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The Story of Esther, 1

October 3, 2009

[This is the manuscript I used to preach from the book of Esther several years back.  I’ve lightly edited it for reading purposes.  Hope it will bless you.]

The only other OT book named for a woman, beside the book of Ruth, is the book of Esther.  Its theme, like that of Ruth, also deals with the providence of God.  This is the biblical doctrine that God reigns and sustains the entire creation.  More fully and classically put, providence is

The almighty, everywhere-present power of God, whereby, as it were by His hand, He still upholds heaven and earth with all creatures, and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink,health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things come not by chance, but by His fatherly hand (Heidelberg Cathechism, Q. 27).

And so, as Ruth teaches us about the all-embracing reach of God’s arms of providence, Esther will teach us this principle about providence, namely, that though often unseen, God’s providence is unmistakable for those who know where to look.

Why do I say that God’s providence is unseen in the story of Esther?  Consider this:  the book will make no mention at all of Abraham, the covenant, the Law, prayer, sacrifices, the Davidic throne, the temple, and most glaringly of all, the name of God!

However, by the end of Esther’s story, my hope and prayer for us is that we will heartily believe that though God’s providence at times may not be easily seen, it is always unmistakably at work in our lives.

Our author is a master storyteller and we might see Esther like a great Broadway play or theatre production, unfolding for us in the following  six “acts.”  Today we look at the first two:

Act I:  The King who couldn’t Command his Wife, 1:1-22

Act II:  Star Search for a New Queen, 2:1-18

Immediately in 1:1 we are helpfully given the timeframe for Esther’s story:

“This is what happened during the time of Xerxes, the Xerxes who ruled over 127 provinces stretching from India to Cush.”  [Xerxes is the Greek name for the Persian Ahasuerus seen in some of your Bibles].  History clearly marks the rule of Xerxes as being from 486-465 B.C.  His story intersects with that of the Jewish people because of their on-going exile from the land which began under the Babylonians in 605 B.C.

Xerxes ruled over a vast kingdom (from modern day India/Pakistan to Sudan) of great wealth (Susa was one of four capitol sites, it being the winter residence).  This wealth is on display for us in 1:3-8:

In the third year of his reign he gave a feast for all his officials and servants. The army of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces were before him, while he showed the riches of his royal glory and the splendor and pomp of his greatness for many days, 180 days.  And when these days were completed, the king gave for all the people present in Susa, the citadel, both great and small, a feast lasting for seven days in the court of the garden of the king’s palace. There were white cotton curtains and violet hangings fastened with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rods and marble pillars, and also couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and precious stones.  Drinks were served in golden vessels, vessels of different kinds, and the royal wine was lavished according to the bounty of the king.  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.

Now as you read the book of Esther with a careful eye you should notice that banquets and feasts are a prominent feature of our story.  The book may even be structured around the pairs of feasts given by Xerxes in the beginning (ch. 1), Esther in the middle (in chs. 5&7) and the celebrations of the Feast of Purim in chapter 9 (more on it later).  What we need to take note of here in Xerxes’ feasts is the Persian custom to make plans and conduct affairs of state at such banquets!  The Greek historian Herodotus explains

Moreover it is [the Persians’] custom to deliberate about the gravest matters when they are drunk; and what they approve in their counsels is proposed to them the next day by the master of the house when they deliberate, when they are now sober and if being sober they still approve it, they act thereon, but if not, they cast it aside.  And when they have taken counsel about a matter when sober, they decide upon it when they are drunk.

We don’t know of any decisions of national import made at this feast, but we are told of a fateful decision Xerxes made toward the end of the days of feasting.  He sent word that the queen, Vashti, should make an appearance before his (no doubt drunken) guests.  The queen refuses to come.  And thus is set in motion a chain-reaction of events that will reverberate throughout the kingdom and that will speak to the unmistakable providence of God.

In the interests of time, I will fast-forward the story a bit here and tell you what you already suspect:  Xerxes had the queen deposed.  His paranoid advisers sold him on this idea saying that Vashti’s example would no doubt spread throughout the kingdom and wives everywhere would rise up in rebellion to their husbands.  Thus, King Xerxes sent a dispatch to all his subjects filled with this irony, “that every man should be ruler over his own household!”

“Star Search for a New Queen” (ch. 2)

To fill the vacancy he created, Xerxes’ counselors advised him that a search should be made for the best, brightest, and most beautiful of the kingdom’s young virgins.  This search will create the intersection between the secular king Xerxes and the chosen people of God, the Jews.

Then the king’s young men who attended him said, “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king. And let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in Susa the capital, under custody of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women. Let their cosmetics be given them. And let the young woman who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.” This pleased the king, and he did so. Now there was a Jew in Susa the citadel whose name was Mordecai, the son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, a Benjaminite, who had been carried away from Jerusalem among the captives carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had carried away. He was bringing up Hadassah, that is Esther, the daughter of his uncle, for she had neither father nor mother. The young woman had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at, and when her father and her mother died, Mordecai took her as his own daughter. (Est 2:2-7)

Some would say “What a coincidence!”  Others with eyes that truly see know that the unseen providence of God is unmistakably at work.

In very few words or details, we find that Esther quickly finds favor with the king’s man in charge [2:8-9]:  “Esther also was taken to the king’s palace and entrusted to Hegai, who had charge of the harem. The girl pleased him and won his favor. Immediately he provided her with beauty treatments and special food. He assigned to her seven maids selected from the king’s palace and moved her and her maids into the best place in the harem.”

And if Esther’s elevation to favor weren’t mysterious enough, consider the next words found in our story:  “Esther had not revealed her nationality and family background, because Mordecai had forbidden her to do so” (v. 10).  I cannot even venture a guess as to why Esther and Mordecai would do this, yet as the drama unfolds, we will see how important a move this is.

As the star search continues, Esther’s turn to appear before the King finally arrives.  With nary a word of explanation, the Bible tells us that “she won his favor and approval more than any of the other virgins” (v. 17).  A new queen had been crowned!  And, of course, the banqueting begins again!

Esther 1-2, then, in some ways is prologue to the critical events to come next.  Next we will continue on in the Esther story with Acts III and IV:

Act III:  Intrigue in the Kingdom:  2 Secret Plots

Act IV:  For Such a Time as this, 4:1-17

Conclusion: The overarching truth for us to hear and believe from these first two chapters is that God is always in control:  everywhere (even in Persia!), over all people (even a pagan king), at all times (here during exile for the people of God).

The author of the book of Esther could teach us all this without even mentioning the name of God, his worship or even prayers being made to him.  Though unseen, His providence over us is unmistakable.  Let us so live our lives to reflect this reality!

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One Comment leave one →
  1. October 3, 2009 8:20 PM

    Nice Site layout for your blog. I am looking forward to reading more from you.

    Tom Humes

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