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Esther Chapter 2

Esther Chapter 2

Sermon Transcript

Often, the story that God is writing features flawed, fallible, and compromised main characters. The characters we meet in Chapter 2 are no exception. Join us on our journey through Esther as we start to see the greater work that God can do through imperfect people.

Ken Wales, the award-winning TV and film producer, started his Hollywood career as an actor. Early on, while under contract with MGM, he was cast for a big film starring Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Shirley MacLaine. As he read the script, he learned his potential character had to get a young woman drunk and then take advantage of her.  Being a Christian, he immediately faced a conflict: compromise his biblical beliefs and make some money while expanding his budding career, or speak up.

He bravely voiced his moral concerns to the director, Vincente Minnelli.  The meeting didn’t go well. Minnelli warned him, “You’ll do it, or you’ll be out of your contract, you’ll go on suspension, you’ll have no salary for a year, and I’ll see that you never work in this town again.” When Ken said he wouldn’t portray this character, Minnelli threw him out of the office and immediately suspended him.

A year later, Ken spoke to 600 teens at a youth convention in Denver.  When their main session ended one evening, everyone left to get pizza and see a movie at a theater across the street. Guess the movie that showed on the marquee.  That’s right, it was the film he had turned down.  Instantly, the thought crossed his moral mind:  “What if I’d done that film and the kids had gone in and seen it?” Had that occurred, his entire message would have been diluted and most likely destroyed, plus teens would have logically questioned his character.

Standing on biblical principles grows a saint's faith while positively impacting others.  Is it costly? Yes.  Is it worth it? Without a doubt.  Was this the end of Ken’s Hollywood dream? No, God opened doors for him, resulting in him producing Christy, East of Eden, and the memorable and moving Amazing Grace.

The reality is that not all Christians model the courage of Ken.  Sometimes, for various reasons and rationalizations, they cave and compromise on what they know the Word of God says is right and wrong, moral and immoral.  Yes, sometimes saints act like Daniel when he refused to eat the idol-tainted meat of the Babylonians (Dan. 1), and sometimes they waffle as Mordecai and Esther did in Esther chapter 2.  I know having this (uncomfortable) discussion is shocking to some. Still, we can’t get around it because it is part of the historical narrative of this divinely inspired story of demonic opposition followed by bravery and divine deliverance. Whereas Ken and Daniel, the prophet 2,500 years before him, stood on biblical standards and didn’t flinch, this is not always the case in the lives of believers.  Mordecai and Esther were two genuine believers with some real spiritual issues. Mordecai and Esther, like some of you, were two saints who compromised their faith for years, and those small compromises led to bigger ones as their lives unfolded.

As a side note, we must say compromise can be either positive or negative, good or bad.  Everything from governments to marriages couldn’t function if compromises on non-essential matters didn’t occur. However, compromise is highly inappropriate when it is based on abandoning essential, primary truths. The compromise of Mordecai and Esther is of this nature, as they appear to have willingly walked away from basic Torah teachings about sexuality, marriage, and eating non-kosher foods.

Now, back to the story.

True, God’s blessing rests squarely on the shoulders of fearless saints like Ken and Daniel. But what about saints who make bad choices, don’t live as closely as they should concerning God’s Word, and purposefully place themselves in compromising situations? Is God finished with them . . . with you? Esther chapter two answers this question in a decisive fashion.  You might have moved away from God in your compromise as Esther and Mordecai did, but God never moves away from you.  On the contrary, He sovereignly and silently works to position you so you will be forced to decide to come clean and stand up for your faith, morality, and justice.

