Sermon: From Commoner to Queen – Esther 1:1-2:18

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Now in the days of Ahasuerus, the Ahasuerus who reigned from India to Ethiopia over 127 provinces, 2 in those days when King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne in Susa, the citadel, 3 in the third year of his reign he gave a feast for all his officials and servants. The army of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces were before him, 4 while he showed the riches of his royal glory and the splendor and pomp of his greatness for many days, 180 days. 5 And when these days were completed, the king gave for all the people present in Susa the citadel, both great and small, a feast lasting for seven days in the court of the garden of the king’s palace. 6 There were white cotton curtains and violet hangings fastened with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rods and marble pillars, and also 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, vessels of different kinds, and the royal wine was lavished according to the bounty of the king. 8 And drinking was according to this edict: “There is no compulsion.” For the king had given orders to all the staff of his palace to do as each man desired. 9 Queen Vashti also gave a feast for the women in the palace that 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 and 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 show the peoples and the princes her beauty, for she was lovely to look at. 12 But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command delivered by the eunuchs. At this the king became enraged, and his anger burned within him. 

13 Then the king said to the wise men who knew the times (for this was the king’s procedure toward all who were versed in law and judgment, 14 the men next to him being Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven princes of Persia and Media, who saw the king’s face, and sat first in the kingdom): 15 “According to the law, what is to be done to Queen Vashti, because she has not performed the command of King Ahasuerus delivered by the eunuchs?” 16 Then Memucan said in the presence of the king and the officials, “Not only against the king has Queen Vashti done wrong, but also against all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. 17 For the queen’s behavior will be made known to all women, causing them to look at their husbands with contempt, since they will say, ‘King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.’ 18 This very day the noble women of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will say the same to all the king’s officials, and there will be contempt and wrath in plenty. 19 If it please the king, let a royal order go out from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes so that it may not be repealed, that Vashti is never again to come before King Ahasuerus. And let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she. 20 So when the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, for it is vast, all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low alike.” 21 This advice pleased the king and the princes, and the king did as Memucan proposed. 22 He sent letters to all the royal provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, that every man be master in his own household and speak according to the language of his people. 

2 After these things, when the anger of King Ahasuerus had abated, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what had been decreed against her. 2 Then the king’s young men who attended him said, “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king. 3 And let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in Susa the citadel, under custody of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women. Let their cosmetics be given them. 4 And let the young woman who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.” This pleased the king, and he did so. 

5 Now there was a Jew in Susa the citadel whose name was Mordecai, the son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, a Benjaminite, 6 who had been carried away from Jerusalem among the captives carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had carried away. 7 He was bringing up Hadassah, that is Esther, the daughter of his uncle, for she had neither father nor mother. The young woman had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at, and when her father and her mother died, Mordecai took her as his own daughter. 8 So when the king’s order and his edict were proclaimed, and when many young women were gathered in Susa the citadel in custody of Hegai, Esther also was taken into the king’s palace and put in custody of Hegai, who had charge of the women. 9 And the young woman pleased him and won his favor. And he quickly provided her with her cosmetics and her portion of food, and with seven chosen young women from the king’s palace, and advanced her and her young women to the best place in the harem. 10 Esther had not made known her people or kindred, for Mordecai had commanded her not to make it known. 11 And every day Mordecai walked in front of the court of the harem to learn how Esther was and what was happening to her. 

12 Now when the turn came for each young woman to go in to King Ahasuerus, after being twelve months under the regulations for the women, since this was the regular period of their beautifying, six months with oil of myrrh and six months with spices and ointments for women— 13 when the young woman went in to the king in this way, she was given whatever she desired 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 in custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch, who was in charge of the concubines. She would not go in to the king again, unless the king delighted in her and she was summoned by name. 

15 When the turn came for Esther the daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai, who had taken her as his own daughter, to go in to the king, she asked for nothing except what Hegai the king’s eunuch, who had charge of the women, advised. Now Esther was winning favor in the eyes of all who saw her. 16 And when Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus, into his royal palace, in the tenth month, which is the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign, 17 the king loved Esther more than all the women, and she won grace and favor in his sight 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 feast for all his officials and servants; it was Esther’s feast. He also granted a remission of taxes to the provinces and gave gifts with royal generosity. 

Prayer 

Our heavenly Father, 

1 Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. 2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. 

Lord, we continue to pray for our community that has been hit so hard by Covid these last couple weeks. We pray for people’s health and for recoveries. We continue to praise you for your protection for our church. 

Lord, we praise you for the great report for little Mila.We continue to ask for your blessings on her. 

