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


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.

Meditation on Psalm 57


He shall send from heaven, and save me from the reproach of him that would swallow me up.

One cannot study long the songs of David without being deeply impressed that, for David, life was a battle.   His poetry is shot through with complaints about unfair treatment, about enemies who laid traps for him and who slandered his name.  Here is verse four:

My soul is among lions: and I lie even among them that are set on fire, even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword.

So often we look to the Psalms to see the profound expressions of trust in God.  That’s great, but these are brought on by the crises David faced, day by day and year by year.  Should reading the Psalms remind us – even convince us – that life is a battle?  That we are not spending our days sailing, unopposed and in the favor of some kind wind.

I wonder if faith is even possible if we do not see the enemy, if we do not understand the stakes.  David’s foes, although deadly, were at least clearly defined.  He knew who opposed him.  They were flesh and blood.  Men of a rival nation who wanted to defeat Israel.  In our time the enemy, as Bob Dylan reminds us, is “subtle:”

The enemy is subtle

Howbeit we’re deceived

When the truth’s in our hearts

And we still don’t believe.

Bob Dylan, “Precious Angel”

Here is Paul, writing to the church at Ephesus:

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

I wonder if we can really know God experientially; have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, if we don’t recognize that there is a war going on and that we are in it; if we do not recognize that we face opposition – even opposition other than our own divided hearts?

Meditation on Psalm 38





Here the writer is overwhelmed with grief.

At first he acknowledges that his misery is the result of his own sin and that the anguish he now suffers is from God:

For thine arrows stick fast in me

And thy hand presseth me sore

But, as seems to me to happen often in the psalms, the course of the poem changes abruptly and the psalmist laments not so much his own sin and merited suffering, but the evil of “mine enemies, lively and strong” who “hate me wrongfully.”

Verse twelve details the dynamics of the evil.  His enemies “lay snares” for him; they “speak mischievous things and imagine deceits all the day long.”  This isn’t difficult to understand or relate to.  Anyone who has gone to school, worked in an office  [or other workplace] or spent time in a family will know just what the psalmist is talking about here.  Things are going along fine [seemingly] and then the day comes when you discover that everyone around you seems to be watching a different movie than you are.  What was once accepted is now poison.  What you believed was affection was only feigned.  You find that what has been said behind your back is not at all what you thought was being said.  You are now a target and the crowd is working together to get you knocked off your horse.

In the next verse the writer says of these complaints and plans against him:


But I, as a deaf man, heard not and I was as a dumb man that openeth not his mouth.


When I first read this, I thought of the man unjustly accused and surrounded by those who he thought were his friends as described in the previous verse.  And it was easy for me to think that what the psalmist was saying in this verse was that he was so surprised and taken aback by what he was confronted with that he was literally speechless.  Just dumbstruck by the suddenness of it all and unable in the moment to muster any defense for himself, even though the charges against him are unjust.  Again, that’s easy to imagine.  That’s how it feels.

But on second thought, maybe the psalmist is saying something quite different.  Maybe he is saying that, as he is surrounded by these unjust accusations he ignores them and offers no defense because he knows that God is his only defense.  God is his defender.  His own efforts here will be futile, surely.  But, given time, the wheels of the Almighty will grind and – as we mentioned yesterday – the justice of his cause will shine as the noonday sun.

That is a worthwhile lesson.  This is not to say that one should never speak in his own defense.  There are times and places where that is exactly what one should do.  But there are other situations where you cannot win.  Any effort of your own will only make matters worse.  In those instances, it may well be that the only thing we can do is be silent and wait for vindication from God.  This is faith.

Meditation on Psalm 18

Christians cannot be shy about poetry.  It is an indispensable part of our heritage.  So much of the Bible is poetry – the Psalms, the book of Job, the Song of Solomon, and lots of passages from the Prophets.  On top of that, our faith is a singing faith.  The second most important book in the Christian tradition is the hymnal and although not every song is poetic, lots of them are.  Lots of them employ metaphor and exalted expression.  Here is how one hymn writer expresses the birth of Jesus Christ:

. . . Lo, how a rose e’er blooming

From tender stem hath sprung . . .

 It only makes sense that writers would have to employ poetic expression, poetic imagination, in this context.  They are trying to communicate a world that is invisible and outside of normal, sensory experience.  It is only logical that they would have to employ metaphor.

It is with this poetic perspective that I consider this great Psalm.  Many of the Psalms are attributed to David and scholars disagree about which or how many of them David himself wrote.   Here is C. S. Lewis in his book, Reflections on The Psalms:

I think certain scholars allow that Psalm 18 might be by David himself.

It is far beyond me to make any judgement about the authorship of this or any Psalm.  I am not taking any position on the question of whether all of the Psalms that are “attributed” to David (about half of them) were actually written by him.  But I will say this: Psalm 18 is a distinctive work.   It is personal and experiential, like many others, but it is poetic in ways that many of the others are not.  David, in his troubles, calls on the name of the Lord.  Now look at the imagery used in describing God’s response to David’s prayer:

Then the earth shook and trembled;
the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken,
because he was wroth.
There went up a smoke out of his nostrils,
and fire out of his mouth devoured:
coals were kindled by it.
He bowed the heavens also, and came down:
and darkness was under his feet.
10 And he rode upon a cherub, and did fly:
yea, he did fly upon the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his secret place;
his pavilion round about him were dark waters
and thick clouds of the skies.
12 At the brightness that was before him his thick clouds passed,
hail stones and coals of fire.
13 The Lord also thundered in the heavens,
and the Highest gave his voice;
hail stones and coals of fire.
14 Yea, he sent out his arrows, and scattered them;
and he shot out lightnings, and discomfited them.
15 Then the channels of waters were seen,
and the foundations of the world were discovered
at thy rebuke, O Lord,
at the blast of the breath of thy nostrils.

If this is not poetry; if this is not the poet’s vision, I don’t know what is.  This is – and is clearly intended to be – staggering.  The earth shakes and trembles; the hills move.  God rides upon a Cherub, flying on the wings of the wind.

What are we to make of it?

In the book of Revelation, Saint John shares his vision of the altar before the throne of Godin heaven, attended by an angel who offers there incense mixed with “the prayers of all the saints.” (Rev 8: 3 NIV)  What results?  As Eugene Peterson puts it, “reversed thunder:”

Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake. (Rev 8: 5 NIV)

What do these two passages have in common?  First, and most obviously, they both describe fantastic occurrences: the shaking of the earth, lightning and thunder.

But in both instances these fantastic events are the result of prayer.  In the Psalm, it is David’s prayer for deliverance.  In the book of Revelation it is the prayers of all the saints for God’s justice.

Whatever else these passages may be interpreted to mean, they at least point to the power and effectiveness of prayer that is so profound that it is hard for us to imagine.   These answers to prayer are “above all that we ask or think.”

We need powerful, fantastic imagery to even begin to wake us up to the reality of it.

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!