Updated: Aug 15
I probably should not admit this, but I have not written my wife a love letter in quite a long time. We have been married for over thirty years and thankfully I see her every day, so there really is not a lot of new or exciting information that I need to share with her. But, if I did decide to author such a letter, I know that there is a special love letter writing style that I better follow. A love letter differs significantly from a quality business letter, for example. So, if I were to hop on my computer (which would be my first mistake) and begin a letter to Stacy with, “To whom it may concern…,” I will probably be sent to the spare bedroom for the foreseeable future. Likewise, if applying for a job, I handwrite a cover letter on lined paper torn from a spiral notebook and include the salutation, “Hugs and Kisses,” I doubt I will be scheduled for an interview.
The way we communicate our messages, the style of writing, the words we chose, the amount of formality, the color of the paper, the use of emojis, all have a significant impact on our ability to successfully communicate our thoughts. As readers, if we fail to identify a piece of literature as satirical or poetic, we run the risk of completely misinterpreting what the author is trying to tell us. Understanding the type and style of literature we are reading has a major impact on our ability to accurately receive the intended message.
The Bible is composed of several different types of literature: narrative, poetry, parable, etc. However, there is one style that is rarely recognized as a separate style, and it is the one we have been exploring over the past few weeks; apocalyptic literature. When we think of apocalyptic literature, we typically run to Revelation and parts of Daniel, but we also find this style of writing in Ezekiel, the Gospels, and other ancient texts outside of the Bible.
Unfortunately, when someone mentions apocalyptic literature, the first assumption is that we are looking at a code book, or a secret message predicting the future. Although that train of thought works for movies, the purpose and design of apocalyptic literature is not that mysterious or dramatic. The biggest difference between apocalyptic, and other forms of literature like poetry, narrative, or love letters, is that we are more familiar with the latter. We better understand the rules and the purpose of these forms of writing. If we want to learn from apocalyptic literature and faithfully interpret what the authors were intending to pass along, we need to lay aside our assumptions and become more familiar with its background.
Generally, I don’t think that authors want to intentionally create confusion, except for the writers of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Inception and Interstellar. If an author writes a sentence and no one around can understand it, does it have any meaning? Good authors communicate with a set of rules that can connect with their audience. I believe those who wrote Revelation, Daniel, or Matthew 24 used a format and style that was familiar to their readers. And, the first readers of these documents, knew what the authors were trying to say. Otherwise, why would they preserve, translate and copy confusing, difficult, mysterious documents for thousands of years? Did they just hope that someday, someone, somewhere, would figure it out? Absolutely not. These works were so filled with meaning that the first readers ensured that they would be passed along to future generations.
Therefore, I would like to spend a little time exploring the background to the apocalyptic writings in the Bible. One of the best resources for this work is found in Daniel. Literarily, Daniel is a fascinating book. Not only was it written in two languages, Hebrew and Aramaic, but it also has two very distinct sections. The first half, and probably the most familiar part of the book, is composed of a collection of stories. (There is a reason Veggie Tales sticks to the first half of Daniel.) The second half is heavily apocalyptic and difficult to interpret unless you have a strong understanding of the conflict between the ancient Ptolemaic and Seleucid empires. (And, who doesn’t? Because reading about Ptolemaic and Seleucid politics is far more fun than reading Daniel’s version of “The Lion King.”)
Let’s take a look at a familiar story from the first half of Daniel and how it lays the framework for our understanding of apocalyptic literature. First, a little background about Daniel. Now, before your eyes start to glaze over as you are transported back to your high school English Literature class, knowing a little about when and why Daniel was written is not only critical to understanding the story, but how its message can be applied to our lives today.
Although the stories in the first six chapters of Daniel are set in the Jewish exile around the sixth century B.C., the book itself was written several centuries later, in the mid-second century B.C. This is a critical piece of background information. In both periods, the Jewish people were facing intense suffering and persecution. In the sixth century, most of the Jewish population had been forced from their homes in Judah and sent to live in Babylon where they faced extreme financial hardship, religious persecution and attacks on their cultural identity. Four centuries later, although they had returned to their homeland, they were again under the thumb of an oppressive ruler. Their nation was a war zone, their crops stripped by troops passing through their fields, their treasuries were raided, and their homes burned. They were brutally taxed and their religious practices were outlawed by tyrants.
