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Author Biography: Judith Couchman is the owner of Judith & Company, a business devoted to writing, speaking, and editing. The author/compiler of numerous books, including Shaping a Woman's Soul, Designing a Woman's Life, and several other Women of Faith Bible studies, she makes her home in Colorado Springs, CO.
When life feels out of whack, God is still working.
Vashti smiled at the ornately dressed noblewoman seated next to her and asked, "So, what have you thought of the king's grand party?"
"Magnificent!" the woman exclaimed. "My husband says it has boosted his confidence in King Xerxes and his ability to conquer the Greeks in battle."
"Ah, yes, the Greeks. I almost forgot about them," sighed Vashti.
The noblewoman laughed, but Vashti did not. For half a year her husband had presided over a massive celebration for their kingdom, with princes and paupers traipsing through the palace day and night. Xerxes had explained that before waging war, he wanted to exhibit wealth and strength to his subjects and the world. "It will make our warriors proud and our enemies afraid," he'd said, crossing his arms with satisfaction. But Vashti knew that even without the pending conflict, Xerxes delighted in showing off his power and possessions-and he loved to eat, drink, and be merry.
And that six months was enough to make any wife weary.
Tonight, during the celebration's final banquet, Vashti had distanced herself from the king and his drunken men by entertaining visiting women in the palace. It was a workable feast for her, until halfway through the meal the king's attendants materialized at the banquet door.
"The king commands that you appear at his feast, wearing your royal crown," they announced. Their words murmured through the banquet hall and hushed the queen's chattering guests.
"Why? Why does he need me?" insisted Vashti, but she knew the answer. She was to display herself to the king's rowdy guests.
Vashti paused resolutely, then said, "No, I will not come."
The attendants turned ashen and women gasped in unison, as if an apparition had suddenly entered the great hall. If the queen truly meant those words, they'd banish her from the kingdom.
"But the king has ordered!" spluttered an attendant.
Vashti scanned the room's stricken faces, then replied, "Yes, and I have refused."
The queen turned from the messengers and stared at a silver pitcher on the table, knowing her life had just spun out of control.
Setting the Stage
HOW'S YOUR WORLD?
We may not face a decision as dire as Vashti's, but at one time or another we all pass through times when life careens out of control. Not much progresses as we think it should and everything feels unfair and out of whack.
Before attending the first group discussion, grab a few moments alone and create a picture of your world. Draw a horizontal line toward the bottom of a page to represent the ground on which you stand. Sketch a stick figure of yourself standing on this "ground." On the line with you, draw the things in your life that feel "grounded" and in control. Above you and the ground, draw the things in your life that feel unfair and out of control. Don't just focus on daily circumstances, but also think about long-range dreams and goals.
Ponder your picture. How many things in your life seem out of control? How do you feel about this? Which situations can you affect by changing yourself or your lifestyle? Which ones are truly beyond your control? Write an honest prayer to God about the things you can't control. What do you want to tell him? What would you like him to tell you?
Discussing Esther's Story
A BATTLE OF THE WILLS
The book of Esther opens to a battle of the wills. Queen Vashti commits the unthinkable and refuses the king's request. The arrogant king can't abide her disobedience and rages against it. Who will win? Read chapter one to find out, and consider this: Who's really in control here? The king? The queen? Or an unseen Someone?
Before you begin the discussion, read the Bible text, Esther 1.
1. Xerxes the Great was Persia's sixth king (486-465 B.C.) and one of the wealthiest men in the ancient world. In verses 1-8, why would the book's unnamed author (suggested to be Mordecai) feel compelled to describe the king's ostentatious style?
2. To understand the context of the king's grand party, read the Behind the Scenes section, "A Big, Brawling Bash," on page 24. Why would Vashti's compliance with her husband's six-month celebration be important?
