Daniel in the Lion’s Den

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
Daniel 6
September 26, 2021

Sermon as recorded on Friday, September 24, 2021 at Bluemont Church

Introduction at the Beginning of Worship:

The late Eugene Peterson wrote a book on the Psalms of Ascents (Psalms 120-134) titled A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.[1] I read it back in the 90s and have long since lost my copy. But I still remember how Peterson opened the Psalms for my understanding. I also like his title. Peterson was a Biblical scholar, but first and foremost, he was a pastor. And he realized that much of what’s done in the church is tiring. Often, you don’t see results from your work. But the important thing is obedience and faithfulness. How do we continue to be faithful and obedient over a lifetime?

Daniel, as we’ve seen over the past weeks, provides an example of an obedient and faithful life. A young man in chapter one, he’s probably in his late teens.[2] He spends the rest of his life in Babylon. He serves several kings. This morning, we’ll look at our last of the court stories of Daniel. The sixth chapter, known as Daniel in the lion’s den, is a favorite for kids in Sunday School and at Vacation Bible School. But as we’ll see, there is a much deeper meaning in this chapter than just God saving Daniel from the lions. 

By this point in his life, Daniel is an old man. The Babylonian state that exiled the Judeans has fallen. Another new king is in town. Like Nebuchadnezzar, he too sees value in Daniel. Faithfulness has its rewards, but as we’ll see, can also cause difficulties. Today, ponder what faithfulness requires of us. 

Before reading the Scripture: Context

Before reading the scripture, I want to place the setting in context. Like the last chapter, there are some historical problems with this text. No one is sure about the identity of Darius the Mede.[3] The Mede empire was conquered by the Persians before Babylon fell. Darius, a common Persian name, may have been a puppet king who ruled over the province of Babylon. If so, he reported to Cyrus. But again, the book of Daniel doesn’t appear to be interested in history, at least not as we define it. Instead, each of these court-tales shows how we should live our lives. In this way, these stories read more like a parable than a history text. 

Setting the trap. The opening of chapter six

Chapter six begins with the information that Darius has set up an extensive bureaucracy to care for the affairs of state. Directly under Darius are three presidents, one of whom is Daniel. Everyone else in the system reports to one of these three individuals. Because Daniel has done good job of taking care of business, collecting taxes and so forth, Darius considers making him in charge of it all.  

We’d think this would be all well and good for Daniel. But it ain’t. The others in the bureaucracy are jealous. Knowing they can’t find any legitimate reason to condemn Daniel, they set a trap. They encourage the king sign a new law, saying that for 30 days, all prayers must be made to the king. For some reason, Darius doesn’t question this. Maybe the idea boosts his ego. He signs the law. There’s a tradition that such laws can’t be changed.[4] Daniel’s enemies, knowing his habit, now wait for him to break the decree. This is where our reading begins.

Read Daniel 6:10-28. 

After the reading of scripture: 

Daniel is devoted to God. He prays three times a day. There is nothing in scripture about praying so many times a day. Paul tells us to pray continually, but that has to do with our lives becoming a prayer.[5] I think we’re told the frequency of Daniel’s prayers to impress us with his piety.[6] Furthermore, Daniel prays toward Jerusalem. Again, this is not a requirement, but it informs us that Daniel doesn’t want to forget from where he came. Even though by this point in his life, Jerusalem has been destroyed and is desolate, Daniel remembers it fondly. Like all the Hebrews, he admires the temple that is no more. It had been the place where he learned to love God. 

We all may have such places in our memory. The old whitewashed wooden church where my family attended when I was very young. It was torn down when I was five, after the congregation built a new brick church that still stands… Behind it sat an old block Sunday School building where I attended Christmas programs put on my grandmother. It, too, no longer exists except in my memory. While such memories are valuable, what’s important is the lessons we’ve learned at such places about God.

Culdee Presbyterian, 1962
the old and new (photo from the internet)

But Daniel’s prayers also cause him into trouble. Prayer goes against a new edict by the king and Daniel finds himself bound to the lion’s den. 

Lessons from the text

There are four lessons I want us to draw from this story. The first is about God. The theme throughout the book is that even though we can’t see or understand, God is in control.[7] And this God saves and judges. Next, there is something we can learn for our own use here. I want us to see how Daniel is an example of how we should live out our faith under duress. And then, there are some lessons here for how we Christians should engage with the world. And finally, Daniel serves as a prototype for Jesus’ suffering and delivery. 

1. God saves and judges

The first lesson is that God saves and judges. Darius is a complicated figure in this story. A nearly all-power king finds his own hands cuffed by his own decree. He’s disturbed over the sentence he must pass upon Daniel. Yet hopes Daniel’s God, the one according to the edict shouldn’t be prayed to, will deliver him. And that’s what happens. God saves Daniel by sending an angel. The angel shut the mouths of the lions. 

But there is also judgment in this passage. For God doesn’t save Daniel’s enemies and their families from their fate in the lion’s den. While the king makes this judgment, God doesn’t intervene. Daniel’s enemies are consumed by the lions before they even touch the floor of the den. It’s as if the one telling this story wants us to understand that Daniel wasn’t tossed down into the den of well-fed lions. These beasts are hungry. God saves Daniel but allows the guilty and their families to suffer. God’s ways are often beyond our understanding, but when we experience grace, like Daniel, we should rejoice.

2. Faith under duress

Daniel becomes for us an example of faith under duress. Daniel trust God, not his own abilities. He sees what’s important and continues doing it. Daniel doesn’t deny his faith or even attempts an escape. He accepts the king’s sentence and trusts God. We must remember, as we learned with the three friends in the furnace, we never know when God might show up. Martyrdom happens. Whether we are saved or perish in the present, we should remain faithful. God’s steadfast love endures forever.[8]

3. Private faith in a public world

Daniel also provides us an image of how to live our private faith in a public world. Daniel does everything required of him by the king except that which goes against his God. He knows there is a higher authority to whom we all are accountable. So, while he is a model employee, he won’t do that which violates his most fundamental beliefs. Notice, however, that Daniel doesn’t make a big deal out of such things. He doesn’t go out to become the all-American martyr. As it was with the avoiding the king’s food in chapter 1, Daniel doesn’t publicly flaunt his disobedience of the king’s decree. It’s all private. Believe me, there is a lot to be said about quiet private piety!

Daniel carefully does what is expected of him. This makes it harder for this enemies to get at him. If Daniel had been sloppy, say in collecting taxes, they would have had an easier time. Instead, they must change the law. There is something so dishonest when laws are changed for the purpose of promoting one group over another. Such attempts need to be brought before the light of day and exposed for what they are.

Prayer in school

Interestingly, two of the four commentaries that I read on this passage, responds to the debate on prayer in school. One, probably the most conservative commentary I read, notes this passage has been used by many to argue for school prayer. He doesn’t think it fits. The prohibition is against the school leadership providing prayer. It doesn’t say that one can’t pray, just that it can’t be done publicly. 

