God’s Purpose in Dark Places
Passage: Esther 1
Last week we began our study of Esther, and if you weren’t here, I would really encourage you to go back and listen to it because you need to understand the foundational material we looked at last week to understand the message of Esther.
You can see on the title slide, Esther is a story about “God’s Quiet Hand of Providence.” God is at work even when we can’t see him to accomplish his good and perfect will. Esther is such a beautiful picture of this fact because at first glance God seems to be absent from Esther. However, when you consider all of the circumstances that worked together in this story for the deliverance of Israel, God’s hand emerges from the shadows in a powerful way because this many details couldn’t possibly come together by chance.
Therefore, Esther is a story about God’s providence and especially about how he will work to fulfill his promises to his people. God was faithful to Israel, and even more importantly, he kept his promise to raise up a Savior from the nation of Israel.
This morning we are going to study Esther 1, and as we do so, it is very important to remember another principle we talked about last week. We must understand the details of this story in light of the bigger picture. In particular we need to remember what is going on with Israel and where this book is headed. I want to emphasize this because there are a lot of really interesting details in this chapter that could become detours. Don’t lose sight of the big picture and especially of God’s hand and God’s purpose.
That being said, remember that Israel was terribly weak at this time. As you can see on the timeline, Israel had gone into captivity over 100 years earlier. Even though some Jews had returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple, God’s promises seemed very distant, and the Medo-Persian Empire overshadowed all of life. And so King Ahasuerus/Xerxes, with all of his pomp and glory, stood between Israel and the kingdom God had promised them. He was the villain. And Esther 1 takes us to the center of Xerxes’ greatness
It describes an incredible display of the king’s glory, but we are going to see that there is a lot of subtle irony to Esther 1 that reminded those poor Jews that Xerxes wasn’t all that he was cracked up to be and that Israel’s God is a far greater king who will establish a much greater kingdom. Therefore, the theme of Esther 1 is that God is the supreme and only wise king, and he will accomplish his pure and good purpose.
There are 3 sections to this story, which I want to summarize through three statements. These statements will ultimately form one sentence. First…
Ahasuerus thought he was big stuff (vv. 1–9)…
This is because…
Ahasuerus ruled over a massive empire (vv. 1–2).
Verses 1–2 are intended to describe Ahasuerus as at the top of the world. The first couple of years of his reign began with a bang as he crushed rebellions in Egypt and Babylon. And so it is now the 3rd year of his reign, and he comes home firmly established with a kingdom that stretched from Africa up into Europe, and all the way to India. Verse 1 says that he ruled over 127 provinces.
And he comes home to sit on his throne in Susa. We know from archaeological digs and secular records that the fortress at Susa was quite impressive. Darius the Great built a platform roughly 50’ above the city proper and built the citadel on this platform high above everything else. A large wall and canal surrounded the fortress. Inside there was a beautiful palace and outdoor pavilion, which fits exactly how Esther describes it. 100 years later, Alexander the Great conquered Susa, and he wrote of how amazed he was of the wealth he found. He said that he found 1,200 tons of gold and silver and another 270 tons of minted gold coins. And so you can see why Ahasuerus thought he was big stuff.
And so to show off just how much of a big shot he was...
Ahasuerus hosted an impressive banquet (vv. 3–9).
I mentioned last Sunday that Xerxes is best known in secular history for his unsuccessful attempt to invade Greece. This was a massive campaign, and it is very likely that Esther is describing an event that was intended to rally support and consulate resources for the invasion.
The extravaganza began with 180 days of Xerxes showing off his glory. It’s probably best not to think of this time as a nonstop feast. It was probably more of an open house where Xerxes invited all of the significant people in the kingdom to come see his glory so that he could persuade them to support his campaign against Greece.
At the end of these 180 days, the king threw an incredible feast for 7 days for everyone in his palace. The text describes this feast as taking place in a lavish setting. It took place in the outdoor pavilion of the palace, and v. 6 tells us that Xerxes decorated it with extravagant curtains, silver curtain rods, and marble pillars. There were gold and silver couches, and even the ground on which they walked was ornate, with various mosaics made of different kinds of beautiful stones. Everything was over the top so that everyone knew how great Xerxes was.