Lord, we pray for our time in the Book of Esther. We pray that you would bless our study of this book, that it would point us to you, to your goodness and sovereignty, and to the hope that you call us to have in you. 

In Jesus’ name, amen. 

Series introduction 

We’re beginning a Christmas series today as we study the Book of Esther. 

And where we’ll begin this morning is by giving an introduction to this book. 

A few noteworthy facts about Esther. 

-Esther is the only book in the Bible that never mentions God. 

It never mentions prayer. There’s nothing supernatural in this book. There are no prophecy. There are no direct descendants to Jesus who are in this book. 

But just because God is not mentioned in the Book of Esther does not mean that God is not present in the Book of Esther. Because God’s work is seen all throughout this story of a Jewish woman becoming the Queen of Persia and through that, saved Israel. 

Esther might not be the most obvious book to preach at Christmastime, but as we look at this story, I think we’ll see a number of themes in Esther which are present in the Christmas story and which are just as pertinent for our lives today. 

Esther is a book where we see God’s providence and sovereignty over the nations and over his own people. In the Book of Esther, we see hope and an unlikely hero. We see wickedness and plots of destruction. We see God’s faithfulness. 

Couple of other brief notes to make. 

We’ve talked many times about how the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel fell. The north was conquered in 722 B.C. The southern kingdom was conquered in 586 B.C. 

The Book of Esther is written just about a century after the southern kingdom was conquered. In that time, the Persians had actually allowed the Israelites to return to Jerusalem to build the temple. 

We see that in books like Ezra and Haggai. But they’re still under Persian rule at this point in history. 

Last comment to make before we get into the passage. For me, it’s helpful to think of the scenes in Esther like acts in a play. And this week, we look at the first act where the major characters are all introduced. 

And we’ll primarily focus on three introductions today. 

First: the King’s Feast

The story begins by introducing us to King Ahasuerus and a great feast he throws. 

Now in the days of Ahasuerus, the Ahasuerus who reigned from India to Ethiopia over 127 provinces, 2 in those days when King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne in Susa, the citadel, 3 in the third year of his reign he gave a feast for all his officials and servants. The army of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces were before him,

First thing to note. The king’s name. 

I’m preaching from the ESV which names the king as Ahaseurus. 

Some translations say Xerxes. I looked at this verse in all of the major translations and it looks like a fairly even split between the two. Neither way is wrong. Because both names refer to the same person. Ahaseurus is the name that is in the Hebrew Bible. Xersxes is the Persian name for this king, and it’s closer to the name that he’s given in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. 

But it’s the same person. Ahasuerus – or Xerxes – is a historical figure who ruled as emperor of Persia for over 20 years. 

The opening verse mentions the kingdom from India to Ethiopia. At its height, the Perisan Empire was massive. 

Verse 3 ties the opening of the story to the third year of the king’s reign, and mentions that he gave a great feast. 

This feast corresponds historically to a war council that the Persians had in 483 B.C. in preparations for their invasion of Greece. 

Next the author of Esther showcases the opulence of this feast and the king’s great wealth. 

We see the description of the feast. 

6 There were white cotton curtains and violet hangings fastened with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rods and marble pillars, and also 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, vessels of different kinds, and the royal wine was lavished according to the bounty of the king. 8 And drinking was according to this edict: “There is no compulsion.” For the king had given orders to all the staff of his palace to do as each man desired. 

So you have people drinking out of golden vessels. The best wine. Excessive food and drink. 

The author mentions violet hangings over the curtains and purple cords. 

Purple dye in the ancient world was unbelievably expensive. 

So it’s all highlighting the grandness of the king’s wealth. 

Our second scene: the Queen’s opposition. 

The Queen’s opposition  

10 On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha and 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 show the peoples and the princes her beauty, for she was lovely to look at. 12 But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command delivered by the eunuchs. At this the king became enraged, and his anger burned within him. 

It’s now the last day of the feast. We were told that Vashti had thrown her own feast for the women at the palace. But now the king wants to bring her before the nobles.

Every scholar I could find, and it’s also the historical view from Jewish interpreters that this was somehow going to shame or defile Vashti. She was going to be sexualized and put on display, and that is why she refuses. 

So it’s not that the king wanted Vashti to come out and say hi and she refused. 

She didn’t want to endure the humiliation. 

And that’s why she refuses. 

But that act of defiance would come with consequences. 

It’s not certain if she knew what those consequences would be, or if she cared about the risk she was taking.

We have two pagan Persian monarchs and the queen makes a decision that will set a chain of events in motion which led to the eventual salvation of the Jewish people. 

We’ll get to that in time. 

The king is greatly angered by Vashti’s refusal. 

The king assembles his advisors and seeks their council. 

One of the king’s men speaks up. 

