By Dr. Doug Redford
Whenever the month of March appears on the calendar, the minds of college basketball fans turn to thoughts of March Madness and the NCAA tournament. Many fans fill out their brackets and try to predict the outcomes of games and the eventual tournament champion.
For the Jewish people, this time of year ushers in a season of March Gladness as Purim, one of the most joyous feasts on the Jewish calendar, is observed. The feast is celebrated over a two-day period, from sunset of one day to sunset of the next, since that is how days in the Jewish system are measured. This year Purim will be observed from sunset on Saturday, March 11 until sunset on Sunday, March 12.
The story behind Purim (the preferred pronunciation is poo-reem) is found in the Old Testament book of Esther. The level of joy associated with the feast commemorates what happened when the true madness of Haman, who plotted to exterminate the Jewish people, was thwarted by the courageous efforts of their champions, Esther and her cousin Mordecai. Often today when Purim is celebrated, the account in Esther is recited and children boo when the name of Haman is mentioned; they cheer upon hearing the name of Mordecai.
The term Purim (a Hebrew plural form) comes from the singular term pur meaning “lot” (used in Esther 3:7; 9:24, 26). Haman’s hatred for Mordecai prompted him to persuade the Persian king Xerxes to issue a decree that would annihilate all Jews in Persia. Casting a lot was the means by which Haman determined the time for carrying out the decree. But a far greater King was at work to counter Haman’s intentions and preserve his covenant people.
Celebration of Reversal
While Purim is mentioned nowhere in the New Testament, certain features of Purim’s origin parallel some important Christ-centered themes.
What happened to God’s people in the book of Esther—deliverance from a hopeless death sentence—is also what happens to someone who chooses to follow Jesus as Savior and Lord. The aims of Satan toward humanity are the same as those of Haman toward the Jews in terms of complete destruction, though Satan’s impact is eternal in its scope. The New Testament pictures conversion to Christ in terms of new birth (John 3:3, 5; 1 Peter 1:3), darkness to light (Colossians 1:12, 13; 1 Peter 2:9), rescue (Galatians 1:3-5), and death to life (Romans 6:1-4; Ephesians 2:1-7).
These are as dramatic as the Jews’ transformation from sorrow to celebration (Esther 9:20-22).
Just as Haman’s decree was reversed, so did Jesus reverse the curse resulting from sin. Esther 9:25 describes Haman’s intentions toward the Jews as having “come back onto his own head.” That captures what has happened to our enemy; in fact, God issued his own decree against the serpent after God confronted Adam and Eve about their disobedience. He promised that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15). Jesus came with the stated purpose of dealing that kind of deathblow to Satan (Hebrews 2:14, 15; 1 John 3:8), and he did so through the cross and the empty tomb. His followers await the final crushing from which the enemy will never recover (Romans 16:20; Revelation 20:10).
Enemies Then and Now
Some may find it rather disturbing when reading the book of Esther that a celebration comes after the killing of seventy-five thousand people (Esther 9:16). Each of the three verses that follow mentions feasting and joy. The description sounds somewhat sadistic and contradictory to Jesus’ command to “love your enemies.”
One should keep in mind the setting in which the events of Esther occur. What happened to the enemies of the Jews in Esther is consistent with what happened to other enemies of God’s covenant people (the Egyptians at the Red Sea and Sennacherib’s Assyrian troops outside Jerusalem). Such acts are counted among the “wonders [God] has done, his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced” that “his servants, the descendants of Abraham, his chosen ones” are to “remember” (Psalm 105:5, 6).
For Christians our enemy, Satan, is a spiritual foe. Our battle is “not against flesh and blood” as Paul reminded us (Ephesians 6:12). We do not treat our enemies as Israel treated its opponents. We do not seek their destruction or rejoice in their times of tragedy. We celebrate a different kind of reversal. Sin and its commander in chief have experienced their own “ruin and destruction” (the language of Esther 9:24) and, because of Jesus, they do not have victory over us. This reversal lies at the heart of the good news that followers of Jesus are commissioned to take to a broken world.
Present Even When Absent
At this point one of the more unusual characteristics of the book of Esther is worth noting: the absence of the name of God. But the absence of his name within the book does not imply his absence from his people, any more than the absence of God’s name from a contemporary news story signifies his absence or lack of control over current events.
The book of Esther and the celebration of Purim call our attention to a sovereign purpose that is carried out on the stage of world history through a ruler (Xerxes) who showed no acknowledgment or awareness of the King of kings. Since the events in Esther occur toward the end of the Old Testament era, perhaps the book is a way of setting the stage for the so-called “years of silence”—the 400 years between the Old and New Testaments. The biblical record says little about those years (some occurrences are foretold in the book of Daniel), but it becomes clear as one studies important developments in that period of time that God used the years to bring about the “set time” (Galatians 4:4) for sending his Son into the world.
Today when God, the Scriptures, and Christian faith are increasingly marginalized, followers of Jesus must take heart by remembering that there are other happenings making news within the kingdom of Heaven that earth has no interest in reporting. One example is the celebration that erupts whenever one sinner repents (Luke 15:10). Remember when God refreshed the heart of his discouraged servant Elijah with the message that there were still seven thousand in Israel who had not bowed the knee to the false god Baal (1 Kings 19:18). That was a poll that neither the wicked king Ahab nor his arrogant wife Jezebel would have cared to report. Similarly, we are not alone either.
The book of Esther can encourage Christians today, who are in reality “exiles” (1 Peter 2:11), to exercise faith that as bleak as conditions may seem at times, God remains in control and committed to working for the good of his servants (Romans 8:28). As Karen Jobes pointed out so well in her commentary on Esther: “The great paradox of Esther is that God is omnipotently present even where God is most conspicuously absent. Jesus’ last words were, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations. . . . And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’ (Matthew 28:19, 20). And then, ironically, he left! Nevertheless, our Lord is omnipotently present even where he is most conspicuously absent.”
Such a promise is cause to celebrate.
Dr. Doug Redford serves as minister with Highview Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.