Miss Persia (Esther 1:1-2:18)
Some of you may remember a television program from years ago called “Queen for a Day.” Several women were selected as contestants and then asked questions, which gave each woman an opportunity to show why she should be “queen.” At the end of each program, one women was selected to be “Queen for a Day.” Among other prizes, her hair was done by a famous Hollywood make-up artist, and she dined at a world famous restaurant.
Now we have moved on to “queen for a year,” the annual Miss America Pageant. Contestants are selected to represent their state, and each young woman has the opportunity to display her talent, intellect, and beauty. The contestants are narrowed down until one lucky woman is selected by the judges as Miss America for the year. She begins her reign with, until recently, emcee Bert Parks singing “Miss America” as she is presented to the people.
When I read the first two chapters of the Book of Esther, I find myself asking, “Where is Bert Parks?” He is the only person who seems to be missing in these chapters. The first section of the Book of Esther opens with a series of banquets and ends with a banquet. It begins with a Persian Queen by the name of Vashti and ends with a Jewess who becomes queen. What a happy occasion this seems to be. It seems that if the rest of the book goes as well as the introduction, it will be pleasant reading. No wonder this book is the all time favorite of all the Old Testament books among the Jews.1 But is this the case? A careful reading and study of our text should be helpful.
Vashti is Removed
1 Now it took place in the days of Ahasuerus, the Ahasuerus who reigned from India to Ethiopia over 127 provinces, 2 in those days as King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne which was in Susa the capital, 3 in the third year of his reign, he gave a banquet for all his princes and attendants, the army officers of Persia and Media, the nobles, and the princes of his provinces being in his presence. 4 And he displayed the riches of his royal glory and the splendor of his great majesty for many days, 180 days. 5 And when these days were completed, the king gave a banquet lasting seven days for all the people who were present in Susa the capital, from the greatest to the least, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace. 6 There were hangings of fine white and violet linen held by cords of fine purple linen on silver rings and marble columns, and couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl, and precious stones. 7 Drinks were served in golden vessels of various kinds, and the royal wine was plentiful according to the king’s bounty. 8 And the drinking was done according to the law, there was no compulsion, for so the king had given orders to each official of his household that he should do according to the desires of each person. 9 Queen Vashti also gave a banquet for the women in the palace which belonged to King Ahasuerus.
10 On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus, 11 to bring Queen Vashti before the king with her royal crown in order to display her beauty to the people and the princes, for she was beautiful. 12 But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command delivered by the eunuchs. Then the king became very angry and his wrath burned within him. 13 Then the king said to the wise men who understood the times—for it was the custom of the king so to speak before all who knew law and justice, 14 and were close to him: Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven princes of Persia and Media who had access to the king’s presence and sat in the first place in the kingdom—15 “According to law, what is to be done with Queen Vashti, because she did not obey the command of King Ahasuerus delivered by the eunuchs?” 16 And in the presence of the king and the princes, Memucan said, “Queen Vashti has wronged not only the king but also all the princes, and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. 17 For the queen’s conduct will become known to all the women causing them to look with contempt on their husbands by saying, ‘King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought in to his presence, but she did not come.’ 18 And this day the ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s conduct will speak in the same way to all the king’s princes, and there will be plenty of contempt and anger. 19 If it pleases the king, let a royal edict be issued by him and let it be written in the laws of Persia and Media so that it cannot be repealed, that Vashti should come no more into the presence of King Ahasuerus, and let the king give her royal position to another who is more worthy than she. 20 And when the king’s edict which he shall make is heard throughout all his kingdom, great as it is, then all women will give honor to their husbands, great and small.” 21 And this word pleased the king and the princes, and the king did as Memucan proposed. 22 So he sent letters to all the king’s provinces, to each province according to its script and to every people according to their language, that every man should be the master in his own house and the one who speaks in the language of his own people.
King Ahasuerus, known by secular historians as Xerxes,2 had been in power for three years. It would seem it took this long to consolidate his kingdom by suppressing a revolt on the part of Egypt and then Babylon.3 He resided in Susa,4 the capital of ancient Elam, in the winter palace which his father, Darius I, had rebuilt as his winter capital. Ahasuerus is the great king of the Persians, the one of whom Daniel had prophesied:
2 “And now I will tell you the truth. Behold, three more kings are going to arise in Persia. Then a fourth will gain far more riches than all of them; as soon as he becomes strong through his riches, he will arouse the whole empire against the realm of Greece” (Daniel 11:2).
No longer is this kingdom of peoples known as the Medes and the Persians (Daniel 5:28; 6:8, 12, 15); now it is the kingdom of Persia and Media (Esther 1:3, 14, 18-19), because Persia has now become the dominant nation.
