My husband and I have chosen the name Esther for our daughter, who is due to be born this autumn. A lot of people have been asking about it, since it’s not a popular name, some people don’t think it’s very pretty, and many aren’t familiar with the biblical account of Esther. But there is a lot of meaning behind our daughter’s name, and I think it’s a pretty neat story to share with you.
Having gone through church and Christian education all my life, I’m fairly familiar with all the accounts and people in the Bible. However, in high school, I discovered that the Book of Esther never once mentions God, nor is it ever quoted elsewhere in the Bible. Why is a godless historical account in our Bible? I wondered. I wasn’t very impressed with the story either. Big deal, a woman was considered very beautiful, chosen to be queen, and then she stood up to her husband. Who cares? However, once I realized how powerful her husband was, the position of women in ancient Persian culture, and the Hitler-like intentions of the king’s highest official, I suddenly realized Esther was not just a pretty face, but a very brave woman. I wanted to know more about her.
Those who know me well know that we have been praying for a child for some time now. Month after month of repeated failure began to wear me down. I often had to excuse myself when friends announced their second or third pregnancies. I began to fear I wasn’t meant to be a mother, if I was meant to forever take care of other people’s children through nannying and teaching. (Not that nannying and teaching is dreadful, and not that not being a mother is wrong. I simply mean that I didn’t understand why God would give me such a strong feeling of being called to be a mom and then denying me that calling.) What would God say to me if I could hear Him? Did God even hear me?
Six months passed, and I came across a book in our church library called Esther: A Woman of Strength and Dignity by Charles R. Swindoll. I had read the Book of Esther several times and enjoyed the movie, One Night with the King, but I had never read a book about the account of Esther. I snatched it up, began reading, and saw Esther’s world through new eyes.
Ahasuerus (or Xerxes) was the king of Persia around 485-465 B.C. Jerusalem had been destroyed; the Jews were in exile and were permitted to live in Persia. One of these exiled Jews was named Mordecai, and another was his niece, Hadassah, also called Esther, who was an orphan. King Xerxes was a party kind of guy who loved his banquets. He gave a banquet that lasted 180 days and then a second banquet that lasted for seven more days. Meanwhile, Queen Vashti gave a separate banquet for the women of the palace. On the seventh day of this second banquet, Xerxes ordered Vashti to come to his banquet to display her beauty. Swindoll writes, “Scholars have wrestled with the meaning of the king’s command. Some suggest it simply means that Vashti was to come unveiled, which would have been scandal enough in a Persian court. Others suggest that she was to come wearing only her crown, which would have been another kind of scandal” (pg 29). Either way, Vashti held on to her dignity and refused Xerxes’ order. As a result, the king’s advisers believed that Vashti’s actions would send a message to all women that it was acceptable to disobey their husbands. They advised Xerxes to remove Vashti from position of queen. Swindoll points out the significance of this decision: “Memucan wanted this edict written in to the law of the Medes and the Persians – the law which can never be changed. In that way, his suggestion would affect far more than Vashti; it would have a direct effect on everyone’s marriage” (pg. 29). Not only was Xerxes a party guy, but he was quick to act, even on bad advice, and his decision was made in “a moment of drunkenness and anger” (pg. 31). Xerxes certainly is not the type of man to whom I would want to be married!
Years pass, and Xerxes attempts to conquer Greece but returns home defeated. His advisors say, “Let beautiful young virgins be sought for the king” (Esther 2:2), and it was decided that Xerxes would take a new wife from among these virgins. “Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells us there were as many as 400 women involved,” says Swindoll (pg. 42). These women would have one year to have oils and cosmetics applied to their bodies to make them “more beautiful,” and to be trained in the arts of elegance and seduction. After one year’s time, each woman would have one night with the king, and then Xerxes would choose his new queen.
“Esther was taken into the king’s palace” (Esther 2:8). Swindoll explains the possible meanings of the passive verb “was taken.” “This verb can mean ‘taken by force,’ and is so rendered in other parts of the Old Testament. Some Jewish scholars give that interpretation in this passage. I don’t know if there was coercion involved; we’re not told that Esther was ‘forced’ to go. But I think it would be fair to say that there was reluctance on her part. Just stop and think: Why would a young Jewess want to get involved in a plan that would force her to leave the only family she had, under the guardianship of one she respected and loved, Mordecai? Why would she want to spend a year shut away in a harem, culminating in a night with a heathen king that might result in the possibility of intermarriage outside her race? No question, I think it’s safe to say she went reluctantly” (pg. 43).
“Imagine the petty rivalries, the in-fighting, the envy, and the jealousy,” Swindoll says. “Imagine how tough it would be to maintain spiritual equilibrium when everything and everyone around you is emphasizing only the condition and shape of your body and the beauty of your face. How demeaning! How temporary and empty!” (pg 45). When I envision this scene in history, I picture scenes from the TV show, The Bachelor. I’ve seen a few episodes because I enjoy the psychology in it. Here is one man surrounded by beautiful women who have various personalities, and he has to pick one. Will he choose the super sexy woman with no morals or maturity? Or will he choose a woman based off her personality? It’s interesting. But when I imagine myself being one of those women, my stomach churns. I would feel so pressured to compare my beauty to the beauty of all those women around me. I would give into body-shaming myself. I would be tempted to let down my Christian morals in the face of all the cliques and gossiping among the women and the hope that the one man finds me more attractive than they.
But Esther is different. Esther 2:9 says, “Now the young lady pleased [Hegai, the manager of the harem] and found favor with him.” A literal translation of the original language says, “She lifted up grace before his face” (Swindoll, 44-45). Wow. Would I “lift up grace” in that situation? Would I remember my faith and my character and my dignity in the midst of all that carnal pleasure?
