The story of Esther is one of the most beautiful and profound narratives in all of Scripture. In this episode, we explore how the characters in Esther are an important illustration of truth for our everyday lives. We will begin working through some historical context that can add layers to how we perceive this story.
Let’s look at Esther. We’ll do the first couple of verses here, and then I’ll tell you the historical setting. And then we’ll kind of go through the story, which will be pretty familiar. I’ll just read excerpts to get the story in place. And then we’ll make some applications.
So 1:1. Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus (this was the Ahasuerus who reigned over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces, from India to Ethiopia), in those days when King Ahasuerus sat on the throne of his kingdom, which was in Shushan the citadel, that in the third year of his reign he made a feast for all his officials and servants—
Let me give you the background of Esther here. The historical background.
So, by virtue of the fact that they’re explaining about which Ahasuerus this is, what does that tell you? There was more than one.
This is actually really helpful to me because a lot of this exile-and-return stuff is new to me, so I’ve had to really struggle trying to understand how it all fits together.
And last week, you might remember, we went through the book of Ezra. And Ezra has an Ahasuerus in it. And it says Ahasuerus and Xerxes wrote letters to stop the building of the temple. And then Darius went in the archives and found out that Cyrus had said go build the temple, and so he reissued the order and said go build the temple.
Well that was really confusing to me because the way the big kings go, it goes Cyrus, who is also probably the same person as Darius the Mede. Cyrus was the guy who conquered Babylon, the handwriting on the wall. Tonight you will fall. The Babylonians fell to Cyrus that night. And so that was in 539 B.C. And he’s the same guy that threw Daniel in the lion’s den. That’s Cyrus.
And then the next big king is Darius. And Darius is the one that said go build that temple.
And then after Darius, the big next big king you have is Xerxes, who’s also called Ahasuerus in this book of Esther.
And then you have Artaxerxes. Artaxerxes is the main king character in Nehemiah.
And so, what happened last week is some people from Sumeria and their surrounding area sent letters into Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes. They said stop building the temple, and so they said, “Yes, stop because this is a rebellious city.” And then Darius overthrew that, which was very confusing to me because Artaxerxes and Ahasuerus came after Darius.
Well there’s more than one Ahasuerus as we can see here.
And there were two minor kings between Cyrus and Darius who go by names like Smerdis and Cambyses or something like that. And even if you go on Wikipedia and look up Smerdis, he has like five other names.
So these kings had all kinds of names, and they’re nothing like each other. Kind of like we call Deutschland, Germany. You ever wonder how Deutschland turned into Germany? What is that? Well, different languages have different names for things.
So this is the Ahasuerus that’s the big one, the Xerxes.
Now, Daniel. Daniel in the lion’s den. That’s Cyrus.
Then you have these two little guys that stop building the temple. And they never really got a control on power, and you can understand they wouldn’t want anything to threaten their power.
And then Darius comes in. He’s called Darius the Great. And Darius says, hey, you guys start building that temple again.
Now just a little bit about Darius the Great. He was a really big king. He was the ruler of the world.
And Darius the Great, you can go look this up on the Internet. I encourage you to. He did a road sign that you can still see today. He made a road sign that you can see today, if you could go to Iran. It’s called the Behistun inscription.
And this Behistun inscription is about the size of Mount Rushmore. It’s about 300 feet off the ground, 75 feet wide, 45 feet tall. And in this thing—it’s on a trade route near a place I think called Behistun or whatever. And up there, it’s got a giant mural like a frieze, you know, chiseled into the stone. And it’s got Darius and a row of characters that are from countries he has subdued, including Greece.
And then it’s got all this writing up here about all his campaigns and how great he is and how he’s conquered people and stuff, with writing that’s too small to see from the road. I’m not sure exactly what was going on there. But the point is, I’m great and wonderful, and everybody from now on is going to remember me. Which worked, I guess. You know, it’s that still part of what gives Darius his legacy.
