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Esther 1-5     Listen Podcast

An introduction to Esther
Let's get a little bit of perspective on this book. These events take place under Xerxes aka Ahasuerus. He's the King of Persia, and his reign fell between the events of Ezra and Nehemiah. The exiles have already returned and rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, but Nehemiah comes later (under a successive King of Persia) to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. The significance of the Book of Esther is the fact that the Jews were almost exterminated from the face of the earth in this story, but the providence of God prevented that from happening - all explained in the Book of Esther. One more thing - a new Jewish holiday called Purim (Esther 9:20-32, see notes) is born out of the events in this book as well.


Let's put the Book of Esther in perspective with Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai and Zechariah:

538 B.C. Cyrus (of Persia) assumes control of the Babylonian Empire . Ezra 1, see notes
537/536 B.C. Cyrus decrees that the Jerusalem Temple is to be rebuilt and that the Jewish exiles may return. Ezra 1:1-4, see notes
536/535 B.C. The first Jewish exiles return to Jerusalem. Ezra 1-2, see notes
520-516 B.C.

The temple is rebuilt in Jerusalem.
Haggai and Zechariah live and prophesy during this period.
Darius is the ruler of the Persian Empire.

Ezra 5-6, see notes
Haggai 1, see notes; Zechariah 1, see notes
483 B.C. King Xerxes (Persia) deposes Queen Vashti. Esther 1
479 B.C. King Xerxes marries Esther. Esther 2
458 B.C. Ezra leads more exiles back to Jerusalem.
Artaxerxes is the ruler of the Persian Empire.
Ezra 7-10, see notes
445 B.C. Nehemiah goes to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls under King Artaxerxes of Persia. Nehemiah 1-2, see notes

The King of Persia throws a look-what-I-own party (Esther 1:1-9)

1 Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus (this was the Ahasuerus who reigned over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces, from India to Ethiopia),
2 in those days when King Ahasuerus sat on the throne of his kingdom, which was in Shushan the citadel,
3 that in the third year of his reign he made a feast for all his officials and servants—the powers of Persia and Media, the nobles, and the princes of the provinces being before him—
4 when he showed the riches of his glorious kingdom and the splendor of his excellent majesty for many days, one hundred and eighty days in all.
5 ¶ And when these days were completed, the king made a feast lasting seven days for all the people who were present in Shushan the citadel, from great to small, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace.
6 There were white and blue linen curtains fastened with cords of fine linen and purple on silver rods and marble pillars; and the couches were of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of alabaster, turquoise, and white and black marble.
7 And they served drinks in golden vessels, each vessel being different from the other, with royal wine in abundance, according to the generosity of the king.
8 In accordance with the law, the drinking was not compulsory; for so the king had ordered all the officers of his household, that they should do according to each man’s pleasure.
9 ¶ Queen Vashti also made a feast for the women in the royal palace which belonged to King Ahasuerus.

Xerxes (son of Darius) was very rich. He ruled everything worth ruling; his reign extended from 486 to 465 B.C. By today's standards, he would hold that "world's richest man" title. And his empire was massive according to verse 1 - from India to Ethiopia including over 127 separate provinces. At the conclusion of a planned 180-day event showing off his kingdom, he throws a seven-day party - an elaborate party. Everything provided at the party was the best available.

How about that wacky queen, Vashti? (Esther 1:10-22)

