Daniel and the Three Youths - Part 2
Fr. Thomas Hopko · May 28, 2011
Fr. Tom now looks at the story of the three youths in the flaming furnace and the beautiful correlation to our worship as Orthodox Christians.
The Book of Daniel was being written during the time when the second temple was being corrupted and polluted, and it flashes back to the time when the first temple was not only corrupted and polluted, but destroyed, and razed to the ground, by the Babylonians, led by Nebuchadnezzar.
So what do we have in these Daniel writings? Let’s begin with the Book of Susanna, which is how it goes in the Septuagint, because in the Septuagint scripture, the Susanna part is even considered under the title, The Book of Daniel. It is kind of the first part of the Book of Daniel.
In the Book of Daniel, the name Daniel means, God has judged, or God is my judge, or God is judging, or God has already judged. That is what the word, Daniel, means. How does he appear in Susanna? The story of Susanna, who is a very beautiful woman, who was trying to keep her chastity, and then she was seen bathing, and some men came and took her. They wanted to lay with her, and then they seized her and in the story she cried out with a loud voice, and she prayed to God, “Oh eternal God, who knew both what is secret and all things before they come to be. You know these men testified against me falsely.” They claimed that she laid with them, but she did not. “Behold I shall die, though I did none of these things that they wickedly invented against me.”
The Lord heard her voice as she was being led away to be put to death. Then it says, “God aroused the Holy Spirit of a young boy, whose name was Daniel.” It is interesting that in the Septuagint, Daniel is said to be twelve years old, a young boy. It is interesting, because Jesus shows himself, when he is twelve years old, in the temple, talking with the elders. We just had, in church, the Feast of Mid Pentecost, and the icon of Mid Pentecost shows Jesus as a twelve-year-old boy, The Wisdom of God, disputing and teaching and showing forth his wisdom in the temple to the teachers of Israel.
Daniel is filled with the Holy Spirit as a young boy. In the Hebrew text it says he is twelve years old. In the Septuagint it says he is a young boy. Then he comes to Susanna’s defense. He cries with a loud voice, “I am innocent of the blood of this woman.” All the people turned to him and said, “What is this thing you said?” He stood in their midst and said, “Are you such fools, sons of Israel? Without examination or knowledge of the evidence, have you condemned the daughter of Israel, Susanna, the innocent? Return to the place of judgment, for these men testified against her falsely.”
Daniel appears and he is a savior figure to save Susanna from being falsely accused of sexual misconduct and bad behavior, when in fact, these men saw her bathing and wanted to seduce her, and more than that, they wanted to take her by force, and God saved her. All the people returned with haste and the elders said to Daniel, “Come sit in our midst. Inform us. For God gives you the privilege.” Daniel then said to them, “Separate them far from each other, and I will examine them.” He examined those who made the accusations and he plainly showed that they were lying, and he delivered the people.
This is very interesting here, because not only does he prefigure Christ in the temple, and Christ’s own judgment, Christ as the one who is the judge, and Daniel as a prefiguring of Christ, but you can’t read the Book of Daniel without remembering the story of Joseph in Egypt. Joseph in Egypt is also involved in an alleged seduction case. The wife of Pharoah tried to seduce Joseph, and he ran away naked and she couldn’t get him, but he is still falsely accused by her.
But what makes the story of Joseph almost a biblical prototype to the story of Daniel, is that he is also in an alien land, he is also among those who are not Israelites, he is also in captivity, just like Daniel is in Babylon. He also, by an interpretation of dreams, reaches a high position and actually becomes as a king over the whole of Egypt. That is what happens, in the Book of Daniel, to Daniel in Babylon. It is almost as if we have Joseph in Egypt to begin the whole story, and Babylon to end the whole story of the Old Testament.
If you want to think of it chiastically, it is almost as if the Bible, itself, is chiastically structured, wherein images from the beginning are then recapitulated at the end, and then they are ultimately fulfilled in the New Testament. You can really draw a very strong parallel between the story of Joseph in Egypt, and the story of Daniel in Babylon, especially when you think of Daniel and the case of Susanna, and also Joseph with the wife of the Pharoah, and the sexual seduction, or even rape type of situations, that they both were in.
