A sermon on Daniel 3 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 5 June 2022
If the book of Daniel teaches us anything it is that the kings of the earth never learn anything. If you remember from chapter 2 last week, king Nebuchadnezzar had a dream that frightened him. Instead of telling his dream to his advisers, he wanted them to tell him the dream and then to tell him what it meant. If they could, he’d know that they knew what they were talking about. If they couldn’t or wouldn’t, he would have them put to death.
Before Nebuchadnezzar could go through with his threat, God told Daniel the dream and what it meant so that Daniel could tell the king. Daniel did what no one else could do because the true and living God revealed to him the message that the king needed to hear. Nebuchadnezzar was so impressed he said to Daniel,
Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery.
Now, we’d be forgiven for thinking that this meant the great king’s conversion to the true faith. And what a victory it would be to win the man at the top of the who Babylonian empire to faith in the living God. But in Daniel chapter 3 we learn that Nebuchadnezzar had learned nothing. His acknowledgement of Daniel’s God was too easily won and too quickly forgotten. He had a great statue built, an idol 30 metres high and 3 metres wide and covered in gold. He summoned his royal administrators, governors, judges, magistrates, treasurers and provincial officials and gave them this command through a herald:
As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.
Again we see here Nebuchadnezzar’s addiction to power. Violence and force were his plan A, his plan B and his plan C. He wanted his officials to obey his command, but he had nothing to inspire their obedience except his threats of death.
Now, of course, Nebuchadnezzar had a problem. He was the king of a vast empire that stretched from Iraq all the way east to the Mediterranean sea. He ruled over a lot of different people and nations and languages and religions. Each of them thinking that they were the master race and that their gods were the best. These differences of culture created a rallying point for dissent and rebellion. Nebuchadnezzar needed something to hold his empire together and he decided to use religion. He made a god in an image made of gold. All his officials had to bow down to his god on pain of death.
In fact, Nebuchadnezzar is not just creating a religion that will hold his the empire together. He is claiming before all his officials to hold the power of the gods himself, the power over life and death. So that to bow down to his god is to acknowledge his power over them. That’s why
as soon as they heard the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp and all kinds of music, all the peoples, nations and men of every language fell down and worshiped the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.
The repetitions in the story are deliberate. It talks about the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers treasures, judges, magistrates. The horn, flute, zither, lyre and harp. The peoples, nations and men of every language. Every time Daniel chapter 3 could just use the word “them” it pulls out all these lists of people and musical instruments. It deliberately focuses and exaggerates the scale of what is going on. The size of the crowd. The loudness of the music. All these over the top details emphasise Nebuchadnezzar’s claim for complete control, inflated like a balloon that is about ready to burst.
So a lot is riding on this moment. If Nebuchadnezzar could pull it off, it would confirm his complete control over his vast empire and over the lives of all its people. But if he couldn’t, if all this over the top pomp and ceremony blew up in his face, then he would look like a fool for trying to make his outrageous claims.
That’s why Nebuchadnezzar was so angry when Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to worship his idol. They were dobbed in by other officials loyal to the king’s demands. Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar had them brought before him and 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, pipes 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?
See how personally Nebuchadnezzar took it? He says, “you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up.” The idol represents his power. To refuse to worship it is an act of defiance against Nebuchadnezzar’s rule. He says, “what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?” Ultimately, the statue isn’t about worship or religion. It is about Nebuchadnezzar’s own claim to control the lives of the people in his empire, to hold the power of the gods in his own hands. Nebuchadnezzar isn’t angry because the three young men have insulted his god or his idol. He is angry because they have insulted him.
It would have been easy for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to simply have gone along with the crowd. No one would have noticed them. No one would have paid any attention to them. No one would have said, “Look at those Jews! They are bowing down to Nebuchadnezzar’s god.” But they refused to bow down. They refused to worship the idol. To do so would have been to disobey God’s holy law, and it would have been a clear rejection of all that they believed and lived for. Nebuchadnezzar claimed the power of God and the three young men refused to give it to him.
They replied to the king,
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 save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.
