Tried by Fire
By Stephen Terry
Daniel, John, and the Church, Chapter 3
(Based on Daniel 3)
“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. 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.” Daniel 3:17-18, NIV
In chapter two, we saw that Daniel had been singled out for special honor by King Nebuchadnezzar as a result of his ability to interpret the king’s dream. As Daniel was elevated to high position, so were the three friends close to him: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. However, since Daniel was the spokesperson for the interpretation and there is no evidence that the king had any knowledge of them beyond their being friends that Daniel recommended for positions in the government of the empire, this would not be enough to protect them as hostages in the event of rebellion by King Jehoiakim in Jerusalem.
In chapter three these three individuals are placed in a situation that seems horrific to even consider. Yet, the threat was the means of placing them beyond being mere hostages to the capriciousness of kings. This is often the case with God’s faithful people. They are brought into severe persecution and hardship but that trial becomes the means of deliverance from a far greater threat. The seeds for that deliverance also were germinated with Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in chapter two.
Recall that the image in that dream had a head of gold. That head represented Babylon. It is the vanity of earthly kings to want to see their dynasties last forever. As Nebuchadnezzar pondered the interpretation of the dream, he thought long and hard about how to perpetuate his kingdom. Being the king of an idolatrous nation, he ascribed power to images to reshape reality. Given that premise, all he needed to do to change the future was to change the image. On the plain of Dura, he hoped to bring about a different, everlasting future for his empire.
Since the gold represented Babylon and was only the head of the image in his dream, all he needed to do was to make the entire image of gold. If the image represented the future ages of the earth, then the gold would make all those ages Babylonian. To emphasize the point, the Bible tells us that the golden image he had built was around ninety feet high. Because gold is a soft metal, this image may have been made of something harder and only plated with gold. However, it would still appear to be solid gold to the observer viewing it from the plain below. With idolatry, the concern is often about the appearance or form rather than the substance.
In the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy and her companions finally enter the presence of the wizard, they are overwhelmed by the image of the wizard and his special effects until her dog, Toto, discovers a man hiding behind a curtain orchestrating the show. Immediately, Dorothy hears a booming voice shouting “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” Of course she ignores the command and the false façade is stripped away to reveal a very ordinary man instead of a powerful wizard.
For various reasons, many prefer not to see the hidden man behind the images. Perhaps we have a financial stake in what the image represents. Perhaps we feel that our wish for social position or our desire for sexual fulfillment will be lost if we look behind the curtain at what is really going on. Maybe satiating our taste buds is more important than knowing what we are putting into our mouths. Somehow the mental image of ourselves driving that hot, new car is more important than the knowledge that we will be saddled with debt for several years to pay for it. No doubt, we will be paying for it long after it is no longer the popular new model it is today. Whatever the circumstance, we can find numerous reasons to rationalize what we know is wrong.
Maybe our willingness to recognize the image and not the man behind the curtain is based on false pride like the fairy tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Conmen convince the Emperor to pay a large sum for a suit of clothes that will reveal who is unsuited for office. Those individuals will not be able to see the new suit of clothes. In reality, the Emperor is convinced to parade about naked, but no one says anything for fear of what everyone else might think about their competence. Even the emperor is taken in and keeps silent about not seeing the clothes. Perhaps we, too, buy into the image instead of the substance because everyone else is buying into it, and we are too fearful of their opinions to go against the crowd.
In any event, at Dura, King Nebuchadnezzar is the man behind the curtain wishing everyone to buy into the image he is presenting. With the royal musicians providing the sound track, he demands that all buy into his image for the future of the kingdom by bowing before the image. Some did not need persuading, and for personal advantage, for fear of the opinions of others, or maybe even a belief in the power of idol worship, they bowed before the image.
Knowing that not everyone would so easily accept his mandate, the king added an additional incentive by offering to burn in a furnace anyone who refused to bow. He thought that a desire for self-preservation would overcome any lingering objections to bowing and endorsing his vision for an eternal Babylon. As is often the case, the only thing to fear from idols is not the idol itself, but from those who promote its worship. Idols are lifeless and have no power of their own.
This same principle is illustrated in the marketing of goods in modern societies. All sorts of inanimate objects are presented as having attributes that enhance virility, make one attractive to the opposite sex, provide financial gain, or banish sadness and depression with a “happily-ever-after” promise of never-ending joy that comes from owning or using the object. Often the only difference between ancient and modern idolatry is the degree of sophistication in the special effects used to bring the image to life. But every age thinks it is the most technically advanced, and in Babylon, the golden image was a technological apogee.
From the account in the book of Daniel and the examples of Daniel’s faithfulness elsewhere in the book, we can surmise that he was not present for this event. We do not know why. We do know that Daniel was not one to sacrifice the principles of his faith for self-interest. A den full of lions can attest to that. Therefore, he was probably absent.
