Something is missing in our world today. We’re confused, afraid, and unable to find the answer to important questions. As a species, humanity seems to be rudderless. There are glimmers of hope. There are people making a difference, righting wrongs, and embodying the best of us. Yet, watching the news, reading social media, or trying to agree on the right path is just depressing. We’re out of sync, and I think I know why. We’ve lost our appreciation of God. We’ve replaced Him with cheap imitations. He’s no longer sovereign to us.
Funny, we’re not the first people to run into that problem. The Old Testament book of Daniel addresses God’s sovereignty in the most poignant of ways. It highlights the spiritual (and sometimes physical) battle between two kings, Nebuchadnezzar and Darius, and four young Jewish men, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego. Their epic duels present some of the most astounding moments in all of Scripture. Their tales are legendary and their faith (or stupidity) has been dissected for generations. Yet behind all of it, the message of Daniel is simple, God is sovereign. He is in charge and our will must submit to His.
God is behind every moment (even the bad ones) in this world. That doesn’t mean He is responsible for them. He is present and participating in the world around us. The common belief that the future unfolds independent of heaven is without Biblical basis. Rather, God has a plan, and He shapes events to ensure His plan unfolds perfectly.¹ That can be unsettling when we consider terrible events but also comforting when we realize that nothing happens unless it’s for our eternal good and His eternal glory. Everything has purpose, even when that purpose is difficult to find.
The story found in Daniel 3 is not for the faint of heart. It’s for a mature audience, able to grasp the true danger and reality of these moments. Relegating it to Bible school or VBS injects the story with an inappropriate innocence. I can’t help but wonder if Peter was thinking of this story when he described the persecution of early Christians in First Peter 4:12-13:
Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.
We cannot expect God to always deliver a happy outcome in our moments of trial, but we can remember He is sovereign. Nothing happens without His consent and no outcome will escape His Will. Truly, everything happens for a reason, and He is that reason. The world He made, the laws He enacted, the limits He established, and the purpose He inaugurated with our creation all succumb to His Will.
While we can talk all day long about Daniel’s refusal to eat unclean food (chapter 1), the wisdom to interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (chapter 2), or even his night in the lion’s den (chapter 6), the story that most reflects God’s sovereign nature (and our appropriate response) is found in chapter 3 however. Surprisingly, Daniel doesn’t appear in this story. We actually have no idea where he is, but can confidently say, his actions would have echoed the actions of our three young heroes.
Daniel’s friends happen to be in the presence of the king and his other advisors after a giant statue is built and worshipped. Due to their faith in God, these young men would not bow down to that idol, no matter the cost. If we examine the text of chapter 3, we see three young men who understood God’s place in their lives.
3:1-5 shows us something simple, God (and His Law) was someone these boys respected above everything and everyone else. They were unwilling to commit idolatry and worship anything other than God. Unfortunately, that was the only outcome this moment would afford if they listened to the king. The text says:
Nebuchadnezzar the king made an image of gold, whose height was sixty cubits and its width six cubits. He set it up in the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon. And King Nebuchadnezzar sent word to gather together the satraps, the administrators, the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the judges, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces, to come to the dedication of the image which King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. So the satraps, the administrators, the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the judges, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces gathered together for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up; and they stood before the image that Nebuchadnezzar had set up. Then a herald cried aloud: “To you it is commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that at the time you hear the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in symphony with all kinds of music, you shall fall down and worship the gold image that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.”
The Old Testaments Scripture is full of declarations that Yahweh (the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) is the only God (see Isaiah 45:5-6) and moments when the Israelites forgot that truth and served idols (see Jeremiah 8:19). At this moment, it seems clear to me that the ultimatum put upon these young men was emphatic – choose today whom you shall serve (see Joshua 24:15).
Dura was a small-distance from Babylon and that may explain why Daniel wasn’t there. He may have been busy with a task serving the king in the palace. While we cannot reasonably assume that Daniel bowed down to worship this idol, his absence is noticeable. I believe he would have done what they did if afforded the opportunity. He wouldn’t pray to King Darius in chapter 6 and I have no doubt he would have stood with his friends and refused to worship that golden image in this story. Daniel and his friends knew God was sovereign and subsequently, worshipped Him and Him alone.
When we move on to 3:6-7, we can see the penalty was severe to stand as they did. It says:
Whoever does not fall down and worship shall be cast immediately into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. So at that time, when all the people heard the sound of the horn, flute, harp, and lyre, in symphony with all kinds of music, all the people, nations, and languages fell down and worshiped the gold image which King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.
Should we be surprised by the previous actions of Nebuchadnezzar in this book that he is unreasonable and unstable? This penalty also has a Scriptural precedent. Jeremiah 29:22 makes mention of two Jewish men named Ahab and Zedekiah whom Nebuchadnezzar killed by “roasting them in the fire.” He was a tyrant, egotistical, and surrounded by the worst enablers the world has ever known. They encouraged his ego and stocked his pride. All of them except Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that is.
