More on Stupid King Xerxes

 

 

As we have studied the Book of Esther, we have spent some time and energy exploring the character of King Xerxes.  If we believe that the writer of this book went by the storyteller’s maxim to “show, not tell,” then we see a very deliberate and rather exhaustive effort to reveal the character of Xerxes through a recounting of his several decisions that figure in the story.

The picture we are given of King Xerxes is not a very flattering one.  Indeed, the writer here tells us that Xerxes is almost everything you would not want in a ruler.  He is ostentatious and insecure.  The first thing we’re told about the King is that he spends his time in a celebration of his own power and riches.  He lacks even the most basic insight and understanding of what is going on around him.   We can say a lot about the stupidity of the king’s demand that his wife come and show herself to his drunken friends.   This is denigrating and inconsiderate and shows a lack of respect for his wife.  But the fact that the king made this request tells us even more about the king.  For one thing, he obviously does not know his wife very well at all.

What Vashti does here in refusing to follow the king’s order is quite bold.  We must assume, however, that it was not out of character for her.  Thus, if the king had had any knowledge or understanding of his wife’s character, he would never have made this demand.  He would have foreseen that there was a good chance that by doing so he  would expose himself to the kind of embarrassment that in fact follows in the story.

After the king is embarrassed by his wife’s refusal of his order, he makes matters worse by listening to the self-serving advice of his courtiers.  Rather than taking time to consider his actions and attempt to ameliorate his own situation, he jumps from one stupid excess to another, ordering the banishment of his own wife.  Who loses in this situation?

King Xerxes, of course.  He loses the consortium of his beautiful wife.  In his one moment of humanity and sobriety that the story allows him, we see a strong hint that Xerxes is missing his wife and perhaps reconsidering the wisdom of his rash actions

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Finishing Up: Esther and Xerxes

Let’s try to finish up our study of old king Xerxes.

 

We’ve already noted his rash and reckless behavior.  We’ve already noted his profound lack of insight into what is going on around him.  We’ve seen that he acts on impulse and that he is intemperate and easily manipulated.

But when the story turns and Esther begins to execute her plan to tell the king the truth, we see even more of Xerxes’ immoderate character.  Thus, when Esther approaches him with a request and before he has the first clue about what she will ask, he offers her “half of his kingdom.”

Moreover, when the truth about Haman is finally out and Haman is on his knees, begging Queen Esther for mercy, Xerxes misreads the situation yet again, perceiving, erroneously, that Haman is attempting to ravish the queen.

 

So, you might be saying, We get all that.  We see that Xerxes was an idiot.  So what?  What is in it for us as we read the story to day?

I think we can be pretty sure that it was a part of the author’s intent to make the case against Xerxes.  There is too much detail, too much description of his decision making to think otherwise.  Why is it there?

To make the point, I think, that this is exactly what earthly government is often like.  We expect and hope for prudence and integrity, but what we often get is recklessness and corruption.  Look at how the government actually worked then.  The king was manipulated by his advisors in every decision.  And his advisors, without exception, had their own selfish agendas in mind.  There is little thought for the well being of the king’s subjects.  All instead is focused on making the courtiers happy in the moment.

Xerxes is an idiot.  He would not know the truth if it beat down his door.  And that is exactly what Esther has to do.  She saves her race by speaking truth to power – and this at great risk to herself.  Power is often oblivious to the truth and yet we need the truth to live.

Jesus said “I am the way, the truth and the life.”  We must speak Christ.  To live we must speak Christ.

Esther: Speaking Truth To Power

There are many different kinds of writing in the Bible.

 

There are, for example, songs and poetry and letters and law and histories.  The Book of Esther is a history in the sense that it records events that actually happened, but it is told in the form of a story.  The book is a short narrative of events that occurred in Persia (modern day Iran) and it features character and plot development, suspense and climax.

One of the marks of a good story writer is that he or she will “show, not tell.”  That is, rather than simply dictating conclusions about events or characters, e.g., “the king was a thoughtless man,” the good story writer will unfold the drama before the readers eyes by describing action and will let the reader form his own conclusions.  I think the writer of the Book of Esther was on to this.

Never in the story are we directly told anything about the character of King Xerxes, but as we read the story and see his actions and decisions, we may come to some pretty definite conclusions about him.

We see him first at a drunken party – one that he has put on to show off his wealth and power.  The writer gives us very particular details about the opulence of the setting and the extravagance of the event.  This party went on for days and there were servants with trays of drinks at the elbow of every guest.   From this we may get some inkling that Xerxes was a vain man – impressed with himself and intent on impressing others.

