In the book of Esther we find God's people living in exile under the rule of the Persian King Ahasuerus (Xerxes). Like Esther, we are, Duguid writes:
Strangers in the land in which we live, called to be in the world but not of it. We may be citizens of the country in which we live, yet we are in a profound sense the subjects of a different king, with loyalties and allegiances different from those of our neighbours.It is therefore easy for us, as Duguid comments, to relate to the "twin temptations" of assimilation and despair in which Esther and the Jewish people found themselves. However, as Duguid explains further, the book of Esther offers a "twofold answer" to these temptations: (1) Satire and (2) God's providential outworking.
Firstly, the book of Esther is meant to make us laugh:
Satire takes the object of fear, the authority, and makes fun of it, showing its ridiculous side....For oppressed and powerless people, satire is a key weapon, cutting the vaunted splendour of the empire down to size....The one who is able to laugh in the face of the borg will never be successfully assimilated. Satire is thus a powerful antidote to despair.And here we see this played out as we find in chapter 1 a lengthy description of the impressive and exuberant nature of the empire. Yet, as the King lavishly engages in a week long feast, his wife, Queen Vashti refuses to comply with his demands and brings the empire to its knees. As Duguid comments:
Horrors! What would happen to a man's position in his own home once it became known that Queen Vashti had refused the command of the King?And so, what do we learn? "We should not take the power and glory of this world too seriously...The empire of this world is a glittering hologram that has no real substance. To defend ourselves against the danger of being assimilated, we must learn to laugh at the empire."
However, in all of this we see secondly God's providential outworking "invisibly and behind the scenes." Duguid writes:
Here there are neither dramatic miracles nor great heroes, just apparently ordinary providence moving flawed and otherwise undistinguished people into exactly the right place at the right time to bring the empire into line and to establish God's purposes for his people.As the story unfolds, there is no mention of God, Esther or Mordecai but this does not mean that he is not at work. Duguid writes:
Why did Vashti throw away her position and privilege for a noble but predictably futile gesture? Why did Ahasuerus make this foolish demand in the first place? Who came up with the ida of replacing Vashti with a better woman, instead of quietly resolving the offense Ahasuerus had caused? All of these events are...necessary to make way for the process by which Esther will rise to the position where she can use her power and influence to protect God's people against a powerful enemy. Coincidences? By no means. Rather, they are the hand of God at work.And so Duguid concludes his commentary on this first passage with three lessons;
1. Esther 1 reminds us not to take too seriously the power and glory of this world. The world takes all too seriously the trivial, elevating the antics of the rich and famous, it's call for us to strive for material abundance and the pressure it puts on us to look good and to look 'right'. We must learn to laugh at the world around us, and ourselves when we find "our own hearts getting weighed on the empire's scale of values."
2. Esther 1 shows that we might be required to wait to see what God is doing as he works behind the scenes. God is the "unseen director of history" and we must be ready watching and waiting as his plans unfold. All too often we expect God to work in ways that are extraordinary, dramatic and visible. Be rest assured therefore, the God of the universe wills and acts according to his good purpose and we can trust in that.
3. Esther 1 shows us that God's Kingdom is not like any other empire and this is seen particularly when we compare and contrast the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Ahasuerus. Duguid comments;
There are superficial similarities between the two kingdoms, but in each case they hide deeper differences. The Lord too is a great king whose decrees cannot be challenged or repealed. His sovereignty governs all things, great and small. He must be obeyed, or we will certainly suffer the consequences. Yet his law is beneficial for men and women... God doesn't use the people for his own purposes. Rather, he graciously invites them into a loving relationship with himself. His kingdom grows and does its work not through the outwardly powerful and attractive, but rather in hidden and effective ways.
The Lord too has prepared a sumptuous banquet for his people...But when God summons his bride to his banquet, he does not to expose her to shame but to lavish his grace and mercy upon her.