In the third year of his reign . In b.c. 483, probably in the early spring, when the court, having spent the winter at Babylon (Xenophon), returned to Susa to enjoy the most charming season of the year. He made a feast unto all his princes and his servants . Persian kings, according to Ctesias and Duris, ordinarily entertained at their table 15,000 persons! This is of course an exaggeration; but there can be no doubt that their hospitality was on a scale unexampled in modern times. The vast pillared halls of the Persepelitan and Susan palaces could accommodate many hundreds, if not thousands. The power of Persia and Media . The empire of the Achaemenian kings was Perso-Medic rather than simply Persian. The Medes were not only the most favoured of the conquered nations, but were really placed nearly on a par with their conquerors. Many of the highest offices were conferred on them, and they formed no doubt a considerable section of the courtiers. The nobles . Literally, "the first men," ha-partemim. The word used is a Persian term Hebraised. It occurs only in this place. And princes of the provinces . i.e. satraps. The presence of such persons at the great gathering at Susa preparatory to the Grecian war is witnessed to by Herodotus (7:19).
The Book of Esther.
There is a striking contrast between the Books of RUTH and ESTHER . The earlier book is an idyll; the later a chronicle. The earlier relates to lowly persons and to rural life; the later to kings and queens, and to a great Oriental metropolis. The earlier is the story of a family, and its interest is domestic; the later is a chapter from the history of a people, and deals with the intrigues of a court and the policy of a state. The religious character and aim of this book may be presented in four observations.
I. GOD 'S NAME IS ABSENT FROM THE WHOLE BOOK , BUT GOD HIMSELF IS IN EVERY CHAPTER . There is no other book except Canticles in the sacred volume in which the Divine Being is neither mentioned nor obviously referred to. Yet no disbeliever in God could have written it; and no believer in God can read it without finding his faith strengthened thereby. Refer especially to Esther 4:14 .
II. A NATIONAL FESTIVAL IS HISTORICALLY ACCOUNTED FOR . The feast of Purim was held in high honour, and observed with great regularity and solemnity and rejoicing, among the Jews. "The temple may fail, but the Purim never," was one of their proverbs. This Book of Esther was written to explain the origin of this national festival.
III. A VALUABLE MORAL LESSON PERVADES THE WHOLE NARRATIVE . Not only is the great general truth, that earthly greatness and prosperity are mutable and transitory, brought effectively before us, but we learn that God humbles the proud, and exalts the lowly who trust in him ( vide 1 Samuel 2:1-10 ).
II. THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD IS STRIKINGLY AND MEMORABLY DISPLAYED . We are brought into contact with the righteousness and the rule of the Most High. A great deliverance is wrought; and whilst the means are human, the deliverance itself is Divine. God appears as "mighty to save." The book is, accordingly, one peculiarly suitable to those in distress, perplexity, and trouble.
A royal banquet.
In this description of a sumptuous Oriental feast, notice—
1 . The guests. These were, in the first instance, the nobles and princes of the provinces, who were assembled for purposes of state policy; and afterwards the people of the metropolis, who were lavishly regaled from the royal table.
2 . The splendour and costliness of the entertainment. The great lords were shown by Ahasuerus the riches of his kingdom, and the honour of his excellent majesty. The multitude were entertained in the palace garden, where gorgeous awnings were slung from marble pillars. The guests reclined on couches of gold and silver, placed on marble pavements. They were served with delicious viands and costly wines from the cellar of the king.
3 . The protraction of the feast. The people were feasted for a week. The princes were detained for six months upon business of state. Probably preparations were then made for the expedition into Greece, which is so famous in history, and which came to so ignominious a close. Consider two great moral lessons underlying this picture of magnificence.
I. LAVISH FESTIVITIES MAY GILD THE CHAINS OF ARBITRARY POWER . The multitude often appear to care more for display than for justice on the part of their rulers. If the Roman populace under the empire were supplied with food and shows, they were content. In our own times we have seen the people of a great city kept quiet by lavish expenditure oh the part of a despot.
II. REGAL HOSPITALITY MAY MASK THE DESIGNS OF WICKED AMBITION . Xerxes had a purpose in bringing his lords and satraps to Susa; he was contemplating a military expedition, in which myriads should be slain, and the complete success of which could only issue in his own aggrandisement and glory. Let the people beware of the selfish and sanguinary schemes of the great of this world. Justice and peace are preferable to despotism and bloodshed.
