So, I recently finished the book of Daniel, and one thing that struck me over and over was the courage of Daniel and his friends. After being captured by Nebuchadnezzar, these four boys are picked out as being the best and brightest of Israel. Rather than executing them, as I expected, the Babylonian king brings them to his court, educates them, and ends up entrusting them with great power and responsibility. The catch (because there’s always a catch) is that they have to give up their God for the false deities of their new home. Daniel & friends do a lot to adapt, but this they will not do. They remain faithful and, in the process, play out some of the most courageous scenes in the Bible.
I’m not talking about the the lions’ den here. Let’s face it, you probably know that story already, even if you haven’t read the original text. By the time the lions turn up, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah are on their third king, and have been long-established in the community. Instead, the two stories I’m writing about today come from early on and show a maturity which leaves me awestruck.
One of the first commands Nebuchadnezzar gives to the new captive elite (Daniel & Co. plus others) is that they need to eat food from the king’s store, “but Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine” (Daniel 1:8). He could put up with the destruction of his homeland, being kidnapped, and even having his name changed, but this was just a bridge too far. What strikes me is not so much the resolution, but Daniel’s reaction to the situation. He asks for permission. He doesn’t rage against the ruling, or threaten a hunger strike, or point at the meat and scream “unclean!” Instead, he offers a solution to the situation, an alternative for the guard who likes him but is terrified of defying the king. It is civil disobedience executed in the most reasonable way: Let’s try this for 10 days and if it doesn’t work, then we’ll try something else. Daniel doesn’t go out of his way to draw attention to the disagreement, but rather looks for the quietest, simplest way to solve the problem. And it works.
The second story is more famous, and it focuses not on Daniel, but his three friends. In Daniel 3, they are going by their Babylonian names: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Nebuchadnezzar, who, it turns out, is kind of a nut job, has built a giant gold statue. The Bible doesn’t say what the statue is of, but I’m tempted to think it’s a self-portrait (although there were plenty of false gods to choose from). At any rate, he also builds a whopping big furnace and says that anyone who doesn’t bow down and worship the statue will get tossed in the fire. It’s not long before some toadies rat out Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Well, the king goes ballistic and threatens to throw them into the furnace if they don’t toe the line. There is no alternative to be offered here, no solution to try out. So, they do the only thing they can do. They answer:
“King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
Interestingly, Daniel is totally absent from this story, but it’s not hard to see his influence in these words. Perhaps the Spirit wants us to see the effect of someone who leads by example. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that Daniel’s friends don’t rely on him or need him to find their strength. This passage has quickly become one of my favorites in all of scripture and, to me, shows a depth of faith second only to Jesus’ submission to the cross. These boys go beyond any sort of radical fundamentalism. They do not rest on “God will provide.” They acknowledge that their deaths may well be part of His plan, and they make darn sure that Nebuchadnezzar knows who they will obey.
Man, that takes guts. I know I don’t have a faith like that, but I sure wish I did. Oh, I’m not expecting to be threatened with public incineration, but we all face the same sort of situations as these guys. Sometimes it’s direct orders from a superior and sometimes it’s just cultural suggestions, but either way we are asked to follow something other than our Christian faith. It’s tempting to rationalize obeisance to these outside influences because it often means securing our survival, either professionally or socially. But I think the stories in Daniel are God’s way of calling us to do more, to be braver. These guys didn’t push back against every command they were given; they wouldn’t have lasted long if they did. Rather, they understood where the line was. They knew the difference between what disgraced them and what disgraced God, and they just weren’t having the latter.
When I was in high school, I was in the jazz band. One night, our teacher took us all to a ridiculously good concert, and afterwards said something I will never forget: “A performance like that either makes you want to go home and practice, or pack away your horn forever.” There’s a lot I don’t know about God and faith, but I feel pretty sure of this: we have these stories of Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah so that we know what faithful practice can help us become. We just have to muster the courage to keep playing, even when we get it wrong.