Esther 1 – God Rules over All Sing: Ps. 27:1,6; Ps. 77:1,3,5
“What’s the world coming to!”
That’s a phrase we hear a lot, and sometimes we may even wonder ourselves. Canada may have been Christian in the past, but is rejecting the Word of God with a vengeance. Our secular government seems to have one main concern: ridding our society of every trace of the Christian religion. Sin is legalized and almost every perversion is welcomed as an expression of the riches of the human spirit. The only crime seems to be when a person stands up for God and his commandments. We are still allowed to practice our religion privately, but the moment we enter the public square we are not only ignored but incur the wrath and discrimination of a society that has become thoroughly pagan.
When we add to that our own weaknesses and inclination to sin, it doesn’t take much to lose courage and wonder what the future will be like. Will Christ’s church still be around twenty years from now? Will we and our children drown in the tidal wave that’s flooding our world? A tidal wave where personal fulfillment and unrestrained freedom are key; where God’s kingship is mocked and dismissed and the religion of humanism is embraced? We haven’t even mentioned our personal struggles and concerns, like sickness (sometimes terminal), loneliness, sadness because of sin, and worries about making ends meet. We may ask: Where is God? Doesn’t he know about our fears? Isn’t he aware of our weaknesses? How can we go on? How can we live in peace and quiet surrender in a world where it looks as if God is absent?
We are not the first and certainly not the only ones who struggle with these matters. Already 2500 years ago God’s children faced a similar scenario. That’s why the Lord gave us the book of Esther.
What comfort can this part of God’s Word provide? His name is not even mentioned! We don’t read of anyone who lives a godly life and reveals a deep love of the Lord. On the contrary, we read of sin and naked power, of sensuality and royal court intrigues. We also hear of courage and heroism, of a willingness to lay down one’s life and comfort for the wellbeing of one’s countrymen. But without God, the question persists: What can we learn from this part of God’s holy Word and how can it encourage us in a world which becomes more pagan by the day?
God’s apparent absence is precisely what provides us with the comfort we need so badly. It’s because everything in this book is so human and horizontal that we are forced to wonder why the Lord included it in the canon of Holy Scripture. The book of Esther proclaims that God rules, even though it may not look like it. Esther reveals that right through all human activities the Lord is in full control and watches over his people. It is God’s providential care that carries the day. It’s his covenant faithfulness that shines through. We need only to read this book with the eyes of faith! God’s government and man’s responsibility are not two separate entities which have nothing to do with each other. They are interwoven and, though it goes far above our understanding, even sin must serve redemptive history. There is a church to be gathered, defended and preserved.
Both in Esther’s time and today we, God’s people, remain weak and can’t deny the growing enmity against the Lord and his church. It often looks as if the devil is in charge and sin will win out. Satan tries to smother the church of Christ to death. He does this not only by persecution but even more by luring us away from the certainty of God’s promises and by enticing us with every imaginable temptation -- power, luxury, sensuality, easy-goingness, compromise, etc. We’re living in a world where God seems absent. It only seems so, however. Just as in the past, God fulfills his counsel and we must live by faith. He is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. He watches over his people and we can trust him, even when it looks as if we are fighting a lost cause. Christ did not shed his blood in vain. He purchased a people to live with and for God, to sing of his love and grace and to praise him forever!
Just as there were similarities between Esther’s time and ours, there are also differences. Great and glorious differences! 2500 years ago the Saviour still needed to come. Today, he has finished his work of reconciliation. In Esther’s time, Satan did his utmost to thwart the fulfillment of God’s promise that a Redeemer would arrive to die for the sins of his people and set them free to serve the Lord. Now, we live though the blessed work of Jesus Christ. Despite many shortcomings and failures, our sins have been atoned for. The cross is a historic fact and so is the resurrection! That’s why we can confess with Paul “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) What a comfort and what a glorious reality! What a reason to look towards the future with confidence and trust! “[Nothing] in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.” (Romans 8:39)
The Evils of a World without God
The events of the book of Esther go back to the year 483 B.C. It was at least 100 years after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, and about 50 years after Cyrus, the first Persian king, allowed the Jews to return to the Promised Land. The exile had come to an end and God’s punishment on the sins of his people had run its course; yet only a small remnant had actually returned. A great majority remained in the land of their dispersion. That is a bad sign, to say the least. It tells us something about how dangerous a long absence from the Lord and his service is. No, it isn’t that the exiles had completely forgotten about God. It was just too hard to sell their possessions and go back to Canaan where the Lord was to be worshipped in his temple. Despite this, the Lord had not written them off as he has far more patience and compassion than man. They were his covenant people and twenty years after the book of Esther was written another group of exiles left for Canaan under Ezra.
