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Tough Texts: Daniel 3:17

If the God we serve exists, then he can rescue us from the furnace of blazing fire, and he can rescue us from the power of you, the king.

This was spoken by the heroes of the book of Daniel—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—or as Veggie Tales calls them, Rack, Shack & Benny. How can these spiritual champions say “If”? It sounds like they are doubting whether God exists. It seems they are caving in when facing King Nebuchadnezzar’s tyrannical power, and they are afraid to confront head-on his idolatrous worldview. 

However, that conclusion doesn’t fit their actions. In fact, they do not cave in. They were being given a second chance to give in to his tyrannical demand and to avoid capital punishment, yet they refused. 

There is a way they could have avoided the furnace. They might have used Naaman’s excuse. He was an Aramean whom God healed. In gratitude, he confessed to the prophet Elisha that the Lord was the only true God, but before he went back to his country, he essentially asked, “I have to bow down to another god because my king demands it, but I won’t really mean it. Is that OK?” (2 Kings 5:17-18). Elisha seemed to allow that. If Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had heard about Naaman, they might have adopted the same excuse. But they didn’t. In the king’s face, they outright refused to obey the king’s command. 

The Situation in Context

As usual, looking at the wider context helps us to make sense of the verse. 

Here’s the situation: King Nebuchadnezzar set up a gold statue and made a law that when certain musical instruments sounded, everyone must bow down and worship the statue. Some of the Chaldeans, who didn’t like the Jews, took the opportunity to throw Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego under the bus. They pointed out to the king that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were violating the inviolate law. King Nebuchadnezzar flew into a rage. He gave them one more chance to submit. 

In his ultimatum, King Nebuchadnezzar posed a theological challenge: “Who is the god who can rescue you from my power?” (3:15). He was essentially claiming to be more powerful than any god, including the Lord. He is saying that no god exists that is powerful enough to contradict his decisions. What Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego said is a response to that challenge using rhetoric and logic that fits the conversation. 

The Meaning of Their Response

First, they said, “We don’t need to give you an answer to this question” (3:16). Perhaps they were saying that words were not necessary; their actions would show what they believed. Another possibility is that they expected that God would somehow give the king the answer to that question—which he did! 

What they did not do was treat the king’s challenge as a time to give him an outline of their theology proper—their doctrine of God. Instead, they proposed to engage the philosophical debate by means of their actions. “If the God we serve exists,” this is what we will do, and this is what we expect to be the outcome. Who is this God they serve? What are his attributes? They believed in a supremely powerful God, but rather than going into detail about God’s omnipotence, they expressed their logical assumption on which they planned to act—the existence of the God they knew about, whom they served. Behind their brief statement is something like this: “We have come to know and believe in Yahweh, the Most High, the Almighty God, the Creator and sustainer of the universe. You, Nebuchadnezzar, act as if you have all the power here. But if God exists the way we know he exists, then you’re wrong. In fact, God has absolute sovereignty over what’s going to happen in the next few minutes. He can easily rescue us from you and from your furnace if he decides to.” 

Jesus faced a similar political-theological challenge. Pilate said, “Don’t you know that I have the authority to release you and the authority to crucify you?” (John 19:10). Jesus’s reply displayed a theology similar to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s: “You would have no authority over me at all if it hadn’t been given you from above” (verse 11). God is the one with all authority. He gave some to this governor for now. He can take it back anytime. 

Second, after Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego indirectly expressed their theology, they doubled down on it. They said, “But even if he does not rescue us, we want you as king to know that we will not serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up” (Daniel 3:18). They were certain that God could rescue them from this threat, but they were not certain that he would. Either way, despite the mortal danger, they refused to budge on their commitment to worship God alone. If God is who he is, to acknowledge the divinity of a statue would be utter foolishness. In fact, it would be spiritual suicide, which is much worse than the few minutes of agony one would suffer in a hot fire. 

Jesus said, “Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). In the long term—with eternity in mind—it doesn’t make sense to worry more about what a tyrannical leader might do than what God might do. All Nebuchadnezzar could do was kill Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, but Yahweh held their eternal fates in his hands. In chapter 21 of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus affirmed this perspective. He said that Christians will be persecuted in the end times, and “You will even be betrayed by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends. They will kill some of you. You will be hated by everyone because of my name, but not a hair of your head will be lost. By your endurance, gain your lives” (Luke 21:16-19). You might be executed (physically, temporally), but you won’t lose so much as a hair (spiritually, eternally). You will gain your eternal life by remaining faithful. That’s the promise Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stood on while maintaining their integrity. 

Our Response

Consider the God you have read about in Scripture, the God you serve. He is the sovereign, omnipotent Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He alone has the power to decide the eternal fate of every person. And his faithful love endures forever. “If the God we serve exists,” he can deliver us from the very power of Satan. God has provided the only way that leads to life. Therefore, we will not fear mere human beings, and it would be utter foolishness to offend God by worshiping what ungodly people worship. 

Whatever you do, do it from the heart, as something done for the Lord and not for people, knowing that you will receive the reward of an inheritance from the Lord. You serve the Lord Christ. (Colossians 3:23-24)