The Ironic Providence of the Lord
Ironic Providence Defined
God’s providence is potentially the most ubiquitous theme in Esther. In the story, God’s will is consistently worked out through human means and instruments in such a way that God’s design is being implicitly recognized. Providence can then be seen as God’s orchestration of human events and actions that bring fruition to his sovereign will. For example—Queen Vashti is banished from the king, leaving the king to search for another (Esth. 1:19; 2:2), Esther is raised to be queen for this very time (4:14), and it just so happened that King Ahasuerus could not sleep and was brought to remembrance of Mordecai’s rescue (6:1). These events and phrases cue the reader into the significant, yet discreet, providential workings of the Lord.
Accommodating the providence of the Lord is an ironic pattern that flips the script of the story making the most expected of outcomes impossible, and the most unexpected of outcomes inevitable. It is as though the story is fixed for the reader to develop an expected outcome, only to have all probable outcomes decimated by the opposite result. Attach this idea of irony with providence and you have the sovereign hand of God conducting events and actions in time only to be contrasted and thwarted by similar, yet contradictory, events and actions, i.e., ironic providence.
“on the very day when the enemies of the Jews hoped to gain mastery over them, the reverse occurred: the Jews gained mastery of those who hated them” (Esth. 9:1).
The Ironic Providence in Esther
The theme of ironic providence can be witnessed through the book of Esther in eight key passages—four that build to an anticipated end and four that converse to an unanticipated end. The verses operate in a mountain pattern (as seen in the outline below), the further they go the greater the tension and expectation will build. Finally, their climax is reached, bringing the verses to reverse ordered resolution, as though they are descending the mountain. This ironic process is summarized towards the conclusion of the narrative, when the author writes, “on the very day when the enemies of the Jews hoped to gain mastery over them, the reverse occurred: the Jews gained mastery of those who hated them” (Esth. 9:1). A precedent is then set forth for ironic providence and its reader’s endeavor to trace its rhythms through the book, the very thing this post intends to do.
A. Haman plots to kill the Jews (3:6-9)
B. Haman receives the signet ring (3:10)
C. Haman’s plot to kill Mordecai (5:14)
D. Haman’s desire to be honored (6:6-9)
D. Mordecai is honored (6:10)
C. Haman is killed by his own plot (7:9-10)
B. Mordecai receives the signet ring (8:2)
A. The plot to defend the Jews (8:10-11)
Just as in any good movie, the tension of Esther thickens with the entry of the antagonist, Haman the Agagite. Haman is a historic enemy to the Israelites—his ancestors even reviled against Moses and King Saul (Exod. 17; 1 Sam. 15). Therefore, it is not a surprise that he, upon being aggravated by Mordecai, coerces the king into decreeing an annihilation of the Jewish people (Esth. 3:6-9) (A). If this was not problematic enough, Haman has received the king’s ring, granting him full authority and power over the Persian empire to enforce his will upon the Jews (3:10) (B). His quest for royalty and dominion appears unstoppable at this point in the story, but there is one character who refuses to get along with Haman’s schemes, Mordecai the Jew. For this reason, Haman plans to have Mordecai hung on the gallows (5:14), which will inevitably remove any remaining defiance from his objective (C). With fame and glory at his fingertips, Haman approaches the king with full expectations to have his request granted, but instead, the king approaches him with the most ironic question in the book, “What should be done to the man the king delights to honor?” (6:6) (D). Haman immediately thinks to himself, “Whom would the king delight to honor more than me?” (6:6). At last, it appears Haman will receive total jurisdiction and power over the Persian kingdom, making him an overwhelming force for Mordecai and the Jews to be reckoned with. To the reader destruction of the Jews is inevitable, all the momentum of the story appears to be on Haman’s side with no one to stop him.
At this moment in the narrative, the plot has marched itself to the pinnacle of the mountain, the apex of the climax, where ironic providence will now intervene, bringing a dramatic reversal to an anticipated outcome. The tip of the story hangs on the king’s response to Haman, “Hurry; take the robes and the horse, as you have said, and do so to Mordecai the Jew” (6:10) (D). Just like that, all expectations are confounded. The man who was as good as dead and had an entire empire against him will now be raised to the very position of his oppressor. Yet, this is just the beginning of God’s poetic justice. In a landslide turn of events, Haman is found to be an enemy of Queen Esther, which makes him an enemy to the king, earning himself a death that was formerly plotted for Mordecai (7:6-10) (C). Mordecai is then honored with the king’s signet ring (8:2) (B), the initial event and item that had promoted Haman to his position. Now with Haman’s authority, Mordecai revokes Haman’s decree to have the reverse occur, where Jews are “to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them” (8:5, 11) (A). Esther has turned out to be a book of unexplainable, glorious redemptions with all its early horrific and sorrowful expectations. The plan that appeared unthwartable, turned into a display of God’s ironic providence for the salvation of his people and the glory of his name.
And who knows whether you have come into your work, neighborhood, or church for such a time as this?
Ironic Providence for Today
The marvels of God’s redemptive reversals are something to be awed at. Yet, they are not only to bring about worship but to be practically applied to everyday life. This begins with people recognizing God’s ironic providence in their lives. The key verse in support of this is when Mordecai is speaking to Queen Esther about her opportunity to play a role in God’s redemption, he says, “And who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (4:14). This gives a key insight for recognizing God’s providence in life by recognizing their physical place in the world. Just as God brought Esther to be queen, so also has God sovereignly orchestrated, like it or not, events in your life to bring you to your home, work, and church.
The question turns to us, who knows whether you have come to your home, work, or church for such a time as this? And just as Esther acted upon recognizing God’s sovereign hand in her placement, you can act in favor of God’s placement of your life. Therefore, look to your work as a God-appointed means of bringing him glory, attempt to connect with your neighbors to be a light for the gospel, and faithfully serve in your local church because it is where God has placed you. And who knows whether you have come into your work, neighborhood, or church for such a time as this?
Grace and Peace,