He said, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.” (Daniel 3.25)
As a boy I got hooked on ABC’s “Batman” series. I loved the show for its big climax. The villain would be within seconds of destroying Gotham, when—surprise!—the Caped Crusaders would appear from nowhere to save the city. The camera would zoom into an extreme close-up of the villain’s stupefaction as he/she cried, “What are you doing here?” Of course, I expected this all along. Yet there was something deeply satisfying in seeing bad people caught off-guard. It touched a nerve in my young psyche that never got old.
That nerve still lights up when I revisit the story of the fiery furnace in Daniel. In this case, however, the villainy is chillingly imaginable. Babylon’s monarch, Nebuchadnezzar, is profoundly troubled. A recurrent nightmare robs him of sleep. He summons his psychics to explain it, but in true madman fashion, he insists they describe the dream before they interpret it. “That’s impossible,” they say. Their response infuriates the king and he orders the execution of every wise man in his realm, including Daniel and other captive Jews. The night before he’s to die, God reveals the dream and its meaning to Daniel. He solves the mystery for Nebuchadnezzar, who honors his request to spare the wise men's lives and gives him charge of them and his government. The king also grants Daniel’s request that his friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, be named regional administrators so he can remain at court. A first-time reader might assume this is the surprise ending, when it’s actually exposition for the really big surprise.
Short-term memory loss appears to be a common Babylonian affliction. Once the king’s peace of mind is restored, he forgets his dream. It involved an enormous idol that crashes down because its clay feet can’t support its weight. So what does Nebuchadnezzar do? He constructs a nine-story idol and decrees everyone must worship it or face death. Naturally, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to comply. The native seers and sages, who loathe the Jews (forgetting a Jew recently saved their lives), rush to report the three Hebrews’ disobedience. The king goes into a rage, arrests the men, ties them up, and throws them into a furnace. But all the fire does is free their bindings. Instead of going up in smoke, they move about the incinerator. The king increases the heat by seven and waits for their demise, when—surprise!—a fourth figure appears from nowhere. “Didn’t I throw three men into the fire?” he asks. “Then who’s that? There’s a fourth person—someone who looks like a son of the gods!”
The Adult Version
For many of us, the story is so familiar—etched forever in memory since Sunday school—I imagine we quickly scanned the retelling to find out if there’s any unusual take on it below. (Spoiler alert: there isn’t, though it may not be exactly what you expect.) Still, we lose something highly valuable, I think, by categorizing this and other childhood Bible favorites as juvenile fables with quickly grasped morals. When we’re kids, we’re told about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to learn the importance of not compromising our faith under pressure. To be sure, this lesson remains relevant always. Yet as adults, there’s more we can find here—and profound comfort we should take from what we discover.
The adult version focuses on what transpires before the furnace. It shows how faithfulness to God can result in extreme tests. And it reminds us that people whom we serve and protect should not be counted on to return our kindness and compassion. We will meet many in life who are afflicted with short-term memory loss. Their fear and hatred of us—or people like us—will erase any recall of how we helped them. After we reach out to ease their anxieties, they very well may ignore everything we tried to tell them and fall back into old habits and prejudices. In fact, they may resent us with such fervor they’ll contrive elaborate methods to back us into corners where refusing to compromise will put us in dire jeopardy. Rather than accommodate their success by submitting to fear and doubt, we stand firm. We may never know why they’re intent on our destruction. But this we do know: they will not succeed.
The Last in a Series
We often equate trials with fiery furnaces—extreme situations where everything is at risk. The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego teaches us differently. The furnace is the last in a series for them. They’re sentenced to death for crimes they didn’t commit. Even though one of their own wins pardon for those who did enrage the king, deeply entrenched prejudice against them persists, fueled by jealousy when they’re more highly favored than the majority. Despite their loyalty, there’s no respect for their values, no regard for their individualism. They’re presented with a choice: conform or die. One suspects if we spoke to the three men today, they’d say the fire was the least of it. The toughest part was surviving the conflicts and betrayal leading up to the furnace.
Sweeping judgments are trials. Ungrateful acts are trials. Prejudice, jealousy, and disrespect are trials. Compulsions to conform are trials. Times when we’re tied up and tossed into ruin are trials. Situations where others watch us suffer, waiting for our destruction, are trials. Through it all, we endure confidently, knowing we will survive. There’s a big surprise ahead—a triumphant moment when those who wish us no good will ask, “Who’s that?” He may look like “a son of the gods” to them. We know precisely Who it is. His standing beside us is hardly a surprise. He’s been there all along.
Although our adversaries may be taken aback when they finally recognize God stands with us in our trials, we’ve always known He’s with us.
Postscript: Imagine Me
I posted this video several months ago, but it’s worth repeating here—just for this: “Imagine God whispering in your ear, letting you know that everything that has happened is now gone.” The Bible says, when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego left the furnace, not one hair on their heads was singed and no smell of smoke was in their clothes. God stands with us in our trials to bring us through, intact and unscathed. Kirk Franklin: “Imagine Me.”
Imagine me loving what I see
When the mirror looks at me
'Cause I imagine me
In a place of no insecurities
And I'm finally happy
'Cause I imagine me
Letting go of all the ones who hurt me
'Cause they never did deserve me
Can you imagine me
Saying no to thoughts that try to control me
Remembering all You told me
Lord, can You imagine me
Over what my mamma said
And healed from what my daddy did
And I want to live
And not read that page again
Being free, trusting You totally
Finally, I can imagine me
I admit it was hard to see You being in love
With someone like me
Finally, I can imagine me
Being strong and not letting people break me down
You won't get that joy this time around
Can You imagine me
In a world nobody has to live afraid
Because of Your love, fear's gone away
Can You imagine me
Letting go of the past
And glad I have another chance
And my heart will dance
"Cause I don't have to read that page again
This song is dedicated to people like me
Those that struggle with insecurities
Acceptance and even self-esteem
You never felt good enough
You never felt pretty enough
But imagine God whispering in your ear
Letting you know that everything that happened is now