Well, Darius was a guy who had conquered all these other kingdoms. He was the ruler of the known world. And Greece was a little bit of a problem to him. And so he invaded Greece at a place called Marathon. Anybody ever heard of a marathon? He lost that battle. He outnumbered the Greeks ten to one, and he lost that battle. And the guy ran back 26.2 miles from Marathon to Athens to tell them they’d won, and he died. So that’s commemorated by that thing because that’s the first time the balance of power started to tip. That’s the same guy.
Well his son didn’t like that very much. So Darius started the whole idea of going back again, and his son, Xerxes, continued that. And reports started filtering back to Greece that there were mounds of food supplies that look like mountains. They were blocking out the sun because they were getting ready to invade. Because, you know, I think it was like a hundred thousand people invaded Marathon and ten thousand Greeks met them or something like this. It was in 490 B.C., was Marathon.
And in 480, they invaded again. This time, they estimated two million people that they invaded from Persia to Greece.
So if you’ve watched the movie 300—Yeah, I saw a lot of enthusiastic nods—This is about the battle of Thermopylae, which is called the Greek Alamo. Because the Greeks didn’t really believe this was going to happen.
I think they had 400 ships, two million men, four hundred ships to supply the army with these giant mounds of food supplies.
And the Greeks met them at this pass between the sea and the mountains called Thermopylae and held them off for a few days so the Greeks could kind of hastily assemble their defenses. And the Greeks ended up defeating their ships so they had no way to supply the army. And it was a complete devastating defeat for the Persians at the end of the day. And, basically, from that point on, the balance of power tipped from east to west.
So in ancient history, Xerxes is considered the guy where the balance of power went from east to west. And only about a hundred years later, Alexander the Great’s going to go in and conquer it altogether.
The story of Esther
Xerxes is this guy Ahasuerus, and he’s the guy that puts up on the billboard, “I’m Mr. Wonderful! I control the world! I’ve got all these other people I control!” And he goes and just gets his tail beat off completely.
What would you do if you’re king, this massive king, and that happens? Well you would throw a huge party, right? Because you’ve got to reinforce your greatness in the local community. And so that’s what he does.
Let’s just keep going here.
Verse 4. when he showed the riches of his glorious kingdom and the splendor of his excellent majesty for many days, one hundred and eighty days in all.
After you have suffered a huge humiliating defeat, you’ve got to reinstitute all the patronage around you to make sure you’re secure as a king, so he does that. 180-day party. And in this particular party—normally you would have to drink when the king drank and eat when the king eats because, you know, everything’s about the king. And he said everybody just drink and eat whenever you want to. So he’s actually giving some tremendous freedom even during this time period.
Verse 10. On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine—which we would say when he was drunk—he commanded these different people, these eunuchs, these ubiquitous eunuchs who kind of run everything, who served—and you always had eunuchs in the harem. That was always the case. —to bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing her royal crown, in order to show her beauty to the people and the officials—
Now Queen Vashti had the women going on in a different deal. So he had the men’s raucous party going for 180 days and the women’s raucous party going for 180 days. And probably, if you had a woman come before a raucous party of men to show her beauty, it was not going to be, you know, to look at how wonderful her clothes are. It was probably going to be something lewd.
And she said, “I’m not going to do that.” And, you know, if she had done it, she might have ended up with her head on a platter. You don’t really know how this is going to work. But since she disobeyed the king’s command, everybody kind of freaks out.
So he says, what are we going to do?
Go down to verse 19, and these eunuchs said, well, let a royal decree go out from him, and let it be recorded in the laws of the Persians and the Medes, so that it will not be altered—because once you make a law in the Persians and the Medes, you can’t alter it.
This was one of the things they did to keep kings from being capricious. Remember when Darius the Mede or Cyrus gave the order that whoever prayed to anybody but the king would be thrown in a lions’ den? Remember that? And then he realized he’d been taken and tricked, and he was trying to overturn his own law and couldn’t figure out a way to do it? Well, that’s because you can’t alter the law once it’s made. That’ll be important here in a minute.
let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she.
Verse 20. When the king’s decree which he will make is proclaimed throughout all his empire (for it is great), all wives will honor their husbands, both great and small.”
