Yesterday, we started the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – three faithful Jews who defied King Nebuchadnezzar’s order to bow down before a 90-foot-tall golden statue whenever they heard (memory test: can you name all the instruments?). We ended with their expression of loyalty to God – whether he ended up rescuing them or not:
Daniel 3:16-18 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
It’s a response that didn’t make the king too happy.
Daniel 3:19-21 Then Nebuchadnezzar was furious with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and his attitude toward them changed. He ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual 20 and commanded some of the strongest soldiers in his army to tie up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and throw them into the blazing furnace. 21 So these men, wearing their robes, trousers, turbans and other clothes, were bound and thrown into the blazing furnace.
Last week I read an article in a theological journal that went into incredible detail about ancient furnaces. And how heating it up seven times hotter (if measuring radiant heat) would have made it hotter than the surface of the sun. It then got distracted for a bit trying to work out other types of temperature measurement that would make more sense, before suggesting that it might have been hyperbole, meaning “really hot.” (I think the number seven gave that one away.) The point of the article seemed to be to show that the furnace was really hot, and so it must have been a miracle done by God or something. I’ll never get that time back. But I digress.
The furnace was really hot. How hot was it? So hot that…
Daniel 3:22-23 The king’s command was so urgent and the furnace so hot that the flames of the fire killed the soldiers who took up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, 23 and these three men, firmly tied, fell into the blazing furnace.
Austin Powers was right. No-one ever thinks of the henchmen’s families. But this bit of the narrative is to show that the fire was, humanly speaking, unsurvivable. It sets up the miracle that’s about to take place.
Daniel 3:24-25 Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, “Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?”
They replied, “Certainly, Your Majesty.” 25 He said, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.”
Not only are the three Jews unharmed, but there’s an extra one there! The identity of this fourth person has occasioned much speculation: was it an angel? God in human form? The Son of Man figure from chapter 7? A pre-incarnate David Copperfield? Who knows. The point is that it’s a heavenly figure sent to protect them – that God is with them in the fire. He hasn’t left them alone to suffer for their faith. He is, indeed Emmanuel, God-with-us.
The three men are ordered to come out:
Daniel 3:26-27 Nebuchadnezzar then approached the opening of the blazing furnace and shouted, “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!” So Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego came out of the fire, 27 and the satraps, prefects, governors and royal advisers crowded around them. They saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them.
Again, these details are given to highlight the miraculous nature of the rescue. Not only did they survive the fire. They didn’t even smell of smoke. (Truly a miracle. Back in the early 90s, before public smoking laws were changed, I used to work as a musician in restaurants and clubs. The next day, even the plastic grip on my car key would smell of smoke.) God’s supreme power is, for the third time in the book of Daniel, on display.
The epilogue to the story has Nebuchadnezzar acknowledging – again – the supremacy of Israel’s God:
Daniel 3:28 Then Nebuchadnezzar said, “Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God.”
Nebuchadnezzar draws attention to their being willing to die for the sake of their God: a testimony to his worth. Costly faithfulness is a powerful witnesses.
But he still hasn’t been completely put in his place (that’s chapter four, tomorrow). He remains a fan of the whole do-what-I-say-or-I’ll-kill-you-in-an-overly-graphic-way power trip:
Daniel 3:29 “Therefore I decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way.”
And Daniel’s three faithful friends get rewarded:
Daniel 3:30 Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the province of Babylon.
Faithfulness, in this case, leads to reward.
For 2nd century Jews to think about
As we’ve been doing in our series thus far, let’s first consider the message to Daniel’s original readers. Last Tuesday, we saw how there was a general pressure for them to conform to Greek culture if they wanted any kind of status or influence in Jerusalem. In chapter one, the book presented the example of Daniel living in a pagan culture, drawing a line in the sand when it came to the food he ate – demonstrating a reliance on God to provide for him and give him strength, rather than the (idol sacrificed) food of the Babylonian culture. We saw that it promoted a “middle way” between violent rebellion and complete compromise.
However, in chapter three there’s a more stark choice: to worship another god, or to remain true to Israel’s God. Bowing down before an idol, or not. It’s a black-and-white situation, unlike the grey area of mere cultural compromise. What’s a faithful Jew to do, then?
The message in this situation is: stand firm, whatever the cost, and be prepared to die for your conviction. You might be able to put up with Greek names, language, and other customs, as you wait for God to intervene and put things right. But the one thing you can’t tolerate is idolatry. Worshipping other gods. (Like when Antiochus Epiphanes turned the temple into an altar to Zeus, and sacrificed unclean animals on it!) That’s where to draw the line and face death for the sake of God’s glory. And even though the message is on the lips of a pagan king, it’s unmistakeable:
Daniel 3:28b “They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God.”
And as we saw yesterday, this story is a reminder that God is capable of rescuing his faithful people. But it’s also a reminder to remain faithful even when he doesn’t physically rescue. After all, many faithful Jews did lose their lives in the Maccabean era.
Daniel 3:16-18 “But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
For us to think about
The message for us is the same, despite our different context, although the emphasis might be a little different. For those of us in the West, faithfulness “unto death” is probably not an issue we’ll confront. (Though for many of our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, it’s a daily threat.)
The second part of the message is probably more significant. Our faithfulness to God can easily become tied to an expectation of rescue in this life. Whether it be from persecution. Or from poor health, financial difficulty, or physical danger. We can start to expect God to intervene favourably – and question him when he doesn’t.
The brave example of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is still relevant: we will still remain faithful even if God does not. We’ll still look to him as our source of security and identity – not the idols of this world – even if it disadvantages us in the here-and-now. Why?
Firstly, because God is supremely worth it. Costly faithfulness, as we said yesterday, is a strong testimony to the value of God. But secondly, because God has already rescued us in Christ. Death can no longer do any lasting damage. Although Daniel’s three friends might not have known much of an afterlife, by the time of the Maccabeans the resurrection hope of Daniel 12 had begun to take hold. And for us – well it’s more than just mere hope. We’ve had the evidence of the resurrected Jesus that guarantees our eternal security. That we will live, even though we die.
That’s why we can echo their words: Even if God does not rescue us from our difficulties and dangers right now, neither will we serve the gods of our age or worship the images they have set up.