“Surely you can’t be serious, doctor.” “I’m very serious. And stop calling me Shirley.”
Classic comedy makes use of the English word, surely, but the word has a very serious and powerful meaning. It means that whatever follows is for sure, certain, true, positive, undeniable, and guaranteed. In Psalm 23, David, the shepherd-king, is building to a triumphant conclusion. “Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…” This is not wishful thinking or a faint hope. It is certain and expected that he will see goodness and mercy for the rest of his days. Are you living in that mind-set? Do you expect to see goodness and mercy every day? Do I?
And David is very particular about his words. Goodness and Mercy WILL follow Him, because He is constantly surrounded by his Good Shepherd, who embodies goodness and mercy. David did not say that health, wealth, comfort, popularity, power, or worldly success would follow him. He did not say that happiness, confidence, self-esteem, or even peace of mind would be his constant companions. But goodness and mercy will never be absent if we are in the presence of God. Because they are part of God’s character, they cannot be absent where He is present.
More than that, the word for “follow” here means that goodness and mercy are not just “tagging along” like an annoying younger sibling, or following at a polite distance. They are chasing after, in pursuit, even stalking us! God will chase after us, track us down, and surround us with His goodness! He will lavish His mercy on us– no matter how far we try to run and hide from it.
“Social Distancing” is the latest buzz-phrase in the media. With the spread of COVID-19, governments and health officials are asking people to avoid meeting in groups, avoid physical contact, and keep our distance from those outside our immediate family. Those who are most susceptible to the disease are being asked to self-quarantine; those who contract the disease are put in isolation. This is causing many people additional suffering, because they feel alone and even abandoned.
But God assures us that He will never leave nor forsake us. No matter how “distant” we may be from others, God is always with us– ALWAYS. Prayer does not summon God to our side, or capture His focus and attention from someone or something else. Our God is omnipresent and omniscient– He know our every thought; He is with us through every moment and every breath.
So why do we feel so alone and frightened at times like these?
I think there are several reasons:
Disaster, disease, hardship– especially when they come unexpectedly or develop rapidly– remind us that we live in a fallen world. We KNOW our world isn’t perfect. We know that life is fragile. We know that health and comfort are not guaranteed. But sudden tragedy leaves us unable to deny that our world is broken and we cannot, by our own efforts, fix it. We expect that God’s presence means God’s perfection will surround us, protect us, and shield us from the reality of Sin and its consequences– including the reality of Sin in the natural world around us. Hurricanes, earthquakes, infections, climate change– God allows them to happen. They will continue to impact our fallen world until God chooses to step in and put a permanent end to them. But He is still here WITH us through the storms and sicknesses and trials of life.
God’s voice is often gentle and comforting. Panic and fear are loud and insistent. We will hear the voice we focus on most. God whispers in our ear if we are listening to Him– if we concentrate on spending time with Him. How much of my time today was spent in Scripture and prayer? How much of it spent listening to the news or reading FB posts full of anger and confusion?
Sometimes, in the good times, we pay God lip service; taking for granted that He is there, but not acknowledging His presence. Sure, we say that He walks with us (or we walk with Him); but we don’t take a moment to look up and see where He is leading us. Instead of being close to God by following our Shepherd, we are close to Him because He is chasing us down to bring us back to the right path. He is right there, but in our panic, we don’t see Him, because He is no longer leading us.
Fear and panic draw our attention inward. It’s one of the reasons “social distancing” causes emotional distress. We are social creatures, but our focus is easily drawn inward, and more so when there seem to be no other people around. Our own thoughts, fears, and questions grow bigger– enough to consume us if we are not careful.
God IS with us–let’s rejoice and embrace it:
Pray. Pray some more. Pray without ceasing! (2 Thessalonians 5:17)
Let God speak– meditate on God’s word. Meditate on His names and His character.(Psalm 19) Seek out websites that magnify God. Call or e-mail friends who can pray or praise with you.
