Once there was a woman who displeased her husband so he simply divorced her. In this case, the man was a king and his wife was a queen but that doesn’t matter; the husband could have been a farmer—or a physician or a factory worker or a finance administrator—or anything else… but I digress. The reason the king divorced his wife was that he had made a request of her but his wife had refused the request. And in those days, refusing a king was simply not done.
None of that, however, is the point of the story. The point is why the woman refused to obey the king. Unfortunately, we’ll never know why because the king never bothered to find out. Or, if he did, it didn’t matter to him—which is, in our little story, not a minor detail by any stretch.
By now, you’ve probably guessed the story: the king is Xerxes, the queen is Vashti, and the story is told in the biblical Book of Esther. But the core of it is an old story that continues to unfold everywhere, all the time.
King Xerxes “requested” that Queen Vashti appear before him and all of his drunken officials so that Xerxes could show off the queen’s beauty, but the queen declined the offer. Suddenly, the party was over. At best, a great breach of protocol had occurred and, at worst, a serious crime had been committed. Perhaps even a Class A felony.
So, beside himself, the king insisted his counselors tell him what to do. They immediately defaulted to “if she gets away with such blatant disrespect, then none of our own wives will respect us either. Away with her!” And so, away she went.
Point? Not once (that we’re told) did the king nor any of his officials ever think to ask the queen whether there might’ve been any valid reason why she had refused to appear before the king’s assembly. However, through the centuries, there has been a great deal of speculation. And that’s because Vashti had to have had a very good reason for disobeying the king; people who did that were generally executed—which probably rules out simple defiance. And so, theories abound…
Reason #1: Queen Vashti was ordered to appear before her own servants. This particular reason is not speculation. The Bible reports that Vashti was being ordered to appear at a party which the king was hosting for his servants and officials. (He’d already hosted a party for the governors and nobles.) It was on the seventh day of this party that he sent for the queen because “he wanted all the men to gaze on her beauty…” (Es. 1:11). Imagine, a queen being ordered to appear before the servants of her household so that they could, essentially, ogle her. That would certainly be a valid reason she might be reluctant to appear.
Reason #2: King Xerxes wanted Queen Vashti to appear before the men sans clothing. (He did, however, order that she wear her royal crown.) Now while those proposing this theory can offer no definitive proof that Vashti was expected to appear unclothed, it is worth noting that women in those days were certainly considered of less value than a good war horse. Thus it does not seem unreasonable to suppose that if the king’s sole goal was to impress his officials and servants with his queen’s beauty, they should view all of it. However, in a culture where women were veiled for modesty, imagine what a scandal this would be. Sadly, in the king’s drunken state, he probably didn’t think of that. No wonder Queen Vashti refused to show— and especially before her own servants.
Reason #3: Vashti could have been, for a variety of cultural reasons, considered “unclean” on that particular day. And we’ll leave it at that.
Remember, Vashti knew—everyone knew—that to defy an order from the king could well mean death. That being the case, my guess is that whatever she was being asked to do, she must have considered worse than death. To appear under any of the above circumstances most probably would have resulted in a humiliation and degradation from which the queen would never have recovered. To be remembered as the queen who was forced to appear before servants and possibly without clothes (or worse) would truly have been a fate more terrible than death. But we’ll never know because Xerxes never bothered to ask why his wife would rather risk death than obey his command.
The king lacked understanding.
Xerxes cared more about his pride and reputation than about his own wife’s concerns. Nevertheless, after sobering up, indications are that he regretted his irrevocable decision to send her away.
Perhaps he finally understood the facts.
As leaders, whether in our homes, businesses, government or any other authoritative position, we need to understand the facts of any given situation and the effects of our verdicts upon others before making those decisions. That’s just good leadership. And although one would think that should go without saying, sadly it does not.
In several places in his letters, Paul admonishes husbands, fathers, and slave owners [by extension, employers], not simply not to mistreat wives, children or slaves [employees], but to treat them with understanding (Eph. 5:21-6:4; Col. 3:18-21). And this principle holds true for anyone, including women.
Understanding. It’s the key to wisdom, insight, revelation, discernment, and discretion. Without understanding, leaders cannot attain any of those.
Think about that.
Simply put—get the facts. The truth is that if those in authority treat others with understanding, then there will be much less need to demand respect and obedience. There is a time and place to deal with overt rebellion but not as an automatic default. Yes, chronic offenders, in-your-face law-breakers, criminals, and terrorists certainly demand swift and meaningful consequences, but in dealing with our families, our employees, and our constituents, fact-based understanding is the better part of wisdom.
Understanding is the difference between a tyrant and a great leader.