We’re beginning today a new series of sermons on the book of Esther. It’s a fairly well-known story from the Bible and many of us are familiar with the words which Mordecai said to Esther in chapter 4: ‘And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?’ You see, it’s a story of deliverance, isn’t it? The very existence of the Jews was under threat because of the decree of the king of Persia; and it seemed that the Jewish people were about to be annihilated. However, Esther, who had become Queen in Persia, was a Jew; and she was able to appeal to the king to save her people from annihilation. At one point, Esther seemed to hesitate: would she or would she not intercede for her people? And her cousin, Mordecai, said those words to her which I’ve just quoted to challenge her to do something to save her people. ‘Who knows?’, he said. Maybe this is why you were made Queen? Maybe you were made Queen so that you’d be in the right place at the right time to save God’s people?
It’s a terrific story. It’s a funny story, as we’ll see. However, it’s also a controversial book in the sense that there have been many many people over the years who have said it shouldn’t be in the Bible at all. One of the commentators (Karen H. Jobes) states that for the first seven centuries of the Christian church, not one commentary was produced on the book of Esther, which was unusual, because from the very beginning of the church, people were writing commentaries to help believers understand God’s word. As far as we know, John Calvin never preached on the book of Esther or wrote a commentary on it. And that’s unusual, because John Calvin preached lots of sermons and he wrote many commentaries. And Martin Luther said about the book of Esther that he wished it had not come to us. In other words, he did not think it belonged in the Bible.
There are a number of reasons why some people have objected to the book of Esther. Some question its morality, because, while the Jews were saved from annihilation, they also killed thousands of their enemies. And some people say that the two main characters — Mordecai and Esther — did some questionable things in the course of the book. And, of course, the book focusses on Jews after the exile. So, you’ll remember that God sent his people into exile because of their persistent rebellion. However, in the days of Cyrus, king of Persia, the Jews were given permission to return from exile to the Promised Land. And faithful Jews throughout the Persian Empire packed up their belongings and they headed back to Jerusalem and to the land of Judah. Then, under Ezra, they rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. And under Nehemiah, they rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. However, the Jews in the book of Esther didn’t go back. Instead of returning to the Promised Land, they remained in the land of exile. They were content to live among the pagans instead of returning to the land of Judah. And that doesn’t seem right. But the main objection people have to the book of Esther is that God is never mentioned. His name does not appear even once in the book. And since God’s name does not appear in the book, then people say the book should not appear in the Bible.
However, as we go through this book together, I hope you’ll see the value of it and why it was included in the Bible. And, in fact, the absense of God’s name is one of the reasons this book is so helpful. You see, it often seems to us that God is absent from our lives. ‘Where is God?’ we sometimes wonder. ‘Why won’t he do something to help me?’ Very often our experience is very different from the way things were in Bible times. For instance, God was clearly with his people to help them in the days of Moses when he rescued them from their slavery in Egypt. Didn’t he send the ten plagues? Didn’t he open a way for them through the Red Sea? Didn’t he feed his people in the wilderness with manna? Didn’t he give them water from a rock? And then, in the days of Joshua, didn’t he open up a way for the people through the River Jordan? And didn’t he topple the walls of Jericho? Didn’t he help the people overcome their enemies and settle in the land of Canaan? And then, in the days of Elijah and Elisha, didn’t the Lord enable those prophets to perform mighty miracles? And didn’t he send fire from heaven to show that he’s the true God and that Baal was a false god? And then, in the days of the New Testament, didn’t God send his Eternally Begotten Son into the world? And didn’t the Lord Jesus perform signs and wonders? And then God raised the Lord Jesus from the dead. And then the apostles were enabled by God to preach with power and to perform signs and wonders too. God was obviously at work in those days; and he made his presence with his people obvious. But it’s not like that today, is it? And often we wonder: ‘Where is God?’ ‘Why won’t he do something to help me?’ And this is why the book of Esther is helpful, because though God’s name is not mentioned, God is still at work in the events of this book. He’s working in the background, controlling and directing everything that happens, so that Esther was in the right place at the right time to save God’s people.
