Facing the Giants Part 4: Fasting
A reflection on Queen Esther
Mordecai brought his cousin to the palace in hopes that she would be well cared for and please King Xerxes. It was well known throughout the 127 provinces of the king that he was looking for a new queen because the previous one was banished for disobedience. The gates of the palace were lined with parents presenting their daughters as Mordecai took his place in line with Esther.
“Remember everything I have taught you,” Mordecai whispered in her ear as they got closer to the entrance. “And do not let them know you are a Jew.” He grabbed her arm slightly for emphasis.
“I will do as you say,” she nodded. “I will remember.” Her eyes were glistening as she replied. She was anxious about this opportunity but trusted that Mordecai had her best interests in mind.
He kissed her cheek tenderly before they parted. Paternal worry overcame him, and he embraced her tightly. She murmured reassurances, more for herself than for him as she realized the uncertainty of her future.
She was led from the line to join a large group of young women in a great hall. A few of them were talking but most were quiet, either looking down at the floor or fidgeting, quietly awaiting their destiny. They were corralled into lines as a stern looking bald man in a colorful robe entered the room.
Esther was chosen out of the group of females, finding favor with the king’s official, Hegai. She was directed to follow him out of the room and was advised that she was going to a chamber that would be her room for the next year.
Fear and anxiety struck her as she walked the stone stairs, her heart pounding in her ears. Three maidservants awaited her in the room ready with brush, clothing and a large basin for washing. There were jars of oils and liquids on the table next to smaller brushes and unfamiliar substances. The room was warm with a pleasant smell in the air.
“My lady,” said one of the maidservants, beckoning her to a chair in the room. “Please, let me help you.”
She sat in the chair, closed her eyes and prayed for courage. She knew that true courage came from God and had faith in His Sovereignty. She thought back to Mordecai’s teaching regarding the Higher Power. He had been diligent in teaching her from the scrolls since she was a toddler.
Esther wiped the tear from her right cheek, her head still bowed low. She was consumed with questions of what and how, fear and sadness; she didn’t hear the maid servant as she chatted in the background with the others.
“Time to wash my lady. Your hair is pinned up loosely so don’t make any sudden moves. Just step gently into the basin and I’ll take care of the rest.”
She stepped into the large basin that was filled with pleasantly warm water. The maidservants added soap to the water and then bathed her with a sponge.
I am with you, she heard and a feeling of comfort enveloped her; peace wash over her and the frightfulness of the unknown dulled. God was with her, she knew it.
“My lady, please be careful as you step out of the basin. I have a towel for you here.”
Esther stepped out and was covered with the cloth. The maidservant dried her arms and legs then led her to a chair by the table. The dirt and fear washed away, she felt a renewed energy as she sat in the offered chair.
“Your face is so beautiful, you really don’t need much for a beauty treatment. Perhaps an ointment for the eyes. It will brighten them up and I will place slices of cucumber over your eyes during your afternoon rest.”
The maidservant rummaged through the jars and bottles. Esther was fascinated by the different colors, ointments and textures displayed. She noticed the different brushes and picked one up rubbing the soft bristles against her fingers. Another new experience.
“What does this come from?”
“Goat hair, I think. Here, let me see it for a second.” She touched the bristles and nodded her head. “Yes, I think goat hair.”
“Please close your eyes, my lady, and don’t move. I am going to place this on your upper eyelids and then under them too for the darkness that surrounds them and if it gets in your eyes it will not be pleasant.”
Esther complied. She felt the bristles on her upper eye lid, blotting and brushing. The smell was unusual but not offensive.
“Done. Open your eyes my lady. Yes, I think that is the right ointment for you. Oops, I almost forgot about the lip treatment.” She reached for another brush and smaller jar that contained a pink substance. “Now just put your lips together like you are going to give me a kiss.”
Esther raised her left eyebrow. “Excuse me?” She was again half-listening, contemplating her surroundings.
The servant giggled and held up the smaller brush in front of Esther’s lips. “You’re not going to kiss me, it’s just how we apply this treatment.”
Her face warmed and she was embarrassed. “Oh. I’m sorry, I wasn’t paying attention.”
“No need to apologize my lady.”
As the lip treatment was applied Esther found herself wondering about the king. She had never seen him but knew of him from what Mordecai told her. He had said that the king liked a good party, appreciated beauty and desired obedience from his people. She also overheard some of the townspeople complaining about him.
