Friday, 1 February 2013

The Fourth in the Fire

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the Blazing Furnace

WHEN THEY came  out  of the  city the  great  golden  image  danced  in  the mirages across the plain of Dura.  These were not ordinary citizens on a pilgrimage.  Varied national costumes of the richest kinds, voices speaking in a score or more tongues and entourages in livery disclosed their high rank.

They  headed  out  across  the  plain, "satraps,  prefects,  viceroys,  counselors, treasurers, judges,  chief constables,  and all  governors  of provinces,"  toward  the glittering  image.  Some  went  with  curiosity, some with indignation, some with fear,  but  none  dared  deny  the whim  of Nebuchadnezzar,  lord  of  the  sixth-century BC Chaldean  empire.

Perhaps mounted, walking or riding in a palanquin they discussed the latest extravagance of their monarch.  Some contrasted  this  return  to  idolatry  with  the episode a few years before when the king had  been  forced  to  acknowledge  the Hebrew  God,  a  deity far different  from the  images  in  the  temples of his  capital city,  Babylon.

Some among the bedecked throng remembered the dream that had provoked the king to his acclamation of Jehovah, God of the Israelites.  Some may have linked the image the king had erected on the plain with that experience.

Only  the  Jew  Daniel  among  all  the palace retainers had been able to give the king the explanation of the strange figure that  had  troubled  him  in  his  dreams. And even then the interpretation was two-edged.  Daniel  had  described  the golden  head  of the  image  seen  in  the dream  and  said  to  Nebuchadnezzar, "You  are  that  head  of gold.  After  you there  shall  arise  another  kingdom,  inferior  to  yours,  and  yet  a  third  kingdom…." Daniel 2:39, 40, NEB.

Viewed from the perspective of an autocrat, the words were dangerous, even seditious. They predicted the end of Nebuchadnezzar’s empire.  If any of the satellite kingdoms wanted encouragement to rebel, here it was.  Perhaps Daniel’s interpretation meant Nebuchadnezzar’s days were running out. Their nation might be the next kingdom in the sequence of metallic symbols.

And so the despot had found his own counter to the possibilities evoked by the vision.  A  30-meter-high  statue,  erected on  the  flat  land  outside  Babylon,  testified  to  his  determination  to  continue the  rule  of  the  Chaldeans  for  ever. Nebuchadnezzar gold-plated not just the head of the idol, but the entire image from top to bottom. A fitting reminder of his kingdom’s might—no second or third kingdom would ever usurp Chaldea's place.  It would last for ever.

The story that follows in the Bible lingers in the memories of millions—the three Hebrews and the burning fiery furnace.  Daniel 3 tells of the motleyed crowd completing its march across Dura and assembling about the effigy, squinting at the reflections from the glittering structure.  The king commands musicians to play.  At this signal all bow down.  All, except for three Jews— Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.

The three stand silhouetted against the copper sky.  The tyrant barks an order.  Guards hustle them before the king.  They defy him, refusing to yield. The same guards drag them toward a super-heated furnace.  As  they  push  the trio  into  its  mouth,  a  gout  of  flame lunges out, and the guards, breathing the boiling gases,  collapse  and die.

In  a  fit  of sadism  the  king  peers  into the flames: "Did we not cast three bound men  into  the  midst  of the  fire?  They answered and said unto the king, True, O king.  He  answered and said, Lo, I  see four men  loose,  walking in  the midst of the fire,  and they have  no  hurt;  and the form  of the  fourth  is  like  the  Son  of God."  Daniel 3:24, 25, KJV.

The  three  Hebrews  walk  out  of the fire,  unscathed,  not  even  smelling  of smoke.  And the fourth vanishes.  Once more the startled monarch acquiesces to the power of the Jewish God.  His monstrous object lesson directed at the assembled satellite nations goes awry. The Lord of Israel, a small and insignificant minority people, triumphs.

It doesn't take too much imagination to conjure what this meant to the Hebrews.  The story must have spread everywhere in the domain of Babylon, and everywhere the Israelites took heart. God had not left them undefended. The same Power who had once led their forefathers out of Egypt was remembering them in their captivity.  Perhaps  this might  be  the  beginning  of  miracles bringing  defeat  to  their  pagan  ruler  as surely as the miracles of Moses had vanquished  Pharaoh.  The morale of God's people surged.

