At the end of my post The Potter’s right to transform the clay you may remember that I refereed to Isaiah 43:2 (written many years ago to God’s people Israel) to encourage us that even in the difficult situations, pressures and challenges that we face day by day we can be sure that God is with us in them.
Isaiah 43:2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.
This I believe is one of the biggest comforts we have as we face suffering. It might at times feel like God has abandoned us and that He is distant from our situation. Yet scripture affirms time and time again that the reverse is actually true. God is with us when we pass through the waters and with us when we walk through the fire. We will face the waters. We will face the fires. Nowhere does Scripture promises us an easy ride. But we are told that the waters will not sweep over us and the flames will not set us ablaze.
This morning I have been preparing a Bible study on Daniel 3. At church we have been studying the book of Daniel over the past few months and we are up to Daniel 3 at home group tomorrow night which I am leading. In Daniel 3 King Nebuchadnezzar sets up a huge image of gold (possibly resembling himself, his idol, his empire or all three) and commands everyone to worship and bow down to it when they hear the ‘sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music’ (v5). The punishment for not doing so was to be thrown into a burning furnace.
Unsurprisingly this is not something that sits well with Daniel’s friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Their subsequent disobedience is noticed by the astrologers and soon enough the King is very angry and having confronted them has ordered Daniel’s friends to be thrown into the fiery furnace. King Nebuchadnezzar was in fact so angry and enraged that he orders the furnace to be heated seven times hotter than usual; so hot that the soldiers who take them to the furnace are killed just from stepping near.
When confronted by the King, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in confident humility respond saying; 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” In essence they defied the King not because they thought it would all work well for them (they were prepared for God not to act) but because they knew and believed that God was God. They were willing to put everything on the line in order to stand firm in their faith.
If you know the story, you will know that much to the Kings surprise the three friends are not harmed. Indeed the “fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them” (v27). How can this be? Well instead of seeing three figures dying a quick and painful death they saw “four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed” (v26). The final figure is described as a ‘son of the gods’ and is referred to by Nebuchadnezzar as an angel (v28). There is probably some debate here but for me this was “the angel of the Lord”, no mere angel but “the angel”. This was none other than an appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ, what the theologians refer to as a ‘theophany’ or ‘christphany’. Alex Motyer writing about the ‘Angel of the Lord in the Message of Exodus says “The Angel is revealed as a merciful ‘accommodation’…of God, whereby the Lord can be present among a sinful people when, were he to go with them himself, his presence would consume them…He is that mode of deity whereby the holy God can keep company with sinners. There is only one other in the Bible who is both identical with and yet distinct from the Lord. One who, without abandoning the full essence and prerogatives of deity…is able to accommodate himself to the company of sinners…Jesus Christ.”
The story ends with King Nebechadnezzar having a change of heart. He worships the LORD saying “Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God” (v28). What a testimony to the life changing and transforming power of God.
Daniel 3 is about faith under pressure but it is also about faith which prevails. The reason such faith prevailed was that Jesus was walking with them in the fire. This story is not about a God who is distantly watching on at their troubles but one who stepped into their situation. In the same way the gospel is not about a distant, far off and aloof God but one who entered our world to stand with us and ultimately die for us. While He died on the cross no-one stood with Him and no-one walked with Him while He suffered on our behalf. Tim Keller describes Jesus’ entire life as “for him, like walking in a furnace” compared to where He had come from.
The challenge for us is how are we going to respond when the waters or the fires come our way? Suffering can refine us but it can also harden us or even consume us. We need to take hold of the fact that Jesus IS with us (even if we don’t feel it) and walk with Him in faith. Be encouraged that we serve a God who cares about our pain, a man of suffering, the suffering God, who enters with us in our pain and walks with us through it. He does not promise to do away with our pain here and now but He has paid the ultimate price so that one day there will be no more pain, no more suffering and no more tears. Take heart.