In the United States, the highest award given by the United States military is the Medal of Honor. It is awarded to individuals who have shown tremendous bravery at great risk to their own personal safety above and beyond the normal call of duty. What is unique about all Medal of Honor recipients is that they act bravely because they believe that what they are doing is more important than their own safety. They have been willing to give everything for what they believed was most important.
This morning we are going to look at the story of three men who did much the same thing in Babylon thousands of years ago. They were forced to make a choice about what was more important to them—doing what was right, or saving their own lives. The choice they made showed tremendous courage and faith and is worthy of the Medal of Honor.
If you remember, Daniel and his friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had been taken to Babylon and had begun the process of going through the Babylonian indoctrination program. During this time, God blessed their obedience, and this had caught the eye of the king. In chapter two, Nebuchadnezzar promoted Daniel and his friends because Daniel was able to tell the king about the dream he had and also interpret the dream. As a result, these outsiders quickly rose through the ranks of Babylon, likely surpassing many who had been there for much longer.
As we move into chapter 3, there is an abrupt transition. We don’t really know how much time passed between chapter 2 and chapter 3, but these men are probably all still teenagers. Chapter 3 opens by telling us about a statue that Nebuchadnezzar had constructed. This statue is described as being made of gold (or probably covered in gold), and 90 feet tall and 9 feet wide. For reference, a 90 foot high statue is about the height of a nine-story building. Of course, we don’t have any nine-story buildings around here, but it would be about as tall as a big grain silo, or around the height of the grain elevator in La Harpe. This was a huge statue.
It is interesting that Nebuchadnezzar had made the statue entirely out of gold. In chapter 2, Nebuchadnezzar had a dream about a statue whose head was made of gold and the rest of the statue was made of other metals. Daniel told him that the head of gold on this statue represented the king, but that he would be destroyed by these other kingdoms. The fact that Nebuchadnezzar now chose to build a huge statue entirely of gold gives us a glimpse of what he was thinking—that this statue would display his power, and prove that no one could be more powerful than him.
We don’t know exactly what the statue looked like, though it probably wasn’t designed to look like the king, because the proportions would be off. A man ninety feet tall and nine feet wide would be the same as someone who was six feet tall and 7.2 inches wide. It is more likely that the statue was a symbol of some sort. Regardless, Nebuchadnezzar wanted everyone to see his power and to bow down before the statue.
The king gathered a large group of leaders to come to the dedication ceremony of this massive monument he had constructed. Many different government leaders were in attendance, including Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel may have been back in the city, as the ruler of the province). Nebuchadnezzar had arranged for a grand orchestra to play for this auspicious occasion. He commanded that as the orchestra began to play everyone was to bow down in worship of this statue—and that anyone who refused to obey would be thrown into a blazing furnace.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego faced a difficult choice. They knew what God had said about giving worship to idols. The first two of the ten commandments gave very clear instructions on this matter:
- You shall have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:3)
- You shall not make an idol, nor bow down to an idol (Exodus 20:4-5)
They knew what God had said, but they also knew what the king had said. They knew there was a good chance that if they refused to bow down, they would be killed for that refusal. They didn’t have long to think about the issue. The music began to play, and as everyone else around dropped to their knees and fell face down, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stood, refusing to worship this idol.
The story does not say that Nebuchadnezzar noticed them standing, and it’s possible that with such a large crowd gathered, he simply couldn’t see every person to determine if they had bowed or not. But some of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s colleagues made sure to bring the matter to the attention of the king. These were likely some of the men who had been passed over for promotions while the foreigners, Daniel and his friends, were promoted. These men saw an opportunity to right some of the wrongs they felt had been dealt to them—they were going to confront the king with the blatant disobedience of these Jews and force him to have them killed.
So these men reminded the king of his proclamation—that anyone who did not bow would be thrown into a blazing furnace—and then told him that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had not bowed as commanded. Nebuchadnezzar was furious and summoned these three men to his presence. He questioned them, giving them a second chance to bow down to the idol he had built, but they refused the king to his face. He reminded them that their refusal would result in them being thrown into the furnace. He was so angry and arrogant that he essentially challenged God, asking, “What god could rescue you from my hand?”
