Esther 2 – God Prepares the Way
Read: Esther 2; Revelation 7:9-12 Sing: Ps. 89:1,3; Ps. 111:1,2,5
The Lord often works in mysterious ways and the book of Esther can also vouch for that. To the unbelievers of the past and present, life seems to be a continual succession of coincidences but faith always looks for the loving hand of God. Faith is the conviction of what we hope for and the assurance of what we do not see. What do we hope for? What is the kernel of the Christian faith? That sinners will live again with God in the perfection of the new creation! Thanks to the cross of Jesus Christ, we have peace with God and are heirs of life everlasting!
Just because we are God’s children does not mean accepting in faith is easy. We are not immune to the claim that “seeing is believing”. We often have great trouble to simply trust in the gospel. Especially when we’re down, when we struggle with sadness, sorrow, fear, pain or other adversities, the covenant promises of the Lord often seem to contradict reality. That’s why God’s children often cry out to him!
For instance in Psalm 143:1 we read:
“O LORD, hear my prayer, listen to my cry for mercy; in your faithfulness and righteousness come to my relief.”
And in Psalm 4:1
“Answer me when I call to you, O my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; be merciful to me and hear my prayer.”
Or Psalm 74:1,2
“Why have you rejected us forever, O God? Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture? Remember the people you purchased of old, the tribe of your inheritance, whom you redeemed”.
Or Psalm 10:1
“Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”
We can and may not dismiss these complaints with a pat answer. The Bible does not do that either. It does not make light of the troubles and unanswered questions God’s people often struggle with. How do we overcome them, then? What does God’s Word provide as the antidote? His covenant faithfulness and his promises of mercy and compassion. That’s why God gave us the means of grace through the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. That’s why the church services are so vitally important and indispensable. That’s where the Lord gives us the comfort we need so badly, in the past and in the present. This comfort is also contained in the book of Esther.
After the time of the dispersion, only a small remnant of the people of Israel had returned to the Promised Land. For those that stayed, compromise and adapting to their new surroundings had endangered their religion in more ways than one. However, they remained God’s people and were still the recipients of the promises already given to father Abraham. It is for the sake of his own Name that the Lord didn’t wash his hands of them. It is because of his faithfulness to his Word that he cared for them as his beloved children, even when many revealed little love and faithfulness in return.
That’s why the Lord jumped into action. His holiness was at stake! His promise of a coming Saviour who would destroy the works of the devil would be fulfilled. A church would be gathered and preserved so that his Name would be praised, not only in the salvation of his people but also in the destruction of his enemies. On the chessboard of this world, God and Satan were battling out the enmity proclaimed in the beginning. The stakes were high! It was not just the preservation of God’s covenant people against the murderous plan of Haman, but the future of the Messianic kingdom hung in the balance. If Haman succeeded then Christ could not come and then Satan would win! Salvation would then be a pipedream. Worst of all, then God’s covenant promises would turn out to be absolutely worthless. Yes, then God would not be who he claims to be: The King of his people and the Saviour of his church.
In the first two chapters of Esther we read about the opening moves of this epic chess match. Satan’s king was the pagan Xerxes! He looked invincible: power, wealth and pride made him a frightening opponent. Yet, the outcome was a foregone conclusion, not because of the human “pawns” he used but because of God’s covenant faithfulness and sovereign power.
The Role of King Xerxes (Esther 2:1-4)
In the three years since the events in chapter 1 much had happened. Though the text doesn’t tell us, king Xerxes suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of the Greeks. His dreams to expand his already vast empire came crashing down hard. The war had become a great disaster, with tens of thousands of Persian soldiers dying a miserable death and the empire’s treasury greatly depleted. To make matters worse, the enemy remained a permanent danger to the security of the realm. Perhaps, worst of all, the mighty Xerxes was discredited and humiliated in the eyes of his subjects. So much for his power and so much for his confidence!
No doubt, disillusionment and loss of face had allowed Xerxes’ anger at his wife’s public disobedience to subside. There were other matters that occupied his mind. When Xerxes took stock of what was left of his life, he felt lonely. He was missing something. Sure, he was still unspeakably rich and he could do what he liked. We know from the Greek historian Herodotus that he tried to forget the shame of his defeat by overindulging in sensual pleasures. We know that can never fill the void in a man’s soul, and somehow Xerxes must have realized that too, for we read that he remembered Vashti!
