Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are usually held up as paragons of faithfulness and of faith – they wouldn’t bow down and they believed God was able to deliver them from the furnace. Whether or not He would deliver them was another matter – but He certainly was able. And all God’s people said, “Amen!”
Most translations of their famous declaration go something like this: “If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (ESV)
But the original text isn’t quite so clear. In fact, it’s downright hazy exactly what the Hebrew men said. I won’t bore you with all the problems translators face when they tackle this verse, but let me say that what the NRSV says might be more accurate: “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)
In case you missed the key difference between these two translations, here it is: The first (and much more popular) version says Our God is able to deliver us! The second (and more controversial) version says If our God is able to deliver us… Whichever statement Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego really made doesn’t affect what they intended to do: they weren’t going to bow down to that silly statue no way no how no matter what.
But people get really uncomfortable with the suggestion that the faithful Jews maybe didn’t have as much faith as we’d like to think. Is it possible they really weren’t sure that God could deliver them? Let me ask you – Where are they? (Answer: in exile.) Why are they there? (Answer: because their God didn’t deliver them from the hand of Nebuchadnezzar.) Is it possible that their uncertainty about whether God could deliver them reflects the uncertainty of a people in exile whose God did not deliver them?
The possible uncertainty of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego about God’s ability to deliver them makes their commitment to be faithful even more astounding: Even if our God doesn’t deliver us and, for that matter, even if He can’t deliver us, we will still worship Him and Him alone. We will keep those first two commandments, come hell (i.e., fiery furnace) or high water. No wonder Nebuchadnezzar was impressed (3:28).
P.S. If your Ten Commandments are rusty, the first two are (1) You shall have no other gods before me; and (2) You shall not make any graven images and worship them.