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382

CHAPTER XXXIV.

QUEEN ESTHER.

Esther iv. 10-v.; vii. 1-4; ix. 12, 13.

The young Jewess who wins the admiration of the Persian king above all the chosen maidens of his realm, and who then delivers her people in the crisis of supreme danger at the risk of her own life, is the central figure in the story of the origin of Purim. It was a just perception of the situation that led to the choice of her name as the title of the book that records her famous achievements. Esther first appears as an obscure orphan who has been brought up in the humble home of her cousin Mordecai. After her guardian has secured her admission to the royal harem—a doubtful honour! we might think, but a very real honour in the eyes of an ancient Oriental—she receives a year's training with the use of the fragrant unguents that are esteemed so highly in a voluptuous Eastern court. We should not expect to see anything better than the charms of physical beauty after such a process of development, charms not of the highest type—languid, luscious, sensuous. The new name bestowed on this finished product of the chief art cultivated in the palace of Ahasuerus points to nothing higher, for "Esther" (Istar) is the name of a Babylonian goddess equivalent to the Greek "Aphrodite." And yet our383 Esther is a heroine—capable, energetic, brave, and patriotic. The splendour of her career is seen in this very fact, that she does not succumb to the luxury of her surroundings. The royal harem among the lily-beds of Shushan is like a palace in the land of the lotus-eaters, "where it is always afternoon"; and its inmates, in their dreamy indolence, are tempted to forget all obligations and interests beyond the obligation to please the king and their own interest in securing every comfort wealth can lavish on them. We do not look for a Boadicea in such a hot-house of narcotics. And when we find there a strong, unselfish woman such as Esther, conquering almost insuperable temptations to a life of ease, and choosing a course of terrible danger to herself for the sake of her oppressed people, we can echo the admiration of the Jews for their national heroine.

It is a woman, then, who plays the leading part in this drama of Jewish history. From Eve to Mary, women have repeatedly appeared in the most prominent places on the pages of Scripture. The history of Israel finds some of its most powerful situations in the exploits of Deborah, Jael, and Judith. On the side of evil, Delilah, Athaliah, and Jezebel are not less conspicuous. There was a freedom enjoyed by the women of Israel that was not allowed in the more elaborate civilisation of the great empires of the East, and this developed an independent spirit and a vigour not usually seen in Oriental women. In the case of Esther these good qualities were able to survive the external restraints and the internal relaxing atmosphere of her court life. The scene of her story is laid in the harem. The plots and intrigues of the harem furnish its principal incidents. Yet if Esther had been a shepherdess from the mountains of Judah, she could not have proved herself384 more energetic. But her court life had taught her skill in diplomacy, for she had to pick her way among the greatest dangers like a person walking among concealed knives.

The beauty of Esther's character is this, that she is not spoiled by her great elevation. To be the one favourite out of all the select maidens of the kingdom, and to know that she owes her privileged position solely to the king's fancy for her personal charms, might have spoilt the grace of a simple Jewess. Haman, we saw, was ruined by his honours becoming too great for his self-control. But in Esther we do not light on a trace of the silly vanity that became the most marked characteristic of the grand vizier. It speaks well for Mordecai's sound training of the orphan girl that his ward proved to be of stable character where a weaker person would have been dizzy with selfish elation.

The unchanged simplicity of Esther's character is first apparent in her submissive obedience to her guardian even after her high position has been attained. Though she is treated as his Queen by the Great King, she does not forget the kind porter who has brought her up from childhood. In the old days she had been accustomed to obey this grave Jew, and she has no idea of throwing off the yoke now that he has no longer any recognised power over her. The habit of obedience persists in her after the necessity for it has been removed. This would not have been so remarkable if Esther had been a weak-minded woman, readily subdued and kept in subjection by a masterful will. But her energy and courage at a momentous crisis entirely forbid any such estimate of her character. It must have been genuine humility and unselfishness that prevented385 her from rebelling against the old home authority when a heavy injunction was laid upon her. She undertakes the dangerous part of the champion of a threatened race solely at the instance of Mordecai. He urges the duty upon her, and she accepts it meekly. She is no rough Amazon. With all her greatness and power, she is still a simple, unassuming woman.

