The Lonely Queen

Fairy tales are awesome. I don't think anyone would dispute that. Their basic awesomeness explains their staying power and transference from one culture to another. They deal with beautiful ideas--core concepts that express our deepest human needs. Take Cinderella (Disney version, naturally) for instance: everyone wants someone to see and appreciate their true beauty. We live for those moments.

Esther's story seems like a Cinderella story. A young orphan, raised by her cousin, she is chosen by the king and ascends to the throne with him, triumphantly saving her people from a great enemy. What little girl wouldn't love to become an Esther?

Just as the Cinderella story basically stops at the wedding, a surface-level look at Esther's story sees only her successes. Shall we look deeper?

The larger context of Esther reveals a young woman, a stranger in a strange land. Somehow her mother and father failed to walk with her into adulthood; maybe they died of a disease or of something more sinister. Certainly she lives with a sense of loss and disconnection, however and whenever they died. In this strange land she lives with her cousin, who has adopted her as his own daughter. She has no mother to teach her how to live or to share her heart as mothers do. She and her cousin mask their identities as Jews, taking foreign names, though Mordecai apparently reveals his nationality before she does. They do not openly speak their own language or participate in their cultural and religious rites.

Grand and terrible events transpire, sweeping Esther and Mordecai along into a story much bigger than they could have imagined. The Persian king, angry with his wife, banishes her and initiates an empire-wide beauty contest--virgins from the 127 provinces of the empire are to come and compete for the position of queen. Esther, fair of form and beautiful in appearance, catches someone's eye; the text says, "So it was, when the king's command and decree were heard, and when many young women were gathered at Shushan the citadel, under the custody of Hegai, that Esther also was taken to the king's palace, into the care of Hegai the custodian of the women" (2:8). Esther's transfer to the palace wasn't violent, but it probably wasn't totally voluntary.

Casting aside the fairy tale view of palace life, we can enter with Esther into a world alive with intrigue, and a world from which there is no escape. In the selection process, the women undergo a year of beauty preparations, six months with oil of myrrh, and six months with other preparations designed to improve the feminine appearance. I can't begin to imagine what that must have been like--a strict beauty regimen in a house packed with women and their servants. Most of the women must have spoken different languages, further complicating affairs, and all of them had one objective: to gain the king's favor. As competitive as women can be, that year must have been hellish. The text does not mention that Esther had any friends, though she does gain the chief eunuch's favor and so receives an extra allowance of beauty supplies--as well as seven maidservants and the best quarters in the house of the women. No doubt the other ladies loved that.

In addition to the total isolation produced by the circumstances, Esther could not tell anyone who her people and family were, so no one could truly get to know her. She apparently had very limited contact with Mordecai, and must not have told people he was her relative (Haman, the king, and others know that he is a Jew, and they have no clue about Esther's nationality--hmmmm). What a lonely life!

The details of the beauty contest reveal further difficulties. The text says,
Thus prepared, each young woman went to the king, and she was given whatever she desired to take with her from the women's quarters to the king's palace. In the evening she went, and in the morning she returned to the second house of the women, to the custody of Shaashgaz, the king's eunuch who kept the concubines. She would not go in to the king again unless the king delighted in her and called her by name (2:13-14).
A year of preparation culminates in a night of testing. I doubt the king took her out for coffee, dinner, and a stimulating conversation. Esther had to go in, armed only with her accessories, to face a powerful stranger and have sex with him. Esther and the other girls were virgins, probably in their teens. That evening must have been terrifying.

After their initial ordeal, each girl faced possible rejection and certain dejection. If the king were pleased with the girl, he might invite her in for a second visit sometime in the future, but she would spend the rest of her days not in freedom, in the comfort of her family, but in the second house of the women, under the custody of another eunuch. This was definitely not the ideal marriage.

What did Esther's marriage look like, even after she was chosen as queen?

  • She shared her husband with many other women.
  • She came when he called and only then, on pain of death.
  • She lived isolated in his house, able to speak to her only family member through her maids and eunuchs.
  • She could tell no one who she really was.
This is looking less and less like a fairy tale, isn't it?

As I think about Esther's story, it sheds more and more light on God's way of working with the world and with culture as is, bringing something redemptive in ways only He can. One incredible aspect of Esther's story is the way in which God works so many steps ahead of the enemy. Haman, Mordecai's foe, offers a perfect opportunity to destroy the Jews and thwart all of God's good promises through the centuries. His power, influence, position, and manipulative ability combine with pride and vengefulness to produce a genocidal madman with the resources to act on his hatred. But he's several years too late. God has already moved His players into position (check Esther 2:16 against 3:7, and do the math). Because Esther is the queen, Mordecai, who is only doing what a good father does in looking after his daughter, is placed to hear about the plot to kill the king (2:21-23). He receives no credit for this action until much later (the beautiful irony of chapter 6). Because Esther is the queen, she can approach the king (though at the possible cost of her life), to save her people. Because Esther is the queen, she carries the weight of the king's loyalty and can cry out for him to defend her life and those of her people.

Could any of these people have seen the worth of what they were doing in the day-to-day? I doubt it. What must it have felt like for Esther to be queen for more than four years, sharing her husband with other women and finding ways to fill her lonely existence around the palace? She could never have seen on that first terrifying night that almost five years later she would save her people from annihilation. What must it have been like for Mordecai to save the king's life but never receive any praise from it? No one likes his successes ignored. Could he have known at the time that God was reserving honor for him for when it would be most strategic in the destruction of his enemy? Not a chance.

I'd like to draw out a couple of general principles from this perspective on Esther's story:
  • Isolation and other painful life experiences may be evidence of God's strategy rather than His punishment.
  • Someone else's fairy tale may gloss over much hidden pain. 
  • Someone else's fairy tale may be evidence of God's desire to bless many people through them in the future. We must not resent or envy the good fortune of others.
  • God uses painful situations in unexpected ways for glory and deliverance.
  • What happens to us may not be about us at all but may relate to a much bigger picture.
  • We cannot make decisions about today based on today's information--only eternity will reveal the significance of what happens now.
  • God honors His faithful servants. Being overlooked today may mean a more strategic honor is coming in the future.
  • I got to have a good meeting with a friend who has headed back to Taiwan.
  • Young Adults started up again last Monday, and it was incredible to be back in the big group and reconnect with everyone.
  • I got to be on the news! One of my friends competed in the paralympics, and when she came back from London, several of us went to meet her at the airport. We had all painted our faces, which made us a target for the media people, so we ended up on several news stations and in at least one newspaper. That was just pretty cool.
Prayer requests
  • Please continue to pray for a good future tenant for my landlord.
  • Please pray for provision for our Iranian center, and pray for volunteers and the development of programs. Pray for God-ordained connections with people.
  • One of my friends has a friend who is asking spiritual questions and seems to want to talk to me. Pray that his heart would truly be open to the gospel, and pray for wisdom, boldness, and sensitivity to share with him.
  • Pray for me to have grace in my words and in my demeanor when I'm around people. I have seen lots of ugliness and unpleasantness in myself recently, and I want to honor and encourage others rather than otherwise.

Thank you for praying for me!

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