The first decision we see the king make involves his relationship with his wife

 

 

 

 

 

Xerxes – A Girly Man

 

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:

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. 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!

Merry Christmas

 

 

Because Christmas is the celebration of God’s greatest gift to humanity it is marked each year by the giving and receiving of gifts.  We are often more extravagant in our giving – and if we’re fortunate enough to be surrounded by like-minded friends and family, in our receiving, too – than at any other time of the year.  That’s appropriate, too.  For Christmas is a celebration of God’s extravagant grace.

Another wonderful part of Christmas is the whole aspect of surprise.  That’s obvious first in how children experience Christmas morning when they awake to find under the tree more than they expected, better than they expected.  All of that really jives with the Biblical picture of Christmas, too.  Because God knows us better than we know ourselves His best gifts to us are surprises.  And when we receive that which we did not contemplate or expect and we look on it and know that it is “far more than we could ever ask or think” we are gratified not only in the gift, but in the giver.  That is, in the knowledge that someone has taken the time and effort to know us, to see us as we really are, to understand us actually better than we understand ourselves.  That’s not only flattering and gratifying, it communicates and instills within us a kind of security – we know that we are at last understood and truly loved.

That brings me to the subject of this blog and to you, my readers.  Writing this blog and receiving, day after day the many “likes” and comments from every corner of the world has been a wonderful and daily surprise to me.  The idea that something I’ve written – some distillate of my experience – has struck a chord with someone somewhere – someone in some far-off place that I’ll never see, someone whose experience of life is very different from my own – well, that is a true joy for me, and the best kind of surprise.

Thank you, readers.  May your days be merry and bright . . . .

Because They Have No Changes

“Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God. . . ”  Psalm 55:19

 

Sometimes it pays to have a stack of Bibles, but sometimes you may find that the old standby – the King James Version – gets it right, or at least gets it better than the newer translations.  As you know if you are a reader of this blog, I try to read a psalm every day.  I can’t – or at least I don’t – take all the time necessary for the study of a chapter or book somewhere else in the Bible, but the Psalms are poems and they each may stand at a given reading on their own two feet.  You can read most of them in a few minutes and get at least an idea or two about their import and meaning.

I like to read the psalms in the King James for several reasons.  First, I learned them in that version when I was just a kid and the KJV was still the go-to in churches.  Second, remember that the psalms are poetry and appeal to the emotions.  Although they may not have sounded as formal in their original language as they now do in the KJV, the KJV, given the archaic and strange sound of the language, keeps reminding me that I am reading poetry and not USA Today.  I’ll admit that the newer translations are often clearer and may correct mistakes or misunderstandings that the KJV might cause (I use them for these purposes everyday) something great is lost when the high-emotion, poetic voice of the psalmist is made to read like an instruction manual.  Add to all of that that I still find, now and then, that the real meaning of a passage is best captured in the old translation.  Maybe when the modern translators aim at clarity they eliminate ambiguity that ought to be there.

Let’s look again at Psalm 55: 19.  There, David says of his enemies: “. . . Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God.”   Here is an example of what I mean by ambiguity.  What does it mean, “they have no changes?”  The very uncertainty of it intrigues me; draws me in.  And so I looked at the verse in other translations.  Here is how the NIV renders it:  “men who never change their ways and have no fear of God.”

Not exactly the same idea conveyed in these two versions.  “Have no changes” doesn’t sound like the same thing as “never chang[ing] one’s ways.”   The newer translation implies a deliberate, internal decision: in spite of everything happening around me, I won’t change my ways. The older version, it seems to me, allows the reader to think of something quite different – changes that are external to the people in question.  It allows the notion that it is not so much – or at least not only – that these men have refused to change their ways, it may be that their surroundings and circumstances have not changed.  They have not been confronted with disorienting changes in their lives and so they trust and carry on in their own strength.  In either case it is true that the men in question do not change internally – do not change their minds – but the earlier translation gives us more room and at least implies or suggests that the “changes” that these men “do not have” are external changes – changes in their circumstances that might awaken them to the fact that they are not in control of their own lives and that they must place their trust in God.