Sing! Worship the God who is bigger than any crisis we may face. Sing at the top of your lungs– if you are alone, there is no one else to hear you, but the one who adores your “joyful noise” (Psalm 100)
Encourage others– Be the reminder that someone else needs today. (1 John 4)
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” (Psalm 23:4a KJV)
The world is waking up to a global pandemic as I write this. Over 100,000 cases worldwide have been diagnosed; thousands have died. Projections are dire, with the possibility of millions of people who will need to be quarantined or hospitalized, and several thousands more dead before the year is out. Panic has already set in– people are hoarding cleaning supplies, stealing medicines and masks from hospitals, demanding testing long before they show any symptoms, and spreading rumors and false information about how the disease is spread or ways to prevent its spread.
In the midst of chaos, fear-mongering, and panic, the Bible provides both comfort and practical wisdom to face times of struggle and crisis. Psalm 23, often used to comfort people in times of grief, actually says a lot more about life than death. We have no need to panic– even though we find ourselves in unknown, unfamiliar, and threatening situations.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”
Yea, though–Not “if”, or even “when” I walk through tough times, but “though.” Death is inevitable and unpredictable, and the shadow of death, the threat of our mortality, will fall on us, often when we least expect it. Even without a traumatic event, like a pandemic, we all must travel this valley path at some point. A crisis like COVID-19 is unsettling, but death and disease wasn’t invented last year, and whatever steps we take to prevent or treat COVID-19 will not stop death or its shadow from touching our lives. Nor will panic and fear, denial, or wishful thinking make death’s shadow dissipate. It is wise to face the reality of this crisis with truth and the proper perspective.
I–Not “we.” We are surrounded by others who may share much of our fear, our grief, or our confusion at a time like this. But, when we walk through this valley, it is deeply personal, and our reactions, perspectives, beliefs, and emotions will be uniquely experienced. One of the most difficult things about times of crisis is the isolation we may feel when others cannot enter into our thoughts and hearts and painful emotions. Especially when they are dealing with similar fears and pain. Not only is this valley dark and low, it is often narrow. Even so, God is still present and powerful. We can turn to others for advice, comfort, or even excuses. But no one else can walk the road beneath our feet; no one else can choose whether we will focus on the shadows we see or the light beyond the shadows.
Walkthrough— There is a great temptation to try to hurry through any crisis– to look for the shortcut– the immediate cure; the escape hatch; the high ground; the detour. God’s love doesn’t give us the promise of ease and escape. God does not ask us to sprint through this part of our life’s journey. But God gives us the grace and power to keep walking– this valley is not the destination, but part of the longer race. This leg of the journey is difficult; there will be darkness, rocks and walls closing in on us; we may feel the cold finger of death, disease, and loss. Some days our walk may feel more like a crawl–but take heart and keep moving through.
The Valley of the Shadow of Death–Death is stark, uncompromising, cold, and overwhelming. Its shadow looms huge and oppressive. But the valley is not death; the shadow is NOT death; and even the reality of death is not bigger or more powerful or more eternal than God. COVID-19 will bring death to many thousands or millions of people, and it will bring sickness, fear, pain, grief, and distress to many more. But it cannot kill God– it cannot dim His great love for each person who suffers; it cannot catch God off guard and unprepared. We may question God’s timing and purpose. We may face hardship, loss, and confusion in the days and months ahead. But we will not face anything– even COVID-19– that can weaken God’s sovereignty. The same hand that raised Lazarus from the dead; the same power that rolled the stone away at Easter; the same Shepherd that led David all the days of his life–the One who holds galaxies in his hand and has numbered every hair on your head–He walks through this valley with us!
As God gives us wisdom, let us seek positive ways to reach out to those in crisis. Pray! Pray often, and fervently for those who are sick, and those who work in healthcare. Pray for wisdom, that our nations, regions, and communities will respond proactively and compassionately. And pray for opportunities to demonstrate and share God’s grace and mercy.
