“Less a Furnace, More a Crucible: It’s Not Just the What But the Why”

by Rev. John MacIver Gage

Sometimes you don’t have to tell a different story. You just have to listen to the story you already have…

In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon attacked Jerusalem, captured it, and carried away the holy things of the Temple of God, which he used to decorate the temples of his own gods in Babylon.

He also carried away the brightest and best of the Jewish people, the makers and thinkers and their families, into exile in Babylon. Once there, the King commanded his vizier to choose some of the young men of Judah to decorate his palace. “They must be healthy, handsome, smart, wise, educated, and fit to serve,” he said. “Teach them to speak and write as we do, and to eat our food and drink our wine. Let us civilize them, train them for a period of three years, then show them off as officials in my court.”

Four of the young Jewish men selected were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. But in the court of the king, their Hebrew names were taken away, and they were given Babylonian names, easier to pronouce: Daniel they called Belteshazzar; Hanniah, Shadrach; Mishael, Meshach; and Azariah, Abednego.

Daniel held fast to the ways of his people, his culture, and his faith and made up his mind to keep kosher, to eat and drink only what was allowed under God’s law. He made his intentions known to the king’s vizier, who, for some reason known only to God, was friendly and kind to Daniel. But still the man told him. “This order has come from the king, and I am afraid he will have me killed if you refuse and end up looking worse than the others.”

So Daniel struck a deal with the guard set over him and his three friends. He said, “For the next ten days, give us only the vegetables and water we ask for, and when the ten days are up, compare us to the others who eat the king’s food. Then decided what to do with us.”

Sure enough, ten days later, when Daniel and his friends turned up looking healthier than those who had been served the food from the palace, the guard let them keep on eating the food of their people instead of the rich Babylonian food and wine.

God was with the four friends and inspired their intellect and their wisdom. They took advantage of the opportunities offered them to read lots of books and become well educated in the ways of the Babylonians. And Daniel found he had a talent for interpreting dreams and visions.

At the end of their training, the vizier brought all the young men to be interviewed by the king, who found none so outstanding as Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. He gave them positions in his court, and whenever the king asked for advice, he found their wisdom ten times more helpful than that of any of his other advisors.

In the second year of the exile in Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar was plagued with nightmares. So he called in his advisors, counsellors, magicians, and wise ones and told them, “I am disturbed by a dream I don’t understand, and I want you to explain it.”

They all bowed low before the throne and answered, “Your Majesty—may you live forever!—we are your humble servants. Tells us your dream, and we will tell you what it means.”

But the king replied, “No. You must tell me both what I dreamed and what it means. And if you don’t, I’ll know I can’t trust you, and I will have you chopped up into little pieces and your houses torn down. But if you do, I will heap riches and honor upon you. Now tell me.

“Your Majesty—may you live forever!” they choked, “We would, gladly, if only you would tell us…”

“No. I’ve told you all that I will. And now you’re just stalling, in order to give yourselves time to make something up, hoping I’ll change my mind. But I won’t be fooled. Prove your powers. Tell me my dream.”

“But, your Majesty, what you’re asking is impossible! No king, not even the most famous and most powerful—not that anyone is more famous and more powerful than you, may you live forever!—no king has ever commanded such a thing. It can’t be done, except by the gods!”

Their response made the king so angry, he gave orders for every advisor, counsellor, magician, and wise ones in the entire kingdom to be put to death, including Daniel and his three friends.

The Lord High Executioner was about to carry out this order when Daniel, who was very wise, went to him and asked, “Why has the king done this?” And when he explained what had happened, Daniel turned to his three friends and said, “Pray that the Lord God, King-Most-High in heaven, will explain this mystery to us so that no one will be put to death.” And that very night, God showed Daniel the dream and its meaning.

So Daniel praised God, saying, “O God, our God, hallowed be your name. You are all-powerful. You are all-knowing. You are in control. You rule over all rulers. You are the source of true wisdom and knowledge. You are the mystery who explains mysteries. Shadows melt away before your light. You are the God of my ancestors and my God. Thank you for showing me the way forward.”

So Daniel went back to the Lord High Executioner, who was sharpening his sword to begin his bloody work. He shouted, “Stop! Don’t kill these people! Take me to the king, and I will explain the meaning of his dream.”

The king arched an eyebrow when Daniel was brought before him. “You? Can you tell me my dream and what it means?”

“Your majesty, not even the smartest person in all the world can do what you demand. But God, my God, who rules over all, can. For while you were sleeping, the Spirit explained this mystery to me, not because I am so much smarter or better than all the others, but for your benefit and the benefit of the kingdom and the people.

“I saw you standing in front of a huge and terrifying statue, shining in the sun. Its head was made of gold, its chest and arms were silver, and from its waist to its knees, it was bronze, and from there to its ankles, it was iron, and its feet were a mixture of iron and clay.

“As you dreamed, a stone was birthed from a mountain and it rolled and rolled and gathered strength until it shattered the statue, the clay, the iron, the bronze, the silver, and the gold. All of it was crushed, utterly, until it crumbled and blew away, ultimately no more enduring than husks of wheat on the wind at threshing time. But the stone—the stone grew and grew until it became a tremendous mountain encompassing all the earth.

