Dare to Defy
Daniel 3 - “Dare to Defy”
Please read Daniel 3 in your Bible. I used the NLT to prepare these remarks.
You may be familiar with the expression, “the separation of church and state.” The first use of that phrase is Baptist in origin: it is from a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. The Danbury Baptists wrote to then-president Jefferson expressing concern their state constitution lacked protection of religious freedom.
The Danbury Baptists wrote, “what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights. And these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgments, as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen.”
In his reply, Jefferson referenced the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment; “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”
Jefferson did not intend the metaphor to forbid the influence of religion on political issues. More the opposite; it intended to protect the free religious practice of all citizens. The “wall of separation” was built to protect the Church from the government, not the other way around.
This is contrary to the attempts by some to closet Christians, to diminish the influence and exercise of our faith in the entirety of the public sphere, not just in government.
As Baptists, it is our heritage and duty to defy those who want to misuse the engine of government to inhibit the free exercise of our faith. We need to take seriously and respond appropriately to all threats to silence and reduce us. Ironically, I want to offer the example of three Jewish men who dared to defy a king who misused his office to compel them to worship a false god.
Three Jewish exiles put faith in God ahead of fear of the king.
CONTEXT - In ch. 2, NEBUCHADNEZZAR had received a warning in a dream about a statue that God would not tolerate an idol-worshipping empire. Daniel courageously delivered this message to NEBUCHADNEZZAR who rewarded Daniel with a leadership position and MANY VALUABLE GIFTS (2:48). He also gave a promotion to three of Daniel’s fellow Jews, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abendego. All of this makes ch. 3 harder to explain, as NEBUCHADNEZZAR apparently does exactly the thing he was warned in his dream NOT to do. He may’ve been trying to defy the dream and create a statue that was all gold, not just a golden head.
1. At first glance, it feels like the king thought a lot about himself. (3:1-7)
Otherwise, why would he have made the statue? (2) We’re short on clues: the text doesn’t even tell us what the statue depicted. It may have depicted NEBUCHADNEZZAR himself. If that’s the case, the motive was egotism. However, we have no record of any Mesopotamian ruler ever being worshipped as a god during their lifetimes.
The statue may have been of Nabu, the chief god of Babylon. If that’s the case, NEBUCHADNEZZAR was acting out of his faith. Pagans of that time saw no problem in multiple loyalties to different gods. (Pagans of our own time make the same mistake!) By the way, notice the similarity of names: Nabu and Nebu-chadnezzar, which identified the king as Nabu’s vizier or prime minister.
Whatever it depicted, NEBUCHADNEZZAR might have erected it to achieve national unity, as bowing to the statue was a pledge of allegiance to NEBUCHADNEZZAR’s government. Whatever his motive for erecting it, the statue itself and the way NEBUCHADNEZZAR required it to be worshiped, was an abuse of his authority in defiance of God’s warning.
There is no way the statue was solid gold: all the gold in Babylon would not have been enough to form a solid gold statue that size. It was undoubtedly covered in gold leaf but was still an impressive display. It’s theorized that the statue did not survive until modern times because at some unknown point an enemy plundered it for the gold and the statue was destroyed in the process.
It may seem strange there was there a massive furnace nearby, but it was probably built on the site to smelt the gold and prepare the thin sheets that were then pressed into the surface of the sculpted statue. The FURNACE was already lit on the day of the dedication service, and it was BLAZING. In this way the furnace also served as a visible warning and means of execution of those who refused the king’s order.
The penalty for refusal to bow down tells us NEBUCHADNEZZAR was deadly serious about this. NEBUCHADNEZZAR had messages sent throughout the empire, calling all his subordinates to Dura to make their show of obedience. They must have all come together at a specific date and time as the cue for them to bow down was a musical overture. This was a unsubtle use of peer pressure to encourage everyone to make their obeisance.
The king’s warning was almost completely effective. We read that ALL THE PEOPLE, regardless of their ethnicity or whatever religious convictions they held privately, BOWED TO THE GROUND and gave worship to the STATUE. Their act of worship was both a political and religious statement, implying each person’s full acceptance of NEBUCHADNEZZAR as king and affirmation of Nebu as a god. There were, however, three hold-outs who refused to bow to the gilded image.
