The second chapter ends with Daniel’s elevation to “ruler over the entire province of Babylon … in charge of all its wise men” (2:48) yet we are told that he remained at the royal court (2:49). Perhaps his work took him away occasionally, but whatever the reason he is totally absent from the famous incident recorded in chapter 3. It is the only chapter in the book of Daniel where he receives no mention. All the threat and fear of the second chapter of Daniel has gone, and we are in the first verse plunged into a new conflict: “King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, ninety feet high and nine feet wide, and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon.” It is an uncompromising beginning to an uncompromising chapter. The worried faces in the nation have gone; Nebuchadnezzar has set that dream behind him: “We are not to think about nightmares, and empires collapsing, and prophecies about the future. Kings shouldn’t worry about such things. Let’s celebrate the great ‘now’.” Nebuchadnezzar’s generals may have just returned with news of victories won, and imperial expansion. The dream of that statue that man had set up, but which was shattered in pieces, is thrust to the back of the Babylonian collective consciousness, except that it had sowed a seed in Nebuchadnezzar’s mind. The King did with it what “ignorant and unstable people” always do with living themes from the Bible, “distort them to their own destruction” (2 Pet.3:16). So Nebuchadnezzar would have a statue made. Even more beautiful than the one in his dream, this one would not have a mere head of gold, but it would be entirely gold to the tips of its toes. The King had once said, “Surely your God is the God of gods and Lord of kings” (2:47) but, I mean, who in the world wants to hold on to every vow they’ve given, and every promise they’ve made, and every such statement as, “I’ll go to church every Sunday from now on” ? How many people in the manipulative atmosphere of modern worship services have sung all those songs about the King and the kingdom, with words just like the ones Nebuchadnezzar used, “He is King of kings and Lord of lords,” and yet very soon afterwards have set up some idol for themselves ? Nebuchadnezzar was not the first great man in the world to change his mind about God, nor the last.
So Nebuchadnezzar has this statue erected, and he will worship a power greater than Daniel’s God, and he will make others worship it too. He’ll make the whole empire worship it. This statue stands for the power of Babylon that Nebuchadnezzar has acquired and embodies. “I am Babylon” he thinks. And when men see the sun shining on this they will fall before this idol. It is built on the plain of Dura i.e. ‘the fortress’, “A mighty fortress is the power of Babylon” – that is the message of the statue. It is in its Hebrew measurements 60 cubits high and 6 cubits wide. In the book of Revelation the number ‘6’ is important. The antichrist also had a great statue, and the beast’s number is 666. So here in the plain of ‘the fortress’ is something demonic, harsh and blinding, and the people have to leave their families and work and plod to Dura gathering from all the empire – “men of every language” (3:4) – to boost the golden king’s ego, and bow before his statue, giving honour to it as to a god.
All the worship of this idol is described, how it’s orchestrated, and controlled to the last detail. “This is what you are commanded to do, O peoples, nations and men of every language: 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” (3:4-6). Who is there? Simply everybody: “the satraps, the prefects, the governors, the advisers, the treasurers, the judges, the magistrates, and all the other provincial officials” (3:2). Everybody who was anybody. “We’d better be there, even with our broken ankles, our old age, our influenza; we are not going to be noticed as absentees. We’ll be there by hook or by crook.” What happened when they gathered on the plain ? They ‘dedicated’ the idol (v.3). That is, they gave it personality. Orators spoke about it – what it had done already and what it could do. They bragged about it and sought to make it live. They spoke about it as if it were a living entity with some actual powers of its own, as if it could answer prayer, as if it could protect you, as if it could give you prosperity, as if it could bring your husband back safely from war, cure your diseases and give you children. They gave personality to this gold statue when they dedicated it. It was to become the focus of the religion of the state: “We are worshipping the great power of Babylon that has made us mighty. They don’t push us around in the world any longer thanks to this great golden figure”.
A group came to the front to commence the proceedings and create a religious atmosphere, carrying a whole range of musical instruments, and how they played ! One wonders how they managed in the New Testament church without one single musical instrument mentioned in the gospels, or the book of Acts, or the letters ? That was a church like the unhewn rock growing in vitality and energy filling the whole world (Cols.1:6) yet without any mention of an instrument, and when in the book of Acts a reference is given of Christians singing, it is two men in prison at midnight (Acts 16:25) and that is it. But on the plain of Dura the band walks in and starts to play, and immediately people fall down. And if they didn’t, they knew what would happen, they were thrown into a blazing furnace. It was safe to be there and to fall down when the music played. The leader had conditioned them to that response with a dark threat thrown in (3:4).