Daniel and his companions, in Babylon, like Joseph in Egypt, absolutely refused any kind of adoration and worship to any false god. Joseph does not accept the gods of the Egyptians. He remains faithful to the God of Israel, the most high God, who later on will be named Yahweh when Moses appeared on the scene to deliver the people after the Pharoah arose who did not know Joseph, and enslaved the Israelite people.
We have the same thing in the Book of Daniel. Daniel and his companions obeyed God, they were in Babylon, but the king kept having dreams, and the boys with him, who are considered very virtuous and very godly, keep interpreting the dreams, and they rise up to a high position in Babylon.
In the Book of Daniel, Daniel and the three youths have two sets of names. The sixth verse of the first chapter of Daniel says, “Now among the people who were there among the Babylonian captives were Daniel, and three sons of the tribe of Judah (very important, the tribe of Judah), and their Hebrew names were Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael. You notice El in the name, which is the name of God.
In Babylon, they are given Chaldean, or Babylonian names, and those are perhaps the names that the boys are most famous for, because Daniel is given the name Belteshazzar, although virtually always he is known popularly as Daniel, but his Chaldean name was Belteshazzar. Hananiah, Azariah and Mishael are given the names Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Hananiah is Shadrach, Mishael is Meshach, and Azariah is Abednego.
It says that these three were considered to be very righteous, very strong, filled with wisdom, and they had the ability to interpret dreams. It said in the first chapter, “God gave them (Daniel and the three young men) understanding and insight in all the letters and wisdom, and he gave Daniel understanding in all the visions and all the dreams.”
The king spoke to them and among all the people said that none were found like Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. They stood before the king and in every saying of wisdom and understanding about which the king examined them, he found them ten times better and wiser than all the enchanters and wise men of his kingdom. Daniel thus continued until the first year of the reign of Cyrus.
There are several dreams which Daniel interprets. God reveals the meaning of the dreams to Daniel, and to his friends, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, and they seek the mercies of God of heaven, and they understand the mysteries, and so they do not perish, they survive, and then they become favorites of Nebuchadnezzar, himself, because of their interpretations of the dreams.
At the end of the second chapter, Nebuchadnezzar actually falls down and venerates Daniel, commanding sacrifices and drink offerings be made to Daniel, like a god-figure. The king says to Daniel, “Truly your God, He is the God of Gods, and the Lord of kings, who reveals mysteries. For you were able to reveal this mystery.” Then the king, Nebuchadnezzar, exalted Daniel and gave him many great gifts, set him over the whole province of Babylon, and over all the wise men of Babylon, and Daniel also petitioned the king, and he set Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego over all the affairs of the province of Babylon, and Daniel was in the king’s palace. How reminiscent that is of Joseph.
What happened in the third chapter is very important for worship. The king, Nebuchadnezzar, decides to make a god, a golden image. He sets up this golden image, a very big image, in the plains of Dura, in the province of Babylon. He gathers all of the officials, commanders, governors, rulers, all those in authority, and he sends out the word through all of his officials and leaders, the great rulers and those in authority who had come from all of the provinces to the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up, and they were all called to fall down and worship it.
Orthodox Christians are very familiar with this story, because it is a major part of the Paschal vigil and the celebration of the resurrection of Christ from the dead. On Great and Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Pascha Sunday, there is the long vigil service on the Great and Holy Sabbath, when Christ lies dead in the tomb, destroying death, and as they say, resting from all his works by destroying death and bringing God’s kingdom to the world. This is read in church and the prayer of Shadrach is said, and the canticle of the three youths is sung.
Let’s get to that. How does that happen? The king had the herald announce to all the peoples, tribes and languages, that whenever you hear the sound of the trumpet, the pipe, the harp, the four-stringed instrument, the psaltry, the symphonia, every kind of music, you shall fall down and worship the golden image King Nebuchadnezzar set up. Whosoever does not fall down and worship shall be cast into the burning, fiery furnace, so that at that time when all the people heard the sound of the trumpet, the pipe, the harp the four-stringed instrument, the lyre, the psaltry, the symphonia, every kind of music, all the peoples, tribes, and languages fell down and worshipped the golden image King Nebuchadnezzar set up.