Now, why would that be? Why would a man who could have any woman he wanted, think of one in particular? And why Vashti? Was not she the one who had undermined his authority? Would her disobedience not have made him a great fool if he hadn’t acted so resolutely, rejecting her as his wife and divorcing her by royal decree? No matter how true this may be, the king couldn’t help thinking of his former queen. Does this not indicate that she must have been a woman of character and courage, someone with a strong personality, someone to whom the king could relate to and confide in? Does this not also tell us that there’s far more to happiness than indulging in sensual pleasures? We, too, must learn that lesson. The devil bombards us with the message that sex is the gateway to happiness and fulfillment, as if that’s the magic potion of marital bliss. King Xerxes missed something; not just a wife but a queen. He missed a woman who not only catered to his sensual desires but who also possessed courage and nerve, and could help him in the affairs of state.
The king’s personal attendants realized something needed to be done, and fast! Imagine if the king wanted Vashti back as his wife! Heads might roll. Xerxes was a dictator, and they were known for their unpredictability. That’s why Xerxes’ attendants went to him with a rather strange suggestion. “Sire,” they said, “let a search be made throughout the entire empire for beautiful young virgins. Appoint officials in every province who know what to look for and gather these girls in the royal harem in Susa. After a year of beauty treatments let them come to you so that you can choose the one you prefer and make her your wife instead of Vashti.” Xerxes thought it was a great suggestion and went along with the plan.
We said this was a strange suggestion. Why? Though the king was an absolute ruler, queens were normally chosen from among the Persian nobility or families of the king’s closest advisors. Here, though, everyone was considered. Xerxes was determined to get the best possible wife! This suggestion could potentially provide him a beautiful wife who was also a queen of character and courage. He wanted more than a bimbo who spent all her time in front of the mirror, concerned about the externals. He wanted a wife who had inner beauty and strength as well.
This is where we recognize the hand of the Lord. While Satan is concerned that Xerxes gives full reign to his lust and pride, God uses Vashti’s empty place to bring about what would have never happened otherwise. If Xerxes had married any other girl but Esther, Haman’s threat to destroy the Jewish people would not have been averted. That shows us, that the Lord is always one move ahead of the devil. Even in our times he says “My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.” (Isaiah 46:10) Is that not a great comfort? Must we not always remind each other of this truth? When we look at this life, we often wonder why the enemies of God and his people seem to rule the roost; we can so easily become discouraged. That is why it is so necessary to live by faith! That is why we should look beyond what we see and experience and trust that the Lord remains in charge and will even use the ploys of Satan for the protection of God’s people.
All Satan wants is to let his followers drown in their sin. What does he care about Xerxes? What does he care about who his wife will be? Oh, he pretends to care, and loves to tell people he wants them happy, which will only occur when they listen to him. What a terrible lie! Let us be warned, also today, that we live in a world where sensual pleasure and doing as you please are hailed as the recipe for a contented life. Millions swallow that message, hook, line, and sinker and it also seeps into the church. Even among God’s covenant people the temptations of materialism, power, sexual gratification, and doing your own thing inflict a lot of damage. Many of God’s children can attest to that. Quite a few have learned it through much sorrow and pain. All of us have to keep fighting against those temptations as long as we live.
Xerxes got over his depressive mood when, after a year of preparations, Esther stole his heart. Vashti’s empty place was filled; a new queen was installed. The king gave a great banquet in honour of his new bride. Xerxes let his subjects share in his joy by declaring a public holiday and giving them generous gifts. Satan must have smiled. His hatred against the Lord provided him with much satisfaction. Fancy that! An uncircumcised heathen marrying a covenant girl! Persia and Israel were now in league with each another. Now it would only be a matter of time! If Satan could get Esther to immerse herself in the pagan lifestyle at Xerxes’ court, it would no doubt affect all the Jews for the worse. It was a masterly move to assimilate God’s covenant people with their heathen surroundings. However, Satan’s plans were overruled once again. What the devil employed for the downfall of God’s people, the Lord used for their protection. That becomes clearer when we consider Esther’s life.
Esther’s Role (Esther 2:5-18)
The verses 5-7 give us some background information about Esther and Mordecai which is vital for understanding why this book is included in God’s Word. It is easy to misinterpret the book Esther. Only when we try to understand it from a redemptive-historical perspective will we be edified and strengthened in our faith.
