Study On The Books Of Ester & Ruth
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*The material for these studies is from Reformed Expository Commentary by Iaian M. Duguid and Jon Nielson, P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, New Jersey.
Esther 5:1-14 Meekness and Subtlety
At the end of Chapter 4, Esther declared her commitment to put her life on the line by appearing unsummoned before King Ahasuerus. Humanly speaking, such an act was playing Russian roulette, for those who appeared before the king without invitation were liable to immediate execution. This was no empty threat. Contemporary depictions of the Persian king excavated at Persepolis show him seated on his throne holding his scepter, flanked by various officials, including a soldier with an ax. The Jewish community fasted, along with Esther, and we hold our breath…
Chapter 5 quickly takes us to the resolution of that tension in verses 1-2. After her three-day fast, Esther dressed in her royal best and presented herself before the king. Against all expectations, she won favor in his sight and he extended the scepter to her in a gesture of recognition and welcome. The threat of death is now removed: Esther will not die, but live.
Actually, the direct threat to Esther’s life from King Ahasuerus may have been defused, but behind that threat was the far greater danger to Esther and her whole community posed by the edict to destroy the Jews. This decree was issued by Haman in the king’s name. It had now become law of the Medes and Persians, which according to custom could not be changed.
The difficulty of the task facing her seems to be the reason why Esther did not respond directly to the king’s invitation to unburden her heart. The king was doubtless aware of the enormity of the risk Esther had taken in appearing unbidden in his presence. Something important was clearly troubling her, so he invited her to name the request (v. 3). Nothing short of a miracle would enable Esther’s request to be favorably received, and even though she had spent three days fasting and (implicitly) requesting divine assistance, she was in no position to presume on extraordinary assistance from on high. Unlike Moses and Elijah, she had no dramatic signs and wonders that she could call upon to convince a skeptical audience. Instead, she would have to follow the best strategy she could come up with and rely on God to make it effective in changing the king’s heart.
In response to Ahasuerus’s invitation to unburden her soul, therefore, Esther merely invited her husband to come to a feast that she was arranging that day, bringing Haman in tow (v. 4). Ahasuerus kindly accepted Esther’s invitation (v. 5). At the feast, the king once again invited Esther to reveal her request (v. 6). Ahasuerus must have recognized that she hadn’t risked her life earlier in appearing before him simply in order to get a date for the evening! Once again, it seemed to be a prime opportunity: the wine had been served, the king was in a mood of expansive generosity, again offering Esther anything she desired, up to half his kingdom. Esther seemed almost about to comply (v. 7). But then she broke off and merely asked the king and Haman to come to another feast the next day, at which all supposedly would be revealed (v. 8).
Haman went out from the feast in high spirits, not just from the effects of alcohol but also from the intoxicating effects of prestige. What Haman craved above all things was not simply significance, but rather being seen to be significant. It was quite an accolade, he thought, that he alone was summoned to this unprecedented and intimate party with the king and queen. Surely his star was now rising to unparalleled heights.
It didn’t take much to spoil his happy mood, however, because on the way out of the banquet Haman saw Mordecai sitting calmly at his desk (v. 9). Once again Mordecai failed to show Haman proper respect by rising before him or trembling with fear in view of the recent edict. Haman’s failure to instill either fear or respect in his enemy popped his bubble and turned his joy into wrath. His emotional strings were being pulled by his idol, which was public respect. His joy and his anger were simply the outward expressions of his heart’s idolatry. For now, however, he simply bided his time (v. 10).
Once Home, Haman set about the task of boosting his dented ego. He summoned his friends and his wife and required them to listen to a lengthy recitation of his exploits (v. 11). Then he announced the plum piece of news (v. 12). Haman alone, in the company of the king, had been summoned to Esther’s banquet that day and was invited to another of the same tomorrow. But as far as Haman was concerned, even this was of no consolation as long as Mordecai refused to worship him (v. 13).
Haman is a case study in what happens in our hearts when our idols are challenged. He made public recognition his idol, and the result was that as long as he was receiving adulation, he felt great. However, when the achievement of his goal was challenged, he responded by lashing out in rage and seeking to feed his idol through boasting. Even though he still possessed unparalleled power in the kingdom, that wasn’t enough. There was a void at the center of his life that no amount of success could fill.
A skilled counselor would have advised Haman to trace back his negative and positive emotions and discover what was driving his life. His rage was an opportunity to discern the condition of his heart, to uncover what was filling the God-shaped hole in the center of his life. Once he had recognized his idolatry, Haman might have been shown how the reign of his idol was being challenged by the day’s events. He could have been shown that he needed to abandon seeing the world revolving around him and his successes and instead see a world revolving around God, in which his achievements had value as a means of bringing God the Glory He deserved.
Such counsel might have saved Haman’s soul, and perhaps even his life, if he had indeed been willing to turn from his idol to the true and living God. Unfortunately, Haman did not seek biblical counseling, but rather was content to receive the wisdom of his wife and his friends. Their counsel simply to “go with the feeling” and give full vent to his rage (v. 14). This idea pleased Haman, and he had the gallows made. But the problem with this advice was that is sought to eliminate the negative emotion of anger by feeding Haman’s idolatry rather than by mortifying it. It sought to bolster Haman’s need to feel important by going for a “giant size” vengeance.
