The powerful guards began binding Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego with ropes, and within seconds they threw the young men into the furnace. One moment they were relatively safe, even held in great esteem as officials in the government of Babylon. The next moment they were brutally tossed headlong into what seemed certain death in an inferno.
The three young men lost no time responding to the king’s demand. “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king,” they replied.
What went wrong? These three had faithfully obeyed their God, but their obedience was not being rewarded. They faced an ignominious death in the prime of their lives, with no one there to plead their cause. What a waste for such talented young men to lose their lives at such an early age.
What lessons, if any, are we to find in this tragic scenario? What can we learn from the example of these young men?
The Scriptures vividly picture this event and describe the events leading up to it. King Nebuchadnezzar found himself in a psychological and political struggle to protect his pride and power as ruler of Babylon.
Some were determined to rid the kingdom of the influence of the young Jewish captives—Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abed-Nego and anyone else like them—who had been conscripted to serve their Babylonian captors when the kingdom of Judah fell. They would stop at nothing to see these young men removed from Nebuchadnezzar's government, even if it meant killing them.
By all appearances, their enemies had succeeded. These men knew that King Nebuchadnezzar had decreed the death penalty for any who refused to worship the enormous golden idol he had set up (Daniel 3:1-7). They knew that the young Jewish men remained faithful to their God and refused to bow to any idols. They brought to the attention of the monarch the three young men's disobedience to his decree.
Facing their fate
Addressing the young men, Nebuchadnezzar demanded: "Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, that you refuse to serve my gods, or to worship the golden image which I have caused to be set up? Although I've been told this, it is simply too hard for me to believe. Therefore I will give you another opportunity. You may save your lives if, after you hear my royal musicians begin to play, you bow down to the golden image and worship my gods. Your only alternative is to be cast alive into a burning fiery furnace. Now what god, including yours, can deliver you out of my hands?" (Daniel 3:14-15, Amplified Bible).
King Nebuchadnezzar was not one to be trifled with. He was a proud ruler with a temperamental and ambitious streak. Raising his anger could bring certain, painful death according to such Jewish sources as the Haggadah (narrative material in the Talmud and other rabbinical literature). This and other sources mention examples of his cruelty and brutality.
Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego knew the king's temperament. They also knew they could obey the king and live or disobey him and die.
Setting the stage
God had taken a direct hand in the events leading to the captivity of Judah and the circumstances enveloping Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego. God had forewarned Judah through Jeremiah of the Jews' future captivity (Jeremiah 37:1-21). God had also mercifully provided two righteous kings to turn Judah back to Him: Hezekiah (ca. 715-687 B.C.) and Josiah (ca. 639-608 B.C.). Judah was fully aware of Assyria's captivity and removal of Israel (ca. 721 B.C.). Nebuchadnezzar's invasion of Judah had occurred after ample warning (Jeremiah 37:6-10).
It was during the first of three invasions that Nebuchadnezzar took Daniel and the three other young Jews captive, removing them and others to Babylon (Herbert Lockyer, All the Kings and Queens of the Bible, 1961, p. 144). The time of Shadrach's, Meshach's and Abed-Nego's great trial had to be after Daniel's interpretation of King Nebuchadnezzar's dream, found in Daniel 2, in 603 or 602 B.C. (Gleason L. Archer, Jr., The Expositor's Bible Commentary, 1985, Vol. 7, p. 39). After that year the great crisis of the three young Hebrews took place (Daniel 3:1-30).
God's employ of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego should remind us that God possesses absolute sovereignty over all. God used the three young Jews to reveal this truth to King Nebuchadnezzar. The record shows the king habitually forgot that God was greater than any earthly ruler (Daniel 4:34-37). Shadrach (whose Hebrew name was Hananiah), Meshach (Mishael) and Abed-Nego (Azariah) were selected by King Nebuchadnezzar and prepared by God, as the apostle Peter later wrote, to "proclaim the praises of Him who called [them] out of darkness into His marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9).
The three young Jews were among the best and the brightest of the kingdom of Judah, and they soon caught the attention of Babylonian officials. "Then the king instructed Ashpenaz, the master of his eunuchs, to bring some of the children of Israel and some of the king's descendants and some of the nobles, young men in whom there was no blemish, but good-looking, gifted in all wisdom, possessing knowledge and quick to understand, who had ability to serve in the king's palace, and whom they might teach the language and literature of the Chaldeans" (Daniel 1:3-4).
God provides and protects
They were to be trained as administrators and assistants to serve in the Chaldean, or Babylonian, government. During their training, they were to receive a daily provision of the king's delicacies, including his wine. After three years they were to personally serve the king (Daniel 1:5).
Their selection for this training program brought about their first trial: They refused to eat the food placed before them. The biblical account does not tell us whether the meats were unclean according to biblical standards or if some other problem was evident. Regardless of the exact circumstances, with Ashpenaz's help they lived on an alternative diet for 10 days. The steward removed their assigned portion of the king's cuisine and served them vegetables and water instead. As a result they grew healthier than those who consumed the royal delicacies. In their circumstances they began to see that their faith could triumph even in relatively minor trials.
