Heroes of the Bible: Three Men and a Furnace


How many of you knew when you saw the title that I would be reflecting on the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? One source I read called this story a farce, with everything so exaggerated as to make it ridiculous. As I was reading it I found myself almost laughing at the repetition of the whole list of different officials or the long list of instruments. Farces are fun, but as you are aware the best political cartoons while farcical are very telling. This story is certainly one of the saving power of God it is also a story about three heroes who stood up for what they believed despite potential dire consequences!

This story is from the time of the Babylonian exile. The king at the time was Nebuchadnezzar II. At that time the Babylonian empire had control of vast areas from modern day Iraq, some of Persia, the Holy Land, and , at its height, all of Egypt. It was impossible for one man to rule such a vast area so Nebuchadnezzar had scores of governors, and lesser officials each with their own authority and territory and one of them was Daniel. After having a dream interpreted by Daniel the king was very happy and granted Daniel’s request to appoint his three friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to high offices.

We pick up here with today’s story. The king had a sixty cubit tall idol constructed and made a decree that everyone must bow down to the idol when they heard certain music  (a long and specific list of instruments and the ensemble) and that anybody who failed to do so would be thrown “immediately” into the furnace.  With the king’s decree in place some of the Babylonian officials noticed some people not bowing down as ordered. This information was passed on to the king, that some Jews were not complying and naming Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who had recently been raised to positions of authority (presumably over Babylonians).

Despite the edict saying they would be immediately thrown into the furnace, the king had the men brought to him. They were questioned and then they were given a choice of following the decree or being thrown into the furnace. They answered first that they didn’t need to defend themselves to him and then that they would not bow to the idol. Just saying that they didn’t have to answer to the King was a major thing, and the they chose the furnace! Furious the king had them bound by his strongest men, the furnace heated to seven times its usual temperature (again an extreme unlikely to be possible), and had them thrown in.

The result was not what Nebuchadnezzar had expected. First his strong men who threw our friends into the furnace were themselves consumed by the fire. Then the king saw those three men, no longer bound and joined by another, walking around in the furnace. Taken aback he checked with others to confirm that he had indeed had three and not four men cast into the furnace. (the comic double take) Then he noticed that while the friends looked just as they had, the fourth man “had the look of a god”.

He called Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego out of the fire. They came out with no sign of having been anywhere near a fire. They didn’t even have that nice campfire smell. “Therefore (the king makes a decree: Any people, nation, or language that utters blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins…” Dan 3:29

Did these three men have a superpower that made them fire resistant? Of course not! Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, their Hebrew names, went by the Babylonian names Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They were exiles from Jerusalem, educated, thanks to the Babylonian schools, and friends of Daniel. Through that association they had been named as officials of the province of Babylon. With positions of power they were living well, and yet they were not free to go home to Judah. As God had instructed the exiles, they had built houses and planted crops and blended in with the population of the day. Unlike most of the Jews these three, and Daniel presumably, had not taken up worship of the gods of their Babylonian captors.

For the most part furnaces are used in metaphorical ways in the Bible to represent a variety of things such as; God’s judging and testing, a refining fire to strengthen or to reform the people of Israel, and to represent the presence of God. We also associate that kind of fire with condemnation, like the fires of hell. The type of furnace being referred to in the story is probably one for smelting and refining metals and would therefore be both large and very hot, though I doubt it could be heated to seven times its regular heat without it breaking down. Nor do I think it likely that they had a furnace so large that four grown men could walk around in it.

I don’t think that the idols and furnaces which we face in our own lives are very different from those in today’s story. We have lots of idols and furnaces don’t we? We are rarely ordered to bow down but rather encouraged by clever marketing etc. But there are people in our world today being forced to change religion. In some African and the Middle Eastern countries groups like Boko Haram are actively forcing people, through kidnapping and threats of death, to convert from Christianity and Judaism (or any other religion) to Islam. As Matthew warns in 10: 18, disciples, “you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me.” He continues in verse 28 to say, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” For those who endure to the end will come through the furnace unscathed!”

So what was the superpower that these three men shared? What was it that made them heroes? Their superpower was the conviction of their faith. They chose the fire, not because they assumed that God would save them, but because they would not break faith, they would not deny the god of their ancestors. They were what some sources call catalyst heroes. In a way like mentors, they acted heroically but they didn’t change much themselves, rather they brought about change in others. In this story the other is Nebuchadnezzar who, though not giving up his gods, comes to acknowledge and respect the God of Abraham as the only god who could have delivered in this way (Dan 3:29).  In terms of the author’s purpose for this story it seems likely that the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego was used as a catalyst to change the Jews to return them to the worship of the Almighty God.

While the steadfastness of our heroes’ was a catalyst to change, it was of course God himself who protected them from the fire in the furnace. Unlike Nebuchadnezzar God doesn’t really need us to worship him as without us he still has the whole of creation to praise him. As to his fiery furnace, we read in the Psalm this morning that God’s fire consumes his adversaries. Our heroes firmly stood on the ground of, and then were cast into the fire for the Almighty God not because they trusted that he would save them, but because they believed that he was the one true god. Nobody enjoys the furnace, the refining process. But when we find ourselves being coerced into worshiping other things let’s join Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in jumping from the frying pan to the fire!

Scripture refereces:

Daniel 3: 1-30

Psalm 97

Matthew 10: 16-33

Nel, Marius North-West University, (Potchefstroom) Daniel 3 as satirical comedy file:///C:/Users/Cathy/Downloads/263-791-1-PB.pdf

Types of Heroes (Adapted from Vogler, 1999, pp. 41–44) http://www.waunakee.k12.wi.us/faculty/lcarothers/ModernLiterature/LessonBeforeDying/Types%20of%20Heroes.pdf

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