I think we probably ought to start a men’s movement here to try to get this law passed in America as well that we have…. Well, anyway—
Apparently, this slight of the king affected every male ego in the whole country. And, you can kind of understand. If you had this giant invasion where you’re going to make a point once and for all, and you get absolutely whipped, that everybody would be feeling a little down. This is a sensitive time. So this happens.
As a result of this, they have a beauty contest. And the way the beauty contest works is in 2:12. They select all these women. They have a beauty contest. If you make it through and win the beauty contest, then you get one night with the king.
Verse 12. Each young woman’s turn came to go in to King Ahasuerus after she had completed twelve months’ preparation—
This is how the preparation works: according to the regulations for the women, for thus were the days of their preparation apportioned: six months with oil of myrrh, and six months with perfumes and preparations for beautifying women.
So you spent six months in a beauty salon, beauty spa, getting ready for this one night.
Thus prepared, each young woman went to the king, and she was given whatever she desired to take with her from the women’s quarters to the king’s palace.
In the evening she went, and in the morning she returned to the second house of the women, to the custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who kept the concubines. She would not go into the king again unless the king delighted in her and called for her by name.
If the king can’t remember your name, you never see him again.
And I read one thing that said that these women would live like widows the rest of their lives. They had this one shot, and then that was it for the rest of their lives.
It’s kind of an interesting beauty contest.
But, you know, the way this whole thing works is just having this one opportunity with the king was supposed to make you happy for the rest of your life. Remember Nehemiah? He was really concerned about being sad in the presence of the king. Do you remember why that was?
If you’re upset in the presence of the king, he’s not making you happy.
Yeah, yeah, exactly. Because if you’re in the presence of the king, that in and of itself should make you just elated, just to be in his presence. If you’re sad, it’s a slight on the king; he’s afraid he’s going to lose his head. That’s the way this works. It’s all about just the king. He makes you happy. That one night’s enough for the rest of your life.
And, you know, it would be interesting, how many things in our world promise this? Have you ever thought of something like a Happy Meal? Shouldn’t a Happy Meal, if it really works, shouldn’t it make you happy for the rest of your life? You know, I’m 40 years old, and I think back, “Yeah, but I got that toy!”
Anyway, it turns out the king did remember Esther’s name. She was the number one. She wins the whole deal. She gets to be queen.
And 2:20. Now Esther had not revealed her family and her people, because—I think it’s her cousin. I think Mordecai is her cousin, if I got the family deal right, but had kind of adopted her as his daughter because she’s an orphan. So this is like a Disney movie, right? The orphan girl from a kind of an off deal. Now she’s the queen. Mordecai said don’t tell him where you’re from.
Verse 21, In those days, while Mordecai sat within the king’s gate, two of the king’s eunuchs, Bigthan and Teresh—I wonder why Bigthan is not a popular name. Is that not a cool name? Bigthan. They were doorkeepers, became furious and sought to lay hands on King Ahasuerus. They’re going to kill him.
So the matter became known to Mordecai, who told Queen Esther, and Esther informed the king in Mordecai’s name.
And when an inquiry was made into the matter, it was confirmed, and both were hanged on a gallows; and it was written in the book of the chronicles in the presence of the king.
So sitting in the king’s gate means that you’re one of his administration because this is where the official business of all these ancient kingdoms was done, in the gate. If you’re going to meet with the king, you’re going to meet with one of the king’s counselors, you’re going to do some business, you do it at the gate. If I remember right, Boaz, when he does the thing where he gives the sandal to buy Ruth, is in the king’s gate, I think. I should have looked at that.
But this is typically where this happened.
So Mordechai is now an official, and I think Esther got him that job.
Now 3:1. After these things King Ahasuerus promoted Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him and set his seat above all the princes who were with him.
Now we don’t have time to go back and really delve into this, but it would be worth studying on your own. In 1 Samuel 15, Saul has an engagement with Agag the king. And this is the one where he’s supposed to kill everything, and he doesn’t. He leaves King Agag alive, and Samuel comes in and ends up executing him.
Well that sets up a fight between Samuel and the Agagites that kind of trickles throughout scripture.
Well, guess which tribe Mordecai is from? Benjamin. Here it is again. We’ve got this same thing coming up.
