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THE GREAT FEAST OF KING AHASUERUS AT SUSA, AND THE DISGRACE OF VASHTI
THE GREAT FEAST (Esther 1:1-9). King Ahasuerus (Xerxes) in the third year of his reign, which was b.c. 484-483, entertained at a great feast in the royal palace of Susa all his princes and his servants, "the power of Persia and Media," together with all the nobles and princes of the provinces (Esther 1:2, Esther 1:3). The hospitality was extended over a space of 180 days (Esther 1:4). At the end of this time there was a further entertainment for seven days, on even a more profuse scale, all the male inhabitants of Susa being feasted in the palace gardens (Esther 1:5-8), while the queen received the women and made them a feast in her own private apartments. The special occasion of the entertainment seems to have been the summons to Susa of all the chief men of the kingdom, and particularly of the satraps, or "princes of provinces," to advise upon the projected expedition against Greece, which Herodotus mentions in his seventh book (Esther 8:1-17.). Banquets on an enormous scale were not uncommon in Persia; and the profuseness and vainglory of Xerxes would naturally lead him to go to an extreme in this, as in other matters.
In the days of Ahasuerus. Ahasuerus, in the original Akhashverosh, corresponds to Khshayarsha (the Persian name from which the Greeks formed their Xerxes) almost as closely as possible. The prosthelic a was a necessity of Hebrew articulation. The only unnecessary change was the substitution of v for y (vau for yod) in the penultimate syllable. But this interchange is very common in Hebrew. This is Ahasuerus which reigned, etc. The writer is evidently acquainted with more than a single Ahasuerus. Ezra had mentioned one (Ezra 4:6), and Daniel another (Daniel 9:1). If he knew their works, he would necessarily know of these two. Or he may have known of them independently. The Ahasuerus of his narrative being different from either, he proceeds to distinguish him
(1) from the Ahasuerus of Daniel, as a "king," and
(2) from the Ahasuerus of Ezra by the extent of his dominion.
Cambyses (see comment on Ezra 4:6) had not ruled over India. India is expressed by Hoddu, which seems formed from the Persian Hidush ('Nakhsh-i-Rus-tam Inser.,' par. 3, 1. 25), by the omission of the nominatival ending, and a slight modification of the vocalisation. The Sanscrit and the Zend, like the Greek, retained the n, which is really an essential part of the native word. Ethiopia is expressed, as usual, by Cush. The two countries are well chosen as the extreme terminal of the Persian empire. An hundred and twenty-seven provinces. The Hebrew medinah, "province," does not correspond to the Persian satrapy, but is applied to every tract which had its own governor. There were originally no more than twenty satrapies (Herod; 3:89-94), but there was certainly a very much larger number of governments. Judaea was a medinah (Ezra 2:1; Nehemiah 11:3), though only a small part of the satrapy of Syria.
The throne of his kingdom, which was in Shushan. Though the Persian court resided a part of the year at Ecbatana, and occasionally visited Persepolis and Babylon (Xen; 'Cyrop.,' 8.6, § 2; 'Anab.,' 3.5, § 15), yet Susa was decidedly the ordinary seat of government, and ranked as the capital of the empire. "Shushan the palace" is distinguished from Shushan the city (Esther 9:12-15), the one occupying a lofty but artificial eminence towards the west, while the other lay at the base of this mound, stretching out a considerable distance towards the east.
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).
When he showed the riches. Ostentation was a main feature in the character of Xerxes. The huge army with which he invaded Greece was more for display than for service. Vain parade is apparent at every step of his expedition (Herod; 7.31, 40, 41, 44, 59, etc.). He now exhibits "the riches of his kingdom" to his nobles and chief officers, showing them doubtless all the splendours of the palace, the walls draped with gold (AEschyl; 'Pers.,' 50.161), the marble pillars and rich hangings, the golden plane tree and the golden vine (Herod; 7.27), and perhaps the ingots of gold wherewith Darius had filled the treasury (ibid. 3.96). An hundred and fourscore days. We need not suppose that the same persons were enter. tained during the whole of this period. All the provincial governors could not quit their provinces at the same time, nor could any of them remain away very long. There was no doubt a succession of guests during the six months that the entertainment lasted.
A feast unto all the people that were found in Susa. The males only are intended, as appears from verse 9. So Cyrus on one occasion feasted "the entire Persian army," slaughtering for them all his father's flocks, sheep, goats, and oxen (Herod; 1.126). In the court of the garden. The "court of the garden" is probably the entire space surrounding the central hall of thirty-six pillars at Susa, including the three detached porticoes of twelve pillars each, described by Mr. Loftus in his 'Chaldaea and Susiana'. This is a space nearly 350 feet long by 250 wide, with a square of 145 feet taken out of it for the central building. The area exceeds 60,000 square feet.
Where were white, green, and blue hangings. There is nothing in the original corresponding to "green." The "hangings," or rather awning, was of white cotton (karphas) and violet. Mr. Loftus supposes that it was carried across from the central pillared hall to the detached porticoes, thus shading the guests from the intense heat of the sun. Fastened with cords of fine linen and purple. Very strong cords would be needed to support the awning if it was carried across as above suggested, over a space of nearly sixty feet. To rings of silver. The exact use of the rings is doubtful. Perhaps they were inserted into the stone work in order that the cords might be made fast to them. Pillars of marble. The pillars at Susa are not of marble, but of a dark-blue limestone. Perhaps the Hebrew shesh designated this stone rather than marble. The beds were of gold and silver. The couches on which the guests reclined are intended (comp. Esther 7:8). These were either covered with gold and silver cloth, or had their actual framework of the precious metals, like those which Xerxes took with him into Greece (see Herod; 9.82). Upon a pavement of red, and blue, and white, and black marble. The four words which follow "pavement" are not adjectives denoting colours, but the names of four different materials. One is shesh, the material of the pillars, which accords with the fact that such pavement slabs as have been found at Susa are, like the columns, of a blue limestone. The other materials are unknown to us, and we cannot say what the exact colours were; but no doubt the general result was a mosaic pavement of four different hues.
They gave them drink in vessels of gold. Drinking-vessels of gold were found in considerable numbers in the Persian camp near Plataea (Herod; 9.80) when the Greeks took it. They had been the property of Persian nobles. The king would naturally possess in great abundance whatever luxury was affected by the upper class of his subjects. The vessels being diverse one from another. This is a minute point, which must have come from an eye-witness, or from one who had received the account of the banquet from an eye-witness. It was perhaps unusual. At least, in the grand banquet represented by Sargon on the walls of his palace at Khorsabad, it is observable that all the guests hold in their hands goblets which are exactly alike. Royal wine. Literally, "wine of the kingdom"—wine, i.e; from the royal cellar, and therefore good wine, but not necessarily the "wine of Helbon, which was the only wine that the king himself drank.
The drinking was according to the law. Rather, "according to edict"—the edict being the express order given by the king to all the officers of his household. It is implied that the usual custom was different—that the foolish practice prevailed of compelling men to drink. That the Persians were hard drinkers, and frequently drank to excess, is stated by Herodotus (1.133) and Xenophon ('Cyrop.,' 8.8, § 11).
Vashti, the queen. The only wife of Xerxes known to the Greeks was Amestris, the daughter of Otanes, one of the seven conspirators (Herod; 7.61). Xerxes probably took her to wife as soon as he was of marriageable age, and before he ascended the throne had a son by her, who in his seventh year was grown up (ibid. 9.108). It would seem to be certain that if Ahasuerus is Xerxes, Vashti must be Amestris. The names themselves are not very remote, since will readily interchange with v; but Vashti might possibly represent not the real name of the queen, but a favourite epithet, such as vahista, "sweetest." Made a feast for the women. Men and women did not take their meals together in Persia unless in the privacy of domestic life. If the women, therefore, were to partake in a festivity, it was necessary that they should be entertained separately. In the royal house. In the gynaeceum or harem, which was probably on the southern side of the great pillared hall at Susa (Fergusson).
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.
Esther 1:1, Esther 1:2
The responsibility of rule.
The Ahasuerus of this book was probably the Xerxes so well known to students of ancient history. The name, the period, the extent of dominion, the character, all correspond with this hypothesis. Observe—
I. THE EXTENT OF THE KING'S SWAY. The Persian was one of the great empires of the world. The monarch ruled from India to Ethiopia. The provinces of his dominion were in number 127. Two or three centuries ago, commentators compared this Persian empire with the dominion of "the Great Turk." It may now be best compared with the imperial dominion of the Queen of Great Britain. It is a vast responsibility to reign over such an empire.
II. THE ABSOLUTE, DESPOTIC NATURE OF THE KING'S POWER. The narrative exhibits an Oriental despot exercising unlimited, unchecked authority. "Whom he would he slew, and whom he would he kept alive." Individuals, cities, peoples lay at the mercy of his caprice. His power for good or for evil was immense. Happily there is no parallel to this absolute sway amongst ourselves, although there are even now potentates whose empire is described as "absolute monarchy limited by fear of assassination." History proves that human nature is such that it is unwise and unsafe to intrust it with absolute power.
III. THE KING'S UNREASONABLE, CAPRICIOUS, AND CRUEL CHARACTER. What we read in this book concerning Ahasuerus agrees with what we know of Xerxes. The man who led two millions of soldiers against the Greeks, who scourged the seas and put to death the engineers of his bridge because their work was injured by a storm, was the same man who insulted his queen for her modesty, and who was ready to massacre a people in order to gratify a favourite.
IV. EVEN SUCH POWER WAS CONTROLLED AND OVERRULED BY THE WISE PROVIDENCE OF GOD. The Lord reigneth, and the hearts of kings are in his hand. The Persian monarch was not altogether the tool of the wicked, for God turned the counsels of his enemies to nought.
V. ALL POWER IS DERIVED FROM GOD, AND ALL WHO ARE INTRUSTED WITH IT ARE ACCOUNTABLE TO GOD. Civil authority has its origin in Divine appointment: "the powers that be are ordained of God." Nevertheless, power is not given to be used as it was used by Ahasuerus, for the gratification of sinful passions. It is given to be employed for the public good. It is well that even rulers should be accountable to their fellow-men; it cannot be otherwise than that they should be accountable to God. "Be wise, therefore, ye kings! Be instructed, ye rulers of the earth!"
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."
At the feast of Ahasuerus the provision of luxuries was profuse. The wine was choice, costly, and rare; and was served in cups of gold of various form and pattern and ornament. But it was the king's command that no guest should be compelled to drink more than he needed or wished. A wise ordinance; and one which shames many of the customs and requirements of hospitality, both ancient and modern. Observe—
I. THE TEMPTATIONS TO INTEMPERANCE. These were manifold, and all of them may not concur in ordinary experience. For example, there was—
1. Appetite. If there were no natural instincts of hunger and thirst there would be no gluttony and no drunkenness. It does not follow that natural appetite is bad. The evil lies in over-indulgence, in permitting bodily desire to overmaster the reasonable nature.
2. Opportunity. Some persons are sober simply because and when they have no means of procuring drink. There is little virtue in such sobriety, which only awaits the opportunity of abjuring itself. The Persians in the palace at Susa had wine in abundance set before them. As a nation they were proverbially luxurious (Persicos odi, puer, apparatus!). Those of the guests who were temperate were not so because they had no option.
3. Example. It could scarcely happen that in so vast an assemblage there were none intemperate. Whilst the society of the abstemious is a check and preservative, that of the self-indulgent is an incentive to sin. "Evil communications corrupt good manners." The Persians, who in the early period of their history had been a sober people, had, with the advance of luxury, lost their reputation for temperance. It is said that the king had, once a year, an obligation to be drunk, on the occasion of the annual sacrifice to the sun. We read that the heart of Ahasuerus was merry with wine; and with such an example before them, it would have been strange if the subjects universally maintained sobriety.
II. THE ABSENCE OF ONE GREAT TEMPTATION—Social pressure and compulsion.
1. Remark the wisdom of the royal ordinance. The king, in the exercise, in this case, of an enlightened discretion, forbade the too frequent practice of urging the guests on to intoxication. Even if his example told against the regulation, the regulation in itself was good.
2. Remark the consequent action of the officers in charge of the banquet. The Greeks at their feasts had a symposiarch; the Latins an arbiter bibendi; the Jews a master of the feast. Much rested with these officials with regard to the proceedings on such occasions. On this occasion they exercised their functions in accordance with directions received from the throne.
3. Remark the consequent liberty of the guests. These were to act every man according to his pleasure. None did compel. Those who were disposed to sobriety were not urged to depart from their usual practices, to violate their convictions of what was right. The custom of constraining men to drink more than is good for them is filthy and disgraceful. Banished from decent society, it still lingers among some dissolute associations of handicraftsmen. It should be discountenanced and resisted; and, in the present state of public opinion, in a free country, it will not endure the light of day. Let it be remembered, "Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging; and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise."
HOMILIES BY D. ROWLANDS
The context displays the miserable weakness of a mighty king. Placed in a position of immense responsibility, he might well have been overwhelmed with anxiety lest his conduct should prove detrimental to the millions under his rule. But no considerations of this nature seem to have exercised his mind; on the contrary, he was animated only with the vainglorious wish of exhibiting to the world "the riches of his glorious kingdom, and the honour of his excellent majesty." And he could think of no better way of gratifying this wish than by making an extravagant feast. Doubtless there was poverty, and wretchedness, and suffering enough in his vast dominions, and to have used his abundant resources to alleviate these evils would have reflected immortal glory upon his name; but he preferred to squander his substance in riotous revelry, a proceeding which must soon have necessitated the levying of fresh imposts, in order to replenish his impoverished exchequer. A right feeling may have a wrong development. The desire of excelling is truly laudable; but when it is alloyed with unworthy motives it becomes most despicable. Let us notice, in the first place, wrong ambition, of which we have an instance in the text; and, in the second place, right ambition, of which the former is but a perversion.
I. WRONG AMBITION. The most common forms of this are—
1. An immoderate love of fame. We have instances of this in every walk of life; some of the most brilliant characters in history have been victims of it. There have been authors who prostrated their divine gifts to gain the admiration of the world. There have been orators whose chief aim was to secure the applause of the multitude. And there are men now who will face danger, endure hardship, sacrifice property, for the sake of world-wide renown—or even a paltry distinction in the narrow sphere in which they move.
2. An immoderate love of power. Men hasten to be rich not because of the inherent value of riches themselves, but because rather of the power which riches enable them to command; for at the word of the rich luxury, gratification, service spring up as if at the touch of a magic wand. The thirst for power is insatiable. The amount enjoyed, however great, only begets a craving for more. It has led to the most sanguinary wars that have defiled the earth in ancient and modern times. Alexander, Caesar, Buonaparte, whom Christian enlightenment has taught us to regard with horror, are but types of all conquerors, however exalted their professed aims.
