Sermon Text: Esther 1:1–22
Preacher: Pastor Brian Sauvé
The Empire Has No Clothes
This morning we open up a new book that is actually quite an old book—the Old Testament book of Esther. This is one of the most unusual books in the canon of Scripture. Go ahead and turn there, if you would; we’ll be taking up the first chapter together this morning.
Maybe you’ve heard Esther told as if it is a story about dating, courtship, love, or something of the sort? A One Night With the King sort of take? I want you to know that that is utter nonsense. It’s not even close to what Esther is about.
This book is not about dating. It’s not even a love story—unless you have some really weird ideas about love that involve essentially powerless women being turned into sex objects for rich and powerful men.
No, Esther is a story about empire. That’s where it starts—in the capital city of a vast, pagan empire. It is a story about an invisible collision of rival empires, and the God who can take down kings armed with nothing but an old man and a young girl, without his name ever coming up in the conversation.
To go into this book with our eyes open to some of the key themes, we need to do some spade work on the nature of human empires.
Empire & The Flight Towards Decline
Every empire, over time, has inevitably given in to the peculiar temptations of sin for the powerful and successful—namely, delusions of deity, delusions of omnipotence, and the soaring pride behind those delusions.
Such a state will inevitably attempt to do what only God can do, to control all things, to sum up all things in itself, uphold all things by the unyielding word of its power, to exert that power like creeping tendrils of a climbing vine—attempting to wrap up every stone in the life of its citizens.
Before we meet the ancient empire that embodies these evils in Esther, it is essential that we see something about our own situation: Namely, that our nation is like this and I mean that regardless of your politics. If America were a patient at his regular checkup, the Dr. is admitting him with the stage-four bone cancer of moral relativism, idolatrous self-worship, and self-mutilation.
We are a people who glibly call good evil and evil good; a people who will call the murder of preborn infants “a human right,” who will laugh and clap with glee at an 11-year-old so-called transgender little boy dressing in drag and dancing for the sexual pleasure of grown men—we will give him a television show and brand endorsements and a city parade.
We will claim to believe in progress, yet without any reference to an unchanging standard to measure progress, our progress turns out every time to be a thinly-veiled flight deeper into our own navels in the great project of defining ourselves, ruling ourselves, and deifying ourselves in an attempt to make our own homemade heaven.
What we have found over and over is that our heaven is hell. Our progressives don’t know the difference between progress and flinging ourselves off a cliff—I mean, hey, both have the strong sensation of movement!—and our conservatives no longer have any idea what it is they are even trying to conserve.
Listen: I know I sound harsh. It would be easy to dismiss the last five paragraphs as cranky, get-off-my-lawn blustering. None of what I just said is trajectory, slippery-slope talk; it’s happening now. And what is more, we are used to it, aren’t we? It might not even bother us all that much in 20 years.
America is an absurd place. And I desperately love it. And I am tenaciously for it. And I want to know, I hope you want to know, how to live in it with grace and hope and joy, to live in the midst of a radically unfruitful people and flourish.
Two Popular (and Wrong) Answers
For the people of God living in such empires—a Kingdom people within a fallen kingdom—the question has always been: What ought we to do? How do we live? There are always two basic wrong answers tugging at us like two poles of a magnet.
On the one hand, we might be pulled towards the pole of despair, of hopeless nihilism. “There is no hope. Look at the power of the kingdom of darkness. Look at the empire and her king and their depravity! Do you see the blood dripping from her hands? Do you see her creeping takeover? Empire is swallowing up everything. What world will we give to our kids? To our grandkids? To their kids? This can’t last.”
But despair doesn’t work. Despair isn’t fruitful. Despair is a gelded colt. Despair is a field sown with salt. Despair won’t move us anywhere worth going, because despair is fundamentally unchristian.
So maybe we give in to the opposite pull, not towards nihilistic despair, but assimilation and imitation: If you can’t beat them, join them. Become like them. Stop swimming against the current. Let go and let the new gods have their way. Give Caesar his pinch of incense.
But we know that we become like what we worship, don’t we? That’s just what the Psalms taught us, Psalm 115, “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands... Those who make them become like them.”
