The Test of Fire
Based on Old Testament Daniel 2-3
(Written by Jaclyn Tepe)
People were lined together as far as one could see. It was an ocean of vacant stares and unquestioned servility. And there we stood, waiting and listening. My friends and I had discussed the matter, and we knew what our course of action would be, so until the music began we stood and waited. I felt confident, but still my heart throbbed in its cavity. I knew what my decision was, and I knew that I would not sway from it, but still my forehead glistened, my pulse raced, and my lips muttered prayers all in expectation for what was about to happen.
My companions, Hanniah, Mishael, and I, along with another one of our friends who was not with us that day, Daniel, had been taken captive and brought to the land of Babylon a little more than a year ago. Not only were we forced into a foreign land and a foreign culture, but our names had been changed as well. Hanniah became Shadrach, Mishael became Meshach, and I became Abednego. But the Lord had not abandoned us when we had been forced to leave our homes. No, he strengthened us and was with us in every task that we undertook. It was through him and by him that we stood out to be noticed by the king and were assigned as wise men in the kingdom.
During the next year, we served the King faithfully, though it would be wrong if I said that I never longed for home or wished that life could return to the way that it once it had been. For a dream had begun to haunt the sleep of the King and he was in a perpetually foul mood. He demanded that all his astrologers be brought before him in order to interpret the dream's meaning. But several days had passed, and although he was still tortured by the dream, the king could not recall what had occurred in it. Therefore, he determined that the astrologers would first have to inform him of the dream, and then deduce its meaning.

Falling to the ground, the King's men beseeched him to rethink what he was saying. Who could demand such a thing as first telling the dream itself? No one, no matter how powerful or mighty he may have been, had ever demanded such a thing as the King had now done. Could he have thought of anything more difficult than this request? "No one," they cried, "could do such a thing as this but the gods alone. And do they make their residence among men?"

Nebuchadnezzar was so outraged that he instantly issued a decree ordering the death of all the wise men in the kingdom. The King's commander came upon Daniel and informed him of what had transpired, for we had not been summoned with the first group of men to appear before the King. Daniel quickly went before King Nebuchadnezzar and asked for more time so that he may attempt to interpret the dream. The King consented.

Immediately, Daniel returned to the house and described for us what had happened. In an instant we were on our knees pleading for mercy and intervention. We understood what grave shadow now overhung us all, and we knew that it was not going to be the wisdom of man that unveiled the mystery. "May our eyes be opened, may our spirits know, and through us, reveal your mighty power, that men may once again believe that there is a God among them," we cried in one voice as we clasped our hands before us, with our face pressed to the floor. While we prayed for wisdom concerning the interpretation of the dream, I also asked for courage, not only for myself but for my friends as well. I knew that God could answer our petition, but I also knew that he could choose not to clear the mist surrounding the King's peculiar request. With Daniel's plea, we had assumed the role of not only trying to preserve our own lives, but attempting to protect those lives of the myriad of other men like ourselves. Failure was not an option.

Upon opening my eyes in the morning, I found that I was not the first of my companions to awake. Kneeling in the corner, Daniel was still consumed in prayer. I interpreted this sign to mean that as of then, he had not received any direction as to what course to take concerning the King's dream. What I did not know, was that the words that his lips were silently mouthing were words of exaltation and praise. For during the night, the interpretation had arrived in the form of a vision. Once his prayer had concluded, Daniel turned towards me with eyes that shown with the tears of humility…eyes that had been confronted with death, and had overcome it, but by no merit of their own. If only those eyes had known what else they would see in a life time! Once our other friends were awake, Daniel recounted what had occurred during the evening, and once again, we joined in prayer. This time, however, we graciously thanked the Lord for answering our requests and for providing Daniel with the necessary wisdom needed to confront the King. We could have stayed in that position affirming the greatness of our God for days on end, but time would not allow us that commodity.

"Can you describe for me what I saw in my dream and also tell its meaning?" asked King Nebuchadnezzar after we were presented to him. "In your Kingdom, O King, there is not one magician, enchanter, or diviner who can do what you have proposed, but there is a God in heaven who makes clear that which is unknown," replied Daniel. As Daniel continued to speak, it was evident to those of us who knew him well that Daniel was speaking beyond himself. It was as if the vision had given him the words along with the voice to interpret the dream. Before the King stood a man with whom the Spirit of God resided. The King was so impressed by Daniel's message that he promoted all of us to positions of high standing in the Kingdom.

However, due to the nature of his dream, King Nebuchadnezzar wanted to recreate the image that he had beheld in his vision, so he ordered that a statue ninety feet high and nine feet wide made entirely of gold be constructed for his and all the people's pleasure. What a colossal image of wealth! The sun's rays dazzled off the splendid surface, but its beauty camouflaged a dark and foreboding evil. Eyes were instantly drawn upwards to gaze at this feat of man's doing, and in passing, one often heard the greatness of the King being exclaimed. What happened to the God that revealed the mystery? What happened to the praise that set our God above all the others in the land? What happened?