3. An immoderate love of display. This is the most contemptible form of all, and to this King Ahasuerus became a willing victim. Think of the sumptuousness of this feast, the number of the guests, the magnificence of the palace, the costliness of the furniture, the gorgeousness of the drapery, by which he sought to impress the world with the "honour of his excellent majesty" on this occasion. The morbid desire among the well-to-do classes of outshining each other in the grandeur of their mansions, and the splendour of their entertainments, is a standing reproach upon modem civilisation. In spite of the gigantic frauds and disastrous bankruptcies—the natural results of this spirit—which occasionally startle society, the evil seems as flagrant as ever.
II. RIGHT AMBITION. It does not follow that a feeling is essentially wrong because it is sometimes allowed to flow in wrong directions. Thus ambition, however uncomely in certain connections, may be in itself healthy, and conducive to our highest welfare. Ambition, then, is commendable when it is—
1. A desire to cultivate the powers with which we are endowed. These powers are various: physical, mental, spiritual. A man cannot lay claim to the highest virtue simply because he strives to have strong nerves and well-developed muscles; still perfect manhood is not independent of these things. The struggle for intellectual distinction is certainly more dignified, and has a more ennobling influence upon those who are engaged in it. The chief glory of man, however, is his spiritual nature, his ability to hold communion with the unseen; hence spiritual pursuits are the most exalted. However strong man may be physically, or great intellectually, if his spiritual powers be dwarfed, he comes miserably short of the true ideal.
2. A desire to make the most of our outward circumstances. No man's circumstances have been so adverse as to make all excellence unattainable to him. The most barren and desolate life has some spots which, by cultivation, may yield glorious results. In the majority of cases unfruitfulness is due to culpable negligence rather than external difficulties. Just think of the numerous instances in which formidable disadvantages have been conquered. Poor boys have worked their way up into the presence of kings, blind men have mastered the intricacies of optics, the children of profane parents have been renowned for their saintliness. All honour to those who have wrestled with fortune and defied her opposition! The circumstances of most men, however, are more or less favourable to their advancement, and to make the most of them is not only allowable, but a positive duty.
3. A desire to benefit the world. The best ambition is that which is furthest removed from self. The men who will be held in everlasting remembrance are those who have contributed their quota to the progress of their kind. When the names of the most potent warriors shall have perished, the names of philosophers like Newton, inventors like Stephenson, and reformers like Luther, shall live in the affections of a grateful world. But usefulness does not depend upon eminence; every man in his own sphere may do something for the common good.—R.
HOMILIES BY W. DINWIDDLE
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.
HOMILIES BY F. HASTINGS
The sated sovereign.
It is believed that the festivities mentioned in this chapter were held prior to the invasion of Greece by Ahasuerus; that it was a time of consultation before that disastrous event.
I. SELF-COMPLACENCY AND SINFUL INDULGENCE. It is not always the difficulties we encounter which are severest tests of character; smooth prosperity is at times a fiercer crucible. Ahasuerus may hold his own against his enemies; will he be able to gain victories over himself? From all we can learn of him, from the sacred book, and from contemporary history, he appears to have manifested much pride, vainglory, self-indulgence, and extravagance. "He showed the riches of his glorious kingdom and honour of his excellent majesty many days, even an hundred and fourscore days" (Esther 1:4). For the space of six months he spread before the numerous guests every delicacy his kingdom could produce. It would have seemed probable that at the end of that time the king would have been wearied both with the excesses in which he must have indulged, and the adulation he must have received. If he became weary, he evidently resolved to overcome the fatigue, and to bear with the festivities other seven days, during which not only all officials, but all the people of the capital were to be invited. Oriental ideas of festivity and of pomp are to this day very extravagant. Illustrations of this might have been seen at the Durbar held on the occasion of the proclamation of our Queen as Empress of India, or at the opening of the Suez Canal. The writer, having been present at the latter event, was staggered at the lavish expenditure in festivities, and at the number of guests, from all countries, who, like himself, were feasted at the Khedive's cost, not one day only, but as long as they cared to remain. The feast of the Persian king was most luxurious. The palace was not large enough to contain the guests. They overflowed to the court-yard, which had been fitted up for their reception. The walls had been hung with rich stuffs, and with a canopy, of white, green, and blue, fastened with cords of fine linen and purple to "silver rings and pillars of marble." The couches on which they reclined were covered with cloth of gold, interwoven with "gold and silver." Crowds trod the tesselated pavement, or lounged on silken divans, quaffing wines and sherbet from the silver cups of diverse pattern and rich chasing, or inhaling the scent of the roses, so dear to the heart of a Persian. Endless was the service of viands, fruits, and wines. None, however, "did compel" in drinking. The arbiter bibendi, chosen by lot to preside, usually compelled the guests to drink as much as he drank; but this custom was by command of the king set aside. He provided that by temperance the feast should be prolonged, and that by refraining from taking too great a quantity at one time they might be able to continue the longer at their cups.
II. INDIFFERENCE TO THE WASTE OF WEALTH. Some defend luxury and waste on the ground that it is good for a country and for commerce. They say that it is the duty of the rich to be extravagant for the sake of the poor. The notion is widely spread, and there are numbers who "better the instruction." It is quite right that wealth should in some way be distributed, and that possessors of wealth should surround themselves with those things which cultivate their better natures, and lead to a higher appreciation of the beautiful; but it is not right to squander wealth in that which merely ministers to pomp and pride. For each one living in luxury and pride, many have to toil the harder. For all the extravagance practised greater exactions have by the poor to be endured. Think of how hard must have been the lot of the poor labourers on the plains of Persia, from whom was wrung the money which paid for those splendid festivities of the king. Possibly also the money was extorted in harsh ways, practised usually by the farmers of taxes. Think of the bitterness of the many, as contrasted with the brightness of the few. What were the mass the better, that a few tickled their palates, lolled in luxury, or flaunted in pride? The object of the whole waste was to flatter the vanity of the king. He ought to have been more thoughtful for the interests of his subjects than to permit or foster such waste. By moderating pomp, and lessening the expenses of government, he might have lessened the burdens on his poor subjects and slaves; but security of position only leads to an indifference to the waste of wealth.
III. AN ABUSE OF ABSOLUTE POWER. We see this in the ready consent given to the slaughter of thousands of defenceless, captive, and inoffensive people. He gave this consent simply to please an inhuman courtier. This is perhaps only one among many harsh decrees of which we are ignorant, but it is sufficient to indicate the abuse of absolute power. It is easy to condemn this act of Ahasuerus, but it is possible that many of us are guilty of something akin to it in spirit. There is power which comes to a man by custom, or acquisition, or accumulation, or marriage, or by law. A man may withhold wages on slight excuse, extract excessive work; if married, may make his wife miserable by his tyranny, or his children fearful by outbursts of passion or cruelty. In many a home there is more absolutism and imperiousness than was ever manifested by a modern Czar of Russia or ancient king of Persia. Few are unselfish enough to wield absolute power; and many, like Ahasuerus, forget that there is an equality of obligations on the part of the ruler and the ruled, superiors and inferiors. The life of Ahasuerus teaches us that neither possessions nor position, pomp nor power, pride nor pelf, can satisfy a human sou]. God has not intended they should. He has reserved to himself the power to make us really happy. Ahasuerus, with all his magnificence, was doubtless a dissatisfied man. The determination to prolong the feast is rather an indication of satiety than of satisfaction. The past had not fully answered his expectations. He knew not him whose service is perfect freedom, and the knowledge of whose love once possessed becomes the most cherished possession. He knew not clearly of that loftiness of character which is a crown that never fades, and of that hope in the future where treasure never corrupts. He could not say, in prospect of meeting his God, "I shall be satisfied when I awake with thy likeness."—H.
HOMILIES BY W. DINWIDDLE
A special banquet wound up the protracted festivities. Of this banquet note—
1. It was given to the inhabitants of Shushan, both great and small, and it lasted seven days. The close of the six months' feasting with the nobles and governors, at which imperial affairs were probably discussed, was to be celebrated by a great flourish of kingly magnificence. The banquet to the capital was evidently the climax and crown of the rejoicings.
2. Special arrangements had to be made for the accommodation of so vast a crowd. These arrangements were on a most extravagant scale. We are dazzled by columns of marble, variously-coloured hanging's, couches and vessels of gold, and wine usually reserved for the king's use. Everything was done "according to the state of the king." From these things we may learn—
I. THAT VANITY WHEN INDULGED GROWS QUICKLY. Nothing will satisfy it. It ever cries for more. The sight of the king's "excellent majesty" by the governors of 127 provinces was something to remember, but it was not enough; a whole city must be gathered to view and to be impressed by the royal grandeurs.
II. THAT VANITY, AS IT GROWS, GETS WONDERFULLY BLIND. It loses all perception of its own folly, and it commits its follies as if others also were equally blind. It thus virtually loses the end on which its greed fastens. There are always eyes about it keen enough to penetrate its illusions, and hearts that form, if they do not express, a true judgment.
III. THAT VANITY IS COSTLY. No expenditure was too great for the king to lavish in indulging and feeding his weakness. No thought of the sin of such waste entered his mind. No fear of possible straits in the future stayed his hand. It is likely that he possessed far more than sufficient treasure to meet the demands of the festival. But suppose it were so, that would not diminish the sin of perverting to vain uses a wealth which, if wisely applied, might have been helpful to beneficent ends. Money is a great power in the world either for good or for evil, and men are responsible to God for the use they make of it. Think of the good that may be done by it:—
1. In assisting the poor.
2. In encouraging sound institutions of an educational and benevolent character.
3. In supporting Christian Churches with their attendant machineries.
4. In contributing to gospel missions among the heathen.
IV. THAT VANITY IS BURDENSOME. The physical and mental toil of the king must have been very trying during the long feast and its closing banquet. Yet what will not vanity endure to attain its object? In this it is like every other ungoverned lust—greed of gain, fleshly appetite, worldly ambition. If not under the grace of God, men will submit to greater hardships and burdens in pursuit of things that are sinful and disappointing than in the pursuit of what is necessary to true honour and happiness.
1. If the main burden of this great festival did not fall on the king, then it would fall on the king's servants. These would have a hard time of it. They would be held responsible for every failing or mishap. Despotic lords have little consideration for their servants, and despotic mistresses too. Vanity is another name for self-love, which always makes those who are in bondage to it indifferent to the claims of inferiors.
2. Apart from the king and his servants, a heavy burden would fall on the empire. Not immediately, perhaps, but soon. The attack of Greece involved the loss of myriads of lives and untold treasure. Families everywhere were plunged into mourning and desolation. The provinces were impoverished; and as the king's exchequer had to be supplied, the people were ground down by heavy imposts. Vanity, when inordinately indulged, and especially by persons in power, becomes burdensome in numerous ways to many.
V. THAT VANITY, apart from its consequences, IS A SIN AGAINST CONSCIENCE AND AGAINST GOD; or, in other words, a violation of natural and revealed law.
1. Against conscience, or the law of nature. The moral sentiment of all ages, and the common verdict of living men, condemn a vain-glorying or self-conceited spirit as opposed to a just estimate of self. Even the vain are quick to discover and condemn vanity in others. Humility is taught by the law of the natural conscience to be the proper habit of man in all circumstances.
2. Against God, or the law of God's word. The upliftings of the heart under vanity are at variance with that Divine revelation of righteousness and love by which all men are condemned as sinners, and made dependent on the mercy that is offered in Christ. All self-glorying manifests ignorance or forgetfulness of the true relation which the gospel reveals as subsisting between man, the transgressor, and God, the Redeemer. The faith which submits all to God in Christ is an emptying of self, and a putting on of the "Holy and Just One," who was "meek and lowly in heart." God is therefore dishonoured, his truth resisted, and his mercy despised, when men who confess his name become "high-minded" or "puffed up" in self-conceit. "God forbid that I should glory," said Paul, "save in the cross of Jesus Christ." Humility before God and men is Christlike, and the rightful clothing of the followers of the Lamb.—D.
The law of temperance.
The entertainment of such large and promiscuous companies as those which were gathered for seven days in the court of the palace garden at Shushan was not an easy matter. To secure order, and propriety of conduct, and the general comfort, required much forethought and care. As an example of the measures adopted, a certain law of the feast is mentioned as having been laid down by the king for the occasion.
I. THE LAW. It was laid on the officers not to compel or urge any of the guests to take wine. All were to be left free to drink or not drink as they pleased.
II. THE AUTHORITY. It was at the express command of the king that the law was put in force on this occasion. We learn from this
(1) that the royal command was needed, and
(2) that the king, thoughtless as he was in many things, exerted a direct influence on the orderly arrangement and conduct of the banquet. The great lose no dignity by attending personally to little duties. What seems little may contain the seeds of, or have a close connection with, great issues.
III. THE MOTIVES. These are not stated. But the fact that the king issued a special command to enforce a law that was contrary to the usual practice may be taken as proof that he had special reasons for making known his will. The following are suggested:—
1. Self-dignity. Any excess on the part of the citizens would have been unbecoming in his presence, and might have led to the serious humiliation of his imperial majesty.
2. Policy. It would have been an awkward thing if the close of the prolonged and so far triumphant festival had been signalised by a popular riot, whether good-humoured or the reverse. The noise of it would have spread throughout the empire, and its real character might have been lost in the misrepresentations of rumour and report. And such a result was not improbable, supposing that the servants and the mixed multitude had been left guideless as to their obligations in presence of the king and his boundless hospitality.
3. Sympathy. There would be many in such assemblies as now filled the king's tables who were unaccustomed to the use of wine, and more perhaps whose "small" condition would only enable them to use it sparingly.—Young men also would be present to whom the indulgences of the older society about them would be yet strange. It would have been, therefore, a hardship and a wrong, as well as a danger, if the city guests had been allowed to act on the natural belief that at the king's table they were expected to take wine whenever it was presented. Whatever the motive or motives of the king, it goes to his credit that when the young and old, the small and great, were his guests, he enforced a law that favoured temperance. Temperance is not always studied, either on great festive occasions, or in social gatherings of a more private kind. Thus this old Persian law becomes our teacher—
1. As to the relative duties of host and guest. In countries where social life is highly developed, and where the men and women of different families mix much in free and lively intercourse, these duties are of great importance.
(1) The host.
(a) He should be kindly considerate of all whom he invites to share the hospitalities of his house—avoiding all tyrannical rules that make no allowance for differences of age, habit, and taste.
(b) He should invite none whose manners are offensive to the temperate, or whose example and influence would place an undue constraint on the consciences of others.
(c) He should be careful to put no temptations to excess before the weak, and to give no countenance to what may favour intemperate habits.
(2) The guest. While showing a full appreciation of the good intent of his host, and a suitable amiability to his fellow-guests, he should claim and exercise the right to guide himself in the matters of eating and drinking by the dictates of the Christian conscience. Whether he abstain from wine or not, a regard for himself, for his host, and for his companions should bind him to be temperate in all things.
2. As to the duty of all men to the law of moderation. Not long ago, to abstain or even to be temperate at social meetings was considered the mark of a sour and ungenerous nature. But since then a great improvement in manners has taken place. Little courage is now required to abstain altogether from wine. It is said that Queen Victoria sets a good example in this respect. To the expressed desire of a sovereign the authority of a command is attached, and to refuse wine when presented at a sovereign's table is regarded as an act of disobedience. But our queen has abolished this law at her own table, and substituted the law of Ahasuerus at his great banquet—that all guests shall be free to take or refuse wine—that none shall compel. The change for the better in social customs is a matter for thankfulness, but there is still much room for amendment. Let us remember that to indulge in excess is—
(1) A sin against society.
