One a queen by marriage and the other by birth, one forced by circumstance into a lonely royal marriage and the other forced to a lonely life without marriage: Consider two famous women of valor from long-separated eras of history.
Let me introduce you to Queen Esther of Persia, who lived nearly 2,500 years ago, and Queen Elizabeth I of England, who lived about 400 years ago. The choices they made affect us to this very day and show the powerful impact of leadership based in conviction, courage and wisdom.
Life at court
Esther was a young Jewish girl of the Israelite tribe of Benjamin, an orphan raised by her older cousin Mordecai in Persia. When the Persian emperor Ahasuerus (Xerxes) sought a new queen, Esther was among those selected to be presented before him. After many months of preparation, he chose her as one of his wives and as the new queen.
King Ahasuerus’ court lacked no shortage of intrigue. Mordecai, who was appointed to a position of responsibility at the palace gate, intercepted a plot to assassinate the king, and those behind it were executed.
Afterward another terrible plot arose. The king appointed a new prime minister, Haman the Agagite. When Mordecai refused a command to bow down before this man, Haman became furious and convinced the king to issue a decree calling for the annihilation of Mordecai’s people, the Jews (evidently without telling the king the identity of the people or that this had anything to do with Mordecai).
To thwart Haman’s evil plot to exterminate her people, Queen Esther had to make a decision. To reveal the dastardly intentions of Haman, would she go against court protocols and restrictions forbidding even her as queen to approach the king uninvited? This was no small matter. If the king did not respond with acceptance when she entered the palace inner court, Esther would quickly be put to death.
Mordecai sent a grave message to Esther. He told her that if she did not go before the king, deliverance would come to the Jews from elsewhere while she would perish. So Esther determined that, after leading a three-day fast, she would act.
Despite the danger, she humbly went before the king, and he received her. At length, he learned from her the truth about Haman’s plot. As a result, Haman was hung on the gallows he had ordered built for Mordecai, and the Jews were allowed by new royal decree to defend themselves.
Likewise, God expects us to courageously step forward in faith to follow Him. In the end it is always far better to obey God than to fear what man can do.
Schemes and plots
In the time of Elizabeth I, court intrigue formed a tangled web. Religious disputes added to the complications. Her father, King Henry VIII, had broken with the Roman Catholic pope to divorce his first wife Catherine of Aragon, a Spanish princess, and established the Protestant Church of England with himself as the head.
Several years after Henry died, his and Catherine’s daughter Mary, Elizabeth’s older half-sister, became queen. A Catholic who married a Catholic prince of Spain, Queen Mary wished to see the English Protestant Reformation overturned. She was often called “Bloody Mary” for the many executions of religious dissenters she endorsed.
Having been raised a Protestant, Elizabeth was constantly under suspicion of treason, her life at risk. She was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where royals and other important people were executed, under the accusation that she might plot to depose her sister. Only when Mary was finally persuaded of her innocence was Elizabeth released.
Both Esther and Elizabeth had to act against the conventions and expectations of their circumstances. Elizabeth’s challenge, however, came not in the confines of marriage but in choosing not to marry.
The rulers of Europe expected her, as a princess and later as queen, to take a prince, king or other powerful man as her husband. This was the precedent, and other powerful nations, among them Spain and France, hoped to effectively annex England by such a marriage.
Once again, Elizabeth, a Protestant Christian, faced a religious battle. Spain and France were at the time ruled by Roman Catholic kings who, being subject to the pope, wished to use a royal marriage to force England back under the umbrella of Catholicism.
To protect the relative religious freedom of her kingdom, Elizabeth chose to forgo marriage to a foreign sovereign or prince. Likewise, she also chose to forgo marriage to any of a number of powerful English aristocrats whose ambition was to rule England through a royal wife.
Royal wisdom and wise counsel
It takes courage and wisdom to remain confident and faithful despite the schemes of conniving people. Both Queen Esther and Queen Elizabeth used wisdom and caution to navigate webs of intrigue and plots that surrounded them.
Esther relied on the council of Mordecai and of the harem eunuch Hegai. The latter gave her advice about how to please the king and how to take care of herself, while Mordecai reminded Esther to be true to her faith and her people. Esther also looked to God’s guidance through fasting.
Similarly, Queen Elizabeth sought wise council from her advisor William Cecil, Baron Burghley. She also recognized the existence and power of God, the primary step to true wisdom. Lastly, she relied on the advice of a Latin saying, Video et taceo (“I see and keep silent”). It is wise to observe circumstances carefully before speaking, to see the whole picture before acting.
Queen for a day
These two ladies lived momentous lives. Imagine wearing the crowns of each of these great queens on their days of greatest challenge. What lessons of conviction, courage and wisdom might we learn from their varied histories?
Would you bravely traverse the sticky corridors of intrigue by carefully choosing your words wisely and remaining true to your convictions? Would you take your life in your hands and go before King Ahasuerus? Facing religious persecution, would you be willing to challenge the executioner?
Esther was brave not just for herself but for all the Jewish people. Her courage directly contributed to their national deliverance. The book bearing her name in the Bible powerfully inspires us to faithfulness.
Queen Elizabeth’s determined choice to remain unmarried foiled political interlopers and foreign powers desiring to force England back into the Catholic fold. That decision allowed religious freedom to flourish in England, setting the stage for her successor, King James I, to produce his monumental English translation of the Bible—the King James Version, which transformed English life and culture.
Just as these great queens, we too can search for sound mentors to guide us into good sense and right principles. Today, we seek the path of truth from the Scriptures, the wisest counsel. Then, when circumstance demands it, we can observe carefully, choose our words wisely and stand up for what is right.
We must fear God, not other people, to truly be people of valor.