One way of looking at this chapter of the book of Daniel is to think about making choices – and about facing the consequences of those choices.
There are some things that we can’t choose, because not everything that happens to us is under our control. Daniel and his friends would never have gone to Babylon by their own choice. They were caught up by the forces of war and conquest. They hadn’t chosen to go into exile, or to study at the University of Babylonia.
But even in that situation, when they are effectively slaves, they have been able to make some choices… They have chosen to co-operate with their captors (although I’m sure that there must have been some other exiles who called it ‘compromise’). They have chosen to study hard and do their best, under the circumstances. And (as we can read in chapter 1) they have chosen to honour God as much as they can in a pagan environment.
It’s because of the choices they have already made that they are where they are – working as civil servants in the Babylonian government. Now that is probably quite challenging: government departments have always been full of opportunities for corruption. Which means that they are faced with making moral choices every day. They’ve had a lot of practice in choosing to live for God. They’ve been faithful in the small things, but now (with Nebuchadnezzar’s new decree) they are faced with a real ‘biggie’ – probably the most significant decision they will ever take.
Nebuchadnezzar has also been making choices all his life. As a result of those choices, he is now the emperor of Babylon, the most powerful man in that part of the world. What does he do now? Well, what emperors normally do is build a massive idol to honour the god who has given them victory. So that is what Nebuchadnezzar does (which suggests he doesn’t have very much imagination!). And he decides that it will be a good idea to order every employee in his government to bow down to it, as a grand demonstration of power and unity. What’s the problem?
We need to try to get inside the minds of the people who lived two and a half thousand years ago, when each nation had its own national god. Now if a nation was rich and powerful (like Babylon), then it must be because their god was the strongest and most powerful god – he’s defeated all the others. And the reverse was also true: if a nation had been defeated and humiliated (like Judah), then it must be because their god was weak and powerless. Top nation = top god, bottom nation = bottom god. Is that how people think today? Do we have a kind of religious league table in our minds? One of our favourite songs at the moment is “Our God is Greater”! (And He is, of course) When we are telling people about Jesus, we do like to be able to talk about His ability to work miracles and change our lives for the better – by healing, or whatever. Deep inside us is this feeling that if our God doesn’t ‘do stuff’, He isn’t worth knowing.
Anyway, back in BC Babylon it makes perfect sense for everyone to queue up and bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s god, even if they have their own gods at home to worship. And it has probably never occurred to the emperor that someone might refuse. The threat of being burnt alive is only there to ensure a 100% turnout… One gets the impression that he is basically a reasonable man. He doesn’t want to condemn these three faithful public servants to a horrible death. He tries to give them a second chance. But – horror of horrors – they insist on preferring their ‘defeated’ God to his ‘victorious’ god. And when they still defy his command, the most powerful man in the world can’t be seen backing down and pandering to a second-class deity. So into the furnace they go…