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Daniel (2010)

Fiery Furnace

Daniel  3

Lesson audio

The reader will note that the text of the Scripture, Daniel 3, is omitted for reasons of space. The lesson begins with reading the entire chapter.

Nebuchadnezzar

Our man Nebuchadnezzar does seem to be a strange sort of person, doesn't he? It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that Nebuchadnezzar is a man who ruled by his emotions.

Why did he build the statue?

It is not entirely a question of Nebuchadnezzar's emotions, but there are some other good reasons for building such a statute:

  • First, there is self-glorification. One of the diseases of kings is that of an overstretched ego. Every president thinks his face belongs on Mount Rushmore.
  • More importantly, the statue serves to unify his empire. Unity comes from a set of common beliefs. Without such beliefs, an empire crumbles. In the United States those beliefs are to be found in such documents as the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

Note, please, that the king does not require that you actually believed in his particular religion, just that you show the outward signs of obedience. A hypocrite can be as loyal as the next man. If this bowing down is not painful to you, then you can be counted as a loyal citizen.

Why did he react with rage?

It must be noted that such religious differences usually do not bother the reigning king. It is simply a matter of working out a compromise that lets the citizenry express their complete loyalty to the King while maintaining their faithfulness to whatever religion they might have. A pair of examples will make this clear. In the United States, it is sufficient for the citizen to declare his allegiance without proclaiming the state to be the supreme moral authority. This has worked well for over 200 years. In China, the opposite approach is used. Those who do not put the state first are persecuted. Notice what happens. In the United States, the church is weak. But the underground church in China is growing rapidly. What does this say for the effective goodness of persecution?

Indeed, Nebuchadnezzar shows us here the effects of a ruler who cannot keep his temper under control. This almost inevitably produces poorer results. Pride prevents the king from backtracking and fixing his mistake; and anger prevents foresight. The result is quite predictable -- except in this instance, where God takes a hand directly.

Effects of limited religion

It's interesting to see the kind of religion that most tyrants want. It is a limited religion. It is valued solely for what the tyrant can obtain from it. This has two aspects, one ancient and one modern.

  • In ancient times the desire of the tyrant was to make sure that God is on his side. The God of the Israelites was viewed as just one more god. Therefore, those who believe in that God were required to offer prayers and sacrifices in support of the King. We still do this today, as we pray for those in authority over us. This reflects the Christian view that the current government is of no real importance compared to the government of God.
  • In modern times the demand is for "private religion."[1] This means that the Christian will in no way oppose the state, since religion is purely private. It's what you do in your spare time. So it is that our president can be touchingly sympathetic with those who cling to their guns and religion. As long as your faith has no impact on the world, you can believe whatever you want.

This produces an inevitable conflict. Either the church or the state is the supreme moral authority. If the state claims that role, then persecution of the church is inevitable. As this conflict escalates, the state will eventually decide that no means other than the death penalty will work. If you simply euthanize the Christians, all your problems will be solved.

There is one short test to know whether or not matters have come to such a pass. In its classic formulation, it is this: is the king above the law?

The curious reply

It seems that the three Hebrew children don't quite understand what they should be answering for. You will first note that they do not engage in a protest march, nor do we have any record of them objecting at all until the matter is brought up. This has certain advantages.

  • First, such a process offers an opportunity for reconciliation. The child of God is always a peacemaker.
  • Such a response involves no anger. This is almost always the right way to handle the ruler’s anger.
  • More important, it shows that these three understood that dying for the faith is something which may be required. Indeed, it seems to be no big deal. But it is an honor.
  • Note, please, that one reason they did not need to bring the subject up was simply that there is never a lack of accusers for the faithful.
We do not need to give you an answer

That seems a strange reply. But considered from the viewpoint of the faithful it is relatively simple. These men know who is God. As such, since they are in captivity, they are mentally prepared to die. It helps to know what your purpose in life is. May I suggest that purpose does not include whining or complaining or menial bargaining? In this instance, their purpose is actually testimony. Be sure that a witness who is prepared to die for the faith is a powerful witness indeed.

