Life in Plan B: “The Biopsy of A Bad Decision” – Esther 1

king ahasOnce there was a king who was both powerful and reputable. He lived in the largest palace ever built, filled with a lavish display of riches. He threw the wildest, longest, and most expensive party ever recorded in ancient history. With a room full of advisers, the wisest men of his kingdom, he managed to create a crisis through a series of poor choices. In short order, he was reduced to a mere puppet of wrong people making self centered decisions. He did irreparable harm to his kingdom and his reputation by personal stupidity. He created a national disgrace. Yes, it involved a woman – but this one was his WIFE! His poor decisions undercut his confidence and marked his life. He couldn’t “re-do” them, but they were given to us as an example! How did something like this happen?

When we take out the decision that the King made – a terrible choice that left him empty and sad – we are left with a primer on how he got into the mess to begin with. There were essentially four component ingredients that drove the events from riches to ruin.

Key Principle: Bad decisions come from wrong focus. When we focus on ourselves – our fortune, fame, power and pleasure – we lose long term perspective, and end up in regret.

Component One: Personal Pride (1:1-6).

King Ahasuerus (in Persian: Khsha-yarsha or in Greek “Xerxes”) self aggrandized over his:

Position (focused on Fame): 1:1 Now it took place in the days of Ahasuerus, the Ahasuerus who reigned from India to Ethiopia over 127 provinces,

Without a doubt there was no one that was more famous in his day. The problem with focusing on fame is that life is short, and memories are even shorter. It will not satisfy. When the lights are off and the stage is empty and the janitor is mopping up the dressing room – the crowd has left, and the emptiness returns. Positions don’t last, and putting one’s hope in them is a fool’s errand.

Property (focused on Power): 1:2 in those days as King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne which was at the citadel in Susa, 3 in the third year of his reign (484 BCE) he gave a banquet for all his princes and attendants, the army officers of Persia and Media, the nobles and the princes of his provinces being in his presence. 4 And he displayed the riches of his royal glory and the splendor of his great majesty for many days, 180 days.

Words like “glory” and “majesty” were essentially rooted in military might. Surrounded by the commanders of his army, the King was planning the assault that would later be found in history books as the Battle of Thermopylae. Hollywood would recall 300 Spartans who fell, but the power of Xerxes would become a footnote in human history. No general is really powerful. He is one heartbeat from loss. Even more, the humiliation of defeat can erode a career full of power in seconds.

Powerful people are vulnerable for two reasons – much of their power is based on the actions of others that can fail, and power is ascribed by others – and they can decide to take it away for reasons that do not necessarily relate to your behavior. If those “under” the powerful one fail, his power is diminished. If people choose to see his power as irrelevant, and enough agree – his power becomes marginalized. Power is effective only when widely recognized and affirmed. Our President has power because “we the people” recognize that authority. Marie Antoinette discovered what happened when the masses no longer deemed the position of power as relevant. A life focused on power is a life spent for something that cannot be secure and will not last.

Philanthropy (focused on Fortune): 1:5 When these days were completed, the king gave a banquet lasting seven days for all the people who were present at the citadel in Susa, from the greatest to the least, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace.

Xerxes no doubt felt himself to be a benevolent king – taking care of all the “little people” in life. Special notation is made in the text that “even the least” gained access to “the garden” of the palace – a place normally reserved for intimate exchanges of the most trusted friends. People came INTO the palace, and saw all that it had to offer. The king was able to show them a good time, and impress them with all that they in the kingdom paid for! By the second day of free food and wine, I doubt that anyone noticed that much – but the king could not count on their long term support either. The problem with buying friends is that they will constantly need another installment paid!

Prosperity (focused on Pleasure): 1:6 There were hangings of fine white and violet linen held by cords of fine purple linen on silver rings and marble columns, and couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and precious stones. 7 Drinks were served in golden vessels of various kinds, and the royal wine was plentiful according to the king’s bounty.

Think of it! Simple farmers and merchants walking in the palace, surrounded by bleached linen fabrics wrapped in cords of expensive purple. Impressed by the size and workmanship of the fine marble columns, they “oo-ed and ah-ed” as they saw precious stones – all that set the atmosphere of the great party. Finding an open place on a couch, they lay back and waited for the wine steward to serve them. A little more food, a little more wine. A lovely dance performance by a scantily clothed performer. Laughing, singing, music, grapes fed from a vine by beautiful women and handsome men. Nothing lacked – but nothing was real. The focus on pleasure is a focus on the wrong world. It makes NOW more important than any other time. The problem is, NOW focus usually ends badly. It can be as simple as a hangover, or it can be the damage of an uncontrolled argument. Pleasure is a god that is never satisfied. He will always want more than you can give him.