At the time of our text Xerxes, whose Hebrew name was Ahasveros, sat on the throne of the Persian Empire. He had his winter palace in Susa, a strong fortress in the city which carried the same name, and was situated in what we now call Iran. Xerxes was the third king after Cyrus, and ruled from 489-465 B.C. In his days the Persian Empire was at the height of its glory and power. It stretched from present day Pakistan to Sudan in Africa and was comprised of 127 provinces, each with its own governor or prince. Canaan was one of those provinces. Even though Jerusalem and the temple had been rebuilt, the Jews in Palestine still lived under the rule of a pagan king.
Three years after Xerxes succeeded his father, Darius the Great, he organized a great feast or banquet for his most important officials. Why did he do that? The fact that his military leaders are separately mentioned lends credence to what we know from other historical sources. A certain Herodotus writes a detailed account about the Persian war efforts. He relates that Xerxes called this meeting to prepare for an attack on his arch rivals, the Greeks. He wanted to take revenge for his father’s recent defeat while trying to subject the Greek city states to the rule of Persia. In order to assure himself of his generals’ approval and support, he wanted to impress them with his great glory, riches, and benevolence. Others claim that the feast was held as a coronation banquet. Though Xerxes had already been on the throne for close to three years, he had been very busy quelling various uprisings in his immensely large empire; it’s hard, if not impossible, to party while your rule is attacked and your power is undermined.
The text does not mention the reason for this extravagant party of the king and his nobles. That doesn’t mean the extra-biblical sources are false. As a matter of fact, it’s a historical certainty that Xerxes organized a vast army and set sail for Greece about a year after our text. We also know that he was soundly defeated and that tens of thousands of his soldiers died a miserable death. Nevertheless, the Lord did not deem it necessary to fill us in about these matters.
Our chapter gives us sufficient information to know Xerxes’ deepest motives were to proclaim his greatness and bedazzle his subjects with his vast wealth and generous liberality. He used his subjects to increase his personal glory; to elevate man to the level of God. Or in today’s terms: To praise the capabilities of the human spirit. You don’t need to celebrate what is baked into man’s sinful nature. It takes us right back to the dawn of history where Satan promised our first parents that sin would make them like God and they could be their own boss. He promised that when man lived as he pleased he could attain to even greater glory and have all his dreams fulfilled. Some things don’t change!
Xerxes’ banquet lasted 180 days. That’s half a year! Wasn’t that far too long for Xerxes’ key personnel to be away from their important positions? How could the vast empire be effectively ruled when all the highest government officials were partying for such a long time, far away from their daily responsibilities? That’s why we must imagine these men to be present on a rotating basis. For six months, Xerxes summoned his most important officials to Susa, impressing them with the vast display of his power, riches and greatness. And when the 180 days were over, Xerxes organized another feast at a royal garden party in the citadel of Susa. This party was for all of his palace servants, from the greatest to the least and they were regaled in a manner that’s hard to imagine. Verses 6-8 elaborate on the splendor and magnificence of that party. It seems as if the best was hardly good enough.
What opulence and extravagance, luxury and abundance! The wine flowed freely and though no-one was forced to drink, everyone could booze to his heart’s content. No expense was spared. You can be sure that everyone present hailed the greatness of King Xerxes. They would go through the fire for him. Hail to Xerxes, and glory to the empire! Drunk with excitement, befuddled by the splendor all around them, the garden was a veritable Disneyland. It was decorated and illuminated in such a way that it literally took your breath away. What riches and splendor, what unimaginable abundance! When Alexander the Great defeated Persia some hundred years later, it is said that in Susa alone he found 1200 tons of silver and gold bullion and 270 tons of minted gold coins. It doesn’t surprise us that all the guests at this feast must have stood in awe of their king and empire.