2. Some political rivals made trouble for three Jewish men. (3:12-23)
What motivated the informants to rat out some of their fellow managers? The NLT identifies them as ASTROLOGERS. It seems more likely they were Babylonian nobles. Their motivation appears to be ethnic jealousy and/or political rivalry. They referred to the three defiant ones as “Jews” but used the Babylonian names they were given in 1:6.
I don’t believe NEBUCHADNEZZAR showed these men mercy in giving them a second chance; I believe he had something to prove. From his point of view, NEBUCHADNEZZAR probably felt that he had given these men every advantage in his government, that he had a right to expect obedience from them. The text tells us he was very angry before and after his offer of a second chance. This can be explained as a moment of clarity occurring in the middle, temporarily dispelling the red fog of his anger long enough for Nebuchadnezzar to realize it would be a great testimony to the rest of his kingdom if these three changed their minds and declared their loyalty to the king and his god, Nebu.
After all, these Jewish men had dared to defy the king. We understand their response to the king’s call to idolatry was a faithful and humble one. The faith they expressed in their reply to the king indicates they knew God was able to save them but they were unsure if He was willing. Given that uncertainty, they said whether He chose to save them or not, it was still wrong for them to worship the king’s idol. This, friends, is the most faithful response when we are challenged by adversity.
The king’s rage had deadly consequences. Here again we have evidence of the king’s rage and vengefulness. His face was DISTORTED WITH RAGE. Unnecessarily, he ordered the FURNACE HEATED SEVEN TIMES HOTTER THAN USUAL. Nebuchadnezzar called for his strongest soldiers because he ordered the bound-up Jews to be thrown into the fire like logs. Ironically, some of NEBUCHADNEZZAR’s best soldiers were the ones who died in the incredibly hot fire.
3. God delivered His faithful people from harm. (3:24-30)
The first miracle was that the three Jewish men were unharmed! The king was the first to notice that the three captives were spared the flames. Not only that, but the ropes binding them were the only things burned by the fire. Most amazing of all, a fourth person was walking around in the furnace with them, and his appearance was like a god (or “a son of the gods).
NEBUCHADNEZZAR was so surprised by all of this, he got as close to the furnace as he could, and called out to the three Jews, ordering them to come out of the fire. Several witnesses (including the “astrologers” who’d ratted them out), drew near the Jews at a safe distance from the fire. To their further surprise, they noted there was not a single thing to prove they’d been in a fire, not even the smell of smoke. Make no mistake, this is a complete miracle.
The second miracle was the king’s repentance. To his credit, Nebuchadnezzar figured it out right away; he called the three Jews “SERVANTS OF THE MOST HIGH GOD.” In his speech afterward, NEBUCHADNEZZAR indicated he understood what happened. He offered praise to their God. He identified the “fourth man” as an ANGEL sent by God to RESCUE them. He understood their defiance of his order as an act of faith, not disloyalty. He decreed that - under the threat of a painful death and dishonor - no one in the kingdom was allowed to SPEAK A WORD AGAINST the Jew’s God. Reversing the plans of their rival managers, NEBUCHADNEZZAR PROMOTED Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to even higher positions in his government.
NEBUCHADNEZZAR had challenged God and God had completely saved His people. NEBUCHADNEZZAR had the good sense to admit defeat, but he did not yet possess a true faith in God.
Three Jewish exiles put faith in God ahead of fear of the king.
This story of faith in defiance of a tyrant had a happy ending. NEBUCHADNEZZAR, however, did not learn his lesson. He continued to pridefully resist the one true God and had to suffer a time of disgrace and madness in which he spent a long time living like a wild animal, driven from human society (4:32-33). After he came to his senses, NEBUCHADNEZZAR found faith and acknowledged the one true God.
Only God knows where we are headed. There may be times when we must make a choice between the safety of bowing to a tyrant and the risk of life to be faithful to our God.
There is one way for us to be reasonably certain we will make the right choice on that day and that is to make the right choices in the days leading up to it. The American Church as enjoyed over two hundred years of freedom. It has made us complacent, convincing us that this privilege will continue forever. History and theology warn us differently. If our love for God and for the generations to follow us is different, we must be nurturing the kind of faith shown by Shadrach, Meschach, and Abendego. They had faith that whether they lived or died, God must be obeyed. We prepare ourselves and our descendants to choose God on that day by choosing God every day.
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 7, Daniel, Gleason L. Archer, Jr.