In Daniel’s case, even private prayer was forbidden. If that was the case today, then this text could be used to encourage faithfulness and even civil disobedience. But private prayer has never been questioned.[9]Lots of us have prayed in school. Some of these prayers, at least in my case, were inappropriate. These were generally offered right before a test for which I had not prepared. 

Another commentator questions whether the debate over prayer in school is more of a smokescreen. “If I can make a fuss about the lack of prayer over there, I can forget about the lack of prayer in my own life…” he writes.[10]

He may be on to something. When I was in Hastings, Michigan, we had a mayor who bragged that the last time he’d been in church was for his wedding. He’d been married over 50 years. Yet, he made a big fuss about keeping the town’s nativity scene on public property. He even asked me if the church would buy the corner by the courthouse so that they could legally keep the scene on site. I was skeptical and didn’t pursue the matter because it seems to me his piety had more to do with votes than with his faith.

Pleasing God more important than pleasing the king

Daniel shows us that is possible to live and to be faithful even in a world that is contradicts our beliefs. Sometimes it might get us in hot water but pleasing God should always be most important. 

4. Daniel as a Christ-figure

Finally, let me say one more thing about this passage. Early Christian art often depicted Daniel in the lion’s den. These artists saw Daniel as a type of Christ figure.[11] If you remember, Jesus had been praying in the garden when the soldiers approached him. And he dies and is sealed in a tomb, like Daniel facing death and being sealed in what could become his tomb. But because of God’s faithfulness, both are released and there is much joy. This chapter ends with Darius, like Nebuchadnezzar in chapter 4, praising God. Jesus returns from the grave and Mary, who’s been crying, when she recognizes Jesus, shouts out in joyous devotion, Rabbi.[12]

God’s grace elicits our gratitude

Daniel and Jesus remind us of God’s grace and faithfulness. And both stories, show us how to respond to such grace when we experience it in our lives. Amen. 

[1] I was reminded of this book by Alistair Begg, Brave by Faith: God-sized Confidence in a Post-Christian World (The Good Book Company, 2021), 91. 

[2] https://fromarockyhillside.com/2021/08/daniels-god-provides-growth-and-strength/

[3] Josephus, writing 500 years later, suggests Darius was Cyrus son-in-law, but no other support can be found for this. See Robert A. Anderson, Daniel: Signs and Wonders (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 64-66.

[4] This law doesn’t make sense to us, but it appears to be the tradition of the Persians. See Esther 8:8, “an edit written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s rings cannot be revoked.” 

[5] 1 Thessalonians 5:17.

[6][6] There is not prescription for three times a day prayer in the Old Testament, but perhaps Daniel was following the example set in Psalm 55:16-17. The Psalm, attributed to David, recalls praying “evening, morning, and at noon.’ 

[7] Tremper Longman III., Daniel: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 158. 

[8] We hear this refrain throughout scripture, but especially in the Psalms. See Psalm 118:1.

[9] Longman III, 170. 

[10] Begg, 98. 

[11] Longman III, 172. 

[12] John 20:16. 

A Walk in the Rain

The Day before the Equinox 

Despite the threat of rain on the last day of summer
I take an evening walk down Laurel Fork Road
noticing the seasonal changes.
along the edge of the hayfield
where the staghorn sumac and dogwoods have turned red. 

The green leaves of the maples and oaks in the forest beyond
have already lost their luster,
while golden rods brighten the ditch banks 
next to Queen Anne, who has rolled her lace into a ball 
ready to stow in the drawer for winter. 

At the cemetery by the Primitive Baptist Church
an eight-point buck stops in the middle of the road,
looking at me for the longest time
as if wondering what I am doing out in this mess
 before jumping off the road and over the gravestones.

The drizzle becomes a rain shortly after passing the church,
but as I leave the payment for gravel, 
the hayfields for the dense woods,
the rain is not as noticeable until a breeze shakes the trees
shedding its accumulated moisture on me.

I continue, zipping up my rain jacket, 
but return earlier than I’d like, in the fading gray,
for there will be no full harvest moon to guide me tonight
as tears now pour from the sky,
each drop pinging off my jacket and into my ears.

Yet, I’m delighted when I get close enough to my lane,
with water running down my bare legs,
 to be greeted by cheerful Halloween faces
painted on the sides of three round haybales
in front of my neighbor’s field. 

My neighbor’s “jack-o-lanterns” taken today in the rain

Straining Forward: Minh Phuong Towner’s Story

Michelle Layer Rahal, Straining Forward: Minh Phuong Towner’s Story (Maitland, FL: Xulon Press, 2018), 355 pages, 10 pages of photos. 

         I was introduced to Minh in 2011. I was preparing a sabbatical after leading First Presbyterian Church of Hastings (Michigan) through a building and relocation program. As I was going to be traveling overland from Asia to Europe, we attempted to find preachers from parts of the world in which I would be travelling. Through a connection with Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, I was introduced by phone to Minh. Although I have never met her in person, we talked several times by phone and became friends on Facebook. Of the international preachers the congregation heard that summer, Minh had made an impression. Hers is a haunting story. She connected with several Vietnam veterans and touched everyone with what she had endured as a boat refugee who fled the country as a teenager after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. This is her story, told through her friend and author, Michelle Layer Rahal. 

         This is a brutal and honest book which has come out at a time when refugees are again in the news. It would be scary and dangerous for anyone, but especially for young woman, to be torn from family and alone in a foreign country. Being a refugee is to be vulnerable. Minh’s story illustrates the dangers.

         Minh’s world started coming apart long before she became a refugee. Raised in a family well-enough off to employ servants, her first experience of sexual abuse came from the family gardener. She attempted suicide (it would not be her first attempt and the thought of suicide would continue to run through her mind). Then, at age ten, the Vietcong killed her father and two younger brothers during the Tet Offensive. Minh’s life became chaotic. Sent to live with her grandfather, she found herself verbally abused. Her mother and aunt kept trying to set her up with American soldiers. Then, other family members sexually abused her.

         As the war was ending, her family tried to escape, but was unable to get out of the country. The family split up with the idea that it would be safer. The North Vietnamese captured her and her brother. They were captured, imprisoned, tortured by the conqueroring army. The captain of the prison selected her to be his mistress. Although still abused, he later helped her and her brother Thanh escape.

         On their third try, she and her brother made it out of Vietnam. Picked up by a Taiwanese fishing boat and taken to Taiwan, they could have moved to America. However, Minh had studied French at a Catholic School in Vietnam. With an uncle who lived in France, they decided to move to there. The living conditions were horrible. She eventually relocated to Australia, where she became a nurse, married an American living there, and gave birth to two children. But it wasn’t an easy journey. She was raped both in Paris and in Australia. She struggled with English and then to pass her exams. She was an exceptional worker, which allowed her to care for her family. But she suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disease (PTSD), which created many problems for her life.