In the third year of his reign (1:3), the king gave a great banquet which lasted six months. The text does not specifically tell us why the king held such an elaborate celebration, but it seems clear his intent was to display his power and glory to those in his kingdom (1:4). Secular history may shed light on this extravaganza. The following year Ahasuerus will wage war against the Greeks. The celebration may have been something of a pep rally. Noblemen and women from the many provinces (127) of this kingdom were present to behold the great power of this king and to see first hand that he was capable of undertaking great tasks (such as this six-month banquet). It is suggested that this six-month celebration provided the occasion for planning the military campaign which was to be waged against Greece. The king is most certainly out to make an impression on his guests so that they will submit to and support his leadership as he enters into battle.5
As the six months drew to a close, yet another banquet is described. This banquet is shorter—a mere seven days—and for the benefit of all the men who dwelled in Susa, rich and poor alike (1:5). The longer banquet was for the nobility (1:3-4). The opulence was just as evident in this shorter celebration with its abundance of food and wine. While the king provided wine in abundance, he did not force any to drink other than what they wished (1:8).
The women would have been especially impressed with the palace and grounds.6 I am not even sure what the author means by all of his descriptive terms, but we can be sure that the “riches of his royal glory” (1:4) were on display. This included expensive hangings, suspended by ornate cords fastened to massive marble columns by silver rings (1:6). In my mind’s eye, it would seem to be a very expensive tent, providing an outside entertaining area where food was served and guests entertained. Couches were provided for the guests to recline upon while they ate—not couches from a bargain basement furniture store—these were made of gold and silver. Underneath was a mosaic pavement that would have made a Better Homes and Garden reader weep. To top it all off, the wine was served in vessels which were each priceless works of art. I know my wife would have taken note of all these things and more. This was the point of the banquet; the king was letting everyone know he was richer and more powerful than anyone else.
While the men were being entertained by the king, the women had their own celebration with Queen Vashti as their hostess (1:9). At the end of the seven days, the banquets were drawing to a close. Plenty of liquor had flowed over the previous week, and the text informs us the king had his share of it (1:10). We are not told the king was “drunk,” but that his heart was “merry.” The Bible does not prohibit men from becoming merry, but only from becoming drunk (see Deuteronomy 14:24-26). We should be careful not to read too much into this text. Nevertheless, it was when the king’s heart was “merry” that he sent for Vashti to appear before the men who were gathered with him (1:10-11). From all I can tell, he planned this as the grand finale. From what we are told, she was not instructed with regard to her dress other than she should appear wearing her royal crown. She was summoned to display her royal beauty, not to entertain the troops with some kind of burlesque show. Remember, the purpose of the celebration is for the king to display his “royal glory and the splendor of his great majesty” (1:4). The king was not asking; he was summoning his queen. But neither was he demanding she do anything demeaning to herself. She was to appear in all her glory to bring glory to the king.
Many commentators and most Christians seem to read a great deal into this text. They suppose the king has commanded the queen to disgrace herself by acting in an unseemly way or by performing to a crowd of drunks (I wonder how much more sober the women were). For example, J. Sidlow Baxter writes,
The king’s order that Vashti (Vashti means ‘beautiful woman’) should come and immodestly display herself before a vast company of half-intoxicated revellers was not only a gross breach of Persian etiquette, but a cruel outrage which would have disgraced for life the one whom, above all other, the king should have protected. Vashti’s refusal was courageous and fully justified: though we can well understand that such a public rebuff to one who was an absolute monarch, and vainglorious in the extreme, must have been as humiliating and exasperating as it was richly deserved.7
The same position is taken by Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown:
“The refusal of Vashti to obey an order which required her to make an indecent exposure of herself before a company of drunken revellers was becoming both the modesty of her sex and her rank as queen; for, according to Persian customs, the queen, even more than the wives of other men, was secluded from the public gaze: and had not the king’s blood been heated with wine, or his reason overpowered by force of offended pride, he would have perceived that his own honour as well as hers was consulted by her dignified conduct.”8
John C. Whitcomb leans in this same direction but is much more cautious about drawing conclusions not clearly indicated by the author:
On the last day of the feast, the inebriated king sent his seven eunuchs, . . . who constituted his means of communication with the harem, to fetch Vashti. Persian queens usually ate at the king’s table, but not necessarily at great banquets. Presumably fearing for her dignity in the midst of such a drunken group (cf. Herodotus 5. 18), she utterly refused to obey the summons.9
We do not really know what prompted the queen to respond as she did. It is my understanding that this woman was of royal (or at least noble) blood. Secular history does not seem to have great things to say about her.10 Nearly all seem to assume that while the men were drinking themselves into a stupor, the women were the essence of propriety and self-control. I worked for a caterer during my college years, and my experience was that women are no less likely to over-indulge and act inappropriately than men.
