Imitate Their Faith
She Stood Up for God’s People
ESTHER tried to calm her heart as she approached the courtyard in the palace at Shushan. It was not easy. Everything about the castle—its multicolored relief sculptures of winged bulls, archers, and lions of glazed brickwork, its fluted stone columns and imposing statues, even its position atop huge platforms near the snowcapped Zagros Mountains and overlooking the pure waters of the river Choaspes—was designed to remind each visitor of the immense power of the man whom she was going to see, the one who called himself “the great king.” He was also her husband.
Husband! How different Ahasuerus was from the kind of husband any faithful Jewish girl might have expected!* He looked to no examples such as Abraham, a man who humbly accepted God’s direction to listen to Sarah, his wife. (Genesis 21:12) The king knew little or nothing of Esther’s God, Jehovah, or of His Law. Ahasuerus knew Persian law, though, including a law forbidding the very thing that Esther was about to do. What was that? Well, the law said that anyone who appeared before the Persian monarch without first being summoned by the king was liable to death. Esther had not been summoned, but she was going to the king anyway. As she drew near to the inner courtyard, where she would be visible from the king’s throne, she may have felt that she was walking to her death.—Esther 4:11; 5:1.
Why did she take such a risk? And what can we learn from the faith of this remarkable woman? First, let us see how Esther got into the unusual position of being a queen in Persia.
“Beautiful in Appearance”
Esther was an orphan. We know very little of the parents who named her Hadassah, a Hebrew word for “myrtle,” a lovely white-blossomed shrub. When Esther’s parents died, one of her relatives, a kindly man named Mordecai, took pity on the child. He was her cousin, but Mordecai was much older. He brought Esther into his home and treated her as his own daughter.—Esther 2:5-7, 15.
Mordecai and Esther lived as Jewish exiles in that Persian capital, where they probably had to deal with a measure of disdain over their religion and the Law they tried to follow. But Esther surely drew closer to her cousin as he taught her about Jehovah, the merciful God who had rescued His people from trouble many times in the past—and would do so again. (Leviticus 26:44, 45) Clearly, a loving and loyal bond grew between Esther and Mordecai.
Mordecai evidently worked as some kind of official at the castle at Shushan, regularly sitting within its gate along with other servants of the king. (Esther 2:19, 21; 3:3) How the young Esther passed her time as she grew up, we can only guess, although it seems safe to say that she took good care of her older cousin and his home, which was likely situated in the humbler quarters across the river from the royal castle. Perhaps she enjoyed going to the market in Shushan, where goldsmiths, silversmiths, and other merchants displayed their wares. Esther could not have imagined that such luxuries would later become commonplace to her; she had no idea of the future in store for her.
A Queen Deposed
One day, Shushan was buzzing with gossip about turmoil in the household of the king. At a grand feast, where Ahasuerus was entertaining his noblemen with sumptuous food and wine, the king decided to summon his beautiful queen, Vashti, who was feasting separately with the women. But Vashti refused to come. Humiliated and enraged, the king asked his advisers how Vashti should be punished. The result? She was deposed as queen. The king’s servants began searching throughout the land for beautiful young virgins; from among them the king would select a new queen.—Esther 1:1–2:4.
We may imagine Mordecai gazing fondly at Esther from time to time and noting with a mixture of pride and concern that his little cousin was grown-up—and had turned out to be a remarkable beauty. “The young woman was pretty in form and beautiful in appearance,” we read. (Esther 2:7) Physical beauty is delightful, but it needs to be coupled with wisdom and humility. Otherwise, it may breed vanity, pride, and other ugly traits of the heart. (Proverbs 11:22) Have you ever seen that to be true? In Esther’s case, what would beauty turn out to be—an asset or a liability? Time would tell.
The king’s servants noticed Esther. They gathered her up in their search, taking her away from Mordecai and off to the grand palace across the river. (Esther 2:8) It must have been a difficult parting, for the two were like father and daughter. Mordecai would not have wanted his adopted daughter to marry any unbeliever, even a king, but events were out of his control. How eagerly Esther must have listened to Mordecai’s words of advice before she was taken away! As she was led to Shushan the castle, her mind was filled with questions. What kind of life lay ahead of her?
