Thursday, January 19, 2017

Living Lives Of Purpose: Lessons From The Book Of Daniel. Day 12, The Fiery Furnace

Living Lives Of Purpose:
Lessons From The Book Of Daniel
Day 12
The Fiery Furnace

When we concluded yesterday, some of the Babylonian astrologers had informed King Nebuchadnezzar that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to bow to the image he had set up on the plain of Dura. He cannot believe they would flaunt his authority this way. He thought they were his friends. They, along with Daniel, helped him in a time of need and in return he gave them lofty positions in his kingdom. And now they repay him with this disobedience.

"Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king, and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, 'Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?'" (Daniel 3:13-15) 

Even in his rage, Nebuchadnezzar recognizes the possibility that the Babylonian astrologers may have falsely accused these men out of jealousy. He doesn't simply take their word for it but gives the Jewish men an opportunity to confirm or deny what he has heard. In addition, I have an inkling he really liked and respected these three young men and their good friend Daniel. The king was probably not too many years older than they were, for he reigned over Babylon for forty-three years, and it is believed he was quite a young man when he ascended to the throne. He appears tired of the old establishment and the wise men and advisers that were his father's. The proof of that is the fact he promoted four young foreign men from Judah over men of his own nation. He wants change. He wants something fresh and new. He wants advisers who are young and energetic like himself. So he carefully repeats his instructions regarding how these men are to behave when they hear the music. Perhaps they did not understand the first time. He seems to suspect their disobedience somehow involves their God, since he says, "Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?", but the other citizens of the nation had no problem in abandoning their gods and bowing before the image. He doesn't understand why this should be a problem for these men either. He does not believe any god, not even the God of Israel, is powerful enough to rescue anyone from a king as mighty as himself.

The men reply to him in a respectful tone, but their words leave no doubt that they will not and cannot bow before the image. "Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, 'King 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 deliver us from it, and He will deliver us from Your Majesty's hand. But even if He does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.'" (Daniel 3:16-18) The king intends to use the image to unify the nation, which is made up of many peoples and languages, and these men will not conform. I don't know of any more profound statement of faith in the word of God than that which we find in their reply to the king. They are saying something like, "You have asked what god can deliver us from your hand. The God we serve is able to deliver us. But even if He does not, we will still serve Him. As our forefather Job once said, 'Though He slay me, yet will I hope in Him; I will surely defend my ways to His face.' You are not our judge, O King, and we need not put on a defense in your presence. Our Judge is Almighty God, and when we stand before Him our faith will speak for us. Whether He delivers us or whether He allows us to go to our deaths, we will still serve Him."

Nebuchadnezzar isn't accustomed to not getting what he wants and he isn't used to being disobeyed. "Then Nebuchadnezzar was furious with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and his attitude toward them changed. He ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual and commanded some of the strongest soldiers in the army to tie up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and throw them into the blazing furnace. So these men, wearing their robes, trousers, turbans and other clothes, were bound and thrown into the blazing furnace. The king's command was so urgent and the furnace so hot that the flames of the fire killed the soldiers who took up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and these three men, firmly tied, fell into the blazing furnace." (Daniel 3:19-23) Daniel wants us to understand how quickly his friends would have caught fire. They were wearing quite a bit of flammable clothing, plus the soldiers weren't given time to wait for the flames to stop leaping out the top of the freshly heated furnace, so that they immediately caught fire while throwing the Jewish men in. 

To give us an idea of what an ancient brick kiln might have looked like, and just how large it was, below are some examples of brick kilns still in use today. 
Some brick kilns have a shorter and more rounded shape, known as beehives.
We can easily see that there was plenty of room for the men to stand in. The smoke would have exited from the top and this is most likely where the Jewish men were thrown in, using stone steps or ladders, and the holes close to the bottom were used for adding fuel and oxygen to the fire. Workers had added so much fuel so quickly that flames must have been leaping out the top when the soldiers threw the men in. Nebuchadnezzar either crouches down (or more likely was seated on a chair brought for him, since he was the king) and peers through one of the openings at the bottom. What he sees stuns him. "Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, 'Weren't there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?' They replied, 'Certainly, Your Majesty.' He said, 'Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.'" (Daniel 3:24-25) No matter how many times I've read or heard this story, verse 25 always gives me a thrill. In our own lives, sometimes the Lord keeps us out of the fire altogether, at other times He takes us right through it. But either way He's right there with us, just as He was with these three men. 