So, sometimes God works in a very obvious way. That’s what he did in the days of Moses and Joshua; and in the days of Elijah and Elisha; and in the days of the Lord Jesus and the apostles. Sometimes he works in a very obvious way. But other times — if not most of the time — he works in a hidden way. He’s at work, but it’s not obvious. He’s at work, becase God is always at working, sustaining all things and directing all things according to his most holy and perfect will. But while sometimes he makes it clear what he’s doing, most of the time he doesn’t. And so, the book of Esther teaches us that even when God seems to be absent, he’s not really absent, because he’s always with his people and he’s working all things together for the good of his people and for the glory of his name.
Verses 1 to 8
Let’s turn now to chapter 1. And the point of verses 1 to 8 is to show us the greatness of the king. Verse 1 says that this is what happened during the time of Xerxes. And, in the NIV there’s a little footnote beside the name Xerxes which tells us that he’s also known as Ahasuerus. He was the king of the mighty Persian Empire at that time. He’s mentioned in Ezra 4:6. So, when Cyrus was king of Persia, he issued a decree that the Jews could return to Jerusalem. Many of them returned and they began to rebuild the temple. However, their enemies began to oppose the rebuilding; and one of the ways they opposed the rebuilding was by writing letters to the kings of Persia to complain about the Jews. So, we’re told in Ezra 4 that they did this throughout the reign of Cyrus and throughout the reigns of subsequent kings of Persia, including Xerxes.
And the book of Esther makes clear that Xerxes was a mighty and powerful king. We’re told he reigned over 127 provinces stretching from India all the way to Cush, which was where Ethiopia is today. So, he ruled over a vast empire. We’re told in verse 2 that he reigned from his royal throne in the citadel of Susa. Apparently he had four capital cities and Susa was just one of them. And I suppose he moved from one to the other throughout the year. And in the third year of his reign, he gave a banquet for all his nobles and officials. And the military leaders of Persia and Media, and the princes and the nobles of the provinces were present. One of the commentators (Karen H. Jobes) thinks that Xerxes was preparing to go to war against the Greeks. Apparently his father had tried to take over Athens, but was defeated. And now Xerxes was getting ready to have another go at taking over Greece. And so, as part of his plans, he gathered all the princes and nobles and military leaders from around his empire to demonstrate his own might and power and to encourage them to join him in his campaign against the Greeks. And so, for 180 days, he displayed the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendour and glory of his majesty. Well, he must have been a mighty king to be able to show off the splendour and glory of his majesty for 180 days. You sometimes see rulers today showing off their military might by arranging parades when all their troops go marching by followed by tanks and missile launchers and other armoured military vehicles. But those parades today last a few hours at the most, not 180 days.
And then we’re told that, at the end of the 180 days of showing off, Xerxes held a banquet which lasted for seven days. And he held this banquet in the royal gardens and all the people in Susa — from the least to the greatest — were invited. And I’m far from being a Hebrew expert, but the commentators point out that the description of the garden is designed to convey to us just how remarkable it was. It’s as if the narrator was saying: ‘Oh, look at the white and blue linen hangings. Oh, look at the cords of white linen and purple. Oh, look at the silver rings and the marble pillars. Oh, look at the couches of gold and silver. Oh, look at the mosaic pavement. I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s all so fantastic.’ And then wine was served in goblets of gold and each one was different from the other. So, he didn’t buy multi-packs, but each goblet was selected and purchased individually. And the royal wine was abundant, in keeping with the king’s generosity. So, there were no half measures here. He wasn’t holding back and being stingy with the wine; and he gave orders that everyone could drink as much as they wanted. Apparently it was the custom in those days that you only drank when the king drank. However, the king didn’t want to restrict anyone in any way. Drink as much as you want.
