Esther 1 introduces the reader to the main characters of the book of Esther, and sets up the plot for this amazing story.
I heard a story where a group of literature critics gathered monthly to read, analyze and critique various works of literature — poems, plays, short stories and novels. In one of these sessions, they analyzed the literature of the Bible. Being the liberal scholars and teachers that they were, they were generally very critical of the Bible and what it had to say and how it had to say it. It is not that it was bad literature, it just was not, according to them, up to par with some of the other great masterpieces of history.
Well, the group also allowed various individuals to submit personal works to the group for critique. Very few did this, of course, because the group was generally very unkind in what they had to say. However, a few months following their critique of the Bible, a young man submitted a short story to the group. It was a story of only about 15 pages in length. The members of the literature club took the story home and read it.
When they gathered the next month, the comments were amazing. Almost unanimously, they said that it was one of the finest short stories ever written. It had surprisingly good character development. The plot was a fascinating twist of events and reversals that kept the reader on the edge of the seat all the way through. There was foreshadowing of events that were thrilling to watch. The heroes were lovable and the villains were despised. In short, it was one of the best stories this group had ever read.
When they asked the young man how he had thought up the story, he told them, to their shock and amazement that he had not. He had pulled the story straight out of the Bible which they had previously critiqued as being inferior literature. He had, however, changed only the names of the story so that it would not quickly be recognizable as having originated from the Bible.
What was the story? It was the story of Esther.
The Question in Esther: Where is God?
When Esther is studied, we see that the literature critics were exactly right on this story. It has all the elements of a perfect piece of literature.
Of course, this is not surprising to those of us who look upon the Bible as the inspired Word of God. And of course, I think that if they had had someone point out to them the literary characteristics of all the books of the Bible, they would have agreed that the Bible is the most amazing book ever written. It has, after all, been the number one best seller of all time.
Esther is a story about a time in Israelite history when it seemed God was not at work, and His promises to Israel had failed. Many Israelites were asking, “Where is God?”
Has it ever seemed to you that God is too distant to hear your prayers — or too busy to be concerned with you or your life? Have you ever wondered if God really was out there? Have you ever wondered why he doesn’t reveal Himself more clearly. Have you ever wondered where he is when everything seems to be going wrong?
The book of Esther answers these questions — but in a way you will never imagine. And rather than keep you in suspense, I might as well just tell you now — God is not in the book of Esther. When you read it — and I encourage you to do so — you will find that God appears to be absent.
The word “God” is not found once in the entire book. There is no mention of the name of God. Neither is there any mention of worship or faith. There is no prediction of the Messiah. There is no mention of heaven or hell. We do not even see anyone praying in Esther. We do see people fasting, but there is no mention of prayer that normally accompanies fasting.
And so it is surprising to some to see this book within the pages of our Bible. In fact, some throughout history have thought that this book should not belong in our Bibles. Martin Luther, for example, wrote “I am so hostile to [2 Maccabees] and to Esther that I could wish they did not exist at all; for they judaize too greatly and have much pagan impropriety.” (1)
So why is this book in our Bibles? Well, I think it can be summarized from a verse in Romans. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” As we will see in the book of Esther, God is at work in all things for the good of those who have been called according to his purpose — even when we can’t see Him.
In fact, the name of the book, Esther, implies this! Her Hebrew name was Hadassah, but when she became queen they gave her a Persian name Esther. Some believe that she was named after the Persian goddess of love, Ishtar. But Gesenius, one of the greatest Hebrew authorities, says that the name Esther is derived from the a word meaning “to hide.” Therefore, Esther means “something hidden.” (2)
And indeed there is much that is hidden in the book of Esther. There are certain key pieces of information that are hidden from almost everyone but us — the readers. We see it all, but the characters of the story do not. There is always something going on behind the scenes. There is always more than meets the eye. There is always more in the works than any individual is aware of.
And all of the events of the story come together so perfectly that it is hard to miss the biggest piece of hidden information in the story — God. God is intentionally left out so that when we read the story, we cannot miss Him. Some Godless men may look upon the events as chance, coincidence of amazing circumstances, but we know better, and we see God everywhere.
There was a young man once who was searching for God, and he heard of a wise old Christian who had a very close relationship with God. So the young man went and visited the older and said to him “Sir, I want to see God. I have searched for Him and cannot find Him. Can you show Him to me?” The old man looked at him for a moment. Then he looked at the trees overhead. Then he looked at the blue sky and the blazing sun. Next he glanced over to some children playing a game in a field. Then he turned again to the young man and said, “I’m sorry. I cannot help you.”
The young man became angry. “Why not? Don’t you know how I can see God?”
