While wondering around in the Book of Daniel I came across that old Sunday school classic, Shadrach, Meshac, and Abed-Nego vs. the Fiery Furnace. These men sprout from genealogical obscurity and survive a great allegory of salvation before receding into the veil of their daily lives. Their resolve paints a compelling portrait of God’s glory that echos from antiquity into the post-modern. I am compelled to retell:
Nebuchadnezzar was the greatest king who ever lived. He unified more territory under a more prosperous reign than any king before or since, and Israel was swallowed up by his billowing kingdom during the reign of Jehoiakim. God troubled Nebuchadnezzar’s sleep with a dream showing his Babylonian empire as foremost among the remaining kingdoms of earth. The dream prophesied that 4 kingdoms would follow his. Each one progressively weaker than its predecessor. The kingdoms of history, as foretold in his dream, were the Babylonian Empire, Medo-Persian empire, the Grecian empire, and the Roman empire. The last kingdom of earth will be an unstable10 unit kingdom retaining influence from the Roman empire. After this, the earth will be destroyed to make way for a new heaven and earth. (Daniel 2:45) God tells Nebuchadnezzar that all his power, strength, and glory are a gift from Him. (Daniel 2:36)
Babylon practiced cultural assimilation of defeated civilizations through education. The young, beautiful, and intelligent men were carted off to Shinar to be indoctrinated in Babylonian enlightenment. Among those Jews chosen for relocation were Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, youths who had “purposed in their hearts not to defile themselves with the kings delicacies.” (Daniel 1:5) Despite, or in fact because of, their refusal to accept the core Babylonian value system of self-indulgent prosperity they prospered, and became the leaders of the Babylonian elite. Nebuchadnezzar himself appointed them to these positions. (Daniel 2:48-49)
The third chapter of Daniel opens on the bumbling scene of white-collar Babylon wandering around a field at a state imposed festival. The despots has demanded that everybody party or else be thrown into a fiery furnace. A 90 foot gold image of Nebuchadnezzar dominates the shindig, and when the band plays everyone is supposed to bow down and worship it, on pain of being thrown into a fiery furnace. There is nothing quite as awkward as a forced fete. (And you thought your boss’ office birthday party was bad.) Yet even more awkward are the three men standing above the crowd not groveling before the jolly golden giant. Immediately, Nebuchadnezzar’s ambitious informants, the Chaldeans, who were not a little bit anti-semitic, nark Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego out. Nebuchadnezzar is throughly offended, but like a classic persecutor magnanimously offers them one last chance to genuflect to his image.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego do not even need a time-out huddle. Their response is a total diplomatic snub: “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, 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.” (Daniel 3:16-18)Nebuchadnezzar does not take this in stride.
The dread fiery furnace is so hot the guards do not survive tossing them inside, and yet not only do the threesome survive, but they do not even smell like smoke when the baffled king calls them out. The fire burned off their bonds but not their clothes or the hair on their heads. Nebuchadnezzar witness a fourth man walking around in the fire whose form was “like the Son of God.” (Daniel 3:25) He does not request the fourth man to come out of the fire. He is not interested in tangling with a Theophany. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego are promoted with Nebuchadnezzar’s typical royal flair. New law: anyone who talks smack about the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego “will be cut in pieces and their houses made an ash heap.” Nice.
Let us digress to set up a framework of Satan’s kingdom so that we can compare it to Nebuchadnezzar’s. “We are not unaware of his schemes.” (2 Chorinthians 2:11) Recall Christ’s temptation by the enemy in the wilderness in Luke 4:5-13. First, Satan told Jesus, who has been fasting for 40 days, to turn rocks into bread. Jesus refused not because He did not have the ability, but because “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.” (Luke 4:4)The implications of refusing to turn rocks to bread is HUGE. Imagine being able to feed the entire world. No more starving children! Jesus could rule the world with this ability alone. Why would an all-powerful perfectly-good God refuse to wipe out hunger? Because man does not live by bread alone, but by every word of God. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger, for they shall be filled.” (Luke 6:21) Why are African churches alive and vibrant with worship, while we in the west languish in our pews planning at which buffet we will meet? Because hunger supernaturally reveals to us an empty spiritual chasm that can only be filled by the Word. Damnation is infinitely worse than starvation.Why must we, in the prosperous west, fast? Because we cannot be filled if we have no void. Because if we do not loosen our hold on life we will loose it. Jesus said, “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25) Next, Satan offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if He will only bow down and worship him. Jesus did not refute the fact that they were his to offer, indicating that the title deed to the glory of kingdoms belongs to the enemy. He did, however, refuse to worship. In front of Pilate, the man in charge of His crucifixion, Jesus still refuses to bow down and beg for His life. He said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight,…you could have no power at all against me unless it had been given you from above.” (Luke 18:36, 19:11) Up to the very end Satan was baiting Him with a borrowed kingdom if He would only bow down to him. Jesus refuses to take Satan’s kingdom even when His life was the forfeit. Satan then tells Jesus to jump off a cliff and let the angels catch him. Jesus refuses not because the angels would not catch Him, but because this stunt be just another worldly display of power causing men to follow Him not because He has the words of eternal life, but because men are attracted to entertainment and stunt-like fanfare. The end result of using this kind of glory to draw a following would be bowing down to the author of self-glorification: Satan himself.
So what does all this have to do with Shinar and the golden colossus? Nebuchadnezzar was only a figure head. Like the kingdoms of the earth, God raised him up, but they are all on lease to enemy. Nebuchadnezzar’s owned exactly what the enemy offered to Jesus in the wilderness. A kingdom conquered and unified into peace by force, ruled under a dictator who demands to be worshiped because of his ability to provide a surface-tension peace, full stomachs and entertainment. (Daniel 4:11-12) However; God exposes lies: the absence of war does not herald the presence of peace, a full stomach does fill an empty heart, and being entertained does not endow true appreciation for glory.