That idea is certainly present elsewhere in the Bible.  We have discussed here in the last few days passages in Jeremiah and Zephaniah that employ the metaphor of wine being left on the lees.  That is, the wine as it aged was left undisturbed and not poured off from the lees or dregs or sediment that settles out of the juice as it ferments over time.  In both of these prophetic passages, this lack of change will bring judgement.  And in both places the changes referred to are not merely internal or mental changes, but are external or cultural.  Jeremiah warns that Moab has been complacent in the peace and prosperity it has enjoyed over generations.  Zephaniah warns the dwellers in Jerusalem:

12 And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men that are settled on their lees: that say in their heart, The Lord will not do good, neither will he do evil.

Isn’t it fair to say that here the internal hardness is a product of what the men see outside themselves.  Life has been so regular, so unchanging in their days that they now believe that God does not intervene in the affairs of men.  He does not judge the wicked.  He does not reward the faithful.  The men with these attitudes are to be searched out and punished.  To be taught that God does judge the wicked and does reward the righteous.

 

If that is a fair reading, then the verses in question would certainly seem to speak directly in today’s headlines.  Given the unrelenting cycle of news these days and the seemingly inexhaustible stores of evil in the actions of men and nations it is rather easy to believe that nothing could shock or surprise us ever again.  But I must say that in my six decades I have never quite seen the like of the recent purge of those in high places who have exploited those who were weaker or subservient to them.  Men, powerful, rich and privileged are being brought to judgement.  Men in media – broadcasting, movie making – men in politics; men in religious offices are all being unmasked and brought to task for these long histories of exploitation and abuse.  Surely it can be said of them as they continued in their power and prestige for decades and continued to injure the weak without consequence to themselves that they said in their hearts: The Lord will not do good, neither will he do evil.

What is so striking in today’s news is not so much the criminal conduct itself – that’s terrible enough, but we all knew about it.  Not to say that we knew the exploits of this or that particular star or senator, but we knew that this kind of thing goes on everywhere, all the time.  Men in power prey on the weaker people around them.  Doctors hit on nurses.  Law partners hit on associates.  Priests abuse children.  And the story of the “casting couch” is decades old and no one doubted it.

What is remarkable and unprecedented is the size and strength of the wave of judgement now sweeping the country.  God is not mocked.  One who persists in such exploitation does, finally, reap what he has sown.

Meditation on Psalm 63

 

Because thou hast been my help, therefore in the shadow of thy wings will I rejoice. . .

Psalm 63: 7

 

In his very helpful book Reflections on The Psalms, CS Lewis makes some allusion to the fact that many of the psalms are “attributed to David” and that some of them, particularly Psalm 18, are actually from David’s pen.  This, of course, suggests that many of the psalms that are attributed to David were actually written by someone else, perhaps long after David lived, and are aimed at capturing the drama of David’s life and the essence of his spirit.

I owe CS Lewis a great deal.  I don’t know of any other writer quite like him.  He seems to have read everything ever written and he can explain complex things clearly and precisely.  His book, Mere Christianity, found me at the right time, answered many of my questions, and changed my life.  I know that Lewis would not have made a statement like the one about the authorship of the Psalms unless he had scoured sources.  He may be right, but this is one time I don’t want to believe him.  I want to believe that the Psalms attributed to David are actually the work of his hand; his imagination; his heart.

That is particularly true of the Psalm I read this morning:  number 63.

David is a great romantic figure whose life is marked by fantastic acts of heroism and courage and horrible, deliberate actions that plagued his house down to and even after David’s own dying day.  We might think of him as a kind of rock star.  Not only was he a great military man, he was a poet (while scholars may debate which of the psalms now in the canon were actually written by David, no one denies that he did write poetry) and a musician.  Kind of a mixture of General Patton or Lee or Grant and Jackson Browne.

Psalm 63 is an intensely personal psalm, full of emotion. If we think of it as something written about David and not by David, it loses some of its punch.

This Psalm is the confession of a man who has known God personally.  So personally, in fact, that he “remembers” God as he lies awake at night.  So personally that he speaks of communion with God as the deepest satisfaction.  In worship, David’s “soul shall be satisfied as with the richest of foods.”  And this Psalm suggests that David’s knowledge of God is not based on what someone else told him about God, but rather on immediate, personal experience.  David the warrior has, time and again, acted on God’s command in the face of great odds and has been saved from his enemies, even when surrounded.

Time and again in the psalms we see reference to the protection of “the shadow of [God’s] wings.”  One is tempted to imagine how David looked at the desert landscape before him as he traveled with his band of troops.  How David may have “seen” the shadow of God’s wings covering him, protecting him, allowing him rest.