I. Setting the Stage: A New Queen and a Foiled Assassination (Esther 1:1–2:23)


I. Setting the Stage: A New Queen and a Foiled Assassination (1:1–2:23)

1:1-2 Esther opens by giving us its historical context. The book’s events took place during the days of Ahasuerus. He was king of the Medo-Persian Empire, ruled 127 provinces from India to Cush (1:1), and reigned over his huge kingdom from his capital in Susa (1:2) in what is now southwest Iran.

Ahasuerus is most likely a title (like “president” or “czar”) for Xerxes I, the Persian king who ruled from 486–465 BC. The first Medo-Persian king, Cyrus the Great, had issued a decree in 539 BC permitting the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple (see 2 Chr 36:22-23). By the time Ahasuerus came to power, many Jews had returned to Jerusalem. But, many others had not.

1:3-8 The events that would engulf two Jews named Esther and Mordecai began when Ahasuerus decided to hold a feast . . . for all his officials (1:3). But, this was no ordinary party; it was to last 180 days (1:4)—six months! At the conclusion of this period, the king held a week-long banquet where his glory and wealth were on full display for his guests (1:5-6). Moreover, the royal wine flowed freely (1:7), meaning there was no limit to the potential for inebriation. Meanwhile, in another location, Queen Vashti also gave a feast for the women (1:8).

1:9-12 On the final day of the banquet, the king was feeling good from wine (1:10)—that is, he was quite intoxicated. So, he decided to show off his very beautiful queen to all his drunken friends (1:11). But, when he sent for Vashti, she refused to come. In an instant, Ahasuerus went from feeling good to being furious (1:12).

1:13-15 The king consulted the wise men . . . experts in law and justice (1:13) because what had happened wasn’t considered a mere marital dispute but a legal matter. A queen had refused to obey the king publicly. Ahasuerus needed his legal team to advise him about what he should do with Vashti according to the law (1:15).

1:16-18 One of the king’s officials agreed that Vashti’s actions posed a serious problem. He argued that when word got out, all the women of the land would despise their husbands (1:16-17). If the queen was allowed to snub the king, the noble women of Persia and Media would do the same to all the king’s officials (1:18). In other words, he said, “She’s gotten us all in hot water with our wives, King!”

1:19-20 The official argued that there was only one thing to do: issue a royal decree. If such a ruling were recorded in the laws of Persia and Media, it could not be revoked, a government detail that would later prove important. The decree would forbid Vashti from ever entering Ahasuerus’s presence and paved the way to give her royal position to someone else (1:19). By means of these tough measures, the official insisted, the crisis would be averted and the women of the kingdom would honor their husbands (1:20).

1:21-22 Memucan’s suggestion was all the king needed to hear. As far as Ahasuerus was concerned, his queen had disrespected him in public, his advisors were in a state of panic, and he needed a plan to prevent things from getting out of hand. So, he approved the proposal (1:21) and sent letters throughout his kingdom, demanding that every man should be the master of his own house (1:22). With that, the king’s officials no doubt breathed a sigh of relief. And, the stage was set for the events to follow.

2:1-4 Some time later, four years later to be exact (as we learn in 2:16; see 1:3), King Ahas-uerus’s rage had cooled and he remembered Vashti (2:1). But, there was nothing to be done. He had banished her, and the laws of Persia and Media couldn’t be altered. So, his personal attendants suggested an idea: hold a kingdom-wide beauty contest. Every beautiful young virgin would be gathered, and the king could choose his favorite to become queen instead of Vashti (2:2-4). Ahas-uerus thought this was a great idea; after all, the winner would receive him as the grand prize.

Everything to this point appeared to have nothing to do with the people of God. An arrogant Gentile king threw a six-month bash, got drunk, had marital problems, and sent a search party to find him a new beautiful bride. Yet, these events started a chain reaction that would lead to the potential destruction of God’s people, followed by an amazing eleventh hour deliverance through God’s providence.