However, we know the story. I hope you know the story. The Chaldean men came forward and they brought charges against the Jews and they said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “Oh, king, live forever.” It is like when we say in the church, “Many years. God grant you many years.” “You, Oh, king, live forever. You made a decree that every man who hears the sound of the trumpet, the pipe, the harp, the lyre, the psaltry, the symphonia, and every kind of music, but does not fall down and worship the golden image, shall be cast into a burning fiery furnace.”
Then they said to Nebuchadnezzar, “There are certain Jews you set over our affairs of the province of Babylon, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (it doesn’t mention Daniel at this point). These three young men did not obey your decree, oh King, and they do not serve your gods, nor do they worship the golden image you set up.”
So here you have it: The super-duper contest between the idol and the true God. It is in the last of the prophetic books, in Daniel, and it involves these three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, or as they are known by their Jewish names Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. The three young men will not worship this idol.
We know the story. The king brings them before him and says to them, “Why is it that you will not worship the idol that I have set up?” And he is in a rage, and his countenance changes, and he commands that these boys be brought to him. They bring the boys, and he says:
Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image I set up? Now then, if you are ready, when you hear the sound of the trumpet, the pipe, the harp, the four-stringed instrument, the lyre, the psaltry, the symphonia, and every kind of music, you shall fall down and worship the golden image I made. If indeed, you do not worship it, at that time, you shall be cast into the burning fiery furnace. Then, what god is there who will deliver you from my hands?
The answer is fantastic that the three boys give to Nebuchadnezzar. They say to him:
Oh king, we have no need to answer you in regard to this thing (in other words, it’s none of your royal business). There is a God in the heavens whom we serve, and He is able to save us from the burning fiery furnace. And He will deliver us from your hands, oh King. But if not, let it by known to you, Oh King, that we not serve your gods, nor worship the golden image you set up.
The answer is fantastic. When the king says, “What god is there who will deliver you?” They say, essentially, “None of your business. We have no need to answer you. There is the God that we serve, and He is able to save us if He wills, and He can deliver us from your hands, oh King. But if He does not so will, let it be known to you, we will not serve your god, nor worship your golden image.”
This is very important, because they don’t say to him, “Oh yes, if we worship God, He will definitely come and save us.” They said, “He may not. He may let us perish. But tough. Too bad. We are not going to worship the image you set up.”
Of course, this immediately makes us think of our Lord, Jesus Christ, who certainly could have called twelve legions of angels. The Father certainly could have spared Jesus from dying on the cross, but God desired that Jesus would die on the cross to save the world. So Christ dies. And these three boys, you might say, prefiguring Christ, say, “We’re ready to die, too, if that’s what God wants. But in any case, we are not going to betray our God. We are not going to worship your idol.”
Then Nebuchadnezzar is full of anger, the expression on his faced changed toward Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Remember, he loved these boys, he put them in power, he favored them, he used their wisdom and understanding. But then he ordered them to be bound, with their sandals, caps, leg coverings, clothing, and everything, and cast into the fiery furnace, and so they are thrown into the furnace. And the furnace was exceedingly hot. It was seven times more heated than it usually was.
Then we know what happened. The three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, whose names are Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah in Hebrew, are thrown into the furnace. But when they are in the furnace, it says, “They walked about in the midst of the flames, singing to God and praising the Lord.” They were worshipping out of the fiery furnace. Now, that is worship in spirit and truth if it ever existed, when you are in the furnace, being burned, in fidelity to your God, because you refuse to worship the idol, and you sing in the flame, you dance in the flame.
I always thought a great title for a book for a believer would be, Dancing In the Flames, because we are in the flames all the time in this world, but we refuse to worship the gods of this world. We refuse Babylon. We remember Jerusalem. That is the whole story that is in this Book of Daniel.
When they are in the flaming furnace, what happens? Azariah stands up and prays. He opens his mouth in the midst of the fire and he prays. It is very important to know that this whole prophecy and prayer is read on Great Saturday over the tomb of Christ in the Russian Church, and in the middle of the Church in the Greek Church, but it is on the day when Christ is dead. In the Russian Church the tomb is still present, in the Greek Church it is removed at the matins in the morning of that day, which is Friday night.