Watch how this spiritual truth develops in this historical narrative. As the author seeks to teach and challenge us, he moves through four scenes:

The Counsel (Esther 2:1-4)

The emphatic placement of the temporal phrase, “After these things” ( אַחַר֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לּ) notifies us something big is about to occur after the banishment of Queen Vashti after her debasement and disobedience toward the King. The phrase is used in this fashion in Esther 3:1 and in significant passages like Genesis 15:1 (where it is first employed), where God promises a son to Abraham in his old age. This son will be the inheritor of the unconditional Abrahamic Covenant. Perhaps it is not used by accident here, for the promises to Israel in Genesis 15 will be divinely  protected as the story of Esther unfolds beyond chapter 2.

Since this is a temporal marker, we must ask, “Has any time elapsed between Esther 1:22 and 2:1? The answer is “Yes.”  Esther chapter 1 occurred in the third year of the reign of King Xerxes, or 483 B.C.  According to Esther 2:12, Esther was brought into the king’s private quarters to be considered the next Queen in the seventh year of Xerxes’ reign, or 479 B.C.  So, there is a gap of four years between the two chapters.  What happened during this time? Xerxes went to war with Greece and lost some significant battles. Xerxes returned to Susa, his capital, having lost face before the world and his troops.  I’m sure he was depressed, despondent, and discouraged.  His unreasonable anger toward Vashti had evaporated, but in his loneliness, he couldn’t rebuild that relationship because he had passed an unalterable decree that her role as Queen was perpetually over.  The biblical text puts this all in perspective:

1 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.

This will prove to all be so ironic later.  An emotionally driven king utters a decree he can’t undo, but in the future, he will utter another abysmal decree he will undo at the request of another Queen. Ah, but we get ahead of ourselves.  Suffice it to say God is the God of righteous reversals; do hang onto your faith.

Listening to King Xerxes moan and groan around the palace about not having a wife fell, I’m sure, on the ears of his loyal attendants.  Feeling sorry for the man, they boldly stepped forward and gave him some unsolicited counsel.  Remember, he’s the guy who doesn’t typically do his thinking but tends to listen to others . . . even his butlers. What did they say? Read on.

2 Then the king's attendants, who served him, said, "Let beautiful young virgins be sought for the king. 3 "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. 4 "Then let the young lady who pleases the king be queen in place of Vashti." And the matter pleased the king, and he did accordingly (Est. 2:1-4).

Xerxes’ attendants suggested he find a wife by hosting what we might call a beauty contest. Further, these shallow attendants told him the only criteria for securing a Queen was directly related to her outer beauty.  They didn’t care about her inner beauty on whit.  They didn’t care about her inner character, how well her mind worked, whether she was loyal, her spiritual depth, or anything about her personality type.  All they stressed was the new Queen had to be drop-dead gorgeous.

What should the king have said?  “Gentlemen, there is more to a woman than what she looks like.  True beauty is internal.  Outer beauty will fade, but inner beauty grows and flourishes in time.”  But he didn’t say anything like this.  He liked what these pseudo-counselors said and told them to set the whole paegent in motion.

Had Xerxes been able to get his hands on Neil Warren’s helpful book called “Date or Soulmate?” he would have learned some fundamental dating principles to ensure success: (1) Know yourself well. The better you know yourself, the better equipped you’ll be at choosing a mate who can help and benefit you; (2) Know what kind of mate you’re looking for. What are your top ten “Must-haves” and “Can’t stand”? (3) What is the person’s spiritual standing with God? (p. 121), (4) What is the person's emotional health? (p. 99ff), and (5) What differences should you never overlook? (Chapter Eight). Toward the end of the book, Neil talks about the importance of evaluating a person from the inside out, not the outside (p. 162). Xerxes never got the memo.  Like all non-believers, he only cared about face, form, and function. He should have asked some of his Jewish subjects if their holy writings said anything about finding a woman of actual worth. Anyone of them could have pointed him to Proverbs 31. He chose, instead, to follow the carnal advice of his butlers.  All this makes you want to ask, Who is speaking into my life? Are you dating? Please don’t take any notes from Xerxes. Do the opposite of what he did.

Now, before the inspired author turned to the pageant process, he paused in verses five through seven to introduce us to . . .

