Esther is the epitome of a prodigal saint. She abandons God to compete for the fleeting pleasures of fame and fortune . . . and she wins, too. But in this message 'The Contest and the Crown,' Stephen reminds us what she loses in the process.
The Contest and the Crown
A Christian magazine I subscribe to recently featured a number of humorous things on the subject of love and romance:
Maybe you can identify with this single woman who got tired of looking for Mr. Right – you know, the kind of guy who would buy her roses and act like a gentleman – civilized and sweet and kind and she had tried everything and nothing worked: so she finally gave up and placed an ad in the classifieds that simply said “Husband wanted!” The next day she got a dozen calls from women who said, “You can have mine.”
I didn’t think that was funny either.
And what are kids to think about love and romance and marriage – what kind of messages are they picking up these days?
A member of our flock sent this to me some time ago – what kids say about true love.
Janet, a 3nd grader was asked how true love happens and she said
“No one is sure how it happens, but I think it has something to do with how you smell.”
9 year old Roger gave his opinion on love when he said, “Falling in love is like an avalanche and you better run for your life.”
When my youngest daughter was around 12 years old – she’s turning 18 this month – we were riding somewhere in the truck and I asked her, “Honey, have you ever been kissed?” And she said, “No sir!” She probably knew that was a loaded question. I said, “Honey, that’s super.” Then she added, “Once in first grade Sunday school a boy tried to kiss me after class.” I said, “Really? Right there in the Sunday school classroom?” She said, “Yes sir, right there in class.” I said, “What did you do?” She said, “I punched him in the stomach.” I said, “You punched him in the stomach?” She said, “I did!” I said, “That’s great!”
Elementary school aged children were asked the following questions,
How do you make your marriage work?
I love this – little Ricky said, “Tell your wife she looks pretty even when she looks like a truck.”
Another question, How do you decide who to marry?
One boy said, “Well, you gotta find somebody who likes the same stuff. Like if you like sports, she should like it too, and she should keep the chips and dip coming!” And all the men said, Amen!
Maybe it’s that kind of attitude that led this little girl to answer the question this way: “How do you decide who to marry?”
She said, “Well, you see, no person really decides before they grow up who they’re gonna marry. God decides it all way before, and you find out later who you’re stuck with.”
And all the women said, Amen! Very funny.
I find it fascinating that no matter where you go in the world, flowers, gifts, chivalry, kindness and even a little perfume are part of the culture of romance – and marriages are made a little sweeter by all the above.
I have warned you that this study was coming in the Book of Esther.
It’s a graphic portrayal of anything but romance and chivalry and kindness.
There are no flowers . . . there are no gifts . . . the is no chivalry.
And if we’re to understand it correctly, then there is no way to sanitize it or soften the edges of what is about to happen.
It’s the next act in the drama of God’s providence – played out on a stage located in the winter palace of the King of Persia.
When the curtain closed at the end of the first act – the first chapter of Esther, what we know from history is that King Ahasuerus left Susa and marched against Greece.
Between Esther chapter 1 and Esther chapter 2, several years go by as Ahasuerus leads the largest army ever in his attempt to do what his father failed to do – conquer Greece and, as one inscription revealed his intentions, to conquer Europe from one end to the other.
Western Civilization would not be what it is today, had he been victorious – and he wasn’t.
The Greeks routed his army and demolished most of his navy. Ahasuerus eventually boards one of his ships and sails home, sullen and dispirited. / Cyril J. Barber, Ezra and Esther (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2007), p. 117
- The Losing King Returns
The curtain rises in chapter 2 with the spotlight on the defeated king. Notice verse 1. After these things – that is, after he returns from Greece – when the anger of King Ahasuerus had subsided, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what had been decreed against her. Then the king’s attendants, who served him, said, “Let beautiful young virgins be sought for the king – notice down in verse 4 – then let the young lady who pleases the king be queen in place of Vashti.
Here’s what’s happening.
The Hebrew construction of this text strongly implies that Ahasuerus is blaming his 7 counselors – the seven nobles who formed his inner cabinet – for their earlier idea of banishing his queen.
He’s lost the war, depleted his Persian war chest, lost credibility throughout the empire and now he returns home to be reminded of the fact that he’s also lost his favorite wife because of the advice of his 7 princes.
He’s not in a good mood – and Ahasuerus in a bad mood spelled trouble.
We know historically that Kings kept concubines – known as lesser wives. They also had multiple higher ranking wives – any one of whom could wear the crown as queen, depending on the whim and fancy of the King.
