The Book of Esther is one of the most unique in the Bible. The name of God is not mentioned in this book at all. There is not even a divine title or pronoun that refers to God. The Book of Esther is not quoted in the New Testament. It’s also one of two books named after a woman. Ruth is about Redemption and Esther is about Providence. God directs the universe in according to His purpose, that’s providence. Romans 8:28 reminds of this fact: “We know that God works ALL things together for the good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.”
The great book of Esther begins by giving us a view of life in the palace of Persia, the political machine at work at that time and introduces us to the powerful world ruler, Xerxes in the Greek or Ahasuerus in Hebrew. His father was Darius I, and his grandfather was Cyrus the Great; so he came from an illustrious family. Xerxes ruled over the Persian Empire from 486 to 465 B.C. The empire was divided into twenty “satrapies,” which in turn were subdivided into “provinces”; and the king was in absolute control.
Like most monarchs of that day, Xerxes was a proud man; and in this chapter, we see three evidences of his pride. (Even through Xerxes’s pride, God was still at work setting His plans in place.)
- Showing Off (Est. 1:1-9)
Eastern rulers enjoyed hosting lavish banquets because each occasion gave them opportunity to impress their guests with their royal power and wealth. Three banquets are mentioned in this chapter: one for the key military and political officers of the empire (vv. 1-4); one for the men of Shushan (Susa in Greek), site of the king’s winter palace (vv. 5-8); and one for the women of Shushan (v. 9), presided over by Queen Vashti.
What was the purpose behind the banquet for the nobles and officials of the empire? Scripture doesn’t tell us, but secular history does. The Greek historian Herodotus (485-425 B.C.) may refer to these banquets in his History, where he states that Xerxes was conferring with his leaders about a possible invasion of Greece. Xerxes’ father, Darius I, had invaded Greece and been shamefully defeated at Marathon in 490. While preparing to return to Greece and get revenge, Darius had died (486 B.C.); and now his son felt compelled to avenge his father and expand his empire at the same time. Herodotus claims that Xerxes planned to invade all of Europe and “reduce the whole earth into one empire.”
According to Herodotus, the king’s words were these: “My intent is to throw a bridge over the Hellespont and march an army through Europe against Greece, that thereby I may obtain vengeance from the Athenians for the wrongs committed by them against the Persians and against my father.” The king’s uncle, Artabanus, strongly opposed the plan, but the king persisted and succeeded in convincing the princes and officers to follow him.
It was important that Xerxes impress his nobles and military leaders by showing off his wealth and power. When they saw the marble pillars, the gorgeous drapes hung from silver rings, the gold and silver couches on beautiful marble mosaic pavements, and the golden table service, what else could they do but submit to the king? Like the salesperson who takes you out to an exclusive restaurant for an expensive dinner, the king broke down their resistance. A proud man himself, he knew how to appeal to the pride in others.
Unfortunately, this ostentatious display of wealth couldn’t guarantee the Persians a military victory. In 480 B.C., the Persian navy was destroyed at Salamis, while the king sat on a throne “watching the battle; and in 479 B.C., the Persian army was defeated at Plataea. It ended Xerxes’ dream of a world empire. If ever a man should have learned the truth of Proverbs 16:18, it was Xerxes: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (nkjv).
People in authority need to remember that all authority comes from God (Rom. 13:1) and that He alone is in complete control. Pharaoh had to learn that lesson in Egypt (Ex. 7:3-5); Nebuchadnezzar had to learn it in Babylon (Dan. 3-4); Belshazzar learned it at his blasphemous banquet (Dan. 5); Sennacherib learned it at the gates of Jerusalem (Isa. 36-37); and Herod Agrippa I learned it as he died, being eaten by worms (Acts 12:20-23). Every man or woman in a place of authority is second in command, for Jesus Christ is Lord of all.
- Drinking to Excess (Est. 1:10-12)
Scripture ignores these military matters because the writer’s purpose was to explain how Esther became queen. It was at the conclusion of the seven-day banquet that Xerxes, “in high spirits from wine” (Est. 1:10, niv), ordered his queen to display her beauty to the assembled guests; but she refused to obey. Her response, of course, was a triple offense on her part. Here was a woman challenging the authority of a man, a wife disobeying the orders of her husband, and a subject defying the command of the king. As a result, “the king became furious and burned with anger” (v. 12, niv).
