Expositor's Bible 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:)AHASUERUS AND VASHTI
Esther 1:1-22THE character of Ahasuerus illustrates the Nemesis of absolutism, by showing how unlimited power is crushed and dissolved beneath the weight of its own immensity. The very vastness of his domains overwhelms the despot. While he thinks himself free to disport according to his will, he is in reality the slave of his own machinery of government. He is so entirely dependent for information on subordinates, who can deceive him to suit their own private ends, that he often becomes a mere puppet of the political wire-pullers. In the fury of his passion he issues his terrible mandates, with the confidence of a master whose slightest whim is a law to the nations, and yet that very passion has been cleverly worked up by some of his servants, who are laughing in their sleeves at the simplicity of their dupe, even while they are fawning on him with obsequious flattery. In the story of Esther Ahasuerus is turned about hither and thither by his courtiers, according as one or another is clever enough to obtain a temporary hearing. In the opening scene he is the victim of a harem plot which deprives him of his favourite consort. Subsequently Haman poisons his mind with calumnies about a loyal, industrious section of his subjects. He is only undeceived by another movement in the harem. Even the jealously guarded women of the royal household know more of the actual state of affairs in the outside world than the bewildered monarch. The king is so high above his realm that he cannot see what is going on in it, and all that he can learn about it passes through such a variety of intermediary agents that it is coloured and distorted in the process.
But this is not all. The man who is exalted to the pedestal of a god is made dizzy by his own altitude. Absolutism drove the Roman Emperor Caligula mad, it punished the Xerxes of Herodotus with childishness. The silly monarch who would decorate a tree with the jewellery of a prince in reward for its fruitfulness, and flog and chain the Hellespont as a punishment for its tempestuousness, is not fit to be let out of the nursery. Such conduct as his discovers an ineptitude that is next door to idiocy. When the same man appears on the pages of Scripture under the name of Ahasuerus, his weakness is despicable. The most keen-sighted ruler of millions is liable to be misinformed, the strongest administrator of a gigantic empire is compelled to move with difficulty in the midst of the elaborate organisation of his government. But Ahasuerus is neither keen-sighted nor strong. He is a victim of the last court intrigue, a believer in the idlest gossip, and he is worse, for even on the suppositions presented to him he behaves with folly and senseless fury. His conduct to Vashti is first insulting and then ungrateful, for fidelity to her worthless husband would prompt her to decline to risk herself among a crew of drunken revellers. His consent to the diabolical proposal of his grand vizier for a massacre, without an atom of proof that the victims are guilty, exhibits a hopeless state of mental feebleness, His equal readiness to transfer the mandate of wholesale murder to persons described indefinitely as the "enemies" of these people shows how completely he is twisted about by the latest breeze. As the palace plots develop we see this great king in all his pride and majesty tossed to and fro like a shuttle-cock. And yet he can sting. It is a dangerous game for the players, and the object of it is to get the deadly venom of the royal rage to light on the head of the opposite party. We could not have a more certain proof of the vanity of "ambition that o’er leaps itself" than this conversion of immeasurable power into helpless weakness on the part of the Persian sovereign. We naturally start with this glaring exhibition of the irony of fate in our study of Ahasuerus, because it is the most pronounced factor in his character and career. There are other elements of the picture, however, which are not, like this, confined to the abnormal experience of solitary rulers. Next to the revenge of absolutism on its possessor, the more vulgar effects of extravagant luxury and self-indulgence are to be seen in the degraded Persian court life. Very likely the writer of our Book of Esther introduces these matters with the primary object of enhancing the significance of his main theme by making us feel how great a danger the Jews were in, and how magnificent a triumph was won for them by the heroic Jewess of the harem. But the scene that he thus brings before us throws light on the situation all round. Xerxes’ idea of unbridled power is that it admits of unlimited pleasure. Our author’s picture of the splendid palace, with its richly coloured awnings stretched across from marble pillars to silver rods over the tesselated pavement, where the most exalted guests recline in the shade on gold and silver seats, while they feast hugely and drink heavily day after day, . shows us how the provinces were being drained to enrich the court, and how the royal treasury was being lavished on idle festivity. That was bad enough, but its effects were worse. The law was license. "The drinking was according to the law," and this law was that there should be no limit to it, everybody taking just as much wine as he pleased. Naturally such a rule ostentatiously paraded before a dissolute company led to a scene of downright bestial debauchery. According to Herodotus, the Persians were addicted to drunkenness, and the incident described in the first chapter of Esther is quite in accordance with the Greek historian’s account of the followers of Xerxes.
