In the first chapter of Esther we were shown the Persian Empire to be a laughable empire. Xerxes and his empire tries to look like it is all-powerful, filled with riches, and able to do what it wants. However, God is revealing the flaws of the kingdom. The empire is so fearful that woman could destroy everything about the empire. The king does not know what to do about her queen not doing what he wants. The king writes a command attempting to make all people do something that you cannot command people to do. The empire tries to be all-powerful but all empires are nothing before God. While the first chapter reveals a laughable empire, the second chapter reveals the people of God are living under an ugly and horrifying empire. Just because it is a laughable empire does not mean it is a powerless empire.
From Bad To Worse (2:1-11)
We have a saying that things in our lives went from bad to worse. We are going to see that occur now as the account unfolds in the second chapter. Chapter 2 simply opens with, “After these things.” Based on the time marker given in verse 16, Xerxes has sustained a humiliating defeat against the Greeks and has returned to his palace. So the king returns and remembered Vashti and what he had decreed against her. This does not mean that he had forgotten what he had done. Remembering Vashti indicates regretting dismissing her. So his attendants have the solution for him. “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king” (2:2). The answer is that you need to find another woman to be your queen. The plan is made to gather all the beautiful young virgins from the empire into the harem in Susa (2:3). Whoever pleases the king will replace Vashti as queen (2:4).
We are now introduced to two people and their situations. First, there is a Jew is Susa named Mordecai. With the name Mordecai we are being given his Babylonian name. You may remember that when the Jews were taken into Babylonian captivity, their names were changed from their Hebrew names to corresponding Babylonian names. Remember that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego are Babylonian names. Belteshazzar was Daniel’s Babylonian name. Mordecai is a Babylonian name from the Babylonian god, Marduk. We are told something else that is fascinating and important to the future of the events as they unfold. We are told that he is from the family line of King Saul. Notice that Mordecai is from the tribe of Benjamin, a descendant of Kish. Saul was the son of Kish from the tribe of Benjamin as well (1 Samuel 9:1-2). Mordecai is strongly connected to the ancestral family of Saul. Finally, we are told that Mordecai’s family was part of the exile that had brought them from Jerusalem to Babylon. So now he is living in Susa, a capital of Persia.
Mordecai has a cousin named Hadassah. Hadassah is her Hebrew name and her Persian name is Esther, which relates to the Persian god, Ishtar. Esther’s had a tough beginning. We are told in verse 7 that she does not have a father or mother and Mordecai took the responsibility to raise her as his own daughter. We are not told what happened to her parents but her parents died while she was a child. Mordecai has cared for her. So you can imagine the tough life Esther has faced just with the loss of her parents while she was young. But things are going to go from bad to worse. Verse 7 tells us that Esther is beautiful. This is not an off-handed comment but explains what happens in verse 8. She is caught up in the net that is going through the empire, collecting all the beautiful virgins in the empire for the king. She is taken into the king’s palace along with many other young women.
So as this account unfolds, it important that we have the right picture in our mind. Esther is not an old lady but a young woman, likely a teenage girl, who has been taken away from her guardian, Mordecai, and put into the king’s harem. Life is happening to Esther. There is nothing about this account that is a Cinderella story. This is not a rags to riches story. This is not a romantic story. Nothing good appears to be happening to Esther. Life has been bad and now it has gone to worse. In fact, life is far, far worse.
You see that being collected by the king means that she is never going to go home and she is never going to be free again. The women who were collected who failed to become the queen would live the rest of their lives as concubines to the king. They were not sent home. They were not set free. They did not get to go back to life before they were swept up by the king. In Persia, a man would have several wives and numerous concubines. Essentially, a concubine was a second-class wife. The husband had exclusive sexual rights to her, but she did not have the benefits or responsibilities of what an actual wife would demand. They could be divorced without penalty, their children could be cast out without support. The only positive in becoming a concubine was that these women would have a roof over their heads, meals given to them, and whatever amenities the household might provide (cf. Evangelical Exegetical Commentary, 191). If it is any consolation, history records that Xerxes also took 500 young boys each year and castrated them so that they would serve as eunuchs in the Persian court. Life in the empire is oppressive and difficult. Esther’s life has gone from bad to worse. So Esther must determine to survive and try to thrive with the hand that has been dealt to her.
