From Furnace to Palace
Thus these youth, imbued with the Holy Spirit, declare to the whole nation their faith, that He whom they worshiped is the only true and living God. This demonstration of their own faith was the most eloquent presentation of their principles. In order to impress idolaters with the power and greatness of the living God, His servants must reveal their own reverence for God. They must make it manifest that He is the only object of their honor and worship, and that no consideration, not even the preservation of life itself, can induce them to make the least concession to idolatry. These lessons have a direct and vital bearing upon our experience in these last days.”—Ellen G. White, In Heavenly Places, p. 149. While facing the threat of death because of the issue of worship might seem a thing of some prescientific and superstitious age, Scripture reveals that at the end of time, when the world has greatly “advanced,” something similar will unfold, but on a worldwide scale. Thus, from the study of this story, we get insights into the issues that, according to Scripture, God’s faithful will face.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, January 25.
Some time elapsed between the dream and the construction of the image. Nonetheless, it seems that the king can no longer forget the dream and the fact that Babylon is doomed to be replaced by other powers. Not satisfied with being only the head of gold, the king wants to be represented by an entire image of gold in order to communicate to his subjects that his kingdom will endure throughout history.
This attitude of pride calls to mind the builders of the Tower of Babel, who, in their arrogance, attempt to challenge God Himself. No less arrogant is Nebuchadnezzar here. He has accomplished much as ruler of Babylon, and he cannot live with the idea that his kingdom will eventually pass away. Thus, in an effort at his own self-exaltation, he builds an image to evoke his power and thereby assess the loyalty of his subjects. Although it may not be clear whether the image is intended to represent the king or a deity, we should keep in mind that in antiquity the lines separating politics from religion were often blurred, if they existed at all.
We should remember, too, that Nebuchadnezzar has had two opportunities to get acquainted with the true God. First, he tests the young Hebrews and finds them 10 times wiser than the other sages of Babylon. Then, after all other experts have failed to remind him of his dream, Daniel reports to him the thoughts of his mind, the dream, and its interpretation. Finally, the king recognizes the superiority of the God of Daniel. But surprisingly enough, those previous theology lessons do not prevent Nebuchadnezzar from reverting to idolatry. Why? Most likely, pride. Sinful human beings resist acknowledging the fact that their material and intellectual accomplishments are vanity and are doomed to disappear. We may at times act like little “Nebuchadnezzars” as we pay too much attention to our accomplishments and forget how meaningless they can be in the face of eternity.
The image of gold standing on the plain of Dura, whose name in Akkadian means “walled place,” gives the impression of a vast sanctuary. As if it were not enough, the furnace nearby can well evoke an altar. Babylonian music is to be part of the liturgy. Seven types of musical instruments are listed, as if to convey the completeness and effectiveness of the adoration protocol.
Today, we are bombarded from every side by calls to adopt new lifestyles, new ideologies, and to abandon our commitment to the authority of God as expressed in His Word and to surrender our allegiance to contemporary successors of the Babylonian Empire. The allure of the world at times seems overwhelming, but we should remind ourselves that our ultimate allegiance belongs to the Creator God.
According to the prophetic calendar, we are living in the last days of earth’s history. Revelation 13 announces that the inhabitants of the earth will be called to worship the image of the beast. That entity will cause “all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads” (Rev. 13:16, NKJV).
Six categories of people are said to give allegiance to the image of the beast: “small and great, rich and poor, free and slave.” The number of the beast, which is 666, also emphasizes six. This shows that the image erected by Nebuchadnezzar is just an illustration of what the eschatological Babylon will do in the last days (see Dan. 3:1 for the imagery of 6 and 60). Therefore, we do well to pay close attention to what transpires in this narrative and how God sovereignly directs the affairs of the world.
For the three Hebrews, the image worship imposed by the king is a blatant counterfeit of the temple worship in Jerusalem, which they experienced in their earlier years. Although they hold offices in the empire and are loyal to the king, their allegiance to God sets a limit on their human loyalty. They are certainly willing to continue to serve the king as faithful administrators; however, they cannot join the ceremony.