We also know from history that another wife of his named Amenstris has already borne to him the heir to his throne, his third son, before Esther ever enters the scene. / Adapted from Peter A. Steveson, Ezra Nehemiah and Esther (BJU Press, 2011), p. 206
Amenstris has evidently has either passed away or no longer has his favor – we don’t know.
But what we do know is that Vashti had been his favorite wife and had worn the crown as queen – but now she’s gone – and you can almost see Ahasuerus regretting that advice and maybe even sharpening his sword.
So these seven attendants – this inner circle of seven nobles come up with this idea – “Listen oh great King, let’s have an empire wide beauty contest and find you a queen . . . whaddya say?”
Now what makes this all the more remarkable, according to Herodotus, the Greek historian who wrote just a few decades after all these events took place – Herodotus informs us that the Persian custom required the Persian Queen be related to one of the seven noble families. / A. Boyd Luter & Barry C. Davis, God Behind the Seen: Expositions of the Books of Ruth & Esther (Baker, 1995), p.
Some scholars believe that it’s quite possible that Memucan – the leading noble who in chapter 1 verbalized the idea of getting rid of Vashti – had himself a marriageable daughter or relative in his own family whom he hoped would win the crown.
But now isn’t the time to suggest something so obviously self-serving. These 7 guys are already in deep trouble.
They just know the King needs a beautiful replacement for Vashti or they’re in for it.
And that’s why, against all Persian custom and tradition – which these 7 nobles would have normally defended, they instead suggest to the King that the doors of the palace be thrown open and the queen actually come from among the common people of the empire.
You gotta be kidding. That didn’t happen!
God has used all this political intrigue and manipulation – and corruption and sin and all the scheming to set the stage so that a commoner can become the queen.
That’s never happened before in the history of the Persian empire.
Notice verse 3. Here’s the plan – Let the king appoint overseers in all the provinces of his kingdom – remember, that stretches from Africa to India – that they may gather every beautiful young virgin to the citadel of Susa, to the harem, into the custody of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women; and let their cosmetics be given them. 4. Then let the young lady who pleases the king be queen in place of Vashti.” And the matter pleased the king . . .
Listen, to the citizens of Persia this was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Anybody could apply – this was the talk in every town and village throughout the empire – “who will win the crown?” – it would have been a frenzy of activity and interest.
It would have looked like our current television contest, American Idolatry – I mean, American Idol. Thousand would stand in line for the king’s attendant to arrive.
Memberships at weight watchers would have gone through the roof; women would have been lying about their age more than any other time in human history.
And why not – the prize was the crown – and the wealth – and the butlers and the maids and the money and food and leisure and clothing – you name it – the winner got it all.
I have seen pictures of the excavation at one of the King’s three palaces – and the suites designed for his wives and the outdoor gardens would have rivaled any oasis anywhere in the empire.
Just don’t forget that this contest was different than any other contest. There was only one judge. And the performances were private.
The young virgins who lost the contest would be added to the harem – luxuriousness and loneliness all bundled up at the same time.
This life of glitter and glitz – of fashion and wealth looked great on the outside . . . but on the inside it was frustration and despair – lost hopes of family and husband.
Make no mistake here – for all the excitement and potential, this is crass, sensual, uncaring – it is selfishness of the King at its very core.
We’re told that palace eunuchs were given the administrative oversight of the harem – they kept a close watch over it because of all the drama and competition and feuding that took place every day.
Almost all of these women would never get past a one night stand with the King – they would live forgotten and sequestered away for the rest of their lives.
One commentator called the harem of the kings, luxurious desolation. / Jobes, p. 94
- The Leading Characters Appear
Why would Mordecai and Esther ever risk so much?
We’re given some clues as they finally walk out onstage – notice verse 5. Now there was at the citadel in Susa a Jew whose name was Mordecai, the son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, a Benjamite, who had been taken into exile from Jerusalem with the captives who had been exiled with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had exiled.
What this tells us is that Mordecai’s family tree actually included royalty – King Saul. Mordecai has royal blood, dating back to the reign of Saul. / Gary V. Smith, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary: Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther (Tyndale House, 2010), p. 238
In fact, he and his cousin are descendants of what used to be – until the death of Saul – the royal tribe in Israel.
But what’s revealing here is that Mordecai’s name doesn’t bear any resemblance to his Jewish lineage.
His name is simply the transliteration of Marduka – the name of the chief Babylonian god, Marduk. / Debra Reid, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Esther (Tyndale House, 2008), p. 78
So the question is obvious. What’s a good Jewish man – with noble blood flowing in his veins – doing in Susa?