There was a knock at the door and Esther’s heart jumped. The maidservant left her side to answer it and she could hear a deep voice in the doorway mumbling. She took a deep breath and prayed again for courage as she did not know what awaited her outside this cocoon of safety.
The maidservant at the door looked in at Esther and smiled then moved aside so that Hegai could enter. He smiled at her and nodded slightly. He was accompanied by a scribe carrying a quill and scroll. They were both dressed in flowing beige robs that looked worn but clean. Hegai had a golden badge attached to his chest signifying his authority. The scribe’s robe was hooded but plain.
“Here she is,” Hegai replied holding out his hands to Esther. “Tell me child, what is your name?”
“Esther,” she rose and accepted his greeting.
The scribe scribbled on the scroll with long strokes, dipping his quill in the ink jar fastened to his sleeve after every letter.
“You are beautiful,” Hegai’s eyes were a bright olive green and his smile was broad. “I will be checking on you occasionally to ensure your well-being.”
Esther smiled modestly and bowed her head ever so slightly; this acknowledgment was barely noticed.
“You are to be escorted around the grounds of the palace by your maidservants and you are to notify them if you need anything. They will care for you and prepare you to meet King Xerxes. He turned and waved his hand toward the scribe. “Off to the next.” The maidservant opened it and the men were gone.
For the next year, Esther was pampered, plucked, powdered and polished. She was given lessons in the native language, royal behavior, and the king’s pleasures. As a young girl, some of this came as a surprise but she never let her anxiety get the better of her. She sought her God in prayer and thanksgiving. She asked questions, maintained humility and let gratitude be the song in her heart.
Hegai arrived at her room early one morning with a basket of supplies. The maidservant let him in the room as Esther was eating breakfast. She put the grape down that was in her hand and stood upon seeing him.
“Tonight, is the night Esther!” He held out the basket and placed it on the table in front of her. “I have brought some of the king’s favorite snacks and such. There are also a few things in here that I thought you might like.”
She glanced briefly at the basket, raised an eyebrow and looked up. “But does the king like them?”
Hegai’s head bowed to look through the supplies, “This yes,” he lifted a jar of olives, “this I do not know.” He lifted a small jar of an unfamiliar substance and gave Esther an awkward smile.
“I only want to take what King Xerxes likes for sure. No surprises, no guesses.”
The maidservants were in the background readying the room for the day and the sunlight sprinkled the room as the window covers were pulled back. The light danced favorably on Esther’s face.
“What color does he favor?”
“Blue,” Hegai paused and raised his left eyebrow. “Why do you ask?”
“A woman can’t reveal all of her secrets.” She smiled and crossed her arms.
He cleared his throat and nodded. “Well then, I can see my work is done here. I will come to get you at dusk.” He removed some things from the basket bowed slightly and left the room.
Esther remained standing focused on the basket. There was wine, jewelry, food, and a sheer blue cloth. A wave of solemnity came over her and she took a breath as she was reminded of the seriousness of the situation. She would be queen or concubine at the king’s pleasure. The noise of water being poured into the wash basin stirred Esther from her thoughts.
“Time for your wash, my lady.”
She hadn’t finished her breakfast but found that her appetite had suddenly left her. The task before her carrying life-long implications. She rose from the seat and walked towards the maidservants.
They were giddy with laughter and nervous energy as they readied her. There was talk of customs, expectations and dreams. Esther reminded herself that her nationality was still a secret and she prayed she would be strong enough to deal with that question if it came up. The king had only seen her the once, with no questions or conversation. She had been judged solely on outward appearances. In a few hours she would be face to face with the man that some called emperor. She had spent the last year listening and learning; she prayed that she possessed the expected knowledge. She prayed that he would not hurt her, and she prayed that she would not make a fool out of herself.
I am with you. It was the soft voice encouraging her again. She had heard it, often, in the dead of the morning, before the cock crowed. She had heard it when she was crying silently, overwhelmed with the fear of the unknown. The Voice of God.
“Blue or purple, my lady?”
The dresses were displayed in front of her as another maidservant was combing her hair. They were both beautiful, with minimal differences.
The maidservants halted the preparations for the lunch break and encouraged her Esther to eat. Her appetite was still poor, but she forced herself to eat. She didn’t want to chance fainting or being sick in the evening.
