Esther 1 (In which a family disagreement grows into a national crisis)
Let's begin by getting acquainted with the king. His Persian name was Khshayarshan, which in Hebrew becomes Ahasuerus and in the Greek language, Xerxes. His father was Darius I, and his grandfather was Cyrus the Great; so he came from an illustrious family. Ahasuerus ruled over the Persian Empire from 486 to 465 B.C. The empire was divided into twenty "satrapies," which in turn were subdivided into "provinces"; and the king was in absolute control.
Like most monarchs of that day, Ahasuerus was a proud man; and in this chapter, we see three evidences of his pride.
Eastern rulers enjoyed hosting lavish banquets because each occasion gave them opportunity to impress their guests with their royal power and wealth. Three banquets are mentioned in this chapter: one for the key military and political officers of the empire (vv. 1-4); one for the men of Shushan (Susa in Greek), site of the king's winter palace (vv. 5-8); and one for the women of Shushan (v. 9), presided over by Queen Vashti.
The king probably didn't assemble all his provincial leaders at one time; that would have kept them away from their duties for six months and weakened the empire. It's more likely that, over a period of six months, Ahasuerus brought the officers to Shushan on a rotating schedule. Then, having consulted with them, the king would bring them all together for the seven-day feast so they could confer collectively. In Esther 1:11, the writer indicates that the princes were also at this week-long festivity.
Along with these three banquets, at least six other feasts are recorded in this book: Esther's coronation banquet (2:18); Haman's celebration feast with the king (3:15); Esther's two banquets for Haman and the king (chaps. 5 and 7); the Jews' banquets when they heard the new decree (8:17); and the Feast of Purim (9:17-19). It's wonderful how God can accomplish His eternal purposes through such a familiar activity as people eating and drinking! (See 1 Cor. 10:31.)
What was the purpose behind the banquet for the nobles and officials of the empire? Scripture doesn't tell us, but secular history does. The Greek historian Herodotus (485-425 B.C.) may refer to these banquets in his History, where he states that Ahasuerus was conferring with his leaders about a possible invasion of Greece. Ahasuerus' father, Darius I, had invaded Greece and been shamefully defeated at Marathon in 490. While preparing to return to Greece and get revenge, Darius had died (486 B.C.); and now his son felt compelled to avenge his father and expand his empire at the same time. Herodotus claims that Ahasuerus planned to invade all of Europe and "reduce the whole earth into one empire."
According to Herodotus, the king's words were these: "My intent is to throw a bridge over the Hellespont and march an army through Europe against Greece, that thereby I may obtain vengeance from the Athenians for the wrongs committed by them against the Persians and against my father."
The king's uncle, Artabanus, strongly opposed the plan, but the king persisted and succeeded in convincing the princes and officers to follow him.
It was important that Ahasuerus impress his nobles and military leaders with his wealth and power. When they saw the marble pillars, the gorgeous drapes hung from silver rings, the gold and silver couches on beautiful marble mosaic pavements, and the golden table service, what else could they do but submit to the king? Like the salesperson who takes you out to an exclusive restaurant for an expensive dinner, the king broke down their resistance. A proud man himself, he knew how to appeal to the pride in others.
Unfortunately, this ostentatious display of wealth couldn't guarantee the Persians a military victory. In 480 B.C., the Persian navy was destroyed at Salamis, while the king sat on a throne "watching the battle; and in 479 B.C., the Persian army was defeated at Plataea. Thus ended Ahasuerus' dream of a world empire. If ever a man should have learned the truth of Proverbs 16:18, it was Ahasuerus: "Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall" (nkjv).
People in authority need to remember that all authority comes from God (Rom. 13:1) and that He alone is in complete control. Pharaoh had to learn that lesson in Egypt (Ex. 7:3-5); Nebuchadnezzar had to learn it in Babylon (Dan. 3-4); Belshazzar learned it at his blasphemous banquet (Dan. 5); Sennacherib learned it at the gates of Jerusalem (Isa. 36-37); and Herod Agrippa I learned it as he died, being eaten by worms (Acts 12:20-23). Every man or woman in a place of authority is second in command, for Jesus Christ is Lord of all.
Scripture ignores these military matters because the writer's purpose was to explain how Esther became queen. It was at the conclusion of the seven-day banquet that Ahasuerus, "in high spirits from wine" (Est. 1:10, niv), ordered his queen to display her beauty to the assembled guests; but she refused to obey. Her response, of course, was a triple offense on her part. Here was a woman challenging the authority of a man, a wife disobeying the orders of her husband, and a subject defying the command of the king. As a result, "the king became furious and burned with anger" (v. 12, niv).
