The three young men were stolen from their country when it was invaded. They were brought as prisoners to the land of the conquerers to serve the king. Back in their own home, they had freely worshipped God, whom they believed gave them life. In this new land, people worshipped objects that they made with their own hands. And they obeyed the king. (Don’t forget that bit; you’ve got to obey the king. He gets awfully cross if you don’t.)
One day, the king ordered an engineering crew to craft a huge idol made of gold — about 90 feet high and nine feet wide — that represented his power and authority (his favorite things!). They held a grand dedication service with an orchestra, ice sculptures, and an open bar. The orchestra prepared a special dedication song, the title of which roughly translates to “The King Is the Best, and You Must Do Whatever He Says, because He Is the Best.” When the orchestra played, everyone was to bow down and worship the idol — because the king said so (and he’s the best).
Oh, and I don’t want to forget this bit: If you don’t worship the idol, you’ll be thrown into the middle of a burning fiery furnace. Not just the edge of the furnace. The middle. Smack dab.
The big moment came. The orchestra played. Everyone bowed down and worshiped the idol. Well, sort of. It seems that a few people didn’t get the memo. Someone went to the king and told him that they saw three men standing when everyone else was bowing.
Yep, those three men. The ones who had been taken as prisoners when their country was invaded by the king’s army. The king had the men brought to him to explain themselves. Maybe they just missed their cue? The king decided to give them another chance. The orchestra had one more song in them!
While the concertmaster got the ensemble tuned again, the king reminded the three men about the furnace’s middle region and challenged them:
“Who is that god who can deliver you out of my hands?”
You’ve gotta hear their answer:
“O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer in this matter. If it be so, 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 even if He does not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods, nor worship the golden image which you have set up.”
I love that answer for two reasons. First, it presents good theology. “He will … But if He does not …” They know that God can, any time. They don’t know that He will, this time. I’ll say that again, because it’s critical to understanding how God works:
They know that God can, any time. They don’t know that He will, this time.
God is always able, but He is not always willing. He’s always able because He’s God. He is willing at some times and not others because, as God, He is working a master plan. This plan involves the universe coming to understand just how good good is and just how evil evil is. This is the maturity of the knowledge of good and evil, which began when Adam and Eve decided not to trust God and ate from that forbidden tree.
It’s absolutely necessary for all creation to come to a mature knowledge of good and evil. If God sweeps in and saves the day every time something evil is about to happen, we never will know just how evil evil is. We won’t distance ourselves from it. We won’t realize how good good is. We won’t understand that God can be trusted. So, just as these three men, we can know that God can, any time, but we don’t know that He will, this time.
I said that there are two reasons why I love their answer. “If He does not” illustrates good theology. “Even if He does not” illustrates good faithfulness. They were willing to die a horrible death in order to remain faithful to their God. They would not bow down to another. Even with the nucleus of a fiery furnace staring them down, they would not worship anyone else. I can only hope that my allegiance to God is that strong.
Interestingly, their good faithfulness was based on their good theology. (As I always say, what we believe matters, because we live according to our beliefs.) These men understood that this wasn’t about them in a micro sense; God wouldn’t intervene on behalf of the salvation of their bodies if it wasn’t in complete harmony with the salvation of their souls and everyone else’s (see Matthew 10:28). They understood that this was about the master plan, that their story was only a small part of everyone’s story — the Big Story.
More stuff happened after the men answered the king, but I’ve made the points I wanted to make from the story, so I’ll leave you hanging. If you want to find out how it ends, the story is found in the Bible, the book of Daniel, chapter 3. I’ll tell you this much: The orchestra immediately went home, some people lost their lives in the fire, and the king learned something big — even bigger than his 90-foot idol. Most of all, it became clear who — alone — was worthy of worship.
That’s how this story ends, and that’s where the Big Story is heading. Every day, we’re one day closer to the universal conclusion that good is completely good, evil is completely evil, God is completely trustworthy, and God alone is King of kings and Lord of lords. That’s the day when every knee will bow.