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:

[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.

4 Replies to “Into and out of the furnace”

  1. Hey Jeff, sorry to hijack your comments section, but wanted to ask if you would send me an email address for you, as I’d like to send you a link to a book I think you would enjoy. I tried the one in your contact information but it bounced back to me. Thanks.

  2. Thank you for sharing this …
    Like Mary, I too like the look of your campfire 🙂
    Hope the month of September treats you well.

    All the best Jan

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