If you grew up going to church, chances are you have heard the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego many times. In case you haven’t, let me give you the very condensed version:
Sometime around 600 B.C., Babylon had taken over some Israelite land. The Babylonian king of the time, Nebuchadnezzar, has some of the most talented young men taken to serve in his court. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were three of these and they were eventually put in charge of “all the affairs of the province of Babylon” (Daniel 2:49) – at the suggestion of Daniel, by the way (and, yes, I mean the “Daniel and the Lion’s Den” Daniel). King Nebuchadnezzar made a huge golden statue and ordered that everyone in the land bow down at certain times to worship the statue. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to worship any false idols/gods. Some of the king’s officials found out and told on them to the king. The king gave them one more warning, but still the three refused. As a result, the king ordered them to be put into the furnace (with a fire so hot it burned the soldiers who threw them in). The three were not afraid, though. When the king looked in the furnace, he was amazed because he saw four men walking around unharmed. Yes, I said four. The king threw three men in, but there were four men in there and he exclaimed that the fourth looked like a god. So, the king told them to come out and not a even a hair was burnt on their bodies, nor a thread on their clothes. God had saved them.
Like I’ve said, I’ve heard this story several times before. As I was reading in the book of Daniel this week, though, a new verse stuck out to me – a nuance of the story that had always been overlooked in my encounters with the story. This section comes at the point where the court officials have told on Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and the king is about to throw them into the furnace. It is the men’s response to the king:
“O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty. But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue that you have set up” – Daniel 3:16-18
At first glance, this has the overall message that is usually stressed in Sunday School lessons about this story. These men followed God despite being threatened. They were faithful in their belief of his ability to save them and, in return, God saved them. The important nuance I latched on to in this reading were the first 5 words of verse 18: “But even if he doesn’t.” My mind kind of started reeling at this point, to be honest.
First, they believed, without a doubt, that God was capable of saving them, but that didn’t mean He would. They recognized that just because God can, doesn’t mean He will. Whether or not God does something, does not determine whether He can do something. This then begs the question, why would they think God might not save them? They recognized that God had a bigger plan that extends way beyond just them. They realized it was not all about them. They were also talking from experience, just as you or I could. I mean I firmly believe God is capable of ending any war, curing ebola, etc. That doesn’t mean He will. In fact, my experience tells me, He won’t. We live in a world of free will and sin, which causes most of the problems of this world. Despite people’s decisions, God could still clean up all our messes, but where is the learning, growth, faith, justice, etc. in that? In the meantime, often it is innocent people who die as a result of decisions of the powerful. I don’t always understand why he can’t just save the innocent, but I believe this isn’t an indication of His ability. I think if we look closely, though, we see God’s hand in individual stories – even if He doesn’t just make a situation just disappear. There is also another larger issue at hand that I think maybe Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were aware of. After a sermon about Job last week, my dad and I were talking and came to an understanding. Sometimes, we get wrapped up in how could God do this to me? We forget that there is a greater war being fought. The war has already been won, but Satan is still fighting. So, sometimes, it doesn’t make sense. Sometimes, it is unfair. We are not promised understanding, nor fairness, only spiritual salvation through Jesus Christ.
So, for me, the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is no longer a story of believing that God will reward our faithfulness. Now, it is a reminder that even if God doesn’t respond in the way we think He will, or even should, it isn’t a reflection of His ability. Rather, we have to trust that He has a greater plan than what we are aware of (even if, like me, you would like to be clued in).