The Ways of Men and the Ways of God
Passage: Esther 2
This is our third week in Esther, and I am really enjoying this book. Esther is a fascinating story on several levels. It’s been fun to interact with a number of you about what you are learning in your own reading of Esther and about how Esther has impacted you.
Today we will be studying Esther 2, which includes two fascinating stories—the story of how Esther became queen and the story of how Mordecai foiled an assassination plot against the king. There are a number of interesting details to this chapter. If I were to open it up for questions and comments, I could see us taking a very long time debating those details and even the motives in people’s hearts.
And it’s very good when we read a biblical story that we open our imaginations, that we picture the various scenes of the story, and that we feel the emotions of the characters. We want the story to come alive. But we also have to remember that the biblical stories are not here primarily to entertain; they are here to teach us about God and his will for us. Therefore, we need to make sure our conclusions do not go beyond what God has said and that we are focused on finding the ultimate truths God wants us to see. This is important because Esther 2 is an incredible story simply from a human perspective, but it is even more incredible when you see the hand of God at work behind the scenes.
And so hopefully we will all enjoy our journey through Esther 2, but more importantly I hope that we come away encouraged by what we see about God. As I did last Sunday, I will again walk us through the story and then pull it together at the end into some important themes and applications.
Therefore, Esther 2 begins in vv. 1–4 with the king’s plan to replace Queen Vashti.
The King’s Plan (vv. 1–4)
By way of review, Esther 1 told the story of how King Ahasuerus/Xerxes threw an epic party for the sake of declaring his own glory. He felt on top of the world after spending 187 days letting the known world know how great he was. But the final demonstration of his glory didn’t work out like he planned. He wanted to show off his beautiful queen, but she didn’t want any part of his perverted, drunken plan. She refused to appear at the party, and Xerxes threw a fit and threw Vashti out of his palace.
The King’s Regret (v. 1):
Several years have passed when we come to chapter 2, and Xerxes had been knocked down pretty severely. We know from secular records that during the interval between chapters 1 and 2, Xerxes tried to conquer Greece, and it was a colossal failure. Even though Xerxes had superior forces, the Greeks crushed him because of some poor strategy. Xerxes returned humiliated.
Verse 1 probably occurs shortly after his returned home. As as he mopes over his loss, he thinks back to the decree he had signed banning Vashti from his presence. Now that he isn’t drunk or angry, he thinks, “You idiot. You ran off your beautiful queen over that? What were you thinking?”
Of course, he wasn’t thinking. He made a rash decision out of anger, and once his anger subsided and he had a better perspective he could see that clearly. Isn’t that how it typically works? James 1:20 says, “The wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” Most of the time you will regret decisions you make or things you say while you are angry. It’s almost always better to step back until your emotions have settled before you speak or act. But Xerxes didn’t do that and now he missed his queen.
The King’s Plot (vv. 2–4, 12–14):
The king’s servants noticed his regret, and they encouraged him to choose a new queen. And they suggested a pretty sad plan that catered to Xerxes pride. If you are still holding onto a romanticized picture of Xerxes, this plot should destroy that notion.
Notice several details of this plot. First…
Ahasuerus wanted a beauty queen.
Verse 2 says they would scour the kingdom for “beautiful young virgins,” and v. 3 adds that they will gather the “beautiful young virgins’ to the palace and give them “beauty preparations,” which we are going to see were pretty extravagant. Are you getting a picture of what mattered to Xerxes? Xerxes didn’t care about personality or character; he just wanted a beautiful woman. Second…
Ahasuerus wanted the very best.
Xerxes ruled 127 provinces, and v. 3 says that they sent officers into all of them to round up “all the beautiful young virgins” and bring them back to the palace.
This is potentially a lot of girls. The Jewish historian Josephus claimed that Xerxes collected 400 girls, and some think it was even more than that. This is hard for us to imagine, but Herodutus said that the Persian government would round up 500 young boys each year to castrate and serve as eunuchs. It’s safe to assume that the girls and their families had no choice in the matter. If the king wanted you, he took you because the king’s subjects existed to serve him, not vice versa. Third…
Ahasuerus wanted extravagance.