Nebuchadnezzar, pagan despot though he was, is graced by God to witness a "Christophany", an Old Testament pre-incarnate appearance of Christ. He knows this is no ordinary man. He has no real understanding of the character of the God of Israel, of the Holy Trinity, or of the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. All he knows is that a fourth man has appeared in the fire where only three men should be and that He possesses power and authority and glory like that of a deity.

I would love to know what took place inside that furnace between Christ and these three Jewish men, but Daniel either didn't know or chose to keep it private. We each must have our own personal encounter with Christ and what people need to know about that is not so much what took place between us and the Lord, but how our lives and behavior have changed since we met Him. They want to see and hear what He has done for us as a result of that meeting. 

The king realizes in that moment that there is a God able to deliver these men out of his hand and he makes haste to release them from the furnace. A God like this is not one to be trifled with. "Nebuchadnezzar then approached the opening of the blazing furnace and shouted, 'Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!'" (Daniel 3:26a) I assume the three men walked out one of the lower openings in the kiln, as they appear to exit on their own.

"So Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego came out of the fire, and the satraps, prefects, governors and royal advisers crowded around them. They saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them." (Daniel 3:26b-27) Naturally these officials want to gather close and see this miracle for themselves. Not only are the men not burned, but there isn't even a whiff of smoke on them. Many years ago I was in a women's Wednesday night Bible study on the book of Daniel and this was back when my husband didn't go to church. When I got home he was burning some brush in a fire pit at the back of the property. I didn't pass any closer than twenty feet to the fire while going from my car the house, but the smell of smoke was on me. It just so happened this was the same night we'd studied the fiery furnace and I couldn't help marveling that the three Jewish men stood in the midst of the fire and had not even a whiff of smoke on them. Our God is mighty to save and He doesn't do anything halfway. He didn't just hold the flames back from these faithful servants, He brought them out of the fire looking and smelling as if they'd never even been in it. I think they were vastly changed on the inside because they'd been with Jesus and their faith was strengthened by His mighty deliverance, but on the outside they looked just as they had before they were thrown into the fire.

Nebuchadnezzar is changed too, though not converted, but he knows now for a fact that the God these men serve is real. He probably kept a brave face on the outside but I'd be willing to bet he was quaking with fear on the inside at the realization that he may have offended God by treating His servants so harshly. He resolves to do nothing more to offend this God and wants to make certain none of the citizens do anything to offend Him either. "Then Nebuchadnezzar said, 'Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent His angel and rescued His servants! They trusted in Him and defied the king's command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God. Therefore I decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way.' Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the province of Babylon." (Daniel 3:28-30) The men who received a death sentence on the plain of Dura leave the location with higher rank than before. Nebuchadnezzar is anxious to please the God of Israel and to make up for his behavior, so he bestows even more honor upon the men in an effort to gain the favor of a God who can save from fire. If God is able to do this, what else might He be able to do? And how might He react if angered? The king doesn't want to find out.

Daniel's friends were willing to serve God no matter what it cost them. They knew God was able to rescue them from the fire, but they also knew it might be His will for them to perish for their faith. Either way they had no intention of bowing to anyone else. They were living lives of purpose, lives of principles, and they knew that even if God should choose them for martyrdom, there is another life beyond this one. The God who is mighty to save offers eternal life and eternal rewards. He may or may not rescue us from all the trials of this life but He is able to rescue our souls from sin. He is able to redeem us from the power of the grave. Before we came to Christ our sins had separated us from God, but now we are at peace with Him. We need not fear eternal separation from His light and His love. No other god can save like this. Are we willing to take a stand for the One who took a stand for us?

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