|King Ahasuerus after much revelling at his feast|
Saturday, September 14, 2019
Keeping Up Appearances
How far would you go to keep up appearances, and at what cost? The first chapter of the book of Esther gives us an interesting perspective on the devastating consequences of letting pride and self-aggrandizement stand in the way of common sense and of our treasured relationships. Many players in this book were motivated by looking good in one another’s eyes, rather than focusing on how God saw them.
Yet although the Name of God is never mentioned throughout the book, we can see His providential hand at work, bringing together all things for the good of His chosen people and for His glory (Romans 8:28).
King Ahasuerus, pagan ruler of the vast Persian Empire, was relatively new in this position. As he had been king for only three years, he had to be respected and admired by his court or he could get overthrown, deposed or killed. What better way to show off than to throw a lavish party that would spread his fame throughout the 127 provinces extending from India to Ethiopia? (Esther 1:1-3).
But history of the times suggests that his position was largely unchallenged, so he may have had this expensive, wasteful display just to satisfy his own pride. He could have found better uses for his wealth, as did subsequent kings such as Cyrus, by building the temple and maintaining the temple service (Ezra 6: 3-22; 7:10-28), to honor God and to benefit the people. Is it more important to look good in the eyes of others, or in the eyes of God?
King Ahasuerus chose the former, holding a six month-long feast for the princes, rulers and palace household and servants, followed by a second lavish feast that lasted a full week, for the people of Shushan where the palace was located. So many attended the second party that even the palace could not accommodate them all, and it overflowed into the garden (Esther 1:4-5).
The garden was dressed to the nines for the occasion, using the finest, most expensive materials, and colorful displays to delight the eye, show the variety of the king’s possessions, and reflect his status. The couches where the guests reclined while dining were of gold and silver on marble. The rainbow array of colors in the marble and draperies may have symbolized the qualities Ahasuerus wished to portray: white for purity (Mark 9:3), green for youth and vitality, blue for nobility, purple for royalty, red for passion, and black for dignity (Esther 1:6).
Although the second feast was for the commoners, who might have been tempted to pocket the silverware, the king let his pride outweigh his judgment, and the finest royal wine was served in goblets individually crafted of gold (Esther 1:7). No doubt the food was not only abundant, but included culinary delights beyond description. And yet Scripture tells us that a simple meal of herbs served with love is better than having a whole ox served with hatred (Proverbs 15:17).
To the king’s credit, none of the guests were forced to drink, as this would have been against the law (Esther 1:8). It was not like a fraternity hazing, or even a “Christian” cocktail party of today, where the host may feel he has to continually urge people to drink to be considered hospitable. However, Scripture warns against encouraging others to drink, thereby contributing to their drunkenness and irresponsible behavior, and facing God’s judgment (Habakkuk 2:15). If anyone drank too much at this feast, the king wanted to make sure he could not be blamed.
To ensure his good reputation and favor with the people, the king had his wife, Queen Vashti, also hold a feast in the palace for all the women (Esther 1:9), as he may have realized that the wives of his courtiers could influence their opinion of the king. In the culture of that monarchy, women dined separately, unlike in the reign of Belshazzar, when the custom was for the wives and concubines to feast and drink with him (Daniel 5:1-6).
Similarly, in Herod’s reign, the women and men partied together, as occurred when Herodias’ daughter danced before him, pleasing him with her sensuality so that he foolishly promised her whatever she wanted, and her mother told her to demand the head of John the Baptist (Matthew 14: 1-10). In contrast, there appeared to be greater decorum in Ahasuerus’ court, as the sexes did not mingle during the celebration, and the women may have been more modest. Queen Vashti held a feast to impress the wives of the dignitaries, so that they would speak favorably of the king and queen to their spouses.
But alcohol, or any intoxicating substance, can wreak havoc on carefully laid plans to impress others or even to maintain one’s good reputation (Proverbs 20:1). After seven days of drinking at the feast, the king’s judgment may have been impaired, as he publicly issued a strange command to his seven chamberlains (Esther 1:10-11). They were to go fetch his beautiful wife to show her off to the men, like the other trophies and status symbols filling his palace. He treated her like an object, when he should have protected and preserved her honor and modesty (Genesis 20:11-17).