         Two threads that run through the book are her relationship with God and her dealing with depression, thoughts of suicide, and her struggles with relationships (beyond that with her siblings) which has much to do with her struggles with PTSD. As a young child, she had grown up Catholic in Vietnam. It had given her the foundations so that she would pray when things were bad. But from her experience, she saw God as angry and vengeful and wondered what she’d done to deserve such treatment. It took a lot of work for her to learn to handle her emotions and the way her past colored her world. 

         Minh and her first husband divorced. When he moved back to the United States, taking their youngest daughter, Minh decided to relocate, too. Living in Virginia, she remarried, became involved in Vienna Presbyterian Church in Virginia, and went to seminary. The Presbyterian Church ordained her in 2017.

         I recommend this book. The ordeal Minh endured reminds us of how hard it can be for refugees and those without the protection of a country or a strong parent. Minh’s understanding of the role her past trauma played in her life and her coming to understand God as a gracious and loving Father should provide hope to those troubled in the world.   

The Writing on the Wall

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
Daniel 5
September 19, 2021

The Sermon recorded on Friday, September 17, 2021, at Mayberry Church

Added on April 21, 2022 and I wish I had seen this before writing this sermon: from @churchcurmudgeon: “Usually when there is writing on the wall, it portends the death of a culture. But hey, fine, throw out the hymnals and use a projector.”

At the Beginning of Worship

What is holy and what is profane? Today, in worship, consider the meaning and implication of these two words. God is holy. Those around the throne, we’re told, sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy.[1]

In everything, holiness is predicated of God and denotes God’s majesty and purity. People and things can also be designated as holy, but only as far as we participate with God.[2] The book of Leviticus and the Apostle Peter calls us to be holy as God is holy.[3] Even things can be considered holy if used for God’s glory. Such was the case of items that came from the temple. 

So, if holy comes from God and we’re to strive for it because our devotion to God, what does profane mean? As a verb, profane is to treat something that’s sacred or holy with disrespect. While such definitions can apply to things of the church, I argue that it goes much further. God created the world and proclaimed it good. 

Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World, from where the quote in today’s bulletin came, captures this sense.[4] People may have felt that the ancient gods needed a stone altar, but our God has created the world and it’s his altar. Furthermore, God created all of us in his image. When we misuse the world or when we bully, belittle, or abuse another who, like us, have been created in God’s image, our actions are profane.  

The difference between holy and profane has to do with our intention and use of each. 

Before the Reading of Scripture

Background to Chapter 5

Today we’re going to be looking at the fifth court tale found in the opening chapters of the Book of Daniel. Chapter five begins with an abrupt change. We’re missing a major character. In the first four, the unifying figure was the king, Nebuchadnezzar. But he’s no longer with us. We learn that Belshazzar, Nebuchadnezzar’s son, reigns as king.

There are some historical difficulties with our text. There is no Belshazzar in Nebuchadnezzar’s immediate family. Nor was he the one who assumed Nebuchadnezzar’s throne upon the king’s death. We learn this not just from historical accounts, but also the Bible. 2nd Kings names Amel-Marduk as the successor to the throne.[5]

So, how do we handle this. First, the truth in this story has nothing to do with precise history. 

Second, while we’re told that Belshazzar was Nebuchadnezzar’s son, the term son had a broader meaning in the ancient world. It could also be translated or interpreted as ancestor. Today, most scholars agree that this Belshazzar was the son of Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon. Nabonidus was away from Babylon for about ten years, during which time his son Belshazzar served as the viceroy. Essentially, he was the acting king. 

While the father is away…

Think of a kid whose parents entrust him with the house as they travel. I know of horror stories about such time periods. Word gets out that the parents are away. Kids pile in, trashing houses, wrecking cars, the police are called in… 

There’s a whole subcategory of movies around the idea of parents being away. With dad away, Belshazzar throws a big party. Only Belshazzar isn’t a high school senior flaunting his new-found freedom. He’s responsible for a kingdom in peril. 

The opening of Daniel 5

As I have done throughout this book, I want to tell part of the story we have in Scripture and then read the more important parts. But I encourage you to go home and read the entire chapter and think about what it might say to us.

The setting for this party is the last night of Babylon’s existence as a world power under its founding leadership. We know from history, before Babylon fell, its forces were defeated in a battle only 45 miles away from the city. While nothing is said about impending doom in the Bible, we can image that those partying are nervous. Perhaps this made the drinking and revelry even crazier. In the ancient world, if you were of the nobility class, “eat and drink today because tomorrow you may die,” took on a serious tone. Often, a regime change meant death to those of the older regime.

A thousand people gather at this festival. The wine flows freely. As they begin to loosen up, Belshazzar decides that just for fun, or maybe because he’s run out of wineglasses, he’ll bring in the vessels from the temple in Jerusalem. That which had been designated as holy will be used in a profane manner. It’s also a way to make fun of the peoples Babylon has conquered. 

A sobering event

And then, while their all feeling pretty good, a sobering event happens. A hand appears and begins to write on the wall. Terrified, Belshazzar calls on his enchanters and diviners to interpret what this means. As we’ve seen before, these dudes just don’t have what it takes.[6]Everyone is perplexed. 

Remembering Daniel

Then the queen, probably was the Queen Mother, if Belshazzar was filling in for his father, recalls Daniels’ ability to understand dreams and riddles.[7] It appears Daniel has been sidelined. After all, only this older woman seems to recall his work. Worried, they fetch Daniel, which is where our reading will begin this morning: 

Read Daniel 5 (13-19, 21-30)

After the Reading of Scripture

The Finger of God

The Finger of God. High above Hell Roaring Canyon in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, a narrow jagged rock juts up nearly a hundred feet higher than the surrounding ridges. It’s known as the finger of God. When you see it, you immediately understand. Alone, this rock formation towers above everything else as it points toward the heavens.

Throughout the Old Testament, we hear of the finger of God. God’s finger inscribes the commandments on the tablet on Sinai.[8] The Psalmist speaks of God’s fingers establishing the heavens.[9] The Egyptian magicians in Pharaoh’s court, amazed at Moses’ abilities, ascribe the work as from God’s finger.[10] The finger of God reminds us of God’s power. To put this in kid playground language, “God’s little pinky finger has more power than all of us. 

Here, God’s finger, like Jesus writing in the sand before those standing with rocks in their hands, ready to stone a woman caught in adultery,[11] immediately sobers up the party. What does this mysterious writing mean? The three words all come from units of money, and can be translated as “numbered,” “weighted” and divided.”[12] But what does that mean? No one knows, so they go get Daniel. 