The warning of a “blazing furnace” is the give-away. We all know in this hideous century about death ovens, napalm bombs and incendiaries, torture chambers and Schindler’s List. Nebuchadnezzar’s threat of the fiery furnace for any foolish non-conformist is the indicator which blows the cover on the whole Babylonian system. It was just another tyranny, a despot’s merciless machine. No one was gathering on the plain of Dura voluntarily. Not one person fell down before the statue because they had an atom of love in their hearts for the idol. Nebuchadnezzar had a beautiful city, with hanging gardens and an orchestra, and now another icon, an impressive golden statue, but the King had to force people to fall and worship with the threat of the furnace if they declined. Nebuchadnezzar was a monster. The roaring furnace belching out its smoke was a symbol of this despot, while all through the vast crowd his secret police, the so-called ‘astrologers’ (3:8), were scattered checking out on who might be sort-of crouching, but not actually falling down flat.
Also in the crowd are Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, administrators over the province of Babylon. They know why they have been summoned to Dura. They have heard the instructions, and know the threat. They listen to the music, and they see everyone else getting down and lying before the statue, but they remain erect. with just a little glance at one another. They stand out as plain as three pikestaffs on the plain of Dura. These three Old Testament Messiahists know the law of God, and how it begins, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in the heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them:” (Exodus 20:3-5). The words are utterly lucid. The law of God is amongst the most easily understandable parts of Scripture. There was no problem of inadequate guidance. They knew what God required of them and as every one bowed to the ground like corn blown in the wind, these three young men remained erect.
The secret police ran straight to Nebuchadnezzar, basking in the glow of the occasion. “O king live for ever ! You have issued a decree, O king … But there are some Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon – Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego – who pay no attention to you, O king. They neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up” (3:9-12). Nebuchadnezzar was furious with rage. Here are two kingdoms – two empires – in total contradiction to one another. The kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar has no place for those who will not sing the songs of the pagan choir and kneel before this idol.
When the young men were brought to him he recognised them and called them by name. These were the boys who had ten times the wisdom, dependability and integrity of all those toadies who sniffed around him for promotion. So he quizzed them: “Is this true? Are you ready to worship the great golden god now? If so, very good. We will just forget about this momentary lapse. If not, there’s the blazing furnace – I’ve made that plain – and what god is really able to rescue you from my hand ?” (3:15) The men had learnt graciousness and they replied so gently: “O Nebuchadnezzar, 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” (Dan.3:16-18). They had overcome the temptation to justify falling before the idol saying to one another, “Well, it’s no big deal to bow down. It’s just a cultural matter, just a courtesy, a declaration that we are giving to Nebuchadnezzar the things that are Nebuchadnezzar’s.” Because every other Jew there on the plain of Dura had argued himself into prostration. But these three were different. They had been taught by God that to him who knows what the good is and refuses to do it, to him that is sin. So the furnace was heated up seven times hotter than usual and they were thrown into its glowing intensity by the strongest soldiers who were in the process killed by arms of flame that leapt out at them.
There are two things of significance here. The first is what happened in the flames. The boys were tied up and thrown in their clothes into the furnace. But the house the Lord is establishing in the world is not made of kindling wood and oil. God’s people are not like a truck-load of pigs taken to the slaughter-house for their throats to be cut. You can’t destroy the church in as matter of fact way as men put down an old dog. There are thunders in heaven when the apple of the Lord’s eye is touched on earth. When Nebuchadnezzar goes along to see the fun, hear the screams, and watch the writhing agonies, his eyes pop out for he surveys four men in the furnace, not three, all unbound and unharmed. That is the first reality confronting him within a stone’s throw of that tall dead idol. The Almighty who disturbs by sending dreams can himself come close in visiting his people, and he “looks like a son of the gods” (3:25). It was enough to make Nebuchadnezzar jump with shock (3:.24). The uninvited God he was seeing had more power than anything taking place that day on the plain of Dura. Those three who refused to bow to his idol were being visited by one of the race of the gods. He had not descended on the statue, nor shown himself to its worshippers, but he visited those three and turned that furnace into a pleasant morning stroll. That was all Nebuchadnezzar was able to see with the eyes of sight, but what do we see when we flood this passage with the light of Calvary ? Don’t we see the Son of God in the furnace? Do our minds turn to Golgotha? Do we think of how the Lord Jesus Christ in visiting us entered the lake of fire there for us? The flames of hell can never go out, but the Lord Christ voluntarily entering Calvary’s hell for us, that we might walk the cool glades of heaven in peace with him, upon the green pastures and by its still waters for ever and ever. There is the Son of God in the furnace in Babylon, and he is there to protect every hair on the heads of his people – with whom he stands in the closest solidarity: “Nebuchadnezzar, Nebuchadnezzar why persecutest thou me?” Babylon decides it will hold a festival on the plain of Dura to celebrate its power. God determines to hold a festival on the hill of Golgotha to commemorate his grace. While the whole world falls down and is worshipping man, the church, in the smallest remnant of three boys, stands amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene. The one who on the cross entered into the everlasting fires is present where three gather together in his name. Immediately there are four.What a difference a pervasive consciousness of this blessing would bring to all our gatherings. When a Christian husband and wife come together then a third is there to bless and help them. Fourteen ministers met for a pastor’s Prayer Retreat. One had been touched by these words of the New York pastor, Gardiner Spring: “The time was, when the pastors of the American churches valued the privilege of prayer. They were not only men of prayer, but they prayed often for and with one another. Their reciprocal and fraternal visits were consecrated and sweetened by prayer, nor was it anything unusual for them to employ days of fasting and prayer together for the effusions of God’s spirit upon themselves and their churches. They were days of power; days when God’s arm was made bare, and His right hand plucked out of his bosom. Nor was it difficult to see, then, wherein lay the great strength of the pulpit; ‘He that is feeble among them shall be as David, and the house of David shall be as God.” The prayer retr eat those words inspired exceeded the expectations of all who attended because of a fifteenth Person powerfully present with them.