And the food and drink matched the setting. The people drank from handcrafted golden vessels, and they drank freely. Typically at such a feast, people were only allowed to drink when the king drank, but v. 8 states that Xerxes lifted that restriction and let people drink as much as they wanted.
And so Xerxes put on quite the party. Everyone was drunk as a skunk and having a great time in a great setting. And again all of it was intended to remind the attendants and the known world that Xerxes was a big shot. There is no generosity in this. Most people in Xerxes’ empire, including many Jews, were struggling to survive as their taxes funded this kind of show. To them, this feast would have appeared impressive but empty. Israel knew that such arrogant extravagance was contrary to the nature of the righteous king God promised them.
And so Xerxes put on a grand party to let everyone know just how important he was. But then the story takes an ironic turn.
You see Ahasuerus thought he was big stuff…
…But he couldn’t even manage his own wife (vv. 10–12a)…
Verse 9 introduces us to Queen Vashti. Scholars have long debated Vashti’s identity. This is because Herodotus says that Xerxes’ queen was named Amestris. It’s unlikely that Vashti and Amestris are the same person, but it is possible. It’s also possible that Xerxes had more than one queen and that Herodutus only mentioned Amestris because her son became the next king.
Regardless, Vashti was throwing a separate banquet when Ahasuerus made a drunken demand.
Ahasuerus’s Drunken Demand (vv. 10–11):
It is now the 7th and final day of the feast following a 6-month open house. Ahasuerus is very drunk, and he is feeling very proud after showing off his glory for such a long time. And in his drunken state, Xerxes decides to show off one more symbol of his glory—his beautiful queen.
He sends 7 of his men to get her from the ladies’ banquet and to bring her before the men wearing her royal crown so that, as the text states, he could “show her beauty to the people and the officials, for she was beautiful to behold.”
This was a terribly shameful demand. The dress for Persian women in that day wasn’t all that different from what Middle Eastern women wear today. They were expected to keep a veil over their faces and remain very modest, but Xerxes wanted to expose Vashti’s beauty. The early Jewish rabbis took v. 11 as meaning that she was to appear wearing nothing but her crown. It may not have been that bad, but it was still be terribly shameful.
Xerxes wanted to march his queen into a room of drunk, perverted men wearing little if any clothing. His goal was not to honor her but to stick his chest out and say, “Look at me. Look at what I have.” This was an arrogant, disgusting demand. No married man who truly loves his wife could imagine shaming her like this.
Xerxes may have seemed like big stuff to the other men on that pavilion, but if you were a godly Jew longing for Messiah, you would have read that line and thought, “That’s not my king. My king is holy and pure. He loves his bride, and he will honor her.” And the NT tells us that someday Jesus is going to throw his own banquet. And he will demonstrate true love and honor for his bride the church. Revelation 19:6–8 state, “And I heard, as it were, the voice of a great multitude, as the sound of many waters and as the sound of mighty thunderings, saying, ‘Alleluia! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigns! Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready.’ And to her it was granted to be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.”
What a contrast, especially when you think that the church is made up of sinners, and we don’t have natural beauty like Vashti. But “Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:25b–27). Praise God for the grace of our King who loves us in our weakness not for his perverted ego.
And so Xerxes thought he was big stuff, but he wasn’t a righteous king, and he wasn’t an all-powerful king either because v. 12 tells us that Vashti refused.
Vashti’s Refusal (v. 12a):
The text doesn’t give any explanation regarding her refusal, but I think it’s fairly obvious why she didn’t want to be paraded around like a zoo exhibit in front of a bunch of drunken men.
Some commentators have held up Vashti as taking a courageous and virtuous stand for women’s rights and general decency. It’s impossible to know what was in her heart because God doesn’t tell us. But she does seem to be the only person in chapter 1 with any sensibility and decency. And she is the only person in chapter 1 to stand up to him.