And so, do you see? These verses are about showing us just how mighty and powerful and wealthy this king was. There was no one like him. What a king!
Verses 9 to 22
And yet the verses which follow show us that this great, mighty, powerful king is also foolish and bed-tempered. Verse 9 introduces us to Queen Vashti, who, at the same time as her husband, gave a banquet for the woman in the royal palace. And on the seventh day of the king’s banquet, the king was in high spirits from wine. In other words, he was a little tipsy and I suppose he wasn’t thinking straight. But anyway, he commanded the seven eunuchs who served him to go and fetch his wife. And he tells them to make sure that she’s wearing her crown because he wanted to display her beauty to the people and the nobles. He wanted everyone to see how beautiful she was and to know that she was his queen. That is, he wanted them to know that she was his. And this means he was treating her like a trophy wife. Do you know what a trophy wife is? A trophy wife is a status symbol for the husband. The husband doesn’t care what other attributes she may have. She might be bright and intelligent and have many fine qualities and abilities, but the only thing that matters is how she looks. And if she looks good, then the husband looks good beside her. And since Xerxes was showing off, then he wanted to show off his wife as well. Look at my beautiful garden! Look at my beautiful curtains! Look at my beautiful couches! Look at my beautiful wife! But, of course, this was no way to treat his wife. And we can suppose that, since the king was a little tipsy, then presumably everyone else was a little tipsy too. And what husband really wants drunken men leering at his wife?
Well, according to verse 12, when the attendants delivered the king’s message to the queen, she refused to come. The commentators discuss why she said no and the significance of it. Was she wise to say no? Was she brave to say no? Was she standing up for the rights of women? Is she setting an example for other women? As I say the commentators discuss this, but the fact is we don’t know why she said no. In fact, we don’t really know anything about Queen Vashti. And so, anything we say about her is just speculation. And, in any case, she’s not the focus of this chapter. This chapter is not about her. It’s about the king and how he responded to his wife’s refusal. Here’s this mighty and powerful king, who has been showing off his power and his splendour and his wealth and his glory for 180 days. He wants to impress all these people with his power. He wants to gather his forces together to go and take over Greece. But look at him. As one of the commentators (Matthew Henry) suggests, he might be able to control 127 provinces, but he can’t control his own temper. And so, we’re told the king became furious and he burned with anger. And he turns this one incident into a national crisis which required a new law to be created and published throughout the empire.
It was the custom, we’re told, for the king to consult experts in matters of law and justice. And so, these wise men were used to being consulted about matters of national and international importance. What should we do about these people? What should we do about this crisis? But now they’re being consulted about what to do about the king’s wife who said no to his drunken request. But presumably his advisors want to keep in with the king. Presumably they want to keep their jobs. And so, they’re prepared to give the king the kind of advice he wants to hear. So, they tell the king that the queen is in the wrong. And she’s not only wronged the king, they say, but she’s wronged all the nobles and peoples of all the provinces in the empire.
Now, when there’s a dispute between two people, we never want to see it escalate, do we? If it’s a dispute between two people, let’s keep it between those two people. You don’t want to drag others into it so that the problem escalates and grows and grows and grows. But that’s what these wise men are advising. They’re saying that this is not only a problem between you and your wife, but it’s a problem between your wife and everyone else in the whole empire. And it’s a problem for everyone, they said, because her conduct will become known to all the women in the empire and they will despise their husbands and every wife will no longer listen to their husbands. And so, there will be no end of disrespect and discord. And so, here’s their advice to the king. This is what he should do. He should banish Queen Vashti from his presence. And he should give her royal position to someone better. And then, the king should issue an edict and publish it around the empire commanding all the women to respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest.
And look at verse 21: the king and his nobles were pleased with this advice; and the king did what had been proposed. And so, he sent riders throughout the empire to announce in every one of the 127 provinces that every man should be ruler over his own household.