Mordecai knows that Esther is in a bad situation. Mordecai told Esther not to reveal her heritage as a Jew (2:10). There is a perceived fear that it will go badly for her if she reveals that she is a Jew. We are not told why at this point. We are just told that preservation requires hiding who they are. In verse 11 we see that he walks in front of the court of the harem to see how Esther was and what was happening to her. This tells us a couple important things. First, Mordecai is very concerned about what is going to happen to her. She is in a bad position now. Second, Mordecai is an important person to have access to the palace and get this kind of information. Mordecai is not living in the suburbs of Susa. He is able to be at the palace every day and has access to the inner workings of the empire. He can get information and he wants to know how Esther is doing every day.
If we stopped the account here, who would not look at their life and wonder where God is. How could this happen to me? How much worse can life get? Now she has lost everything and why is God not stepping in to help her and help his people? Where is God during these dark and hopeless times in the empire? We are told in verse 9 that Esther is able to gain favor with the one who is in charge of the harem. She quickly advances to the best place in the harem. This gaining of favor in a difficult position reminds us of Joseph, who first gained favor with his slave master, Potipher, until he was in best position in the house. Then he gained favor in the prison and the Lord made him succeed even while there.
A Disgusting Empire (2:12-18)
Verses 12-14 reveal the disgusting situation that is unfolding. The women have been preserving and beautifying themselves for months in preparation to meet the king. So all that they are doing is preparing for the moment to meet the great king of Persia and to try to win his favor. Unfortunately, the king is not taking these women out on dates, getting to know them, respecting them, and deciding who would be the best fit for the king. The words of verse 14 make clear what is happening.
“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” (2:14). The scriptures make clear what is happening in a very subtle way because it is stomach-turning. Each woman goes into the king at night and leaves the next morning. They do not go back to the harem of virgin women. They go to a new group of women, the concubines. These women would never see the king again unless the king was pleased by her (2:14). This is the world Esther must operate in and she does not have a choice. She is not going home. Her only hope is to please the king and become the next queen.
But even through this disgusting situation, Esther is gaining favor with all people. She gains the favor of everyone in court (2:15). She gains the favor of the king so that we are told something surprising: the king loved Esther more than all the women and set the royal crown on her head (2:17). In the most horrible and despicable of circumstances, God is able to raise Esther up so that she can be a queen who can carry out God’s plan.
This is the amazing message of how God can be working in our lives through the natural turn of events. God can take horrifying situations that happen in our lives and accomplish his will. Please think about what we have learned about Esther. Everything has happened to her. What has happened to her was not the outcome of her bad decisions. Life has happened to her. Her parents have died. A perverse king is permanently taking all the beautiful young women into his court. But God can still be with you in the most horrifying circumstances. God can still be at work in the most horrifying circumstances. I am amazed at how often God desires to show this to us in the scriptures. God is greater than the horrifying circumstances we go through.
Further, no one would blame Esther if she thought and felt like God abandoned her. She could look at her life and honestly think that God did not care about her. Further, she might think that nothing good could possibly come from what has happened to her. But we know where this is going and how she will be instrumental to God’s plan. But she does not know this as she is going through all of this terrible things. To her, she is stuck in Persia without her family and living at the whim of a depraved king. We can go loss like Esther. We can be subject to the desires of wicked people. But this does not mean God has left you. God can dramatically change your life and work great things even though you are in times of despair.
This draws us to our other message. The people of God are going to live at the mercy of an ungodly empire, under an ungodly ruler who does ungodly things to their detriment. Being the people of God does not mean things are going to be easy. Being the people of God does not mean we will live in a godly empire under a godly ruler who does godly things. Nor does God offer us protection from an evil empire or an evil ruler can do. Notice that Esther is not protected from anything through this. It is the worst of times for her and she is experiencing life at its worst. But God will be with us through the suffering we endure. Your horrifying circumstances does not mean that God has abandoned you and it does not mean you have done something wrong. God is with you. Listen to what the apostle Paul says to the Corinthians.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3–4 ESV)
Paul praises God, not because God keeps us away from tribulations and afflictions, but for the comfort he gives us in our sufferings. God does not abandon us in our suffering but comforts us. Even in our darkest times, God is a God of comfort. Look for God. He is there for you in the worst of times. He is the help you need. Just because you are in dark times now does not mean that the light is not ahead. God is always at work in spite of appearances.