Simon Bowkett's Podcast

How bad a situation can God's people live through? - Esther 1

October 29, 2022 Simon Bowkett
Simon Bowkett's Podcast
How bad a situation can God's people live through? - Esther 1
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         •        Introduction

So how bad can things actually be around God’s people, and yet everything’s actually still going to be ok?

When I was a young child in school, if somebody in the class got a good telling off, I used to pick it up and feel told off, as if I’d been guilty myself!

And we can start to feel threatened or rebuked or somehow on the back foot as believers … as Christians … in a secular and God-forsaking culture.

But what that actually means is that our culture is God-forsaking and possibly God-forsaken … not that we are.

In the Book of Esther we have a story.

Stories make a point at length, and not briefly … although the point they make is often capable of being briefly stated.

And so it is with this story in the first chapter of Esther … but it’s longer exposure to that message by putting it in story-form that does us good.

What do I mean?


Taking time to spell it out gives a chance for the point of the story to go all the way from our heads to our hearts … and that’s important because it is our hearts that primarily motivate our will.

Now, we’ve seen on two previous occasions that the story of Esther has this big central theme that when God seems to be completely absent, He is still working in the background to fulfil His plan and purposes in, through and for His people.

But as I’ve said, the message gets across to us better, more lastingly and more life-changingly in story form because a story exposes us to the message both over a longer period of time and using a wider bandwidth in our brains than simply telling us the message the way I just did in that simple sentence I used just now back there.

What did I say in that simple sentence back there?

Can you REMEMBER what I actually said back there about the point of this chapter?

Well, not so easily as if it was told you in a more dynamic AND more leisurely way in the story of this book of Esther.

What we need to keep in mind is the overall message as we drill down into the story, giving it eight or nine weeks or so to seep down into us and change us from the inside out as we work steadily and in a more leisurely way through the various scenarios in this book that flesh out the message and demonstrate it.

And so we start that today with Esther 1.

What are we exposed to in Esther 1?


1) The powerful and dangerous King, vv. 1-8

In vv. 1-8 quite a picture gets painted for us …

“This is what happened during the time of Xerxes, the Xerxes who ruled over 127 provinces stretching from India to Cush:

 2 at that time King Xerxes reigned from his royal throne in the citadel of Susa, 3 and in the third year of his reign he gave a banquet for all his nobles and officials. The military leaders of Persia and Media, the princes, and the nobles of the provinces were present.


4 For a full 180 days he displayed the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendour and glory of his majesty. 5 When these days were over, the king gave a banquet, lasting seven days, in the enclosed garden of the king’s palace, for all the people from the least to the greatest who were in the citadel of Susa. 6 The garden had hangings of white and blue linen, fastened with cords of white linen and purple material to silver rings on marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and other costly stones. 7 Wine was served in goblets of gold, each one different from the other, and the royal wine was abundant, in keeping with the king’s liberality. 8 By the king’s command each guest was allowed to drink without restriction, for the king instructed all the wine stewards to serve each man what he wished.”

There’s a picture for you there of what we call ‘absolute’ human power, exercised in the country where the people of God were in exile, and we’re going to see that it’s not being exercised by a very nice man.

Firstly notice that …

            •          i) This story is presented as history, v. 1 

So first of all we need be aware that what we’re being told here claims to be history: “This is what happened” says Esther 1:1

This language is a formula found in other historical books in the Old Testament like Joshua, Judges and the Samuels.

However stylised the writing becomes, the author wants us to think of these events as having happened.

So, these events occurred during the reign of a Persian king, King Xerxes, who reigned from 486-465 B.C.

He is the son and successor of the King Darius who was the benefactor of the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple (Haggai 2:1-9, Zechariah 7:1 * 8:9).

Xerxes is also featured in Ezra 4:6 as the reigning King when the people opposed to the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem brought him their objections to it.

            •          ii) This historical King is a headache

It’s an interesting fact that whilst Xerxes is the Greek transliteration of this guy’s Persian name, in Hebrew his name takes the form Ahasuerus (pronounced Ahash-werosh)

That name has no literal meaning in Hebrew, but when produced out loud it sounds something like the Hebrew for ‘King Headache’!

And so he was to God’s peoples well as to all the other subjects of his empire …

            •          iii) The Power of the headache King

            •           Scale of his empire

Xerxes was known for consolidating the Persian Empire ‘from India to Cush’ … that is from modern Pakistan to Northern Sudan.

The tale this book tells is centred on Susa … one of the four capital cities from which the Persian monarchs ruled … where the royal court spent the winter.

The place was far too hot in the summer.

But the point is, the empire Xerxes ruled was so big it had four capital cities (as it were) to chose from!

