May 23rd 2021: Gareth Edwards

Esther chapter one

The first chapter of Esther is so relevant to our situation today. Hebrew Ahasuerus.  His Hebrew Persian title is Xerxes. For the purpose of this sermon he will be referred to as Xerxes.

This scripture is so relevant to our situation today. Esther is one of two books in the Old Testament that actually never mentions God. The other is the Song of Songs. But it would be wrong to think that this book of Esther is just a book of history. The fact that God’s name is not mentioned is deliberate because the message of the book of Esther is this: behind the scenes of life lies the unseen God whose hand controls the movement of individuals and empires. God is not directly mentioned. Why? Because the message is although God is not acknowledged and is unnamed, He’s clearly there. His will is sovereign, and His will and sovereign purpose is being worked out.

Here we are in an age of pandemic. How many people have thought about God? People believe He’s a God who is not relevant; our trust is in science, in SAGE, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. The government says we’re following the science, it doesn’t say we’re following God. We live in an age when the church of Christ is struggling in some lands. Perhaps, even as Christians, we are tempted to say, ‘Where is the God of the revivals of Welsh history? Where is the God of times past of salvation of large numbers of people? Perhaps, as individuals, there may be circumstances in our lives when we ask ‘Where are you God, have you abandoned me? I see no evidence of your presence.’ The message of the book of Esther is that God is at work, constantly accomplishing His will and purpose. He’s at work in and through the pandemic, He’s at work in and through the church and He’s at work in and through the life of His people.

The opening two chapters introduce us to the main characters. In chapter two we see Esther, her cousin Mordecai and the ‘baddie’ in the story, Haman. Esther is going to placed on the throne alongside King Xerxes (Ahasuerus) to be the instrument by which God saves His people, the Jews, from annihilation, and therefore assures that the line of the Messiah continues and Jesus is born to be Saviour of the world.

But before chapter two we have a look at chapter one, where the other main character is introduced to us, King Xerxes. Xerxes the First, son of Darius the First, who ruled over the Persian Empire from 486 – 485 B.C. He is presented to us in this chapter as the master of all of the civilised world, as his kingdom stretches from India in the East to modern day Ethiopia in the West, a kingdom that was organised into 127 provinces. He is now in the third year of his reign.

From history, we know that he has just successfully put down a rebellion in Egypt and is now turning his attention to Greece. His ambition is to conquer and subjugate the Greek world. He gathers together his commanders and all of the chief of officials of the various provinces to come to his palace in Susa, the capital, to plan the attack on Greece. The Persians believed in mixing business and pleasure and so the occasion of the planning of the campaign is elongated by many feasts. After about six months the preparations have been made, a plan has been drawn up and so the time is being drawn to a close by a great feast. Herodotus, a Greek historian of the period, says that Xerxes was going to raise the largest naval and land force the world had ever seen, numbering 2.6 million men. A huge, huge military operation. Having planned it all out, there was now this great climatic feast.

It was held in the opulent luxury of Xerxes’ palace, which was tastefully decorated for the occasion. It was a fitting backdrop to this display of his royal liberality. Xerxes provides abundantly for his guests, no expense spared. He is magnanimous; there are people from different cultures, different backgrounds with different attitudes. Protocol would be that if the king drinks everyone else drinks. But Xerxes is not going to force people to drink, he allows them to follow their own customs. Here he is, this great king, commanding a vast army, ruling over the greatest empire, fabulously wealthy, but he’s not going to force people to follow what he does.

The man sits upon the throne with total dominion over many nations, with absolute authority. But we know from history all of this went to his head. One of his royal palaces had this inscription written on its foundation stone, “I am Xerxes, the great King, the only King. The King of all countries that speaks all kinds of languages. The king of this big and far-reaching earth.’ But what Xerxes failed to see is that there is a greater King. There is a greater King who dictates the course of Xerxes’ life and the course of his empire. The great, unseen, almighty God who, for His own purposes, raises up Xerxes. The rulers and leaders of the nations feel themselves important. They have their trappings and power and authority. But it is God who appoints governments of all descriptions (Romans 13:1-2). We are to give due regard to those whom God appoints. But we must also expect them to realise that they are answerable to God. They will have to stand one day before their Creator and give an account of themselves, as all men will.

As we look at this man Xerxes I am reminded of another King who has all power and authority, the one before whom every knee must ultimately bow, the Lord Jesus Christ.  Xerxes felt he was the ultimate power. But ultimate authority is given by God to only one, His beloved Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. He always uses His power for the good of His people. Xerxes could be generous to a point but King Jesus, who has the wealth of all creation, His generosity is boundless. He pours out grace upon grace upon those He loves.

