On the face of it, the book of Esther is about a pagan king who trafficks young women, a plucky queen who refuses to come when called, and a humble girl of unknown birth who, together with her uncle, braves her way into the king’s harem and saves her people.
I used to read the book of Esther every Sunday during the sermon, along with the book of Ruth. I felt seen, loved and empowered as I read these books. And I still do.
But I don’t really want to talk about any of that anymore. Not really.
It’s not that I don’t think readings like the one above are worth exploring. But after all these years, after hundreds of readings of Esther, I’m understanding this book in a totally different way. I’ll explain what I mean.
The beginning of Esther details a set of significant signals, calling us to dive down below the surface. In v. 3, we read that King Ahasuerus is in the third year of his reign. The text next tells us that for 180 days, the king displays “the riches of his royal glory and the splendor of his great majesty” (v. 4). And this is where God really hits us with it, right between the eyes:
When these days were completed, the king gave a banquet lasting seven days for all the people who were present at the citadel in Susa, from the greatest to the least, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace.Esther 1:5
There were hangings of fine white and violet linen held by cords of fine purple linen on silver rings and marble columns, and couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and precious stones.Esther 1:6
Purple, the colour of the priesthood and royalty, covering of the ashes of our sacrifices, moving reminder of the human position before God, sin leading to death, dust and ashes (Job 30:19, Lam. 4).
White, colour of purity, our sin removed (Isaiah 1:18).
And red, not the red of the earth but of the royal wine, “the drinking done according to the law,” with “no compulsion” (v. 7-8).
Where does your mind go with all this? Perhaps to the lavish banquet in Isaiah 25:6? Or perhaps, as you read on in Esther 1, when Queen Vashti refuses to come on that seventh day, your thoughts travel to Jesus’s parable in Luke 14. There, another man was also giving a big banquet. And likewise, at the dinner hour, he sent a servant to those who were invited. “Come; for everything is ready now.” But like Vashti, they too began to make excuses.
On the surface of the text, Vashti is a courageous and independent woman, refusing to be used as a male plaything, to be brought out like a trophy to “display her beauty to the people and the princes” (v. 11).
But under the surface we unearth a truth much more eternal, a retelling of Esau and Jacob. Of the one who rejects the birthright and the one who takes it up. Of two lines demarcating in the story of earth and heaven (Gen. 25:23).
In these first verses of Esther, in the person of Vashti, God reveals a personification of the unfaithful first bride. Vashti is like Esau, unable to see beyond the present day, even the present meal.
In Esther, we meet God’s elect, the one who like Jacob sees the blessing and grasps after it, even to the point of risking her own life.
And perhaps most shocking of all is what God reveals through the person and decrees of Ahaseurus. Here, God the Father is weaving the tapestry of His own Person in the story of redemption. More on that later (though look at this!)
And what of Mordecai and Haman? Perhaps you are already placing them, though I’ll get to them another day. Truly, the whole of the Gospel is contained in Esther.
“He has brought me to his banquet hall, And his banner over me is love.Song of Solomon 2:4