The men declared that God could save them from Nebuchadnezzar and the fiery furnace if He wanted to, but that even if He did not, they would not bow. Nebuchadnezzar was enraged and ordered the men to be thrown into the furnace (which may have been used in the construction of the statue, and so would likely have been nearby), but he was so mad that he ordered it to be heated as hot as it could possibly be made. He had them tied up and then had three of his strongest soldiers carry them to the mouth of the furnace and throw them in. The text says that it was so hot that these soldiers died while bringing the prisoners to the furnace.
As this is happening you can imagine that a perverse sense of pleasure came over the king—as he once again showed his own power, proving that no one could resist his will. That sense of self-satisfaction was short-lived, however. When Nebuchadnezzar went to the door at the base of the furnace, he looked in and saw two things that startled him. First, the three prisoners were not being burned up, but were walking around inside the furnace like nothing had happened! Second, he noticed that there were now actually four men inside the furnace! Amazed, he commanded the men to come out.
Everyone wanted to see these men who had survived the furnace, and they noticed that there was no evidence they had been thrown in the fire. Their robes, trousers, and turbans were unharmed by the heat, their hair wasn’t singed, and they didn’t even smell like fire! (Interestingly the fire did seem to burn up the ropes that had bound them!) Nebuchadnezzar was impressed by these events and concluded that the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego was more powerful than any other. He declared that no one could speak against the God of these men. Nebuchadnezzar wasn’t changed. He didn’t begin to worship the Lord alone, but He was impressed, and wanted to make sure that God was on his side. As a gesture of goodwill, he promoted these three men one more time.
This is an interesting story that we love to read, because the underdogs win in the midst of incredible odds. God protected these men who had the courage to stand up for him (literally) when no one else would. We love to see the arrogant Nebuchadnezzar foiled in his attempt to prove his own power. The question we must ask is what can we learn from this passage of scripture? I think there are several things we can take away.
First, we see the nature of true faith. The response of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came from their faith in God. At its core, their faith revealed a trust that God was in control, and that whatever He chose to do would be best. Notice what they declared as they stood before Nebuchadnezzar, with the threat of a fiery death hanging over their heads:
“O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18, NIV)
There were two facets to the faith of these young men. First, they trusted God’s power. They knew, without question, that God could save them from the hand of the king. They knew that God was the One who had created all things, including both Nebuchadnezzar and fire. As a result, they had absolute confidence that God could protect them from the king and from the fiery furnace. They had absolute confidence in the sovereignty of God.
The second facet of their faith is similar but different. They trusted God’s wisdom. They were absolutely confident that God could save them from the king and from the fire, but they also recognized that God might choose not to save them—and they were ok with that! They believed that if God allowed them to be burned up for their refusal to obey the king, that God must have had a purpose in doing so. Their faith caused them to obey God, even as they were unsure of the outcome.
Admittedly, this is the hard part of this story. Part of the reason we celebrate this story so much is that it is a great story of deliverance, an underdog story, a wonderful miracle. We rightly see this story as a great example of faith, and we celebrate the deliverance of these men. As I have thought about this story a question came to mind. Would we still celebrate this as a great example of faith if God had allowed them to be burned up? I have a feeling that we would not cherish this story nearly as much if that had been the case. We like the idea that if we follow God, then everything will work out perfectly—but that’s not necessarily a biblical principle. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had faith that God could save them, but also faith that God’s way was best even if he did not.
We need to strive for this same kind of trust in our lives. We have a tendency to think that God exists to serve us, but we have it backwards. I have heard many people tell me that they no longer believe in God because they prayed and God didn’t answer their prayer. They tell me that they have turned their back on God because He clearly doesn’t care. In truth they have turned their back on God because they didn’t get their way. When we say it that way it sounds foolish. But even in the church, we have this notion that if you just have enough faith, we can force God to give us what we want. But true faith trusts that God knows what He is doing—even if what He is doing is different from what we think is best.
This is easy to say but hard to do. Are you facing some fiery furnace in your life? Are you willing to trust that no matter what happens God is on the throne and will do what is ultimately best? Will you stand on the truth even though the potential consequences are severe? That’s the question this passage should raise in our hearts.