The rest of the afternoon passed quickly. Her long hair was braided and pinned up. Lotions, perfumes and cosmetics were applied, and she was finally helped into the dress by the maidservants, ensuring nothing snagged or wrinkled.
Esther looked out the door as the sun was fading into the horizon. Dusk had come. Her heart skipped a beat and she took a deep breath. A maidservant was decorating her with rings and necklaces when there was a knock on the door which caused her to jump.
“It’s ok, my lady. It is only Hegai.”
Another maidservant opened the door and he entered the room, looking about for his charge. “Ah, Esther. You look great!”
“Finished,” said the maidservant placing the last ring on her finger.
“Are you ready?”
Esther looked around the room at the maidservants who had been with her the last year, helping her prepare for this night. She smiled at each of them and gave them all hugs.
“Thank you, my dears. You have all been so kind to me.”
Heads nodded and bowed. “My lady,” the group replied.
She looked back towards Hegai who was still waiting at the door with a smile on his face and glimmer in his eye. “I am ready.”
They walked down the stairs and across the courtyard toward the waiting king. With each step forward, Esther’s heart beat faster and she found herself breathless by the time they reached to royal residences. Despite eating, she felt light-headed and her stomach was in knots.
Hegai noticed her pause. “Are you alright, my lady.” He had a look of compassion and concern.
“I just need a second, sir, if it pleases the king.” Her voice was soft and steady.
Hegai peered through the door at the waiting king. He appeared to be in a pleasant conversation with one of the royal administrators.
“You may take a minute, my lady.”
Esther closed her eyes and said a prayer as she pretended to be adjusting her hair and dress. She took the napkin from her wrist and dabbed her neck and chest.
“I am ready.” She held out her hand to Hegai who took it, as custom deemed appropriate. Her other hand carried the small basket of goodies.
He cued the harpist and the small crowd was quieted as she walked toward the king. Xerxes stood in front of his throne and looked down at Esther approvingly. He held out his golden scepter which she approached and touched.
“Esther,” Xerxes voice was deep, “you are beautiful. You look well. Welcome to my palace.”
“Thank you, my king.” She stole a glance up and they smiled at each other.
Hegai motioned the audience out of the room behind her. “Is there anything else Your Majesty desires?”
Xerxes found that he could not take his eyes off of the beautiful creature in front of him. He shook his head slightly and waved him off. He was pleased with her beauty, but she also possessed another characteristic that was not common to virgins, certainly not the ones he had met. She was radiant and possessed an air of confidence!
They spent the evening getting to know each other. He was flattered by her desire for him to have everything the way he wanted it.
Esther possessed a kind, discerning spirit. This is what he desired. She was visibly nervous at times but kept her composure. He noticed the way that she would stop mid-sentence to think of her response before blurting it out. He admired this restraint. She displayed remarkable strength in her being.
By the next morning, the king had made his decision. As he rose in the morning, she woke softly and calmly asking him if he needed anything. He touched her cheek gently and reassured her that he had all he needed.
“You are my queen,” he bent and kissed her cheek.
She sat up gracefully and smiled at him. “If it pleases the king.”
“It please me very much.”
He gathered his clothing and left the room promising to send up breakfast and join her later. His excitement spread through his spirit with an urgency to make his choice known. The people needed to know that they had a queen. There would be a feast!
Esther walked in the courtyard with her maidservants in tow. It was a beautiful sunny day. A simple breeze added to the comfort. There were many people gathered at the gate begging for entrance due to business or complaint. She noticed the familiar stature of her uncle and walked toward him. She hadn’t communicated with him in over a year.
As she approached, she caught his eye and side nod. It wouldn’t be appropriate to meet so openly. There were still secrets.
She took his lead and walked to the corner of the gate where trees were grouped. She could see Mordecai lean his back up against one of the trees on the other side of the gate and then he was gone, hidden in the lush greenery.
“I desire some time by myself. I wish to pray and make something special for the king,” she turned towards her maidservants. “Please take this time to refresh yourselves. I will meet you back here in a few minutes.”
The maidservants nodded and left to find refreshment. They were excitedly gossiping about other palace news and Esther knew that a moment’s break would not be a cause for alarm with so much distraction.
Esther walked to the corner and bent down to pick flowers. “Uncle, oh how I’ve missed you,” she whispered.
“Child, I’ve missed you to. I pray that you are faring well, but I have some grave news to share with you. There is no time to waste. The king’s officers are planning on killing him.”
