Just over two months ago I started reading the book of Esther in my own quiet times.
It was a fantastic time.
I loved the book, and I had a wonderful commentary to help me which I’ll tell you about later.
As I progressed through this brief Old Testament book, I was challenged, uplifted, taught, and left in wonder at the majesty and providence of God.
“This is something I’ve got to preach on sometime,” I told myself.
But there’s a problem with the Book of Esther.
It’s a problem that has plagued wiser and better men than me.
John Calvin wrote commentaries on 48 of the books of the Bible - but he didn’t write one on Esther.
Even more remarkable is that he preached several thousand sermons during his lifetime, but we have no record of him ever preaching on the book of Esther.
Martin Luther’s opinion of the book was even worse, “I wish it had not come to us at all”, he declared”, “for it has too many heathen unnaturalities!”
I’m not sure I know what a ‘heathen unnaturality’ is, but I think I do know what Luther means.
You see Esther doesn’t really seem to fit very well in the Bible.
In fact in some ways it appears not to belong at all.
I mean, can you think of another Old Testament book where there are no priests, and no prophets?
Where no-one has a dream or a vision, and no-one even prays?
Can you think of another portion of Old Testament Scripture where there’s no mention of Jerusalem, the temple, or even of the Law?
Where no animals are sacrificed, no sins forgiven.
And believe it or not, in the Book of Esther, not even God seems to get a look-in.
He’s not mentioned, not even once.
Last Sunday morning I asked Matt Rees to lead the evening services today.
I mentioned I was speaking on Esther, and later that day he came back to me somewhat puzzled.
“I’ve read the first couple of chapters”, he said.
“What on earth are you going to say?”
I had to confess that I didn’t know then.
You’ll be glad to know that I’ve got a better idea this morning!
But whilst neither of us knew what I would say, we both knew that Esther is just as much part of God’s word as Genesis, Mark’s Gospel, Acts, or whatever it may be.
We cannot avoid parts of the Bible because they seem strange to us.
On the other hand, if I was to preach a sermon that didn’t talk about God, and just gave you a history lesson about the Ancient Near East, you’d think you’d walked into the wrong church this morning, and you’d leave feeling you’d missed out on your spiritual food.
Wherever this sermon takes us, I think that if we bite the bullet, you will find (as I did) that the book of Esther is thrilling and inspiring and searching and, more than anything else, causes you to praise God for the wonderful ways in which he works.
So, God-willing, over the next several Sundays when it’s my turn to preach, we’re going to pick our way through this wonderful book.
So let’s look at this first chapter then.
I’ve got x points for you this morning, as we look at the various themes within the chapter.
We’ll consider four points, and to help you remember them, they begin with the first four letters of the alphabet.
Firstly, Asserting Control.
Secondy, Battle of the Sexes.
Thirdly, Crucial Beginnings, and fourthly Directing Operations.
So let’s look first then at:
Why have I chosen that as a heading?
Simply because I think chapter one looks like a power-play between the major characters introduced at this point.
I think the writer is subtly demanding an answer to an unwritten question.
The question is this: Who is in control?
At first glance, the answer must be Xerxes.
Look at [[verses 1-8|Bible:Esther 1:1-8]].
Here is a king with vast wealth.
A king who rules 127 provinces.
This is a party-loving king.
Now maybe you like parties, but I bet you’ve never thrown a party that lasts for six months!
But that’s what Xerxes does in [[verse 4|Bible:Esther 1:4]].
With that kind of a ability, this is a man who can clearly win friends and influence people.
And look at his wealth as we read about all the furnishings in [[verses 5 and 6.|Bible:Esther 1:5-6]] That’s not to mention the guest list at his ‘small party’.
This small party only lasts a week, but the entire population was invited!
Clearly, here is a king who yields great influence, and great control.
The next character to be introduced is his wife, Queen Vashti.
As the Queen of Persia, she clearly yields more than a little power herself.
So much so, that when Xerxes orders her to parade herself in front of his drunken friends, [[verse 11|Bible:Esther 1:11]], she stubbornly refuses.
Here, in the pages of the Bible, is an icon for feminists everywhere.
Here is a woman who stands up for herself.
A strong woman.
A powerful woman.
A woman of destiny.
Then there are the seven special advisors.
If you think we’re having problems with special advisors interfering with the civil service, just be glad you didn’t live in Susa.
These boys ruled the roost.
These seven people were the only ones in the whole land who could go and see the King uninvited.
They held such power over him, it seems every suggestion they made, he would follow.
Frankly, to some people, it looked as though they ran the country, not the king!
So who is in control?
Surely not Xerxes, who could not control his own wife, and who was manipulated by his advisors.
And definitely not Vashti, who quickly loses the power she had and is banished from the royal palace.
And not even the advisors feel in control, because despite their authority in the citadel, needed an royal decree to ensure that /their/ wives submitted to them!
So who is in control?
We’ll come back to that question, later.
Next, let’s look at
! Battle of the Sexes
You need to remember that chapter one of the book of Esther sets the scene for everything else to follow.
And chapter one, like much of the rest of the book depicts a battle of the sexes.
Feminism is nothing new, nor is male pride.
Here in this chapter we see Vashti taking a stand against the most powerful men in the land.
Of course, that’s not an easy thing to do in a patriarchal society, and it’s no real surprise to us that she doesn’t last five minutes.
We then find that Persia is not simply a country where women are expected to submit to their husbands, but a country where the law demands they submit to them.
But the chapters that are to come over the next weeks will reveal the story of another woman, Esther.
It will show her taking her stand against the men who surround her.
How on earth will she succeed where Vashti has failed?
Susa was clearly not a place for rebellious women.
But thirdly, chapter one asks us not simply to assess control, nor just to view the Battle of the Sexes.
The key though here in this chapter could be summed up by my third point:
When Matt asked me last week, “What on earth can we say about this chapter?”, it was because the chapter serves as an introduction to the rest of the book, and in itself is simply a faintly amusing tale about a foreign king who was snubbed by his wife in front of all his subjects.
There are thousands of funnier episodes in history.
There are thousands of other kings.
There are thousands more exciting stories in other books.
Frankly, this little story lacks what it takes to be a real-blockbuster.
In 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow started in a popular film called ‘Sliding Doors’.
It’s opening sequence was not of a banquet in Susa, but of a grab grey Underground station.
It pictured her arriving a few seconds late for her train, which departed without her.
Thankfully there was no heart-broken sobbing on the platform, nor did she attempt to leap onto the back of the moving train, and clamber along it’s roof before dropping through a skylight without so much creasing her suit.
Instead she did exactly what you or I would have done, she expressed mild frustration, and started to think how she would get home.
Like the book of Esther, it didn’t look much of a dramatic start.
But what the film, ‘Sliding Doors’ demonstrated was how much that tiny little incident changed Gwyneth Paltrow’s life.