The greatest events in human history awaken the least interest, because of their “quiet might.” Men look at startling results, but lose sight of the sublime force of a cause which attracted no eye but God’s. They behold the flying timbers and flaming ruins of a conflagration, but forget that the fearful power was concealed in a rising spark. A noble mind is wrecked, and many weep, but do not know that the blast which stranded the bark, was once the gentle breath of maternal influence, unhallowed by piety. So the splendid career of a hero and patriot, like Mordecai, Moses, or Washington, is less glorious than the simple decision made amid the conflicting emotions of youthful aspiration, to honor God and serve a struggling country.
Jehovah illustrates this principle in all his administration. What to Elijah on the solemn mount was the sweep of the hurricane, rending the cliffs and tossing rocks like withered leaves in air—the thunder of the earthquake’s march—the blinding glow of the mantling flame—compared to the “still small voice” that thrilled on his ear, so full of God! It is not strange that there is to be a reckoning for “idle words” even, for they have shaken the world, and their echo will never die away.
The story of Esther, without an allusion to the fact, is a most beautiful illustration of this shaping of destiny by the interpretation of particular providence, in the commonest incidents of life. His church is saved from extinction, by events which appear accidental, and might not have happened for anything we can trace. The whole book is like a transparency hung before the pavilion of the Almighty, through which his counsels shine, and his unerring hand is visible.
Esther lived quietly with her kinsman Mordecai, who remained in Persia, when many of the captive Jews, during the reign of Cyrus, returned to their own land. Ahasuerus the king, to commemorate his victories and prosperous administration, extending from India to Ethiopia, and embracing a hundred and twenty‐seven provinces, made a magnificent festival which continued six months. This was to display his power and wealth, before the nobility of his realm, and representatives from the conquered provinces of his spreading empire. At the expiration of this brilliant entertainment, he gave the common people, without distinction, a feast of seven days, in the court of his palace. The rich canopy and gorgeous curtains, with their fastenings—the tall columns, the golden couches, and tessellated floors—are described as “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 black, and white marble.” (Est 1:1-9.)
Of this grandeur, amid the ashes strewn by wasting ages, are imposing remains. Modern travellers pause before “the vast, solitary, mutilated columns of the magnificent colonnades,” where youth and beauty graced the harems of Persian monarchs.
Upon this occasion, the queen had a private pavilion for her female guests. But during the successive days of dissipation, the mirth waxed loud in the apartments of the king. The flashing goblet circulated freely, and his brain became wild with “wine and wassail.” As the crowning display of his glory, Vashti in her jewelled robes and diadem, must grace the banquet. The command was issued, and the messenger sent. This mandate, requiring what at any time was contrary to custom, the appearance of woman, unveiled, in an assemblage of men, now when revelry and riot betrayed the royal intoxication, overwhelmed the queen with surprise. A thousand wondering and beaming eyes were upon her, during the brief pause before answering the summons. Her proud refusal to appear, roused the fury of Ahasuerus, already mad with excitement. It would not answer to pass by the indignity, for a hundred and twenty‐seven provinces were represented at his court, and the news of his sullied honor would reach every dwelling in his realm, and curl the lip of the serf with scorn. The nobles fanned the flame of his indignation. Unless a withering rebuke were administered, their authority as husbands would be gone, and the caprice of woman make every family a scene of daily revolution. (Est 1:10-22.)
Vashti was divorced—and to provide for the emergency, his courtiers suggested that he should collect in his harem, all the beautiful virgins of the land, and choose him a wife. Among these was Hadassah, the adopted daughter of Mordecai. He urged her to enter her name among the rivals for kingly favor. It was not ambition merely that moved Mordecai. He had been meditating upon the unfolding providence of God toward his scattered nation, and felt that there was deeper meaning in passing events than the pleasures and anger of his sovereign. Arrayed richly as circumstances would permit, the beautiful Jewess, concealing her lineage, joined the youthful procession that entered the audience chamber of Ahasuerus, where he sat in state, to look along the rank of female beauty, floating like a vision before him. (Est 2:1-8.)
“The character of Esther is here exhibited at the outset; for when she went into the presence of the king, for his inspection, instead of asking for gifts as allowed by him, and as the others did, she took only what the chamberlain gave her. Of exquisite form and faultless features, her rare beauty at once captivated the king, and he made her his wife.
