, in spite of its wide difference from the other late Jewish histories, is intended to show Jehovah’s love and care for his chosen people, and we may therefore expect to find substantially the same manifestations of the divine presence and leadership in Esther that we find in Ezra and Nehemiah. Impelled by this assumption we try to read into the book facts which are not there, and attribute to Mordecai and Esther, sanctified character like that of the great heroes of Hebrew history of which the book itself affords no evidence. It is not until this unjustifiable assumption is abandoned and the book is judged by what it actually says, that we can arrive at any correct conception of its true character, and the real reason for its place in the Word of God.
With our eyes wide open to facts we soon discover that a good deal more is absent from the book than the name of God. There is no prayer mentioned, although the Jews are in utmost peril of being all massacred, from the least to the greatest. What a contrast this is to every other threatening crisis in Jewish history from the time of Moses to that of Nehemiah. How Moses interceded for his calf-worshiping Israel, and David prayed for deliverance from the Philistines, and Daniel prayed when in danger of the lions’ den! But what did Esther do? She fasted, and her maidens fasted, and she commanded Mordecai to fast. But not a word about prayer, nor apparently a thought; what an omission!
Again, there is no allusion to the former wonderful history of the Hebrew people, no heartening in this great trouble and danger by recalling the heroic examples of their fathers and their glorious victories over their enemies. And, of course, no sublime confidence that the danger will prove only apparent, and deliverance be certain. The words of Esther when she announced her decision to go in, though uninvited, before the king, have no ring of cheerful hope or assurance of success, but rather the gloom of a great fear, and almost a presentiment of utter failure. “If I perish, I perish,” sounds very much like “I expect to perish.”
Once more, there is not in the whole book the slightest allusion to the national religion, so solemnly established by Moses, and so continuously observed under all changes of government for a thousand years. The pious Jews who returned from the captivity rebuilt the Temple, read the law, reinstituted the sacrifices, and revived the worship with its hymns and its prayers. But the Jews of Mordecai did nothing of the kind. They seem to have lost not only the religious habit, but even the religious instinct. God was not in all their thoughts.
If it be said that at least they fasted, and fasting is a religious practice, the answer is that fasting is not commanded in the law of Moses, is unfavorably treated by the prophets, was over-estimated by the Pharisees, and has a foremost place in all false religions. It is a part of that delusive formalism which is substituted for true religion. The Mohammedans have long fasts. Pagans fast to please their cruel gods by doing what is disagreeable and painful to worshippers. And this may have been Esther’s thought when she said to Mordecai, “Fast ye for me three days and neither eat nor drink night or day!” It was a painful trial to go through and the more painful, the more the malign divinity would be gratified. She may have learned this method of propitiating false gods from the heathen around her, and it is a very doubtful proof that she knew anything about true religion.
We have seen enough of the actual contents of the book of Esther to be convinced that interpretation on the theory that it is a leaf from the history of Redemption is impossible. The very opposite theory—that it is a leaf from the history of a perishing world—better fills the facts. And is not that the conclusion which we are compelled to take? The Jews of the book of Esther are the Jews who never went back. They did not respond to the invitation of Cyrus to return to Palestine and revive the religion of their ancestors. Instead of journeying west, they journeyed east until they reached far off Persia and Media, that country far from all true knowledge of God, where they could forget all about Him. There they had to satisfy themselves with the husks that the swine did eat. And in the total absence of any man of God to give them better spiritual food, and in the utter ignorance that there was any Father’s house where real bread abounded, they became as truly citizens of that Pagan land as the natives that had always lived there. And that frightful plot of Haman to destroy them all, which made even the beautiful queen realize that she was looking death in the face, was only one of the perils which might be expected to terrify people who chose to abide in a heathen world where imaginary fiends were worshipped to set patterns for human beings.
If it seems incredible that the Jews who remained in exile should have so utterly lost all knowledge of God and all religious habits and instincts, as the book of Esther indicates, we have only to recur to the testimony of the prophet Jeremiah and Ezekiel to have all doubt removed. Esther becomes only the natural and necessary sequel to the appalling apostasy and depravity to which both these prophets testify. If it was revealed to Ezekiel among the exiles by the river Chebar that at Jerusalem, in secret, the seventy elders of Judah were bowing down before “every form of creeping things and abominable beasts,” and if the last king of Judah listened to the prophesy of Jeremiah, given in mercy to save him, only to cut up the manuscript with his pen knife and throw the leaves contemptuously into the fire; what descent into darkness, what extremity of unbelief and irreligion, can any longer appear impossible for that same race in the far country of absolute heathenism, without any faintest gleam of gospel or revelation? The book of Esther is evidently God’s final revelation of the awful fate of his apostate people, the last torch, shedding a brief light upon their melancholy history before they vanish from our knowledge.