The worst effect of this vice of drunkenness is its degrading influence on the conduct and character of men. It robs its victims of self-respect and manliness, and sends them to wallow in the mire with swinish obscenity. What they would not dream of stooping to in their sober moments, they revel in with shameless ostentation when their brains are clouded with intoxicating drink. Husbands, who are gentle and considerate at other times, are then transformed into brutes, who can take pleasure in trampling on their wives. It is no excuse to plead that the drunkard is a madman unaccountable for his actions; he is accountable for having put himself in his degraded condition. If he is temporarily insane, he has poisoned his own intellect by swallowing a noxious drug with his eyes open. He is responsible for that action, and therefore he must be held to be responsible for its consequences. If he had given due consideration to his conduct, he might have foreseen whither it was tending. The man who has been foolish enough to launch his boat on the rapids cannot divert its course when he is startled by the thunder of the falls he is approaching, but he should have thought of that before leaving the safety of the shore.
The immediate consequence of the disgusting degradation of drunkenness, in the case of Ahasnerus, is that the monarch grossly insults his queen. A moment’s consideration would have suggested the danger as well as the scandal of his behaviour. But in his heedless folly the debauchee hurls himself over the precipice, from the height of his royal dignity down to the very pit of ignominy, and then he is only enraged that Vashti refuses to be dragged down with him. It is a revolting scene, and one to show how the awful vice of drunkenness levels all distinctions; here it outrages the most sacred rules of Oriental etiquette. The seclusion of the harem is to be violated for the amusement of the dissolute king’s boon companions.
In the story of Esther poor Vashti’s fall is only introduced in order to make way for her Hebrew rival. But after-ages have naturally sided with the wronged queen. Was it true modesty that prompted her daring refusal, or the lawful pride of womanhood? If so, all women should honour Vashti as the vindicator of their dues. Whatever "woman’s rights" may be maintained in the field of politics, the very existence of the home, the basis of society itself, depends on those more profound and inalienable rights that touch the character of pure womanliness. The first of a woman’s rights is the right to her own person. But this right is ignored in Oriental civilisation. The sweet English word "home" is unknown in the court of such a king as Ahasuerus. To think of it in this connection is as incongruous as to imagine a daisy springing up through the boards of a dancing saloon. The unhappy Vashti had never known this choicest of words, but she may have had a due conception of a woman’s true dignity, as far as the perverted ideas of the East permitted. And yet even here a painful suspicion obtrudes itself on our notice. Vashti had been feasting with the women of the harem when she received the brutal mandate from her lord. Had she too lost her balance of judgment under the bewitching influence of the wine-cup? Was she rendered reckless by the excitement of her festivities? Was her refusal the result of the factitious courage that Springs from an unwholesome excitement or an equally effective mental stupor? Since one of the commonest results of intoxication is a quarrelsomeness of temper, it must be admitted that Vashti’s flat refusal to obey may have some connection with her previous festivities. In that case, of course, something must be detracted from her glory as the martyr of womanliness. A horrible picture is this-a drunken king quarrelling with his drunken queen, these two people, set in the highest places in their vast realm, descending. from the very pinnacle of greatness to grovel in debased intemperance! It would not be fair to the poor, wronged queen to assert so much without any clear evidence in support of the darker view of her conduct. Still it must be admitted that it is difficult for any of the members of a dissolute society to keep their garments clean, Unhappily it is only too frequently the case that, even in a Christian land, womanhood is degraded by becoming the victim of intemperance. No sight on earth is more sickening. A woman may be loaded with insults, and yet she may keep her soul white as the soul of St. Agnes. It is not an outrage on her dignity, offered by the drunken king to his queen that really marks her degradation. To all fair judgments, that only degrades the brute who offers it, but the white lily is bruised and trampled in the dust when she who wears it herself consents to fling it away.