“Mordecai always reminds one of Hamlet. Of a noble heart, grand intellect, and unwavering integrity, there was nevertheless an air of severity about him—a haughty, unbending spirit; which with his high sense of honor, and scorn of meanness, would prompt him to lead an isolated life. I have sometimes thought that even he had not been able to resist the fascinations of his young and beautiful cousin, and that the effort to conceal his feelings had given a greater severity to his manner than he naturally possessed. Too noble, however, to sacrifice such a beautiful being by uniting her fate with his own, when a throne was offered her; or perceiving that the lovely and gentle being he had seen ripen into faultless womanhood, could never return his love—indeed could cherish no feeling but that of a fond daughter, he crushed by his strong will his fruitless passion. In no other way can I account for the life he led; lingering forever around the palace gates, where now and then he might get a glimpse of her who had been the light of his soul, the one bright bird which had cheered his exile’s home. That home he wished no longer to see, and day after day he took his old station at the gates of Shushan, and looked upon the magnificent walls that divided him from all that had made life desirable. It seems also as if some latent fear that Haman, the favorite of the king—younger than his master and of vast ambition, might attempt to exert too great an influence over his cousin, must have prompted him to treat the latter with disrespect, and refuse him that homage which was his due. No reason is given for the hostility he manifested, and which he must have known would end in his own destruction. Whenever Haman with his retinue came from the palace, all paid him the reverence due to the king’s favorite but Mordecai, who sat like a statue, not even turning his head to notice him. (Est 3:2-5.) He acted like one tired of life, and at length succeeded in arousing the deadly hostility of the haughty minister. The latter however, scorning to be revenged on one man, and he a person of low birth, persuaded the king to decree the slaughter of all the Jews in his realm. (Est 3:6-15.) The news fell like a thunderbolt on Mordecai. Sullen, proud, and indifferent to his own fate, he had defied his enemy to do his worst; but such a savage vengeance had never entered his mind. It was too late however to regret his behavior. Right or wrong he had been the cause of the bloody sentence, and he roused himself to avert the awful catastrophe. With rent garments, and sackcloth on his head, he travelled the city with a loud and bitter cry, and his voice rang even over the walls of the palace, in tones that startled its slumbering inmates. (Est 4:2-3.)
“It was told Esther, and she ordered garments to be given him, but he refused to receive them, and sent back a copy of the king’s decree, respecting the massacre of the Jews, and bade her go in, and supplicate him to remit the sentence. (Est 4:4-9.) She replied that it was certain death to enter the king’s presence unbidden, unless he chose to hold out his sceptre; and that for a whole month he had not requested to see her. (Est 4:10-12.) Her stern cousin, however, unmoved by the danger to herself, and thinking only of his people, replied haughtily that she might do as she chose—if she preferred to save herself, delivery would come to the Jews from some other quarter, but she should die. (Est 4:13-14.)
“From this moment the character of Esther unfolds itself. It was only a passing weakness that prompted her to put in a word for her own life, and she at once rose to the dignity of a martyr. The blood of the proud and heroic Mordecai flowed in her veins, and she said, ‘Go tell my cousin to assemble all the Jews in Shushan, and fast three days and three nights, neither eating nor drinking; I and my maidens will do the same, and in the third day I will go before the king, and if I perish, I perish.’ (Est 4:15-17.) Noble and brave heart! death—a violent death—is terrible, but thou art equal to it!
“There, in that magnificent apartment, filled with perfume,—and where the softened light, stealing through the gorgeous windows by day, and shed from golden lamps by night on marble columns and golden‐covered couches, makes a scene of enchantment,—behold Esther, with her royal apparel thrown aside, kneeling on the tessellated floor. There she has been two days and nights, neither eating nor drinking, while hunger, and thirst, and mental agony, have made fearful inroads on her beauty. Her cheeks are sunken and haggard—her large and lustrous eyes dim with weeping, and her lips parched and dry, yet ever moving in inward prayer. Mental and physical suffering have crushed her young heart within her, and now the hour of her destiny is approaching. Ah! who can tell the desperate effort it required to prepare for that terrible interview. Never before did it become her to look so fascinating as then; and removing with tremulous anxiety the traces of her suffering, she decked herself in the most becoming apparel she could select. Her long black tresses were never before so carefully braided over her polished forehead, and never before did she put forth such an effort to enhance every charm, and make her beauty irresistible to the king. At length, filly arrayed and looking more like a goddess dropped from the clouds, than a being of clay, she stole tremblingly towards the king’s chamber. Stopping a moment at the threshold to swallow down the choking sensation that almost suffocated her, and to gather her failing strength, she passed slowly into the room, while her maidens stood breathless without, listening, and waiting with the intensest anxiety the issue. Hearing a slight rustling, the king, with a sudden frown, looked up to see who was so sick of life as to dare to come unbidden in his presence, and lo! Esther stood speechless before him. Her long fastings and watchings had taken the color from her cheeks, but had given a greater transparency in its place, and as she stood, half shrinking, with the shadow of profound melancholy on her pallid, but indescribably beautiful countenance, her pencilled brow slightly contracted in the intensity of her excitement—her long lashes dripping in tears, and lips trembling with agitation; she was—though silent—in herself an appeal that a heart of stone could not resist. The monarch gazed long and silently on her, as she stood waiting her doom. Shall she die? No; the golden sceptre slowly rises and points to her. The beautiful intruder is welcome, and sinks like a snow-wreath at his feet. Never before did the monarch gaze on such transcendent loveliness; and spell-bound and conquered by it he said in a gentle voice: “What wilt thou, Queen Esther? What is thy request? it shall be granted thee, even to the half of my kingdom!” (Est 5:1-3.)
