Esther 1:1-11: The Arrogance of Xerxes and the Context for God’s Sovereign Providence.
The story of Esther is quite remarkable. It belongs to that dark period in Jewish history when God’s people were enslaved and scattered right across the Babylonian empire. It has the fairy tale atmosphere of a 1001 nights, tinged with the deadly smell of Hitler’s gas chambers. After Auschwitz Concentration Camp, probably the saddest place I have ever visited is the Jewish cemetery in Prague. The cemetery is surrounded by high walls and it took a while to find the entrance. Inside 12,000 grave stones compete with one another for every inch of earth. As I stood there quietly reading the inscriptions that date back to the 16th Century, it was as if the clock had stopped when the Nazis invaded, never to start again. The gravestones are all that was left of what was once a thriving Jewish community.
In one of the eight former synagogues in the Jewish Quarter, is a museum. Inside there is an exhibition of letters and pictures drawn by Jewish children deported to various death camps. Each picture is a profound, silent epitaph to an unspeakably awful tragedy. Yet, the very fact that those pictures have survived and are displayed is eloquent testimony to God’s sovereign rule. God had not forgotten his people. It is no coincidence that the Book of Esther is still the number one favourite story in Jewish families.
The event is retold every year during the Feast of Purim in late February or early March. The Feast of Purim commemorates that first horrifying attempt at the extermination of the Jewish people, and how God providentially rescued his people. There are clearly strong parallels in the dramatic reversal of what seemed the disastrous fate of the Jewish race in the 5th Century BC and the 20th Century AD. During the Feast of Purim, in some Jewish families, children draw an H on the soles of their shoes – one for Haman and one for Hitler.
The one dictator boasted that his empire stretched a thousand miles, the other boasted that his empire would last a thousand years. But the sovereign Lord God enabled the Jewish people not only to survive but walk over both. History has a habit of repeating itself. Human nature is as unchanged as is the providential purposes of the God of heaven and earth. All that we are going to learn about from the Book of Esther on Sunday evenings this Summer, should remind us we are not merely learning about ancient history, or even the history of the Jewish people, but a much wider and more pervasive conflict
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12)
The Context for God’s Sovereign Providence
When God made his covenant with Israel in the wilderness of Sinai, he promised to bless his people, but it was conditional. On condition that they obeyed him. He also warned that he would send them into exile if they rebelled.
“if you do not obey the LORD your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come upon you and overtake you.. You will be uprooted from the land you are entering to possess. Then the Lord will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other.” (Deuteronomy 28:15-16, 25, 63-64)
Time and time again Israel rebelled and the Lord sent prophets to warn them. Finally he allowed Assyria to defeat and deport the ten northern tribes of Israel in 722 BC. The two remaining southern tribes, Judah and Benjamin were deported to Babylon in 605 BC. Then Cyrus of Persia defeated the Babylonians in 539 BC. He had a different international policy. He decided to allow displaced people to return to their land as long as they remained loyal to Persia. Fewer than 50,000 Jews actually returned to Judah in 538 BC. Ezra and Nehemiah record the story. Probably ten times as many remained in Babylon, Persia and Egypt. This is why today, the largest community of Jews in the Middle East outside Israel is in Iran. Like the majority of Jewish people living in Europe and the United States today, those of Esther’s day had acquired property and businesses.
They were disinclined to risk everything to return and live among hostile neighbours. King Cyrus’ grandson was Darius. He gave permission for the rebuilding of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. He also extended the Persian Empire from India to the Sudan in Africa. His son Xerxes succeeded to the throne in 486BC. From the writings of the contemporary Greek historian Herodotus, we know that Xerxes was a bold, ambitious and self-indulgent king. These opening verses of Esther in chapter 1 confirm this. As we reflect on Xerxes and his deplorable treatment of Queen Vashti, on his degrading selection procedure for choosing her successor, on the demeaning treatment of women in Babylonian culture, we must remember not everything in the Bible is condoned. But it is there for our instruction. Chapter 1 revolves around three personalities: Xerxes Calamitous Slavery (1:1-11); Vashti’s Calm Nobility (1:12); Memucan’s Cruel Duplicity (1:13-22). This evening I want us to just focus on the first eleven verses.
Xerxes Calamitous Slavery: He was a Slave to Pride
Although Xerxes was a despotic ruler, he was actually a slave, a slave to his pride.
1. Pride Enslaves Because it is Never Satisfied
“This is what happened during the time of Xerxes,[a] the Xerxes who ruled over 127 provinces stretching from India to Cush: At that time King Xerxes reigned from his royal throne in the citadel of Susa, 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. For a full 180 days he displayed the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendour and glory of his majesty. 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. 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.” (Esther 1:1-6)
According to the BBC, on Friday the Royal Family hosted a reception following the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The formal lunch reception was attended by 650 guests, who consumed 10,000 canapes, prepared by a team of 21 chefs. Later, 300 close friends and family were invited to an evening do where guests were offered a choice of two wedding cakes. The traditional fruit cake was made up of 17 individual cakes, eight tiers high decorated by 900 sugar paste flowers.
A less traditional chocolate cake, requested by Prince William, contained 1,700 Rich Tea biscuits and 17 kilos of chocolate.
But that pales by comparison to the spread Xerxes offered governors, princes and generals from 127 provinces from the Sudan to India. After 180 days of feasting and revelling he was bored. The whole city must be gathered to view his impressive display of wealth and opulence. Xerxes was a slave, a slave to his pride, because pride enslaves because it is never satisfied.