This chapter also shows us that dealing with the empire sometimes demands great subtlety. Some portions of the Bible might seem to suggest that a simple, straightforward, direct approach is always the best. “Dare to be a Daniel” and let the chips fall where they may. And often that is the best approach. However, there are times in the providence of God when a more indirect approach will yield greater results. A direct confrontation isn’t always the wisest response to conflict with the world. Sometimes subtlety and meekness are more effective in the long run.
Notice that God’s plan in this case was worked out without thunder and lightning, or a parting of the sea in order to save His people. No one was delivered from a fiery furnace or miraculously preserved in a den of lions. God’s work here is every bit as subtle as Esther’s. It proceeds by unobtrusively nudging each of the characters in the story to behave exactly in accord with their own wishes and temperaments, while at the same time they do exactly what He decreed. So, God’s plans proceed in the world around us. It goes forward, not in spite of our desires and inclinations, whether sinful or righteous, but precisely through shaping us to be the people we are.
Once again, when we consider the empire of Ahasuerus and the kingdom of God side by side, we cannot but be struck at the contrast. Praise God that we serve an altogether different king than the one Esther knew. Approaching God is not like approaching Ahasuerus, with our knees trembling and hearts wondering whether we will survive the encounter. Who can predict how such a capricious ruler will respond? Our God, however, invites us to come into His presence regularly, indeed frequently, so that we may make known to Him our petitions and requests. No special subtlety is required in framing our desires. We don’t need flowery court language or crafty psychological maneuvers to trick God into giving us what we need. On the contrary, He is a Father to us, and if even earthly fathers provide good things for their children, how much more will our will our heavenly Father give us the things we need to grow and prosper? Our King has an open-door policy.
This contrast is not because there is no cost to gain access to the King, however. Our entry to the heavenly court is free, but it was not cheaply bought. As sinners, a death is required before we can enter the presence of the all-holy One. God can hold out the golden scepter of favor to us only because the fierce rod of His judgment has fallen upon Christ. Our peace with God is paid for in Christ’s blood. However, having been paid at such a high price, our peace has thereby been purchased once and for all. No one and nothing can now separate us from God’s favor and the right to bring all of our concerns directly to the throne of grace. Neither death nor life, neither heavenly forces nor earthly trials, neither adversity nor prosperity – in short, nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:38-39).
Esther 5:1-14 Study Questions:
How do the opening verses of this chapter (vv. 1-2) offer us resolution to the tension we felt as chapter 4 ended? In what way is this a hopeful moment – one that reminds us of God’s hidden hand in Esther’s life?
What do Haman’s joy and gladness in the first part of verse 9 reveal to us about his motivation, values, and treasure? What counsel would you have given to Haman, following his comments to his friends and wife (vv. 11-13)?
How would you evaluate the advice that is given to Haman by his wife and friends (v. 14)?
As we see the ugly, self-consumed heart of Haman being revealed to us in this passage, it is healthy for us to consider our own temptations toward idolatry. How might God be calling you to destroy the idol of acceptance and praise by others? How might He be calling you to accept criticism from others with more humility and grace?
Esther 4:1-17 The Dog that didn’t bark
In the whole Book of Esther there is one character who never appears on stage, never speaks, and is never actually spoken to: God. Nowhere is that truer than in chapter 4, where Esther must place her life in the hands of the unseen, unheard, and unrecognized God. The fate of the whole community lies in the balance. Verse 3 is how the community responded – but notice what is missing.
Mordecai too mourned the decree (vv. 1-2). Even though the empire had turned against him, Mordecai was still carefully law-abiding in everything (except bowing to Haman). He didn’t enter the king’s gate dressed in sackcloth because that was forbidden under Persian law. Yet instead of crying out to God, Mordecai’s first thought was to appeal to the king through Esther. He couldn’t go and speak to her directly, sequestered as she was, so he went to the entrance of the king’s gate in his sackcloth and ashes, knowing that word would get back to Esther of his condition. And so, it did (vv.4-5).
Notice how isolated Esther had become from the rest of the covenant community. Every Jew from India to Ethiopia was mourning and lamenting Haman’s edict, but Esther had no clue. She was apparently the only person in the whole Persian Empire who had not heard the news. Esther was not allowed to remain comfortably in the dark for long. Through her messenger, Mordecai informed her of the details of the plot (vv. 6-8).
Esther’s response to Mordecai’s first request was neutral. She didn’t say whether she would or wouldn’t go to the king. However, she underlined the risk that such a strategy would involve for her personally (vv. 9-11). According to custom, visitors had to be summoned into the presence of King Ahasuerus; no one could appear unannounced. The penalty for violating this law was death, unless the king extended his scepter in welcome. Everyone knew this, even people from outlying provinces. What is more, Esther hadn’t been summoned into the royal presence for thirty days – not a good sign, since doubtless the king had not been sleeping alone.
Mordecai was not so easily deterred. His second request to Esther was even stronger (vv. 12-14). In other words, Esther should not count on her comfortably isolated position in the royal palace. She too was part of the Jewish community, and her fate was intertwined with theirs. If they were to die, she would likely die too. If she didn’t act to help her community, though, she would be judged for failing to do her part and would suffer the consequences. But if she did intervene, things might perhaps turn out well after all. As Mordecai said, “Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
Faced with these unpalatable alternatives, Esther made her choice (vv. 15-17). So, Esther agreed to show solidarity with the Jewish community. A mark of this new connection was that she asked Mordecai to gather the Jews in Susa together to fast for her for three days (v. 16). She and her maids would do likewise, and then she would go to see the king. Esther’s only recorded words were “I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish (v. 16). However, the Hebrew construction makes it clear that she is not talking about death simply as one possible outcome of her obedience to Mordecai, but as an almost inevitable outcome of choosing that course.
