The Festival of Purim and the Providence of God

I am a couple of days late in sharing this, but I thought I would share these thoughts from my professor, Dr. Doug Bookman, on the providence of God and the celebration of Purim – the memorial holiday that remembers God’s deliverance of His people in the time of Esther.

The two days of the festival of Purim begin tonight, Wednesday March 4, 2015. On the one hand, Purim is not one of the seven feasts defined and established in Lev 23. And yet, Purim is on two counts a biblical feast: first, it commemorates the soul-stirring events recorded in the biblical book of Esther, and second, that book of the Bible concludes with the following requirement that Jewish people everywhere and for all time observe a feast memorializing those events.

Therefore, because … of what they had faced in this matter, and of what had happened to them, the Jews firmly obligated themselves and their offspring and all who joined them, that without fail they would keep these two days according to what was written and at the time appointed every year, that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, in every clan, province, and city, and that these days of Purim should never fall into disuse among the Jews, nor should the commemoration of these days cease among their descendants. (Esther 9:26-28)

There is bottomless wisdom in the proviso that Purim “should never fall into disuse among the Jews,” both for then and for now, and both for the Jewish people and the Christian world. That wisdom has, perhaps, never been more compelling than it is on the day following an historical speech delivered by the prime minister of Israel before a joint session of the Congress of the United States.

I say that because of my persuasion that the book of Esther is so much more than a winsome, suspenseful and drama-packed account of an episode in the life of the Jewish people that happened nearly two and a half millennia ago. Make no mistake: it is all of that! All contemporary protestations notwithstanding, the story told in that book is the carefully and authoritatively recorded narrative of a real historical drama which actually happened in time and space. Indeed, it is the drama of a stunningly unlikely and ultimately propitious series of events – seemingly random and accidental intersections of empires and people and attitudes and reactions and decisions and mis-steps – by which the God of Israel delivered His covenant people from a deliberate and real existential threat (heard that phrase lately?). This is, in fact, the most remarkable element of the narrative: God effects that deliverance without ever intervening directly, moving mediately through the agency of providence rather than immediately by means of miracle.

Closely related to that focus is the reality that the name of God does not appear in the account. That has troubled many and driven some to insist that the name is to be found encoded in extended acrostic form. But the absence of the divine name in the literary work is deliberate and instructive; it reflects the reality that God’s will is accomplished in the historical drama without objective manifestation of His activity in the form of objective miracles. Indeed, in both the literary work and the story it tells, God remains hidden but His hand is manifest and undeniable.

And it is precisely there that the book becomes so important. Think about where the story occurs in the course of Israel’s history. The Glory-cloud has departed (Ezek 11:22, 23), the real theocratic rule of King Yahweh over His covenant people has been suspended (Jer 26:6-9), and the “times of the Gentiles” – a time when Israel will be under the heel of Gentile dominion (Lk 21:24) – has begun (Dan 7). Throughout the centuries when Yahweh did reign from His throne in the Holy of Holies, He often intervened immediately to protect the nation, whether by means of miracle (Josh 6:20) or special revelation (2 Sam 5:22-25). But that would not be true in days to come. (Compare the return from Egypt under Moses – punctuated with miracle – with the return from Babylon under Zerubbabel – no miracles at all.) But is God no longer going to protect that covenant people? Will He abandon that covenant and allow the nation to be wiped away? God forbid the reprehensible thought! The book of Esther is there to assure them and us that God will continue to watch over the people with whom He has made covenant. But that watchcare will be administered via providence rather than miracle.

In short, the history of the people of Israel from the 6th century BC until today is the book of Esther writ large and long. History has upchucked a seemingly endless parade of Haman’s, the latest seeking to brandish nuclear capability; for each one, the God of Israel has raised up an Esther or a Mordecai. We do the biblical story and its application a disservice if we try to sanitize those two heroes. They were careless and disobedient children of Abraham who, because they were smitten with what a wicked culture had to offer them, had remained in Persia rather than join the people of God in the land of promise. So it is with most of the latter-day Esthers and Mordecais. In most cases they have rejected the greater revelation God has given in His Son. But God has put them in the place where they could be used (that is, He has caused them to “come to the kingdom for such a time as this” – Est 4:14), and then He has used them to deliver His wandering people.

That is why even Haman’s family, when they were told that the object of his hatred was Mordecai the Jew, exclaimed in horror, “”If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of the Jewish people, you will not overcome him but will surely fall before him” (6:13). And that is why, although you have never met a Hittite, the people of Israel survive today and – wonder of wonders – are in significant part gathered in their ancient homeland.

Again, Purim will be celebrated in Jewish homes around the world tonight. It is, after all, a Jewish feast. But it has unspeakably important instruction and encouragement for the believer in Yeshua as well.

Dr. Doug Bookman


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