Their Faith Survived the Crucible
1. How do many feel about devotion to God and to their homeland?
SHOULD your devotion be directed to God or to the land in which you live? Many would answer by saying, ‘I pay homage to both. I worship God according to the dictates of my religion; at the same time, I pledge allegiance to my homeland.’
2. How was the king of Babylon both a religious and a political figure?
2 The line between religious devotion and patriotism might seem blurred today, but in ancient Babylon it was virtually nonexistent. Indeed, the civil and the sacred were so entwined that they were at times indistinguishable. “In ancient Babylon,” writes Professor Charles F. Pfeiffer, “the king served as both High Priest and civil ruler. He performed sacrifices and determined the religious life of his subjects.”
3. What shows that Nebuchadnezzar was a deeply religious man?
3 Consider King Nebuchadnezzar. His very name means “O Nebo, Protect the Heir!” Nebo was the Babylonian god of wisdom and agriculture. Nebuchadnezzar was a deeply religious man. As noted earlier, he built and beautified the temples of numerous Babylonian gods and was especially devoted to Marduk, to whom he credited his military victories.a It also appears that Nebuchadnezzar relied heavily upon divination to formulate his battle plans.—Ezekiel 21:18-23.
4. Describe the religious spirit of Babylon.
4 Really, a religious spirit pervaded all of Babylon. The city boasted more than 50 temples, at which a vast array of gods and goddesses were worshiped, including the triad of Anu (god of the sky), Enlil (god of the earth, air, and storm), and Ea (god over the waters). Another trinity was made up of Sin (the moon-god), Shamash (the sun-god), and Ishtar (the fertility goddess). Magic, sorcery, and astrology played a prominent role in Babylonian worship.
5. What challenge did the religious environment of Babylon pose for the Jewish exiles?
5 Living amid people who venerated many gods posed a formidable challenge for the Jewish exiles. Centuries earlier, Moses had warned the Israelites that there would be dire consequences if they chose to rebel against the Supreme Lawgiver. Moses told them: “Jehovah will march you and your king whom you will set up over you to a nation whom you have not known, neither you nor your forefathers; and there you will have to serve other gods, of wood and of stone.”—Deuteronomy 28:15, 36.
6. Why did living in Babylon pose a special challenge for Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah?
6 The Jews now found themselves in that very predicament. Keeping integrity to Jehovah would be difficult, especially for Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. These four young Hebrews had been specially selected to receive training for governmental service. (Daniel 1:3-5) Remember that they had even been assigned Babylonian names—Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—likely to influence them to conform to their new environment.b The high-profile positions of these men would make any refusal on their part to worship the gods of the land conspicuous—even treasonous.
A GOLDEN IMAGE PRESENTS A THREAT
7. (a) Describe the image set up by Nebuchadnezzar. (b) What was the purpose of the image?
7 Evidently in an effort to strengthen the unity of his empire, Nebuchadnezzar set up a golden image on the plain of Dura. It was 60 cubits (90 feet [27 m]) in height and 6 cubits (9 feet [2.7 m]) in breadth.c Some believe that the image was simply a pillar, or an obelisk. It may have had a very high pedestal on which there was a huge statue in human likeness, perhaps representing Nebuchadnezzar himself or the god Nebo. Whatever the case, this towering monument was a symbol of the Babylonian Empire. As such, it was meant to be seen and revered.—Daniel 3:1.
8. (a) Who were called to the inauguration of the image, and what were all present required to do? (b) What was to be the penalty for refusing to bow down before the image?
8 Accordingly, Nebuchadnezzar arranged an inauguration ceremony. He gathered his satraps, prefects, governors, counselors, treasurers, judges, police magistrates, and all the administrators of the jurisdictional districts. A herald cried out: “To you it is being said, O peoples, national groups and languages, that at the time that you hear the sound of the horn, the pipe, the zither, the triangular harp, the stringed instrument, the bagpipe and all sorts of musical instruments, you fall down and worship the image of gold that Nebuchadnezzar the king has set up. And whoever does not fall down and worship will at the same moment be thrown into the burning fiery furnace.”—Daniel 3:2-6.
9. What was the apparent significance of bowing down before the image that Nebuchadnezzar had set up?
9 Some believe that Nebuchadnezzar arranged for this ceremony in an attempt to force the Jews to compromise their worship of Jehovah. Likely this was not the case, for evidently only government officials were called to the event. Thus, the only Jews present would be those serving in some governmental capacity. It seems, then, that bowing down before the image was a ceremony intended to strengthen the solidarity of the ruling class. Scholar John F. Walvoord notes: “Such a display of officials was on the one hand a gratifying demonstration of the power of Nebuchadnezzar’s empire and on the other hand was significant as recognizing the deities who in their thinking were responsible for their victories.”