As you study the Book of Esther, you will discover that this mighty monarch could control everything but himself. His advisers easily influenced him; he made impetuous decisions that he later regretted; and when he didn't get his own way, he became angry. Susceptible to flattery, he was master of a mighty empire but not master of himself. "He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city" (Prov. 16:32). Ahasuerus built a great citadel at Shushan, but he couldn't build his own character. "Whoever has no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down, without walls" (25:28, nkjv). The king could control neither his temper nor his thirst.
This is a good place to stop and consider alcohol and anger—two powerful forces that have brought more destruction to our society than even the statistics reveal.
While we appreciate the king's wisdom in not forcing his guests to drink (Est. 1:8), we can hardly compliment him on the bad example he set by his own drinking habits. The Bible doesn't command total abstinence, but it does emphasize it. The nation of Israel didn't drink strong drink during their wilderness pilgrimage (Deut. 29:5-6), and the priests were instructed not to drink wine or strong drink while serving in the tabernacle (Lev. 10:8-11). The Nazirites were forbidden not only to drink wine but even to eat the skin or seeds of the grape (Lev. 6:1-3). Though our Lord Jesus drank wine while here on earth, He is today a "total abstainer." People who claim Jesus as their example in social drinking, and even point out that He turned water into wine, should take Luke 22:18 into consideration: "For I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come" (kjv). I wonder whether these people "follow His example" in any other areas of life, such as praying, serving, and sacrificing. (Probably not.)
Most of the advertisements that promote the sale of alcoholic beverages depict fashionable people in gracious settings, giving the subtle impression that "social drinking" and success are synonymous. But pastors, social workers, physicians, and dedicated members of Alcoholics Anonymous would paint a different picture. They've seen firsthand the wrecked marriages, ruined bodies and minds, abused families, and shattered careers that often accompany what people call "social drinking."
Longtime baseball coach and manager Connie Mack said that alcohol had no more place in the human body than sand had in the gas tank of an automobile. Alcohol is a narcotic, not a food; it destroys, not nourishes. The Bible warns against drunkenness (Prov. 20:1; 21:17; 23:20-21, 29-35; Isa. 5:11; Luke 21:34; Rom. 13:13-14; 1 Cor. 5:11; Eph. 5:18; 1 Peter 4:3-5); and even the Koran says, "There is a devil in every berry of the grape."
The best way to avoid drunkenness is not to drink at all. A Japanese proverb warns, "First the man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, and then the drink takes the man." And King Lemuel's mother taught him, "It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine; nor for princes strong drink" (Prov. 31:4, kjv).
As for the anger that King Ahasuerus expressed toward his lovely queen, it was ignorant, childish, and completely uncalled for. Had the king been sober, he would never have asked his wife to display her beauties before his drunken leaders. His pride got the best of him; for if he couldn't command his own wife, how could he ever command the Persian armies? Since Vashti had embarrassed the king before his own leaders, the king had to do something to save both his ego and his reputation.
Vashti was right, and Ahasuerus was wrong; and his anger was only further proof that he was wrong. Anger has a way of blinding our eyes and deadening our hearts to that which is good and noble. The Italian poet Pietro Aletino (1492-1557) wrote to a friend, "Angry men are blind and foolish, for reason at such a time takes flight and, in her absence, wrath plunders all the riches of the intellect, while the judgment remains the prisoner of its own pride." If anybody was a prisoner of pride, it was the exalted king of the Persian Empire!
To be sure, there's a holy anger against sin that ought to burn in the heart of every godly person (Rom. 12:9). Even our Lord manifested anger at sin (Mark 3:5), but we must be careful that our anger at sin doesn't become sinful anger (Eph. 4:26). Sometimes what we call "righteous indignation" is only unrighteous temper masquerading in religious garments. Jesus equated anger with murder (Matt. 5:21-26), and Paul warns us that anger can hinder our praying (1 Tim. 2:8).
Pride feeds anger, and as it grows, anger reinforces pride. "A quick-tempered man acts foolishly," warned the writer of Proverbs 14:17, a text perfectly illustrated by King Ahasuerus. Instead of being angry at Vashti, the king should have been angry at himself for acting so foolishly.
