The story of Esther is not like the stories of the princesses in a Disney movie. In a movie the princess meets the prince, there is romance and love, and they lived happily ever after. Although the story of Esther has a happy ending, her story is a nightmare. The only reason Esther survived her nightmare was because of faith in her God, even though God is never mentioned in her story.
The story of Esther begins after Ahasuerus removed Vashti as queen of Persia. The reason Vashti was removed was because she refused to come before the king to show her beauty to his drunken friends. At the request of the king, Vashti was ordered to wear the royal crown and come to the garden of the king’s palace (Esther 1:5). Ahasuerus wanted to show the people and the officials Vashti’s beauty because she was very attractive (Esther 1:11).
A the time the king summoned Vashti to appear before him, Vashti was hosting a party for women only, “Queen Vashti gave a banquet for the women in the palace” (Esther 1:9). Although the text does not say who these women were, it is possible that some of them were the wives of the king’s officials.
There is much debate about whether Ahasuerus wanted Vashti to parade naked before his officials. The intent of the biblical author seems to indicate that the king intended to show Vashti in full royal attire, including the crown. Ahasuerus had displayed the great wealth of his kingdom to the nobles of his kingdom and to the governors of the provinces (Esther 1:4), now he wanted to show them his most precious possession, Queen Vashti, his beautiful wife.
Queen Vashti took offense at the king’s request. The royal crown was a symbol of her dignity as a queen. Vashti’s refusal indicates that she was a strong woman whose character is hidden in the lack of details about her life. The refusal also indicates that the king’s request was an affront to her status as the queen of Persia.
On the other hand, the men believed that the queen’s denial would affect their authority at home. As one of the king’s official said to the king, “Not only has Queen Vashti done wrong to the king, but also to all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands, since they will say, ‘King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come’” (Esther 1:17).
In a patriarchal society, the queen’s behavior was unacceptable. As the king’s official told the king, “This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will rebel against the king’s officials, and there will be no end of contempt and wrath” (Esther 1:16-20).
Convinced by his official’s argument, the king deposed Vashti and ordered that a search be made for attractive young women in the empire. These women would be brought to the king’s harem so that he could select one woman to take the place of Vashti as queen of Persia.
Esther in the King’s Palace
Ahasuerus’s decision to select the new queen is very unusual. Generally, a queen would be selected on the basis of nobility. Instead, the new queen was to be selected for her appearance: “Let a search be made for beautiful young virgins for the king” (Esther 2:2 NIV). The Hebrew word for virgin literally means a young woman of marriageable age. Since most young women of marriageable age in the ancient Near East would have no sexual experience, the translation of the NIV reflects this cultural fact.
After Ahasuerus’ edict was carried out, many young women were taken from their homes to Susa where the king’s palace was located. Among them was Esther, whose Hebrew name was Hadassah. Esther was very attractive and had a beautiful figure (Esther 2:7). Esther did not go voluntarily. She was taken against her will. She was abducted from her house in order to have sex with the king. These women could never return to their families. If they were not selected to be queen, they would remain in the king’s harem, unable to return to their families.
Esther was facing a nightmare. Jewish women would generally marry a Jewish man. Her marriage to Ahasuerus was not a dream come true. In her desperation she had to depend on God to give her strength to face this ordeal, but the name of God does not appear in the book. In fact, in the midst of her hardship and trial, God seems to be absent or hiding from her. As Esther went through her nightmare, the absence of God added to her terror.
In his article, “The God Who Hides: Some Jewish Responses to the Book of Esther,” Jonathan Magnet writes that the translators of the Septuagint were so baffled by the absence of God in the book that they inserted a preface to the book in which Mordecai cries to God for help. In addition some scribes believed that a Hebrew sentence in Esther 5:4 contains the initial letters of the four Hebrew letters YHWH, the name of God.
Although some people believed that God was hiding, that he was inactive and uninvolved in Esther’s nightmare, God was acting in order to accomplish his purpose through Esther. When Esther and the other women were brought to the palace, she was placed in the in custody of Hegai, the eunuch who was in charge of the women (Esther 2:8).
In the providence of God, Esther “pleased him and won his favor, and he quickly provided her with her cosmetic treatments and her portion of food, and with seven chosen maids from the king’s palace, and advanced her and her maids to the best place in the harem” (Esther 2:9). Since these maids came from “the king’s palace,” it shows that Esther was receiving special attention from Hegai, an action which the other women did not receive.
