The Old Testament book of Daniel has a lot to teach us about resolving the tension of whether to resist or adapt as we engage with the culture around us.
‘If your friends jumped off a cliff, would you?’ It’s a question often asked of teenagers. Parents worry about the pull of the peer group on their teens. Might they go along with something silly the rest of their group is doing without thinking it through? Indeed, some do.
But it’s not just a question for teenagers. People of all ages feel under pressure to conform to the accepted social norms.
We all want to belong. We were made for community. Being the odd one out feels lonely and uncomfortable. To fit in, without even realising it, we might dress like the group, behave like the group, think like the group, and come to value the things the group does.
So … if your friends jumped off a cliff, would you? You’re supposed to say ‘NO!’ This question is intended to make people stop and think, and to encourage them to decide to be their own person and make their own decisions, not just follow the crowd.
Three young men in the Bible knew exactly what pressure to go along with the crowd felt like. You see, Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Babylonian empire, had built a huge golden statue and was demanding everyone bow down and worship it. That was something that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego just couldn’t do.
Stop for a moment and read through Daniel chapter three. Did you notice an interesting feature in the way this chapter is written? Initially, Nebuchadnezzar calls for the top and middle layers of management to come out to a dedication ceremony of the statue. This is the beginning of several lists that we find in this chapter: ‘The satraps, prefects, governors, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provisional officials’ (Daniel 3:2). He then repeats this list two more times. Could Daniel not have simply said ‘the leaders’? Well no, he couldn’t. Repetition is a feature of the chapter and its part of the way that the author gets his point across.
You’ll also notice that the instruments in the worship band are listed four times. Five times we are told that Nebuchadnezzar set up the statue. And four times the command ‘fall down and worship’ is given. Through these repetitions the writer is taking the opportunity to mock the great king. This chapter is really rather comical. Its first half is all about Nebuchadnezzar’s power, his officials, his orders, the pomp and ceremony that surround him—all emphasised by the repetition.
The first half of chapter three builds Nebuchadnezzar up, but at 3:15 a pivotal question is asked. One that turns everything around. Nebuchadnezzar asks, ‘What god will be able to rescue you from my hand?’ In the second half of the chapter the question is answered and Nebuchadnezzar learns he is not as powerful as he thinks.
So the statue was set up and dedicated, and then everyone bowed down and worshiped it. And by everyone, I mean everyone! All men, from every language and people group and faith. Other Jews there would have bowed. They were motivated to do so, since Nebuchadnezzar has said if they didn’t, they would be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Literally, it’s a ‘furnace of blazing fire’. Notice the repetition again? It’s a furnace and it’s blazing and it’s a fire—we are meant to understand that this is really hot! In other words, the punishment for failing to comply was severe and instant.
So … if our friends jumped off a cliff would we? What if it was jump or face a furnace?
Perhaps in the face of this threat we could justify bowing? After all, how could we serve God in Babylon if we’re dead? Best stay alive then! It is right to obey our civil leaders—after all, God put them there. So perhaps we could bow on the outside, but on the inside remain loyal to God because God knows our heart. Or … what about just crouching. I don’t want to bow right down, but I don’t want to stick out too much. Maybe they won’t notice me if I hover somewhere in between …
But Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego knew God’s commandment to them: ‘Have no gods before me.’ So when they were dragged before Nebuchadnezzar to explain themselves they didn’t even get into it. They gave no defence. They answered to God, not the king. It is here that Nebuchadnezzar, in his frustration at getting nowhere with these three young Jews, blurts outs that crucial question: ‘What god will be able to rescue you from my hand?’
What arrogance! Nebuchadnezzar thinks that he is the most powerful being in the world. He thinks that no-one would be able to rescue these Jews from him.
He was wrong.
Now, God did rescue the three Jews, but the three didn’t know that he was going to do that. They knew that God could rescue them from the fire, but they did not presume that he would. They knew they might do the right thing and God might not rescue them. But even if he didn’t, they would remain loyal.
The faithful are not always spared.
Yes, there are amazing stories where God intervenes at the last minute to rescue his faithful followers. But there are also thousands of stories of Christian martyrs over the past 2000 years who have remained loyal, who have obeyed God no matter what, and where God didn’t intervene. They died.
God can rescue us from our difficulties, but he doesn’t always. Will we remain loyal either way? Will we remain loyal even if it means we end up being the odd one out?
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego remained loyal to their God … and so into the blazing furnace they went. Three men, all tied up, went into the furnace, yet when Nebuchadnezzar looked in he saw four men, walking unbound in the middle of the fire. The fourth was an angel. There was a divine presence with them in the middle of the fire.
There is an extra-biblical document called ‘The Prayer of Azariah’ (Azariah is the Hebrew name of Abednego), and it has Abednego praising God in the middle of the fire! If I was in a blazing fiery furnace and I’d somehow managed to not die immediately, my prayer would be: ‘God, get me out of here!’ But no, the picture we have of these three young Jews is one of peace and calm in the fire. Of praising God, and of knowing his presence in the fire. Even of finding freedom within the fire.
‘What god can rescue you?’ Well, the answer Nebuchadnezzar got was ‘the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’. This God is called the ‘Most High God’ throughout the book of Daniel. He is the God of Israel who is embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. He can rescue us, but we should not presume that he always will. Maybe God’s plan is to walk with us in life’s fires and for us to know God’s freedom in the midst of the furnace.
This God asks us to do the right thing—whether he rescues us or not. For, as Saint Augustine said: ‘wrong is wrong even when everyone is doing it, and right is right even when no one is doing it.’ Will we dare to be different?
by Carla Lindsey (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 9 September, pp20-21
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