She stopped in her tracks and looked up toward her uncle’s voice. “Are you sure?”
“Without a doubt. You have to tell him. He is in grave danger.”
Esther returned to her flower picking and thought for a long minute. “I have an idea. Thank you, uncle. May we see each other again soon.” And with that she was off, return to the waiting maidservants.
She walked back to the royal residences fumbling with the flowers in her hand. It was almost time for lunch and Xerxes was to join her for the meal. Would he make it to her? The minutes ticked by slowly as she waited, praying that he would be safe.
The door opened and she stood abruptly, the flowers falling to the floor. A maidservant bent and picked them us as she rushed to embrace Xerxes. He was surprised by the greeting at first. One look at Esther’s face gave him pause to be worried.
“Leave us,” he commanded to the waiting servants.
After the room cleared, he led her to the sitting area, and she told him what Mordecai had heard. Two of his officers were at that time planning to assassinate him. He was in grave danger. They both were.
“Are you sure of this? Who told you this?”
“A townsperson I know from my youth. He is honorable and can be trusted. His name is Mordecai.”
This claim was swiftly investigated, and the accusation was found to be true; the conspirators were dealt with accordingly. King Xerxes rewarded Mordecai by giving him a job at the king’s gate. He was glad to be given the opportunity to see Esther on a routine basis and accepted the offer without hesitation.
Then Haman, the Agagite, was also given a promotion at the palace. Xerxes gave him the place of honor above the other nobles and royal officials in the land. This new position commanded all others, except the king, to bow to him. Haman was especially excited to be given this adoration which he felt bordered on worship.
“My Queen,” Haman approached Esther while walking in the courtyard with his entourage. He bowed slightly and walked closer to her for a private discussion.
Esther’s maidservants were holding a canopy above her head to protect her from the sun. She planned on taking a quick stroll outside before dinner and was not pleased to be stopped by Haman. He made her uncomfortable by the amount of pomp and circumstance he demanded.
“Good afternoon, Haman.”
“My Queen, I need to discuss a matter of most urgency with the king. Do you know where he may be?”
“I do not at this time. Have you checked with the royal administrator?”
“I did peak into his office, but he was not there,” he chastised.
Esther shook her head. “Perhaps he was taking care of other urgent matters. I am sure if you go back there, he may have returned by now or you can wait.”
Haman’s eyes widened, “I wait for no one but the king!”
Esther threw up her hands. “Perhaps I can help you?”
“Uh, no. I will go see if he has returned. Good day your Highness.”
He turned abruptly and left with his entourage stalking behind him. Esther allowed her gaze to follow him, wondering what he was up to now. She saw him walk into a person that was crossing his path. He yelled something and then left him on the ground.
“There are people here who are disobeying your laws and it is not in your best interest to let this go unchecked, my king.”
Haman had located Xerxes and been invited to dine with him. The table spread before them contained a variety of meets, cheeses, breads, fruits and vegetables. There was wine in the pitcher that was already half empty. The maidservants stood at each corner fanning the men to keep down the harsh temperature and humidity.
Xerxes raised an eyebrow as he grabbed another piece of bread. He smiled and asked, “What is your idea? And why haven’t I been informed of these people before?”
“I can’t answer the second question, but as to your first, I think you should make a decree to destroy these people who lack respect for you. I will also further my pledge to you by giving you 10,000 talents for your treasury.”
The king took his ring from his finger and gave it to Haman. “Make the decree but keep your money. You may do what you like to this people of whom you talk.”
Haman took the ring, stood up slowly and bowed. “As you wish, I will be off to write up the decree. Good day, Your Majesty.”
The decree was sent out and there was weeping and mourning amongst the Jews. Mordecai tore his clothes in anguish and put on ashes and a sackcloth. The details of the decree and the reaction of the Jewish people were eventually brought to the attention of Esther. She sent clothes to Mordecai, via messenger, to replace his sackcloth but he would not accept them. She then sent one of her male attendants to speak with Mordecai to discover the cause for his mourning. He gave the attendant a copy of the edict that called for the annihilation of the Jewish people and pleaded for her to intercede by speaking with the king.
In those times if anyone approached the king without being summoned, he would be put to death unless the king held out his golden scepter which would spare his life. The king had not asked for Esther in over a month and she was not sure that he would agree to an impromptu visit now. Xerxes passion for her had waned and she was beginning to think that he would dispose of her as he had his previous queen. He was unpredictable.
