Hope Despite Threatening Furnaces

Near the end of the 7th century before the birth of Christ, three young men were selected from the throngs of Israeli exiles in Babylon by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, to be highly trained as future administrators and counselors in the Babylonian empire. Of course, a young Daniel, who had taken the pagan name Belteshezzar (Daniel 1: 7), was also a member of that highly-prized group of young leaders in training.

And, in some ways, that is the first intriguing aspect of this story. All four of these young men allowed themselves to take on pagan titles—names that asserted the validity of false gods. Yet, at the same time, as described in Daniel chapter 1, refused to eat the training table food the pagan chefs set before them. They took on the names, but turned away from the food.

It would probably seem to most of us 21st century dwellers that a more profound commitment to holiness and godly principle would be to refuse the pagan names and succumb to the menu of the Babylonian training table. We might call their decisions “sticking points.”[1] And theirs were probably different than ours. In our contemporary setting, we might say, “Don’t pin on us pagan names, but we’ll eat the pagan food (and listen to the pagan music).” It is probably good to recognize that as Christians, we will sometimes have different sticking points. Take a look at Romans 14 to see what the Apostle Paul had to say to the Roman Christians about such differences.

Then there is the profoundly dramatic and courageous exchange of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego with their king, Nebuchadnezzar. Strangely, the king of the Babylonian Empire—which made him the most powerful person in the then-known world—decides to have constructed a 90-foot golden statue and require that everyone bow down to it.

Of course, unique to worshipping the God of the devout Israelite was that no other gods were to be exalted, nor any image or likeness to be formed—strictly forbidden in the third of the ten commandments (Exodus 20). But, the Emperor of Babylon demands that his subjects bow down to the idol he has made, an image probably of the ancient god Nabu, forcing each resident of the empire to demonstrate their ultimate allegiance to his authority and to his grandeur. This command was a common means of ensuring the cultural glue that held an empire together. It would later be employed by Roman emperors seeking to unify the allegiance of their subjects under the common pledge to a Roman god.

And here comes another sticking point for the three young men, an unwillingness to bow down and worship anyone but the Living God, the Maker of the heavens and the earth. This refusal might cost them their lives. The three tell their earthly king that the God they serve is able to save them from the fiery furnace Nebuchadnezzar set up to incinerate the non-compliant.

Then came their additional comment demonstrating even greater faith in the Living God. Even if the Lord chooses not to rescue them from the fiery furnace and they die as flaming embers to God’s sovereignty and providence, they still will not bow down to the golden image. They reassert their dutiful allegiance to Nebuchadnezzar, by again addressing him as “king”; but they cannot disregard their ultimate allegiance to the King of kings in order to spare themselves from the certain terror of being thrown into the furnace (Daniel 3: 17, 18).

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s ultimate hope was not the preservation of their current status as highly trusted governors in the Babylonian empire, nor even the sparing of their lives. Their courage and conviction at the time of this inferno of testing was traced to their faith in the eternal promises of God, who would never leave them, nor forsake them—in life or in death. Their hope was built on nothing less.

They would miraculously survive the fiery testing.

Many Christian martyrs in later centuries would find inspiration and hope in the witness of these three men—even if their immediate result was being eaten by wild beasts, burned at the stake, or crucified, as was their Lord.

Biblical history, and in many ways, all history, provides us with context for the grace and necessity of hope—that hope which fuels a persistence in loving faithfulness.

[1] I’m thankful to British philosopher, John Peck, my mentor and friend, for this observation about “sticking points” in the book of Daniel.

Paul D. Patton, Ph.D., is a professor of communication and theater at Spring Arbor University in Michigan. He has graduate degrees in Guidance and Counseling, Religious Education, and Script and Screenwriting, and a doctorate in Communication with an emphasis in theater arts. He has been married to his wife Beth for over forty years and has three daughters (all actresses)—Jessica, Emily, and Grace, three sons-in-law, David, Joe, and Eric, and four grandsons, Caleb Rock, Logan Justice, Micah Blaze, and Miles Dean.