That’s a difficult term: redemptive-historical. It means the Bible is the history of how God redeems a people for himself. Every part of the Old and New Testament shows how God acts to save his people. Through all the wars, oppositions, temptations and sin, the Lord continues to preserve a church which will sing his glory. Many a time it looks as if Satan will destroy God’s people. Often there’s only a handful left that fear God. Yet every time again, the Lord comes to the rescue and he sees to it that his church will survive. He does this because he is faithful to his covenant and he does this through his grace and almighty power. Redemptive history is the same as covenant history and we can only understand the Bible rightly when we place its events and teachings in the context of God’s redemptive promises. These promises will be realized no matter what because God’s trustworthiness is at stake and we can always trust that his Word will be victorious.
It is this redemptive-historical truth that shines through in the verses 5-7. Mordecai was a Jew who belonged to the tribe of Benjamin. There is a reason why the Lord included his ancestry in this book. Commentators differ as to who the ancestors were. Some claim that Mordecai’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather are meant, while others identify Shimei as a descendant of King Saul (the same man who cursed David in 2 Samuel 16) and Kish, Saul’s father. It’s hard, if not impossible to be certain. Whoever they were, one thing is sure, the Lord wants us to think of the past, especially in the light of the following chapters. Haman is introduced as an Amelekite, a nation cursed by God. Already in Exodus 17 the Lord promised to destroy them completely. King Saul, also a Benjaminite, disobeyed the Lord (1 Samuel 15). His refusal to kill Agag, the Amelekite king, and destroy all his possessions became the reason that God rejected Saul. It is this history, this disobedience which will come into clearer focus in the next chapter and will also explain the hatred of Haman.
There’s more to the story, for the exile was also the result of Israel’s apostacy. God had warned them many, many times that if they refused to serve him wholeheartedly he would disperse them amongst their enemies. That is God’s covenant wrath which goes way back to the book of Deuteronomy. Though God punished the sins of his people he didn’t make a full end of them. The exile was only to last for 70 years because he is a gracious and compassionate God. Even in his wrath, he remembers his mercy and his covenant love. It is that love which will see to it that his church will be preserved and the Redeemer will come.
The exile of Esther’s people had begun when King Jehoiachin was transported to Babylon. That was more than a hundred years before the time of Esther 2. Thus the 70 years of God’s wrath had run their course! The Lord was no longer angry with his people. The prophets had foretold this on many occasions. The Lord would again have compassion on his church said Isaiah 54, and he would watch over her for good and not for evil.
If we fail to see this redemptive-historical angle, if we minimize or disregard God’s covenant promises, the Bible will turn into a morality book, where we pay more attention to what people do than what the Lord is busy with, in and through the lives of people. If we fail to see this angle then we also fail to stand amazed at God’s grace and faithfulness and we will not give him the glory that is due to his holy Name. So the stage is set, not to display the work of Esther and Mordecai, but primarily to showcase what the Lord is doing in and through them.
What kind of a girl was Esther? She was Mordecai’s cousin and after her parents died, he had adopted her as his own daughter. We know she was very good looking and she loved her stepfather enough to obey his counsel and advice. For the rest we must be cautious not to give our fantasy a free run. Nowhere in this book are we informed about her faith or lack of faith. Much of what she did leaves us with many questions. Why did she not refuse to be taken into the king’s harem? Why did she not hide herself? Did it not bother her to eat the food that was served at a pagan court? Did she not care for God’s laws which forbade the Jews to eat unclean food? Why was she not like Daniel and his three friends who refused to defile themselves in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar? Worse still, why did she agree to marry the pagan Xerxes? Did she indulge in immorality? We receive no answers to these questions. All we are told is how Esther became Xerxes’ new wife.
Some commentators claim that she was a God-fearing girl, who really had no choice. Forced to enter the king’s harem, there wasn’t much she could do about it. Though that may be true, it doesn’t explain why she would not rather be put to death than to satisfy the sensual desires of a pagan playboy. The fact that the book is quiet about these matters does not mean they are not important but that they are irrelevant for what is really at stake. What God wants us to know is that he is at work here. Right through all these events, he is busy defeating Satan’s plans to destroy his covenant people. Does that not become very obvious?
Why was Esther chosen to be a contender for the position of queen? Why did Hegai, the overseer of the king’s harem, take such interest in her? Why did he give her preferential treatment? When it was Esther’s turn to sleep with the king, why did she refuse all the paraphernalia which the other girls took along to make themselves as beautiful as possible? Why did she listen to Hegai, who perhaps knew his Master better than anyone else, and who must have told her what the king was missing… not a woman, but a wife? Finally, why did she conceal her nationality and family background? Yes, Mordecai had strictly forbidden it, but was that the only reason?
