Does God ever seem far away to you – as though he were hidden from view and you cannot “see” his presence in your life? How can we know he is still there and just as desirous to work with us at times like that? Consider the biblical Book of Esther.
Esther is the story of the Jewish exiles in the Persian Empire which had replaced Babylon as the ruling power in the ancient Near East after the Babylonian exile. These Jews – and others throughout the empire – were almost destroyed by the spiteful Haman, a descendant of Israel’s ancient enemy, the Amalekites, who held power at that time under the King of Persia, Ahasuerus (better known by his Greek name Xerxes, 486–464 BC).
The basic plot of Esther is straightforward enough. When Haman surreptitiously arranges the destruction of the Jews, he is foiled by the brave young Jewish woman Esther with guidance from her older relative and guardian, Mordecai. This is made possible because Vashti, the great Queen of Ahasuerus, is deposed, and Esther is able to win the emperor’s affection and become queen herself – giving her the opportunity to speak up for the threatened Jewish people and become instrumental in saving them.
But beneath this basic plot lie many subtle levels of meaning in Esther’s story. The real nature of many of the characters is revealed or stressed in their names, or in words that sound like their names, for Esther is full of names which carry meaning connected to the story. In some cases these connections are almost humorous. For example, when the name of the Emperor Ahasuerus (who has to deal with his troublesome wife Vashti) is spoken, it sounds like the Hebrew word for “headache.” But the names of the central characters – Esther and Mordecai – are more important. Esther’s Hebrew name was Hadassah, meaning “myrtle” (Esther 2:7). But her Persian name Esther, although often said to mean “star,” was almost certainly derived from the name of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, just as the name Mordecai was derived from the name of the Babylonian god Marduk. (The Book of Daniel also contains stories of Jews living in exile in Babylonia who were given names relating to the Babylonian gods).
However, for the Jews reading or hearing this story, Esther’s name had another meaning based on its sound: Esther (pronounced Ester) sounds like the Hebrew word “hidden” (hester), and this meaning is, of course, central to the story. Esther’s rise to queenship is an entirely covert one from the time she enters the royal palace throughout her grooming and training as a potential royal wife to the revealing of her identity at the climax of the story. It is only because she remains “hidden” – a fact repeated in the story for emphasis (Esther 2:10, 2:20) – that she can be used to save her people. In this sense, it is her “hiddenness” that lies at the heart of the plot.
But Esther is not the only hidden one in the book named for this queen. God himself remains hidden throughout the story. Esther is, in fact, the only book of the Bible in which the name of God does not appear even once. Yet God is clearly working behind the scenes in the selection of Esther, her favor in the eyes of the king, and many of the specific events that are recorded. For example, we see God working, although hidden, in the crucial occasion on which the king cannot sleep and is moved to look at the records of his kingdom and finds a mention of Mordecai having possibly saved his life (Esther 6:1). The “coincidences” that occur throughout the story are too numerous and too specific to show anything but the subtle action of God on behalf of his people, even though God remains hidden throughout the whole time.
Jewish scholars have long pointed out that there is a hint of God’s hiddenness in this period of history in the much earlier words recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy. There, God warned ancient Israel “And I will certainly hide my face in that day because of all their wickedness in turning to other gods” (Deuteronomy 31:18). In that verse, the Hebrew word for God hiding his face from his people is the word that sounds like Esther – the same meaning implied in the young heroine’s covert role in the royal palace. Just as Esther was “hidden,” yet was still helping her people, so God was “hidden” for 400 long years after the captivity of the Jews before he openly acted on the world scene again in New Testament times. Esther shows that the “hidden” God loves and helps his people even when he seems far away because their sins have cut them off from him (Isaiah 59:2). But God does not work unseen to help us without our involvement. This book makes it clear that the Queen and her people sought God with determination – fasting intently for his help (Esther 4:15-17).
As Christians we need to remember this principle in our individual lives. Sometimes God may seem far away – either because our behavior has caused this, or because he knows we need time without his obvious presence in order to learn something. In either case, the God who is hidden for a while is still there and still desirous to help us if we seek him. It is never that God will always remain hidden from us, but that we must not remain hidden from him. In the Book of Esther, it is a hidden figure who saves God’s people – both at the human and at the divine levels. The book certainly shows the strength and effectiveness of the woman who risked her own life to help her people (Esther 4:11-16, etc.), but it also shows that the outcome was only possible because of the One who, although he may be hidden at times, is still there if we seek him.