Sermon Text: Esther 2:1–18
Preacher: Pastor Brian Sauvé
Sons of Xerxes
One thing Esther should teach us by the end of the book is that the Bible is a book that strenuously resists taming. This is one of the issues with doing what we could call Veggie Tales theology (Sorry, Phil Vischer). Veggie Tales theology is what happens when you grind up the Bible and run it through a sieve to remove anything that would lead to awkward questions from your kids.
“Daddy, why was God so happy with Phinehas when he stabbed that guy and that lady in the tent?”
“Mama, can I dress up like that lady, Jael, from Judges 4, who stabbed that guy through the head with a tent stake? I can borrow one from daddy’s Coleman tent!”
It’s like, hmmmm, what do I do with this? I’m not sure this book is appropriate for my children.
The Bible has edges. It should come with a warning label: Handle with care. Sometimes, we kind of like to skate over the dark parts, read really fast—Ok, God made the bunnies, that’s cute. Adam and Eve, cool, something something something murder something something God kills everyone in a flood something something something… Ah! Ok, Jesus. Good. That’s the part I want to read.”
Here’s the problem: If when you run into the darkness of the text and respond by pulling out a big exegetical sieve to filter out all of the darkness—when you file off the sharp edges, when you flatten out all the valleys of Scripture, you don’t just end up with a slightly sanitized version of the same story; you end up with an altogether different story.
You dim the brightness of the hero’s glory if you minimize the dragon he throws down. You can’t replace all the Orcs with anthropomorphized zucchinis and still weep with joy at the end when Aragorn weds Arwen, King of the renewed kingdom of men.
Last week, as we began making our way through the story of Esther in chapter 1 of the book, we met wicked Ahasuerus, the king who seems convinced that he is a little god. And maybe you were hoping we were done staring into the deeps of his depravity.
Nope. We’re just getting started. In fact, if we do this thing right this morning, we should all be tremendously unsettled by Esther 2.
Sinning Our Way to the Promised Land?
Take a look at Esther 2:1, if you would,
“After these things…”
After which things?
Well, after King Ahasuerus dismissed his wife like a minimum wage employee after she refused to be turned into an object to be displayed before his drunk friends at a 6-month-long party. After Ahasuerus should have realized that he is in fact not a god—after his word went out to fetch his wife and returned void.
“After these things, when the anger of King Ahasuerus had abated, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what had been decreed against her.” -Esther 2:1
The king remembers Vashti. What does that mean? In a word, that he is bummed. He is feeling the absence of his wife. The king has sobered up now; the party’s over; the friends have all gone home, and can’t you imagine it? He’s feeling flat. Probably bored.
He sins in anger, cools down, and begins to feel the repercussions of his sin; now he has no wife. “I miss my wife! Where’d she go? Oh yeah…”
And again, as he had when he was faced with Vashti’s initial refusal, Ahasuerus has a choice: Will I repent and humble myself and ask forgiveness and seek to make restitution, or will I double down in arrogance and pride? Let’s see; verse 2,
“Then the king's young men who attended him said, “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king. And let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in Susa the citadel, under custody of Hegai, the king's eunuch, who is in charge of the women. Let their cosmetics be given them. And let the young woman who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.” This pleased the king, and he did so.”
There it is. Ahasuerus, miserable through his sin, is now going to try to sin his way back to happiness. This is the whisper of the serpent in our fallenness: The lie that the way back to restoration and joy when our sin has stolen it from us is more sin.
Been there? I have. When you’ve sinned and you’re miserable and your heart steps in to help and whispers, “I know what to do. Sin more. Cover up what you’ve done. Go binge some Netflix. Go eat too much. Get drunk. Whatever it takes, let’s drown this feeling, let’s distract it away.”
Ahasuerus has sinned his wife away, and rather than repent his way back into fellowship, he will instead replace her. See that? “Let the woman who PLEASES the king be queen instead of Vashti.” What is that? That’s just Adam’s “God, the problem was the woman you gave me,” repackaged, right? “The problem wasn’t you, Xerxes, it was your wife. A better wife should fix it.”
Ahasuerus is going to sin his way back to happiness, so he thinks. And what we’re going to see is that as we give in to that lie, and as sin multiplies as a result, it has exponentially destructive effects—not just in our own lives, but rippling out into the lives of those near us.
Now Ahasuerus’s sin is going to start swallowing worlds. Look at verse 5, and we’ll read through verse 18 and stop a few times on the way to get a good handle on what’s going on.
“Now there was a Jew in Susa the citadel whose name was Mordecai, the son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, a Benjaminite, who had been carried away from Jerusalem among the captives carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had carried away. He was bringing up Hadassah, that is Esther, the daughter of his uncle, for she had neither father nor mother. The young woman had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at, and when her father and her mother died, Mordecai took her as his own daughter.”
So we meet Esther and Mordecai, two Jewish exiles, a young woman and likely an older man. Again, this takes place when Israel had been exiled from the Promised Land in judgment for their rejection of God and worship of idols, between the first partial return of the Jews to the Land in 538 BC under Zerubbabel, but before the second and third returns of the people under Ezra in 458 BC and then Nehemiah in 445 BC. Verse 8,
“So when the king's order and his edict were proclaimed, and when many young women were gathered in Susa the citadel in custody of Hegai, Esther also was taken into the king's palace and put in custody of Hegai, who had charge of the women. And the young woman pleased him and won his favor. And he quickly provided her with her cosmetics and her portion of food, and with seven chosen young women from the king's palace, and advanced her and her young women to the best place in the harem. Esther had not made known her people or kindred, for Mordecai had commanded her not to make it known. And every day Mordecai walked in front of the court of the harem to learn how Esther was and what was happening to her.”
“Now when the turn came for each young woman to go in to King Ahasuerus, after being twelve months under the regulations for the women, since this was the regular period of their beautifying, six months with oil of myrrh and six months with spices and ointments for women— when the young woman went in to the king in this way, she was given whatever she desired to take with her from the harem to the king's palace. In the evening she would go in, and in the morning she would return to the second harem in custody of Shaashgaz, the king's eunuch, who was in charge of the concubines. She would not go in to the king again, unless the king delighted in her and she was summoned by name.”
So here’s the procedure, and let’s not sugarcoat it: Beautiful, young, virginal girls are taken from their homes and forced into what we would call today a form of sex-slavery.
They go through a beauty regiment for a year, and then one by one, the king has his way with them for a night. If he likes her, he might have her back for a second “interview.”
If not, they are dismissed to the king’s harem, where they will remain for life, unable to marry anyone else or have children, basically becoming a living doll, plaything of the king he can take off the shelf when he wants and then put back when he’s done. Verse 15,
“When the turn came for Esther the daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai, who had taken her as his own daughter, to go in to the king, she asked for nothing except what Hegai the king's eunuch, who had charge of the women, advised. Now Esther was winning favor in the eyes of all who saw her. And when 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, the king loved Esther more than all the women, and she won grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. Then the king gave a great feast for all his officials and servants; it was Esther's feast. He also granted a remission of taxes to the provinces and gave gifts with royal generosity.”
So Esther complies, wins favor, and wins the competition, basically securing the best of a terrible situation in which she is utterly out of control.
Again, and I know that somewhere deep down we want it to be, because we love a good love story—this is not a love story. That’s just not what it is. This isn’t a prescriptive text, meaning it’s not telling us what to do. It’s rather a descriptive text, telling us what took place.
The main point of this whole setup, as we get into the fullness of the story in the coming chapters, will become clear. By the time we get to the punchline of the story, we’ll find out exactly what God is doing in the midst of all of this abject wickedness.
But it’s not our job yet, not at this point in Esther, to see that punchline. What we need to see now is the bleakness of the setup so that the glory of God’s work in it will shine with the brightness it should, and to see the bleakness of the setup so that the justice of God’s judgment at the end of the book will make sense.
Spoiler, and I suspect this probably got left out of the vegetable version of Esther, God’s work is going to result in the death of a whole lot of people who, as my grandfather would have said, “need killin.’”
The Anatomy of Male Sin
So we need to see the bleakness and blackness of the sin that sets up the story. What is the nature of that bleakness? Well, especially here in chapter 2, it sit he bleakness of masculinity gone wrong.
There are two ways that masculinity goes wrong on stark display here in this text through Ahasuerus that I want us to see together and make eye contact with.
1. When men sin, they do so by domination.
Notice in the text that the competition to become Ahasuerus’s wife wasn’t one you entered. You were in it if you were a woman in his empire, period.
Verses 2–4, “Let beautiful young virgins be SOUGHT OUT for the king. And let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom to GATHER all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in Susa the citadel, under custody of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who is IN CHARGE of the women.”
Verse 8, “So when the king’s order and his edict were proclaimed, and when many young women were gathered in Susa the citadel in custody of Hegai, Esther also WAS TAKEN into the king’s palace and PUT IN CUSTODY of Hegai.”
Notice how the women are being treated like ripe fruit on a tree, free to be grabbed and gobbled up. This is not voluntary. When men sin, they dominate. This was part of the Curse of sin pronounced to Eve after the Fall. “And your desire shall be for your husband, but he shall rule over you,” Genesis 3:16 pronounces; benevolent headship twisted into dominating rule.
And so Ahasuerus forces scores of women into essentially sexual slavery in ancient Persia, and so the Arab sex slave trade works as a well-oiled machine into the 20th century, and so millions of women are trafficked in the Asian sex markets, and so when ISIL announced in 2015 that they were reviving sex slavery, setting the initial price on a woman from 10-20 years old at $127, they weren’t doing something historically strange, but historically average.
Men have been doing this kind of thing since wicked Lamech in the early chapters of Genesis.
Dominance. All of this is sin, sin, sin. And it is precisely this kind of sin that has given many, even many sitting here this morning, that feeling of squirming discomfort whenever I say something like, “God made the world to be inevitably patriarchal, by design. Men should lead their homes.”
When men sin, they pervert the glory of what God intended to display through benevolent, strong, lordly, masculine, humble, self-giving headship. This sin distorts the beauty of the God’s divine Fatherhood that is intended to be put in radiant display before the world through good patriarchs.
It distorts the beauty of the divine wedding of the Son of God to his Bride, won through self-sacrifice and to her eternal good. Men sin in domination, and it is despicable both because it makes women and children into victims—and because it makes masculinity itself a victim, making the world hate what it ought to love.
Now, equally damaging though maybe less despised is the male tendency to sin in abdication.
2. When men sin, they do so by abdication.
See, the heart of God-glorifying masculinity is taking responsibility, giving yourself away in service of the Good of God’s glory and your neighbor’s joy.
From the very beginning, responsibility-taking lived at the core of masculinity—to work and keep God’s garden-creation into fruitfulness, leading his wife and children out into God’s world as God’s image-bearers, cultivating life as they went. “Adam, take responsibility for the mission of your house.”
And the fall is, fundamentally, the abdication of the man—his wife steps forward to be deceived by the serpent where he ought to have stepped forward to battle the serpent. And then Adam, having already abdicated there, abdicates again, blaming his wife and God himself rather than taking responsibility.
From that moment, history is a diaspora of little Adams going out and imitating their father and abdicating their responsibility to work and keep their gardens, to lay down their lives and take up the responsibility of provision and protection, of nourishing and cherishing.
This is the lazy man, the sluggard who will not cultivate his fields. This is the absent man, who fathers children to abandon. This is the self-justifying, excuse-making man, who refuses to take responsibility for his task of taming the chaos and making a garden of it in Jesus’ name.
Ahasuerus is certainly a dominator. Do we see abdication in him as well? Undoubtedly. In fact, Ahasuerus dominates mostly through abdication.
When Vashti displeases him, dispose of her—what a convenient, disposable marriage covenant. Domination by abdication. And see him here in chapter 2, surrounding himself with fools, with yes-men to hide behind.
The king gets lonely because of his sin, but don’t worry, his yes-men are standing in wait, ready to get him another woman to use—ready, in fact, with a thousand enslaved women to meet his needs.
Abdication serving domination, which serves more abdication—male sin spiraling out of control and pouring downstream in the history of the world like toxic waste pumped into the headwaters of a river: That’s male sin from Adam to his son Cain to all of the rest of his sons.
A Mirror, Not a Cudgel
Think about the effect this specific display of sinful domination and abdication has on its female victims and their families. Imagine, for example, that you are a father, and the king’s men show up at your door. What do they want? Your daughter.
Let’s say you have a beautiful, 16-year-old daughter. You love her like only a father can. And they say that she is going to become part of the king’s harem, that they are going to put her through sex-slave boot camp for 12 months before giving her to the king for a night to sleep with, and if he’s happy with how she performs, she can replace the previous queen the king dismissed in shame at the end of his last drinking party.
Who cares what future plans you had for your daughter to marry a good man and have your grandkids? Who cares? The king needs a new doll.
If he doesn’t like her, doesn’t pick her out of the hundreds of women he’ll go through in this same way, she’ll be shunted into his side-harem for life, unable to ever marry or be free. She will be a living china doll on the king’s shelf, an object he can take down and play with when he wants, then shut back up in his closet.
How do you feel about that guy and his thugs? You want to kill him. You think—and listen, you’re right if you do—that guy needs to die. God, kill that guy. Remember Sodom and Gomorrah? Egypt? Now would be a great time to pull that play out of the divine playbook.”
Sons of Xerxes
Now listen, men, this is the essential turn in the story for us all, where we take the right fork into Christianity or the left fork into everything else. Make eye contact with Ahasuerus and understand: You are that guy. You are. I am that guy.
Our anger may be righteous—and here it is!—but until we have followed that righteous anger to the root of the sin it is directed against, Ahasuerus’s sin, and then realized that we have been infected with that same root, our anger hasn’t served us in all of the ways the Lord intends it to.
Listen: I’m not saying that all of us are as bad as Ahasuerus; there really is such thing as a worse guy and a better guy, and I don’t think any of you have scoured America, buying up sex slaves.
But how many of us have scoured the digital world, maybe for years, pleasing ourselves with our own harems of online women, many of them teenage girls with no lured into the film studio with promises of money and opportunity? How many of us have used women as objects, lowered them from their status as image bearers of God and turned them into something to be used and discarded?
How many of us have, angry with our wife, shunted her to the side to go and replace her with some other, more convenient woman online—a digital woman who makes no demands of us, just a china doll to take out of the closet and put back when we’re done?
How many of us have passively sat by, too lazy to discipline our kids, too lazy to raise them in the fear and understanding of the Lord? How many of us have passively abdicated and taught our families by our example to treat the local church like an optional accessory to our Christianity instead of a place to go and pour myself out in service of my brother and sister?
Every man who has sinned in domination or abdication is guilty in the same root ways as the king is here. We are all of us sons of Xerxes, aren’t we? We don’t turn out to be quite the little white knights we thought we were when we were mad at him, do we?
Yes, be angry at sin when you see it out there, where you see it here in Esther chapter 2. But in hating it out there, don’t fail to follow it back to seeing it and hating it in here. This text is not just supposed to be a window into seeing another guy’s sin, but mirror for us to see ourselves in.
An Unfathomable Gospel
Remember, the Bible isn’t easily tamed to suit our desires. It won’t let anybody hide behind a shield of self-righteousness. The true gospel of the Bible is a world-confounding thing.
God confounds our self-righteousness by confronting us with caricatures of ourselves in the world around us, stirring up our anger, only to turn it back on us with the pointed finger of Law, saying, as the prophet Nathan said to murderous, adulterous King David, “You are the man!”
And then God confounds us again, climbing down into the clinging mud of our moral filth, entering into the very heart of it—the perfect Man, clothed in the weakness of flesh, and dying for sinners, some even as bad as Ahasuerus and you and me.
He confounds us in his mercy, refusing to hurl down the burning rocks of judgment that we know we deserve, and rather climbing onto a cross and swallowing down the combined judgment of sin for us all—the wrath poured out on Sodom and Egypt and Jerusalem and Rome combined and multiplied a hundredfold.
He confounds us by cutting us down, slain by the perfect Law, only to raise us up righteous and seat us in the heavenly places as sons.
Esther is meant to confound us all—all of the striving and self-righteous and wicked and weak sinners of earth, in need of King Jesus and his Kingdom, in need of his blood to cleanse us and his rule to lead us and his mercy to keep us.
Don’t look at Ahasuerus and fail to hate his sin. But don’t hate his sin and fail to hate your own. And don’t hate anyone’s sin without loving his mercy and rejoicing in its cast-iron declaration over you, Christian—Clean! Cleansed by the blood of the King!
Myrtle Blossoms in the Desert
Does any of this hope show up in the darkness of these 18 verses?
Yes. Just a glimmer. But it’s there to see if you have eyes to see it. For those with eyes to see, there a glimmer of God’s near redemption for the exiled and the enslaved. In this text, we’ve seen male sin creating a harsh, desert of a world for defenseless women. But this harsh landscape is actually the result of male sin upstream. Why is Esther, why are God’s people, even here under this wicked king’s rule in the first place?
Fathers. Israel’s fathers. They spurned their God, their good Father, and filled up the green groves of his Promised Land with festering swamps of idolatry. They sacrificed some sons to Molech and abdicated their responsibility to train others up to fear and love God.
They sinned, and God kept his word, the promise of judgment from Ezekiel 33:28—“I will make the land a desolation and a waste.” And it was. A howling, desert waste, haunt of owls and jackals. Lifeless.
But judgment wasn’t the only promise, was it? No. God promised to restore as well. Isaiah 41:18–19,
“I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys! I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water! I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive!”
“For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands! Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the LORD, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
“Yes! Your sin has made the garden a desert. But I will restore you. I will make the myrtle bloom in the desert!” Do you know what Esther’s Hebrew name, Hadassah, means? Myrtle. Even he Persian name, Esther, means “star,” after the star-shaped blossom of the myrtle.
We make deserts of death in sin.
God makes deserts bloom in grace.
What deserts have you made? Men, are you like Ahasuerus? Repent. Turn from your sin. God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He is a sin-forgiving Father. Repent and believe and rest in Christ and see him restore.