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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Esther 1

 

 

Verse 1

THE ROYAL FEAST AT SHUSHAN, Esther 1:1-9.

1. This is Ahasuerus — Our author is careful to distinguish this Ahasuerus from other monarchs of the same name who are mentioned in the Hebrew books. We read of a Median Ahasuerus in Daniel 9:1, and in Ezra 4:6 Cambyses, son of Cyrus, bears the same name. Neither of these, however, reigned from India even unto Ethiopia, that is, from the Indus to the Upper Nile. But as three different Persian kings reigned over this extent of country, we conclude that the name Ahasuerus was not, as some have imagined, a title common to all the kings of Persia. Only one of these three wide-ruling sovereigns was known as Ahasuerus, and him we identify with Xerxes, the son and successor of Darius Hystaspis. For the argument by which this opinion is supported, see Introduction. The word India ( הדו, Hoddu) occurs in the Bible only here and in Esther 8:9, and designates the country bordering on the river Indus, but not including, as now, the whole peninsula of Hindostan.

Ethiopia — Hebrew, Gush; the name of an indefinite extent of country bordering on the south of Egypt, and watered by the branches of the Upper Nile. Herodotus mentions (vii, 9) both Indians and Ethiopians as subjects of Xerxes.

A hundred and seven and twenty provinces — These provinces were subdivisions of the Persian empire, according to races or tribes inhabiting different localities. They are not to be confounded with satrapies, for one satrapy might include many provinces. Darius Hystaspis divided the empire into twenty satrapies, (Herod., 3:89,) each of which comprised a number of nations or tribes. The Jewish community at Jerusalem formed a province, (Ezra 2:1; Nehemiah 1:3,) but it was under a governor of the region west of the Euphrates. See note on Ezra 5:3. Darius the Mede set over his Babylonian kingdom one hundred and twenty “princes,” (Daniel 6:2,) but these were not the same as the Persian satraps, who resembled rather the “three presidents of whom Daniel was first,” while the “princes” were probably more like the rulers of provinces in the later Persian empire.


Verse 2

2. Sat on the throne of his kingdom — That is, was quietly and firmly settled in his dominions; an oriental mode of representing an absolute monarch in possession of royal authority and power. The Asiatic kings are thus represented on the monuments, and Xerxes is said to have watched the battles of Thermopylae and Salamis while seated on a throne.

Shushan the palace — See note on Nehemiah 1:1.


Verse 3

3. The third year of his reign — This coincides with the time just after his reduction of Egypt, when, according to Herodotus, (vii, 7, 8,) Xerxes convoked a great assembly of the principal Persians, the chiefs of the empire, to deliberate on his expedition against Greece. This coincidence is no light argument for identifying Ahasuerus with Xerxes.

Made a feast — Among the Persians and other oriental nations it was a custom for kings and generals to give a grand banquet after a victory, or upon a great state occasion. So in the Book of Judith, (i, 16,) Nebuchadnezzar returns from a great victory and feasts his army one hundred and twenty days. So Cyrus feasted the Persians when he wished to unite them in revolt from the power of Media. (Herod., 1:126.) Belshazzar feasted a thousand nobles, (Daniel 5:1,) and, according to Quintus Curtius, ten thousand men were present at one of Alexander’s festivals.

All his princes and his servants — That is, all the rulers of the one hundred and twenty-seven provinces, and other officers, civil and military, who held positions of honour and power under the king. These are further defined as the power of Persia and Media, the elite of the empire, as represented in the nobles and princes of the provinces. The nobles were of a rank superior to the princes, or rulers of provinces. They were, next to the king, the great magnates of the empire, the first men of the nation. The word rendered nobles, ( פרתמים,) is of Persian origin, and signifies first. No ordinary occasion was this great banquet of Ahasuerus, when before him were assembled these representatives of his power. The repeated mention in this chapter (comp. Esther 1:14; Esther 1:18-19) of Persia and Media, always naming Persia first, shows that at the time of this feast Persia had supremacy over the Medes. Compare the opposite usage in Daniel 5:28; Daniel 6:8; Daniel 12:13; Daniel 8:20; when the Median power was yet in the ascendency.