The Coach (Esther 2:5-7)

Who’s the Coach? A Jew named Mordecai. Who’s he going to coach? A cousin named Esther. These two will ultimately become the spiritual hero and heroine of the story; however, at this juncture, we are merely acquainted with them.

5 Now there was a Jew in Susa the capital whose name was Mordecai, the son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, a Benjamite, 6 who had been taken into exile from Jerusalem with the captives who had been exiled with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had exiled.

Mordecai was Kish's great-grandson, a Benjamite.  Is this important? Yes.

Benjamites were the prized left-handed missile slingers in Israel’s army.  To attack a city gate, right-handed soldiers had to carry their shields in their left hand, thus exposing them to enemy fire as they turned to assault gate boxes built in front of city walls to protect the main gate.  Enter the Benjamites. They held their shields in their right hands, providing cover as they led the way to victory (Judges 20:16; 1 Chron. 8:40; 12:2).

Their geographic location between Judah and the northern tribes of Ephraim also situated them at the apex of all major road systems moving north and south and east and west.  As such, they had to learn to fight to defend this militarily critical region.  Their prowess against Sisera under Deborah and Barak underscores their ability and skill on the battlefield (Judges 5:14).

Further, being a Benjamite, Mordecai had special ops in his blood and the drive to win battles against superior forces.  Further, as a descendant of Israel’s first king, Saul, Mordecai was strategically positioned in this story to do the work of a king where Israel’s enemies were concerned.

Mordecai’s great-grandfather, Kish, was part of the first Jews taken into exile under King Jeconiah (also known as Coniah, Jer. 22:24-30 and Jehoiachin, 2 Kings 24:6-17) in 597 B.C. Since the Babylonians typically took the upper crust into captivity first, Mordecai’s great-grandfather was probably a refined, educated, and successful aristocratic person of royal blood. This may help us understand why Mordecai placed himself near the epicenter of political life in his new country.

In addition to this, we need to make some observations about the names given here.  Mordecai is related to the  Babylonian god, Marduk. This was not unusual since other Jewish captives, like Daniel and his three friends, had their names changed to erase their ethnic identities. To this, we learn additional facts about Mordecai and his family starting in verse 7:

7 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 daughter (Est. 2:5-7)

Mordecai had adopted his uncle’s daughter and his cousin, Esther, after her parent's death.  This shows he was a man of principle, compassion, and sacrifice.  Her Jewish name, Hadassah, means “myrtle,” which contains star-like beautiful flowers. Isaiah, three hundred years prior, prophesied how the myrtle tree would blossom in the desert in the kingdom age (Isa. 55:13).  Esther indeed went on to live up to the meaning of her name as her courage will blossom all over the barren soil of the captives.  And like her cousin, Esther’s name is a derivative of a Babylonian name.  Hers is built off the Babylonian goddess, Ishtar, the love goddess.  Based on what she looked like, Xerxes must have thought her name suited her well, but she would prove to be a woman, unlike anyone he had ever known in his carnal mind.

Moving from this important parenthetical information, the author next moves to what I call . . .

The Contest (Esther 2:8-16)

We will move through this lengthy section by reading the text and making some appropriate comments:

8 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.

Note well: it does not say the women are forced to be part of this contest to find a new queen. In verse 3, the attendant counseled the king to merely “gather” the young virgins to consideration. The Hebrew word, qavas (  קָבַץ),  doesn’t denote violent or unwated gathering. Predominately, it is used to bring people together (Deut. 30:3) or assemble sheep (Isa. 13:14).  This is an essential point because I think it informs us that Esther didn’t have to be part of this pageant.  She could have abstained as a Jew based on the command to remain separate from Gentiles in marriage (Deut. 7) and to avoid sexual sin (Lev. 18), but she didn’t—quite the contrary. Read on, and you will see what I mean. She compromised her faith.

