But Esther has more to say than that.
Knowing that a good God is in control of the circumstances of our lives is peace-giving, but even more than this we need Jesus. So when it comes to interpreting Esther we need to see the cruciform patterns in the story and the sacrificial “how” behind our salvation. Gregory the Great said in the sixth century that the Bible has a historical shell to it, but that inside it is allegorical and spiritual. The task of the interpreter, then, should be to look for the mystical presence of Christ himself, and not just in people, but in inanimate objects, public executions, and economic policies. Let’s jump down the rabbit hole and see what we find.
1. Spices from outside
Before Esther went before the king she was prepared and beautified, “six months with oil and myrrh and six months with spices and ointments” (Esther 2:12). Hegai, the king’s assistant who helps Esther prepare, also advises her on what to bring before the king, which apparently wasn’t much, because it says “she only brought what Hegai advised”, and nothing more (Esther 2:15). Our stories as believers are quite similar. Our “preparation” as the bride of Christ (Rev 21:2) is made possible by an alien solution to us. Not a moralistic “scent” from inside us, but an alien spice from outside, namely the blood of Christ. Hegai, too, pictures Christ as the one who does the preparing, and who reminds us that to come before God is to come empty-handed, not with self-beautification, but only with Christ himself.
2. Mordecai’s clothing
When Mordecai, Esther’s cousin, hears about Haman’s plot to destroy all the Jews in Persia, he is understandably horrified. He immediately tears his clothes and puts on sackcloth and mourns in ashes (Esther 4:1-3). When Esther hears, she sends new clothing to him so he might take off his sackcloth (Esther 4:4). This is reminiscent of when Jesus says to troubled souls like us, “My peace I give you,” and “Do not fear.” And the gospel is the good news that the clothing of works we put on ourselves is replaced by clothing given to us by another, a much better type of clothing, clothing of peace and promise and hope, which is ultimately Jesus Christ himself. As Romans 13:14 says, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, clothe yourself with him.” He is how we are purified and made holy in life. Not by what we do.
3. Rejecting comfort
But, Mordecai rejects the clothing! This is a good example of how we need to let the “kaleidoscope” provide us with more than one facet because here Mordecai becomes a type of Christ, not just a type of us — a giver, not just a recipient. Like Mordecai cries out with a loud and bitter cry in the midst of the city, so does Jesus also cry out with a loud and bitter cry when he breathes his last on the cross (Mark 15:37). The idea is this: in Esther we get a glimpse of how a loud cry would one day come on the heels of the threat of our annihilation and would resolve it by standing in its way, sparing those of us in its crosshairs. Mordecai rejecting the clothing is akin to Jesus rejecting comfort for us, all the way to — and through — his crucifixion.
4. Esther’s advocacy
Esther, herself, is also a type of Christ. She willingly risks her life by going before the king to advocate for her people, saying, “If I perish, I perish.” Her two-person nature, being both Persian and Jewish is also like Jesus in how he is both God and man. In both cases, it is the role of a bridge-maker who brings salvation, one who advocates for the oppressed but who also has the ear of the king because of his/her royal status.
Consider too how she goes into the “inner sanctuary” to see the king, though it meant almost certain death. In the same way, Jesus, our high priest, goes into the “inner sanctuary”, or Holy of Holies, on our behalf, with his own blood spilled on the heavenly mercy seat. It is his act of entrance that brings salvation, just like in Esther. It also says she went in “against the law” (Esther 4:16). So too, Jesus’s act of advocacy for us, with his blood, is not in line with the old covenant Law, but “apart from it.” He snaps it in two when he enters as a Judahite, after the order of Melchizedek, and not after the order of Levi, so that we would always know we are saved by a new kind of priest who replaces the Law with his own bloody body and his triumphant resurrection.
5. Haman’s death
Speaking of bloody bodies, Haman, too, even as the principal antagonist in the story images Jesus’s death with his own. Both are royalty, “number 2’s” of sorts. Both have their faces covered before being executed (Mark 14:65). Both are hung on a tree/pole. Both of their deaths are followed up by kingly wrath being abated (Jesus being our propitiation and our Passover Lamb). And both of their deaths precede, accompany, and enable the salvation of God’s people. The fact that Jesus fulfills not only the positive facets of Esther but also the darker ones, tells us that Jesus came to enter into and absorb our sin by bearing it on the cross. These were not the works of a good moral teacher alone, but a Savior who died in a Haman-like way, for us.
6. The king’s scepter
Then we get to the king, who, if you remember, couldn’t be barged in on by people. It would mean their immediate death … unless one thing happened, unless he “held out the golden scepter that he may live” (Esther 4:11). So, in this smaller ‘vignette’ in the book of Esther, Esther becomes a picture of us, and the King becomes a picture of God, and the scepter becomes an emblem of Christ. Psalm 60:7 says, “Judah is my scepter.” We know that no one can see God (the true king) and live (Ex. 33:20), but Esther tells us there is an exception, and the scepter is the key. Jesus is the key. The Lion of Judah is the scepter that grants us life in God’s presence, access to the inner sanctuary, union with our Creator, and a pathway back to Eden.
7. Purim and tax remission
These are actually two different parts of the story. In the beginning, after the king marries Esther he throws a party and remits taxes across the land. Later, after Haman is killed and a new law is given that allows the Jews to turn back the threat upon their enemies, the Jews inaugurate a new festival called Purim (which is from the word for “lots”). It would commemorate the events of Esther when God turned their sorrow into gladness.
These things were created for Jesus’s sake as well. Like Ahasuerus, Jesus grants us remission of (spiritual) taxes and gives us gifts with royal generosity. He remits the old way of owing God a certain level of obedience in order to stay in covenant with him. He remits the “taxes” of the Law and replaces it with the new way of one-way salvation, from God’s hands to ours. In the gospel, there are no taxes.
He is also the ultimate meaning behind Purim (“lots”). When he was dying, lots were cast for his clothing, which provides an interesting, yet sobering twist on the celebration. God’s sorrow means our gladness. Purim points us to Jesus by way of elation over deliverance from the true enemies of sin, but even more elation over the fact that God gave up his Son to be crucified for us and to have his clothing cast lots over by common Roman soldiers. What scandalous love!
Why is Esther in the Bible?
Esther is at pains to show us, even hundreds of years before Christ, how central the incarnation is to biblical theology. It paints us a picture of how grace would one day supersede the law, and how necessary Jesus’s representation of us would be. More than that: we don’t just see his advocacy, we see a glimmer of his own horrific Haman-like death, where he would be hung on a tree to avert the wrath of the King, and usher in times of refreshing, newness, and hope. There is no gospel apart from these things. Indeed, there is no Esther apart from these things, if Jesus wasn’t casting his own shadow backward into history, giving meaning to the stories that come before him.