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29 August. Daniel chapters 3-4
In chapter 3, three of the four Jewish exiles – but not Daniel himself – are thrown into the furnace for having refused to worship the golden statue that the king set up, and also refused the opportunity to recant. They are saved by an angel (or maybe the incarnation of God himself, for the one “like a son of man” is a title Jesus took for himself). Nebuchadnezzar, in a fashion typical of this style of writing, immediately changes from persecuting the Jews to proclaiming theirs the official religion of his empire (as we saw in Esther).
Miracles aside, this is a story of true witness. We are not told whether the golden statue is of Nebuchadnezzar himself – though it might have been, since dictators are prone to having statues of themselves erected in their lifetimes – but whether it was that, or the image of a Babylonian god, to worship it (or the king himself) would for the Jews have been to break the greatest commandments. These men passed the ultimate test of faith, which led to what should have been their martyrdom. In every age there have been people of any religion whose faith has been strong enough to lead them down this path, and they are rightly honoured. But true martyrdom is always about suffering for peacefully holding to one’s principles in the face of violence and intolerance; those who claim as martyrs people who have killed others “in the name of God” fail to understand what a martyr really is – a peaceful witness to truth.
In our liberal society, we agonise over whether followers of one religion should be allowed to display symbols of their religion (be it crosses, turbans, painted faces or veils) or to be ‘witnesses’ in the sense of proselytising (explaining their faith to others with a view to conversion). Sometimes the decision is reached that such symbols or witnessing should not be allowed in public places in order not to offend others. This is regrettable, but it is a long way from state-sponsored torture.
In chapter 4, which is probably not to be seen as chronologically following the earlier one, Nebuchadnezzar sends another edict around his empire telling how he had another apocalyptic dream, that Daniel interpreted as predicting his downfall and madness (eating grass like oxen) until he should honour God’s authority. Again, this comes to pass (not immediately, but a year later) until after seven years of such exile and madness the king repents and ends up worshipping God.
This is harder to understand. Perhaps the lesson is that megalomania such as that displayed by Nebuchadnezzar and many other dictators and emperors over the centuries is itself a form of madness, and needs to be treated by an opposite extreme – an addiction to excessive power being removed only by the “withdrawal symptoms” of excessive humility. From a theological perspective, any action or attitude that causes us to rebel against God’s will might be seen as a form of insanity, and an appropriate form of penitence is the antidote to it.
These two chapters together – telling of martyrdom and witness, of rebellion against God and humble penitence – point us to spiritual principles that apply to every believer, to some degree. The challenge facing you if you are a person of faith is hopefully less life-threatening than that facing the three young men, but you may still find there are times when you are put on the spot to justify your faith-inspired actions (or refusal to act as instructed). Your ‘insanity’ or mine is hopefully much milder than that of Nebuchadnezzar or other despots, but nevertheless we need to be willing to confront it, and accept whatever form of penitence God considers necessary to bring us back to our senses.