“Woman‐like, she did not wish to risk the influence she had suddenly gained, by asking the destruction of his favorite, and the reversion of his unalterable decree, and so she prayed only that he and Haman might banquet with her the next day. She had thrown her fetters over him, and was determined to fascinate him still more deeply before she ventured on so bold a movement. (Est 5:4-5.) At the banquet he again asked her what she desired, for he well knew that it was no ordinary matter that had induced her to peril her life by entering unbidden, his presence. She invited him to a second feast, and at that to a third. (Est 5:6-8.) But the night previous to the last, the king could not sleep, and after tossing awhile on his troubled couch, he called for the record of the court, and there found that Mordecai had a short time before informed him through the queen, of an attempt to assassinate him, and no reward been bestowed. (Est 6:1-10.) The next day, therefore, he made Haman perform the humiliating office of leading his enemy in triumph through the streets, proclaiming before him, “This is the man whom the king delighteth to honor.” (Est 6:11.) As he passed by the gallows he had the day before erected for that very man, a shudder crept through his frame, and the first omen of coming evil cast its shadow on his spirit. (Est 6:12.)
“The way was now clear to Esther, and so the next day, at the banquet, as the king repeated his former offer, she, reclining on the couch, her chiselled form and ravishing beauty inflaming the ardent monarch with love and desire, said in pleading accents, “I ask, O king, for my life, and that of my people. If we had all been sold as bondmen and bondwomen, I had held my tongue, great as the evil would have been to thee.” (Est 7:1-4.) The king started, as if stung by an adder, and with a brow dark as wrath, and a voice that sent Haman to his feet, exclaimed: “Thy life! my queen? Who is he? where is he that dare even think such a thought in his heart?” He who strikes at thy life, radiant creature, plants his presumptuous blow on his monarch’s bosom. “That man,” said the lovely pleader, “is the wicked Haman.” (Est 7:5-6.) Darting one look of vengeance on the petrified favorite, he strode forth into the garden to control his boiling passions. Haman saw at once that his only hope now was, in moving the sympathies of the queen in his behalf; and approaching her, he began to plead most piteously for his life. In his agony he fell on the couch where she lay, and while in this position, the king returned. ‘What!’ he exclaimed, ‘will he violate the queen here in my own palace!’ (Est 7:7-8.) Nothing more was said: no order was given. The look and voice of terrible wrath in which this was said, were sufficient. The attendants simply spread a cloth over Haman’s face, and not a word was spoken. Those who came in, when they saw the covered countenance, knew the import. It was the sentence of death. The vaunting favorite himself dare not remove it—he must die, and the quicker the agony is over, the better. In a few hours he was swinging on the gallows he had erected for Mordecai. (Est 7:9-10.)
“After this, the queen’s power was supreme—everything she asked was granted. To please her, he let his palace flow in the blood of five hundred of his subjects, whom the Jews slew in self‐defence. (Est 9:12.) For her he hung Haman’s ten sons on the gallows where the father had suffered before them. (Est 9:10, 9:14.) For her he made Mordecai prime minister, and lavished boundless favors on the hitherto oppressed Hebrews. (Est 8:2.) And right worthy was she of all he did for her. Lovely in character as she was in person, her sudden elevation did not make her vain, nor her power haughty. The same gentle, pure, and noble creature when queen, as when living in the lowly habitation of her cousin—generous, disinterested, and ready to die for others, she is one of the loveliest characters furnished in the annals of history.”
After Esther, in the changing fortunes of Israel, till the Saviour’s advent, but little reference is made to woman. The wife of Job, unsubdued by the terrible calamity that swept away her fortune and children, was his tempter in the darkest hour of his affliction. (Job 2:9.) David, in his Psalms of surprising sweetness and sublimity, alludes to the virtues of “mothers in Israel”—and Solomon graphically delineates the character of the wife who “is from God.” (Pro 31.) The prophets, in their lofty strains of prediction, and warning, and encouragement, make mention of her mission in coming scenes—her sufferings in national distress, when offspring shall clasp their parental knees in the agony of famine, “and pour out their souls in their mother’s bosom.” With rapture they follow her angel form in the rising glory of Zion—the mystery of redemption, and the approaching peace of millennial rest, when the harmonies of earth shall blend once more with the melodies of Heaven!