We began to study the book of Esther last week when I said that it’s a story of deliverance. And it’s a story of deliverance because, at one point in the story, the Jewish people were in danger of being annihilated. They were going to be wiped out. But Esther was in the right place at the the right time to deliver her people from danger. So, it’s a story of deliverance.
And it’s an unusual book, because God is never mentioned. His name does not appear in this book. For that reason, many people over the years have said it shouldn’t be in the Bible. What’s a book without God in it doing in the Bible when the Bible is a book which is all about God? However, while God’s name may not appear in the book of Esther, his presence is there, because the Lord is doing what he always does. He’s guiding and directing the things which happen in this book; and he’s guiding and directing the people within it in order to fulfil his own most holy and wise purposes. The Lord is like a director, standing behind the camera, directing all the action. Or he’s like the chess player, moving his pieces around the board. The Lord is the great King, who rules and reigns in heaven over all that he has made. And he sustains all things and he controls all all things, including all of his creatures and all of their actions. And he does it all according to his own perfect will.
As I said last week, sometimes God works in very obvious ways. So, in the days of Moses, he sent the plagues; and then he opened the Red Sea for his people; and he gave the people manna to eat in the wilderness and water to drink from a rock. Sometimes he works in obvious ways. But other times — if not most of the time — he works in a hidden way. He’s always working, but most of the time it’s not obvious. Isn’t that true on Sundays? We come to church; and we believe that God works through the reading and preaching of his word and through the sacraments. We believe God is at work in us through these things. But there’s nothing much to see. And the book of Esther teaches us that even when God seems to be absent, he’s not really absent, because he’s always working and he’s always with his people to help us. And he’s working all things together for our good and for his glory.
Now, everything we read in Esther takes places in Persia. You’ll remember that the Lord sent his people away from the Promised Land of Canaan and into exile in the land of Babylon because of their persistent rebellion. And his people remained in exile for around 70 years. During those 70 years, the Persians conquered Babylon. At the end of the 70 years, the Lord moved Cyrus, King of Persia, to issues a decree that the Jews could return to the Promised Land. Many returned and Ezra helped them rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and Nehemiah helped them rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. But some of the Jews remained in Persia. And the book of Esther is about those Jews: the ones who remained in Persia. And Xerxes is now the king of Persia.
And in chapter 1 we read how Xerxes banished his wife from his presence, because she refused to come when he summoned her. Do you remember? He had been displaying his great power and wealth to the nobles and officials and military leaders of the empire for 180 days. Then he gave a banquet for the people of Susa for a week. And on the seventh day, when he was in high spirits from wine, he summoned his wife to come before him, because he wanted to show her off to the people at his party. She refused to come. And the king was furious and burned with anger. ‘What must be done to her?’ the king asked his advisors. And they advised him to banish her; and to give her position to someone better; and to issue an edict throughout the empire that every man should be ruler over his own household. And so, today we come to chapter 2 of this story.
Verses 1 to 4
We’re told in verse 1 that, some time later, when the anger of the king had subsided, he remembered Vashti, the former queen, and what she had done and what he had decreed about her. Was he beginning to have second thought? Was he missing her? Did he now regret his decision? Whether he did or not, he was stuck with his decision, because Vashti was banished for good. However, the king decreed in chapter 1 that Vashti’s position should be given to someone better. And so, the king’s personal attendants proposed in verse 2 that a search be made for beautiful young virgins for the king. So, send your servants throughout the empire to find all the beautiful girls so that they can be brought into the king’s harem. Then let them put put under the care of Hegai, who was the king’s eunuch in charge of the king’s women. You see, the kings of the Persian Empire were not satisfied with one wife, but they used to keep a number of concubines in the royal harem. We know that another king — Artaxerxes II — had 360 concubines and he too used to replenish his harem by gathering virgins from across the land. So, Xerxes’s attendants proposed to him that they should refresh the stock of concubines in his harem. And they suggest that beauty treatments should be given to the new girls. And then, let the girl who pleases the king be made queen in place of Vashti. And look at the end of verse 4 where it says that this advice appealed to the king. It pleased the king. And so, he followed their advice.