The Mocking of Daniel

While Belshazzar depends on Daniel to gives him an answer, he addresses Daniel in a mocking manner. “So, you captive from Judah, the spirit of the gods is with you. Is that right?” Under Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel was a powerful person but there is now a new king in the land. Daniel is forgotten. Relegated to a conquered tribe, the king mocks his worship of the one true God. Like Nebuchadnezzar before he finally understood God,[13] Belshazzar places Daniel’s God on the shelf with the other gods of the world. 

And Daniel is promised riches and power in the kingdom (power that he once had) if he can just explain what it all means. Daniel refuses the gifts. He’s not in it for the money or the power. 

With Nebuchadnezzar, in chapter 4, Daniel wished his interpretation of the dream was meant for the king’s enemies.[14] Now, at this drunken party, where holy items from the temple have been defiled, Daniel doesn’t appear to mind giving bad news!

A Personal Story of the Profane

You know, I have a tiny sense of what Daniel felt as he looked over this party and saw folks guzzling wine from the temple vessels. Most of you know I was a pastor in Utah. This was in the early 90s, before the establishment of laws prohibiting smoking inside public buildings. We had a four different ten step groups meeting in the church. Three were AA or Alcoholic Anonymous groups who never gave us a problem. But we constantly had problems with the NA or Narcotics Anonymous group. 

In anticipation of the upcoming law, we forbid smoking in our building. All the ash trays were removed. Then the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back occurred. At an NA meeting, someone dug into the cabinets and found the chalice used for communion. The next morning, when some women came to church to prepare for a meal, they found chalice with cigarette butts inside. I had no problem telling them they could no longer use the church. I took back our key. 

God judges Belshazzar

Belshazzar has offended God. Daniel interprets the judgment coming immediately from God. Daniel doesn’t judge Belshazzar. Yet, even though the king won’t see another sunrise, he rewards Daniel with a robe and gold chain and the position of third in the kingdom. But that doesn’t matter, for the kingdom is about to end.


What can we take from this passage and apply to our lives today? Be careful with that which is holy. This includes God’s name, things dedicated to God, and to the church (which doesn’t belong to us but to our Lord Jesus Christ). We play with fire if we attempt to use God for personal or political gain. 

Holiness belongs to our God. And our God stands above all human wants and desires. We can’t recruit God to our side. That’s silly and blasphemy. God is free and independent of worldly concerns. To act like we’re in control of God and God will do our bidding is dangerous thinking. It’s breaking the first three commandments. Amen. 

The “Finger of God” as seen above Hell Roaring Lake in the Sawtooth Mountains

[1] Revelation 4:8.

[2] Van A. Harvey, A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York: Macmillan, 1964), 121. 

[3] Leviticus 11:44-45, 1 Peter 1:16.  

[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2009). 

[5] See 2 Kings 25:27. Nebuchadnezzar was succeeded by his son, Amel-Marduk, referred to as “evil-Merodach in 2nd Kings.

[6] Daniel 2.1-16, 4:18.

[7] For the background information on Belshazzar, the Queen mother, and the impending doom of Babylon, see Tremper Longman III, Daniel: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 134-137, 139.

[8] Exodus 31:18 and Deuteronomy 9:10. 

[9] Psalm 8:2.

[10] Exodus 8:19.

[11] John 8:5-7.

[12] Longman III, 141.

[13] See Daniel 4:34-37. See also https://fromarockyhillside.com/2021/09/learning-humility/

[14] Daniel 4:19

A Day (and part of a night) on the Fox River

The story below comes from 2007 and appeared in a slightly less edited version in a previous blog. In 2007, I spent a week paddling and fishing in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. When living in Michigan, I was up in the UP almost every summer. This was before I switched to digital cameras and, sadly, have no photos. The photo below is of me paddling on the Two-Hearted River, the year before.

On the Two-Hearted River, 2006

Reaching out into the dark waters with his paddle, drawing it toward the boat, Joe pulls the bow out into the river. For a moment, I hold the stern fast against the bank, allowing the current to catch the bow and spin us around and into the fast-flowing stream. It’s almost noon. And hot, Too hot for being this far north. At first, we don’t fish much and make good time, crossing under the highway bridge at Seney. A few minutes later we paddle under the rusty trestle of the Soo Lines. In 1919, when Hemingway visited this river, the line from the ferry at St Ignace on the northern side of the Mackinaw Straits ran all the way to Duluth, Minnesota. Today, the rusty rails of light iron have been severely amputated and stretch only from the main line at Trout Lake to Munising. There’s not much rail traffic left, mostly logs and shipments to and from a paper mill.

Continuing to paddle, we enter “The Spreads” about a mile below the tracks. Trees disappear and like an artery leaving the heart for the body, the river splits into smaller branches, cutting numerous deep channels cutting through tall grass. The channels are lined with shrubs, mostly tag elders, providing shade over the deep holes. We dig out the rods. At one of the bends, Joe, being in the front, pulls a small brook trout out of a hole. I continue to navigate the canoe, getting an occasional chance to fish, but with no luck. After a mile or so, the river comes back together, and the banks rise higher. We’re making good time. Tammarks, hemlocks and jack pines first appear. But as the stream draws us deeper into the northwoods, maples dominate the shoreline standing as sentries at guard. Others have fallen prey to the forces of water, creating log dams along the river providing us with both an obstacle to navigate and an opportunity for good fishing.

This is the country Hemingway describes in his short story, “The Big Two-hearted River.” High wooded ridges overlook a river filled with log dams under which deep holes are carved out. Trout hid in these holes. At first, instead of cursing the obstacles, we seize the opportunity. Approaching a jam, we beach the boat upstream in order not to spook the fish, jump out and fish the holes before portaging the boat over the logs and continuing downstream. This works well and by mid-afternoon, we’re approaching our limit of Brook Trout, a small but tasty native fish.

It’s still hot at six o’clock. Joe and I have caught our limit and, being good friends, offer to help the other two catch theirs. They’ve spent most of the day behind us, often forgoing fishing for swimming. However, we are also beginning to realize that these log dams are slowing our progress. They are now at most every bind. We begin to pass up some good holes to make up time.

At seven, we stop fishing. We’re still pulling over log dams. We haven’t reached the confluence with the East Branch. The deerflies are nasty, swarming around our heads. I zip the legs onto my pants and pull on a long sleeve shirt. A few minutes later, I pull the mosquito netting down over my face. It makes it difficult to see, especially obstacles right below the water line, but the netting provides relief from these deer flies that seem to have an immunity to DEET. Only my hands are exposed and for the next hour, I chum the river with dead deer flies, on one occasion killing four gnawing flies on one hand with a single slap. We’re making good time, having perfected the art of portaging over the log dam. But the East Branch remains elusive. We know we’ll have a good four or five mile paddling from the confluences. 