There was a snag in the festivities. It’s introduced by the statement that Queen Vashti also gave a banquet for the women of Susa, not in the royal gardens but in the palace. Why are we given this information? What does it have to do with the main contents of our text? That’s what the rest of the chapter makes clear. On the last day of the week long feast, when King Xerxes was drunk, he got a brilliant idea; at least that’s what he thought. What better way to end the party than by showing off his beautiful wife? Wouldn’t that be the climax of his glory and pride? Without fail, he ordered his seven principle harem officials to fetch the queen. They were to ensure she wore her royal crown to emphasize her husband’s greatness; the text is surprisingly quiet about the rest of her outfit. Given the general mood of the king and his guests and considering the freely flowing liquor, the party would have been a drunken orgy by now. All propriety had been cast to the wind and Xerxes’ foggy mind had one final desire to send the festivities through the roof. He would parade his beautiful wife as a sex object before the leering eyes of his officials. Queen Vashti was, after all, a living trophy of his great power and glory. Imagine what her entrance would do to inspire patriotism and unconditional loyalty from his subjects!
But Vashti refused to come. God’s Word doesn’t tell us why, and that ought to make us careful not to read all kinds of moral objections into her refusal, as many Bible commentators do. We have no reason to believe that Vashti stood miles above the sensuality of the king and his court. She was a pagan and would have accepted the sexual mores of those times as normal and inescapable, especially when it came to the king who was an absolute ruler who could please himself. Why then did Vashti refuse? Was it perhaps because she is pregnant? We know that Xerxes’ son and successor Artaxerxes was born in the same year as this banquet. Though secular history gives the name Amestris to his mother, many claim this is just a variant for Vashti. Whatever the case, the queen disobeyed the king’s command and Xerxes, not surprisingly, became furious. He who ruled one of the greatest empires the world has ever known, couldn’t get his own wife to obey him!
What a humiliation and what a disgrace! Vashti’s refusal became the anticlimax of the banquet -- instead of crowning the king’s glory, it defamed and ridiculed him in public. No wonder the king burned with anger. Consulting his top-advisors in matters of state who knew the intricacies of the law, the king asked “What must be done?” Vashti was not just anybody, she was the queen! The succession of the throne was at stake. The wellbeing of the empire demanded attention and the judicial council did not hesitate. They decided to flatter the king. They could have told Xerxes he’d gone too far; they could have minimized Vashti’s refusal by explaining to the gathered officials that she had a good reason not to come. But these spin-doctors preferred a different route. They wanted to cuddle up to Xerxes and tell him what he liked to hear. Instead of being up-front and saving both Xerxes and his beloved queen much heartbreak they turned Vashti’s refusal into a matter of national importance. Imagine if she got away with this -- then every husband would lose his power and dominance over his wife! The whole country would be in great turmoil and who knows how it would affect the security of the empire. “Make a decree O king!” they said. “Enact a law that can’t be repealed. Teach Vashti and every other woman that this attitude won’t be tolerated. Ban the queen for life! Have nothing to do with her anymore. That’ll teach her, and every other woman as well!”
Xerxes was elated! This would vindicate him and allow him to save face. The decision was made into law and messengers were sent to every corner of the empire. Every man was to be ruler over his own household. What a masterly stroke of pampering to Xerxes’ vanity! Instead of minimizing his drunken command, the event was made into a matter of state. After all, Xerxes was in charge and his will was law.
That was the world of our text: a world without God and a world where brute power, great cruelty, personal ambition, pride, sensuality and partying were the order of the day. That’s the kind of world in which we and our children are living. Granted, Xerxes is long gone, but what he stood and lived for is not. We have had a Hitler, a Stalin and a Mao Tse Tsung. We know of the Idi Amins and Pol Pots; mass murderers and playboys. They all did what they wanted and disguised their cruel policies with an appeal to serve the wellbeing of their subjects. Is our Western world really any different? Is God acknowledged and are his commandments honoured?
We wish that was true. Sure, the scenario has changed. We have no absolute tyrants anymore. But what have we got instead? We have political correctness and anti-discrimination laws. This seems completely different than the whims and quirks of ancient despots but don’t be mistaken; different names don’t guarantee different practices. Is sin not normalized? Is the so-called “common good of mankind” not pursued at almost any price? Are our laws not changed to cater to the perversions of sin with the assurance that it will benefit the good of society?
And what if you protest? What if you mention the God of the Bible? You are virtually ignored. You are made out to be a Neanderthal, completely out of step with the spirit of the times. That’s why millions are aborted. That’s why homosexuality is acceptable. That’s why the field of entertainment becomes coarser by the day. That’s why millions live for the weekend. They indulge in partying with plenty of booze and sex. All of this is done in the name of freedom and with the claim that this is the recipe for a contented life.
