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"A Fire-Quenching God"



          As we continue to move through the Old Testament book of Daniel, we now come to chapter three.  This is one of the most well known and best loved stories in Daniel and for good reason—it teaches some intensely important lessons about God and living in a fallen world that hates Him.  This story is one of several in sequence in this first half of Daniel.  They highlight God’s work through these deported Hebrew nobles that he has placed in the highest positions in king Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian government.  Last week in chapter two, the king has a dream he cannot remember and he orders his top occult advisers to tell him the dream and offer the correct interpretation.  They fail dismally and declare that only the gods could do such a thing.  In response, the king decrees that all his advisers, including Daniel and his three friends, will be killed as a result of the failure of his chief royal aids. 

Daniel discovers this and immediately makes an appointment with the King to reveal the mystery.  After praying with his friends for God to work in this situation, the Lord miraculously reveals the mystery.  Daniel then goes before the king and fully explains his dream.  He provides not only the dream, but its interpretation and the king worships the God of Israel, declaring him to be the “God of gods”—thus affirming his supremacy over the pagan gods and the “king of Lords” thus declaring his supremacy over all the present and future rulers.

The story in chapter three, while sharing many of the same elements as the one in chapter two, also has some important differences.  As we survey the story, we note the structure is exactly like the one in chapter two.  In the first part of the story, God sets the stage for the revelation of his glory by creating a problem only he could solve.  He then reveals his glory as he delivers his servants from the fiery furnace.  Finally, he receives the glory as Nebuchadnezzar and his cohorts respond to God’s mighty power.  Notice two characteristics of this story that distinguish it from the first two in Daniel.  First, there is no date given for these events in chapter three.  We can assume it is probably early in the reign of the king because the bookis organized chronologically and there is no indication there has been a large passage of time from the events of chapter two.  These three friends of Daniel’s are called “men” in verses 12 and 27, so this is probably at least a few years after the events described in chapter two.  

The second and far more important distinction is that there is no mention of Daniel in this chapter.  He is not even a bit player here.  Though virtually all other government officials are listed here as witnesses to this act of God, their boss, Daniel the prime minister is noticeably absent.  Perhaps he was high ranking enough the King excused him—maybe he was out of the country.  We don’t know.  We simply know that for this chapter, the focus has shifted completely away from Daniel, who dominates the rest of the book, to his three friends whose Babylonian names are Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.  Frankly, we learn very little personal information about these men.  In the story, they serve primarily as foils for the two main characters of this chapter, God and Nebuchadnezzar.  The friends’ role, though crucial for the development of the story, is not where most of the emphasis is placed.

Now, let’s survey the story, lingering on the important elements and unfolding some of the very encouraging lessons it can by God’s grace teach us.  The story begins by telling us of this image the King has made. The image is enormous—90 feet tall and nine feet wide.  It’s almost certainly not solid gold, but is covered in gold.  The fact that the king commissions this image shatters any hopes that the events of chapter two have in any way impacted his pagan belief system.  This is a pagan image to be worshipped and that is exactly what the king orders all the Babylonian bureaucrats to do. Verse two tells us he, “…sent to gather the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces…”  This is basically everyone from the most powerful administrators, to those who handled the money, to those who worked in the judiciary, to the local province officials.  One thing this list reveals is just how elevated a position Daniel was given because he outranked all of these men.  Anybody who is anybody within the Babylonian upper crust is given front row seats to witness the events that will now transpire.

Nebuchadnezzar, who knew nothing of the fairly recent innovation of the separation of church and state, orders all these officials to worship in verse five, “…when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, you are to fall down and worship the golden image that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.”  As these officials are gathered for the dedication of this image, the king spares no expense.  He has the national orchestra on hand to provide the cue for this well choreographed, simultaneous mass prostration before this enormous gold image.  The fact that it was made of gold has caused some to make some interesting speculations that link this story with the one in chapter two.  You’ll recall in chapter two that the image in the King’s dream had a head of gold, symbolizing Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon and its dominion.  However, the remainder of the image was made up of other metals symbolizing other (albeit inferior) kingdoms that would succeed his kingdom.  Some speculate that after pondering the image revealed in his dream, the king determines that he doesn’t like the idea that his kingdom would be a temporary kingdom, so he decides to build an image entirely of gold.  In this way, he seeks to “edit” God’s decree and replace it with his own where his kingdom, not the Lord’s, will never end.

