Then Nebuchadnezzar was so filled with rage against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that his face was distorted. He ordered the furnace to be heated up seven times more than was customary, and ordered some of the strongest guards in his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and to throw them into the furnace of blazing fire. So the men were bound, still wearing their tunics, their trousers, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the furnace of blazing fire. Because the king’s command was urgent and the furnace was so overheated, the raging flames killed the men who lifted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. But the three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell down, bound, into the furnace of blazing fire. Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up quickly. He said to his counsellors, ‘Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?’ They answered the king, ‘True, O king.’ He replied, ‘But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.’ Nebuchadnezzar then approached the door of the furnace of blazing fire and said, ‘Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!’ So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire. And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counsellors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men; the hair of their heads was not singed, their tunics were not harmed, and not even the smell of fire came from them.
Nebuchadnezzar said, ‘Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him. They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that utters blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins; for there is no other god who is able to deliver in this way.’ Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the province of Babylon.
The Daniel stories were my favourite Sunday School stories. I loved the names that Nebuchadnezzar gave to the three Hebrew youths: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. On the wireless Housewives Choice often played requests for the Louis Armstrong version of the story “There was three children from the land of Israel….”. 75 years later I am reflecting on the Old Testament legends that caught my childhood imagination. I look at the silver pocket watch on the table. It belonged to my great grandfather and his name is engraved on the back: “Shadrack Moth 1888”. His brother was called Hezekiah! It is the last reminder of my family’s Ashkenazy roots, settling in Britain after one of the pogroms to which Europe was prone. Like the three youths in the story, they were exiles in a strange land, and future generations would have new names, like Albert, Walter, and Lily.
For me, Daniel is an extraordinary book; it’s not prophecy in the sense of predicting the future. Written about 160 BC when the Jews were resisting the efforts of Antiochus Epiphanes to turn them into good Greeks, it’s a tale of exile in a strange land and holding on to the faith of your birth. The Daniel legends are curiously similar to Joseph stories, another exile with the power to interpret royal dreams. Daniel in the lion’s den, or his three friends in the fiery furnace talking to a heavenly being, were not predictions of the future but proclamations of the faith in which they had been brought up, and the belief in a God who joined with, and stood by them, in their trials and tribulations. That has always been the story of the people of God, Ashkenazy or Christian, Catholic or Protestant. We do well to remember – but Shadrach’s watch tells me it nearly 10pm; time to stop reflecting and start praying:
Almighty God teach us not to be afraid. Remind us that you have redeemed us and called us by name, and we are yours. When we pass through the waters, you will be with us; when we walk through the fire, the flame will not consume us, for you are the Lord our God, the Holy One of Israel, and our saviour. Amen
The Rev’d Peter Moth, retired minister in the Northern Synod at St Andrew’s URC Kenton, Newcastle upon Tyne.