10 ¶ On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas, seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus,
11 to bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing her royal crown, in order to show her beauty to the people and the officials, for she was beautiful to behold.
12 But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command brought by his eunuchs; therefore the king was furious, and his anger burned within him.
13 ¶ Then the king said to the wise men who understood the times (for this was the king’s manner toward all who knew law and justice,
14 those closest to him being Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven princes of Persia and Media, who had access to the king’s presence, and who ranked highest in the kingdom):
15 “What shall we do to Queen Vashti, according to law, because she did not obey the command of King Ahasuerus brought to her by the eunuchs?”
16 ¶ And Memucan answered before the king and the princes: “Queen Vashti has not only wronged the king, but also all the princes, and all the people who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus.
17 For the queen’s behavior will become known to all women, so that they will despise their husbands in their eyes, when they report, “King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought in before him, but she did not come.’
18 This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media will say to all the king’s officials that they have heard of the behavior of the queen. Thus there will be excessive contempt and wrath.
19 If it pleases the king, let a royal decree go out from him, and let it be recorded in the laws of the Persians and the Medes, so that it will not be altered, that Vashti shall come no more before King Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she.
20 When the king’s decree which he will make is proclaimed throughout all his empire (for it is great), all wives will honor their husbands, both great and small.”
21 ¶ And the reply pleased the king and the princes, and the king did according to the word of Memucan.
22 Then he sent letters to all the king’s provinces, to each province in its own script, and to every people in their own language, that each man should be master in his own house, and speak in the language of his own people.

What was Vashti thinking? The King (Xerxes aka Ahasuerus) throws a party and calls for her presence...and she refuses to come? Who does she think she is? Don't miss these verses; the subsequent events are most interesting. Queen're a baaaaaad example for women all over the Empire; you must not be permitted to show disrespect to your man like this (verse 18). As a matter of fact, the King and his leadership team (all men) determine that if she is allowed to refuse the King without consequence, many women in the Empire will follow her example. She must be punished for the sake of the Kingdom. The King will strip her of being Queen (beats death...I guess), demoting her (presumably) to the position of a mere concubine. As a matter of fact, this obey-your-husband-or-else decree was published throughout the kingdom as a result of this incident (verse 22).

Who wants to marry a billionaire? (Esther 2:1-18)

1 After these things, when the wrath of King Ahasuerus subsided, he remembered Vashti, what she had done, and what had been decreed against her.
2 Then the king’s servants who attended him said: “Let beautiful young virgins be sought for the king;
3 and let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom, that they may gather all the beautiful young virgins to Shushan the citadel, into the women’s quarters, under the custody of Hegai the king’s eunuch, custodian of the women. And let beauty preparations be given them.
4 Then let the young woman who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.” ¶ This thing pleased the king, and he did so.
5 ¶ In Shushan the citadel there was a certain Jew whose name was Mordecai the son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, a Benjamite.
6 Kish had been carried away from Jerusalem with the captives who had been captured with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away.
7 And Mordecai had brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle’s daughter, for she had neither father nor mother. The young woman was lovely and beautiful. When her father and mother died, Mordecai took her as his own daughter.
8 ¶ So it was, when the king’s command and decree were heard, and when many young women were gathered at Shushan the citadel, under the custody of Hegai, that Esther also was taken to the king’s palace, into the care of Hegai the custodian of the women.
9 Now the young woman pleased him, and she obtained his favor; so he readily gave beauty preparations to her, besides her allowance. Then seven choice maidservants were provided for her from the king’s palace, and he moved her and her maidservants to the best place in the house of the women.
10 ¶ Esther had not revealed her people or family, for Mordecai had charged her not to reveal it.
11 And every day Mordecai paced in front of the court of the women’s quarters, to learn of Esther’s welfare and what was happening to her.
12 ¶ Each young woman’s turn came to go in to King Ahasuerus after she had completed twelve months’ preparation, according to the regulations for the women, for thus were the days of their preparation apportioned: six months with oil of myrrh, and six months with perfumes and preparations for beautifying women.
13 Thus prepared, each young woman went to the king, and she was given whatever she desired to take with her from the women’s quarters to the king’s palace.
14 In the evening she went, and in the morning she returned to the second house of the women, to the custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who kept the concubines. She would not go in to the king again unless the king delighted in her and called for her by name.
15 ¶ Now when the turn came for Esther the daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai, who had taken her as his daughter, to go in to the king, she requested nothing but what Hegai the king’s eunuch, the custodian of the women, advised. And Esther obtained favor in the sight of all who saw her.
16 So Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus, into his royal palace, in the tenth month, which is the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign.
17 The king loved Esther more than all the other women, and she obtained grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins; so he set the royal crown upon her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.
18 Then the king made a great feast, the Feast of Esther, for all his officials and servants; and he proclaimed a holiday in the provinces and gave gifts according to the generosity of a king.

