They Do Not Serve Your Gods
February 4, 2024

They Do Not Serve Your Gods

Passage: Daniel 3:1-30
Service Type:

They Do Not Serve Your Gods
Daniel 3:1-30
by William Klock


King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, whose height was sixty cubits and its breadth six cubits. He set it up on the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon.


That’s how the third chapter of Daniel begins.  Nebuchadnezzar the Great made an enormous image of gold and set it up on the plain of Dura in Babylon.  Now, I expect most, if not all, of us know this story about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the fiery furnace.  On one hand, it’s a deadly serious and terrifying story in which these three young Judahites take a stand for the God of Israel and are nearly martyred for their faith.  The king holds all the cards.  He has all the might and all the power.  He stands before his subjects in all his glory.  He has conquered the world, after all.  There is no one more powerful than the great Nebuchadnezzar!  Or so he thinks.  And so as the story-teller unfolds the tale, he mocks the grandeur and the greatness of the king of Babylon.  Everything about his image of gold, the international crowd of dignitaries he gathers, the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony, even his orders regarding the fiery furnace—they’re all exaggerated and absurdly over-the-top.  Because from the Lord’s perspective that’s how it all sounds and the story-teller wants us to have a taste of that.


So, he tells us, Nebuchadnezzar made a great image of gold.  Sixty cubits by nine cubits.  That’s about ten storeys tall, but only nine feet wide.  Think about that.  Ten storeys tall and nine feet wide.  It’s an impossible image.  But that’s what I’m talking about.  It’s not to deny the historicity of the event.  Some people use this as grounds to do that.  I think Nebuchadnezzar probably did make a great image of gold—the real-life one just was surely grand in scale and appearance.  But the story-teller’s point—and it runs throughout—is to portray everything to do with the king’s greatness as excessive to the point of absurdity.  Not so much because Nebuchadnezzar was wrong to make an image commemorating his accomplishments, but because in doing so refused to acknowledge the one who had given him all his greatness.  It’s hard not to notice the parallels with that other great tower built on the plain in Babylon.  And that’s the point.  Nebuchadnezzar has just had a dream showing his greatness—the golden top of the great statue—but the dream also made it clear to him that all this greatness was given to him by the God of Israel.  And what does he do in response?  Like the men who had built the tower of Babel all those centuries before, Nebuchadnezzar erects a mighty golden monument as a testament to all that he has done.  Forget God.  This is all about Nebuchadnezzar.


And that takes us to the question: What exactly is the image?  It doesn’t seem like an image of a god.  Like other ancient near easterners, Babylonians erected idols inside temples, not out in the open.  Making a house for an idol was part of how idols “worked”.  And it’s probably not an image of the king, because Assyrians and Babylonians made images of their kings, but those images were put inside temples and placed before the gods to ask for well-being and prosperity.  I think the best answer is that this image is a stela—a big upright column.  Babylonians erected them to commemorate great events, victories in battle, and even great kings.  A stela might be erected to honour a king and people would bring offerings to the stela.  It was a way for the king to sort of obliquely receive the honour due the gods, without the blasphemy of actually claiming to be equal to them.  These sorts of ceremonies took place in the provinces as a way for the people—especially conquered peoples—to show their loyalty to the king and to Babylon.  I think that fits pretty perfectly with our story here and explains why the story-tellers mocks Nebuchadnezzar for what he's done.  Nebuchadnezzar knows he can’t claim divinity for himself, but he thinks he’s found a way to claim God’s glory for himself.


