Power, lust, and hope aren’t three words that often sit comfortably together. But in Esther chapter 1, the themes come across to us in a highly contemporary way.
There are two Bible books named after women – Ruth and Esther. They’re often go-to texts for women’s conferences and Bible studies. Obviously, they’re great books for women to study. But so are Numbers, Job, Ecclesiastes, Luke, Romans, etc etc…
The thing is, there is much more to this little book than warm moralistic teaching and colouring-in pages.
It’s a book about power, relationships, faith, and remembrance.
But mostly it’s about God. Which, in a sense, is no surprise – and a big surprise!
Famously, the book of Esther doesn’t mention God. Ruth doesn’t mention him much other than in dialogue, but here in Esther he’s not mentioned at all – not in speech or narrative.
None of the events happen anywhere near Israel – they’re all in the capital city of Persia, far from the promised land.
- Remember how the people of Israel had been exiled from Israel to Babylon in 605, 597, and 587 BC.
- Years later, Babylon had been overtaken by the Median and Persian empire; teenage Daniel had been taken to Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar, but old man Daniel was thrown to the lions by Persian Darius.
- Then the decree was given that the Jews could return home – read about that in Ezra and Nehemiah.
- But not everyone did. Some stayed in Persia. So: Esther.
So as we read Esther we find God’s people in a very similar situation to you today:
- They were in exile, far from home, surrounded by people who worshipped other gods and cared nothing for the true God of heaven and earth. (1 Peter calls us exiles in Bab’n)
- There were no prophets to speak to them; there are no miracles recorded here for us. In some ways, it feels more like you than the stuff that happens in Acts.
- Certainly, there was persecution of God’s people. An attempt to wipe them all out is made, and thereby to wipe out worship of God from under heaven, bringing his promises to nothing.
We’re going to meet some strong personalities: Esther and her uncle Mordecai, along with the villain of the story, Haman. From both Esther and Mordecai we’ll see faith – moments of action and decision (faith is always expressed in action).
- Most notably in chapter 4. Even though there’s no mention of God, or prayer, there is fasting and hope.
- But both Esther and Mordecai do some morally dubious things too; they’re not exactly role-models for us.
- The real hero is the one not mentioned – the Lord himself.
God is shown to be most close when he seems furthest away. Surely, that’s enough reason to study Esther, for us all?
But we expect even more from Scripture, from what Jesus said on the road to Emmaus. We expect glimpses of Jesus himself. There are a number, not least in the number of reversals that take place.
- Someone thinks they’re on top, only to find themselves at the bottom. And vice versa.
- Jesus didn’t think equality with God something to cling to and humbled himself, only then to be exalted. The first shall be last and the last first.
These reversals come through as delightful coincidences, quirks of timings of “just then, guess who walked through the door!”
The book ends by instituting a new Jewish celebration – Purim.
- It falls about a month before Passover (late Feb/early Mar)
- It’s a hoot. Loads of fun. Pure celebration. Feasting!
- Look up how Esther is read in the synagogue every Purim – it has a panto feel to it! Every time wicked Haman is mentioned everyone boos like he’s a panto villain! It’s fab!
So it’s a book of hope, of the Sovereignty of God, of God’s protection over his people.
It’s a celebration of the reversals of fortunes of God’s people, from victims to victors (shadows of things to come). And while Mordecai and Esther aren’t role-models they don’t need to be; the real is hero and object of delight and worship is the Lord himself.
So let’s look at chapter 1, and see the self-destruction built into every sinful society:
There are a number of themes that recur throughout the Bible, and one of them is how often someone seems to be at the very height of life, only to have the seeds of their downfall right there. E.g Solomon, Nebuchadnezzar, the rich man with his barns in Jesus’ parable, and ultimately Satan himself.
Esther 1:1-8 begins with a picture of extravagant wealth.
Xerxes is in the 3rd year of his reign and is celebrating with a 6-month series of events ending in a massive feast. His wealth has come from the expansion of a brutal empire, stealing and taxing at will. Not to worry, he’s here in the capital city and everyone is invited to the banquet – and everyone celebrates too.
His wealth comes from his 127 provinces from India to Ethiopia – a massive area. So the man whose wealth has no limit puts on a banquet with no boundaries – everyone is free to drink as much as they want! Now there’s no sin in being wealthy. There’s no sin in being generous. But Xerxes is here flaunting his wealth and showing off his great power over his 127 provinces. He shows contempt for the poor in squandering their taxes on himself.
There’s no cap on the wealth or the wine – and that’s not good.
You might compare that with the Year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25, which set limits on personal wealth – and therefore on destitution. Many of the super-rich people in the world do many good things with their money, but the impact is limited. There are still poor people, still hungry children, still people-traffickers and abusers.
