There are certain Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; these men…
Babylonia, whither the Jews were led captive by Nebuchadnezzar, was a pagan, idolatrous country, a circumstance which must have been very distressing to God's faithful people, and added very much of bitterness to the anguish of their enslaved condition. It was a trial heavy enough for the peculiar people to have seen their beautiful city of Jerusalem destroyed — their country turned into a waste howling wilderness — and themselves dragged away from their beloved fatherland into a strange, unfriendly clime. It would have been some relief for them, however, if, in the land of their exile, they had found a people whose religious sympathies and practices had been in harmony with their own — or even if their lot had been cast on some desert, uninhabited isle, where, like John in Patmos, they might have worshipped their God without let or hindrance. But how terribly annoying it must have been — at least, to the thoughtful and devout among them — to be dwelling amidst a people wholly given to idolatry! What was the moral effect of the prevailing idolatries of the Chaldeans upon the Jewish exiles, generally, does not appear — probably it was unfavourable. Still, it is very gratifying to learn that there were some men in Babylonia who defiled not their garments, but kept themselves unspotted from surrounding corruption.
I. We learn that EMINENT PIETY MAY BE MAINTAINED AMIDST TRIALS THE MOST SEVERE. We are sometimes tempted to believe that man is the creature of external circumstances — that his character is formed for him — not by him; and that, consequently, he cannot be virtuous, as he is not responsible. The narrative before us is calculated to show the erroneousness of this notion, and to establish the important fact that the freedom of the human mind is not destroyed, nor the moral agency of man set aside, by any circumstances in which he may be placed, save and except such as involve the loss of reason, or the eclipse of the intellect. It is true, indeed, that we are frequently influenced by circumstances — our habits too often reflect the form and colour of those circumstances by which we are from time to time surrounded. It is well when such circumstances as favour the growth of piety and godliness are permitted to shed their hallowing influence upon our character. But, to the force of evil circumstances — those circumstances which in themselves tend to foster the development of ungodliness and sin — we need not, we ought not, by any means, to yield. We are responsible for our character. We must, every one of us, give an account of himself to God. Never let us forget that our God has made us free, accountable agents; that most reasonably He holds us bound to do our every duty constantly and unflinchingly; and at the last day will admit no plea whatever for the infidelity of which we have been guilty in this life. "Many men are lamenting their misfortunes, and wishing that their place was changed, that they might the more easily live Christianly. If a man cannot be a Christian in the place where he is, he cannot be a Christian anywhere." The Christian life ever has been, and must be, a self-denying, cross-bearing life; and the future glorious eternal reward of Heaven is for them, and them only, who, through good report and evil report, have followed the Lamb whithersoever He goeth. The three pious Hebrews — Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego — were placed amidst sorest trials — as few are in our day — yet they proved faithful to their God. To be dutiful to their God they had to resist the most powerful temptations — to brave most formidable dangers.
1. They had to rebel against royal authority. "King Nebuchadnezzar was what would be called a man of large ideas and vast undertakings. The great empire he had won and consolidated comprised many different nations, with different gods and different forms of religions service. Seeing that all these nations obeyed him as a king, and were subject to his absolute sway, it seemed to him but reasonable that his god should share his triumph, and that, as there was but one civil, so there should be but one religious obedience. He, therefore, determined to set up a vast golden image of his god in the plain of Dura, and that, at a signal given by bands of music, all the persons assembled together in the vast plain at the time of dedication should fall down and worship this image." The religion of Heaven is by no means adverse, but most thoroughly favourable, to civil obedience. Good men have ever been the truest subjects and the best citizens; and the prevalence of godliness among a people is the best guarantee for the stability of the throne that is based on righteousness, and the surest security for the effective carrying out of all such laws as are just and good. But as the sphere of the civil ruler is limited, so are the obligations of the subject The moral sense cannot be bound by Acts of Parliament; the will cannot be coerced by the magistrate's sword. It was a saying of Napoleon Bonaparte — "My rule ends where that of conscience begins." It would have been well if all civil rulers had recognised this principle. Much bloodshed would have been spared. When the laws of men harmonise with the laws of God there can be no difficulty felt by the good man as to duty in respect to them. But if it is attempted to compel obedience to laws diametrically opposed to the laws of God, then there can remain no doubt as to how the good man must act. We must obey God rather than man. Noble men! no reckless revolutionists, no fanatical politicians were they; but men who understood to what extent they were bound to honour man; and who well understood and deeply felt that there was no consideration which could, by any possibility, free them from their obligation to serve God alone.
