Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego
Then Nebuchadnezzar was so filled with rage against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that his face was distorted. He ordered the furnace heated up seven times more than was customary, and ordered some of the strongest guards in his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and to throw them into the furnace of blazing fire. —Daniel 3: 19-20
The first time I read Machiavelli's The Prince, I was amazed at how accurately he portrayed the machinations of political life. Though written in the 16th century, this treatise on manipulation and power illustrates well the implications of human deception. As Machiavelli put it, "[I]t is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them."
It's fine to be humane and faithful, he admitted, but there will no doubt come a time when the political aspirant needs "to have a mind ready to turn itself accordingly as the winds and variations of fortune force it . . . not to diverge from the good if he can avoid doing so, but, if compelled, then to know how to set about it."
The sycophants in Nebuchadnezzar's court had learned this lesson well. "Invited" to the dedication of the king's new 90-foot high golden idol, these officials from around the empire didn't hesitate when ordered to bow and worship it; as soon as they heard the musical cue, they did as they were told. They knew where the power lay, and they had no qualms about taking what amounted to a loyalty oath.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, however, chose not to follow the party line. Predictably, they were reported by a group of disgruntled Chaldeans, and brought before the king to answer to this charge. They would be given another chance, Nebuchadnezzar told them, but still they wouldn't concede. Empty gesture or not, bowing before an idol was something that they just couldn't do. Enraged, Nebuchadnezzar ordered them thrown into a furnace, which had been stoked to seven times its normal heat.
The outcome of the story is well known: Rather than being consumed by the fire, the men simply stood in its midst, unharmed. Astounded, Nebuchadnezzar went to look for himself. "I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire," he exclaimed, 'and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god." Who that "fourth man: was is open to debate—some accounts say it was Ezekiel, or the angel Gabriel, or even Jesus. Regardless, one fact remains: the three men stood their ground.
It would be naïve to conclude from this story that if we simply do what we believe is right, we will inevitably be delivered from harm. What we can take from it, though, is an awareness that options do exist; even when doing so will offend the sensibilities of others—or worse, result in reprisals or punishment for us—we can choose to label idols for what they are. We can choose to tell the truth.
O God, when it becomes expedient to give up principles just to get along, give me courage to follow my heart, to be strong without being strident, to be bold without being pious.