June 2, 2013
The book of Esther begins with a luxuriant feast hosted by the Persian king Ahasuerus, or Xerxes. As Alistair Begg points out, this king must have thought that bigger was better. While Scripture doesn’t challenge earthly rulers or provoke us to despise authority, it does recognize that God ordains the rise and fall of all nations and kings. Everyone from ancient to modern times will someday bow before the ultimate authority of Jesus Christ, who commands us to spread His kingdom.
Sermon Transcript: Print
We’re going to read from Esther chapter 1. We read it this morning:
“Now in the days of Ahasuerus”—or Xerxes. I like Xerxes; it’s easier, as I said this morning, to pronounce. But anyway, it’s “Ahasuerus” in the ESV—“the Ahasuerus who reigned from India to Ethiopia over 127 provinces, in those days when King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne in Susa, the citadel, in the third year of his reign he gave a feast for all his officials and servants. The army of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces were before him, while he showed the riches of his royal glory and the splendor and pomp of his greatness for many days, 180 days. And when these days were completed, the king gave for all the people present in Susa the citadel, both great and small, a feast lasting for seven days in the court of the garden of the king’s palace. There were white cotton curtains and violet hangings fastened with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rods and marble pillars, and also couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl, and precious stones. Drinks were served in golden vessels, vessels of different kinds, and the royal wine was lavished according to the bounty of the king. And drinking was according to this edict: ‘There is no compulsion.’ For the king had given orders to all the staff of his palace to do as each man desired. Queen Vashti also gave a feast for the women in the palace[, the palace] that belonged to King Ahasuerus.”
We humbly pray, gracious God, that you will prepare our hearts to receive your Word and that you will prepare us to receive the bread and wine that remind us of what it means for you to be Prophet, Priest, and King. Amen.
Well, we looked this morning at the importance in coming to a study such as this in a fairly obscure book of the Old Testament. It is often neglected. Luther for a while did not believe it should have been in the canon of Scripture at all. Of course, he didn’t believe that the book of James should have been in the canon of Scripture, regarding it, as he said, as “a right strawy epistle,” which just proves that really clever and godly men can actually be wrong. And this obscure book, it is important for us to make sure that we get the big picture: that we realize, as we said this morning, that God has a unified plan for all of history, a plan that is ultimately culminated in the person and work of his Son. We then said that it was worth considering what we referred to as the big question, namely, “Where is God in this book, insofar as his name never appears in the book?”—that being true not only of the book of Esther but also of the book Song of Solomon.
And then we said, “And we need to make sure that as we go through Esther, we understand the big idea that runs as a thread all the way through,” and we said that at least one of the big ideas is the doctrine of providence itself. And we were then planning to come to our final “big”—namely, “Big Deal.” And my thought here—and I just wrote this down. In some ways, I’m not sure I would want to use it as a model for an outline of a talk, but it is what it is. But the thought here in my mind is that this fellow King Ahasuerus is presented to us as a big deal. He is a big deal. Under any standards of kings and dominions and authorities and powers in the study of history, this particular king stands out as significant. And as I mentioned at least in one of the services, although the name of God is never mentioned in the book, his name is mentioned 190 times in the space of 167 verses.
And we’re told, as we read the opening verses, of the extent of his influence: that he “reigned,” and he “reigned from India to Ethiopia.” India and Ethiopia represented the extreme boundaries of the then-known world. That was, if you like, the limit of people’s imaginations for exploration. And as you look at these opening verses—and I encourage you to do so—the picture builds of his greatness and of his significance. In verse 2: it was the days “when King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne in Susa, the citadel.” He’s pictured there as giving a feast—actually, giving two feasts, the first lasting for 180 days. A feast that lasts for six months! That’s some celebration. That’s some feast. Presumably, people did not stay there for the entire six months, but the celebration went on for that length of time. And people would have come and gone and perhaps returned. And it was a status symbol that he could actually identify himself with the longevity of this celebration and have so many people come. He then follows it up with a feast that lasts for 7 days, a kind of garden party, and that is for the ancillary workers, it would seem—perhaps those who had been responsible for making sure that the 180-day feast had been such a success. And the details of the interior design are there for us to get a little picture of what’s involved.
And some of you who take the Wall Street Journal will have seen yesterday morning’s Wall Street Journal, and right in the middle of it there, there was some couple—I’ve forgotten their names already—but it was about their mansion. And then you turned over a couple of pages, and it was this glorious place that identified just how phenomenally influential and wealthy they were. Well, they couldn’t hold a candle to this, I guarantee it. And no matter how many of the politicians they’re able to bring around, it wouldn’t come close to what he was able to do.