(2) A sin against one's self.
(a) It injures the body
(b) It weakens the mind.
(c) It enervates the will.
(d) It deadens the conscience.
(e) It impoverishes and embitters the life.
(f) It destroys the soul.
(3) A sin against God.
(a) It is a transgression of his law.
(b) It is a despising of his love.
(c) It is opposed to the spirit and example of his Son.
(d) It is a braving of his judgment.
Christian men and women should live under the power of the Christian law, and strive in all things to be "living epistles" of the Master whom they serve. All such will give earnest heed to the injunction of Paul, "Let your moderation be known among all men; the Lord is at hand."—D.
The position of women.
A noticeable feature of the king's banquet was that even the women were not excluded from participation in the festivities. In the court of the garden the king entertained only men. But inside the palace Queen Vashti made a feast for the women.
I. A PICTURE OF QUEENLY DUTY. As queen, Vashti entered into the king's mind, and gave his projects such support as she could in her own circle of duty and influence.
II. A PICTURE OF WIFELY DUTY. AS wife, Vashti was mistress of the female portion of the king's household. She took charge of the women, and ruled them to the advantage and comfort of her husband.
III. A PICTURE OF ORIENTAL CUSTOM WITH RESPECT TO WOMEN. The two sexes are rigidly separated in public and social life. Women rarely travel beyond the narrow limits of the house or the apartments assigned to them. They live together in mysterious seclusion, and are carefully guarded against intercourse with the outside world.
IV. THE INFLUENCE OF WOMAN.
1. On the field of governmental policies and national events. It has often been dominant, even though unseen, both in civilised and in uncivilised countries. A beautiful and clever woman may easily make a weak prince her slave, and through him affect the current of history either for good or evil. There are not a few instances of the exercise of the feminine power in the region of politics both in sacred and secular history, both in ancient and modern times.
2. On the field of domestic, social, and religious life.
(1) Mothers. To a large extent mothers give the mould of thought and character to each generation. The early years, the formative periods, of men and women alike, are in their hands. The early home, whatever its character, is never forgotten.
(2) Wives. The power of a trusted and loved wife over her husband cannot be estimated. It will, as a rule, work its way gradually and surely, either to his well-being or to his detriment. The effect of so close, and tender, and constant a companionship will inevitably show itself, somehow, in his character, his happiness, and his work. The spirit that rules his wife will come in some real measure to rule him; it will strengthen or weaken his character, brighten or darken his home, benefit or blast his life. Is there anything more beautiful, and strong, and good in human society than the influence of the modest, loving, virtuous, and Christian wife?
(3) Women generally. In societies which allow free intercourse in the family and world between men and women of all ages, feminine influence touches human life at every point. When it is pure it is always purifying. When it is impure it has a terrible power to corrupt. Intercourse with a high-minded and good-hearted Christian woman is a lift heavenward. Willing intercourse with an unprincipled or unsexed woman is a plunge hellward. In all circles, and in all directions, the influence of women powerfully tells. It is at once the best and the worst element in all grades of society.
V. THE IMPORTANCE OF A FULL RECOGNITION OF THE JUST CLAIMS OF WOMEN. The effect of secluding women, and treating them as the chattels and toys of men, has been to degrade them, and to deprive society of their proper influence. It is undoubtedly true that the position assigned to women in Eastern nations has been one of the chief causes of their decay, and is now one of the chief obstacles to all civilising or Christianising movements.
VI. THE BENIGN POWER ()F CHRISTIANITY IN RELATION TO WOMEN. Wherever the gospel of Jesus is allowed to govern families or communities, the gentler sex is raised by it into its true relative position. We think of the holy women to whom Jesus gave such a mingled respect and affection, and of those who were associated with the apostles in their work, and of whom such honourable mention is made. The Christian religion ever brings with it the emancipation of women from the thraldom of man's tyrannical lust, and secures to them their rightful share of work and influence. It makes them mistress in their own sphere. It clothes them with a new responsibility and power, and, by surrounding them with high duties and ministries, draws into beneficent activity the best qualities of their nature. Nations that degrade their women are doomed; nations that cherish a Christian respect for them have a spring of life that will make them strong and enduring. The greatest trial of gospel missionaries arises from the utter ignorance of heathen women and the difficulty of reaching them with the Divine truth they teach.—D.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
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
(1) lasts all the year through: not for even "a hundred and eighty days," but "daily he loadeth us with benefits" (Psalms 68:19);
(2) extends to all his creatures: there is "food for man and beast." In this Divine provision is
(3) every needful thing for the senses: "food for all flesh" (Psalms 136:25), beauty for the eye, odours for the smell, delicacies for the palate, melodies for the ear;
(4) truth and fact for the mind: "Wisdom hath builded her house," etc. (Proverbs 9:1-18.);
(5) love for the heart of man: the love of kindred and of friends, the feast of pure affection. Of this feast of the Lord of nature we may say that, like that in the text, it is one of regal bounty; it is the constant and lavish kindness of a King; that, unlike that in the text, there is more of kindness than ostentation in it—a "hiding of power" (Habakkuk 3:4) rather than a display; and that it is one in which those who wisely accept the King's invitation may find a continual and life-long enjoyment. They who eat and drink at his table, as he invites them to do, go not through an exciting intoxication followed by a remorseful misery and ennui? but find in the gifts of his hand a perennial spring of pure and lasting pleasure.
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
(1) no ostentation, but marvellous love; the marked absence of all stately pomp and material splendour (Isaiah 53:1-12.), but the presence of all generosity and self-sacrificing goodness.
(2) Provision, without distinction of rank (contrast verses 3, 4, 5) or sex (contrast verse 9), for all subjects, in whatever part of his kingdom they dwell (contrast verse 5); and
(3) provision which lasts not for a number of days (contrast verses 4, 5), but so long as the heart hungers for the bread of life, as the soul thirsts for the waters of salvation.—C.
HOMILIES BY D. ROWLANDS
Esther 1:3, Esther 1:4
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.
THE DISGRACE OF VASHTI (Esther 1:10-22).
On the seventh day of the feast "to all in Shushan" (Esther 1:5), the king having excited himself with drink, took it into his head to send a message to Vashti, requiring her to make her appearance in the banquet of the men, since he desired to exhibit her beauty to the assembled guests, as "she was fair to look on" (Esther 1:11). His design must have been to present her unveiled to the coarse admiration of a multitude of semi-drunken revellers, in order that they might envy him the possession of so lovely a wife. Such a proceeding was a gross breach of Persian etiquette, and a cruel outrage upon one whom he above all men was bound to protect. Vashti, therefore, declined to obey (Esther 1:12). Preferring the risk of death to dishonour, she braved the anger of her despotic lord, and sent him back a message by his chamberlains that she would not come. We can well understand that to an absolute monarch such a rebuff, in the face of his whole court and of some hundreds or thousands of assembled guests, must have been exasperating in the extreme. At the moment when he had thought to glorify himself by a notable display of his omnipotence, he was foiled, defeated, made a laughing-stock to all Susa. "Therefore was the king very wroth, and his anger burned in him." It is to his credit that, being thus fiercely enraged, he did not proceed to violence, but so far restrained himself as to refer the matter to the judgment of others, and ask the "seven princes" the question, "What is to be done according to law unto queen Vashti, for not performing the commandment of the king?" (verse 15). The advice of the princes, uttered by one of their body (verses 16-20), and assented to by the remainder (verse 21), was, that Yashti should be degraded from the position of queen, and her place given to another. This sentence was supported by specious arguments based upon expediency, and ignoring entirely the outrageous character of the king's command, which was of course the real, and sole, justification of Vashti's disobedience. It was treated as a simple question of the wife's duty to obey her husband, and the husband's right to enforce submission. Ahasuerus, as might be expected, received the decision of his obsequious counsellors with great satisfaction, and forthwith sent letters into all the provinces of his vast empire, announcing what had been done, and requiring wives everywhere to submit themselves unreservedly to the absolute rule of their lord (verse 22).
When the heart of the king was merry with wine. We are told that once a year, at the feast of Mithra, the king of Persia was bound to intoxicate himself (Duris, Fr. 13). At other times he did as he pleased, but probably generally drank reason was somewhat obscured. Mehuman, etc. Persian etymologies have been given for most of these names, but they are all more or less uncertain; and as eunuchs were often foreigners, mutilated for the Persian market (Herod; 3:93; 8:105), who bore foreign names, like the Hermotimus of Herodotus (8:104-106), it is quite possible that Persian etymologies may here be out of place. Bigtha, however, if it be regarded as a shortened form of Bigthan (Esther 2:21) or Bigthana (Esther 6:1-14.), would seem to be Persian, being equivalent to Bagadana (= Theodorus), "the gift of God." Chamberlains. Really, as in the margin, "eunuchs." The influence of eunuchs at the Persian court was great from the time of Xerxes. Ctesias makes them of importance even from the time of Cyrus ('Exc. Pera,' § 5, 9).
Vashti … with the crown royal. We have no representation of a Persian queen among the sculptures; but Mousa, a Parthian queen, appears on a coin of her son Phraataces, crowned with a very elaborate tiara. It consists of a tall stiff cap, not unlike the cidaris of a Persian king, but is apparently set with large jewels. Vashti's "crown royal" was probably not very dissimilar. To show the princes and the people her beauty. More than one Oriental monarch is reported to have desired to have his own opinion of his wife's beauty confirmed by the judgment of others. Candaules, king of Lydia, is said to have lost his crown and his life through imprudently indulging this desire (Herod; 1.8-12). So public an exposure, however, as that designed by Ahasuerus is not recorded of any other monarch, and would scarcely have been attempted by any one less extravagant in his conduct than Xerxes.
But the queen Vashti refused. Vashti's refusal was morally quite justifiable. Neither a husband's nor a king's authority extends to the wanton requirement of acts that, if done, would disgrace the doer for life. Had Vashti complied, she would have lost the respect not only of the Persian nation, but of the king himself. Therefore was the king very wroth. Had Ahasuerus really loved his wife, or been a man of fair and equitable disposition, be would have excused her refusal, and felt that he had deserved the rebuff. But, not really loving her, and being of a hot and ungovernable temper, he was violently enraged with her, as he always was when anything fell out contrary to his wishes (see Herod; 7:11, 35, 39, etc.).
Then the king said to the wise men. Angry as he was, Ahasuerus had still some power of self-restraint. He was in the presence of his whole court, and of a great assembly of the people. It would not be seemly that he should vent his passion in violent words, imprecations, or threats. His dignity required that he should at any rate seem calm, and, instead of issuing any hasty order, should proceed deliberately to consider what were the next steps to be taken. Xerxes appears to have been rather fond of asking advice; and he now, in a sufficiently dignified way, required the opinion of his "wise men" on the practical question, What was to be done to Vashti? (see Esther 1:15). Which knew the times. i.e. persons who were well acquainted with past times, and knew what it was customary to do on each occasion. For so was the king's manner toward all that ]mew law and judgment. Rather, "For so was the business of the king brought before such as knew law and judgment." Each matter which concerned the king was submitted to learned persons for their opinion before any actual step was taken. It is not a special practice of Ahasuerus, but a general usage of the Persian monarchy, which m noticed.
And the next unto him was Carshena, Shethar, etc. The chief native advisers of Xerxes in the early part of his reign appear to have been Mardonius and Artabanus (Pers, Artapana), who was his uncle (Herod; 7.5-17). It is possible that Mardonius may be here represented by Marsena, and Artabanus by Admatha; but the names could only have taken these shapes by a large amount of corruption. The other form have a general Persian air, but do not admit of even conjectural identification. The seven princes of Persia and Media. Ezra assigns to the Persian monarch seven special counsellors (Est 7:1-10 :14), and Herodotus says that there were seven leading families in Persia whose heads were specially privileged (3:84). The title, however, "princes of Persia and Media," is not found anywhere but here. Which saw the king's face. Among the privileges said by Herodotus to have been reserved to the heads of the great families, one of the most valued was that of free access to the monarch at all times, unless he were in the seraglio.
What shall we do to queen Vashti according to law? Literally, "According to law, what is there to do to queen Vashti?" Law is given the prominent place, as though the king would say, Let us put aside feeling, and simply consider what the law is. If a queen disobeys the king openly in the face of his court, what, according to law, is to be done to her?
And Memucan answered. We gather from Memucan's reply that the Persian law had provided no penalty for the case in hand—had, in fact, not contemplated it. He first argues the matter on general grounds of morality (Esther 1:16) and expediency (Esther 1:17, Esther 1:18), and then proposes the enactment of a new law—a privilegium—assigning Vashti a special punishment for her contempt of the king's order. The "decree" (Esther 1:20) would not have been necessary had there already existed a law on the point. Vashti, the queen, hath not done wrong to the king only. With the servility to be expected in an Oriental and a courtier, Memucan throws himself wholly on the king's side—insinuates no word of blame against his royal master, on whom in justice the whole blame rested; but sets himself to make the worst he can of Vashti's conduct, which (he says) was a wrong not to Ahasuerus only, but to the whole male population of the empire, the princes included, who must expect their wives to throw off all subjection, in imitation of the queen's example, if her conduct were allowed to go unpunished. As such a condition of things would be intolerable, the king is urged to disgrace her publicly.
They shall despise their husbands. Literally, "their lords," but the word is the one ordinarily used for "husband." When it shall be reported. Rather, "while they say," or "and shall say." (So the Vulgate—"ut contemnant et dicant.")
The ladies. Rather, "the princesses." Translate the whole passage as follows:—"Likewise shall the princesses of Persia and Media, which have heard of the deed of the queen, say this day to all the king's princes." Not only will the wives of the common people get hold of the story, and quote Vashti's example as often as they wish to disobey their husbands, but our own wives too will disobey us on the same pretext, and will begin forthwith "this day." Too much contempt and wrath. Literally, "sufficient;" but the meaning is that given by our translators—"quite enough," "more than enough." Contempt on the part of the wives; wrath on the part of the husbands.
A royal commandment. Literally, "a command of the kingdom"—i.e. a public, not a domestic, order. Under ordinary circumstances such a matter as the disgrace of a favourite wife would have been settled in the secrecy of the seraglio, without calling general attention to it. In Memu-can's opinion, the publicity of Vashti's disobedience had made it expedient that she should be disgraced publicly. Let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes. A sentence upon an individual was not a very suitable thing to add to a national code of laws; but we see from Daniel (Daniel 6:8, Daniel 6:9) that decrees of quite a temporary character were sometimes attached to the code for the express purpose of rendering them unalterable; and so it seems to have been in this instance. Unto another. Literally, as in the margin, "unto her companion." Memucan assumes that one of the existing inmates of the seraglio will be elevated into the place vacated by Vashti. This was the ordinary course, but on the present occasion was not followed.