She Won Favor “in the Eyes of Everyone Seeing Her”
Esther found herself ushered into a world that was entirely new and strange to her. She was among “many young women” who had been gathered from far and wide in the Persian Empire. Their customs, languages, and attitudes must have varied widely. Placed under the charge of an official named Hegai, the young women were to undergo an extensive beauty treatment, a yearlong program that involved massages with fragrant oils. (Esther 2:8, 12) Such an environment and lifestyle might easily have bred an obsession with personal appearance among those young women, along with vanity and competitiveness. How was Esther affected?
No one on earth could have been more concerned about Esther than Mordecai was. We read that day by day, he made his way as near as he could to the house of the women and endeavored to learn of Esther’s welfare. (Esther 2:11) As bits of information trickled out to him, perhaps through cooperative servants in the household, he must have beamed with fatherly pride. Why?
Esther so impressed Hegai that he treated her with great loving-kindness, giving her seven servant girls and the best place in the house of the women. The account even says: “All the while Esther was continually gaining favor in the eyes of everyone seeing her.” (Esther 2:9, 15) Would beauty alone have impressed everyone so profoundly? No, there was much more to Esther than that.
For instance, we read: “Esther had not told about her people or about her relatives, for Mordecai himself had laid the command upon her that she should not tell.” (Esther 2:10) Mordecai had instructed the girl to be discreet about her Jewish heritage; he no doubt saw that among Persian royalty, there was much prejudice against his people. What a pleasure it was for him to learn that now, even though Esther was out of his sight, she still showed the same wise and obedient spirit!
Young people today may likewise bring joy to the hearts of parents and guardians. When out of their parents’ sight—even if surrounded by people who are shallow, immoral, or vicious—they can resist bad influences and stick to the standards that they know are right. When they do so, like Esther, they make the heart of their heavenly Father rejoice.—Proverbs 27:11.
When the time came for Esther to be presented to the king, she was given the liberty to select any items that she thought she might need, perhaps to beautify herself further. Following Hegai’s advice, though, she modestly asked for nothing beyond what she was offered. (Esther 2:15) She probably realized that beauty alone would not win the king’s heart; a modest and humble spirit would prove a far rarer commodity in that court. Was she right?
The account answers: “The king came to love Esther more than all the other women, so that she gained more favor and loving-kindness before him than all the other virgins. And he proceeded to put the royal headdress upon her head and make her queen instead of Vashti.” (Esther 2:17) It must have been hard for this humble Jewish girl to adjust to the change in her life—she was the new queen, wife to the most powerful monarch on earth at that time! Did her new position go to her head, filling her with pride?
Far from it! Esther remained obedient to her adoptive father, Mordecai. She kept her connection to the Jewish people a secret. Further, when Mordecai uncovered a plot to assassinate Ahasuerus, Esther obediently passed his warning along to the king, and the plotters were foiled. (Esther 2:20-23) She still expressed faith in her God by showing a humble, obedient spirit. Obedience is rarely valued as a virtue today; disobedience and rebellion are the norm. But people of genuine faith treasure obedience, as Esther did.
Esther’s Faith Under Test
A man named Haman rose to prominence in the court of Ahasuerus. The king appointed him prime minister, making Haman his principal adviser and the second in command in the empire. The king even decreed that all who saw this official must bow down to him. (Esther 3:1-4) For Mordecai, that law posed a problem. He believed in obeying the king but not at the cost of disrespecting God. You see, Haman was “an Agagite.” That evidently means that he was a descendant of Agag, the Amalekite king who was executed by God’s prophet Samuel. (1 Samuel 15:33) So wicked were the Amalekites that they had made themselves enemies of Jehovah and Israel. As a people, the Amalekites stood condemned by God.* (Deuteronomy 25:19) How could a faithful Jew bow down to a royal Amalekite? Mordecai could not. He stood his ground. To this day, men and women of faith have risked their lives to adhere to this principle: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.”—Acts 5:29.
Haman was enraged. But it was not enough for him to find a way to kill off Mordecai. He wanted to exterminate all of Mordecai’s people! Haman spoke to the king, painting a dark portrait of the Jews. Without naming them, he implied that they were inconsequential, a people “scattered and separated among the peoples.” Even worse, he said that they did not obey the king’s laws; hence, they were dangerous rebels. He proposed to donate to the king’s treasury an immense sum of money to cover the expense of slaughtering all the Jews in the empire.* Ahasuerus gave Haman the king’s own signet ring to seal any order that he had in mind.—Esther 3:5-10.
