The king gave a banquet lasting seven days. […] The garden had hangings of linen, fastened to silver rings on marble pillars. […] There were couches of gold and silver. Served in goblets of gold, the royal wine was abundant. […] On the seventh day, when King Xerxes was in high spirits, he commanded that Queen Vashti be brought before him, in order to display her beauty. But Queen Vashti refused to come.
Esther 1:5, 6a, 7, 11-12
The stories in the Old Testament don’t always seem immediately relevant. They’re there, but what do we do with them? Sometimes, however, relevance strikes in a new way. Back in 2003, television pictures of American troops wandering through the palace of Saddam Hussein’s son, Uday, reminded me of this scene in the book of Esther. We see it today wherever we see opulence for opulence’s sake, designed to show off wealth and power.
So here in the biblical story, immense wealth is displayed to impress. There is alcohol in abundance – the food isn’t mentioned! The King’s power is absolute, his invitation a command. All this is hard-won by the abject poverty, conquest, slavery, and toil of others. Uday’s grossly sumptuous palace had a room decorated with pornography. Xerxes viewed his women as objects of display, part of his trophies of power.
Queen Vashti refused to take part. I’m proud of her. She was quickly dealt with, in case other women got the wrong idea. She lost her crown, her privileges, and spent the rest of her life out of sight in the harem, paving the way for Esther’s role in the larger story.
The Old Testament has many stories of the abuse of power and the exploitation of the weak and the conquered, including many of men behaving badly towards their wives, concubines, daughters, and servant girls. There are many places today where power rules in the palaces, ministries, and boardrooms of our world. Exploitation, by those who have the power to do so, has poisoned our world since the fall.
‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit’, Paul told the Christians of Philippi, ‘in humility value others better than yourselves’ (Philippians 2:3). The moment we gain power, authority, or wealth that sets us over others, whether at work, in the church, or even as parents, is the moment when we most need prayerful, vigilant self-appraisal and deep humility.