2. Pride Enslaves Because it is Utterly Blind
“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. By the king’s command each guest was allowed to drink with no restrictions, for the king instructed all the wine stewards to serve each man what he wished. Queen Vashti also gave a banquet for the women in the royal palace of King Xerxes.” (Esther 1:7-9)
Xerxes was blind to the cost of his banquet borne by his people. Blind to ignoring the affairs of state for 6 months. Blind to the effect of allowing his military officers and politicians to drink themselves sully. Blind to the way people would despise him for his debauchery. Blind to the effect is was having on his marriage. Xerxes was a slave to his pride because it is never satisfied and because it is utterly blind to the consequences.
3. Pride Enslaves Because it is Inevitably Destructive
“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— 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. But when the attendants delivered the king’s command, Queen Vashti refused to come. Then the king became furious and burned with anger.” (Esther 1:10-12)
In his drunken stupor, it took a slap across the face from his wife to sober Xerxes up enough to realise the extent of his impotence. One word was enough. She dared to say “No” “Then the king became furious and burned with anger.” (Esther 1:12). The thick veins on his forehead swelled.
His face went red with embarrassment. Vashti had humiliated him in front of all his generals and diplomats and that hurt. She had burst the bubble of his vanity. Before the Royal marriage, Prince William wisely refused to enter a prenuptial agreement with Catherine. They have gone into their marriage as equals. He decided that he could not love his wife unconditionally if he sought to protect his wealth and status. Not so Xerxes. There was no respect or dignity, for there can be none when one partner is enslaved by pride. The destruction of their marriage was inevitable. Anger such as this is never dignified because it reveals a lack of self-control. Anger such as this always distorts perspective because it leads to a lack of objectivity. Anger such as this is rarely ever godly because it stems from pride and self-centredness. Had Xerxes not been so intoxicated with a heady mixture of price and alcohol, he would have blamed himself for Vashti’s refusal. Instead he paid for his folly with his marriage. This absolute tyrant was an absolute slave, and a fool with it. Zsa Zsa Gabor once said, “Macho does not prove Mucho.” All Xerxes proved was that for all his wealth and power, pride is never satisfied, pride is utterly blind and pride is inevitably destructive.
So what is the takeaway, the application? These opening verses have something to say about life without God and about life with God.
Xerxes: The Arrogant Presumption of Life Without God
Xerxes shows where a life will go when there is no accountability, no restrictions, no restraints, no inhibitions, no recognition of almighty God. Dianne Tiball[i] points out that there is nothing new in wanting to earn as much as possible in as short a time as possible so that the maximum amount of pleasure might be enjoyed. “Whether it is nightclubs. Sport, hobbies, socialising, drinking, dancing and making merry – it has almost all been done before.” And without self control, without accountability, Xerxes shows where it leads – “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18). Colin Jones observes[ii], “Xerxes had abandoned his responsibility as a king towards his subjects let alone to the queen, his wife. He had failed as a king, a husband and even as a man. How true are the words of the Psalmist, “A man who has riches without understanding is like the beasts that perish.” (Psalm 49:20)
Esther: The Invisible Providence of Life with God
And what about God? Well, as we have noted, the name of God does not appear in the Book of Esther, yet the hand of God is everywhere. He may be invisible but he is not absent. The story of Esther is the story of the unseen providence of God. What do we mean by ‘providence’?
The word providence comes from the Latin word provideo. The prefix pro means ‘before’ and the root video means ‘I see’. As Sovereign Lord of the Universe, God sees events before they happen. He can see the future with precise clarity because he works everything according to his perfect plan (Romans 8:28-39). So even when things appear to be out of control or God seems far away, God is there, working invisibly to accomplish his will. Charles Swindoll writes, “Even though the seasons change dramatically (and one might add with climate change cataclysmically), even though nations rise and fall on the world landscape, and even though economies tower to prosperity or topple to ruin, God never changes. From everlasting to everlasting, He is God and his kingdom remains unshakable. Make no mistake, God will have his way.” Swindoll concludes, “Its easy to see God in the miraculous. Its not so easy to see him in the mundane. But that’s where most of us live… This is all the more reason why we need to be sensitive to his voice – so we can be aware of and attentive to the subtle ways in which he works. And no book will sharpen our spiritual senses more than Esther… Though God is invisible, He is invincible.
That is the message of the Book of Esther. The invisible God who may appear to be absent is the invincible God who is working out his best plan.”
Colin Jones adds “Throughout the book of Esther we are encouraged to see the providential dealings of God through their gracious outcomes. The foolishness of a king, the reaction of a queen, the fear of self-seeking officials are all revealed to be not haphazard events but part of the great divine plan. God is putting into place the first elements of his deliverance-Esther. He does all this before anyone but he knows that there is even a problem to be solved.” And this is not the first time God has done this. Indeed, we are assured “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” (Ephesians 1:4)
“For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.” (1 Peter 1:18-20)
So God’s providential redemptive plan of God revealed in Jesus Christ preceded not only the Fall, but even the creation of the world. And a tyrant like Xerxes, any more than his 21st Century doubles isn’t going to get in his way.
That is why Augustine once advised. “Trust the past to God’s mercy, the present to God’s love and the future to God’s providence.” Lets pray.
[i] Dianne Tidball, Esther, A True First Lady (Focus)