Let me say from the outset: Esther 1 is one of the most ridiculous chapters in the Bible. More on that later.
But here we are – another book about the exiled people of Israel. (I have enjoyed reading these books about exiles as we are exiled from our regular church meetings!) The Israelites who appear in the Book of Esther still were in exile – unlike those written about in Ezra and Nehemiah and Haggai and Zechariah, who had come back to Jerusalem and were working to rebuild the temple and the city walls. The Book of Esther chronicles a period in the life of the Jews who still were in Persia. They were trying to figure out how to live as God’s people in a foreign land – and also to survive.
The events recorded in the Book of Esther took place during the reign of King Ahasuerus of Persia, who reigned from 486-465 BC. He also was known as King Xerxes. He was the son of King Darius, who approved of the rebuilding of the temple back in Jerusalem (Ezra 6).
So while some of the Israelites were re-establishing themselves in the Promised Land, some of them were still in exile in Persia, trying to hang on in a hostile land.
And that brings us to the ridiculousness of Esther 1. It’s hard to read it and not shake our heads. It paints a picture of a king who ruled like a god. King Ahasuerus reigned from India to Ethiopia over 127 provinces. During the third year of his reign, he threw a huge party that lasted 180 days for the officials in his empire. A six-month party! Who can party for that long?
He wanted to show off “the riches of his royal glory and the splendor and pomp of his greatness.” It was a demonstration of how great he was. He wanted to impress the people around him.
And among those people were the Jews. They must have been part of the seven-day feast King Ahasuerus hosted after his six-month party. “All the people” were there.
So the Israelites were on hand to take in the pomp and circumstance of King Ahasuerus. I wonder what they thought. The description of the king’s palace is very detailed. It’s almost described with the detail the Bible describes the old tabernacle and temple back in the Promised Land. With curtains and pillars and high-priced vessels (Exodus 26; 1 Kings 7:13-51). King Ahasuerus’ palace was an incredibly opulent place.
The tabernacle and the temple were where the presence of God dwelt among his people. So who did King Ahasuerus think he was? Well, he thought he was a god. And he wanted the people to view him as such.
This little god issued an edict about drinking during his big feast. (Maybe he thought he was the god of fraternity parties?) The edict said, “There is no compulsion.” And orders were issued to all the staff of the palace that each man should do as he desired.
So Esther 1 paints the picture for us. This was a fabulously powerful and wealthy king, who reigned over much of the known world. And he threw a party to celebrate his greatness and his power, and he issued an edict that people could drink without stopping and do whatever they wished.
The whole thing is ridiculous – and sad. These are all the things that our world drives us to. It drives us to seek control and power and wealth and fame. It drives us to pursue our own desires while turning a blind eye to the consequences – and the sheer fact that we can’t all pursue our desires. Our desires, if pursued to the fullest extent, tend to cause us to trample one another down.
And that is proved out in Esther 1. King Ahasuerus had a wife named Vashti. She held a feast for the women in the palace. But on the seventh day of the feast, King Ahasuerus sent his eunuchs to Queen Vashti to command her to come into the royal court with her crown on. The king already had showed off his wealth and power. Now he wanted to show off his queen.
Ah, and here we find a limit in King Ahasuerus’ power! Queen Vashti refused to come. His desire and her desire were in conflict. And consequences ensued.
King Ahasuerus looks pretty small throughout the rest of the chapter. He couldn’t get his queen to follow his command. He was enraged and his anger “burned within him.” So he called for the lawyers – the king’s counselors. So this wasn’t an all-wise king. He got their advice about what should be done with Queen Vashti.
The ruling from the king’s counselors was that the queen should be removed and replaced. And a decree should be sent out that women should give honor to their husbands. After all, if all the women did to their husbands what Vashti did to the king, “there will be contempt and wrath in plenty.”
So the message was sent out to all the provinces.
Some might consider Queen Vashti the first feminist. Of course, we don’t know why she refused the king’s command. The text is silent on that. And her action had far-reaching consequences. Men across the land were now affirmed by a royal decree – their wives would give them honor, or else! A royal decree was binding. It could not be repealed. (That was important.)
What a mess. I say it’s a ridiculous chapter because it demonstrates so well the ways of the world in which we live. Values and desires clash against one another, and negative consequences ensue. People get enraged and make sweeping decisions over relatively silly things. The powerful aren’t really as powerful as they look. King Ahasuerus was a man, not a god – regardless of what he thought about himself.
And God’s people were living in this ridiculous and dangerous world.
I wonder if they, like us, were longing for their homeland – a better country (Hebrews 11:13-16).