Of all the 150 Psalms in the Bible, Psalm 23 is the most well-known. It speaks of our Lord as a Shepherd who takes care of us, leading us to green pastures and calming our fears even in the valley of the shadow of death. But these four words in the very first verse, though comforting to many, have also been a source of grief to others. If the Lord is my Shepherd, I should have no reason to want. But what if I still have wants? Unanswered prayers? Struggles and trials and lacks?
Let’s look at the phrase carefully. “I shall not want” is the wording in the King James (English) version of scripture. More modern translations render the phrase as “I lack nothing (NIV),” “I have what I need (CSB),” or other variations of “I shall not want.” Let’s stick with “I shall not want,” and look at it word by word.
This Psalm is very personal. The Lord is MY Shepherd– I shall not want. This is between me and my Shepherd. I may be tempted to look around and compare, to want what someone else has, even if I don’t need it; even if it isn’t good for me. But when I depend on my Shepherd to provide, I can trust that whatever comes, He knows what I want and what I need. He knows what is best. Therefore, I shall not worry or wonder or want.
I am a former English teacher, so the verb “shall” interests me here. “Shall” and “will” are sometimes used interchangeably in English, but they are not exactly the same. “Shall” is not used much, but it indicates a future condition, or a condition that is ongoing into the future. It is not the active verb in this phrase, but rather the indicator of when that action (wanting, lacking, needing) will take place and how. The difference between “shall” and “will” in this case is not one of action, or time, but of volition. “Will” indicates a conscious decision– I “Will not want” means I will determine the action and outcome–without a Shepherd’s guidance or provision. I “Shall not want” means the outcome is determined by my Shepherd (in this case), not by my own volition or actions. There may be things I “will” still want– if I’m trying to go my own way and depend on my own wisdom and abilities, but that doesn’t change my condition–God has provided. God has given. God WILL continue to provide.
“I shall NOT want”– I may desire something else; I may not have what others have; I may be poor or sick or sad. I may respond to my circumstances with grumbling, doubt, anger, envy, greed, or disbelief. But I can also respond with trust, gratitude, wonder and worship, knowing that God sees me, knows me, and cares for my always. God doesn’t force me to respond positively to hard times– the Psalmist doesn’t say, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall be grateful,” or “I shall never complain.” He doesn’t say, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall have whatever gives me pleasure or makes my life easier.” Rather, he gives us a true picture life– I will NOT have everything I wish for; I will NOT understand or take pleasure in all the circumstances of my life, but I shall NOT be abandoned, left alone and without help or resources, lacking any source of hope, joy, peace, or love.
Finally, we come to the word “want.” In this context, it is meant to signify lack– I shall lack for nothing; I shall not be without (God who provides). And this is where many people struggle with the verse; with the Psalm; with the Shepherd Himself. We DO lack– many things. We lack money to pay the bills, we lack in our relationships, we lack perfect health, we lack patience…the list is endless. We “want” for many things. And we read Psalm 23, and it seems to mock us. If God is our Shepherd, why do we lose loved ones to disease? Why do we have to declare bankruptcy? Why did our spouse file for divorce? Why can’t we break that bad habit or addiction? Why do we see “good” people suffering? Doesn’t God see or care? God doesn’t give us easy answers. He doesn’t promise ease and comfort in this fallen world. But He is with us, not matter where, no matter what, no matter how we got there. And He promises to renew, restore, and redeem all that we lack in the present– perfectly and forever after.
I shall not WANT. I shall suffer in the present– loss, pain, confusion, heartbreak, disappointment, failure. But I am not without– not without God’s presence in this world, and not without His promise of justice, mercy, hope, and love now and in the world to come. I am still a sheep–I have needs, I make unwise decisions, and I don’t have the ability to see or defend against the dangers of this world. But I have a Shepherd– all-knowing, all-powerful, and extravagant in Love and Grace. I will depend on Him. I will call out to Him. I will follow Him. And I shall not want!