The Book of Esther highlights a very real conundrum that pastors wrestle with on a weekly basis. Simply put, it is this: “How can people who confess an orthodox creed week after week so easily and completely lose track of the implications of that theology whenever problems emerge in daily life?” Mordecai’s worldview may have been based on a solid theology, but he had difficulty connecting that theology to the issues of everyday life. If we know people, and the motions of our own hearts, we will not have to travel to ancient Susa for examples of this phenomenon. In times of crisis, for all our orthodox theology, our own first response is frequently the whimper resignation or human strategy rather than the bark of robust faith in God. We believe in God, but in practice react to life’s crisis as if we were virtual atheists. This is a world at enmity with God and at enmity with His people, as Jesus reminded us in John 15:18-21.
Esther’s actions raise serious questions for each of us to answer. Am I still blind to the true nature of the world and the plight of many of God’s people around me? Do I know enough about what is going on in the world to mourn and lament the situation of God’s persecuted people? Often, we not know the burdens of our brothers and sisters in the church well enough or care about them deeply enough to fast and pray. We do not even know enough about what is going on in our own hearts to mourn and lament our sin. We are so blinded by our own good lives that we neither hear, nor heed the cries of God’s people. If our eyes are opened to the true nature of our world, then surely, we will find plenty of reasons to fast and cry out to God.
In fact, our actions will reveal whom we regard as our true community. When those around us in school or at work mock Christianity and we remain silent, we deny that we are part of God’s people by our silence (the dog that didn’t bark), effectively declaring instead that the world is our true community. When we judge ourselves and others according to the world’s values of what is fashionable and desirable, we declare that the world and not the people of God is our true community. What do our speech and our silence say about who our people are?
By itself, however, all the fasting in the world would accomplish nothing for God’s covenant people in Persia. What they needed was a mediator. They needed someone who was willing and able to go and plead their case where they could not go, into the presence of the king. They could not appear in the king’s presence to seek mercy for themselves; someone else had to do it for them.
Esther therefore had to act as well as to fast. She needed to take her life in her hands, risking everything for her people. She did so without any explicit promises from God to protect her, or to bring about a successful conclusion to her mission. Perhaps God would remain hidden and allow many of His people to die, including Esther herself, as He has done on other occasions in history. Yet at another level, Esther’s success was guaranteed. God had committed Himself to maintain a people for Himself, not so that they could be comfortable, but so that they could bring Him glory. No matter what sinful paths had led Esther to where she was, she was undeniably now in a position to give God glory by publicly identifying with her people and, if necessary, laying down her life through that identification. It was up to God how to glorify Himself through Esther’s obedience, whether by delivering the people through her or allowing her to be martyred in His service, but He would be glorified one way or another.
It is the same for us, when we step out in faith, however weak and trembling. We cannot know ahead of time how God will choose to use us. He may heal our diseases, transform our breaking marriages, and plant thriving ministries through us. Or He may sustain us in obedient submission to Him as our earthly hopes are dashed and our lives poured out for apparently little purpose. Either way, though, we have the guarantee that He will use even our faint faith as the means of bringing glory to Himself.
If it is true that a mediator was needed with King Ahasuerus, how much more do we need a mediator to intercede for us with God, the Great King. God is the great King of kings, the sovereign ruler of the universe, against whom we have rebelled. Fallen, sinful people cannot therefore simply saunter into His presence, unannounced and uninvited. On the contrary, His edict has gone forth against us, declaring us worthy of death because of our sin. The truth has been disseminated throughout His empire that “the soul who sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:4). His decree is settled and determined, all the more so because it was not formulated in ignorance and haste, but by perfect wisdom before the foundation of the world. Who then will argue our case? Who will come to bring relief and deliverance for us?
The answer is Jesus Christ! The true Mediator between God and man, in the fullness of time He took flesh and appeared in this world. He went before the Father, knowing that He was not just risking His life but laying it down. There was no other way in which our sin could be judged and we could be saved. Through His death, we have received life. Raised from the dead, Jesus Christ once again appears before the Father, where He continues to intercede for us.
Esther 4:1-17 Study Questions:
As the passage opens, how are the Jewish people responding to the announcement that has just been circulated throughout the kingdom (v. 3)? What is missing from their response? What might that tell you about the spiritual state of many Jews who were living in Persia?
What does verses 4-8 tell us about Esther’s awareness of the decree of the king? How does she seek to comfort Mordecai? What might that attempt at comfort reveal about her initial understanding of the imminent danger that is faced by the Jewish people?
What do you make of Esther’s initial response to Mordecai’s request of her (vv. 9-11)? What seems to worry Esther, as she considers going before the king to make an appeal?
Consider the choice Esther now has before her. What might her fears be? What additional challenge and perspective has Mordecai set before her? What do her final words in the chapter reveal about her heart and intentions (v. 17)?
