What qualities would we expect or hope for in a king; in an absolute ruler? We would expect and hope for wisdom, farsightedness, and self-restraint. Someone who would consider all sides of a matter before acting. Someone with enough personal experience and backbone to hear advice and weigh it and consider the source. We would dread a ruler who is capricious and impulsive. That’s what we’d expect and hope for.
But that’s not what we get with King Xerxes. At every turn in the story his character is shown to be weak. He seems to carry no personal convictions at all and to be totally dependent upon the advice of his courtiers in all of his decisions.
Thus, we begin with the most private and personal issues – the king’s own marriage. He has asked his wife Vashti to do something that she has refused to do. The very fact of the king’s asking tells us a good bit. First, he is so indiscreet and reckless as to make the communications between himself and his wife a matter of public knowledge. If the king had had any doubt about how Vashti might have reacted to his demand he could have saved face by communicating with her privately. As it is, he opens the secret chamber of his most intimate relationship to all of his buddies and hangers-on. Had she refused him in private, that would have been a matter they could have resolved between themselves. But when the demand was made publically the refusal becomes and embarrassment and, as it turns out, a federal case.
Xerxes, the king, doesn’t have the sense to handle his personal affairs prudently. He does not have enough insight into the personality and character of his wife to foresee that she might not be crazy about the idea. He has no foresight into what the political fallout will be in the event of a refusal.
On top of all of that, his reaction to the problem he has created for himself is self-defeating. Instead of giving the matter mature consideration and thinking twice about his own actions, he flies off the handle and once again brings the sycophants around him into his marriage.
They propose drastic action – in effect the dissolution of the king’s marriage (all for acts done in a state of drunkenness) – and, right in character, the king agrees.
The one bit of real humanity we see from the King in the entire story is right there in the first verse of Chapter 2:
After these things, when the wrath of King Xerxes subsided, he remembered Vashti, what she had done, and what had been decreed against her.
Although other interpretations of this verse are possible, I read this to mean that Xerxes was feeling some regret. He was missing his wife and reconsidering the wisdom of his banishment of her. Good on him.
But this moment of sanity and sobriety and rationality does not last long. Once again the king’s advisers – I think of them as the ancient equivalents of today’s lobbyists – jump right in to protect their own interests. Now king, they say, let’s not be rash here. You’ve got to leave things in place or the precedential effect will be awful (for us). Here’s what we’ll do instead: We’ll make sure you get all the chicks.
Once again, Xerxes defers the most private and personal decisions of his life to his advisors. He goes along with their plan.
We are not told why Xerxes bestows great honor on Haman. Maybe it was legit. Maybe he had really done something to deserve it. One is tempted to think – given the way we’ve seen the king’s mind work – that Haman himself might have been the author of his own story. That is, that Haman or somebody inside the court on Haman’s behalf sold the king on some inflated story about Haman’s valor.
What we do know is that in the one case where it is clear that the king ought to have honored someone – this time Mordecai, who had foiled an assassination plot against the king’s life – the king fails to act.
Finally, when Haman has his dander up about Mordecai’s refusal to grovel before him, he sells the king a bill of goods about the Jews:
8 Then Haman said to King Xerxes, “There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them. 9 If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued to destroy them, and I will give ten thousand talents[b] of silver to the king’s administrators for the royal treasury.”
Of course, this was all it took to convince Xerxes. He immediately gives Haman his royal blessing to prosecute the contemplated mass slaughter of the Jews. This without the first though of further explanation, fact-checking, or consideration of Haman’s possible ulterior motives.
Indeed, even later in the story, when the king finally does the right thing, he appears impulsive and intemperate.
What lessons might we draw from this study of Xerxes’ character? That’s for the next post!