The king's decree. The "commandment" of the preceding verse is here given the formal name of pithgam, "decree," which is a Persian word, used also in Ezra (Ezra 4:17; Ezra 5:7, Ezra 5:11). For it is great. These words seem at first sight superfluous. Perhaps their force is this—Let a decree be made, and then, great as the empire is, the lesson will be taught to all: otherwise there will be many to whom it will never penetrate.
The king did according to the word of Memucan. This expression must not be pressed too closely. It does not imply more than that Memucan's advice was followed in a general way—Vashti disgraced, and the grounds of her disgrace published throughout the provinces. We cannot be sure that the decree was "written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes." Even if it was, it was always possible for a Persian king to give himself a dispensation from the law (see Herod; 3:58).
For he sent. Rather, "and he sent." Besides publishing the decree, Ahasuerus sent letters prescribing certain things, viz.:—
1. That every man should bear rule in his own house; and,
2. That every man should speak his own language in his family, and not that of his wife, if it were different.
This is the plain meaning of the existing text, which cannot bear either of the senses suggested in the Authorised Version.
It would seem that the character of Vashti has been by many writers darkened in order to bring out the brightness of Esther's virtues. But it is not fair to make one queen simply the foil to the other. Haughty, disobedient, defiant, Vashti may have been, but she was placed in no ordinary position, and treated in no ordinary manner.
I. Observe THE POSITION OF VASHTI. Her name (according to some) indicates her beauty, and it is expressly said that she was fair to look upon. She was the legitimate wife of Ahasuerus. If he were Xerxes, it is possible she may have been the Amestris of the Greek historians. She fulfilled her royal duties. We read of her feasting the ladies, the princesses, in the royal palace; within doors, and apart from the men.
II. Observe THE INSULT OFFERED TO VASHTI. When his heart was merry with wine, the king bade his chamberlains bring the queen, in her stately robes, and with her royal crown upon her head, before him, that he might show her beauty to the princes and to the people. Now this was—
1. A violation of national custom. We are told indeed, that, when in their cups, the Persian kings would dismiss their wives and send for their concubines and singing girls. It was certainly a command contrary to custom, however it may have been in accordance with the capricious character of Xerxes.
2. An outrage upon her womanly modesty. That a young and beautiful woman should appear before a vast company of boisterous and half-intoxicated nobles, and this that they might admire her loveliness, was a foul shame.
3. A derogation from her wifely dignity. The king should have honoured Vashti as his consort, worthy of respectful treatment; for the disgrace of the wife is the disgrace of the husband. Ahasuerus must have been despised by any sober and honourable noble who heard him give this order.
4. It was a slur upon her royal station. This station was acknowledged by her position at the head of the table, where the banquet was given to the chief ladies of the realm. If it was fit that she should preside as hostess, it was not fit that she should be brought forward for the general gaze and admiration, like a courtesan famous for beauty and infamous for immodesty.
III. Observe THE FAULT CHARGEABLE UPON VASHTI. This was disobedience and defiance. But—
1. It was a fault with much to extenuate it. The command was unreasonable. Compliance would have done no one concerned any good, and would have outraged her own modesty.
2. It was a fault punished with disproportionate severity. Certainly it was harsh and cruel to deprive Vashti of her position as queen because of her refusal to comply with the unreasonable requirement of a drunken husband. Disputes between the nearest akin are often the most keen. It was with reason that the inspired apostle penned the admonition—"Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them!"
The king's anger.
Scripture never spares the great. Their follies and vices are exposed and castigated. The Old Testament has some striking examples of the sin of anger and wrath. Moses gave way to temptation, and sinned in his anger. Nebuchadnezzar was full of fury when the Hebrew youths would not worship the golden image he had set up. Jonah was angry when Nineveh was spared, and when the gourd was withered. In all these cases there was no sufficient cause to justify wrath. So was it with Ahasuerus.
I. THE OCCASION OF THE KING'S ANGER. His own drunken and foolish wish was thwarted, and thus his pride was wounded. "It is not for kings to drink wine, lest they drink and forget the law." The law of Solon punished a drunken magistrate with death. The wish of Ahasuerus was thwarted by a woman, and that woman his wife. He was not accustomed to meet with opposition or resistance to his will, and could ill brook his consort's disobedience. Circumstances heightened his anger. He had boasted of his wife's beauty and complaisance, and now, in the presence of his lords, to whom he had boasted, his vaunt was proved empty and vain.
II. THE UNREASONABLENESS AND FOLLY OF THE KING'S ANGER. A monitor might have put to him the question, "Doest thou well to be angry?" If he had not been intoxicated with pride, as well as with wine, he would have blamed himself instead of his spouse, the queen. How much indefensible, unreasonable, and ridiculous anger there is in human society! How often the wrathful would do well to transfer their indignation from others to themselves! "Be ye angry, and sin not; let not the sun go down upon your wrath!" In those occupying high and prominent and influential positions, anger is very unseemly. Here was a man bearing rule over 127 provinces, and yet unable to rule his own spirit!
III. THE RESULTS OF THE KING'S ANGER.
1. It was tempered by counsel. Ahasuerus did not act at once under the impulse of his burning indignation and resentment. This was good. But he should have taken counsel of his own heart, and not of flatterers who ministered to his passions.
2. It led him to part with his wife, and to proclaim his own folly in a public, imperial decree. The man who lashed the sea, who cruelly slew the eldest son of Pythius, who dishonoured the corpse of the brave Leonidas, was just the man to act as here described. It is true that the king's anger was overruled by Providence for good; but this is no palliation of his serious offence. We have in this narrative a warning against yielding to the impulses of capricious anger. There is a time to be angry; but we may well suspect ourselves when we are under the influence of vehement feeling of this kind. "Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation!" "Consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself." Christ left us "an example, who when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not." "Blessed are the meek." "Forgive one another, even as God, for Christ's sake, hath forgiven you!"
Wisdom is the skill which some men possess of devising means to secure any end that is aimed at. It is what Aristotle termed an intellectual virtue. There is no position in life where wisdom is not useful. And in the highest positions, in Church and in State, it is a quality which is justly held in very high esteem. Counsellors of kings and ministers of state need a large measure of practical wisdom. The same may be said of pastors of Christian Churches, and of officers of Christian societies and organisations of all kinds.
I. THE FOUNDATION OF WISDOM IS NATURAL SAGACITY. It is sometimes said of men that they are "born fools," and it is certain that some are by nature more endowed than others with insight into character, and with fertility of devices and resources. A cunning man is seldom wise, for he usually overreaches himself, and awakens distrust in the minds of his acquaintances.
II. WISDOM IS NURTURED BY THE HABIT OF DELIBERATION. It is proverbial that hasty men are unwise; they will not allow themselves time to see more than one side of a subject. To weigh with calmness and impartiality the possible plans of action is conducive to a wise decision.
III. WISDOM IS STRENGTHENED BY KNOWLEDGE AND STUDY. Not every well-informed and learned man is wise; but few men are wise whose knowledge is scanty, and whose experience is contracted. Two kinds of knowledge are referred to in this passage.
1. Historical knowledge, or knowledge of the times. To study the history of nations and of the affairs of state is a good preparation for the life of a politician, a statesman (vide some excellent remarks in Bossuet's 'Lectures on Universal History,' addressed to the Dauphin of France).
2. Legal knowledge. The counsellors of the king of Persia are said to have known law and judgment, obviously very essential to men in their position.
IV'. THE POSSESSION OF WISDOM IS A MOST RESPONSIBLE TRUST. Like other good things, it may be used, and it may be abused. There is a great danger lest the counsellors of kings should give advice fitted to please rather than to profit. It is well, therefore, that all such should remember that they are themselves accountable to the Lord and Judge of all. If wisdom be employed to secure merely selfish ends, or to flatter the ambitious and the vain, it will prove in every way a curse.
1. Let the truly wise, who use their wisdom to good purpose, be regarded with general honor and esteem.
2. Let those who are consulted by others because of their repute for wisdom seek grace to give good counsel, as in the sight of the Lord.
3. Let the young seek to acquire practical wisdom, and let them remember that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and to depart from evil is understanding."
The king of Persia had two bad counsellors, wine and anger. It showed some degree of common-sense on his part that, instead of acting upon impulse, he waited to ask the advice of his ministers, those privileged and trusted men who were nearest to the throne. If they had advised him well he might have avoided making an exhibition of his own folly to his people. But their plan was to fall in with the inclinations of their sovereign. This, whilst we must blame it, we cannot wonder at; for few dared to oppose the vain and imperious monarchs of Persia.
I. GOOD COUNSEL SHOULD BE SINCERE AND HONEST IN ITSELF. It sometimes happens that a person called upon for advice sees what it would be right to advise, but gives advice contrary to that which his judgment would approve. It is better to decline advising than to do this.
II. GOOD COUNSEL SHOULD BE DISINTERESTED AS REGARDS THE GIVER. If one advises so as to secure his own interest at the expense of the friend who trusts and consults him, he acts with baseness, and deserves contempt.
III. GOOD COUNSEL SHOULD BE FAITHFUL AS REGARDS THE RECEIVER. In advising the great, counsellors are too often guided by a desire to fall in with their inclinations, to flatter their pride and vanity, to minister to their lusts. Flatterers are bad counsellors, though by their flattery they may advance themselves. Their motto is, Mihi placer quicquid regi placer (that pleases me which pleases my lord, the king).
IV. GOOD COUNSEL SHOULD BE APPROPRIATE AND TIMELY. Advice which is not to the point, or which is given when it is too late for it to be of use, is vain. How many a misguided youth has had reason to exclaim, Why was I not warned or directed while warning and direction might have been of use?
Esther 1:17, Esther 1:18
The influence of example.
Where can be found a more striking proof of the general belief in the force of example than in this passage? The counsellors of the king of Persia were not men likely to be led away by their feelings or fancies. Yet they supposed that the conduct of one woman might influence the domestic demeanour and spirit and habits of the women of an empire throughout its 127 provinces! And they proposed to counteract the evil influence of Vashti's disobedience by. a most unusual proceeding, by a stringent law affecting every household throughout the realm! The conduct of the queen made the highest personages in the land uneasy, and was thought capable of affecting the meanest and the most distant.
I. EXAMPLE IS ALWAYS INFLUENTIAL. This is owing to a principle in human nature. We are naturally social and imitative. The power of example over children is known to all. But no age is exempt from its action. Some persons live with the constant sense that their spirit and conduct will affect those of others. But if persons have no such sense, none the less is it true that their influence "tells." This is the explanation of fashion—in manner, in speech, in social usages, even in beliefs. None of us can say how much he is what he is through the influence of others' example.
II. EXAMPLE IS INFLUENTIAL BOTH FOR GOOD AND EVIL. That we should influence and be influenced by example is a Divine arrangement. It works both ways; and to the action of example the cause of virtue and religion is immensely indebted; whilst the same principle explains the prevalence of error, vice, and sin. Let every hearer call to mind the influences to which he has been exposed, and trace up to them the position he occupies, as well as the character which has been formed in him. This exercise will make him tremble to think of the responsibility under which he lies for his own influence over his fellow-creatures.
III. THE POWER OF EXAMPLE IS ENHANCED BY HIGH STATION. Vashti was a queen, and what she did was known to multitudes, and was influential, more or less, over all who knew it. A queen sets fashions, gives social laws, even influences, to some extent, the morals of the community. A vicious court is a curse to the land. For a virtuous and benevolent sovereign, subjects cannot be too grateful. Others in high station, alike in the Church and in the world, will affect the habits of many by their good or evil example. Public persons, it has been said, are the looking-glasses before which others dress themselves. It is of highest importance that the springs should be sweetened, lest the streams be poisoned and deleterious.
1. Let us gratefully acknowledge God's goodness in using the principle in question for our benefit. Scripture is full of good examples. The history of the Church teems with such. The Christian society around us contains many excellent and inspiring examples for our imitation.
2. Especially let as be thankful for the example of our Divine Saviour. He was not only our Redeemer, but our Exemplar also. He "left us an example that we should follow his steps." It is the one faultless, peerless example to humanity.
3. Let us be careful what examples we study, and what influences we place ourselves under.
4. Let us be very circumspect in the education of the young, that we have brought to bear upon their hearts such influences as God may bless to their salvation.
5. Let us "watch and pray" that our influences—purposed and unconscious alike—may be for the highest good of all with whom we are associated.
Rule in the house.
The purport of the edict here recorded was good, although there seems something almost ludicrous in the feelings and the fears which prompted its framers and promulgators. "That every man should bear rule in his own house" seems scarcely a regulation to be prescribed by political authority.
I. IT IS A PRINCIPLE FOUNDED UPON NATURAL, DIVINE AUTHORITY. It is written upon the very constitution of human nature that a wife should be directed by her husband, and children by their father. If purpose is visible anywhere, it is in this domestic law.
II. IT IS A PRINCIPLE SANCTIONED BY SCRIPTURE. From the first it was said to the woman, "Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee." The apostle thus admonishes the female sex: "Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord." "The husband," we are told, "is the head of the wife."
III. THE RULE IN QUESTION SHOULD BE COMMENDED BY THOUGHTFUL WISDOM ON THE PART OF HIM WHO EXERCISES IT. If the husband is a fool, it is not easy for the wife to submit. Bat if he be a man of knowledge, experience, and self-control, the wife will usually, gladly and gratefully, be guided by his desires and requests.
IV. THIS SWAY SHOULD BE EXERCISED WITH GENTLENESS AND FORBEARANCE. Nothing is more hateful or contemptible than the rule of a domestic tyrant, and such a rule encourages either rebellion or deceit. Children lose all respect for an unreasonable and passionate father. The household with such a head is wretched indeed. Affection and consideration should be manifest in the demeanour and requirements of all in authority over a family.
V. SUCH A RULE SHOULD BE ACKNOWLEDGED WITH FRANK SUBMISSION. Women are very much what men make them. Let them be treated with affection and courtesy, and the response will usually be cheerful compliance.
VI. SUCH A RULE IS CONTRIBUTIVE TO ORDER AND HAPPINESS. The family is so far like the state; tyranny awakens resentment and provokes resistance, whilst a righteous and considerate rule is acknowledged with gratitude, and is productive of happiness. A home where there is anarchy is a hell upon earth; a home where a woman rules is a monstrous and loathsome spectacle. Darius and Xerxes are said, both of them, to have been too much governed by their wives. History abounds with instances in which the legitimate power of the wives of kings has been exceeded, and in which kings' mistresses have corrupted courts, and to some degree nations also.
HOMILIES BY F. HASTINGS
A drunken device.
I. Drunkenness leads to further FOLLY. "When the wine is in the wit is out," is always true. The Persian monarch yielded to the allurements of the cup, and was betrayed into a stupid act. He desired to exhibit the beauty of his queen to a miscellaneous crowd. He had already shown nearly all he possessed. Anything and everything that could call forth admiration from his numerous guests had been laid under tribute. The festivities are closing, and the king, with muddled brain, bethinks himself of one more device for extorting more flattery and adulation. On his Sultana only the eyes of his eunuchs and himself, of mankind, had rested. He is proud of her somewhat after the same manner in which a man might at this day be proud of having on his walls the finest painting, in his cabinet the rarest jewel, or in his stables the swiftest horse.
