In 480 B.C., a certain king named Xerxes is in a foul mood. One that won’t go away.
Xerxes’ kingdom is the vast Persian empire. He reigns over 127 provinces spread across three million square miles.
The king has spent years preparing to invade Greece, a tiny area measuring 50,000 square miles, much of which Xerxes already controls. But the invasion has failed and Xerxes is angry.
Does he blame King Leonidas? I’ll get to that.
First, know that Xerxes is famous in Scripture. He's the king in the book called “Esther.”
The Bible doesn’t spell this out, but Xerxes seems to also be a womanizer. The Persian king apparently decides to take his mind off his military failure by having relations with every one of the most beautiful virgins of his empire. Better still, he convinces all the families across Persia to sign their daughters up.
Xerxes had already deposed his queen, so he announces that the next queen will be chosen from a beauty pageant. And Xerxes gets to sleep with each of the beauties before he decides.
That's how the book called Esther begins. Esther wins the pageant and becomes Queen of Persia!
But there’s no mention anywhere in Esther of Xerxes’ defeat in Greece. Hidden from sight is the king of Sparta, Leonidas.
Sparta was a city-state in Southern Greece. When Xerxes invaded, Leonidas had devised a plan to stop the Persians. It’s a famous story of heroism recreated in the film “300” with Gerard Butler.
The Spartan king takes an elite force of 300 to Thermopylae, a pass the size of a baseball diamond. Small contingents of Greeks follow him.
At this pass, Leonidas holds back the massive Persian army for days. In fact, Leonidas’ plan is so good that he might have prevailed had he not been betrayed. But a Greek leads a second Persian force around the pass to attack Leonidas on his flank. Nearly all of the 300 die.
Xerxes beheads Leonidas’ body, sticks his head on a pole, and crucifies his limbs. Some historians have said those days fighting Leonidas wrecked Xerxes supply chain, demoralized his men, and provided the Greeks with a preview of Xerxes’ military tactics.
But the Persian king marches south from Thermopylae and meets with success at first. Ultimately, however, Xerxes returns home after a naval defeat.
Although the king’s military failure is nowhere in Scripture, it appears to take place just before the pageant. And the military failure propels an obscure Jewish girl to the top of the Persian empire, which becomes very important.
Neither Xerxes nor anyone in the Persian court knows Esther is Jewish. Five years into her reign, a man named Haman become Xerxes right arm. Haman despises Jews and convinces the king to destroy them.
Remember, Jewish people at this time are spread across Persia due to the fall of Northern and Southern Israel much earlier.
So Haman sets in motion a law that decrees that on a certain day all Jews, across 127 provinces of Persia, are to be murdered and their homes plundered. It’s genocide; Hitler had nothing on Haman.
Esther’s father tells her she must speak to Xerxes, but under Persian law anyone who approaches the king without being summoned can be executed. So young Esther refuses to go.
But her father, Mordecai, (actually a much older cousin, who had adopted Esther upon her parents' death) tells her that if she fails to speak for God, the Lord will still act. Mordecai says, “Who knows if you have attained royal position for such a time as this?”
So Esther, Mordecai, and the Jews of the city fast and pray for three days, asking God to be with Esther. Then she goes to the king without being summoned.
Xerxes lifts his royal scepter to Esther, the only way to escape death. Thereafter, the queen tells Xerxes of Haman's evil deed, and the king offsets the wrong planned for the Jews.
Yes, it turns out well, but know the message of the book called Esther. Even if the girl had failed God, the Lord would have found another way to save His people. God decides. Esther 4:14
If you belong to God, you’ll never know the many times He's stepped in to protect you. You'll never see the people He has used to help you. Like Leonidas, in 480 B.C., whose bravery ultimately led to a pageant won by a girl who saves countless Jewish lives.
Walk confidently. If you belong to God, He is with you.
The Rev. Mathews is the author of “Reaching to God.” Contact her at Letters@RAMathews.com. Copyright © 2020, 2021 R.A. Mathews. All rights reserved.
This article originally appeared on The Star: The Spartan king hidden in Scripture