An x-rated beauty contest - Esther 2:1-18

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the morning service on 13th April 2008.

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In more recent years the winners of beauty pageants have not simply looked good in a swimsuit, they have also been able to provide articulate answers to a number of wide ranging questions. However, in the book of Esther, we are presented with what can only be described as an x-rated beauty contest. There is no stage to walk on and there are certainly no questions to answer, there is only a bed to provide a king with pleasure.

We’re told at the beginning of Esther chapter 2 that “when the anger of King Xerxes subsided, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what he had decreed about her.”

We discovered last week that Queen Vashti had bravely defied the wishes of the most powerful man of her generation. Her drunken husband, King Xerxes, had summoned her to dazzle his dinner party guests with her beauty but when the order arrived she stood her ground and refused to budge. Well, not surprisingly the king was furious and, in response, he drafted a new piece of legislation which prevented Queen Vashti from every entering his presence again.

But who would replace her? That’s the big question we are supposed to be asking as we continue into chapter 2. Who will replace the Queen on her the royal throne? The king has already been encouraged by his close advisers to give Vashti’s position to someone else but who in this vast empire was worthy to wear the royal crown? And how would such a woman be found?

Have a look at what we’re told in verse 2, “The king’s personal attendants proposed, ‘Let a search be made for beautiful young virgins for the king. Let the king appoint commissioners in every province of his realm to bring all these beautiful girls into the harem at the citadel of Susa. Let them be placed under the care of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women; and let beauty treatments be given to them. Then let the girl who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.”

I just love the next bit, don’t you? “This advice appealed to the king, and he followed it.”

Of course this advice appealed to the king! His royal advisers were proposing to gather up beautiful young virgins throughout the king’s vast empire, make them look even more beautiful than they already were, and then one by one give them an opportunity to please the king in bed.

No wonder Xerxes smiled as the contest was proposed.

Here was an x-rated beauty contest and the king was the only judge.

Who were the candidates? Well, in verses 5 to 11 we are introduced to the one most likely to win.

Verse 5, “Now there was in the citadel of Susa a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, named Mordecai son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, who had been carried into exile from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, among those taken captive with Jehoiachin king of Judah, Mordecai had a cousin named Hadassah, who he had brought up because she had neither father nor mother. This girl, who was also known as Esther, was lovely in form and features, and Mordecai had taken her as his own daughter when her father and mother died.”

Remember who the officials are looking for. What are the qualities expected from the candidates? Not the ability to speak eloquently on global affairs. They simply have to be beautiful young virgins.

How is Esther described? Well not only was she beautiful to look at from a distance, she was also beautiful when seated across the dinner table. Esther, we’re told, was lovely in form and features.

The only problem is that she was a Jew. And remember God’s people had been commanded to be distinctive from the nations around them. They were not to intermarry and they were certainly not allowed to participate in x-rated beauty contests.

So what would happen when the king’s officials came knocking at her door? Would she hide under her own bed or enthusiastically sign up for the chance of sleeping in another bed?

Well, let’s find out. Verse 8, “When the king’s order and edict had been proclaimed, many girls were brought to the citadel of Susa and put under the care of Hegai. Esther also was taken to the king’s palace and entrusted to Hegai, who had charge of the harem.”

We’re not told if there was any choice given to the candidates in the contest. Although it does seem very unlikely that these young girls were asked politely if they would like to accompany the royal officials back to the citadel of Susa.

However, before we conveniently conclude that Esther was simply a powerless pawn being manipulated by a superior force let’s pay attention to what we are told in verse 9.

“The girl pleased him [Hegai] and won his favour. Immediately he provided her with beauty treatments and special food. He assigned to her seven maids selected from the king’s palace and moved her and her maids into the best place in the harem.”

These are not good signs! They show us that instead of playing hard to get this young Jewish girl was doing her best to get ahead. She wanted to win!

And to ensure she did, she tried to win the favour of the chief pimp. And once she had won his favour she was given special privileges. Her beauty treatments were started straight away, she was provided with seven women to personally look after her, she was given special food to keep her trim and she was given the keys to the best accommodation in the harem.

Was Esther a spiritual saint? Well, things are not looking good for her. We’re already discovered that it is possible to refuse the demands of an empire if you are prepared to suffer the consequences. Remember Queen Vashti! She defied the wishes of a king!

However, from what we’ve read so far Esther seems to be a very different woman. She had even more reason to defy the Persian government. She was one of God’s people, she was a Jew in a foreign land. But instead of standing out from the crowd she was rather keen to get into bed with the king.

And look at what we’re told in verse 10. “Esther had not revealed her nationality and family background, because Mordecai had forbidden her to do so.” So yes every day he walked to and fro near the courtyard of the harem to find out what was happening to his cousin but never did he encourage her to remain loyal to her roots. She was told repeatedly to keep her religious identity below the radar of Persian detection.

We don’t know what would have happened if she had spoken up and said she was a Jew. Perhaps she would have been disqualified from the contest, perhaps everything would have continued as normal. But that’s not the point.

We are not supposed to make decisions based on a future we cannot predict and cannot control. We are supposed to trust God for the outcome and make the right choices in the present.  