Verse 4

4. When he showed — Literally, in his showing; that is, while he showed or descanted on his wealth and power. The riches of his glorious kingdom and the honour of his excellent majesty are not to be understood of the wealth and magnificence displayed at the royal banquet, but rather the extent and vast resources of his empire, as exhibited by the number and dignity of his guests. If his object in assembling these great officers of his realm was to deliberate on the invasion of Greece, we see a reason for this showing of his vast wealth and power. He would thus convince his princes of his abundant ability to conquer Greece.

A hundred and fourscore days — We are not to understand, as some have done, that the royal feast continued all these six months. The great banquet was given, as the next verse shows, after these days had expired. But many a feast of less note might have been held during the one hundred and eighty days. Ctesias relates that the king of Persia furnished provisions daily for twenty-five thousand men. We need not suppose, however, that all the princes of the empire were absent from their homes and entertained for six months at Shushan; but rather, as Rawlinson suggests, “we may conclude that the time was extended in order to allow of the different persons making their appearance at the court successively.” Xerxes is said to have been four years in mustering his forces and making preparations for his expedition against the Greeks, (Herod., 7:20,) and he might well have spent the half of one year in consulting with his nobles, forming plans, and estimating the character and extent of his resources.


Verse 5

5. When these days were expired — That is, at the end of the one hundred and eighty days.

Unto all the people that were present in Shushan — Literally, as the margin, all that were found at Shushan. Probably not all the princes of the empire were to be found at the palace at the same time, but such of them as were found there at the time indicated were honoured with this magnificent banquet. But this feast was not for the princes only, but for all the people, irrespective of rank, for the writer is careful to say that it was made both unto great and small. Some have supposed two banquets, one lasting one hundred and eighty, and the other seven days, the former for the princes and nobles, the latter for the inhabitants of Shushan. But this supposition is unnecessary. No doubt the one hundred and eighty days, as remarked above, were enlivened by many a feast, at which only nobles and princes were present; but this grand feast, which lasted seven days, was an occasion of general revelry, in which princes and people alike participated.

The court of the garden of the king’s palace — Oriental palaces had a park or garden connected with them, adorned with trees and fountains. The court of such garden was either the great hall that opened immediately upon it or the garden itself. Loftus identifies this court with the great colonnade, of which we have given a cut on page 436. He remarks: “It stands on an elevation in the centre of the mound, the remainder of which we may well imagine to have been occupied, after the Persian fashion, with a garden and fountains. Thus the colonnade would represent the ‘court of the garden of the king’s palace,’ with its ‘pillars of marble.’ I am even inclined to believe that the expression ‘Shushan the palace,’ applies especially to this portion of the existing ruins in contradistinction to the citadel and the city of Shushan.” But according to Fergusson, “the feast took place, not in the interior of any hall, but out of doors, in tents erected in one of the courts of the palace, such as we may easily fancy existed in front of either the eastern or western porches of the great central building.” Comp. note on Esther 5:1.


Verse 6

6. White, green, and blue — White and blue, or violet, seem to have been royal colours in Persia. Comp. Esther 8:15. The great hall of marble pillars was adorned with hangings of various colours and materials, which were fastened in festoon-like form to the pillars, and served probably both for ornament and awning. It is difficult to identify precisely the various colours and substances mentioned in this verse. Keil renders the whole verse thus: White stuff, variegated and purple hangings, fastened with cords of byssus and purple to silver rings and marble pillars; couches of gold and silver upon a pavement of malachite and marble, mother-of-pearl and tortoise-shell. “The description,” he remarks, “consists of mere allusions to, or exclamations at, the splendour of the preparations. In the first half of the verse the hangings of the room, in the second the couches for the guests, are noticed.” These couches (which were placed upon the tessellated pavement of the court, and on which the guests reclined at the banquet) were probably not of solid gold and silver, but either “covered with cloth woven of gold and silver thread,” (Keil,) or else mounted and beautifully set with plates of these precious metals. Herodotus (ix, 80-82) makes mention of the vast quantities of gold and silver vessels of various kinds, together with gold and silver couches and tables, and various coloured awnings, ( παραπετασματα,) which Xerxes carried with him on his expedition to Greece. Strabo (xv, 3, 19) says of the Persians, “their couches, drinking cups, and other articles are so brilliantly ornamented that they gleam with gold and silver.” Other ancient writers also mention the immense wealth of Persia.