“That was the dream. Now I’ll tell you want it means. Your majesty, your kingdom is the greatest on earth. You are the head of gold. And after you, another kingdom will come, but it won’t be as strong, like silver next to gold. And after that, another, weaker, of bronze. Then another, of iron, consumed by violence, and another, just a mess of iron and clay that can barely hold it together.

“But God’s kingdom—that’s the stone. It will grow and grow until all other kingdoms fall before it, gold, silver, bronze, iron, and clay, and God’s reign, God’s way governs the whole wide world. Your Majesty, by this dream, God has shown you the truth, and you can trust it.”

King Nebuchadnezzar rose from his throne, walked down the steps to the floor where Daniel stood, and prostrated himself on the ground at his feet. Then he gave different orders, that the entire kingdom should honor Daniel and honor his God as higher than all other gods and kings. He promoted Daniel to be governor of Babylon and put him charge of all the other advisors, counsellors, magicians, and wise ones at court. And, at Daniel’s request, the king appointed Hananiah, who was called Shadrach; Mishael, who was called Mishach; and Azariah, who was called Abednego to positions of high authority.

But soon enough, the king gave yet another order. He commanded that a golden statue be built, 90 feet high and nine feet wide, in the hills above Babylon, where it could look over the whole city. At the dedication of this colossus, when all the governors, advisors, treasurers, judges, and officials from every province of the kingdom were gathered at its feet, the court musicians were playing the national anthem, the king had a proclamation read aloud:

“Hear ye, hear ye, people of Babylon and every race and nation: By order of the King, whenever you hear this music, you must bow down and worship this statute that the king has erected. Anyone who refuses will at once be thrown into a fiery furnace, to burn and to die.”

And the people did just that.

Now some Babylonians, high and low, used this new order as an opportunity to accuse their Jewish neighbors of disloyalty. They said, “Your majesty—may you live forever! You have commanded that whenever we should hear the music, we must bow down and worship the golden statue that you have made. And we do. But they don’t.

“And you commanded that anyone who refuses will at once be thrown into a fiery furnace, to burn and to die. But those three Jews you appointed to high positions over us—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—they refuse to bend the knee and worship you and your gods as the law demands. What will you do?

King Nebuchadnezzar was furious. He sent for the three young men at once and confronted them. “They tell me you refuse to worship my gods and the golden statue as I commanded, but I will give you one more chance.” He instructed the court musicians to play. “If you will bow down right now, everything will be alright. But if you don’t, I will order my soldiers to throw you into the fiery furnace at once, and you will burn and die. For no god can save you from me.”

The three men looked resolute. “Your majesty, we won’t worship you or your gods, because we know a greater God, who is able, able to save us from your burning will and from your fiery furnace. And even if God chooses not to, still, we will not bend the knee to any other gods or golden idols or to you. Do your worst.”

The king’s face twisted with anger, and he sputtered and spit as he roared forth the orders to heat the furnace seven-times hotter than it had ever been heated before, and to seize these ungrateful Jewish dogs and bind them and throw them into the furnace, which his soldiers did. But the furnace was so hot that, as they did, the flames leapt out and burned up the soldiers carrying out his orders.

The king gloated as he sat on his throne and peered into the flames, looking for the burning bodies, listening for the shrieks of the dying men. But he did see shocked him to his core. Despite the consuming heat of the fire, his blood ran cold. He called for his vizier.

“There were just three of them thrown into the furnace, right? Three people?” he asked.

“Yes, your majesty.”

“Then why do I see four walking around in the flames?” the king asked, confused and scared. “Why do I see four figures in there, and none of them bound, none of them burning, and the fourth one… that one shines brighter than the fires of the furnace itself! And why are they… dancing?”

King Nebuchadnezzar’s iron heart broke into tiny pieces in that moment and flew up and away like sparks from the chimney. He rose and got down and leaned in toward the blazing furnace as far as he dared, until his hair hurt and the edges of his purple gown began to curl and smoke, and he shouted over the roaring flames: “You… you there… you servants of the Most High God, come out at once!”

And so they did. Shadrach, whose real name was Hananiah; Meshach, whose real name was Mishael; and Abednego, whose real name was Azariah, all stepped out of the furnace. The king’s high officials and governors and advisors and the king himself crowded around them. They did not die. They were not burned. Their hair wasn’t scorched, and their clothes didn’t even smell like smoke. The king himself reached out one finger to touch them, as if to confirm the miracle his other sense reported. And when he spoke, it wasn’t with his kingly commanding voice, but almost a whisper, a prayer:

“Praise their God for sending aid to these, their servants! They trusted their God—they trusted their God enough to refuse to obey my commands. They chose to stand and die, rather than bow and worship or serve any god but their own.

Here the King began to recover his voice. Conscious of the eyes of the court upon him, he stood up straight and made his way back up the steps to his throne, where he turned and sat and commanded once more: “From this day forth it is forbidden that anyone of any nation or race to say anything against them and their God.” He cleared his throat. “Anyone who dares so to do will be chopped up into little bits and their houses town down, because…”

And here he faltered before going on: “Because no other god has such great power to save.”

After this happened, the king appointed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to even high positions in the administration of Babylon. But for their part, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah continued to work for one thing and one thing only, day in and day out: the liberation of their people, the liberation of all people, the only kingdom worth giving your life for: the kingdom of God.