Trust Unto Death
In the biblical texts we have studied in this sermon series, we have seen God do some astonishing things for His people.
And now, as we turn to Daniel, chapter three, we see much of the same. The King of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, had a massive golden statute built, and the people of the land were commanded to worship it. The command to worship the image also included a warning: those who refuse to worship the image will be thrown “into the midst of a furnace of blazing fire” (Dan. 3:6). In other words, nonconformity equals capital punishment.
With such a threat looming, we are not surprised to read that when the signal was given, when the music was sounded, “all the peoples, nations, and men of every language fell down and worshipped the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up” (3:7).
Charles Spurgeon, in his application of this text, likens our world to Nebuchadnezzar. The culture of our day, like Nebuchadnezzar, expects us all to follow its fashions and to obey its rules. The challenge this inevitably presents for the Christian is that we must discern how to honour the customs of our land without dishonouring our Lord Jesus Christ. We must learn how to accompany the culture we live in, without accommodating it in an unbiblical manner.
Three Jewish men faced this challenge and, in the face of death, these men chose the honour of God over, and against, honouring their earthly king.
It would be inaccurate to describe Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego as ‘mavericks’, or as ‘renegades’. These men had become meaningfully integrated into their culture. We learn in verse twelve that these men had been “appointed over the administration of the province of Babylon”.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, had discerned how to accompany their culture without accommodating their culture. They were willing to serve within the culture, but they were unwilling to conform to a societal law that caused them to transgress against God’s law.
What Nebuchadnezzar required was in clear violation of the first and second commandments: “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on earth beneath . . . You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God” (Ex. 20:3-5).
Three Jewish men chose to be faithful to God at a time, and in a manner, that exposed them to the threat of capital punishment.
It is conceivable that their lack of conformity would go unnoticed, but certain Chaldeans made sure that the king heard of their disobedience. The three men are subsequently summoned to appear before the king and are asked this question: “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image that I have set up?” (3:14).
Following that question, the king invites the men to make things right by bowing before the image in his presence, warning them, again, that failure to conform will mean death by burning (3:15).
What are God’s people to do in such a circumstance? What limits shall be placed on the imperative to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart”? (Prov. 3:5).
Beloved, there are no limits; there are no exceptions to this imperative. Both Scripture, and history, are filled with examples of men and women who were called to trust in the Lord, even in the face of death.
As we look at the example of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, I would like us to note, first of all, the excuses they could have made; secondly, the confidence and determination they possessed, and thirdly, the result of their obedience.
The excuses they could have made: In their deliberations about whether they would conform to this new law, they might have said to themselves, ‘We are in a foreign land and perhaps we should heed the proverb that says, ‘When in Babylon, do as the Babylonians do.’ Of course, if we were at home, in the land of Judah, we would never do this. But here, as guests, we should conform.’
They might have also reasoned, ‘We are in office; we have been trusted to oversee the affairs of this land. Therefore, when we are in the public eye, we must fulfill our public duty.’
They could have reasoned with one another, ‘Everyone is doing it. It must be OK. Surely, it is safer to act in accordance with the majority.’
They might have employed the noble argument that they could do far more good by living than by being cast into the fiery furnace. ‘If we live, we continue to bear testimony of the God of Israel, but if we die, so does our testimony.’
Friends, how do we respond when faced with the choice of obeying God or conforming to our culture? And, what is at stake in those choices? Very few of us, if any at all, have ever faced the threat of death because of our allegiance to Christ. For most of us, confessing Christ and following Scriptural mandates merely means we will find others disagreeing with us. Perhaps we will be called names; I was once called ‘a Neanderthal’ by a relative who regarded some of my Christian convictions as archaic. At worst, our confession of Christ will place a strain on friendships with those who do not profess Christ; at worst, our confession of Christ will make for some difficult ethical choices in the workplace that could cost us a promotion, or even our job security.
Fearing the mockery of our culture and the ridicule of friends, many professing Christians have resorted to making excuses for their conformity to societal standards. For many, the motto of Proverbs 3:5 has been amended to say, ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart so long as it does not place you in uncomfortable circumstances.’
I doubt that the consideration of the fiery furnace was a comfortable one for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. Thankfully, their resolution was not motivated by a desire for comfort; their resolution was motivated by a desire to do what was right and honouring to God.
We have noted the excuses the men could have made; now, we should note the confidence and determination that these men possessed.
Nebuchadnezzar’s question to them is, “what god is there who can deliver you out of my hands?” (3:15). Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego answer the king, “our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (3:17, 18).
The confidence of these men is manifest in the immediacy of their response. There is no indication that the men hesitated or deliberated. Nebuchadnezzar’s question to them is ‘what god is able to save you?’ and their unflinching response is “our God whom we serve is able to save us” (3:17).
We should also note that the confidence and determination of these men did not pivot on any certainty of being delivered. Their confidence is in God’s ability to save, not in His willingness to save. They concede the possibility that God may choose not to save them. They maintain, nonetheless, that their God is able to save them, and they resolve, nonetheless, to obey their God even if it means dying a horrific death.
And finally, we look at the result of their obedience. The immediate result of their obedience was not favourable; the immediate result of their obedience was to be bound and thrown into the fire.
Thankfully, the ultimate result was the deliverance of the three men. The author of Daniel records for us the king’s response: “Look! I see four men loosed and walking about in the midst of the fire without harm, and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods!” (3:25).
Note the unique character of the deliverance. Deliverance could have come by the Lord causing Nebuchadnezzar to be merciful to the men, but this did not happen. Deliverance could have come by the Lord miraculously extinguishing the flames, but this did not happen either. No, the Lord ordained to save them in the fire rather than from the fire, and so they emerge from the fire unscathed.
And, who was that mystery man, the one “like a son of the gods”? We do not know whether this was an Incarnation of God or an angel of God. Either way, the overarching lesson is the same: in spite of outward appearances, God was in control (Longman, Daniel, 97).
Beloved, we need not shrink from the pressures we face in this world. God remains in control. There should be no hesitation when thinking where our loyalties lie.
We need to also recognize that the threat of idolatry is as prevalent today as it has ever been. And, if we struggle to imagine what forms idolatry now takes, we only prove how subtle it has become. One theologian has said that ‘a person’s god is the thing or person that one is most concerned about, thinks the most about, or affects one’s life the most’ (Tillich).
According to this definition, it is conceivable that a particular relationship may be our idol. Gearing our life, and making decisions according to what is best for our career may reveal that our vocation has been made into an idol.
No, we are not tempted to bow before golden images, but I reckon that, everyday we are tempted to give highest importance to something other than God. The Bible calls this idolatry, which is, in the eyes of God, a great sin.
So, when the temptation comes, to give highest priority to something other than God, what are you going to do? Will you make excuses? Will you reason that other Christians are doing as you are? Or will you heed the example of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego? Will you obey the Lord, even in the face of intense opposition? Will you resolve, in every context, to trust in the Lord with all your heart, and not lean on your own understanding?
I recognize the value of a loving family, a stable career, and a good reputation. But, in the end, we cannot, and must not, lean on these things. We must lean on God. When we do this; when we seek first His kingdom, we glorify God as we ought. And friends, this is our only hope for real success—in this world, and the next. Amen.