2. They had to act in defiance of the popular custom. Grand moral spectacle! Truest heroism this! Here is none of your pitiful time-servers who dare not to differ from the multitude by doing right — here is none of your compromising religious duty by an unhallowed seeming to conform to the world. They did not follow bad customs, lest they should be thought singular. They despised the fashionable religion, and were great and good enough, though Jews, to stand true to their fathers' God in the face of a nation of idolaters. Was not that a brave deed? Warriors never did such a noble thing. Earth's proudest heroes never won such laurels, never deserved such fame! If you would be great in the highest and best sense, dare to be good. If there is one spectacle more contemptible than another, it is that mean-spirited soul whom you see timidly, cowardly crouching down to a popular custom which in his conscience he knows to be wrong, and ignobly following a multitude to do evil. It requires little moral courage, publicly and faithfully to stick to duty when it is popular to do so. It is a comparatively easy thing to wear the Christian name and attend to Christian ordinances when and where it is fashionable to do so. But to dare to be singular, to take sides with "the peculiar people," to endure the world's scorn, to do what few only have heart and conscience to do — that demands sterling piety, no common-place devotedness, more than lukewarm love to God and His cause. In the present day the temptations to renounce and ignore religion altogether are not such as martyrs knew. Our danger comes from another quarter. Our perils lie hid beneath such religious pretensions as find general favour. It is fashionable, nowadays, to be religious. Only infidels and "our city arabs" are irreligious now. It is a disgrace not to belong to some church or another. The demand is for something more genuine — a counterfeit religion is too wide spread. The form of godliness is abundant. The power of it is rare indeed. Men will be religious; but they are far more eager to gain the world than to save their souls. While they are serving God after a fashion, their hearts are going forth after covetousness. Custom is, as it has ever been, the stern, unyielding foe of all earnest, spiritual, thorough-going Christianity. Men generally have little sympathy with the heartfelt, life-purifying religion of Jesus Christ. "Business is business" with them, and religion has no right to show its face in the warehouse or workshop, in the counting-house or the exchange. Strict morality will not pay; they cannot afford to do right. Their neighbours resort to the "tricks of trade," and cheat, and tell lies, and deceive; and so must they, or they may as well give up business at once. It is all nonsense to talk to them about applying Christian rules to secular callings. It would be perfectly ruinous! And then, as to social usages and domestic habits, what has religion to do with these things? It is all very well to sing and pray, and go to church, too. But you would never think of turning Puritans, and make religion to bear upon dress — upon our homes, and our amusements! "Style" has to be kept up. Appearances must be preserved. We must not be thought mean, etc. Thus thousands talk, and apologise for the most thorough-going conformity to the giddy, regardless world. I repeat it, he who will be true to his God in these days, must dare to break through unhallowed customs — must be brave enough to differ from others. He who stops to ask himself, What do others do? or, What are the religious opinions and practices of others? cannot be a true disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. Your Saviour demands of you thorough-going, uncompromising fidelity to truth and equity. He requires you to take His will to be your own rule; and so completely will He have you in subjection to His authority, that, whatever you do, whether you eat or drink, you must do all to His glory!