Consider how melancholy that history really is! From having seen, as a race, chosen people of God, selected from all mankind for a great service and a glorious destiny, dwelling in a beautiful land, and guarded by divine power from all enemies, they are now outcasts and failures, repudiated, and left to fight their own battles in that depraved world where selfishness and pride and hatred make life miserable for everybody. Their best hope and their only assurance of safety is in the favor and protection of a contemptible tyrant who rules his subjects as his slaves, and has no more sense of honor or justice than to grant to a murderer the privilege of slaughtering a race whom he hates, because one of that race has not prostrated himself before him in servile homage. To please this ignoble ruler and despot, to gratify his whims and caprices, and even participate in and serve his animal passions and vicious and criminal purposes, is now the bad necessity of Mordecai and Esther. Their triumph over Haman is their single great achievement. How much honor does it shed upon them? Let us give them all the credit they possibly deserve! To Mordecai, astuteness, statesmanship, courage, leadership; to Esther, fortitude, prompt action, the power of beauty, queenliness, patriotism. But does either touch the high level of prophet or saint? Is Mordecai a David, a Daniel, a Zerubbabel? Is Esther a Deborah, or a Ruth? By no means. We can admire her as a superior woman, who, at a critical moment, acted with promptness and good judgment so as to save her own life and that of many others. But she was not a champion of God’s righteousness, or a saviour of souls. Her success was in that lower realm where success or failure does not seem, in the long run, a matter of much importance.
This view of the book of Esther supplies abundant reason for its place in the Word of God. It takes its proper place along with the histories of the Deluge and the Captivity, as one of those “judgments of the Lord which are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold; yea, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the honey-comb. Moreover, by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward.”
This book is one of those admirable lighthouses, which God has set up along the dangerous coasts of a sinful world, to keep other fair ships from going upon those jagged rocks which have already proved so fatal. By its flashing lights we see a noble vessel beyond all human help, breaking its splendid hull against the iron-bound cliffs of a remorseless shore. It is only the first act of that terrible tragedy which constitutes the sad history of the Jewish people for more than two thousand years, during which they have been the victims of many malignant Hamans, and the sport of many heartless despots like Ahasuerus. Nor does the long chapter of their misfortunes and their punishment give promise of an end. The bright dream of Zionism, produced by General Allenby’s conquest and Balfour’s unfortunate promise that, at length, the Jews were to regain a home and national existence, is already being dissipated by the fierce resistance of the Arabs, who are the real masters of the country.
One more reason for this book, as of the authorship of God himself, remains to be added. It is the record of the fulfillment of the prophecy given through Moses, away back at the founding of the Hebrew nation. Then did the divine foresight distinctly describe the inevitable consequences that would follow treason to his laws and apostasy from his religion. How exactly the prediction corresponds with the history which the world knows so well!
“The Lord shall scatter thee among all people, from the one end of the earth even unto the other and there thou shalt serve other gods * * * even wood and stone, and among these nations thou shalt find no ease * * * but the Lord shall give thee there a trembling heart, and failing of eyes, and sorrow of mind, and thy life shall hang in doubt * * * and thou shalt fear day and night, and in the morning thou shalt say, ‘Would God it were evening,’ and at even thou shalt say, ‘Would God it were morning!’ “How perfectly He who knows the end from the beginning described the unprotected, harassed, anxious, despairing life which has been the portion of the Jews ever since they departed from God, and denied their mission! Zoologists classify animals as belonging either to the hunted species or the hunting. The Jews may certainly be called the hunted race of the world.
There is no reason to think that the warnings of the Bible will ever cease to be needed. There will always be the prudent who foresee the evil, and the simple who pass on and are punished. No “Safety First” mottoes will ever make all street or railroad crossings dangerless, and no beacons, however bright, will ever save all mariners from shipwrecks. But the lighthouses will always be there where they need to be, and those who trim and feed the lamps may be sure that the careful sailor, who avails himself of their friendly light, thanks God and blesses the keeper who has shown him his danger. So let us make no mistake about the fitness of the book of Esther in the Bible! God uses all kinds of means to save men. If His name is not in this book, it is a sign that that same name is not in all the thoughts of the wicked people whose history it relates. And where the name of God is not, there is so much else lacking that needs to be there, that what there is there, is a chamber of horrors.