We would love to get detailed answers to these and similar questions. That is because we tend to focus far more on the human actors in this drama than on the Divine Director who remained completely in charge. God’s providential government can be noticed in everything that happened to Esther. He saw to it that this Jewish girl would be elevated to the position of Xerxes’ new queen, for he knew what was going to occur! He’s always a move ahead of his great adversary. We should not speculate about Esther and her faith, as many do. Nor should we condemn her as an apostate who is far more interested in power, honour, and riches than in serving the Lord. Instead, let us bow our knees for our great God and let us stand in awe of his covenant faithfulness and providential rule over all the affairs of people. Let us glory in his love and compassion when he used a covenant girl to protect his church so that the Redeemer would come.
Does that mean that it doesn’t matter how God’s children live? May we reason that one way or the other the Lord will fulfill his counsel? Not at all! There are other places in the Bible that take care of these matters. The book of Esther was not given as a primer on how to live moral lives, but as a covenant history. It proclaims God’s redemptive work to preserve his people and shows how he used two covenant members who were children of their time, caught up in the intrigues of a heathen court.
Mordecai’s Role (Esther 2:19-23)
Mordecai comes across as a shrewd and scheming person. He’s smart and unafraid. Many commentaries claim that he was a servant of the king because he lived in the citadel of Susa which was Xerxes’ winter palace. With regards to Mordecai we are left in the dark as to how committed he was to the Lord. That should make us careful not to read more into his efforts than what we read. Oh, Mordecai was proud of his Jewish heritage and the next chapter makes that quite clear but whether he was thankful is another matter. It is not his Jewish blood that made him a covenant child but God’s mercy and grace.
Mordecai had given his adopted daughter a good home. He cared a lot about her. He also possessed a keen mind. Twice he told Esther not to divulge her nationality and we don’t have to guess why he did that. He was concerned about Esther, and stayed in the vicinity of the harem to find out how she was doing. His job, whatever it was, would have enabled him to do that without incurring suspicion. He was concerned because Esther was a Jew. Even though the Jews were not persecuted at that time, the conspiracy that unfolds in the following chapters shows that it did not take much to experience that persecution. After all, Satan can’t stand the people of God and he does his best to ensure they suffer the hatred of their enemies.
There was another reason as well for Esther to remain silent on her Jewish heritage. Imagine if Esther was chosen as the new queen! We should not think that Vashti’s demotion was applauded by everybody. There would have been people who were not happy with Xerxes’ divorce at all and would love to see Vashti back. Obviously, they could not make that known for it would cost them their life, but under the surface there must have been a lot of dissatisfaction.
Once Esther had won the king’s heart and had become his official wife and the queen of the empire, it seems as if Mordecai received a promotion. We read in verse 19 that he “was sitting at the king’s gate”! This is not meant as some geographical information. We must not imagine him being in one particular place all day. Mordecai was not sitting there like the cripple some 500 years later, who sat at the gate of the temple and was healed by Peter and John. From excavations we know that the gate of Susa was a very large building with at least three big rooms where all kinds of legal and commercial government business were conducted. Mordecai’s job, whatever it was, enabled him to move freely amongst the government officials who were employed there.
Then it happened. During the course of his work, Mordecai found out that a plot was under way to assassinate the King. Two of Xerxes’ bodyguards conspired to kill him. Mordecai didn’t hesitate to inform Queen Esther, whether directly or indirectly is not said. She, in turn, told her husband, making sure that Mordecai got the credit. After due investigation the conspirators were either hanged or impaled and then we read “All this was recorded in the book of the annals in the presence of the king.” (v.23)
Why did Mordecai blow the whistle? To save his cousin Esther! It was common practice that when a king died, all his wives and concubines were also put to death or else consigned to a life of anonymity. Though Mordecai’s concern was for his cousin’s life and well-being (and therefore also for the king’s), the Lord had much more in mind when he allowed Mordecai to overhear this plan and report it. Later on in the book it is this event that reverses and eventually overrules the Satanic goal to eradicate the Jewish people and prevent the Messiah from being born.