In our text, Vashti is certainly not cast in a favorable light. She coolly rejects the command of her husband and her king to appear in her royal splendor. The king’s counselors all find her culpable and recommend she be replaced by one “more worthy” (1:19) than she. Her actions are seen as a bad example which might corrupt the attitudes and actions of the other women of the kingdom (1:17-18). No one really knows why the queen acted as she did nor does it matter. The outcome is that a powerful queen is removed from power and prominence, and the way is prepared for a young Jewess to rise to the throne beside the most powerful king on the face of the earth.
The king may have been “merry” from the wine he had consumed, but he was now just plain mad. Imagine how humiliating this would have been for Ahasuerus. His purpose in all of the festive events of the past six months was to impress his guests with his great wealth and power. He wanted faithful supporters when he began to wage war with Greece. And now, during the closing ceremonies of this six-month extravaganza, the king’s own wife snubs him, refusing to honor or obey him and thereby embarrassing him before all of his guests.
The king was angry at Vashti, but he did not lose control. He did not demand that she be put to death nor decide her fate at that moment. He called for his chief counselors and asked them what he should do. When their advice was given, the king heeded it, carrying it out as they recommended.
The king’s counselors were wise men, men he respected and to whom he listened. These seven wise men were asked what the king should do, because they were men who had a grasp of the times and who also understood “law and justice” (1:13). These men not only understood the wrong Vashti had done, they had a keen sense of justice and thus discerned an appropriate punishment for her rebellion. They also knew the various peoples, languages, and cultures represented in the kingdom of Ahasuerus and how the king’s decision would affect the people.
In spite of what this king may have done at other times,11 we dare not allow this to cloud our judgment and see the king’s actions as the ravings of a drunken mad man. The author of this book intended for us to judge Ahasuerus on the basis of the data he has supplied. Let us beware of judging him on the basis of data supplied by secular historians, who have little or no regard for sacred Scripture or for the message of this book. Our text simply says Ahasuerus summoned his wife, Queen Vashti, to appear in her royal attire as a part of his display of his glory. She refused for an unstated reason. The king was angry but sought the counsel of his wisest and most trusted advisors. They considered this matter according to the laws of the land and in light of the impact of the king’s decision on the entire kingdom. From what we are told, who could have handled this crises better?
One advisor, Memucan, gave his opinion; it was concurred by the rest and implemented by the king. Memucan concluded the queen had done wrong, not only against her king but also against the kingdom. She was the most prominent and visible women in the Persian empire, and, consequently, her actions set a precedent affecting every woman in the kingdom. Vashti had spurned her husband’s authority. He was not just her husband; he was the king! If the king did not deal decisively and sternly with Vashti, there would be a revolt in every household. Wives would have the courage to deal with their husbands just as Vashti had done with Ahasuerus. And we thought the women’s liberation movement was new!
We must pause to point out that the king and his advisors did not deal with the matter biblically. They have approached this situation from the standpoint of their eastern, chauvinistic culture, not from the principles of the Word of God. No doubt they saw women as inferior to men and thus to be used by men for their pleasure. As a result, the advice of the king’s counselors was directed at maintaining the status quo, and was not in obedience to divine commands.
The counsel which Memucan gave the king was simple. The queen was to be removed from her position of prominence and honor. She was to be banned from appearing with the king as his queen and to be replaced by a new queen of the king’s choosing, a woman “more worthy” (1:19) than Vashti. The king’s decision should be irreversible, and it should be made a law of Persia and Media which could not be reversed. The king’s decree was then to be conveyed throughout the kingdom,12 a signal to husbands to stay in charge and for wives to be in submission.13
Esther’s Rise to Position and Power
1 After these things when the anger of King Ahasuerus had subsided, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what had been decreed against her. 2 Then the king’s attendants, who served him, said, “Let beautiful young virgins be sought for the king. 3 And let the king appoint overseers in all the provinces of his kingdom that they may gather every beautiful young virgin to Susa the capital, to the harem, into the custody of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who was in charge of the women; and let their cosmetics be given them. 4 Then let the young lady who pleases the king be queen in place of Vashti.” And the matter pleased the king, and he did accordingly.
5 Now there was a Jew in Susa the capital whose name was Mordecai, the son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, a Benjamite, 6 who had been taken into exile from Jerusalem with the captives who had been exiled with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had exiled. 7 And he was bringing up Hadassah, that is Esther, his uncle’s daughter, for she had neither father nor mother. Now the young lady was beautiful of form and face, and when her father and her mother died, Mordecai took her as his own daughter.
8 So it came about when the command and decree of the king were heard and many young ladies were gathered to Susa the capital into the custody of Hegai, that Esther was taken to the king’s palace into the custody of Hegai, who was in charge of the women. 9 Now the young lady pleased him and found favor with him. So he quickly provided her with her cosmetics and food, gave her seven choice maids from the king’s palace, and transferred her and her maids to the best place in the harem. 10 Esther did not make known her people or her kindred, for Mordecai had instructed her that she should not make them known. 11 And every day Mordecai walked back and forth in front of the court of the harem to learn how Esther was and how she fared.
