Welcome to Babylon
The year is roughly 605 B.C. The Israelites have just been taken captive by Babylon. The king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar II, has ordered any young Israelite men who were handsome, knowledgeable, and skilled to be brought to his palace to learn the Babylonian language and study their people’s knowledge. Among these men, were four who stood out in Biblical history, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Although you might recognize the first by his Hebrew name you probably know the last three by their Babylonian names, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
Our passage today focuses on those last three. Some time has passed since they arrived and Nebuchadnezzar has just announced a dedication ceremony for a new idol his people have created for him. Nebuchadnezzar was a man who loved to build things and it definitely went to his head. The idol he created is said to stand at roughly 90 feet tall and 9 feet wide. If you are observant, you may have noticed that the idol has a 10:1 ratio making it a very skinny and tall shape for a statue. It was likely the statue was a type of obelisk with either the figure of a god engraved on its surface or a statue of a god placed on top of it. Traditional ancient obelisks regularly had a 10:1 aspect ratio so there is clear support for the idea of it being an obelisk. (If you want to have an idea of how big Nebuchadnezzar’s idol was you can google Karnak Obelisk and it’ll only be off by seven feet by height and 7 inches by width.)
Regardless of the appearance of the idol, Nebuchadnezzar orders all his people to come to the dedication and has his men instruct them saying,
…at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of musick, ye fall down and worship the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king hath set up: And whoso falleth not down and worshippeth shall the same hour be cast into the midst of a burning fiery furnace.
To most people, it was an easy instruction to follow. Just bow down, and you’ll be fine. If you don’t you’ll be burned alive in a fiery furnace. However, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego didn’t take the easy route. Rather than forsake their God, they took a stand and chose not to bow. Quick sidetrack for a second. Have you ever been at a church service and stood up for congregational singing only to find out singing wasn’t next on the schedule? Do you know that feeling you get when you look around everyone else is sitting except you? If you do know that feeling, I think you’ll realize how much a person standing in a crowd of bowing people would stand out. I think Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego knew there was no hiding their choice and I guarantee that choice was socially uncomfortable even if it was the right thing to do. Sure enough, people noticed the three men standing in the crowd, and after the event, a group of Chaldeans went to Nebuchadnezzar and turned in Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego for disobeying the king. Nebuchadnezzar, being a proud man, did not take it well.
Then Nebuchadnezzar in his rage and fury commanded to bring Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Then they brought these men before the king. Nebuchadnezzar spake and said unto them, Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, do not ye serve my gods, nor worship the golden image which I have set up? Now if ye be ready that at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of musick, ye fall down and worship the image which I have made; well: but if ye worship not, ye shall be cast the same hour into the midst of a burning fiery furnace; and who is that God that shall deliver you out of my hands?
Nebuchadnezzar was outright furious at their disobedience. Despite this, he decided to give them another opportunity to follow his instruction but not without giving a prideful statement first. He pridefully asked them who they think they are to think their God can deliver them from his power. Their response is one of boldness and confidence.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, answered and said to the king, O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.
A Response of Faithfulness
There are two interesting things to note about their response. First, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego make it clear that they have no obligation to answer his question because they serve an authority greater than him. Ouch! I think Nebuchadnezzar probably took that personally! Second, the wording they use emphasizes that God may or may not choose to save them. These three men recognize that God is able to save them, but whether or not He chooses to will not change their decision to be faithful to Him. What a powerful example! It reminds me of Job’s response in Job 13:15,
Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him: but I will maintain mine own ways before him.
No matter our situation in life, we can trust God. If He chooses to spare us from our misery or if He allows us to face hardship we should still be faithful to Him! Here Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are willing to pay any cost for their faithfulness. They are truly brave men. Let’s continue to see what happens next.
Then was Nebuchadnezzar full of fury, and the form of his visage was changed against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego: therefore he spake, and commanded that they should heat the furnace one seven times more than it was wont to be heated. And he commanded the most mighty men that were in his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and to cast them into the burning fiery furnace.
Nebuchadnezzar once again lets his anger take control, his face is changed, he is visibly angry, he is probably red in the face. Not only was he determined to kill them right away, but he was also going to make it a big ordeal. He wasn’t just going to throw them in the furnace, now he was going to heat it even hotter and make it a special event. But wait, what is a fiery furnace anyway? We should probably make sure we know that before we continue.
What is the Fiery Furnace?
