In keeping with recent chapters, one of the central themes of Daniel is the worship of idols. However, there is a significant difference this week. Prior to this, we heard about the Israelites reverting to idol worship. This week, the Judeans in exile in Babylon are being told, in no uncertain terms, that they MUST worship various idols, yet they refuse. I want to focus on the story of Shadrach, Mechach, and Abednego. King Nebuchadnezzar decreed that everyone must bow down and worship the statue he had constructed, but the Judeans refused, even though they knew the consequences. As expected, the king became furious, and resolved to punish them as severely as he could, heating the furnace to seven times normal before having them tossed in. Yet they were not harmed. Indeed, a fourth figure was seen in the furnace with them, a figure which had “the appearance of a god.”
Seeing how his intended victims were protected, the king has a revelation. He declares that the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is all powerful and must be worshipped. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t stop there. The king declares that anyone who doesn’t worship God, or who blasphemes against God, should be torn limb from limb, and his house destroyed.
I would submit that King Nebuchadnezzar is still worshipping idols. That it is possible to use the image and power of God as an idol. I think this is illustrated later in the chapter, when the king loses his mind for a time, as punishment for his pride. While the king was giving lip service to God, he was showing his power and authority in forcing people to worship. I don’t believe that’s the sort of worship that God desires.
One of my favorite theological writers is Peter Rollins. In his several books (How (Not) To Speak of God, The Fidelity of Betrayal, and, most recently, The Idolatry of God but also others) Rollins is on a trajectory of deconstructing the traditional perception of God, calling it idol worship, just as King Nebuchadnezzar was worshipping the idol represented by God’s ability to save Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. I would highly recommend any of Mr. Rollins’ books. I’ll admit that there were parts of The Idolatry of God that seemed a bit of a stretch to me, but I still find much of value in his work. I’d recommend starting with How (Not) To Speak of God, if you want to explore his work. You can also see some posts I’ve written about some of his books on my personal blog. Unfortunately, I never stuck with it to complete writing about any of the books, but there’s at least a start. 😉
Like Rollins, I feel that, today, many of us fall into the same trap as King Nebuchadnezzar. We turn God, or our idea of what God is supposed to be and do, into an idol, as contradictory as that may sound. We use God as some sort of cosmic “blankie,” protecting us from all they scary stuff in the world. As an alternative, I want to go back to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They believed that God could and would save them, but there’s a critical difference between their view of God, and that view that sees God as a supernatural suit of armor. In Daniel 3:16-18 we read
16Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. 17If 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. 18But if not, let it be 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.”
Even though they believe that God can save them, they don’t elevate that belief to the level of an idol. They are even willing to acknowledge that God might not be able to save them, not just be unwilling to do so. Yet they are still strong in their faith in God. They are even willing to treat the omnipotence of God as a potential idol not to be worshipped! I know, that’s hard to wrap your mind around. (Rollins’ books are full of that sort of iconoclast thinking, which is why I like them so much.)