12 Now when the turn of each young lady came to go in to King Ahasuerus, after the end of her twelve months under the regulations for the women—for the days of their beautification were completed as follows: six months with oil of myrrh and six months with spices and the cosmetics for women—13 the young lady would go in to the king in this way: anything that she desired was given her to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace. 14 In the evening she would go in and in the morning she would return to the second harem, to the custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the concubines. She would not again go in to the king unless the king delighted in her and she was summoned by name. 15 Now when the turn of Esther, the daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai who had taken her as his daughter, came to go in to the king, she did not request anything except what Hegai, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the women, advised. And Esther found favor in the eyes of all who saw her.
16 So Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus to his royal palace in the tenth month which is the month Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign. 17 And the king loved Esther more than all the women, and she found favor and kindness with him more than all the virgins, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. 18 Then the king gave a great banquet, Esther’s banquet, for all his princes and his servants; he also made a holiday for the provinces and gave gifts according to the king’s bounty.
It is not immediately apparent that several years have passed since the events of chapter 1.14 We know this because the celebration of the king was held in the third year of his reign (1:3), and Esther is not brought before the king until the seventh year of his reign (2:16). The king’s anger eventually subsided toward Vashti, and his feelings for her seem to have revived. The queen was in his thoughts, and it seems that he had second thoughts about the action he had taken against her. No wonder the king’s advisors counseled him to make his dealings with her a matter of law which could not be changed. Otherwise, one cannot help but wonder if he would have reversed his decision.
The king’s attendants recognized what was happening and proposed that the king follow through with the proposal to choose a new queen. This encouragement was hardly needed, because Ahazuerus was a womanizer. He needed little prodding to conduct a beauty pageant, especially when he alone was the judge. The most beautiful young virgins in his kingdom were the contestants, and the plan was for him to try out each and every one of them. Those who were not chosen as queen appear to have been kept on as his concubines. The night each virgin spent with the king was not just one of dinner and dancing. The women were brought into the king’s harem and placed in the keeping of Hegai (2:3, 8). She then underwent a year long period of preparation (2:12). After her evening with the king, the young lady was kept in a different harem under the custody of Shaashgaz, a eunuch in charge of the king’s concubines (2:14). I think we may safely assume that when the night was over, the young lady who was the king’s date was no longer a virgin.
Among the contestants was a beautiful young Jewess, whose Hebrew name was Hadassah and whose Persian name was Esther.15 The only qualities mentioned regarding Esther are physical. She was beautiful, in form and face. The words of Proverbs 31:30 should serve as a commentary and a warning. Esther was also an orphan. When both of her parents died, her cousin Mordecai took her and raised her as his daughter (2:5-7). Both Esther and Mordecai were from the tribe of Benjamin, the descendants of Kish (deported from Jerusalem with Jeconiah in 597) and his son Shimei (2:5-6).
“When the command and decree of the king” was proclaimed, many young women were selected as contestants and taken to Susa, where they were placed in the custody of Hegai. Among them was Esther. This young woman found a special place in the heart of Hegai, who gladly favored her above the rest. Some have concluded that she found favor because of her godly character. Surely, if this were true the author would have told us so in a way similar to the stories of Joseph or Daniel. Shirley Temple won the hearts of many too, but it was not for her godliness. We must be careful not to read into the text what we would like to find.
There is no word of commendation for Mordecai, either. We know Esther did not reveal her nationality because she was instructed not to by Mordecai (2:10). One must wonder if she would have even been a contestant had it been known that she was Jewish. Why was Mordecai willing to wear Jewishness as a badge, but not Esther? Mordecai was not trying to become the next queen, Esther was.16
Regardless of the reasons Esther pleased Hegai (and we should note the author does not give us these reasons), this man’s preference for Esther gave her a significant advantage over her fellow-contestants. Hegai gave Esther seven attending maidens who were the pick of the lot, and then provided Esther and her maidens with the best apartment in the harem (2:9). She also was quickly provided with cosmetics and other supplies, which may have given her a head start in the beautification process. Finally, since a number of young women had preceded her in spending the night with the king, Hegai gave her some inside information on what the king liked. Less (makeup or whatever) made a better impression on the king than more, and so Hegai informed Esther (2:15).
Mordecai was far from at ease about the fate of his adopted daughter, Esther. Once she was taken into the king’s harem, she was prevented from contact with men other than the king’s eunuchs who were in charge of the harem. Since she had not revealed either her nationality or her relationship with Mordecai, he could not visit her. And so he stationed himself outside the court of the harem as close as he could get to Esther in hopes of learning how things were going with her (2:11). I think he was worried and with good reason. He seemed about as comfortable with the situation as Abraham must have been with Sarai, his wife, in the harem of the Pharaoh of Egypt (see Genesis 12:10-20). Knowing more about this king’s reputation with women, Mordecai’s fears were justified.