Esther 3:1-15 Mordecai Makes a Stand
In Esther 3 (vv. 1-2), Mordecai refused to pay homage to the newly appointed high official, Haman. Opinions vary as to why exactly Mordecai refused to bow. The king had commanded it, and everyone else was doing it – but not Mordecai. He alone was refusing to bow. Why? Some scholars have thought that Mordecai didn’t want bow down before any human being, giving worship to man that is due to God alone. Other scholars have argued that Mordecai was being obstinately arrogant in his refusal to bow, or that he was jealous of Haman for having been promoted to the office of a high official. But there is no hint of either of those attitudes in the text.
Actually, the text itself suggests the reason why Mordecai didn’t bow, if we look closely enough. Haman was an Agagite. He was thus a descendent of Agag the Amalekite, the ancient tribal enemy of the Jews. When Israel came out of Egypt, the Amalekites attacked them in the wilderness, for which God cursed them and condemned them to extinction (Ex. 17: 8-16). Because of that assault, God declared that there would be a lasting enmity between the two peoples, and He committed Himself to blot out all remembrance of Amalek from the face of heaven. In the time of King Saul, God sent Israel to carry out that sentence on Amalek, destroying man and beast (1 Sam. 15). But Saul failed to carry out the terms of holy war, as God had commanded him to do. Instead, he spared the best animals and King Agag himself. Even though Saul had good intentions, in God’s sight however, obedience is better than sacrifice. Doing what God says is better than creatively attempting to produce our own plan to serve Him. For this act of disobedience, Saul was abandoned by God and rejected (1 Sam. 15:28).
So, for Mordecai, whose genealogy links him to King Saul’s family (see Esther 2:5), to bow to Haman, a descendant of King Agag’s family, was just too much to swallow. It would have seemed to be giving in to a hated enemy, whom God had cursed. Bowing to King Ahasuerus, the pagan authority set over God’s people by God on account of their sin, was one thing; bowing to Haman was another thing altogether. Further evidence for this interpretation comes in the ensuing events in verses 3-4. Mordecai presumably recounted the history of his people to the other servants of the king when they challenged him over his repeated refusal to bow to Haman. This explains why, when they finally reported him to Haman for his subordination, Mordecai’s Jewishness was a key element of their report.
Bowing to Haman was only a secondary issue. It was an issue only because of past failure on the part of God’s people. If King Saul had carried out his commission properly in the first place, there wouldn’t have been any Agagites left to threaten his descendants. This is a perennial problem. Past sins have a way of coming back repeatedly to haunt us, and sometimes our children after us.
Once the complications begin, they tend to proliferate. So, it was for Mordecai. It didn’t take long before Mordecai’s behavior was brought to Hamman’s attention. Mordecai’s associates were interested to see what their mutual boss would think of his behavior (v. 4). The result of their report was a quick change for the worse in Mordecai’s prospects (vv. 5-6).
Haman scorned a simple revenge upon Mordecai as a personal enemy. Eliminating a single individual was far too small a payback for his wounded vanity. Instead, he planned an end to all of Mordecai’s people throughout the empire. Mordecai’s stand for truth would have repercussions not just in his own life but also in those of his family, his friends, and his community (v. 6). The whole people group would have pay for the actions of a single individual.
This remains a reality in many parts of the world. There are powerful enemies who wish to harm Christians, and we can’t always count on the empire bailing us out. Christians who stand up for their faith may suffer not merely the loss of their own goods, but in some cases, they are forced to watch as their loved ones suffer for their commitment to the cause of the gospel. Does this mean that we should not make a stand for the gospel? By no means. There are times when we all need to stand up and be counted. However, it does mean that we need to count the cost carefully and pick our battles wisely.
Having decided on a plan to eliminate the Jewish people, Haman needed to put it into action. The first thing to do was to find the most suitable date for this massacre. So, Haman held a lottery to determine when the ugly deed would take place (v. 7). Haman’s plan to destroy an entire people group could not be carried out on his authority either. In order to make it work, he needed the compliance of King Ahasuerus. Not that such permission was hard to come by. The empire could be manipulated by a skilled political operator, its laws used to oppress and destroy. All that was needed was for those who should have been in charge to stand by and let it happen (vv. 8-11).
So why did Ahasuerus allow Haman to pass his decree? In the first place, he didn’t care enough to find out what was really going on. Second, Ahasuerus was motivated by simple greed. Haman offered him a vast sum of money, ten thousand talents of silver – more than half of the annual tax revenue of the entire empire. Where Haman proposed to come up with such a vast sum in not clear. Yet Ahasuerus seemed as unconcerned by that question as he was by any others. When he weighed the potential financial benefit against the cost of signing off to destruction an obscure, unidentified people, there was no contest. The result was that he handed his power over to an evil man, who used it to plot genocide. Meanwhile, the king and his trusted advisor gave the ramifications of the whole matter so little thought that they went off to celebrate the deal with a drink or two (v. 15).
So, the edict for the destruction of God’s people was signed, sealed, and delivered to the furthest corners of the empire, in the various languages of the peoples (vv. 12-15). The mail delivery system that had carried the king’s fatuous decree declaring men heads in their own households now carried this darker decree with the same haste. The city of Susa was thrown into confusion, showing that not everyone in the empire was against the Jews.