3. They had to resist the demands of self-interest. It was at a severe cost, an immense sacrifice, that they were prepared to fulfil their obligations to the true and living God (v. 6). By this it would appear that death by burning alive was a very ancient punishment for "heresy." It was a customary punishment among the Babylonians. Jeremiah, in denouncing the false prophets, Ahab and Zedekiah, predicted that they should be put to death by the King of Babylon, "And of these shall be taken up a curse by all the captivity of Judah which are in Babylon, saying, The Lord make thee like Zedekiah and like Ahab, whom the king of Babylon roasted in the fire." See, then, how terrific the threat by which Nebuchadnezzar sought to promote the worship of his god. What a severe trial of the godly steadfastness of these three pious Jews (v. 13, 15). Would you have wondered if, in such circumstances, they had trembled and proposed to themselves some temporising mode of escape from so dreadful a punishment? Ah, threats cannot intimidate them. This noble answer reminds us of what relates of , that when courtiers persuaded him to preserve his life — for it was with great reluctance that the Emperor devoted him to death — when flatterers on all sides urged him to redeem his life by the denial of Christianity, he answered, "There can be no deliberation in a matter so sacred." So our three heroes declare that they are in nowise concerned to vindicate their conduct, or to deliberate upon the expediency of the step they were taking. "Our consciences are bound to serve the God of heaven alone, and Him only will we worship, despite all consequences." But many can, Peter-like, boast grandly of how bravely they will act. Nothing shall move them from their Christian steadfastness till the crisis comes — till the hour arrives for self-sacrifice, for prompt and self-denying action — then they faint and fall away. Not so the three pious Hebrews. They were none of your talking heroes. Their deeds were as glorious as their words. Are we not too much given to time-serving? Are we not deterred oftentimes from faithfully acting out our convictions by the fear of losing someone's friendship, or of incurring someone's frown? by the fear of suffering the loss of certain worldly emoluments, or of missing certain social advantages? Is our devotedness to Christ characterised by all that manly energy — that indomitable courage that breaks through every barrier, and that conquers every difficulty?
II. We learn what are THE SOURCES AND ENCOURAGEMENTS OF TRUE MORAL HEROISM.
1. All things are possible to them who believe. There is the secret of their heroism. It was not natural animal courage — it was not stoical insensibility — it was not indifference to life — it was not the love of distinction, or ambition for fame — it was faith in God.
2. God is ever present with his faithful people (v. 21-25). We have no reason for supposing that Nebuchadnezzar thought that the fourth person was Jesus Christ, the Son of God; of him he must have known nothing. "A single angel," says Calvin, "was sent to these three men; Nebuchadnezzar calls him a Son of God, not because he thought him to be Christ, but according to the common opinion among all people that angels are sons of God, since a certain divinity is resplendent in them, and hence they call angels generally sons of God. According to this usual custom Nebuchadnezzar says, the fourth man is like the son of a god." No doubt Nebuchadnezzar recognised the Divine interposition in what appeared to him an angel; God was wont by the ministry of angels and otherwise visibly to interpose on behalf of His people, and in a most extraordinary way to effect deliverances for them; and, doubtless, it was God who appeared in human form with the three Hebrews in the fiery furnace, to comfort, support, and deliver them, and to convince their enemies that they were under the protection of. Heaven, and, therefore, in safe keeping. We do not look for any palpable manifestations of the Divine presence to attend us in our trials. We look for no miraculous deliverance from the hands of our enemies. Nevertheless, God has promised to be with us to help and succour us, so that we may triumphantly exclaim, "If God be with us, who shall be against us?" "A man in the right with God on his side is in the majority, though he be alone, for God is multitudinous above all populations of the earth." So that you may boldly say, "God is our refuge," "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me."
3. The social influence of uncompromising fidelity to duty on the part of God's people is mighty (v. 28, 29). We see here the natural working of a truly consistent life. "Ye are the salt of the earth," etc. (Matthew 5:13-16); "The holy seed is the stock of the land" (Isaiah 6:13). "A man ought to carry himself in the world as an orange-tree would if it could walk up and down in the garden — swinging perfume from every little censer it holds up in the air." Ah, how many of us do this? How many of us commend to the world the religion we possess by an unbending, consistent life?
4. Distinguished honours shall crown the fidelity of God's people (v. 30).
Parallel VersesKJV: There are certain Jews whom thou hast set over the affairs of the province of Babylon, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; these men, O king, have not regarded thee: they serve not thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.
WEB: There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; these men, O king, have not respected you. They don't serve your gods, nor worship the golden image which you have set up.