The old man patiently responded, “The reason I cannot help you see God, is because I see Him everywhere I look. I do not understand how you miss Him. If you do not see Him anywhere, I cannot help you.”
This is the way it is with Esther. God is everywhere in the book, even though He is not mentioned even one time.
So, when you ask, “Where is God?” The author of Esther responds “Where is God not?” God, it is true, has exercised his sovereignty on the front stage, in the spotlight, though miracles and wonders and signs, like the parting of the Red Sea and the sun standing still, and walls of Jericho falling down. But He also frequently exercises his sovereignty from behind the curtain. God does not only work in showmanship and in the center ring. God is still in the business of miracles even when they are not flashy. He can work as much through circumstances and human events as He can through water from a rock and a pillar of fire. “The complete absence of God from the text, is the genius of the book.” (3) He is the biggest piece of hidden information in the book. At the time Esther was written, this was one of the biggest questions they were asking.
Historical Background to Esther
Let me review for you what was going on in the days of Esther. You remember of course, that God set up a royal line through King David. David’s son, Solomon ruled after him. The reign of Solomon was the golden age for Israel. Peace and prosperity for all.
But after Solomon things got bad. The nation could not decide who should be the next king, and so the nation divided. Ten northern tribes wanted one man, and two southern tribes wanted a different man. So the nation split — into the northern and the southern kingdoms.
Roughly 200 years after the division, the northern kingdom, because they were completely evil, were conquered and carried off into captivity by Assyria — and the nation was never heard from again, although the people themselves were not lost and are still in existence today.
The southern kingdom, however, had a few good kings — a few good years of living in obedience to God, and so they lasted about 400 years. But at the end of that time, around the year 600 BC, the southern kingdom itself was also captured and carried off into captivity by Babylon. It was during this time that Daniel prophesied. And remember, he understood from the prophet Jeremiah that their captivity would last for only 70 years. He also prophesied, by the way, about four beasts –four nations that would rise to power before the coming of the Messiah. The first was Babylon. The second was Persia. The third was Greece and the fourth was Rome.
Daniel saw some of this come to pass during his life time. He was alive when the Babylonian empire fell to Persia. And Persia, under the rule of Cyrus, decided, for many different reasons, to allow Israel to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple. This happened in 536 BC, and fulfilled what Daniel had seen through Jeremiah about the 70 year captivity.
So a group of Israelites, about 50,000 of them, returned under the leadership of a man named Zerubabbel, to rebuild the temple. They ran into complications, and it took about 60 years to complete the temple. It was not completed until Ezra arrived as you can read about in the book of Ezra. Later, Nehemiah comes with more people to rebuild Jerusalem itself and her walls.
It is during that 60 year time span — when the temple was not yet complete — that the book of Esther takes place.
Now there are some who believe that we should read Esther as a book of judgment. They see that God wanted the Israelites to return to their land, but many did not — and so they were sinning. In fact, here is what one commentator said: “Here is a woman who is willing to stay in Persia and sleep with a heathen king, rather than to return to Israel and become the wife of a godly Israelite — she is a schemer and a manipulator. She has learned well from her cousin Mordecai [who] refuses to show honor and respect to those in authority.” (4)
This approach is wrong, for it is judgmental and maybe a bit legalistic. Was Esther sinning? Maybe she was, since Israelites were not to intermarry with other races. Should she have returned to Israel? Possibly, but we see no statement here — or anywhere in Scripture — saying that they were sinning. God had a plan and needed them right where they were. Let me show you.
The point of the story is to show that God is always working behind the scenes. And in fact, we know that it was Esther’s marriage to the King of Persian that ultimately leads to the rebuilding of Jerusalem which we can read about in the book of Nehemiah! (5) It is Esther’s stepson that signs the decree to rebuild Jerusalem, which in turn fulfills Daniel 9:26.
And after the sixty-two weeks
Messiah shall be cut off, but not for Himself;
And the people of the prince who is to come
Shall destroy the city and the sanctuary.
The end of it shall be with a flood,
And till the end of the war desolations are determined.
This prophecy sets in motion the coming of Christ. The coming of the Messiah, and this prophecy was set in motion because Esther’s stepson decreed that Nehemiah could go and rebuild Jerusalem. Esther was probably alive when it happened! In fact, for all we know, Esther was the one who influenced her stepson to make the decree for her people, Israel (Neh 2:6).
Therefore to say that the book of Esther is written to condemn Esther and Mordecai and the Israelites who remained behind, I think, is wrong headed and a reveals a deep misunderstanding of the entire story. In fact, if they were living in sinful rebellion against God, we would expect God to pour out his judgment upon them in the book as he has always done in times past, but instead, as we will see, God pours out blessing and honor upon the Israelites, instead of judgment and destruction.
