Vashti and Xerxes

Esther 1:1 - 2:4

An Outrageously Interesting Story

One of my favorite, most OUTRAGEOUS story about couples in the Bible is that of Vashti and Xerxes. While there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of them, it’s one of those stories about the character and self respect of a beautiful woman, who refused the Kings order to display her lovely face and figure before the lustful eyes of a drunken court.

When you imagine the story into today’s world, it’s absolutely fascinating, and it gives me with the feeling of “Good for her!” . Given today's news and recent events, this story is one where it’s easy say “things haven't changed much”.

Better than that, it’s a story about God’s grace and His working in history to shape events towards His ultimate good will. It is a perfect Old Testament illustration of the New Testament verse found in Romans 8:28.

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.

Who was Queen Vashti?

If you haven’t heard about Vashti, Queen of Persia, don’t feel bad; it doesn’t mean your a Biblical dropout.It simply means that her story is not as popular as other stories of important women, say for instance Ruth, or Eve.

The story of Vashti appears only in the first chapter of the book of Esther (also a smaller book). However the story is an important one to illustrate the dynamics of a marriage, and how one wife retained her dignity and self respect over the degrading demands of her husband.

Little is known about Vashti. She must have been an elegant queen, definitely giving credit to the meaning of her name: “Vashti” translates to “Beautiful Woman”. By birth she was a Persian princess, and the story shows she had great poise, modesty and self respect.[Reword this; youve already said it.]

Who Was This Guy Xerxes?

The King of Persia went by two names, one historical name of “Xerxes”, and the name recorded in the Bible as “Ahasuerus” . I prefer Xerxes simply because it’s easier to say and remember, however they were one and the same. Xerxes lived in the capital city of Susa, which now is the city of Shush, Iran. It is the same city in which both Daniel and Nehemiah lived during the Babylonian captivity during the 6th century BC. Xerxes lived from 518 to 465 BC and reigned as King from 486 - 465 BC, until he was assassinated by his Body Guard (apparently, not an unusual occurrence).

The Setup

The story begins almost 6 months before. In the third year of Xerxes’ reign, he decide to hold a banquet for all the nobles, military leaders, and other VIPs in his Kingdom - 127 provinces. History doesn’t record a head count, but there’s no doubt it must have been a great party, and it lasted for six months! The Bible says he “displayed the riches of his royal glory and the splendor of his great majesty for 180 days” Can you imagine holding that kind of soiree for that many people for six months?

As a side note to this party’s guest list, it’s interesting to wonder “who’s protecting the kingdom if all the military and government officials were away at a six month party?” It’s a valid question to ask, but not a part of this story.

Ending with a Week Long Party

After the six months were up, the King held a week-long banquet as a final send-off. It included just about everyone of importance and was held in the garden of the kings palace. For those interested in the social amenities, the Bible describes the decorations, from white and violet linen to gold and silver decorations. It was definitely an extravagant party!

Things get really interesting here. In Esther 1:7,8 it says

“Drinks were served in golden vessels of various kinds, and the royal wine was plentiful according to the kings bounty. And the drinking was done according to the law, there was no compulsion, for so the king had given orders to each official of his household that he should do according to the desires of each person.”

Clearly, the party was heating up. To Xerxes credit, he didn’t force the drinking beyond what each person wanted. But really, do you think they were sober? My guess is there was more than one drinking contest going on.

The next verse (vs. 9) says “Queen Vashti also gave a banquet for the women in the palace which belonged to King Ahasuerus [Xerxes]” So it was clear that the ladies were also having a party, but there’s no doubt it was more subdued.

It’s interesting to note that the Greek biographer Plutarch (the historian, not the guy from the Hunger Games) wrote that it was customary for a Persian king to have his Queen by his side during a banquet. When things got rowdy and the drinking began, he would excuse the Queen to leave, and call in some of the lesser ranked concubines to help out at the party. Perhaps it was partly out of respect for the Queen and partly to have more women to liven things up.

The “Indecent Proposal”

Finally on the seventh day of this party, “When the heart of the King was merry with wine” he commanded his servants to bring his wife, Queen Vashti before him, with her royal crown, “in order to display her beauty to the people and the princes, for she was beautiful.” Finally in verse 12 it says

“But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command…then the king became very angry and his wrath burned within him”

It’s important to note that Vashti took a serious risk by telling the king “NO”. Normally, refusing the King in such a way carried with it the penalty of death, and in this case embarrassing the king would make it even worse. The request was indecent and degrading. To comply with it would cause her to lose self respect, and it would disparage the office of Queen.

As I write this, I can only think of the Harvey Winestein instance that is currently in the news. It is clearly about the same issue of sexual and power abuse. I wonder what would have happened if he had met Vashti? 