Why hasn’t he returned to Jerusalem which has been allowed by these Persian kings going all the way back to Ahasuerus’ great-grandfather?
And, even more troubling – what’s Mordecai doing running around named after a pagan god?
Remember, he’s from the lineage of the former royal tribe – he’s a distant relative of King Saul.
In fact, hundreds of years earlier when Kind David was running for his life from Absalom, Mordecai’s forefather Shimei came out and threw rocks at David, cursing at him for basically taking the throne of Saul away.
David’s son, Solomon will eventually put Shimei to death.
All of that might answer why Mordecai didn’t return to Jerusalem – Jerusalem was a place where his family had lost in their bid for power. Jerusalem represented the place of defeat.
And so, just as Mordecai’s father had been willingly absorbed into the Persian culture – even naming his son after the pagan god, Marduk – so now that son, Mordecai is fully entrenched in Persian culture.
He’s entirely persianized! In fact, as we’ll discover later today, he wants the fact that he and Esther are Jews to be the best kept secret in Persia.
Now before we get all hot and bothered about Mordecai’s secrecy, I can’t help but wonder – how much of a secret is your own relationship to Jesus Christ – in the neighborhood – at the gym – in the board room – on that campus.
Have you ever had the thought – “If God really wants them to know I’m a Christian, He’ll get them to ask me.”
I can’t tell you how many people have said to me over the years something like, “I’m not very good at talking about Christ – I just live it.”
There’s an ancient 2-syllable Hebrew word for that – it’s pronounced cop-out . . . you’re just copping out!
Has it ever occurred to you that no one will ever be saved by watching you.
That’s a great foundation, by the way – make sure what you say and what they see matches up.
But they need to know why you live like you do. In fact, they’ll more than likely give you the credit. The only way they can see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven is if you’ve told them He’s the reason you’re living the way you are, and doing the things you do!
Faith comes – not by watching – Faith comes by, what? by hearing . . . and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17).
It takes a messenger, delivering special revelation to someone in order for them to be saved.
One of the wonderful things about this Book is how Mordecai will eventually come to terms with his Jewish heritage and the sovereignty of God – which we’ll get to later.
Now, the main character steps out on stage – verse 7. He was bringing up Hadassah, that is Esther, his uncle’s daughter, for she had no father or mother. Now the young lady was beautiful of form and face, and when her father and her mother died, Mordecai took her as his own daughter.
This time we have both the Hebrew name – Hadassah, which refers to the flower of a myrtle bush – and Esther – [more than likely] a transliteration of Ishtar – the Babylonian goddess of love. / Steveson, p. 226
Evidently, Esther was orphaned when her parents died, and Mordecai – 15 years older than her – adopted her and now cares for her.
- The Lavish Contest Begins
And then he gets wind of this contest.
This is their chance to climb the ladder of success. He knows Esther is incredibly beautiful – he’s had to beat suitors away from her door for several years now – and now a chance to really capitalize on her beauty is announced.
Notice verse 8. So it came about when the command and decree of the king were heard and many young ladies were gathered to the citadel of Susa into the custody of Hegai, that Esther was taken to the king’s palace into the custody of Hegai, who was in charge of the women.
History records that more than 1,000 beautiful virgins are gathered in this first wave.
And I can think of at least 2 good reasons why Esther will not stand a chance at winning.
First of all, she’s an orphan.
In other words, she has no family connections that might impress the royal staff. She was just another peasant girl – a nobody that nobody knew.
Secondly, the competition is fierce.
This contest had drawn, according to Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, more than 1,000 young women.
The palace was swimming with beautiful women. Esther wasn’t the only girl to turn heads.
And thirdly, she’s a Jewess.
The Jews were members of a defeated nation – outsiders who had adopted the Persian ways – but still not really one of them.
She was an outsider looking in. If the news leaks out, whatever chance she might have had would have disappeared.
That’s why you read in verse 10, Esther did not make known her people or her kindred, for Mordecai had instructed her that she should not make them known.
In other words, “Esther, the God of Israel is past tense. God might have made you a Jewess and there’s nothing you can do about that – but it won’t do you any good out here – out here you gotta live by your wits – you have to fend for yourself.
Don’t ever forget Esther – Mordecai is implying, out here, we are on our own! It’s just us!
He couldn’t have been further from the truth.
In fact, God is already at work in this traffic jam of contestants.
Look back at verse 9. Now the young lady pleased Hegai – he’s the chief administrator of this contest – and she found – notice this – favor with him.
That word, favor, is the Hebrew word, khesed – the same term used of God’s covenant favor and kindness toward His people.
