And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell bound into the burning fiery furnace. Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counsellors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?” They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.” He answered and said, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.” Then Nebuchadnezzar came near to the door of the burning fiery furnace; he declared, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out, and come here!” Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire. And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counsellors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men. The hair of their heads was not singed, their cloaks were not harmed, and no smell of fire had come upon them. Nebuchadnezzar answered and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. Daniel 3.23-28.
Hananiah (Shadrack), Mishael (Meshack) and Azariah (Abednego) were three young members of the Jewish nobility, deported (along with Daniel) to Babylon in 605 BC at the beginning of the Exile. Nebuchadnezzar was the king of Babylon at the time and had an enlightened attitude to the exiles in his captivity — he educated the most talented of them and gave them appropriate posts in his government. That is what had happened to Daniel and these three young men (Daniel 1.3-20). But now the three have been thrown into a furnace at the king’s command. Why? What have they done that has so infuriated him? They have refused to worship a huge gold-plated statue that Nebuchadnezzar has erected in the plain of Dura (Daniel 3.1-18).
Although they now speak like Babylonians and dress like Babylonians and have been given Babylonian names, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah remain true to their Hebrew faith in Yahweh, the one true God, and will worship none other than him even on pain of death. They know God can deliver them from death and they believe he will, but whether he actually does so or not is irrelevant; they will not worship the idol. “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” (Daniel 3.17-18).
Despite the courtesy shown him in their refusal to bow to the golden image, Nebuchadnezzar has the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual and the three Hebrews, clothed and bound, are thrown into it. But then something amazing happens. There are, to Nebuchadnezzar’s eyes, now four men in the furnace … and all of them are moving around freely, unaffected by the intense heat. How could he see this? Smelting furnaces in Mesopotamia were shaped like squat bottles with a wide aperture at the top for ore to be inserted and smaller apertures around the base for the insertion of wood and charcoal and for bellows to be used. Nebuchadnezzar and his officials could see into the furnace through these lower apertures.
So who was the fourth man? Nebuchadnezzar had no idea. At the end of this morning’s passage, he refers to him as an “angel” but, at the time, he says that his appearance is like a son of the gods (literally, in the Hebrew, “a son of gods”). In other words, if gods had children, this is what you might expect one of them to look like. And so, with the New Testament in front of us, it is easy for me to look back over 2,500 years and see the pre-incarnate Jesus there, walking with Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah in the flames.
Through the centuries, thousands of Christians (myself included) have drawn comfort and strength from that picture. The assurance it gives is that, whatever trials I am going through, however tough things get, Jesus is there with me. And, yes, that is oh so true. But I noticed something this morning that I’ve never noticed before. We are told only that Nebuchadnezzar saw the fourth man. There is no suggestion that the three Hebrews in the furnace saw him or were even aware of his presence. Wrongly, perhaps, I have always assumed that they were walking around in the flames talking to Jesus … Well. maybe they were, but the Scripture does not say so. And it would certainly be more true to my experience in some of the more difficult times I have been through to say that others saw me walking with God when I myself was finding it difficult to believe that he was there at all.
The other thing I need to remember is that often, on the earthly level, Christians do not come out of the furnace untouched by the flames. Wonderful deliverances such as the one described here do happen, thank God — and I have personally experienced them; but sometimes they do not and they are not mine by right. Whatever the flames do to the body, however, they can never consume a Christian — and the assurance that this morning’s reading gives to me is that the fourth man is always there with me in the furnace. The fourth man is Jesus and he wants me to believe this morning (as Gerard Markland’s song puts it) …
When the fire is burning all around you,
you will never be consumed by the flames.
Do not be afraid,
for I have redeemed you.
I have called you by your name;
you are Mine.