Here is a king who provides a regular banquet, a great and glorious feast. No banquet on earth is like it. Xerxes threw a great banquet, but nothing compares to the great banquet our King regularly provides for us – the Lord’s Supper. Here we feast upon Him. It’s a love feast for pardoned sinners, whatever their status in human society. The bread and the wine are the symbols of His broken body and His outpoured blood, all for the sake of our salvation. This banquet is the foretaste of the great eternal, never-ending banquet in glory to come.

King Jesus eclipses Xerxes. What a blessing it is to be Jesus’s subjects. Nothing compares. We see Xerxes as a powerful king but then we see Xerxes sees as a drunken king, as frail as all men. On the last day of this feast we find him in high spirits from wine. It impairs his judgement. He commands Queen Vashti to appear before him and his men. He wants them to be impressed by her beauty, he wants them to acknowledge that he is the one with the most beautiful wife in the world. He wants his officials to admire her regal beauty.

But such a request was degrading for Vashti. It was an affront. Vashti was also giving a great feast for women because that was the norm. The women and the men did not mix on these occasions. It was regarded as being wrong for women, particularly women of importance, to be involved in these male-only booze-ups. So, when Vashti is commanded to come, she refuses. She is not going to be belittled in this way. She is not going to be subjected to this demeaning behaviour. Whether she was wise to refuse is a matter for debate, but it is wrong that she was commanded.  Here is, perhaps, one of the most telling examples in scripture of drinking to excess. It is said that Joseph Stalin seldom drank himself, but always plied his visitors liberally with alcohol! He knew that when they were drunk they would let slip secrets.

All men are sinful and subject to the same temptations, therefore, all are equally under God’s judgement. All are equally in need of salvation through Jesus Christ, the rich and the poor, the famous and the unknown There is no greater place of equality than before the law of God and the cross of Christ. We are living in an age that speaks of inclusivity and equality. Well, there is inclusivity, there is equality. Not found in the ways the people of our day think, but found before the law of God. We are all included. Everyone. On exactly the same basis, exactly the same level – as sinners. There is no-one righteous, no, not one. That is equality before the Lord of God, for all are condemned. There is wonderful inclusivity in the Lord Jesus Christ. It doesn’t matter what gender, social class or race we are, no one is more saved than anyone else, no one has a greater place in the Kingdom of God than anybody else. Here is true inclusivity. That’s the true meaning of conversion.

The Bible, and the New Testament especially, warns of the dangers of alcohol (Ephesians 5:18). We must never put ourselves in a position where something or someone else has control over us, where we succumb to another influence. We are to be Jesus’ alone.

Finally, we see a furious King. Vashti’s refusal sends Xerxes into a rage. He’s no longer proud of his Queen’s beauty, instead he’s irate. He calls together his seven closest advisors, men who aren’t concerned to see justice done. They think if Vashti gets away with it, what about their wives?  And so they counsel that Vashti be disposed and Xerxes finds another queen. This Xerxes readily does.

Interestingly, at the start of chapter 2, Xerxes begins to regret this, but at this point he’s going to teach her a lesson. He doesn’t acknowledge his own guilt. He would have been better apologising. He sees Vashti’s refusal as an affront, but of course this lays the groundwork for Esther to become queen – Esther the Jewess, the one who at the telling moment is going to announce to Xerxes that it her people that Haman wants to destroy, that she is a Jewess. In that moment God is going to use Esther to overturn Haman’s plan and ensure the safety of the Jews, and therefore of the line of the Messiah, that the Saviour of the world might be born. That doesn’t mean that what Xerxes did was all right. But God worked though Xerxes’ bad temper and drunkenness. God is at work God bringing about the circumstances whereby Esther will be placed in that most significant position.

We’re all like Xerxes; we find it easier to be angry with someone else than acknowledge our own sinful faults. So, we asked that the Lord gives us grace to see our faults first. How thankful we are that our King will never lose His temper, despite our disobedience. He deals patiently with us.

We may deserve to lose our salvation, but we never will because God is faithful. Our king has given us a counsellor who always advises us – the Holy Spirit (John 16:7). He will never flatterer us but will always tell us what we need to know – the truth that sets us free. In Xerxes we see an all-powerful king who seccumbs to drink and a furious rage. But it is God who is at work. God, through all of this, will ensure the great King will come, King Jesus, the one whose rule is righteous and true, the one who rules for the good of His people. His love always ensures they are safe in eternal salvation. He loves them and guides them by the Holy Spirit and ensures they will always be co-heirs in the Kingdom. What a joy to be subjects of King Jesus. What a comfort to know God has ordained all things. May God be praised!