In the summer, this far north and west in the time zone, the sun sets at 9:30 P.M. I begin to wonder at what point it will be prudent to pull over and make camp for the evening. I decide not to bring the subject up until after the sun is down, knowing that we’d still have a good half hour to gather firewood, clean fish for dinner, and to make as comfortable of a camp as possible. If we camp then, we’d only have six or seven hours of night, and we could get back on the river at first light. We finally pass the East Branch right around sunset and the water level rises and pace quickens. Yet, we still have a lot of river to cover before we reach Germfask, where we’ve dropped a vehicle. I pitch the idea of camping overnight on the bank, informing everyone that I do have some extra food and a lighter stashed away, but no one wants to quit. I’m concerned that in the dark it will be easy to tip a canoe and although I don’t think we have to worry about drowning, I worry about losing equipment, maybe even boats, in the dark.

A half mile past the East Branch, we join up with the Manistique. The river widens and there are fewer obstacles. We paddle furiously. The canoe guidebook suggested this should have be a five or six hour trip, with the author bragging that he made it in 4 ½. I wouldn’t buy a used car from the guy. As the light fades, we continue to paddle, but drop our speed to be extra careful. Right before dark, Joe and I split a energy bar. We haven’t eaten since lunch, nearly seven hours earlier, and I’m still not hungry, but need the energy. A few stars begin to appear. We keep close to one another, staying mostly in the middle of the channel. When my paddle hits the bottom of the river, I realize that it has changed from sand to rock. Occasionally we shoot across a rock garden with small waves splashing on the boat. I spot the pinchers of the constellation Scorpios just above the trees on the southern horizon.

At a little after eleven, we spot a fire up on the bank. It’s surrounded by a group of campers. We hail them and they’re surprised. Someone shines a flashlight at a spot where we can easily get the boats to shore. After pulling the boats on shore, we walk over to their campfire and ask if one of them would be willing to drive us to the car. “I’d love to, man,” one of them said, “but we’re all shit-faced, we’ve been drinking all day.” Looking around, it’s evident he’s telling the truth. Only a few of them are awake, several more are asleep, or more likely passed out, lying next to the fire. Since B’s vehicle is at the bridge, I suggest he and I hike back to get the car. “Maybe we’ll get a ride,” I suggest. We start walking up to the highway and through the town of Germfask. Only two cars pass us, but no one stops. Coming back, we clock it at 1.7 miles from the bridge to the campground. We quickly load the boats onto B’s trailer and drive back into Seney. It’s now midnight.

Not feeling up to cooking up fish, we head to the Seney Bar, the only place open in town. A few patrons sit at the bar, another couple are shooting a game of pool. We asked the bartender if we could get something to eat as we’d just come off the river. He confides that the cook left at 10 but offers to bake us some frozen pizzas. We ordered a couple and some beers. Hearing that we’d just gotten off the river, everyone in the joint begins to ask us about our trip while Joe hustles a few games of pool. One guy suggests he’d allow at least 12 hours for paddling the stretch we did. Someone else digs out a fishing guidebook, whose author suggested to allow 11 hours for just paddling and that if one wanted to fish, to make it a two-day trip. We agreed with that estimation and long to ring the neck of the author of the canoeing guidebook. Now that we’re safe, we laugh and enjoy another beer.

About 1 AM, we head back to the campground north of town. The others sleep in their vehicles. I quickly throw up my bivy tent, crawl in and crash. Five hours later, at 6 AM, I wake to the crash of close lightning. The wind is howling, breaking off limbs, and the clouds open, sending a deluge of rain. I debate making a run for my truck but decided to stay. I was warm and if a bolt hit the tree under which I was sleeping, I’d never know it. I watch the spectacular lightning show for a few moments, then fall back asleep thinking that it was good we didn’t spend the night on the river. 

Learning Humility

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Church
Daniel 4
September 12, 2021

the sermon recorded at Bluemont on September 10, 2021

At the beginning of worship

In Proverbs, we’re told that pride comes before the fall. It’s a central theme in scripture. We’ve been looking at the opening stories in the book of Daniel. All these stories warn us about hubris or pride. Thinking that we’ve done everything by ourselves, that we’re the master of our destiny, is flawed. As followers of the Master, we’re to give credit to God and to others who have helped us along the way. 

Before reading scripture: 

We’re continuing to work our way through the court tales[1] that make up the first half of Daniel. Today, we learn that Nebuchadnezzar has another curious dream. A dream about a tree. Not just any tree, but a beautiful tree that reaches to the heavens and provides shelter and food for all under its limbs. 

But then the order is given. Cut the tree down. Unsettled, Nebuchadnezzar wants to know what this means. God’s warning him, but he doesn’t get it and find himself punished. For a period, he lives in a manner that should result in him being locked up in an asylum. Again, this chapter, like the past several, needs to be approached in its entirety. I will began reading Daniel’s interpretation, which gives you a drift of the entire story. 

Read Daniel 4. (19-37)

After the reading of Scripture

The desire to be more than moral

Kavi Usan was an ancient Persian king, but not as ancient as Nebuchadnezzar. He wanted to fly. A man of ideas, he had the four most powerful eagles within his kingdom brought to him. Each of these birds he tied to the legs of his throne. The throne’s legs not only supported the seat but rose high enough to support a roof that provided shade. On the top of these post, he tied strips of meat, which was just out of reach of the eagles. The eagles, in their attempt to reach the morsels of flesh, flew hard and pulled against their cords. Their efforts lifted the throne, which soared high into the sky. He headed toward China. But then, exhausted, the birds stopped trying to reach the meat. His throne crashed.[2]  

Kavi Usan could have been a cousin to Icarus, the young Greek man of legend who supposedly built wings out of the feathers of birds to fly. Using wax to attach the feathers, he refused to heed the warning of father. Soaring higher and higher, he sailed close to the sun. The wax melted. He tumbled back to earth. 

What are our limits?

These ancient stories remind us that there are limits to what an individual can do. Even the Wright Brothers, who perfected the airplane, learned from and built on the ideas of others.[3]

The myth of a self-made man (or woman) is just that, a myth. It’s more grounded in the philosophy of Fredrick Nietzsche than the Christian tradition. Nietzsche, by the way, is the 19th century philosophier who infamously proclaimed the death of God.[4]

The Danger of Pride and Ambition

Our tradition begins in the garden with Adam and Eve sampling the fruit of the forbidden tree because they want to be like God.[5] Curious beings, we strive to build and accomplish. It can be for the good. The problem arises from when we’re successful. Then we can beam with pride. Hubris takes over. 

Ponder this for a moment. We seldom make or do anything by ourselves. Even building a birdhouse, I follow along with what my dad taught, which he learned from his dad. We might make improvements to the process, but we seldom do something entirely new. And anything of value we do, requires to assistance of others, in addition to the blessings of God. 

Nebuchadnezzar’s pride

Nebuchadnezzar stands up on a roof of his palace. In a land where rain is seldom, roofs were often flat and served as patios or balconies. From there, he has a commanding view of this beloved city, Babylon. 

