The Persian Court

Esther 1-2

by John Kitto, Daily Bible Illustrations

Nehemiah was not the only Jew who rose to high office at the Persian court. A still higher office than his, even that of prime minister, had, before him, and even before Ezra, been held by Mordecai. The deeply interesting story of the chain of providential circumstances by which this man was led to that eminent post is recorded in the Book of Esther. A story so familiar in all its details to every reader, needs not to be recapitulated in order to connect the remarks we have to offer on some of its circumstances.

The king who figures in this history is called Ahasuerus, and it has been much disputed to which of the Persian kings the name is in this instance applied. It is agreed that the king who sent, first Ezra, and then Nehemiah, to Jerusalem, is Artaxerxes Longimanus; and although kings anterior to either have been named, the real alternative seems to lie  between this king and his predecessor Xerxes. We do not mean to enter into this question; but there is some force in the consideration that the character given of the king in Esther has few traits in common with that of Artaxerxes Longimanus, but has more points of agreement with that which the Greek historians assign to his father. “The king who scourged and fettered the sea, who beheaded his engineers because the elements destroyed their bridge over the Hellespont, who so ruthlessly slew the eldest son of Pythius because his father besought him to leave him as the sole support of his declining years, who dishonored the remains of the valiant Leonidas, and who beguiled the shame of his defeat by such a course of sensuality that he publicly offered a reward for the invention of a new pleasure—is just the despot to divorce his queen because she would not expose herself to the gaze of drunken revelers—is just the despot to devote a whole people, his subjects, to indiscriminate massacre; and by way of preventing the evil, to restore them the right of self-defence, and thus to sanction their slaughtering thousands of his other subjects.” Note: Ahasuerus, in the Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature.

The history opens with the account of a magnificent feast which the king gave, in the third year of his reign, to the princes and nobles of all parts of his empire, which lasted a hundred and eighty days—followed by one of seven days, to all the people of the metropolis, held in the court of the palace-garden. The description of this feast, which is given fully, corresponds to the statements of ancient Persian luxury and magnificence which the Greek authors have sent down to us, and which they state to have been remarkably evinced in their banquets. Their sumptuousness in this respect, indeed, became proverbial. The vast numbers of persons entertained at their great feasts, as well as the long continuance of these feasts, are all points noticed by ancient writers. The Persian kings are recorded to have often feasted as many as five thousand men at once, each time at the expense of two hundred talents. On the march to Greece, those  required to provide for the king and his table companions were ruined, though they tarried but a night; and this not more from the number to be entertained than from their luxurious and extravagant habits; and this gave occasion to the sarcasm of Megacreon of Abdera, who called upon the people to bless the gods that it was not the custom of king Xerxes to take two meals in one day; for, had they been called upon to provide dinner as well as supper, they must either have fled at his approach, or have remained to be utterly ruined. Note: Herodotus, vii. 119, 120.

The duration of this feast is, however, very extraordinary. It was a half-year, as the Persian year consisted of 360 days. There are few examples of any festivals of such long duration. The apocryphal book of Judith records, that Nabuchodonosor the Assyrian, after his victory over Arphaxad, banqueted all his army, comprising a multitude of men out of various nations, a hundred and twenty days at Nineveh. The most remarkable parallel instance of protracted and abundant feasting is that of a Gaul named Ariamnes, who undertook to feast all the Gaulish nation for an entire year. And he performed his promise; for he caused tents, each capable of containing 300 men, to be pitched at regular distances on all the principal roads, keeping in each of them boilers furnished with all kinds of meat in abundance, as well as vessels full of wine, and a great number of attendants to wait upon the guests and supply all their wants. Note: See Athenaus (iv. 13), whose book (Deipnosophis) is the great store-house for facts relating to ancient festivity and good cheer. The occasion of Ahasuerus’ great feast is not known. Some think that it was to commemorate the dedication of Susa as one of the royal capitals. Those who identify the king with Xerxes, suppose that we have here the festivity in which the king sought, after his return, to drown in himself and others the keen sense of his disgrace. Perhaps the fact, that the feast was held in the third year of the king’s reign, may receive an illustration from the custom of China, where the three years’ mourning  for the deceased king precludes any public festivity, but on the expiry of which the reigning monarch holds a great and sumptuous festival to celebrate his inauguration.

Some may be surprised to read of queens, first Vashti and then Esther, in the court of Persia. But this is in conformity with ancient history, from which we learn that the king had many wives, one of whom was chosen by him to fill the rank of queen, to whom all the others rendered the profoundest respect, amounting to something very like adoration, as to their mistress, and whose rank was, like that of the king, indicated by a purple band, rayed with white, around the head. This was the usage also in some near countries; for we read that Monimia, the wife of Mithridates, was strangled with her own diadem.

One cannot but sympathize with poor queen Vashti, in her refusal to appear before the drunken king and his jovial compotators, especially when we consider the gross indecorum, according to eastern notions, of a lady being, under any circumstances, constrained to appear before strangers. Great, however, as must have been her astonishment and indignation at such a demand, it could scarcely equal that which her refusal to obey, even to the most unreasonable extent, the summons of the king of kings must have inspired. That any one should dare to say nay to him—whose will was, in the strongest sense, law to all about him—was a thing of which it would have seemed treasonable to an ancient Persian even to dream; and here the refusal was sent back to the king in the presence of all the high lords of his realm. We have no doubt that this unheard of and terrible audacity sobered them all most completely. We do not ourselves wonder, that when the king’s high council, his “wise men,” came to consider the matter, they decided that Vashti must have her diadem taken from her. They saw, also, that the question was one of near interest to themselves; for if it went abroad, as it was sure to do, that the queen had flatly refused to obey even the king of kings, what had they and the other princes of the land to expect in their own families from the  example, if this high crime were not condignly punished? But one is amazed at the infantine simplicity of these famous sages, in recommending the issue of a royal decree, in all the languages of this great empire—“that every man should bear rule in his own house!” This is undoubtedly one of the most amusing things in all history. One cannot but imagine the inextinguishable burst of shrill merriment which rung through every one of “the hundred and twenty-seven” provinces of the Persian empire when this sage decree was promulgated.

All these strange matters did, however, but pave the way, in the mysteries of the Divine providence, for the advancement of a Jewish orphan maiden to a post which qualified her to be of high service to her people in a time of great peril. Her name was Hadassah (myrtle), or Esther—and she was worthy of that name—for it is recorded of her, that she was not only perfect in beauty, but that “she found favor in the eyes of all those that looked upon her;” and it is beautifully noted, that, when in the harem of the great king, she still forgot not the guide of her youth—her uncle and adopted father—“For Esther did the commandment of Mordecai like as when she was brought up with him.” She had been a good while in the harem before the purple circlet was placed on her fair brow; and it is affecting to read that her uncle, who might see her face no more after she had entered there, walked daily to and fro before the court of the harem, “to know how Esther did, and what would become of her.” This he could do through the eunuchs who went in and out, and by whom also messages and kind inquiries could and did pass between them. Yet it was not known that Esther was of Jewish parentage, as her uncle had, for some reason or other, desired her not to disclose the fact. This was no doubt peculiarly providential, as it prevented Haman from being so much on his guard in his plot to destroy the Jews, as he would have been, had he been aware of the queen’s connection with that people.