II. Drunkenness induces a violation of MARITAL OBLIGATIONS. Had Ahasuerus loved Vashti as he ought, he would have been considerate as to her feelings. Whatever consideration he might have had when sober, he has none now. He imagines that his drunken whim is to be law. Vashti then was to him nothing more than a mere harem ornament, a slave for whom a goodly price had been paid out of his coffers. An indulgence in a like habit to that of Ahasuerus has led many to act with the same foolishness, harshness, and injustice. Known only to themselves has been the shuddering dread of many a wife lest the knowledge of a husband's secret failings should be bruited abroad. Known only to themselves the many shifts to make up for deficiencies for necessary household expenditure, deficiencies caused by a husband's folly and extravagance. Known only to themselves, the number of weary hours during which they sit watching or lie waking, waiting for the return of their dissolute lords. Known only to themselves also the many insults, the ill-usage to which they are subjected, the inflamed passions and embittered spirits they have to withstand. God have mercy on the thousands of sad women who have had to taste, like Vashti, the bitter results of a husband's drunken stupidity! God have mercy, for men have little.
III. Drunkenness often brings painful REBUFFS. Impatiently the king awaits the arrival of Vashti. Little dreams he of a rebuff. Excited as he is at the close of the festivities, and elated, both by the flattery he has received as well as the wine he has drunk, he is in no mood to brook any opposition to his will, or even delay in carrying out his drunken devices. He has sent the chamberlains for Vashti. At length they reappear. The king looks up from his cups. "What! and is not the queen coming?" He soon hears the explanation of her absence. Bowing low, and in the hesitating tones of one who has a disagreeable task to perform, the chief chamberlain tells "that the queen refuseth to come at the king's commandment."
IV. Drunkenness fosters unreasoning PASSION. How in a moment is overcast the face of the king, hitherto so complacent, the throne even of dignity still. A lowering, threatening scowl sits on his brow. More swift than any hurricane that ever swept over devoted and unsuspecting voyagers is the storm of anger that sweeps over the countenance of Ahasuerus. Shall a mere woman cross him? Shall all his glory, power, majesty be by that one woman checked? "The king was very wroth, and his anger burned in him" (Esther 1:12).
V. Drunkenness always covers a man with SHAME. The king was put to shame by his own act before others. Most annoying was the thought that the refusal of the queen was known to the princes and nobles. They would say, "The king cannot bear rule in his own house, and how shall he govern rightly the great dominion of Persia?" The king could better endure the obstinate conduct of his queen were it known only to himself. To have his domestic affairs known abroad, the common subject of conversation in every street, the gossip in every bazaar, and the butt of ridicule in every harem of his vast dominion, this is unbearable. The king is ashamed. Even drink does not banish that feeling from him.
VI. Drunkenness constantly creates vain REGRETS. There are regrets for folly, for expenditure, and for consequences. Ahasuerus, when he recovered from the effect of his inebriety, would begin to regret that he had acted so unwisely. He knew he had lowered himself in the eyes of others, and he had lost the one to whom he was attached, as far as such a man under such a system could be attached. The evidence of his regret is seen in the first verse of the second chapter. Many have to regret even worse consequences. Sometimes under the effect of drink men have crippled and even killed children and wives. The very gallows have shaken with the quivering regrets of those who have had to expiate the crimes they bad committed under the influence of drink. But the most overwhelming regret of all will be that which will take possession of the soul when it discovers the terrible truthfulness of the words, "No drunkard shall inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Corinthians 6:10).—H.
"Seven princes of Persia and Media, which saw the king's face, and sat first in the kingdom." It has always been the custom of kings to surround themselves with those who should be able to help or advise, or be the media of transmitting their desires or decrees to the people. These officers of state have been called "wise men," viziers, councillors, ministers. They form the executive. In Persia there was no electoral representation, the government was absolute. Hence the seven men whose names are mentioned were appointed by the king, and his whim could remove them. So long as they were in favour they were accounted privileged persons. Two things are told of them:—
I. They had a PRIVILEGED SIGHT.
II. They had a PROMINENT POSITION.
I. It was the custom of the kings of Persia to seclude themselves as much as possible from their subjects. Only those who were appointed to come near might see his face. This reserve was assumed in order to foster reverence and awe of the great king among the people. When one who had been permitted to approach, and had gained the king's favour, lost it, the attendants immediately covered his face that he might not look on the king. "As the word went out of the king's mouth, they covered Haman's face" (Esther 7:8). The seven wise men here mentioned were permitted to see the king's face at any time. The rulers of Persia assumed the title of "king of kings." That which was assumed by them belongs only to God. Who can see his face? He dwells in light "unapproachable." When Jacob wrestled with the angel of the Lord, he carried a reminder thereof in the limp or lameness, the result of the touch of that supernatural Being. When Moses desired to see the Divine glory he was bidden in a cleft rock; when he communed with God his face glistened so that be had to hide it beneath a veil. When Manoah offered a sacrifice, and the angel whose name was "secret" did wondrously, he feared he would be slain because of the visit from another world. "No man hath seen God at any time." Man could not see the unutterable glory and live. But there is One, "the only begotten Son," who not only saw his face, but rested "in the bosom" of the Divine Father, and "hath declared him." He gives to us this privileged sight also. God was in Christ. The meaning- of the incarnation was this, that men looking at Christ looked on "God manifest in the flesh." Philip wanted a further view of the Father, and Christ told him, "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father." Intercourse was possible under the old dispensation; sight was made possible under the new. Faith in Christ sees God. "The pure in heart see God" not only hereafter, but here. This is a high privilege. The Queen of Sheba said to Solomon, "Happy are thy men, and happy are these thy servants which stand continually before thee and hear thy wisdom." The happiness of the true Christian is to stand ever in the presence of God. This privilege is the gift of God's grace. None could admit to the sight of his mercy and glory unless he had graciously permitted it. The sight is not for a few, but for all who will come unto him through Christ.
II. The PROMINENT POSITION occupied by the "wise men" of Persia may suggest the advance which comes through spiritual character. "To sit first" in the kingdom is not to be the one aim, but it will be given to those for whom it is prepared—those who are prepared for it. High spiritual qualities give pre-eminence. This pre-eminence is not to be sought for itself. There must be no ambition, or we are those unfitted for it. Spiritual character must be sought as its own reward, and because it pleases God. James and John made a great mistake when they asked, through their mother, Christ for a promise of prominent position. "The last will be first, and first last." Heaven is no place of pomp, but of discrimination of character. Mere questions of precedence, whether in court, ecclesiastical, or municipal affairs, are generally petty, because based on mere accident and opinion. In heaven character will decide precedence. Those nearest the throne will probably be those who felt themselves the most unworthy; men like Paul, who felt himself "less than the least of all saints." The great thing for us is not to seek pre-eminence, but inner spiritual power; by simple faith, humility, zeal, unselfishness, devoutness, living as in the presence of God, and having every thought and action in harmony with God's will. As the current of a river sets to the ocean, so the whole "set" of a life may be God-ward. The seven men who "sat first in the kingdom" were in their position that they might advise the king. When we are brought into God's kingdom it will be to drink in of his wisdom. These men also could be easily removed. Their position depended on the whim of the monarch, and therefore was insecure. When we are once brought into God's kingdom above we shall be safe for ever. No enemy shall dislodge, no storm trouble, no sin assail, but we shall be safe for ever. We read of Haman being "advanced," and of the king setting "his seat above all the princes that were with him" (Esther 3:1). This must have been gall and wormwood to the rest of the princes. No such jealousy will enter the hearts of those who are permitted to behold in heaven the King's face, and to sit in his kingdom.—H.
HOMILIES BY P.C. BARKER
A noble womanly refusal.
We know from actual history literally nothing of Vashti, except her name, and what is written of her in the present connection. But it is evident that she could not have been merely one of the inferior wives of the Eastern king, although this has been suggested. She is not only emphatically called queen, but she acts as the queen, "making a feast for the women," while Ahasuerus makes his for the princes and the general people; and the choice and the bearing of her successor, Esther, point the same way. The name of Vashti appears to view a moment; it then utterly disappears—and in disgrace. Yet not in shame; neither in the shame of sin or folly, nor in the shame even of error of judgment and want of true wisdom. No; for "posterity approve her saying" and her doing. Our gaze was at first invited to her as one "very fair to look upon," a meteor of beauty. So her descending track, swift as it was, is one of real splendour; amid thick darkness around it marks a welcome line of light, and leaves a glory on our vision! This is all the more remarkable to be said of a heathen woman. Notice here a noble womanly refusal, and the womanly ground of it noble. We have here the spectacle of a woman who risked, who no doubt knew that she forfeited, a high position and all splendour of earthly prospects from that time forward, because she would not prejudice the due of her own womanly nature; because she would not be party to robbing herself of her feminine birthright; because she would not be minished in aught of her modesty's ultimate and indefeasible rights. When her affronted but determined voice and verdict were heard, as she "refused to come," this was heard in them—to wit, the clear ring of true womanly instinct and of intelligent womanly feeling.
I. THIS WAS A NOBLE REFUSAL BECAUSE OF WHAT IT COST. That "cost" may be reckoned in several ways. For instance, there was present
(1) the cost of effort, and effort of the most severely trying kind. There are many who stand at no cost except this. They will be liberal, and even wasteful in expenditure, i.e. in any other expenditure than that of effort. The prices of ease, luxury, they do not object to, but the price of effort frightens them at once. There were several dements also in the effort made by Vashti. There was the effort of resisting a husband's familiar authority. There was the effort of resisting an Eastern husband's peremptory command. There was the effort of breaking through the national custom of centuries ingrained in the race, and which made the wife a slave to passion and despotic rule. The severity of such effort must have been heightened by the consideration of the struggle being with a potentate of dominion unparalleled and of notorious unscrupulousness, sustained on the part of that woman single-handed. We read of those who backed up the insulting and licentious order of the king, but we do not read of one solitary voice according help and sympathy to the refusing queen. Now there are senses in which effort compels our admiration, even when the object of it fails to command our approval. Great is the inertia of human nature, held enmeshed in the toils of habit, of custom, of conventionality, of apprehended consequences, of jealous misconstruction, of envious detraction, of artificial forebodings that magnify themselves alike so monstrously and so successfully. Correspondingly noble and impressive was this woman's effort, whose "NO," though she sank because of it, crashed through all the forces that environed her, and its report resounded through a kingdom. The effort, then, the severity of it in relation to its kind, and the object of it, do in this case all command our approval and our strong admiration. Then
(2) the cost of this refusal is to be judged from the consequences which ensued. As against conscience, the right, and Divine law, consequences ought to decide nothing, that is to say, they are not to be put in the balance to weigh down one side or the other. These all are to be obeyed in and of themselves. So soon as their voice is heard, understood, and not misconceived, that voice is to be followed, let it lead whither it will. Their command is sovereign, and they may be well trusted to vindicate it sooner or later. There is indeed a sense in which it is of the highest importance to observe consequences, and to put them into the balance, viz; when we are studying the entire structure of our moral nature. A just observing of consequences therein is then equivalent to a scrutiny of tendencies, and the moral argument from tendencies in this sense is most legitimate, and should be irresistible. To them, when fairly tracked from beginning to end, reverent regard is due, and, once ascertained, the greatest weight should be accorded to them. A partial and broken study of consequences is what is unreliable and proportionately dangerous. Sidelong glances at immediate, or early, or merely present life consequences are what betoken inherent weakness or ignoble timidity of principle. Yet while the consideration of consequences should count nothing against the demands of right, and the commands of conscience and the Divine law, the kind of attention paid to them measures for us conveniently and justly the force or weakness of principle. The temporal consequences which one foresaw or reckoned upon will often sufficiently explain what buoyed him up—it was a vision of earthly grandeur, wealth, success, nothing higher. And the temporal, the threatening, the immediately impending consequences which another saw, rather than foresaw, are the significant tell-tale of the high-strung principle, the determined purpose, the noble force, which without a rival reigned within him. The weight of suffering in the hand is vastly greater than that in some undefined distance of prospect. The storm of grief and of sorrow that is now ready to burst on the very head looms terrific. The deposing of a queen, the divorcing of a wife, the disgracing of a woman in the eyes of all men, and of her own sex in particular, vain or not vain—these are consequences that overwhelm! Reckon we so then the cost of consequences to the queen, wife, woman who "refused to come at the king's commandment." Was this not a noble womanly refusal?
II. THIS WAS a NOBLE REFUSAL BECAUSE OF THE GROUND OF IT. It can perhaps scarcely be said that there were grounds for it. There were a multitude of (what very many would have considered) reasons why Vashti should not have refused to come, and there might truly have been reasons more than one, had she been differently situated, why she should have done as she actually did. Had she lived, for instance, at a different time of day, had she lived in a different country, had she belonged to a different race, there might have been some variety of reasons why she should have taken up the position she did, and adhered to it. But in point of fact there was probably great singleness of reason for this her great boldness of utterance and of action. Under certain circumstances one would have been glad to suppose that other considerations also played their part, and had their influence in Vashti's peremptory negative decision. But we should be artificial, ungenuine, and guilty of an anachronism if we supposed these now. And that we cannot bring these lesser lights to throw their fainter rays on the scene leaves it in the undivided glory of God's light. Here was his purity shedding its unflickering light on the thick darkness of that showy, sensual feast. The less we can justly set Vashti's refusal down to the higher conscious reflex acts of our nature, and moral effects resulting from them, the more is it attributable to the calm light of that lamp which God has hung in the retired and sacred cabinet of the bosom of woman, to decorate it, and to bless with its religious glimmering through the windows all that come near enough, but not too near! It is the lamp of sweet purity, of nature's own modesty, burning ever still with shame! That it is nature's modesty means that God's own hand hung it, lighted it. That it was burning in so unlikely a place, in such unfavourable conditions, at such a time, is all comfort and joy to our faith, for it means that God's hand had been round it, and shielded it so that it was not puffed out by the untoward gusts around. And that "frail woman"—borne upon now by every present-time influence, literally thronged with inducements to sink all shame for an hour that she might reign still for years, besieged with earthly motives to succumb and yield obedience to a coarse command—did refuse to succumb, ran the gauntlet of all consequences whatsoever, and, with an aroused indignation that would sleep no more, flung back the brutal mandate in the face of him who sent it, is fitted to show us how "in weakness" certain "strength is made perfect," and how the things amazing and "impossible with man, are possible with God;" yes, even facile to his Spirit's breath.—B.
The parody of legislature.