Our society celebrates wealth (Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson) and is greedy for more (lotteries).
This isn’t good for the poor, the weak, the vulnerable. Wealth does not get shared.
We see more of our own society in the treatment of Queen Vashti.
- While Xerxes and the men are feasting, Queen Vashti is leading a banquet for the city’s women.
- After a week-long party, Xerxes sends for Vashti.
- She was drop-dead gorgeous, make no mistake.
- Xerxes was drunk. He wanted to parade his beautiful wife in front of a room full of men just to show her off.
- It’s degrading for her (and, as it happens, for the men too).
She says no, she won’t go. It’s a big thing to do, to go against the wishes of someone so powerful. She must know her days of being Queen would be over. But she just won’t go into the cattle-market for Xerxes to be lusted over by a load of drunk men. And who can blame her?
We get a glimpse of what Xerxes is looking for in a woman. He wants what many men secretly want, without saying it: He wants a woman who is drop-dead gorgeous and utterly compliant to his every whim and wish. Beauty and obedience, that’s all. And he has the money to get her.
And before we’re too one-sided about it, we need to see it’s a two-way street. Think of all the dating shows on TV: Blind Date, Love Island, Naked Attraction. (Don’t look them up.)
Christian: How do your desires really line up with God’s model for you?
This applies whether you’re married or not – it’s important you understand biblical desire for yourself and to help those around you (your children, grandchildren).
- God gave Eve to Adam as a helper, a friend, a spiritual partner. Together they are one flesh.
- Relationships are built on love, humility, trust, sacrifice.
- Not on sex, appearances, or control.
Glimpse of hope
In Esther 1:13-20 we get a glimpse of hope in the darkness. An edict is given that Vashti mustn’t return to Xerxes’ presence, and the plan is that Xerxes will look for a “more worthy” queen.
- More beautiful? Maybe. More compliant? Definitely.
- But would that make her more worthy, or less?
Either way, it’s a glimpse of hope because this is the door that opens to bring Esther, the young Jewish woman, into the story. She will rise to become Queen and bring about a rescue of all Jews everywhere. At this stage in Esther 1, only God knows that.
So the edict is sent out across the whole empire in Esther 1:21-22. It’s ridiculous.
- In v1 we read that Xerxes was ruler over 127 provinces over a huge area.
- In v22 he sends out an edict saying that every man should be ruler over his own house.
- Which is ridiculous, because he has been shown not to be ruler over his own. He’s king in charge, but not in control.
In turns out the true King of kings is in charge and in control.
Live in Christ’s kingdom
When you contemplate the toxic masculinity and abuses of power of king Xerxes, the contrast with Christ’s rule couldn’t be stronger or clearer:
- The whole universe is a monarchy, with Jesus its king.
- He is truly glorious and powerful!
- In Daniel 7:13-14, we read He approached the Ancient of Days and was escorted before him. He was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, so that those of every people, nation, and language should serve him.
- Revelation 5:13 And then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea. They sang: “Blessing and honour and glory and power belong to the one sitting on the throne and to the Lamb forever and ever.”
- Or read his description in Revelation 19! King of kings!
But unlike Xerxes, Jesus beautifies his bride at his own cost.
- Ezekiel 16 paints a graphic picture of how God chose his people while unformed, unwanted, ugly – and how he cared for her, nurtured her, dressed her, and married her.
- Likewise, Ephesians 5:25-27 He gave up his life for her to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God’s word. He did this to present her to himself as a glorious church without a spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. Instead, she will be holy and without fault.
- And again, Revelation 21 speaks of Christ’s people as his beautiful bride.
- But it’s Christ who dresses us with righteousness.
He stooped down to you to lift you up to him, becoming like you so that you might become like him. He died for you so that you can live in him.
Like king, like kingdom – like you?
This king is altogether unlike Xerxes, so his kingdom is altogether different from his too – and therefore different from our own society. So like king, like kingdom. Serve your king!
Your wealth is not your own, nor is it for your pleasure. Store up for yourselves treasure in heaven. The Lord knows what you need. You don’t need what the world says
Men and women ought to regard one another as image-bearers of God first and foremost, whether you’re married or not. We won’t join in with catcalling, wolf-whistling, etc and will call out others who objectify anyone in that way.
We look for the inner beauty of Christ in one another and seek to disciple one another. That means you forgive one another’s offences. You put yourself out to encourage other Christians. You pray.
Discipleship isn’t won on a lottery ticket or a beauty competition. It’s developed under the Holy Spirit in Christian community.
We don’t need prophets or miracles today. You have the whole Bible and the revelation of Jesus – that is all you need. So, as Esther and Mordecai found out, God is most present and working even when he seems absent and indifferent.
Live for Christ, under his kingdom rule, as the only good, wise, powerful king, and you will be storing up treasures in heaven.