Esther 1-4: Esther and the King

It is typical to see Esther simply as a book about a woman coming out of her young shell of faith to stand firm and risk death at the hands of her otherwise tyrannical husband.  However, it is also one of the core books which firmly portray by contrast the relationship between the true husband and the Church, as well as a rare example of Christ being portrayed typologically by a woman.

These events take place approximately in the 5th century BC, a number of years prior to the events in Nehemiah after the events of Ezra.

Chapter 1

Note the immediate contrast between the struggle of the Israelites in Ezra and Nehemiah and the lavishness of the kingdom of Ahasuerus in the first chapter of Esther.  V.1-5 is almost a mockery of the state of Israel and its traditions – a seven day feast (held in the court of the garden and the king’s palace – v.5) which is comparable to the Feast of Booths described in Leviticus 23:34-39, except that it is not bookended by solemnity in remembrance of the sacrifice of Christ; rather, Ahasuerus’ pomposity is very much summarised in v.7-8 – “There is no compulsion” and each man can do as each man desired.  Note also the distinction between the feast which was for men (v.1-8) and the one versed description of the feast for women held by Queen Vashti (meaning “beautiful“) in v.9 where the women only celebrated in the palace that “belonged” to King Ahasuerus.  This verb “belonged” will be a common refrain throughout these chapters, as is the undermining of women a common theme.

Noticeably v.10 begins with “on the seventh day”, which is a repeat of Genesis where the LORD rested on the seventh day to enjoy His creation.  Yet, the opening chapters of Esther 1 is a direct mockery of Genesis 1; where the LORD spent seven days to provide a beautiful creation for man and woman’s joint enjoyment, the king’s feast culminated in bringing Queen Vashti to “show the peoples and the princes her beauty, for she was lovely to look at”.  Paul Blackham states in his Book by Book guide on Esther:

“The Garden of Eden is called the Garden of God in the Bible (Ezekiel 28:13; 31:8-9), so Xerxes holds his seven day celebration in the Garden of Xerxes for everybody in the capital Susa!  Xerxes seems to position himself as (at the very least) the mirror of the Living God on earth.

The pride of Xerxes is also shown by the way he decorated his ‘garden’.  His blue and purple linen seems to echo the courtyard of the tabernacle of the LORD described in Exodus 38.  The temple of Solomon in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians about 150 years earlier, so there must have been records of the architecture and furnishings of the temple.  His use of the pillars with silver rings also indicates this kind of knowledge and symbolism.  He formed a pavement of precious metals and jewels (v.6).  If we remember the banquet with God in Exodus 24:9-11 or the throne room of heaven in Revelation 4:1-6 we get an insight into the way that Xerxes viewed himself.  If we remember that the book of Daniel had been written 100 years before we can understand how Xerxes got so much knowledge of heavenly realities.  A book of such literary and theological significance, written by such a high official in the empire, would certainly have been in the royal library.  Daniel’s work included a vision of the throne room of heaven (Daniel 7:9-14), so it is not too much to imagine that Xerxes saw himself as a Son of Man figure over all the nations.”

Such objectification of Vashti, though beautiful, is a far cry from the personal intimacy of the LORD who not only looks on us but embraces us and exalts us.  The LORD does not require Eve, nor does he require His ancient church Adam and Eve, to celebrate in a room separate from the garden and the king’s palace.  Contrarily, He celebrates with us in His garden of Eden, the ancient prototypical Temple.  Unsurprisingly, the king’s anger and drunkenness (c.f. Proverbs 20:1, 23:29-35) is atypical of and a direct contrast to the LORD’s patience and steadfast love.

As if this were not enough, these “wise men” (v.13) who were versed in law and judgment decided to brand Vashti as a poor example of how women should behave towards their husbands and immediately replace her with someone else.  It is heavily implied that their edict is unreasonable, and given that Vashti had upheld her duty towards the king and was an upright queen by way of the brief mention in v.9, their method of stifling her voice is most concerning when compared with the LORD’s edict in Ephesians 5:22-33.  Rather than love and die for her wife, Ahasuerus decided to oppress her and drive her away.