And this is the way the biblical timelines work. We tend to think, as Greeks, in straight lines, but the biblical narrative really cycles. The same kind of thing keeps happening over and over and over again. We see a prophecy, and it’ll actually be fulfilled multiple times. And so did these contests.
So here it is again. And we’re going to see Saul and Agag once again.
So he advanced him and set his seat above all the princes who were with him.
Now he’s the number one guy. And everybody that served within the king’s gate in the administration, in the power structure, bowed and paid homage to Haman because the King had ordered that that should be the case.
But Mordecai wouldn’t bow and pay homage.
Now it’s not really clear to anybody why that is. We’re not sure. Because it’s not like an idol or an image. But his rationale is, “I’m Jewish; I can’t do that.” Whatever his rationale was, it was related to being Jewish.
Verse 5. When Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow or pay him homage, Haman was filled with wrath.
What does that tell us about what kind of fellow Haman is, when he’s just really consumed because somebody won’t bow and scrape to him? A little bit of an ego, right?
But Haman is also a big thinker because he probably could have had Mordecai killed at that point in time because he’s the head prince, and people’s lives don’t matter that much in this time period. If you really feel bad, have a bad day, and killing somebody makes you feel better, it’s okay, you know. That’s kind of the way they were. And, so, we’ll see that in a little bit.
But he said no. Verse 6. But he disdained to lay hands on Mordecai alone—
Because if his rationale for not bowing and scraping is “I’m a Jew,” therefore, what am I going to do? Kill all the Jews. So he says, “I’m going to kill them all. So he comes up with this plot.
So in verse 8, Then Haman said to King Ahasuerus, “There is a certain people—he doesn’t name who they are, just a certain people— scattered and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of your kingdom—they’re all spread out all over the place— their laws are different from all other people’s, and they do not keep the king’s laws. Therefore it is not fitting for the king to let them remain.
If it pleases the king, let a decree be written that they be destroyed, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those who do the work, to bring it into the king’s treasuries.”
I looked up ten thousand talents of silver, and one of the places I looked up said that’s about two billion dollars in today’s money. That would be a lot of money for us. Not much for the US government. But, in terms of ancient times, maybe it’s still a lot of money.
And, of course, where’s Haman going to get all this money? He’s going to take it from the Jews, right?
It’s interesting how similar this is to what Hitler did. It’s the same kind of thing over and over again that you have this cycle of “let’s get rid of all the Jews.”
So the king says, that’s fine. He hands him the signet ring.
Now sometimes this confuses people, but I’m going to give you my interpretation. Look at verse 11.
And the king said to Haman, “The money and the people are given to you, to do with them as seems good to you.”
Now later we’re going to hear the King say, “Whatever you want, up to half the kingdom.”
Now if that was us and someone said that us, what would we say? I’ll take half the kingdom, right? That’s what we would say. “Good! I’ll take half the kingdom!”
Well, I think the way this worked—this is my interpretation. “No, the money’s yours; but you can have half the kingdom.” I think the way this works is you could say, “I’ll take half the kingdom,” and the king would say, “Okay, it’s yours.” And the next day he would say, “I decided I want your head on a platter, and I’ll take that half the kingdom back.” You see what I’m saying?
The full expectation is if being in the presence of the king for one night is supposed to keep you happy all the rest of your life, then when he says, “Do with it whatever you please,” the full expectation is what? “Oh, of course, what I want to do with it is give it to you.” You see how this works?
I don’t think this is like we would think about it. This is a Near Eastern politeness where you don’t ever actually accept that invitation.
So, they wrote letters. Verse 13. And the letters were sent by couriers into all the king’s provinces, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all the Jews—
How about those verbs? Destroy, kill, annihilate. So, destroy. You know that means make it all rubble. Kill. There aren’t any left. Annihilate. Not just some, all. That’s a nice string of verbs, right?
And they decided to do it on this certain day that they cast by lots. The lots were called pur. That’s what the lots were. This is how they chose things. We’re going to cast lots for which day. It’s on that day. So this is a certain day in the month of Adar.
