The Fourth Man.
The Babylonian Empire was still at the height of her power in the Near East, when King Nebuchadnezzar II invaded the Kingdom of Judah in 586 BC, capturing Jerusalem, and removing the top echelons of Jewish society to Babylon, the Empire’s capital city, with her famed hanging gardens. This enforced strategic movement of citizens from conquered territories was her way of culturally integrating the elite from various subservient ethnic groups, and keeping the subjugated territories compliant. The background to this fascinating story of Daniel’s three companions was their determined refusal to worship the golden image moulded on the king’s order, whenever the royal orchestra in the capital began its daily musical intro. Notice that the edict did not forbid anyone from worshipping their own gods or God. This contextual decree implied that one’s faith is only to be expressed privately, and it should never trump Babylon’s multicultural environment, where everyone was required to pay homage to the Babylonian gods as represented in totality by the gilded idol. This ancient intolerance is not new, as we can relate to it in our modern context, where our beliefs are challenged to coerce or silence us to conform to society’s variable standards, in order to ameliorate our value-based faith. The pressures to toe the line can be enormous, at times leading to legal disputes and persecutions. But Daniel, along with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did not argue or debate, nor did they succumb, and they paid the price for their uncompromising obedience to God in a pluralistic society.
These four Jewish intellectuals were educated in Babylon and were completely immersed in the culture. They were royal officals within the king’s administrative elite. They loved their city and gave their lives in the service to the empire and her people, who were principally their enemies, possibly in obedience to the prophet Jeremiah’s letter of encouragement to the Jewish diaspora (Jer 29:1-9). Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s reply to their king revealed the depth and purity of their faith: “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (Dan 3:16-18). They trusted God unconditionally, even when staring death in the face; they loved Yahweh for Who He is, never for what they could get out of Him. Dosen’t this reflect our own honest aspirations – to be loved for who we are, not what we can give or provide, notwithstanding nor belittling our responsibilities as caregivers and trustworthy persons.
The king’s anger knew no bounds at the blatant rebellion of his seemingly loyal officials, and he ordered the furnace to be heated up seven times higher than normal. The three were pushed into the fiery furnace, but not before the heat from it killed the soldiers guarding them. What happened next could only be termed a remarkable theophanic witness. Astonishingly, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were not consumed, but walked casually inside the blistering furnace. And immediately, there appeared a fourth person “like a son of a divine being” (Dan 3:25). Unfortunately, we have no further description of this unusual character, but whoever he was, the outrageously abnormal scene before everyone gathered to gloat at their grotesque demise, was sufficient to immediately transform the king’s perception of the reality of Israel’s God (Dan 3:26-29). Nevertheless, Nebuchadnezzar could only appreciate Yahweh as a result of His powerful deliverance; he was not ready to trust the God of Israel unreservedly (Dan 3:29). I would certainly like to interview Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego one day, on how they felt and what went through their minds inside the furnace with the fourth ‘man.’ Who did they think he was? Intriguing! Suffering in the face of oppression and persecution can either enhance our faith or destroy it; the key appears to be how we interpret God’s presence in the midst of our suffering and His absolute sovereignty in our lives. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego lived their testimony – furnaces cannot dismantle the truth of their testimonies in God; God was their Defence and remains ours.