III. GREAT ENTERTAINMENTS MAY BE AN OCCASION FOR FORGETTING , RATHER THAN FOR REMEMBERING , GOD , THE GIVER OF ALL . When we sit at Heaven's table we should gave Heaven thanks. Some of the great banquets mentioned in the Scriptures were occasions for ostentation and for carousing, and this seems to be no exception. The bounties of Divine Providence should be partaken with gratitude and devout acknowledgments. "Whether we eat or drink, or whatever we do, let us do all to the glory of God."
A great feast.
One peculiarity of this Book of Esther is that the name of God nowhere occurs in it; yet the reader discerns the finger of God throughout. Its story is an illustration of the Divine providence. A complicated chain of events and actions is so governed as to work out the deliverance of the exiled Jews from a plot which aimed at their destruction; and this without any miracle or mention of Divine interposition.
1 . A fact disclosed. That the Jews while in exile, under judgment, and without vision, were remembered and cared for by God. Outcast, they were not cast off, they were still the children of promise; God was still faithful to them.
2 . From this fact an inference may be drawn. There is a Divine providence in the world; no supernatural exercises of power are needed to enable God to effect his will; all laws and things are his creatures, and therefore under his control; human dramas and tragedies take place every day in which acutest plans are foiled, and, by seemingly natural processes, truth and right vindicated. Our introduction to this king is in connection with a great FEAST . Its barbaric magnificence—prodigality and waste. All the princes and governors were invited—not together, but in companies, so that the revelry continued for the long period of six months (a hundred and fourscore days). What its motive? If we take the king to have been Xerxes, it may have preceded his expedition into Greece, as a boastful anticipation of triumph, or as a means of uniting in the monarch's resolve all the governing forces of the empire. But our story says nothing of any special purpose; that was beside the object for which it was written. The feast itself was described only because, in connection with it, a thing occurred which had a direct influence on the subsequent rescue of the Jews from a conspiracy against their life. The lines are in God's hands. He sees the end from the beginning. Every point in the narrative is necessary to the great issue, and to the general and abiding lesson. Yet enough is said to indicate that, so far as the king was concerned, the chief motive was vanity—a childish love of display, a vainglorious desire to witness the effect of the splendours of his person and palace on the magnates of his empire. During all the days of the feast "he showed the riches of his glorious kingdom, and the honour of his excellent majesty." His mind was puffed up by the conceit of his high-mightiness; he thirsted for the admiring homage of the world—not an homage attracted by mental greatness or moral worth, by elevation of character or heroism of conduct, but that low and degrading homage which fawns and flatters in presence of the vulgar ostentations of material pomp and power. This king of Persia was no Solomon, who could draw to his capital princes from all quarters by a wisdom and worth which were not overshadowed even by an unrivalled material splendour. Let us learn—
I. THAT PERSONAL VANITY IS NOT ONLY FOOLISH AND CONTEMPTIBLE IN ITSELF , BUT AN INLET ALSO OF MUCH HUMILIATION AND SIN (see Proverbs 29:23 ; Matthew 23:12 ; James 4:6 ).
II. THAT HOMAGE TO RICHES AND THE LUXURIES THEY PURCHASE IS UNWORTHY OF A HUMAN SOUL . Not confined to any condition, place, or age. As readily exacted and given now as at any time. Wealth too often goes before worth. The material receives more respect than the moral or spiritual. The unspoken language is common-better be rich than good; better be surrounded with the showy emblems of worldly prosperity than have our character and homes adorned with the Christian virtues of truth, uprightness, and charity. The power to form right estimates as between the seen and the unseen, the material and the spiritual, much needed. How acquire such a power? Only by looking and listening to Jesus Christ, by having conscience, mind, and heart enlightened at the feet of him who said, "Learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart." Best gifts and possessions, and truest springs of honour and happiness, in Jesus. Study his truth, his spirit, his life, and our idolatries of earthly good will shame us, and make us wonder how men with a Christ before them can sacrifice the benefits of a higher and nobler life for the material and perishing things of the present world. Our Lord himself presents the true test in Matthew 16:26 .
