The book of Daniel is (amongst other things) the story of Daniel and his friends: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who were four Jewish boys taken (albeit by force) under the wing of the Babylonian empire.
Read Daniel 3.
Rulers often have a god-like status and Nebuchadnezzar, even after acknowledging the power of Daniel's God who interpreted his dream (see Daniel 2), sets up an enormous idol as a testimony to the supremacy of his reign / Babylonian power / Babylon's god(s). He clearly believes that his empire is the "meaning of history" as he issues a decree that officials from all the nations of his realm, be brought to Babylon to admire all that has been achieved, pledge allegiance to the king and ultimately bow the knee in worship of Babylon's god/idol. (Note, Daniel himself is curiously absent from this story and we are not sure why. Off on international business? Already got a "get-out-of-jail-free" card from chapter 2? Who knows?)
With such shock and awe tactics at play, our heroes Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had to have very clear wits and strong convictions about loving God and about the purpose of human history so as not to be carried along with the herd, bowing to the gold statue. Nebuchadnezzar had set up his idol for the people, but in their hearts, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (like Moses in Heb.11:24-26) looked by faith to the greater reality - to the God who would establish his eternal Son as the object of worship for all people, (Phil. 2:9-11) through a promise made to their forefather Abraham (See Gen. 22:18, see also Dan. 7:13-14 and Rev. 5:9-10).
Unsurprisingly, they are soon denounced for their treachery, by others from their own (envy-driven?) ranks and find themselves in front of the king. Nebuchadnezzar is clearly enraged by what he sees as high treason; he has spared their lives, brought them to Babylon, educated them and given them status and a salary in the greatest empire in the world. How could they be so ungrateful now and disobey the king's command? It is true that Nebuchadnezzar had given them everything - on an earthly level, but when he demands the allegiance of their souls, he commits a spiritually fatal overreach.
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are not ungrateful, rude, defensive or arrogant, but neither are they apologetic to the king for what they have done. They simply point out that forsaking their God to worship an inanimate lump of gold is something they can't and won't do and in so doing remind Nebuchadnezzar of his place in the order of the universe, that he like them, is only a man - he might kill their body, but he cannot take their soul (Matt.10:28). Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego display utter confidence, that however limited and fallible their own perspectives, they will obey and entrust themselves to God who has shown them a better way and will deliver them from the king's hand either by a miracle or by martyrdom.
Nebuchadnezzar is so enraged by this challenge to his authority that he orders the furnace (a symbol of his unrighteous fury) to be made white hot, so hot in fact, that his own men die delivering Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to the flames. But wait, in the midst of these flames, what does this "son of the gods" (a title of Nebuchadnezzar) see? The true Son of God, coming to strengthen, comfort and deliver his servants from the unjust anger of Nebuchadnezzar.
In fact, the presence of Christ with them in the fire is so sweet, that Nebuchadnezzar has to call Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego out of the furnace. They are in no hurry to leave!!! He then gives praise to their God and promotes them immediately. But notice what Nebuchadnezzar doesn't do - he doesn't dismantle his golden statue, nor does he personally convert, he just gives Jews special status. He likes having godly people about to benefit him and his empire, but he doesn't humble himself before the Living God.
So what do we learn?
- Whilst this scenario may have taken Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego by surprise, it didn't take God by surprise. He loves his people and is organising history so as to test and refine their hearts. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego proved faithful, God was honoured by their faithfulness and they are raised to new heights of glory in the Babylonian empire and new heights of spiritual authority and maturity as a result of their obedience. (Matt. 25:21)
- Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego managed to withstand the anger of the king because they loved God and knew God's purposes for human history. They saw faithfulness to God as more worthwhile than the accumulation of temporary riches (Luke 12:15). In the time of trial, could the same be said of us? (Matt. 6:21)
- We are to honour our families (Eph. 6:2) and those in authority over us (Rom.13:7), but there will be times in our lives when our friends / family / partners / spouses / bosses / government overstep their boundaries and expect an allegiance from us that they have no right to require. In those moments, a clear head and a pure heart that come from knowing and experiencing the goodness of God are needed to keep us from giving in to their illegitimate demands. Yes we must give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but we must also first give to God, what belongs to God - Matt. 22:21.
- If people betrayed Jesus up to death, we should not be surprised if those who we thought were our friends end up forsaking us (Luke 21:16-19).
- Should we go through a fiery trial because we choose faithfulness to Christ over whatever else, then he promises to be with us so closely in it (1 Pet. 4:14) that we will be content to live long in the trial and to bring good out of it (James 1:2-4).
Questions for reflection
- Is there a person or institution in your life expecting a level of allegiance from you that they have no right to? In the light Daniel 3 how would you respond to them?
- Do you expect a level of allegiance from someone else that you have no right to?
- Sometimes we can "start well" in a trial, but as time goes on we look to things other than God to get us through or get us out. Are you / Have you been in a situation like this? What do you need to do?
- How can you build yourself up in the knowledge and love of God (Jude 20-21) so that when these conflicts of allegiance come across your path you can not only stand your ground, but flourish in the trial?
- Have you been unfaithful? What do you need to do? How does Peter's story in Luke 22 and John 21 give you hope?