            •           Great War council of 483 BC, vv. 4-5

And that scale and might and splendour is all on display (1:3) in the big banquet recorded here as taking place in the third year of Xerxes’ reign.

The dating corresponds to the Great War council of 483 B.C. held to plan for the Persian invasion of Greece.

So in the big feast that we read about in these verses, our ‘Headache King’ is uttering the nobles, officials, military leaders, princes and governors to garner support for his invasion of the Greeks.

The empire was vast, stretching from modern Pakistan in the east to modern Turkey in the west … many different languages, people groups and religions were included in the mix and maintaining their loyalty and support for a project like the invasion of Greece was going to be no small task.

During the 180 days of this war council, Xerxes displayed his wealth and splendour to consolidate the support of the leaders of these diverse groups scattered across the empire, gaining their loyalty to his cause … we read about it I the writings of the Greek historian, Herodotus (7.8)

So Xerxes is putting on a big show to establish as a certainty that he was able to reward those who would rally to him and support his campaign into Greece. 

A 7-day banquet was opened up to all the residents of Susa ‘from the least to the greatest’ to bring the six months of festivities to a head (1:4-5).

And it’s described here for us as a CRACKER of a show!

            •           The sumptuousness of the banquet, vv. 6-7

The account in vv. 6-7 focuses on the abundance of wine (‘in keeping with the King’s liberality’ served in goblets of gold) and the opulence of setting …

Persia’s wealth and magnificence dazzled Alexander the Great when he entered the palace at Susa more than a century later, finding there 40,000 talents of gold and silver bullion (that’s about 1200 tons) as well as about 270 tons of minted coins … all of which had been accumulated by the Persian kings.

Basically that banquet was there to display the wealth and might of King Xerxes, in order to demonstrate his ability to handsomely reward those who would loyalty support the campaign to conquer Greece, under his command.

Now, the original readers of this chapter would know that Xerxes was defeated at Hellespont after a four year campaign with all this wealth severely depleted … 

But the author of Esther doesn’t spell that out, but simply majors on the splendour and positivity of the earlier days … which all the readers are aware had been dramatically reversed.

But the author simply wants the readers to reflect at this point on the extent to which God’s people were living through terrible times under the  powerful boot of a pagan King suffering the penalty of the covenant they had broken (see for example) 1 Kings 9:6-9.

Name whichever empire, nation or government you like, whatever the extent of their power to pressurise God’s people, the King of the Universe still sits on His highly exalted Heavenly throne, laughing at the impotence of even the greatest of nations.

As Psalm 2 reflects:

(Psalm 2:4-6) “The One enthroned in heaven laughs;

    the Lord scoffs at them.

5 He rebukes them in his anger

    and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,

6 ‘I have installed my king

    on Zion, my holy mountain.’”

He alone is the King of Kings.

But it isn’t always going to feel like that for the people of God, and it is of a time in which it certainly doesn’t feel like that, that our author writes.

As Karen Jobes puts it: “To be in Christ is to be on the winning side of history, to be victors even in the face of life’s greatest threats.”


But it is precisely one of those time of tangible great threat that the people of God were living through in the times we are reading about here.

How BAD can things get, and yet God is still on his throne?

Well, they’re about to get worse …

         2) The Queen who wouldn’t compromise her integrity, vv. 9-12

Esther 1:9-12 reads:

“Queen Vashti also gave a banquet for the women in the royal palace of King Xerxes.

10 On the seventh day, when King Xerxes was in high spirits from wine, he commanded the seven eunuchs who served him – Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar and Karkas – 11 to bring before him Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at. 12 But when the attendants delivered the king’s command, Queen Vashti refused to come. Then the king became furious and burned with anger.”

            •          i)’ Vashti’, the ‘beautiful woman’

We don’t know a lot about Vashti.

Herodotus (the Greek who wrote about the Persian Wars, and who was SOMETIMES wrong) doesn’t mention ‘Vashti’ as the name of Xerxes’s Queen but does name Xerxes’s Queen as Amestris.

BUT … it has been suggested that Vashti sounds similar to the Old Persian for ‘beautiful woman’ … so it seems at least possible that a stylised name for the queen is being used by our author here.

            •          ii) The power play beauty pageant

Well, after seven days of hard drinking at this banquet where anyone could drink as much as they liked of whatever they liked, Xerxes (described in the text as ‘being in high spirits from wine’) sent for his queen to display her beauty before the men of Susa.

The king was trying to secure the support of his empire as he went to war against the Greeks.

He was displaying ‘the vast wealth of his kingdom’ and ‘the splendour and glory of his majesty’ (v. 4) in order to do so … and the beautiful Vashti, wearing the royal diadem he had given her, was a living trophy of his power and glory.

So. He sent seven eunuchs to fetch her … why?

