The book of Esther has been considered a challenging book for a number of reasons. The primary reason is that we never read the name of God in this book. From its surface it appears to be a Godless book. But if we understand the historical context of the book, we will see why God’s name is lacking from its pages which sets us up for understanding what God is going to teach to those who read it. Charles Dickens famously opens A Tale of Two Cities with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The book of Esther essentially opens with, “It was just the worst of times.” The first few verses of the book set the time as around 486-465 BC in Persia. About one hundred years earlier, the people of Israel were attacked, killed, and taken captive by the Babylonian Empire because the people had rejected the Lord. About fifty years earlier the Persian Empire came to power by conquering the Babylonian Empire. It is at this time that Persia is the great world power. Persia’s rule extends from Africa to Asia at this time (Esther 1:1) and the king over the empire at this time is Ahasuerus (1:1). However, that is his Hebrew name. You know him more famously by his Persian name as Xerxes the Great.
So it a time of great difficulty for the people of God who are in Persia. The reason they are in Persia is because they have abandoned the Lord. They are living there as consequence for the nation’s sinning. We should also consider that Persia allowed the people to return to their land if they wanted to. Some did return but most did not. But the Jews living in Persia have decided not to return but to continuing living away from Israel. The book is written to an exiled people who are without hope and are separated from the promised land. It is a world of darkness with no hope for light.
Let us talk about what this book is about and what this book is not about. This book is not about modeling the example of any person we read about. We will run into a lot of problems if we start picking who we should be like because we are going to see problems with nearly everyone we read about. We will carefully consider those problems more as we study the book. But we should know by now that the scriptures are not written as simply following the examples of the people recorded. There are problems with saying that we should be like David when we see the sinning of David. Rather, we are supposed to see how God dealt with these failed people and see what God is teaching about himself. This is especially important when we study the book of Esther. This is a book that wonders where God is and if he will do something for his people who are in the grip of the empire and experiencing dark times. Can the people of God hold on to hope and faithfulness in the midst of a hostile environment? So we will see the book show us that God can be trusted even when he cannot be seen. Therefore, the people are learning to live by faith and not by sight. In chaos and mess, God is pulling all things together to accomplish his purposes. These are the things we will watch for as we go through the book of Esther.
The King’s Power (1:1-8)
We mentioned on our introduction that we are thrust into the power and glory of King Xerxes the Great, ruler over Persia. Everything we are told in these first eight verses is to emphasize the grandeur of this empire and of this king. The nobles and officials from all over the empire are invited to come during a 6 month period to see the splendor and glory. Then a seven day feast is given for the people as now the people can see the beauty of the king’s palace. No expense is spared and the palace with its gardens sounds opulent. But I want you to notice verse 8.
And drinking was according to this edict: “There is no compulsion.” For the king had given orders to all the staff of his palace to do as each man desired. (Esther 1:8 ESV)
The irony of the book begins. The king makes a decree, not that everyone has to drink, but that there is no compulsion. You can do as you desire. You do not have to drink. This is a strange edict to put into effect. But we are going to see things that are ironic and laughable about this empire.
The King’s Command (1:9-12)
While the king is full of wine on the seventh day, Xerxes commands his eunuchs to tell Queen Vashti to come before the king with her royal crown in order to show the peoples and the princes her beauty (1:11). The queen refuses. We quickly get the idea that the command was not for her to just come out and say hi to everybody. It is apparent that she was supposed to show her beauty to the people in an inappropriate way. She takes offense at this and will not obey the king’s command. The king becomes enraged that she will not come and his anger burned (1:12).
Now we are to see the humor and irony that is happening at this moment. In verse 4 we see that the king, Xerxes the Great, was showing off the riches of his royal glory and the splendor and pomp of his greatness for 180 days. The greatness of King Xerxes is unable to have his wife obey his command. It is absolutely laughable. Xerxes thinks he is so powerful but he is unable to compel his own wife to follow his command.
The King’s Radical Response (1:13-21)
The rejection of the king’s command seems to put the whole empire into a crisis. Xerxes consults his experts about what he is supposed to do because she did not come (1:15). One person says that what Vashti has done is not only a wrong against the king, but against the whole empire. What is going to happen is that her behavior is going to be known to all the women in the empire and they will start looking at their husbands with contempt also (1:17). There will be no end to their disrespect and anger (1:18). The whole empire will spiral out of control if we do not do something! So the solution is to issue a royal decree that Vashti can never come before the king again and her royal position will be given to another. So this matter is now broadcast throughout all the empire about what Vashti did. When this edict is given, then all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest (1:20).