She is gaining favor only because God is turning the hearts of everyone toward her – like Joseph and Daniel before her.
Circle that word in verse 9 and then look over at verse 15 – it appears again – Esther found favor in the eyes of all who saw her.
That’s shocking – you would expect to read that she found envy in the eyes of all who saw her – or jealousy – or hatred.
How can we bump her off?
She walks into a room and immediately, everyone in this pagan palace looks at her with favor.
God may be invisible –but God is involved, remember?
His hand is invisible, but His hand is invincible.
Notice what happens in verse 9. So he quickly provided her with her cosmetics - in other words, the Avon lady is on standby – and food, gave her seven choice maids from the king’s palace and transferred her and her maids to the best place in the harem.
Within a matter of hours, she’s got her own private suite – and seven maids and plenty to eat and drink.
She’s got it made – at this private spa in the King’s resort in Susa.
And look at poor Mordecai – verse 11. Every day Mordecai walked back and forth in front of the court of the harem to learn how Esther was and how she fared.
He’s biting his nails – he’s probably had second thoughts – what have I done – she’s in there with 1,400+ contestants – she’s naïve – she’ll never keep her secret – she doesn’t stand a chance!
There’s gotta be something I can do to make this work out in her favor.
What he doesn’t know is that God is granting her favor to everyone who sees her – without Mordecai’s help.
Mordecai is not the sovereign – he’ll learn that – he’s not in charge. God is.
And look what Esther is going through - verse 12 – Now when the turn of each young lady came to go in to King Ahasuerus, after the end of her twelve months under the regulations for the women – for the days of their beautification were completed as follows: six months with oil of myrrh and six months with spices and the cosmetics for women.
You thought your wife a long time to get ready. 12 months!
The oil of myrrh was massaged into the contestant’s skin which lightened it – most of these girls worked outdoors. In the Persian court, the more fair the skin the more beautiful. Coming indoors for 12 months would allow them to soften and moisten their skin as well as give a pleasant odor. / Anthony Tomasino, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Volume 3 (Zondervan, 2009), p. 485
They would literally swim in a pool with perfumed water.
Makeup in this day was fully developed – in fact – in my study I learned that it was a science developed and protected by the priests of this region. They believed the physical was the gateway to the spiritual.
They believed that even smell was connected to divine acceptance; that makeup around the eyes and bracelets around the arms and neck and feet warded off evil spirits.
They had rouge for their cheeks, lipstick and eyeliner in all kinds of shades, including brown and black and green; fingernail polish colors that included yellow and orange.
They believed that beauty brought someone closer to the gods –they were being prepared to meet the descendant of the gods – the King.
Add to that the fact that these contestants were being schooled in court customs and royal etiquette; including, one scholar wrote, learning what to say and how to say it. / Smith, p. 239
There were contestants in this harem straight from the fields of work – many of them were unschooled, illiterate, rough speaking, untrained, yet natural beauties . . . but in 12 months, one of them could be the next queen.
So this was a crash course on how to look like a queen, sound like a queen, smell like a queen and act like a queen.
By the way, there is no protest from Esther about the non-kosher food served in from the palace cafeteria –
Foods not sanctioned by Jewish law. / Luter & Davis, p. 155
Unlike Daniel who will refuse to eat the king’s meat – non-kosher meat – or drink the king’s wine – typically offered first as libations to their gods . . . he refused it all.
But not here – the secret must be kept at all costs.
- The Lowly Queen is Crowned
As much as we’d like to pretty this picture up – no matter how refined and perfumed – this contest was in reality nothing less than a sordid meat market. / Colin D. Jones, Exploring Esther: Serving the Unseen God (Day One Publications, 2005), p. 40
Esther will lose her virginity to a pagan Gentile king, along with more than a thousand other young women – all but one will be chosen.
Jewish Rabbi’s attempted to clean up this chapter by adding verses in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible – the Septuagint – where they added just over 100 verses to the text.
Some of the verses have Esther actually saying that she never violated the dietary kosher laws of the Hebrews. She is found in one paragraph praying these words to God, “You know everything; and you know that I hate the pomp of the wicked, and the bed of the uncircumcised and any foreigner.” / John C. Whitcomb, Esther: Triumph of God’s Sovereignty (Moody Press, 1979), p. 50
These are obvious attempts to sanitize and sanctify the actions of Esther and keep her in heroic form.
Others – even evangelical authors try to make the point that when verse 16 says that she was “taken to King Ahasuerus that night” that the verb “taken” meant that this was against her will.