Haman was wrong when he thought that the future lay in the stars, to be decerned by the casting of lots. As Proverbs 16:33 put it: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” So, it transpired. The date selected by lot was far enough away that God’s rescue plan had plenty of time to unfold. Similarly, Ahasuerus was wrong when he said to Haman, “The people also [are given to you], to do with them as it seems good to you” (v. 11). The people were ultimately not his to give into Haman’s power. They were God’s people, and He would not allow them to be destroyed at the whim of the empire. Proverbs 16:9 addresses this fundamental reality too: “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.”
Ironically, God Himself has far more reason to act against us and our families than Ahasuerus did against the Jews. We have not kept God’s law. We have refused to bow down before Him and submit to Him as we ought, giving Him the honor that is His by rights as our Creator. It is actually true in our case that it is not to God’s profit to tolerate us, since we are born cosmic rebels against His goodness and grace. What is more, we have a cosmic enemy, Satan, who would happily present of valid reasons why we should not be allowed to live. The edict for our destruction could legitimately have been signed against us by our Great King. But that is not how God, the true sovereign King, has chosen to deal with us.
Esther 3:1-15 Study Questions:
As the narrator describes the promotion of Haman (v. 1), what does he include about Haman’s family and lineage? Why might it be an important detail for understanding Mordecai’s response to Haman?
In what ways do Mordecai’s peers respond to his refusal to bow to Haman? How and why does Haman’s hostility expand from Mordecai to encompass to all of the Jewish people (vv. 5-6)?
How is Haman able to manipulate King Ahasuerus into complying with his plan to destroy the Jews (vv. 8-11)? What do we know about God, which Haman and King Ahasuerus ultimately do not know?
As you consider the stand that Mordecai takes against bowing to Haman, how are you challenged to stand more boldly for God and His Word in your daily life? In what ways have you been guilty of standing boldly for peripheral issues while failing to stand courageously for core gospel concerns?
Esther 2:1-23 Beauty and the Beast
The search for Queen Vashti’s replacement was in some ways a competition like today’s Golden Raspberry Award. The original idea when Vashti was deposed and sent away from the king’s presence was to find a better woman to fill her royal position. By “better,” the king’s advisors presumably meant someone more compliant than Vashti, someone who would toe the royal line and obey her husband. Yet strangely enough, in their search for a replacement it never seems to have occurred to those in charge to include a character assessment. Instead, only three virtues were necessary in this “better” woman: she had to be young, she had to be unmarried, and she had to be extraordinarily good-looking (vv. 1-4).
In the midst of this all-consuming empire, two relatively insignificant people, Mordecai and Esther, step onto the stage in verses 5-7. Mordecai was a descendent of Kish, from the tribe of Benjamin. He was related to King Saul, a fact that will become significant later on in the story. One of his ancestors was carried off into exile in the time of Jehoiachin in 597 B.C. In fact, exile was the defining feature of Mordecai’s position, as verse 6 makes clear. As a second or third generation exile, he would thus have known nothing other than life in Persia under the empire.
Mordecai lived in the citadel of Susa, along with the imperial employees, rather than out in the city of Susa itself. The other member of his household was his cousin, whom he had taken into his care because she was an orphan. She had a kosher heritage; she was the daughter of Abihail (v. 15). Esther was her Persian name. She too, like all the exiles, had to live in two worlds. As her life unfolded, though, there would come a day when she would have to decide which of those two worlds define her.
Those two worlds collided one fateful morning in the citadel of Susa. Ahasuerus’s officials were collecting his new flock of young women, according to the edict that his advisors had framed for him (v.8). We had anticipated this fate as soon as Esther was introduced to us as a woman who had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at. In fact, the text makes the point that she is actually more than qualified. Visually speaking (which is all that the empire – then and now – cares about), she is doubly blessed.
Esther quickly learned not simply how to survive, but how to thrive in her new situation (v. 9). Esther learned that the harem was simply life in the empire in miniature” a relatively pointless existence, where life was regulated in all its details, and promotion depended not on talent or character, but on pleasing those in charge. Thus, Esther learned to be a pleaser, first of all charming Hegai – the “keeper of the women,” to give him his official title. In return for this compliance, Hegai rewarded Esther with special food and an early start to her beauty treatments (v. 12).
Esther had apparently no ethical qualms about eating the empire’s food and being used as the emperor’s plaything, and following Mordecai’s advice, her Jewishness remained perfectly concealed (vv. 10-11). After a year of preparation, Esther’s turn finally came to go in to the king for her one-night audition, she was careful to follow Hegai’s instructions (vv. 13-15). At this point in the story, Esther was the perfectly compliant child of the empire, the ultimate anti-Vashti, and her tactics appeared to be succeeding. Wherever she went, she won with her compliant ways the favor of all who saw her.
We are therefore not surprised to find out that sweet little Esther also charmed the heart of King Ahasuerus (vv. 16-17). Here surely was the “better woman” than Vashti that he had been seeking: as beautiful as the former queen, but much more compliant. The king “loved” Esther more than all the other women; he found what he was looking for. Ahasuerus made Esther queen in Vashti’s place, a substitution that is underlined by the reference to the royal crown and to a feast given in her honor (v. 18). The result of Eshter’s promotion was happiness and blessing all around.
Through all of this lengthy procedure Mordecai had been keeping a watchful eye on his cousin, advising her along the way. He was the one who advised her to keep secret her Jewish identity – not because the empire was inherently anti-Semitic, but because, in his opinion, one could never be too careful in a place like Susa. He knew the way the empire operated. Walls have ears and information is power. Even after she became queen, it was because of Mordecai’s command that Esther kept her ancestry quiet (vv. 19-20).