God is sovereign. This, in fact, is one of his chief attributes in Scripture. He has supreme authority over all creation. The Lord “works out everything in agreement with the purpose of his will” (Eph 1:11). “From him and through him and to him are all things” (Rom 11:36). Providence is the miraculous and mysterious way that God weaves events together behind the scenes so that his sovereignty over the world is carried out. Though the book of Esther never mentions the name of God, his breathtaking providence in her life and on behalf of his people couldn’t be more obvious.

2:5-7 In the fortress of Susa—the location of Ahasuerus’s throne (see 1:2)—there was a Jewish man named Mordecai (2:5). He had been taken into exile by Nebuchadnezzar and was the legal guardian of his cousin, a young woman named Esther (2:6-7). But, Esther was no ordinary woman. She had a beautiful figure and was extremely good-looking (2:7). In fact, Esther and Mordecai only entered the picture of events related to the palace because of Esther’s beauty—something outside of their control. Yet, that would give them important roles to play in upcoming events regarding the entire Jewish people.

2:8-11 When the king’s command was announced, many young women were taken to his palace—including Esther (2:8). The man who supervised the beauty contest especially liked her, so Esther received a spa package unlike any other woman has ever seen (2:9). At no time, though, did Esther reveal her ethnicity because Mordecai had ordered her not to do so (2:10). (Apparently, he didn’t think she could become queen otherwise because of existing attitudes in the empire against the Jews.)

2:12-13 The text speaks of each young woman’s turn to go to King Ahasuerus. This was not merely an opportunity to say, “Hello.” Rather, the phrase was a euphemism for sleeping with the king, as 2:14 makes clear. For six months prior to the event, each candidate for queen received one round of beauty treatments, and during another six months, she received a second round (2:12). That’s a lengthy preparation for one night with the king.

2:14 When each woman’s turn arrived, she would go in the evening to the king and in the morning she would return to a second harem. Unless the king requested her, she’d never go to him again. Though this kind of behavior may have been acceptable in the Gentile world, it was considered scandalous among God’s people. A man and woman were only to engage in a “one flesh” union when they had come together as husband and wife (Gen 2:24). Furthermore, the people of Israel were not to marry unbelievers (see Deut 7:3). But sometimes, God allows things to happen of which he doesn’t approve in order to accomplish his greater purpose. This could also explain why God kept his name from being mentioned in the book.

2:15 That Esther gained favor in the eyes of everyone who saw her implies that God was providentially at work. Every woman was allowed to take whatever she wished “from the harem to the palace” (see 2:13). But, Esther only took what the king’s eunuch . . . suggested. In other words, she turned down an opportunity to pile up material things for herself. She was different. And, as a result, she set herself apart, and people took notice—including the king.

2:16-18 When Esther was taken to the king, he loved her more than all the other women. Though much in Esther’s story was happening that was inconsistent with God’s character, the Jews were his covenant people, and he had promised to cover them. So, Esther won more favor and approval than the other women, and the king placed the royal crown on her head (2:17).

2:19-22 One day, Mordecai was sitting at the King’s Gate (2:19), a fact indicating he worked for the king in some capacity and from that position had told Esther not to inform the king that she was a Jew (2:20). While on duty, Mordecai overheard two of the king’s eunuchs plotting to assassinate King Ahasuerus (2:21). So, he immediately told Esther, and she reported the plot to the king on Mordecai’s behalf (2:22). This last piece of information is important because it tells us Esther gave Mordecai credit for uncovering the scheme.

2:23 Once everything was investigated and verified, the two eunuchs were executed. And, the event was recorded in the Historical Record in the king’s presence. That means Mordecai’s name was on record as the hero. Yet, like an unseen puppet master pulling the strings, God was the one at work in prolonging the king’s life and moving the story of his people forward. Though he may often seem absent in your life, God is at work. Trust him where you are because he is doing something bigger than you can imagine.