I stood looking up at it. Towering ninety feet above the plain, its glistening gold seeming to capture the fire of the sun, it was easily the most noticeable thing for miles around. Nebuchadnezzar had certainly got everyone’s attention with this one!
Of course, we had been hearing the rumours for weeks. I couldn’t help wondering whether maybe it had something to do with the dream. Some time before, the king had dreamed of a great statue. In fact, we very nearly all lost our heads over that dream, because none of the wise men was able to tell the king what he had dreamed, or to give him the interpretation. He was so angry that he ordered all the wise men in the kingdom to be killed – including us! Fortunately, when Daniel learned of the situation he cried out to our God, the God of Heaven, and He graciously gave Daniel the answer for the king and saved all our lives.
For me, that was the beginning of my feeling that God was real, and that He was truly with us in this place. Before that, to be honest, I was none to sure. Back in the land of Judah we had heard many of our elders scoffing at the prophets, those crazy men who wandered around doing all manner of ridiculous things, and all the while declaring doom and gloom everywhere. Didn’t they know that we were God’s chosen people? That we were from the tribe of the great Kind David? How could they imagine that He would allow any other nation to have victory over us? No wonder the elders laughed!
Yet it happened just as the prophets had said. Babylon attacked and defeated us, and we were carried off as exiles to the land of the Babylonians. Some of my friends – Daniel, Mishael and Azaria – and I, Hananiah, somehow ended up in the royal court. We were only young men. Each of us had seen only sixteen or seventeen summers. And yet, here we were, training to be part of the civil service in a foreign country.
It may sound glamorous, but it was far from easy. First there was the language, then a whole set of new manners and customs to learn. I ached for my homeland, for the familiar sounds, for the sight of the Temple and the priests in their robes, for the comforting knowledge that we as a people had a special relationship with God. That He was on our side.
All that was gone now. It was as if God had turned His back on us. The Babylonians even took away our names, all of which included a reference to the Lord, and named us instead after their own false gods. Instead of being “the Lord shows grace” I became Shadrach, “command of Aku.” Mishael, “Who is what God is?” became Meshach, “Who is what Aku is?” and Azaria, whose name meant “The Lord helps” was called Abednego, “Servant of Nego.” Daniel’s name meant “God is my judge”. The Babylonians called him Belteshazzar, meaning “Bel protects his life”, but somehow in spite of it, Daniel always remained Daniel. He was the strongest of the four of us. I imagine in two thousand years’ time, Daniel will still be Daniel and we three will be Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego! (Who am I kidding? Who will remember four Hebrew boys even twenty years after we have gone, much less two thousand?)
Over all, it was pretty depressing, even though the four of us were rising quickly through the ranks of the Babylonian civil service. I for one would happily have given up our new-found status to be back home where God was real and faith was easy.
Then the king had that dream, and God gave Daniel the interpretation, and suddenly it began to all make sense. Not only did God show that He was real, and that He cared about us, but I began to feel that maybe there was a bigger purpose in us being here. Certainly the whole thing shook up Nebuchadnezzar, to the point where he declared, “Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings!” That’s a pretty big statement from a gentile idol worshipper.
But I have digressed. As I said, I couldn’t help wondering whether this statue was a result of the statue in the king’s dream. The dream statue had a golden head, which represented Nebuchadnezzar. Its chest and arms of silver represented another, lesser kingdom that would replace his, and the belly and thighs of bronze a further, still lesser kingdom that would replace it. Its legs of iron and feet of iron mixed with clay were a fourth, inferior kingdom. Finally, a rock cut out by non-human hands smashed the whole thing, breaking it to pieces and establishing a kingdom that will last for ever.
Was this huge, golden statue that now dominated the plain of Dura Nebuchadnezzar’s attempt to say that all those lesser kingdoms would not replace him, but that his kingdom, the golden kingdom, would stand forever?
My thoughts were interrupted by a trumpet blast, and the loud cry of a herald, and I quickly realized that I had far more to worry about than trying to analyze the king’s motives.
When all the musical instruments sounded, the herald declared, everyone was to bow down and worship this statue. Those who refused would be thrown into a blazing furnace.
A cold shudder ran down my back. I looked around at my companions, Mishael and Azaria, and could tell at once from their faces that they were every bit as stunned as I was. Had it really come to this? Our faith had been stretched to breaking point already, was it now to be tested beyond our ability?
Not a word passed between us as we gazed from one to another, searching each other’s eyes for a response. Slowly, deliberately, an almost imperceptible shake of the head from each. Another look, and an equally deliberate, barely discernible nod. We all knew where we stood, and we stood together.
The music sounded: horns, flutes, zithers, lyres, harps – a cacophony of every kind of instrument. Around us everyone dropped whatever they were doing and fell down to worship the statue. We stood. Silently, we prayed. We knew our God was able to deliver us from whatever fate lay before us. Swallowing our fear, we chose to believe that He would. Could we know for sure? We knew that none of us was certain, but we also knew that no matter what the outcome, we could not bow. The honor of our God was more important than our lives. Live or die, we would not – could not – deny Him.
Of course, there were those who were quick to denounce us, all too pleased that they now had both an excuse and a means to get rid of us. We were hauled before the king, and he was furious. His earlier acknowledgment of our God had vanished, and he demanded us to worship his false gods or face the furnace.
It’s funny, how a crisis clarifies and focuses your thoughts. In that moment, standing before the king who had all the earthly power in the world, including that of life or death, a strange calm settled over us. Every doubt that we had ever had about God’s reality vanished, replaced with a knowing that was more certain than certainty. Fear fled, and we stood as if clothed with an authority far beyond that of the king. We still did not know that God would rescue us, but we knew that we were in His hands, and even in death nothing could touch us but what He allowed.
We spoke with one voice. “Our God is able to save us from your furnace, and He will do so. But even if He doesn’t, we will not bow to your false gods.”
The whole thing takes on a dream-like quality from that point on. The king was shouting, the courtiers were shouting, the soldiers were shouting. They quickly shovelled more fuel onto the fire, heating the furnace to seven times its normal level. Almost before we could blink, we were grabbed and bundled quickly from arm to arm up the human chain that led to the mouth of the furnace. Soldiers dragged us the last part of the way, but the heat was such that they collapsed and died even as they pushed us into the flames.
There was no time for us to think or to feel fear or anything else. Before we knew it we were standing in the middle of the fire. Then it hit us. We were standing in the middle of the fire! I looked around. Yes, there was Mishael, and Azaria. Each one looked perfectly normal, not bothered at all by the heat. They weren’t even sweating! Neither was I!
Then I looked up, and standing in the midst of us was Another. The warmth and power that emanated from Him made the fire seem lifeless. An overwhelming flood of worship engulfed my being, and I knew that our faith had met our God.