The three Hebrews have made the tough decision. While everyone else is bowing, they are standing. They have shown their faith under fire and now it’s time to show their faith inside the fire. It’s time to face the consequences of their actions. God uses these consequences to teach us an important truth about the way that Jesus helps us and walks with us through the fires of life.
The tattle-tales have snitched on the Hebrews and told the king that they are not bowing. Nebuchadnezzar becomes livid. This is supposed to be his big unveiling. This is his big day. This is the day that he gets to watch as all of the important people bow down to him. People have come from all over the empire. This is like the super bowl of 6th century BC! How dare these Hebrews interrupt his great day?
“Then Nebuchadnez’zar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed’nego be brought. Then they brought these men before the king. Nebuchadnez’zar said to them, “Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed’nego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image which I have set up? Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, to fall down and worship the image which I have made, well and good; but if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace; and who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?” (Daniel 3:13-15 RSV)
The king decides to give the Hebrews another chance. There could have been many reasons for this. It might have been another opportunity to flex his muscles. He might have not believed the tattle-tales and wanted to see for himself. He might have really wanted the Hebrews to change their minds because he valued their service to him. Perhaps he didn’t want to have to kill them. No matter the reason, the king points to the furnace which is blazing next to them, and says, “I’m giving you one more chance! If you don’t bow right now you’re going into the furnace!” Then he says, “And what God will save you then?” Nebuchadnezzar is issuing a challenge to the God of the universe isn’t he? He is directly challenging God. That is never a good idea. When God is directly challenged he shows up. He showed up against Pharaoh, he showed up with Elisha against the prophets of Bael, and he showed up when David took on the giant. God shows up when he is challenged. Also, the Hebrews probably remember the following words from Isaiah, which gave them hope.
“. . . Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” (Isaiah 43:1-2 RSV)
These guys had faith under fire. They literally, had faith under fire. It’s a lot easier to be brave when you are with a group of fellow believers. It’s a lot easier to stand up for what is right when you are part of a crowd that is standing together, but having faith under fire when thousands of people are staring at you is another thing altogether. Now, the three Hebrews are literally standing next to the fire. Now, they can feel the heat from the fire. They can feel the sweat building up on them. They’re close enough for the smoke to get in their eyes. A thousand important people are staring at them. This is the moment.
“Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed’nego answered the king, “O Nebuchadnez’zar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18 RSV)
These are some of the most courageous words that have ever been uttered in human history. The Hebrews say, “Our God is able to deliver us from the fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, but if not. . .But if he doesn’t. . . Even if he decides not to. . . We STILL will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up.” Now that is bold, that is courageous, and that is faith under fire. God has given them a heck of a platform. The whole world is watching. They didn’t ask for this platform. They weren’t begging the media to cover the event so they could make a political statement. They didn’t ask to be there, but this is the situation that they find themselves in. This is the situation that God has put them in, and since God has given them this platform, then God must have something in mind.
“Then Nebuchadnez’zar was full of fury, and the expression of his face was changed against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed’nego. He ordered the furnace heated seven times more than it was wont to be heated. And he ordered certain mighty men of his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed’nego, and to cast them into the burning fiery furnace. Then these men were bound in their mantles, their tunics, their hats, and their other garments, and they were cast into the burning fiery furnace. Because the king’s order was strict and the furnace very hot, the flame of the fire slew those men who took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed’nego. And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed’nego, fell bound into the burning fiery furnace.” (Daniel 3:19-23 RSV)
The bad news is the king isn’t bluffing. As soon as the Hebrews make their bold statement, they’re picked up by the guards, and thrown into the fire. This is just horrible. They are brave, but even brave men would be terrified at this moment. They are probably screaming, kicking their legs, and making it difficult for the guards. They have had faith under fire and now they have faith inside the fire. They are thrown into the flames. . . . . and the fires have been burning ever since.