Picking up at verse 2, notice all the people who come to the dedication of the image.  And notice how the lists of all the dignitaries and all the instruments are repeated over and over through the story.  Everything is excessively absurd.  Continuing:


Then King Nebuchadnezzar sent to gather the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces to come to the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. Then the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces gathered for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. And they stood before the image that Nebuchadnezzar had set up. And the herald proclaimed aloud, “You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, you are to fall down and worship the golden image that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. And whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace.” Therefore, as soon as all the peoples heard the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, all the peoples, nations, and languages fell down and worshiped the golden image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. (Daniel 3:2-7)


Again, notice the repetition stressing that Nebuchadnezzar set this up, stressing the great crowd of important and international people, the list of instruments repeated over and over stressing the pomp and circumstance.  Even the description of the punishment for those who refuse to honour the image is over the top.  They won’t just be thrown into a furnace.  That would be enough.  But over and over it’s described redundantly as the “burning” and “fiery” furnace.  And, to all appearance everything goes well.  But we might ask—with all those dignitaries, Daniel and his three friends are probably forced to be there.  What are they going to do?  Are they going to bow down to honour this image.  Are they going to go along with Nebuchadnezzar as he robs their God of his glory?  Picking up at verse 8:


Therefore at that time certain Chaldeans came forward and maliciously accused the Jews. They declared to King Nebuchadnezzar, “O king, live forever! You, O king, have made a decree, that every man who hears the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, shall fall down and worship the golden image. And whoever does not fall down and worship shall be cast into a burning fiery furnace. There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These men, O king, pay no attention to you; they do not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Daniel 3:8-12)


It's payback time.  Remember that at the end of Chapter 2, Nebuchadnezzar had elevated Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego over all the other wise men and put them over the affairs of the province of Babylon.  They and Daniel had saved the lives of the wise men, but that apparently doesn’t count for anything.  These foreign upstarts have usurped their positions and now they’re mad.  Apparently Nebuchadnezzar could see the great crowd from his vantage point, but he couldn’t see what individual people were doing.  But these men were down there with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  They saw them refusing to bow down.  So they take full advantage of this opportunity to get rid of them.  They report them to the king, knowing that their rivals will end up in the burning, fiery furnace.  Nebuchadnezzar responds as we would expect:


Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought. So they brought these men before the king. Nebuchadnezzar answered and said to them, “Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image that 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 that 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 who will deliver you out of my hands?” (Daniel 3:13-15)


Never mind that it was their God who revealed his dream to Daniel when none of his other wise men could.  Never mind that in response to what their God had done, he'd elevated these men over all his other wise men.  Everyone must honour the king and his greatness!  It’s so important to him that he’s going to run through the entire ceremony all over again.  He makes sure they know the consequences.  Refuse to bow down and it’s the burning, fiery furnace for them.  “Who is the god who will deliver you out of my hand?” he asks.  And right there Nebuchadnezzar the Great reaches peak stupid.  He throws down the gauntlet and challenge the God of Israel.  He challenge the God of whom the Psalmist writes:


Why do the nations rage

         and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth set themselves,

         and the rulers take counsel together,

         against the Lord and against his Anointed…

He who sits in the heavens laughs;

         the Lord holds them in derision. (Psalm 1-2, 4)


As Nebuchadnezzar makes his challenge I can just see the Lord in heaven raising an eyebrow and chuckling to himself.


In contrast, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego do know the God of Psalm 2.  They know the God who once delivered their ancestors from the hand of Pharoah.  They know the words of Moses, who had said to Israel, “The Lord has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own inheritance, as you are this day” (Deuteronomy 4:20).  They trusted that the same God who had delivered Israel from the iron furnace of Egypt was with them there on the plain of Babylon as this mad and power-crazed king threatened them with his own furnace.  Verse 16:


Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this 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 that you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18)


There’s some debate on how their statement to the king should be translated.  Some translate it as if the men were absolutely certain the Lord would deliver them.  Others, like the ESV translators qualify their statement.  My Aramaic isn’t good enough for me to have a dogmatic opinion, so I’m happy to go with the ESV.  However it’s to be translated, the emphasis is on their faith.  They trust the Lord.  He will deliver them—or maybe he won’t—but either way they know that the God of Israel is wise, that he is good, and that he is faithful and, most importantly, that he holds them in his hand.