 9 Now the young lady pleased him and found favor with him. So he quickly provided her with her cosmetics and food, gave her seven choice maids from the king's palace, and transferred her and her maids to the best place in the harem. 10 Esther did not make known her people or her kindred, for Mordecai had instructed her that she should not make them known. 11 And every day Mordecai walked back and forth in front of the court of the harem to learn how Esther was and how she fared. 12 Now when the turn of each young lady came to go in to King Ahasuerus, after the end of her twelve months under the regulations for the women-- for the days of their beautification were completed as follows: six months with oil of myrrh and six months with spices and the cosmetics for women-- 13 the young lady would go in to the king in this way: anything that she desired was given her to take with her from the harem to the king's palace. 14 In the evening she would go in and in the morning she would return to the second harem, to the custody of Shaashgaz, the king's eunuch who was in charge of the concubines. She would not again go in to the king unless the king delighted in her and she was summoned by name. 15 Now when the turn of Esther, the daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai who had taken her as his daughter, came to go in to the king, she did not request anything except what Hegai, the king's eunuch who was in charge of the women, advised. And Esther found favor in the eyes of all who saw her. 16 So Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus to his royal palace in the tenth month which is the month Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign (Est. 2:8-16).

She enjoyed the cosmetics and the food (v. 9), and the food, of course, was not entirely kosher. Deuteronomy 14 listed the dos and don’ts of Jewish eating to remain a separate people unto God, but I’m sure she blew through this list while she was part of the selection process.  Years earlier, another Jew was placed in a royal setting and was propositioned with eating the idol-tainted Babylonian food. His name? Daniel.  His choice? He acted like Ken.  He didn’t compromise his faith nor the dictates of God concerning kosher and non-kosher food (Dan. 1).

Esther also hid her Jewishness from the Persians around her.  She was a Persian from her words and actions.  Was this not a form of deception and falsehood, the two things forbidden by God’s people (Ex. 20:16; 23:1; Deut. 5:20; 19:18; Prov. 12:17; 14:5; 19:5, 9). ? I think so.  Even if she did it to safeguard her life and to be obedient to her cousin’s counsel, she should have been courageous and stood on the truth of her ethnicity, leaving the outcome to the living God. She chose, however, to waffle a little to get ahead.

Further, she entered this contest knowing that each woman would have a night with the king so he could determine which one pleased him the most, sexually speaking. She purposefully defied the commands of God from Deuteronomy 7 and Leviticus 18 regarding sexual relations outside of marriage and sexual relations with Gentiles. True, the Persians were true polytheists, meaning they accepted the worship of any gods, mainly those directed toward theirs.  Esther would have known this, but her presence in this bachelorette contest illustrated she wasn’t too concerned about the dictates of Deuteronomy 6:4-5:

4 "Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! 5 "And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 "And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart; 7 and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up (Deut. 6). 

All Jews knew these commands, even Esther.  This reality means she didn’t obey what she knew was right but chose to do what she wanted.  And Mordecai was also part of the compromise as her guardian.  As an older Jewish man, he should have never put her up to this contest based on some of the previous points I just made.  I think this was not their finest moment, as many layers of compromise ruled the day.

On the other side of the equation, the collective spiritual compromise of Mordecai and Esther did not derail the inner workings of God concerning them or the people of Israel at large.  We glimpse God’s silent activity at several junctures in this narrative.

It says several times that Esther “found favor.” From the beginning, there was something different about her, and Hegai, who was in charge of the ladies, saw it. He placed her under his wing by giving her cosmetics, food, seven attendants, and special quarters (v. 9).

After ten months of King Xerxes having his way with a young woman every night, Esther finally had her evening (v. 15). Unlike the other ladies who had spent twelve months getting all kinds of beauty treatments to give them an edge over each other, she, with great dignity and style, let Hegai, the king’s eunuch who knew his tastes better than most, pick her apparel and accouterments.  This resulted in her securing the king's favor when no one else did. Xerxes was so excited and enamored with Esther that he made her his queen that day in the month of Tebeth, or December-January in the Jewish religious calendar. And, as I said, since it was seven years after the beginning of his reign, it was either 479 (December) or 478 (January) B.C.  As a side note: since seven is the number of God, this may be a latent statement of His abiding presence throughout this sordid, sinful affair.