Sin is a blasting presence, and every fine power shrinks and withers in the destructive heat. Every spiritual delicacy succumbs to its malignant touch… Sin impairs the sight, and works toward blindness. Sin benumbs the hearing and tends to make men deaf. Sin perverts the taste, causing men to confound the sweet with the bitter, and the bitter with the sweet. Sin hardens the touch, and eventually renders a man “past feeling.” All these are Scriptural analogies, and their common significance appears to be this–sin blocks and chokes the fine senses of the spirit; by sin we are desensitized, rendered imperceptive, and the range of our correspondence is diminished. Sin creates callosity. It hoofs the spirit, and so reduces the area of our exposure to pain. – John Henry Jowett in The Grace Awakening.

Component Two: Poor Perception (1:8-11).

The King and Queen badly misread the moment because they:

Dropped Restraints (1:8) “The drinking was done according to the law, there was no compulsion (the word is “Onas” and is akin to the Latin term “onus” meaning responsible burden), for so the king had given orders to each official of his household that he should do according to the desires of each person.”

Here’s a great idea: Get a large palace and fill it with people – many of them poor people – give them all the alcohol they want and don’t hold them responsible for their actions. That’s bound to end well! The issue is that restraints are placed in our lives to help us make better decisions. The removal of the restraints can lead to disaster – and often does!

Don’t skip over this too quickly: We need to spot removed restraints early! It’s like a World Series of weeds, a Hula Bowl of herbicides, with agriculture students from U.S. and Canadian universities competing to identify problems in farm fields. This year, Iowa State took top honors in the Collegiate Weed Science Contest, which tests students’ abilities to identify weeds and the right chemical to kill them and diagnose herbicide failure. “They need to be able to recognize weeds when they are tiny,” said James Worthington of Western Kentucky University, president of the North Central Weed Science Society. “When they get big enough that anybody can recognize them, it’s too late to do anything about them.” Spokesman Review, July 27, 1989, p. A9.

Deserted Roles (1:9) Queen Vashti also gave a banquet for the women in the palace which belonged to King Ahasuerus.

While both the king and queen were attending, night after night, banquets and schmooze sessions they were NOT attending to their other role – husband and wife. I recognize in the story the roles were likely much different than the post-Victorian understanding of family, but permit me for a moment to bring the narrative to us in a way that will enlighten our own decision making: It is possible to get too caught up in other lesser roles of life and lose the primary one you should be focused on! The good is often the enemy of the best.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a Democratic U.S. Senator, a former cabinet member from the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, and a sociologist. Before Senator Moynihan died in 2003 from complications of an appendectomy at age 76, he published a disturbing essay entitled “Defining Deviancy Down.” In the Nov 22 issue of The New Republic, Commentator Charles Krauthammer writes that “Moynihan’s powerful point is that with the moral deregulation of the 1960s, we have had an explosion of deviancy in family life, criminal behavior and public displays of psychosis. And we have dealt with it in the only way possible: by redefining deviancy down so as to explain away and make ‘normal’ what a more civilized, ordered and healthy society long ago would have labeled–and long ago did label–deviant.” Christian Research Institute letter, December 6, 1993.

Diminished Respect (1:10-12a)

By the King: 1:10 On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus, 11 to bring Queen Vashti before the king with her royal crown in order to display her beauty to the people and the princes, for she was beautiful.

By the Queen: 1:12 But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command delivered by the eunuchs….

Could it be that parading your wife in front of a drunken palace is not a good idea to get people to respect her? Could simply turning the king down flat be a bruise to his public ego? How about a private communication of respect. Timing is everything. You can embarrass your spouse into anger and humiliation – but where do you go from there?

• Diluted Reasoning (1:12b) 1:12b…”Then the king became very angry and his wrath burned within him.

Here’s an important tip for men: When your ego has been bruised and you are really angry and embarrassed, you may want some alone time. We get more blustery and powerful when we are surrounded by our drunk and “overly loyal” (read: you are picking up the check) friends. Anger is a bad guide to any destination but disaster!

When John Belushi died in the spring of 1983 of an overdose of cocaine and heroin, a variety of articles appeared, including one in U.S. News and World Report, on the seductive dangers of cocaine: “It can do you no harm and it can drive you insane; it can give you status in society and it can wreck your career; it can make you the life of the party and it can turn you into a loner; it can be an elixir for high living and a potion for death.” Like all sin, there’s a difference between the appearance and the reality, between the momentary feeling and the lasting effect.– Daniel Hans.

