THE THREE FRIENDS
The king was feeling pleased with himself. He had taken unusual pains over this project, determined that it should go down with honour in the annals of his reign. No expense had been spared, no detail left out, for today the whole world was to know that he, Nebuchadnezzar, was lord of all.
His military campaigns had brought mighty kingdoms to his heel. Babylon, his fair nest, was feathered with their tribute and their trade. For half a thousand miles his vassals crouched at his word. Only the priests, entrenched in ancient prerogative and a universal superstition, had hitherto dared to prescribe for him the worship of the gods. But today even those rogues were going to meet their match, and he, the king, would call the tune.
For miles across the plain his latest work shone proud and bright under the eastern sun. Unencumbered by temple walls- those palaces of sacerdotal greed - his new idol stood slim and elegant before an open square. A royal dais stood tastefully at one side, and a giant kiln of brick smouldered grimly behind. Months ago, the royal posts had galloped to the frontiers of his realm, and now the gleaming pavements were filling with a noble array of distinguished men, obedient to his call. The whole world glittered before him, gay with rich cloths and costly jewels. A dozen languages united in a roar of praise that swelled his heart and shook his golden throne. Yes, it was his name, Nebuchadnezzar, they were calling, and a grateful pride stole over him as he motioned to the orchestras to play the royal hymn.
Three men in that vast crowd had travelled only from Babylon itself. Former princes taken captive from Judah, and now ministers of the king, they too had received the summons to the dedication of the image. Disgust and loathing had filled their souls as they held the imperious clay tablet in their hand. Worshippers of the one true god – Yahweh the Mighty One of Israel - they hated the devilish and sensual idolatry that seethed in Babylon. How they longed to go back to their own land, now desolate, and restore their ancient Law with its high ideals and holy, clean commands! But that could not be, and they knew they must endure the long day ahead at the whim of their conceited lord.
When the preliminaries were over, the king made a long oration in the language of the Chaldeans, instantly translated into a dozen tongues. Then he forced the fuming priests to consult the omens, and prepare a fitting sacrifice to his new god. The three friends stood together, aloof and pained - a fact that was not unnoticed by their colleagues in the delegation from Babylon. For these three men, with their unremitting high standards, their unsociable behaviour, and their ‘narrow-minded’ religiousity, had enemies at court.
At last a hush fell over the multitude as a richly caparisoned herald mounted the dais, to a flourish of cornets. One by one he repeated in many languages the king’s command. At the sound of the royal orchestra, everyone present was to prostrate himself in worship before the golden image, on pain of death. And the death was near at hand – he would be roasted alive in the new furnace specially built by the king!
This news was received by the priests in angry silence. Much as they hated the king’s interference in their domain, they knew that to rebel was useless. They would obey. To then great mass of people, the order came as part of the ceremony, and perspiring slaves ran about preparing soft carpets to receive the creaking knees of their noble masters. But Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego looked at each other in consternation, and hastily conferred. To bow down before an image was to break the second great commandment of the Jewish Law, and this they could not do. Their vain master had gone too far, and come what may, they resolved to stand their ground. Silently praying for help from their God, they awaited the signal to bow low.
When it came, the effect was astounding. From the king’s throne, it looked as though a field of ripe corn had been suddenly blown down by a great gust of wind. Priests and courtiers grovelled in the dust. For a long minute, while the musicians played his favourite score, the king’s triumph was complete.
Unfortunately, his satisfaction was soon marred. Gloating enemies had observed the three brave Jews, and sent a message that the king’s command had been shamelessly flouted. Crimson with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned the three offenders before him. How dare they spoil his splendid day? He paled somewhat when he recognised them as Daniel’s chief counsellors. He remembered their powerful god who had helped the great man to interpret his dreams. With an effort at self control, he decided to offer them one more chance – if they bowed down the next time, he would overlook their rebellion.
Their calm faith in their god as they spurned his clemency nettled the king. Since they were inflexible, he would teach the multitude what it meant to defy him. No gods could deliver them from the death he had prepared. With great fury he ordered them to be burned.
No sooner had strong soldiers thrown the bound men into the raging fire, than the king started up from his throne in amazement. Pulling his cloak around him, he approached the crackling flames, his eyes popping with fear. Through the furnace doors he had seen the three men standing erect, and with them a dazzling being, brighter than the sun. Searing though the heat was from where he stood, it was obvious the fire had left them completely untouched! Trembling now, the king called to his ministers to step out of the kiln. This they did at once, and the doors clanged shut behind them. The king was electrified. Wonderingly he fingered their clothes, and felt their skin. Not a hair had been singed! You could not even smell the smoke.
With all the dignity he could muster, Nebuchadnezzar turned to the courtiers crowding round. What else could he say? “Blessed be the god of these men”, he declared, “who has sent his messenger to deliver them from my hand!” Solemnly he decreed that their god was to be feared throughout his dominions. Gladly he promoted them to the highest positions in the State. And when at length the multitude of guests returned to their distant homes, it was not of the king’s great day that they spoke. The pompous monarch had been well and truly snubbed. Their praises were reserved for the mighty god of tiny Israel, and his brave worshippers, who had dared defy the king’s decree.
So Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego found their niche in the Bible hall of fame. “By faith,” wrote the apostle in Hebrews ch 11 v 34, they “quenched the violence of fire.” How easy it would have been for them to bob quickly own before the idol of gold. Surely, just for once, their God would have overlooked a technical offence? Yet out of their steadfastness the God of Israel had brought the mighty monarch low, and through these three humble men His name was exalted throughout the Babylonian empire. “For God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty” concludes the Apostle Paul, “that no flesh should glory in his presence.”
(1 Corinthians ch 1 v 28,29)
David M Pearce