Verse 7

7. The vessels being diverse — Literally, vessels from vessels differing, that is, in size, shape, colour, and material.

Royal wine — Such as only king’s were wont to use. According to Strabo the special drink of the Persian kings was Chalybonian wine from Syria.

According to the state of the king — According to all the other exhibitions of his royal bounty. Compare 1 Kings 10:13.


Verse 8

8. The drinking… according to the law — That is, according to a specific decree of the king, which decree was, that there should be no compulsion in the matter of drinking at this feast. This is seen further on in the words, for so the king had appointed to all the officers of his house. He gave orders that his guests should be allowed to drink much or little, or not at all, according to every man’s pleasure. “He respected their national habits,” says Wordsworth, “and did not forget that some of the mountaineer Persian tribes, which retained the simplicity and strictness of their ancient customs, were famous for their temperance.” (XENOPHON, Cyrop., Esther 1:2; Esther 1:16; AMMIAN. MARCELLINUS, xxiii, 6.) Large quantities of wine were usually drank at Persian festivals, and it is supposed that the custom of pledging guests commonly prevailed to such an extent as to compel many to drink against their will.


Verse 9

9. Vashti the queen — Rawlinson is inclined to identify this queen with Amestris, and supposes that her divorce and disgrace, recorded in this chapter, may have been only temporary, and that she was restored to her former dignity again in the latter part of Xerxes’ reign. More probably, however, she was not the queen-consort, but a favourite concubine, whom the king delighted to honour. As he lavished royal honours on a favourite officer, (Esther 6:11,) so might he allow a favourite of his harem to make and preside at a feast for the women in the royal house. The Greek writers state that it was a custom of the Persians to introduce their wives and concubines at great feasts, but, when drunken and riotous, they sent their legitimate wives away, and called in the concubines and singing girls.


Verse 10

DIVORCE OF VASHTI, Esther 1:10-22.

10. On the seventh day — The last day of the feast. Compare Esther 1:5.

Merry with wine — “The Persians are much addicted to wine,” writes Herodotus, (i, 133.) “They are accustomed to debate the most important affairs when intoxicated, but they reconsider such deliberation the next day, when they are sober, and if they approve it when sober also, they adopt it, if not, they reject it, and whatever they have first resolved on when sober, they reconsider when intoxicated.” This feast of Ahasuerus seems to have increased in riot and drunken revelry as the days passed.

The seven chamberlains — Rather, eunuchs, who had principal charge of the royal harem. Their number corresponded to that of the princes, Esther 1:14.


Verse 11

11. The crown royal — “The crown royal, or ordinary headdress of a Persian king, was a stiff cap, probably of felt or cloth, ornamented with a blue and white band or ribbon — which was the diadem proper. The character of the queen’s crown is unknown.” — Rawlinson. This mention of the crown royal does not prove Vashti to have been the principal and legitimate wife of Ahasuerus, for, as shown above, (see note on Esther 1:9,) a favourite concubine may have been thus honoured.


Verse 12

12. Vashti refused to come — Assuming the dignity and boldness of a queen, she refused to be treated as an ordinary concubine, and to suffer her person to be immodestly exposed to the promiscuous crowd of half drunken revellers. “The summons,” remarks Tyrwhitt, “probably found her with a crowd of female guests before her. She might have been loth at another time to obey; but while they looked on, it was a severer trial to be required to abdicate her dignity, and, confessing her royal state his bounty, to cast, as it were, her crown before his footstool.” Only such a king as Xerxes would have made such a demand upon a favourite concubine, but it is perfectly in keeping with his character.


Verse 13

13. The wise men, which knew the times — Men versed in the laws and customs of their age and of former times, and, therefore, capable of giving proper counsel on any matters of law or precedent.

So was the king’s manner — The regard of the Persians and Medes for their laws is proverbial, and the kings were always careful to consult the wise men, who knew law and judgment, before they proceeded to enact or execute any great or unusual measure.


Verse 14

14. The seven princes — These seven, whose names are here given, are among the wise men whom he consulted. They were his most intimate counsellors, and the very highest nobles of the empire. See the note on Ezra 7:14. In the name Admatha we may, perhaps, recognise Artabanus, the uncle of Xerxes, (Herod., Esther 7:10,) and in Marsena, his famous general Mardonius.