Esther spent a year in preparation, six months with the oil of myrrh and six with spices and cosmetics (2:12).17 Finally, the day for Esther’s “tryout” came. She accepted Hegai’s advice and took with her only those few things he suggested (2:15).18 The routine was that each young virgin spent the night with the king and the next morning was placed in a different part of the harem (2:13-14). If she found favor with the king, he would call for her again. If not, she had a lonely life (so far as men are concerned) in the harem. The woman who continually found favor with the king was most certainly destined to become the new queen.
According to verse 15, Esther found favor in the eyes of all who saw her. I do not think this is the same as saying that Esther found favor in the eyes of all who knew her. I fear that Esther was a strikingly beautiful young woman, and the favorable response she gained was the result of her appearance more than of her character. My conclusion is inferential, I grant, but I must at least point out that nowhere in the book do we find mention of Esther’s character. This is most unusual for a Jew. If the Bible teaches us anything, it tells us to judge a person in terms of their character, not according to their beauty or charm:
7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
10 An excellent wife, who can find? For her worth is far above jewels. . . 30 Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, But a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised (Proverbs 31:10, 30).
15 And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15).
Esther won the heart of king Ahazuerus. He loved her more than all the others combined (2:17). And so she was chosen as the new queen to take the place of Vashti (2:17). In her honor, and in celebration of the event, the king gave yet another banquet, the fourth in these first two chapters of Esther. This was Esther’s hour, her moment of glory. He proclaimed a holiday, and gifts were sent by the king to people in his kingdom (2:18).
What a wonderful, heart-warming story. It could have begun, “Once upon a time . . .” and ended “. . . happily ever after.” But before we feel too good about what we have read, we should give the matter a little more thought. Here are a few questions with which to begin:
(1) Why is the name of God never mentioned in the Book of Esther?
(2) Why is prayer never specifically mentioned in the book?
(3) Why does the New Testament never mention or refer to anything concerning the Book of Esther?
(4) The Book of Esther gives the historical basis for the feast of Purim. Why is this feast never mentioned in the New Testament?
(5) Why have neither Calvin nor Luther chosen to write a commentary on the Book of Esther, and why did Luther indicate he wished the book did not exist?19
(6) Why is the Book of Esther the number one favorite of all the Old Testament books among the Jews?
(7) Why do later Greek translations add so many verses (107) to the Hebrew text (157) and try so hard to change our understanding of the earliest texts?
(8) Since the book concerns Jews living outside the promised land, why is there never any mention of God’s Law, of the Holy Land, or of Jerusalem and the temple?
(9) Why are we so easily inclined to look upon King Ahasuerus as evil and to view Mordecai and Esther as godly?
(10) Why are we happy to see Esther on the throne, even though she has misrepresented her nationality and kin, is living outside the promised land, and is married to a heathen king, the winner of a contest which included sleeping with the king?
Something is drastically wrong with God’s people as represented in the Book of Esther. We should not delight in Esther’s “success” in becoming queen; we should be distressed. Consider the Book of Esther in the light of these important observations, which come from the rest of the Old Testament.
(1) From the very beginning of God’s dealings with the patriarchs and then with Israel, God promised to dwell among His people in the promised land of Israel, and specifically in the temple in Jerusalem:
10 Then Jacob departed from Beersheba and went toward Haran. 11 And he came to a certain place and spent the night there, because the sun had set; and he took one of the stones of the place and put it under his head, and lay down in that place. 12 And he had a dream, and behold, a ladder was set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants. 14 “Your descendants shall also be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15 “And behold, I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16 Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” 17 And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” 18 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar, and poured oil on its top. 19 And he called the name of that place Bethel; however, previously the name of the city had been Luz (Genesis 28:10-19; see also Genesis 50:22-26).
17 “Thou wilt bring them and plant them in the mountain of Thine inheritance, The place, O Lord, which Thou hast made for Thy dwelling, The sanctuary, O Lord, which Thy hands have established” (Exodus 15:17).
34 “‘And you shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the Lord am dwelling in the midst of the sons of Israel’ “ (Numbers 35:34).
5 “But you shall seek the Lord at the place which the Lord your God shall choose from all your tribes, to establish His name there for His dwelling, and there you shall come” (Deuteronomy 12:5).
11 “Then it shall come about that the place in which the Lord your God shall choose for His name to dwell, there you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution of your hand, and all your choice votive offerings which you will vow to the Lord” (Deuteronomy 12:11).
(2) When the people of Israel sinned and were thrust out of their land, they were to look toward Jerusalem and the temple and pray to the Lord (see 1 Kings 8:33-53).
