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Today we kick off our series titled: people you know, people you would like to be. Essentially we are following the characters from the book of Esther. It is a fascinating read, as with most of the bible there is far more than meets the eye, when you begin to dig down into it.
Some might question the wisdom of beginning with a book that does not mention God in it – at all – no mention of God in this text. But don’t let that fool you. It is a historical book that is very much about God. In fact, and let me go right out on a limb here, to hold the central character the new queen Esther up as a model of women’s right, politician or even role model is to miss the point of the book completely. But let me tell you what I think is one of the overarching theme of the book of Esther; this book tells us about God and how God works through characters and character. The book tells us that there is meaning in ordinary events and even when we don’t see God, God is active. My friends this should give us great hope in our lives. In our ordinary everyday lives. We don’t have to ask God to be there as if we are asking for a favour. God is right there with us, every moment. Even when we go to our work places, or schools or homes. Wherever we are.
Essentially the book of Esther tells us how the Jewish people were saved from genocide and managed to kill over 75,800 of their enemies. This story has been read for over two thousand years annually in synagogues to explain the holiday of Purim (poo r-im).
Now remember that this book is set in Babylon. And this was a later generation of Jews after the sacking of Jerusalem. Here they are in exile and for some reason these Jews did not return like those of Ezra and Nehemiah. But they have a problem these Jews are far away from home and from the temple, where it was thought the presence of God resided. This is significant because the biggest theme for the whole book of Esther is; and it’s a question ‘while we are in exile, are we still in a covenant relationship with God?’ because of this physical separation from Jerusalem and the temple can we still be in relationship with God as Gods people? The answer is of course yes. If you are writing notes then that’s one to down. God’s providence is stronger than our understanding of it. This is a significant point for us and I will cover some of it as we go along but let me just say this; the Jews had a very narrow view of God and how God works, as do we. Our mindset of God is far too limited to grasp the scope of who God is. And it’s my prayer that this series will lift our eyes not only on character development but on the magnitude of God.
Over the next few weeks I will try and reveal more of the background and the context of the time, this helps us get to a fuller understanding of the text. We need to bear in mind that the 10 chapters could well have happened over a 10 year period. Written sometime about 400 or so years before Jesus was born, give or take a few. There are a number of inconsistencies with the historicity of the book of Esther and with what we know about the period. Nothing though that would lead us to believe we cannot trust the historicity of the book and more to the point its relevance for today.
Now you heard the abridged reading of the first chapter. Xerxes the king had thrown a wild party for a whole pile of generals and officials from other parts of the country. Look at verse 4: For a full 180 days he displayed the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendour and glory of his majesty.
As if this wasn’t enough read on to verse 5: When these days were over, the king gave a banquet, lasting seven days, in the enclosed garden of the king’s palace, for all the people from the least to the greatest who were in the citadel of Susa.
The scene of opulence was so great that we get the next few verses describing its magnitude, right down to golden wine goblets and the unending supply of wine.
This is where we are introduced to the other half of the royal couple. Queen Vashti. Who as we know, was also throwing a wild party for the ladies. Although I think hers was only 7 days not the 180 plus 7 of the men.
All this was in aid of a military campaign Xerxes was about to undertake. Some years earlier his father had been killed in a campaign to conquer the Greek states. You can see this typified in the movie 300 part two (if you are into that sort of thing!) Xerxes was garnering support from the empire to conquer these defiant Greeks and avenge his father. Legend says that he amassed 2 million troops although scholars figure it was probably more like 200 thousand - but still a very large force for the time. Interestingly for us, he planned to attack a small place called Hellespont – that name doesn’t ring many bells. But we know it by another name - The Dardanelles. Quite a coincidence as we grow close to the 100 year anniversary of the ANZAC Gallipoli landings. Xerxes was soundly beaten and retreated home in shame.
But back to the party and to the incident that cause a big chain of events. In verse 10: On the seventh day, when King Xerxes was in high spirits from wine, he commanded the seven eunuchs who served him—Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar and Karkas— 11 to bring before him Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at.
So remember he was galvanising support in his huge empire. And while he was being such a big man, his pride led him to this point and he thought let me show you the jewel in my crown, my beautiful wife, for as the bible says she was lovely to look at.
Verse 12: But when the attendants delivered the king’s command, Queen Vashti refused to come. Then the king became furious and burned with anger.
Xerxes ship has just run aground in front of all those who he was trying to impress. A refusal like that probably brought him out of his wine stupor pretty quickly. There is some suggestion that when the King asked the queen to appear before the gathered nobles in her crown, that was all she was to be wearing.