JEHOVAH’S SERVANTS REFUSE TO COMPROMISE
10. Why would non-Jews have no problem complying with Nebuchadnezzar’s command?
10 Despite their devotion to various patron gods, most of those gathered before Nebuchadnezzar’s image would have no qualms about worshiping it. “They were all accustomed to worship idols, and the worship of one god did not prevent their doing homage also to another,” explained one Bible scholar. He continued: “It accorded with the prevailing views of idolaters that there were many gods . . . and that it was not improper to render homage to the god of any people or country.”
11. Why did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to bow down before the image?
11 For the Jews, however, it was a different matter. They had been commanded by their God, Jehovah: “You must not make for yourself a carved image or a form like anything that is in the heavens above or that is on the earth underneath or that is in the waters under the earth. You must not bow down to them nor be induced to serve them, because I Jehovah your God am a God exacting exclusive devotion.” (Exodus 20:4, 5) Therefore, as the music began and those gathered prostrated themselves before the image, three young Hebrews—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—remained standing.—Daniel 3:7.
12. Certain Chaldeans accused the three Hebrews of what, and why so?
12 The refusal of three Hebrew officials to worship the image infuriated certain Chaldeans. At once, they approached the king and “accused the Jews.”d They were not interested in an explanation. Wanting the Hebrews to be punished for disloyalty and treason, the accusers said: “There exist certain Jews whom you appointed over the administration of the jurisdictional district of Babylon, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; these able-bodied men have paid no regard to you, O king, they are not serving your own gods, and the image of gold that you have set up they are not worshiping.”—Daniel 3:8-12.
13, 14. How did Nebuchadnezzar respond to the course taken by Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego?
13 How it must have frustrated Nebuchadnezzar that the three Hebrews disobeyed his order! It was clear that he had not succeeded in turning Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into loyal advocates of the Babylonian Empire. Had he not educated them in the wisdom of the Chaldeans? Why, he had even changed their names! But if Nebuchadnezzar thought that a grandiose education would teach them a new way of worship or that changing their names would change their identities, he was sadly mistaken. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego remained loyal servants of Jehovah.
14 King Nebuchadnezzar was enraged. At once, he summoned Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He asked: “Is it really so, O Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you are not serving my own gods, and the image of gold that I have set up you are not worshiping?” No doubt Nebuchadnezzar spoke these words in shocked disbelief. After all, he must have reasoned, ‘How could three men of sound mind disregard such a plain command—and one that carried such a severe penalty for disobedience?’—Daniel 3:13, 14.
15, 16. What opportunity did Nebuchadnezzar extend to the three Hebrews?
15 Nebuchadnezzar was willing to give the three Hebrews another chance. “Now if you are ready,” he said, “so that when you hear the sound of the horn, the pipe, the zither, the triangular harp, the stringed instrument, and the bagpipe and all sorts of musical instruments, you fall down and worship the image that I have made, all right. But if you do not worship, at that same moment you will be thrown into the burning fiery furnace. And who is that god that can rescue you out of my hands?”—Daniel 3:15.
16 Apparently, the lesson of the dream image (recorded in Daniel chapter 2) had left no lasting impression on Nebuchadnezzar’s mind and heart. Perhaps he had already forgotten his own statement to Daniel: “The God of you men is a God of gods and a Lord of kings.” (Daniel 2:47) Now Nebuchadnezzar seemed to be challenging Jehovah, saying that not even He could save the Hebrews from the punishment that awaited them.
17. How did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego respond to the king’s offer?
17 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did not need to reconsider matters. Immediately they responded: “O Nebuchadnezzar, we are under no necessity in this regard to say back a word to you. If it is to be, our God whom we are serving is able to rescue us. Out of the burning fiery furnace and out of your hand, O king, he will rescue us. But if not, let it become known to you, O king, that your gods are not the ones we are serving, and the image of gold that you have set up we will not worship.”—Daniel 3:16-18.
INTO THE FIERY FURNACE!
18, 19. What happened when the three Hebrews were thrown into the fiery furnace?
18 Infuriated, Nebuchadnezzar commanded that his servants heat up the furnace seven times hotter than usual. Then he ordered “certain able-bodied men of vital energy” to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and to throw them into the “burning fiery furnace.” They followed the king’s orders, casting the three Hebrews into the fire, bound and fully clothed—perhaps so that they would be consumed all the more quickly. However, Nebuchadnezzar’s henchmen themselves were the ones who were killed by the flames.—Daniel 3:19-22.
19 But something extraordinary was happening. Although Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were in the midst of the fiery furnace, the flames were not consuming them. Imagine Nebuchadnezzar’s astonishment! They had been thrown into a blazing fire, securely bound, but they were still alive. Why, they were walking about freely in the fire! But Nebuchadnezzar noticed something else. “Was it not three able-bodied men that we threw bound into the midst of the fire?” he asked his high royal officials. “Yes, O king,” they answered. “Look!” Nebuchadnezzar cried out, “I am beholding four able-bodied men walking about free in the midst of the fire, and there is no hurt to them, and the appearance of the fourth one is resembling a son of the gods.”—Daniel 3:23-25.