Someone who might have been present and who was a poster child for self-interest, and therefore almost an anti-Daniel, was King Jehoiakim. Not yet in rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar, he would not want to have offended the Babylonian king by not attending. It also would give him an opportunity to assess personally the strength of the Babylonian empire. Perhaps something he saw while in Babylon encouraged him to rebel several months later. There is no account of him refusing to bow before the image. It certainly would have served his selfish purpose to bow then in anticipation of later rebelling from what he might have deemed the relative safety of Jerusalem several months travel away. (See Ezra 7:9)
While the conniving king of the Jews was willing to prostrate himself before the golden image, three other Jews were not. Daniel’s three friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were present. Like Daniel, they had chosen to remain faithful in every respect to God. Though thousands were probably bowing around them, they continued to stand refusing to pay homage to a lifeless image, no matter how tall it was or how precious the metal that ornamented it. How sad that Jehoiakim, the king who sent them to Babylon as hostages, could not have had the character of these three.
The three young men must certainly have stood out among the crowd there on the plain. Standing together while everyone else bowed, it would have been hard not to notice. Apparently Nebuchadnezzar, like Daniel, was not present for the event either. Rather than seeing the three standing in defiance of his order, he was told of their defiance by others. As king and used to demanding the obedience of all around him, he probably presumed that there would be no question of anyone refusing to bow. When he found out otherwise, he flew into a rage.
Because of the selfishness and greediness of the human heart, jealousy often arouses the animosity of others when they see that someone has been blessed, and they have not. Like small children fighting over a single toy, they will not rest until it is in their possession. One child will gladly tell Mother of the failings of the other child in an attempt to get the child punished so they can have the toy themselves after the other child is taken away. Some never outgrow this trait, especially if it has worked for them in the past.
Daniel’s three friends were foreigners and had been promoted to positions of responsibility in the empire. No doubt this created hard feelings among native Babylonians who might have thought they should have been given the positions. We see the same mantra today from political groups who play on this fear to pander the vote by claiming that foreigners are coming into their country and stealing all the jobs. When we see how powerful this belief is today for fomenting discontent, we can readily see how it could motivate otherwise responsible leaders in Babylon to turn on the three Hebrews and report them to the king.
Since Daniel had probably represented to King Nebuchadnezzar that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were trustworthy men of excellent character, the king might have felt betrayed by these men he had so recently elevated to their current positions. However, he well knew that executing these hostages could encourage rebellion in Judah. This may account for his not enforcing the “immediately” portion of his decree for those who failed to bow. Instead, he offered them a second chance. They demurred.
Feeling he had been merciful and kind in offering them a way out, he was probably shocked that they would take his offer so lightly and turn it down. To some today, their reply to the king might seem cheeky. However, they knew that God had spoken to the king in a dream and that the king was now rejecting that dream. They knew it was the king and not they that stood on shaky ground. The king had even stated that no god could save them if they defied him. Their statement that they had no need to answer the king about this matter was a reminder that God had already spoken. The king knew what was correct and nothing they could say would change that, nor would they willingly turn from the God who had given him the dream.
Often when those who are in rebellion against God have their conscience pricked in this manner their anger erupts like a volcano and they will stop at nothing to silence the voice of truth. The stoning of Stephen in Acts, chapter 7 is one example. In response to Stephen’s fearless testimony accusing them of rejecting and killing the Messiah, the members of the Sanhedrin, with the ferocity of animals, drug Stephen out of the city and stoned him to death.
Nebuchadnezzar displays the same spirit when he becomes so furious that his demeanor toward the three Hebrews is changed. In his fury, he commands the furnace to be heated seven times hotter than normal. We have no historical evidence that the Babylonians or any other culture prior to the Christian era could measure temperature so accurately.
Our only indication from the text itself is the assertion that those who threw Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into the furnace died from the heat themselves. Since bricks are fired at somewhere around 1000 degrees centigrade, and this is hotter than the jet exhaust from a Boeing 757, it would not be necessary to reach seven times the kiln’s heat in order to slay those who tossed them into the furnace. Most likely, Nebuchadnezzar’s statement is only hyperbole. In any event, even being thrown into a normal brick kiln would be enough to cause the painful death of those inside.
Most of us have burned ourselves accidentally at one time or another with a stove, an iron, a match or some other hot object. The memory of that experience would inspire our terror of death like the one faced by these three faithful, young men. Burns are extremely painful. Death by fire had a large part to play in the terror inspired by the Inquisition. In spite of that, many generations of Christian martyrs have willingly faced that pain rather than deny their faith in Jesus Christ. Surely, they could identify with the horror facing these men.
The sadness depicted in the scene of those dying who tossed these three into the furnace is illustrative of the selfishness of the Babylonian king. While he was intent on punishing those who were not obeying his command to bow before the image, he also cared very little for the lives of those men who were obedient to his commands. Such selfish pride cannot be ignored by God and is the foundation for events to come in chapter four.
