On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther went public with his 95 Theses, his points of contention with the theological and social abuses of the Roman Catholic Church. The Church was a bloated political juggernaut exploiting the poor the sake of building the pope’s kingdom.
Luther did not waste time or mince words. The Church was wrong on papal authority, wrong on conciliar authority, wrong on the Mass, wrong on indulgences, wrong on papal absolution. Ultimately, the Church was wrong on the gospel.
Luther stood on trial for his convictions before the Roman Emperor Charles at the Diet of Worms (1521). Like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, Luther was given the opportunity to recant his convictions. Luther famously replied, “Since then your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other, my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.”
Luther really stood on the shoulders of John Huss, who himself probably stood on the shoulders of John Wycliffe. Huss questioned in the 15th century what Luther would in the 16th century. The pope is subject to the Bible, not the other way around. Only Huss did not survive his last trial before the imperial and church authorities.
Having refused to succumb to the papal and political pressure, Huss was brought before the Council of Constance (Germany) in 1415. He held his ground again and was condemned to death. On July 6, 1415, Huss arrived for his execution in his priestly attire, which they stripped off him piece by piece.
He wore the traditional tonsure which they removed by shearing the rest of his hair. For his bloodied head they fashioned a paper bishop’s hat, on which they painted demons and the words “A ringleader of heretics.” To this Huss replied, “For my sake, my Lord Jesus Christ wore a crown of thorns, so for His sake why should I not wear this light crown, even though it is a shameful thing.”
The presiding bishop put the mock hat on him saying, “Now we commit your soul to hell.” Huss replied, “But I commend into Your hands, O Lord Jesus Christ, my spirit that you have redeemed.”
Huss was led to the fire where his books were already in the flames. Chained to a stake Huss smiled and said, “My Lord Jesus Christ was bound with a harder chain than this one for my sake, so why should I be ashamed of this rusty chain?”
They piled up kindling to his neck. Huss was offered one last chance to recant. He refused and was heart cheerfully singing psalms until he could no longer utter a sound. They spread his ashes in the Rhine River (a la Wycliffe) to leave no trace of Huss on the earth.
Well, over 2,000 years before Luther and Huss three young Hebrew men stood on trial for refusing to worship what the king and state church demanded they worship. Daniel 3 is about these men who drew a line and forfeited their lives to the religio-political establisment for the sake of God’s name.
The story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace is probably one of the top fives stories we remember learning as kids. But perhaps that’s an assumption we can no longer make!
By way of introduction, remember that chapter 2 (Nebuchadnezzar’s dream) corresponds to chapter 7 (Daniel’s vision). They address the same material. In this case, chapter 3 corresponds to chapter 6 (Daniel and the lion’s den).
Nebuchadnezzar’s Idol (vv1-7)
We do not know how much time has passed between 2.49 and 3.1. At some time Nebuchadnezzar erected a 90′ by 9′ golden statue and ordered everyone in the Babylonian kingdom bow down to it on cue.
Obviously, this is both textually and theologically connected to his dream in chapter 2, wherein Nebuchadnezzar was the head of gold on a statue (see 2.31). In his dream, his kingdom would be defeated and successively destroyed by competing nations. Had Nebuchadnezzar assumed he could “counteract the dream” (Duguid) by uniting his kingdom under this golden image? He would unite all the people (who had their own gods) under one god. The dream obviously did not scare Nebuchadnezzar, so he probably assumed he was powerful enough to change his fate. He would head off the dissolution of his kingdom by becoming not just the gold head of an image, but making the whole image gold and requiring all his subjects to worship it. Of course, in worshiping the image Nebuchadnezzar was demanding worship of himself.
Nebuchadnezzar gathered every level of leadership to dedicate this statue to the service of Babylon’s common worship. Everyone from the local city aldermen to the mayors to the county clerks to the state representatives to the governors all prostrated themselves before this golden statue. All in service to Nebuchadnezzar.
We do not know the exact form of the statue. It was probably more like an obelisk than anything. We do not know if it was dedicated to any particular god or had a name. We do know that in the first seven verses we read six times about “the image Nebuchadnezzar the king set up” (and so through v18). Whatever or whoever the statue represented, Daniel made sure we know it was all about Nebuchadnezzar. In fact, the text might suggest even Nebuchadnezzar himself did not care what god you connected with the statue as long as you obeyed him in worshiping it.
With all of Babylon’s leaders standing before the statue, Nebuchadnezzar announced that when he struck up the band they were hit their knees before the image. (By the way, just because there is great music promoted in the context of “worship” doesn’t make it the worship of God!). Anyone who refused to comply would be immediately whisked off to incineration in a nearby brick-kiln. The “church” was the state.
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s Resistance (vv8-18)
While everyone had their faces buried in Babylonian sand, some Chaldeans peeked over to see some Jews still standing. They tattled to Nebuchadnezzar. Verse 8 literally reads they “ate into” the Jews. They sunk their teeth into these Jews because, after all, they’d received promotions over the Chaldeans. This was the native’s chance to take a bite out of these young upstarts.
They charge Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego with ignoring the king. They never serve his gods (indicating this was a pattern) and they refused to bow down to the “golden image you have set up” (v12). Clearly, to pay homage to the statue was to venerate Nebuchadnezzar himself. He thought himself to be god.