A few centuries later, the Jews faced another tyrant named Antiochus. In second Maccabees, there is a story of seven brothers who also maintained their faith under fire. Because of their faith in God, Antiochus fell into a rage, and ordered each brother to be taken to the fire. Once they were in front of the fire, Antiochus ordered that they be thrown in, one at a time, until one of them denounced their faith in God. So one at a time they were asked to denounce God, and each time one refused he was thrown into the fire, and Antiochus went on to the next one. It didn’t take long until all seven of them were in the fire. . . And still the fires burn. A couple of centuries later, there were groups of Christians who refused to bow down to worship the Emperor. Just like with Nebuchadnezzar’s statue, they were required to bow, but they refused. So these Christians were dipped in boiling tar and set on fire to brighten up the Roman Imperial Gardens. . . And still the fires burn. Writing about this chapter of Daniel, D.S. Russell says, “At the close of World War 2, I saw the fiery furnace in a place called Auschwitz, the notorious concentration camp in Poland, where an unbelievable four million people died. Many of them, if not most of them, were Jews. I was quite unprepared for what I saw that day. I stood in the gas chamber where the deadly crystals of hydrogen cyanide were poured in from an opening above. I looked into the incinerators where body after body was catapulted into the furnace as from the breech of a gun. I saw the obscene sight of human hair –mountains of it– preserved for mattresses, or for the making of suits of clothes. I saw tens of thousands of tangled metal spectacles, thousands of sets of dentures, hundreds of artificial limbs, all of the private intimacies of innocent people who happened to be Jewish or whose political or religious convictions had failed to pass the test. All of this was done, I was told, to the sound of music.”1 The band played while the furnaces of Auschwitz burned and the band played while the three Hebrews were thrown into Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace.
Of course, this is not where the story ends for these three Hebrews. As they are tossed, probably screaming, with legs flaring, into the flames, a miracle occurs.
“Then King Nebuchadnez’zar was astonished and rose up in haste. He said to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?” They answered the king, “True, O king.” He answered, “But I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.” (Daniel 3:24-25 RSV)
Who is this person in the flames with them? Of course, the Jews say that this was an angel, because they don’t believe in Jesus, but the author doesn’t say angel or messenger. He uses these words later, in the next chapter, and in later chapters where Daniel is visited by angels. So why does the author not say angel here? Instead, he says, “A son of the Gods.” This phrase places deity on the person in the flames. Nebuchadnezzar is saying that this is not an angel, but a god, or a son of a god. And the divine being seems to look like a human. For Christians, this is most certainly Jesus. When we interpret the Old Testament we do it with the added knowledge of the New Testament. Using the additional revelation from God makes it obvious that this is Jesus. When the Old testament refers to God’s angel, it is referring to the divine Son of God, who was always involved in the affairs of his people, even before he took on a human form and was born of a virgin.
Jesus was with these men in the flames. Jesus protects them, but notice how Jesus protects these three men. Does he put the fire out before they are thrown into it? Does he catch them when they’re being thrown in the fire? No, he doesn’t stop them from going in. He doesn’t spare them the psychological pain of being hurled into the fire. He doesn’t save them from the screams or from the emotional anxiety. No, they went into the fire, but once they are there, Jesus is in there with them.
This chapter is teaching us that Jesus does not save us from the fire, but instead, Jesus saves us through the fire! Jesus does not solve our problems for us, but he is with us through the problems. When we pray for God to help us through a problem what do we really want him to do? We want to be put on the other side of the problem. We want him to fix it for us. We want to look back and say, “Wow, that was close!” But that’s not what he does! He doesn’t put us on the other side of the problem. When the Israelites got to the Red sea, he didn’t pick them up and put them on the other side of the sea. No, he was with them as they went through the sea, and it was probably pretty scary! They were saved through the Red Sea. When David fought Goliath, he didn’t knock Goliath out for David before the fight, but he was with him during the fight. When Jesus had to face death, he didn’t go around death, or trick death. No, Jesus went through death. He didn’t get put on the other side of the problem. He went through it. This chapter teaches us that God will not put us on the other side of our problems, but he will be with us as we go through them.
I don’t know about you, but that makes me mad! Come on Jesus, I want you to fix my problems, not go through them with me! Just fix them! So why does Jesus do this? Why is he with us in the furnace, but doesn’t take the flames away? We find a clue in the next few verses.
“Then Nebuchadnez’zar came near to the door of the burning fiery furnace and said, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed’nego, servants of the Most High God, come forth, and come here!” Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed’nego came out from the fire. And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men; the hair of their heads was not singed, their mantles were not harmed, and no smell of fire had come upon them.” (Daniel 2:26-27 RSV)
What was the only thing that was burned on the Hebrews? The ropes that bound them. That was the only thing that burned! So what might that tell us? When we confront our problems with Jesus, and come out victorious on the other side, the chains that held us are gone. This is because with the help of Jesus, we conquer the problems, we’re strengthened, we’re free, and we’re no longer scared of those problems. How powerful is that? This teaches us that suffering can actually be a way to freedom. Can you think of any examples of this? Ever been on a diet? What would happen if Jesus just magically took the weight off of us? Well, we would probably gain it right back and beg him to take it off again! But if we suffer and lose the weight by making wiser choices what happens? Or what about debt? Are you more likely to change your spending habits if you declare bankruptcy or if you work extra hard to pay off your debts? Same thing right? Because we work through the problem we come out stronger on the other side. Personally, I’ve had a lot of problems in the past and I have prayed for God to just take away my problems. I prayed over and over again. I said, “God just take these problems away and I will serve you faithfully.” I wanted God to put me on the other side of my problems, but God didn’t take the problems away from me like I wanted him to, instead, he was with me through the problems, and when I finally came out on the other side, the chains that held me were gone, and I no longer feared them. If God had just taken the problems away they would have always come back. I would have kept fearing them, but because God was with me as I faced them, and because together we beat them, I no longer fear them. If God is with you in one battle, you’re no longer scared when the next battle comes along.