Component Three: Problematic Partners (1:13-19).

The King’s mistake was aided by bringing the problem before the wrong “friends”. He had:

A Mistaken Forum: 13 Then the king said to the wise men who understood the times—for it was the custom of the king so to speak before all who knew law and justice.

Settle private matters privately. People who have a vested interest in you can offer quiet and helpful counsel, but a room full of experts is probably not needed for most marital issues. If you want to find a way to fix the problem – quiet down. If you want to blow it up – call in the experts.

A Misplaced Trust: 14 and were close to him: Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena and Memucan, the seven princes of Persia and Media who had access to the king’s presence and sat in the first place in the kingdom

There is a special danger to those who are in positions of authority and perceived power: people may not tell you the truth even if they know it. There are many other possible motivations behind their words beside your best interest.

• A Mischaracterized Problem: 15 “According to law, what is to be done with Queen Vashti, because she did not obey the command of King Ahasuerus delivered by the eunuchs?” 16 In the presence of the king and the princes, Memucan said, “Queen Vashti has wronged not only the king but also all the princes and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. 17“For the queen’s conduct will become known to all the women causing them to look with contempt on their husbands by saying, ‘King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought in to his presence, but she did not come.’ 18“This day the ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s conduct will speak in the same way to all the king’s princes, and there will be plenty of contempt and anger.

One of the ways people make themselves seem more important is by ratcheting up the problem through exaggeration. If the problem seems intractable, then you MUST have their help. If you MUST have their help, then they are INDISPENSABLE to you. If you are in a position of power, they draw significance, affirmation and security from your problem. Even for those of us that are not in powerful positions, we must understand that many people offer to help because they need to offer assistance for self affirmation more than we need to receive their assistance. In the end, their characterization of the problem is less based on the facts than their need to be essential.

Component Four: Permanent Pronouncement (1:19-2:1).

Sensing an opportunity, some near the king proposed something that produced:

Quick Reaction: 19 “If it pleases the king, let a royal edict be issued by him and let it be written in the laws of Persia and Media so that it cannot be repealed, that Vashti may no longer come into the presence of King Ahasuerus, and let the king give her royal position to another who is more worthy than she. 20 “When the king’s edict which he will make is heard throughout all his kingdom, great as it is, then all women will give honor to their husbands, great and small.” 21 This word pleased the king and the princes, and the king did as Memucan proposed. 22 So he sent letters to all the king’s provinces, to each province according to its script and to every people according to their language, that every man should be the master in his own house and the one who speaks in the language of his own people.

Practice this phrase: “I will not make a long term decision quickly!” In the case of the king, his rule was permanent, and it was probable that he would never be able to undo the damage he could create with the stroke of the pen. Real problems should be handled with real forethought. As Elvis used to remind us: “Wise men say only fools rush in!”

It is better to sleep on what you plan to do than to be kept awake by what you’ve done.

Lasting Regret: 2:1 After these things when the anger of King Ahasuerus had subsided, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what had been decreed against her.

There is a certain tenderness in the verse when the king remembered “Vashti”. Earlier in his anger he did not think of her PERSON, only his EGO. He reacted out of selfishness. Now he recalled HER – her beauty, they times they spent together. Unfortunately, not everything in life is a do over. She lived with the harsh sentence, and he lived with his own self caused exile. Long after the rooms of the palace were cleaned up and the wine was no longer flowing, the King found himself alone and a bit ashamed.

Bad decisions come from wrong focus. When we focus on ourselves – our fortune, fame, power and pleasure – we lose long term perspective, and end up in regret. Worse yet, we simply let our lives pass in sinful behaviors, dithering away the life God gave us to tell His story.

When I stand at the judgment seat of Christ – And He shows me His plan for me; The plan of my life as it might have been – Had He had His way, and I see How I blocked Him here and I checked Him there – And I would not yield my will, Shall I see grief in my Savior’s eyes; Grief though He loves me still?

Oh, He’d have me rich, and I stand there poor, Stripped of all but His grace, While my memory runs like a hunted thing – Down the paths I can’t retrace. Then my desolate heart will well-nigh break – With tears that I cannot shed. I’ll cover my face with my empty hands – And bow my uncrowned head.

No. Lord of the years that are left to me – I yield them to Thy hand.
Take me, make me, mold me – To the pattern Thou hast planned. (Source Unknown)