When we were little, my mother used to read to us from ‘The Tuck-Me-Up Book’. The fact that these were Bible stories was much less important to us than that they were completely brilliant, and best of all was the story of ‘The Burning Fiery Furnace’. To this day I have a vivid picture in my mind of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego capering about unscathed amid the flames in a large oven and thumbing their noses at Nebuchadnezzar.
You know the story. King Nebuchadnezzar orders the construction of an immense golden idol and decrees that whenever his people should hear the sound ‘of cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery and all kinds of musick’ they should bow down and worship it. But Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were Jews and their loyalty was to the God of Abraham. So they disobeyed the decree, and of course they were grassed up by some Chaldeans and dragged before the king, who sentenced them to be thrown into the burning fiery furnace as a punishment.
The Biblical tale is told in the book of Daniel in the Old Testament, but there is an Apocryphal addition, not in the original Hebrew. It is known in the Apocrypha as ‘The Song of the Three Holy Children’ and it tells how, as the three men (they are called Ananias, Azarias and Misael in this version) walked in the midst of the fire, they praised God and blessed the Lord, saying ‘Blessed art thou, O Lord, thou God of our fathers, and worthy to be praised, and thy name is glorified for evermore…In all the things that thou has brought upon us, and upon the holy city of our fathers, even Jerusalem, thou hast executed true judgments, for according to truth and justice hast thou brought all these things upon us because of our sins.’
And an extraordinary thing happens. The king’s servants stoke the blaze to such an extent that those who get too close are consumed. But in the middle of the furnace ‘it was as if it had been a moist whistling wind, so that the fire touched them not at all, neither hurt nor troubled them.’
At a time when the world seems an ever more dangerous and violent and hostile place – when famine devastates Yemen, Nigeria and the Horn of Africa; when war ravages Syria and the use of torture is at epidemic levels; when North Korea’s idea of playground one-up-manship is to launch a nuclear missile or two, and the answer to loving one’s fellow human beings is to build walls to keep them out – it is too easy to lose sight of our own puny role within it. We feel helpless and sometimes hopeless too.
So it ws good to be reminded last weekend of Paul’s exhortation in his letter to the Ephesians to ‘put on the whole armour of God, that we may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil…’ It is a wonderful passage: ‘For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.’
That is what Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did when they stood up to Nebuchadnezzar and it is what made me think again of that wonderful story. It teaches us that terrible things happen to the good and innocent as well as to the bad and the guilty. Nature boils over and takes hundreds with it. Wars deal pain and suffering with indiscriminate violence. The great mystery of our life on earth seems to be not what happens but how we, as individuals, should respond. The survivors of the burning fiery furnace knew this. From this midst of it, they ‘out of one mouth, praised and glorified and blessed God, saying – O ye heavens, bless ye the Lord, praise him and exalt him above all for ever. O every shower and dew, bless ye the Lord’ Even ‘O ye fire and heat, bless ye the Lord.’
The key to the mystery comes at the end of the story: in both Daniel and the Apocrypha, the watchers saw not three men in the flames, but four: In the Apocrypha he is described as an Angel, but in the Book of Daniel ‘he is like the Son of God’. Whoever he is, we know he will not forsake us even in our darkest hour. He is there for us all, to deliver us out of the midst of the fire and to bless us for evermore. And that is why Paul exhorts us to take unto us the whole armour of God, that we may be able to withstand the evil day, and having done all, to stand with Him, now and forever.