The problem is, that same verb is found in verse 15 where we’re told that Mordecai took her as his daughter – adopting her and caring for her.
Listen, as unfortunate as it is, Esther is not heading for her one-night-stand with the King against her will.
She doesn’t have the brakes on.
She has her best outfit on – and makeup and perfume and all the secrets given to her by the chief eunuch who wants to see her win the crown.
Verse 16. So Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus to his royal palace in the tenth month, which is the month Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign. 17. The King loved Esther more than all the women, and she found favor and kindness with him more than all the virgins, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.
Winning the crown sounds hollow, doesn’t it? Nobody around here needs to jump up and down – Esther won the contest – isn’t that great, she’s Miss Persia.
I wonder how many young ladies have sacrificed their virginity to keep that boyfriend . . . who says, “If you love me you will.”
You’re just entered the meat market . . . and he’s a liar.
I wonder how many professionals have kept their faith a secret so that it didn’t get in the way of their upward climb?!
I wonder how many are living like Persians today in order to get along with the Persians.
Listen, I wanna tell you what Esther lost.
She gained the position of Queen, but she didn’t gain a husband. You say, but the text says in verse 17. The king loved Esther more than all the women. That’s true. He loved her more, but he still loved them too. The text never says, “And after the crowning of Esther, the King ordered that his harem be released and his concubines too.”
No . . . no.
Look at verse 19 – When the virgins were gathered together the second time, then Mordecai was sitting at the gate.
Wait a second – the second time? Yes – this is the second wave!
But Esther’s won the crown –stop the contest. They had. This has nothing to do with the contest, this has to do with the King’s harem – it’s ever expanding.
Esther will occupy the place of Queen, but she will not be the sole occupant of the King’s bed.
In fact, her role will not even allow her unhindered access to his bedroom.
Esther won the crown, but she didn’t win a husband.
Esther now has the role of queen, but she doesn’t have an honest relationship.
She has a secret. And it will be five years before she reveals the secret of who she is to the King – and when she does, it will almost be too late.
Here’s the point – God works His will through faithful people and in spite of unfaithful people.
The providence of God is unstoppable.
Providence is the way in which God leads through people who will not be led.
And that includes us!
And have you ever thought about the grace of God, even when you sin against Him?
That God’s grace is over you when you are faithful and even when you are unfaithful.
This is the doctrine that led people to believe that the Apostle Paul was telling Christians that they could sin all they wanted because the grace of God was greater than their sin – where sin abounded, grace abounded more – Romans 5:20.
So should the Christian go out and sin all he wants? God forbid, Paul said.
Because of His grace, we’re able to live for Him and we want to – but His grace never leaves us even in our willful disobediences – which is daily – hello reality check.
Listen, Esther chapter 2 is drenched with the grace of God. As I studied this text, His grace was the perfume I smelled. The aroma of His kindness toward Esther was so strong and sweet.
Even in her faithlessness, He was faithful.
You see, have you ever thought about what happens if Esther loses?
Let me show you what happens to the losers - verse 13 – notice the process – the young lady would go in to the king in this way; anything that she desired was given her to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace. 14. In the evening she would go in and in the morning she would return to the second harem, to the custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the concubines. She would not go in to the king unless the king delighted in her and she was summoned by name.
Did you catch that? She goes in a young lady – a virgin – she comes out a concubine.
Relegated to a life of luxurious desolation; never to be called on again, unless the King happens to remember her name – and kings weren’t in the habit of remembering names – they were in the habit of adding names.
You want to see the grace of God?
In spite of Esther’s disobedience – in spite of her secret – in spite of her immorality – here it is: God turned the heart of that dirty old man so that he chose Esther to be his queen.
He doesn’t even know why!
As odd as it may sound, it was the grace of God that Esther won.
So she could wear the crown? So she could live in the palace – that’s way too shallow.
No . . . so she would be in her divinely appointed place, so that a remnant will be spared so that God’s covenant promise to keep this people for Himself will be fulfilled – so that from this people a savior would be born to die so that we could rule with Him one day . . . and all this according to His providence and His promise.
His providence ensures it all takes place.
Listen, the life of satisfaction is a life that doesn’t test providence – but trusts it.
Co-labor with Him; join Him in submission; be openly committed to Christ – your relationship with your Redeemer shouldn’t be a secret – put it on your resume.
Can we do anything less in response to His amazing grace and His amazing love?!
The plot thickens from here – we’ll pick it up with a failed assassination attempt on the life of the king who is spared by the quick thinking of Mordecai. Make sure you don’t read ahead.
Amazing love, how can it be,
That Thou my God should’st die for me.