After a siege on Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, the Jewish people of Judah were made captives once more. Among them were four young men – brilliant, handsome, and likely of noble lineage. Because of their station and brightness, these four captives were chosen by the chief court official to embark on a three-year preparation for governmental service to the invading ruler.
A portion of this preparation and indoctrination to serve in Babylonian culture was to change their names. Their beautiful names given to them at their circumcisions reflected the character and image of the God of Israel.
Daniel – God is my Judge
Hananiah – The grace of the Lord
Mishael – Who is like God?
Azariah – The Lord is a help
To ensure they assimilated into the culture and belief system of their captors, they were given names that honored Babylon’s own gods: Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
Can we note something here before we move on? Everything that was familiar, safe, and valuable to them had been ripped away and “went up in flames.” On top of it all, they didn’t even get to keep their names. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine how displaced and broken you would feel in that moment.
Throughout the ensuing chapters of Daniel, we see the way small, faithful choices laid the foundation for God to work wonders. Test after test after test, choice after choice after choice.
I wonder, as they saw the golden image being constructed, if they knew yet another test was coming. I wonder how these men encouraged each other. For the morning came when the test was unveiled. The summons was given. The threat was issued: bow down, or die by fire.
The king taunted them: “And who is the god who will deliver you from my hands?” (Can you imagine the confidence he had as he sneered this?)
Then their prayerful, faithful response silenced the room. Their response, dear friend on the other side of the screen, is one I’ve returned to over and over… especially when it feels as if flames are nipping at the edges of my life.
“O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up.” Daniel 3:16-18
But if not. Does this take your breath away the way it does mine?
It takes hope to say “our God is able.” It takes unshakable, resolute faith to say “but if not.” It takes hope to imagine deliverance. It takes unshakable, resolute faith to prefer the presence of God in a fire than the ease of what brings me the least pain and disappointment.
There are times when deliverance from flames are what feel the best to me. Actually, all the time, that would be my preference. I would imagine you might be the same way?
But there is a depth of trust that He desires for His beloved to have in Him. The kind that says, “But if not.” The calm, weathered, and steadfast soul that truly believes He will be with us in the very flames.
I think their response gave their Rescuer joy. His heart was moved by the faith-filled bravery of His sons. Though this response elicited an anger from the king almost as hot as the furnace, and though the three men were cast bound into the flames, what happened next changed everything.
The king fell all over himself because he saw four men, unbound, walking in the fire. Unscathed, untouched… and the fourth appeared to him like “a son of the gods.” Three were cast in, but one more was in the fire with them.
How this encounter with the Rescuer must have washed over the souls of these three sons of Judah! To be joined in the fire with the One they not only never lost hope in, but also the One who was the very anchor of their unshakable faith. Something that was intended to turn them to ash was used to exalt the name of their God among a people who scorned Him.
“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God…” Isaiah 43:1-3a
In the “But if not’s”, Jesus walks with us. When it truly feels like the very things we hold dear are turning to ash around us, He will not allow the flames to consume us. And as we emerge, the stench of smoke and the dust of ash will not even be on us for He rescues entirely and perfectly. I wonder, while they were in the flames, if He called to them with the names they were given at birth. The names that, every time they were spoken, reminded these sons of Judah about the character of their Rescuer.
Friend, can we just be really vulnerable here? There’s too many times when I’ve not been able to say “But if not…” There’s too many times, with tears stinging my cheeks, when I’ve wondered about His goodness as I’ve faced a fire. I’ve not wanted to even hope that He could come through because I didn’t want to be disappointed with an “if not.” Times when I’ve not even been able to breathe out words to Him. I know what it feels like when it feels impossible to pray.
But Jesus delights and leans in for our impossible prayers. He calls us by name to come to Him. As we journey through this study of encounters with Him in Scripture, we are going to see the delight and joy the Redeemer takes in the simple, desperately hope-filled faith of those who seek Him out. We are going to see the way He brings ashes to life.
Today, on this first day of our journey together, my prayer for you as you encounter Jesus is not only for hope to see the ways your Savior is able, but also for the resolute, unshakable faith to utter “But if not…” simply because He is the one who formed you from the dust.