3:8-12 shows the craftiness of Nebuchadnezzar’s wise men as they trapped the young Hebrews. It says:
Therefore at that time certain Chaldeans came forward and accused the Jews. They spoke and said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “O king, live forever! You, O king, have made a decree that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in symphony with all kinds of music, shall fall down and worship the gold image; and whoever does not fall down and worship shall be cast into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. There are certain Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; these men, O king, have not paid due regard to you. They do not serve your gods or worship the gold image which you have set up.
The word “accused” in 3:8 is particularly graphic and suggests in the original language “they made mincemeat out of them.” We have every reason to believe from the text that these advisors hated them and were trying their best to get rid of them. Their accusations were true, there’s no doubt about that, but also mean-spirited and spiteful.
Notice that the response from the young Hebrews was brave, but not arrogant. 3:13-18 says:
Then Nebuchadnezzar, in rage and fury, gave the command to bring Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego. So they brought these men before the king. Nebuchadnezzar spoke, saying to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the gold image which I have set up? Now if you are ready at the time you hear the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in symphony with all kinds of music, and you fall down and worship the image which I have made, good! But if you do not worship, you shall be cast immediately into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you from my hands?” Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego answered and said to the king, “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.”
Their statement was bold, powerful, and worthy of much honor from us today. They had extreme confidence in God despite all the evidence many need to believe. This must be said. It is one thing to defy the order from the relative anonymity of a crowd and something else entirely to do it to the king’s face in front of your accusers. It would seem that the Shema (prayer) of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 was written on their hearts and all the encouragement they needed. It says:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.
They believed that God could save them, but they never demanded He must.² Their emphatic statement in 3:18, “we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image” is one of the bravest moments in all of Scripture. It stands alongside Nathan’s rebuke to David (see Second Samuel 12), Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (see Matthew 26), and Stephen’s address to the Jewish leaders of Jerusalem (see Acts 7).
As we continue with the story, we shouldn’t be surprised to see Nebuchadnezzar punish them. In fact, the sentence isn’t surprising at all. It’s exactly as he promised. 3:19-23 says:
Nebuchadnezzar was full of fury, and the expression on his face changed toward Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego. He spoke and commanded that they heat the furnace seven times more than it was usually heated. And he commanded certain mighty men of valor who were in his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, and cast them into the burning fiery furnace. Then these men were bound in their coats, their trousers, their turbans, and their other garments, and were cast into the midst of the burning fiery furnace. Therefore, because the king’s command was urgent, and the furnace exceedingly hot, the flame of the fire killed those men who took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego. And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, fell down bound into the midst of the burning fiery furnace.
The way he encouraged them bound in their clothes and the fire heated says all you need to know about his reaction. He was insulted and they were going to be punished as a lesson for anyone who dared consider him weak or soft on insolence.
What’s most encouraging about this story is God’s lack of fear in the face of Nebuchadnezzar. The king was a thug. Scared of those who stood in his way and unwilling to give them credit for being anything other than his servants. He was arrogant, power hungry, and lacked any sense of propriety. No one could tell him he wasn’t the most powerful thing in the world. 3:24-25 says:
Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished; and he rose in haste and spoke, saying to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the midst of the fire?” They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.” “Look!” he answered, “I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire; and they are not hurt, and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.”
Do you even slightly wonder what God was thinking at that moment? We know God protected them and sent them relief and we know a messenger sent from God was with them. We know He could read the people’s thoughts, including Nebuchadnezzar. What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall, watching the king squirm.
At the end of the day, we can say something proverbial about this moment that applies to all of humanity. God is with His faithful. A quick examination of this situation allows us to say this – God did not deliver them from the fire (they were definitely thrown into it), He delivered them in the fire.³ 3:26-30 says:
Nebuchadnezzar went near the mouth of the burning fiery furnace and spoke, saying, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, servants of the Most High God, come out, and come here.” Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego came from the midst of the fire. And the satraps, administrators, governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together, and they saw these men on whose bodies the fire had no power; the hair of their head was not singed nor were their garments affected, and the smell of fire was not on them. Nebuchadnezzar spoke, saying, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, who sent His Angel and delivered His servants who trusted in Him, and they have frustrated the king’s word, and yielded their bodies, that they should not serve nor worship any god except their own God! Therefore I make a decree that any people, nation, or language which speaks anything amiss against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego shall be cut in pieces, and their houses shall be made an ash heap; because there is no other God who can deliver like this.” Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the province of Babylon.
This is truly a fulfillment of the promise we find in Isaiah 43:2 which says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, nor shall the flame scorch you.” This also seems to be where we can strongly point to First Peter 4:12-13 once again. Peter makes no promise that suffering will be avoided, only that suffering will bring about a blessing and glory to God.
When we talk about this story, we see something beautiful – God is sovereign. He is in control. He can save us, that much is undeniable. He might not, but under no circumstances is He unable. I pray we’ll remember who God is at all times. He is able. He is powerful. He is our King, our Creator, the only One worthy of our adoration. He is sovereign.
¹ Michael Whitworth, The Derision of Heaven, (Bowie, TX: Start2Finish Books, 2013), 39.
² Whitworth, 67.
³ Whitworth, 69.
All Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.