By the end of the history told in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Jews were in a bad place. Unfaithfulness continued to mark the covenant community as a whole, and it is clear that the promised deliverance of the Jews from their enemies was yet far off. After all, they remained subjects of the Persian Empire. It would have been easy for a Jew living during this era, after 433 BC, to wonder if there was any hope for the nation.
Of course, there was always hope for God’s people. The Lord never fails to keep His promises, so there was never any real doubt that God’s people would finally enjoy a grand and glorious future (Gen. 22:1–18; Mic. 4:1–5; Heb. 6:13–18). During the postexilic period, the Lord intervened to confirm this hope, using a pair of unlikely heroes and very ordinary means to preserve His people. This story is told in the last of the Old Testament Historical Books—Esther.
The book of Esther begins in 483 BC with a story of the Persian king in the winter capital of Susa. The Hebrew name for this king is Ahasuerus. He is better known as Xerxes I, and he reigned from 486 to 465 BC, so the events described in Esther took place before the work of Ezra and Nehemiah (which began in 458 BC). Xerxes is known from other historical records for attempting to conquer the Greeks, who were then rising in power, as well as for his court’s lavish wealth.
Xerxes—Ahasuerus—held a banquet in 483 BC as he was preparing to go to war with Greece. This is the banquet described in Esther 1, and the king’s intent was to rally the leaders of Persia to support him in his attempts to conquer the Greeks. The author of Esther describes in great detail the setting of the banquet, painting a picture of the great wealth and power of Persia by describing the rich adornments at the feast (Est. 1:1–8). If we put ourselves in the shoes of a Jew living in the Persian Empire at the time, we are impressed by the power of the king.
During the banquet, Ahasuerus called for his wife, Queen Vashti, to appear, likely to encourage patriotic fervor. But she refused, and to avoid embarrassment, the king had to make a law making it clear that such disrespect would not be tolerated in the palace or, by extension, anywhere in Persia (vv. 9–22). This episode would have caused the Jews at that time to wonder about the king of Persia. Is he really so mighty? He cannot even control his own household. Perhaps he is not so terrifying after all.