God’s Providence Despite Bad Leadership

Esther, the unique Old Testament narrative, could compete with any New York Times bestselling thriller: assassination attempts, conspiracy, hidden identities, vendettas, suspense, romance, and poetic justice. Most curiously, the book never mentions the name of God. Yet, undeniably, one if its major themes is the providence of God. At first, this may seem counterintuitive. How could an attribute of God be a major theme of a book in which God never makes an appearance? But that’s how providence works. Providence, God’s perfect orchestration of life’s circumstances, nearly always reveals itself in unassuming ways. This plays out throughout the events of Esther, but particularly in the area of leadership. Though often presented as a doting father-figure and a loving husband, Mordecai and Ahasuerus (at least early in the book) actually better fit the mold of passive and abusive leadership. Yet, despite these (perhaps arguably) poor leaders, God continues to weave together His sovereign plan. And He’s doing the same in your life.

Ahasuerus: The Abusive Leader

First, consider King Ahasuerus. We see immediately that he was self-promoting and narcissistic, as many absolute (and abusive) rulers tend to be. Just look at the party he threw for himself.  I admit that I’m not much of a partier. I prefer small gatherings to huge ones and simple affairs to elaborate galas. So maybe it’s my personality that causes me to scratch my head at King Ahasuerus’ party in Esther 1. Actually, party doesn’t even begin to cover it. First, the king hosted a sixth-month display of the splendor of his kingdom—and by extension, himself. At the end of that time, he held a week-long banquet for all the people in the fortress of Susa just to show off a little bit more. (A seven-hour party seems like a lot. But seven days? No thanks.) At the end of this feast in which Ahasuerus put all the splendor of his kingdom on display, he decides it’s time to show off his wife as well.

Queen Vashti was holding a feast for the women of the kingdom when she got the word that the king had demanded her presence. The queen refused. The Bible doesn’t explicitly state why, but it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out her reason.

Self-promotion, however, is not reserved just for kings and emperors. It can waylay anyone who fancies himself an important leader. Sadly, this often happens inside homes and tears marriages apart. Men certainly are not the only offenders, but they are the most common.

Second, Ahasuerus acts as a capricious and arbitrary leader. Vashti’s refusal to come when he called drives the king to fury. As a result, he banishes Vashti and strips her of her crown. (I suppose he could have demanded that she be executed, so perhaps we should applaud his restraint.) Chapter 2 hints that perhaps the king eventually regrets this rash action after coming to his senses (2:1). Abusers often act now and think later. They may even express remorse after the fact. That, however, does not mitigate or excuse their abusive behavior.

Finally, the king demonstrates gross immorality. Realizing that he no longer has a queen, Ahasuerus takes the advice of his counselors and holds a nationwide contest to find his next wife.  I remember this being presented in Sunday school as beauty pageant (which was probably appropriate for fourth graders). But there was a lot more than just beauty on the line. Yes, a physically attractive girl won, but only after the king had spent a night apiece with all of the contenders. This was much more about sating the king’s lust than finding him arm candy for diplomatic parties.

King Ahasuerus loved himself, his power, and his pleasure.1

Mordecai: The Passive Leader

It’s not hard to see the flaws with Ahasuerus’ leadership. Mordecai, on the other hand, is a bit more mysterious. He’s often painted as a white knight in this story, and he does do some admirable things. However, we need to take notice of a couple of red flags.

First, the account of Esther takes place after King Cyrus’ decree for exiled Jews to return to the Promised Land. When God foretold this edict generations earlier, He made it clear that Israel should return to the land and He would take care of her (Isa. 44-45). However, many Jews had assimilated to life in Babylon (and eventually Persia) and didn’t want to leave. Mordecai was among them. While he was a God-fearing Jew, he was also disobedient, doing the easy thing and staying in the place he knew instead of returning to a homeland he had never seen. Maybe you read that and thought, “What’s the big deal? I probably would’ve done the same thing.” Sadly, I agree; I most likely would have as well. We all often get comfortable in land that is not really our home. It’s easier to just “go along to get along.”

Next, Mordecai who obviously loves Esther, doesn’t seem to fight for her. The language in chapter 2 suggests that Esther was taken—kidnapped!—to be a part of the king’s “contest” (v. 8). Obviously, Mordecai had the time to tell her not to reveal her identity as a Jew, so he must have had the time to hide her or to fight on her behalf. Instead, it appears that he was in favor of donating her to the king. Again, he takes a path of little resistance. I realize this is an argument from silence. Maybe he was more noble than I’m giving him credit for. But I do know that there are many men who don’t fight for their wives or daughters because it would require too much effort.

Lastly, Mordecai tells Esther to hide her identity. Unlike Daniel and his three friends who boldly proclaimed their faith, Esther was to keep it under wraps. Again, I don’t know Mordecai’s motives. He probably didn’t want Esther to be hurt. However, he is encouraging her to take a passive, cowardly route rather than a bold one. Mordecai, in many ways, seems to parent in a way that doesn’t require muscle.

God’s Providence Despite It All

Providence is a tricky thing. It doesn’t mean that God works all things together in a nice, neat little package (though in some ways that is how the story of Esther unfolds). God’s providence is His sovereign control over all events. So, despite the abusers like Ahasuerus or the weak leaders like Mordecai, He never relinquishes control or furrows His brow.

In the story of Esther we see His unremitting commitment to His people. Often, Scripture calls this God’s steadfast love, or hesed. Through the villains and the heroes and the somethings-in-between, God still leads His people exactly where He wants them. Haman tries to stomp them out, but God stops it. Mordecai tells Esther to hide her Jewishness under a bushel, but God reveals the light at just the right time. All to preserve His chosen people.

God’s protection marks His providence as well. Abusive King Ahasuerus could have executed Esther or banished her like Vashti for keeping her ethnicity from him. He could have taken a “ho-hum” approach to Haman’s vengeful plot. But God moved in the king’s heart to protect His people. Of course, God doesn’t always protect His children in such tangible ways. Sometimes, He allows them to walk through the fire or into the lions’ den and greets them Himself as they enter His radiant presence, eternally free from all dangers, toils, and snares.

He’ll protect you too:

For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Rom 8:38-39)

Finally, whether in overt ways (as in the book of Daniel), or in more subtle ways (as in the book of Esther), God rules. He raised up Esther at just the right time. He allowed Haman to lay his murderous trap for only so long. He allowed Mordecai to overhear the assassination plot so that he could be honored at just the right time and at just the right way. To borrow the phrase Mordecai used to counsel Esther, all that happens, occurs “for such a time as this” (4:14) because God is on the throne. Not Ahasuerus, not Esther, not Haman. But God.

“For his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom is from generation to generation.  All the inhabitants of the earth are counted as nothing, and he does what he wants with the army of heaven and the inhabitants of the earth. There is no one who can block his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”  (Dan 4:34b-35)

I don’t know what the leaders in your life look like. Perhaps they’re abusive (or just really fond of themselves) or maybe they’re passive, not taking the lead when they really should. Take courage, my friend. God’s providence will not be thwarted by their mistakes—or by yours.

1 A Note About Abuse: Abuse is no easy topic to handle. And my pointing out God’s providence in the midst of it may seem more like a slap in the face than help. By stating that God worked despite Ahasuerus’ abusive behavior, I do not mean that an abused woman should stay in an abusive situation to “see what God can do.” In fact, God in His gracious providence has made many paths of escape for victims of abuse. My point is that a victim’s story doesn’t end because of an abusive leader in her life. She can still trust God’s sovereign purposes even if a chapter of her story involves abuse. If you are suffering from abuse, please get out and get help!

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