Esther is the last of the historical books of the Bible, so its main character is named Esther – that is, Venus, the morning star, which sheds its light after all the other stars have ceased to shine, and while the sun still delays rising. Thus, the deeds of Queen Esther cast a ray of light forward into Israel’s history from a dark time. (Louis Ginzberg)
A. King Ahasuerus (Xerxes) holds a grand feast.
1. (1-2) King Ahasuerus and his domain.
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,
a. It came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus: This King Ahasuerus is well known to history, though more commonly under the name Xerxes. He inherited the vast Persian Empire from his father, Darius I (who is mentioned in passages such as Ezra 4:24, 5:5-7, 6:1-15; Daniel 6:1 and 6:25; Haggai 1:15 and 2:10).
i. The fact of the existence of this king and these circumstances is extremely well attested; archaeologists have discovered the ruins of the very palace where these events happened.
b. In those days when King Ahasuerus sat on the throne of his kingdom: At this time (approximately 483 B.C.), Ahasuerus was planning for a doomed invasion of Greece, which would take place several years later. At this time the city of Athens was in its classical glory and in Greece they were celebrating the 79th Olympic games.
i. In its day, the Persian Empire was the largest the world had ever seen. It covered what we call today Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel; and also, parts of modern-day Egypt, Sudan, Libya, and Arabia.
ii. In those days, Ezra had returned to Jerusalem after it had been conquered by the Babylonians. The temple had been rebuilt some 30 years before, although more simply and without the glory of Solomon’s temple.
iii. In 40 years, under the successor of Ahasuerus (Artaxerxes I), Nehemiah would return to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls of the previously conquered city.
2. (3-9) Three royal feasts.
That in the third year of his reign he made a feast for all his officials and servants; the powers of Persia and Media, the nobles, and the princes of the provinces being before him; 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. And when these days were completed, the king made a feast lasting seven days for all the people who were present in Shushan the citadel, from great to small, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace. There were white and blue linen curtains fastened with cords of fine linen and purple on silver rods and marble pillars; and the couches were of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of alabaster, turquoise, and white and black marble. And they served drinks in golden vessels, each vessel being different from the other, with royal wine in abundance, according to the generosity of the king. In accordance with the law, the drinking was not compulsory; for so the king had ordered all the officers of his household, that they should do according to each man’s pleasure. Queen Vashti also made a feast for the women in the royal palace which belonged to King Ahasuerus.
a. He made a feast for all his officials and servants: The first feast was for all the government officials, where Ahasuerus showed off the glory and splendor of the riches of his kingdom. This feast lasted for 180 days.
b. The king made a feast lasting seven days for all the people who were present in Shushan the citadel: The second feast was for the citizens of the capital city, Shushan and it lasted for seven days.
i. The basic reason for these feasts was, of course, pride. The king wanted to impress his subjects with a great display of his own wealth, power, majesty, and generosity. This is typical of the way that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them (Matthew 20:25). There is little doubt that Ahasuerus paid for this feast out of the public treasury.
c. There were white and blue linen curtains: In the ancient Hebrew, the white material is literally described as “white stuff.” This may be evidence that Esther was written with a man’s eye for decorating detail, not a woman’s.
d. In accordance with the law, the drinking was not compulsory: Among some of the ancients, each guest was obliged to have a drink with the current round, or else leave the party. At this second feast, the king commanded that each man could drink as he pleased.
e. Queen Vashti also made a feast for the women: The third feast was for the women in the royal palace, and was conducted by the wife of King Ahasuerus, Queen Vashti.
B. Queen Vashti is deposed.
1. (10-11) King Ahasuerus demands that Vashti display her beauty before the guests at the feast.
On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas, seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus, to bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing her royal crown, in order to show her beauty to the people and the officials, for she was beautiful to behold.
a. When the heart of the king was merry with wine: The clear implication is that Ahasuerus was drunk.
b. To bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing her royal crown: According to Jewish tradition, this request came from an argument among the men at the feast as to which country had the most beautiful women. Ahasuerus decided to settle the issue by putting his wife, the queen, on public display.
c. For she was beautiful to behold: It is not specifically said, but the implication is that Vashti was expected to display herself in an immodest way.