They issued this document, and all the Jews are like, “What?! Wh-what, what happened?! You know, we’ve been here for—” Let’s see. How long would they have been here now? We’re in the Xerxes, 485, 465. They’ve been here a hundred years now. They’ve got several generations that have been here.
Some have gone back. Some have gone back under Darius, right, Ezra, Zerubbabel, those guys. But many have stayed. And they’re like, “What? We’re citizens here? What are you talking about? Why are you doing this?”
In 4:8, Mordecai sends a message to Esther and says go into the king to make supplication to him and plead before him for her people.
And here’s what Esther says in 4:10. Then Esther spoke to Hathach, and gave him a command for Mordecai:
“All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that any man or woman who goes into the inner court to the king, who has not been called, he has but one law: put all to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter, that he may live. Yet I myself have not been called to go into the king these thirty days.”
Apparently, you’re the chief wife; but even if you’re the chief wife, you may go long periods of time where you don’t see the king. And I don’t know if that’s because it’s the new people coming in or the ones he can remember the name. Maybe he has a list that he keeps, and somebody—I don’t know how that works. But she hasn’t even seen him for thirty days.
And she says, yeah, I haven’t been called for thirty days. I don’t know why. If I go in and he doesn’t extend the scepter, I’m dead.
And Mordecai told them to answer Esther—because this is all going through couriers, by messenger service— “Do not think in your heart that you will escape in the king’s palace any more than all the other Jews.
So in other words, his logic is you’re going to die anyway. If you die first, it’s not that big a deal.
Verse 14. For if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place—
Mordecai has complete faith that the Jews will be saved; he’s just not sure from where. Why would he have that faith? The Abrahamic covenant. “I’ll make of you a great nation.”
And at this point in time all the provinces would include Israel and Judea, right? The people have gone back, but they’re still under the supervision of Persia. So, if you can wipe out everything, then then the Abrahamic covenant can’t take place.
—but you and your father’s house will perish.
This is the way Mordecai believes. If you’re not faithful, you’ll perish.
Then he says, “Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
Maybe this is why you’re the queen. Maybe not. You know, maybe you won’t be faithful. But maybe it is.
Esther tells Mordecai, “Go fast and pray for me. I’ll put something together.”
By the way, Esther’s real name is Hadassah. But that’s her Jewish name, and her Persian name is Esther which comes from Ishtar. Ishtar is like a Persian goddess or something.
And, I didn’t check; I have a friend whose name is just like Mark. He has a regular name. But he told me, “Mordecai’s my Jewish name.” I can dedicate this to him, I guess. And I don’t know; maybe they still do that today. You know, I’m Fred, but my Jewish name is Ezekiel, or something like that; I don’t know. But that was the practice back in those days.
So Esther is her Persian name.
So Esther then goes through this elaborate thing. She goes in, and she doesn’t get killed. He extends the scepter. She goes in in all her best clothes and everything.
And the king knows something really big is up because he says, “What do you want?” She took a risk for her life.
She said, “I want you to come to a banquet.”
So she has one banquet, and then at that banquet, she asks him to come to another banquet.
I suppose this is kind of an Eastern thing where she understands the king and how he works and is kind of buttering him up and that sort of thing.
The only people that come to this banquet are the king and Haman.
And the night before the second banquet, Haman is just beside himself. And he says, “I have been invited to dinner with the king. Just me and the queen. Just me. Not anybody else. Not some 180-day thing where everybody gets to come. Just me and the king.”
“But I really can’t enjoy it because Mordechai is still alive. I can’t enjoy life while Mordechai is alive.”
So they said, “Well, why don’t you build some gallows and hang him on it?”
He said, “That is a great idea!”
So he has these gallows built.
Chapter 6 comes. That night the king could not sleep. So one was commanded to bring the book of the records of the chronicles; and they were read before the king.
Now we tend to think that kings may just live a life of luxury. But if you’re going to have a big kingdom like this with all these different people groups and everything, you may well learn all the languages of the people groups. You’re constantly hearing cases from people. Because that’s the way you build loyalty, by deciding things for people and granting favors and stuff like that. You probably travel around to different places all the time.