Mordecai himself proved the power of the right information used in the right way, when he uncovered a plot to harm Ahasuerus (vv. 21-23). Two of the king’s eunuchs conspired to kill the king. Mordecai became aware of their plot while he was sitting at the king’s gate (this location identifies him as an official to the king). He passed the information on to the king through Esther, who herself was careful to give credit to Mordecai. In that way, both positions were made a little more secure by putting the empire in their debt. The result was that the conspirators were hanged, while Mordecai’s name was inscribed in the royal annals.
What this chapter of Esther teaches us is that disobedience and sin – even the disobedience and sin of others – have far-reaching consequences. Why was Esther caught up and condemned to this apparently meaningless life in a gilded cage? In part, at least, because she lived in Susa. Why was she living in Susa? She was there because of the sin and disobedience of her forebears. It was disobedience that had brought the family of Mordecai and Esther into exile at the time of Jehoiachin. The destruction of Jerusalem was not simply and accident of fate: it was the culmination of the judgment of God upon His own people who had abandoned Him. Disobedience brought God’s people into exile in the first place.
What’s more, it was disobedience that kept Mordecai and Esther’s family in exile. In 538 B.C., Cyrus issued a decree permitting the Jews to return home. Some went back with Zerubbabel at that time (Ezra 1-2), but many stayed, comfortably settled where they were, outside the land of promise. Had Mordecai and Esther (or their parents) returned to Jerusalem at some time in the previous fifty years, would Esther still have been taken by the harem recruiters? Perhaps, but she certainly wouldn’t have been such an easy target. The result of the family’s history of disobedience compromise was that Mordecai and especially Esther found themselves in a position that, for all its worldly advantages, was potentially disastrous spiritually. Esther ended up married to an uncircumcised pagan and virtually cut off from the community of faith, successfully pretending not to be a child of the true and living God.
Yet we see in this chapter more than just the bitter fruit of disobedience. We also see God’s ability to turn our disobedience – and the sour fruits of our parents’ sins – to His own glory and His people’s good. Ahasuerus and his cronies meant their edict purely for the satisfaction of the king’s selfish pleasures. Mordecai and Esther found themselves impaled on the horns of a dilemma because of their earlier compromises with the empire. They found it much easier to comply with the empire’s wishes than to resist assimilation – and which of us can be sure that we would have charted a different course? Yet God’s hand hovers over every detail, moving the pieces into the place He has determined – even through their sin and compromise – in order to achieve His own good purposes.
This observation presses us to see both similarities and differences between the empire of Ahasuerus and the kingdom of God. Like the empire of Ahasuerus, God’s claims on our lives are absolute. He owns our bodies, our sexuality, our career plans, our hopes, our dreams, our children…everything we have are His to do with as He wills. When we were baptized into His community, we were marked out with His name – the name Christian – and He will not share our loyalty with others. God demands and will exercise complete sovereignty over our beings. Of course, this is relatively easy to confess in the abstract. What is much harder is to continue to confess that sovereignty joyfully when God takes our lives and the lives of those around us in directions different from those we had hoped and prayed for, and of which we had dreamed. When God brings trials into our lives and calls us to submit willingly to the loss of the very things that this world calls most precious – money, friends, reputation, health, strength, dreams, and aspirations – how do we respond? With Esther’s sweet and compliant spirit? On the contrary, our hearts swiftly revolt against God whenever things do not go our way, whenever our will is not done.
When God exercises His claims on our lives, He does so to bring us good. He wants to move us on in our spiritual walk, to develop and deepen and display our faith before a watching world (1 Peter 1:6-7). As we suffer loss, and He pries our fingers off the idols to which they are so desperately attached, then our hearts are prepared more and more to be with Christ, and to see in Him our only good in this world.
Esther 2:1-23 Study Questions:
How are we sometimes tempted to become frustrated with God regarding His timing? When have you struggled with unanswered prayers or unfulfilled dreams? How were you tempted to view God in the midst of those disappointments?
What evidence, if any, of personal faith and courage do you see on the part of Esther and Mordecai in this passage? Where do you see evidence of the sovereign hand and plan of God?
How is the hidden hand of God evident in the “favor: that Esther quickly wins (vv. 9-15)? What effect does she have on those around her?
What are you learning about the sovereignty of God as you study this passage? How does the kingdom of Jesus Christ (and His role as Bridegroom in it) clash with the values of King Ahasuerus and his kingdom, as revealed in this chapter?
Esther 1:1-22 Standing Firm Against the Empire
The Book of Esther begins by introducing us to the great empire of Ahasuerus (also known as Xerxes) (vv. 1-9). This Ahasuerus was no teacup tyrant: he ruled 127 provinces from India to Ethiopia, from sea to shining sea. What is more, Ahasuerus knew how to throw a party, a six-month-long event, for his military leaders, his princes, and his nobles – all of the power brokers of the kingdom. Anyone who was anyone was there. There were marble pillars and hangings of white and violet linen in the gardens, couches of gold and silver – even mosaic pavements made of costly materials. The very ground on which the guests walked and the seats on which they sat were made of things that other hosts would have kept safely locked away as precious treasures. Not two of the wine cups were identical and the wine flowed freely, matching the king’s generosity. Ahasuerus is the very picture of power and wealth, both of which are squandered on his own appetites. And remember, these would have been our tax dollars at work!