2. (12) Queen Vashti refuses to appear before the drunken guests of the feast.
But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command brought by his eunuchs; therefore the king was furious, and his anger burned within him.
a. But Queen Vashti refused to come: Though Vashti was by no means a follower of the true God, she had enough wisdom and modesty to know that this was something she should not do.
i. The Bible says that wives have a special responsibility to submit to their husbands (wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord; Ephesians 5:22). Yet it does not mean that a wife must obey her husband if he commands her to sin. Every command to submit on a human level is conditioned by the higher obligation to obey God before man.
ii. However, it is important for a Christian in such a situation to maintain a submissive and respectful attitude towards the one in authority. It is possible to disobey the command of another but do so in a submissive manner. It is impossible to say if Queen Vashti had this attitude in this situation.
iii. Jewish traditions say that her refusal had nothing to do with modesty. These stories say that she was ready to appear before the banqueters completely unclothed, except that God smote her with leprosy just as she received the request (an obviously fanciful tradition).
b. Therefore the king was furious, and his anger burned: Queen Vashti was therefore in a very dangerous situation. It does not seem that she put herself in this situation because it appears that she was not even at this banquet.
i. Sadly, many women today put themselves in dangerous places, especially where alcohol is involved, showing a severe lack of wisdom. Nevertheless, it certainly gives no justification to the sin of men against an unwise woman in such a situation.
ii. “What woman, possessing even a common share of prudence and modesty, could consent to expose herself to the view of such a group of drunken Bacchanalians? Her courage was equal to her modesty: she would resist the royal mandate, rather than violate the rules of chaste decorum…. Hail, noble woman! Be thou a pattern to all thy sex on every similar occasion!” (Clarke)
3. (13-22) The banishment of Vashti.
Then the king said to the wise men who understood the times (for this was the king’s manner toward all who knew law and justice, those closest to him beingCarshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven princes of Persia and Media, who had access to the king’s presence, and who ranked highest in the kingdom): “What shall we do to Queen Vashti, according to law, because she did not obey the command of King Ahasuerus brought to her by the eunuchs?” And Memucan answered before the king and the princes: “Queen Vashti has not only wronged the king, but also all the princes, and all the people who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For the queen’s behavior will become known to all women, so that they will despise their husbands in their eyes, when they report, ‘King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought in before him, but she did not come.’ This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media will say to all the king’s officials that they have heard of the behavior of the queen. Thus there will be excessive contempt and wrath. If it pleases the king, 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, that Vashti shall come no more before King Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she. 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.” And the reply pleased the king and the princes, and the king did according to the word of Memucan. Then he sent letters to all the king’s provinces, to each province in its own script, and to every people in their own language, that each man should be master in his own house, and speak in the language of his own people.
a. That Vashti shall come no more before King Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she: When King Ahasuerus heeded this advice from Memucan, he showed himself to be unreasonable and wrong. He should have honored the dignity of his queen. Yet, history’s profile of Ahasuerus shows him to be an unreasonable and foolish man in many cases.
i. On one occasion, Ahasuerus executed the builders of a bridge because an ocean storm destroyed it; then he commanded that the water and waves be whipped and chained to punish the sea.
b. That each man should be master in his own house: The purpose of the harsh treatment of Vashti was so that she would not set a bad example for the other women of Persia. Ahasuerus wanted to reinforce the idea of a man’s leadership in the home.
i. They were afraid that because of Queen Vashti’s example, wives would despise their husbands; that there would be excessive contempt and wrath; therefore, they wanted to ensure that each man should be master in his own house.
ii. The goal presented here was admirable and speaks to the need within every man to sense respect and honor from his wife. Paul’s instruction to wives was summed up like this: let the wife see that she respects her husband (Ephesians 5:33). A wife’s respect is the most precious gift she can give her husband.
iii. However, the means used here to gain and preserve this respect were foolish. A man cannot demand or coerce respect from his wife – if it isn’t freely given, then it isn’t worth anything.