In the Holy Roman Empire, which was typically run out of Vienna, they would raise these guys to know like nine languages fluently, or something like that. A large number. Because they’re constantly seeing people all the time. That’s the way they held the kingdom together.
So this guy’s working. He’s working, and he’s got lawyers in reading the chronicles of his administration.
And they happened to read the event that happened in the gate.
And it was found written that Mordecai had told of Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs, the doorkeepers who had sought to lay hands on King Ahasuerus.
Then the king said, “What honor or dignity has been bestowed on Mordecai for this?”
And the king’s servants who attended him said, “Nothing has been done for him.”
So the king said, “Who is in the court right now?” Now Haman had just entered the outer court of the king’s palace to suggest that the king hang Mordecai on the gallows that he had prepared for him.
The king’s servants said to him, “Haman is there, standing in the court.”
And the king said, “Let him come in.”
So Haman came in, and the king asked him, “What shall be done for the man whom the king delights to honor?”
Now Haman thought in his heart, “Whom would the king delight to honor more than me?”
And Haman answered the king, “For the man whom the king delights to honor, let a royal robe be brought which the king has worn, and a horse on which the king has ridden, which has a royal crest placed on its head.
Then let this robe and horse be delivered to the hand of one of the king’s most noble princes, that he may array the man whom the king delights to honor. Then parade him on horseback through the city square, and proclaim before him: ‘Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor!’ ”
Then the king said to Haman, “Hurry, take the robe and the horse, as you have suggested, and do so for Mordecai the Jew who sits within the king’s gate! Leave nothing undone of all that you have spoken.”
Now, don’t you imagine that Haman was saying, [monotone] “Thus for the man the king delights to honor.” Can you imagine a more reluctant guy?
So Haman took the robe and the horse, arrayed Mordecai went and did it. Then he went home, mourning and with his head covered.
When Haman told his wife Zeresh and all his friends everything that had happened to him, his wise men and his wife Zeresh said to him, “If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of Jewish descent, you’re done. They’re omen people, you know.
So Haman goes to this banquet immediately thereafter; and, finally, the king says, “What? Come on! Tell me what you want. I know you didn’t—You came in, risked your life. You had a banquet. Now we’ve got another banquet. What is it? What is it? What is it? What is it?”
Have you ever done this to your husbands? Just butter him up, butter him up, and finally he says, “What?!” That’s kind of it.
So she says, “I would like to live and not die.”
Now you think the king was expecting that? He probably thought she wanted her room remodeled or something. Don’t you imagine? New chariot. I don’t like my attendants; I want somebody else. I want one of my relatives to be given some kind of a promotion.
“I would like to live, me and my people, because this wicked Haman is trying to kill all of us because of that proclamation, you know the ten thousand talent thing, that was us. That was me. I’m Jewish.”
The king is ticked! He goes into the garden to kind of collect himself. Haman is done. So he apparently just kind of goes and grabs Esther in some way or is leaning over or something, just trying to get her to intervene for him. And the king walks back in, and he’s in a compromising position.
He says, “You’re going to rape my wife too?”
7:8. As the word left the king’s mouth, they covered Haman’s face.
So, like, oh! You’re dead.
He goes from being the noble prince, this is he whom the king delights to honor, to having his face covered in a few hours.
Now Harbonah, one of the eunuchs, said to the king, “Look! The gallows, fifty cubits high, which Haman made for Mordecai, the guy who saved your life, who spoke good on the king’s behalf, is standing at the house of Haman.”
Then the king said, “Hang him on it!”
So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the king’s wrath subsided.
This is just like taking aspirin for one of these ancient kings, “Ah. I feel better now.”
You know, you can’t undo the law, right? Just like you couldn’t undo the lions’ den thing. They can’t undo the law.
So what they did is they wrote a new law that said the Jews can defend themselves on this day that they selected by pur.
So what ends up happening is the Jews end up with this great victory. Everybody that tries to take their possessions and annihilate them actually gets annihilated. So there’s this little civil war thing, and the Jews come out on top.
They call the name of this Purim after the pur that’s the day selected by lot. And they set up this holiday from now on where they honor this day of Pur. Mordecai becomes a big official in the king’s palace. So that’s the story.