As we look at the Book of Esther, we will discover that this mighty monarch could control everything but himself. His advisers easily influenced him; he made impetuous decisions that he later regretted; and when he didn’t get his own way, he became angry. Susceptible to flattery, he was master of a mighty empire but not master of himself. “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city” Prov. 16:32. Xerxes built a great citadel at Shushan, but he couldn’t build his own character. “Whoever has no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down, without walls” Proverbs 25:28 NKJV. The king could control neither his temper nor his thirst.
As for the anger that King Xerxes expressed toward his lovely queen, it was ignorant, childish, and completely uncalled for. Had the king been sober, he would never have asked his wife to display her beauties before his drunken leaders. His pride got the best of him; for if he couldn’t command his own wife, how could he ever command the Persian armies? Since Vashti had embarrassed the king before his own leaders, the king had to do something to save both his ego and his reputation.
Pride feeds anger, and as it grows, anger reinforces pride. “A quick-tempered man acts foolishly,” warned the writer of Proverbs 14:17, a text perfectly illustrated by King Xerxes. Instead of being angry at Vashti, the king should have been angry at himself for acting so foolishly.
- Anger (Est. 1:13-22)
When the ego is pricked, it releases a powerful poison that makes people do all sorts of things they’d never do if they were humble and submitted to the Lord. Had Xerxes sobered up and thought the matter through, he would never have deposed his wife. After all, she showed more character than he did.
The Persian king had seven counselors who advised him in matters of state and had the right to approach his throne. They also knew well how to flatter the king to secure their positions and get from him what they wanted. The phrase “understood the times” (v. 13) suggests that they were astrologers who consulted the stars and used other forms of divination. Eastern monarchs in that day depended on such men to give them instructions in matters personal, governmental, and military. (See Dan. 1:20)
Concerned about the repercussions of Vashti’s disobedience, the king asked his seven counselors what he should do. The first thing they did was exaggerate the importance of the event: Vashti had done wrong not only to the king but also to the entire empire! Therefore, when the guests returned home, they would tell everybody that the queen was disobedient to her husband, and the consequences would be disastrous. The women in the empire would hold the men in contempt, and a general rebellion of wives against husbands and women against men would follow.
But was the situation really that serious? When Vashti refused to obey, I wonder how many princes and nobles at the banquet said among themselves, “Well, the king’s marriage is just like our marriages! His wife has a mind of her own, and it’s a good thing she does!” It’s doubtful that the king would have lost authority or stature throughout the empire had he shrugged his shoulders, smiled, and admitted that he’d done a foolish thing.
The seven wise men advised the king to depose Vashti and replace her with another queen. They promised that such an act would put fear in the hearts of all the women in the empire and generate more respect for their husbands. But would it? Are hearts changed because kings issue decrees or congresses and parliaments pass laws? How would the punishment of Vashti make the Persian women love their husbands more? Are love and respect qualities that can be generated in hearts by human fiat?
How could seven supposedly wise men be so calloused in their treatment of Vashti and so foolish in their evaluation of the women of the empire? How could they be so brutal as to use the authority of the law to destroy one woman and threaten the peace of every home in the empire? What a contrast to Paul’s counsel to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5:18-33!
Still motivated by anger and revenge, and seeking to heal his wounded pride, the king agreed to their advice and had Vashti deposed (Est. 1:19-21). He sent his couriers throughout the empire to declare the royal edict–an edict that was unnecessary, unenforceable, and unchangeable. King Xerxes was given to issuing edicts, and he didn’t always stop to think about what he was doing (3:9-12). It was another evidence of his pride.
The king didn’t immediately replace Vashti. Instead, he went off to invade Greece, where he met with humiliating defeat; and when he returned home, he sought solace in satisfying his sensual appetite by searching for a new queen and filling his harem with candidates. The women in his empire were not only to be subservient to the men, but they were also to be “sex objects” to give them pleasure.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ has helped to liberate and elevate women in society wherever it has been preached and obeyed throughout the world. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus” Gal. 3:28, NKJV. We still have a long way to go in our recognition of the importance of women in the church, but thanks partly to the influence of the Gospel, society has made progress in setting women free from cruel bondage and giving them wonderful opportunities for life and service.
As chapter one closes, the stage is now set for the entrance of Esther, the woman God would use to deliver His people. God plans ahead.
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