If any be tempted at first to think of the king's conferences (as here reported) with those whom we will call his statesmen as though they were scarcely serious and in earnest,—fortunate to be carried on within the protection of closed doors; the monarch, in fact, secretly smiling at his ministers, and they in turn scarcely dissembling in his presence their real convictions of his impossible folly and of their own obsequious and shallow proposals,—yet it would be found impossible to sustain this supposition. It will not bear investigation! The doors were but a short while closed doors, and the after proceedings give evidence ample that this was not intended to be any mere travesty of a privy council, however much to our eye it may resemble it. Assuming, therefore, what we do not doubt will be correctly assumed, that the occasion was one of widespread social bearings: and that the proceedings here narrated were of a bona fide character, we have again an impressive illustration of the fact that God's work in the constitution of human nature, God's force in human feeling and life, insists on bearing down all artificial barriers and sweeping away all such obstruction. It possesses such a cumulative character. In silence, in depth of operation, in the multiplication of an exceeding number of persistent vital ultimate facts in the constitution of the human family, a force is often stealthily generating and surely gaining headway, .which at last tears down all that opposed, and that long seemed sure of its oppressing grasp. The "too much contempt and wrath" slowly "arise," and are sure to find opportunity to take their revenge, even on the part of "a feeble folk!" Thus a folk feeble enough, when considered one by one, will prove irresistible in combination!
I. NOTICE HOW THE HUMAN HEART, HUMAN LIFE IN ITS TENDEREST MAKE, IN ITS MOST YIELDING MOOD, RESENTS IN THE LONG RUN ARBITRARY FORCE. Even the feminine character knows despotism to be an unnatural thing, a discreditable violation of its own rights. The less obtrusive the claims of that feminine character, the more should they be studied by anticipation. Even that yielding' disposition craves reason before force, right before might, considerateness before compulsion. The husband, the father, the social temper, the national temper, that forgets and sins against this has only to forget it and sin against it long enough to reap whirlwind and the most real of ruin. To what a pass had the treatment long meted out to women of the country and the age in question now come! What a humiliating confession from head-quarters when the king himself, "who reigned from India unto Ethiopia," and these elder "seven wise men of the east," are found thrown into a pitiable panic, a paroxysm of apprehension, lest there should happen a moral and social insurrection of their women, "great and small," throughout the vast extent of the country and its "one hundred and twenty-seven provinces," against, forsooth, "their husbands;" and in the sense, forsooth, of "despising" them and disputing their rule!
II. NOTICE TWO POLITICAL ALTERNATIVES. What must be either the degenerate social state of a nation, or its ripened state in any individual direction for some very radical alternative, when the spark that is feared is such a thing as this, anything analogous to this—the one word "no" of one woman! The one resisting act of a wife, who is a queen, to the rude and licentious command of her husband, who is a king! The country of which this is true, the constitution of which this is true, in any part of it, must be dry indeed for a conflagration!
III. NOTICE THE INDESCRIBABLE INANITY OF THE MERE MAKING AND PROCLAMATION OF A DECREE ON A MORAL AND SOCIAL SUBJECT WHEN IT IS NOT BASED ON REASON, ON NATURAL RELIGION, ON EDUCATION, to say nothing of other religious sanction; or when the just utterances of these authorities are rendered utterly indistinct, are stifled by the improper conduct of one half of the people, towards the other half, who may be aimed at by the decree. No number of decrees, no severity of sanctions attached to them, could possibly bring all the women of a vast country to honour and obey from the heart their husbands, while these should continue to act towards them in a manner contrary to the Divine voice and to the charter of creation! The illustration which this history offers is patent and bold. The case appears a violent one; the position one to which modern days offer no sufficient parallel. It is a call for unbounded gratitude on the part of England, if it be so. But the lesson for other lands is still wanted in its most alphabetic form; and who can deny that all nations need the delicate guidance of the same principle in outline, though in a less visible, less common form?
IV. LASTLY, WHEN THE LAST COMES TO THE LAST, COURTIERS AND THE MOST OBSEQUIOUS OF THEM DO NOT THINK SO MUCH OF THEIR ROYAL MASTERS AS THEY DO OF THEMSELVES AND THEIR FELLOWS. Kingdoms are not made for kings, the ruled for rulers, but the reverse. And, probably without a thought of it himself, Memucan in his answer (Esther 1:16) shows himself keeping by no means to the view of the position which the king had set forth and enlarged upon in his question. Supposing there to have been (what there was not) advantage obtainable in the decree, the insult (so interpreted) that had been offered to the king is almost thrust on one side, while the wily counsellors seem forthwith to scent the opportunity of an advantage to themselves and the widespread people! So the magnified affronts of the great are turned by Providence to a very different use from the vindication of their individual pride or vanity.
Conclusion.—While there is perhaps not a little in these verses which invites and almost provokes our modern satire, there is certainly one great impression resulting from the whole, and deserving of the fullest attention and most constant memory namely, that great moral, social, religious effects must not be sought primarily by mere legislative enactment. They must be sought by a diligent use of corresponding methods, and then even will be found only in God's blessing upon them.—B.
HOMILIES BY D. ROWLANDS
Distance frequently gives us exaggerated notions of greatness, while closer intimacy would speedily dispel the illusion. To the best part of the known world the name of Ahasuerus was associated with unrestrained power, but this passage reveals his real position. Extremes meet; an absolute tyrant may be at the same time an absolute slave. This was precisely the case with Ahasuerus. He was—
I. AN ABSOLUTE TYRANT. He occupied a position of unlimited authority, and exercised his authority in an arbitrary manner. Note—
1. That the possession of absolute power is in itself a great wrong. It is a violation of the inalienable rights of communities that any man through the mere accident of birth—or even through his own superior abilities—should become an irresponsible ruler over them; and history shows that this violation has always been fraught with disastrous consequences.
(1) It subordinates the common weal to individual interest. The well-being of society is possible only on the supposition that the good of the greatest number should be of the first importance, and that individuals should be willing to sacrifice everything if necessary for its attainment. Despots, however, proceed on the supposition that everything exists for their private benefit—extensive territories, the wealth of nations, and even the lives of their subjects.
(2) It tends to make the ruler himself capricious. To expect a man to be moderate, reasonable, and just at all times in such a position is to make too great a demand on human nature; the temptations to which he is exposed are more than an ordinary mortal can withstand.
(3) It tends to make the people servile and unprincipled. Where one will is supreme there is nothing certain: law, justice, rectitude become meaningless; duty resolves itself into pleasing the potentate, who holds the power of life and death in his own hands. The natural outcome of this is the spread of meanness, duplicity, dishonesty among all classes, from the highest to the lowest. The apologists of despotism sometimes refer to the position of a father in his family in justification of the institution. But a father is not absolute in the widest sense; and even if he were, the danger inseparable from the possession of so much power is neutralised by the love he bears for his own flesh and blood.
2. The use made of absolute power in the case before us. This is a most ignoble passage in the life of a king of such high pretensions.
(1) He seemed to assume that no consideration was due to anybody but himself. The sole purpose of the prolonged festivities was to gratify his own vanity. And when he thought that the presence of the queen would add to his own pleasure, he never paused to consider whether it might not be painful to the queen herself. Selfishness makes men thoughtless, unjust, and cruel, even to those who have the strongest claims upon their tenderness.
(2) He commanded what was unlawful according to the accepted notions of the time. Eastern women led a secluded life, and were not permitted to expose their countenances to the gaze of strangers. Besides, for a modest woman to display her charms in the presence of drunken revellers was a degradation from which she must have recoiled with unutterable aversion.
(3) He afterwards punished as disobedience what was really obedience to a higher law of duty. The queen was deposed simply for daring to protect her honour. In this respect she takes her place among, a noble band—the glorious army of martyrs, who, rather than violating their consciences at the bidding of bloodthirsty tyrants, submitted to imprisonment, torture: and death. Wrong can never really flourish. It may appear prosperous to superficial observers, but a deeper knowledge of the state of things must reveal the penalty which it entails. This king, amidst the dazzling splendours with which he surrounded himself, might have imposed upon his fellow-men, and made them gaze with longing eyes upon the elevated position which he occupied; but after all there are unmistakable indications here that the absolute tyrant was—
II. AN ABSOLUTE SLAVE. We find that—
1. He was a slave of his appetite. "The king's heart was merry with wine;" he had taken more drink than was good for him, and was beginning to feel the effects of it. A sorry spectacle! He who ought to have set a pattern of dignified demeanour to those beneath him, degrading himself below the level of the brute creation. Millions have done and are doing the same thing. Alexander conquered the world, but a lawless appetite conquered Alexander.
2. He was a slave of his passions. "The king was very wroth, and his anger burned within him." Accustomed as he was to be implicitly obeyed, he could not endure his will to be thwarted. The demon within him was roused, and he was no longer master of himself; he must obey the promptings of unreasoning rage, however much he might regret it in calmer moments. Truly, "he that is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city."
3. He was a slave of his pride. He was induced to depose the queen because he imagined that his dignity had been compromised. No doubt he loved her, and it must have cost him a pang to be separated from her, but pride would not allow him to revoke his decree. Like King Herod, who preferred to behead John the Baptist rather than confess that he had made a foolish oath. He may have called it courage to himself, but it was in reality the most contemptible cowardice.—R.
We may admit the general truth of a principle, and yet deny its application to a particular case. Doubtless wrong-doing on the part of the queen might have exerted an unwholesome influence upon other women, but it by no means follows that her conduct in the present instance was open to this objection. On the contrary, might not her bravery in maintaining the honour of her sex in the face of so much danger strengthen the hands of others when placed in similar difficulties? The subject suggested by this passage is the responsibility of greatness. Let us inquire—
I. WHAT CONSTITUTES GREATNESS. By greatness we mean, in a general way, the position of a man who for certain well-defined reasons towers above the rest of his fellow-men. Evidently, therefore, it may be of various types.
1. The greatness of position. Some are born heirs to titles and kingdoms. Distinction is thrust upon them before their wishes are consulted. Their lives mingle with the web of history simply on account of their birth.
2. The greatness of wealth This differs from the preceding in that it is confined to no favoured class. A man may have a most humble origin, and yet through industry and perseverance may become a millionaire.
3. The greatness of genius. This is the gift of God. It resembles that of position, in that men are born into it; but it also resembles that of wealth, in that it is fully enjoyed only through labour. John Milton would have been a genius had he been "mute and inglorious;" but it was the effort he put forth in producing 'Paradise Lost' that made him immortal.
II. WHAT CONSTITUTES THIS RESPONSIBILITY.
1. The fact that the great are members of society. No member of society, however great or however humble, can be independent. His actions touch his fellows at so many points that they have a right to control his conduct to that extent.
2. The great determine their own actions. No man is a mere puppet of circumstances. A high position may involve conditions which hamper the will, but they cannot rob it altogether of its freedom. In so far then as actions are free the agent is responsible for them.
3. The great exert an influence. This is true of all, but especially of the great. And this was the point on which Memucan so emphatically insisted.
(1) Influence is independent of our will. We can shape our own conduct, but we cannot regulate its effects upon others. We cannot plead that we never desired it, when we are charged with ruining others by our example, for those who copy us as a rule do not ask our permission. Does the subject of a deadly fever desire to spread infection?
(2) The influence of the great is powerful in proportion to their greatness. They are the observed of all observers. They are cities set on a hill which cannot be hid. Jeroboam son of Nebat made Israel sin, and the wickedness of the people for several generations was attributed to the influence of his example.
(3) It is far easier to influence for evil than for good. The effect produced upon an object is as much due to the object itself as to the power exerted. A blow that would leave iron uninjured might shatter glass to atoms. The original bias of the human heart is toward evil, so that it needs little help in that direction. No great eloquence is required to persuade the miser to hoard his money, or the spendthrift to squander his substance.
This subject has a practical application. What is true of the great with regard to influence is true of all to some extent. It is true that a taper is unspeakably less than the sun, but it produces the same effect in its own sphere as the larger luminary does in his.
1. Ministers of religion exert an influence. Not merely in the pulpit, but in their intercourse with the world.
2. Parents exert an influence. Their actions will generally produce a deeper impression than their words.
3. Associates exert an influence. Men are constantly brought together in the various pursuits of life. In the workshops in the market-place, in the transactions of business, each man is unconsciously contributing his share to the making or the marring of the characters of those with whom he comes in contact.—R.
HOMILIES BY W. DINWIDDLE
Esther 1:10, Esther 1:11
The fruit of excess.
The king's inconsistent excess betrayed him into an unworthy and foolish act. When heated with wine he summoned Queen Vashti to appear before him, crowned, that she might "show the princes and people her beauty."
I. AN OUTWARD RESPECTFULNESS OF MANNER DOES NOT MAKE AMENDS FOR ANY DISHONOURABLE INTENT. In sending to Vashti the seven chamberlains who waited on himself, the king showed some respect for her dignity. He perhaps hoped by this parade to overcome any objection she might have to obey his strange command. But the quality of evil is not affected by the garnishings with which men clothe and try to conceal it. Sin is often so disguised as to be made attractive to the unwary, but it is still sin; and the "pure in heart" who "see God" are not deceived.
II. WRONG-DOING BREEDS FEAR IN THE MOST RECKLESS MOMENTS OF SELF-CONFIDENCE. The emphatic way in which the number and names of the chamberlains are given seems to indicate that there was some fear of the queen in the king's heart. He knew her character, and was not unconscious of the insult implied in his command. Having, under the excitements of wine and vanity, conceived and expressed the desire that her beauty should be publicly exhibited, he could not draw back, but he thought to convey his will to her with such accompaniments as would either flatter or overawe her into obedience. A dishonest heart has fears that are only known to itself. It is most timid and craven when it assumes the loudest bravery. Its bristling feathers of authority are often the signs of an inward distrust. Conscious rectitude of purpose and action is the true spring of courage. A heart that is pure in its affections and intents is bold and strong in all circumstances. It is an evil conscience that "makes cowards of us all." A good conscience will make heroes of the humblest.
III. WHEN UNJUST TO OURSELVES WE ARE IN GREAT DANGER OF BEING UNJUST TO OTHERS. If the king had been himself true to the law which he had promulgated, he would never have thought of subjecting Vashti to a humiliating exposure. When men recognise their own obligations to righteous law, and submit themselves unto God, they are careful to observe the duties they owe to their friends and neighbours. Indifference to the feelings and rights of others implies a want of self-subordination to holy and honourable rule. It is only the unregulated, whose moral and spiritual nature is not braced by habitual subjection to principle, who are willing to trample on the sensibilities of those over whom natural or social ties give them power.
IV. THE EXCITEMENTS PRODUCED BY UNGOVERNED PASSIONS OR ARTIFICIAL STIMULATION DO NOT EXCUSE THE EVILS OR CRIMES TO WHICH THEY MAY LEAD. An unbridled temper, a blinding lust, or vinous intoxication, has often been pled in mitigation of the gravest offences. But one sin cannot justify or excuse another and consequent sin. If a man allows, his. reason and. conscience to. be unseated, whether by anger, or lust, or strong drink, he is responsible for every evil result that may follow. There is no sin which does not carry within it the seeds of other sins. This is a solemn thought, and one which should put all men on their guard against the first beginnings of sin.—D.
The commission of the seven chamberlains to the queen was in vain. Vashti refused to appear before the king and his guests. Why this disobedience? Several considerations, favourable and unfavourable, may be suggested.
