The 3 books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, which cover about 100 years (538 -432B.C.), form the closing section of Old Testament history. They tell the story of the Jew’s return from Babylon, of the rebuilding of the temple and Jerusalem, and of the reestablishment of the Jewish national life in their homeland. The last 3 of the Old Testament prophets – Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi – lived and worked during this same period of return and restoration. By way of historical background, these are the chronological events that happened during the exile of Israel under Persian rule:
- Daniel reads the ‘writing on the wall’ (Daniel 5) and that very night Cyrus the Great (539-530 BC), prophesied about in Isaiah 41, 44 & 45 conquers Babylon and makes Persia a world empire. He permits the Jews to return to their homeland to rebuild the temple. Covered in Ezra
- Cambyses (or Artaxerxes, 530-522 BC) stops work on the temple. Covered in Ezra
- Darius I (522-486 BC) authorizes the completion of the temple and sends Ezra, a scribe, to teach the Law to the people. Covered in Ezra
- Ahasuerus (or Xerxes, 485-464 BC) marries Esther. Covered in Esther
- Longimanus (or Artaxerxes I, 464-423 BC) authorizes Nehemiah, his cup bearer, to rebuild and fortify Jerusalem. Covered in Nehemiah
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 splendor 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 with no restrictions, for the king instructed all the wine stewards to serve each man what he wished. 9 Queen Vashti also gave a banquet for the women in the royal palace of King Xerxes.
No one is sure who wrote the book of Esther, though some postulate that it was Mordecai because of the detailed descriptions of all that takes place. Nevertheless, the author takes time to describe the setting and time frame for this historical story. Xerxes was the son of Darius and had been king for 3 years when he decides to show his great wealth for the nobles and princes of the Persian/Median empire and it’s provinces. Historically, he did this to prepare the empire for the war he was about to siege against Greece to boost moral and confidence. It was important for him to look grand in the eyes of all his subjects to gain their favor. After the initial pomp of 180 days, the king gave a special feast just for those in the citadel of Susa (the palace of the Persian Empire).
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.
As the festivities are coming to a close, the king has shown how great he is to all the people and royalty in the land and now wants to show off his most special possession, his bride. Her refusal was not something to take lightly, and no doubt she was in a rebellious state to say no to the most powerful man in the known world at the time. By her disobedience, Xerxes was on the verge of looking like a powerful king who couldn’t control his wife.
13 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.
It was part of the Persian culture that if the king decreed a law it could not be revoked, and those laws carried over to the next kingship. Xerxes not only had to consult his experts for advice but because he needed to know what laws, if any, were already in place to deal with a rebellious wife. Memukan replies that by her show of disobedience, all women in all the provinces would disobey their husbands so the best option is to make an example of her and strip her of her royalty. The king agreed and the law was written and put into effect. Continuing on into chapter 2, the king begins to regret his decision and takes the advice of his attendants to search for a new queen.
Later when King Xerxes’ fury had subsided, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what he had decreed about her. 2 Then the king’s personal attendants proposed, “Let a search be made for beautiful young virgins for the king. 3 Let the king appoint commissioners in every province of his realm to bring all these beautiful young women into the harem at the citadel of Susa. Let them be placed under the care of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women; and let beauty treatments be given to them. 4 Then let the young woman who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.” This advice appealed to the king, and he followed it.
5 Now there was in the citadel of Susa a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, named Mordecai son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, 6 who had been carried into exile from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, among those taken captive with Jehoiachin king of Judah. 7 Mordecai had a cousin named Hadassah, whom he had brought up because she had neither father nor mother. This young woman, who was also known as Esther, had a lovely figureand was beautiful. Mordecai had taken her as his own daughter when her father and mother died.
We’re now introduced to Mordecai and Esther, his cousin, two Jews who were part of the exile process years before. The beautiful Esther was chosen as one of the virgins that would join the harem at the palace and be beautified for 1 year prior to meeting the king and finding out if she would be the new queen. Women were chosen from all the provinces (127 to be exact), and all beautiful virgins. We begin to see something of Mordecai’s character in verse 7. He willingly took in his cousin to raise her has his own child, and as we see later in verse 10, she obeyed him as a father. Esther shows herself to be brave, and trusting of whatever God has planned for her. Both of them show the kind of character traits that should easily flow from the people of God who understand that He is in control of all things.
8 When the king’s order and edict had been proclaimed, many young women were brought to the citadel of Susa and put under the care of Hegai. Esther also was taken to the king’s palace and entrusted to Hegai, who had charge of the harem. 9 She pleased him and won his favor. Immediately he provided her with her beauty treatments and special food. He assigned to her seven female attendants selected from the king’s palace and moved her and her attendants into the best place in the harem. 10 Esther had not revealed her nationality and family background, because Mordecai had forbidden her to do so. 11 Every day he walked back and forth near the courtyard of the harem to find out how Esther was and what was happening to her.