A key detail begins the process of deconstructing the empire in front of our very eyes; the detail that comes in verse 8: “And drinking was according to this edict: ‘There in no compulsion.’ For the king had given orders to all the staff of his palace to do as each man desired.” This continues the theme of Ahasuerus’s power: even the drinking at his power must conform to his law. No detail escaped the empire’s notice and regulation: an edict was required to ensure that no one was under compulsion! But power that must regulate conformity at this level inevitably invites a petty bureaucracy.
The process of deconstructing the empire continues in the next scene. The king – Great King Ahasuerus – had been drinking for seven straight days and was predictably in high spirits. With a characteristic touch of overkill, he sent no fewer than seven of the royal eunuchs who served him to summon his queen, Vashti, wearing her royal crown, so that the people and the nobles could admire her beauty (vv. 10-11). Here we see the dark side of placing so much power in the hands of a man whose only thought is for himself.
But here the raw power of the empire encountered a snag: “But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command delivered by the eunuchs. At this the king became enraged, and his anger burned within him” (v. 12). The law of the Medes and the Persians, which could not be revoked, could nonetheless be refused. Queen Vashti, who in accordance with Persian custom had been holding a separate feast for the women (v. 9), refused to comply with Ahasuerus’s unreasonable demands. The law might be able to compel people to drink as they wished, but it could not ultimately compel the king’s wife to be treated as a sex object. A mere woman stood up and said “No!” and the empire was powerless to enforce its will. The mouse had roared and the glorious empire was shaken to its foundations by her refusal.
What was to be done? A royal conference of the wise men of the empire was required to work out how to deal with this dangerous threat to authority (vv. 13-15). For their part, Ahasuerus’s advisors were terrified that the queen’s “just say no” policy would spread to every home in the empire (vv. 16-18). What would happen to a man’s position in his home once it became known that Queen Vashti had refused the command of the king? Yet what did Vashti’s resistance really achieve? She personally lost the position of power and prestige as the queen (vv. 19-20).
Thus Vashti was stripped of her title. The law, it appears, triumphed, for the regulation that she resisted also set her punishment (v. 15), though it’s clear already that “the law” merely serves as a fig leaf to cover the whim of the king and his advisors. Since she chose not to appear before the king when she was summoned, she would never again appear before him. Instead, the place would be given to someone “better than she.” Esther would have to be much more circumspect and subtle in dealing with the empire if she was to defuse its danger. Yet Vashti’s refusal nonetheless serves to reveal the weakness of the law to command behavior. Resistance is possible. Assimilation to the will of the empire is not inevitable.
That lesson appears to have been lost on the empire, which busily set about making another law that it was powerless to enforce (vv. 21-22). Consider the futility of this regulation: “that every man be master in his own household” (v. 22). The entire weight of imperial authority was placed behind this edict: it was a royal decree, a law that could never be repealed (see v. 19). But what was actually achieved by all this huffing and puffing? Was the social order of Persia really by this one woman’s resistance? Even if it were, can such a principle of male authority in the household really be imposed by government decree? Are all men to exercise power in such a self-centered way as Ahasuerus did, and then expect instant obedience? Is every man supposed to banish his wife if she fails to submit to his will?
In fact, the edict deconstructs itself, serving merely to publicize throughout the vast empire and in the language of every people group Ahasuerus’s lack of authority in his own household. If it was meant to inspire respect for husbands and respect for Ahasuerus, its actual effect was surely the exact opposite. If he was afraid that the story of his impotence would spread through gossip, now his own edict has done its best to ensure that everyone would hear the story.
As the Book of Esther unfolds, we shall see that Ahasuerus has little political acumen or capacity for personal thought. His decree concerning Vashti is symptomatic of a more general weakness in his character. At the same time, he is surrounded and manipulated by advisors who likewise wield their power with more enthusiasm than skill. This is the world in which God’s people found themselves then, and often still find themselves: a world in which the reins of power are in the hands of the incompetent, and in which we are guided at best by the amoral and at worst by the immoral. It is that way for some in the workplace or even in the home. Many Christians throughout the world live in countries that are practical dictatorships, or where the real power seems to lie in the hands of the local mafia or a drug cartel, not in the elected government officials. The world is a dangerous place, where power and wisdom are frequently unconnected.
So, what do we learn from the opening chapter of Esther for our own walk in the world? First, Esther 1 reminds us not to take the power and the glory of this world too seriously. Sometimes we just have to laugh. The world takes itself all too seriously, and it wants us to take it seriously too. We live in a society that routinely elevates the trivial. The empire of materialism in which we live takes stuff desperately seriously. It wants us to study the empire’s laws and learn how to get ahead by the empire’s standards. The empire of this world is a glittering hologram that has no real substance. True value lies in the values of an altogether different empire.
Second, Esther 1 shows us that sometimes we have to wait to see what God is doing. God is nowhere to be seen in this chapter. That is no surprise, since He is hardly visible anywhere in the whole Book of Esther. However, that we cannot see God working doesn’t mean He isn’t at work. He is busily occupied throughout the Book of Esther as the unseen director of history, arranging all things for the good of His people. Esther and Mordecai have not yet even made an appearance on the stage, but events are still moving according to God’s good pleasure.