Perhaps, from where he stood, he could see those famous hanging gardens watered by irrigation, one of the great wonders of the ancient world.[6] The fragrance of flowers and the lush fruit was a delight. He looked at the government buildings and homes and strong walls. Pride overtakes him. “Look at what I’ve done. I did this by my power, and it exists for my glory …” Before he finishes the sentence, God says, “Enough.”

The king had been warned in a dream. It was a dream that his own counsel could not interpret, so he calls for Daniel. In the second chapter, Daniel displayed the abilities his God had given him to interpret dreams. But Daniel didn’t want this job. Daniel’s smart. Who wants to give bad news to a king? Such messages are dangerous. But the Nebuchadnezzar of the fourth chapter appears to have mellowed. He no longer threatens to tear his advisors from limb to limb if they can’t interpret the dream. The furnace of the third chapter seems to have grown cold. The king encourages Daniel to be honest. 

Daniel’s interpretation

In his dream there is a tree. This tree reminds us of other trees in Scripture, especially the trees along the river in the New Jerusalem. Those trees provide a year around supply of food.[7] This tree provides food and shelter and safety, which Nebuchadnezzar kingdom provided for his subjects. For a foreign king, Nebuchadnezzar doesn’t come off as a disinterested tyrant in Scripture.[8] As he has profited from his power, but so has his subjects.

But he’s warned. The God of the universe granted him the ability to build his kingdom. In the dream, an order comes from heaven that the tree is to be cut down. But the roots are saved. Daniel interprets this dream for the king. He’s the tree. God can have him removed at any time. Daniel, in verse 27, offers counsel. “Atone for your sins by doing what’s right and showing mercy to the oppressed and maybe, just maybe, your prosperity will continue.” 

The king must have followed Daniel advice for a time, but then when he’s on the roof a year later, he just can’t help it. “I’ve done this,” he brags. Pride gets him, as it’s liable to get all of us. I stand looking at my garden, hoe in hand, and think I’ve done good. I brag about something I’ve built or accomplished (or how many pints of tomatoes have been put up) and forget to give credit where credit is due. It’s easy to fall into the trap of pride.

A lesson from the Appalachian Trail

I’ve told this story many times, but it is a defining story for my life. When I was hiking the Appalachian Trail, and getting close to the end, in central Maine, I got sick. It hit after lunch one day. Weak and exhausted. I didn’t think I was going to be able to make it over a mountain where a group of us were going to meet for the evening. I took a long nap on a boulder. I prayed for help. 

Then I decided to pull out a small radio that I had mostly used to get weather reports. I turned into a Classic Rock station in Bangor and began to listen as I climbed the mountain. Soon, I was singing (something I can do in the woods by myself). “Heartbreaker” by the Rolling Stones can over the air. It got my legs moving. 

That night, after having made camp and eaten dinner, I felt better. Before turning in to bed, I wrote in my journal, “Mick Jagger and the Stones got me over the mountain.” Then, about 3 AM, I woke to the realization that my prayer had been answered and I’d given the credit to a rock band. I was humbled. 

The humbling of the most powerful

The most powerful man in the world in the 6th Century before Christ, Nebuchadnezzar had power that our politicians can only wish they had. It’s often said that the President of the United States is the most powerful person in the world. But the President’s power is limited. Every four years he (and maybe one day, she) must stand for election. Beside, our system of government is built with a system of checks and balances where congress and the courts looks over each other’s shoulders. Nebuchadnezzar had none of this! His power appeared unlimited.[9]

For the most powerful king on earth to become like a beast in the field makes his fall from grace even more dramatic. Talk about a humbling. We’re shocked by the description of this royal man living like a cow, with his long-matted hair and claw-like fingernails. He’s lost sanity. He lives this way for seven years,[10] before he looks up into the sky and acknowledges God. Our God is gracious even to those not of the chosen race. The dream had ended with a stump remaining, a reminder that not all is destroyed. There is hope a shoot from the stump will grow and restore the king to his throne.

Application for our lives

While none of us have the power of a Nebuchadnezzar, we still battle with pride. The antidote to this is humility, to acknowledge those who have helped us along the way and to constantly give thanks to God who makes it all possible. One of the outcomes of our faith should be a gratefulness and thankfulness, first to God, and then to all those who have help us along the way. 

It would be my hope that Nebuchadnezzar, after he was restored to his throne, when he spent his evenings upon his roof patio, that he looked out upon his land. Instead of thinking that he’s done it all, he acknowledges the role God and the thousands of Babylonians and others whom his nation had conquered, folks like Daniel, who helped make him great. And maybe afterwards, having thanked God, he sat at his desk and wrote a few thank you notes. Amen. 

Mt. Katahdin in Maine, 1987

[1] See W. Sibley Towner, Daniel (Atlanta, JKP, ), 59

[2] Chet Raymo, The Soul of the Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimage (1985, Boston, MA: Cowley Books, 1992), 171.

[3] David McCullough, The Wright Brothers. (. )

[4] In his famous fable, his main character, Zarathustra proclaims that God is dead. Nietzsche believed that humanity, freed from morals, had the capacity to become greater. See Frederick Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1885). 

[5] Genesis 3:5

[6] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanging_Gardens_of_Babylon

[7] Revelation 22:2. For a comparison, see Ezekiel 47:12. 

[8] Temper Longman III, Daniel: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rap

ids, Zondervan, 1999), 123.

[9] Longman III, 124. 

[10] Scripture says, “seven times.” See Daniel 4:25.

At Home in the Dark: two book reviews about night

Chet Raymo, The Soul of the Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimage 

(1985, Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1992), 209 pages, each chapter illustrated with a woodblock print.

This may go down as the best book I’ve read all year. Raymo describes himself as a “pilgrim of darkness.” The journey and the night sky seem to provide him with joy. I am not sure why it has taken me so long to discover this fellow pilgrim. A blogger friend suggested that I might like another of his books. When I looked him up, I saw this book and decided to read it first. After all, one of my favorite times to walk is at night. With a clear sky, it feels as if the stars accompany me on my travels. 

The Soul of the Night is a collection of twenty essays. In each, the author begins with an observation that leads him deeper into the subject. It may be something on earth (especially birds) that lead him skyward. Or it could be an astronomical sighting that leads him back to earth. In these essays, he draws on his experience as a professor of physics and astronomy. Weaving his scientific knowledge with a keen sense of observation, the author draws on his vast background of information. There’s mythology, the Bible, the natural world, world religions (especially Zen), and literature (especially poetry).

