The book of Esther has been an enigma over the centuries, largely because it is the one book of scripture without any mention of God. Also, it concerns faithful Jews who remained in gentile lands after the captivity, a sojourn that was not compelled by God. The time period is probably during Xerxes’ rule as king of Persia, although there is some debate over the king’s identity; in Esther he is known as Ahasuerus. Xerxes was a successor to Cyrus the Great, emperor of Persia, who had conquered the Babylonian empire led by the heirs of Nebuchadnezzar II. This Nebuchadnezzar was the leader of the Neo-Babylonian empire at its height, 605-562 B.C.; he had conquered Judah, destroying Jerusalem and Solomon’s temple, and had taken the Jews into exile in Babylon. An understanding of Esther must be viewed against this backdrop.
The great Persian king Cyrus had begun his reign over Babylonia by making a decree allowing displaced peoples within the empire to return to their homelands, including the Jews. The first group of Jews to return to Judah did so in 535 B.C. The events of Esther likely occurred within the period of 485-465 B.C., in the Persian capital city of Susa, so these were Jews who had remained behind in Babylon.
All of these events came about as part of the rise of gentile world power in the Middle East. In Luke 21:24 Jesus told His disciples, “They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the gentiles, until the times of the gentiles are fulfilled.” He is describing the end times, but putting it in terms of “the times of the gentiles.” The typical evangelical definition of this time is the era of gentile domination of the world, i.e., the value system of political machination, military might, economic power, etc., as opposed to the dominion of peace, grace and godliness as typified in Solomon’s reign over Israel. This is a correct description – Babylon throughout scripture stands in contrast to God’s kingdom, a reflection of the prince of this world rather than the Prince of Peace. But “the times of the gentiles” can also be taken as the time when God begins to open His program of grace not only to the Jews but also to gentiles; the era of exclusivity toward the Jews begins to change to the era of inclusivity toward gentiles. This development obviously found its fulfillment in the apostolic era, after the Cross.