In any case, in the midst of the fiery furnace, he prays, and his prayer is very important:
Blessed are You, and praiseworthy, Lord God of our fathers. Praised and glorified is Your name, unto ages of ages. You are righteous in all that You did for us, and all Your works are true. Your ways are upright. All Your judgments are true. The judgments You made are true, according to all You brought on us, and on the Holy City, Jerusalem, of our fathers, because in truth and judgment, You did all these things on account of our sins. We have sinned. We have acted lawlessly, to depart from you. We have sinned in every way. We did not obey Your commandments. Neither did we treasure them or do as You commanded, that it might go well with us. Everything You brought on us, and all that You did to us, You did in true judgment. You delivered us into the hands of lawless and rebellious enemies, to the unjust king, Nebuchadnezzar, the most evil in any land. Now, it is not for us to open our mouths, for this has become a shame and a disgrace to Your servants, and to those who worship You.
All Israel is disgraced, but for Your namesake, do not hand us over to the end. Do not reject Your covenant. Do not withdraw Your mercy from us, for the sake of Abraham, who was loved by You, and for the sake of Isaac, Your servant, and Israel, Your holy one, and You spoke to them, saying that You would multiply their seed as the stars of heaven, and the sand along the seashore.
The whole Bible is being recapitulated here. All the story of Israel is recapitulated—the promise to Abraham.
And we have been diminished in number, oh Master. Now, more than all the nations, we are humbled in all the earth. Today, because of our sins, we are lowly.
And then he said in his prayer:
And this time there is no prince, no prophet, no leader, no burnt offering, no sacrifice, no offering of any kind, no incense, no place to bear fruit before You and to find mercy.
And then he said:
Yet, in this fiery furnace, with a contrite heart and a humble spirit, may we receive mercy, as with whole burnt offerings, and rams and bulls, as with thousands of fatted lambs, so let this be our sacrifice before you today.
What is the sacrifice? A contrite soul and a humble spirit, a broken and a contrite heart. That is what Psalm 51 will say. We will see how often that expression is used in Orthodox liturgy. The sacrifice to God is a broken spirit, a contrite and humble heart.
The prayer continues:
Let this be our sacrifice before You today, and may it be accomplished for those who follow You, for there is no shame for those who trust in You. Now we are following You with all our heart, and we fear You, and we seek Your face, Your kindness, according to the abundance of Your mercy. Deliver us by Your wondrous works, and give glory to Your name, Lord. May all those who inflict evils upon Your servants be put to shame, and humiliated in their power, but let their strength be crushed. Let them know that You, alone, are the only Lord, God, and glorious over all the inhabitants of the earth.
This is the prayer that is made out of the fire. This is true worship.
Now it says that they stoked the fire more. They put in more fuel, the naphta pitch. It gets hotter and hotter. Then guess what happens? We know what happens. The Angel of the Lord comes down into the furnace to join Azariah and his companions, and He made the inside of the furnace to be as though it was now late, and the breeze was blowing, and the fire did not touch them or trouble them.
It also says that when Nebuchadnezzar looked into that fire, he saw in there, with the three young men, an image of one that looked like a Son of God. There was in the flame, one, as it were, the Son of God, the Angel of the Great Council. In Orthodox iconography, that is Jesus, the Son of God, prefiguratively, ahead of time, in the fiery furnace. In the story of Daniel, he goes in to the flames with the three boys, and he is there with them, dancing in the flames, this fourth figure, like one of a Son of Man.
In the icons in the Orthodox Church, and I am looking at one right now in my room, there are the three boys dancing in the flames, and Christ is over them, with the wings of the Angel of the Great Council, protecting them under the shelter of his wings, while they are kept preserved in the flame.
Then we have them sing their canticle. That canticle is sung in the Orthodox Church at matins, it is sung on Great and Holy Saturday, in a very solemn form, in which everything is blessing the Lord. This is the ultimate canticle of the Old Covenant that is sung from the flames by the three youths in the fiery furnace.
Later on, Daniel will have another vision in the seventh chapter, in which he sees the Ancient of Days sitting on the throne, and he sees one like a Son of Man come up to him and be co-enthroned with him, and the Christians saw in that, also, Jesus as that Son of Man, who is co-enthroned on the throne with the Ancient of Days, and who is, himself, giving all power, dominion, majesty and glory, together with Him who sits upon the throne. This will be in the Book of Revelation, as well.