What happened was that the King had become arrogant in his ways and was now demanding that at a certain ceremony all would have to bow down and pay homage to this creature of gold, this image spawned by man's pride. Irate does not even begin to describe the feelings that began to reside within me. I was furious that this man had so quickly forgotten his place. But a certain sadness and pity also registered in my being as I thought what it would be like not to know and trust this God that I now was depending on. What was missing in a man that he could have the slightest notion that he was worthy of creating a god for others to worship…and was not this image nothing more than a physical representation of the king? It was not the image that he wanted adored, but his ability and power at fashioning such a marvelous creation. Yes, I felt sorry for this man and his blinding arrogance, for does not the Lord bring those down who choose to lift themselves up?

So much had transpired over the past couple years but here we stood, gathered at the ceremony to a foreign god. And until the music began, we waited. Even though a course has been chosen, the decision is not final until the journey has begun, and until then, one can't help being apprehensive. It is the waiting that is usually the hardest and most tedious work. For once events are set in motion, it is usually hard to back down, and one tends to remain resolute…but it is in those moments leading up to the event that one is filled with the most excruciating doubts and fears a man can face, many of which are so exaggerated by the mind that few thoughts retain any hint at being reasonable. But how hard it is to enlighten a man of his folly when he is imagining every sort of possible evil in his mind! He would only laugh if you told him that what he feared was merely a figment of his subconscious.

There was a slight moment of silence and hesitation, and then the music began. The masses fell to their knees, some pressing their faces to the ground, others shouting praise…my friends and I just remained standing still, as still as the god that was stationed before us. It didn't take long before we saw some men approach the King and then point in our direction. "Remember, no matter what, whether we live or die, we are remaining steadfast," whispered Shadrach as we waited for the approaching guards to reach us where we stood, towering above those who were still prostrate on the ground.

As the guards forced us before the King, we instantly saw that his face was flush with anger and that his knuckles were white from having clenched his fists for the past couple minutes. "Is it true," he questioned us, "that you refuse to bow down to my god and honor the god that I have created?" We stood in mute silence. "When the music plays again, you will bow…if not, you will be thrown into the blazing furnace. And then, what god can save you from my hand?" The corners of his lips seemed to rise in a sneering smirk and his eyes had a strange fire behind them.

"O King, need we defend our ways to you?" spoke Shadrach in a voice so clear and eloquent that I knew that he was speaking from the very depths of his soul. "If we are thrown into the furnace, know that our God can save us. But also know that even if he chooses not to intervene, we will not bow down to your god, no matter what." I had thought that King Nebuchadnezzar had been mad before, but his previous temperament paled in comparison to the renewed anger that lit his eyes. He nearly spat the command to have the furnace heated seven times hotter than before as he oversaw the binding of our hands and feet. As I gazed into the eyes of my companions I saw the same enduring faith that I now felt welling up within myself. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, resigning my fate to the hands of my God. It is odd to say that I have never felt such peace as I did then, but nevertheless, it is the truth. The event had been set in motion, there was no backing down, and I felt an inner calmness that came with knowing that I had made the right choice.

As the men who were carrying us approached the furnace, we could feel the heat emanating from the fiery pit even though we were still several paces from it. I was already covered in profuse sweat. My hands and feet were feeling numb from lack of circulation, and my wrists and ankles already ached from where I had been bound. The rope cut into my flesh and any movement only caused it to rub deeper into my skin.

The heat! How do I describe a heat so intense that the flames seemed to sizzle the slightest vapor in the air? A heat that stole every ounce of energy from your being? A heat that killed the men who were transporting us to the furnace and who were supposed to throw us into it? As the men who were carrying us crumbled, we fell into the flames, still bound, still alive. Again, where do I even begin to describe what transpired next? How do you confine the glory of God to mortal words? What language can convey the emotions involved when you know that death had nearly had his fingers wrapped around you, only to be defeated and sent back to the eternal darkness?

It was in the furnace that Shadrach, Meshach, and I were changed for life. For we did not die, we did not even suffer. Our bonds were broken and we walked amongst the tongues of fire as if there were none at all. But what transformed us from being the clay pots to the exquisite jars was beholding Him…the one that Nebuchadnezzar exclaimed to be a son of God, an angel of the God Most High.

When we were freed from the furnace, we were instantly surrounded by all those who had been accompanying the King. Each one examined us from the tops of our hair to the cloth of our robes looking for some sign of the fire. But there was the not the slightest singe mark to be found, not even a trace of the smell of smoke lingered upon us. "Praise be given to the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abnego, who trusted their God even when it meant that they were defying the will of the King and when it meant that they may be sacrificing their lives. No one will speak against their God, for who can save as he did, and what other god sends his angels among men?" proclaimed King Nebuchadnezzar in the hearing of all those gathered about him. Again, we were promoted and everyone departed. Many probably remembered the event, but few were actually changed by it.

However, no one can endure the flames and not be changed. Either one is consumed by the heat and destroyed, or it transforms one's life and makes one stronger. Some pottery, when exposed to the heat for the first time, shatters in the process, but other clay, the clay that has been molded by a master, is refined by the unyielding flames. Clay before it is fired serves no useful purpose. It is only after the test that it can be filled and utilized to the highest degree. The fire serves the will of the master by turning dried out clay into a meaningful material. And if ever that jar is exposed to the flames again, it is ready, for it has proven its merit. It is in the midst of the fire that the worth of the pot is determined. Will it break or will it prevail, stronger than before? One knows not until he has experienced it for himself. It is when belief meets reality that the true test occurs and when true faith can emerge.