This is my sermon on the prologue of the book of Esther (1:1-2:4).
Ah, the book of Esther… those who grew up going to Christian Sunday School classes are probably already familiar with the basic story. But, unlike a lot of Sunday School versions of Bible Stories, Esther’s story has a lot more in it than we heard as kids. Most Bible Stories are really short, and so the kid’s version is embellished with details to capture their imagination. Esther’s story, on the other hand, is basically a novella. Unlike a lot of other Bible Stories, Esther actually reads like a story. Slogging through the stories in the books of Samuel, Kings, or Chronicles is a very different feel to reading Esther. The general tone and style of this book, as a result, has been a matter of considerable discussion among biblical scholars. Is it a strict account of historic events? Is it a fable or legend based on a long-lost true story? Is it a Greek-style comedy, a Jewish drama, a Persian chronicle? It’s something of a mixed bag.
One indicator of its rich writing style is the very beginning of verse 1. The ESV translation simplifies the phrasing of this opening, as it reads “Now in the days of Ahasuerus,” while others like the NIV read “This is what happened during the time of Xerxes.” The feature here that I’m pointing to is that two different standard phrases are being mashed together. The first part – “this is what happened” – is a feature of historical writings like the books of Kings or Chronicles; the second part – “during the days of…” – is a feature of prophetic writings like Isaiah or Haggai. By putting those two standard opening lines together into one compound introduction, the author of Esther is indicating that the style of this book is not going to be straightforward history. There are going to be embellishments. At first, a 21st century Bible-believing evangelical Christian might recoil hearing me say such a thing. “Are you questioning the truthfulness of God’s Word!?” But we must remember that just as Jesus used parables in his teaching – made-up stories to illustrate a point – so too could other biblical writers deviate from what we modern folks consider proper history writing, for the purpose of teaching us something important. The style of the book of Esther, I would like to suggest, is not meant to be read as a straight-up historical narrative, but as a dramatized version of a true story rooted in historical events. More specifically, as we’ll see at the very end of the book of Esther, this story has been preserved for the celebration of the Jewish feast of Purim, and the reading of this book is part of that holiday’s celebration. Therefore, the best way to read this story, in my understanding, is to read it as if you’re a storyteller surrounded by children. Read it loudly, with a sense of adventure, and be ready to make people laugh.
Seriously, give it a try. Read Esther 1:1-2:4 out loud like you’re sitting on the edge of a stage surrounded by kids as their parents watch (and laugh along) from the seats in the audience.
What did I just read?
Okay, now let’s look at what’s in here that makes this story so dramatic and funny. As a melodramatic story, there is a great deal of exaggeration, absurdity, and irony built into it.
Right away in verse 1 there is a big number: Persia is said to have 127 provinces. Historically, there were only 20, or as many as 26 Satrapys. The number 127 is either an over-the-top exaggeration, to emphasize the fact that the Persian Empire was the largest the world had ever known up to that point, or it’s possible that 127 is the number of sub-sections of the Empire. Imagine if we described the USA as having 3,143 counties, instead of 50 states? The country sounds bigger when you use larger numbers.
Next, King Ahasuerus has a funny-sound name in Hebrew: (אֲחַשְׁוֵר֑וֹשׁ) Achashuerush. He is better-remembered in history by the name of Xerxes, which some English translations use, but his Hebrew name can elicit a bit of a giggle from the kids. Similarly, the names of the seven eunuchs that he sends to fetch Vashti also have funny-sounding names. According to one commentary, their names are normal Persian names, but modified a little so they’re harder to pronounce. I guess this is a universally human thing; if you want to elicit humor from something foreign, just use a fake accent and make it sound hard-to-pronounce on purpose.
And then these banquets are described. The lavish riches listed here are actually probably realistic. Susa was a very wealthy city, built by artisans from across the vast Persian Empire, and some of it has been excavated by archaeologists, who have confirmed a variety of beautiful art and architecture was present. But what is exaggerated is the 180-day party. Even a big successful empire can’t spare its king and officials for half a year straight! But the absurdly long length of the first celebration, on top of the lavish supplies and the two other celebrations that follow, and the “no compulsion” edict (meaning you’re allowed to drink as much as you want, even if you out-drink the king) all work together to paint a picture of something truly enormous. Great wealth and power can be found here.