Worship a deaf and dumb paperweight of an idol, and become a useless paperweight yourself. Worship the gods of sex, money, and power, and become just like them—greedy, power-addicted animals, enslaved to your own lusts and never satisfied.
So neither of those ways—despair or imitation—will work. So which way should we go?
Here’s the good news for us, Refuge: We are not charting new paths in this struggle. We need not be trailblazers. There are old paths to learn, rather, not new ones to forge. The book of Esther is many things: One of them being an answer to that question—How ought the people of God live in the midst of evil, seemingly omnipotent empire?
Ostentation & Make-Believe Omnipotence
Look with me at Esther 1:1, and we will see the answer begin to take shape:
“Now in the days of Ahasuerus, the Ahasuerus who reigned from India to Ethiopia over 127 provinces, in those days when King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne in Susa, the citadel, in the third year of his reign he gave a feast for all his officials and servants. The army of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces were before him, while he showed the riches of his royal glory and the splendor and pomp of his greatness for many days, 180 days. And when these days were completed, the king gave for all the people present in Susa the citadel, both great and small, a feast lasting for seven days in the court of the garden of the king's palace. There were white cotton curtains and violet hangings fastened with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rods and marble pillars, and also couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl, and precious stones. Drinks were served in golden vessels, vessels of different kinds, and the royal wine was lavished according to the bounty of the king. And drinking was according to this edict: ‘There is no compulsion.’ For the king had given orders to all the staff of his palace to do as each man desired. Queen Vashti also gave a feast for the women in the palace that belonged to King Ahasuerus.”
Meet Ahasuerus, King of Persia, better known in history by his Greek name, Xerxes. Ahasuerus is the son of Darius, his sire, whose actions are recorded in the return of the Israelites from captivity in Ezra and elsewhere.
At this time, early in the 5th-century B.C., Israel was at the tail end of her exile from the Land. Under Darius, some of the people had returned to rebuild Jerusalem, but many had remained behind in the Persian cities of their exile, existing as an ethnic subgroup within the Empire, attempting to preserve their culture and worship and purity in the midst of a vast and foreign kingdom.
What are we supposed to see in these first 9 verses? The author is trying to give you one overriding impression, and that is a sense of awe at the extravagance of this man and his empire. We’re supposed to be in awe of the power, the wealth, and the waste.
In these days of enormous Walmart fortresses stuffed with food from around the world, available 24/7—and all for a low, low price, it is almost inconceivable how this feast would appear to the average human being living at the time of these events. Most laborers barely earned enough to feed themselves by the end of a day’s work—a feast of 180 days?
A Counterfeit god
What is all this extravagance for? It’s supposed to show everyone who the god is on the throne around these parts. History tells us that this throne he sat was situated agh the top of an acropolis, a heavily-fortified palace situated on a man-made hillock rising 120-feet in the air. What does that say? It says, “My throne is high and exalted, looking down on the mortals I rule.”
Ahasuerus is saying with his every move and every word, “I am god. Worship accordingly.” Every detail is designed to underscore his godlike power and glory.
Notice that Ahasuerus is so concerned that his power be on display that he even has a law posted to compel the people not to be compelled in how much they drink. “Be free! Drink as much as you want!” he says. But the subtext is clear, “Beware! Even the fun is regulated by my word.”
What’s happening in this first chapter is that we are being introduced to a counterfeit god. The next two verses double down:
“On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha and Abagtha, Zethar and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus, to bring Queen Vashti before the king with her royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the princes her beauty, for she was lovely to look at.”
The display now comes to the next level. The King flaunts his power by his castrated servants—“Go fetch my beautiful wife and see what a man I am, you who can’t even be properly called men anymore.” And so the idol gleams on his throne—his power, absolute; his word, inexorable—or is it? What will happen next?
Cracks in the Homemade Deity
Look with me at verse 12,
“But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king's command delivered by the eunuchs. At this the king became enraged, and his anger burned within him.” -Esther 1:12
What just happened is that the drama has turned into a satire. One of the things Esther turns out to be is a divinely-authored satire unfolding in real life—the true God mocking a fake god. Does that surprise you? It shouldn’t! Have we forgotten Psalm 2?
“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.’ He who sits in the heavens laughs; he holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, ‘As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.’”
Here is King Ahasuerus, conqueror of worlds, swallower of cities, high potentate of an unbreakable kingdom. At his word, laws are decreed, enemies put to death, and friends fabulously rewarded. His word goes out, and lo! it will not return void!
Ha! Actually, his word goes out and his wife doesn’t even listen to it. Do you see what God is doing? Here is a man who can command armies, who rules provinces... and he can’t even rule his own wife.
The man who commands nations can’t command a single woman. There are cracks running, spiderwebbed, out from this god’s throne and through the heart of his kingdom.
What should happen right at this point? What should happen is that Ahasuerus should realize that fake gods aren’t gods at all, after all.
What this moment ought to be for Ahasuerus is a moment of grace—a moment where he learns something about himself that his the most important thing he could learn: I am not god.
That’s one of the things the real God is doing for us when we run into our own finitude and limit. When the true God lets us in on the open secret that we’re not gods, that is profoundly an act of grace. Did you know that? It is a grace for God to refuse us success in our idolatry.
And in that moment of realization, there are always two basic options on offer: Repentance or Arrogance. Let’s see what Ahasuerus does.
His Word Won’t Return Void?
“Then the king said to the wise men who knew the times (for this was the king's procedure toward all who were versed in law and judgment, the men next to him being Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven princes of Persia and Media, who saw the king's face, and sat first in the kingdom): ‘According to the law, what is to be done to Queen Vashti, because she has not performed the command of King Ahasuerus delivered by the eunuchs?’ Then Memucan said in the presence of the king and the officials, ‘Not only against the king has Queen Vashti done wrong, but also against all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For the queen's behavior will be made known to all women, causing them to look at their husbands with contempt, since they will say, 'King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.’ This very day the noble women of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen's behavior will say the same to all the king's officials, and there will be contempt and wrath in plenty. If it please the king, let a royal order go out from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes so that it may not be repealed, that Vashti is never again to come before King Ahasuerus. And let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she. So when the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, for it is vast, all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low alike.’ This advice pleased the king and the princes, and the king did as Memucan proposed. He sent letters to all the royal provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, that every man be master in his own household and speak according to the language of his people.”
Side note: Don’t ever let anyone try to teach submission in marriage from this text. That’s profoundly not what it’s about. Yes, wives ought to submit to their husbands. Ladies, respect your husbands—for your own joy and for God’s glory. But that’s not what this text is about.
This text is about a man who believes he is a god, conveniently trashing his wife when she wouldn’t bow at his altar with the necessary sacrifices. This is what a culture looks like that hasn’t been leavened by the gospel of Jesus Christ: Men use and abuse women, reduce them to objects, and degrade them. It is inescapable. It is always what happens in a culture in rebellion against God.
Our culture is like this. In its high rebellion against God, men have created a culture where they can use women as sexual-gratification-units, refuse to take any responsibility for actually nourishing and cherishing her, where no covenant is required, and that any children that may result from our sexual gratification can be conveniently discarded. And we have even managed to convince many of the women that all of this is actually what it looks like for a culture to respect women!
All of this—Ahasuerus to us—is totally contrary to God’s teaching. Men and women are image bearers of God. Men are not gods. Women are not their vassal-slaves. Sex is not an at-will employment contract.
So Ahasuerus refuses the invitation of grace and doubles down on his own arrogance. He punishes where he ought to repent. And then—and this is just laughable—he passes a law that all wives have to honor their men.
Do you see the irony? He couldn’t get a single woman to honor him, because he’s not an honorable man, and now he thinks he can decree that all women listen to him? I heard once that some legislators in California passed a law requiring it to rain twice a week when the drought hit a few years back, too. Fake gods can decree decrees, but their word always returns void in the end.
Two Kings & Two Words
And so the story of Esther begins, though we haven’t met her yet, by lighting up the folly of human pride and idolatry in neon lights—where we are to see, not just Persia’s folly, but also our own.