Probably because she would be carried in seated on her royal litter to emphasise the great majesty and beauty of his trophy bride.

You’ve got set that in the drink-soaked context of this account.

            •          iii) Persian drinking culture

It is clear from this story in Esther 1 that we are to understand that prodigious quantities of alcohol had been consumed at this War Council-come-feast that’s being described for us.

Our old friend Herodotus the Greek historian again helps us to understand the situation by pointing out that Persians seriously DRANK as they deliberated matters of state.

So Esther 3:15 describes Haman sitting down with Xerxes to discuss executing the decree against the Jews NOT by going into Xerxes study and getting maps out or something, but it says:

The couriers went out hurriedly by order of the king, and the decree was issued in Susa the citadel. And the king and Haman sat down to drink, but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion.”

You see, the ancients thought that intoxication put them in closer touch with the spirit-world, and thereby with the greater wisdom that it could give them.

It seems bizarre, but it is how they conducted themselves in that time and culture.

Well, Vashti wasn’t having any of this …

            •          iv) Diplomatic and political embarrassment

Now that we know what Xerxes was doing at this time, and the extent that he had gone to to solidify his nobles’ support as he went to war with Greece … we can see that the refusal of his own queen to obey his command precipitated an extremely embarrassing crisis.

He was understandably furious … we’re told he burned with anger.

He needed all these diverse leaders to obey his command as they went to war, but here in his own palace he couldn’t get his own WIFE to obey him!

Now, it must be obvious that the point is not concerned with the evils of alcohol.

Karen Jobes: “The point is that the Persian court was not a safe place because Xerxes held great power, and he wielded it unpredictably, making decisions from dubious motives with impaired judgement.”

We’re being shown the dangers of living under Xerxes’s power in the Persian Empire … an alarming backdrop to the major conflict that breaks over the heads of God’s people when the power of this Persian Empire gets turned against God’s people.

Just how bad can it get for God’s people and for God to still be on the throne?

Pretty bad.

Pretty much worse than things have become YET in this story.

Because what happens next in the salutary tale of Vashti is that the powerful abuse the power to punish her principled disobedience.

         •        3) The powerful punish principled disobedience, vv. 13-22

Here’s how that works out … Esther 1:13-22

“Since it was customary for the king to consult experts in matters of law and justice, he spoke with the wise men who understood the times 14 and were closest to the king—Karshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena and Memukan, the seven nobles of Persia and Media who had special access to the king and were highest in the kingdom.


15 “According to law, what must be done to Queen Vashti?” he asked. “She has not obeyed the command of King Xerxes that the eunuchs have taken to her.”


16 Then Memukan replied in the presence of the king and the nobles, “Queen Vashti has done wrong, not only against the king but also against all the nobles and the peoples of all the provinces of King Xerxes. 17 For the queen’s conduct will become known to all the women, and so they will despise their husbands and say, ‘King Xerxes commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come.’ 18 This very day the Persian and Median women of the nobility who have heard about the queen’s conduct will respond to all the king’s nobles in the same way. There will be no end of disrespect and discord.


19 “Therefore, if it pleases the king, let him issue a royal decree and let it be written in the laws of Persia and Media, which cannot be repealed, that Vashti is never again to enter the presence of King Xerxes. Also let the king give her royal position to someone else who is better than she. 20 Then when the king’s edict is proclaimed throughout all his vast realm, all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest.”


21 The king and his nobles were pleased with this advice, so the king did as Memukan proposed. 22 He sent dispatches to all parts of the kingdom, to each province in its own script and to each people in their own language, proclaiming that every man should be ruler over his own household, using his native tongue.”

Xerxes cannot possibly overlook such public defiance from his queen while he is trying to show the assembly what a big cheese he is, and the prospects for his campaign to conquer Greece are very much tied up in this matter, so he summons his closest advisers - the Hebrew calls them (literally) ‘the seven who see the face of the King’.

These are the men who are allowed to enter the King’s presence uninvited and unannounced.

These were the men who ‘knew the times’ … that is, they used astrology and divination to work out what should be done.

And you can see what godless hands the people of the Persian empire (including God’s historic people, the Jews) had fallen into because we are told that Xerxes was in the habit of consulting these occult practicitioners in matters of law and justice.

Calling them in to do their thing shows how outlandish Vashti’s actions were … there was no legal precedent for defying the King so the diviners had to be brought in.

And what did they turn up?

            •          i) Exclusion from influence

As Vashti had refused to come to the King, she would be refused access to the King.

She is demoted to the status of a person who is not allowed to come into the presence of the King.

In v. 19 she is stripped of her position … by royal decree … and for the first time starts being referred to merely as ‘Vashti’, not ‘Queen Vashti’.