Before leaving this part of our story, I want to point out that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has helped to liberate and elevate women in society wherever it has been preached and obeyed throughout the world. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28, kjv). We still have a long way to go in our recognition of the importance of women in the church, but thanks partly to the influence of the Gospel, society has made progress in setting women free from cruel bondage and giving them wonderful opportunities for life and service.
When the ego is pricked, it releases a powerful poison that makes people do all sorts of things they'd never do if they were humble and submitted to the Lord. Francis Bacon wrote in his Essays, "A man that studies revenge keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well." Had Ahasuerus sobered up and thought the matter through, he would never have deposed his wife. After all, she showed more character than he did.
The Persian king had seven counselors who advised him in matters of state and had the right to approach his throne. They also knew well how to flatter the king to secure their positions and get from him what they wanted. The phrase "understood the times" (v. 13) suggests that they were astrologers who consulted the stars and used other forms of divination. Eastern monarchs in that day depended on such men to give them instructions in matters personal, governmental, and military. (See Dan. 1:20; 2:2, 10, 17; 4:7; 5:7, 11, 17.)
Concerned about the repercussions of Vashti's disobedience, the king asked his seven counselors what he should do. The first thing they did was exaggerate the importance of the event: Vashti had done wrong not only to the king but also to the entire empire! Therefore, when the guests returned home, they would tell everybody that the queen was disobedient to her husband, and the consequences would be disastrous. The women in the empire would hold the men in contempt, and a general rebellion of wives against husbands and women against men would follow. (Commentators point out that the word "women" in Es. 1:17 means "women in general," while "ladies" in v. 18 refers to the women of the aristocratic class.) These counselors were playing it smart; for by exaggerating the problem, they also inflated their own importance and made the king more dependant on them.
But was the situation really that serious? When Vashti refused to obey, I wonder how many princes and nobles at the banquet said among themselves, "Well, the king's marriage is just like our marriages! His wife has a mind of her own, and it's a good thing she does!" It's doubtful that the king would have lost authority or stature throughout the empire had he shrugged his shoulders, smiled, and admitted that he'd done a foolish thing. "A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult" (Prov. 12:16, niv).
The seven wise men advised the king to depose Vashti and replace her with another queen. They promised that such an act would put fear in the hearts of all the women in the empire and generate more respect for their husbands. But would it? Are hearts changed because kings issue decrees or congresses and parliaments pass laws? How would the punishment of Vashti make the Persian women love their husbands more? Are love and respect qualities that can be generated in hearts by human fiat?
How could seven supposedly wise men be so calloused in their treatment of Vashti and so foolish in their evaluation of the women of the empire? How could they be so brutal as to use the authority of the law to destroy one woman and threaten the peace of every home in the empire? They were encouraging every husband to act like King Ahasuerus and manage the home on the basis of executive fiat (Est. 1:22). What a contrast to Paul's counsel to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5:18-33!
Still motivated by anger and revenge, and seeking to heal his wounded pride, the king agreed to their advice and had Vashti deposed (Est. 1:19-21). He sent his couriers throughout the empire to declare the royal edict--an edict that was unnecessary, unenforceable, and unchangeable. King Ahasuerus was given to issuing edicts, and he didn't always stop to think about what he was doing (3:9-12). It was another evidence of his pride.
The king didn't immediately replace Vashti. Instead, he went off to invade Greece, where he met with humiliating defeat; and when he returned home, he sought solace in satisfying his sensual appetite by searching for a new queen and filling his harem with candidates. The women in his empire were not only to be subservient to the men, but they were also to be "sex objects" to give them pleasure. The more you know about Ahasuerus and his philosophy of life, the more you detest him.
The Bible doesn't tell us what happened to Vashti. Many biblical scholars believe she was Amestris, the mother of Artaxerxes who ruled from 464 to 425 B.C. It's likely that Esther was either out of favor or dead; for Amestris exercised great influence as the queen mother during her son's reign.
Artaxerxes was born in 483, the year of the great banquet described in Esther 1. It's possible that Vashti was pregnant with her son at that time and therefore unwilling to appear before the men. It was her son Artaxerxes who ruled during the times of Ezra (7:1, 7, 11-12, 21; 8:1) and Nehemiah (2:1; 5:14; 13:6).
In any case the stage was now set for the entrance of the two key persons in the drama: Haman, the man who hated the Jews, and Esther, the woman who delivered her people.