There’s something curious about this book that maybe I haven’t mentioned, yet. It’s a feature of the book that has even caused controversy over the centuries as to whether it should be included in the canon of Scripture (it should): God isn’t mentioned in the whole book.
Is God absent, then, from this book? Absolutely not. Here’s what God would have us do as we make our way through this book without his name in it: God is relentlessly inviting us to compare two kings and their two kingdoms as we read this story.
So before we leave this first chapter of Esther’s story this morning, let’s take that invitation. Let’s look at two kings, and then end with two words of application.
Two Kings & Their Kingdoms
Read the Bible and you will find that history itself is always a struggle of kings. From Edom to Assyria to Babylon to Persia to Greece to Rome—the true King, Jesus, and all the upstart rivals trying to unseat him.
That is the story we’ve been reading: King Jesus vs. King Ahasuerus. How do the two compare?
Where Ahasuerus’s kingdom enslaves, extorts, degrades, and shames, Christ’s Kingdom frees, enriches, cleanses, and exalts. It is pure religion, and it is glorious.
Where Ahasuerus throws a party in a desperate attempt to win respect and bolster the glory of his throne, Jesus sets a table, a wedding feast for those whose worship he has already rightly secured.
Where Ahasuerus abuses and uses and strips and degrades his bride, Christ washes, clothes, cleanses, adorns, nourishes, and cherishes his Bride.
Ahasuerus’s Bride is reduced to an object to be used and jeered at, a sexual trophy to impress the king’s friends. Jesus’ Bride is brought forth in smiling splendor, her dignity clothed in restored and resurrected glory.
Jesus gives no shame, but rather takes it and removes it by the blood of his cross. He shows a new way to be a man—no longer a foolish ape, grasping for stolen respect, but a lordly lover, clothed in blinding glory.
Where Ahasuerus’s word goes out in silliness and returns utterly void, Christ’s Word goes out in power and not one syllable returns void, returns without accomplishing its intent.
God’s Kingdom and her King stand utterly opposed to Persia’s Kingdom and her king, because unlike Persia’s king, the King of God’s Kingdom is worthy of worship. Ahasuerus’s and all imitations thereafter are the same: The Empire has no clothes, it turns out.
In this book where God isn’t named, God is nonetheless inviting us to compare him with his rivals. Take the invitation. Make the comparison. Repent of all misplaced worship and fear and live with confident joy in light of the better Kingdom and her better King—our King; ours is the Kingdom, if we are found in him.
Two Words: Don’t Despair. Don’t Assimilate.
Those are the two kings, now for the two words of application. They are, simply: Don’t despair. And don’t assimilate.
Remember those two wrong answers to the question: How ought we to live as the people of God amidst the empires of fallen men? We might despair when we see the awesome power of those empires, right?
They look so durable, don’t they? Their evils look so insurmountable, don’t they? Listen: Don’t despair. Don’t shake too much before the powers of the world. God is laughing at them. Fake gods want to catechize us to conform to their decrees, to worship at their feet. We say, “No!”—not because we are stronger, but because our God is in the heavens.
What hope do the people of God have when the incompetent sit in the seat of the gods? Esther will teach us: We wait in hope for the Lord to move. His timing is perfect. His wisdom is unrivaled. His power is limitless.
So don’t fear when the nations rage and the peoples plot against the LORD and his anointed—we will see by the end of this book that our Lord is in no danger, and so neither are we.
And don’t assimilate or imitate. I’m convinced that this is our great temptation—to slowly conform to the patterns of this world. And yet our call is clear, isn’t it? Romans 12:1–2,
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
We are not our own; we belong to God. He has purchased us by his perfect blood, and now we are a city in a city, a Kingdom in kingdoms, a people for his own possession among the peoples.
Don’t assimilate. Are we to uncritically embrace the decrees of our culture? Are their altars the altars where we should go to worship? Are their cisterns the cisterns where we should go to find our satisfaction? No! Rather we pray, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.”
The answer to that question—how ought the people of God to live amidst the empires of false gods—begins here: We live by faith in our better King and his indestructible Kingdom, of which we belong to as citizens even as we stand here, occupying the earthly city. We don’t build bunkers to hide in; we build churches.