The Point: Be ready and willing to stand for God.
Faith in the Furnace: Daniel 3:13-30.
 Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought. So they brought these men before the king.  Nebuchadnezzar answered and said to them, "Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image that I have set up?  Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?"  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, "O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter.  If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king.  But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up."  Then Nebuchadnezzar was filled with fury, and the expression of his face was changed against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He ordered the furnace heated seven times more than it was usually heated.  And he ordered some of the mighty men of his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and to cast them into the burning fiery furnace.  Then these men were bound in their cloaks, their tunics, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the burning fiery furnace.  Because the king’s order was urgent and the furnace overheated, the flame of the fire killed those men who took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell bound into the burning fiery furnace.  Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counselors, "Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?" They answered and said to the king, "True, O king."  He answered and said, "But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods."  Then Nebuchadnezzar came near to the door of the burning fiery furnace; he declared, "Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out, and come here!" Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire.  And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men. The hair of their heads was not singed, their cloaks were not harmed, and no smell of fire had come upon them.  Nebuchadnezzar answered and said, "Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.  Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that speaks anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins, for there is no other god who is able to rescue in this way."  Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the province of Babylon. [ESV]
“This story starts with King Nebuchadnezzar making an enormous golden image on a Babylonian plain [1-6]. The idea of an enormous golden statue reminds us immediately of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in the previous chapter. In that dream, the statue had a head of gold, which represented Nebuchadnezzar, while the rest of the body was made of other materials, which depicted the lesser kingdoms that would come after him and end up in fragmentation, destroyed by the coming of God’s kingdom [2:31-35]. Nebuchadnezzar’s statue, however, was made entirely of gold in an apparent attempt to counteract the dream. It was a defiant statement asserting that there would be no end or “after this” with respect to his kingdom, but rather that his glory would continue forever. The identity of the statue was not made clear: presumably it represented Nebuchadnezzar or his god (or both). Perhaps that vagueness was deliberate to allow people to interpret the significance of the statue however they wished, and thereby accommodate it more easily into their own diverse religious beliefs. Most pagan religions were pluralistic, allowing for the easy incorporation of additional gods into their pantheon. One thing was repeatedly stressed, however: this was the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar had set up [3:1-3,5,7,12,15,18]. In other words, even if the statue represented a god, no one was left in any doubt as to whose power lay behind its existence. In contrast to Daniel’s confession that it was the God of heaven who set up kings and deposed them [2:21], the statue was Nebuchadnezzar’s defiant declaration that as king he could set up gods for his people to worship. What is more, the location of the statue was significant, for the Babylonian plain was the location for the building of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:2. The Tower of Babel had a twofold function in the mind of its builders: it was a defiant attempt to make a name for the people who built it as a lasting legacy to their glory, and also to prevent the people from being scattered throughout the earth, as God had decreed [Gen. 11:4]. Nebuchadnezzar’s statue had the same two goals in mind: it was designed to establish a lasting testimony to his glory and to provide a unifying focus for the kingdom. This is why he summoned not merely local dignitaries but all of the leading officials from throughout his empire – the satraps, the prefects, the governors, the advisors, the treasurers, the judges, the magistrates, and all the other provincial officials – to gather before the statue for its dedication [3:2]. This occasion was a public statement that the unity of Nebuchadnezzar’s empire was rooted in the common worship of his image, a religious unity which he was willing to enforce with the threat of death if necessary . Totalitarian states have continued to operate on the same basis throughout history. There are visual symbols of unity – often statues of the dictator or national symbols – to which homage must be paid if you want to progress in society, or even to stay alive. Like Nebuchadnezzar, these empires don’t require people necessarily to change their religion or their beliefs: they just have to subordinate them to their allegiance to the empire. People can serve whatever god they choose, so long as it is clear that he takes second place to the state. When put in these terms, it becomes evident that our culture places the same pressure on each one of us to put our God in second place, albeit in more subtle ways. We too find ourselves constantly pressed to keep our beliefs private, and therefore secondary. We are told that the public sphere must be kept untainted by any religion, for any other opinion threatens the unifying dogma of the separation of church and state. We can believe whatever we want, by all means. However, we are strongly discouraged from talking about it or trying to influence the beliefs of others. At first, Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image seemed to be accomplishing its purpose successfully. We are told that the diverse group of officials he summoned came in response to his decree, a point underlined by the repetition of the lengthy list of titles. They were there not merely as political officials, but as representatives of peoples, nations, and languages . This language emphasizes the theme that this act of worship was designed to reverse the consequences of the original Tower of Babel by unifying the whole world in an act of submission to this statue. When the music of a cacophony of different instruments sounded , everyone was to bow down to the statue. Yet at this point some of the Babylonian officials came forward and revealed a small detail that the narrator had previously passed over as he surveyed the vast crowd [8-12]. Even while the whole world was busily bowing before Nebuchadnezzar’s image of gold, one small group of three individuals had resisted the decree, standing with unbowed heads at the crucial moment. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had failed to prostrate themselves in accordance with the king’s decree, thereby disrespecting Nebuchadnezzar’s gods and Nebuchadnezzar’s statue . The three Jews were accused of ingratitude and impiety, but the fundamental element of both charges was their offense against Nebuchadnezzar. How would the empire respond to this act of disobedience? It is worth noticing that there were only three men in the whole vast crowd who refused to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s statue. It is not clear where Daniel was when this event took place. Perhaps he had been sent on business elsewhere in the Babylonian empire. Their refusal highlights the fact that standing up for God will often be a lonely activity. There are times in every life when to do what is right we cannot simply hide in the crowd; we have to stand more or less alone. In the case of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, their trial of faith was very public [13-18]. When the matter was brought to the king’s attention, he immediately flew into a rage at the challenge to his authority and national unity. He inquired of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego if it was indeed true that they refused to serve his gods or bow down to his statue . Without giving them time to answer, Nebuchadnezzar set before them a final choice. If, when the music sounded, they were willing to fall down and worship the image he had made, their lives would be spared; if not, they would be thrown into the blazing furnace, and then what god would rescue them from his hand ? Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego responded to King Nebuchadnezzar’s challenge with one of their own. They replied, If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up [17-18]. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did not presume to predict what the outcome would be in their case. If God were our servant, or our accomplice, He would be predictable: He would always do our bidding. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego understood that since God is sovereign, however, it was His choice whether He opted to be glorified in their deaths or through their dramatic deliverance. Either way, it didn’t make a difference to their decision. Whether they were miraculously delivered or left to burn in the fire, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego would not compromise their commitment to the Lord. Live or die, they would be faithful to their God. Their example confronts every believer with the question: Am I going to declare the Lord to be my God, my primary allegiance, come what may, or will I bow down to the multitude of glittering idols that the world presents to me? These idols are not physical statues in our setting, of course. They are the various pleasures, the desires, and the attitudes that society tells me I need to have if I am to be fulfilled and lead a worthwhile life. They promise to bless me if I will bow down to them, but to curse me and ruin my life if I fail to meet their demands. When we do stand up to our idols, we had better be prepared to experience their wrath. Nebuchadnezzar was furious with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and his attitude toward them changed, he ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual and commanded some of the strongest soldiers in his army to tie up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and throw them into the blazing furnace [19-21]. In fact, Nebuchadnezzar’s command was so urgent and the furnace so hot that the flames of the fire killed the soldiers who threw the three men into the fire [22-23]. There is a great irony here, to be sure. The ones who obeyed Nebuchadnezzar’s commands died, while those whom he condemned to death emerged alive! The unexpected death of the soldiers was not what was truly surprising about the fiery furnace, however. The truly amazing twist of events came when Nebuchadnezzar watched Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego fall into the fire. Not only did he see that they were free and unharmed, but they were also joined in the fire by a fourth individual, who had the appearance of a divine being [24-25]. The question of whether this fourth person is a physical appearance of Christ before His incarnation or merely an angel cannot be resolved from the text, which would fit either instance equally well. It either case, however, it is a physical demonstration of God’s presence with believers in their distress. God did not simply rescue His servants from the fire, He sent His personal emissary to pass through the fire with them. As a result of His presence with them, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego emerged safely at the end of their time in the furnace [26-27]. They were not merely physically unharmed: their clothing did not even smell of smoke, a powerful testimony to the comprehensiveness of their salvation by God. This experience was a fulfillment of the words the Lord had spoken to His people through the prophet Isaiah two centuries earlier: When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you [Isa. 43:2]. Notice that God didn’t promise to take His people around the waters or to keep the fire far from them. On the contrary, tribulation was the anticipated path for God’s saints, then and now [see Acts 14:22]. Trials provide the context in which the faith of believers shines with unmatched clarity before the eyes of a watching world, as 1 Peter 1:6-7 makes clear. It is precisely in the furnace that the reality of our faith is displayed most clearly. Yet, in the midst of those trials and difficulties, the Lord promised that His people could count on His presence with them, ensuring that their trials would not utterly overwhelm them. Nebuchadnezzar was forced to confess the greatness of the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He gave praise to Him and threatened any who spoke against their God with death [28-29]. Yet even great miracles don’t have the power in themselves to change people’s hearts. People will always find a way to explain them away. So too Nebuchadnezzar’s heart was not changed at a deep level by this experience. The God of whom he spoke was still the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego , not his own. He still would not fall down in the face of this revelation of the Lord’s power and confess his submission to the one and only God.” [Duguid, pp. 45-60].
Questions for Discussion:
1. What two goals did Nebuchadnezzar’s statute have? Why did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to bow down and worship this statute?
2. How does our culture put the same pressure on us to put our God in second place? Think of ways this pressure has increased in your lifetime. What do we learn from 3:17-18 concerning our response to this pressure to put anything ahead of God? Note their recognition of God’s sovereignty over them.
3. Duguid writes that every believer is confronted with the following question: Am I going to declare the Lord to be my God, my primary allegiance, come what may, or will I bow down to the multitude of glittering idols that the world presents to me? This question continually confronts every believer daily. Pray that God will constantly enable you to choose to place Him first in every situation of your life.
Daniel, James Montgomery Boice, Baker Books.
Daniel, Iain Duguid, REC, P&R Publishing.
The Message of Daniel, Ronald Wallace, Inter Varsity.
The Prophecy of Daniel , Edward J. Young, Eerdmans.