I. CONSIDERATIONS UNFAVOURABLE TO VASHTI.
1. She knew the absolute authority with which the king was invested. In this knowledge she had become his wife and queen. Ought she not, therefore, to have obeyed him, even at personal sacrifice, when he commanded her, with befitting circumstance, to come to him, that her beauty might be seen and admired?
2. She knew the importance of the occasion, and the disappointment and humiliation that would fall on the king, her husband, if she ventured to disobey his command. Should she not have been willing to suffer pain herself in order to save the king from the pain of a public manifestation of revolt against his declared will? Such self-denial is sometimes good, and, whenever good, is praiseworthy.
3. She may have been influenced merely by the wilfulness of pride. All reflection on the claims of duty, on the requirements of the occasion, and on the effects of her conduct on the king's dignity and peace, may have been rendered impossible by the flushings of a resentful pride. Nothing more easily drowns reflection, nothing is more unreasoning and unreasonable, than a haughty and self-exalting disposition. Pride is a bad helm for the guidance of life.
4. Whatever the queen's motive, her answer to the chamberlains may have been given in an abrupt and defiant manner. It is a good quality, and a proof either of self-discipline or of a kindly and sympathetic nature, to be able to express even strong feelings in ways that will not kindle wrath or breed discord. "A soft answer turneth away wrath." We must observe, however, that nothing is said of the manner in which the queen responded to the king's messengers. All we are told is that she refused.
II. CONSIDERATIONS FAVOURABLE TO VASHTI.
1. The king's command showed a want of sympathy with her in her faithful diligence as entertainer of the women. Inside the palace she was doing the work which the king' was doing in the garden court. Why should she be called away from this real and appropriate work to pose herself as the central figure of an idle and foolish pageant? The command was inconsiderate and frivolous. Honest work, however secretly performed, is to be preferred at all times to showy ostentations which minister only to the gratification of self. A humble mind and a diligent hand are better in a woman than the most lauded beauty that courts the gaze of the world.
2. The king's command was a violation of custom. We know the seclusion in which Eastern women then, as now, lived. It was a shame to a woman to appear unveiled before any man except her husband. Vashti would be staggered when she received the message of the chamberlains. National or social customs may be bad, but they cannot be safely or wisely departed from except under the force of enlightened and conscientious reasons. Especially are they binding when any breach of them implies a conscious self-degradation.
3. The king's command was the result of partial drunkenness. Vashti could hardly fail to perceive its cause. She would know that the king could not have issued it if he had been in possession of his sober senses. It is said of one that he appealed from Alexander drunk to Alexander sober. So may have been the thought of Vashti. Rather than subject herself to insult, she would risk the immediate displeasure of the king, in the hope that when he came to his right mind he would perceive the wisdom and propriety of her conduct.
4. The king's command was an outrage on Vashti, as queen, as wife, and as woman.
(1) As sole and acknowledged queen of the empire, she could not, without utter loss of dignity, stoop to expose herself, as a royal puppet, to the excited multitude.
(2) As the true and legitimate wife of the king, she could not, consistently with wifely honour, allow her beauty to be made a public plaything and gazing-stock at the whim of a wine-flushed and self-forgetting husband.
(3) As a woman (apart altogether from outward position), every true instinct would make her shrink from exhibiting herself as a mere wanton to eyes that were inflamed with wine. If she had been of a soft nature she might have yielded, at the cost of much suffering'. If she had been proud of her beauty, and shameless, she might have gladly obeyed. But she was neither so soft as to submit to outrage, nor so unprincipled as to welcome it. A modest spirit is the most precious jewel which nature grants to women, and when it is sanctified by the fear of God and the love of Jesus, its power as an instrument of good is wonderfully increased.
5. The king's command threatened the reputation of Vashti. It was given to the chamberlains in presence of the princes and nobles, and it was delivered to Vashti in presence of the women. Thus all were informed of it, and all understood its meaning. If Vashti had obeyed it, she would have lost caste in the estimation of her own sex, and she would have imperilled, if not sacrificed altogether, the respect and reverence of the "princes and people," and even of the king himself. The praise of men may, and often does, cost too much. It should never be allowed to enter into rivalry with the praise of God, or the approbation of a good conscience. At the same time, the esteem of the good—a high reputation for integrity of heart and life—is of exceeding price, and is usually but the reflection of the Divine favour. All who play fast and loose with their reputed character, as honourable or godly men and women, give evidence that they are loosely attached to the sacred principles of truth and virtue (see 1 Peter 2:2). Vashti may be taken as an example of devotion to just thought and pure feeling. At all hazards she did what her true mind and heart would only allow her to do. She risked much, and in the event she suffered much. But we do not pity her. Whatever were the motives that inspired her, our sympathies go with her in her refusal to obey the king's command. We give her honour as a woman who, in very trying circumstances, was true to herself and her position. The one act by which she is known has made her name honourable in all time. Her firmness in a critical moment may also be regarded as an illustration of the Divine providence. It produced results which she could not anticipate. It paved the way for that great deliverance of the Jews from the devices of the wicked of which this book is the record. Honest action, whatever troubles it may bring, never goes without its ultimate reward. The lines of self-denying allegiance to truth stretch far; eternity only will realise their full issue.—D.
Vashti's disobedience kindled in the king's mind
(1) a strong resentment—he "was very wroth."
(2) An abiding resentment—"his anger burned in him." Considering the man and the circumstances, this should not surprise us.
1. It was a case of rebellion. The worst crime in the view of a despot is to dispute his will. Nothing so easily inflames anger in a man who is used to power and unused to self-control as any want of submission to his authority.
2. The rebellion was in the king's own household. It was the queen, his wife, who ventured to disobey him. Men naturally expect a special readiness of sympathy and co-operation from those who are united to them by blood or family ties. And resentment caused by opposition from such relations as wife or children often assumes a peculiar intensity. But weak and self-willed minds are apt to abuse these ties by exacting more than is just. We should be especially considerate in our demands on the obedience or service of those who have the highest claims on our respect and love.
3. The rebellion was made public. A private humiliation is much more easily borne than one suffered in presence of many. Vashti's refusal to appear was announced before the princes and the assembled citizens. This circumstance would add a sting to the affront, and supply fuel to the flame of the king's wrath. One of the penalties of wrong-doing is that it cannot be kept secret. In its effects at least it is sure to become known, and to bring confusion and shame on the evil-doer.
4. The rebellion occurred at an unfortunate time. It was just before the close of the prolonged festival that the queen failed in submission to her husband's command. So far all had gone well. All ranks had been obsequious and flattering. Not a jarring note had arisen to disturb the serenity of the vain king's heart. But now, when the triumph seemed complete, the glory of it was utterly despoiled by the disobedience of Vashti. A bitter sense of humiliation and a burning anger were the necessary results.
5. The rebellion was produced by the king's own act. He had been guilty of a folly that was full of risk. The consciousness that he had brought the dishonour on himself would be no salve to his mind. It would only aggravate the wound that had been inflicted on his pride, and the helpless rage that unmanned him. Sufferings, however severe, that come on us from without are light compared with those that are hatched by our own follies and misdeeds. It has been often observed that the hatred of ungodly men is greater to those whom they have injured than to those from whom they have received injury. According to this law of the natural heart, the anger of the king against Vashti, instead of being allayed or softened, would be increased by the knowledge that she had been driven to rebellion by his own foolish conduct. It should be remarked, however, that though the king's anger can be understood and explained, it cannot be approved. For—
I. ANGER IS NEVER DIGNIFIED. It shows a want of self-command. The king lost dignity when he became "very wroth" in presence of his guests. He was no longer king, but a suffering subject under the will or caprice of Vashti. Anger always makes a man look inferior to the occasion that gives birth to it.
II. ANGER INVARIABLY ADDS TO A SUPPOSED OR REAL HUMILIATION. If the king had received Vashti's refusal to obey him with a calm mind and a pleasant countenance, as a thing personal to himself and Vashti, and therefore above the observance of the crowd, the last hour of the banquet might have been in keeping with all the other hours that had preceded it. But his breaking into an ungovernable fury brought the festival to a miserable close. The princes and people separated in confusion and fear. The king's anger did not mend matters.
III. ANGER IS ALWAYS UNJUST. There can be no true judgment when the mind is perturbed by wrathful feelings. The angry man is shut up to one view of the conduct that has enraged him. He sees everything through the mist of his passion. The last man to judge or act truly is he who has given up the reins of temper, and yielded himself to the power of anger.
IV. ANGER IS ALWAYS SELFISH. It is violently selfish. Like the king of Persia, it has no consideration for the thoughts, influences, or circumstances which have actuated those against whom it is turned, or for the initiative or contributory wrong-doing of the heart in which it burns. While it lasts it is simply absorbed by the self that is pained, and has no regard for others. All the springs of charity are dried up when anger rules a soul.
V. ANGER IS A PROLIFIC CAUSE OF INJUSTICE AND CRUELTY. It led Ahasuerus, as we shall see, to be unjust and cruel to Vashti. But to what terrible and varied crimes does it give birth in ordinary life! What a place it occupies in our criminal records! How many injure others and ruin themselves by giving "place to wrath!" There is much in the every-day experience of the world to warn men against allowing themselves to yield to the power of anger.
VI. ANGER IS A SIN AGAINST THE CHRISTIAN RULE OF LIFE. There is an anger which is Christlike. "Be ye angry and sin not," said Paul. But that is an anger, or holy indignation, against sin and its temptations. It has reference to things that are evil, and not to persons. Jesus himself hated sin and all its works, but he loved sinners and died for them. We cannot cherish at the same time the forgiving spirit of Christ and the feeling of anger towards any man. It was at once a recognition of our weakness, and a desire that we should strive to overcome it, that led the apostle to write, "Let not the sun go down upon your wrath."
Additional lessons:—We have here an instance of—
1. A just punishment. The king's vanity, inflamed by wine, brought upon him a severe retribution. Nebuchadnezzar's madness, and David's grief under the pestilence, were heavy punishments of a vain presumption. But to such a man as Ahasuerus the rebellion of his queen, with all its attendant circumstances, was about as weighty an infliction as was possible. It was peculiarly fitting to the case.
2. A sandy foundation. No miracle was needed to bring down into humiliating collapse the edifice of vain-glory which the king had been laboriously rearing for himself throughout the festival. Many a showy fabric thus unexpectedly tumbles about the head of its builder. A little thing will destroy a false grandeur, an unprincipled reputation, or a selfish happiness. A building to stand must have a good foundation. There is only one foundation—that of God's truth and love in Jesus Christ—on which character, reputation, life-influence, happiness, and hope may safely build. Build there, and when all the storms of life have done their worst, you and your life-work will still abide. The kingdom of Christ is an everlasting kingdom. "They that trust in the Lord shall never be put to shame."—D.
Motives of self-restraint.
If the anger which burned in the king had issued in a determination to put the disobedient Vashti to death, his will would have been obeyed, and his example would not have been singular. History affords many instances of the sacrifice of wives by despotic kings under the influence of violent passion. What withheld Ahasuerus from this last stretch of authority? Several causes are suggested.
I. AFFECTION. Vashti had both beauty of face and form, and nobility of character. That the king was fully sensible of the attractiveness of her presence is shown by his request that she should appear before his guests at the banquet. In spite of her disobedience and the anger it excited in his mind, it is very probable that a lingering affection curbed any desire he may have had to inflict on her an immediate and summary punishment. There are few greater treasures than the power to win such an esteem and love from relatives and friends as will not only be a fruitful pleasure in times of peace, but exercise a restraining influence on tempers that have become turbulent and unruly. Many qualities are needed to give a man or woman possession of it. Yet all, by a godly self-discipline, may acquire it in measure.
II. FEAR. It can hardly be doubted that Vashti's nature was a more powerful one than that of the king. The closing incident of the feast implies that the king was proud of his wife, and that the queen had some consciousness of power over her husband. From the little that is written—little, but telling—we gather that Vashti had been accustomed to a strong personal ascendancy in her intercourse with the king. And now, when anger burned in his heart against Vashti, the weak and self-indulgent king hesitated, and wavered, and sought the advice of others. He was still under the influence of a nature superior to his own. It is well to consider that there are forces in the world higher and mightier than the material. The grace and strength of character possessed by a single woman may be stronger than the wrathful will of a monarch who commands legions, and whose nod millions are ready to obey.
III. LAW. The unalterable character given to the laws of the Medes and Persians displayed, though in an unwise and awkward way, a more than usual respect for the claims of public law. King Ahasuerus inherited a sort of reverence for the fixed code of the empire, and it was "his manner," or habit, to consult legal experts in all matters of difficulty. This habitual regard for law asserted itself in his treatment of Vashti's rebellion, and assisted in preventing his wrath from wreaking itself at once in violent action. The king's recognition of the claims of law is commendable. Notice—
1. That law is the authoritative teaching of experience. It is the accumulated and embodied wisdom of a nation. As civilisation advances in communities, their laws become at the same time more just and more humane, and they acquire inherent force in proportion as they reflect the principles of truth and right. Bad laws imply a low moral and social condition, and can only secure obedience through the fear excited by cruel penalties. Good laws carry with them an authority of their own which has greater power for good than the heaviest penal sanctions.
2. That law is a guide and teacher of the ignorant. There are multitudes in every country to whom it becomes the chief practical educator as to what is right between man and man. The more deeply grounded it is in truth, the higher it will be in influence. The restraints which it imposes, the awards which it metes out, lead men to reflect on the principles and ends which underlie it. If it be based on Christian ideas of justice, those ideas will emerge in the thoughts and mould the character of the people who are governed by it. Law is a great educator.
3. That law is a restraint on the evil-disposed. Even criminals who set law at defiance have their power much crippled by its just punishments. But very many who in heart rebel against it are only kept orderly and reputable in their outward conduct by fear of its rightful authority. Thus society is guarded by it against an anarchy and confusion of wickedness which would make life unsafe and intolerable. On the ground of social order we should cherish and encourage respect for law.
4. That law is a protection to the innocent, the weak, and the right-minded. It throws a benign shield over the young and tender, and it affords an open and safe field for upright living, and for the efforts of holy Christian beneficence. Without law there could be no freedom for the righteous and law-loving. A lawless liberty is the direst of oppressions. As the voice of government, law, in the words of Peter (1 Peter 2:14) is "for the praise of them that do well."
From these reflections on law we learn—
1. The duty of all citizens.
(1) To obey honestly and heartily the law under which they live. A solemn responsibility rests on them to give all honour to constituted authority.
(2) To use through legitimate means what power they possess to bring the law of their country into harmony with perfect justice and freedom. Christians are not released by their religion from civil obligations. On the contrary, the faith and life of Christ only sanctifies, and makes more binding on the conscience, the claims of natural, social, and political ties. We learn—
2. The immense value of the Christian revelation of righteous law. That law affects all the affairs and interests—the least as well as the greatest—of human life. Nothing lies beyond its sovereign reach. It affects—
(1) Nations. The more fully and regally it is admitted into the governments, and laws, and customs of corporate societies, the higher is the level which such societies attain with respect to all the elements that constitute true prosperity and happiness.