Never mind the statistics to the contrary. Never mind the growing child abuse and marriage breakdowns and the increase in violence and crime. It is not that sin is more widespread today; we are not going to idealize the past. Sin is now more public and receives respectability, all in the name of progress – the progress of the human spirit that wants to be like God.
Does it surprise us that many believers fear the future? Can we identify with those fears? What is left of the true church of Jesus Christ? Does it not seem as if we live again in the dispersion, in a nihilistic society that ensures all glory goes to man? That’s why our government promises the welfare of all. That’s a lie; a vicious lie! The only way to happiness and fulfillment is the way of God and his gospel. There is no salvation, and there will not be any future, until the Lord is recognized as the God who rules over all and who created man for his glory.
Have we learned to see our times from this perspective? Or do we also fall victim to the claim that God is irrelevant and that man holds the reins of a glorious future in his own hands? For God is never irrelevant; he is always present! He is present in the daily affairs of this world and in the personal lives of his children. We may not notice him, we may question his sovereignty and providential government, but that doesn’t mean he is absent! How can he ever be? Is he not the God of heaven and earth, the King of kings and the Lord of lords? He has promised never to forsake us and to use all that we are going through for our eternal salvation. God’s apparent absence in the affairs of men must not discourage us, or make us doubt that he remains in charge. It tells us what a world without God will come to, so that we cling all the more to his comforting and reliable promises in childlike faith. We need to trust that when we do that, everything will turn out well.
God Remains in Charge
Why did Vashti’s refusal become such a big deal? What is the importance of this incident in the context of the entire book? The Lord and his plan of redemption was served by it. Xerxes’ vanity and obsession to provide his subjects with the most illustrious display of human power and greatness set a chain of events into motion that culminated in the preservation of God’s covenant people, his precious church. God is always faithful to his Word, and he fulfilled what he promised to Adam and Eve when he spoke of the coming Redeemer who would destroy the power of Satan and sin.
How did the Lord go about this preservation in the book of Esther? Not by miraculous intervention or direct involvement of divine power from heaven, but in and through the ordinary events that took place in the lives of people. The Lord has come to the rescue of his church by supernatural displays of power and glory more than once, but as a rule he employs secondary means. He leaves full room for the responsibilities of man and holds them personally accountable for their actions. At the same time, he often overrules their intent and purpose and uses it in a manner which they would never agree to. This is the comfort of God’s providence, as we confess in Lord’s Day 10 of the Heidelberg Catechism. How important it is to hold on to that comfort! If this comfort is denied, we have every reason to feel abandoned when we struggle with unanswered questions and painful experiences.
God’s providence is the interplay of his sovereign control and human action. It is the divine conquest over every opposition that seeks to thwart his eternal plan of saving the church. Don’t forget that Esther 3 will bring us into contact with Haman, a descendant of Agag. He hated the Jews with a passion and was determined to rid the empire of every one of them. That’s why Vashti’s refusal became so important – it opened the door for another queen, Esther! Esther became instrumental in the fight against Haman’s murderous plan.
Did God become involved because the Jewish people are a superior race to all others? No way! “All have turned away,” says Paul in Romans 3:12, “there is no one who does good, not even one” has a claim on God’s mercy and love. It is by grace! It is by God’s inscrutable mercy that he adopted the Jews as his covenant people, but not only them. Father Abraham was told that in his offspring all the nations of the earth would be blessed. (Genesis 22:18) However, in the days of Esther, that was still in the future. Christ had not come yet. He was, so to speak, still in the womb of the Old Testament church. That is why the preservation of the church was a matter of eternal life and death.
See how God is present, also in the pagan world of Xerxes where everything revolved around human power and glory? God is not present just as a spectator, wringing his hands and closing his eyes when things don’t go the way he likes. He rules and he governs. He is in full control! In Xerxes’ days and in ours, it seems to fly in the face of reality. When we witness what seems to be the growth of sin and apostasy, of boozing and living it up, of immorality and the most perverse forms of entertainment, God continues to rule over all the affairs of this world. He is in charge when cancer cells invade our body and our earthly days are numbered. The Lord will fulfill his plan of salvation, collectively for his church and personally for every member of that church who trusts in him, even when we often have our doubts.