Verses 5 to 9
But before we read how this plan was executed, the author introduces us to the main characters of this story. You see, Xerxes is not the main character. The main characters are Mordecai and his cousin, Esther. And the author introduces them now. Mordecai lived in Susa, where the king’s palace was. And Mordecai was a Jew. So, he was one of God’s people. And the author goes on to refer to the exile. Verse 6 may give the impression that Mordecai himself was taken away into exile. However, it’s more likely that Mordecai and Esther were born in exile; and the author is simply reminding us that the reason Mordecai, a Jew, was now living in Susa, was because of the exile which happened many years previously. The author then introduces Esther to us in verse 7 by using her Hebrew or Jewish name, Hadassah. He then goes on to say that she was also known as Esther, which was her Persian name. It wasn’t uncommon for Jews in exile to have two names. For instance, Daniel and his three friends all had two names. And it seems that Esther was an orphan, but Mordecai had brought her up. And we’re told that she was lovely in form and features. Other translations says she had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at. And Mordecai treated her as his own daughter.
Hearing that Esther was lovely in form and features should make alarm bells go off in our brains. We’ve just been told that the king is looking for beautiful young girls for his harem. And we’ve just be told that Esther is lovely in form and features. So, will Esther be one of the girls who is gathered into the king’s harem?
We don’t have to wait a long time for an answer. According to verse 8, when the king’s order and edict had been proclaimed, many girls were brought to the citadel of Susa and put under the care of Hegai. And Esther was one of them.
Now, some of the commentators respond to this information by almost condemning Esther. What was she thinking? Why did she agree to go to the palace? She was a Jew, one of God’s people. And so, what was she doing, going to the palace of a pagan king? Why would a Jewish girl want anything to do with a pagan Persian king. And if she was ordered to go, why didn’t she resist? Why didn’t she say ‘no’ as Vashti had done? And so, some of the commentators do what many of us do. We tut-tut at one another. We criticise one another. We condemn one another. She’s not a very good Christian, is she? If she were a better Christian, she would have done differently, wouldn’t she? Tut tut tut.
But Esther really had no choice. This wasn’t a search for the next beauty queen, so that girls were lining up and volunteering for the chance to meet the king. This was a kind of kidnapping. One preacher likens it to human trafficking, because girls from all over the empire were taken from their homes and from their parents against their will. Or, we sometimes hear reports at the prayer meeting of young Christian girls in other countries who are kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam and marry Muslim men. It happens against their will. And the text even indicates that this was the case, because in the middle of verse 8 we’re told that Esther was taken to the king’s palace. She wasn’t invited; she was taken. And so, instead of condemning Esther, we ought to realise that she was snatched away from her family and taken against her will to the king’s palace.
However, according to verse 9, she pleased Hegai and won his favour. And he immediately provided her with beauty treatments and special food. Again some of the commentators question why Esther was prepared to eat this special food, when Daniel and his three friends, who was also in exile, refused to eat from the king’s table. But, of course, it’s not clear why Daniel and his friends refused to eat from the king’s table, because God’s law did not forbid it. And so, there was no reason for Esther not to eat this special food; and we can’t condemn her for it.
And Hegai assigned to her seven maids selected from the king’s palace and moved her into the best place in the harem. And so, she received this special treatment. Why did this happen to Esther? The commentators suggest that Esther knew how to get along with people. So, whereas Vashti got into trouble for saying ‘no’ to the king, Esther was very good at being compliant and agreeable and for saying ‘yes’. And who knows? Perhaps she did know how to get along with people. Perhaps she had natural gifts which helped her in the king’s palace, just as she had a natural beauty which made her stand out. But we also need to remember what I said at the beginning: behind all the action we see on the screen, there’s a director who is directing all the action. And the Lord is making sure that Esther is in the right place at the right time to save his people. And so, it’s not hard to imagine that the Lord, who made Esther beautiful, also gave her the natural gifts she needed to get on with people in the palace. And it’s not hard to imagine that the Lord made sure that his man, Hegai, looked on Esther with favour and gave her an advantage over the other girls. God was working out his plan.
