Growing up in Sunday school, I heard the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace quite a few times. But until recently, I never noticed those three small words they speak to Nebuchadnezzar after declaring that God will deliver them.
“But if not…”
And no wonder I missed this. The moral of the story, as I understood it, was that we can avoid pain and receive blessing by following God instead of the world. Those three words suggest something a little less tidy. We might obey God and suffer anyway. This might make us uneasy, but that doesn’t mean we should avoid it. Here in this difficult place is where we can see God’s glory, the gospel blazing through the simplistic Sunday school lesson. We have to let the story unsettle us. If we try to make it safe, we will end up pointing our kids to something other than the gospel, even encouraging them to bow down to something besides God alone.
This is a story about two kings and two kinds of worship. It’s the story of a king whose protection can be earned, and a greater king who does not trade favors. It’s a story about worship driven by fear, and worship compelled by glory.
In Daniel 3, King Nebuchadnezzar offers his subjects a choice: disobey and die, or worship and be saved. He controls the nations by fear, but he has no such power over Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. They were fearless, but not because they presumed their God would respond to obedience with blessing. They didn’t serve that kind of king.
They had never worshipped Yahweh because He made their lives easier, but because He was glorious.
Parents, is this how we are teaching our children to worship? Or do we make our God into a type of Nebuchadnezzar, promising security in exchange for obedience? Consider how we present a choice between danger and safety in the way we so often teach about sex, for instance: disobedience will lead to suffering, but following God’s way will secure a happy marriage. Do we teach that obedience will always be rewarded with the “blessings” we want? If so, perhaps it’s because we secretly believe that our comfortable lives are the result of our own faithfulness.
But if we do this, we put our trust in something other than God himself. We diminish his glory. He is not King of kings and Lord of lords, but a means to our own ends: happy homes, successful marriages, a prosperous nation. And if we believe that moral behavior, a profession of faith, a political philosophy or an effective marketing campaign can provide these blessings, we will worship them too.
Praise God that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego learned no such lesson. Instead, they knew the gospel in its Old Testament form: “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery.” (Deut. 7:7-8)
They knew they had never done anything to earn God’s love, and could do nothing to keep it. It could only be a gift, an amazing act of condescension by the omnipotent Creator.
This knowledge — and the gratitude, awe and delight it inspires — had always been the motive for their worship, which is why they stood with boldness before Nebuchadnezzar on that day.
The source of their courage was not their obedience, but God’s character. Their certainty was not in what God would do in that moment, but in his everlasting covenant, his steadfast love. They were certain of the goodness of the King of Heaven. He promises salvation for his people, not mere relief from their circumstances. He has spoken, and he will do it.
The three friends had a choice. They could enter into a small, predictable contract — pay tribute and receive shelter in return — or cast themselves on the steadfast love of the Lord. They refused a false safety that depended on their own choice and human effort. They refused to serve a king who could be controlled by their obedience. Instead, they gave up control to the only God who is able to deliver.
And that is what I want for my children, for myself, for all my brothers and sisters. I want to know and worship a God who is not safe, but who is good and glorious. Then, when the king of this world threatens us with loss of safety, or control, or comfort, we will not bow down to earn his illusion of deliverance. Rather, we will boldly reply, “we have no need to answer you in this matter.”
If we worship a king who offers blessing via transaction, safety in return for obedience, we will become idol worshippers, prideful of success or fearful of failure. But if we worship the King who offers his blessing as a gift alone, if we know the gospel, it will empower us in the same way it did Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego: to joyful courage that is bold and humble at the same time.
And when we suffer, we will not run to God demanding to know why our obedience hasn’t guaranteed our protection; we will not insist that he return our favors. Instead, we will cast ourselves on the mercy of the King of kings and Lord of lords, for there is no other god who is able to deliver in this way.