I think it’s important to note this, because this is where we see that the Lord had a reason in raising up this pagan king and allowing him to take the people of Judah into exile.  The Lord’s people had been fickle and unfaithful for centuries.  They had worshiped pagan gods at altars they’d set up in the Lord’s temple.  They had ignored the law the Lord had given them.  The rulers of the nation trusted in horses and chariots rather than in the Lord.  They oppressed the poor and took advantage of widows and orphans.  And because of all that, the nations looked at Israel and mocker her God.  But here in exile, these men represent the Lord’s people as they experience the Lord’s discipline and turn back to him.  This is what the people of Israel were supposed to be all along.  They refused to live it in their own land and in times of prosperity, so the Lord had taken it all away and here they’re finally that light in the darkness in the midst of a pagan land and as they stand before a pagan king.  Here they commit to being light in the darkness even though they may die for it.  The retelling of this story in those days of apostasy and terror under Antiochus Epiphanes was meant to exhort the people of Judah to something similar.  Why was this happening to them?  Where was the Lord in those evil days?  What should they do?  And the story-teller holds up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and reminds the people of his own day that this how the Lord works.  The Lord is present with his people in both blessing and cursing and, one way or another, the nations will glorify him because of Israel.  So hear the Lord’s rebuke, heed his discipline and repent, and be strong in faith and stand firm for the Lord, the God of Israel—even if the face of death.  Brothers and Sisters, that’s precisely the lesson we need to take from this, too.


Then Nebuchadnezzar was filled with fury, and the expression of his face was changed against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He ordered the furnace heated seven times more than it was usually heated. And he ordered some of the mighty men of his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and to cast them into the burning fiery furnace. Then these men were bound in their cloaks, their tunics, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the burning fiery furnace. Because the king’s order was urgent and the furnace overheated, the flame of the fire killed those men who took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell bound into the burning fiery furnace. (Daniel 3:19-23)


Such insolence!  How dare they refuse to honor the king?  Off to the furnace they go.  We can really only speculate about the specifics of the furnace.  It was probably close by because it had been used to fire bricks for the image or to smelt the gold used to plate it.  We can’t say much about its design, other than that it was probably a big hole in the ground lined with bricks and covered with some kind of roof or dome.  We can imagine the men who manned the furnace lighting the fires and pumping like they’d never pumped before at the bellows to get it as hot as they could.  Again, the story-teller uses crazy, over-the-top language to describe the anger of this crazy and over-the-top king.  Depending on what the furnace was used for, the normal temperature would have been around nine hundred to eleven hundred degrees Celsius.  With their technology, they might have been able to get the furnace up to fifteen hundred degrees—a far cry from seven times hotter than usual.  But the story-teller is emphasizing the king’s rage at these men who choose to honour the god of Israel before him.


The king’s guards throw Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into the furnace and it’s so hot that those guards themselves are burned and die in the process.  Surely Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are dead, too.  But then:


Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?” They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.” He answered and said, “But I see four men unbound, 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 24-25)


Nebuchadnezzar thought the heat was playing tricks on him.  Imagine him getting as close as he possible can to see into the furnace without getting burned himself.  He can feel the heat on his face.  His beard starts to singe.  And, sure enough, the three men were still alive—and not alive, but slowly dying in agony.  They’re up and walking around inside the furnace like nothing’s wrong.  And to top it off, there’s a fourth person with them and there’s something divine about him that causes the king to describe him as “like a son of the gods”.  Throughout history people have speculated on what that meant.  Some see the pre-Incarnate Jesus here, somehow pre-incarnately incarnated.  I’m not quite sure how that works.  It’s possible, but those sorts of speculations go beyond the scope of the story.  “Son of the gods” was a common expression for divinity in the Ancient Near East and I think that’s what’s important here. Whether it was an angel or Jesus or God in some other manifestation, the point is that God was with these men—and not only with them, but preserving them from harm—and Nebuchadnezzar somehow recognised that’s exactly who it was with the men.