From everything we know about this paragon of arrogance, that’s certainly possible and the fact that this story follows close on the heels of chapter two may be the author’s subtle way of communicating that fact.  Old Testament narrative should be read looking for those kinds of nuances.  The truth is—because this notion is not stated in any explicit way, we cannot be dogmatic about it.  What we DO know is that the king expects absolute and unwavering obedience to his command to worship this image.  He expects all these high officials, at his musical cue, to put forehead to pavement and worship.  This is clearly not heartfelt worship—this is coerced, but when the king dictates the religion, this is what you get.  We discover a bit later that Daniel’s friends did not take part in this ritual.  Some of the court advisers we saw last week—the Chaldeans, probably out of jealousy, “maliciously accused” these men.  That tells us that this was not simply handing the king a record of who attended the event.  This report was given to the king out of malice.  Notice the wording of the accusation in verse 12, “There are certain Jews who you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  These men, O king, pay no attention to you; they do not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” 

Notice that these men do not accuse the Jews of sinning against the gods, but of political insubordination.  The focus here is not on any insult the pagan gods may have suffered, but on their brazen disobedience to the king.  They, “pay no attention to YOU,… do not serve YOUR gods or worship the… image YOU have set up.”  Their crime is not one of blasphemy, but rebellion against the king.  The story continues in verse 13.  Then Nebuchadnezzar in a furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought.” 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 I have set up?”  Again, you hear the king’s concern is not spiritual, but personal—“did you disobey me?”  We see that again in the next verse when he gives them a second chance. He says that if they are willing to worship this image now, “well and good.”  But if you do not worship, you will immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace.”  Then he makes a pivotal statement—the statement upon which the rest of the story turns.  And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?”

That statement reveals at least two truths.  First, it reveals that Nebuchadnezzar has learned nothing of importance from the incident in chapter two.  There he said that the God of the Hebrews is the “god of Gods” and the “Lord of Kings.”  This statement here in verse 15 utterly betrays that.  When the king says, “And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?” he is actually saying—“there is no god who will deliver you out of my hands—not even your Hebrew God.”  That means that he believes that he is able to defeat the God of the Jews and that means that he has essentially denied his claim that Yahweh is the Lord of kings because if he were the Lord of kings, no king could defeat him.  Don’t miss the impact this statement has on the direction of the events in this story.  This story is not fundamentally about three men who trust God in the face of death.  This story is not primarily about a furious king who vindictively dispenses with his enemies.  That statement transforms this story into a contest--involving Nebuchadnezzar, who has thrown down the royal gauntlet before the God of Israel. 

This is probably why this story doesn’t end up with these friends of Daniel being martyred in the flames.  That would have been a very appropriate story to tell in this context.  God receives much glory from the death of faithful martyrs.  Their death in no way reflects negatively upon God—just the opposite.  Our God is a God of such value and worth that he is more than worthy of our lives.  There were doubtless countless Jews who were martyred in the deportations to Assyria and Babylon.  That was part and parcel of being a conquered people who refused to deny their God.  What sets these three apart is not their greater faith, but God’s purpose in this event.  Part of the reason he orchestrates this series of events is seen in this statement of Nebuchadnezzar’s.  That is—his power has been challenged by this king in a way that could lead to much glory for him and so he takes up the challenge from this foolish king.  Now that God has set the stage for his glory, in verse 16 he begins to reveal his glory as these three Jews respond to the most powerful man on earth.

          Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter.”  In other words, “Nebuchadnezzar, we feel no obligation to defend ourselves to you.  There is someOne we need to answer to here in this, but it’s not you.”  Look very carefully at the rest of their response in verse 17.  If this (being thrown into the furnace) 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.  There are two parts to their response and the second part is far more important than the first.  First, they respond in faith declaring that their God is not only able, but they believe he WILL deliver them from the fiery furnace.  That is a faith-filled statement.  My strong assumption is that none of these men had ever witnessed something survive unharmed when it was thrown into a fiery furnace.  Blast furnaces have a nasty habit of burning things that are placed into them.  Yet, in spite of that seemingly absolute reality, they proclaim their faith in their God to deliver them from it.

          In the second statement they say in essence, “But even if, for sake of argument, he chooses not to deliver us from the flames, we still will not serve your pagan gods or fall down before this image you have made.”  Notice the double glory God receives from these two statements.  First, he is acknowledged to be sovereign over one of the basic elements, fire and its capacity to destroy.  These three place their trust in his sovereignty over fire.  Second, in addition to that--he is proclaimed to be worthy to die for. This is not simply an expression of faith in his power, this is covenant love for him and they express their covenant faithfulness to him by a willingness to pay the ultimate price.  That is much more important to God than faith.  So now, faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”  These three men are not defying the king because their God is able to deliver them.  This is not simply a good gamble on their part.  This is earnest, heartfelt obedience to the first and second commandments.  The grace of God is manifest in these three in the strength of their covenant relationship to him that caused them to be willing to die rather than betray him.

          Notice the powerful impression this made upon Nebuchadnezzar in his response after God had delivered them in verse 28.  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.”  The king’s response indicates that he was as greatly affected by the devotion of these Jews to their God, as he was to their God’s deliverance of them.  This is the impact God intends martyrs to have on people.  I’m speaking of Christian martyrs, not suicide bombers who kill innocent people so they can allegedly enjoy carnal pleasures forever—but saints of God in Christ who love their God so much that their lives by comparison mean nothing to them.  It is these people the author of Hebrews says, “of whom the world [is] not worthy.”

          When the king hears this defiant response of these Hebrews, he is infuriated and “the expression of his face changed.”  Their profession of faith completely alters the king’s opinion of them.  In one moment, they go from being respected advisors and friends of his prime minister who were perhaps a bit confused, to being hated infidels who have defied the authority of the king and who will now taste the lethal consequences of their act of blatant rebellion. Perhaps you have experienced something like this.  It’s amazing how quickly certain people will change their opinion of you when they discover you are a follower of Christ.  One moment, you are a thoughtful, bright, articulate man or woman who is worthy of better acquaintance.  The next, you are a closed minded extremist who is out to destroy all personal liberty and probably the country as well.  The king expresses his indignation toward these three in some epically foolish ways. 

First, he has whoever is working the bellows for this furnace heat the thing seven times hotter than normal.  As if a smelting furnace would not have been hot enough at normal temperature to quickly kill anyone thrown into it.  Second, verse 21 tells us, “These men were bound in their cloaks, their tunics, their hats and their other garments” before they were tossed in.  The king had seen the God of the Hebrews at work in chapter two—he knows him to be a formidable adversary.  So, he works to “guarantee” that the fire will consume these men by wrapping them head to toe in flammable clothing.  The ludicrous assumption appears to be that perhaps these men might just survive a super-heated blast furnace if they were naked or even normally clothed, but the addition of these supplemental incendiary accessories would doubtless assure their spontaneous combustion!  As foolish as this is—it’s no more foolish than Jonah thinking he can run away from God by boarding a boat headed away from Nineveh.  And it’s no more foolish than we are, when we think we can out-maneuver God by offering him only partial obedience; thinking he will be satisfied with that, or by offering him our money or time or energy or our worship in place of our obedience.  That’s foolish too.  At least Nebuchadnezzar could plead some ignorance—He didn’t know the God of Israel…like we do.