And we must not miss the significance and irony of her refusal in this context. Xerxes has invested over 6 months of time and lots of money and wine into rallying his empire around his glory and authority. He wants everyone to know that he is big stuff and that no one can stand against him. Then his own wife refuses to bow before his authority. It’s kind of funny isn’t it? Xerxes rules the world, but he can’t rule his own house. At least in this instance, Vashti puts on the pants in the house. Xerxes doesn’t have quite as much power as he thinks he does.
And his response demonstrates that he’s not the great king he thinks he is and more importantly, it demonstrates that he is just a pawn in the hand of a far greater king who is setting the stage for a glorious deliverance of his chosen people.
And so Ahasuerus thought he was big stuff, but he couldn’t even manage his own wife…
…And he set the stage for God’s deliverance of his people (vv. 12b–22).
Verse 12 tells us when the king heard about Vashti’s refusal, he lost it.
Ahasuerus got mad (v. 12b).
He was a proud man who always got what he wanted, and Vashti had the nerve to tell him “no.” I wonder how public her refusal was. Did Ahasuerus tell all the men he was about to bring Vashti in? Did she make a stand in front of all of the women at her banquet? Or at this point was it only a small circle of people who knew what she had done? The text doesn’t say, but her refusal was probably fairly public based on how the king responds.
He was embarrassed and angry, and so…
Ahasuerus got council (vv. 13–15).
Verse 13 tells us that this was the normal procedure for this kind of circumstance, but it does seem rather ironic that the great king needs help from his political advisors to know how to manage his wife. And in v. 15 he asks what legal precedent there is for dealing with this sort of thing, which is a pretty ridiculous question. Did he really think there was a law about what to do when your wife disobeys you? And why does the most powerful man in the world need a law to deal with the situation in the first place?
Memucan’s Counsel (vv. 16–22):
In vv. 16–20 Memucan responds, and he doesn’t cite any sort of legal precedent; rather, he tells the king what he wants to hear in his moment of rage. I say that because 2:1 indicates that Xerxes ultimately regretted following Memucan’s advice a few years later when he had a better perspective on the situation.
Memucan tells the king that Vashti’s disobedience could create a massive upheaval of the social order. All the women are going to hear about what Vashti had done, and they are going to take courage from her example and rise up against their husbands.
Maybe that is true, but it really seems like a stretch. But regardless, Memucan advises the king to send out a decree and make an example of Vashti (vv. 19–20). The key piece of the decree is that Vashti be removed from her position and be replaced by another woman. And this was to function as a statement that men are the masters in house, as v. 22 says, and that women must never disobey their husbands.
Verses 21–22 then add that Xerxes and the council agreed, and they sent the decree out to every corner of the kingdom in every language people spoke.
I think it’s important to say at this point that this decree does not reflect the biblical model of male headship. The Bible is clear that the husband is the head of the home and that wives are to submit to their husbands (Eph 5:23–24). But the biblical husband is to lead based on love that reflects Christ’s loving service of the church (Eph 5:25). Xerxes’ leadership doesn’t sound anything like Christ. Rather, this is the abusive form of male leadership that God told Eve sin would bring about (Gen 3:16).
Folks, Esther 1 is a story of greed, arrogance, and bad leadership. It’s kind of depressing if you just take it at face value. But we know better than that because we know the end of the story, and we know that God is working in the shadows even through this dark account.
So how should we apply this story? I have 5 applications.
Lust and pride lead to destruction and pain.
This isn’t the main point of the story, but we can’t skip over it because our hearts are all prone to go down the same path Xerxes went down. Like Xerxes we all crave human glory, and we lust after pleasure. And Xerxes chased hard after these things, but as is always the case, he came up empty. After 6 months of chasing pleasure and spending who knows how much money, the story ends with him in a fit of rage, making a foolish decree.
I like to say that selfish people are always cranky people because they will never get enough. They always want a little more. And Xerxes is a prime example of the fact that there is no true contentment in worldly things. Don’t buy the lie that money, power, sex, or anything else in this world can satisfy your heart like Christ can.
But there is something far more significant that emerges from this story. Second…
God reigns over all men.