Verses 12ff tells us that the girls spent 12 months eating the king’s food and using fine oils and perfumes so that they would look and smell as beautiful as possible. If that sounds ridiculously excessive, that’s because it is. But this is Ahasuerus we are talking about.
Ahasuerus wanted to exploit and discard most of the women.
After twelve months of preparation, each woman got one night to dress up and impress the king. As I’ve said the purpose of this night was not to play a board game or take a compatibility test. It was about proving your ability to gratify the king. It was a pretty narcissistic scheme.
Notice what v. 14 says about what would happen to the girls after their night with the king. They would go back to the king’s harem where they would live the rest of their lives. Those whom the king rejected couldn’t go home or choose to marry another man. They were part of the king’s harem for life, even though the king probably never called most of them back again. For all practical purposes, they became widows as very young ladies.
The word love is used a couple of times in this story, but we know that Xerxes did not love the way God loves because God loves us in our weakness, and his love drives him to serve, not to pursue selfish gratification.
Of course the center of this love is what Jesus did for us on the cross. Isaiah 55:6 says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” God says that all of us are sinners and that none of us are worthy of God’s love. God does not choose us because of our beauty. Rather, Jesus loved us in our sin, and he died in our place. As this verse says, he took our iniquity on himself.
He did so that if we put our faith in Jesus, we can be forgiven and be adopted into his family. This is true love. Praise God that our king is much greater than Xerxes. And if you have never received this love, I pray that you will come to Christ today in repentance and receive this incredible gift.
And let me just say to the young ladies in the room to make sure that you never mistake some guy’s lustful passions in the mold of King Xerxes for true love. The fact that a man desires your beauty does not mean that he loves you. He may just want to use you, and very likely he will cast you aside just as quickly as Xerxes cast aside most of these girls. Be very careful that no man ever takes advantage of your desire for love.
It’s in this dark context that we are introduced to the heroes of this story, Mordecai and Esther.
Let’s talk next about…
Esther’s Preparation and Presentation (vv. 5–11, 15–16)
Mordecai (vv. 5–6):
These verses tell us that Mordecai was living in the citadel, so he must have held some kind of government position. And we also learn that he was a Jew and that his ancestors were taken from Judah with King Jeconiah, or Jehoiachin in 597 B.C. This probably means that he was from a significant family, since King Nebuchadnezzar only captured the nobility in 597. We don’t know if he was married or if he had any of his own children. But we do know that he had taken responsibility to raise his orphaned cousin Esther.
Esther (v. 7):
Hadassah was her Jewish name, and Esther was her Persian name. Verse 15 tells us that her father’s name was Abihail. We don’t know anything else about her parents or how they died, but regardless, Esther had suffered significant loss. Verse 7 adds one other detail about Esther that is very important. She was beautiful both in her form and in her face. The narrator is telling us that she exceeded the basic beauty requirements of the context. God obviously formed Esther into an exceptionally beautiful woman for a purpose, but her beauty landed her in a difficult situation.
Esther’s Role in the Competition (vv. 8–11):
Verse 8 simply says that Esther was “taken to the king’s palace.” Some people believe that Esther volunteered herself for the competition, which would be a real problem because the Law condemned marrying a pagan man like Xerxes. Just a few years later Ezra roasted the people of Jerusalem for taking Gentile wives. However, the text gives no indication that Esther volunteered, and nothing in Xerxes’ character indicates that he left much choice to anyone. It’s safe to assume that Esther had no choice in being part of Xerxes’ harem.
And so this young Jewish orphan girl was swallowed up by Xerxes men and placed in the very center of world events. It was probably very sudden and very overwhelming. But we know that God was behind it all. God made Esther beautiful knowing this competition was coming so that he could place her in the den of the lion.
And God’s hand of providence continued to move quietly once she arrived. Verse 8 tells us that Esther and all of these girls were placed under the care of Hegai. Poor Hegai! He had to manage hundreds of women who had been snatched from their homes and were fighting to be the most beautiful. Think of the waves of tears and then cat fighting Hegai must have dealt with.