The action of Ahasuerus on receipt of his queen’s refusal reveals another trait in his weak character. Jealous eyes always watching the favourite of the harem discover an opportunity for a gleeful triumph. The advisers of the king are cunning enough to set the action of Vashti in the light of a public example. If a woman in so exalted a position is permitted to disobey her husband with impunity, other wives will appeal to her case and break out of bounds. It is a mean plea, the plea of weakness on the part of the speaker, Memucan, the last of the seven princes. Is this man only finding an excuse for the king? or may it be supposed that his thoughts are travelling away to a shrew in his own home? The strange thing is that the king is not content with wreaking his vengeance on the proud Vashti. He is persuaded to utilise the occasion of her act of insubordination in order to issue a decree commanding the subjection of all wives to their husbands. The queen’s conduct is treated as an instance of a growing spirit of independence on the part of the women of Persia, which must be crushed forthwith. One would think that the women were slaves, and that the princes were acting like the Romans when they issued repressive measures from dread of a "Servile War."
If such a law as this had ever been passed, we might well understand the complaint of those who say it is unjust that the function of legislation should be monopolised by one sex. Even in the West, where women are comparatively free and are supposed to be treated on an equality with men, wrong is often done because the laws which concern them more especially are all made by men. In the East, where they are regarded as property, like their husbands’ camels and oxen cruel injustice is inevitable. But this injustice cannot go unpunished. It must react on its perpetrators, blunting their finer feelings, lowering their better nature, robbing them of those sacred confidences of husband and wife which never spring up on the territory of the slave-driver.
But we have only to consider the domestic edict of Ahasuerus to see its frothy vanity. When it was issued it must have struck everybody who had the faintest sense of humour as simply ridiculous. It is not by the rough instrumentality of the law that difficult questions of the relations between the sexes can be adjusted. The law can see that a formal contract is not violated with impunity. The law can protect the individual parties to the contract from the most brutal forms of cruelty-though even this is very difficult between husband and wife. But the law cannot secure real justice in the home. This must be left to the working of principles of righteousness and to the mutual considerateness of those who are concerned. Where these elements are wanting, no legislation on matrimony can restore the peace of a shattered home.
The order of Ahasuerus, however, was too indefinite to have very serious results. The tyrannical husband would not have waited for any such excuse as it might afford him for exacting obedience from his oppressed household drudge. The strong-minded woman would mock at the king’s order, and have her own way as before. Who could hinder her? Certainly not her husband. The yoke of years of meek submission was not to be broken in a day by a royal proclamation. But wherever the true idea of marriage was realised-and we must have sufficient faith in human nature to be assured that this was sometimes the case even in the realm of Xerxes-the husband and wife who knew themselves to be one, united by the closest ties of love and sympathy and mutual confidence, would laugh in their happiness and perhaps spare a thought of pity for the poor, silly king who was advertising his domestic troubles to the world, and thereby exhibiting his shallow notions of wedded life-blind, absolutely blind, to the sweet secret that was heaven to them.
We may be sure that the singular edict remained a dead letter. But the king would be master in his own palace. So Vashti fell. We hear no more of her, but we can guess too well what her most probable fate must have been. The gates of death are never difficult to find in an Oriental palace; there are always jealous rivals eager to triumph over the fall of a royal favourite. Still Ahasuerus had been really fond of the queen who paid so dearly for her one act of independence. Repenting of his drunken rage, the king let his thoughts revert to his former favourite, a most dangerous thing for those who had hastened her removal. The easiest escape for them was to play on his coarse nature by introducing to his notice a bevy of girls from whom he might select a new favourite. This was by no means a dignified proceeding for Esther, the maiden to whom the first prize in the exhibition of beauty was awarded by the royal fancier. But it gave her the place of power from which to help her people in their hour of desperate need. And here we come to some redeeming features in the character of the king. He is not lacking in generosity, and he owns to a certain sense of justice. In the crowd of royal cares and pleasures, he has forgotten how an obscure Jew saved his life by revealing one of the many plots that make the pleasures of a despot as hollow a mockery as the feast of Damocles. On the chance discovery of his negligence, Ahasuerus hastens to atone for it with ostentatious generosity. Again, no sooner does he find that he has been duped by Haman into an act of cruel injustice than he tries to counteract the mischief by an equally savage measure of retaliation. A strange way of administering justice! Yet it must be admitted that in this the capricious, blundering king means honestly. The bitter irony of it all is that so awful a power of life and death should be lodged in the hands of one who is so totally incapacitated for a wise use of it.