Prayer is a conversation with God. But sometimes it can seem like a one-sided conversation. We have pressing needs for healing, or strength to bear up under stress or oppression. Sometimes, we pray for our loved ones’ struggles against addiction or wrong choices. And God seems silent.
Sometimes, it’s better to get an answer we don’t like than no answer at all. When I was younger, I prayed for a family– a dream family with a handsome husband (preferably wealthy), three adorable and well-behaved children (I already had names picked out..), and maybe a beloved family pet, all living in a beautiful house with a big back yard, and maybe a small woods. I waited and prayed; prayed and waited. When I was in my thirties, still waiting and praying, I found out that I have several health problems– none of them life-threatening, but they mean that the chances that I would ever have had children are slim to none. I would never have the pleasure of watching my own children grow up; never know the joy of having a little voice calling me “mommy.”
But God had not abandoned me. In my careers as a teacher and a children’s librarian (careers I had begun before I knew I couldn’t have children of my own), I had the joy of working with hundreds of children across a spectrum of ages, from nearly newborn through college! My memories are filled with a choir of voices calling me Miss Toney or Miss Lila (as I was known then). God had not closed the door on my dream– he had opened a window.
It wasn’t the answer I had hoped for, but it was an answer. However, I was still single. I didn’t want to be single. I didn’t feel it was what God wanted for my life, yet He didn’t seem to be listening or giving me any sign that He heard or understood. There was only silence. No promising relationships– only a few scattered dates over the long years–a few budding friendships, and many lonely days and nights.
There were many helpful friends and family with suggestions, ideas, advice, comforting thoughts, or “explanations.” “God is waiting for you to become more mature in your walk with Him.” “God is saving the best for last.” “You’re too picky (I was never quite sure what that meant in light of the scarcity of dates, but…)” “You need to ‘get out there’ more–have you tried on-line dating? (I did. It was ‘meh’..).” “You should change jobs– single men are not hanging out at the library.” “You should change churches– find one with more single men.” But God stayed silent through my thirties and into my forties.
I did take some of the very good advice I received. I signed up to do short term missions trips. I traveled when I could, with family and friends, and even on my own. I read and went back to college. I spent time in the woods and at the beach, meditating, singing, or just enjoying God’s nature. I got “involved” in various volunteer opportunities. I joined the church choir. And I continued to pray.
By the time I was squarely in my forties, I had decided to stop praying for a husband, to stop hoping, and praying, and seeking, and dreaming. And God said nothing. But I began getting phone calls from an old friend– someone I had known in childhood–in fact, the very first boy I had ever dated, nearly 30 years before! At first, I listened to his voice-mail messages, but didn’t return his calls. I was annoyed, and even a bit angry. After all this time, was God laughing at me? Did He really expect me to go all the way back to the very beginning and start over?
Finally, I let go of my pride, and my ancient dream– I decided to give David a chance. Maybe it would lead to another (renewed) friendship. Maybe it would be another disappointment. But it led to a new dream. It led to marriage, and a huge extended family, including David’s wonderful children, and three adorable (and mostly well-behaved) grandchildren. My husband is kind, and honorable, and Godly. He is a treasure. And God’s timing is perfect, even as it is mysterious. God didn’t withhold marriage as a bargaining chip to get me to “grow up,” or grant it as a “reward” for going on a couple of mission trips. God was silent–but He wasn’t absent. He saw every teardrop, rejoiced in every busy child-filled day at work, smiled at every snapshot of every natural wonder, every Teddy Bear picnic, every Bible School. He want along on every date, kept track of all the hundreds of books I read over the years, and hovered over the dinner table set for one every night. I committed my life to serving Him– whether I was single or married, alone, or surrounded by children. His ways are higher, and better, and wiser than mine.
I may never understand why God allowed me to travel the roads that have been set before me. And my roads could have looked much different. I could have married young, unaware of my barrenness, and ended up bitter and feeling guilty about my body for years before I was diagnosed. I might have had a child (or children), and become proud and controlling and fearful. I might have made idols of my “dream” husband and family.
