Introduction: Dr. Russell More is a brilliant Southern Baptist Theologian who has just become the new president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. In his inauguration speech, he talked about the post-Christian age that has come over our nation, and he used a very interesting phrase. He said: “We can no longer pretend we are a moral majority in this country. We are a prophetic minority who must speak into a world that is not different than any other era of this world’s history, but is exactly what Jesus promised us the world would be.” We are now longer a moral majority, we are a prophetic minority. I think there might have been three cheers going up from the box seats in heaven, for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego would surely have agreed.
Review: Daniel 1 introduces the book, and Daniel 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 give us five stories, each ending with a declaration of the sovereignty of God over human history and over human rulers. The first of these is Daniel 2, in which King Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a great statute or image. Daniel interprets this dream and tells us how the various parts of this statute represent the successive empires that will dominate world history, starting with Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar rewards Daniel by making him Prime Minister of Babylon and appointing his friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, as administrators over the province. Coming to chapter 3, it seems that Nebuchadnezzar was so impressed by the vividness of his dream that he decides he will build the statute he dreamed about.
Verse 1: This image is sixty cubits high, six cubits wide, and later in the chapter we’ll learn that everyone was to worship it at the sounding of six musical instruments. I don’t want to make too much out of this, but it’s hard to read that without thinking of all the six-numbers in the book of Revelation. The number seven represents the perfection of God, just as one full week of seven days completes the cycle. The number six falls short of that and represents humanity. So I think there’s no question that the size of this statute, sixty-by-six, represents human self-worship. In terms of our measurements today, this statute would stand ninety feel tall. The ancient Egyptian obelisks would often rise up 100 feet. The ancient Egyptian obelisk in front of St. Peter’s Church in Rome is 105 feet. But it’s a very tall statute. In today’s terms, it would rise up nine stories about the ground. In the USA, the tallest statute is the Statue of Liberty; but the second tallest statute is called Our Lady of the Rockies in Montana, and it’s eighty-eight feet. So if we had Nebuchadnezzar’s statute here in America, it would be the second tallest in the US.
Verses 2-3. When you read this story, there is a lot of repetition, almost a kind of comical or singsong repetition. I read it aloud to myself, and—I don’t want to be irreverent—but it almost reminded me a little of Dr. Seuss. This is especially true because of the way the writer repeats all the royal officials and especially the musical instruments. He goes through the list of musical instruments four times! And after the fourth time in 15 verses saying the word zither, I felt I was in a Dr. Seuss book. I think maybe the writer really wanted this story to be taught to children. Many of us remember learning about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as children in Sunday School or family devotions. The lesson of this chapter needs to be engrained into our hearts long before we need it. The courage needed to stand for the Lord, even when our lives are on the line, is crucial.
Verses 4-6: What was a furnace doing there? Well, this was the dedication of the statute, so it had just been made. The smelting furnace used for the metals or the bricks was still there. It had not been disassembled. So it became a potential location for execution by being burned alive. In worshipping this statute, Nebuchadnezzar was saying, “Worship me. Worship humanity.” This is the cult of self-worship, of man-centered worship.
Verse 7: The music starting playing, and everyone bowed down, I suppose in something like a Muslim prayer posture. It must made the desert floor look like a giant carpet, except that right in the middle of it were three figures still standing upright.
Verses 8-12: We clearly get the idea that Nebuchadnezzar’s appointment of the Jewish young men wasn’t a popular decision. Notice the words in verse 12: “There are some Jews….” There has never been a group of people so vilified throughout history as the Jews, so targeted for destruction, so hated. I believe the anti-Semitism that has led to repeated attempts to destroy the Jewish race is satanic in nature. It is the devil trying to destroy the channel through whom God brought redemption into the world. It looked as though Babylon had destroyed the people of God, but here were four Jewish young men who had been appointed the leaders of Babylon. But now they were in great trouble.
Verses 13-15: Notice Nebuchadnezzar’s question: “What God is able to rescue you from my hand.” The lesson learned in chapter 2 had already been forgotten.