In the modern era, we think of a furnace as something that heats a home, but in 600 BC this wasn’t the case. I think the most logical conclusion is that it was a large brick firing kiln. There is one archeological hint that points us in this direction. One past-time of Nebuchadnezzar II was stamping his name all over a bunch of bricks he used to build his kingdom. Millions of bricks bearing his name were produced by his royal brick crew to build his buildings and statues. He made so many we still have quite a few of them today in museums. (In fact, if you look enough online you can actually buy one yourself from a museum for $3,000, pretty cheap for a brick that’s over 2,600 years old!) It is estimated that Nebuchadnezzar made over 15 million bricks to build up his kingdom. That’s a lot of bricks, and considering he was so proud of what he had built that he put his name all over it. I believe it’s safe to assume that Nebuchadnezzar used his favorite brick furnace to try to teach Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego a lesson. It would have required quite a large furnace to fire that many bricks, and while we don’t know much about Babylonian brick firing kilns, it’s easy to believe they had one big enough to throw three people into with room to spare.
Now that we know what the furnace is let’s continue with the story.
Then these men were bound in their coats, their hosen, and their hats, and their other garments, and were cast into the midst of the burning fiery furnace. Therefore because the king’s commandment was urgent, and the furnace exceeding hot, the flame of the fire slew those men that took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell down bound into the midst of the burning fiery furnace.
Facing the Fire
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown in with their clothes on in order to ensure the flames would engulf them. Their clothes would burn immediately to make sure they feel the fire’s flame. They were tied up and bound. Captured for their beliefs and faithfulness; trapped in their trial; bound so they could not escape their circumstances. The fire they were facing was most certainly lethal. A brick kiln in this era would reach roughly 1832°F (1000°C) and it was made seven times hotter. (Meaning 7x more fuel not 7x more temperature. If it meant literal temperature it would be 12,824°F which is 3000°F hotter than the surface of the sun. There was no way to measure exact temperature in these days so they are measuring heat by fuel input.) From a human perspective, there was no way for them to escape. They were bound in the middle of the biggest problem they would ever have to face and it looks like there is no way out for our three brave men. The people who threw them in had already died from the heat so how could they escape?
Then Nebuchadnezzar the king was astonied, and rose up in haste, and spake, and said unto his counsellors, Did not we cast three men bound 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.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown bound into the fire. They were restrained in their time of hardship. Yet when Nebuchadnezzar looks in, what does he find? The fire of the trial he made for them did them no harm. He had thrown them in bound, yet now they are free. They were walking around care-free with another man in the fire. One who appeared like the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ!
Then Nebuchadnezzar came near to the mouth of the burning fiery furnace, and spake, and said, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, ye servants of the most high God, come forth, and come hither. Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, came forth of the midst of the fire. And the princes, governors, and captains, and the king’s counsellors, being gathered together, saw these men, upon whose bodies the fire had no power, nor was an hair of their head singed, neither were their coats changed, nor the smell of fire had passed on them.
Freedom in the Fire
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out of the fire unscathed. No hair was singed and their clothes were free of any smokey scent. The only thing they lost in the fire was the things that bound them. God had allowed them to go through the fiery trial and yet, it was the trial that freed them from their bonds. Do you see the beautiful lesson provided to us today?
In our lives, we will face many trials. There will be times we feel trapped, afraid, and unsure of what to do next. We know what is right, we know we should trust in God, but it is hard to do. We might feel bound and trapped. We may wish that God would stop us from going through the trial because we aren’t sure we’ll come out of it on the other side unscathed. But that’s the thing, sometimes we need the hard times. Sometimes we need to go through the fire because, in the end, the only things we lose are the things that bind us and hold us back.
Maybe we had wrong priorities, maybe we had a wrong perspective, maybe we had a wrong faith. Sometimes it’s the fire of trials that will burn away those wrongful ties that bind our hearts and force us to lose joy. James 1:3-5 reminds us of this same truth.
My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing. If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.
Every trial we face in life is an opportunity for us to grow in the Lord and as individuals. It teaches us what is truly important. We grow in patience and understanding, we learn contentment and understand what is truly important in our lives. When the fire burns away our distractions we learn what truly matters in life.
Maybe you are going through a hard time now or maybe one is coming your way. But when the next trial comes, will you choose to be faithful? Will you say “Whether or not God spares me from hardship, I will trust Him.” or will you let the fire of worry singe your soul? When you choose to trust God you can walk freely in the fire with Christ and watch the things that hold you back burn away. And, most of all, you can show the world the power of faith in Christ.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s story ends with them convincing Nebuchadnezzar that their God was able to deliver them from the fire. Nebuchadnezzar has no choice but to believe that their God is a God of great power. He announced God’s ability to deliver to his entire kingdom and threatened anyone who speaks ill of the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
How will your story end? Will people know about your God? Will they tell others of how they saw God deliver you? Will they see you walking with faith through fiery trials? And most importantly, will you choose to find freedom in the fire? Next time you face hardship in your life, choose to say, “No matter what happens, I will trust in my God.” Remember, Christian, if you trust God and follow His direction. Whether it be a time of peace or a time of trial, whatever God allows in your life will ultimately result in your good.