There was a great stir in the palace of Shushan, the beautiful palace which King Darius, the friend and master of Daniel, had built. King Darius was dead now, and Ahasuerus sat upon the throne of Babylon; and he had just chosen for his queen, Esther, the Jewish maiden, one who belonged to that race of people who had been carried away captive from Jerusalem.
It was little wonder that Ahasuerus had chosen her as his queen, for there was no other maiden in all the land as beautiful as she was; and he was one of those selfish, greedy kings who want everything that pleases their eyes. And Esther's beauty pleased Ahasuerus more than all the riches and treasures he possessed. He did not know she was a Jewess—it would not have troubled him if he had known; but Mordecai, her kinsman, had bade her keep that a secret.
It was Mordecai who had brought up the little orphan Jewish girl, and she obeyed him as if he were her father. His heart was filled with joy to think that Esther had been chosen to be queen, for he hoped that some day she might be able to help her poor people, and speak a good word for them to the king.
But before that time came he and Esther between them were able to do the king himself a great service, and this was how it happened. Mordecai, who held an important post in the court, spent a good deal of his time in what was called the king's gate, a beautiful hall outside the palace, where men waited to have an audience with the king.
It was while waiting there one day that he discovered that a plot was on foot to kill the king, and he immediately sent secretly and told Esther. She, of course, took the news to the king; and it was all so quickly done that the plotters were seized at once and put to death, and the king's life was saved. No one thought of rewarding Mordecai, and it was all soon forgotten. But the account was written down in the king's book just as it happened.
Soon after this trouble began to gather round Mordecai. The king had put a man called Haman at the head of all the princes of the palace, to be obeyed as if he were the king himself. All the servants and officers of the court bowed before him as he swept proudly through the waiting throng at the king's gate-all except one old man, the Jew Mordecai.
It was not pride which made Mordecai refuse to bow his head to Haman. It was quite a different reason. To bow to a heathen ruler was considered just the same as bowing to the god whom he represented; and Mordecai, who loved and obeyed the true God, would do no reverence to any other. He knew it was dangerous to refuse; but, like Daniel, he was not afraid to show that he served God. People whispered as they watched him, and the whispers grew louder and louder, until they reached the ears of Haman and made him furiously angry.
Day by day the same thing happened, and as Haman saw that upright figure and unbowed head, he hated Mordecai more and more. What was the use of all his state and power as long as that unbending figure stood in his way?
So Haman thought, and he planned a terrible vengeance. The punishment should fall not only on Mordecai, but upon all his people too. The Jews in every part of the country should be swept out of existence. It would be necessary, of course, to work with great cunning; but, after all, the selfish king was easily managed.
"These strange people, the Jews, who are scattered about all thy kingdom, are always giving trouble," he said to Ahasuerus one day. "They have different laws, and refuse to keep the king's law. If it please the king, let it be written that they may be destroyed."
Then he went on to offer to pay a large sum of money if he were allowed to carry out the plan. But the king needed no bribe—he was more than willing to grant such a request; and he at once gave his signet ring to Haman, that he might seal the letters that ordered all Jews to be killed.
With a joyful heart Haman set to work at once to write out the letters and fix the day of the massacre, and messengers were sent out to carry the orders into every land.
It was a terrible vengeance, and Mordecai was troubled beyond words. There was but one thing to do: Esther must be told, and she must try to save her people. She must not think of herself. God had given her power, and the time had come when she must use it for His people.
It was no easy thing for Esther to do. No one dared to go in and speak. to the king without special permission. Any one who went uninvited might be put to death. It was only if the king should hold out his golden sceptre in token of forgiveness that the intruder would be allowed to live.
But Esther took her courage in both hands. She dressed herself in all her most beautiful, queenly robes and then entered into the royal hall, where the king sat upon his golden throne.
The king looked up with an angry frown to see who it was who dared to come into his presence uninvited; but as soon as his eye fell upon his queen, standing there in all her beauty, with her head humbly bent, his anger died away, and he held out to her his golden sceptre.
No wonder that the king's heart softened as he looked at Esther. She was always beautiful, but to-day there was something almost dazzling about her loveliness, the beauty of her soul shining through the earthly beauty; and as she came forward to touch the sceptre held out towards her, the king was ready to do anything that she asked.
"What wilt thou, Queen Esther?" he said, "and what is thy request? It shall be even given thee to the half of the kingdom."
But Esther did not tell him at once what she wanted. Perhaps she thought it wiser to wait. Instead, she only asked that the king and Haman should come to a feast she had prepared for them.
The feast put the king in a better temper than ever, and again he asked her what it was that she wanted. But once more Esther hesitated, and merely asked that he would be her guest again next day.
Meanwhile Haman's heart overflowed with joy and pride, because he had been chosen to sit at the queen's table, and because soon all the hated Jews would be killed, and Mordecai would stand no longer in his path. He could scarcely wait for the day of the massacre to dawn, and he began to make ready a great gallows on which Mordecai should be hanged.
But that very night it so happened that the king was wakeful; and as he could not sleep he ordered that his books should be brought, and the records read aloud to him. And what should be read to him but the story of how Mordecai the Jew had saved the king's life!
The king was quite interested as he listened. "What honour and dignity hath been done to Mordecai for this?" he asked.
"There is nothing done for him," answered the servants.
"That must be put right at once," said the king; and he immediately sent for Haman, and asked him, "What shall be done unto the man whom the king delighteth to honour?"
Now Haman, of course, thought he must be the man whom the king meant, so he suggested the most splendid honours he could think of. The man should be dressed in the king's own royal robes, he said, and ride upon the king's horse, and the most noble of all the princes should bring him on horseback through the streets of the city.
This answer pleased the king. "Make haste," he said, "and take the apparel and the horse, as thou hast said, and do even so to Mordecai the Jew: let nothing fail of all that thou hast spoken."
It was a bitter moment for proud Haman, and there was no escape from the bitterness. The king must be obeyed. Only when it was all done, and he had been obliged to act as the servant of the man he hated, he hid himself in his house and gave vent to his furious anger. But even then he was obliged to quickly hide his feelings, for the king's servants came to tell him that Esther's feast was ready, and he must come at once.
And now the time had come for Esther to risk all. And when the king asked her again to tell him her request, she went and knelt at his feet, and begged for her own life, and for the life of her people.
"Who is he, and where is he, who has dared to threaten thy life?" thundered the king.
Then Esther rose up and pointed to the terrified Haman, who stood trembling before them. Well might he tremble, for the king's wrath was a terrible thing to see; and the order was given that they should hang Haman on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai.
It was impossible to change the wicked order that Haman had written, for it was sealed with the king's signet. But yet there was another way of granting the queen's request, and the king sent out other letters, ordering that all the Jews should be allowed to arm and defend themselves. And so Queen Esther's people were saved. She had willingly risked her own life, and now she had her reward, for there was joy and gladness amongst all the Jews. Mordecai was given a post of great honour, and was dressed in royal robes of blue and white, covering a garment of fine linen and purple, and he had, too, a golden crown; while Esther, the queen, had all that she could desire, and never forgot to thank God that He had used her to save His people.