Out with the old queen and in with the new. So, how do you select a new queen? Let's have a contest - gather the most beautiful, young, virgin women from all over the empire and let the king spend some quality time with each one. Then let him pick his new queen from the contestants. The winner becomes queen of the largest empire in the world. The loser...well, she joins her fellow losers in a special house for the concubines presided over by a eunuch of the king; she'll live the rest of her life like a widow. You see, the interview process involved spending a night with the king. It wouldn't be appropriate to just let her go after she spent a night with the king. So, the winner wins big, and the losers lose big according to verse 14 - probably never spending a night with the king ever again and forbidden to become another's wife. What a contest!

And the tiara goes to...ESTHER! An orphan wins the crown! But wait! There's more! She's also Jewish! Just a small piece of critical information that her cousin (and guardian), Mordecai (palace government worker), happened to leave off of her contestant application (verse 10). By the way, her Jewish name was Hadassah; her Persian name was "Esther." Mordecai had instructed her not to reveal her national origin to anyone (verse 10).

An assassination plot averted (Esther 2:19-23)

19 ¶ When virgins were gathered together a second time, Mordecai sat within the king’s gate.
20 Now Esther had not revealed her family and her people, just as Mordecai had charged her, for Esther obeyed the command of Mordecai as when she was brought up by him.
21 ¶ In those days, while Mordecai sat within the king’s gate, two of the king’s eunuchs, Bigthan and Teresh, doorkeepers, became furious and sought to lay hands on King Ahasuerus.
22 So the matter became known to Mordecai, who told Queen Esther, and Esther informed the king in Mordecai’s name.
23 And when an inquiry was made into the matter, it was confirmed, and both were hanged on a gallows; and it was written in the book of the chronicles in the presence of the king.

Mordecai discovers an assassination plot against the king, tells Esther who tells the King (in Mordecai's name), and the two men are executed. Add "saved king's life" to your resume; that's gotta help.

Whoaaa! That Haman has some scary plans! (Esther 3)

1 After these things King Ahasuerus promoted Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him and set his seat above all the princes who were with him.
2 And all the king’s servants who were within the king’s gate bowed and paid homage to Haman, for so the king had commanded concerning him. But Mordecai would not bow or pay homage.
3 Then the king’s servants who were within the king’s gate said to Mordecai, “Why do you transgress the king’s command?”
4 Now it happened, when they spoke to him daily and he would not listen to them, that they told it to Haman, to see whether Mordecai’s words would stand; for Mordecai had told them that he was a Jew.
5 When Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow or pay him homage, Haman was filled with wrath.
6 But he disdained to lay hands on Mordecai alone, for they had told him of the people of Mordecai. Instead, Haman sought to destroy all the Jews who were throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus—the people of Mordecai.
7 ¶ In the first month, which is the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus, they cast Pur (that is, the lot), before Haman to determine the day and the month, until it fell on the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar.
8 ¶ Then Haman said to King Ahasuerus, “There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from all other people’s, and they do not keep the king’s laws. Therefore it is not fitting for the king to let them remain.
9 If it pleases the king, let a decree be written that they be destroyed, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those who do the work, to bring it into the king’s treasuries.”
10 ¶ So the king took his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews.
11 And the king said to Haman, “The money and the people are given to you, to do with them as seems good to you.”
12 ¶ Then the king’s scribes were called on the thirteenth day of the first month, and a decree was written according to all that Haman commanded—to the king’s satraps, to the governors who were over each province, to the officials of all people, to every province according to its script, and to every people in their language. In the name of King Ahasuerus it was written, and sealed with the king’s signet ring.
13 And the letters were sent by couriers into all the king’s provinces, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all the Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their possessions.
14 A copy of the document was to be issued as law in every province, being published for all people, that they should be ready for that day.
15 The couriers went out, hastened by the king’s command; and the decree was proclaimed in Shushan the citadel. So the king and Haman sat down to drink, but the city of Shushan was perplexed.

