When thou passest
though the waters,
I will be with thee;
and through the rivers,
they shall not overflow thee:
when thou walkest
through the fire,
thou shalt not be burned;
neither shall the flame
kindle upon thee.
“It is not strength of the body that counts, but the strength of the spirit.”
Our story begins in the Kingdom of Judah around 597 BC when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon laid siege (again) on Jerusalem. But this time, he sacked the temple, rounded up the Jews – Hunger Games style – and brought them back to Babylon (2 Kings 24:8-14; Daniel 1:1-6).
Among those taken to Babylon were four teenagers: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (Daniel 1:6-7). You already know Daniel (who would later survive the Lion’s den), but his friends you might better recognize by their Babylonian names: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego.
That’s right, Babylonian names. Attempting to strip all Jews of their identity, Nebuchadnezzar removed them from homeland and changed their Hebrew names to pagan ones (Daniel’s name was changed to Belteshazzar, but the Bible text sticks with his Hebrew name).
Once situated in their new home, the king selected only the smartest and fittest Israelite young men to train for his court. From thousands of captives, guess who was among the best of the pickins? Yep, our four friends. Now enlisted in Babylon boot camp for a three-year training program, our boys brained and brawned their way up, ranking at the top of their class.
But real success came with a little test of integrity: to eat or not to eat of the king’s banquet.
Opting for the Salad Bar
Every meal, the king would roll out a Vegas-style all-you-can-eat meat and wine buffet for his trainees, “Eat up, boys, we have another big day on the obstacle course tomorrow.” But our quartet of Jews seemed to be the only ones with enough chutzpah to speak up on behalf of the Law of Moses (their covenant code of behavior), “Uh, is that booze and pork I see?” and request something a little more kosher.
At this point in our story, you may be thinking, What is the big deal? Is a couple strips of bacon and a few shots of tequila really worth sticking your neck on the line?
Or, as T.S. Eliot put it, “Do I dare Disturb the universe?”
Well, yes. Their names and zip codes may have changed, but their true identity had not. They were of the House of Israel. God’s covenant people. And if keeping their covenants meant ruffling a few feathers, well then, ruffle away.
What’s more, seems that whenever the king’s men said a prayer on the food, the oration was nothing more than a ritual offering to pagan gods. Eating the king’s meal would be tantamount to worshiping idols. That’s when our faithful foursome put their foot (feet?) down and refused to partake. But they did so in a creative way.
Daniel and friends suggested a contest of sorts. “For 10-days,” they said, “how’s about a challenge? We four stick to our covenants and eat a diet of fruit smoothies, veggie burgers, and water (sounds like they’d fit into California’s vegan scene), and the rest of ya’ll party-on with the king’s all-you-can-eat. And at the end of 10 days, we’ll see who fares better.”
The king obliged, “This should be interesting.”
It didn’t take long for obvious results. After 10 days, our health-wise boys had more color in their cheeks, higher energy, greater strength, clearer thinking. In fact, when the king personally interviewed them, he went as far as to admit that Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego were 10 times smarter and wiser than his own magicians and astrologers (Daniel 1:3-21).
“Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.”
Taking a stand sometimes has a way of elevating others to do the same. This is what happened with Daniel and friends.
From Prison to Positions of Power
Thereafter, the banquet feast was altered to be more heart-smart for all trainees, Nebuchadnezzar promoted our boys to Advisory positions within his court – Sweet!, and Daniel became CEO of dream interpreting for the king (a job everyone else had been fired from) which raised these boys’ status even higher within the royal ranks.
Remarkable. Four Jewish prisoners promoted and made rulers in the great Babylonian Empire. Heads of state in enemy territory. But our story of courage and integrity does not end here. Oh no. We’re just getting started.
Unfortunately, as Daniel and friends are working their way up in the kingdom, Nebuchadnezzar’s mental stability was taking a nose dive into madness. He ordered a colossal 9-story gilded statue of his royal self to be built (tres Trump-esque, no?), then sent a decree to the four corners of the empire for mandatory attendance to the statue’s dedicatory/worship service.
This was no small event. Anybody who was anyone, and everybody who was no one was summoned to the plains of Dura (modern day Karbala, Iraq) where the bedazzled statue stood.
Festivities would be grand, but simple: when the announcer announced, and the music signaled, everyone was commanded to drop to the ground and worship the golden image. Anyone failing to follow protocol would be thrown into the furnace and burned alive. Fiesta, indeed.
Dedication day came. Everyone was there. The book of Daniel describes the moment.
Therefore at that time, when all the people heard the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and all kinds of musick, all the people, the nations, and the languages, fell down and worshiped the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up.