But when Esther has assented to the demands of Mordecai, she appears in her people's cause with the spirit of true patriotism. She scorns to forget her humble origin in all the splendour of her later advancement. She will own her despised and hated people before the king; she will plead the cause of the oppressed, though at the risk of her life. She is aware of the danger of her undertaking; but she says, "If I perish, I perish." The habit of obedience could not have been strong enough to carry her through the terrible ordeal if Mordecai's hard requirement had not been seconded by the voice of her own conscience. She knows that it is right that she should undertake this difficult and dangerous work. How naturally might she have shrunk back with regret for the seclusion and obscurity of the old days when her safety lay in her insignificance? But she saw that her new privileges involved new responsibilities. A royal harem is the last place in which we should look for the recognition of this truth. Esther is to be honoured because even in that palace of idle luxury she could acknowledge the stern obligation that so many in her position would never have glanced at. It is always difficult to perceive and act on the responsibility that certainly accompanies favour and power. This difficulty is one reason why "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom386 of God." For while unusual prosperity brings unusual responsibility, simply because it affords unusual opportunities for doing good, it tends to cultivate pride and selfishness, and the miserable worldly spirit that is fatal to all high endeavour and all real sacrifice. Our Lord's great principle, "Unto whom much is given, of him shall much be required," is clear as a mathematical axiom when we look at it in the abstract; but nothing is harder than for people to apply it to their own cases. If it were freely admitted, the ambition that grasps at the first places would be shamed into silence. If it were generally acted on, the wide social cleft between the fortunate and the miserable would be speedily bridged over. The total ignoring of this tremendous principle by the great majority of those who enjoy the privileged positions in society is undoubtedly one of the chief causes of the ominous unrest that is growing more and more disturbing in the less favoured ranks of life. If this supercilious contempt for an imperative duty continues, what can be the end but an awful retribution? Was it not the wilful blindness of the dancers in the Tuileries to the misery of the serfs on the fields that caused revolutionary France to run red with blood?

Esther was wise in taking the suggestion of her cousin that she had been raised up for the very purpose of saving her people. Here was a faith, reserved and reticent, but real and powerful. It was no idle chance that had tossed her on the crest of the wave while so many of her sisters were weltering in the dark floods beneath. A clear, high purpose was leading her on to a strange and mighty destiny, and now the destiny was appearing, sublime and terrible, like some awful mountain peak that must be climbed unless the soul that has387 come thus far will turn traitor and fall back into failure and ignominy. When Esther saw this, she acted on it with the promptitude of the founder of her nation, who esteemed "the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt"; but with this difference, that, while Moses renounced his high rank in Pharaoh's court in order to identify himself with his people, the Queen of Ahasuerus retained her perilous position and turned it to good account in her saving mission. Thus there are two ways in which an exalted person may serve others. He may come down from his high estate like Moses, like Christ who was rich and for our sakes became poor; or he may take advantage of his privileged position to use it for the good of his brethren, regarding it as a trust to be held for those whom he can benefit, like Joseph, who was able in this way to save his father and his brothers from famine, and like Esther in the present case. Circumstances will guide the willing to a decision as to which of these courses should be chosen.

We must not turn from this subject without remembering that Mordecai plied Esther with other considerations besides the thought of her mysterious destiny. He warned her that she should not escape if she disowned her people. He expressed his confidence that if she shrank from her high mission deliverance would "come from another place," to her eternal shame. Duty is difficult, and there is often a call for the comparatively lower, because more selfish, considerations that urge to it. The reluctant horse requires the spur. And yet the noble courage of Esther could not have come chiefly from fear or any other selfish motive. It must have been a sense of her high duty and wonderful destiny that inspired her. There is no inspiration like that of the belief that we are called to a great mission.388 This is the secret of the fanatical heroism of the Madhist dervishes. In a more holy warfare it makes heroes of the weakest.

