My friends know math isn’t my strongest skill. I tell people, only half jesting, that if counting involves more than one hand, I’m out. (I do have two hands and ten fingers, but apparently my brain lacks the synapses required to make the mental leap from thumb to thumb.)
So, I have a little bit of sympathy for Nebuchadnezzar when he peers into the fiery furnace and sees four men strolling about when he’s certain he only threw in three. I understand his confusion, I really do.
As stories go, the one about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is one of the best. If it’s been awhile since you read it, then you simply must read it, and you must read it aloud. (If you’re surfing the blogosphere while sitting in your office cubicle, you might want to wait to do this until you get home.) The story is just plain fun.
It’s fun to read, but it’s also fun to sing. To get you warmed up to the story, I spent part of my Saturday afternoon doing some YouTube sifting on your behalf. I recommend starting with Louis Armstrong, followed by a music video that combines a catchy tune with some funky ancient Near Eastern art. Finally, you can ponder the theology of Johnny Cash, for whatever it might be worth.
All right. Now that you’ve got the background music in your head, let’s review the story from Daniel 3.
Nebuchadnezzar the king sets up a huge golden statue and then summons everyone who’s anyone in his kingdom to come for its dedication. The crowd gathers, and the herald announces that when the music plays, everyone should fall down and worship the statue. No one was supposed to be left standing when this happened – the penalty for not finding a spot on the ground was death by fiery furnace.
Alas, when the music played, some of the king’s officials notice that others among the king’s officials did not hit the deck, so to speak. Seizing the opportunity to make themselves look good by making someone else look bad (commonly called tattling), the Chaldean officials bring the matter to the king’s attention.
The king calls in the noncompliant officials – whom you already know as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – and throws a fit before offering the men a second chance to follow the rules. Unimpressed by the king’s tirade, the three men make their famous declaration, “If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up” (NRSV).
Unimpressed by their response, the king throws another fit, orders the temperature in the fiery furnace turned up, and sends his own valiant men to haul the bound Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to the furnace and cast them to their deaths.
Things do not go well for the king, who, first, loses his valiant men to the scorching heat of the turned-up furnace, and second, starts seeing things . . . like an extra man in the furnace. Realizing he’s lost this battle of the gods, the king summons Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to exit the furnace, which they promptly do since their ropes – and only their ropes – had turned to ashes in the fire.
Now the king is impressed. First, he is impressed by their God, who was indeed able to deliver them from the king’s power (cf. 3:15). Second, he is impressed by the faithfulness of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to that God. He then issues a very kingly decree that anyone who speaks against this God will be dismembered and his house turned to a rubble heap. Don’t you love Nebuchadnezzar?