Is that us in the furnace?
Ever since childhood I’ve wondered why we know Daniel by his Hebrew name but his three friends by their Babylonian names.
It’s tempting to divine some spiritual significance to the inconsistency, but I’ve come to believe that it’s a simple case of phonetics. Their names, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, are highly satisfying to say.
Their experience of being thrown into the fiery furnace is a powerful story full of pageantry, bravery, suspense and astounding victory. It is used to teach children that when we are faithful to God alone, he will save us.
As we become adults, we see that, though God can save us, he doesn’t always. Indeed, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego knew this as well.
“[God] will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not . . .”
Actually, taken at face value, it is hard to relate to the story. As North Americans, we have no Nebuchadnezzar figure and virtually no chance of being physically harmed for choosing God.
I recently heard the opinion that we are so self-centered we insist on reading the Bible as if everything applied to us. We cannot study Scripture without asking, “Now what is the practical application we can take with us this week?”
Since a direct connection isn’t obvious, we move the plot inward. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s exteriors become our interiors.
The common spin is that all of us “walk through fires,” yet, because we are faithful, God rescues us. We are quick to clarify that “rescue” could mean a literal deliverance, or a rescue into death and life eternal.
Since the three men’s ropes were burnt off, we are assured that our own ropes of bondage are removed when we walk through fires of life.
Also, when the men came out, there “was no smell of fire on them.” This, supposedly, means that our painful trials will not leave a trace. God is in the trial with you. Like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, you are coming out of that fiery furnace exactly like you went in.
Except that isn’t true. No one exits his or her furnace untouched. We come out with scars and wounds. We are changed, sometimes to the very core of our being. Like Jacob wrestling with God, some come through both blessed and limping.
Of course, the Bible is a living word for us today. The Word and Holy Spirit tangibly change lives.
Yet we forget that while God’s story is the center of our lives, we are not the center of the story.
Does the roaring fire have to symbolize our sufferings? What if the burnt ropes and lack of smoky fragrance have nothing to do with our health problems or financial struggles? Could those details have been included simply to increase the shock and awe of God’s jaw-dropping power?
It seems to me that before we throw ourselves in the furnace with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, we should stand tall with them on the plain of Dura while all the other officials were facedown before the golden monolith.
My insurance, healthy food, education, reputation and savings account are all tall, impressive, shimmering statues. These things are good, but they cannot save.
With the famous three, I hope I can say, even when scary situations appear to be the alternative, “I want you to know, O king, that I will not serve your gods or worship the golden image.”
Sarah Kehrberg lives in Swannanoa, N.C., and attends Asheville Mennonite Church.
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