Esther was not a spiritual hero. At this point in her life she was a spiritual rebel. But here is the good news for us today. Although God did not rescue Esther from this situation, her past failures did not exclude her from God’s future plans.

We’ll think more about this in just a moment but before we do let’s consider this beauty contest in more detail.

What did each competitor have to do? Verse 12 tells us the answer. “Before a girl’s turn came to go in to King Xerxes, she had to complete twelve months of beauty treatment prescribed for the women, six months with oil of myrrh and six with perfumes and cosmetics. And this is how she would go to the king: Anything she wanted was given to her to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace. In the evening she would go there and in the morning return to another part of the harem to the care of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the concubines. She would not return to the king unless he was pleased with her and summoned her by name.”

The Bible doesn’t explicitly tell us what happened during each girl’s night with the king but given that we are told very explicitly that in the morning they were not allowed to return to be with the virgins but took their place with the concubines I don’t think it is difficult to work out what took place a few hours earlier. They were no longer virgins because they had slept with the king!

Let’s dare to ask the question avoided by many Christians. What did a girl have to do in order to win the competition? Quite simply the winner of the beauty contest would be the girl who provided King Xerxes with the greatest sexual pleasure in bed. And this was the contest Esther was trying to win!

Let’s see how she got on. Verse 15, “When the turn came for Esther (the girl Mordecai had adopted, the daughter of his uncle Abihail) to go to the king, she asked for nothing other than what Hegai, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the harem suggested. And Esther won the favour of everyone who saw her. She was taken to King Xerxes in the royal residence in the tenth month, the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign [Four years after the events described in chapter 1!].”

What did King Xerxes think of his one night stand with Esther? We’re told in verse 17, “The king was attracted to Esther more than to any of the other women, and she won his favour and approval more than any of the other virgins. So he set a royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. And the king gave a great banquet, Esther’s banquet, for all his nobles and officials. He proclaimed a holiday throughout the provinces and distributed gifts with royal liberality.”

There is the story so far. What are we meant to learn from this chapter of the Bible? I want to suggest two lessons for us that should impact how we live day by day.

The first lesson is to realise that we will always face pressure to compromise our faith. We are told repeatedly to be different, to stand out, to set apart Christ as Lord. We heard from 1 Peter chapter 1 that we are to live as strangers here in reverent fear. And the reality is that there will always be pressure on us to keep our heads down and say nothing.

Is it possible to privatise our faith and for there to be no negative effects? Surely not. Remember what happened to Esther! Her enviable progress in one world, the world of the empire of King Xerxes, came at a cost of completely suppressing her identity as a citizen of the kingdom of God.

I’m sure we can all identify with this pressure. It is usually very subtle. Esther wasn’t instructed to deny her faith, only conceal it in order to avoid potential problems. And this pressure to conform even came from within her own family.

Was it really such a big deal for her to hide her Jewishness? Is it really such a big deal if no one outside this church building even knows we come here regularly and indeed profess to be a personal follower of the Lord Jesus Christ? Is it a big deal if we conceal our faith to get ahead at university or in the business world or to earn a friendship or be accepted by a peer group? Yes it is. Jesus says, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my word in this sinful and adulterous generation then I will be ashamed of him when I come in my Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

Let’s see the danger of compromise and let’s hear the challenge not to assimilate to the world around us and live like everyone else.

However, before we finish it is vital that we hear the second lesson from this chapter of Esther. No doubt we can all look back to past mistakes in our Christian lives that we cannot undo. We can remember situations caused when we have actively suppressed our faith and lived like the world around us. We may be asking, where does that leave us today?

We know the good news that with Jesus there is a fresh start from past mistakes. Our sins are removed far from us and far from the Lord God and we can be guaranteed that God will never remind us of them. We will be presented with this truth visually as we eat bread and wine together. We must remember this as we live out our present existence. Often we are slower to forgive ourselves than God.

I think what we’ve read in Esther this morning adds a further dimension to this glorious news of past forgiveness and this is the glorious news of future usefulness!

Think about the place of Esther in God’s story. At this point we would hardly coin the slogan, “Dare to be an Esther!” At this point in the story Esther is no Daniel. She is both in the world and of the world, fully compliant with the empire’s outrageous demands to have a one night stand with King Xerxes. However, we cannot read this one chapter and forget the bigger story of this exciting adventure. We must not forget that her history of compromise and sin will not disqualify her for later obedience, an obedience that will bring a blessing to her people. A national holiday will not be Esther’s crowing glory!

Here is hope for those of us who find ourselves in difficult circumstance because of past sin. We would love to rewrite the past but of course we cannot. However, past mistakes do not disqualify us from future usefulness.

The prospect of future faithfulness does not mean that our past actions were right. The Bible would say they were wrong and nothing to be proud of. However, God is powerful that he can even use our present situation, which we may be in because of past sinfulness, for our good and the good of others.

So be encouraged my friends. Certainly hear the challenge of Esther. Don’t be a compromiser like her. But for those of us who have compromised in the past let’s take great encouragement that right now in the place where we are, we can be useful for God.

Let’s pray together.


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