The Book of Esther is set during the reign of King Xerxes of Persia (486-465 B.C.). We have read that in 538 B.C. close to 50,000 people had returned to Judea from Babylonia but, many Jewish families had stayed behind. They had put down roots and started families and businesses. During the reign of Xerxes, the Persian Empire was at its peak. Wealth poured in from all over the world as other nations and people paid tribute and taxes. Xerxes built a new luxurious palace in Persepolis during this time, but Xerxes was a tyrant. When Esther entered Xerxes’s court and was chosen Queen her challenge was to serve God and her people in time of crisis all while being the wife of a pagan king. Throughout Israel’s history God protected His chosen people from all kinds of dangers. Yes, He punished them when they refused to confess their sins and honor their covenant with Him. But in the Book of Esther, we see that God was working behind the scenes, unfolding bigger plans for Israel and for all of humankind. During the reign of Xerxes God used this pagan king and several obedient believers to save the Jews from extermination and to preserve the Davidic line through which the Messiah would descend. Although the Book of Esther never mentions God’s name, its central purpose is to demonstrate that God works providentially to take care of His people.
Here are some things to look for as you read. This is a fairly fast paced account and as the account unfolds notice there are Godly people who are willing to step out in faith and trust the Lord. Haman’s edict against the Jews constituted the last major effort during the Old Testament period to destroy God’s people. Think about the particular influence of two Godly people made necessary because they did trust and obey God and were sensitive to His leading and prompting. When the author of the Book of Esther speaks of people being hanged that is not the case. For the Persians hanging actually meant impaling people on a pole. Sometimes it was the means of their death and other times it was an example of what happened to people who were disobedient. The Persians believed that when they drank alcohol as they deliberated matters of state and reached intoxication, that put them in closer touch with the spiritual world. The Jewish holiday Purim comes out of the account in the Book of Esther. The word Purim comes from the Hebrew pur which is another word for lots. Haman cast lots to determine when the Jews should be executed. The celebration of Purim is raucous and high energy. The Book of Esther is read in the synagogue. When Mordecai’s name is read the people clap and cheer and when Haman’s name is spoken people boo and hiss.
There are at least four themes to look for as well. First is God’s sovereignty. We see Mordecai and Esther front and center in this account, but this book clearly demonstrates that God is indeed in control of history. We see the theme of service. Both Esther and Mordecai were common, ordinary people whom God used in amazing ways at a specific time and place to accomplish His purposes. There is the theme of obedience. Esther obeyed Mordecai but in doing so she stood up against Persian law. Mordecai refused to obey the king’s command but carried out Esther’s instructions. Obeying God always takes precedence over obeying humans. Finally, there is the theme of pride. Haman is the model for the arrogant individual, illustrating the truth of Proverbs 16:18, “Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Haman is set in contrast to Mordecai who, while not seeking status for himself, allowed the Lord to elevate him in the king’s eyes.
The Persian Empire was vast, comprised by 127 provinces stretching from India to Cush, modern day Ethiopia and Sudan. Xerxes was the king, reigning from 486-465 B.C. In some translations of scripture Xerxes is called Ahasuerus. Xerxes is the Greek translation of his Persian name and Ahasuerus was his Hebrew name. It wasn’t unusual for kings in that day and time to throw lavish parties to show off all they had, and Xerxes was no exception. The original party lasted 180 days with everyone receiving a solid gold goblet to drink from, each one different. They were allowed to drink as much or as little as they wished. Not only did Xerxes want to show off his splendor, trying to impress others but here we see his pride. This gathering was most likely convened to prepare for the battle against the Greeks. The second party we see is for anyone who wants to come…greatest to the least. This was more like an open house and was held outside. Again, Xerxes wanted to show off all he had. Everything was opulent, over the top, probably even gaudy. While Xerxes was giving his banquet his queen, Vashti, was giving one of her own for the women, presumably the wives of the military men and officials who were with the king. The name Vashti means the best, desired, beloved. It is possible this was a title and not her real name. Ancient Greek historians refer to her as Amestris and it was her son Artaxerxes I who became king after his father Xerxes. Xerxes was in high spirits, in other words fairly drunk when he demanded Vashti appear at his banquet. This meant he was apt to do something foolish. Vashti was a very beautiful woman and the king wanted to display one of his prized possessions. Some scholars believe Xerxes may have wanted Vashti to come to his banquet wearing ONLY her crown. She refused to go, perhaps fearing humiliation. Xerxes flew into a rage, no doubt heightened by his drunken state and his humiliation before his friends and associates. This posed a huge problem because once the word got out that the queen refused to obey the king, every woman in the 127 provinces would see this as license to disobey their husbands. Something had to be done immediately. Xerxes consulted with his advisors and all agreed Vashti’s behavior was unacceptable and she could no longer be queen. While Xerxes’s advisor Memucan did not quote Persian law, he did give irrational advice to the king and turned Vashti’s refusal into a potential crime by all women. A decree was issued, one that could not be revoked. It was translated into the 127 languages of all the king’s provinces and distributed throughout Xerxes’s vast kingdom.
At this point in Xerxes’s reign, he went to war with the Greeks. Once the wars were over Xerxes turned his thoughts to a new queen. Again, his attendants had an idea. Beautiful young virgins would be brought to Suza from all over and the king could have his choice for a new queen. One of the young women brought was a Jewish girl who had been raised by her cousin. There was still a large Jewish population in Persia, left from the Babylonian exile in 586 B.C. Mordecai’s family had been brought to Suza over 100 years earlier and he was raising his cousin Hadassah whose parents had died. Esther was her Persian name. Esther was taken to the royal harem along with the other beautiful young women, but she caught the eye of the Head Eunuch, Hegai. He knew the king well and Esther looked like the type of young woman Xerxes would appreciate. Hegai focused his attention on Esther, and she began the process to prepare her to meet the king. Each of the young women would have a year of beauty treatments and then one night with the king. The young woman who caught the king’s eye would be the next queen. (Our current reality shows the bachelor, and the bachelorette could not hold a candle to the stress and high stakes this situation would have created.) After their night with the king the young women would be moved to another part of the harem. They would live there the rest of their lives, essentially as widows unless the king remembered their name and called for them. The women would live easy lives under the care of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch.
No doubt Hegai gave Esther good advice, which she followed, and the king chose Esther to be his next queen. That was cause for another party, this time in Esther’s honor. Xerxes set the royal crown on her head. Now Esther was in a position to have access to the king’s heart as his favored wife. Now God could use her to impact the thoughts and actions of the king. This time the king honored his wife instead of trying to put her on display. Through all this Mordecai had become part of the king’s court, a palace official. He was well placed in the palace and as such he heard many things. Mordecai would sit at the king’s gate, the place where court cases were heard and decided, and official business was conducted. It was there he heard about the plot to kill the king. This also gave Mordecai a chance to check up on Esther, making sure she was safe and secure within the palace. The plot Mordecai heard involved two of the king’s advisors, Bigthana and Teresh. These two men guarded the king’s bedroom and that would give them the perfect chance to kill him without notice. Once Mordecai had the information about the plot to kill the king, he passed it along to Esther. The quickest and safest way to get this information to the king was through the queen. She related the information to Xerxes, giving Mordecai credit. Once the plot was revealed to be true the two men were impaled on a large pole for all to see. All of this was recorded but Mordecai was not rewarded until later, as we will see.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt w