There are five major characters in the book of Esther, two women and three men.
Two are Persian: First, Ahasuerus (Xerxes I) is a powerful, wealthy, partying, selfish, bombastic ruler over a vast Persian empire. He enjoys drinking buddies, showing off his bling and the greatness of Persia, beautiful women, and strokes of accolades from his staff and hirelings. The second Persian, Vashti, is his chief wife, beauty queen, and show piece who finally said, “no.” It was the last time she got to speak to Ahasuerus.
The rest of the characters provide the plot and ironic story line.
Two are Jewish: First, Mordecai, a Benjaminite from the line of Kish (king Saul’s family). He’s a man with character and clout, sits at the kings gate regularly, and who adopted and raised up his cousin when she lost her parents. Mordecai is the theologian of the story, recognizing security in divine providence and resisting groveling to unworthy opponents. The second Jewish person is Hadassah (Esther or Star), step daughter of Mordecai. She’s the second female major character and provides the title of the book. She is beautiful, dutiful, obedient and discrete. She is selected (not necessarily her choice) as queen to replace Vashti.
Finally, Hamon is the villain, an Agagite (likely reference to king Agag whom king Saul spared when he was supposed to destroy all the Amalekites, thus setting up the enmity between Hamon and the Jews). Hamon somehow attains to first mate with Ahasuerus and then the rest of the story begins.
Let’s set this up so we can get some sense of what’s happening.
Persia is powerful. They basically rule the world at this time, but there are threats to the west that are rising. Once the Greeks stop fighting amongst themselves and unite under Alexander, Persia’s days are numbered.
Ahasuerus is king of Persia. Notice that powerful people in privileged places with plenty of wealth and prestige don’t usual persist… last long. It is lonely at the top, and it’s dangerous. It’s hard to know who you can trust. You have to have advisors to help guide the ship, but which ones are right? Which have your best interest at heart? And, which ones are enemies in sheep’s clothing. This is a pretty common problem. Think about Israel. About half of David’s 76 Psalms reflect that he struggles with enemies (within and without) and some are supposed to be close friends. The story of David, Uriah and Bathsheba, show us that even the good guys have real issues of trustworthiness and truth. Here in the book of Esther we are not talking about Israel, who had God’s laws. This is Persia, pagan throughout and dangerous within.
Ahasuerus is king, but he depends on the wisdom and favor of others for protection and guidance. How do you build and maintain that favor? Throw a party! Give ‘em what they want! So, Ahasuerus throws the mother of all parties.
Don’t these people have jobs? Is this a come and go event?
In all likelihood, Ahasuerus is running the world’s biggest nightclub. Guess who’s paying for all this? The poor vassal nations under the Persian domain. Who do you think pays for all the parties of Washington D.C. Welcome to the world of Esther in the royal city of Susa.
The first thing we learn about in chapter one is how Vashti, the queen, and favored wife of Xerxes, falls from grace and we don’t hear from her again. She’s deposed for not coming and showing off her beauty before Ahasuerus in the gentlemen’s club room. Maybe she thought, “Enough is enough. Once he is sober again, he’ll understand.” But no. His pride is bruised and her actions are judged as a precedent for misbehavior and disrespect in every Persian household. In other words, she’s toast. How easy is it to fall from the top of the world?
By the end of chapter 2 Esther has replaced Vashti and, as providence would have it, Mordecai has saved the king, Ahasuerus’s life by reporting an assassination plot through Esther. This report is recorded in the king’s chronicles.
By the end of chapter 3 Hamon is first mate to Ahasuerus and because Mordecai won’t bow to him, Hamon has plotted to kill, not just Mordecai, but all the Jews within the Persian empire. That would be all of them. Hamon has the kings favor and ear (and ring to seal legal documents). He’s cleverly gotten permission by classifying the Jews as a threat to Ahasuerus and offered to pay for their extinction. With the royal authority, he has written and published an edict as from the king to annihilate every Jew in the kingdom on one day, the 13th day of the 12th month. The edict goes out on the 13th day of the first month to all the lands under Persian control. Every Jew is horrified! Chapter 3 closes with Ahasuerus and Hamon sitting as drinking buddies while their city of Susa is perplexed about the edict.
I am surveying here in broad strokes to get to chapter 4 which is my favorite part of the book. It’s the turning point. You know the story. Chapter 4 gives us the best view of the relationship between Mordecai and Esther. It reveals Mordecai’s confident faith in the providential protection of God for Israel, and Esther’s humble, obedient heart and willingness to sacrifice her life.
Lets listen to it again: (Read chapter)
End of verse 3 – it’s always darkest… before the dawn. This is a dark time threatening the very existence of the Jewish people. Hamon has managed to turn the powers of the Persian Empire into a weapon of annihilation to destroy all the Jews. Mordecai is mortified. Was he sorry he had not bowed? Too late now.
End of verse 8 – Ahasuerus is not the perpetrator of this. He has simply given Hamon the full authority of the throne to get rid of any threats. Hamon’s vendetta against Mordecai is cleverly twisted into a genocide against the Jews. Up till now Esther has told no one she is Jewish. Mordecai told her to keep it secret (2:10). Esther is clueless about what is happening, she just hears that Mordecai is in sac cloth and ashes and is weeping in the open square. She sends clothes and he refuses, so she sends Hathach a trusted attendant to talk to Mordecai and find out what’s going on. Mordecai explains everything to Hathach, calling on Esther to go beg for the king to spare the Jews. It wasn’t Xerxes that issued this edict. Maybe you can persuade him to stop it. What will Esther do? She’s anonymous and in a place of safety and privilege. Power and privilege can do strange things to us. How many of us are concerned about safety? Esther gives her response next.
End of verse 11 – Esther lays out the risks. Do you know I could die? Are you aware of the dangers here? Notice the last words of Esther: he hasn’t asked for me for 30 days. Ahasuerus is not a safe man. Esther does NOT trust him! This was not some romantic relationship dreamed up in a Harlequin book. Remember Vashti? She knows. My guess is that Esther never wanted this job in the first place. How would you young ladies like to be married to a man who’s drinking buddies are his best friends and who doesn’t come home to you for a month at a time? Oh, there are lots of bells and whistles in the royal palace. But the palace is also a prison.
End of verse 14 – Notice what Mordecai believes about the hand of God behind the scenes. First his warning: Esther, don’t let your position fool you into a false trust in it. Power and wealth can seem so protective. Where does your security rest? 1 Tim. 6:17 Command those who are rich in this world not to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with all things for our enjoyment. Listen to Esther’s reply.
End of verse 16 – I love this. Esther will put her hope and trust in God. She will obey Mordecai’s instruction, even if it costs her her life.