Do you see how the Lord worked here in the life of Mordecai? We do not know what God’s covenant meant to him. We are not told why he did not hide Esther and what he thought of that beauty contest to please an immoral monarch. All we know is that he was very keen to protect the life of his cousin and King Xerxes. We do not need to know anymore either, for that would distract us from God’s work. The church of all times would not have the comfort that behind the scheming and intrigues, the immorality and the pride at Xerxes’ court, God set the stage for what was coming. He would defeat the devil on Satan’s turf, so nothing could hinder the coming of Jesus Christ. That is why God preserved his covenant people. That is why he continued redemptive history. He continued for the Jews of that time but now also continues for you and for me.
Christ has arrived and he has bruised the head of the serpent. Satan suffered a convincing defeat on Golgotha. He is no longer able to undo the work of our Redeemer. That does not mean that redemptive history is something of the past. It’s not the end of God’s covenantal faithfulness. The redemptive events that were necessary to free us from our sin and grant us eternal life have occurred once and for all. In that regard the war between God and Satan has been won decisively as the Lord checkmated the devil through the blood of Christ. And still, Satan is filled with a deep hatred against God and his people and will do whatever he can to destroy them.
That is why God continues to gather, defend and preserve his church through the events of our times, and through you and me! Our responsibility has increased considerably. We live 2500 years after the events of the book of Esther. We live on this side of Bethlehem, Golgotha and Pentecost. We live in the last days. We have the presence of the Holy Spirit and that is why there is no room for discouragement and paralysis. The Lord still preserves his covenant people. Satan will not succeed in eliminating them; not because we are so faithful but because the Lord is.
No, God’s covenant promises are not blanket statements that apply no matter how one lives. They never did and they never will. Thousands of Jews missed out on the gift of salvation and thousands of New Testament covenant people will not inherit it either. Does that make God’s covenant promise unreliable? Does it mean that God’s Word has failed? “Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness? Not at all!” says Paul (Romans 3:3,4). It’s only through faith that we share in faith’s fulfillment.
We Reformed Christians love the covenant, and rightly so! Let us see to it that we don’t abuse it or presume upon it. Covenantal language always addresses God’s people collectively, first of all. That’s why its fulfillment is so certain. For whether many or a few believe, the promise stands and will be fulfilled. Cling to God’s promises which rest in Jesus Christ. Live out of the blessings that the covenant contains. In that way prepare for the celebration of the Holy Supper, for only by faith in Jesus Christ, the Mediator of the covenant, do we enjoy forgiveness of all our sins, peace with God, comfort no matter what we face, and life everlasting. Entrust yourself to your heavenly Father who still uses his providential rule for the wellbeing of his people.
We don’t know how things will unfold. We are often baffled by what we witness and experience. More than once it seems as if things go from bad to worse and that the devil will succeed in his murderous plans. Let us then call to mind what the apostle John was privileged to see. Not just for himself but for all of God’s children. We read about it in Revelations 7. He saw a great multitude that was innumerable and they were singing “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:10) That is the God who rules this whole creation by means of his providence, who will preserve his people who respond to his covenant love in faith and obedience. That’s why their thankfulness goes to him. They don’t pat themselves on the back; they rejoice in him and in his faithfulness and grace. They say “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honour and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever.” (Revelation 7:12)
1. How can God’s covenant faithfulness and his promises of mercy and compassion be used to overcome the troubles and unanswered questions God’s people often struggle with?
2. The book Esther is described as a chess match between God and Satan. Is Satan God’s equal, but opposite? (consider Belgic Confession Article 12)
The Role of King Xerxes
3. How do we know three years pass between Esther 1 and 2?
4. Today’s society focusses a lot of time and attention on sensual pleasures – sex, beauty, vacations, food... Have we been sucked in as well?
5. Why, with a harem full of concubines, would King Xerxes still want a wife? What should this tell us of the role a wife should play in a husband’s life?
6. How is God’s providence at work in this chapter?
7. Find some passages in the prophets that promise that God will remember his people, and once again watch over them for good, not for evil.
8. Based on the few facts we have, should Esther have chosen death over a position in Xerxes’ harem, even if that meant committing suicide?
9. Esther had purposely withheld the information that she was a Jew when she applied for the position of queen. In the same way, would it be acceptable for us to withhold the information that we are Christians if it affects our ability to achieve a goal? For example, to neglect to mention at a job interview that being a Christian means we won’t work on Sundays?
10. What is a covenantal church? Give some examples of churches that are not covenantal. How are they different? Is the difference important?
11. How do we “live out of the blessings the covenant contains”?