In these pages, we ponder the beauty of the stars and the night from our perspective as well as the perspective of our ancient ancestors. We learn of how legends became constellations and how what we see as a vast flat canvas is a universe that’s spreading apart at an astonishing rate. He tells of illustrating our galaxy by spreading a box of salt in a swirl on the floor. But before his students take too much comfort in how close the “stars” are, he reminds them that to be precise, it would require a dozen boxes of salt and the positioning of each grain of salt would have to be thousands of feet from each other and would require a plane larger than a cross section of the earth (101-2). A grain of salt every 1000 feet. It’s enough to bog the mind. He investigates the meaning of darkness. He explores the color of the stars (which we can barely make out with the necked eyes) as well as the color of the landscape. Quoting a friend, he notes that “walking in the woods in November is like walking in a black and white landscape.” He ponders the shadows of the earth and the moon and how they helped understand the distances between objects. There is so much within these pages. 

This is a delightful book that has given me much to ponder. I highly recommend it. 

Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark 

(New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 200 pages

The title of this book intrigued me. I have long been a fan of Barbara Brown Taylor and have read most everything she’s published. An Altar in the World and When God is Silent are favorites. I have recommended and lent these two volumes to many people. In the 90s, I was blessed to spend a week with her and a small group at San Francisco Theological Seminary. I came to admire not only her careful use of language but also her love of the natural world. When I saw she’d written a book about darkness, I ordered it and immediately started reading, sitting aside other books that I was already reading.  

Taylor describes her book as a journal instead of a “how-to” manual. She begins with a phrase most of us who grew up in an age when kids played outside all day have heard: our mom’s calling us, saying, “Come inside now, it’s getting dark.” From an early age, we are taught to fear the dark. Darkness also becomes a metaphor for all that is bad, which is seen through the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Yet, as Taylor points out, the God of the Scriptures is responsible for the darkness, too, having separated day from night. And besides, there are many good things that happen at night in Scripture (44f). She also raises questions about our “full solar spirituality” which only focuses on the light, the pleasant, the sunny. Such spirituality sees everything as positive and upbeat, but such theologies fail to provide support when things fall apart. Quoting theologians and others who have written on darkness and what we might learn from such experiences, she sets off on her journey. Along the way, she ponders the idea of restaurants where one eats in the dark. As you are served, you are told where your food is at on your plate (93ff). She goes through a “blind exhibit” where she gets to experience what’s it like to move through the world without sight (96ff). She crawls through a cave in West Virginia. And she spends the night alone in a cabin in the woods, experiencing night in a new way (153ff). 

By exploring darkness, Taylor has an opportunity to explore an overlooked branch of theology that expresses what God isn’t, instead of what God is. There is an ancient root to this. Augustine, in the 4th Century, said, “If you have understood, what you have understood is not God” (144). She spends time with the writings of John of the Cross who believed “positive statements about God serve chiefly to fool people into believing that their half-baked images of God and their flawed ideas about how God acts are the Real Thing.”  By teaching what God is not, John attempts “to convince his readers that their images and ideas about ‘God’ are in fact obstacles between them and the Real Thing” (38).

The lunar cycle provides the structure for the book. She recalls the parallel between the three days separating the old (waning) moon and the new (waxing) moon to the death and resurrection of Jesus (108). At the end of Taylor’s journey, she experiences a moonrise, a new experience for her (166ff). I was shocked at this, perhaps because I grew up close to the ocean and have experienced many moonrises, especially in the fall of the year while surf fishing at night. Before the moon appears, there is a light on the distant horizon, and when it rises, it appears to be much larger than it does when overhead, and its rays seem to shimmer across the water as if they were directed at you. Taylor’s moonrise was moving enough that she decided to make a point to experience more such events. I also found myself wishing that she had experienced a night sleeping under the stars in the desert or high in the mountains, where you wake and gauge the time by how far the stars appear to have moved across the heavenly sphere.  

Although the book may fail to teach us to walk in the dark, it does help us appreciate what we gain from the absence of light. Quoting Carl Jung, we’re reminded that “one does not become more enlightened by imaging figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” (86) There is much we might learn from the darkness and Taylor’s book is a beginning guide to help us see when the lights dim, and the shadows overtake us.  

I read and wrote this review in 2014.

Into and out of the furnace

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
September 5, 2021
Daniel 3

Sermon recorded on Friday, September 3, 2021 at Mayberry Church.

Introduction at beginning of worship

We’re back in Daniel this week. We’ll be looking at the third chapter and story in Daniel, but one that doesn’t mention Daniel. Instead, his three friends—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—take center stage. If you remember from my sermon two weeks ago, at the end of the second chapter, the King promoted them thanks to Daniel’s work. Now they find themselves in a pickle. King Nebuchadnezzar has built a 90-foot-tall statue and demands everyone worship it. Do they obey the king when the decree is in clear violation of the second commandment of their faith? Or do they obey God? What would we do?  

Before reading the Scripture

Again, as it was in the second chapter, we have a long story. I won’t read it all but will read enough that you will catch the drift of what happens. There are several places the narrator repeats himself, obviously for emphasis. Without explanation points, repetition help make a point. It also helps with memorization as stories such were often told orally before and even after they were written down. 

Reading this chapter, we find the list of officials summoned by Nebuchadnezzar repeated, along with the musical instruments that are used to call the Babylonians to worship at the king’s statue. We also find the names of the Daniel’s three friends—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—repeated a dozen times! The narrator either dislikes pronouns or just enjoys the sound of the names rolling off the tongue. Let’s listen, as I read selections of this chapter.

Read Daniel 3: 1-2, 3b-6, 8-14, 16-26, 28-30

Three ways of understanding this text

I want us to consider three ways of understanding this story. All three, I believe, are valid interpretations of what happens. Yet, each method goes a little deeper.

A Court Tale

On the surface, the story is a typical tale of a court conflict, or a “court tale.”[1] Such tales show the hubris of a nearly all-powerful leader and the jealously of those who serve under the leader. When told, the story reminds everyone of their place and what’s expected of them. 

Nebuchadnezzar’s leadership

A leader, like Nebuchadnezzar, who capriciously places burdens on his people, has problems. He’s builds a statue. It’s roughly 90 feet tall and 9 feet wide and is of gold. What we’re not told is whether Nebuchadnezzar saw this as a statue honoring himself or if it represented a god. If it was the later, it was obviously an idol. For the Hebrew people, idols were to be shunned. 

But even if it wasn’t to be a god, but a statue of himself, there’s still an issue. Nebuchadnezzar requires people to worship and honor it. The Second commandment prohibits not only creating idols, but also bowing before such statues or serving them.[2] The rule that came down is that all people, when they hear one of a multitude of musicals instruments, must pay homage to the statue. 

Nebuchadnezzar needs to be brought down a notch. He needs to learn to respect the beliefs of all the people in his kingdom.