Following the instructions issued by the king, all the people at the sound of the musical instruments bow and worship the golden image. Only the three—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego—dare to disobey the king. Immediately, some Babylonians bring the matter to the king’s attention. The accusers seek to enrage the king by saying: (1) it was the king himself who put these three young men over the province of Babylon; (2) the Jewish men do not serve the gods of the king; and (3) they do not worship the gold image that the king had set up (Dan. 3:12). But in spite of his fury against them, the king offers the three men a second chance. The king is willing to repeat the whole procedure so that these men can retract their position and worship the image. Should they refuse, they will be thrown into the fiery furnace. And Nebuchadnezzar closes his appeal with a most arrogant claim: “And who is the god who will deliver you from my hands?” (Dan. 3:15, NKJV).
Endowed with supernatural courage, they respond to the king: “If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up” (Dan. 3:17, 18, NKJV).
Having thrown the faithful Hebrews into the fire, Nebuchadnezzar is puzzled to perceive the presence of a fourth person inside the furnace. To the best of his knowledge, the king identifies the fourth figure as “the Son of God” (Dan. 3:25).
The king cannot say much more, but we do know who that fourth person is. He appears to Abraham before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, wrestles with Jacob beside the brook Jabbok, and reveals Himself to Moses in a burning bush. He is Jesus Christ in a preincarnate form, coming to show that God stands with His people in their troubles.
Ellen G. White says, “But the Lord did not forget His own. As His witnesses were cast into the furnace, the Saviour revealed Himself to them in person, and together they walked in the midst of the fire. In the presence of the Lord of heat and cold, the flames lost their power to consume.”—Prophets and Kings, pp. 508, 509.
As God says in Isaiah, “ ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, nor shall the flame scorch you’ ” (Isa. 43:2, NKJV).
Though we love stories like these, they do raise the question about others who are not miraculously delivered from persecution for their faith. Those men surely knew the experience of Isaiah and Zechariah, who were put to death by impious kings. All through sacred history, even to our day, faithful Christians have endured terrible suffering that ended for them, at least here, not in a miraculous deliverance but in a painful death. Here is one case in which the faithful receive a miraculous deliverance, but, as we know, such things don’t usually happen.
As we reflect on the experience of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, we may ask ourselves: What is the secret of so strong a faith? How could they have been willing to burn alive rather than worship the image? Think about all the ways that they could have rationalized bowing in submission to the orders of the king. And yet, despite realizing that they could have died, as so many others had done, they nevertheless stood firm.
In order to develop such a faith, we need to understand what faith is. Some people have a quantitative perception of faith; they measure their faith by the answers they seem to receive from God. They go to the shopping mall, and they pray for a parking space. If they happen to get a space upon arrival, they conclude that they have strong faith. If all the slots are filled, they may think their faith is not strong enough for God to listen to their prayers. This understanding of faith becomes dangerous because it attempts to manipulate God and does not reckon with God’s sovereignty and wisdom.
Indeed, true faith, as manifested by Daniel’s friends, is measured by the quality of our relationship with God and its resulting absolute confidence in God. Authentic faith does not seek to bend God’s will to conform to our will; rather, it surrenders our will to the will of God. As we saw, the three Hebrew men did not know exactly what God had in store for them when they decided to challenge the king and to remain faithful to God. They decided to do the right thing despite the consequences. This is what really characterizes a mature faith. We show real faith when we pray to the Lord for what we want but trust Him to do what’s best for us, even if at the time we don’t understand what is happening or why.
Further Thought: “Important are the lessons to be learned from the experience of the Hebrew youth on the plain of Dura. In this our day, many of God’s servants, though innocent of wrongdoing, will be given over to suffer humiliation and abuse at the hands of those who, inspired by Satan, are filled with envy and religious bigotry. Especially will the wrath of man be aroused against those who hallow the Sabbath of the fourth commandment; and at last a universal decree will denounce these as deserving of death.
“The season of distress before God’s people will call for a faith that will not falter. His children must make it manifest that He is the only object of their worship, and that no consideration, not even that of life itself, can induce them to make the least concession to false worship. To the loyal heart the commands of sinful, finite men will sink into insignificance beside the word of the eternal God. Truth will be obeyed though the result be imprisonment or exile or death.”—Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, pp. 512, 513.