Martyrdom

The subject is not much preached upon these days. After all, the church in America is comfortable, fat and happy. No one thinks they will be called upon to die for the faith. But please do recall that your life on this planet is temporary; you are one who is "just passing through." As such, martyrdom is something which we may yet experience in America. Some of us will be honored with this; the only question is who and when.

Indeed, as we learn in Revelation, it is by the testimony of martyrdom that Satan is overcome. As Tertullian said, the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church. We need to take our example from the ancient church; permit me a brief example. Athanasius, writing over 200 years beyond the time of Christ, wrote this:

A very strong proof of this destruction of death and its conquest by the cross is supplied by a present fact, namely this. All the disciples of Christ despise death, they take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as something dead. Before the divine advent of the Savior, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection. But that devil who of old wickedly exulted in death, now that the pains of death are loosed, he alone it is who remains truly dead. There is proof of this too; for men who, before they believe in Christ, think death horrible and are afraid of it, once they are converted despise it so completely that they go eagerly to meet it, and themselves become witnesses of the Savior's resurrection from it. Even children hasten thus to die, and not men only, but women train themselves by bodily discipline to meet it. So weak has death become that even women, who used to be taken in by it, mock at it now as a dead thing, robbed of all its strength. Death has become like a tyrant who has been completely conquered by the legitimate monarch; bound hand and foot as he now is, the passers-by jeer at him, hitting him and abusing him, no longer afraid of his cruelty and rage, because of the king who has conquered him. So has death been conquered and branded for what it is by the Savior on the cross. It is bound hand and foot, all who are in Christ trample it as they pass and as witnesses to Him deride it, scoffing and saying, "O Death, where is thy victory? O Grave, where is thy sting?"

(Athanasius, De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, V-27)

You might object to its somewhat sexist tone, but the point is clear. Real Christians do not fear death because they know the one who has conquered it.

Prophecy

It may appear that this passage has nothing to do with prophecy. But may I remind you of the symbolic importance of fire in the old and new Testaments.

  • Fire is the symbol of the Holy Spirit, as given at Pentecost.
  • Fire is often the symbol of judgment, in particular the judgment of hell.
  • As such, it is often associated with the destruction of the wicked.

So you can see the symbolic importance of this passage. It clearly teaches us that the righteous will be unharmed by the fires of hell. Indeed by the coming of our Lord the righteous will be exalted. Many people do not like this type of allegorical interpretation, but scholars of the Scriptures have used it for thousands of years. It must be verified with other uses, but I think this one is sure.

Hell cannot exist.

This argument may surprise you. Among the philosophical it has been argued that hell, as described for example by Lazarus, cannot possibly exist. The reason is very simple: fire consumes. If you place a human body in the fire, you get ashes. Thus, it is argued that the Hell described in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man cannot possibly exist for ever. Indeed, it can only exist for a short time.

Aquinas, in answering this objection, pointed to this passage of scripture. In effect, he said that if the three Hebrew children can be kept from the effects of the fire, then so can the wicked indefinitely. It may seem an unusual problem, but it has risen to give grief over the centuries.

Son of God.

The most prominent prophetic problem raised in this chapter is of course just who is the fourth person in the fire? In the King James version you will see the statement that this is the son of God. Most of the modern translations use the phrase "son of the gods." The Hebrew will support either interpretation, and thus the modern translators take a more conservative view of the original documents.

The allegorical significance of the passage is clear. The more severe the trial, the more visibly and palpably present is our Lord.

In addition, we might take comfort from the fact that it is in the fiery furnace that our Lord, or an angel from the Lord, is given to the three Hebrew children. When the times of trial come, particularly when the lake of fire is visible, our Lord will be there to see that no harm comes to us. Is it too much of the stretch to see this as a picture of the end times?


[1] Our current president speaks of “freedom of worship;” “freedom of religion” is now politically incorrect. In short, do whatever you please – inside the church building. Outside, you belong to the state.

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