Then Nebuchadnezzar came near to the door of the burning fiery furnace; he declared, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out, and come here!” Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego 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 cloaks were not harmed, and no smell of fire had come upon them. Nebuchadnezzar answered and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that speaks anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins, for there is no other god who is able to rescue in this way.” Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the province of Babylon. (Daniel 3:26-30)


Nebuchadnezzar knew a host of gods, but he’d never seen anything like this before.  Seeing these men, not only alive, but completely untouched by the fire had to have turned everything upside-down for him.  And not only him, but all those satraps, prefects, governors, and royal counsellors who were gathered there to watch the execution.  It was all backwards.  The men who had been loyal to the king, who had obeyed his command to throw Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, they had died a pointless death for the sake of their loyalty to the king, but these young men who had stood up to the king even as he threatened them with death, these young men loyal to their God—they live.  It’s a powerful reminder that the lord is in control, but even more this whole scene was a manifestation of his glory.  This is what happens when the Lord’s people do what they’re supposed to do, when they live as they’re supposed to live, when they stand firm in faith: they cause great kings like Nebuchadnezzar to acknowledge that the Lord is the Most High God.  Notice the dramatic reversal.  Nebuchadnezzar threw them into the furnace because they refused to honour him and now he’s honouring them and he’s glorifying their God, for exactly the same reasons.


Brothers and Sisters, this ought to encourage us to stand firm in our faith as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did.  It’s a reminder that the Lord is in control, even as everything around us changes, even as the church seems to be in decline—going into exile, even as we and the gospel fall out of favour.  Even as we are despised for loving Jesus and proclaiming the good new that he has died and risen.  I don’t think we’re in danger of being put to death, but we may lose our privileges and rights as the world mocks our faith—as it, like Nebuchadnezzar claims God’s glory for themselves and tries to stamp out anything that might remind them of the truth.  Christians increasingly face situations in work or school or government in which the powers that be insist we bow to their demands that are often at odds with the gospel or even with the very idea of truth.  Postmodernism is increasingly cynically absurd.


One the one hand, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego remind us that sometimes the wise thing to do is to simply be obedient to the Lord and keep your head down.  They didn’t go looking for trouble.  They didn’t announce their stand to anyone or to the king in advance.  They simply and quietly refused to ascribe to this earthly king was rightly belonged to the Lord.  Sometimes godly wisdom dictates a louder protest, but I think this ought to be our default approach to difficult situations.  We don’t go searching for martyrdom, but sometimes persecution and martyrdom will find us and if and when that happens, Brothers and Sisters, never forget that God is sovereign, he is always in control, and he is always with us.


And never forget that we trust the Lord because he has given us hope.  It's hard to say what Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego expected after death.  They lived before the Jews had developed a full doctrine of the resurrection.  But at the least they trusted that somehow the Lord would be with them in death.  They knew the Lord was good, they knew he was great, they knew he was faithful, and they knew his promises to care for and to be with his people.  They could say with Job:


For I know that my redeemer lives,

         and at the last he will stand upon the earth.

And after my skin has been thus destroyed,

         yet in my flesh I shall see God,

whom I shall see for myself,

         and my eyes shall behold, and not another. (Job 19:25-27)


And that was all they needed to be faithful.  Now consider all that we have.  The cross stands before as a reminder of the resurrection of Jesus.  He died for us, he rose for us, and he has promised that one day he will raise us from death to the life of God’s new creation, to a life lived in the presence of God—and he’s even given us an earnest on that life in the gift of God’s own Spirit.  Brothers and Sisters, this God who delivered Israel from the iron furnace of Egypt, this God who delivered Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the burning, fiery furnace of Nebuchadnezzar, this God has since manifested himself in Jesus.  He has entered the furnace himself, he has taken its punishment and died, and he has done so for our sake—that we might live and that me might one day live forever with him.  As St. Paul wrote to the Colossians, this Jesus is the very image of the invisible God.  In him we know in our own flesh this great God of deliverance.  Because of him, we have every reason to stand firm in faith and to glorify him.  And in him we have hope that one day, because of the faithful witness of his people, every knee will bow and every tongue confess that this Jesus is Lord.


Let’s pray: O Lord God, you know that we cannot put our trust in any thing that we do: Mercifully defend us by your power, we pray,  against every adversity; through Jesus Christ our Saviour, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

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