So do you see the solution? The solution is to make a law that you cannot disrespect your husband by letting everyone know that there was a problem in the palace. The idea pleases Xerxes and he sends the decree throughout the whole empire that every man would be ruler over his own household (1:22). The decree to the empire is for the men to do the very thing that the king is unable to do: be master over their house.
We are supposed to see a laughable empire. If you have to write a law to get your wife to respect you, you have problems. If your spouse does not do something you ask, you have problems that making rules will not fix. Give a law so that all the women will honor their husbands. If you have to make the women honor their husbands, are they really honoring their husbands? Not at all. Then proclaim that every man should be master over his house. But that was not working out very well for the king.
Other than paving the way for the rise of Esther, what is the message of this first chapter? The point is that with all the power, wealth, and splendor of this empire, it is all meaningless in trying to control life. You see that the empire wants everyone to believe that it is so powerful and so rich that it can do whatever it likes and bring everyone to its knees. The empire wants to you be afraid of it. The empire wants you to think that it is really important. But it is not.
People challenge the historicity of the book of Esther because of its presentation of Persia and Xerxes. They say that this kind of story is not at all what we see recorded in history. Persia was great and Xerxes was powerful. But that is the very point. We look at the great Persian Empire with its magnificent king, Xerxes the Great, and we stand in awe and in fear. But do you know what God wants you to see? God wants you to see that it is all smoke and mirrors. It is all a bunch of hot air. The king cannot even invoke submission from his queen. But here is the bigger irony: everyone is afraid that one woman’s disobedience is going to bring down the whole empire. The world wants you think of the empire as powerful and worthy of your honor. God wants you to see that the empires of the earth are laughable and can be brought to their end by a single person. The world wants you to think that the empire is very important. God wants you to not put your hope in the empire. God does not want you to take the empire too seriously. This was the hope to the exiles. Do not fear this empire.
This is the same message of hope and courage for us today. As much as the world wants to bluster on about the power of this nation, and the power of our leaders, and the power of what they can do, God is reminding us that this nation as well as all nations are nothing before the Lord. The Lord has no fear from whoever is in charge. World leaders can act like they are something important but they are not. Nations can act like they are a really big deal but they are not. The rulers, kingdoms, empires, and nations of the earth are laughable to God.
1 Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth take their stand, and the rulers conspire together against the LORD and his Anointed One:
3 “Let’s tear off their chains and throw their ropes off of us.”
4 The one enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord ridicules them. (Psalm 2:1–4 CSB)
Nations and leaders will always conspire against God and his people. The book of Esther is going to show that truth as Xerxes and his leaders conspire against God and his people. God’s response is laughter and ridicule. The world made so much about the Persian Empire and its power and greatness. But they have no power to stand against the purposes of God. The world can make so much out about the United States or whatever country they live in. But they have no power to stand against the purposes of God. What leaders and nations do are laughable as they try to make themselves into something more than what they are.
Nebuchadnezzar thought he was something. He thought he had the great Babylonian Empire that he had made great by his own power.
All this happened to King Nebuchadnezzar. At the end of twelve months, as he was walking on the roof of the royal palace in Babylon, the king exclaimed, “Is this not Babylon the Great that I have built to be a royal residence by my vast power and for my majestic glory?” While the words were still in the king’s mouth, a voice came from heaven: “King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared that the kingdom has departed from you. You will be driven away from people to live with the wild animals, and you will feed on grass like cattle for seven periods of time, until you acknowledge that the Most High is ruler over human kingdoms, and he gives them to anyone he wants.” (Daniel 4:28–32 CSB)
What did he need to learn? He needed to learn that the Lord is ruler over all human kingdoms and he gives those kingdom to anyone he wants. Nebuchadnezzar later learned it and here is what he said.
His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: “What have you done?” (Daniel 4:34–35 NIV)
We can live courageously when we do not put our hope in the empire or in leaders. We can live courageously when we understand that God laughs at the nations who oppose him. We can live courageously when we see God determines the time for all leaders, rulers, nations, and empires. Our hope is not here. Our hope is in heaven. Our hope is not in America. Our hope is in heaven. Every empire is a house of cards that will fall by the breath of God.