Leaders and common folk from near and far were milling about the city when suddenly the cue came: the herald announced, the music played, and – boom – like marionettes whose strings were clipped, they dropped. Everyone knelt and worshiped the statue. Narcissistic Neb must have been pleased as punch. That is, until he saw three young men still standing.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego refused to bow.
Literally thousands of people lowered to the ground. As far as the eye could see – a sea of backs. Other than a few buildings and this monstrous statue, the only thing taller than knee-height were three lighthouses standing firm in their convictions.
Rebels with a Cause
Leaders gasped, music stopped, and a deafening silence blanketed the plain as the king zeroed-in on the audacity of the three – his very own court Advisors. Before Nebby-cad blew a gasket, he ordered the men to come to him.
“Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, do not ye serve my gods, nor worship the golden image I have set up?… If ye worship not, ye shall be cast in the same hour into the midst of a burning fiery furnace; and who is that God that shall deliver you out of my hands?”
“Tell me it ain’t so, boys. You aren’t worshiping My Golden Image? Maybe I wasn’t quite clear on the mandate. If you don’t worship now, then I have no choice but to feed you to the furnace, then we’ll see if your mighty God will save you.”
Our boys just smiled at the king.
“O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter.” We don’t need to think twice about this, they said. “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, [then] he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king.”
But Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego didn’t stop at that. They took their declaration to the next level.
“Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace…But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”
“There are certain mortal moments and minutes that matter. Certain hinge points in the history of each human. Some seconds are so decisive they shrink the soul, while others are spent so as to stretch the soul.”
Neal A. Maxwell
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego wouldn’t budge. So hot-headed Nebuchadnezzar kept his end of the bargain. He had them bound, ordered the furnace heated to match his temper – 7 times hotter than usual, and gave the signal for their execution.
By that time the heat was so crazy intense that the vapors alone killed the guards who were throwing in the three men. No one could take the heat for even a few seconds.
These facts make what’s coming all the more miraculous.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, fell down bound into the midst of the burning fiery furnace. Then Nebuchadnezzar the king was astonished, and rose up in haste, and spake, and said unto his counsellors, Did not we cast three men bound into the midst of the fire? They answered and said unto the king, True, O king.
The king looked closer, rubbed his eyes, and looked again, “What the freak is going on?”
Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.
Nebuchadnezzar knew he had thrown three men into the fire, yet he could clearly see FOUR. WALKING AROUND. UNHARMED. And one looked suspiciously like the Son of God.
Dumbfounded, the only thing Neb could think to do was summon the men out of the fire so he can check them out himself. As the three come strolling out, witnesses gather around, and everyone sees that the Hebrews’ clothes are not burned, their hair is not singed. In fact, they didn’t even smell of smoke! The only thing burned from the men were the ropes that had bound them.
The sheer miraculousness of the scene snaps some sense back into King Neb, “There is no other God,” he exclaims, “That can deliver after this sort” (Dan 3:29). None, indeed.
A Story of Faith and Courage
The amazing furnace incident is the last time we hear of our boys: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. After they were promoted in the province of Babylon (Daniel 3:30), we don’t know how they lived out the rest of their lives. But even with the scant records that are given, the lesson of courage we learn from them is huge.
To appreciate the magnitude of their faith, we must remember:
This scenario came at a time when Jerusalem was on shaky ground. They were in Babylon. A pagan society. In bondage. Surely there had to have been more than one Israelite who looked at the ruin of their nation and the oppression of their lives and wondered, Where is God and Why has He abandoned us? Where is our Moses to part the seas and bring us deliverance?
It’s one thing to have faith when everything is hunky-dory. It’s another thing entirely when you are living in exile.
And yet, in the thick of these dark circumstances, and in the craziest predicament of the narrative – the prospect of being barbecued ALIVE – these men took a stand and believed. They had faith. Big faith. “But if not” faith.
They trusted God to save them. But if not…God was still good. And He still loved them.
“Courage is stepping forward when all you can see is darkness.”
Remarkable how a 2600 year-old story can still resonate today. I suppose that as long as there are struggles, there will always be a need for hope.
So, to those of us who feel exiled because of unfulfilled dreams and unmet expectations, these three Hebrews take a stand and declare that faith is more than an acknowledgment that God exits. More than meditation and cross your fingers wishful thinking. To any and all who have been thrown into a fiery trial and wonder if you’ll make it out, our guys say to dig deeper and pull out a bigger faith – a “But if Not” Faith.
Trust in God’s sovereignty – no matter how things turn out.
Know that although our power is limited – His is not.
And believe. Believe that even though we may not understand all things – He does.
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