Let’s end our reflection today with the psalm of the three youths in the fiery furnace:
Blessed are You, O Lord, God, of our fathers, for You are praiseworthy, and exalted, beyond measure, unto ages of ages. Blessed is Your name and the temple of Your glory, and You are praised exceedingly.
But remember, there is no temple, there is no priesthood, there is no offering, there is no sacrifice, there is no incense. They have nothing but a broken and contrite heart in the fiery furnace. But what they say is:
You are praised exceedingly. You are exalted beyond measure unto the ages of ages. You are blessed in the holy temple of Your glory. You are highly praised, exceedingly glorious, unto ages of ages. Blessed are You on the throne of Your kingdom, and You are praised and exalted beyond measure unto the ages of ages. Blessed are You who behold the depths and sit upon the Cherubim. You are praiseworthy, exalted beyond measure unto the ages. Blessed are you in the firmament of heaven, for You are praised and glorified unto the ages. Blessed are You, Lord, and all Your works of the Lord, and sing a hymn to the Lord, and exalt Him beyond measure unto the ages. Bless the Lord, you angels of the Lord. Sing a hymn to Him and exalt Him beyond measure unto the ages. Bless the Lord, you heavens, and sing a hymn to Him, and exalt Him beyond measure unto the ages. Bless the Lord, all you waters above the heavens, and sing a hymn to Him, and exalt Him beyond measure unto the ages. Bless the Lord all you powers of the Lord (angelic powers), sing a hymn to Him, and exalt him beyond measure unto the ages.
Then the canticle continues:
Bless the Lord, sun and moon. Bless the Lord, stars of heaven. Exalt Him. Bless the Lord, shower and dew. Bless the Lord, all you winds. Bless the Lord, fire and heat. Bless the Lord, winter, cold and summer heat. Bless the Lord, dews and snows. Bless the Lord, frost and cold. Bless the Lord, hoar frost and snows. Bless the Lord, night and day. Bless the Lord, light and darkness.
After every “Bless the Lord”, you have the refrain, “And sing a hymn to Him and exalt Him beyond measure unto the ages.”
And it continues:
Bless the Lord, you lightning and clouds. Bless the Lord, mountains and hills. Bless the Lord, all things growing on the earth. Bless the Lord, you springs. Bless the Lord, seas and rivers. Bless the Lord, sea monsters and everything that moves in the waters.
Then it always says after the refrain:
Sing a hymn to Him. Exalt Him beyond measure unto the ages. Bless the Lord, birds of heaven. Bless the Lord, wild animals and cattle. Bless the Lord, children of men. Bless the Lord, oh Israel. Bless the Lord, oh priests of the Lord. Bless the Lord, servants of the Lord. Bless the Lord, spirits and souls of the righteous departed. Bless the Lord, holy ones and humble of heart, all the saints. Bless the Lord, Hananiah, Azariah, Mishael
And every time the refrain, “And sing a hymn to Him, and exalt Him beyond measure unto the ages of ages.”
And then it ends:
For He delivered us from Hades (the realm of death). He saved us from the hand of death. He rescued us from the midst of the burning fiery furnace. He saved us from the midst of the fire. Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good. His mercy endures forever. Bless the Lord, the God of God, all you who worship Him. Sing a hymn to Him, give thanks to Him, for his mercy endures forever and ever.
While they are singing, Nebuchadnezzar sees in the fiery furnace a fourth figure, like the Son of God. And the king approaches the door and he sees that the boys are not burned, he sees the image of the Son of God, and then he takes them out, and Nebuchadnezzar, himself, begins to serve and worship their God, and he says he will not serve and worship any other god but their God.
And they again rule, and they have authority with Daniel over all of Babylon again. This is the final act of worship in spirit and truth in the Old Covenant and it is the perfect prefiguration of Christian worship, because Jesus Christ goes into Hades, he destroys death, he raises from the dead, and the whole of creation sing and hymn and exalt him forever, unto ages of ages—all of the angels, all of the beasts, all of the animals, everything.
That kingdom comes at the end of the ages, but it is the Divine Liturgy, it is the Christian Church, where this is celebrated in its perfection, in and through the risen and glorified Jesus Christ, by the same Holy Spirit that was on Daniel when he was a twelve-year-old boy, getting us to worship the one God, the Abba Father of Jesus, together with the Son and the Holy Spirit, forever.