180 - The Contest and the Crown (Esther 1–2)
In these first chapters of Esther, we meet a proud, pagan king and two Jewish people who seem to have little interest in following God. But through these people, the unseen and unnamed Player in this drama is setting the stage for dramatic events of eternal importance.
One of the interesting things about the book of Esther is that God never makes a direct appearance. His name does not even appear in the book. But although God’s name is not mentioned, His sovereign hand is evident. He is involved, even though He is invisible.
And when we come to the end of this book, beloved, the true hero is not going to be Mordecai or even Esther. The hero will be a faithful God who moves behind the scene, directing people and events to preserve His chosen people.
The first two verses of Esther set the historical context for us:
In the days of Ahasuerus . . . who reigned from India to Ethiopia over 127 provinces … when [he] sat on his royal throne in Susa.
Ahasuerus is another name for the Persian king Xerxes, who ruled the Persian Empire more than four centuries before the birth of Christ (486 to 465 BC).
Ahasuerus was a proud, ambitious king. He wanted to expand his empire; so, verse 3 informs us that he throws a feast for his military leaders and all the VIPs in the kingdom.
The guest list included “the army of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces.” The king is going to reveal his power and wealth to them to prove he’s capable of going to war with Greece, which he will do a year later.
Verse 4 says, “He showed . . . his royal glory and the splendor and pomp of his greatness for . . . 180 days.” So, for six months, Ahasuerus shows off to his leaders as they lay the groundwork for a military campaign.
Now when the king and his military guests are thoroughly drunk and rather bored, as verse 10 implies (imagine a party lasting six months), the king calls for his queen, Vashti, to come before him in her royal crown. Shockingly, she refuses to come. And frankly, she deserves our respect here. She does not want to put herself on display as the king’s trophy before a bunch of drunken men.
Some commentators, citing ancient sources, suggest that it was common practice among the Persian kings to parade their favorite concubines or wives unclothed before guests in order to show off their beauty. This appears to be the case here.History tells us Xerxes had 360 concubines and several wives, but it’s Vashti whom he demands to appear unclothed—decorated only by her crown—before these men.
And she refuses.
This mighty king who commands one of the greatest armies in the world cannot command his own wife. And for good reason. She is not going to take part in this lewd display.
So, here’s the irony we are going to see in these first two chapters of Esther: Vashti is willing to lose her crown in order to keep her character, but Esther is willing to sacrifice her character in order to win the crown.
What the king should have done was drink a big pot of coffee, sober up, and apologize to his wife. But instead, he calls for his advisors.
They argue that Vashti must be deposed, otherwise the whole kingdom will be thrown into chaos. They tell the king, “Let a royal order go out … that Vashti is never again to come before King Ahasuerus” (verse 19).
God is invisibly maneuvering behind the scene, so that a Jewish queen will end up in the palace, eventually protecting her people from annihilation.
Esther 2 opens with the words, “After these things.” Several years have passed between these two chapters. Ahasuerus has been defeated by the Greek army and has returned home humiliated. And now he misses the wife he banished for having done the right thing.
Verse 1 tells us:
After these things, when the anger of King Ahasuerus had abated, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what had been decreed against her.
The king’s advisors know they had better come up with another plan, so they propose that he gather all the beautiful young virgins in the kingdom to his harem. Verses 3 and 4 record, “Let their cosmetics be given them. And let the young woman who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.” In other words, “Let’s have a contest, and the new queen will be the woman who most pleases the king.”
At this point we are introduced to Mordecai and Esther. Verse 5 tells us that Mordecai is of the family of “Kish, a Benjaminite.” His family was among the Jewish people who had been deported from Israel by King Nebuchadnezzar (verse 6).
Verse 7 records that Mordecai had become the guardian of his beautiful cousin, named Hadassah in Hebrew but known by her Persian name, Esther. Mordecai seizes the opportunity to advance their lives in the Persian Empire by entering Esther in this immoral contest (verse 8).
Many try to argue that Esther was taken into the king’s harem against her will. That would certainly sanitize this situation. However, the Hebrew verb “to take” here in verse 7—“When her father and her mother died, Mordecai took her as his own daughter”—well, that is the same verb used in verse 8 to tell us, “Esther also was taken into the king’s palace.” So, it does not imply force.
The uncomfortable truth here, beloved, is that Esther willingly enters this contest. Unfortunately, neither Esther nor Mordecai have much concern at all about following the law of God until later on. Both she and Mordecai have been absorbed into this pagan Persian culture, and Esther’s beauty now gives them the opportunity to rise to the top of Persian society.
Listen, the storyline in the book of Esther is not that God uses faithful people but that God can use unfaithful people to bring about His purposes. And I am so glad He does.
Now when Esther arrives at the palace, she impresses the official in charge of these women, but verse 10 informs us, “Esther had not made known her people or kindred, for Mordecai had commanded her not to make it known.” In other words, Mordecai has said, “Listen, Esther, if you want to win this contest, make sure nobody knows you are a foreigner—an Israelite. Let’s just keep that little secret to ourselves.”
I wonder how many Christians today live and work and play, and people around them have no idea they are Christians? It’s their little secret.
Well, after twelve months, these women have been given beauty treatments and instructions on court etiquette; and each woman is given one night to spend with the king.
When it’s Esther’s turn, we read this in verse 17:
The king loved Esther more than all the women, and she won grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.
Esther wins the contest. But at what cost? She engaged in a night of immorality with the king and then, to top it off, violates God’s law even further by marrying this idolatrous man.
But in spite of this, God is at work. The heart of the king is in the hand of the Lord (Proverbs 21:1); it is not the king who places Esther on the throne, but God. God is moving people into place to protect His chosen people.
Let me say it again, beloved, when you come to the end of this book, the hero of this narrative is not going to be Mordecai or Esther. It will be God—and God alone.
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