In the second chapter of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar the king promoted Daniel after he had been able to interpret the troubling dream that the king had had. As a result of Daniel’s influence, Daniel’s three friends were established in the rule of Babylon. Sometime later, Nebuchadnezzar established a giant gold statue of himself in the plain of Dura, and the officialdom of all Babylon was commanded to assemble and do obeisance to that statue when the music commenced.
What we have in this story is an account of what happens when the absolute Word of God collides with the pretended absolute word of man.
“Then Nebuchadnezzar in his rage and fury commanded to bring Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. Then they brought these men before the king. Nebuchadnezzar spake and said unto them, Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, do not ye serve my gods, nor worship the golden image which I have set up? Now if ye be ready that at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of musick, ye fall down and worship the image which I have made; well: but if ye worship not, ye shall be cast the same hour into the midst of a burning fiery furnace; and who is that God that shall deliver you out of my hands? Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, answered and said to the king, O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up” (Dan. 3:13–18).
Summary of the Text:
The command was given, and everyone complied (3:7)—well, everyone except for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Certain Chaldeans then accused them to the king, saying correctly that they had not complied (vv. 8-12). The three men were consequently summoned before the king (v. 13). “Is this true?” Nebuchadnezzar asked (v. 14). The king then magnanimously offered them a do-over. If they refused, it was the fiery furnace for them, in that very same hour (v. 15). The king then uttered the fatal taunt—“who is that God that shall deliver?” I call it a fatal taunt, but it was not fatal to the three faithful Israelites. It was fatal to the pride of the pagan king. The three replied that they had no need to reply (v. 16). God was able to deliver them, and they were confident that He would in fact do so (v. 17). But whether or not He decided to deliver them, they were not going to bow down in any case (v. 18). The rest of the story is well-known—God delivered them from the fire, not to mention delivering the king from his blindness.
The God of the Bible is transcendent, standing outside the created order. There is an infinite gulf between Creator and creation. God is not contained by or bound by the material world, although He is present throughout it. This is the true God, the God who will not share His glory with another. “I am the Lord: that is my name: And my glory will I not give to another, Neither my praise to graven images” (Is. 42:8). So this was not a battle between two local deities, the god of Babylon and the god of Jerusalem. Rather it was a face-off between the God of Heaven and gods of earth.
Why are unbelievers so lost? “Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen” (Rom. 1:25). These are the only alternatives. Either you worship God, or you worship something or someone down here. The word served here in the phrase served the creature is the word for worship.
Sentient men and women are finite, but because they are also fallen creatures they don’t want to be finite. This means that whenever the true God is denied, or when some aspect of His absolute attributes as Creator and Maker are denied, sinful men always see a job opening. They don’t want a foreordaining God because they want to make room for foreordaining man. Their problem is not that there is a throne over the cosmos; their problem is that they aren’t sitting in it.
And, not so incidentally, this is precisely why the nations which have the deepest legacy of Calvinistic truth (call it the Godness of God) are also the nations that have the deepest legacy of personal liberty for man. When God is God, man is free. Whenever man is god, men are enslaved. So foreordination is an inescapable concept—not whether, but which. It is not whether the future will be planned, but rather who will attempt the planning. God the infinite Father? Or man the finite and sinful klutz, man as the vain and most incompetent sorcerer’s apprentice?
Creator and Redeemer:
We must distinguish the question of God as Creator being sovereign, and God as Redeemer being sovereign. We are going to delve into the question of redemption later in this series, but we need to make this distinction early on. The free agency of man as creature is entirely consistent with the sovereignty of God as Creator—but there is true mystery involved in it. This is a subject where we can’t do the math (which is also the case for numerous other doctrines). How can God sovereignly ordain (before all worlds) that I will in fact place this watch on the pulpit right now, and that I will do so freely? What does it mean when a preacher places a watch on the pulpit? Some wiseacres might be tempted to say that it doesn’t mean anything, but I have a larger point to make. There is a true creaturely freedom here, but the basis of it really is mysterious.
But when we are talking about redemption of men as sinners, we do not try to defend man’s freedom, and we do not try to do this because men as sinners are not in fact free. They are slaves. They have no freedom. They are dead in their sins, and have no liberty. There is no mystery to this part of it.
God is exhaustively sovereign over every atom, every hair, every sparrow, and this is (mysteriously) consistent with our free agency as creatures. This is true of every creature, true of all men and women, Christian and non-Christian both.
And God is also exhaustively sovereign in the regeneration of every sinner, and this does not need to be reconciled with our moral liberty before conversion for we have none. Speaking of the new life, Christ brings us liberty.
Hostility to Graven Images:
The Reformed tradition has long been hostile to the use of any kind of images in worship. This is based on two things. The first is the plain Word of God (Ex. 20:4-6). Such worship is prohibited in the Ten Commandments, and we have the glorious example of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego here. This is sufficient for us.
But there is also a deep theological structure to our resistance to images. We have been given a vision of a transcendent God, and the only way the Creator/creature divide could be bridged is if God Himself does it in an Incarnation. When we make an attempt at such a bridge, our attempts may seem glorious to us, but they are in reality infinitely lame.
This statue of Nebuchadnezzar was about 90 feet tall, just a little shorter than the silos downtown. We look up at such a thing, impressed, but we are just ants on the ground. This is a cheap knock-off imitation transcendence. This is a scratch n’ sniff transcendence. Instead of the ultimate vertical, all we are doing is trying to make the horizontal impressive. It succeeds . . . with idolaters.
Anchored in Eternity:
We do not start with a premise that assumes an all-controlling God. Such a premise would in fact be quite true, but our arms are not sufficient to get around it. We can’t hold it, so we cannot start there. And so we come first to Christ. Christ was sent to us from the Father (John 5:23). If we have seen Him, we have seen the Father (John 14:9). He is the way—no one comes to the Father but through Him. God has set eternity in our hearts (Ecc. 3:11), and in Christ all things hold together (Col. 1:17-18)—including that eternity.
So we are not fatalists, worshiping an inscrutable Force. We are Christians, and because we have come to Christ we have been escorted into a true friendship, a true fellowship, with the mysteries.