Archer comments on this first trial facing the three:
"At the very beginning of their career in a three-year program, the young Yahweh worshipers were faced with a clear-cut issue of obedience and faith. They were doubtless subject to intense social pressure from their classmates and teachers to do what everyone else was doing. Should they not accept the royal diet and thus avoid giving needless offense to their classmates or to the officials of the king himself? Worldly wisdom pointed in that direction. By their compliance they would please everybody. But they would not please God, to whom they were surrendered body and soul.
"So at the start of their career, they faced squarely their priorities and determined to trust God to see them through the perils of noncompliance and possible forfeiture of all that they had gained. By their early refusal to disobey God, they prepared themselves for future greatness as true witnesses for the one true God in the midst of a degenerate pagan culture" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, 1985, Vol. 7, p. 34).
Not only did God honor their obedience to Him and His laws, He also rewarded them with great favor in the king's eyes. When the king interviewed them, they proved far wiser and of better understanding than all the magicians and astrologers in the realm (Daniel 1:15-17, Daniel 1:19-20). God had prepared Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego for the great trial that would soon test their belief, faith and obedience.
Facing the fire
As the three men faced Nebuchadnezzar's interrogation, they naturally wondered about their fate. However, they lost no time responding to the king's demand that they either worship the image or be thrown into the flaming furnace.
"O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter," they replied. "If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up" (Daniel 3:16-18).
Their response serves as a striking example of faith. They knew God could deliver them from the certain death they faced, but they didn't know if He would extend their physical lives. They relied on God's wisdom and judgment and placed their fate in His hands.
They were firm in their determination to obey God's command not to bow to an idol (Exodus 20:4-5). They would risk their lives before they would disobey God. They knew they were figuratively signing their own death warrant with their unapologetic response to the king's demands.
The king didn't know it at the time, but the three young Jews had a stronger power on their side than any power Nebuchadnezzar could yield. Nebuchadnezzar had made the mistake of defying God, boasting, "Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?" (Daniel 3:15, New International Version). He had unwittingly transformed his confrontation with these young men into a contest with God.
Nebuchadnezzar had much to learn. Ungrateful, he had scoffed at the very One who had allowed him success in battle; therefore he was to undergo one humiliation after another until he was forced to acknowledge Israel's God (Daniel 4:1-37). Still, facing public defiance in the name of the God of the Jews, Nebuchadnezzar apparently felt he had no choice but to order the immediate execution of the three men.
Furious at their rebuff, Nebuchadnezzar commanded their execution in the furnace: "He spoke and commanded that they heat the furnace seven times more than it was usually heated" (Daniel 3:19). The three Jews were firmly bound and thrown like logs into the furnace. The flames blazed so hot that the guards who threw them in perished from the heat.
The three young men were lost from sight as they tumbled into the flames. But, then, what could this be? The bewildered Nebuchadnezzar saw not three but four men walking unbound and unburned in the flames. Even more astounding, in Nebuchadnezzar's own words, the fourth person was "like the Son of God"!
Nebuchadnezzar came as close as he dared to the mouth of the burning furnace. "Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, servants of the Most High God, come out, and come here," he cried (Daniel 3:26). The three men walked out of the furnace and stood before the astonished king and the crowd of officials. Not only were the three not harmed, but not a hair on their heads was even singed. Their clothing was undamaged, "and the smell of fire was not on them" (Daniel 3:27).
Nebuchadnezzar had witnessed a miracle. The Jewish fellows' divine companion in the flames had delivered them from all harm. God had protected them in their literally fiery trial.
Nebuchadnezzar made a quick about-face: "Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, who sent His Angel and delivered His servants who trusted in Him, and they have frustrated the king's word, and yielded their bodies, that they should not serve nor worship any god except their own God! Therefore I make a decree that any people, nation, or language which speaks anything amiss against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego shall be cut in pieces, and their houses shall be made an ash heap; because there is no other God who can deliver like this" (Daniel 3:28-29).
Faith forged in flames
Almighty God had allowed King Nebuchadnezzar to learn another lesson of humility. He was educating Nebuchadnezzar to know that he was dealing with the King of the universe Himself (Daniel 4:37).
"Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego in the province of Babylon," concludes the biblical account (Daniel 3:30). In the New Testament, Hebrews 11:34 looks back on them as heroes of faith who "quenched the violence of fire."
Like Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego, we can exercise that same conquering faith, an assurance that leads to eternal life. The apostle Paul notes that, when we live by this kind of faith, "we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us" (Romans 8:37).
Like these three young worshipers of the true God, in our own way we can exercise that same conquering faith that leads us successfully through life's present problems-and ultimately to eternal life.
These courageous young men were willing to forfeit their lives for what they believed. The determination to live by faith, striving to resist and conquer sin in our own daily lives, is equally esteemed in God's sight. The apostle Paul tells us that, when we live by faith, "we are more than conquerors through him that loved us" (Romans 8:37).
The story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego is a dramatic testimony to some who truly were conquerors, willing to risk all for their love of—and faith in—God.