Further, this oppressive edict serves as a background and platform for Esther when she enters the scene.  Will she be like Vashti, beautiful but unloved and ultimately rebellious – in many ways similar to the old Israel (save that the king here is atypical of the LORD)?  Or will she be a new example for the women of Persia and Medes as a follower of Jesus?

Chapter 2

What nonsense that the king should listen to his advisors to replace the queen (v.1-4) – and what contrast it is that the LORD should never forsake His firstborn Israel in spite of His love for the Gentiles (Romans 11:11).  Yet, it is also this foolish plan (c.f. 2 Timothy 4:3) that the LORD used to further His glory, by introducing Mordecai (meaning “little man“), the uncle of Esther (meaning “a star“, the Persian name of Hadassah, meaning “myrtle” – a type of flowering plant, a family of trees and shrubs that are usually evergreen; myrtle plants often produce aromatic oils and are used in spices (e.g. cloves), and seems to indicate fertility and usefulness in Scripture – c.f. Isaiah 41:19; 55:13, Nehemiah 8:15, Zechariah 1:8, growing on the hills about Jerusalem).  Here is the little man of Israel, taken into captivity and living in Persia to bring up his cousin Esther (v.5-7) – a man who is godly, mindful of the rebuilding of Israel and was mentioned once in Ezra 2:2.  The first description of Esther is that she is immediately contrasted with Vashti – where Vashti is a beautiful queen who hosted a banquet for fellow women, Esther is a star who is also beautiful to look at but with a torn past of deceased parents (v.7).  Although Mordecai commanded Esther to not make known her people or kindred (v.10, repeated at v.20), this is firmly distinguished from his later rebuke in Esther 4:12-14 where she is to no longer remain silent.  This is often seen as an example of Mordecai commanding Esther to be wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove (Matthew 10:16), allowing Esther to enter into the realms of Ahasuerus and be the example that Vashti was not, securing the safety of the future of the Israelites.  Mordecai had a very firm understanding of his position under Ahasuerus’ rule, and did not seek to destroy his kingdom; rather, through His understanding of Romans 13, he upholds Ahasuerus (v.21-23) – though the king’s two eunuchs were angry with the king. Notice how Mordecai was “sitting at the king’s gate” (v.19, 21), the gate being a place of public government and judgment in Scripture (c.f. Genesis 23:10-20, 34:20-24; Deuteronomy 21:19, 22:15, 25:7; Ruth 4:11; Job 29:7; Lamentations 5:14).  This may indicate that Mordecai was appointed as a judge or government official, possibly due to Esther’s coronation, another example of the LORD’s care and love for Mordecai and his and Esther’s house – enabling him to continue to preserve Esther’s interests.  Although Esther is the one who reveals the plot, she does so “in the name of Mordecai” (v.22) – clarifying that glory is due to Mordecai and not Esther.  These men were hanged on the gallows (v.23) – or more accurately, as the Hebrew puts it, “hanged on a tree” (see King James’ translation) – akin to the Hebrew curse under Deuteronomy 21.

Mordecai also seems to have harboured, in his own heart, the possibility that Esther is the rescuer of the Israelites should anything detrimental arise (c.f. Esther 4:14). Perhaps the Septuagint version of Esther, which provides several additions (including a prologue which describes Mordecai receiving a vision of a potential clash between the Israelites and its enemies), prompted Mordecai to prepare for such detriment.  The prologue is as follows:

“In the second year when Artaxerxes the Great was king, on the first day of Nisa, Mar- dochaios the son of Iairos son of Semeias son of Kisaios, from the tribe of Beniamin, saw a dream. 2He was a Judean man dwelling in the city of Susa, a great man, serving in the court of the king. 3Now he was of the group of exiles which Nabou- chodonosor, king of Babylon, took captive from Ie- rousalem with Iechonias, the king of Judea. 4And this was his dream: Look! Shouts and confusion! Thunder and earthquake! Chaos upon the earth! 5Look! Two great dragons came forward, both ready to fight, and a great noise arose from them! 6And at their sound every nation prepared for war, to fight against a nation of righteous people. 7Look! A day of darkness and gloom! Affliction and anguish! Oppression and great chaos upon the earth! 8And the whole righteous nation was in chaos, fearing the evils that threatened themselves, and they were ready to perish. 9Then they cried out to God, and from their cry, as though from a small spring, there came a great river, abundant water; 10light, and the sun rose, and the lowly were exalt- ed and devoured those held in esteem. 11Then when Mardochaios, who had seen this dream and what God had determined to do, awoke, he had it on his heart and sought until nightfall to under-stand it in every detail.

12 And Mardochaios took his rest in the court- yard with Gabatha and Tharra, the two eunuchs of the king who guarded the courtyard. 13He both overheard their deliberations and inquired into their ambitions, and learned that they were prepar- ing to lay hands on Artaxerxes the king, and he told the king about them. 14Then the king interro- gated the two eunuchs, and when they confessed, they were led away. 15And the king wrote these things in the record, and Mardochaios wrote con- cerning these things. 16And the king ordered Mar- dochaios to serve in the court and gave to him gifts for these things. 17But Haman son of Hama- dathos, a Bougean, was highly esteemed by the king, and he sought to harm Mardochaios and his people because of the two eunuchs of the king.”

Separately, it helps to compare her with Daniel (c.f. chapters 6-7 of Daniel) as Daniel and his friends were in a position where they could get on with obeying the law of the LORD, but Esther’s situation was directly forbidden (c.f. Deuteronomy 7:3-4 – marriage to a pagan man), and would make her a difficult witness.

It is peculiar that the 12 months of beautifying included six months of myrrh (one of the ingredients of the oil of holy ointment – Exodus 30:23, used also for embalming and preparation of the body either for love – Psalm 45:8; Proverbs 7:17; Song of Songs 1:13, 3:6, 4:6, 14, 5:1, 5, 13, or for burial – Matthew 2:11, John 19:39) and six months of spices and ointments – as if purifying the women for a holy act of divine marriage.  Esther’s charm is not lost on the king as she plays the game safely under the direction of Hegai the king’s eunuch, and is finally elected as the new queen (v.15-18).  Strangely, v.17 describes the king as loving Esther more than all the women – a verb not often associated with the king, given his failure to understand how marriage should work like Ephesians 5:22-33.  Yet, by contrast, the verbs associated to Esther do not fare much better – she is a woman often the object of other people’s initiations (she was adopted (v.7), she was taken into the king’s palace (v.8), she did not make knkown her people (v.10), she asked for nothing except whatever was advised to her (v.15), she was taken to the king (v.16)).  Her actions, so far, are mostly passive – indicating her vulnerability to the circumstances around her.  It is not until a later stage that Esther begins to take her own initiative to stand firm as a type of Christ the Mediator.