And we’re told there that “the army of Persia and [of] Media and the nobles and [the] governors of the provinces were before him.” And that picture of coming “before him” is a picture of obeisance; it is a picture of his majesty and of his might and of their essentially attending upon him. And he used it as an opportunity, verse 4, to show “the riches of his royal glory and the splendor and pomp of his greatness for many days.”
Now, archaeological discoveries have in Persepolis—which was the capital of Persia, Susa being the summer residence place that was favored by these nobles—they discovered in the palace of Persepolis various pieces that had inscriptions that were placed on these structures under the direction of Xerxes, or Ahasuerus. And here is a quote from one of them that he had put on this piece of masonry: “I am Xerxes, the great king, the only king, the king of all countries which speak all kinds of languages, the king of this entire big, far-reaching earth.” So, his empire—at least in his own mind—was beyond a person’s ability to fully comprehend. It was so vast that it was thought that the sun would never have occasion to set upon it.
And as this book opens up and as it proceeds through the chapters, the very repetition of the king’s name establishes the point for us that this is an individual of significance, and this is his stuff, and this is his palace. Even when it says in verse 9 there—I tried to point it out by repetition—that “Queen Vashti,” that was his wife, “also gave a feast for the women in the palace,” in the palace “that belonged to King Ahasuerus.” Wasn’t her palace. It was his palace. He, in this story, is the big deal.
The Great Gatsby has got nothing on this. Nothing at all. Here you have a Richard Cory, living in fifth-century-BC Persia. Remember Richard Cory? If you didn’t know it before, you knew it from listening to Paul Simon. The song began,
They say that Richard Cory
Owns one-half of this whole town,
And with political connections,
He spreads his wealth around.
If you remember that song:
The papers print his picture
Almost everywhere he goes:
Richard Cory at the opera,
Richard Cory at a show.
And the rumors of his parties
And the orgies on his yacht!
Well, he surely must be happy
With everything he’s got.
Well, Richard Cory couldn’t even approximate to the vastness, the significance, the wealth, the dominion, the authority of this individual. For this king, bigger was clearly better. There are distinct hints of Nebuchadnezzar in him—“This is my great Babylon, this is the place that I have built.” That’s essentially the way he would be thinking.
And the fact that he could hold such a significant party in his garden is an indication of how significant his garden was. Susa was renowned for its fruit and for its flowers—particularly for the lily that gave the city its name, Susa. Persians to this day love flowers, particularly roses. And lilac and tulip are Persian words. In fact, tulip and turban were originally the same word. And if you think about that, it makes perfect sense. If you imagine those big, brightly colored turbans bobbing on the heads of individuals, if you look at them from a distance, they almost just look like gigantic tulips, because the turbans are shaped very much after the picture of a tulip. And you imagine him there in all of his finery, all of his majesty, all of his beauty, all of his luxury, all of his authority. His name actually means “ruling over heroes.” It means “he who rules over men.”
So we got the picture, right? That’s simply to restate what is written for you that you can scan for yourself. This man is a big deal.
But as the story unfolds and as we will go on to see—and we’ll see it quickly—he’s not quite as in control as he believes himself to be. He may be in control, as we’re told here in verse 1, of 127 provinces, but he can’t control his wife. He might be able to control a vast area from India to the Sudan, but he cannot control his own temper. And what we’re going to discover in reading through this book of Esther is that this man who is such a big deal is going to discover that he himself is subject to the King of Kings and to the Lord of Lords.
And as we prepare to come around the Communion table, I want simply to step outside of the book in order that we might have that clearly established in our thinking. We can go a couple of places. If you want to follow me, you can come with me to Isaiah and to chapter 40. We’ve already been singing of the everlasting God mentioned in Isaiah 40. And in the very center of that chapter, or into the second half of it, Isaiah the prophet, having said, “Well, who would you like to compare God to? You can’t certainly make an idol of him that would be worth anything at all,” and then he says, verse 21:
Do you not know? Do you not hear?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to dwell in;
who brings princes to nothing,
and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.
Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows on them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
Now, the Christian does not despise authority. The Christian recognizes that when it comes to the establishing of authority, the authority of God is behind the establishing of human authority. The human authority only has relevance and significance in light of the authority of God. That is why eventually, when the authority of man seeks to oppose the authority of God, for the believer, they are forced to say, as with the apostles, “You better judge whether it is right for us to obey God or to obey you.” But it is completely wrong for a Christian believer to think that somehow or another, the Bible is a revolutionary tract, undermining authority and undermining rulers and undermining statesmen and so on. It clearly isn’t. You would have to take big chunks out of the Bible to even come close to that. We do not despise authority. We recognize that God ordains the rise in position of leaders, but we also recognize that he orchestrates their demise.