(3) While God indicated that the nation Israel would sin and be driven from the promised land and taken captive in a foreign land, He also promised that He would bring them back to the land of promise:
1 “So it shall be when all of these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, and you call them to mind in all nations where the Lord your God has banished you, 2 and you return to the Lord your God and obey Him with all your heart and soul according to all that I command you today, you and your sons, 3 then the Lord your God will restore you from captivity, and have compassion on you, and will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. 4 “If your outcasts are at the ends of the earth, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there He will bring you back. 5 “And the Lord your God will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and He will prosper you and multiply you more than your fathers” (Deuteronomy 30:1-5).
(4) The prophet Isaiah did instruct the Israelites to settle themselves in Babylon for a 70 year sojourn, but then they were to return to the promised land.
3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan, and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, saying, 4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon, 5 ‘Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens, and eat their produce. 6 ‘Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease. 7 ‘And seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.’ . . . 10 “For thus says the Lord, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. 11 ‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. 12 ‘Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. 13 ‘And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. 14 ‘And I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.’ (Jeremiah 29:1-7, 10-14).
(5) In captivity, the righteous did not forget their land or the temple but yearned for it:
1 By the rivers of Babylon, There we sat down and wept, When we remembered Zion. 2 Upon the willows in the midst of it We hung our harps. 3 For there our captors demanded of us songs, And our tormentors mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” 4 How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? 5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, May my right hand forget her skill. 6 May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, If I do not remember you, If I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy. 7 Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom The day of Jerusalem, Who said, “Raze it, raze it, To its very foundation.” 8 O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one, How blessed will be the one who repays you With the recompense with which you have repaid us. 9 How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones Against the rock (Psalm 137:1-9).
(6) While in captivity, those who were godly purposed not to defile themselves but to live according to their faith and the Word of God:
8 But Daniel made up his mind that he would not defile himself with the king’s choice food or with the wine which he drank; so he sought permission from the commander of the officials that he might not defile himself (Daniel 1:8).
The first chapter (and more) of Daniel gives an account of Daniel’s diligence in remaining faithful to his God. The events of Daniel 1 are a dramatic contrast to Esther 1 and 2 in which Esther conceals her identity and lives as though she were a Persian.
(7) At the end of 70 years, God moved in the heart of Cyrus to make a decree that all the Jews could return to their land, just as the prophet Jeremiah prophesied:
1 The word which came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying, 2 “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Write all the words which I have spoken to you in a book. 3 For, behold, days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will restore the fortunes of My people Israel and Judah.’ The Lord says, ‘I will also bring them back to the land that I gave to their forefathers, and they shall possess it.’ “ 4 Now these are the words which the Lord spoke concerning Israel and concerning Judah (Jeremiah 30:1-4).
22 Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia— in order to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah— the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he sent a proclamation throughout his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying, 23 “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and He has appointed me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever there is among you of all His people, may the Lord his God be with him, and let him go up!’ “ (2 Chronicles 36:21-23).
(8) Ezra and Nehemiah are the account of the godly Jews who returned to the promised land and who sought to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple amidst great difficulty and opposition. Esther, on the other hand, is an account of those who became too attached to the land of their sojournings and thus disobeyed God by not returning when it was not only allowed, but commanded.
It is in the light of the rest of the Old Testament Scriptures that we can see the Book of Esther for what it is and appreciate its unique message and contribution. While Ezra and Nehemiah focus on the return to the land by the faithful remnant, Esther depicts the fate of those who remain in the land of their captivity. We should not expect Mordecai and Esther to be godly Jews, for they are living in disobedience. No wonder there is no mention of God, and no wonder that Esther’s Persian name is the name of a heathen God, Ishtar.
Why has God inspired and preserved this book as a part of the Old Testament canon? What does it have to say to us? First, it is a warning to those of us who live our lives not as “strangers and pilgrims,” but as citizens of an earthly realm, as mere worldlings (see 1 Peter 1:1ff.). Second, it warns us not to forget where our “home” is and to live in a way that makes us eager to leave this world and go home. It cautions us about getting caught up in what the world views as success, so that we actually rejoice over Esther’s rise to power and prominence and prosperity no matter how she got there. Third, it teaches us that even when we are unfaithful, God remains faithful to His Word and to His covenant promises.
The Book of Esther is about the sinfulness of those Jews who did not return to the promised land and about God’s providential care of His people, not because of the sins of His people, but in spite of them. Sadly, God is not mentioned in Esther, because God is not thought of in Esther. These “people of God” lived their lives as though there was no God. They were practical atheists, seeking to get ahead or to survive by their own wits and cunning, rather than living by God’s Word and trusting Him to deliver them by His power. The book does not flatter the Persian Jews, nor should it. But it does too often describe us and the condition of our cold hearts. Heeding the lessons learned from the Book of Esther should help us forsake the cares of this world and cling to Him who has prepared the way to the next.