Now at first glance it may seem that God is nowhere in this story because nothing is said of him. But from the perspective of the whole book we know that the ultimate reason this story is in the Bible is not to tell us a story about lust and pride; rather, it is hear to tell us how God created the opportunity for Esther to become queen and to deliver the Jews from genocide.
And that’s incredible because at this point Xerxes has no idea that in a few years he is going to sign a decree that has the potential to wipe out God’s people, destroy the line of the Messiah, and ruin God’s eternal purpose. He’s just having a party. And in his drunken foolishness he is shaking his fist in the face of God and saying that I am sovereign over the world. But he has no idea that God is looking down from heaven and using Xerxes’ prideful foolishness to create a way to deliver his people and his eternal purpose. I am reminded of Psalm 2:1–4. Folks, our God reigns over this world, he is accomplishing his purpose, and one day he will establish his righteous and perfect kingdom.
God can use the darkest sins of the most powerful people to accomplish his pure and good purpose.
I grew up on a cattle and hog farm, and so I spent a lot of time working in manure. Manure is pretty disgusting. It attracts lots of flies, and it really stinks. If you dropped your sandwich in the manure, there is no way you would ever pick it up, dust it off, and eat it. But if you spread that manure in a field and plant sweet corn, the corn plant will use that manure to grow a bid ear of sweet corn that tastes great.
That’s a good illustration of what God does in this story. God takes a foul man and his foul advisors, and he takes a very wicked plot, and he uses it to deliver of a nation and to show us his glory. Isn’t it incredible that God can do that? Sometimes we really fret over all of the corruption and sin in our world. We should grieve over it, but we must not think that God is limited by man’s evil. He is at work even through the terrible evils of our day, moving history along toward his ultimate purpose. We serve an incredible powerful and wise God who will accomplish his will. Fourth…
Trust God that he will work through our weakness and the dark circumstances of life.
Sometimes we look at our circumstances, and they just seem bad. We think that if God would just remove this pressure or trial, I could do so much more for him. And sometimes it’s our own weakness and even sin struggles that we don’t see anything good about them. We can worry that my weakness or the dark circumstances around me may prevent God’s good purpose.
And there is a sense in which that is true. Sin has consequences, not just for the person who sins but also for those around them. But this story is a powerful reminder that God is able to take even the darkest of times and use them for good ends. You may feel like all of life is dark. You may feel insufficient to live the Christian life and do God’s will. But God is not limited by you or your circumstances, and he has a perfect plan that he is accomplishing. And so trust his purpose and be encouraged to go forward knowing that he will be faithful. Fifth…
Rejoice that God provided his greatest gift through the wickedness of men.
Esther 1 is all about how God used Xerxes’ sin to provide a way for God to deliver his people. God did the same thing when Christ went to the cross (Acts 2:23–24). The crucifixion of Christ was a terribly dark event. Evil men who were trying to protect their own power conspired to put an innocent man to death. And then Jesus was cruelly beaten and mocked and sent to die a terrible death. From a human perspective, it looked as if evil had won.
But these verses remind us that evil had not won; rather, the evil plot of the Sanhedrin was accomplishing God’s purpose that he planned before the foundation of the world. God used their sin to put Christ on the cross, to bear the punishment for sin, and to destroy sin’s power, to provide us with redemption and grace.
As a result, when a sinner comes to Christ by faith, he can be forgiven of his sins, and he can receive the hope of eternal life in perfect place without sin. Maybe you feel weighed down today by the darkness of your own sin, and you have been trying everything you can to escape it. I hope you will see today that there is nothing you can do to pay for your sin or to escape its consequences. But Jesus provided salvation when he died on that cross and rose again in victory. All you need to do to receive this salvation is to come to him admitting your sin and crying out to him for mercy. If you have never done that, I hope you will talk with me after the service about how you can receive this incredible gift.
For those of us who are saved, let’s rejoice in God’s incredible plan of redemption and ultimately let’s worship our great God whose quiet hand emerges from the shadows in this account. God is the supreme and only wise king, and he will accomplish his pure and good purpose.