Soon messengers were speeding on horseback to every corner of the vast empire, delivering a death sentence to the Jewish people. Imagine the impact of such a proclamation when it reached far-off Jerusalem, where a remnant of Jews who had returned from exile in Babylon were struggling to rebuild a city that still had no wall to defend it. Perhaps Mordecai thought of them, as well as of his own friends and relatives in Shushan, when he heard the terrible news. Distraught, he ripped his clothes, wore sackcloth and placed ashes on his head, and cried aloud in the middle of the city. Haman, however, sat drinking with the king, unmoved by the grief he had stirred up among the many Jews and their friends in Shushan.—Esther 3:12–4:1.
Mordecai knew that he had to act. But what could he do? Esther heard of his distress and sent clothes to him, but Mordecai refused to take comfort. Maybe he had long wondered why his God, Jehovah, had allowed dear Esther to be taken from him and made the queen of a pagan ruler. Now the reason seemed to be emerging. Mordecai sent a message to the queen, imploring Esther to intercede with the king, to stand up “for her own people.”—Esther 4:4-8.
Esther’s heart must have sunk when she heard that message. Here was her greatest test of faith. She was afraid, as she freely revealed in her reply to Mordecai. She reminded him of the king’s law. To appear before the king unsummoned meant a death sentence. Only if the king held out his golden scepter was the offender spared. And did Esther have any reason to expect such clemency, especially in view of Vashti’s fate when she refused to appear when bidden to do so? She told Mordecai that the king had not invited her to see him in 30 days! Such neglect left her plenty of reason to wonder if she had fallen out of the capricious monarch’s favor.*—Esther 4:9-11.
Mordecai replied firmly to bolster Esther’s faith. He assured her that if she failed to act, salvation for the Jews would arise from some other source. But how could she expect to be spared once the persecution gathered force? Here Mordecai showed his profound faith in Jehovah, who would never let His people be exterminated and His promises go unfulfilled. (Joshua 23:14) Then Mordecai asked Esther: “Who is there knowing whether it is for a time like this that you have attained to royal dignity?” (Esther 4:12-14) Mordecai trusted completely in his God, Jehovah. Do we?—Proverbs 3:5, 6.
A Faith Stronger Than the Fear of Death
For Esther, the decisive moment had arrived. She asked Mordecai to get her countrymen to join her in a three-day fast, concluding her message with a statement that has echoed through the centuries in its simple faith and courage: “In case I must perish, I must perish.” (Esther 4:15-17) She must have prayed more fervently in those three days than she ever had in her life. Finally, though, the moment came. She dressed in her very best royal finery, doing all she could to appeal to the king. Then she went.
As described at the outset of this article, Esther made her way to the king’s court. We can only imagine the anxious thoughts, the fervent prayers, filling her mind and heart. She entered the courtyard, where she could see Ahasuerus on his throne. Perhaps she tried to read the expression on his face—the face that was framed by the carefully tended, symmetrical curls of his hair and of his squared beard. If she had to wait, it must have felt like an eternity. But the moment passed—her husband saw her. He was surely surprised, but his expression softened. He held out his golden scepter!—Esther 5:1, 2.
Esther had gained an audience, a hearing ear. She had taken a stand for her God and for her people, setting a beautiful example of faith for all servants of God down through time. But her work was only beginning. How would she convince the king that his favorite adviser, Haman, was a wicked plotter? How could she help to save her people? We will consider these questions in a future article.
Ahasuerus is widely thought to be Xerxes I, who ruled the Persian Empire early in the fifth century B.C.E.
Haman may have been among the very last of the Amalekites, since “the remnant” of them were destroyed back in the days of King Hezekiah.—1 Chronicles 4:43.
Haman offered 10,000 silver talents, worth hundreds of millions of dollars today. If Ahasuerus was Xerxes I, the money might have made Haman’s offer more appealing. Xerxes needed a vast store of funds to carry out his long-proposed but ultimately disastrous war against Greece.
Xerxes I was known for his mercurial, violent temper. The Greek historian Herodotus recorded some examples from Xerxes’ war against Greece. The king ordered that a pontoon bridge of ships be built across the strait of Hellespont. When a storm ruined the bridge, Xerxes ordered the engineers beheaded and even had his men “punish” the Hellespont by whipping the water while an insulting proclamation was read aloud. In the same campaign, when a wealthy man begged that his son be excused from joining the army, Xerxes had the son cut in half, his body displayed as a warning.
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Mordecai had good reason to be proud of his adopted daughter
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Esther knew that humility and wisdom were far more important than physical appearance
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Esther risked her life to protect God’s people