Guest Writer Thomas DeWitt Talmage
“Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s commandment … therefore was the king very wroth, and his anger burned in him” (Esther 1:12).
You know the story—or should. “Vashti the queen made a feast for the women in the royal house, which belonged to King Ahasuerus. On the seventh day when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, and Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas, the seven chamberlains that served in the presence of Ahasuerus the king, to bring Vashti the queen before the king with the crown royal, to show the people and the princes her beauty: for she was fair to look on. But the Queen Vashti refused …. Therefore was the king very wroth, and his anger burned in him” (Esther 1: 9-12).
We stand in the palaces of Shushan, in old Persia. The pinnacles are aflame with the morning light. The columns rise festooned and wreathed, the wealth of empires flashing from the grooves, the ceilings adorned with images of bird and beast and with scenes of prowess and conquest. The walls are hung with shields and emblazoned until it seems that the whole round of splendors is exhausted.
Each arch is a mighty leaf of architectural achievement. Golden stars shine down on glowing arabesque [Moorish decoration]. Hangings of embroidered work display the blueness of the sky, the greenness of the grass, and the whiteness of the seafoam. Tapestries hung on silver rings wed together the pillars of marble. Pavilions reach out in every direction. These for repose, filled with luxuriant couches, in which weary limbs sink until all fatigue is submerged. Those for carousal, where kings drink down a kingdom.
Light of silver dripping down over stairs of ivory on shields of gold. Floors of stained marble, sunset red and night black, inlaid with gleaming pearl.
In the palace courtyard is a garden, where the mighty men of foreign lands are seated at a banquet. Under the spread of oak, linden, and acacia the tables are arranged. The breath of honeysuckle and frankincense fill the air. Fountains leap up into the light, the spray struck through with rainbows falling in crystalline baptism on flowering shrubs—then rolling down through channels of marble, and widening out here and there into pools swirling with the finny [fishlike] tribes of foreign aquariums, bordered with scarlet anemones, hypericums, and many-colored ranunculi [bright flowers].
We can almost smell the meats of rarest bird and beast smoking up among the wreaths of aromatics. And see the vases filled with apricots and almonds. The baskets piled up with apricots, figs, oranges, and pomegranates. Melons tastefully twined with leaves of acacia. The bright waters of Eulæus [Persian river] filling the urns and dropping outside the rim in flashing beads among the traceries [ornate windows]. Wine from the royal vats of Ispahan and Shiraz, in bottles of tinged shell, lily-shaped cups of silver, and flagons and tankards of solid gold. The music rises higher, the revelry breaks out into wilder transport, the wine has flushed the cheek and touched the brain, and louder than all other voices are the hiccup of the inebriates, the gabble of fools, and the song of the drunkards.
It is then, “on the seventh day, when the heart of the king is merry with wine, that he commands Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, and Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas, the seven chamberlains who serve in the presence of Ahasuerus the king, to bring Vashti the queen before the king with the crown royal, to show the people and the princes her beauty, for she was fair to look on.”
In another part of the palace, Queen Vashti is entertaining the princesses of Persia at a banquet when the servants arrive. There was a rule in Oriental society that no woman might appear in public without having her face veiled. Yet here is a mandate that no one dare dispute, demanding that Vashti, wearing the crown, appear unveiled before the drunken men.
“Queen Vashti refused to come.” In Vashti’s soul is a principle more regal than Ahasuerus, more brilliant than the gold of Shushan, wealthier than the realm of Persia. And so all the righteousness, holiness, and modesty of her nature rise up in one sublime refusal. She says, “I will not go into the banquet unveiled.”
“Therefore was the king very wroth, and his anger burned in him.” Ahasuerus was infuriated; and Vashti, robbed of her position and her estate, is driven away in poverty and ruin to suffer the scorn of a nation, and yet to receive the applause of after generations, who rise up to admire this martyr to kingly insolence.
Well, the last vestige of that feast is gone; the last garland has faded; the last arch has fallen; the last tankard has been destroyed; and Shushan is a ruin. But as long as the world stands, there will be multitudes of men and women, familiar with the Bible, who will come into this picture-gallery of God and admire the divine portrait of Vashti the queen, Vashti the veiled, Vashti the sacrifice, Vashti the silent.
VASHTI THE QUEEN
In the first place, I want you to look on Vashti the queen. A blue ribbon, rayed with white, drawn around her forehead, indicated her queenly position. It was no small honor to be queen in such a realm as Persia. Hark to the rustle of her robes! See the blaze of her jewels!
And yet, my friends, it is not necessary to have place and regal robe in order to be queenly. When I see a woman with stout faith in God, putting her foot on meanness, selfishness, and godless display, going right forward to serve Christ and the race by a grand and a glorious service, I say, “That woman is a queen.” And the ranks of heaven look over the battlements on the coronation; and whether she comes up from the shanty on the commons or the mansion of the fashionable square, I greet her with the shout, “All hail, Queen Vashti!”