I know many dozens of people who are praying into the “silence” and waiting for God’s answer. Some are praying for healing. They may pray for hours in the hospital, only to lose their loved one. They may pray for weeks or months, as their child battles chronic illness. They may pray for years as they battle depression and loneliness. God may seem silent. But He is never absent. His ways sometimes lead to a happy ending in this life. Sometimes, they lead to a legacy that we cannot see this side of death. He does not promise us the answer we want, when or how we want it. He doesn’t promise us an easy or “happy” answer. What He does promise is that He will never forsake us. Long after we have been tempted to give up, to doubt, to turn away, God will still be waiting– sometimes in the silence– for the perfect moment, the perfect justice, the perfect word, the perfect solution.
“A Mighty Fortress is our God; a bulwark, never failing..” These words are known and sung (in various translations and languages) around the world. But Martin Luther wrote this song over four hundred years ago. What relevance can these words have in an age of nuclear bombs and globalized economies and climate change? What do they mean to us today?
I don’t live in a nation of many castles. There are two stone “mansions” in the small town where I live. They seem tiny compared to mansions in other parts of the U.S. and the world. And we have a small armory; home to a National Guard outpost. But a mansion (or even an armory) is not the same as a castle or a fortress. Mansions are built to be impressive; armories are built to be immediately prepared for disasters or attacks; castles are built to be impregnable and permanent. Our God is not just a fortress; one outpost among many mighty gods– He is The Mighty One–uniquely sovereign, eternally victorious, and perfectly protecting all within His power.
And this protection doesn’t depend on my might or fighting ability, or my weapons or strategies. It depends on my being inside the fortress, safe and sound. The war rages all around, but it cannot defeat me, so long as I am in the fortress.
There are mighty castles, forts, towers, citadels, and walls around the world– all built by people and victims of the ravages of war, time, weather, fire, bad management, etc. Over the years, types of fortresses have given way to new weapons designed to bring them down. Wooden forts are susceptible to fire; stone castles can be brought down by catapults, battering rams, and bombs. Underground bunkers can even be ruined by earthquakes or nuclear assault. And yet, we are still amazed at the power and legacy they represent. Many have stood for hundreds or even thousands of years. But God is eternal; His might and protection will never fail. No weapon forged or imagined can triumph over His power and sovereignty.
Prayer brings us into the safe and powerful presence of God Almighty. There is nothing of our worries, our guilt, our doubts, or the accusations of the enemy that can shake the foundations of God’s fortress. And the cornerstone is none other than Jesus Christ– unshakable, victorious, and eternally one with the Father and the Spirit.
That doesn’t mean that we won’t ever find ourselves in battle, trusting in God’s armor against the arrows of the enemy. But the war is already won– His Kingdom is forever! And ever!
I generally write on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday each week. I missed Friday of last week and Monday of this week. I got busy with holidays and housework and mundane things. I was not faithful in my writing.
God is never unfaithful. There is never a day when the sun doesn’t rise, when the ocean waves don’t roll, when gravity suddenly stops, or when God stops answering prayer.
There may be days when we don’t “see” God, or feel His presence; days when we don’t understand the way He works or why He chooses to answer, “No,” to our heart’s desire. But there is never a time when He simply stops caring, or takes His hand away from creation or removes Himself from all contact, leaving us alone and without hope.
Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life…” (John 14:6 a) and the writer of Hebrews said, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, yes, and forever.” (Heb. 13:8) We never have to worry or wonder about God’s Spirit leaving us, or disappearing; we don’t have to consider that God will suddenly change His character or that His love will grow cold.
People will ultimately disappoint us–in small or big ways, or at surprising moments–not always because they are vicious or unfeeling. Most of the time, they will let us down because not one of us is perfect. We get tired, cranky, sick, or forgetful. We get delayed, distracted, or depressed. But God is Love, and “Love never fails” (1 Cor. 13:8a). God is sovereign and eternally unchanging.