I have a package in my bedroom now, I think it is—I took it up there—that I’ve opened, but I haven’t taken out the contents, except just for a moment, and slipped them back in. And what I had sent to me from England was all the material that was produced by the Daily Telegraph on the occasion of the death and funeral of Margaret Thatcher. And I found it so… so… something to open the envelope and just to take out these pictures of this very, very significant twentieth-century politician and to say, “But she’s had her day. She’s now history.” The wind has blown over the place where she has laid, and within a relatively short time, it will remember her no more. The same sovereign God who raised her up is the same sovereign God who has brought her life to an end. That was something that this big-deal king, and every big-deal king, must reckon with.
Let’s go to the Psalms just for a moment, and to Psalm 2, classically, where we have the same emphasis. Psalm 2:
Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”
I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.”
And in that Second Psalm, which is quoted with frequency in the rest of the Bible, you have the senselessness of man, and you have the sovereignty of God. “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?” It’s such a stupid idea to think that man can take on God, that man can win the battle over a sovereign God. The arrogance of such a posture is a joke. Hence verse 4: “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.” You think you’re a big deal, Ahasuerus? You think you’re in charge of everything? God does not laugh at the poverty and the chaos that ensues when people overstep their boundaries, but he laughs at the arrogance of man pretending to take the place of God. “The ends of the earth” are the “possession” of the living God.
Now, one of the ways in which you can be sure that you’re dealing with an Old Testament passage correctly is if you go and find it quoted in the New Testament. And so that’s what we’ll do, thirdly and finally. And that is in Acts chapter 4. Because in Acts chapter 4 you have the apostles, they have been preaching, and then they were involved in the healing of the beggar man who was lame; he had been lame for forty years. The fact that they had intervened in that way guaranteed them a night in prison. And they had come out of the prison. They had continued to proclaim the name of Jesus. The religious authorities were struck by the boldness of what they were saying and doing.
And once they were released—Acts 4:23—“when they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them.” And what did they do? Well, verse 24 tells us: “And when they heard it, they lifted their [voice] together to God and said, ‘Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them…’” In other words, “Let’s get perspective here for just a moment. Here we are, under subjugation from the Roman authorities and also from the Jewish religious establishment. We have been sent out by the ascended King, Jesus himself. He’s poured out the Holy Spirit upon us, and we’re to go out into the ends of the earth. We have hardly got step two in Jerusalem, and we’ve ended up in the nick. We’re in the jail. We’re getting a beating, we’re getting a hammering, and we’re in the jail. So we need to make sure that we set things in perspective here by reminding ourselves that you are the Sovereign Lord. You’re the creator of the ends of the earth, the sea, and everything in it.”
And “through the mouth of our father David, your servant, [you] said by the Holy Spirit…’” Remember what we said this morning: that the Bible is the living Word of the living God. It is the living book of the living author. These individuals say, “We know that when we read Psalm 2, the reason we have Psalm 2 is because you spoke that psalm. You used David as your mouthpiece in order to convey that information.”
But David himself cannot encapsulate the vastness of that which he articulates. It demands a fulfillment beyond David—a fulfillment, of course, that is found in Jesus. And you will notice that they then quote the psalm:
“Why did the Gentiles rage,
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers were gathered together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed.”
And then they said, “And let’s apply this”: “For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”
How amazing is that? How fantastic is that? Remember we said this morning that everything is in accordance with the unified plan and purpose of God, which finds its fulfillment—the pivotal event of human history is there—in the crucifixion and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. And they’re saying, “Here, in the mystery of your providence, Herod and Pilate slot into the position articulated in Psalm 2: the gentiles who plot against you were engaged in the project as well. Here these Roman authorities are engaged in all of this activity. And none of this has taken you by surprise! Because they were actually doing whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”
Now, we must draw this to a close, but it is a very helpful little section for coming to terms with what we were alluding to this morning—that is, standing back far enough to get the big picture.
You see, there is no doubt that Ahasuerus was a big deal. But what we discover is that Jesus is the real deal, if we can speak colloquially. Because go back for yourself—and you can do this for homework, and you can do it as well as I can, perhaps a little better—and take all the notions that are described of this big-deal king, and then say, “Okay, well, here we have this earthly king, and here we have Jesus.”