In answer to his question, What god will be able to rescue you from my hand? they said, Our God. The God we serve is able to save us. He is the God who made all things. Who gave every creature life and breath. Who sustains all things by his powerful hand. This God, the true and living God, the God we serve can save us from you, from your furnace, from anything.
This is an important lesson. The true and living God is able. Nothing is too hard for him. What the gods of wood and stone can’t do, he can. He causes the sun to rise in the morning. He spins galaxies on the tip of his finger. He is the Lord of every season of life. He can. He can heal the sick. He can change the heart of the most wicked person. He can save the life of his people. What we can’t do in our own power and by our own strength, the true and living God can.
And yet it does not mean he will. Many who are sick do not recover. And no one lives for ever. Just because God can, does not give us permission to presume that he will. Thousands of people have made the same stand as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego against the arrogant claims and unreasonable demands of tyrants and dictators, and paid the ultimate price without any last minute dash to the rescue. And the three young men were willing to pay the same price.
The God whom we serve is able to save us. But even if he doesn’t, we will not serve your gods or worship the image that you have set up.
Their love for God was unconditional. They did not serve him so that he would serve them. They did not give him honour and devotion and worship in the hope of anything in return. They loved him with all their being, with all their heart and soul and mind and strength, not because of what he would do for them, but simply because of who he is.
This is true faith in the true and living God. We do not come to church so that it will rain on our crops. We do not read the Bible so we get a carpark space close to the shops. We do not give him our lives so that we may be healthy, wealthy and wise. We do it because he is God. We do it because not to do it would be a lie and a denial of reality. We do it whatever it costs us, whatever it takes. We do it because whatever God ordains for our life is always for the best.
Understandably, Nebuchadnezzar was beside himself with rage. He ordered the furnace made seven times hotter. He ordered the young men to be tied up. He ordered his strongest soldiers to pick them up and throw them into the furnace.
Which was the precise moment when everything blew up in his face. The furnace was so hot that the soldiers throwing them in were killed. But Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not harmed. They were not singed. In the end their clothes did not even smell of smoke. Instead, Nebuchadnezzar saw not just three in the furnace, but four. There was another in the fire. One like a son of God was walking too in the midst of the flames.
It’s a reminder that angels walk among us. That the true and living God has servants at his command to come to the aid of his people. Angels walk among us so that we are never truly alone. We are never truly without hope. But we have friends in high places. Not that we worship them or bow down to them or pray to them. We do all that to their master not to them. Because we serve whom they serve.
It’s also a reminder that the true and eternal Son of God, Jesus, walked among us too. That he shared our trials. That he too placed his life in his heavenly Father’s hand. That he too knew better than anyone what his Father could do and what his Father would and would not do. That he could call on twelve legions of angels to his rescue. But paid the ultimate price to save us, sharing on his cross our fiery furnace. Whatever fire of persecution, whatever furnace of testing we must endure, there is another in the fire with us and for us.
Nebuchadnezzar was forced to change his tune.
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.
Again, it is not a conversion. For Nebuchadnezzar, the true and living God is the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. He is their God. But he is not his god. Nor has the king changed his heart. Instead, he decreed that anyone who spoke out against the God of the three young men should be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble. Violence and force were still his Plan D. Some people will never change even before the clearest proofs of God’s love and power.
It reminds us that what is required of us is true conversion and true repentance. An acknowledgement that the God of all creation is our God, an acknowledgement that results in a change of heart and mind to do his will. To forsake the sin that treats people like things to manipulate and control and to fearlessly stand up for what is right and good and true. For the kings of the earth may never change. They may be lost in a never ending cycle of violence and threats. But the truly wise person must be willing to change their mind, their heart, the very core of their being to align them with the will of the true and living God.
The book of Daniel teaches us how to live in Babylon. The wise person needs to know that there will be times when it is easy to go along with the crowd and to bow down to the idols of our surrounding culture. But those are the times that the servants of God must make a stand. For God is able to save us. His angels walk among us. And his Son Jesus is with us in the fire.