The whole of sacred and secular history is full of that wonderful truth! Think of Israel in Egypt, where they were slaves of Pharaoh and seemed to be without a future. But the Lord set them free! Remember when the Egyptians hemmed them in at the Red Sea and everything seemed lost? Yet God destroyed his enemies and saved his people. Think of the Philistines in the days of Samson. Almost all the Jews had given up hope but the Lord provided a way out. Think of King Ahab and his evil realm. Elijah thought he was the only person left who still loved the Lord, yet his work was richly blessed and a new reformation was waiting in the wings.
What about the time of the Roman emperors, when the church was severely persecuted and the future looked so terribly dark? The blood of the many martyrs turned out to be the seed of the church. Europe was Christianized and the church grew by leaps and bounds. Think of the dark Middle Ages when the church was awash in idolatry and empty ritual, but God gave us Reformers who were instrumental and the gospel of Jesus Christ was preached again to the ends of the earth. Think of many parts of the world today where the church is severely persecuted and thousands are put to death because of their faith in Christ and yet the church grows in those regions as never before.
And so also with Xerxes. He thought he had it made! He was drunk with the power and glory of his mighty empire. He thought nobody could stop him. But God used Vashti’s refusal as part of his eternal counsel, to change the course of history. Xerxes, with all his treasures and pride was a lump of clay in God’s hands. So are the great ones of our present world, who love to sing their own glory and the greatness of the human spirit.
Yes, God was and still is in control! Never mind what our fearful hearts tell us. People have responsibility, especially as believers. God often must chastise us because of our sins but he never deals with us according to what we deserve for his mercies are new every morning. (Lamentations 3:22,23) His grace and love are as high as the heavens are above the earth (Psalm 103:10,11) and that’s why our text teaches us never to lose courage. That’s why also this part of God’s Word is full of Jesus Christ. He is the only key to understanding the Scriptures and it’s in him and his work that all of God’s promises rest.
Do you still have trouble trusting that God is in full control? Do you find it hard to look past the realities of what you see and hear? Does the Lord seem absent in this world of ours? Are you perhaps afraid that his enemies will win? Look then at the most profound example the Bible contains. Look where the hatred against God and Christ was turned into the greatest victory. You can read about it in Acts 4. Herod and Pilate the Gentiles, and the people of Israel were determined to get rid of Christ. They succeeded too. Imagine, they killed him! Everything seemed lost. Speak about being discouraged and wondering about God’s promise of redemption! The disciples thought it was over. This reality could never be reversed or overruled. “They did what your power and will had decided beforehand what should happen”. (Acts 4:28) Even then God wasn’t absent! Even on Golgotha he remained in charge. He turned an apparent defeat into the greatest victory imaginable. For there our sins were nailed to the cross and there Christ purchased everlasting life for his church.
When our glorified Saviour ascended into heaven, to sit on the throne of the universe he said to his church “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me… And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18,20) Did you read that? I am with you! With all of my authority and power, I am with you, to comfort and strengthen you! That Saviour now rules on his Father’s behalf, always and in every situation, so that you and I can walk by faith and not by sight!
1. How can a Bible book that doesn’t mention God teach us about him?
2. What other Bible book does not mention God? How do these books compare in how they direct us to God?
3. The events of Esther occur at approximately the same time as what other Bible books?
The Evils of a World Without God
4. God’s anger at his people was over; they could return from exile. Why had many stayed in foreign lands? What was happening at this time in the land of Israel? Why was it so important for the people to return? Did the location from which God was served matter?
5. Why does Esther 1 describe the decorations at the week-long banquet in such detail?
6. The king’s advisors indicate their conern that if Vashti is allowed to disobey, then the other women would feel free to disobey their husbands as well. Did the advisors have a legitimate concern that a celebrity, such as the queen, could change the behaviour of an entire nation? Do we see this in society today? Do we have “church celebrities” that influence what we believe and how we worship?
7. What does it mean to live in a “nihilistic society”? Do we live in one?
8. We no longer have absolute tyrants; instead we have political correctness. How are these two still very much the same?
9. Many believers fear the evil the future will bring. Can we identify with those fears? What texts would you use to confront those fears?
10. Can you give practical examples of churches that are unfaithful in doctrine (or to the Bible)?
11. What does it mean to cling to God’s reliable promises?
God Remains in Charge
12. What is the theme of the book of Esther?
13. God’s providence plays a large role in the book of Esther. How does God exercise his providence in this chapter?
14. Do we still see God’s providence at work in the world today? Give examples.