Having once accepted her dreadful task, Esther proceeded to carry it out with courage. It was a daring act for her to enter the presence of the king unsummoned. Who could tell but that the fickle monarch might take offence at the presumption of his new favourite, as he had done in the case of her predecessor? Her lonely position might have made the strongest of women quail as she stepped forth from her seclusion and ventured to approach her lord. Her motive might be shamefully misconstrued by the low-minded monarch. Would the king hold out the golden sceptre to her? The chances of life and death hung on the answer to that question. Nehemiah, though a courageous man and a favourite of his royal master, was filled with apprehension at the prospect of a far less dangerous interview with a much more reasonable ruler than the half-mad Xerxes. These Oriental autocrats were shrouded in the terror of divinities. Their absolute power left the lives of all who approached them at the mercy of their caprice. Ahasuerus had just sanctioned a senseless, bloodthirsty decree. Very possibly he had murdered Vashti, and that on the offence of a moment. Esther was in favour, but she belonged to the doomed people, and she was committing an illegal action deliberately in the face of the king. She was Fatima risking the wrath of Bluebeard. We know how Nehemiah would have acted at this trying moment. He would have strengthened his heart with one of those sudden ejaculations of prayer that were always ready to spring to his lips on any emergency. It is not in accordance with the389 secular tone of the story of Esther's great undertaking that any hint of such an action on her part should have been given. Therefore we cannot say that she was a woman of no religion, that she was prayerless, that she launched on this great enterprise entirely relying on her own strength. We must distinguish between reserve and coldness in regard to religion. The fire burns while the heart muses, even though the lips are still. At all events, if it is the intention of the writer to teach that Esther was mysteriously raised up for the purpose of saving her people, it is a natural inference to conclude that she was supported in the execution of it by unseen and silent aid. Her name does not appear in the honour roll of Hebrews xi. We cannot assert that she acted in the strength of faith. And yet there is more evidence of faith, even though it is not professed, in conduct that is true and loyal, brave and unselfish, than we can find in the loudest profession of a creed without the confirmation of corresponding conduct. "I will show my faith by my works," says St. James, and he may show it without once naming it.

It is to be noted, further, that Esther was a woman of resources. She did not trust to her courage alone to secure her end. It was not enough that she owned her people, and was willing to plead their cause. She had the definite purpose of saving them to effect. She was not content to be a martyr to patriotism; a sensible, practical woman, she did her utmost to be successful in effecting the deliverance of the threatened Jews. With this end in view, it was necessary for her to proceed warily. Her first step was gained when she had secured an audience with the king. We may surmise that her beautiful countenance was lit up390 with a new, rare radiance when all self-seeking was banished from her mind and an intense, noble aim fired her soul; and thus, it may be, her very loftiness of purpose helped to secure its success. Beauty is a gift, a talent, to be used for good, like any other Divine endowment; the highest beauty is the splendour of soul that sometimes irradiates the most commonplace countenance, so that, like Stephen's, it shines as the face of an angel. Instead of degrading her beauty with foolish vanity, Esther consecrated it to a noble service, and thereby it was glorified. This one talent was not lodged with her useless.

The first point was gained in securing the favour of Ahasuerus. But all was not yet won. It would have been most unwise for Esther to have burst out with her daring plea for the condemned people in the moment of the king's surprised welcome. But she was patient and skilful in managing her delicate business. She knew the king's weakness for good living, and she played upon it for her great purpose. Even when she had got him to a first banquet, she did not venture to bring out her request. Perhaps her courage failed her at the last moment. Perhaps, like a keen, observant woman, she perceived that she had not yet wheedled the king round to the condition in which it would be safe to approach the dangerous topic. So she postponed her attempt to another day and a second banquet. Then she seized her opportunity. With great tact, she began by pleading for her own life. Her piteous entreaty amazed the dense-minded monarch. At the same time the anger of his pride was roused. Who would dare to touch his favourite queen? It was a well-chosen moment to bring such a notion into the mind of a king who was changeable as a child. We391 may be sure that Esther had been doing her very best to please him throughout the two banquets. Then she had Haman on the spot. He, too, prime minister of Persia as he was, had to find that for once in his life he had been outwitted by a woman. Esther meant to strike while the iron was hot. So the arch-enemy of her people was there, that the king might carry out the orders to which she was skilfully leading him on without the delay which would give the party of Haman an opportunity to turn him the other way. Haman saw it all in a moment. He confessed that the queen was mistress of the situation by appealing to her for mercy, in the frenzy of his terror even so far forgetting his place as to fling himself on her couch. That only aggravated the rage of the jealous king. Haman's fate was sealed on the spot. Esther was completely triumphant.

After this it is painful to see how the woman who had saved her people at the risk of her own life pushed her advantage to the extremity of a bloodthirsty vengeance. It is all very well to say that, as the laws of the Medes and Persians could not be altered, there was no alternative but a defensive slaughter. We may try to shelter Esther under the customs of the times; we may call to mind the fact that she was acting on the advice of Mordecai, whom she had been taught to obey from childhood, so that his was by far the greater weight of responsibility. Still, as we gaze on the portrait of the strong, brave, unselfish Jewess, we must confess that beneath all the beauty and nobility of its expression certain hard lines betray the fact that Esther is not a Madonna, that the heroine of the Jews does not reach the Christian ideal of womanhood.

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