Yet in the midst of the craziness, Hegai noticed Esther. Verse 9 says that she “pleased him, and she obtained his favor.” Esther was among probably hundreds of beautiful women, but her beauty still stood out. And again God is not mentioned, but we know he is at work through Hegai. God moves him to extend kindness to Esther. He gives her extra beauty supplies, 7 of the best attendants, and the best housing he could provide. He put Esther in the best possible position to prepare herself physically and mentally for her night with the king.
But then v. 10 adds an interesting detail. The text doesn’t say why Mordecai gave this advice, but we can assume that he didn’t want Esther to make any waves that would put her in danger or at a disadvantage in the competition.
I believe that we see here a significant character flaw in Mordecai and in Esther because one of the major purposes of the OT Law was to make Israel stand out from the nations. God gave them food and clothing laws so that they would be separate from the nations. God also made it clear that they were to worship only one God.
Daniel and his 3 friends are a tremendous example of how Israel was to respond to a foreign context. They saw that Nebuchadnezzar’s food was probably sacrificed to idols and that it violated God’s Law, and they refused to eat. They also refused to bow before an idol no matter the consequences. They were committed to honoring God.
In contrast, Esther and Mordecai adopt a very pragmatic approach. There is no way she could have kept her nationality a secret for years without breaking many laws and without worshiping idols. Esther may not have had the background in the Law that Daniel had, but regardless, she isn’t a model of godly courage. Esther and Mordecai took her safety into their own hands, rather than trusting God to protect her and do what is good.
And yet God graciously uses them anyway. In fact, God used their fear to put her in a position to win. Mordecai’s advice, ungodly though it may be, was another piece of the puzzle God used to deliver his people.
Our God is so wise and so gracious. What a blessing it is to know that God uses flawed people because otherwise, we would all be in a heap of trouble. God knows how weak we all are. He knows our fears, our lusts, and all of our sins, and yet by his grace he has made us his ambassadors. We serve an incredibly gracious God. And if you feel inadequate to serve God, don’t be discouraged because God loves to use flawed people.
And so Esther gave herself for an entire year to winning this competition, and v. 15 tells us that her night with the king finally came. And Esther made the shrewd decision to put her strategy for winning the king’s heart into the hands of Hegai, who surely knew him well. She wore what Hegai knew would please the king, and v. 15 pictures her as entering the king’s quarters that night prepared by God to win his heart.
I do think it’s important not to be too hard on Esther at this point. I’ve heard some people argue that Esther was immoral with a pagan; however, she was already part of the king’s harem, so for all practical purposes, Xerxes was already her husband. Therefore, it wasn’t a problem for her to give herself to him. And so Esther had her night.
The story then concludes succinctly by describing…
The King’s Favor (vv. 17–18)
Ahasuerus loved Esther.
Verse 17 gives the impression that after his night with Esther, Ahasuerus didn’t need to see any more women. Esther was what he wanted. He took the royal crown that Vashti had refused to sport and put it on Esther, and he made Esther queen in Vashti’s place.
Ahasuerus hosted a banquet.
And v. 18 adds that he threw a banquet in Esther’s honor. Xerxes apparently liked banquets because there are a lot of them in Esther. It is interesting to contrast this banquet with his previous one. This time he honors the queen rather than parading her like an animal, and he shows generosity to the whole kingdom not just the elite. Maybe Xerxes learned something, though we shouldn’t give him too much credit.
But the major news is that God was working his purpose. He put an orphan girl from a weak people in captivity at the center of the empire. At this point in the story, no one has any idea what’s coming, except for God, and he is quietly at work preparing the way to deliver his people.
The chapter then concludes by adding one more seemingly insignificant detail that will ultimately play a major role in God’s purpose.
Mordecai’s Rescue (vv. 19–23)
Verse 19 tells us that Mordecai is now sitting in the gate. Archaeologists have uncovered this area, which sat just outside the palace. It was a building where law disputes and government business would be conducted. The fact that Mordecai is sitting there indicates that he was in a significant government position. It’s very possible that Esther got him a promotion once she became queen.