To make a long story short, the wicked Haman gets the best job the king has to offer - everybody bows down to him...except Mordecai, the Jew. Haman's outraged - not content with just having Mordecai punished; he decides all Jews should be exterminated. To initiate a decree like that...well...timing is everything! How does one decide when the timing is right to pull the trigger on a request to the king that involves the extermination of a whole race of people? There's your answer in verse 7 - casting lots. Notice, however, the unique word used for the "lot" here; it is "pur" and is only used in the Book of Esther. That's a transliteration of the Hebrew word; the plural for "pur" in Hebrew is "purim." Haman consults specialists (probably astrologers) to help him cast lots ("purim") in order to choose the perfect day to approach the king with a legal petition calling for empire-wide Jewish extermination; that date is almost a complete year later. Remember that word; you'll see the significance of the word "purim" when we get to Esther 9:20-32 (see notes). In verse 8, after nearly a year, Haman convinces the king that these Jews are a menace to society and persuades the king to issue a decree for their extermination - so far, so good. Haman receives permission to hire mercenaries to do the job. Little does Haman know that the queen is a Jew, and the king himself doesn't know either. Watch it, Haman! This plan could backfire! Ohhhhh! I just can't resist telling you right now. The plan will backfire, and the Jews who escape death will celebrate annually a holiday appropriately named "Purim."

Incidentally, this death sentence is issued against the Jews in the first month to be implemented in the last month. That means the Jewish people lived under this death decree for nearly a year.

By the way, most Jewish sources link Haman with the King Agag of I Samuel 15:32-34 (see notes). You will recall that Samuel passed a condemnation on him before his execution. There is no way to scripturally validate this. However, if that assumption were correct, it adds a whole new layer to the story of vengeance as it unfolds here.

Mordecai, you've brought a death sentence on your people! (Esther 4)

1 When Mordecai learned all that had happened, he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city. He cried out with a loud and bitter cry.
2 He went as far as the front of the king’s gate, for no one might enter the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth.
3 And in every province where the king’s command and decree arrived, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes.
4 ¶ So Esther’s maids and eunuchs came and told her, and the queen was deeply distressed. Then she sent garments to clothe Mordecai and take his sackcloth away from him, but he would not accept them.
5 Then Esther called Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs whom he had appointed to attend her, and she gave him a command concerning Mordecai, to learn what and why this was.
6 So Hathach went out to Mordecai in the city square that was in front of the king’s gate.
7 And Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and the sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king’s treasuries to destroy the Jews.
8 He also gave him a copy of the written decree for their destruction, which was given at Shushan, that he might show it to Esther and explain it to her, and that he might command her to go in to the king to make supplication to him and plead before him for her people.
9 So Hathach returned and told Esther the words of Mordecai.
10 ¶ Then Esther spoke to Hathach, and gave him a command for Mordecai:
11 “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that any man or woman who goes into the inner court to the king, who has not been called, he has but one law: put all to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter, that he may live. Yet I myself have not been called to go in to the king these thirty days.”
12 So they told Mordecai Esther’s words.
13 ¶ And Mordecai told them to answer Esther: “Do not think in your heart that you will escape in the king’s palace any more than all the other Jews.
14 For if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
15 ¶ Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai:
16 “Go, gather all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me; neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will fast likewise. And so I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish!”
17 ¶ So Mordecai went his way and did according to all that Esther commanded him.