1 “The dramatic reversal of a disastrous fate that had seemed set to wipe out the whole Jewish race so impressed the writer that he applied himself with all his artistic powers to conveying the events in writing, and his account so fascinated Jewish readers that the book became a best seller and went into many languages and variant editions. It continues to be the number one favourite with Jewish communities, and is read in the family every year at Purim, as has been the traditional custom through the centuries.” Joyce, G. Baldwin, Esther: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984, p. 13.)
“He is known to us in history outside the Bible as Xerxes, which is the Greek form of his Persian name. This Xerxes reigned over the Persian empire from 485 to 465 B.C. . . . The name of the son of Darius was deciphered as Khshayarsha, which, when translated into Greek, is Xerxes, and which, when translated into Hebrew, is, practically letter for letter, Akhashverosh, that is, in English, Ahas-uerus. . . .” J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House [reprint], six volumes in one, 1960), Vol. 2, pp. 262.
3 “The son of Darius and Queen Atossa, herself the daughter of Cyrus and sister of Cambyses, Xerxes was born to the purple, and for the last twelve years of his father’s reign served as viceroy of Babylon. No sooner had he ascended the throne than first Egypt and then Babylon rebelled against him. He quelled both revolts quickly and exacted very harsh penalties on the offenders. . . . With this background, he was well equipped on the death of his father to take over Darius’ two unfinished tasks: the conquest of Greece and the completion of the royal palace at Persepolis. As everyone knows, Xerxes failed completely in the first. . . . But as only too few general readers know, Xerxes was highly successful in his second task: the building of the Persepolis.” John C. Whitcomb, Esther: Triumph of God’s Sovereignty, p. 31, citing Carey A. Moore, Esther, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971), p. xxxviii.
4 “Susa (the Greek name), or Shushan (the Hebrew name), was an ancient capital of Elam which Darius I rebuilt as the winter capital of the Persian Empire. It was unbearably hot in the summer, so a summer capital was established at Ecbatana (modern Hamadan) in the mountains two hundred miles to the north (cf. Ezra 6:1-2). . . . It is fascinating to realize that the city of Susa, in which the events of the book of Esther occurred, was visited by Daniel in 551 B.C. in a vision (Dan. 8:1-8) in which he foresaw the rapid rise of the Medo-persian Empire (which began a year later in the great victory of Cyrus over the aged and corrupt Astyages the Mede). Daniel also beheld the later victories of Alexander the Great over the Persian Empire (332-323 B.C.). Another interesting note is that in 446-445 B.C., a generation after the events of the book of Esther, we find Nehemiah serving in Susa as cupbearer to Artaxerxes during the winter months from December to March (cf. Neh. 1:1—2:1)” (Whitcomb, p. 33). Susa is located in modern day Iran.
“Xerxes, being about to take in hand the expedition against Athens, called together an assembly of the noblest Persians, to learn their opinions, and to lay before them his own designs. So, when the men were met, the king spoke thus to them: . . . 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 [7.8]. [Cited from George Rawlinson’s translation in Francis R. B. Godolphin, ed., The Greek Historians, 2 vols. (New York: Random House, 1942).]
6 “The early excavations at Susa by M. A. Dieulafoy lacked the scientific precision achieved today, and had to contend with a confusion of ruins, looted already by Alexander the Great and his successors. Nevertheless the main features of the palace complex have been identified. These include the throne room, the harem and the position of the paradise or garden, watered by the nearby river (cf. Est. 1:5; 7:7). If the author of Esther did not know Susa at first hand he was extremely well informed about the royal residence, as well as about the character of the king.” Joyce C. Baldwin, Esther: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984), p. 20.
“Late in the fall of 479 B.C., now back in Susa, Xerxes again ‘became enmeshed in an amorous affair, this time with Masistes’ daughter Artaynte instead of Masistes’ wife. According to Herodotus, Xerxes was more successful in romancing with this young lady (who had become his daughter-in-law in the meantime) than he was with her mother (Herodotus IX, 108-11). The matter came to a head, however, when he promised Artaynte the desire of her heart. She chose Xerxes’ coat-of-many-colors, which Amestris had woven with her own hands for him (a very unqueenly activity—to ingratiate herself with him again?). Xerxes reluctantly gave her the robe, but Amestris got revenge when the time came to celebrate the king’s birthday. On that occasion she asked Xerxes, Salome-like, to give her Masistes’ wife, and according to the custom of the day he was obliged to comply with her request. Amestris promptly had her mutilated. As a consequence, Masistes attempted to flee to Bactria to raise a revolt against Xerxes, but the king’s men caught and killed him before he reached his intended destination.’” William H. Shea, “Esther and History,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 14, no. 1 (Spring 1976): 227-46, as cited by John C. Whitcomb, Esther: Triumph of God’s Sovereignty (Chicago: Moody Press, 1979), pp. 55-56.