So even when I fall short, I can call out to God for forgiveness, and strength to begin again. I can come to Him in confidence, assurance, and hope, knowing that His Grace is boundless, His love is limitless, and His arms are always open wide to receive me. All I have to do is run to Him and accept Him for who He is– My Faithful Redeemer, My Lord, and My Heavenly Father.
And in this pursuit of Prayer, and daily walk with Him, my goal is to become more like Him– including being more faithful.
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found; Was blind, but now I see. ’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears relieved; How precious did that grace appear The hour I first believed. Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home. The Lord has promised good to me, His Word my hope secures; He will my Shield and Portion be, As long as life endures. Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, And mortal life shall cease, I shall possess, within the veil, A life of joy and peace. The earth shall soon dissolve like snow, The sun forbear to shine; But God, who called me here below, Will be forever mine. When we’ve been there ten thousand years, Bright shining as the sun, We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise Than when we’d first begun.
timelesstruths.org Amazing Grace, lyrics by John Newton
As I write this, a massive hurricane looms in the Atlantic Ocean, devastating the Bahamas, and threatening several major cities along the southeastern coast of the United States. There is much fear, danger, and distress for people living in these areas, for their families, and for compassionate people watching helplessly from a distance. What can anyone DO in the face of such raw power and destruction? What hope or comfort can we offer?
There are many questions we cannot answer in times like this– we can offer no definitive explanation why hurricanes form, how they behave, why they change courses, grow, shrink, or when or where they will make landfall. There are many actions we cannot take– we can’t stop a hurricane, or shift its course, weaken it or make it go away (though scientists and others have been trying for decades). We cannot provide immediate “fixes” for the damage that hurricanes (or other weather emergencies) leave behind.. roads and houses take time to rebuild; fields and forests must be replanted; families must heal and grieve.
What we can offer seems, on the surface, to be insufficient and condescending– we offer prayers, reassurance that God sees and knows and cares, we say, “trust in God and His promises.” And many sneer at such “gifts. God doesn’t promise to steer the hurricanes away from our loved ones, or our own villages or cities or islands. God doesn’t promise that we won’t experience disaster, fear, pain, or grief. God doesn’t promise us days of sunshine with never a cloud, or storm or loss.
What God DOES promise is Grace– not comfort, not ease, not happiness– something mysterious, undeserved, and unexpected. God’s grace is sufficient– it is enough– through ANY and EVERY circumstance when we ask for it. ENOUGH–never lacking, never too much for us to use, but just right for His good purpose and our best interest in learning to know Him.
Grace doesn’t take away the storms of life; it allows us to experience victory in, through, and in spite of the storms. Grace makes us strong enough, brave enough, wise enough, healthy enough, kind enough, rich enough, and “good enough” to get to the next step in our journey. It may fall short of what we expect, or envy, or dream of for ourselves, but it is never too little to be useful. God’s economy is not about bigger and better, grander or “more.” Because “More” is never “enough”– there is never enough money to buy a longer life; there is never enough strength to defeat heartache and loneliness; never enough goodness to eradicate the injustices of a hundred wicked generations. Bad things will happen. Loved ones will be wounded or killed. Homes and roads and villages will be destroyed. But God is faithful to comfort us, strengthen us, sustain us, and give us a new vision, a new hope, and a new life. Only God is big enough, rich enough, strong enough, and wise enough to do “exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think” https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians+3%3A20-21&version=NKJV. The amazing part is that He sends us the Grace we need to be part of the unfolding story–just what we need, just when we need it most– not because of anything we have done, but because of His great compassion.
Grace doesn’t take away the storms of life– this may seem unfair and cruel. God, even a loving God– allows us to weather storms, even to be broken and crushed by them. But God also brings blessing, renewal, healing, comfort, hope, and a renewed sense of purpose, compassion, and vision. These things often come only after the storm. Storms can bring us to a point of fear and despair, or to faith and dependence. Grace is a gift–God won’t force us to acknowledge or accept His Grace. We can choose to tremble at the storm’s approach, or rage, or try to run away. But God’s offer means we never have to face the storm alone.