The second thing we see from this passage is the importance of resisting the pull of idolatry. All throughout the prophetic books of the Old Testament the sin that is targeted most is idolatry. The first two of the Ten Commandments underscore how seriously God takes this issue. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were unwilling to compromise on this point. They understood that when they were being asked to bow down to this statue, they were being asked to worship someone other than God. They knew that this was sin.
It is easy to pass off the notion of idol worship as irrelevant to us. Though we may not be tempted to bow before statues, we make all sorts of other things more important than God. I made a list of some of the idols we might be tempted to bow down to today.
- Our pleasure or comfort—when we are unwilling to do what God says because it might be uncomfortable or unpleasant, our comfort has become an idol.
- Our desire to keep relationships or power. When we compromise on God’s commands in order to keep relationships or influence, those things have become idols.
- When we desire to please someone else more than we desire to please God (are we more concerned with making God happy or our spouse, kids, boss, etc.?)
- Our desire for success. When our primary goal is to bring honor to ourselves, we are committing idolatry, even if what we are doing is a good thing. (it’s possible for the desire to preach a good sermon to become an idol!)
These are much more common idols for us to face. Part of our struggle is that we often seek to rationalize our idolatry. We seek to explain our reasons for disobeying God.
- We explain that it is out of our hands. We declare that our only choice is to give in to idolatry because the alternative is unacceptable. We always have a choice, we just don’t always like it.
- We explain that we are living for God on the inside even though our outward decisions don’t reflect that. Can you really bow down before these idols on the outside without doing so on the inside?
- We explain that God understands our situation, so it’s ok for us to disobey. And we’re half right, God does understand. He understands that we will have faith as long as it’s easy to do so.
Idolatry can take many forms, but ultimately idolatry is when we allow life to become about us instead of him. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego understood that even the slightest compromise in what they knew was right would pull them further from God. They were not simply fighting against bowing down to the golden statue in front of them, but from bowing to their own desires, fears, and rationalizations. They were fighting to put God first above everything else. We should do the same.
Third, we see that God is with us in the midst of trials. One of the great things that we see from this story is not just that these young men had faith, even as they were condemned to death, but that God was with them in the midst of the fiery furnace. Nebuchadnezzar was startled because he saw four men in the furnace walking around, and he was confident that he had only had three men thrown into the fire. He declared that the fourth man looked like a son of the gods. Nebuchadnezzar didn’t fully understand what was going on, but we do. God (or one of His angels) was with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego at the time when they might have felt most abandoned by Him. They were never alone in the midst of the fire!
This gives us encouragement to live out our lives for Him, doesn’t it? When it feels like our world is falling apart we can remember that we are not alone. God is with us in our trials, just as He was with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fire. We may not see God at work, but we must remember that He loves us and will not abandon us.
God didn’t spare them from the fire, but he was with them in the fire. This is the hope that we have—not that God will spare us difficult times, but that He will be with us every step of the way. Because of that truth, we can live confidently for Him, knowing that when we are weak, He is strong.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego showed great faith under extreme circumstances. We may never be faced with such stark choices, but one thing is certain: the way to develop a faith that stands firm in the times of crisis is to stand with the Lord in the everyday decisions of life. If we make obedience and faithfulness a habit we have a much better chance of facing the fires of life faithfully.
No solider sets out to win the Medal of Honor. Most would tell you that they were just being a good soldier. Their bravery under fire was a reflection of the way they lived every day. We should live with the same attitude. We may never be asked to do something worthy of a medal. However, if we live faithfully every day we will be ready to act if the need arises.
I want to close with a poem that I think reflects the attitude that we should have as we walk through life—and the attitude that I believe Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had as they walked through theirs.
|My Father’s way may twist and turn,My heart may throb and ache,
But in my soul I’m glad to know,
He maketh no mistake.
My cherished plans may go astray,
My hopes may fade away,
But still I’ll trust my Lord to lead
For He doth know the way.
Tho’ night be dark, and it may seem
That day will never break,
I’ll pin my faith, my all in Him,
He maketh no mistake.
There’s so much now I cannot see,
My eyesight’s far too dim;
But come what may, I’ll simply trust
And leave it all to Him.
For by and by the mist will lift
And plain it all He’ll make,
Through all the way, tho’ dark to me,
He made not one mistake.