20, 21. (a) What did Nebuchadnezzar notice about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego when they emerged from the furnace? (b) What was Nebuchadnezzar forced to acknowledge?
20 Nebuchadnezzar approached the door of the fiery furnace. “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, you servants of the Most High God,” he called out, “step out and come here!” The three Hebrews walked out of the midst of the fire. No doubt all who were eyewitnesses of this miracle—including the satraps, prefects, governors, and high officials—were stunned. Why, it was as if these three young men had never even entered the furnace! The smell of fire had not come onto them, and not a hair of their heads had been singed.—Daniel 3:26, 27.
21 Now King Nebuchadnezzar was forced to acknowledge that Jehovah is the Most High God. “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego,” he declared, “who sent his angel and rescued his servants that trusted in him and that changed the very word of the king and gave over their bodies, because they would not serve and would not worship any god at all except their own God.” Then, the king added this stern warning: “From me an order is being put through, that any people, national group or language that says anything wrong against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego should be dismembered, and its house should be turned into a public privy; forasmuch as there does not exist another god that is able to deliver like this one.” At that, the three Hebrews were restored to royal favor and ‘prospered in the jurisdictional district of Babylon.’—Daniel 3:28-30.
FAITH AND THE CRUCIBLE TODAY
22. How do Jehovah’s present-day servants face circumstances similar to those of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego?
22 Today, worshipers of Jehovah face circumstances similar to those of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Granted, God’s people may not be exiles in a literal sense. Yet, Jesus said that his followers would be “no part of the world.” (John 17:14) They are “foreigners” in that they do not adopt the unscriptural customs, attitudes, and practices of those around them. As the apostle Paul wrote, Christians are to “quit being fashioned after this system of things.”—Romans 12:2.
23. How did the three Hebrews display steadfastness, and how can Christians today follow their example?
23 The three Hebrews refused to be fashioned after the Babylonian system. Even thorough instruction in Chaldean wisdom did not sway them. Their position in the matter of worship was nonnegotiable, and their allegiance was to Jehovah. Christians today need to be just as steadfast. They need not be ashamed because they are different from those in the world. Indeed, “the world is passing away and so is its desire.” (1 John 2:17) So it would be foolish and futile to conform to this dying system of things.
24. How does the stand of true Christians compare with that of the three Hebrews?
24 Christians need to be on guard against every form of idolatry, including subtle forms.e (1 John 5:21) Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego obediently and respectfully stood before the golden image, but they realized that bowing before it was more than a mere gesture of respect. It was an act of worship, and participation would incur Jehovah’s wrath. (Deuteronomy 5:8-10) John F. Walvoord writes: “It was in effect a saluting of the flag, although, because of the interrelationship of religious with national loyalties, it may also have had religious connotation.” Today, true Christians take an equally firm stand against idolatry.
25. What lesson have you learned from the true-life story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego?
25 The Bible account of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego provides a sterling object lesson for all who are determined to render exclusive devotion to Jehovah. The apostle Paul evidently had these three Hebrews in mind when he spoke of many who exercised faith, including those who “stayed the force of fire.” (Hebrews 11:33, 34) Jehovah will reward all who imitate such faith. The three Hebrews were delivered from the fiery furnace, but we can be sure that he will resurrect all loyal ones who lose their lives as integrity keepers and will bless them with everlasting life. Either way, Jehovah “is guarding the souls of his loyal ones; out of the hand of the wicked ones he delivers them.”—Psalm 97:10.
a Some believe that Marduk, who was regarded as founder of the Babylonian Empire, represents the deified Nimrod. However, this cannot be stated with certainty.
b “Belteshazzar” means “Protect the Life of the King.” “Shadrach” may mean “Command of Aku,” the Sumerian moon-god. “Meshach” possibly refers to a Sumerian god, and “Abednego” means “Servant of Nego,” or Nebo.
c Considering the immense size of the image, some Bible scholars believe that it was made of wood and then overlaid with gold.
d The Aramaic expression translated “accused” means to ‘eat the pieces’ of a person—to chew him up, as it were, by means of slander.
WHAT DID YOU DISCERN?
• Why did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to bow down before the image set up by Nebuchadnezzar?
• How did Nebuchadnezzar respond to the position taken by the three Hebrews?
• How did Jehovah reward the three Hebrews for their faith?
• What have you learned from paying attention to the true-life story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego?
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[Pictures on page 70]
1. Temple tower (ziggurat) in Babylon
2. Temple of Marduk
3. Bronze plaque depicting the gods Marduk (left) and Nebo (right) standing on dragons
4. Cameo of Nebuchadnezzar, renowned for his building projects
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