Summary: Daniel’s colleagues faced a dilemma - compromise their faith in God or die - but refusing to do so, God stood by them in their hour of peril.
The story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the burning, fiery furnace is a favourite in the Old Testament and it has enjoyed its popularity since the earliest days in the Christian church when the first generation of Christians in Rome were being persecuted for their faith. The story was painted in the catacombs by believers persecuted by the Romans and has been an inspiration to all who have been oppressed. It is a story of rugged faith and uncompromising faithfulness to God.
We first meet Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in chapter 1 where as colleagues of Daniel they refused to defile themselves with the tainted royal food and wine, and now their commitment was again to be challenged. Perhaps this tells us that one spiritual victory is not the end: in fact each day sees us at the foot of a different mountain to climb. Every day we are subject to being tempted to deny the Lord whom we love and serve. We can find help and encouragement as we focus our attention upon these brave men who honoured the Lord in their time of fierce testing. Notice first:
THE CHALLENGE THEY FACED
The circumstances were that the proud king Nebuchadnezzar had set up a golden image. It was a huge monument, 90 feet high and 9 feet wide. It may have been an image of himself or a heathen god, and may have been inspired by the vision he had seen in chapter 2. Perhaps he had been worrying over the fact that the image of mixed metals and clay had ended up in dust and he wanted to restructure his society. No base metal of deviation from his religion and culture would be tolerated; he would exclude all possible sources of division and disintegration. Everyone must conform.
All the high officials of the Babylonian empire had been summoned to the dedication ceremony, a great orchestra was raising the emotional temperature, perhaps a warning that people can do silly things in this type of hyped-up atmosphere, especially in religious situations. I remember being at a meeting in London where an American evangelist was making an altar call: as a friend told me, it took more courage to stay in your seat than to go out to the front for prayer! But here at Nebuchadnezzar’s big occasion there was also fear, for evil was in the air.
I wonder where Daniel was? For some reason not recorded he was not present - perhaps he was absent on a state mission. I expect his three friends missed him terribly - they were on their own. They had to make their own stand without the guidance of their acknowledged leader. It is good to have senior friends in the Lord but we must not be over-dependent on them for we never know if a situation will arise when they are not there to help.
So the scene was set for a great cultural and religious spectacle. Yet there was something sinister about it because as a last resort Nebuchadnezzar had imposed the sanction of death by the fiery furnace to deal with a possible lunatic fringe of anti-social cranks. The pride of the ruthless dictator would tolerate no opposition, for refusal to obey would be an affront to Nebuchadnezzar’s dignity and an insult to his god.
This was a challenge the three young men simply had to face; it was a problem that would not go away. A choice had to be made there and then. Choices have to be made by all of us at some time. A poet (James Russell Lowell) put it like this: "Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide; Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight; Parts the goats upon the left hand, and the sheep upon the right; And the choice goes by for ever, ’twixt that darkness and that light."
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to bow down. They refused to renounce God and his commands. They refused to follow the crowd. They were determined to stand out against this evil thing and to be faithful to the Lord at any cost. Here was courage of the highest order, for they were prepared to face a fearful death rather than dishonour their God. But the story does not end there because the Biblical account tells us that Nebuchadnezzar offered them a second chance. We go on to learn of:
THE COMPROMISE THEY REFUSED
Nebuchadnezzar ordered the rebels to be brought before him. He recognized them as the Jews he had recently honoured and was prepared to give them the benefit of a doubt in his mind that they had made a mistake. He assumed that it could not possibly be their deliberate intention to defy him and so he would give them a second opportunity to conform. What a temptation! In a multi-faith society, surely it is reasonable just to bend the joints of your knees as an appropriate act of respect for the king’s wishes? Why not just go along with it and humour him? Surely it would be seen as ungrateful to publicly oppose him after he’d showed such kindness? In any case, we can almost hear the tempter whispering in their ears, "it’s a long way from Jerusalem"! It was Spurgeon who said that "character is what you are in the dark".