Esther 1
Pulpit Commentary
Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus, (this is Ahasuerus which reigned, from India even unto Ethiopia, over an hundred and seven and twenty provinces:)
Verse 1. - 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.
That in those days, when the king Ahasuerus sat on the throne of his kingdom, which was in Shushan the palace,
Verse 2. - 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 (see Herod., 3:49; AEschyl., 'Pers.,' 11. 122, 123; Ctes., 'Exe. Pers.,' pessim, etc.). "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, he made a feast unto all his princes and his servants; the power of Persia and Media, the nobles and princes of the provinces, being before him:
Verse 3. - 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 shewed the riches of his glorious kingdom and the honour of his excellent majesty many days, even an hundred and fourscore days.
Verse 4. - 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.
And when these days were expired, the king made a feast unto all the people that were present in Shushan the palace, both unto great and small, seven days, in the court of the garden of the king's palace;
Verse 5. - A feast unto all the people that were found in Susa. The males only are intended, as appears from ver. 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' (pp. 365-372). 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, fastened with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rings and pillars of marble: the beds were of gold and silver, upon a pavement of red, and blue, and white, and black, marble.
Verse 6. - 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 ('Chaldaea and Susiana,' p. 375). 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.
And they gave them drink in vessels of gold, (the vessels being diverse one from another,) and royal wine in abundance, according to the state of the king.
Verse 7. - 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 (see 'Ancient Monarchies,' vol. 2. p. 214). 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 (Athen., 'Deipnosoph,' 4. p. 145, A).
And the drinking was according to the law; none did compel: for so the king had appointed to all the officers of his house, that they should do according to every man's pleasure.
Verse 8. - 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).
Also Vashti the queen made a feast for the women in the royal house which belonged to king Ahasuerus.
Verse 9. - 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 (Brisson, 'De Regn. Pers.,' 2. pp. 273-276). 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).

CHAPTER 1:10-22 THE DISGRACE OF VASHTI (Esther 1:10-22). On the seventh day of the feast "to all in Shushan" (ver. 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" (ver. 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 (ver. 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?" (ver. 15). The advice of the princes, uttered by one of their body (vers. 16-20), and assented to by the remainder (ver. 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 (ver. 22).
On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, and Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas, the seven chamberlains that served in the presence of Ahasuerus the king,
Verse 10. - 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 (ch. 6.), 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).
To bring Vashti the queen before the king with the crown royal, to shew the people and the princes her beauty: for she was fair to look on.
Verse 11. - 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 ('Sixth Oriental Monarchy,' p. 220), 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 to come at the king's commandment by his chamberlains: therefore was the king very wroth, and his anger burned in him.
Verse 12. - 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, which knew the times, (for so was the king's manner toward all that knew law and judgment:
Verse 13. - 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 (Herod., 7:8, 48, 234; 8:101); 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 ver. 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 (compare Herod., 3:31, where Cambyses asks the opinion of the royal judges with respect to his proposed marriage with his sister). 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, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven princes of Persia and Media, which saw the king's face, and which sat the first in the kingdom;)
Verse 14. - 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 (Pera Marduniya) 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 (Esther 7:14), 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 unto the queen Vashti according to law, because she hath not performed the commandment of the king Ahasuerus by the chamberlains?
Verse 15. - 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 before the king and the princes, Vashti the queen hath not done wrong to the king only, but also to all the princes, and to all the people that are in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus.
Verse 16. - 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 (ver. 16) and expediency (vers. 17, 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" (ver. 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.
For this deed of the queen shall come abroad unto all women, so that they shall despise their husbands in their eyes, when it shall be reported, The king Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, but she came not.
Verse 17. - 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.")
Likewise shall the ladies of Persia and Media say this day unto all the king's princes, which have heard of the deed of the queen. Thus shall there arise too much contempt and wrath.
Verse 18. - 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.
If it please the king, let there go a royal commandment from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered, That Vashti come no more before king Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal estate unto another that is better than she.
Verse 19. - 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, 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.
And when the king's decree which he shall make shall be published throughout all his empire, (for it is great,) all the wives shall give to their husbands honour, both to great and small.
Verse 20. - 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, 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.
And the saying pleased the king and the princes; and the king did according to the word of Memucan:
Verse 21. - 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 letters into all the king's provinces, into every province according to the writing thereof, and to every people after their language, that every man should bear rule in his own house, and that it should be published according to the language of every people.
Verse 22. - 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.

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