3. Now witness the conflict. Read verses 10-12 again. Some Bible scholars believe the king commanded Vashti to appear unveiled, which invoked scandal even in pagan Persian courts. Others suggest she was to wear only her royal crown, which would have meant unshakable degradation. One commentator explains that at the very least, the king's behavior was "ungentlemanly" and "positively crude." What other factors would have caused Vashti to refuse her husband's request?
4. Based on the circumstances, do you feel Vashti was "right" or "wrong" in her refusal? Why?
5. Though Xerxes wielded tremendous power as king, the laws of the Medes and Persians were so immutable, he couldn't override them. So the king asked his advisers, "According to the law, what must be done to Queen Vashti?" (verse 15). In verses 16-20, does the episode's outcome seem fair to you? Why, or why not?
6. What a mess! A drunken king requests an unseemly act. His queen, gathering up her dignity, refuses him. She suffers banishment, and the law tightens on women in the kingdom. It all looks hopeless and hardly redemptive. God seems nowhere in sight. In fact, he is never mentioned in the book of Esther. Yet in the background Providence is at work. Vashti's downfall leads to Esther's rise in the kingdom. The Bible offers no explanation for this irony, but why do you think God eventually allowed one woman to profit from another woman's misfortune? Explore more than one answer.
Sharing Your Story
GOD IN THE SHADOWS
The poet James Russell Lowell wrote, "Behind the dim unknown, / Standeth God within the shadow, / keeping watch above his own." This is the story of Esther. It's also your story. When God seems nowhere in sight, he still controls the world and its events, even the twists in your everyday life.
1. Pull out a current newspaper and hand a few pages to each group member. According to these pages, what events in the international, national, and/or local news seem out of control? How do you feel about these situations?
2. How about your personal life? Does anything feel out of control there? (You may want to consult your notes from the Setting the Stage section "How's Your World?" on page 20, but share only what feels comfortable to you.) On a whiteboard or easel pad, create a composite list of what seems personally out of whack to group members.
3. What would you like to ask God about these problems?
4. Read Psalm 46. What is God's message to us about out-of-control circumstances? Practically, how can we respond to his words?
5. Based on your group list, how can you take control of the possible and let go of the impossible, offering the uncontrollable to God's care?
6. From the message of Esther 1 and Psalm 46, write a reassuring letter from God to your group, explaining his providential care.
Even when life feels unmanageable, God can still use you in unfavorable circumstances, if you're willing to let him. In fact, he specializes in dropping the miraculous into a mess. So take a deep breath and wait for what God will do.
A CIRCLE OF PRAYER
To end today's session, form a circle of prayer. For five minutes, say one-sentence prayers about what feels out of control in (1) the world, (2) your nation, and (3) your lives. To conclude your prayer time, read together Psalm 46:10 in "Words to Remember" on page 27.
Behind the Scenes
A BIG, BRAWLING BASH
Vashti's husband was Xerxes the Great of Persia (Ahasuerus in some Bible translations) and from a pagan viewpoint he possessed much to boast about. The king catapulted Persia to its zenith, ruling the vast territory from India to Ethiopia. His wealth staggered the imagination.
No doubt Xerxes could afford to throw a garish, six-month party, and he wanted everyone to know it. He paraded his fortunes: military weapons and warriors; slaves and artifacts from conquered territories; the gold-encrusted palace and furnishings; and servants, wives, and concubines. Princes from the 127 provinces attended, and as a finale all of the capital city of Susa, from the lowly to the lauded, joined in.
When archaeologists excavated Susa centuries later, they unearthed etched inscriptions about Xerxes that read, "The great king. The king of kings. The king of lands occupied by many races. The king of this great earth." It was this "great king" that Xerxes displayed in his half-year celebration. Because he planned a later military campaign against Greece, the only significant part of the world not under his reign, the king wanted both allies and enemies to recognize his ability to finance and wage war.
Ironically, after all the pompous proceedings, Xerxes lost his battle with Greece.
Excerpted from Esther by Judith Couchman Copyright © 1999 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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