As a result of Esther’s grace and character, she is chosen to be queen!
It’s time to introduce the next important historical person in this account: Haman. He is the king’s highest official in all of Persia, whose anti-Semitic beliefs are established in his Amalekite roots. When Mordecai, the Jew, the uncle of Esther, refused to bow down to Haman, Haman’s anger turns from hatred to extermination. He brings up this plan to Xerxes, to kill all the exiled Jews throughout the Kingdom of Persia and take their plunder. Xerxes, once again making rash decisions, goes along with Haman’s plan and gives Haman his signet ring to seal the decree in the law of the Medes and Persians – a decree that cannot be revoked. Haman sealed the decree in the first month of the year with the plan to be carried out in the twelfth month. This means the genocide would not happen immediately; instead, the Jews’ doom would hang over their heads for a year. Esther’s Haman is basically our Hitler.
Eventually, Esther approaches her husband without being summoned – an action she could pay for with her life. Instead, Xerxes asks her what is troubling her, and promises to give her whatever she asks. This is a moment I would have gushed and blubbered and said, “Haman wants to kill all the Jews, and I’m a Jew, and those are my people. Stop him!” Instead, Esther invites Xerxes and Haman to a banquet she has prepared for them. She is waiting on the Lord. She is not acting in a state of revenge or despair; she is acting on faith. She is open to the unexpected, and she is waiting for God to work His will – not her will.
At the banquet, Esther still does not say what is bothering her. She simply invites the king and Haman to another banquet the next night, and says she will give the king her request then. (And we know Xerxes loves his banquets, and Haman is loving this special attention with the king and queen.) Again, the emotional human in me is screaming at Esther, “Why are you so calm? Why aren’t you begging for the lives of you and your people at the king’s feet?” But again, she is waiting on the Lord, as Swindoll explains: “Esther had a sensitive ear, a wise heart; she sensed something wasn’t quite right. So she didn’t push it. She knew when to act – and when to wait. Are you as sensitive as that? Do you know when to listen? Do you know when to speak up – and when to keep silent? Do you know how much to say as well as when to say it? Do you have the wisdom to hold back until the right moment? Are you sufficiently in tune with God to read His subtle signals? (pg. 130) Ecclesiastes 3:1,7 – “There is a time for every event under heaven… a time to be silent, and a time to speak.” I might not be as sensitive as Esther to know when to wait on God, but I want to be! And this is something I will practice.
So what does the Lord do during this time between Esther’s two banquets? Haman, while his pride is at its highest, is walking home when he runs into Mordecai, who will still not bow to Haman. Haman becomes angry all over again, because he can never have enough. This one Jew has ruined his happy evening. Haman focuses on what he wants rather than what he already has. When he talks to his wife about this, she advises him to make gallows for Mordecai. Haman went to bed listening to the sound of the gallows for Mordecai being built. Meanwhile, at the palace, the king could not sleep, so he read the book of records and found where it was written that Mordecai had once saved the king by revealing the plan of two eunuchs to kill the king. Xerxes asked what had been done to honor Mordecai for this, and when he learns nothing had been done, he makes plans to honor Mordecai.
The next morning, Xerxes called Haman in and asked, “What is to be done for the man whom the king desires to honor?” (Esther 6:6) Haman immediately assumes the king wishes to honor him, and he suggests that the man to be honored be given one of the king’s royal robes, one of the king’s horses, one of the king’s crowns, and have him be lead on horseback throughout the city. Xerxes agrees to this… and then tells Haman to do so to Mordecai – the very man for whom Haman had gallows built! What a slap in the face! What a turn of the tables that is so meaningful, it can be no coincidence, but only the hand of God at work!
At the second banquet, the king once again asks what Esther wants and promises to give it to her. She replies that her life and the lives of her people are to be annihilated, and she requests that these be given to her. Xerxes asks her who has done this to his queen. She responds “A foe and an enemy is this wicked Haman!” (Esther 7:6) Another coincidence that is a testimony to God’s sovereignty and active plan in Esther life: Xerxes then orders that the gallows Haman had built for Mordecai be used on Haman, himself!
Xerxes had Esther write a new decree allowing the Jews to defend themselves, which he had her seal with his signet ring. The Jews were saved, and they celebrated with a feast – a feast still celebrated by Jews to this day – the Feast of Purim. “The gladness of their hearts, the joy on their faces, the delight in their dancing, the overall, unrestrained fun among them attracted others to their Lord. It always will. People cannot stay away from the audacious joy of God’s people! (Swindoll, 150-151)
In summary: Esther rocks!
One of the great things about Charles Swindoll’s book are his comments that highlight the silent activity of God. God may seem silent, and His silence may seem unfair – especially as we watch the joy of others while we are desperately waiting for our own prayers to be answered. But God’s silence is not His absence. If God can take an exiled orphan girl, make her into a queen, and use her to save His people from a man similar to Hitler, all without Him audibly speaking to His people, then surely He is active in my life as well. I’ve certainly never heard God speak, nor have I ever received a message in a dream or a vision, but there are too many coincidences in my life that have brought me out of the darkest depths of depression and given me the hope of Salvation; I cannot deny God’s work in my life.
While reading this book, my prayer turned from, “God, please give me a child,” to, “God, if it be Your will to give me a child, help my husband and me to raise this child to be like Esther – to be faithful in a secular world, to recognize his or her worth in You, to acknowledge that he or she can make a difference in this world and change unjust laws that supposedly cannot be revoked. Help my child know when to act and when to wait on You, and help me to do the same.”
That very week, I got a positive pregnancy test. When we found out we were having a girl, well, what other name fits better than Esther?
Swindoll, Charles R. Esther: A Woman of Strength & Dignity. Nashville, Tennessee: Word Publishing Inc, 1997. Print.