At the heart of the great Persian Empire was the royal palace of Shushan, an aweinspiring structure situated at the base of the Zagros Mountains. In stark contrast to the arid, treeless plateau around it, the palace was a delightful paradise reminiscent of the garden of Eden, set with exotic palms, fragrant flowers and flourishing fruit trees, fed from the melting snow.

Among the subjects of this enormous empire was a people called the Jews. Torn from their home during the earlier Babylonian Empire and still captive in an alien land, the Jewish people struggled to maintain their faith and identity. We find among these captives a young and insignificant orphaned girl, “nourished” (mrg Heb, Est 2:7) under the careful instruction of her cousin Mordecai. She showed a clear faith and strong loyalty for her people. Esther would appear to have been humble, without ambition, eager to learn and with a perceptive mind. She implicitly trusted and followed the decisions of Mordecai her guardian (2:20). Her name means ‘hidden’ and speaks of the qualities she possessed, unappreciated at first, due to her circumstances, but fully revealed in the elevated position to which she rose.

The King’s feast vs Vashti’s feast

We are introduced to the powerful king Ahasuerus, ruler of the vast Persian Empire, at a feast which he has made: “the king made a feast unto all the people that were present in Shushan the palace … in the court of the garden of the king’s palace” (Est 1:5). However, Vashti had chosen this same date for her own feast, exclusive to her women friends and requiring no less important a venue than the royal house which belonged to her husband, the king!

Having shown the riches of his kingdom and the honour of his excellent majesty before the nobles of Persia and Media, the king wished to bring forth his greatest treasure, the crowning glory of his kingdom, his counterpart, his wife, the beautiful Vashti. He sent his seven chamberlains to call her to his feast.

Surrounded by massive marble pillars, sumptuous hangings and elegant furnishings, the queen of the realm reclined with all her attendant guests, the ladies of the land. This was her feast of distinction, the day to show her magnificence and independence to her friends. The king’s chamberlains appeared suddenly upon the scene of her feasting to bring her to the presence of the king. The queen received the king’s chamberlains but adamantly refused to return with them at her husband’s bidding. “Therefore was the king very wroth, and his anger burned in him” (1:12). The king felt a just anger for the queen’s disobedience, however he contained his wrath and carefully consulted with his wise men as to what they considered best to be done.

Vashti’s refusal created two issues. Firstly, her refusal was understood by the king’s chamberlains to express her contempt for and her insubordination to the king’s command. This brought dishonour to his name and displayed a disregard for his interests.

Secondly, Vashti was in a position of great power and influence and therefore her responsibilities were great, not only to her husband the king but to the people of her realm. She had displayed before the ladies invited to her feast a lack of respect and honour which they, and others throughout the empire, would then emulate toward their husbands. “For this deed of the queen shall come abroad unto all women, so that they shall despise their husbands in their eyes … Thus shall there arise too much contempt and wrath” (1:17,18).

Consequently the king issued a decree against Vashti that she be queen no longer. This re-instated the authority that every man had to bear rule in his own household, reversing the impact Vashti’s actions would have on the relationships between husbands and wives throughout the empire.

As Ahasuerus’ wife, would she not wish to be at the side of her husband when he makes a feast for the princes, nobles and people of the empire, showing her support and confidence in his excellent majesty and identifying with the ideals of his kingdom? As the future bride of Christ would we not look forward to the moment when Christ shows our beauty of character to the nations of the world? Vashti had other goals to aspire to – an equality with her husband and insubordination to his purpose. She had her own agenda for the empire, her own feast of independence. The Vashti ‘class’ of women, in the words of Dr Thomas, “aim at an equality for which they are not physically constituted; they degrade themselves by the exhibition, and in proportion as they rise in assurance, they sink in all that really adorns a woman” (Elpis Israel, p122).

Search for a new queen

“After these things … king Ahasuerus … remembered Vashti, and what she had done … Then said the king’s servants … Let there be fair young virgins sought for the king … and let the maiden which pleaseth the king be queen instead of Vashti” (2:1–4). Notice that in the record, the only pre-requisite was that the young virgins be “fair” (or beautiful). This meant that the king’s officers sent to “gather the fair young virgins” were at liberty to select young women from any background, social standing, religion or nationality. So it was that the hand of providence led the king’s officers to choose “Hadassah, that is, Esther” and bring her to the king’s house, to the custody of Hegai, keeper of the women. “Who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (4:14).

Esther made a remarkable impression on Hegai: “the maiden pleased him and she obtained kindness of him” (2:9). Esther stood out to Hegai because she displayed not only an attractive appearance, but also a graceful demeanour and courteous manner. The word “kindness” is the Hebrew chesed, also translated “favour”. “She obtained kindness” or favour so that Hegai preferred her and her maids to the best place of the house of the women. Later it is recorded that Esther “obtained favour in the sight of all them who looked upon her” (2:15) and finally and most importantly, Esther obtained favour in the sight of the king (2:17).

Preparation for the king

The time for these maidens to prepare and purify themselves for the king was considerable, six months with oil of myrrh, and six months with sweet odours. “Purification” literally means ‘to rub’ from a Hebrew word for ‘oil’. Under the Law of Moses, the Jews anointed with oil of myrrh to separate people for a special role such as kings or priests (Ex 30:25). The “sweet odours” were components used in the incense poured over the altar of incense (Ex 30:24,26,27) which ascended to God as would the prayers of His people.

The oil of myrrh speaks of a separation from life around and sweet odours represent the dedication of our hearts and minds to God. These things for purification are reminders of good spiritual habits we can form for life. Daily contact with the Word of God, separation for the future role we are to play and continual prayer to God are all essential ingredients for a life of preparation to make us fit to meet our king.

It appears that Esther immediately won favour with Hegai to the extent that he gave her and her maidens the prime position in the court of the women. Esther had been given not only preferential treatment but also suitable companions to encourage and help her. God’s providential hand is seen in Hegai’s treatment of Esther. “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28).

Hegai provided four things for Esther’s preparation. “And he quickly provided her with [1] her cosmetics, [2] and her portion of food” (see 2:9 esv), [3] seven maidens and [4] advanced her maids to the best place. This is an excellent summary of the provision God has given us for a complete life in Christ:

suitable habits
suitable nourishment
suitable companionship
suitable environment.
All the women underwent the process of purification, but Esther also cultivated the “hidden man of the heart”, a beauty of the heart and mind, a depth of character which would fit her for her future role as queen. “The king’s daughter is all glorious within … So shall the king greatly desire thy beauty: for he is thy Lord; and worship thou him” (Psa 45:11,13).

The Scriptures taught diligently to her by the hand of Mordecai were her model and handbook for life, her book of fashion, deportment and etiquette. She could model herself on Sarah who adorned herself with an ornament of great price in the sight of God, the “hidden man of the heart” (1 Pet 3:4). This word “hidden” in 1 Peter is the same Greek word found in Romans 2:29, “But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly … of the heart

… in the spirit … whose praise is not of men, but of God.” Esther was commanded by Mordecai to keep her Jewish identity hidden but the spirit and fervour of her convictions could not be hid. They were the foundation for her daily routines, the aspiration for her future and gave her a peaceful, confident demeanour which engaged the interest of all who came in contact with her. “Their wisdom is to be quiet, and to make their influence felt by their excellent qualities. They will then rule in the hearts of their rulers, and so ameliorate [temper or improve] their own subjection as to convert it into a desirable and sovereign obedience” (Elpis Israel, p123).

“Now when the turn of Esther … was come to go in unto the king she required nothing but what Hegai … appointed” (2:15). Her modesty and simplicity were evidently attractive; she was “winning favour in the eyes of all who saw her” (esv). Esther did not seek to supplement what Hegai recommended. She had inner beauty that did not need to be enhanced with outward adorning; similarly we do not need to embellish ourselves with things of this world to make ourselves attractive to God. “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Col 2:8).

The royal decision

At last the moment arrived when Esther was to be taken into the king’s presence. She came with a quiet confidence, an inner strength, a depth of character and an appreciation of what was required of her. She was unquestionably outstanding! The attention of the king was arrested. She did not indulge in the empty posing of the other maidens or expose herself as those who had gone before, but conducted herself with modesty, graciousness and true nobility. The heart of the king was instantly stirred as he recognized in her his counterpart, one who could understand him, who could share and identify with his ideals and to whom he could express his noble qualities. He responded to her in love, exclusive and absolute (2:17). Adam “who could not find that help fit for him” in the animal creation also exclaimed at the presentation of his beautiful wife Eve, “this time, this one … bone of my bones”.

Esther was taken into the house royal and obtained grace and favour. The word “obtained” is the Hebrew nacah, and means ‘to lift in status’. What a great contrast we find with Vashti who, aspiring to hold her own feast apart from her husband, was demoted from being queen. Esther was lifted up and given grace (Heb from chanan, ‘to bend or stoop to an inferior’) and favour before his face (2:17). There is an emphasis on the personal favour bestowed on her from the king. It is a rare privilege to see the king’s face in the book of Esther (cp 4:11).

He crowned her queen of his heart and realm and “set the royal crown upon her head”. “Then the king made a great feast unto all his princes and his servants, even Esther’s feast.” He proclaimed a public holiday for the entire empire and gave personal gifts to the people, “according to the state [or ‘hand’] of the king” (2:18).

The beginning of the story

A few verses of explanation follow this, which are a reminder that Esther’s crowning as queen is not the end of the story, but only the beginning. She had not yet “shewed her kindred nor her people; as Mordecai had charged her.” She still did the commandment of Mordecai, as when she was brought up with him. “I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart” (Psa 40:8).

Although Esther immediately impressed the king, he would expect more from the queen over time than physical beauty. So, having made his initial choice, the king waited expectantly to see Esther develop to her full potential. The king enjoyed every opportunity to develop a deeper relationship with his wife and gradually they cultivated a mutual understanding.

The crowning of Esther is an excellent parallel to baptism. Once God has called us (Rom 8:28), we must commit ourselves to Him through baptism. However, this is only the beginning of a life-long opportunity to build a godly character in our new and loving relationship with Him.