When a leader demands unfailing loyalty, we have a problem. I’ve recently mentioned reading a new autobiography of Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian of the first half of the 20th Century.[3] Barth began his teaching career in Germany, where he’d also spent time studying. But once Hitler came to power, he found himself facing a dilemma. Hitler demanded that all university professors pledge loyalty to him. As a Christian, Barth refused. He fled back to his home country of Switzerland. The German university who had bestowed upon him the title of “Doctor” revoked the title.[4]

When individuals demand absolute loyalty, Christians must resist. Such allegiance can only be made to God.  

Jealously within the court

But this court-tale goes beyond just the pride of the king. Within any power group, those who are under the leading figure jockey for position. As this happens jealously rises between factions. Often, a conniving leader will solidify his position by pitting such groups against each other. 

This is what’s happening in this story. At the end of the second chapter, we learn that these three Jewish young men have been promoted to a position over the affairs of the province of Babylon. The “certain Chaldeans” who pointed the finger at them for not obeying the king’s decree, appear to be jealous.[5]

Because of this asinine rule of the king, he’s backed into a corner. He now must keep his word. However, we do see a thoughtful side to Nebuchadnezzar. Before he sends the three youths to the furnace, he provides them with one more chance to pay homage to the golden statue. They refuse and into the fire they go. 

As a court-tale, we learn of the danger of arrogance leadership and of jealous. 

A story of God’s power

But we should go deeper. The second level of understanding of this passage is of a story of God’s hidden power that surpasses the most powerful person in the world at the time. This is the kind of story that gives hope to oppressed group of people like the Jewish people during and after Babylon. 

Nebuchadnezzar has power. He commands a huge statue to be built. The workers get on it right away. He calls forth musicians and they appear. He commands that when they play, everyone bows, and they do—or at least most people.  

We witness Nebuchadnezzar’s power with the ease he sentences the three Jews to their death in the furnace. He orders the furnace to be superheated, which seems silly because once you’re dead, you’re dead. But those stroking the furnace obey. It’s super-hot, bellowing flames, forcing people away. He orders the three to be restrained and tossed into the furnace. His soldiers comply. 

Then we get to the dark humor in this story. Those who obey the king find themselves “cooked” as they toss in the bound Jews. The fire is so hot it kills the king’s executors. The three who are destined to be martyrs are saved, while those who obey the king die a meaningless death.[6] That’s the kind of detail that would delight the Jewish hearers of this story as they suffer under continual oppression from other nations and leaders. 

Certainly, our God has amazing powers. But if we leave this story at this level, we are left to wonder why God doesn’t save everyone. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do some become martyrs while others, like Shadrach and friends, are saved? 

A story of faithfulness

Our third way of looking at this story is to see it as an example of faithfulness. For this, we must look at three key verses in the passage, verses 16-18. This is where the three refuse to defend their actions to the king. As with the diet, in chapter 1, the three don’t make a big deal out of their refusal to worship the statue. Had it not been for some tattletales, the king wouldn’t have even known about their refusal to bow down. They weren’t flaunting their behavior; they were just quietly obeying God and the Commandments. 

However, once they are confronted by the king, they have no choice but to be honest and tell the king that they are not going to obey his command regardless of whether their God saves them or not. This is an example of extreme faithfulness. They are hauled off to the furnace without any assurance God will act. They are willing to give up their lives because they believe in a God who is much more powerful than the gods and the statues of the Babylonians.  

Faith is not doing something to gain something else. Faith places total control with God, regardless of what will happen to us.

Salvation by the graciousness of God

In the end, their salvation comes by the graciousness of God… The same is true for us. We can’t save ourselves. Only God can do that. The three are hauled off to the furnace without any promise that God will intervene. Yet, they keep their loyalty to God despite what happens, for they know if anyone will save them, God will. And even if God doesn’t save them, they still put their faith in God, because their lives are about glorifying God, not protecting themselves.[7]

Now, when placed in the furnace, there’s another surprise. The king peeps in and sees four people in the furnace, and one of them has the appearance of a god. This line, like a god, draws Christians immediately to Jesus, but the text itself isn’t clear as to the identity. Jesus, in the flesh, hasn’t yet been born, but Jesus as God and the second person in the Trinity, has always been. Throughout Christian history this has been debated. Was it Jesus or just an angel?[8]

I suggest the importance of this fourth mysterious figure isn’t its identity. Instead, this figure reminds us that God doesn’t leave us alone, even when we are travel through the shadows of the valley of death. At such a time, it doesn’t matter if this person was an angel or an appearance of God. Whoever it is, its presence came from God to comfort and protect. 

Another point I want us to understand is that while Nebuchadnezzar praises the Hebrew’s God, he doesn’t really get it. For now, he decides he’s going to protect this God by making it a serious capitol crime to say anything bad about God. Does God need Nebuchadnezzar’s help? As our story shows, God can take care of himself and his own. God doesn’t need the help of a mere mortal, even if the moral is a king with incredible power. 

Praising God within the furnace

The verses we have here comes from Masoretic Text, which is the Hebrew or Jewish Scriptures, and from which we get the Protestant Old Testament. But in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, which was collected and translated a couple hundred years before Christ, there was an extra 68 verses added between our 23rd and 24th verses.[9]

This text, known as the Prayer of Azariah (Abednego’s Hebrew name[10]), and the Song of the Three Jews. In this text Abednego begins with praise and then is later joined by his other friends. This prayer and song have much in common with the Psalms of Scripture, and while they are not in our canon, are still beautiful and glorifying of God. 

“Blessed are you, O Lord, God of our ancestors, and worthy of praise; and glorious is your name forever!,” Abednego begins. 

After 19 verses of praise, confession, and petition, the others join in song:

“Blessed are you, O Lord, God of our ancestors, 

and to be praised and highly exalted forever; and blessed is your glorious, holy name, and to be highly praised and highly exalted forever.”

As these three young Jewish men show, life at its deepest isn’t about us. It’s about God, to whom we’re to praise, even in the furnace. Amen. 

A campfire along the New River, 2019

[1] Tremper Longman III, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 97. 

[2] See Exodus 20:4-5.

[3] For my review of Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict, go to: https://fromarockyhillside.com/2021/08/three-books-baseball-africa-and-a-theologian/

[4] Christiane Tietz, Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict, Victoria J. Barnett, translator, (German edition 2019.  English edition: Oxford, UK: Oxford Press, 2021. The university reinstated the title to Barth after the war. 

[5] Robert A. Anderson, Daniel: Signs and Wanders (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984), 31-32.

[6]Longman III, 108-109.

[7] The role of a person of faith is summed up nicely in the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism:  “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. 

[8] Verse 25 can also be translated as “son of a god.” Here in Scripture we find ambiguity. In verse 28, Nebuchadnezzar retells what happens and says the fourth figure was an “angel.” 

[9] This passage found in the Apocrypha. While not considered “Canonical” for Protestants, and we treat it the same as other books written by humans, it contains some beautiful passages that praise God (as do other books that are not in scripture. See Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Confessions, 6:003. 

[10] Daniel 1:7.