Verses 16-17: Then Memucan said in the presence of the king and the officials, “Not only against the king has Queen Vashti done wrong, but also against all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. 17 For the queen’s behavior will be made known to all women, causing them to look at their husbands with contempt, since they will say, ‘King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.’ 

Some scholars question if Memucan had an ulterior motive and perhaps had a daughter who he wanted to become queen. But we don’t know for sure.

But he’s clearly not on the side of reconciliation. He argues not only that Vashti has gone against the king but that when other Persian women hear about this, it’ll empower them to defy their own husbands. 

We see that in his language where he talks of the impact of this skirmish on all marriages in all places throughout the empire. 

So the queen is deposed. We’re not sure if she’s executed, if she’s banished, or what happens to her. 

The advisors suggest the king find another queen who is, in their words, better than Vashti. 

The king makes a decree throughout the massive Persian empire: 

So when the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, for it is vast, all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low alike.” 21 This advice pleased the king and the princes, and the king did as Memucan proposed. 22 He sent letters to all the royal provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, that every man be master in his own household and speak according to the language of his people. 

This scene is almost comical. 

The king was humiliated by his wife. And he responds by sending a decree throughout the empire ordering women to honor their husbands. 

Even though the king was not honored! And because of that,  he had to make this grand decree. 

Perhaps the details weren’t known throughout the empire, but for the king to command the honor for himself and the men in the empire, he’s forced to publicize the event where he was dishonored. 

Before Vashti exits the story, I think there’s one last comment about her that’s worth mentioning. 

The king is pagan, she’s pagan. These are not Israelites and they do not have a Biblical worldview. 

He gives a command for women to honor their husband just because the husband is the man. But we’ve seen throughout the story that he’s weak. He may be the king and so he has authority but there’s nothing respetable about him. There’s nothing impressive about his leadership. His wife stood up to him. His advisors led him in what to do. 

He wasn’t a particularly successful king. His rule was at the height of Persian rule, but under his leadership, the empire began to decline. I mentioned at the beginning that his great feast was a war council. They were preparing to go to war with Greece. They lost! 

He’s weak. 

People honored him because they had to, not because he was honorable. 

But he commands honor for all the husbands in Persia. 

The Bible teaches that the husband is to lead in a marriage and the wife is to submit to the leadership of the husband. 

But it’s not just about submission.  

The husband and wife will not properly complement each other if the man is not living up to his end of the bargain. 

And the Bible has a very high standard for men. 

There will be husbands who are as unimpressive as this king whose wives will submit to them. 

But those aren’t happy and healthy marriages. 

A wife might submit because she thinks it’s Biblical, but just because you listen to what someone says, it doesn’t mean that you have respect for that person. True respect is never about someone’s position. It comes from being respectable and having character. 

And that’s true in marriage. 

Men are called to lead in marriage, but that leadership is also meant to flow from an entire life of devotion and holiness. 

The best treatment of this in the Bible is found in Ephesians 5. 

Husbands are called to make sacrifices for their wives and love their wives unconditionally. 

Ephesians 5:25: Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,

That’s a high standard. 

We’re to love sacrificially. 

We’re to put our wives ahead of ourselves. 

Husbands are called to pursue the sanctification and holiness of their wives. 

that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word

Men are called to love their wives as they love themselves, not to just lord over them. 

husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 

I think we can all see that the king was in the wrong in this instance. 

But men so often fail to live up – or even try to live up to what God calls us to be in the role of being husbands. 

We’re called to take up our cross, to die to ourselves, to love sacrificially. That’s all hard. 

What’s easy is for men to fall into passivity and complacency. 

The selection of Esther

 We come to our final scene of this opening act of the story and we see the introduction of Esther and Mordachi. 

It’s probably at least three years after chapter 1 because it seems to be after the Greco-Persian War. 

Time has passed and the king’s advisors suggest he find a new wife. 

Then the king’s young men who attended him said, “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king. 3 And let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in Susa the citadel

The text goes on to say: 

Let their cosmetics be given them. 4 And let the young woman who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.

So the king is going to send officials throughout the empire and find the most beautiful women and bring them to him where they would live in the palace and work on beautifying themselves for the king to pick a new wife. 

Brief note on the Bible. 

The Bible reports lots of things that are descriptive but not prescriptive. 

What I mean is that the Bible records events and says what happened, but it’s not endorsing what happened. 

Because this is barbaric. 

For the women who were not picked, they’d live in the palace as concubines: mistresses of the king. They would never get married. They had a comfortable life in the palace, but they weren’t free. If a child was conceived between the king and a concubine, the child may have been given standing within the kingdom but did not have a claim to the throne. 