The phrase “finding favor” is most interesting. In the Old Testament, it speaks of God showing favor to you.  Ezra, the scribe who rebuilt the people after they returned to the land, found God’s favor in his work (Ezra 7:6), as did Nehemiah when he returned with Jews to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem (Neh. 2:8).  Years before these saints, Daniel found favor with God when he chose not to compromise his faith before the Babylonians (Dan. 1:8-9).  Along these lines, Proverbs 16:7 is true:

 7 When a man's ways are pleasing to the LORD, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him (Prov. 16).

Divine favor does pour upon saints when they walk closely and obediently with God, but this does not mean God forgets those who are compromised, far from it.  He who knows our frame, He who understands, as Paul did, that we struggle with our sinful natures and the pull of the flesh (Rom. 7), patiently and quietly works to position us in a situation where we can have a proverbial “come to Jesus moment,” a time of spiritual awakening.  Put differently, our loving Heavenly Father has a wise way of turning the compromised into the energized.  He did it in Esther and Mordecai’s lives and will do the same in yours.  More on that in a moment.

In one evening, Esther divinely went from being a nobody to being a somebody, from being poor to being wealthy, to being obscure, to being known, to being compromised, to being on the verge of being spiritually energized.  The King responded as you would anticipate:

The Coronation (Esther 2:17-18)

The man who loved to party threw one to be remembered when he found the love of his life, Esther:

17 And the king loved Esther more than all the women, and she found favor 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. 18 Then the king gave a great banquet, Esther's banquet, for all his princes and his servants; he also made a holiday for the provinces and gave gifts according to the king's bounty (Est. 2:17-18).

Not only this, he made the wedding day a holiday for everyone.  No one had to work to enjoy the festivities, and everyone throughout the land also received a wonderful gift of some sort from the King.  How thoughtful, which is ironic because, in the next chapter, his true character will surface again as he wll be utterly thoughtless regarding the Jews.  But for now, things were good as Esther was in the center of God’s perfect will for the tumultuous political times right around the corner.

Stepping back from this story, it’s not hard to see our story. Sometimes, we are brave, like Ken Wales. As we tell a superior, we will sacrifice all for biblical, moral principles. At other times, when we are in our Persian period, we evidence weakness and compromise.

  • My parents will not know how much I drink at college or who I hang out with.
  • A minor plagiarism won’t hurt; after all, I’ve got to get this paper written so I can get to work and meet my needs.
  • My wife will never know how I flirt with other women when I stay for those businesses after parties when I attend conferences. It’s just some adult fun.
  • Going out for dinner privately for business contact of the opposite sex is just part of my job. It won’t lead to anything.
  • Looking at forbidden things online is just harmless adult pleasure and nothing more.
  • There is no way the IRS will find out about the cash I make under the table doing side jobs. They already take too much of my money, so I think my actions are justified.
  • I have to fudge figures, or else we won’t have a shot at that lucrative government contract.

The list is endless.

At first, we are ashamed of folding like the proverbial lawn chair. Still, several well-devised rationalizations have a way of silencing the convicting voice of the Holy Spirit.  Soon, we don’t read the Word, attend Bible studies, or worship regularly.  In time, we start to think compromise is good because it allows us to get ahead of others.

But, then, God positions you in your compromised carnality to decide whether to walk with Him or not.  That is how He operates.  Let me repeat: Your carnal compromise will never derail a divine rendezvous God has established specifically for you.  Like Esther, God has merely positioned you, despite your waywardness,  for something greater. Will you seize the day? Ken Wales did. Now it is your turn.