We celebrate the festival of Purim (pronounced poor-im) to commemorate God's saving power as recorded in the book of Esther.
You have heard the story of Esther before. A young Jewish girl becomes queen of Persia and happens" to be in a position to counter a villainous plot to exterminate her people.
An unusual aspect of the story is that God is nowhere mentioned. Many have pointed out that God is everywhere implied in the series of "non-coincidences" throughout the book. Esther "happens" to win the contest to become the queen; Mordecai "happens" to foil a plot to kill the king; wicked Haman "happens" to be hung on the gallows he prepared for Mordecai, etc.
There is another clue to God's involvement throughout this book—an important clue that is mentioned less often. This clue is given twice in the fourth chapter of Esther. First, in verse 3: "And in every province where the king's command and decree [that all the Jews, men, women and children, would be destroyed on the thirteenth day of Adar] arrived, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes."
The second clue, also in chapter four, is found in Esther's speech in verse 16: "Go, gather all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me; neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will fast likewise. And so I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish!"
We see the people responding to danger [the lethal decree] and Esther responding to equally mortal danger [the illegal appearance before the king] in the same way. Fasting.
This fasting implies the belief in and reliance upon God. If the people had no hope of surviving, why would they fast? They would more likely eat, drink and try to forget that "tomorrow we die." And as for Esther's three-day fast, was this a crash diet to try to lose a few pounds before seeing the king? Not likely, since she had all of her maids and all of the Jews of the city do likewise.
The fast was a way of reaching out to God, of humbling oneself and acknowledging complete dependence upon Him. The Bible has many examples of fasting and various examples of why people fasted (see chart at right).
So while God's providence is everywhere demonstrated throughout this book, the people's realization that their only hope was in God is also implied in the passages on fasting.
Today, Purim is celebrated as a noisy and fun festival. Some view it as a kind of Jewish April Fool's Day, and many Jewish publications print satirical or bogus stories in keeping with the festive spirit. Perhaps the humor is somewhat in keeping with the irony of how God chose to preserve His people during this time, and particularly how He elevated the humble Mordecai and Esther and brought down proud Haman. Nevertheless, we should remember the serious danger the Jewish people faced, and we should remember the necessity of total dependence upon God's preserving power. It may be that, one day soon, the church will be called upon to fast and pray for God to protect the Jewish people in an equally perilous time.
Which Bible-times queen (other than Esther) proclaimed a fast, and for what purpose?
Queen Jezebel, who was the opposite of Queen Esther in just about every way. She was married to Ahab, king over Israel in Samaria at the time of the prophet Elijah. Jezebel was so conniving and so vicious that her very name has become a byword to describe an immoral woman. She arranged for a false fast as a ruse to frame and murder a man named Naboth, simply because he refused to sell his vineyard to the king. As a result of this wanton act, a gruesome death was prophesied for Ahab and Jezebel (1 Kings 21). Ahab gained some time by humbling himself before the Lord in a true fast. Eventually, Ahab and Jezebel both "went to the dogs" just as the prophecy predicted.