Imagine how you'd feel if your actions led to the extermination of a whole race of people. Well, that's the jam in which Mordecai finds himself. Because he did not pay respect to Haman, that wicked man has managed to get a death warrant for every Jew in the Persian Empire. Mordecai is mortified! What to do...what to do? Time to call on cousin Queen Esther. Here's the problem: Even though she's the queen, no one is permitted to just stroll up to the king and say, "Hey! I need a favor." As a matter of fact, it was a capital offense to do so (verse 11). Notice how Mordecai leans on her here; he really needs a favor - calls in all his markers. Mordecai points out that she won't be spared from such a decree herself, and it very well may be for such an occasion that God placed Esther where she is. Esther consents - even at the risk of her own life.

Esther plans a pre-banquet banquet (Esther 5:1-8)

1 Now it happened on the third day that Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, across from the king’s house, while the king sat on his royal throne in the royal house, facing the entrance of the house.
2 So it was, when the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, that she found favor in his sight, and the king held out to Esther the golden scepter that was in his hand. Then Esther went near and touched the top of the scepter.
3 ¶ And the king said to her, “What do you wish, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given to you—up to half the kingdom!”
4 ¶ So Esther answered, “If it pleases the king, let the king and Haman come today to the banquet that I have prepared for him.”
5 ¶ Then the king said, “Bring Haman quickly, that he may do as Esther has said.” So the king and Haman went to the banquet that Esther had prepared.
6 ¶ At the banquet of wine the king said to Esther, “What is your petition? It shall be granted you. What is your request, up to half the kingdom? It shall be done!”
7 ¶ Then Esther answered and said, “My petition and request is this:
8 If I have found favor in the sight of the king, and if it pleases the king to grant my petition and fulfill my request, then let the king and Haman come to the banquet which I will prepare for them, and tomorrow I will do as the king has said.”

Esther gets up the courage to head over to the king's palace - could mean death - gotta go anyway. As she stands where the king can see her, she catches his eye, and he holds up the scepter inviting her to approach. So good! She, in turn, invites Haman and the king to a banquet that evening. The banquet is a banquet for the purpose of inviting them to another banquet tomorrow evening. Everything seems to be going well; the king did offer her up to half his kingdom. The problem: She's going to ask for a retraction of the king's own decree regarding the Jews in his kingdom. That may be regarded as more than half a kingdom. While at the banquet, Esther then invites them to tomorrow's banquet - quite the entertainer, wasn't she?

Only a hangin' will do! (Esther 5:9-14)

9 ¶ So Haman went out that day joyful and with a glad heart; but when Haman saw Mordecai in the king’s gate, and that he did not stand or tremble before him, he was filled with indignation against Mordecai.
10 Nevertheless Haman restrained himself and went home, and he sent and called for his friends and his wife Zeresh.
11 Then Haman told them of his great riches, the multitude of his children, everything in which the king had promoted him, and how he had advanced him above the officials and servants of the king.
12 ¶ Moreover Haman said, “Besides, Queen Esther invited no one but me to come in with the king to the banquet that she prepared; and tomorrow I am again invited by her, along with the king.
13 Yet all this avails me nothing, so long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate.”
14 ¶ Then his wife Zeresh and all his friends said to him, “Let a gallows be made, fifty cubits high, and in the morning suggest to the king that Mordecai be hanged on it; then go merrily with the king to the banquet.” ¶ And the thing pleased Haman; so he had the gallows made.

Even with the decree against the Jews having been issued, Mordecai still doesn't show any respect to Haman when he passes. Haman's got a great life; it's just this respect thing that bugs him. His wife comes up with a superb idea: "Have Mordecai executed on a 50-cubit high gallows." That's 75 feet above the ground - over 7 stories high! He likes the idea - figures he has the clout to make it so; after all, he and his best buddy (the king) are the only two invited to the queen's banquet tomorrow night. He brags to all of his friends about how great things are going for him. Hey! Haman! This banquet tomorrow night might not turn out the way you're hoping it will!

Click here to go to the exciting conclusion to this story which resumes in Esther 6.