Passive Resistance When Your Life is at Risk audio (5MB)
One of the failings of human nature is that we tend to see or hear what we want to, not what’s actually presented to us. We’re also very slow learners at times, particularly when the lesson doesn’t suit us. And both those truisms are found in our story here.
Remember that Nebuchadnezzar has just had that amazing dream about a great statue, a dream that left him terrified. And remember that it was Daniel who both told him the dream and then interpreted it. And what did Nebuchadnezzar do as a result? You’ll find it at the end of ch 2: “46Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell on his face, worshiped Daniel, and commanded that a grain offering and incense be offered to him.” Then he says “47Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery.” Apart from wanting to worship Daniel, he appears to have had a revelation of the greatness of God.
But then in the very next section we read that it’s all gone out of his mind. He decides to build a great statue, no doubt inspired by the statue in his dream, except that this one is all made of gold; and he orders everyone in the kingdom to bow down to it.
But then on the other side of the coin we have Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Far from forgetting the lessons of history, they hold fast to what they’ve learnt.
You can imagine them looking on as Nebuchadnezzar builds this great statue, 30 meters tall, and thinking what a slow learner he was. But more than that they may well have been reminded of the Israelites during the Exodus making a golden calf and setting it up to worship it as their god. They know that a carved image, no matter how big it is, isn’t a god. It’s just a human artefact.
By the way, did you notice as we read through the passage how often that phrase “Set up” is used. It’s as though the writer wants to emphasise that the statue is nothing but a prop set up by Nebuchadnezzar for his stage show. It’s a great big set-up.
Yes, it carries with it all sorts of pressure and intimidation. We’re told certain Chaldeans used this as an opportunity to get rid of their rivals. Perhaps they were jealous of the promotions they’d been given after Daniel interpreted the king’s dream. Perhaps these were some of the astrologers who had failed to interpret the dream; had been put to shame by Daniel and his friends. Never mind that Daniel had saved their lives, they didn’t want these foreigners getting rewarded with positions of power when they’d shown them up. So they inform on them to the king.
And that puts the king into a furious rage. You can imagine the tantrum he throws, red in the face, screaming for these rebels to be brought in.
But when they come in, you can’t help but feel that he makes a mistake – again. He tells them if they don’t bow down to the statue he’ll throw them into this furnace of blazing fire; and they’d better be quick or else. Then he adds: “who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?”
Here’s a blatant challenge of outright defiance against the God of Israel, against the living God. And they can see it as clear as day.
Mind you, it can’t have been easy for these men to face the rage of the king. They were public servants in positions of power and they were risking everything by defying the king. It would have been easy enough to have justified giving in to the king’s demand. They could have rationalised it by saying keeping their positions of power was too important because the other exiles needed someone on their side.
But they don’t do that though, do they? No, they trust that God will be with them.
They respond to the king’s question with a surprisingly calm and trusting, almost blasé answer: “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defence to you in this matter. 17If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. 18But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.” Isn’t that a great answer? They know God could deliver them. There’s no doubt in their minds about that. But they don’t know whether he will deliver them. Perhaps they’d read the last few verses of Hebrews ch11, that great chapter on faith: “35Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— 38of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”
The faithful don’t always have peace and security in this life. Sometimes they suffer great hardships, even death. For these three men that must have looked quite likely.
So let me ask you, what would it do to your faith if you found yourself experiencing some terrible suffering like these men were threatened with? Would you give up your faith because God hadn’t looked after you or your loved ones?
These men know that they might die because of the king’s anger but they’re resolute in their obedience to God. They say no matter what you do to us we will not serve a false god or an idol that some human being has set up. Why? Because God has said they shouldn’t.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that there’s a level of doubt in these men’s minds as to what will happen, but no doubt at all about the sovereignty of God, no doubt at all about what God wants them to do at this moment; no doubt that their personal integrity might be compromised. And I think you can see in the response of the king that this makes him afraid. He’s powerless to change their minds. Despite all his power the most he can do is put them to death. And for them, as Solzhenitsyn once pointed out, death meant true freedom. So he flies off the handle completely and orders the furnace to be heated up to seven times its normal temperature. In fact it’s so hot that the guards who are pushing the men into the fire are killed by the heat.
But not the three men! Nebuchadnezzar is about to get the answer to his earlier question in a spectacular demonstration that there is a God who can deliver them. Just as Daniel showed that God does speak directly to humans so here he discovers that God can act in a supernatural way to protect his servants.
He looks into the fire and sees the men standing there, but wait, there are 4 men there. Didn’t we send just 3 into the fire? And this fourth has the look of a god about him. Who knows what that means? Perhaps he had a certain glow about him, not just from the flames but something more ethereal. Was this an angel? Some have suggested it’s the pre-incarnate Christ come to stand by his servants and protect them. Certainly that’s what he does, whoever he is. He protects them, even to the extent that their clothes aren’t touched by the flames. When they come out they don’t even smell of smoke.
But, having said that, notice that he doesn’t save them from being in the fire. He comes to them there. There’s no promise here that God will keep us from danger. He stands with them keeping them safe, but they’re still surrounded by flames.
But you know this story isn’t about God’s deliverance so much as about these men’s determination to worship God and only God.
That’s Nebuchadnezzar’s summary: “They disobeyed the king's command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.” And the chapter ends with another acknowledgment that the God of Israel should be worshipped and can be trusted; and with a further promotion for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.
I guess the take home message for us from all this is that although we don’t know what God will do in any circumstance, we can trust that he has the power to deliver us. And even if we don’t know what he’ll do with us, we do know what his will is for us, as far as our own actions go. He expects us to remain obedient to him even when people around us pressure us to compromise, to lower our standards, to bend the rules. Being faithful to God might be dangerous, but God is worth obeying, worth being faithful to.
Let’s pray that we too would have the courage to remain faithful to God when the world pressures us to compromise and lower our standards in a way that doesn’t please God.