The command was pretty straightforward: “When the trumpet is sounded, every person must fall prostrate before the golden idol.” Remember, this was not a call to idolatry in the pure sense of the term. In Daniel 3:9, the distinction is drawn between “serving the Babylonian gods” and “bowing to the golden image.” This idol did not bear the name of a pagan god. It had not been created in the mold of the golden calf or the baals and ahserot of Israel’s ancient enemies. This was not the defeated Dagon who had crumbled before the Philistines. It was not a representative of the menacing Marduk or the mysterious Ahura-Mazda.
No, the summons was not an invitation to worship a symbol of recognized divinity, but a call for allegiance to a state. It was a call to unhindered patriotism. The idol represented the impregnable kingdom of Babylon–a multi-ethnic empire that flourished in the arts and was technologically advanced; a well fortified state with the best military in the world. This golden tower indicated the spirit of Babylon.
Knowing that his administrators included those who would not consciously bow to a foreign god, Nebuchadnezaar had created an image that bore the semblances of neutrality. It had no name and claimed no portion of heaven or earth as its jurisdiction. It was not responsible for warfare, famine, rain, or vegetation. This was an idol that represented an ideal. This was the personification of Babylon, the greatest kingdom on earth. The empire of Babylon was the melting pot of the ancient world. Africans, Europeans, and Asians lived together under the same rule of law. The culture was infused with the exotic sounds, tastes, and smells of distant lands. This is what the mighty statue represented–the foundation of a new world order where Babylon reigned supreme.
Those privileged with Babylonian citizenship undoubtedly felt that their nation was worthy of adulation. Their young men were known for their scientific prowess. The hanging gardens in the midst of the city was heralded an international wonder. This was not a backwards country like Assyria or Israel. This nation invoked pride. Its citizens never once questioned how Babylon had achieved its greatness. They never once reflected on the fact that other societies and cultures had to be pillaged and destroyed in order for Babylon to attain her esteem.
With the combined national adrenalin running high, it was no surprise that as soon as the orchestra began to play the Babylonian national anthem, the tens of thousands who had gathered on the Plain of Dura fell prostrate in concert. Old and young assumed the position of begging canines as they paid patriotic homage to their land. As the melody permeated the air, the emotions were evoked in the civic worshipers as they kissed the ground with tear filled eyes–pledging eternal allegiance to a land whose days were numbered.
It is hard to resist the pressure when an entire nation is ravaged with nationalistic fever. I’m sure there were many silent objectors on the Plain of Dura who would have much rather been engaged in their favorite pastime. Some may even have felt foolish groveling in front of a piece of polished metal. Among the crowd were many Sons of Israel who had been taken into captivity with other Jews. They were familiar with the Lord’s commandments and understood that even though this image was not intended to represent a divinity, it was indeed a graven image. They knew that bowing down to this symbol meant turning their backs on God.
However, as they looked at the military guards stationed in strategic positions around the Plain, they feared for their safety. They forgot the promise penned by David who declared, “The angel of the Lord camps around those who fear Him, and he delivers them” (Psalm 34:7). They forgot the Shemah which declared that there is only one Yahweh. They forgot their professed identity as children of the living God who had declared loyalty to the Divine theocracy.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had no delusions about the implications of bowing to the image. Although the 90 feet structure towered menacingly above them, they recalled that it was a mere ant in the presence of the God who towers above the heavens and the earth. Although they knew that those who refused to bow would immediately be thrown into a fiery furnace, they also understood that all those who worshiped the beast and his image will be thrown into the unquenchable lake of fire and brimstone. Although they felt every eye of the gullible worshipers affixed on them, they knew these human eyes were outnumbered by the angelic eyes in the heavenly courts. With this firm assurance entrenched in their hearts, when the imperial orchestra transmitted its harmonious melodies throughout the airwaves and all those around them fell prostrate before the image, these three soldiers for Yahweh remained erect.
This was no easy feat for the three Hebrew men. They were in a strange land with no embassy to protect them. They did not have the luxury of diplomatic immunity. They could not appeal to the Supreme Court. Nebuchadnezzar had absolute power and his word was irrevocable law. When the three servants of God refused to pledge allegiance to the symbol of national identity, they knew that their earthly days were numbered.
No to Compromise
When the enforcers informed Nebuchadnezaar of the defiance displayed by the Hebrew men, Nebuchadnezaar was somewhat saddened. These were solid members of his government who had served valiantly and faithfully. They accomplished their tasks with accuracy and professionalism and had raised the standard of efficiency in their respective departments. Surely these loyal workers who have made fine contributions to the empire would not openly defy the President of the United States of Babylon.
When the case was brought to the king, he loosely interpreted his own law and sought to give them a second chance to prove their patriotism. After all, this was not worship in the true sense. They were not being cajoled to bow to a real god. They were just being asked to acknowledge the accomplishments of the only remaining super power. What could be wrong with this? What could be wrong with pledging allegiance to a nation through a physical emblem?
Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah listened to the king and then offered their respectful response. “O King, if the only option we have is to be thrown into the fiery furnace, then so be it. But we will not serve your gods, nor will we pledge allegiance to your golden statue. Please don’t think we are being rude, but we serve a God who is able to deliver us from the fiery furnace, and from your hand. And even if he chooses not to, we will not bow down to your image.”
Publically embarrassed by their response and infuriated by their pious obstinance, Nebuchadnezaar ordered the furnace to be made seven times hotter and passed judgement on the brave soldiers of God. Those who know the story, will recall that God miraculously delivered the young men and the king was impressed to the point of conversion.
Everybody’s story may not end like the three Hebrews. Some who choose not to pledge allegiance to the image may have to endure the horrors of the furnace without any benefit of divine anaesthesia. Those who serve God should not be beguiled by the Lois Lane expectations of Superman coming to the rescue in the nick of time. The Hebrews were assured not by the belief that God would deliver, but the knowledge that he could. Consequently, they were not going to sell their souls for a false sense of belonging and a fragile security. There were some things more important than dutiful obedience to country with ditto-headed mesmerism. They had a prophetic responsibility to stand for God even if the heavens fell.
As you contemplate this parable, how will you respond when the music plays? Will you join the loyal throng who seek security in the system, or will you resist the urge to conform to the secular spirit?
Keith Augustus Burton is an adjunct faculty member at Oakwood University and Florida Hospital College of Health Sciences. This “parable” is adapted from a sermon presented during the height of American patriotic fever on the second anniversary of 9-11.