Verse 15

15. What shall we do… according to law — They are sometimes great sticklers for law who often, in their personal conduct, seem to know no law.


Verse 16

16. Memucan answered — In this address of Memucan we have a genuine specimen of an ingenious Persian courtier. We cannot but admire the skill by which he merges the king’s cause into that of all the princes and husbands of the empire.


Verse 18

18. Ladies Princesses; those who were with their husbands at the court of Ahasuerus, or at Shushan, where they would at once (this day) hear of Vashti’s deed, that is, both her act and words, and be emboldened to say to their lords what Vashti had said to the king.

Contempt and wrath — Contempt on the part of wives for their husbands, and consequent wrath or anger (compare Esther 1:12) on the part of the affronted husbands. This verse should be rendered thus: And this day will the princesses of Persia and Media, who have heard of the word of the queen, say (like words) to all the princes of the king, and (there will be) enough contempt and wrath.


Verse 19

19. That it be not altered — Literally, and it shall not pass away; that is, it shall remain as a precedent, and be a permanent law for such matters in the empire. On the proverbial inviolability of the laws of the Medes and Persians, compare the marginal references. It originated, probably, in a desire to enhance in the national mind the sacredness of law, and also to forestall capricious and hasty changes in administration. But it was a defective and pernicious principle, making no provision against the capricious enactment of rash and harmful laws, and then allowing no repeal nor modification of them. Practically, however, it was often evaded, and the monarch found some way to make it lawful to do as he pleased.

Her royal estate — The queenly privileges and honours with which the king had been pleased to distinguish her.

Unto another — Hebrew, her female companion. This expression indicates that she herself was but a concubine, for the monarch’s legitimate marriage with one who was to be principal wife, and who, according to Persian law, (Herod., 3:84,) could be taken only from one of the seven princely families of the empire, would hardly be spoken of in this way.


Verse 20

20. Both to great and small — The royal example and decree would thus furnish custom and law for all ranks and classes of people in the empire.


Verse 22

22. He sent letters — Herodotus (viii, 98) thus describes the Persian system of letter carrying: “There is nothing mortal that proceeds faster than these messengers. They detail and arrange so many men and horses as there are days’ journeys, a horse and a man being appointed for each day’s journey, and neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor night prevents them from finishing their allotted race as soon as possible. The first racer delivers his message to the second, and the second to the third, and so on.”

Every province according to the writing thereof — That is, according to its written alphabetical character in use in each province.

To every people after their language — According to their vernacular dialect. The same alphabetical character might be used, as is still common, for several different languages. The bilingual and trilingual inscriptions of Persia and other oriental lands are standing evidences and illustrations of the ancient practice of writing public documents in various characters and languages.

That every man should bear rule in his own house — No doubt the king’s letters contained much more than this, but we have here only the general purport of the royal decree. Rawlinson remarks that “the undue influence of women in domestic, and even in public, matters is a feature of the ancient Persian monarchy. Herodotus (vii, 8) tells us that Atossa completely ruled Darius. Xerxes himself was, in his later years, shamefully subject to Amestris. (Ibid., 9:111.) The example of the court would naturally infect the people. The decree would, therefore, seem to have been not so much an idle and superfluous act as an ineffectual protest against a real and growing evil.” (Com. in loco.) If the decree itself be considered unnecessary and absurd, let it be remembered that this was not the only absurd thing which Xerxes did.

And that it should be published — Our version is here faulty. The latter part of the verse should be rendered, That every man rule in his own house, and speak according to the language of his own people. That is, not only should every man be lord in his family, but he should require his own native language to be used by his wife and children. Multitudes throughout the empire married foreign wives, and the use of different languages in the same household may have often led to other troubles besides those mentioned in Nehemiah 13:24. Foreign wives were therefore required to learn the language of their husbands, in order that the husband’s pre-eminence and authority in his own house might be the better maintained. Some critics have sought to emend the text, so as to make it read, speak all that suited him; but this reading is purely conjectural, sustained by no parallel, and yields but a trivial thought.

 


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Bibliography Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Esther 1:4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/whe/esther-1.html. 1874-1909.

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