III. THAT MEN ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE USE THEY MAKE OF THEIR WEALTH . Hospitality is a Christian virtue; but it is often sadly abused—a feeder of vanity and an incentive to sin. While showing a liberal and kindly spirit, it should avoid all extravagance. How much of the money that is spent on rich, showy, and self-glorifying banquets might be put to better use! A deep spirit underlies the words of our Lord in Luke 14:12-14 .
IV. THAT MUCH POWER IN ONE HAND IS A DANGEROUS THING . Nothing tries a man more than a flood of prosperity. Ahasuerus was to be pitied, and the empire which he governed still more. Few heads or hearts can stand strong and erect under the burden of anything approaching an absolute authority. How terribly is this taught by history! It is well for the happiness of nations that improved ideas of government are now the rule. But the individual man, whatever be his rank, is to be put on his guard against the intoxications of what may seem to him good fortune, and against the temptation to abuse whatever power he possesses. Many who have acted worthily in adversity have been carried off their feet by a tide of prosperity.
V. THAT GOVERNMENTS OR EMPIRES ARE STABLE OR THE REVERSE ACCORDING TO THE PRINCIPLES AND LAWS THAT GOVERN THEM . It is hardly credible that the miserable nation whose Shah we have seen could ever have occupied a position like that described in our narrative. How great the contrast between then and now! Not alone, however; other and greater empires have gone the same way. In all edifices the foundation is the main thing. No empire, however strong, can last unless founded on Divine truth and righteousness. "Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord." As with nations, so with men. A living trust in God, a true fellowship with God's Son, is the only safeguard that will give victory to a human life over all the evils that assail it, and enable it to enter at last into full possession of the life everlasting.—D.
The royal feast.
We have in the opening chapter of this Book of Esther the description of a royal feast; it may remind us of two other feasts to which we of this land and age, and they of every clime and century, are invited guests.
I. THE FEAST OF THE KING OF PERSIA . "It came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus" (verse 1),… "in the third year of his reign, he made a feast unto all his princes and his servants" (verse 3). A "great monarch" was this king, ruling "from India to Ethiopia, over a hundred and seven and twenty provinces" (verse 1). His palace at Susa (Shushan, verse 2), surrounded with beautiful gardens, was a place where labour and art had furnished everything that could minister to bodily gratification. Here he entertained "the power of Persia and Media (verse 3) for 180 days (verse 4), the guests probably coming and going, for all the satraps could hardly have been absent from their provinces at the same time. Then, after these days were expired (verse 5), the king gave a banquet of a more indiscriminate kind—"a feast unto all the people that were present in Shushan the palace, both unto great and small" (verse 5). Every possible preparation was made for the guests, a beautiful "awning of fine white cotton and violet" (verse 6; 'Speaker's Com.') being spread, the couches being of gold and silver, and placed on pavement of variously-coloured stones (verse 6); wine from the king's own cellar being served in golden goblets, with liberty for the guests to drink as they pleased (verses 7, 8). It was a feast—
1 . In which regal bounty was lavishly poured forth; no pains or expenses were spared, as these particulars show, to make the guests joyous.
2 . In which there was more of selfish ostentation than genuine kindness. The spirit of it is seen in the fact that by so doing "he showed the riches of his glorious kingdom, and the honour of his excellent majesty" (verse 4).
3 . In which there was more of short-lived gratification than lasting joy. There was, no doubt, much exhilaration expressing itself in revelry; and revelry soon ended, as it always must, in satiety and suffering. We are reminded, partly by contrast, of—
II. THE FEAST OF THE LORD OF NATURE . God, our King, who is in deed and truth the "King of kings," and not in name only, like these Persian monarchs, spreads a regal feast for his subjects. It is one that
III. THE FEAST OF THE PRINCE OF PEACE . Jesus Christ, the" King's Son," has made for us a spiritual feast ( Matthew 22:1-14 ): "royal wine in abundance" (verse 7); "bread enough and to spare" at his princely table for all thirsting and hungering souls ( Isaiah 55:1 ; John 6:35 ). In this gospel feast there is
The hospitality of vainglory.