What glory was there on the brow of Mary of Scotland, or Elizabeth of England, or Margaret of France, or Catherine of Russia, compared with the worth of some of our Christian mothers, many of them gone into glory? Or of that woman mentioned in the Scriptures, who put her all into the Lord’s treasury (Mark 12:41-44)? Or of Jephthah’s daughter, who made a demonstration of unselfish patriotism (Judges 11:34-40)? Or of Abigail, who rescued the herds and flocks of her husband (1 Samuel 25:1-35)? Or of Ruth, who toiled under a tropical sun for poor, old, helpless Naomi (Ruth 2:1-3)? Or of Florence Nightingale, who went at midnight to stanch the battle wounds of the Crimea? Or of Ann Judson, who kindled the lights of salvation in the darkness of Burma? Or of Felicia Hemans, who poured out her holy soul in words that will forever be associated with hunter’s horn, captive’s chain, bridal hour, lute’s throb, and curfew’s knell at the dying day?
Or of scores and hundreds of women, unknown on earth, who have given water to the thirsty, bread to the hungry, medicine to the sick, and smiles to the discouraged—their footsteps heard along dark lane, in government hospital, in almshouse corridor, and by prison gate? There may be no royal robe—there may be no palatial surroundings. She does not need them, for all charitable men will unite with the crackling lips of fever-struck hospital and plague-blotched lazaretto [quarantine] in greeting her as she passes: “Hail! Hail! Queen Vashti!”
VASHTI THE VEILED
Again, I want you to consider Vashti the veiled. If she had appeared before Ahasuerus and his court on that day with her face uncovered, she would have shocked all the delicacies of Oriental society, and the very men who in their intoxication demanded that she come, in their sober moments would have despised her. As some flowers seem to thrive best in the dark lane and in the shadow, and where the sun does not seem to reach them, so God appoints to most womanly natures a retiring and unobtrusive [inconspicuous] spirit.
God once in a while does call an Isabella to a throne, or a Miriam to strike the timbrel at the front of a host (Exodus 15:20, 21), or a Marie Antoinette to quell a French mob, or a Deborah to stand at the front of an armed battalion, crying out, “Up! Up! This is the day in which the Lord will deliver Sisera into our hands” (Judges 4:10-14). And when the women are called to such outdoor work and to such heroic positions, God prepares them for it. They have iron in their soul, lightning in their eye, whirlwind in their breath, and the borrowed strength of the Lord Omnipotent in their right arm. They walk through furnaces as though they were hedges of wildflowers, cross seas as though they were shimmering sapphire, and chase all the harpies of hell down to their dungeon with their womanly indignation.
But these are the exceptions. Generally, Dorcas would rather make a garment for the poor boy (Acts 9:39). Rebekah would rather fill the trough for the camels (Genesis 24:15-21). Hannah would rather make a coat for Samuel (1 Samuel 2:18, 19). The Hebrew maid would rather give a prescription for Naaman’s leprosy (2 Kings 5:1-4; cf Luke 4:27). The woman of Sarepta would rather gather a few sticks to cook a meal for famished Elijah (1 Kings 17:8-16; cf Luke 4:25, 26). Phoebe would rather carry a letter for the inspired apostle (Romans 16:1, 27f). Mother Lois would rather educate Timothy in the Scriptures (2 Timothy 1:5).
When I see a woman going about her daily duty, with cheerful dignity presiding at the table, with kind and gentle, but firm discipline presiding in the nursery, going out into the world without any blast of trumpets, following in the footsteps of Him who went about doing good—I say, “This is Vashti veiled.” But when I see a woman of unblushing boldness, loud-voiced, with a tongue of ceaseless chatter, with arrogant look, passing through the streets with the step of a walking-beam, gaily arrayed in a very hurricane of millinery, I cry, “Vashti has lost her veil!”
When I see a woman struggling for political preferment—trying to force her way on up to the ballot box, through the masculine demagogues who stand, with swollen fists, bloodshot eyes, and pestiferous breath to guard the polls—wanting to wade through the laziness and the defilement of popular sovereigns who crawl up from the saloons greasy, foul, and vermin-covered to decide questions of justice, order, and civilization—when I see a woman who wants to press through all that horrible scum to get to the ballot box, I say, “What a pity! Vashti has lost her veil!”
When I see a woman of comely features and adroitness of intellect, endowed with education and high social position, yet moving in society with superciliousness [arrogance] and hauteur [haughtiness], as though she would have people know their place—and with an undefined combination of giggle, strut, and rhodomontade [boasting], endowed with allopathic [prescription] quantities of talk, but only homeopathic [non-prescription] infinitesimals of sense, the terror of dry-goods clerks and railroad conductors, discoverers of significant meanings in plain conversation, prodigies of badinage [wit] and innuendo—I say, “Vashti has lost her veil.”
VASHTI THE SACRIFICE
Again, I want you this morning to consider Vashti the sacrifice. Who is this that I see coming out of that palace gate of Shushan? It seems to me that I have seen her before. She comes homeless, houseless, friendless, trudging along with a broken heart. Who is she? It is Vashti the sacrifice. Oh, what a change it was from regal position to a wayfarer’s crust! A little while ago, approved and sought for. Now, none so poor as to acknowledge her acquaintanceship. Vashti the sacrifice!