The second point is simply this, that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did not know in advance whether God would deliver them. If saving them would advance his glory then he would. “God is able to save us” (3:17), that is what they said. But since they had first turned from their sins and cast themselves on the mercy of God they had known that the Holy One of Israel was also a God who in his majestic rectitude consumed those who loved sin. They had forfeited everything by their sin and the sin of their father Adam, and all they had received in their lives was by the grace of a merciful God. “God is able to save us – but we have no claim on him that he will save us.” If he does not deliver us we will still obey the Lord: “we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (3:17). That is the test isn’t it ? And that is just where we are now. You have been told of men who have refused to work on Sundays and they get promotion. You go to Christian Businessmen’s lunches and hear a man saying how he tithes all his profits and the Lord has doubled his turnover. You hear women testifying that they would not consider marrying those who had no interest in the Lord Jesus Christ and that God provided them with fine Christian husbands. Such things happen again and again. We have heard the preachers say, “You give the Lord £10 and he will give £100 to you.” It is good psychology but it is bad theology. We serve the Lord for nothing at all. Indeed, every Christian has to face up to the alternative possibility, that “even if he does not deliver us” we will still do his will. To serve Christ for loss, to serve Christ for loneliness, to serve Christ for death. We don’t have to be rich; we don’t have to marry; we don’t have to become parents; we don’t have to live; but we have to obey. There is no way that we can worship a golden idol, come what may. What we are promised is that all grace will always abound, that God will supply all our need, and that the Son of God will never leave us. Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death we will fear no evil for he will be with us. If we are placed in the crucible he will be there too. We have to remember God often puts his people upon the altar and sustains them there. There is always a furnace for the church. There was a furnace in Egypt, in Babylon, in Rome, in the 16th century, in the 18th century, and there has been a furnace in the 20th century. Whatever God has for his church in the next millennium we can be guaranteed there is going to be a furnace there too. Even when the signs of the appearing of Christ is at hand, because the antichrist, the Man of sin, has appeared, there will be another furnace for the church.
Today God is calling us to be prepared. When you must draw a line then don’t rub it out and draw another line. I ask you where was true joy and lasting pleasure to be found on that day in Babylon ? Was it found amongst those whose noses were in the dirt lying before a statue? Or was it found in those walking with the Son of God in the furnace? Every Christian knows the answer. The life lived under the cross of Christ is a life of joy. Don’t let appearances fool you.
And all that I meet shall work for my good,
The bitter is sweet, the medicine is food;
Though painful at present, ‘Twill cease before long,
And then oh! how pleasant the conqueror’s song.
Daniel chapter 3 ends with the strangest benediction you ever heard – from king Nebuchadnezzar. When I read this benediction, “Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants !” (3:28) then I feel as I do when I’m watching a state occasion on television and I am seeing the government or members of the Royal Family. The cameras are trained on them and they are singing great words like, “The King of love my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never; I nothing lack if I am his, and he is mine for ever,” and I am saying in my heart “O that in the muddle of your private lives it might be so for you.”
What Nebuchadnezzar is doing at the end of chapter 3 is to change the status of god-fearing men and women throughout the whole of his empire. “I decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubbish” (3:29). God used three young men, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to preserve his church in Babylon. So this affirmation, “Their God is the greatest” becomes, at least temporarily, the agenda for the minds of the empire. It was on that day, the day the statue of gold was set up in the plain of Dura and everyone who was anyone was summoned there to worship it that this very proclamation was made that no other god than the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego “can save in this way” (3:29).
But, with all these fine sentiments, Nebuchadnezzar never destroyed the golden idol. It still stood there, a dead hearer of those living words, but only words from the king. The Lord once said, “these people serve me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.” “The King of love my Shepherd is,” – just words ? “No other God can save in this way,” – just words ? Or the deepest reality of all ? Where are our hearts ? Given to him ?
And what was to happen to Nebuchadnezzar?