So, for example, he had dominion over 127 provinces—that was his dominion—between India and Ethiopia. That’s King Ahasuerus. “Ask of me,” says the Father, “and I will give the nations of the world as your inheritance. The ends of the earth are your dominion.” You picture him there in all of his finery, and he is seated upon a throne. And all the nobles of the surrounding area are coming to him, and they’re paying their respects to him. And you say, “My, my! That is quite a picture.” And the thrones, the earthly thrones, of kings and rulers are significant. But they fade into obscurity when you turn to Revelation chapter 21, and it says, “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new. … Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ And he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.’” He had authority. His authority extended to the borders of his influence. The authority of King Jesus is an authority that is his to the ends of the earth and forever and forever.
He put together a banquet that lasted for 180 days. You want to talk banquets? Revelation chapter 19, the marriage supper of the Lamb—read it for yourself later on—a banquet that will go on essentially forever. And in order that we might get a little sense of what is planned for us, he has left to us these little feasts, so that along the journey, Sunday by Sunday and month by month and week by week, we may pause and realize that this is a King who died in our place, that this is a Priest who suffered for our sins, that this is a Prophet who spoke into our ignorance. And the big deals of the world, whether they’re in the fifth century BC or the twenty-first century AD, will eventually bow before the authority of Jesus.
PS: When Jesus, postresurrection, gave his instruction to his disciples, his instructions focused on the nations and the ends of the earth. Didn’t they? “Now,” he says, “I want you to wait in Jerusalem until the promise of my Father. I know you’re concerned about empires and nations and Israel and all these other things. I don’t want you to be concerned about that just now. That’s not for you to know. You don’t need to worry about the times and seasons that my Father has appointed.” He says, “What you need to be focused on is this: that you might be filled with the Holy Spirit that is being sent to you, and then, in the power of the Holy Spirit, that you might go out to the very ends of the earth and that you might tell men and women this amazing good news.” And loved ones, in every generation, when a church, when the church, comes to terms with that, then there will be an explosion of missionary endeavor.
That is actually a salutary thought. Because for an explosion of missionary endeavor emanating from Britain and the continental United States, we now have to look back in time. The missionary convention in Edinburgh of 1910 was filled with thousands and thousands of people absolutely convinced that it was right for them, proper for them, necessary for them, to be in every nation of the world with one message—namely, that salvation belongs to the Lord. A hundred years later, the gathering of the missionary endeavor in Edinburgh was attended by far fewer and far less who remain convinced. What had happened? They—we, I—have lost sight of the kingly rule and reign of Jesus. We are succumbing to a political correctness which, overladen with fears of colonialism or American triumphalism, makes us increasingly diffident, if not manifestly fearful, of actually telling anybody—whether it’s in our Jerusalem or our Judea or our Samaria or the ends of the earth—that Jesus Christ is the only Savior.
What is it that silences us? The poverty of our own understanding of truth and the poverty of our own spiritual experience. The fact that the kings and the nations and the presidents and the rulers of the world have far too much to say for themselves and about themselves. And the Christian who recognizes that God ordains leadership and authority must recognize that he and she does not serve ultimately this big deal but serves he who is the real deal.
And Ahasuerus sat on his throne. Two and a half thousand years on, where is he? Where is all that finery? Where is all that majesty? Where is all that authority? It’s buried. It’s crumbled. His voice is silenced. Where is Jesus? Same place he was: ascended King, reigning Lord. He says, “Come and meet me. Come and meet me. Remember me. And then just go and tell the world all about me.”
Some of you are here, and you’re at a stage in your life where you could make a major shift. Your finances are secure. Your children are grown. What do you want to do with the rest of your life? Golf? Sail? Sit? Knit? Carve? That would be fine. How ’bout you go somewhere? Why would you do that? Because the King says we must.
Father, thank you. Thank you that when we read these ancient words and we put them in the context of the kingship of your Son, we’re helped. So, as we prepare to gather round the Table set for us, as it were, by this same King, we want to stand in his presence and acknowledge his worth as we bow in his name and pray. Amen.
 Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. James B. Pritchard, 3rd ed. with supplement, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 316.
 Paul Simon, “Richard Cory” (1965). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Daniel 4:30 (paraphrased).
 Isaiah 40:18–20 (paraphrased).
 Acts 4:19 (paraphrased).
 Psalm 2:1–8 (ESV).
 Revelation 21:5–6 (ESV).
 Acts 1:7–8 (paraphrased).
Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.