Now Queen Vashti was caught between the proverbial rock and hard place, and she chose the lesser of the two evils by refusing to appear, which understandably aroused the king’s anger (Esther 1:12). She rightfully did not want to be treated like an object, especially knowing that her husband was likely drunk, and that it was against the Persian custom for women to appear in public. But by disobeying him publicly, she was humiliating him in the eyes of his court, jeopardizing his position, and appearing not to respect her marriage vow.
Vashti could have obeyed the king’s request without sacrificing her own virtue, because all would have known that it was only by the king’s insistence that she would appear. But now what should have been a private disagreement had become a very public affair, backfiring on the royal couple as arguments tend to do for all couples (Proverbs 19:13; 21:9; 25:24; 27:15).
Under Holy Spirit inspiration, the apostle Paul commanded that men love their wives self-sacrificingly, and that women honor their husbands, for women need love, and men need respect (Ephesians 5:33). The apostle Peter also commanded wives to submit themselves to their husbands so that their lifestyle would lead an unbelieving husband to the Lord (1 Peter 3:1-12).
Faith comes by hearing the Gospel that Jesus Christ, the Son of God and God Himself, died to pay for our sins, was buried, and rose again the third day, so that all who trust in Him can have eternal life (Romans 10:17; 1 Corinthians 15:1-4; John 3:16). Yet seeing a born-again Christian (John 3:3-8) live out the Gospel by their self-sacrificing love for another can soften the recalcitrant heart to the point that it is willing to accept Christ through Holy Spirit leading.
Not only Vashti, but also Ahasuerus now faced a dilemma because of his impulsive command lacking judgment. How could he save face after his wife publicly humiliated him? As king, it would make the situation worse if he himself decided to punish Vashti by finding a new queen, so he fielded the question of what to do next to his wise men and princes (Esther 1:13-15). In the multitude of counselors there is safety (Proverbs 11:14; 24:6).
These politicians valued their lives and their jobs and were psychologically adept at interpreting the king’s expressions and behavior. They knew from his face that he wanted Vashti out of the palace, but they threw the decision back in the king’s lap so that he alone would be responsible if the wrong decision were made.
Memucan, one of his advisors, seized the opportunity to please the king by shifting the blame to Vashti and the decision to one of political expediency rather than the vengeance of a scorned husband. He justified the decision to oust Vashti by extending the wrong beyond that of a wife disrespecting her husband, to political treason harming the monarchy, rulers and even the subjects of the Persian Empire. That way, the decision he knew the king wanted would not seem too harsh (Esther 1:15-16).
Memucan claimed that as queen, Vashti should have set a good example for all the women in the kingdom to respect and honor their husbands. Any husband is blessed by a wife who has the qualities of the ideal Proverbs 31 woman. Similarly, any man hates to be publicly humiliated by his wife and may respond irrationally and irreparably to that betrayal, even severing the relationship.
Memucan reminded the king that he and his disobedient queen would be the subject of much gossip among the women, who might even use Vashti’s refusal to obey the king as an excuse for them not to obey their own husbands. That would make all the princes angry with the king and queen and contemptuous of them, which could spell political disaster for King Ahasuerus (Esther 1:17-18).
So the advisors and officers told the king what he wanted to hear. Vashti was officially removed from her position as queen and even as wife, and they would find a replacement to be queen. Instead of making it look like Ahasuerus’ personal vendetta, they used the excuse that their decision would benefit all husbands throughout the kingdom, as the wives would learn from Vashti’s error and punishment to honor and obey their husbands. The king’s counselors did what they had to do to look good in the eyes of the king. Although Ahasuerus may well have loved Vashti and been sorry to see her go, he was pleased with their decision as it protected his authority and position as well (Esther 1:19-21).
No error or sin occurs in isolation without affecting others. The excessive drinking of King Ahasuerus impaired his judgment (Isaiah 28:7), and he acted on impulse by publicly ordering his chamberlains to command the queen to appear as his submissive trophy wife. Vashti’s refusal to do so triggered an angry backlash that affected all households in the Persian Empire (Esther 1:19-22).
But this was all part of God’s plan, using this pagan king and queen to make way for the future queen Esther to come to a position of influence where she could later intervene to save God’s chosen people, as we shall see in subsequent posts!
© 2019 Laurie Collett