What are we to make of this? Well, there are several problems here. As I’ve already mentioned, the king who ruled over 127 provinces couldn’t control his temper. So, when his wife said no, he became furious and burned with anger. And instead of containing the problem, he let it escalate, which is a foolish thing to do. But more than anything else, this shows us how the king was willing to misuse all his power and authority. He was a mighty king. He ruled over 127 provinces and he was hoping to add Greece to his empire. But what an abuse of his power, because he was using all the might and power of the mighty Persian empire to conquer his wife and the wives of everyone else in the empire. He conquered his wife by banishing her from his presence and by replacing her with someone else. And he conquered the wives of everyone else by issuing this command that every man should be ruler in his household. Since he was the mighty king, no one could stop him from doing these things. But this is not the way for kings and husbands to behave.
But there’s another King, isn’t there? There’s another King who rules and reigns, not only over the 127 provinces of the Persian Empire, but he rules and reigns over all the nations. The Lord God Almighty, who made all things, rules over all things. And he was at work in these events, because he was able to use Xerxes’ foolish and sinful actions to fulfil his own wise and holy purposes. Xerxes shouldn’t have summoned his wife like that. And Xerxes shouldn’t have responded to her refusal by becoming furious with her. And Xerxes shouldn’t have banished his wife. However, God was able to use his sins and shortcomings for his own good purposes. One Wednesday evening, when we were thinking about God’s will, I referred to the Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck, who used the illustration of a father who forbids his child from using a sharp knife, because the child will only misuse the knife and cause harm to himself and others. However, the father is able to use the same knife for a good purpose. And God our Father forbids us from committing sin. So, Xerxes was wrong to summon his wife like that. And he was wrong to respond the way that he did. Xerxes was sinning. But God was able to use his sin for his own good purposes, because, you see, once Vashti was banished, the way was opened up for Esther to be appointed queen in her place. And the Lord was making sure that Esther was in the right place at the right time in order to rescue her people from destruction.
And so, even though God’s name is not mentioned in this chapter, God was there, working all things together for good. And we need to remember that, when things go against us and when things happen in the world around us which puzzle us. And we wonder to ourselves, ‘Where is God? And why won’t he do something to help me?’ We need to remember and believe that even though we can’t always see what God is doing, nevertheless he is always at work; and he’s always working out his wise and holy plan.
Christ the King
But before we finish, let’s also think about Jesus Christ, God’s Only Begotten Son, who is a far better king than Xerxes. Xerxes abused his power and mistreated his wife by wanting to display her to his drunken friends; and by reacting with fury when she said no; and by banishing her from his presence; and by replacing her with someone else. Xerxes was a king who abused his power. And the Lord Jesus Christ is also a king. He is king over his church. And his church is sometimes described in the Bible as the bride of Christ. But instead of abusing his power and mistreating his bride, the Lord Jesus loved his church. In fact he loved his bride so much that he was willing to lay down his life for her and for our eternal salvation. As the the apostle Paul puts it, earthly husbands should love their wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her to make her holy. So, instead of mistreating us, he suffered and died for our eternal good. And from his throne in heaven, the Lord Jesus continues to care for his bride here on earth and to guard us and to guide us and to provide for us. And he’s always with us by his Spirit to help us. And when we do wrong, he’s willing to pardon us and not to banish us. And, of course, one day he will summon us into his presence in the life to come. But it will not be to demean us, or to humiliate us, but it will be to glorify us in his presence and to fill us with eternal joy and happiness. And when that day comes, we will reign with him over his everlasting kingdom in the life to come. And so, he’s a good king, a perfect king and a perfect husband to his bride, the church. And even now, in the preaching of his word, he summons sinners to come to him and to become members of his church. And he promises to do good to those who respond to his summons and he promises to love them always. And so, he comes to you today, in the preaching of his word, and he invites you to come to him. And whoever comes to him will discover that he is kind and good and faithful and he will use his great power, not to hurt you, but to help you.