Third, this passage shows that God’s kingdom is not like the empire of Ahasuerus. The Book of Esther repeatedly invites us to compare and contrast the kingdom of God and the empire of Ahasuerus. There are superficial similarities between the two kingdoms, but in each case, they hide deeper differences. The Lord too is a great king whose decrees cannot be challenged or repealed. His sovereignty governs all things, great and small. He must be obeyed, or we will certainly suffer the consequences. Yet His law is beneficial for men and women, unlike the drunken meanderings of a man at the mercy of his shrewd counselors. God doesn’t use people for His own purposes as if they were disposable commodities. Rather, He graciously invites them into a loving relationship with Himself. His kingdom grows and does its work not through the outwardly powerful and attractive, but rather in hidden but effective ways. For that reason, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to the growth of a mustard seed, or to the work of leaven. It starts small and hidden, but it achieves its goals nonetheless (Matt. 13:31-33).
The gospel truth of Christ’s love for us is the foundation for new minds that delight to submit to His ordering of creation. Who then is your real king and to whom is your heart committed? The empire wants to make us its slave. It wants to assimilate us into its ways of thinking. It offers us glittering prizes for compliance of its ways – a “successful” life, according to its own definitions. Have you been enticed and trapped? Flee from these things to the kingdom that is solid and substantial, the kingdom that Jesus Christ came to establish. Learn to laugh at the emptiness of the empire’s priorities and edicts. Come to Christ by faith and rest on His provision of forgiveness and life, thanking Him for His gift of Himself for us on the cross. Live according to His edicts, in which true wisdom resides. Trust that He is at work as He promised, working through even evil impulses of the empire for good in our lives and the lives of all of His people. Finally, remember that this world is not our home: one day, when Jesus returns, our balancing act on the roof will be over and the true banquet will begin.
Esther 1:1-22 Study Questions:
What are you learning about the kingdom of Persia as you read and study this passage? Why might it have been difficult for a faithful, Godfearing Jewish person to live in this kind of kingdom?
What does verse 1 tell us about the power of King Ahasuerus and the vastness of the Perian empire?
As you read through verses 1-9, what does the narrator seem to emphasize? What seem to be the values and concerns of the king and his subjects? How does this contrast with the kingdom of Jesus Christ?
In verses 10-11, why might Queen Vashti have refused the kings request – despite the potential consequences?
How does the “wise men” of the king advise him to deal with the refusal of the queen, and why do they give him this advice (vv. 16-20)?
How might the final verse (v. 22) be ironically and subtly pointing to future events in the story of Esther?
Introduction to the Book of Esther
The Books of Esther and Ruth are not really stories about their respective “heroines.” Rather, they are part of the Bible’s larger story about God and His dealings with His people, and with the world. This is true even though the Book of Esther does not so much as mention the name of God. As in everyday life, God’s intervention is everywhere visible in the Book of Esther, even though His presence is concealed. The essential conflict between the two kingdoms – the empire of Ahasuerus ad the kingdom of God – plays itself out in the lives of flawed and unexpected individuals, as God delivers His people once again from the threat of extinction. Meanwhile, in the Book of Ruth, the Great Redeemer shows His love and compassion to the embittered Naomi as well as to the foreign daughter-in-law, Ruth. His grace brings home the disobedient prodigal daughter with empty hands, so that He can astonish her with unexpected fullness. In both stories, the grace of God to the undeserving and the outcasts is prominently on display. Both stories thus constantly point us forward to Christ as the one in whom that grace will fully and finally come to aliens and strangers, redeeming rebellious sinners and making them into God’s new people.
The Book of Esther is set during the reign of King Ahasuerus (also known as Xerxes) – the Persian ruler who reigned from 485-465 B.C. and is best known for his wars against the Greeks. The action thus takes place about fifty years after the decree of Cyrus, which allowed the Jews to return home from their exile in Babylon. Many of the most committed Jews did so, including Haggai, Zechariah, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Others opted not to be part of the rebuilding process – especially those who already had comfortable jobs and living situations in the heart of the Persian empire. They preferred comfortable assimilation to the foibles of the Persian empire over the hard path of obedience of the Lord’s call to rebuild Jerusalem and its surroundings. One such family was that of Mordecai, a descendant of King Saul’s family, and Esther, his orphaned cousin. She also had a Jewish name, Hadassah, but publicly went by her Persian alias. These two insignificant nobodies would never have dreamed that they might have a significant part to play in God’s plans; they were just trying to get by in life, even if that meant compromise with the empire.
The main purpose of the book of Esther is to show that God is able to take care of His people, using these very imperfect human agents, while remaining hidden from direct view. In the book of Exodus, God’s work is full of dramatic interventions that expose the emptiness of the Egyptian gods. There are great heroes like Moses and Aaron to lead the people and a trail of miracles to attest to God’s presence with them. In the book of Esther, however, there are neither dramatic miracles nor great heroes – just apparently ordinary providence moving flawed and otherwise undistinguished people into exactly the right place at the right time to bring the empire into line ant to secure the future of God’s people, when it seemed certain they would be eliminated.
Getting Started Questions:
Can you think of some instances or occasions that have made you very aware that, as a Christian, you do not quite belong – in a town, a club, or a group? How were you tempted to respond? Why is this awareness difficult?
How do Christians in your community tend to think and talk about governing authorities? Are they critical, to the point of being disrespectful? Do you ever see allegiance to nation or country that seems to be stronger than allegiance to Jesus Christ?