So, with the background behind us, let us now look at Esther 1.
The King of Susa (Esther 1:1-2)
Esther 1:1. Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus (this was the Ahasuerus who reigned over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces, from India to Ethiopia),
Some translations might say Xerxes, but Ahasuerus is probably best. The reason the NIV says Xerxes, is because the term Ahasuerus is a title, not a name. It is like saying “Caesar,” “Pharaoh,” “President,” or “King.”
There are three people in Scripture that have this title of Ahasuerus. The Father of Darius the Mede (Dan 9:1), a king mentioned in Ezra 4:6, and this king here in Esther, whom we know also as Xerxes. This one reigned 21 years over the 127 provinces stretching from India to Cush. This means he had absolute and unlimited power. (6) We know where India is, and Cush is northern Africa.
Esther 1:2. In those days when King Ahasuerus sat on the throne of his kingdom, which was in Shushan the citadel,
Shushan was a large city about 200 miles east of Babylon, and was the winter residence of Persian Kings. Archeologists have uncovered this site and have found many of the things we read about in this book.
-the “king’s gate” (Esther 4:2)
-the “inner court” (Esther 5:1)
-the “outer court” (Esther 6:4)
-the “palace garden” (Esther 7:7)
-and even the dice, which they called “pur” (Esther 3:7) with which they cast lots. (7)
The Party in Persia (Esther 1:3-9)
Esther 1:3-4. That in the third year of his reign he made a feast for all his officials and servants — the powers of Persia and Media, the nobles, and the princes of the provinces being before him — when he showed the riches of his glorious kingdom and the splendor of his excellent majesty for many days, one hundred and eighty days in all.
A 180 day party! Xerxes was known for his drinking parties. He was also known for his fits of rage, which we will encounter in verse 12 and later in the book (Esther 7:10). He also had a palace in Susa with a large harem. (8)
This banquet he was hosting was actually a banquet to prepare for a expedition against Greece. Sources suggest that he wanted to avenge his father’s defeat at the Battle of Marthon near Athens (490 BC). This is an elaborate pep rally. (9) He was hoping to get the military leaders, princes and nobles to support him with soldiers, food, supplies and money for the upcoming military campaign.
According to the historian Herodotus, it took Ahasuerus nearly four years to get ready for the invasion which he launched in 481. Herodotus claimed that he gathered an army of almost 5,000,000 men, but other sources say it was probably closer to between 1 and 2 million. So part of this 180 days was spent planning for war. (10)
We will see how all this plays in next week, but I want to tell you right now, that Ahasuerus suffered an enormous defeat at the hands of the Greeks. Of the 1 to 2 million men that went, only about 5,000 returned with him. Most of Xerxes men died at the Sea Battle of Salamis. The Greeks had only 371 small triremes against over 1200 Persian ships. But as Xerxes watched from shore while sitting in a golden throne, almost his entire fleet was decimated before his eyes.
Following this battle, he took what men he had left, returned home with 5,000 of them, and left the remaining 250,000 men with his general, Mardonius. Their goals was to maintain their grasp on the little land they still had in Greece, but Mardonius was lured into another battle against the Greeks at Mycale. Herodotus reports that of the 250,000 only 43,000 survived, while killing only 159 Greeks. It was a disastrous war. We will see how this adds to the story of Esther in chapter 2.
Esther 1:5. And when these days were completed, the king made a feast lasting seven days for all the people who were present in Shushan the citadel, from great to small, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace.
This second banquet lasts seven days after the previous 180, and is only for just the people of Susa.
Esther 1:6. There were white and blue linen curtains fastened with cords of fine linen and purple on silver rods and marble pillars; and the couches were of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of alabaster, turquoise, and white and black marble.
See the elaborate descriptions? Decorations that would have made a Better Homes and Gardens reader weep.
Esther 1:7-8. And they served drinks in golden vessels, each vessel being different from the other, with royal wine in abundance, according to the generosity of the king. In accordance with the law, the drinking was not compulsory; for so the king had ordered all the officers of his household, that they should do according to each man’s pleasure.
Now normally, the people drank as the king drank. If he stayed sober, so would they. If he got drunk, so would they. But here, the king orders that everyone drinks as much or as little as he wants.
Esther 1:9. Queen Vashti also made a feast for the women in the royal palace which belonged to King Ahasuerus.
So, here we are introduced to Queen Vashti. Some sources, probably not too reliable, but still possible, say she was the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar.