But all this grandiose display of wealth and power is brought to a screeching halt when the king sends his funny-named servants to bring the Queen to him “with her royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the princes her beauty.” Now, you may recall Queen Vashti was hosting a banquet of her own, for the women. This was not an uncommon thing, and the reason is actually quite familiar: it was poor taste to include women at a banquet where men are getting ridiculously drunk. Whether the king is breaking protocol or not by calling for Vashti at the end of his banquet is beyond my knowledge, but the circumstances of his invitation are dubious at best. Apparently, many Jewish scholars have surmised that when he said she should be wearing her royal crown, he meant only her royal crown. And to make matters worse, the narrative explicitly says he wants to show off her beauty. So it’s not altogether surprising that she refused.
What’s intriguing here is the king’s response to Vashti’s refusal to be treated like a mere possession. He’s enraged, of course, and his anger burned within him along with that wine that was making his heart “merry,” but he doesn’t act according to his anger like you would expect. He suddenly sits back, looks to his wise advisors, and asks for advice. The narrator even makes the point of adding the fact that he always follows this procedure, of looking to the wise men of great rank in the empire. The character of this king has just been given a bizarre twist: he’s a wealthy powerful egotist, yes, but now he’s also insecure and indecisive. This can be pretty humorous – here’s a big powerful dude who rules 8% of the planet and can’t make decisions! And so the kids in the audience laugh as this bumbling king stumbles around trying to figure out what he should do. But at the same time, the grown-ups in the audience shudder as they realize this man can be extremely dangerous. With all this power, but easily swayed by others, who knows what evil he could be manipulated into doing. And if he’s always asking others about the law of his own country, there’s no guarantee that he’s going to remember the kind policies of his predecessors who had protected the Jews in the past.
Anyway, the advisors speak, and come up with some more simultaneously funny and worrying advice. The “insubordination” of Queen Vashti sparks an exaggerated fear of other wives disregarding their husbands, throwing the whole country into chaos. The self-interest displayed by these advisors is rather worrying, as they look to protect their own honor in the face of the king’s embarrassment. It’s also kind of ironic that this king who couldn’t command his wife is now issuing an edict that all husbands should have command of their wives.
And then, at the beginning of chapter 2, some time has passed – probably a few years in which the Persians launched a catastrophic failure of a campaign against Greece. Back home, kind of dejected, and still insecure, the king misses his wife Vashti, and again turns to advisors to solve his problems for him. The solution makes sense in a weird way, but still is a little funny: let’s have a nation-wide beauty contest! Once again, the king receives this advice without question, and the plan is put into action. The story of Esther has been set up, and next week we’ll meet Esther herself.
What the audience should get out of this Prologue is not about feminism or the comedic male-female relational dynamics, as some people like to focus on. Trying to compare Vasthi with Esther is not what this story was written for. Rather, this story prologue is setting up the situation of King Achashuerush as a wealthy, powerful, yet indecisive man, and his court in Susa as a group of self-interested manipulative people who are just as egotistical as he is. This spells bad news, and paints a foreboding picture for God’s people, the Jews who live in various places throughout the Persian Empire. The contrast of power and vulnerability is unspoken by the storyteller, but expected to arise in the minds of the listeners.
What to make of this?
Now, because the book of Esther is one continuous story, it’s a little difficult for me to deliver a “sermon application” for just a small piece of it, especially when it’s just the prologue. One thing that I can point out is the recognition of earthly authority. The power wielded by kings and governors is very real, and can be used both for good and for ill. Vashti stood up to that power, and was punished for it. In her situation, I think we would all agree that she made a good decision in protecting her dignity, but the hard lesson is that sometimes the earthly authorities are corrupt and make bad decisions and we just have to deal with it. The witness of Jesus Christ, plus the countless numbers of Jewish martyrs before him, and Christian martyrs after him, is a testimony to the reality of what happens to good people under evil regimes. Perhaps one of the more challenging aspects to this lesson is the fact that if we do stand up against a government, we should still expect to face the punishment issued by that government, no matter the cost. We don’t know what happened to Vashti, if she just lived in exile outside the palace or if she was executed. In a way it doesn’t matter – the lesson is the same: she made a stand and took the consequences.
Now, if you’ll permit me to anticipate the rest of the book of Esther, I’d like to take this a step further. Not only should we recognize the power of earthly authority (for good and for ill), but we should also recognize the authority of Christ “above all earthly powers.” As the book of Esther continues, the entire Jewish people is put in danger of genocide, but at the last minute God rescues them. The reality of God’s rule over all creation overrides all earthly powers. The classic hymn A mighty fortress is our God reflects on this in verse 4 – the Word of God, “above all earthly powers, no thanks to them abides.” With the supremacy of Christ established, it then goes on to apply it to us: “The Spirit and the gifts are ours through him who with us sides. Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still; His kingdom is forever.”