12 Before a young woman’s turn came to go in to King Xerxes, she had to complete twelve months of beauty treatments prescribed for the women, six months with oil of myrrh and six with perfumes and cosmetics. 13 And this is how she would go to the king: Anything she wanted was given her to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace. 14 In the evening she would go there and in the morning return to another part of the harem to the care of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the concubines. She would not return to the king unless he was pleased with her and summoned her by name.
As part of the choosing of the queen, each woman was beautified and prepped for her ‘night’ with the king. They were allowed to take whatever they wanted or needed with them and then they would spend the night with him. Afterwards they were put into the second harem of ‘concubines’, meaning that they were no longer part of regular society or able to marry another. They were the king’s property. Given the situation and the slim chances of success, Esther goes forward, winning favor among all who encountered her. She truly was taking her own hands off the situation and living for the glory of God, not her own.
15 When the turn came for Esther (the young woman Mordecai had adopted, the daughter of his uncle Abihail) to go to the king, she asked for nothing other than what Hegai, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the harem, suggested. And Esther won the favor of everyone who saw her. 16 She was taken to King Xerxes in the royal residence in the tenth month, the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign.
17 Now the king was attracted to Esther more than to any of the other women, and she won his favor and approval more than any of the other virgins. So he set a royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. 18 And the king gave a great banquet, Esther’s banquet, for all his nobles and officials. He proclaimed a holiday throughout the provinces and distributed gifts with royal liberality.
Esther wins the kings favor and officially becomes queen of Persia. What amazing providence God bestows on His people! Even 108 years into their exile, God is still working behind the scenes to maintain the line of Israel that will someday soon produce the Christ. Again we see the king show his extravagance in the announcement of his new bride as he gives a feast for all the nobles and officials. This was now the 7th year of Xerxes’ reign. Since the dethroning of Vashti, Xerxes has gone off to war and come back defeated by the Greeks at Thermopylae, loosing most of his army to starvation and disease. The acquisition of a new queen was exactly what this Persian Empire needed to be reassured of her standing.
19 When the virgins were assembled a second time, Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate. 20 But Esther had kept secret her family background and nationality just as Mordecai had told her to do, for she continued to follow Mordecai’s instructions as she had done when he was bringing her up.
21 During the time Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate, Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king’s officers who guarded the doorway, became angry and conspired to assassinate King Xerxes. 22 But Mordecai found out about the plot and told Queen Esther, who in turn reported it to the king, giving credit to Mordecai. 23 And when the report was investigated and found to be true, the two officials were impaled on poles. All this was recorded in the book of the annals in the presence of the king.
It is possible that Mordecai held some sort of office or scribe post for the king, since he was able to ‘sit at the king’s gate’. The gate of any city in ancient times was where people of prominence would sit and judge, or just sit and gossip. Depending on their historical context the gate filled functions relating to defense, security, health, trade, taxation, and representation, and were correspondingly staffed by military or municipal authorities. The city gate was also commonly used to display diverse kinds of public information such as announcements, tax and toll schedules, standards of local measures, and legal texts. Again we see God’s hand providentially working to stage the means necessary to save His people in the coming years. Mordecai, in his wisdom and faith, had told Esther to keep her nationality secret. It is presumed that their family ties were not known, as we will see later that Mordecai is no stranger to the king’s officials. While he sits at the gate Mordecai overhears a plot to take the king’s life and tells Esther. She, in turn, tells the king on behalf of Mordecai and the matter is diffused and recorded.
Principles and Applications:
With who’s character do you find you have the most in common?
- Are you someone who needs to show power to gain respect? Xerxes was king, yes, but there have been others who relied on God’s timing for power to be made known, and when it was, there was no stopping it. When we wait for God’s timing, and He moves on our behalf, there is no room for failure. God’s timing is always just right.
- Are you defiant or disobedient in the face of authority, or like Esther are you submissive to authority and even go beyond what is asked of you, even in the face of uncertainty? Vashti is a great example for us of what we have been called out of as Christians. Paul exhorts us in Colossians 3:18 Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19 Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them. 20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. 21 Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged. 22 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
- Are you generous to those in need? Mordecai shows his allegiance to family and compassion for his cousin as he takes her in and raises her as his own daughter. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” – James 1:27
- Do you place yourself in situations where you could easily be used by God? Each time we read about Mordecai he is actively participating in the things that might somehow gain him access to Esther or the king. Does he do this for selfish gain or is he working on behalf of his people to win and gain favor? He could easily have turned aside when he heard the two men plot to kill the king. In fact, if it hadn’t been for Esther’s being in the palace, he would have never had a way to voice what he had learned. He knew that he had been placed there for such a time as that, and he took advantage of the opportunity given him. Waiting on God is not passivity.