Esther 1 Sermon: We’ll be studying the first 2 chapters of the book of Esther today. These first 2 chapters serve as an introduction for the whole book. And what do we see in this introduction? We’ll see the opulence and luxury of the ancient Persian empire along with its hidden weaknesses. We’ll see the fall of one queen and the rise of another. We’ll see a king whom I can only describe as “superlative” – everything he does is exaggerated and extreme. We’ll see a humble lowly Jew being promoted to a position of some authority. Reversals of fortune. Bizarre extremes. All this and more await us in this introduction to the book. And ultimately we’ll see that God Providentially Places His People. So, let’s dive in! Read 1:1-4.
Esther 1 Commentary (1-4)
1:1 ¶ Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus, (this is Ahasuerus which reigned, from India even unto Ethiopia, over an hundred and seven and twenty provinces:) 2 That in those days, when the king Ahasuerus sat on the throne of his kingdom, which was in Shushan the palace, 3 In the third year of his reign, he made a feast unto all his princes and his servants; the power of Persia and Media, the nobles and princes of the provinces, being before him: 4 When he shewed the riches of his glorious kingdom and the honour of his excellent majesty many days, even an hundred and fourscore days.
So let’s take note of the setting. We’re in ancient Persia. And more specifically we’re in one of their several capitals which was named Shushan. This city today is known as Shush and it’s in Iran – on the western border between Iran and Iraq. And from this one city, this man named Ahasuerus reigned from as far east as India and modern-day Pakistan and as far west as ancient Ethiopia – Kush – the land just south of Egypt at that time. Needless to say, this is a vast amount of land. Today there are something like 20 individual countries occupying that land. And the text says this land was divided up into 127 provinces. The mention of all these things is supposed to impress us. We’re supposed to say “ooh” and “ahh”. But you can’t boo or hiss or rattle noise-makers yet because Haman hasn’t entered the story.
Well, if this doesn’t impress you, consider this next batch of proofs that this kingdom of Persia was opulent. This king Ahasuerus in the 3rd year of his reign has a huge feast. This man started reigning in 486 BC. And so the 3rd year of his reign would have been 483 BC. Since we just finished studying Ezra and Nehemiah, I’ll mention this. The story in the book of Esther occurs between Ezra 6 and Ezra 7 – after the Temple was constructed but before Ezra himself came to Jerusalem and stopped the mixed marriages. So, back to Ahasuerus. He’s actually in his early 30s when he throws this lavish party. And how long does it go on? 180 days! This is half a year. Now, we’re not told why he’s throwing this party. We know whom he invited – his advisers and the people in charge of those 127 provinces. But why? Well, from history we know that Ahasuerus was planning to attack Greece a few years later. Maybe he was gathering support and strategizing for that campaign. Maybe. But the reason isn’t specifically stated. All we’re told are the facts of how rich the kingdom of Persia is and how lavish their banquet was. So I think that’s what we’re supposed to focus on. Not why he’s throwing the party, but the fact that it’s happening and all the over-the-top details that are given concerning it. Well, I suppose everyone goes home after the half year, right? Well, they do. But king Ahasuerus isn’t done displaying his wealth and power just yet! Let’s read 1:5-9.
Esther 1 Commentary (5-9)
1:5 And when these days were expired, the king made a feast unto all the people that were present in Shushan the palace, both unto great and small, seven days, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace; 6 Where were white, green, and blue, hangings, fastened with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rings and pillars of marble: the beds were of gold and silver, upon a pavement of red, and blue, and white, and black, marble. 7 And they gave them drink in vessels of gold, (the vessels being diverse one from another,) and royal wine in abundance, according to the state of the king. 8 And the drinking was according to the law; none did compel: for so the king had appointed to all the officers of his house, that they should do according to every man’s pleasure. 9 Also Vashti the queen made a feast for the women in the royal house which belonged to king Ahasuerus.