After Vashti’s answer it’s not clear how much time elapsed before the King took action. Realistically, he probably kept it quiet, closed out the party, and waited until everyone was gone. Then he assembled his seven advisers because they “knew law and justice”. This is important because these guys came up with one of history’s worst answer to this question asked by the King:

“according to law, what is to be done with Queen Vashti, because she did not obey the command…”

There is a two part answer to this question that the chief adviser “Memucan” gave the king. He prefaced his answer by repeating the details of the event and expanded it to include what he thought would be the effects:

  • He said Vashti had wronged not only the king, but all the princes and all the people of the kingdom . She didn’t. She gave a quiet and discrete NO to the king
  • All the women of the kingdom (Persia and Media) who hear about it (word will travel fast) will take it as a symbol that they can treat their husbands the same way. Vashti has set a precedent and sown the seeds of domestic rebellion. Oh My!

Banish Her!

Memucan’s answer was for Vashti to be banished from the presence of the King forever, and that she forfeit her crown to another “more worthy than she”.

“If it pleases the king, let a royal edict be issued by him and let it be written in the laws of Persia and Media so that it cannot be repealed, that Vashti should come no more into the presence of King Ahasuerus, and let the king giver her Royal position to another who is more worthy than she”

This decision has both good and bad in it. The good point is that Vashti was not executed, only banished. Unfortunately in scripture she’s never heard from again.

The bad part about this is that it could never be repealed or changed. That part would definitely come back to haunt him.

Some things, you just can’t legislate.

But nevertheless, the King thought it was a good idea at the time, so he went along with it. But he added something to the decision that made it probably one of the worst laws of all time:

“So he sent letters to all the king’s provinces, to each province according to it’s script and to every people according to their language, that every man should be the master in his own house and the one who speaks in the language of his own people”

How can you make a law that says every man is the master of his house, and (by implication) that every wife and child is supposed to respect him?

God Intervenes in a Beauty Contest

Once these matters were taken care of, and

“the anger of King Ahasuerus had subsided, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what had been decreed against her.”

Was this a bit of retrospection or cold feet? I don’t know for sure but it may be because he missed her beauty and her presence, because in the next verse it says

“Let beautiful young virgins be sought for the king… then let the young lady who pleases the king be queen in place of Vashti”

It was at this point that God began to intervene more directly into the event. As the story progresses, events are shaped so that a Jewish girl named Esther is entered into the “lineup” and ultimately pleases the king so much that he offers her “up to half his kingdom” to be his queen. Of course she takes it.

Esther the Queen Saves Israel From a Holocast

The rest of the book of Esther is about how one of the kings advisers is put in charge, plots the destruction of all the Jews, and how Esther defeats this plan. As a result, she and her uncle are honored, and the nation of Israel, while still in exile, are saved from annihilation. It happens through God’s ultimate control of and intervention into human history. God looks out for his own, as we see throughout time and throughout the Bible.

 

What do we learn from this story?

There are so many lessons to be learned from this story, that an entire book could be written about it. Here are some that I found most important

Refuse to Back Down From Your Biblical Convictions

It’s important that you understand God’s standards, and His word, especially regarding marriage. While the Bible holds marriage in high esteem, and the husband wife relationship is clearly defined, it doesn’t mean that either one’s role (in this case the husbands) is above God’s word.

We have no indication whether Vashti was a believer (a Jew at during her time). But she knew, whether by God’s word or by instinct, that parading around displaying her beauty in front of these men was wrong. It would have been humiliating to her and disrespectful of her office as queen. And it would have been disrespectful to her marriage, whether the King knew it or not.

The Bible teaches that husbands are to love their wives “as Christ loved the church…” (Eph 5:25). Christ would never demand of his people to sin, and likewise the husband should not either.

Be Careful Around Alcohol

As the story relates, most likely everyone had been drinking for the last week, especially the King. Alcohol can change people, and sometimes the person’s personality can change, their judgment impaired, and perhaps their morals loosened up. Couples, especially in the dating stage, need to be careful about this. Proverbs 23:29-35 describe it vividly. In short, with too much alcohol, you’ll have sorrow, redness of eyes, and

“Your eyes will see strange things…”
“And you will be like one who lies down in the middle of the sea, or like one who lies down on the top of a mast”…
“When shall I awake? I will seek another drink”

God Is In Control

Without a doubt, the primary and most important message about this story is that God is in control of history, and is caring for his people. The story of Vashti ends in chapter 1, but it sets up the opportunity for Esther to become Queen, and save the Jewish nation from annihilation. From the beginning of the story, one would not think how it could possibly have more importance for the future.

In the same way, God shapes circumstances and events in our lives to produce the effect that is needed. If we are stubborn about doing what HE wants, He knows how to persuade us from the inside out. And it’s always for the good.

Romans 8:28

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.

Pvbs 19:21

“Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand

Psa 135:6

Whatsoever the Lord pleased, that did He in heaven, and in earth, in the seas, and all places

Conclusion

The story of Vashti and Xerxes if fascinating, and one of my favorites to tell, not from a “feminist“ point of view but in an effort to illustrate the way a marriage should NOT be. The Bible repeatedly portrays marriage as an illustration of Christ and his bride, the Church. Christ is not abusive, and doesn’t make unreasonable demands. The institution of marriage is God-given,and carries with it some of the finest blessings and relationships that can be found.