Verses 12 to 18
We’ll come back to verses 10 and 11 in a moment. For now, let’s jump to verse 12 where the author explains the process. So, before it was a girl’s turn to see the king, she had to complete a twelve-month beauty regime, involving oil of myrrh and perfumes and cosmetics and who knows what else. And then, when it was time to go to the king, she would choose what to bring with her. Presumably she was to choose whatever she thinks will please the king. And then she would go to see the king in the evening and stay with him until the morning. And so, the girl would spend the night with the king. And in the morning, she would be taken to another part of the harem, where she would now be under the care of a different eunuch. Hegai was in charge of the virgins, while this eunuch was in charge of the concubines. And she would not return to the king unless he was pleased with her and summoned her by name. And so, for most of these girls, they would have one night with the king. And then they would be banished to the harem. They weren’t allowed to return home. They couldn’t go back to see their parents. They would never be allowed to marry and have a family. They now belonged to the king. That was their life. That was their existence. No doubt it was a life of luxury, but no doubt it was a sad and unfulfilling life too.
And when it came to Esther’s turn, she looked to Hegai for advice on what to bring with her. And she won the favour of all who saw her. And she was taken to the king. And we’re told in verse 17 that he was attracted to her more than to any of the other women. And she won his favour and his approval more than any of the other virgins. And before we start thinking that this is wonderful, because Esther has won the beauty pageant and is about to win the prize, let’s remember that she and all the other girls were taken from their homes against their will They were snatched away. Esther was not invited; she was taken to the palace. Nevertheless, in the providence of God, the royal crown was placed on her head and she became queen in the place of Vashti. And to celebrate, the king held a banquet in her honour and he proclaimed a bank holiday throughout the Empire and handed out gifts liberally.
Verses 10 and 11
So, Esther is now queen. But, before moving on, let’s go back to verses 10 and 11 which is another place where some of the commentators criticise Esther. We’re told in verse 10 that Esther had not revealed her nationality and family background. In other words, she did not reveal that she was a Jew. She did not reveal that she was one of God’s people. And the author explains that she did not reveal it because Mordecai told her not to. And some of the commentators criticise Esther for not professing her faith. She should have stood up for what she believed. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? So, why didn’t she let everyone know that she was a believer? She’s not a very good believer, is she?
However, while the Lord Jesus warns New Testament believers that we’re not to be ashamed of him or his words, no such warning appears in the Old Testament. So, we can’t really fault Esther when she hasn’t broken any commandment. And then, look at what we read in verse 11 where it says that every day Mordecai walked to and fro near the courtyard of the harem to find out how Esther was and what was happening to her. He was clearly anxious about her safety. He was concerned for her well-being. And so, perhaps he knew something we don’t know. Perhaps if her identity as a Jew became known, her life may have been in danger. And so, it may have been wise for her, given the potential danger, for her to conceal her identity for the time-being. And in any case, later in the story, and when it mattered most — when the whole Jewish nation was in danger of annihilation; and Esther was in a position to save them — then she was prepared to reveal her Jewish identity and to stand up for her people. And so, we mustn’t jump to criticise and condemn Esther. In fact, we mustn’t jump to criticise and condemn any believer, because we never know the full story, do we? We never know what else may be going on in that person’s life. And we should never jump to criticise and condemn other believers, but we’ve all got plenty of our own sins and shortcomings to deal with before we start judging others.
