Shadrach, Meshach & Abednego: Fiery Furnace
Daniel 3: 13-30
Saints under pressure survive and thrive by grace alone. Over these past few Sundays we have begun to build up a picture of not only how to resist the pressure put upon us as Christians but how to overcome it and grow or mature through it. Time alone with God, letting Him alone take the initiative, Knowing He is gentle, trusting Him whatever the circumstances say, knowing His timing is perfect, and believing that God will use all things for good to get us ready for our unique assignment or calling. Last week Gideon taught us that Saints under pressure need to test the guidance they are receiving, be watchful, and exercise faith not fear. Now to S, M & A and their amazing testimony! This is the University of the Holy Spirit at its best!
Daniel and his three friends, Jews of the nobility in exile, had been chosen for high position in the service of Nebuchadnezzar, the pagan Babylonian emperor, who autocratically ruled the world of the Middle East. It would have been understandable if these four young men had curried favour with the king, who had power of life and death over his subjects and captives. The first test came early on in their training for service, when food from the royal table was set before them. Every good Jew knew that this raised issues of defilement and idolatry. It would have been so easy to compromise but Daniel clearly realised that here was a question of lordship – was he primarily a servant of the emperor, or of the God of heaven and earth? He passed the test, perhaps with no idea that God was training him for higher things. Sadly, many fall at the first hurdle and can only limp along after that unless they repent and seek the Lord afresh. So few Christians who are highly placed in government, or the world of business and finance, or senior positions in the professions, make a real impact for the Lord. Romans 12:2 in the J B Philips translation says: Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mould! Doubtless those who do, make choices early on to follow God’s way, resisting all pressure to compromise, let alone conform to our post-Christian society. Some of you listening (or reading this) today are early in your careers: you have a choice to make.
In two later, separate incidents it seemed that all was lost for Daniel and his friends. Their contemporaries must have wondered what was the point of sticking to principle, if the end was to be a den of lions or a fiery furnace? But the words of S,M&A echo down the centuries: “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand. O King. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O King, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” This ‘but if not’ principle is one that Saints under pressure embrace as they walk by faith. Here are three men walking to a different drum. Three men willing to risk taking a stand for right and doing it without self-righteous arrogance even when it seems everyone around you – or everything – opposes.
And so to our reading: What in essence led to the fiery furnace incident? Some Chaldean leaders became jealous of these young Jews and their rapid promotion, and choose to inform Nebu of their disobedience. In verse 12 they are accused of ingratitude (after all you Nebu have done for them), religious intolerance and disloyalty to the King. The King can brook no insubordination, but at least gives them chance to clear their names. Then Nebu throws down the gauntlet to them afresh and calls them to obedience: the last part of verse 15 is a classic Aramaic phrase used to throw down a challenge to the living God: “Defy me and you are totally without hope of rescue”.
The reply of the three men sounds almost rude in English but no discourtesy is intended. The force of their reply is ‘we can say nothing to defend ourselves; we are guilty of disobeying your order. V17/18 are at the heart of this chapter. God is all-powerful, able with ease to deliver from the furnace. But even if he does not, their trust in Him will continue. Here is thoroughly biblical faith in action. God can deliver, but even this kind of obedience and heroism is no guarantee of physical safety (see Hebrews 11:32-38). Whatever God chooses to do, they will not bow their knees to the image. Nebu’s attitude changed! Literally “his face distorted with rage”. Notice then all that the King did to prevent any rescue (divine or human): a seven times hotter fire, the strongest soldiers, the men firmly tied up, and no delay! So into the furnace they were thrown with even these strongest of soldiers being killed by the hot furnace. Scary stuff! Isn’t it true that Satan always overreaches himself!
Suddenly amazement is etched on Nebu’s face and not a little fear! No wonder! He has challenged the living God and is about the lose! Not only could he see four men instead of three in the furnace but with them all walking around unbound and unburnt, the fourth one looked like a son of God! The identity of the fourth person is a mystery (a bit like the person who wrestled with Jacob or the angelic being who appeared to Gideon). Some have suggested an angelic being, a pre-incarnate Jesus or even Daniel himself! Certainly he is a non-human helper sent from God as a token of His protecting care. The truth is that God doesn’t promise necessarily to take us out of the fire – but He does come and share it with us.
Nebu approaches the furnace and calls upon S, M & A ‘servants of the most high God’ to come out! He stops short of acknowledging God alone is Lord but does at least give Him supreme status over other gods and deities. Lots of people gather around them and the miracle is well attested even by cynical dignitaries: there is not even a whiff of defeat from the furnace! Nebu’s hymn of praise to God contains a remarkable admission – there is an authority greater than the Kings! Not a position too many potentates of the ancient world would have been comfortable with! This was not a conversion for Nebu but certainly a change of attitude: the worshippers of the true God are given state approval, even protection. So these three faithful men get their reward. They are ’promoted’. Not in the modern sense of more responsibility or higher status; more like ‘caused them to prosper’ by showering gifts upon them.
So this chapter raises the issue of living under pressure as God’s people. Notice the variety of pressure which the three men were under: political pressure from the Kings image, religious pressure from the Kings gods, peer pressure from the Kings officers and death pressure from the Kings decree. All these pressures are met by an unswerving allegiance to God. As Britain becomes increasingly secularized, pressures on Christian standards and beliefs will increase. God will sometimes deliver us from this pressure miraculously sometimes not. True faith looks to God for a miracle with expectancy; it accepts the presence of a miracle with gratitude, and the absence of miracle with composure. In the face of pressures large and small, the Bible calls us to demonstrate both the faith of the angel in Luke 1:37 (with God nothing is impossible) and fortitude of Job in 13:35 (though He slay me, yet will I hope in Him).
In the New Testament account of the early church and in the stories of persecuted Christians down to the present day, there have been similar tales of deliverance. There are also accounts of many thousands who were not delivered in this life, but whose sacrifice was not in vain. The blood of the martyrs has continually been the seed of the church. Although we know from scripture that God always honours faith and obedience, he never blesses compromise. It is a cause for shame that there are so few Christian leaders, particularly in the comfortable western church, who are prepared to uphold biblical principles, even at cost to their reputation and aware that there may be no vindication until the next life.
So do you have a ‘but if not’ faith? At the height of the English Reformation: Latimer and Ridley were burnt at the stake in 1555: “Be of good comfort Mr Ridley and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England, as I trust never shall be put out.” This ‘but if not’ principle is faith at its sharpest and we could all do with journeying towards it – such faith exhibited by Saints under pressure can change the destiny of nations.
July 31st 2011.