The selfish king, expecting a moment of Schadenfreude, is instead shocked to see the three men walking about in the kiln, apparently unharmed. What’s more, they are not alone. Someone is with them, someone who has the appearance of a divine being. His image that he constructed was a lifeless representation of something living, but here was the reality. Here was a real godlike being moving about in the furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Nebuchadnezzar concluded that this had something to do with why they were not immediately consumed by the flames.
When the king cried out to them to come out of the furnace, he addressed them based on their relationship to the being that appeared to be protecting them. He called them servants of the Most High God. This was a God who provided deliverance beyond the strength of men. Unlike his image which was only “smoke and mirrors,” this was real and everyone present had witnessed the miracle. He had made everyone bow before the false image, but he was now forced to humbly recognize the true God.
As further confirmation that God is ruler even over Babylon and its king, when the three men came out of the furnace, there was no damage even to their clothes from the flames. Even the smell of smoke from the burning fire had not clung to them. It was as though the experience had never happened. They had passed through the fire but it had not harmed them. Instead it had confirmed the power of God to deliver.
Often through the ages, God’s people have had to pass through what David the Psalmist called “the valley of the shadow of death.” (See Psalm 23) However, like the three Hebrews in Babylon, even though we are in that valley, God is with us. Time and again, He brings His people through that experience, and they come through it giving glory to God. They go into the affliction like soft coal and come forth as hardened diamonds worth far more to themselves and others as a result of what they have been through.
Nebuchadnezzar is so impressed with what has happened he issues the decree of verse 29. On the surface, his decree appears to glorify God, but in reality, he still has a long way to come. He still sees God as someone who needs his protection, hence the decree. This is in spite of the fact that God revealed in the furnace He is well able to protect not only Himself but those who serve Him, also.
Nonetheless, the decree creates an interesting juxtaposition between Nebuchadnezzar, a heathen Babylonian king who acknowledged God and His power, and Jehoiakim, king of God’s chosen people, who actively opposed the will of God. These two were both children of God, yet one son who did not set out to serve God ended up doing so, while the other who considered himself ruler of God’s chosen people did not do God’s will. This is the condition that still existed among the Israelites even in Christ’s day. He expressed it this way when addressing the leaders who challenged Him:
“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.” Matthew 21:28-32, NIV
We are not told if the Israelite King was present at the fiery furnace, but since the three Hebrews were officially hostages and this could affect the relationship between the two kings there is a good chance that he was. Nebuchadnezzar could have thought that this would be an opportunity to demonstrate his power and the importance of obedience to the vassal king of Jerusalem. In any event, even if he was not present, King Jehoiakim probably received a copy of Nebuchadnezzar’s decree, but he may have thought little of it.
When plotting rebellion against his liege lord, as Jehoiakim may have been by this time, he may not have given much credence to the official documents issued by the ruler he wished to cast off, especially when those documents refer to a God he did not recognize or obey. Soon events would transpire that would lower the disobedient king to the dust, and exalt the obedient one to even greater power.
Three years after sending the hostages to Babylon, Jehoiakim rose in rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar. Perhaps something about his visit to the plain of Dura convinced him that the time was ripe to rebel. Since the trip between Babylon and Jerusalem took several months, he may have begun the rebellion immediately on his return. Since he was placed on the throne originally by Pharaoh Necho, he may have felt he could expect help from that quarter since the Egyptians had soundly defeated Babylon at the borders of Egypt several months before Jehoiakim would have traveled to Dura. Nebuchadnezzar fled back to Babylon from that battle with his tail between his legs.
As stated previously, Jehoiakim may have wished to be at Dura to assess Babylonian might. The events prior to his trip would have made that all the more important. In a twisted and self-serving way, the treatment of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego may have even helped to provide a pretext for rebellion. While not honoring the God they served, he may have seen himself as defending the honor of these hostage subjects. He may have attempted to rally the people in response to the almost martyrdom of the three.
Sadly for Jehoiakim, he did not receive the support he expected from Egypt. Instead Nebuchadnezzar came and hauled the rebellious king to Babylon in chains, setting his son Jehoiachin on the throne of Jerusalem in his place. Apparently, after the defeat a few years before at Carchemish, the Egyptians felt that their best strategy was to defend their homeland as opposed to embarking on military adventures, especially against Babylon. Jehoiakim was indeed lowered to the dust, while Nebuchadnezzar became more powerful and was no longer challenged by Egypt in Palestine. (See 2 Kings 24:7)
Unfortunately, in spite of his previous encounters with God, his successes on the battlefield only contributed to his problem with selfish pride. The events of chapter four will show how that problem was dealt with and God was glorified.
This Article is Provided by Still Waters Ministry
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