(2) Persons. Whatever be the outward conditions under which men live, their personal submission to the Christian law of life is an inestimable blessing both to themselves and to others. The Divine law which they recognise in faith and conduct makes them superior to all that is false and injurious in existing human laws; and their example of purity, humility, integrity, charity, and godly fear tells on many hearts that may be watching it in silence. We should be unfeignedly and deeply thankful for Christ's law; for his revelation of the mind of God in perfect holiness and perfect love; and we should strive earnestly to commend it to others, and to infuse it into the law and life of the nation to which we belong. "Oh, how love I thy law!" should be the life-note of individual men and women. "Great peace have they which love thy law," should express their inward comfort, and the incentive of their active labour for God and good.—D.
Esther 1:13, Esther 1:14
I. RESPECT FOR COUNSEL AND COUNSELLORS. This implies—
1. A proper humility. Some men are too proud to seek advice from others; they resent it as an impertinence when it is offered. Others place so much confidence in their own judgment that they fail to see the need of extraneous help. But the facts of life, as well as the verdicts of conscience and religion, condemn both pride and self-confidence as foolish and hurtful. How often are they brought low in presence of their own acts i
2. A proper sense of responsibility. We cannot estimate what may be the effect of any particular act. The well-being of others as well as ourselves may be deeply concerned in conduct which we treat lightly, and therefore heedlessly pursue. A thoughtful consideration of our responsibility to God and our neighbour for our actions and their results would make us welcome the light of a kindly counsel, by whomsoever given. Especially should those who occupy positions of great influence seek and value the aid of good counsellors.
II. QUALIFICATIONS OF COUNSELLORS. Few possess the peculiar gifts and acquirements needed to give them the character of good and trustworthy advisers. Such a character demands a combination of high qualities. This is true in connection not only with matters of grave importance, but with the affairs of ordinary life. In our passage we have certain qualifications indicated—
1. Wisdom, or knowledge. The men whom the king consulted on the case of Vashti are called "wise men who knew the times." They were learned in the wisdom of their day, and had studied the laws of the empire and the principles on which they were grounded. A special knowledge is required to grapple with, and throw light on, matters that are involved, perplexing, and attended by heavy risks. In presence of such matters ignorance is helpless or presuming, while imperfect knowledge is sure to mislead. Only a wisdom which is familiar with facts and principles can be trusted in cases where the counsellor is required.
2. Experience. A theoretical knowledge may be good and necessary, but it is not sufficient to guide in practical matters. Men may learn much from books and abstract meditation, but unless they are accustomed to apply what they have learned, or to study its applications, in the events of every-day life, their counsel in cases of difficulty will be of little value. The men whom it was "the king's manner" to consult were skilled both in "law" and in "judgment." Their knowledge was not only ideal or speculative, but practical and experimental. They had trained themselves to apply law in giving judgment. They had learned to discriminate, to weigh evidence, and to pronounce verdicts in the light of existing laws. Experience is the greatest of teachers, and those who have benefited most by its lessons are most capable of discharging the duty of counsellors. As in law, so also in all other human interests. In commerce, the best adviser will be the man who has passed through, in an honourable and successful way, all the vicissitudes of a commercial life. The same is true with respect to religious needs and anxieties. The true counsellor to the distressed soul will be the Christian who has himself experienced the struggles with sin, the renewing grace of God, and the redeeming love of Jesus Christ.
3. Reputation and standing. It is said that the king's advisers were "next" to himself; that they "saw the king's face," and that they "sat the first in the kingdom." Their wisdom had made them eminent, and the effect of their counsel would be in proportion to their eminence. They had much to gain or lose by the answer they might give to the king's proposition. Their reputation and standing were at stake. It is easy for men of small character and influence to offer flippant or heedless advice. But those whose acknowledged wisdom has raised them to a position which gives power to their judgments are usually careful as to the opinions they express. At any rate they stand out before others as possessing a special claim on the confidence of those who require the guidance of enlightened counsel. From this consideration let us learn—
(1) The value of a good social reputation. It should be cherished as a treasure beyond price.
(2) The influence of a good social reputation. It is incalculable. It tells on many. It works unseen. It goes far beyond the visible sphere of its action.
(3) The burden of a good social reputation. It is weighty. A great responsibility attaches to it.
III. A DIVINE COUNSELLOR IS MADE KNOWN. Christ never fails those who trust and follow him. Among his recorded names are "the Wisdom," "the Word," and "the Counsellor." He is interested in all that interests man for time and eternity. His voice may be heard in connection with all duties, all positions, all events—a voice of truth, righteousness, and love. If we listen to him we shall neither live nor die in vain.—D.
Esther 1:15, Esther 1:16
The proverb says, "Where no counsel is, the people fall; but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety" (Proverbs 11:14). The truth of this proverb is conditioned by one of two things. It assumes that the counsellors are—
1. All wise and true. But this cannot be said of any human assembly, or parliament, or senate, or cabinet. If any body of counsellors could lay just claim to it, then the safety of a perfect wisdom and truth would be the necessary result. Nothing could resist its power. This condition, however, being impossible, we must resort to the alternative assumption, viz; that the counsellors are—
2. All free. In this case the conflict of opinion and aim must ultimately bring to the light what is just and good. It is the principle of free discussion that governs the proceedings of our modern parliaments. Prejudice and corrupt motive may find a place in the doings of such parliaments, but through the controversies which arise truth gradually emerges into power, and sooner or later shapes itself into irreversible laws. Circumstances, however, may elicit advice which is opposed to the better knowledge or free judgment of those who give it. A despotic king, or an infatuated people, may destroy counsel, or force it away from the lines of truth, "What to do with Vashti?" was the proposition of the king to his wise men. From the advice which was given and accepted we learn—
I. SOME OF THE MARKS OF GOOD COUNSEL.
1. It does not flatter. The words of Memucan were framed to please the king. They were very artful in their flattery. Vashti's sin against the king was expanded into a sin against all the husbands in the empire. Her punishment would confer a benefit on both "princes and people" in all the provinces. A soothing and solace to the king's wounded vanity! The desire to please and the desire to be pleased are both enemies to good counsel.
2. It is above fear. As the fear of disgrace or suffering is the greatest trial to honesty of counsel, so the conquering of such a fear, in circumstances that seemed to justify it, is its greatest triumph. Here Memucan and his companions failed. They knew the anger that burned in the king's heart, and their advice showed an anxiety to avert the effects of that anger from themselves. They valued their heads more than their virtue. Under fear, wisdom was willing to assume the guise of cunning. To get good counsel it is better to win confidence than to inspire fear. Fear is always false; love only is true.
3. It is unselfish. Whenever counsel is given, whether with or without asking, it should be entirely in the interest of those to whom it is given. Any underlying element of selfish thought is weakening, if not vitiating. It is clear that Memucan and his fellow wisdom-mongers had much regard to their own position in the advice which they gave.
4. It is just. It takes into view the interests of those whose character or position may be affected by it. Unfair or one-sided judgments arc opposed to it. In Vashti's case the counsel given assumed that she had been guilty of conduct that deserved the severest punishment, without so much as noticing the circumstances which led to it and which may have justified or palliated it. It was assumed that the queen had been disobedient, had set a bad example, and had injured not only the king, but the whole empire. Nothing was said of the folly of the king's command. Nothing was allowed for the womanly feelings that were outraged by it. Injustice in counsel deprives it of the quality of goodness or true wisdom.
5. It is reasonable. Any counsel which violates common sense, or bears a ludicrous aspect, is unworthy to he given or followed. Such counsel can only be offered to men who are known to lack a reasonable mind, or come from men who are swayed rather by policy than by principle. The advice given about Vashti is so foolish in its form as to suggest that the "wise men" were befooling their king.
II. HOW DIFFICULT IT IS FOR THE GREAT TO GET GOOD COUNSEL! To secure that advice shall be founded on truth, they must—
1. Be known to desire the truth. For the most part, a man possessing power will only receive counsel that is fashioned to suit his character and wishes. If he loves and seeks the truth, those who advise him will speak the truth. A wise and truthful counsel will grow up around him. But if he lives falsely and hates to be disturbed in his false living, the counsel that is given him will be after his liking.
2. Be able to discern the truth. Good instincts will not protect a weak man from the impositions of plausible cunning. A desire to learn and to do what is right may be defeated by a want of capacity to distinguish between competing counsels. This power of discernment, with respect to the quality of advice, greatly varies in men. Some possess it as a natural gift; some only acquire it after long experience; many never get hold of it; all have need to cultivate it with earnest care. It is a great power in the practical conduct of life.
3. Be resolute to learn the truth. For kings and other great people to get good counsel, it must be known that they will only listen to counsel that is good. A desire for the truth, and a capacity to discern it, may be accompanied by an utter want of active and determined will. Then counsel will become uncertain; honest thoughts will grow timorous in expression; dishonest thoughts will grow bold. An irresolute will favours the solicitude of bad guides. As there is a Divine Counsellor, so there is a Divine counsel—the word of the living God—holy, wise, true, just, loving, and safe. All who take and follow that counsel are made "wise unto salvation," and are "well instructed" in the things that are "unto holiness," and that "belong to peace."—D.
Esther 1:17, Esther 1:18
These verses speak of the force of example, and suggest some thoughts respecting it.
I. THE INFLUENCE OF EXAMPLE IS PECULIARLY SUBTLE AND DEEP. This arises from the fact that it is not an abstract, but a living thing. It is the embodiment of principles, good or bad, in an active human life. It touches and lays hold of, more or less, the actuating spirit of those who come within its circle. Fine professions go for little when personal character and conduct belie them. Nor has precept much power when not conjoined with a harmonious example. "Example is better than precept," in the sense that it is the action of soul on soul, and will therefore tell on those who see it, when precept will only fall heedlessly on the ear.
II. THE INFLUENCE OF EXAMPLE TRAVELS FAR AND WIDE. It is seen and felt beyond the knowledge or the immediate circle of the man who gives it. Men are observed and their actions weighed when they do not suspect it. When one life is impressed by the example of another, the impression does not stop there, but is conveyed to other lives, and is thus extended indefinitely. This is true of negative as well as of positive qualities, and of ordinary conduct as well as of particular acts.
III. THE INFLUENCE OF EXAMPLE IS CONTINUOUS. Special conduct on special occasions is but a vivid expression of the spirit that animates the daily life. A man's example continues with his life, and being continuous, its influence is accumulative. Even after his death it may long continue to exert power, either through the written record, or through descendants whose character has been affected by it.
IV. THE INFLUENCE OF EXAMPLE IS INCREASED BY HIGH POSITION. The higher a man stands in social rank, the more widely will he be observed, and the more readily imitated. There is an instinctive reverence for rank in the human heart which should make royal, noble, or wealthy persons very careful as to the example they set. But all positions are relative. Thus a parent is as great in the eye of a child as a monarch is in view of the subject. The Christian minister in relation to his flock; the teacher to his pupil; the master to his servant; the cultivated to the ignorant—all these also occupy a position of eminence, and their example exerts a corresponding influence.
V. THE INFLUENCE AND TRUE QUALITY OF EXAMPLE ARE NOT ALWAYS TO BE JUDGED BY PREVAILING HABITS OR POPULAR NOTIONS. It may run counter to these and be condemned by them, and yet be good. Passing fashions of thought and life afford no fixed standard of example. Vashti's disobedience was accounted bad as an example because it was a violation of the custom which laid on wives a slavish submission to their husbands. But judged by a higher law than that of custom, her example was good both to the king and to his subjects. Whatever conduct recognises the claims of truth, conscience, purity, and modest self-respect must be allowed to be good; whatever conduct tramples on or is indifferent to such things must be adjudged evil.
VI. THE INFLUENCE AND TRUE QUALITY OF EXAMPLE CANNOT BE FAIRLY JUDGED BY THOSE WHOM IT HAS AFFRONTED and filled with malice or wrath How could the king in his burning anger, or his advisers under the flame of that anger, do justice to the conduct of Vashti? Wrath is a bad judge.
VII. THE INFLUENCE AND TRUE QUALITY OF EXAMPLE ARE OFTEN MORE JUSTLY ESTIMATED IN AFTER TIMES THAN AT THE TIME IN WHICH THE EXAMPLE WAS GIVEN. As between the king and Vashti judgment now would go against the king. Many a character and many an action, when time has scattered the mists of passion, have appeared in a new light, and received a tardy justice by the reversal of contemporary verdicts.
VIII. THE ONLY PERFECT EXAMPLE KNOWN AMONGST MEN IS THAT OF JESUS, THE SON OF GOD. The more fully we regulate our conduct by the spirit of his life, the more influential for good will be our own life-example (see Matthew 16:24; John 13:15; 1 Peter 2:21).—D.
In connection with the penalty imposed on Vashti the following remarks may be made:—
I. PENALTIES ARE INTENDED TO ENFORCE LAWS, or, in other words, to deter men from crime. With many law would have little power apart from the penalties attached to the transgression of it. Those who are not governed by virtue, or the love of God and truth, may be commanded by fear.
II. PENALTIES OUGHT TO BE EQUITABLE. As the servants of justice, they should have some real proportion to the trespass committed. Even supposing Vashti to have failed in temper or in wisdom, her punishment was out of all proportion to her fault—most cruel and unjust. Excessive penalties are themselves an injustice, and, as all experience testifies, rather encourage than repress crime.
III. PENALTIES, while being adequate to the offence, SHOULD CONTEMPLATE THE IMPROVEMENT OF THE OFFENDER. The king's decree against Vashti gave no room for explanation, repentance, or amendment, When penalties do nothing more than inflict pain and privation, they are likely to harden transgressors in evil, and thus to prepare new and weightier scourges for the society which they are designed to protect.
IV. PENALTIES SHOULD NEVER BE THE INSTRUMENTS OF VENGEANCE OR WRATH. They should be the award of impartial and unimpassioned justice. Of the punishment of Vashti a burning anger was the spring.
V. PENALTIES SHOULD NEVER BE INFLICTED EXCEPT WHEN GUILT HAS BEEN CLEARLY PROVED. In the action of our law courts the maxim is recognised that it is better to let the guilty escape than to allow punishment to fall on the innocent. The benefit of any doubt is given to the accused.
VI. PENALTIES FURNISH A MOTIVE FOR THE AVOIDANCE OF CRIME ONLY TO THE EVIL-DISPOSED. The good honour and love the principles on which just laws are founded, and freely live by them. If all men were governed by a pure conscience and the love of God there would be no need for penal codes.
VII. PENALTIES ARE ATTACHED TO DIVINE AS WELL AS TO HUMAN LEGISLATION. No law of God can be broken with impunity. In the cross of Jesus Christ mercy and justice meet, and through that sacrifice an infinite mercy is justly offered to all men. As to the future punishment of the impenitent we can say little, because little is revealed; that we must leave trustfully with him whose judgments are truth and whose ways are righteous. It should be the prayerful aim of all Christians so to enter into the love of God in Christ as to be raised above the fear of the law. "Fear hath torment;" "but perfect love casteth out fear" (1 John 4:18).—D.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Esther 1". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26