We see also that she is giving her own party for the women. Normally the men and the women gave separate parties like this. Notice the complete lack of description that the writer gives to Vashti’s party. The king’s party is given a vivid and lengthy description, but Vashti’s is not. (11)
It again reveals the pomp and power that the King reveled in, and sets us up to see the absolute foolishness that the King wallowed in. With wealth does not come wisdom.
Esther 1:9 also talks about the royal women. The royal women of the palace were the other members of the harem. It’s kind of ironic, but Persian kings believed in monogamy — having only one wife. But in order to get around that, they gathered large harems and had affairs with other women as well.
It’s a little bit like today. Our culture condemns polygamists, men who have more than one wife — but our culture rarely sees anything wrong with sleeping around before marriage. Even after marriage, if you don’t like your spouse, you can divorce him or her and get another one.
Drinking and Dancing (Esther 1:10-12)
Esther 1:10a. On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine…
Today, we might say, “he was wasted.” In that time, Herodotus the historian tells us that the Persians drank as they discussed matters of state. They believed that intoxication put them closer to the spiritual world.
It is the Persian custom to deliberate about the gravest matters when they are drunk; and what they approve in their counsels is proposed to them the next day by the master of the house where they deliberate, when they are now sober and if being sober they still approve it, they act thereon, but if not, they cast it aside. And when they have taken counsel about a matter when sober, they decide upon it when they are drunk. (12)
As I was reading and writing this, I couldn’t decide if that was a better or worse way to do government than how we do it now in Washington D. C. I think a lot more would get done if decisions were made while drunk, but I don’t think I would like the decisions that were made.
Anyway, the king is drunk, and picking back up in verse 10,
Esther 1:10b. …he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas, seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus,
The eunuchs were the ones who served in the harem. In case you don’t know, a eunuch is a castrated male. This way, they couldn’t interfere with the harem or have children who might then try to take over the throne. (13)
Herodotus also tells us that in general, eunuchs were cringing, fawning leeches who often just told the king what they thought he wanted to hear. (14)
Esther 1:11. …to bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing her royal crown, in order to show her beauty to the people and the officials, for she was beautiful to behold.
Now there are some commentators who think that the king was commanding her to come in nothing but her royal crown. Probably, this was not the case; there is nothing immoral or lewd going on here. She was summoned to display her royal beauty, not to entertain the troops with some kind of sensual show.
Esther 1:12a. But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command brought by his eunuchs;
The reason she did not come, is because it was considered shameful to show her face to the masses. When she went out, she went veiled. The king was trying to show off her face, not her body. Since this would be undignified and beneath her station, the queen refused. (15)
She really couldn’t do anything else. If she went, she would be scorned and shamed by all who saw her and especially by other ladies of the royal house who have never themselves shown their faces to the public. If she didn’t go, which is what happens here, well, she hoped for the best from her husband the king.
Women, remember that modesty is the crown jewel of womanhood. (16) But look what happens in the rest of verse 12.
Esther 1:12b. …therefore the king was furious, and his anger burned within him.
He is humiliated because his wife will not obey him. Here he was trying to get faithful supporters for his war, and he cannot get even his own wife to obey him. He is a king with all of his wealth and power and friends, but he cannot even get his own wife to obey him! It is really quite humorous, and I believe the author is intentionally trying to get us to laugh at the King’s dilemma.
Anyway, in response to Vashti’s refusal, he flies into one of his famous fits of rage.
Before, he was merry. Now he is mad. That is the way it is with drinking. Some drinking is not wrong, but getting drunk causes a person to lose all control of themselves, and generally a person can go from being happy to being furious in just the span of a few seconds. Let’s see what he does in his drunken rage in Esther 1:13.
Political Wisdom (Esther 1:13-22)
Esther 1:13-15. Then the king said to the wise men who understood the times (for this was the king’s manner toward all who knew law and justice, those closest to him being Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven princes of Persia and Media, who had access to the king’s presence, and who ranked highest in the kingdom): “What shall we do to Queen Vashti, according to law, because she did not obey the command of King Ahasuerus brought to her by the eunuchs?”
Now notice again how much detail is given to the Kings advisors. It is almost sarcasm we see dripping from these pages. They are experts in matters of law, they understood the times, they had special access to the king and were highest in the kingdom.
Now watch how foolishly they act.
Esther 1:16. And Memucan answered before the king and the princes: “Queen Vashti has not only wronged the king, but also all the princes, and all the people who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus.”