Chapter 3

Yet, in spite of Mordecai’s actions to protect the king, Haman the Agagite (perhaps one of the Amalekites – c.f. Numbers 24:7, Deuteronomy 25:17-19, 1 Samuel 15) gets promoted.  Saul’s failure to remove the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15) certainly laid the groundwork for Agag, the king of the Amaelkites, to live and prosper against the LORD’s command, the consequences of his sin creating this tricky situation for Mordecai to confront.  It is certainly peculiar that Mordecai should wish to protect the king (perhaps to lay the groundwork for Esther’s influence, since Mordecai warned the king through Esther) yet does not wish to bow down and pay homage to Haman – despite the king’s decree (v.1-3).  This is not taken lightly (v.3), filling Haman (the “magnificent“) with fury.  By Mordecai’s firmness in his faith, he was seen as an example of the Israelites – in many ways his act of rebellion being comparable to that of ex-Queen Vashti’s act of rebellion seen as an example of the women of Persia and Medes.  However, unlike Vashti who was eventually replaced, the LORD will continue to preserve the remnant of the Israelites despite the ridiculous genocidal decree (v.7-11) that Haman conjured (Genesis 45:7).  It is significant that the king grants Haman the signet ring (v.10, 13) – for without this ring, Haman could not act on behalf of the king.  Yet, it is more significant that Haman’s plot does not come to pass until the 12th month (rather than the first month upon casting lots), providing the Israelites one year to prepare for this incoming persecution (c.f. Proverbs 16:33).  What irony that Haman sets out to destroy the very man who uncovered the plot to destroy the king (v.9), such confusion which is lost on Haman and the king as they ironically sit down and enjoy their drink whilst the city of Susa was simply bewildered (v.15).

Chapter 4

Such a ridiculous edict is met with an appropriate response of the Israelites’ weeping and covering of sackcloth and ashes (v.3; c.f. Genesis 37:34, 42:35; 2 Samuel 3:31 – Matthew 11:21, and Jonah 3:8 – as a sign of repentance; Mordecai’s actions especially modeled after Daniel’s – see Daniel 9:3-19).  Yet, note the queen’s response is quite different.  Hers is an emotion of distress (v.4) – but she is far removed from Mordecai and the other Israelites’ scene and demise, as she had not voiced her heritage openly in the courts of Ahasuerus.  Even when Mordecai pleaded for the queen to beg his favour – this same Mordecai who had brought up Esther and who Esther owes her life to; the same Mordecai who disclosed to Hathach that Esther is of the same people who are being persecuted (v.8); the same Mordecai who would be murdered relentlessly by Haman’s edict, meeting the same end as the other Israelites in Ahasuerus’ reign – Esther’s response is cold (v.11):

“All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—to be put to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter so that he may live. But as for me, I have not been called to come in to the king these thirty days.”

In other words – either the Israelites, including Mordecai, dies or Esther dies!  Mordecai immediately salvages this by rebuking Esther (v.12-14) and reminding her that even if Esther were to stay silent, “relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but [Esther] and [Esther’s house] will perish.”  What faith and trust that the LORD will indeed continue to rescue Israel His remnant (c.f. 2 Kings 19:4-31; Ezra 9; Isaiah 10:20-22, 37:4-32) through various possibilities not fatalistically predetermined through Esther.  Paul Blackham quotes Derek Prime’s “Unspoken Lessons about the Unseen God” (Evangelical Press, Darlington, 2001) pg. 20-21 which states:

“…crucial to the background of the book of Esther is the conflict described in God’s words to the serpent, the devil’s instrument, in Genesis 3:15… Satan’s activity is traceable throughout the Bible.  His tracks may be discerned, together with the aliases he employs – in this case, that of Haman.  Satan, the enemy of souls, was endeavouring to destroy the Jews, the people through whose seed the Messiah was to be born into the world, in order to make null and void God’s promise of a Redeemer… God was committed to preserving the Jewish people so that from them salvation might go out into the ends of the earth… God’s protection of his people was the protection of the Offspring of the woman though which he preserved and carried on his plan of redemption.”

Mordecai simply trusted in this Promised Seed, and knew clearly that whatever Satan’s plan was, the prophesied Offspring of Adam will protect His church of all times.

Esther’s response is finally one of initiation (v.15-17) – for the first time in these chapters, she proactively acted for God’s kingdom, commanding Mordecai to gather the Jews and hold a fast on Esther’s behalf (including her young women (v.16) which indicates that Esther’s quiet faith has also evangelised to others in Ahasuerus’ court to join the Ancient Church), for Esther may perish (v.16), although she is expecting a victorious outcome as a type of Christ the One who – to Esther – will be victorious from his mighty feat of resurrection by the third day (v.16).

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Esther 1-4: Esther and the King

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