You and I have seen it many a time. Here is a home empalaced [graced] with beauty. All that refinement, books, and wealth can do for that home has been done; but Ahasuerus, the husband and the father, is taking hold on paths of sin. He is gradually going down. After a while he will flounder and struggle like a wild beast in the hunter’s net—farther away from God, farther away from the right. Soon the bright apparel of the children will turn to rags; soon the household song will become the sobbing of a broken heart.
The old story over again. Brutal Centaurs breaking up the marriage feast of Lapithæ. The house full of outrage, cruelty, and abomination, while trudging forth from the palace gate are Vashti and her children. There are homes represented in this house this morning that are in danger of such break-up. O Ahasuerus! that you should stand in a home, by a dissipated life destroying the peace and comfort of that home! God forbid that your children should ever have to wring their hands, and have people point their finger at them as they pass down the street, and say, “There goes a drunkard’s child.” God forbid that the little feet should ever have to trudge the path of poverty and wretchedness! God forbid that any evil spirit born of the wine cup or the brandy glass should come forth and uproot that garden, and with a lasting, blistering, all-consuming curse, shut forever the palace gate against Vashti and the children.
One night during the war I went to Hagerstown [near Antietam] to look at the army, and I stood on a hilltop and looked down on them. I saw the campfires all through the valleys and all over the hills. It was a weird spectacle, those campfires, and I stood and watched them. Soldiers gathered around them were, no doubt, talking of their homes, of the long march they had taken, and of the battles they were to fight. After a while I saw the campfires begin to lower; and they continued to lower, until they were all gone out, and the army slept. It was imposing [impressive] when I saw the campfires; it was imposing in the darkness when I thought of that great host asleep.
Well, God looks down from heaven, He sees the fireside of Christendom and the loved ones gathered around the firesides. These are the campfires where we warm ourselves at the close of day, and talk over the battles of life we have fought and the battles yet to come. God grant that when, at last, these fires begin to go out, and continue to lower until finally they are extinguished, and the ashes of consumed hopes strew the hearth of the old homestead, it may be that we have
But there is still a blessèd sleep,
From which none ever wakes to weep. ~Margaret Mackay, “Asleep in Jesus” (1832)
Now we are an army on the march of life. Then we shall be an army bivouacked in the tent of the grave.
VASHTI THE SILENT
Once more, I want you to look at Vashti the silent. You do not hear any outcry from this woman as she goes forth from the palace gate. From the very dignity of her nature, you know there will be no vociferation [outcry]. Sometimes in life it is necessary to make a retort; sometimes in life it is necessary to resist; but there are crises when the most triumphant thing to do is to keep silent.
So we see the philosopher, confident in his newly discovered principle, waiting for the coming of more intelligent generations. Willing that men should laugh at the lightning rod, cotton gin, and steamboat, he waits for long years, through the scoffing, in grand and magnificent silence.
We see Galileo, condemned by mathematicians, monks, and cardinals, caricatured everywhere, yet waiting and watching with his telescope to see the coming of stellar reinforcements, when the stars in their courses would fight for the Copernican system. Then he sits down in complete blindness and deafness to wait for the coming of the generations who would build his monument and bow at his grave.
We see the reformer, execrated [cursed] by his contemporaries, fastened in a pillory, the slow fires of public contempt burning under him, ground under the cylinders of the printing press, yet calmly waiting for the day when purity of soul and heroism of character will get the sanction of earth and the plaudits of heaven.
We see Affliction enduring without any complaint the sharpness of the pang, the violence of the storm, the heft of the chain, and the darkness of the night—waiting until a divine hand will soothe the pang, hush the storm, and release the captive.
We see a wife abused, persecuted, and a perpetual exile from every earthly comfort—waiting, waiting, until the Lord will gather up His dear children in a heavenly home, and no poor Vashti will ever be thrust out from the palace gate.
Jesus, in silence and answering not a word, drinking the gall, bearing the cross, in prospect of the rapturous consummation when …
They brought His chariot from above,
To bear Him to His throne,
Clapped their triumphant wings and cried,
“The glorious work is done!” ~James Fanch, “Beyond the Glittering, Starry Skies” (1776)
O woman, does not this story of Vashti the queen, Vashti the veiled, Vashti the sacrifice, Vashti the silent, move your soul? My sermon converges into the one absorbing hope that none of you may be shut out of the palace gate of heaven. You can endure the hardships, the privations, the cruelties, and the misfortunes of this life if you can only gain admission there. Through the blood of the everlasting covenant you can go through those gates, or never go at all. God forbid that you should at last be banished from the society of angels, banished from the companionship of your glorified kindred, and banished forever. Through the rich grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, may you be enabled to imitate the example of Rebekah, Hannah, Abigail, Deborah, Mary, Esther, and Vashti!
“Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies” (Proverbs 31:10).
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
Photo Credit: Hudson River Railroad Station (c 1890)
Featured for this series are photographs of old New York.
*Adapted from “The Banished Queen,” Thomas DeWitt Talmage [1832-1902], New Tabernacle Sermons Vol I (New York: George Munro, 1886). Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.