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Esther 1-2: A Plan for Favor Print E-mail
Esther
Sunday, 03 July 2016

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Living in exile in a foreign land would be difficult. It would be hard to have no say in the government. It would be hard to adapt to a foreign culture. It would be hard to never really feel safe. Yet, many have faced such a life. In fact, we see several people facing such circumstances in the Bible. When Ruth left Moab to return to Bethlehem with Naomi, she was an exile living in a foreign land. Daniel and his friends were exiles in Babylon. John was exiled on the island of Patmos when he wrote the book of Revelation. The idea of being an exile in a foreign land is not foreign to the Bible. The characters in the book of Esther are living in exile. Many Jews had been living in exile for over a hundred years. In fact, many had been born in exile and so it was all that they knew. But that did not mean that life was easy. As we will see, these Jewish exiles faced difficult challenges living under foreign rule. So much so that they may have been tempted to question if God still had a plan for Israel. Maybe God had forsaken His people for good. Maybe exile was all that they would ever know.

The book of Esther is a great study for those interested in life in exile. And although we might dismiss it as not applicable to our own lives, we should rethink that approach. After all, the Bible teaches that God’s people are currently in exile. We are foreigners in a foreign land. We have the promise of the King that we will not be overcome, that the enemies will not win in the end, but it is not always easy living as outsiders. And so the book of Esther has much to teach us about how to endure as exiles. One major issue that it addresses is the silence of God. How do God’s people find hope when it seems that the Lord has abandoned them? The book of Esther helps us see that even though it may seem that God is not at work, He is always at work. We might be tempted to despair, but we do well to remember that God always keeps His promises, often in the most mysterious ways. Sometimes He intervenes with a burning bush and terrible plagues. And sometimes He raises up a queen from an exiled orphan. In some circumstances His hand is more obvious, while other times not so much. But either way, He is faithfully accomplishing His plan whether we can discern it or not. We see Him working behind the scenes in the prologue of Esther’s story by removing one queen and replacing her with one from His people. He removes favor from one and gives it to another. How do we see that happening in Esther 1-2?

No favor for the queen (ch. 1)

The story begins with a banquet. The king of Persia, a man by the name of Ahasuerus, was throwing a party. It had lasted for months. It was intended to be a celebration of his wealth and power. Look at how it is described in 1:1-9. This is impressive! The king reigns over 127 provinces. He has armies and officials and nobles gathered all around him. He shows off his wealth for 180 days. He gives the whole city a feast lasting seven days. And he does it right. They got fancy decorations, fancy food, and lots of fancy wine that anyone could drink however they felt led. Even his queen gave a feast for the women. It was a lavish statement of the king’s abundant resources and far-reaching power.

But it caught a snag. Look at verses 10-12. When the king was merry (read: drunk) after feasting for six days, he decided to show off his beautiful queen by commanding her to appear, and perhaps perform, before the men at the party. Essentially, he wanted them to see just how hot she was. She was a trophy wife and he wanted to show her off, probably in some sort of lewd way. And just when you think the king’s power could not be seen as any greater, you get a glimpse of the truth: he could not even control his own wife. Queen Vashti refuses to perform at the king’s command. She cries out inaudibly: ‘You may own the kingdom, but you don’t own me!’

They would probably be making movies about her today if her story doesn’t end so poorly. Her actions infuriate the king and he looks for help in how to deal with her insubordination. Look at verses 13-22. The king gathers his wise men and they advise him to take action against Queen Vashti. Not only has she acted against the king, but she has acted against all the peoples who are in the provinces of King Ahasuerus. Talk about losing favor. She is not just an enemy of her husband, she is an enemy of the State, an enemy of the entire kingdom. She is a threat to their whole way of life, for other women may be tempted to follow her lead. And it will cost her. Her refusal to appear before the king at the feast will mean that she will never again appear before the king. To refuse the king’s command is to refuse to be the queen at all. Someone else will take her place. Someone better than she.

Now we may be thinking: what in the world does this have to do with anything? Why is this story in the Bible at all? Who cares about a persian king and his domestic problems? But we must be patient. The author is telling an important story which is part of the important story. And we will see its significance soon enough, but first we must consider the queen’s replacement.

Favor for Esther (ch. 2)

The process for choosing the new queen is laid out in 2:1-4. Look at those verses with me. The plan is simple: bring in all the virgins, let the king have a night with them, and whichever one he likes can be the new king. Do not miss the crude nature of this plan. It is like having a bunch of woman go on a television show to try and win the favor of one eligible bachelor. Who would do that right? This is the plan to replace the queen.

And finally, we are introduced to Esther. Look at verses 5-7. Esther was not just an exile, but she was also an orphan. She had lost her parents. But her uncle, Mordecai, had shown her favor. He had adopted her into his family and raised her as his own daughter. Even from the beginning, we are drawn to these characters. We are also told that Esther was beautiful physically. And we should note at this point the importance of that fact. Vashti was beautiful and the king wanted to show off her beauty to the men at his banquet. The virgins being brought before the king were to be beautiful young virgins. This was a prerequisite. And Esther was qualified. She was a beautiful orphan, adopted into the family of a fellow exile.

And she finds favor with the man in charge of taking care of the women who will appear before the king. Look at verses 8-11. Hegai, the man charged with making sure the virgins were ready to see the king, was impressed with Esther. She pleased him and won his favor. We are not told exactly why this happened. Maybe she was more beautiful than all the other women. Maybe she had a good personality. We are not told. But even here, we have to begin to wonder if there is more going on in this story. It seems something bigger is happening. And indeed it is.

But the author is not quite ready to reveal that just yet. First, he gives us some details about Esther’s preparation to see the king. Look at verses 12-14. Again, notice the crudity of this situation. All these women were given one-night stands with the king to try and win his favor. If they did not succeed, they became concubines for the rest of their lives. Such a fate builds the tension in the story. How can this orphaned exile win favor with the king? Won’t she end up as just another concubine in his harem. Won’t he forget her name like all the rest?

The day finally comes for Esther to appear before the king. Look at verses 15-18. Esther’s favor with Hegai gave her an inside track on what the king might like and she took with her only what he recommended. We also see that she was winning favor in the eyes of all who saw her. Again, notice the focus on physical beauty. Her appearance was giving her favor with the people. Yet still, what would the king think? He’s seen pretty girls before. Would Esther be any different? Yes! The author tells us: the king loved Esther more than all the women, and she won grace and favor in his sight. Just like everyone else, the king was taken with Esther’s beauty. Again, maybe it was her personality or something else that set her apart, but from all indications, it was simply her physical beauty. And the king was smitten. He made her the queen in place of Vashti. The former queen lost favor and Esther won it. The king was so excited that he gave another feast in honor of Esther and even gave the kingdom some tax breaks! He must be in love!

The chapter ends on an odd note. Look at verses 19-23. We are not certain how Mordecai got the position that he had at the gates (perhaps appointed by Esther), or even if he had an official position, but he was in the right place at the right time to discover a plot against the king. The two men who were charged with guarding the gate became angry with the king and decided to action against him. But Mordecai intervened through Esther and saved the king’s life. The foreign exile saved the king through the orphan queen. Again, the author is giving us a bit of foreshadowing that will be significant as the story continues.

Conclusion
Although we know there is more to come and the author has hinted at its importance, at this point we still might be wondering: why tell this story? We have just looked at two chapters that don’t even mention the name of God (from a book that never actually mentions Him). What do we do with this? The book of Esther tells us a story of contrasts. This morning we saw the contrast between Vashti and Esther. One loses favor and loses the crown, while the other wins them both. Next week we will look at the contrast between Mordecai and Haman, the enemy of the Jews. But the greatest contrast of the story is between the two kings. One is an earthly king, who at first glance appears to have it all: 127 provinces, an abundance of leaders, and unlimited resources. The problem? This great king cannot even control his own wife. He throws a feast that she refuses to attend. The other King, the heavenly One, is not even named. His people are enslaved to the earthly king. But He is working. Even in these chapters we see Him raise up an orphaned girl to be the Queen of the land, gaining favor with everyone she meets.

And when we step back to start looking at the whole story, we know that this King is keeping His covenant with His people. He is protecting them with His steadfast love (His ‘favor’), as we will see in the next few weeks. But, if we step back even more and ask why the Heavenly King is doing all of this, we must conclude that He too is throwing a feast. And He has prepared a Bride for that Day. He shows the orphaned exile favor to preserve His people so that He can send His Son who will rescue them from their sins and prepare them for the Heavenly Feast. And when the angel is talking with John about that Future Feast, he says: ‘Blessed (favored) are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb’ (Rev. 19:9). The Bride of Christ will be far more than the Queen of Persia. She will dwell with the eternal King forever. That is why we have this story of the exiled orphan becoming Queen. It points to our future in Christ. All who turn from their sins and trust in His death and resurrection will enjoy His favor forever. Like Esther, we are exiles now, but the King is coming. We may not be able to see Him working, but we can know that He is keeping His promise. The Feast is being prepared! Amen.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Friday, 15 July 2016 )

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