The providence of God is also revealed in the life of Esther. Although Esther was taken against her will to the king’s palace and although Esther was forced to have sex with the king, Esther eventually became queen and as queen she was able to save her people. The story of Esther is similar to the story of Joseph in Egypt. Joseph was taken by force to Egypt, but he became an important official in the court of pharaoh and used his position to save his people. What Joseph spoke to his brothers also applies to Esther. Joseph said, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Genesis 50:20).
Esther Becomes Queen
The preparation to spend a night with the king took twelve months. The women spent six months in cosmetic treatment with oil of myrrh and another six months with perfumes and other cosmetics (Esther 2:12). When a young woman went before the king she had one chance to please him. So, anything the woman wanted to take with her from the women’s quarter to the king’s chamber was given to her (Esther 2:13). If she would not please the king, she would return to the harem and become a king’s concubine.
The NIV translation of v. 13 is misleading. The NIV says that the women went “from the harem to the king’s palace.” The Hebrew literally reads “the house of the women unto the king’s house” (Esther 2:13 KJV). The NIV seems to indicate two different places, the harem and the palace. However, since the harem was generally inside the palace, the women were taken from the harem to the king’s chamber which was inside the palace.
What happened if a woman, in the evening she went into the king’s chamber, did not sexually please the king? Then in the morning she came back to the second harem and was placed in the custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch, who was in charge of the concubines (Esther 2:14). The king’s harem was divided into two areas: the first area was for the women who were preparing to spend the night with the king. The second area was for the women who did not sexually please the king and were relegated to the status of concubines.
The time came for Esther to be taken into the king’s chamber. Esther was taken from her family. Esther was taken to the king’s palace. Now, Esther is taken into the king’s chamber. Esther’s nightmare continues as she prepares to meet the king. When the time came for Esther to present herself before the king, Esther did not request anything except what Hegai recommended. Esther knew that Hegai knew what the king wanted and she was willing to trust him in this matter.
We are not told what Esther took with her, but her decision shows the strength of her character. She accepted the advice of Hegai but she was confident enough to come before the king with nothing else except the strength of her character. The text says that “Esther was admired by all who saw her” (Esther 2:15). The Hebrew word hēn means “favor, grace” and it is generally used to indicate “to find favor in the eyes of someone.” Esther knew herself and she also knew that she would find favor in the eyes of the king.
When Esther came to the king’s chamber, Ahasuerus “loved Esther more than all the other women, and she met with his loving approval more than all the other young women” (Esther 2:17 NET). Four years after Vashti was deposed as queen, Ahasuerus placed the royal crown upon Esther’s head, and Esther became the queen of Persia.
My pastor, Jeff Griffin, Senior Pastor of The Compass Church in Naperville, Illinois preached a sermon on October 25, 2020 titled For Such a Time as This: “God’s Grace.” The post above is based on his sermon.
In the conclusion of his sermon Jeff said that all of us have experienced the absence of God in our lives. We tend to believe that we are all alone, but when we think that God is not there, we discover that he has been present all along. Esther was not alone; God was working behind the scenes. In fact, God was behind the whole story of Esther. Esther became a queen because of the providence of God. He used her life to save her people from extermination.
Jeff also said that when faced with difficult times, people believe that God has abandoned them. But God does nor desert his people; one must find the goodness of God in the midst of darkness.
At the conclusion of his sermon, Jeff mentions the ordeal faced by Jack Deere. In his book Even in Our Darkness: A Story of Beauty in a Broken Life, Deere discusses the darkness he experienced because of the suicide of his father, the suicide of his son, and the attempted suicide of his wife. In the midst of pain and in his desire to understand the darkness he had to face, Deere experienced God’s grace and discovered that in his broken life he had to depend on God and follow him, even in the midst of darkness. In the intersection between providence and obedience, God’s grace is always present, inviting us to meet him in the darkest hour of our soul.
For Such a Time as This: “God’s Grace.” A Sermon by Jeff Griffin
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Other Posts on Esther
Jack Deere, Even in Our Darkness: A Story of Beauty in a Broken Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018).
Jonathan Magnet, “The God Who Hides: Some Jewish Responses to the Book of Esther,” European Judaism 47 (2014): 109–116.
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