This story projects us back into an age when the miraculous walked side by side with the natural.  The Hebrew nation lived in anticipation of divine intervention. It had happened so many times. They knew God could save them.  This expectation backdrops the insouciance of the reply of the three Hebrews as they were dragged before the king:  "We have no need to answer you on this matter. If there is a god who is able to save us from the blazing furnace, it is our God whom we serve,  and he will save us from your power, O king;  but if not, be it known to your  majesty  that we  will  neither serve your god  nor worship the golden  image that  you  have  set  up."  Daniel 3:16-18, NEB.

Such conviction about God’s competency to intercede does not come easily for modern people.  Vast numbers would regard this story with skepticism or rank it with Grimm's Fairy Tales. Yet the Bible teems with incidents in which God personally interfered.

Two events set this story apart. There is the miracle of deliverance; and there is the intervention of the divine Son of God with human destiny.  It should not surprise that the Son of God chooses to appear with His faithful trio in the middle of the flames. It harmonizes with scores of other divine acts on behalf of God's faithful people.

The identity of the Fourth in the fire may have puzzled many of the Jews who heard the story. Who was walking in the fire with their three compatriots? They would not doubt the presence of a mighty Being.  They would ponder carefully His identity.  For many the realization would come.  Their three fellow exiles had been privileged to see the coming Prince of Israel, the Son of God.

The story speaks to us also oft he first phases of a confrontation that still continues. In the Bible story, Babylon stands in  conflict  with  Jerusalem—Babylon representing  anti-God  powers  and Jerusalem  the  presence  of God  among His  people.  The hierarchy of Babylon represented by Nebuchadnezzar and his minions stands over against the Son of God and His people.  The worship enforced by Babylon countermands the worship of the true God.

There  on  Dura  a  micro drama  plays out  the  great  clash  of the  ages.  On  the one  hand  there rises  the  defiant  image, contradicting  the  divine  decrees  and calling  for  a  false  worship.

Nebuchadnezzar marshals his military and political muscle behind the Babylonian religious system. All peoples must obey and bow down. All must worship or be killed.

On the other side God watches, weighing the impact of this event on the fate of His people and the truth they represent.  God’s name, God’s people and God's truth are in jeopardy. To leave the three young men to immolation risks too much. The Son of God steps into the fire with  His  three  children,  confounds Nebuchadnezzar  and  affirms  God's  intention  to  deliver His  people.

The drama provides a pattern for future apocalyptic visions.  Six hundred years later the prophet John sees a similar confrontation of global proportions.

The  vision  of Revelation  13  pits  the forces  of  international  and  spiritual Babylon  against  God  and  His  people: "All  on  earth  will  worship  it,  except those  whose  names  the  Lamb  that  was slain  keeps in  his roll of the living, written  there  since  the  world  was  made." Revelation 13:8, NEB.

Again  it  is  a  faithful  minority threatened  by  overwhelming  forces  of devilish  origin.  In John's vision it is the Lamb of God who delivers His people. Again it is God's name, God's truth and God’s people under threat.  Again God preserves and saves His cause.

In the denouement, spiritual Jerusalem overcomes spiritual Babylon: "And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven….."  Revelation 21:2, KJV.

Christ triumphs over Satan and his cohorts: "And the devil that deceived them was  cast  into the  lake  of fire  and  brimstone,  where  the  beast  and  the  false prophet  are...."  Revelation 20:10, KJV.

God's people emerge unscathed from the flames of tribulation.  "Now at last God has his dwelling among men!  He will dwell among them and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them."  Revelation 21:3, NEB.

We all may identify with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.  The fires of temptation or persecution surround us. Our faith suffers assaults. Bound by circumstances, helpless against our own natures, failing so often, succeeding so seldom—this is the pattern of the lives of so many who try to follow God’s will. Yet  to  the  eye  of faith  a Companion walks beside, just as surely as He walked in  the  furnace  at  Dura.  Faith looks around and finds the Son of God, sustaining, protecting.  In  His  presence  the bonds  fall  off,  strength  renews,  we  go free.

Christ walks with us in the fires of spiritual trial. He does not walk away from us, or leave us unattended. No matter whether our own foolishness has brought us to the testing. No matter whether the conniving of circumstances or the spite of enemies brings us low. No matter if Satan launches his arsenals of doubt or discouragement against us. In all these and in all other conditions Christ is with us. That is the message of Daniel 3. Even if we must stay in the fire, He does not leave us alone, unprotected. 

Scripture informs us of the One who will not go away. "God himself has said, will never leave you or desert you'; and so we can take courage and say, 'The Lord is my helper, I will not fear; what can man do to me?'" Hebrews 13:5, 6, NEB.

The text could well have been written for the three Hebrews. And it was certainly written for us. God has not gone away. Through His Christ He is there with us, now and for all our tomorrows.

Walter Scragg 1987

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