Grace won’t take away the storms in our lives– and it won’t make us foolishly fearless in the face of hurricanes. But it can relieve our fears and give us the courage and wisdom to face even the fiercest trials in life; even the fiercest storms that rage. And isn’t that an Amazing hope?! Our prayers may seem small; our hope may seem insignificant– because we are not “enough” . But we serve a God and pray to a God who holds the future in His hand. Our prayers are held in the same hands– our faith is in the one who is more than “enough” to face the storm and relieve our fears.
None of this context seems to carry over into the next chapter. If Nebuchadnezzar listened to Daniel’s interpretation; if he was in awe of the God of Daniel (the God of Israel– the God of Jacob), he forgot it all. The events of chapter three may have happened months or even years after the earlier episode; they may even have happened before(!)– we don’t know. But chapter three feels almost like a wholly disconnected story. Another thing that makes this story perplexing is the absence of the central character of Daniel. His name never appears in the story, and his friends are only given by their Babylonian names (unlike in chapter 2, where both the Hebrew and Babylonian names are given).
The story in Daniel chapter 3 is a familiar one to many children. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel+3&version=MSG) Nebuchadnezzar orders an enormous statue to be built in Babylon. When it is complete, he orders all the administrators of his kingdom– minor rulers, judges, treasurers, advisers–to come to the dedication, where they are to fall prostrate and pay homage to the statue as soon as they hear the music that has been commissioned for the event. This is not a suggestion, it is an order, and anyone who fails to do this will be thrown into a fiery furnace.
Suddenly, there is a group of troublemakers (some translations call them astrologers or fortune tellers, others list them as Chaldeans–a people whose empire predated the Babylonian dynasties and whose culture and religion had produced great scholars and sorcerers). These men come forward with a single purpose– to denounce the Jews. Oddly, they only mention three names– Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They don’t mention Daniel, nor do they mention any of the other Jewish captives who were in service to the king as administrators. Not only are Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego accused of disobeying the king’s order, they are described as being disrespectful and contemptuous of the king (and the ancient gods of Babylon and Chaldea).
Much is made about the amazing things that happen next–Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are called before the king, who gives them a chance to answer the charges and he offers to give them another chance to bow down before the great image. When the three men refuse, Nebuchadnezzar is furious and orders the fire to be made seven times hotter. Men are killed in the process of stoking the flames, but Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are thrown in, and begin walking around unfazed. Not only so, but Nebuchadnezzar is astounded to see a fourth figure walking with them, and looking like “a son of the gods.” He calls the three men out, and everyone is astonished to note that they are completely unharmed. Their clothes and hair are not singed or scorched, they are not hot, and they don’t smell of fire.
Just as in the previous story, Nebuchadnezzar’s reaction is emotional and immediate. He gives praise to the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and makes orders that will protect them from future harassment. But there are some interesting undertones in this story that I think we ought to consider, and things we can learn about prayer in the process.
We called Daniel’s dilemma in Chapter two “Prayer under Pressure”. The pressure was not just on Daniel, though he stepped up to face the king. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego prayed with Daniel–when they stood apart with him during their training– when they took a stand to follow the God of Israel in a land of ancient and powerful ‘gods’, they did so knowing that there would be pressure, powerful enemies, and potential persecution. God asks us to be faithful to him, regardless of our circumstances. Nebuchadnezzar had promoted Daniel and his friends to positions of power and privilege. They were grateful to the king, and loyal and devoted to serving him– except when that service called them to dishonor God. Many of us today face the pressure of honoring rulers or leaders who do not acknowledge or serve God; leaders who are corrupt or seem unworthy of our honor. We are to serve faithfully and show respect for their authority unless we are asked to disobey God’s laws or to disown or dishonor God. HE makes rulers to rise and fall. As we will see, Nebuchadnezzar’s power is far more precarious than it looks.
