The books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther have several common features. All three are relatively short narratives about events happening during the reign of the Persian Empire. All three involve Persian kings and other government officials. All three focus on the activities of Jews who are seeking to thrive in an environment that is, in many ways, hostile to their exercise of faith in God. All three books bear witness to the fact that a Persian king could be helpful to the Jews in their effort to survive and thrive. All three feature key leaders whose actions are held up as models of imitation. And all three books show people at work, thus providing an opportunity for us to reflect upon how these books impact our understanding of work and its relationship to God.
Yet all three books represent a wide difference in opinion about crucial matters. This is true even of Ezra and Nehemiah, which were originally two parts of one book. In Ezra, trusting God requires that God’s people travel through dangerous territory without a royal escort. In Nehemiah, the offer of a royal escort is taken as evidence of God’s blessing. Ezra represents what might be called “idealistic faith,” while Nehemiah practices “pragmatic faith.” In Esther, God’s hand is hidden, revealed primarily in Esther’s shrewd use of her wits and position in the service of her people. We could call hers a “clever faith.”
Nevertheless, Ezra and Nehemiah uphold a similar vision of God’s work in the world. God is involved in the lives of all people, not only his chosen ones. God moves in the hearts of pagan kings, leading them to support God’s purposes. The Lord inspires his people to devote their work to him, using a wide variety of strong leaders and prophetic voices to fulfill his purposes. In Ezra, God uses a faithful priest to rebuild his temple. In Nehemiah, God uses a faithful lay person to rebuild the walls of his capital. In Esther, God uses a deeply compromised, initially unobservant Jew to save the Jewish people from genocide. From the perspective of all three books, God is at work throughout the world, making use of the work of all kinds of people.