Now scholars down through the years have come to many reasons why Queen Vashti did not comply to the kings commands. Jewish commentators living in a male dominated society have come up with the fact that either she had leprosy and was thus unattractive, or that (and I'm not joking here) she had grown a tail. The thinking is that she didn’t want to embarrass the king. I don’t quite know where they got those from, but listen to what one commentator says “For Esther to rise, Vashti must first fall, and if Vashti’s fall was deserved and justified, the story is a lot cleaner.” The thing is that Vashti refused the king in front of his guests.
This is where we can find a solid linking here with some of our life. I haven’t gone into much detail about the actual party and the 180 day junket before that, it is hard to imagine just how incredible it was in size and scope. This is the capital of the world, and no expense was spared to host this event. Imagine today’s equivalent something like the combined resources Russia, China and USA all throwing a now expenses no morals spared party. With India providing the manpower. It beggars belief just how opulent it was and on how big a scale.
Sometimes we see something that is beyond our scope of understanding too. We can look at the world and the resources being deployed and we can think; I have never seen anything like that – nothing can stand up to it. And there are world problems like that. You might have things like that in your life, things that are just so big you cannot see any way around them. But here is the thing; we know from the end of the book of Esther that Gods people are protected. But more than that, while this book does not mention God we can see Gods fingerprints over it all and know that Gods plans are not frustrated no matter how big the resistance. And this is the thing we can learn from this; if we keep ourselves close to God, what we see around us in terms of problems and difficulties is not all there is. We can ask the question “where is God” and this book answers it for us – loudly and clearly ‘everywhere!”
Back to the story. So the queen disobeys the king and as you can imagine causes quite a stir in the men’s quarters of the royal palace. Look with me at verse 16: Then Memukan replied in the presence of the king and the nobles, “Queen Vashti has done wrong, not only against the king but also against all the nobles and the peoples of all the provinces of King Xerxes.
Was it just to dishonour the command of the royal throne that was a problem? No! There was something far more serious which could happen as a consequence, according to verse 17: For the queen’s conduct will become known to all the women, and so they will despise their husbands.
Heaven forbid!! Look at verse 18: This very day the Persian and Median women of the nobility who have heard about the queen’s conduct will respond to all the king’s nobles in the same way. There will be no end of disrespect and discord.
Three times we get a warning that this has dire consequence for all the men of the realm! You can read it for yourself. Down through the ages Vashti has been condemned for her refusal to obey and many men have taken this as case in point. That’s pretty dumb really. as if you read the text carefully we find no moral commentary on the queens decision nor for that matter on the kings drunkenness.
It would be a brave man to preach on those couple of verses! Seriously though, that’s not the point I want to bring out of this for you to take home.
Let me tell you what I think. We have before us the example of a brave woman. I don’t quite know why Vashti disobeyed the king, only that in doing so it could easily have cost her life and the life of her children and all those who attended her. This was a risky thing that she did. As we will see throughout the rest of the book the king has total power over life and death. Flick of his fingers means death or great honour. She was his for the using, whatever he wanted. Irrespective of the consequence Queen Vashti refuses and in doing so sets up a chain of events that sees the deliverance of the Jews from annihilation. Now here is the thing; what she shows us is an example of courage under pressure. I find it incredibly admirable. Indeed inspiring and challenging. I’ve sat with it this week as I have meditated on this passage for today and I’m deeply impressed with her courage and fortitude in the face of overwhelming odds. I would like to think that I’d be the same but I’m not sure I could. It doesn’t take me very long to think of the many times I chickened out. It might be that it was selfish motives but she still has the courage to do the hard thing.
Vashti’s courage in the face of grave danger reminds me of what we celebrated last weekend. It reminds me of a bigger narrative worked out not in the courts of a world power but a narrative in the centre of the universe. It reminds me of Jesus courage and determination on our behalf. I cannot help but connect in with the grave danger that Jesus walked into for us. Vashti points us towards someone who really and truly is a hero. Someone who with great resolution stared down the cross and scorning its shame took it on – and won. Jesus didn’t falter when it came to the courage stakes, when it came to putting it all on the line. He squared up and went straight at it – why? For us.
So what does this mean for us then? Let me finish with this. This connects with the story that Jesus told us about the wise and silly builders. You heard it earlier. Jesus courage on our behalf enables us to align ourselves with him and in doing so it makes the difference between building on the sand or carving out into the rock. You might not be able to stand up for what’s right, for the underdog, for the gospel – you might not be able to stand up in your own strength. In fact no one really can, the powers are too big, the systems too strong. But this is the message of the gospel. All of us come short, that’s why we need Jesus to enable us. Embolden us. To help us stand. My friends there are too many things against us for us to do this alone, life is difficult enough. And that’s where Jesus connects with us. Takes us from being bruised and battered by the world and stands with us even when we don’t know he is there.