11 What then of Xerxes? This is the king who ordered a bridge to be built over the Hellespont, and who, on learning that the bridge had been destroyed by a tempest, just after its completion, was so blindly enraged that he commanded three hundred strokes of the scourge to be inflicted on the sea, and a pair of fetters to be thrown into it at the Hellespont, and then had the unhappy builders of the bridge beheaded. This is the king who, on being offered a sum equivalent to five and a half million sterling by Pythius, the Lydian, towards the expenses of a military expedition, was so enraptured at such loyalty that he returned the money, accompanied by a handsome present; and then, on being requested by this same Phthius, shortly afterwards, to spare him just one of his sons—the eldest—from the expedition, as the sole support of his declining years, furiously ordered the son to be cut into two pieces, and the army to march between them. This is the king who dishonoured the remains of the heroic Spartan, Leonidas. This is the king who drowned the humiliation of his inglorious defeat in such a plunge of sensuality that he publicly offered a prize for the invention of some new indulgence. This is the king who cut a canal through the Isthmus of Athos for his fleet—a prodigious undertaking. This is the king whose vast resources, and gigantic notions and imperious temper made the name of Persia to awe the ancient world. Herodotus tells us that among the myriads gathered for the expedition against Greece, Ahasuerus was the fairest in personal beauty and stately bearing. But morally he was a mixture of passionate extremes. He is just the despot to dethrone queen Vashti for refusing to expose herself before his tipsy guests. He is just the one to consign a people like the Jews to be massacred, and then to swing over to the opposite extreme of sanctioning Jewish vengeance on thousands of his other subjects. J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House [reprint], six volumes in one, 1960), Vol. 2, pp. 262-263.
12 The Persian empire had what might be called the first “pony express.” Descriptions of this communications system are remarkably similar to what little I know of the pony express. This made for rapid communications, at least for that day.
13 The final statement of verse 22 is puzzling. What does “speaking the language of his own people” have to do with leadership? We know that the confusion of tongues at Babel frustrated the plans of men to build a tower. I take it that leadership and language are related in the mind of our author. Were some men lagging behind their wives in their language? Did the wives speak the language of their people but the husbands did not? The ability to speak the native tongue is power. If the wife spoke the native tongue and the husband did not, the wife had the edge; she had more control than her husband. This statement certainly provokes thought as to what the author intended us to understand.
“In his great campaign against Greece from 481 to 479 B.C., with an army of probably two hundred thousand men and a navy of many hundreds of ships, Xerxes desperately sought to avenge the humiliating defeat suffered by his father, Darius I (522-486 B.C.), at the battle of Marathon (490 B.C.). But in spite of remarkably skillful planning and strategy, his army was nearly blocked by Spartans at the pass of Thermopylae and was defeated at Plataea, northwest of Athens (479 B.C.), soon after his great navy was smashed before his very eyes at Salamis, to the west of Athens (480 B.C.). John C. Whitcomb, Esther: Triumph of God’s Sovereignty, p. 30.
15 “The derivation of the name Esther is disputed. The Hebrew Hadassah (2:7), meaning ‘myrtle’, evidently sounded like the Persian name which comes either from the Babylonian goddess, Ishtar, or from the Persian sitar, ‘star’. The Persian name would enable Esther to keep secret her foreign identity.” Baldwin, p. 21.
16 Later translations of Esther in the Greek language contained a significantly modified text. In addition to the 167 verses of the Hebrew text, 107 more verses are added. In one addition, we are told that Mordecai tried to prevent Esther from becoming a contestant in this beauty queen pageant. I suspect that the opposite may be true, which is exactly why later Jews tried to repair Mordecai’s image.
17 It appears from verse 9 that Hegai may have given her some of these things sooner than the others. The author tells us in verse 12 what the normal schedule was, but we are told she was an exception to the rules.
“LUTHER: ‘Whatever heart is thus minded, will bear ornamentation without danger to itself; for it bears and yet does not bear, dances and yet dances not, lives well and yet not well. These are the heavenly souls, the sacred brides of Christ; but they are scarce. For it is difficult not to have a lust for great ornamentation and display.’”
“STOLBERG: ‘Undazzled by splendour and royalty, the tender virgin rejected all these things. With noble simplicity she took the ornaments, neither selecting nor demanding anything, which the chief chamberlain brought to her. Even after she became queen above all the wives of the king, her heart still clung not only with gratitude, but with childlike obedience, to her pious uncle and foster-father, as in the time when he trained her as a little girl.’” Fr. W. Schultz, “The Book of Esther,” Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, by John Peter Lange, Vol. 4, p. 46.
19 Even so there has been no lack of detractors who would recommend its exclusion from the canon. The most famous of these is Martin Luther, who in his Table Talk said of 2 Maccabees and of Esther, ‘I wish that they did not exist at all; for they Judaize too much and have much heathen perverseness.’ (Martin Luther, Table Talk, xxii., cited by Baldwin, pp. 51-52.).