‘To be right with God has often meant to be in trouble’ (A. W. Tozer).
Nebuchadnezzar was a mighty monarch, a successful general who never lost a battle, who reigned in Babylon for 40 years. God had spoken to him in the past, and he had even appointed God’s people to high positions in the land. But he over-stepped the mark when he sought to create a unified, universal religion, building a lavish god for all to worship.
Nebuchadnezzar was seeking to cement his conquered, diverse people into a common kingdom, built on Babylonian values. However, in straying into worship he was crossing the Rubicon of his responsibility.
In Daniel 3, the word ‘worship’ appears 11 times, and is linked to the coercive power of music. But music belongs to the Creator God, his angels and his people. It is an abuse of this wonderful gift from God if it is hijacked to manipulate people into idolatry or ungodliness.
In building the statue Nebuchadnezzar was both deifying himself and attempting to show that there is no need for the true God. Everyone was commanded to worship the statue at the same time. The world has always been enamoured with one way of doing things. In fact, persecution by the state in the realm of religion has consistently been for the purpose of making people conform to its will.
Nebuchadnezzar had a fixed determination to enforce his mandate. He failed to understand that no power on earth can command or coerce worship, because it comes from the innermost part of a human and is not a mechanical response. God has given his commands and they take priority over the whims and wishes of any human being.
But the world’s systems and people cannot rest until everyone conforms to its commands. Twice in Daniel 3 (verses 13 and 19) Nebuchadnezzar’s passion is portrayed by his features becoming distorted with rage. The musical instruments were playing (I wonder if the tune was, ‘Everyone’s doing it, doing it, doing it’!). Almost everyone, including the majority of the Jews, were bowing down and showing subservience to the statue, in total disregard of the second of the Ten Commandments.
It is sad that so many ‘believers’ bowed. But it has always been the case that numbers of professing Christians — even evangelicals — have capitulated under pressure, to profit out of conformity rather than suffer affliction with the people of God. There are recent examples of this in our own country.
Only three people refused to bow (I’m sure Daniel would have joined them if he was in the vicinity). So why would Nebuchadnezzar be bothered with three non-conformists? Is there no scope for individuals with deeply held convictions, when most are blindly following the crowd?
The three standing when all others were bowing would certainly be conspicuous. Such is their courage that the names of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego are mentioned 13 times in the one chapter. They were men of courage, conviction and godly grit, though the Chaldeans described them as ‘certain Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon’.
When Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego were brought to Nebuchadnezzar, they made no excuses, but simply refused to compromise or conform. They did not judge the situation by the king’s threats, or the heat of the flames of the furnace, or by their love of life, but rather by the everlasting God and the eternal life which he had promised.
They spoke fearlessly to King Nebuchadnezzar: ‘Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up’.
It was as if they had come straight from the throne room of heaven. Boldly they shared their conviction that their God was well able to deliver them from the flames of the furnace, but if he didn’t, their trust in him and obedience to him would not falter.
They would not bow down: king or no king; command or no command; custom or no custom; fashion or no fashion; life or death; furnace or no furnace. By one act of faith Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego became witnesses to the whole Persian empire and throughout history. They were men of faith, displaying no arrogance or presumption.
Martin Luther, the German monk whom God used as the catalyst of the Reformation 500 years ago, in all his loneliness, on his way to the Diet of Worms to appear before King Charles V, the Roman prelate and all the princes assembled around said: ‘My cause shall be commended to the Lord, for he lives and reigns who preserved the three children in the furnace of the Babylonian king. If he is unwilling to preserve me, my life is a small thing compared with Christ. Expect anything of me except flight or recantation. I will not flee, much less recant. So may the Lord Jesus strengthen me’.
I love the fact that Luther did not ask for the Lord to deliver him, or even make it easy for him, but took the same line as Daniel’s friends all those centuries earlier; and the same line as Peter and John in Acts 4, who prayed asking God to consider the threats they had received, then asked that they would speak with greater boldness, and God would miraculously stretch out his hand and do signs and wonders (vv. 29-30).
In situations of persecution there are the two possibilities: either deliverance or death. These were seen in reality in the early church. Both are recorded in succession in Acts 12. Peter was delivered from a prison cell by an angel, while James was killed by the sword. The Lord was in control in both situations.
Nebuchadnezzar was so outraged by Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego’s stand he ordered that the furnace be heated up, which actually would have made it easier and death more speedy for the three if they were to die in the flames, but then rage is not rational!
However, Nebuchadnezzar was powerless, for God was to save them in the flames not from the flames. True faith is never impressed by crowds, nor swayed by superstitious, idolatrous ceremonies, nor even frightened by threats.
Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego believed in the after-life. They were convinced that, even if they were burned to a cinder as their lives were taken, they would be in a place where the hand of humans could not touch them and society’s commands could not threaten them.
They knew they would see the Lord ‘in the place reserved in heaven’ for them. The world cannot cope with someone who says that it doesn’t matter if they live or die as long as they do not apostatise.
We know what happened. The Lord himself came down and walked with them in the furnace. There was no smell of smoke; not a single hair of their head was singed. The ropes which bound them burned away, but their clothes remained unscathed.
There was complete, visible deliverance, which through the fickleness of the king led to them receiving further honours. In fact, so fickle was his leadership and his pendulum-swinging mind that Nebuchadnezzar decreed that any people who spoke against Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego’s God should be cut to pieces and their houses made an ash heap! Such a decree is not our prerogative, nor our desire. We love the lost and pray for their salvation.
We know that the Book of Daniel is a prophetic book. Chapter 3, though an incident in history, undoubtedly pictures what has been repeated throughout the centuries. We know that dictatorships can be cruel, but then democracy can be as well, especially to those who don’t conform either to the majority or to agitating minorities.
To be concluded
Roger Carswell is an itinerant evangelist and a member of the Association of Evangelists.