The wicked flee when no one pursues,
But the righteous are bold as a lion.
The trumpets sounded. The harps and flutes and voices quickly joined in as the royal musicians of the world’s most powerful nation struck up a symphony to send a single message to its people: Bow down.
And so, fearing the wrath of their proud ruler, conquered nations and citizens alike bowed down to a giant golden idol, proving their loyalty to King Nebuchadnezzar. An entire empire lay prostrate before a statue.
An entire empire—with three exceptions. While the rest of their fellow subjects buried their faces in the ground, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah stood defiantly. Like the royal musicians, they too were sending a message: We will not.
Word rushed back to the king like a fire igniting his wrath. Bitter citizens informed Nebuchadnezzar that three of the Jews he had instated as officials in his empires were now openly defying him, refusing to bow before his statue as commanded. Enraged, the king sent for them and demanded an answer: Had they really been so foolish as to openly defy the orders of the most powerful man in the world? He then restated the ultimatum that the three men knew all too well—they could either bow down to the statue with the rest of the empire, or they could burn alive in a furnace.
What came next would shake a kingdom.
God had given His people, the nation of Israel, chance after chance (and warning after warning) to choose Him as their God. Time after time, they rejected Him in favor of smelted idols or carved figurines—choosing creation over the Creator. Centuries later, Stephen would summarize their history as he reprimanded the Israelite leaders of his time: “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you” (Acts 7:51).
Our Creator is patient, but He will not endure sin forever. And so, after centuries of second chances, He removed His protection from the nation and allowed foreign powers to cart the once-great people into captivity. Assyria would plunder the majority of Israel first; Babylon would follow, conquering what remained. Among the spoils claimed by the now-mighty Babylonians were four men of note: Daniel (who you probably remember from his time in the lion’s den) and his three friends, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah (who you probably remember from their Babylonian names, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego).
It didn’t take long before these four faithful men of God distinguished themselves before the eyes of their captor, King Nebuchadnezzar. Through the inspiration of God, Daniel was able to both describe and interpret a dream of the king’s—a feat impossible for the alleged “wise men” of the Babylonian empire. This earned Daniel a promotion from captive to “ruler over the whole province of Babylon, and chief administrator over all the wise men of Babylon” (Daniel 2:48). The king also agreed to “set Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego over the affairs of the province of Babylon” (Daniel 2:49).
The story might have ended there, if not for a minor problem: Nebuchadnezzar was not a particularly humble ruler. Something about being the most powerful man in the world had bloated his ego to mammoth proportions. So when construction finished on his 90-foot tall golden idol and he sent out the orders to worship it on pain of death whenever the royal musicians gave the cue, the very thought that three of his highest rulers would openly oppose his command was unacceptable. He summoned them and explained, with all the tenderness of an egotistical dictator, that their continued refusal would end with searing agony as they plummeted to the bottom of a burning fiery furnace.
What happened next
There’s a good chance that Nebuchadnezzar had not solidified his authority by memorizing the birthdays of his officers’ children. Far more likely that the ruthless king had learned to make gruesome examples of those who opposed him—so it makes sense that Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego were not having this discussion in the king’s private quarters. When he shouted in rage, “And who is the god who will deliver you from my hands?” (Daniel 3:15), no doubt an entire court of officials stood stunned and silent, waiting anxiously to hear how the three rulers would answer. Could they possibly defy the king to his face? Would they be so foolish as to sign their own death sentence? Anyone with half a brain would surely realize that their only hope was to prostrate themselves like everyone else—but the three men were not interested in appeasing anyone.
Instead, their answer would be recorded in God’s Word, preserved for us down through the millennia as a defining example of what it means to be a Christian—and what it means to be as bold as lions. They told the king:
O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up (Daniel 3:16-18, emphasis added).
Unsurprisingly, King Nebuchadnezzar flew into a rage, intent on making the consequences of disobedience unmistakably clear. The furnace was heated seven times hotter than usual—so hot that some of the finest soldiers in Nebuchadnezzar’s army were killed just by getting close enough to throw in the rebellious Jews. Much more surprising was when the king noticed the three men, not writhing in agony, but walking amidst the flames unharmed…and in the company of a fourth figure he could only describe as looking “like a son of the gods” (Daniel 3:25, New International Version).