So the king has another feast! This time it’s only 7 days long. And the company there is a bit different. Now anyone who is in Shushan can come and dine. And what a spectacle they meet when they arrive! Did you see all the glorious details in verse 6? Beautiful hangings, rings, marble, beds, pavement. All these colors and textures. These people came from very ordinary places to attend this banquet. To see this splendor would have been breath-taking. And if the ornaments didn’t take your breath away, maybe the alcohol would. The king had the drinking “according to the law” or according to an edict that he apparently issued. Usually at such feasts there was someone who would tell all the guests when they could drink and when they needed to stop. But not at this party! The wine was flowing, by the king’s command.
And then we’re told that the king had a queen. Her name is Vashti. She’s holding a separate party for Ahasuerus’ concubines in another location. This is not to say that Vashti and Ahasuerus were apart for the half year prior to this 7-day feast. It’s just that during the time when Ahasuerus was holding his shorter 7-day feast, Vashti was with the ladies – well, particularly Ahasuerus’ ladies/concubines – in Shushan. And I think Ahasuerus had her off with the ladies for a reason. We’ll see it in a little bit.
So we’ve been shown all of the king’s riches and glory and splendor. He’s on top of the world. He has everything. What more could he show his guests? Ah, he’s been saving his most valued possession, if you will, for last. Let’s read 1:10-11.
Esther 1 Commentary (10-11)
1:10 ¶ On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, and Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas, the seven chamberlains that served in the presence of Ahasuerus the king, 11 To bring Vashti the queen before the king with the crown royal, to shew the people and the princes her beauty: for she was fair to look on.
The king has partaken of some spirits and so he himself is in high spirits. I think that the king was probably not totally inebriated. But I imagine he was at least a little buzzed – his heart was merry with wine. So he’s at least happy. And he wants to display the rarest jewel of his kingdom in his eyes – his beautiful queen. Vashti is her name, which I understand meant something like “sweetheart.” So the king, never lacking pomp, sends not one messenger. Not two. But seven messengers are sent to the queen. This is a high occasion. After displaying all of his opulence and glory, Ahasuerus wants to showcase his wife as the grand finale. The attendants are waiting. King Ahasuerus sits back and waits for all the people to see his beautiful queen. There’s anticipation in the air. What happens? 1:12.
Esther 1 Commentary (12)
1:12 But the queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s commandment by his chamberlains: therefore was the king very wroth, and his anger burned in him.
What would this have looked like? I imagine it’s like one of those scenes in a drama or a movie where there’s a room full of people, everyone relaxed, some soft music playing in the background, maybe on an old-fashioned record player. Then someone stands up and says something completely inappropriate. And everyone gasps. The record player screeches to a halt. And all in attendance are looking shocked. I picture that kind of scene being played out here. We were expecting to see queen Vashti enter the room in all her splendor, flanked by the 7 eunuchs who were sent to get her. Instead the eunuchs return, tail between their legs as it were. Did they whisper to Ahasuerus the embarrassing news? However the message was delivered, the king was not happy. True to his nature he gets angry. And he doesn’t just get a little angry. He gets really angry. He was very wroth. His anger burned in him.
What a coincidence that this should take place at this time. Who would have guessed that the queen would disobey the king’s reasonable request. Now, some throughout the ages have made excuses for Vashti’s behavior. The rabbis have decided that Vashti declined to come because the king wanted her to come dressed in her royal crown… only. Nude, in other words. I don’t think that’s the case. Granted, Ahasuerus was surely an ungodly man. But I don’t think he’d want to put his own wife on display like that. Want proof? Well later on when Haman looks like he’s attacking the king’s new wife – I won’t say who that is at the moment… — Ahasuerus is incensed. So, are we really supposed to believe that Ahasuerus would want to expose the woman he married to everyone in the palace while when just one person is appearing to mistreat his wife he explodes with anger and comes swiftly to her defense? I don’t think so. Others point to the fact that Vashti and Ahasuerus were separated for such a long time. They say this fact tells us there was a problem between them. But again all we know is that Vashti held her own party for the 7 days of this shorter feast. She wasn’t holding her own party for Ahasuerus’ concubines during the half year party. So they were apart for perhaps 7 days. Maybe more. But they probably had not been separated for a half-year.