Following God will always bring confrontation and bring false accusations. Jealousy, guilt, envy, greed, anger, and malice will come to those who prosper under any circumstances. How much more to those who prosper at the hand of God? Those who have not schemed, stolen, or crushed others, and yet have been elevated to power, wealth, or honor– such people baffle and frustrate those who are grasping and clawing their way “to the top.” Those who deal in lies and stealth cannot accept truth and integrity. They will seek to twist others’ words, deeds, and reputations– sully names, destroy legacies, start rumors, invent grievances. We can let these little “fires” distract us from the “fiery furnace.” We can spend so much time defending ourselves, retaliating with our own rumors and grievances, or seeking revenge, that we become no better than our enemies. I know this from shameful personal experience. We can destroy ourselves in the struggle to justify ourselves. God doesn’t listen to rumors! God ignores false accusations, because He KNOWS the heart of every person. No matter how hot the “fire” gets, God is with us. He may not put the fire out. He may allow it to get seven times hotter, but He will be with us. If we are trusting Him, we will still have to walk around in the flames, but He will see to it that (ultimately) we are not singed or scorched!
Frequently that attacks we face (see above) are not about us at all. They are about people in rebellion against the God we serve. The men who spoke against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego may have had a personal grudge, but the Bible story points out a bigger plot. Daniel’s friends may have “felt the heat”, but the fire was not burning just for them. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were recent captives from a conquered nation who rose very quickly to power by openly serving their “foreign” God. The Babylonians (and the Chaldeans before them) had risen to power through violence, intrigue, and reliance on sorcery, sacrifice, and ancient rituals that were abhorrent to the God of Israel. He had allowed them to do so to be the agents of punishment against His own rebellious people. But the power of the Babylonian empire was not of their own making, nor was it greater than God’s power to deliver the remnant of His faithful servants. Many times, we are oppressed by others whose anger and viciousness hide their rebellion against God. They fear those who serve Him, because they fear His justice and His wrath. They hate those who serve Him, because they hate Him. When we pray for deliverance from their schemes and violence, we need to know that God hates injustice; He hurts with us as we suffer; but He wants two things for our tormentors and bullies– 1) to see God’s example of faithfulness in our lives, so they have no excuse for their rejection; and 2) to give them an opportunity to repent and receive mercy. He also wants to do two things for us–1) to refine us and show us how faithful He is; and 2) to use our struggle to encourage and embolden others. Very few people would have noticed that three men out of several thousand disobeyed the king’s command. But because of the opposition they faced, and their total commitment to follow God in the face of it, crowds witnessed their vindication and God’s salvation.
Notice that Nebuchadnezzar, while he acknowledges that God has saved Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, does not tear down the statue, humble himself to serve their God, or abandon his arrogance. Twice, God has shown His awesome power to this proud and powerful ruler; twice Nebuchadnezzar has been impressed, even awed– but he hasn’t been changed. Yet!
Where is Daniel? We don’t know. He may have been sent to one of the distant provinces and wasn’t in attendance for the dedication ceremony. He may have had a moment of weakness and joined the others in bowing down to the statue! All we know is that he is absent from one of the great miracles of his day. (He’ll have his own scary confrontation with a different king later in life.) This baffles me, but it also gives me hope. If Daniel DID bow down and worship the statue while his friends were faithful, God obviously forgave him and used him in a mighty way for the rest of his life. If he missed this fiery trial, perhaps God’s mercy was in it. God does not ask all of us to suffer the same trials, or have the same triumphs. God’s plan for each of us is unique. He doesn’t ask all of us to be “spiritual superstars.” He DOES ask each of us to be faithful for the fiery trials that come our way– whether fiery furnaces of persecution, or wildfires of hectic distractions and temptations, or the sudden flames of disaster or tragedy.
Today, as we pray, let us remember to thank God that, even when trials and fires come into our lives, He knows why. He knows how hot they will get. He knows how long we will be in the flames. And He is right there with us, so that we, too, may walk around, unbound and unharmed by the fires meant to destroy us.