Ego or not, the king of Babylon was forced to come face-to-face with one simple fact: There was a Being more powerful than him, and that Being didn’t approve of Nebuchadnezzar’s idol. The king called for Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego to come out of the furnace, then promoted them and made a decree that anyone who dared speak against the God of these three men would be sentenced to an unenviable death.
What it means for us
God’s miraculous rescue of His three faithful servants has made this story an enduring favorite, the real lesson lies in what happened before the fire. In fact, the real lesson lies in three simple words from the men’s short speech:
“But if not.”
They told the king, “our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up.”
Contained within these three words is an attitude, a mindset, that any Christian who hopes to capture a lion’s boldness must have—a firm belief that serving God is unconditional.
Look at their words again. They begin by expressing their complete faith in God’s ability to save them from Nebuchadnezzar’s wrath. This king of Babylon saw himself as more powerful than the gods his people served—he had deluded himself into thinking he was omnipotent, unstoppable. When he asked, “And who is the god who will deliver you from my hands?” he wasn’t looking for a response. So when the three men responded with, “Our God,” it sent him into a rage. And if that had been all they said, this still would have made for a powerful account—but what makes it remarkable is what came next. The “But if not.”
The Biblical account in Daniel 3 mentions no divine revelation from God. We see no record of a vision or dream given to His servants, letting them know that they would be rescued by God. Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego could not have been certain whether God would bring them alive out of the furnace. They knew He was able, but they didn’t know for sure that He would. So they tell the most powerful ruler on Earth that even if God doesn’t deliver them from the fire—even if they knew in advance that refusing to bow would result in an excruciating death, they would not bow.
Not knowing that a divine rescue was imminent, it would have been easy for most people to justify bowing to the statue. After all, they wouldn’t really be worshiping the idol. God would know their hearts. They’d just be keeping out of trouble so that they could keep on worshiping the real God later! And besides that, if they were to die, that would be three fewer followers of God in a pagan government. So really, it was in everyone’s best interest, especially God’s, that they stay alive—and if that means a little compromise, then so be it, right?
Wrong in every sense of the word. If there’s one lesson in this story, it’s this: The conditions don’t matter. Following God has never and will never be a matter of, “I’ll serve God if…” Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego understood this. There was no, “We’ll only refuse to worship your statue if God rescues us.” It didn’t matter if God saved them or not—they were not going to bow, period. End of story. They would not compromise, and they would not blur any lines set by God, no matter the cost to their positions or their lives. And it’s because of this unconditional devotion to God that they were able to be bold as lions before King Nebuchadnezzar—the most powerful man in the world.
How about us? In our lives, we might not face anything so dramatic as a one-way trip into a burning fiery furnace. But we do face pressure to compromise—to blur the lines that God has set for us. We might even be able to convince ourselves that it’s okay, that God will understand because the ends justify the means, or because we’re not 100 percent sure that God will save us so it’s better to fend for ourselves. But the second we take that step, the second we choose to compromise even the slightest on God’s standards, we’ll be transformed from fearless, bold lions to whimpering, uncertain kittens. It might not show immediately on the outside; we may even manage to trick some people into thinking otherwise, but in our hearts, we’ll know—we’re not bold. We’re cowards.
On the contrary, when we choose to resist the pressure to compromise—whether or not we’ve fallen short before—we establish ourselves as bold lions. When we choose to stand up for God’s way, especially when we know it could cost us dearly, we not only maintain our integrity before God, but we also set an example of what it means to be a Christian.
King David wrote a verse that sums it all up beautifully; it may even have been going through the minds of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego when they made their now-famous speech. He wrote, “In God I have put my trust; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Psalm 56:11). When we trust God—truly trust in His omnipotence, omniscience and immense care for us—then we know that our fellow man can do nothing more to us than what God allows. More than that, we know that whatever God allows, however little we understand it, is for our good. Secure in this knowledge, we can be bold.
As we noted earlier in this story, the names you likely know these three men by are Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego. These were the names assigned to them by their Babylonian captors and, for some reason, the names that stuck in this account. Because of this, it’s easy to overlook their real names—names that rightly give glory to their God. Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah respectively mean “God has favored,” “Who is like God?” and “God has helped.” Even the names of these three men powerfully reflect their confidence and faith in God’s unparalleled ability to deliver His people.
And, yes—in the end, God rescued His three servants and even caused Nebuchadnezzar to promote them and proclaim God’s greatness throughout his empire. But what makes this account so inspiring is that even if He hadn’t…it would still have been a story worth telling.
Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah were bold as lions. Will you be?
Until next time,