Regardless, while he was working at the gate, Mordecai overheard a plot by two of Xerxes’ guards to assassinate the king. Of course if the plan succeeded, Esther would lose her position as queen, and so Mordecai told her about the plot, and together they saved the king’s life.
And the narrator adds one other detail that seems rather insignificant but will prove to be very important. Mordecai’s deed was recorded in the chronicles, but he was not rewarded. This was out of the ordinary. Herodutus tells us that Xerxes had several secretaries who kept detailed records of good acts on behalf of the king. And Xerxes always immediately gave generous rewards to these people. And yet by “chance” no reward was given.
At first this little account seems kind of random and it doesn’t seem to serve any purpose. Esther and Mordecai had no idea why this happened, and Mordecai was probably frustrated that he didn’t immediately get rewarded. But God knew what he was doing, and God had a plan. He put Mordecai in the right spot at the right time to save the king’s life and ultimately to shine a light on how terrible Haman’s plot will be to destroy the Jews. Again, God was at work in the shadows.
So what should we take from these two stories in Esther 2?
What’s the point?
I believe these two stories illustrate something incredible about God and something challenging for us. First…
God has a perfect purpose that he will accomplish.
A couple of months ago as I was driving to church, I noticed an irrigation system in the middle of an open lot wetting down the ground. It looked like the most random thing to do. Why waste water on a chunk of dirt. A couple of days later, that piece of dirt was leveled out. And then about a week later, trenches started to appear in that dirt. And then footers were poured in the cement with lag bolts sticking out of them, and now there is a complete slab with all sorts of things sticking out of the concrete.
Of course a house is being built, but imagine a neighbor kid standing there scratching his head. He doesn’t know the master plan, and so all of these little steps look so random. But you won’t have much success building houses if you just do random stuff. Before you even begin to dig footers, you have to know exactly how heavy that house is going to be and what it dimensions will be. And you have to know where the kitchen and bathrooms will be before you put in the plumbing. There is a master plan that guides every step of the process.
And one of the scary things about life is that we don’t know what the end product is. Now hopefully we have goals and plans, but we don’t have a detailed blueprint of where life is headed. And so oftentimes when we look at life we feel like that kid watching a house go up, and we are scratching our heads wondering what is that going to be? Why is he digging there instead of there?
But what a blessing it is to know that God has a master plan. To Esther, Mordecai, and Xerxes they just saw a bunch of random events, but God saw a fully constructed house. And because he knew exactly what the end product was, he was building exactly the right foundation.
And God always knows exactly what he is doing. He knows what he is doing on a national and global scale. Even while sinners shake their fist in the face of God, he is moving history toward his appointed purpose through their rebellion. And he is doing the same in our individual lives. He knows every detail of what is to come in your life. He knows how thick of a footer you need to hold up that wall, that trial that is coming. He knows about that wonderful ministry opportunity he has for you and how to lay out the floor so that you are in exactly the right spot to set it down on you.
Praise God that we serve such an all-knowing God, who cares about all of the little details. And praise God that nothing will ever stand against his purpose. He doesn’t just have a great plan. He will always have the power to accomplish it. God doesn’t need plan “B” or “C.” Plan “A” will always happen.
So what does that mean for us?
Trust God to accomplish his good purpose in your life.
I’ve met a lot of Christians who really stress about missing God’s will. They are afraid of missing some sign or some tickle in their heart that is God’s voice. Maybe they are afraid that they are going to do something stupid or sinful that will cause them to miss God’s best for them.
It is true that there are generally consequences to stupidity and sin, and the Scriptures are very clear that we should never use God’s sovereignty as an excuse for sin or apathy. But God is also compassionate and gracious. And to think that my stupidity or sin can ruin God’s eternal purpose or that God is surprised by my mistakes and hasn’t already factored them into his plan is pretty ridiculous.
God knows every detail of your life, and just like he got Esther where he wanted her to be he will get you there to. And so trust him to be faithful and to do what is good.
We serve a good, wise, and mighty God, and is at work in the shadows to care for his people and to accomplish his perfect will. Praise the Lord.