Verses 16-18: Here we have one of the most courageous and heroic stands in the entire Bible. In verse 16, the three young men say: “This is not about us. We don’t need to be defensive. We’re not going to worry about mounting a defense. Our God is able to deliver us.” Verse 17 expresses certainty that God is able: “The God we serve is able.” The Apostle Paul, who showed similar courage in life-threatening situations, took up this phrase. Seven times He said God is able. Here are four examples:
- Romans 16:25
- 2 Corinthians 9:8
- Ephesians 3:20
- 2 Timothy 1:12
In college, we used to sing a song that said, “Our God is able to deliver us.” We face many times today when our faith is challenged, but our God is able. We face impossible situations and prolonged burdens. But our God is able to deliver us. “Though by sin oppressed, come to Him for rest; our God is able to deliver us.” Verse 18 is one of the most intrepid verses in the Bible. “Our God is able to deliver us. 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.” They were realistic. They knew God might deliver them by taking them to heaven, so they wanted to leave behind their testimony. Christians are perishing every day for their faith. There was a report Friday in the Christian Post about a young Christian man in Syria who was engaged to be married. He was part of his town’s militia. Jihadist rebels entered his town and demanded he recant his faith. When he refused they slit his throat. His fiancé called his phone, and one of the Jihadist rebels answered it and told her, “Jesus didn’t come to save him.” The story of the church is the story of the blood of its martyrs, and sometimes the Lord rescues us by taking us to heaven. But I think these three Hebrew young men had an idea the Lord might do something miraculous in their case. After all, the Lord had spared them from death once before, in the prior chapter.
Verses 19-25: Instantly, urgently, the Fourth Man hurled Himself through space and in a moment’s time was beside them, walking through the burning flames with them (to use Oral Roberts’ description in his classic sermon, “The Fourth Man.” This was either an angel or it was the pre-incarnate Lord Jesus Christ, and I believe the latter. This was a literal event in history, but it also represented something more. The Jewish people were in exile. Their nation was destroyed in the flames of Babylonian invasion. The Jewish people were in the furnace of affliction. But the Lord was there with them. See Isaiah 43:1-3a (written by Isaiah in advance to the Babylonian exiles). The lesson is for us as well. There are times when the devil throws us in the furnace. He can throw us in, but He can’t keep the Fourth Man out. “When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, my grace all sufficient shall be thy supply.”
Verses 26-27: The only thing the fire had burned were the ropes tying them. They did not bow and they would not burn. They had an asbestos faith.
Verses 28-30: The passage ends in the same way chapter 2 ended, with the admission by the greatest secular power on earth that the Jehovah, the God of Israel, the God of Scripture, was and is and always will be God alone.
Conclusion: There are two applications for us. The first is the importance of taking a strong stand for Christ whenever our faith is challenged. We either live by conviction or by compromise, and the former is the Bible’s way. The second lesson is that even when the devil throws us in the fire, we have to trust His presence and power. This afternoon I received a letter from a friend of mine who serves the Lord in a dangerous part of the world. He said that a new missionary joined their team, a young man named Kevin. Not long after arriving in their city, Kevin was pulled over by the police for some alleged infraction, probably bogus, and taken to police headquarters. The officers perhaps hoped to shake some money out of the young man, who was understandably upset. The police allowed Kevin to make one phone call, and he called my friend Terry. Terry asked him which station he was at, but Kevin was too new in the city to know. A police officer came on the line and soon Terry was on his way to this station, which was heavily barricaded because of various bombings in the area. As they waited, imagine their surprise when Kevin popped out the doors and emerged alone, a free man. “What happened?” Terry asked. Kevin said that someone dressed in camouflage and carrying a machine gun walked into the office and said, “He’s one of ours; let him go.” The man just as quickly departed. Terry later checked with a Christian police officer, but no one knew who that man was, where he had come from or where he went. Now, if that man was an angel, it’s the first time I’ve ever heard of an angel dressed in camouflage and carrying a machine gun (although angels often brandished swords in the Bible). But it’s just another example of what we already know: “Though by sin oppressed, come to Him for rest, our God is able to deliver thee.”