This was bad for the women, and it was also bad for men. 

Because groups men were also taken with this cohort to guard and serve the women. But these eunuchs, as they’re called were castrated to prevent fraternizing with the women. Karen Jobes points this out in her commentary: we see that both men and women are disposable to the king and subject to his whims. 

The scene is interrupted and Mordecai is introduced: 

5 Now there was a Jew in Susa the citadel whose name was Mordecai, the son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, a Benjaminite, 6 who had been carried away from Jerusalem among the captives carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had carried away.

The text says that Mordecai had been carried away when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem. 

Given that that was about a century before these events, the common view is that it was actually Mordecai’s ancestors who had been taken and that Mordecai was born under foreign rule and occupation. 

Verse 7. Esther is introduced:

He was bringing up Hadassah, that is Esther, the daughter of his uncle, for she had neither father nor mother. The young woman had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at, and when her father and her mother died, Mordecai took her as his own daughter.

Esther is her Persian name. Hadassah is her Hebrew name. She is an orphan who’s Mordecai’s cousin, and Mordecai has looked after her. 

The story mentions that Esther had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at. 

Physical descriptions are rare in the Bible. We don’t know what Jesus even looked like. 

So when the Bible does mention a physical characteristic of someone, it’s because it’s relevant to the story. 

It’s relevant that Esther is beautiful. The king has his pick of the most beautiful women throughout the Perisan Empire, but Esther’s beauty is noteworthy. It will influence the king’s selection of her. 

The story tells us that Esther quickly wins favor in the king’s harem. 

While she’s being served, and having access to all of the accoutrements needed to win the king’s heart, the story tells us that Esther has a secret. 

Esther had not made known her people or kindred, for Mordecai had commanded her not to make it known.

In other words, Esther has kept it secret that she was Jewish. And that will be very significant. 

Because unbeknownst to her, a plot to destroy the Jews looms on the horizon. 

The story gets back to describing the preparations women made to see the king. After months of preparation, a woman would spend one night with the king. 

12 Now when the turn came for each young woman to go in to King Ahasuerus, after being twelve months under the regulations for the women, since this was the regular period of their beautifying, six months with oil of myrrh and six months with spices and ointments for women— 13 when the young woman went in to the king in this way, she was given whatever she desired 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 in custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch, who was in charge of the concubines. She would not go in to the king again, unless the king delighted in her and she was summoned by name. 

But then Esther meets the king. 

The glass slipper fits. She gets the final rose. The king picks Esther and the Isaelite becomes queen of Persia. 

the king loved Esther more than all the women, and she won grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.

And just like that, she’s on the throne. An Israelite is the Queen of Persia. 

Meditation – God is present 

In the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, the apostle gives a genealogy which leads from Abraham to Christ. One of the great reminders of that genealogy is God’s sovereignty throughout history. God was sovereign in a family which lead to Christ coming into the world, but more than that, God was sovereign over the world that surrounded this family.

In that genealogy, we see not just God’s sovereignty over his people but the nations. Four women are listed in Jesus’ genealogy, three of them are not Israelites. Rahab was a Canaanite. Ruth was a Moabite. Bathsheeba was most likely a Hittite. 

Yet God used these women in the family tree which led to Jesus. 

Here, we have Esther, a woman who is an Israeltie who became queen over the non-Israelite Persians. 

God isn’t mentioned in Esther, but he’s present. Orchestrating the events, through the kingdoms of the world. From Vashti’s refusal and banishments to Esther’s ascension. It is the hand of God at work. 

God isn’t mentioned in Esther but he’s present. When Eshter lived, it was not a great time for the Israelites. God had brought a righteous judgment which brought expulsion from the Holy Land. The temple had been destroyed and was in the process of being rebuilt. The monarchy was over. 

When Jesus came into the world, it was not a great time for the Israelites. They were under Roman authority which could be oppressive at times. The time of the prophets had ended centuries before. And in that time, God could have seemed distant too. He was no longer speaking through prophets, but he was still present. 

And I look at the world today. Even before the pandemic, we have military conflicts, human trafficking, modern day slavery, oppressive regimes, increeasing persecution in much of the world. It can be tempting to look at the darkness of the world and question where God is. But it is the same God who ruled in Eshter’s day and who put Esther on the throne. It’s the same God who ruled in Jesus’ day who sent his angels to speak to Mary, who sent the Spirit through which the baby Jesus was conceived. 

It’s the same God who rules and reigns today. 

Just because we aren’t always dazzled does not mean that God is any less active in his creation. Just because we don’t always feel God’s presence doesn’t mean he’s not there. 

The Lord almighty reigns. He’s the Lord of history and he’s the Lord of today.