As you think about that, you may find this both greatly inspiring and perhaps little nerve-wracking. It’s encouraging to know that Christ is supreme, and the Holy Spirit is with us, and “God is for us.” But it’s not exactly fun to think about the possibilities of persecution unto death. I don’t want to let my goods and kindred go. And in my more self-centered moments I might even dare ask what good it does me if God’s truth abides after my body is killed. The uncertainty of this life is not something we like to face; we want to believe that God will make everything good and easy and right, and will do so promptly! But that is not what Jesus promised. In our Gospel reading this morning (Luke 19:41-47a) Jesus wept over Jerusalem, saying “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” This was fulfilled in the year 70 during the last Roman-Jewish War when the city of Jerusalem was sacked and the Temple destroyed for the last time. It was in light of that warning that Jesus went on to focus a lot of his final teaching time on warning his disciples to flee from that coming destruction. He knew that powerful evil in the world would continue to bring destruction, and that even Christians would not be exempt from its effects.
To this day, we can see versions of King Achashuerush in all sorts of places. Think about that presidential candidate who would cause such devastation if he or she got elected. Think about that dictator across the globe whose insecurity and impulsiveness contributes to a volatile international situation. Think about that famous historical figure who was surrounded by people feeding him evil advice, and how he went on to commit atrocities the likes of which the world had never seen, and we pray will never see again. I don’t even have to name names, and you’re already feeling the same sense of foreboding that the audience of the story of Esther is meant to feel. Just as the Jews were back then, so now are Christians scattered throughout the world with no earthly king to protect us. Certain countries have positive track records protecting us or even giving us special rights, as the Persians did for the Jews early on, but that is no guarantee for the future. We are just as vulnerable to the machinations of the world, the flesh, and the devil as any other people-group.
We are not alone!
Except there is one thing that we do have which nobody else has: a promise. Over and over again throughout the Scriptures, God repeats the same promise to his people “I will be with you.” When we went through 2 Chronicles we saw numerous reminders of God’s promise to Solomon to be present in the Temple for anyone who sought Him there. In Ezra when God stirred up King Cyrus to allow Jerusalem to be rebuilt, God was inviting his people home to be with Him again. In Haggai, God told the people “my Spirit is in your midst.” And now, in Esther, although the storyteller does not report any special word from the Lord, the audience is expected to know the history and the covenant: God will save his people. Jesus’ last words in the Gospel of Matthew are the same: “I will be with you always, to the end of the age.”
The presence of God makes all the difference the world. No matter what happens to us – our goods, kindred, or body – God is with us. No matter what the earthly powers do, Christ is above all of them. No matter how unjust or wicked or deceitful earthly governments can get, the righteousness of God will eventually conquer them all. Even when God seems far away, remote, invisible, on vacation, or whatever, the truth is that God is with us. Jesus was not abandoned even on the Cross. He cried out to his Father about feeling abandoned because the weight of the sin of the world was upon him – he took up our infirmities, he identified with our sufferings, he became a high priest who can sympathize with our greatest woe. Even in death and his descent into hell, God the Son did not abandon Jesus the man. Jesus, fully God and fully human, went through death, made it a paradise, and in three days returned to earth to declare the good news. As Psalm 30 (verse 5) wonderfully puts it, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
There is much in this world that is evil, much in this world that is scary. It alright to be nervous; it is natural to recognize danger and shy away from it. Sometimes the Lord tells us to flee from the wrath to come; that is good. Sometimes the Lord raises people up to confront the world’s evils; that is also good. Don’t assume upon yourself the role of the hero without God’s calling. Don’t sound the retreat without God’s calling either. If you see calamity coming, seek the Lord in prayer. There’s a time to dig in, stick it out, endure what’s coming, and be a light in a dark place; and there’s a time to “move to Canada” as we Americans sometimes like to joke when faced with unfavorable political situations. What’s important is that no matter who’s on the throne of Persia, or in the White House, or holding the judge’s gavel in front of you, Christ is the Lord above all earthly powers, and in His time justice will be served. As our Lord (and many of his angels) said over and over again: Do not be afraid; peace be with you.