So I conclude that we’re really not given the reason behind Vashti’s disobedience. Why? Well, in literature the type of character Vashti plays is what is called a foil. She’s a minor character who is intended to showcase some fact about the main character. And in this section the main character is who? Ahasuerus. What does Vashti’s mysterious unexplained action teach us about Ahasuerus? We learn this – though Ahasuerus seems to have everything and seems to be nearly god-like, yet he’s just a man. He has everything he needs, oh, except things aren’t well at home and his wife just made him look like a fool. I think this turn of events is intended to actually make us laugh. With the Persian empire there’s this veneer of invincibility that’s just torn through by this one destabilizing act of rebellion. It’s funny! Especially for Jews who were being oppressed by this king and his empire.
OK, well if that doesn’t make you laugh, maybe how he handles this disobedience will. Read 1:13-15.
Esther 1 Commentary (13-15)
1:13 ¶ Then the king said to the wise men, which knew the times, (for so was the king’s manner toward all that knew law and judgment: 14 And the next unto him was Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven princes of Persia and Media, which saw the king’s face, and which sat the first in the kingdom;) 15 What shall we do unto the queen Vashti according to law, because she hath not performed the commandment of the king Ahasuerus by the chamberlains?
So Ahasuerus basically calls together his 7 counselors to figure out how to handle his marriage issues. Maybe he’s just weak in this area and wants to have other people tell him what he ought to do. Or maybe he really is that dense that he needs 7 people to help him figure out the next step. Or perhaps he really did see this as quite a big issue that called for a well-thought-out response. Whatever his purpose, he does get what he’s looking for. Let’s read 1:16-21.
Esther 1 Commentary (16-21)
1:16 And Memucan answered before the king and the princes, Vashti the queen hath not done wrong to the king only, but also to all the princes, and to all the people that are in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus. 17 For this deed of the queen shall come abroad unto all women, so that they shall despise their husbands in their eyes, when it shall be reported, The king Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, but she came not. 18 Likewise shall the ladies of Persia and Media say this day unto all the king’s princes, which have heard of the deed of the queen. Thus shall there arise too much contempt and wrath. 19 If it please the king, let there go a royal commandment from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered, That Vashti come no more before king Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal estate unto another that is better than she. 20 And when the king’s decree which he shall make shall be published throughout all his empire, (for it is great,) all the wives shall give to their husbands honour, both to great and small. 21 And the saying pleased the king and the princes; and the king did according to the word of Memucan:
So one of the princes offers his advice to the king – send Vashti away and replace her with someone more worthy. His stated objective is that all the ladies in the realm of the king would respect their husbands. This is a noble cause – even biblically speaking. I don’t think this is meant to mock biblical roles in the home. I think what it is meant to do is to showcase the weakness and buffoonery behind all the pomp and splendor of this kingdom. I mean, Memucan the prince’s ideas are thoroughly selfish. He keeps mentioning the affect that this will have on the princes. Isn’t that convenient? He’s a prince himself. He further sees the need to bolster his superficially-strong but underlyingly weak empire – “for it is great” he insists. Is it really? And the fact that these great and mighty men can’t even get their wives to submit to them, I think to the Jews who would have first received this story, is pathetic – even laughable.
Verse 22 then describes the king sending a letter to all 127 of his provinces. The gist of the letter was that every man should be the master in his own home. It was translated into every language and script used throughout the vast multicultural Persian empire. Again, it’s laughable that this big strong empire needed to send out such a letter stating such an obvious fact.
On to our Esther 2 Commentary!