A study of ancient world history—of the two thousand years before the time of Christ—is not a great deal different from the study of Jewish history. They overlap continuously.
As a second day of giving background for the story of Esther, let’s focus in a bit more on the specifically Jewish background.
Picking up after the time when the kingdom divided after Solomon into the northern 10 tribes and southern 2 tribes (which you know from memorizing the dates from yesterday’s post was 931 BC), it was a time of largely spiritual declension in Israel and Judah.
Not a single one of the kings that ruled in the north (Israel, sometimes a.k.a. “Ephraim”) was a good king who served God; and because of their idolatry, God gave them over to being conquered by the Assyrians. Out of this intermingling of peoples came those known as Samaritans in the time of Christ.
The southern kingdom had a number of good kings, though a larger percentage did not follow the Lord in their lives or leadership. And so God gave Judah over to the Babylonians, with the famous King Nebuchadnezzar coming on three occasions to besiege Jerusalem (605, 597, 586 BC). The captivity in Babylon was to last for 70 years, with the clock beginning in 606-605 BC … 70 years because for 490 years the Jewish people had failed to observe sabbatical years. Every seventh year they were to leave the ground fallow, and God promised to provide enough in the sixth year to cover for their needs. But they did not obey, and God is so faithful to his word that God gives justice to the dirt of the earth!
After the 70 years were up and the Babylonian Empire had been overtaken by the Medes and Persians, the faithful amongst the Jewish people were to understand that they should return to the promised land of God’s covenant blessing. The opportunity came right away with the first Medo-Persian king: Cyrus …
2 Chronicles 36:23 “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him. Let him go up.’”
The total number of those who returned was around 42,360, in addition to 7,337 slaves and 200 singers (Ezra 2:64-65). It should be noted that many Jews chose to remain in Babylon, but those loyal to Yahweh’s purposes chose to return to Jerusalem following Cyrus’ decree.
The first return was with Zerubbabel in 539 B.C. The second return was with Ezra in 458 B.C. The book of Esther is situated between these two returns.
(from Chris Wiles’ notes …)
Was it a sin for the people of Israel to remain in Persia?
We should first note that the roughly 50,000 that had already returned was only a small percentage returned to Jerusalem. Just how many remained behind is uncertain, but we know from the subsequent return under Ezra that many had stayed behind. And, in Nehemiah, we meet a man who remained behind as “cupbearer to the king,” who only returned once the city came under dire need.
It’s easy to imagine that those who stayed behind did so because they had become engrossed in the opulence of Persian culture, and a return to the land would represent an unwanted—and for some, seemingly unnecessary—hardship. But we find several texts that illumine the explicit commands of God to return:
Leave Babylon, flee from the Babylonians! Announce this with shouts of joy and proclaim it. Send it out to the ends of the earth; say, “The Lord has redeemed his servant Jacob.” (Isaiah 48:20)
Flee out of Babylon; leave the land of the Babylonians, and be like the goats that lead the flock. (Jeremiah 50:8)
Flee from Babylon! Run for your lives! Do not be destroyed because of her sins.
It is time for the Lord’s vengeance; he will repay her what she deserves. (Jeremiah 51:6)
Further, Deuteronomy 28 chronicles the coming judgment of God in the scattering of His people during exile. The scattering would represent a “curse.” Therefore, in every biblical sense, the people had grown comfortable living in cursed circumstances.
Said another way, God’s program with Israel to this point had centered on blessings associated with geography. He had taken Abraham to the land, He had fiercely ensured that Moses and the Israelites returned to the land. So if you were reading the OT to this point, it would seem quite strange for anyone to remain outside the land that God had been so gracious in blessing His people with, and had been so ferocious in ensuring they found security in.
So while we can’t point to an explicit text that labels these people as explicitly sinful, they are certainly living outside of obedience and adherence to God’s program. Note that the name Mordecai comes from the Babylonian god Marduk, and similarly, Esther is a derivative of the god Ishtar. We might see this as indicative of some form of covenantal nominalism—abiding in Persia in both body and spirit.
But what is encouraging to us is that, even if they were not God’s all-stars of obedience, they allowed God to use them in a critical time of history. And God is willing to accomplish great things through any of his people who yield their lives to him.