We want Jesus to put out the fire in the furnace. We want him to keep us from falling into the furnace, but he doesn’t promise us that does he? We have to remember that Jesus is not Santa Claus. Sometimes we want him to be, but he’s not. If your marriage is struggling and you pray to God to heal your marriage, he doesn’t just say “abra cadabra,” and it’s done, but he’s with you as YOU work to fix it. If your child gets sick he doesn’t guarantee that he’s going to wave a magic wand and heal the child, but he’s going to be with you as you face those hard times. He doesn’t promise to put the fire out, but he does promise to get in the fire with you.
Sometimes it is hard to remember that Jesus is with us. Sometimes we still feel alone. Have you ever said that you would do so and so, if Jesus was just there with you? Have you ever had a fire that you had to face, and you were willing to face, if you just had someone with you? Well. . . . Jesus calls your bluff. You might say, “I would fight harder for my marriage if I just knew that I wasn’t alone in this fight.” Bluff called, because Jesus is with you. You might say, “I wouldn’t give up so quickly on my child if I just knew that Jesus was with me.” Bluff called. You might say, “I would tell everyone about Jesus if I just knew that he was with me.” Bluff called. All the things that you promised you would do if he was only there in the fire with you. Bluff called. Now you might be saying, that’s a nice story, but we have some really BIG problems. There are some big fires out there, but there are no circumstances in your life where Jesus is not enough! He didn’t say it would be easy. He didn’t say it wouldn’t hurt. He didn’t say that people wouldn’t hurt us, or hate us. He only promises us that he will be with us in the fire. He’s there when we need him.
There’s one more thing in this chapter that I find interesting. After this great miracle, do the Hebrews come running out of the flames? No, they have to be asked to come out of the furnace. I get the impression that Nebuchadnezzar has to beg them to come out. They would rather be in the fire, with Jesus, then to be out of the fire without him. They want to be where Jesus is. You know, that’s all that really matters. That’s all that matters isn’t it? We can face any fire, we can face any furnace, and we can face any problem if we know that Jesus will be there with us. We can face the rehab center, we can face the rebuilding after a tornado, we can face putting our marriage back together, we can face our rebellious teenagers, or our nasty boss, or our atheist friends, or cancer, or our financial problems, or even the fiery furnace. . . We can face anything if we know that Jesus is in there with us. You know why hell is so bad? It’s not the heat. It’s not the fire. It’s the fact that Jesus isn’t there. That’s all that matters.
Have you ever noticed how many people find Jesus when they’re going through a really hard time? When they are in the fire? Well, chapter 3 of Daniel shows us why. Because Jesus is so much easier to see when the furnace is on. He is with us all of the time, but he is easier to see when the fire is raging around us. When things are going well a lot of people never notice that Jesus is with them. Sometimes we don’t realize how much we need Jesus until we are thrown in the furnace. I think that one of the signs that you are maturing as a Christian is the realization that you always need him. You need him when things are good, and in the fire. So no matter what this world tries to do to you, no matter what furnace you find yourself in, all that matters, is that Jesus is in there with you. . . And Jesus is all you need.
Here is the sermon that goes along with this Bible study: “Faith inside the fire”
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I throw out a couple of possible reasons, but why do you think Nebuchadnezzar gave the three Hebrews another chance to bow?
What gave them the confidence to make such a bold and courageous statement to the king?
You have read my interpretation, but what do you think it means that their ropes were burned and nothing else?
Why do you think Jesus didn’t just put the fire out before they were in it?
Have you ever used the excuse, “I would do ___ if only Jesus was with me?” If so, what does this chapter say to you?
Have you ever felt the presence of Jesus with you in a fire? Do you think he is easier to “see” when the fires of life are raging around us?
1) D.S. Russell, Daniel, an Active Volcano: Reflections on the Book of Daniel, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1989) 42.