The effect of that on Vashti can only be imagined … and this is a story, a narrative, a type of literature that employs the imagination to garner understanding so IMAGINE is what we’re very much expected to do!

A British politician discussing the future of a large number of Tory MPs in seats won at the last election in the light of the turmoil in Westminster said recently on the national evening news ‘there is nothing so ‘ex-’ as an ‘ex-MP’.

Well here was Vashti … one minute hosting an elaborate banquet for the women who had the ear of the highest rulers of the Empire, and the next … an ‘ex-‘ in oh, so many ways.

We just are not told how or where or by what means she will live.

She is OUT … and this King is not known for his compassionate treatment of those who’ve annoyed him.

There is no hope for the future for her.

How so?

            •          ii) Permanent

This royal decree against Vashti is to be written into the laws of Persia and Media:

V. 19 ““Therefore, if it pleases the king, let him issue a royal decree and let it be written in the laws of Persia and Media, which cannot be repealed, that Vashti is never again to enter the presence of King Xerxes. Also let the king give her royal position to someone else who is better than she.”

You see?

Legally irreversible and relationally irreversible because the recommendation of the seven … led by Memucan … go on from making a legal recommendation to suggest the re-organisation of the affairs of Xerxes’s bedchamber.

Replace this broken old Queen with a new one, they suggest.

When I say ‘suggest’, this whole thing is being played out in public and the prospective allies of the King in his campaign against Greece are all watching and forming opinions … so the hand of the King are truly tied.

But Memucan hasn’t finished yet.

He’s on a roll and he’s enjoying the moment!

            •          iii) Playing on the paranoia of potentates - Memucan

V. 16 “Then Memukan replied in the presence of the king and the nobles, “Queen Vashti has done wrong, not only against the king but also against all the nobles and the peoples of all the provinces of King Xerxes. 17 For the queen’s conduct will become known to all the women, and so they will despise their husbands and say, ‘King Xerxes commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come.’ 18 This very day the Persian and Median women of the nobility who have heard about the queen’s conduct will respond to all the king’s nobles in the same way. There will be no end of disrespect and discord.”

What started as a tiff between husband and wife gets escalated into a crisis of Empire and society.

Memucan universalises the incident by expressing his personal anxieties and fears forth impact of Vashti’s conduct on the most fundamental building blocks of Persian society right across the Empire.

Vashti is said to have such influence by her actions that when they hear of what se has done, women right across the Empire will act up the same way that she did … starting with the wives of the seven advisors.

The advice is that when women across the Empire see the harsh consequences meted out to Vashti, they will be intimidated into respecting their husbands from the greatest to the dumbest (v. 20).

With arguments like this being made, the impotence of those who act as if they’re omnipotent gets highlighted … Xerxes is being externally manipulated and is a puppet to the people he is the tyrant over!

But the advice is taken up … and again this is ironic if not laughable.

            •          iv) Ironically publishing the insecurity of the King

The decree is issued and is to be PUBLISHED right across the Empire, in every part of the Empire in the local languages of each province.

What have they published?

They have published their own marital anxiety and Xerxes has commanded right across the Empire what he himself could not accomplish in his own palace (v. 20) that every man “should be ruler over his own household”.

The futility of human absolutism is being parodied in view of the potent sovereignty of the King of Kings … but that theme is going to be played out right across the face of this book.

         •        Conclusion

There’s no doubt that this account in Esther 1 reassures us that the people of God can live through difficult and dangerous times, in godless and threatening places, when power is exercised by wicked people as if absolute power were theirs … theirs and not God’s.

But already in this account the cracks and the limitations of Xerxes the godless and tyrannical ruler are being highlighted and parodied as the story unfolds.

We’re being shown once more, if we needed it, that absolute power seized by the hands of the godless and wicked tends to show corrupted human nature up for what it is.

We’re being shown here the abuse of power in marital relationships as the consequence of fallen human nature too, for sure.

We’re having demonstrated to us the contrast between the use humanity makes of seized power with the way power was exercised amongst us by Jesus Christ, the Omnipotent Incarnate … God the Son.

But above all we’re having demonstrated to us in the context of this book the way God’s people can live IN terrible times and still be alright.

We SHOULD not panic at the news, because as Esther shows us human’s seize power but cannot hold it, in the face of the omnipotence of God Who undertakes for even His exiled and alienated people … so that even the mighty that seem most powerful and tyrannical in this first chapter, the holes in their power and authority are very evident.

Why can God’s people live in terrible times and still be alright and find peace?

Because as Esther 1 shows us the tyrants aren’t in control … but the God Who isn’t shouting rules over all.

Next time we’ll see how much things can get worse for God’s people themselves, and what surprising things God can do to untangle mess.