Memucan speaks up, and right away he’s making a mountain out of molehill. “What began as an issue between two people suddenly is escalated into a crisis of empire-wide proportions.” (17)
Esther 1:17-18. For the queen’s behavior will become known to all women, so that they will despise their husbands in their eyes, when they report, “King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought in before him, but she did not come.” This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media will say to all the king’s officials that they have heard of the behavior of the queen. Thus there will be excessive contempt and wrath.
And we thought the women’s liberation movement was new. (18)
This advisor is basically saying, “she is a threat to the social structure of our society.” In reality, she’s only a threat to a petty, proud and power-hungry king. So what does Memucan propose?
Esther 1:19. If it pleases the king, let a royal decree go out from him, and let it be recorded in the laws of the Persians and the Medes, so that it will not be altered, that Vashti shall come no more before King Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she.
So she is basically demoted within the harem. Notice she is not called upon to defend herself, nor does anyone come to defend her. (19) As Christians, we are called to defend those who cannot or are not allowed to defend themselves.
Well the result is that she is removed from her position. This, by the way, is not according to Biblical standards or guidelines. Men, these are not instructions for us on how to treat our wives. Memucan continues in verse 20.
Esther 1:20. “When the king’s decree which he will make is proclaimed throughout all his empire (for it is great), all wives will honor their husbands, both great and small.”
What he is saying is “We can’t have this! If we let Vashti get away with it, all women will treat their husbands this way!” “Ironically, the king ends up publicizing his embarrassing plight by ordering throughout the empire what he himself could not accomplish in his own palace!” (20)
“Their decision to demand honor from their wives by an empire-wide edict would have actually achieved [the exact opposite of what they wanted!]” (21) They were afraid that women would find out about Vashti’s disobedience, and now these “wise counselors” had assured that everyone would hear of it! It is really quite laughable.
Esther 1:21-22. And the reply pleased the king and the princes, and the king did according to the word of Memucan. Then he sent letters to all the king’s provinces, to each province in its own script, and to every people in their own language, that each man should be master in his own house, and speak in the language of his own people.
The decree was sent out with pony express. Really. That is how they did it. Herodotus again says that neither snow, rain, heat nor darkness deterred the messengers. Sound a lot like the old Postal slogan “through rain, hail, sleet or snow” and it was. This edict when everywhere and to all languages.
Conclusion to Esther 1
So ends chapter one. The plot is set up. A proud king. A deposed queen. A national law. We have seen the leadership of the proud and powerful. We will soon see their fall at the hands of a Israelite woman. We have seen that despite their wealth and power, they were really quite foolish and petty.
Of course, this is one of the worst combinations: power in the hands of a fool. In such cases, a nation is in real danger — it is ruled by the pride and arrogance of buffoons whose egos command the nation’s laws and power for their own selfish and childish causes. (22) We have all seen it happen far too often.
In fact, we have seen this happen over and over though out history when any person gets too much power. (23)
The names of Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler bring to mind terrors created by unchecked worldly power. Even in our own country, we have seen leaders who have fallen to the depraved temptations of power.
Presidents fall into money and sex scandals. Big business in corporate America allows exploitation of employees, manipulation of customers, and even price gouging. But of course, the world is expected to act this way. Why would they behave any differently?
What is really tragic is when Christians behave this way. Sadly, we behave this way far too often. The Christian church is not immune from the temptations of power. We have seen many churches and denominations abuse their power. We have seen leaders like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart fall to power’s siren song.
Even in our family relationships, husbands abuse their wives, sometimes wrongly applying Ephesians and the principle of submission. Parents sometimes abuse their children.
Power, and the misuse of power is a huge today. Where do you have power? Are you lording it over those below you? Do you do things sometimes “just because you can” not caring how it affects others?
“Whether a husband or wife in the privacy of our homes, as a spiritual leader in the church, as a CEO of a large corporation, as a manager in any business, or as a head of state of some great nation, we are responsible to resist the temptation of misusing our power for the satisfaction of ungodly [pride and] lust in any of its forms.” (24)
1. Howard, OT Historical Background, 315.
2. Missler, Esther, 31.
3. Jobes, 42.
4. Deffinbaugh, Intro, 1.
5. Missler, 26.
6. Bush, 353.
7. Missler, 28.
9. Deffinbaugh, 3. Another good source of information is Herodotus.
11. Bush, 354.
12. Jobes, 68
13. Walton, 484.
15. Ibid, 485
16. Mears, p. 165
17. Jobes, 79
18. Deffinbaugh, 6
19. Armerding, 20.
20. Jobes, 80
21. Bush, 355
23. This and much of what follows are general ideas from Jobes, 86ff.
24. Ibid, 92.
Want to Learn More?
Read other sermons on Esther: