For Such a Time as This - The Story of Ahasuerus and Esther
August 13, 2008
The situations in our lives are not always to our liking: the places we must live, the people we must associate with, or the problems we encounter. And these things may not always be our fault. We may have been the victims of circumstances, or we may have made decisions which we thought were right but which have not worked out as we expected. Some people feel that way about their marriages, the woman, for example, who thought the man she married was a believer. She later found out that he had deceived her. His actions continually reflected his disinterest in the things of the Lord and caused her endless grief. There is a story in God’s Word that will encourage people in adverse circumstances such as these.
The man of the house was none other than the king of the greatest empire in the world of his day. The Jews called him Ahasuerus, the Hebrew form of his Persian name. Secular history knows him better by his Greek name, King Xerxes I, who ruled Persia from 486 to 465 B.C. His powerful empire spread from India to Ethiopia (Esther 1:1). But that was not enough for him. The real passion of his life was to do what his father, Darius I, had never been able to do - conquer Greece.
The Word of God tells us that “in the third year of his reign, he gave a banquet for all his princes and attendants, the army officers of Persia and Media, the nobles, and the princes of his provinces being in his presence, when he displayed the riches of his royal glory and the splendour of his great majesty for many days, 180 days” (Esther 1:3, 4). Such a high-level conference, lasting six months, had to be more than just a big party. It was probably a strategy session for Xerxes’ forthcoming invasion of Greece. Secular history tells us that he began that invasion not long after this magnificent convocation, in 481 B.C.
To conclude the conference, however, he planned seven special days of celebration and feasting (Esther 1:5). When he was a little tipsy from his wine, he called for his beautiful queen, Vashti, so that he could show her off before his friends (Esther 1:11). She refused to be made a public spectacle, and Ahasuerus was enraged. At the advice of his trusted counsellors he decided to depose her by royal decree—the law of the Medes and the Persians which could never be reversed, not even by the king himself (Esther 1:19). It was a rash decision which he would live to regret, but Ahasuerus was known to be an impulsive and headstrong man.
Besides that, he had more important things to do than worry about his harem. He was ready to conquer Greece. His armies were superior to theirs and the momentum of history was on his side. But in a succession of famous battles familiar to students of ancient history (Thermopylae, Salamis, Plataea), his military might was finally broken, and he returned to his capital at Susa a beaten man. How he must have longed for the comfort and companionship of his deposed queen to soothe him in his shame and put his fractured ego back together. “After these things when the anger of King Ahasuerus had subsided, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what had been decreed against her” (Esther 2:1). But it was too late. His decree was irreversible.
That is when his aides suggested an all-Persia beauty contest to find a queen for King Ahasuerus. “Let beautiful young virgins be sought for the king. And let the king appoint overseers in all the provinces of his kingdom that they may gather every beautiful young virgin to Susa the capital, to the harem, into the custody of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who was in charge of the women; and let their cosmetics be given them. Then let the young lady who pleases the king be queen in place of Vashti” (Esther 2:2-4). The whole thing sounded like fun to the king, so he gave his permission, and the search was on. A beauty contest is not a bad way to find a wife, if good looks are all you are looking for. But our sovereign God was going to give Ahasuerus a great deal more than good looks, whether he wanted it or not. God already had a wife picked out for this heathen king. Although God’s name is nowhere mentioned in this book, His providential hand is clearly visible, ruling and overruling in the affairs of men.
Unknown to Ahasuerus, the next queen of Persia was to be a young Jewess. She would probably have rather been in Jerusalem with her countrymen, but for some reason her parents had declined to go back when King Cyrus gave his permission fifty years earlier. The Jews in captivity had been allowed to settle down, open businesses, and live normal lives, and only 50,000 of them chose to return to Israel when they had the opportunity.
This woman’s parents were dead and her older cousin, Mordecai, was raising her. Scripture says, “And he was bringing up Hadassah, that is Esther, his uncle’s daughter, for she had neither father nor mother. Now the young lady was beautiful of form and face, and when her father and her mother died, Mordecai took her as his own daughter” (Esther 2:7). She was a lovely woman, and there was no way she could escape the clutches of the king’s servants who were scouring the land for beautiful women. “So it came about when the command and decree of the king were heard and many young ladies were gathered to Susa the capital into the custody of Hegai, that Esther was taken to the king’s palace into the custody of Hegai, who was in charge of the women” (Esther 2:8).
Mordecai checked on Esther’s welfare daily, since he was a gatekeeper at the palace. He instructed her not to make her nationality known to anyone, probably to guard her against the unkind treatment directed against Jews in almost every country they have ever lived in, throughout their history, and she dutifully obeyed. Then when it was her turn to be ushered in to the king’s presence, she asked for nothing special with which to impress him, as the other girls had done. Her natural God-given beauty and evident loveliness of spirit alone captured the heart of the king. “And the king loved Esther more than all the women, and she found favour and kindness with him more than all the virgins, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti” (Esther 2:17).
Scripture never says that Esther wanted to marry Ahasuerus. It was a flattering offer, but she must have known that he would be less than an ideal husband, especially after what had happened to Vashti. But how do you say “no” to a tyrannical monarch without losing your head? So it was that this simple Jewish girl became the queen of the Persian empire. It was a rags to riches story unexcelled in human history.
The chronology of the book indicates that it was about five years later when the bubble burst and we find a crisis for God’s people. The culprit who caused the trouble must have been Hitler’s Old Testament hero. He was a vicious, anti-Semitic Amalakite named Haman, evidently a descendant of Agag, king of the Amalakites, whom King Saul had kept alive in disobedience to the command of the Lord (1 Samuel 15:8, 9). When Ahasuerus made him prime minister, everybody in the palace bowed down to him except Mordecai. He would bow his knee to none but God, and that infuriated Haman. He vowed not only to punish Mordecai, but to exterminate every living Jew in the Persian empire, and incidentally, that would include those in the land of Israel as well, for they were part of the empire. Haman got the king to agree to his plan and it was sealed with the king’s ring, the irreversible law of the Medes and the Persians. It was another hasty decision that Ahasuerus would live to regret.
“When Mordecai learned all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city and wailed loudly and bitterly. And he went as far as the king’s gate, for no one was to enter the king’s gate clothed in sackcloth. And in each and every province where the command and decree of the king came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping, and wailing; and many lay on sackcloth and ashes” (Esther 4:1-3).
Strange as it may seem, prayer is never specifically mentioned in this book, just as the name of God is never mentioned, but you can be sure that these Jews were praying. Fasting is referred to, and that is usually associated with prayer in Scripture. And the wailing probably indicates a desperate cry to God. These Jews were away from their land by their own choice, out of the place of blessing, separated from their place of worship, and that may be why neither God nor prayer are directly mentioned. But they were praying, and God was watching over them, superintending their circumstances to glorify His own name. He is doing the same for us even when we are not aware of it.
We are about to discover that there is a purpose for God’s appointments. This revelation is made through an exchange of communications between Esther and Mordecai. Esther sent one of the king’s chamberlains to find out why Mordecai was in mourning. Mordecai sent a message back explaining the whole diabolical plot, of which she was unaware, and encouraging her to intercede with the king. She answered quickly, reminding him that no one entered the king’s presence without being invited unless he was tired of living, and that the king had not invited her into his presence for a full month. There was one slim possibility—if the king saw her and extended his golden scepter, she could enter.
Mordecai may have missed God’s best by not returning to Israel, but his spiritual insight had increased since then. He was beginning to understand something of God’s sovereign grace and divine providence, beginning to see that God can use even the adversities of life to accomplish His purposes. He sent word back to Esther, “Do not imagine that you in the king’s palace can escape any more than all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13, 14). Esther is really no safer than any other Jew. When it becomes known that she is Jewish, her life will be endangered too. Mordecai is convinced that God is going to care for His people Israel, however. They may be far from Him, but He cannot let them perish, for that would be contrary to His promises. If He does not use Esther to deliver them, He will use some other means. He is a sovereign God.
You see, Mordecai had grasped the fact that God allowed them to remain in Persia, and may now be ready to turn their decision to stay into glory for Himself and deliverance for the Jewish people. “And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this.” What an outstanding illustration of the greatness of our God. He can take not only the circumstances of our lives that are beyond our control, but He can take the wrong decisions we have made, and even the sins we have committed, and work them out for good. The psalmist says: “For the wrath of man shall praise Thee” (Psalm 76:10). If God can make man’s wrath praise Him, He can certainly make our sins and shortcomings praise him.
That obviously does not mean we should live our lives in total disregard for the will of God, and then expect Him to work out the mess we make. There is an enormous load of unhappiness and sorrow on that road, as many Christians will testify. The consequences of willful sin can be unbearable. It does mean that when we put our lives in Christ’s hands and yield ourselves unreservedly to Him, we can be certain that He has a great plan for us from that moment on. He can use everything that has happened to us in the past and every circumstance in our present experience to help carry out that plan.
God has a purpose for you, right now, right where you are, no matter who you are, where you live, to whom you are married, what you have experienced in the past, or what you are facing in the future. In fact He has allowed you to come to this place in your life for a definite purpose, “for such a time as this.” He has something specific for you to accomplish in your present situation, and He wants you to look for the opportunities in that present sphere of influence.
You see, believers are a part of God’s great program on earth; they should be living with confidence as people of destiny. God does not want us moaning over our plight and looking for a way out. He will be honoured when we claim His grace to be what He wants us to be and do what He wants us to do in our present circumstances. We must take advantage of the opportunities He has made available to us in the here and now. He may later open wider spheres of opportunity if that suits His purposes, but that is in His hands. Our responsibility is to let Him use us where we are.
Esther responded positively to Mordecai’s godly advice. She sent word saying, “Go, assemble all the Jews who are found in Susa, and fast for me; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens also will fast in the same way. And thus I will go in to the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16). Her reference to fasting would reveal her great confidence in the power of prayer, particularly in the fellowship of other believers in prayer. If we are facing trying circumstances, it might be wise to solicit the prayer support of other Christians. We do not need to air all our dirty linen, run down our spouses or gossip about anybody else involved in the problem. All we need to do is admit that we have a need and ask our friends to stand with us in prayer.
With that shroud of prayer surrounding and protecting us, the next step is to determine in our hearts that we shall do the will of God in that situation, whatever the cost or consequence. “I will go in to the king,” Esther affirmed, “and if I perish, I perish.” God may want us to carry out some unpleasant task. It may involve confronting someone whom we would rather avoid or admitting something we have tried to hide, as it did with Esther. But if we know it to be the will of God, we must do it. And God will honour it. He did for Esther.
God worked in a marvelous way. In fact, he performed a miracle for our encouragement. First of all, He laid it on the king’s heart to extend the golden scepter, and Esther approached the throne. She spoke with quiet dignity rather than selfish demands or angry accusations. And instead of blurting out the problem, she invited Ahasuerus and Haman to dinner that evening. At dinner, she ignored the problem again, but rather invited them both to a second dinner the following evening. It was not that she was softening him up or trying to manipulate him. She was using good wisdom, and most husbands and wives could learn a lesson from Esther about how to speak and when to speak. Grace and tact are the key words in her approach.
God works in unusual ways. On the night between the banquets, Ahasuerus could not sleep. He asked for the record of his reign to be read to him. That would probably put him to sleep when nothing else could. In the record was the story of an assassination plot against him that Mordecai had discovered and exposed, for which act he had never been rewarded
(Esther 6:1-3). That incredible little episode set the scene for the events of the next day.
First, Haman was forced to honour Mordecai for his patriotism. And then it was time for Esther’s second dinner party. As they feasted together, the king said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to half of the kingdom it shall be done,” Esther’s reply was brilliant: “If I have found favour in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me as my petition, and my people as my request; for we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed and to be annihilated. Now if we had only been sold as slaves, men and women, I would have remained silent, for the trouble would not be commensurate with the annoyance to the king.” The king was shocked. “Who is he, and where is he, who would presume to do thus?” And Esther put the finger on Haman, much to his horror (Esther 7:1-6).
The results of that dinner party were awesome. Haman was hanged on the gallows he had built for Mordecai, and Mordecai was promoted to prime minister of Persia. And while the order to kill the Jews could not be rescinded, they were given permission to defend themselves against their enemies. Over 75,000 of their avowed adversaries were slain and God’s people were delivered. It was nothing less than a miracle! But God loves to perform miracles for people who see themselves as part of His program, who view their circumstances as part of His appointment, and who live to do His will right where they are.
But there is one more thing we should notice in this narrative, and that is a memorial for all time. Both Mordecai and Esther were so grateful to God for His faithfulness that they sent letters to the Jews in all the provinces in Persia instructing them to celebrate the two days of their deliverance every year. They called it the Feast of Purim, from the word Pur, meaning “lot” or “dice.” Haman had cast lots to determine the day the Jews should die (cf. Esther 3:7; 9:24, 26). God turned it to a day of victory, and they were grateful to Him for deliverance. The Jewish people celebrate the Feast of Purim to this day. It is a lasting memorial to God’s faithfulness.
God is at work in our lives just as definitely and decisively as in Esther’s. Our circumstances may not be all we would like them to be. But we can thank God for them anyway. They provide Him with the opportunity to demonstrate His sovereign love and care, and they provide us with an opportunity to glorify Him. Let us believe that He will work those circumstances together for good, then look for ways to serve Him in them.
Let’s talk it over
- Why do you think God put the book of Esther in the Bible?
- Recount some of the problems you have faced in the past that you now realise God has worked out for good.
- What are the present circumstances in your life that you wish were different? What opportunities to glorify the Lord are provided by these circumstances?
How can you serve the Lord in them?
- How can you help each other handle the trying circumstances of life?
- What did you learn from the relationship of Ahasuerus and Esther that will profit your relationship with each other?