The king evidently wanted to witness his “victory” over Israel’s God first hand because he is clearly watching what happens to these men after they are thrown into the first.  Verse 24 says, “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.”  The scholars tell us that the Aramaic word the king uses for “son of the gods” is a “Semitic idiom for a member of the class “gods.”[Lucas, p.92]  The king, even through his pagan eyes recognizes that this is a divine being.  It may very well be the pre-incarnate Christ. Suffice it to say that God is with his people and he humbly makes his presence known as he walks around in the middle of this furnace with this three followers.  The only parts of their “wardrobe” that are affected are their bonds, which are now gone.  God has not only miraculously kept them from the fire; he has freed them from their bonds.

At this point, this becomes something of a spectacle as all these government officials are ushered into a viewing room of sorts and saw “that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of the men.”  The king then worships the God of Israel, and decrees in verse 29, “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.”  Finally, verse 30 says, “Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the province of Babylon.”  As with the story last week, God is glorified in many ways through this event and these times of testing end up being very good for the careers of these Hebrew deportees.

Let me close with three points of application from this narrative.  First, For God, the greater the challenge He gives to us, the greater opportunity for His glory to be manifest.  Notice in this story, there are several elements that make this even harder on these men and each one of those complicating factors end up bringing more glory to God.  First, the king assembles this huge international assembly—people from all levels of the government and from many conquered countries to worship this image.  This would have placed much more pressure to compromise on these three Jews.  There was no place for them to hide—there were too many people and the increased numbers of those who complied with the king’s command increases the peer pressure to conform.  By God’s grace, they do not allow the increased pressure to sway them and the increased numbers mean that God’s glory is subsequently revealed to ALL the Babylonian bureaucracy including people who had worshiped several different gods, not just the gods of Babylon.  God converts the additional difficulty into additional glory and again in this book shows his heart for ALL the nations. 

Second, the furnace was heated seven times hotter—so hot that three of the king’s mighty men die just from the radiant heat of the furnace and they were not even dressed up in flame-out costumes.  That makes it even more glorious when these men emerge from the flames and, “…The hair of their heads was not singed, their cloaks were not harmed, and no smell of fire had come upon them.” [v.27b] Do you see the relationship between the difficulty of the challenge and the opportunity for God’s glory?  That means that when we are placed in impossible situations, instead of cataloguing all the elements of difficulty to reaffirm how impossible and discouraging a situation is--we should instead see the hurdles as opportunities for God’s glory.  Hurdles are simply stepping stones for God.  From a God-centered perspective, increased challenges are not impediments to success but are opportunities for God to shine through you in glorious ways.

Second, as has been noted many times from this story, God does not promise to spare us from the furnace, but he does promise to be with us in the midst of it.  God could have orchestrated things in a way that would have kept these Jews from having to go into the furnace.  He could have doused it out with water from heaven or destroyed it with an earthquake.  Instead, he allows these men to go right into the fire and then preserves them in the midst of it.  A precious text from Isaiah 43 testifies to God’s faithfulness in the midst of trials.   But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2When 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.  3For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in exchange for you.”  As followers of the Suffering Servant, we dare not doubt that we will frequently end up in the blast furnace of life.  But we must also never doubt that we will have divine companionship in the midst of it and the blessing of God’s presence and God’s intimacy in the midst of the fire is a treasure of untold worth.

Finally, God is more glorified by our faithfulness in the midst of trials than by his deliverance of us from trials.  We must not forget the truth we read earlier from verse 28 that the king was just as impressed by the devotion of the Jews as he was by their deliverance.  Those who die for Jesus, glorify God more than those who are delivered from death.  The reason is because anyone can glorify God when they are delivered from death—that’s easy.  There are far fewer who can glorify God by counting their life as worth nothing and dying for the sake of Christ.  Although most in this room will not face martyrdom, the point is still valid.  We must not see God only (or even primarily) as the One who delivers us from trials, but much more as a God who is worthy of enduring trials. May God give us grace to, above all things, seek the glory of Christ.


Page last modified on 11/5/2006

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