By the way, where was Daniel in all of this? We would think he’d be in this rebel band of misfits. Frankly, we do not know where he was. We can be sure he wasn’t obeying Nebuchadnezzar either. Perhaps he had been given some temporary, diplomatic immunity (2.49)?
Nebuchadnezzar was full of himself and gave them the benefit of the doubt. Who in their right mind would defy him, right? Besides, these young men were valuable assets to the crown and the king didn’t want to kill some of his best. So he gave them another opportunity to put all commotion this to rest. He’d call for the music again and they could bow down right there and all would be forgiven (v15). Otherwise, they’d be incinerated and there was no god who could possibly deliver them. This was Nebuchadnezzar we were talking about! Their lives were in Nebuchadnezzar’s hand (not his gods’, mind you) or so he thought.
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego quickly replied that Nebuchadnezzar need not waste his time (v16). He didn’t need to cue the band. They weren’t going to comply no matter what the king did or threatened.
Their God was quite capable of delivering them from the furnace, if he so willed. Nebuchadnezzar asked what god was remotely able to deliver them from his hands (v15). These young answered without horns and without teeth, “Our God is.”
But even if He didn’t deliver them, there was no way they were going to disobey either of the first two commandments. They would rather die in the service of Yahweh than to live in the service of Nebuchadnezzar. There could’ve been no more grievous insult or treasonous statement.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer stood mightily against German Nazism and eventually sealed his resistance with his own blood. Along the way, Bonhoeffer befriended Martin Niemoller. Niemoller was a Lutheran pastor and early sympathizer of Adolf Hitler. But after realizing that Hitler was hijacking the church through his Aryan heresy, Niemoller joined with Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth to launch the Confessing Church (a Protestant, anti-Nazi resistance movement in Germany).
In 1940, Niemoller preached a sermon entitled “God is My Führer.” In it he said, “Not you, Herr Hitler, but God is my führer.” (“Führer” is German for “leader” or “guide” and is virtually synonymous with Hitler in our day.) An enraged Hitler responded, “It is either Niemoller or I!” In other words, there is only room for one of us to be god and it’s not God.
Can your hear the echoes of Nebuchadnezzar in Hitler’s voice? “There is no god more powerful than my hands!” This was not about one god versus another god, but all gods (especially Yahweh) versus Nebuchadnezzar.
Can you hear the echoes of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in Niemoller’s sermon? “Not you, King Nebuchadnezzar, but God is our Führer!”
Nebuchadnezzar’s Botched Execution (vv19-27)
Nebuchadnezzar was spitting mad and red in the face. He ordered the furnace be stoked well more than any human could stand. And just to make sure no one could overpower him Nebuchadnezzar had his Delta Force tie the men up and take them to the furnace (vv20-21).
But these soldiers no more than got near the entrance of the furnace before they were immediately incinerated by the heat (v22). But the Hebrew young men weren’t! Rather than try to get away or wrestle themselves free, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego fell into the furnace all tied up together (v23).
Oblivious what was actually happening, Nebuchadnezzar went back to sipping his latte when he thought to peek in on the rebels. He wanted to gloat. But he couldn’t believe it when he saw four men walking around in the furnace (v25). The furnace was hot enough to burn off iron shackles but the men were untouched!
Of course, we all want to know who this fourth man was. Nebuchadnezzar described him like “a son of the gods.” We often assume he meant “the Son of God” but we’d be hard-pressed to know how Nebuchadnezzar knew what Jesus looked like! What Nebuchadnezzar said was what any polytheistic pagan would say. This fourth man looked like a divine being as divine beings go in Babylonian imaginations.
Was this a Christophany (an appearance of the pre-incarnate Christ), a theophany (an appearance of Yahweh in human form) or angel of the LORD? Yes? He was at least a spirit-being, unconfined by space which sounds a lot like God.
Whether this fourth man was a Christophany, Theophany or angel of the LORD, the point remains the same. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s God was with them. Nebuchadnezzar wasn’t able to deliver his special forces servants from the furnace but Yahweh was able to deliver his servants from it. Whoever the fourth man was he stood in stark contrast to Nebuchadnezzar’s lifeless statue who could deliver no one. While Nebuchadnezzar’s statue just stood there and his subjects must come to it, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s God came to them and walked with them in the furnace. Theirs was a Living God?
How do we not get a kick out of this scene? They weren’t banging on the door or making faces at Nebuchadnezzar. They were just chilling out (pun intended) with God in an infernal closet! I suppose they would’ve stayed in there if they didn’t have to come out!
At any rate, Nebuchadnezzar runs to the scene having to step over the charbroiled remains of his Green Berets (v26). Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego would have to let themselves out because no one else was risking their life to unlock the door.
And the young men came out smelling like roses! Not one hair was singed. Not one thread damaged. They didn’t even smell like smoke! I walk into my dad’s kitchen and smell like bacon the rest of the day. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego come out of an inferno and you’d never know it! “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, nor will the flame burn you” (Is 43.2).
Nebuchadnezzar’s Confession (vv28-30)
The king responded in a similar way as he did with Daniel in 2.46-49. He didn’t “get saved” or even become a monotheist. He simply acknowledged Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s God deserved as much respect as any Babylonian god. In a roundabout way, the king was still attempting to control who worshiped whom in the kingdom. He thought he was the arbiter of worship and sanctioned the worship of Yahweh.
Nevertheless, being the pragmatist he was, Nebuchadnezzar rewarded the young men handsomely for their stand. He didn’t want to anger their God anymore!