This story is an allegory of God’s salvation. The Chaldeans are The Accusers they symbolize Satan, Pharisees, or any religiously enlightened law-abiding person. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego are symbolic of God’s people. The Fiery Furnace symbolizes the just punishment for law breaking. Nebuchadnezzar has the role of law giver, and Jesus stars as Himself.
Satan and his puppets accuse us constantly for not living up to God’s standard right to His face. “for the accuser of our brethren, who accused them before our God day and night, has been cast down. ‘And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death.’”(Revelation 12:10b-11) Like the Pharisees, the Chaldeans had no love for their king or his law. They are the lukewarm Joe-Shmoe’s of the world who have not greater motivation than to fear punishment and love accolade. These are the citizens of Babylon who must live under an iron-fisted regime to have peace because, the more man’s inner love grows cold, the more we need government to keep us from slaughtering each other. When the Chaldeans said “O king, live forever,” what they meant was, “Murder these men and promote us.” The Pharisees did not keep the law out of love for YHWH, but in an attempt to wrestle a blessing out of Him. In Matthew 21, Jesus tells a parable of migrant farm labors who conspire to kill the owner’s son so they could inherit the farm. Ludicrous right? Just because something is crazy does not mean people won’t do it. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered a council and said, ‘What shall we do? For this Man works many signs. If we let him alone like this the Roman’s will come and take away both our place and our nation.’ And one of them, Caiaphas, being high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all, nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.” Caiaphas and the Pharisees did have Jesus put to death but, ironically, it was their kingdom that started to perish and Jesus’ kingdom that is replacing it. Caiaphas’ prophecy came true, but not the way he wanted it to. Jesus was like a wheat seed. When He died something else came alive. (John 12:24) The Pharasies and Chaldeans kept the law outwardly but inside were “full of extortion and self-indulgence..like a whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.” (Matthew 23:25b, 27b) Those who accuse with the law will be accused by the law, but those who live in faith that the righteousness of Christ fulfills the law have life especially in their death. (Romans 4:13-16)
The furnace is a symbol of hell: the just punishment for sin. All people, including God’s people, stand accused under the law, both Jews and Greeks are all under sin. As it is written “There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God.” (Romans 3:9b-11a) The law demands that for all our love of self and our blasphemous petty dealings with the Most High God that we be eternally damned as crooked and worthless creatures who refused to act in the manner in which we are created for: see Romans 1:18 – 2:29. Nebuchadnezzar was offended because Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego refused to acknowledge him as worthy of all worship. He would have been justified in his offense if he had “created all things, and by [his] will they exist and were created.” (Revelation 4:11b) But he was a creature and not Creator. The best he can do is be an allegory in our story. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego are guilty as law breakers and under Babylonian law and deserved death, but Jesus delivered them from the fire the same way He delivers us from the just consequences of our sin: by getting in the fire and taking the penalty of sin upon Himself. “Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities, The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.’” (Isaiah 53:4-5) By the way, these are not zebra stripes. This is a prophetic reference to the “cat of nine tails” or the Roman whip that tore the flesh from a man’s back. Both Christians and non-Christians stand guilty under the law. The difference is the believers’ faith. Jesus is the water that strips the fire of its ability to burn. He is the righteousness is imputed to us, therefore justifying us. He fulfills the requirement of the law and extinguishes its ability to consume us. But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Christ Jesus, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26)
Who has a testimony? Who did not love their lives to the death? Jesus, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego and all the brethren. That’s us, the church. The ones who overcome by the blood of the Lamb as described in Revelation 12. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego were ready to put everything on the line. Most things are not worth living for, but some things are worth dying for.
People interpret truth according to the condition of their heart. Nebuchadnezzar may have not even built the golden image if he had not received the dream of it from God. It was probably a close replica. But like Caiaphas, he misses the point of the truth God gave him. God does not value the power to unify people, He values people who are unified. It is the spirit on the inside that is valuable: the spirit that is “bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 2b-3) The last part of the dream is a stone not cut by human hands that beaks the statue to pieces from the feet up. Jesus is that stone. Immediately after the migrant farm worker parable Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Have you never read the Scriptures: ‘The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief cornerstone. This was the Lords doing, And it is marvelous in our eyes?’ Therefore I say to you the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it. And whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder.” (Matthew 21:42-43) The meek (or the ‘broken’ who have fallen on the Stone) will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5) If Nebuchadnezzar had understood this he would not have had to be driven to animal-like insanity to purify his heart. (Daniel 4) The harder the heart, the harder it must fall to be broken on the Stone. At least he was not ground to powder like Caiaphas. His last recorded words in the Bible are, “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, all of whose works are truth, and His ways justice. And those who walk in pride He is able to put down.” (Daniel 4:37) Why would God save this pagan king and yet allow His high priest to be damned? You just can’t tell that potter what to do with His clay. “Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor? What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared before hand for glory,” (Romans 9:21-23)
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego fade out of scripture. They do not even make it to the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11. Yet, the entire plan of salvation is captivated in their little “nutshell.” The book of Daniel written and lived by men “who purposed in their hearts not to defile themselves with the kings delicacies” describes for us how God does not forget His people in their exile, but plans the whole thing out to show us how He works out our salvation through our sufferings. “Therefore we do not loose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18) So if you feel that your life is a slow steady stream of suffering, or just unglamorous day-to-day repetition. Purpose in your heart not to be defiled with the delicacies of the world and amongst the unseen you carry the weight of glory in His salvation.