Verses 19 to 23
However, let’s move on, because we haven’t reached the end of the chapter. And these last verses — verses 19 to 23 — tell us something that is insignificant now, but it will become more significant later. People say about plays or movies that if you see a gun sitting on a mantlepiece in the first scene, pay attention to it, because that gun will become important later. And the event recorded in these verses will become important later. We’re told that Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate. The gate was the place where business was done. And since Mordecai was at the king’s gate, he may have been one of the king’s officials. Again we’re told again that Esther had kept her family background a secret, just as Mordecai had told her to. So, it appears no one knew they were related. Anyway, Mordecai found about a plot to assassinate the king. He told Esther about the plot; and Esther told the king, giving credit to Mordecai. The report was investigated and found to be accurate and the two conspirators were executed. And all of this was recorded in the book of the annals in the presence of the king. Apparently the kings of Persia kept careful records and recorded the names of people who helped the king and were loyal subjects. Normally these loyal subjects were richly rewarded for their service to the king. But on this occasion, Mordecai did not receive any reward. At least, he did not receive a reward at that time. But, as I’ve said, this event will become important later on.
So, what are we to learn from this chapter? Let’s think about Esther. Clearly she had some natural advantages. She was lovely in form and features. So, God had made her beautiful. And it seems she had a natural ability for getting on with people in the palace. She won their favour. And so, she had some advantages over the other girls. However, let’s also remember that she, like the other girls, was a powerless victim. The king one day gave an order that all the beautiful girls should be rounded up and added to his harem. And, against their will, they were taken away. They were not able to resist. Saying ‘no’ was not an option. Resistance was futile, because what can one young girl, a teenager, do to stand up to the mighty Persian king whose word is law and who is free to do whatever he wants?
Esther was a powerless victim. And yet, God was still able to use this one girl, despite her weakness, to accomplish something amazing. Think about her. She was young. She was a female in a male-dominated society. She was powerless. She was weak. She was a victim. And yet God was able to use her to fulfil his purposes. And when the time was right, Esther was in the best possible place to deliver God’s people from danger.
And so, that’s an encouragement to all of us, isn’t it? As the apostle Paul puts it: not many of us are wise by human standards. Not many of us are influential. Not many of us are of noble birth. And we might add: not many of us are powerful by human standards. And yet God is able to use us for his glory and for the good of his people. He’s able to use us, despite our weakness, because he is mighty and powerful and nothing is too hard for him.
So, we sometimes think we have to be powerful. We think we have to be wise. We think we have to impress the people around us. But no, God uses the weak and the foolish. And so, we can boast about our weakness. We can boast about our lack of strength. We can boast about our smallness. We can boast about our foolishness in the eyes of the world. We can boast about these things, because God uses weak people to accomplish his purposes in the world.
And just as God is able to work through us despite our weakness, so he’s able to work through us despite our sins. And this is truly remarkable. What Xerxes was doing was wrong. It was wrong of him to round up all these girls and add them to his harem. It was wrong. And yet, because of Xerxes’s sin, Esther was brought into the palace and into the right place to save God’s people. Remember the illustration I mentioned last week of the man who forbids his son from using a knife, because the son will only hurt himself and others with it? However, the man can use the same knife for good. And God forbids us from sinning, because we’ll only do harm to ourselves and to others. And yet God is able to use our sin for his own good purposes. He used Xerxes’s sin for a good purpose. And he’s able to use our sins for a good purpose too. We must not sin. And we must always fight against temptation. But, even when we sin, God’s purposes are not thwarted, because he’s able to work all things together — including our sins — for good.
And the final thing to say is that Esther points us to the Saviour. Our Saviour is the Eternal Son of God. He is mighty God who made and who sustains all things. But our Saviour made himself weak when he came to earth as one of us. He became weak and he was arrested and beaten and crucified. He became weak. But God used his weakness to do something wonderful, because by his death on the cross, he paid for our sins with his life and he shed his blood to cleanse us. And by believing in him, we receive forgiveness from God and the hope of everlasting life.
And so, we learn once again that weakness is not a problem for God. In fact, he chooses to use weakness for his glory. If Esther was not weak, she wouldn’t have been taken to the palace, where she saved her people. And if Christ did not become weak, he would not have died to save his people. And so, when we are weak, we can be encouraged, because our weakness does not frustrate God, because he’s able to work through us for his own glory.