The reign of Ahasuerus, or Xerxes, had now reached its third year. His sway was very wide, and other history lends valuable confirmation of the contents of the former of these verses. Herodotus, far enough removed in his general tone from a Scripture historian, fixes this year as the year in which Xerxes summoned the rulers of his provinces to Susa, or Shushan , preparatory to his expedition against Greece. Although no mention is made here of this circumstance as the occasion of the feast, or as connected with it, yet the two intimations are not inconsistent with one another, and in fact are well fitted to one another. Each historian keeps the object of his own work in view. The thing which had no significance with Herodotus would be the consideration of primary significance in our present history; and we get as the result a consent of two widely differing authorities to testify to the fact of special doings in Shushan this year. The passage offers us a typical instance of a feast such as to answer correctly to the motto, "Self first, hospitality second." This is evidently the character of it. Yet let us take into account what may be said for it.
1. It was confessedly an Eastern feast, and as such it would have been considered essentially wanting if it had been wanting in the matter of display.
2 . It was not a feast given by one of those people who had "received the oracles;" who had been long time under a course of higher instruction; who had heard, ]earned, pondered "the Proverbs of Solomon," or "the words of the Preacher, son of David, king of Jerusalem." Much less was it possible in the nature of things to have been the feast of one, who had had the opportunity of knowing the doctrine of Christ in such a matter.
3 . Yet nevertheless it answered in one respect to one of the prescriptions of Jesus Christ himself; for it was a feast which could not be returned to its giver—not in kind , at all events. The feast of a great king, who drew on enormous wealth,—"made to" a whole multitude of princes, subordinate to him, and prolonged over months,—this could not be returned to him.
4 . It was a feast of unstinted plenty—the thought of a nature that had some sort of largeness about it, and the distributing of a hand that dropt more than the uncared-for crumbs of its own table. On the other hand—
I. IT IS INCONTESTABLE THAT THIS FEAST VISITS UPON ITS GIVER THE CONDEMNATION OF VAINGLORIOUS DISPLAY AS REGARDS HIS " KINGDOM ," AND SELF - SEEKING DISPLAY AS REGARDS HIS OWN " EXCELLENT MAJESTY ." The greater the scale on which it was made, the more profuse its abundance, the longer its continuance, so much the more impressive and convincing evidence does it furnish of vanity insatiable, of selfishness deep-seated, of the presence of the hand of one who not only sought the praise of men rather than that of God, but who sought to influence even those men by the lower kinds of appeal—those of sense and the eye, rather than by any of a higher kind.
II. THERE WAS BEYOND DOUBT A DISTINCTLY AND DECIDEDLY UTILITARIAN DESIGN ABOUT THE FEAST . Though it could not be returned in kind, it could be recompensed. At recompense it aimed, and without the prospect of such recompense it would never have been "made." It was pre-eminently a banquet of policy, unwarmed by one simple genuine feeling of the heart, unhonoured by any noble object for its motive, fragrant with no philanthropic beneficence. It was simply a device of an inferior type, first, for flashing to all the extremities of the kingdom the envious tidings of the central wealth, luxury, splendour, and power, and thereby riveting the tyrannous hold and the ghastly fascination of an Eastern arbitrary despot; and, secondly, for ingratiating that central authority with the numerous helpless, subordinate powers who were to send contingents and contributions to a disastrous expedition into Greece. It was very different from an English banquet in celebration of some accomplished fact, or in honour of some worthy hero or distinguished benefactor of the people, though oftentimes it is not very much that can be justly said in commendation of even these.
III. THE GIVING ITSELF — WHAT WAS IT ? It happens to be well termed "making" a feast, in the undesigned idiom of the language. Did it cost much to make? It cost lavish silver and gold very likely; but whence were these drawn? Were they not already drawn from those for whom the feast was "made"? and probably absolutely wrung by these again from the oppressed subjects of their grinding rule. Did it cost Ahasuerus himself much? Did it cost him anything at all? Was it drawn from the honourably-earned and diligently-acquired results of his own past labour? No; it speaks plenty without bounty, liberality without generosity, profuse bestow-ment the fruit of no kindliness of soul, a lavish hand moving to the dictate of a selfish heart.
1 . These are just some of the hard facts of human nature, tried in such a position as that of this king.
2 . There is a great deal to explain and account for such exhibitions of human nature in Ahasuerus, to be found in his time of day, in his antecedents, etc; but these things do not justify them. They do impressively help illustrate to what human nature's time of day and antecedents bring us.
3 . We could plead no extenuations whatever if our own conduct or our own principles were detected sinking to the level of those before us, and all the less for the beacon of this very history.—B.