“You think you are safe just because you live in the palace,” Mordecai wrote in response to her hesitation, “remember you are also a Jew.”
Esther stared at the words on the scroll, a tear slipping down her cheek as fear gripped her chest. She thought for a few minutes before replying. The messenger was waiting, and she had little time to spare.
“Gather all the Jews in your city and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days. My maidservants and I will also fast for three days. Then I will approach the king. If I die, I die.” Esther finished the message and gave it to the courier.
After fasting for three days, she made the journey from her chambers to the king’s inner room. Her stomach clenched and her heart sputtered as she tried to steady her breath. She had put on her best royal robes for the occasion and made sure that her face looked pleasant, not pale like she hadn’t eaten for three days.
Entering the room, she saw the king on his throne looking healthy and happy. He noticed her approaching and lifted up his scepter, then invited her to sit with him. Relief rushed over her with a wave of assurance. All will be well.
“If it pleases Your Majesty, I would like to invite you and Haman to a banquet that I have prepared.”
The king turned toward one of his servants. “Bring Haman at once so that we may go to the banquet.”
The banquet was filled with all the delicacies of the region and an abundance of wine. Esther enjoyed the king’s company despite having an enemy at the table. She continued to pray about what to do with the death decree hanging over her head.
Esther’s banquet invitation was also extended to other nobility who were now all enjoying themselves in the festivities. Musicians played softly as they walked around the open courtyard. Singing accompanied at different intervals and there was dancing.
“What is it that you would like, my Queen?” Xerxes asked again then took a sip of his wine.
Esther smiled at him and thought for a moment. The butterflies in her stomach returned and she took a bite from her meat before replying.
“If it pleases Your Majesty, I would like to invite you to another banquet tomorrow. Haman, you’re invited as well. Then I will give you my petition.” She smiled at Xerxes and Haman.
“Yes,” Xerxes replied, “we will be delighted to again be entertained by you again, my queen.”
The next day’s banquet was equal in food and wine. Xerxes and Haman arrived as requested and were treated to the various delicacies. Esther’s nerves were still on edge, though, and she found it hard to enjoy. Xerxes had proven his love for her in the inner room, but she was not sure he would choose her over Haman.
“My queen, tell me your request and I will give you whatever your heart desires.”
“If I have found favor with you and if it pleases Your Majesty, my request is that you spare my life and the lives of my people.”
Xerxes frowned and furrowed his eyebrows. “Who has threatened you?”
“He is an enemy of mine and he sits here with us. It is Haman.” A shiver went through Esther and she felt she was going to be sick.
The king looked at Haman and gave him a furious glare. He stood up abruptly, left his wine, and went out to the palace gardens. Haman stayed behind to speak with the queen. He begged for his life, reminded her of all the wonderful things he had done, and offered her money. As the king entered the room, Haman was falling on the couch where the queen was seated.
The king’s rage got the better of him. He grabbed Haman by the shoulder. “Who do you think you are to even try to molest the queen?”
After these events, Haman was dealt the ultimate punishment. Esther revealed her nationality to Xerxes who expressed surprise but reassured her that she need not fear. The Jewish people of the region were saved from certain death and the decree was abolished.
Admittedly there is no mention of God in the book of Esther. However, we do know that she was brought up in the Jewish faith by Mordecai and it is very likely that she prayed according to the customs and laws. She was warned by Mordecai to conceal her identity more than once. It was only when the lives of the Jewish people were threatened that she made herself known.
The concept of fasting takes center stage in the book of Esther as it is how she prepared to face her giant. This is something that we can all take part in from time to time also, in preparation for or, in the midst of our struggles. It is not a transaction where if I fast, God will give me something. I have found it to be a time to get my heart’s desires in tune with God’s plan for me. I am reminded that the body is sustained by bread and water, but the soul is sustained by God. I like what John Piper said about fasting. “It is the exclamation point at the end of the sentence, Jesus is coming!”
Grace is a free gift from Jesus, we don’t have to do anything to earn that. He died on the cross for our sins and His righteousness covers us. Taking a special time to lean into Him for your soul’s sustenance will, though, leave you refreshed.
There are many different ways to fast and I encourage you to research this yourself. Incorporating the three prior examples in this Facing the Giants series (listening, preparing with the Holy Spirit and praying boldly) will draw you nearer to God.
Blessings be upon you, brothers and sisters. You are not alone. You are loved.
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