“They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.” (Daniel 3.28b)
This is the third of four posts offering reflections on the “political lessons” we learn from the story in Daniel 3 about Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego being thrown into a fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. See previous posts here and here. I’m offering nine reflections in all, and 4-7 are below.
4. God’s people faced persecution due to their position as a minority “outsider” community in an imperial world.
Many of us have heard or engaged in conversation about why we in the American church don’t face persecution today. Maybe the answer has less to do with the power or sincerity of individual people’s faith, but that as a church body we’ve accommodated ourselves to the world. We have allowed ourselves to become a prop or a tool to be used by secular powers to sanction their agenda by stamping God’s name on it. (And in this sense, we break the real third commandment.) Maybe we don’t face such persecution because we have aligned ourselves with the powerful rather than maintained our identity as resident aliens. Not that we should seek to be persecuted, but it helps to know why we’re not. [As a side note, Acts 19 provides great insight here. If interested in this sort of thing, read the story there and ask why Paul and Co. were being persecuted. Hint: they confronted idolatry, which transformed people, which disrupted the status quo system, which angered profiteers. Okay, that was more than a hint. And then ask, “Why aren’t we persecuted more in our culture?”]
5. Loyal servants of idolatrous political powers often die needlessly.
If anyone gets the short end of the stick in this story, it’s the unnamed “strongest guards” who die because of the flames of the furnace. They were just carrying our the king’s orders. (A Lutheran might say they were fulfilling their civic duty in obedience to God. ). As one commentator said of Daniel 3: “They die as they carry out the frustrated politician’s irrational command.” For all we know these guards were some of the bravest, most honest, selfless, well-meaning young men in their culture, and all of this virtue was taken advantage of, misdirected, and therefore wasted. Tragic, to say the least.
6. Sometimes governments acknowledge God’s sovereign power to save.
Nebuchadnezzar does this. That’s good. But we should also note that doing this doesn’t automatically mean that God approves of them. And it doesn’t mean that any of their decisions will actually line up with his will. But at any rate, sometimes it happens that for a brief moment, even pagan kings see behind their own curtain and acknowledge Yahweh’s greater power to save. Not sure how this parallels to today, but it seemed worth nothing.
7. The “political idolatry problem” does not rule out participation in political affairs.
Once again it’s important to remember that this text is hardly a prescriptive recipe for Christian political activity – these are reflections and not principles, and none of them should be taken in isolation from the rest of the biblical story (especially Jesus, of course). But do note that at the end of this story these three worked as part of Nebuchadnezzar’s cabinet. In as much as Daniel was composed as a guide for God’s people in exile, it is at least interesting to note that being critical of and disobedient toward pagan kingdoms did not rule out all involvement at an official or administrative level.