One of the kings of this later period was exceptionally ruthless. In the mid-second century, Antiochus Epiphanies IV unleashed a period of grievous religious tyranny. This was not just a national or political problem. Antiochus’ brutality spread like a virus into every city and village. Part of this gruesome story can be found in the book of 2 Maccabees, located in the Greek version of the Old Testament. Here, a mother and her seven sons were tortured and ordered by Antiochus to eat pork to demonstrate their compliance and allegiance to the establishment. However, pork was religiously unclean according to Jewish law. As the story unfolds, the first son chooses to stand for his faith and refuses the king’s edict. In his anger, Antiochus has him mutilated and fried alive in a burning pan. Antiochus’ then turns to the second brother, who also stands against the king and suffers the same fate as his brother. Then the third, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth, until he reaches the youngest son of a mother who just watched her family barbarically murdered. Instead of torture, Antiochus offers to make the seventh son rich and powerful in his kingdom if he will simply bend a knee to Antiochus’ will. At this offer, the mother powerfully leans into the ear of her son and says, “My son, have pity on me. I carried you nine months in my womb, and nursed you for three years, and have reared you and brought you up to this point in your life, and have taken care of you. I beg you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. And in the same way the human race came into being. Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again along with your brothers.” (2 Maccabees 7:27-29)
This was the world of the book of Daniel. In the midst of persecution, injustice and suffering, everyday people were asking questions like:
Where is God in all of this?
Did we do something wrong?
When will God return to save us?
Don’t our lives matter to God?
What do we do while we wait?
In the midst of this unimaginable suffering, the stories of Daniel were written as a call back to another time when God’s people were facing similar, horrific circumstances. They looked to the past to find hope in the stories that recounted God’s faithfulness in times of trouble.
The particular story we are exploring today is found in Daniel 3. As I mentioned earlier, the Jewish people were living in exile in Babylon following the complete destruction of Jerusalem. Like Antiochus Epiphanies IV, the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar, had a literal “god complex.” As the story opens, King Nebuchadnezzar built a statue overlaid with gold, which rose 100 feet above the plain of Dura. And to celebrate his pompous creation, he invited everyone from all corners of the empire to bow down and worship the statue. Anyone who did not conform to Nebuchadnezzar’s orders was to be burned alive in a furnace. It seems that Nebuchadnezzar and Antiochus were calling plays from the same evil despot playbook.
Many have asked about the identity of Nebuchadnezzar’s statue. Did he make the statue in his own image or one of the gods of Babylon? While it is a good question, ultimately, the identity of the statue is irrelevant. The real question is why he built it. Nebuchadnezzar did not construct this image to help his people have a better life. The purpose was not to invest in the betterment of their communities or families. This statue was a physical reminder of who was in charge of their lives. This image, and the edict to worship it, were about compliance through fear.
What level of hubris must Antiochus, Nebuchadnezzar, or any other ruler possess to believe that allegiance offered under the threat of personal destruction would be sincere or lasting? Compliance secured through exploitation or the abuse of power is never honorable, nor effective.
When the day arrived for the statue’s dedication and the band started to play, everyone bowed down to the statue and worshipped it. Almost everyone. As the crowd bowed their faces to the ground, three remained standing. Three, only three, refused to bow to anything or anyone other than the true Ruler of the Universe and Lord of their lives.
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did not make a scene or draw attention to themselves, other than their silent display of courage. By standing for their convictions, they refused to go along to get along.
Who they worshipped mattered.
Who they gave their ultimate allegiance to mattered.
Their words and actions mattered.
Some in the crowd that day took notice of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and called the Babylonian Statue Worship Hotline to report their noncompliance. As you might expect, Nebuchadnezzar did not take the news well. He called for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and gave them a second chance to comply with his edict to worship his newly minted golden statue. Then, in an attempt to demonstrate his power and the control he wielded, he threatened their lives. “But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire, and who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?” (Daniel 3:15)
Who is going to stop me? That is a question that tyrants and taskmasters, dictators and despots have asked throughout the generations. And, it is the answer to this question which has the unstoppable power to strengthen the faith and embolden the hope of God’s people.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18)
But if not….
This is one of the most powerful phrases in the Bible. Despite its simplicity, these three little words are not without controversy. What do they mean by, “if not?” Are they really suggesting that God is not able to save them? Go ahead, read it again. That is exactly what they seem to be suggesting. If God is able to save them, let Him. But, if not… Why even suggest that?
Remember, they are answering Nebuchadnezzar’s question, “Who is able?” Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are placing the focus on God’s power and control over their lives. As they stand before the most powerful person in the empire, they point Nebuchadnezzar to a God who does not need to demonstrate His power through statues of gold or capricious commands. God’s power has been demonstrated again and again through the devotion and faithfulness of His people.
We serve God because we chose to, not because we have been forced to.
So, as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego stand before the king facing their fiery death, how do they know that God is faithful enough and powerful enough to rescue them? The same way we do; from those who have shared their stories of God’s faithfulness in their lives with the next generation. God’s monuments are not built of gold and stone. They are constructed from the faithfulness we exhibit, the loyalty we hold, and the fortitude we display.
Upon hearing their response, Nebuchadnezzar becomes filled with rage and commands that the furnace be heated seven times hotter than before. He then orders soldiers to bind Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and toss them into the furnace.
Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up quickly. He said to his counselors, “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.” (Daniel 3:24-25)
Does God save Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego? Yes. But that is not as important as how God saves them. God does not pull them out of the fire. He does not give them protective fire suits or build a force field around them. Instead, God joins them in the fire. In the midst of the furnace, amid the heat and the danger,
God might not rescue us from the fire,
but He has promised to walk with us in the midst of it.