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Why the Image?
Why did Nebuchadnezzar make this image of gold, whose height, including the pedestal on which it stood, was threescore cubits? Was he trying to realise the dream which Daniel related to him and interpreted? Was the image a picture of himself, an expression of self-consciousness and self-glory? Was it in memory of some all but forgotten victory? These questions have been considered, and left, as they well may be, undecided. The king's "image of gold" was a wooden effigy inside. That effigy was only plated with gold, "All that glitters is not gold." It reads well in history that a man who was a king had so much gold at command that he could make a lofty image of it. Many persons would be content to tell lies in a similar way. There are not wanting persons who would be quite willing that observers should count as solid gold the little thin plates that cover a wooden idol. There is a want of reality; there is much reading of the surface, and very little penetration into the inner quality and value of things "The fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is." There was no harm in making the statue; men must have some kind of recreation; our pride must have some way of embodying and revealing itself to observers whose days are weary because of idleness. We may, however, put harm into very innocent recreations. Things are what we make them: "unto the pure all things are pure." The bad man never sees any good; the jealous man is never at rest; the selfish man has no outlook upon fruitfields and odorous gardens and orchards large as forests. It is so with our recreations, our amusements: a sour-natured man looking upon any recreation sees in it all possible depravity; recreation is to such a nature a species of profanity. It may well be so; the mischief arises at the point at which the sour-natured man wishes to measure other people by his standard. If he could say to himself, "I am poverty-stricken in my soul, I am a born bigot, I am a Pharisee that never can get into heaven, and therefore I must not judge other people," he would speak a plain and wise language; but when he sets himself up as king and judge, and says, "This is right, and that is unlawful," then he becomes a trespasser, a speaker of mischievous things, a marplot in houses that but for his presence would be quiet and cheerful and gladsome as homes. Beware of appearances. We may appear to be good when in reality we are but covered with thin and almost worthless tinsel; we may be studying vanity when we are only professing to be adjusting appearances. There is a study of appearances that is decent and proper, wise, economical, and instructive; but how easy it is to go out of the appearance into the vanity, the conceit, the ostentation, and the display. The harm is not in the things themselves, but some of us have learned of the very devil himself, Beelzebub, prince of devils, to spoil everything, and to turn God's sweet, restful, sunny Sabbath into the cloudy week.
Nebuchadnezzar set his image up, and then he sent to "the princes, the governors and the captains, the judges, the treasurers, the counsellors, the sheriffs, and all the rulers of the provinces," to come to his dedication. When Nebuchadnezzar sent for them, they came. "The princes, the governors and captains, the judges, the treasurers, the counsellors, the sheriffs, and all the rulers of the provinces, were gathered together unto the dedication of the image that Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up; and they stood before the image that Nebuchadnezzar had set up." How then could it be wrong or unwise? It is impossible that so many great men could all be mistaken. If the princes went wrong the governors would make it right; and if the counsellors got bewildered the judges would explain the law with sepulchral and ponderous wisdom; and if the sheriffs were mistaken the captains would bring them into order again. So we should say. Here we have royalty, rulership, military pomp and splendour, all gathered about this wooden-gold image. They are still there. That assembly never dissolved. These people were born to accost one another, and were never happy in each other's absence. Yet the assembly provokes some sharp questioning. Did they want to be there? We visit many places we do not want to. Some of these men surely were poets, gardeners, horticulturists: surely some of them saw more in a lily than in Nebuchadnezzar's mighty image, or in Nebuchadnezzar's personal garniture; surely there was some poet there that longed for the green lane, for the verdant mead, for the rill that trickled in the field, for the birds that sang amid the snowy blossoms; but they must be there. Fashion kills all its devotees. "Society" is a monster. It is a sin to be simple in the judgment of society self-created, self-dressed, self-gratified.
Do great ceremonies make men happy? Are all the coloured garments so many visions of beauty? Is there some strain religious in the blare of brazen trumpets and the throb of military drums? Most of the people that we see gathered together around great sights would gladly be at home, listening to the voice of child, or friend, or bird. Do external images fill the soul? Is it enough to have a painted God? What wonder if we begin by worshipping things that are seen? That course would seem to be natural, and would seem to be able to justify itself by sound reasoning of a preliminary kind. Who could not in ignorance of other deity worship the sun? Sometimes he seems to be almost God! How multitudinous are his phases, how manifold the apocalypse within which he shows his uncounted riches: now so pale, as if he were weary, an eye half closed in sleep long needed, long delayed; and then in full pomp, every beam, so to say, alive, and the whole heaven amazed and delighted at this vision of glory, as if hidden within that fount of flame and heat there lay ten thousand times ten thousand summers and ten thousand times ten thousand purple autumns, with all their largesses of fruit and flower and benison, for the sustenance and the nutrition of men; then lost among the clouds, where, indeed, he seems to be disporting himself in painting a thousand academies by one look of his eyes: see how he fills the clouds and seems to shape them or fall into their shape, making them burn and sparkle and glitter, and invests them with unimagined and untransferable colours, a marvellous, glorious sight! Who could not uncover his head in presence of such glory, and say, Surely this is the gate at least that opens upon the palaces of God? To worship nature would seem in certain stages of development to be right. God made it; God made the green grass and the blushing flower, the great hills, stairways to heights which man never scaled; God made the valleys and the mountains; and what are these fountains saying to the hearing ear? Only the true listener can tell; the vulgar man hears nothing in that splash of water, but the refined soul hears in it melody and song, music religious, and hint of other music that might please the ear of God. As we grow in wisdom, in capacity, in understanding, in sympathy, we close our eyes upon the universe, and say it is no more to us an image that should be sought unto for purposes of worship; but we see within, by a divinely directed introspection, the true altar, the true sanctuary, the true centre of acceptable worship. Thus we grow from the natural to the spiritual, and when we have attained the measure of our growth we say, "God is a Spirit." If we still preserve the image, it is as we should preserve a symbol that was helpful to us before we saw the thing signified. If our religion is in colour, form, aesthetic attitude and motion, it will surely come to nought; but if our piety live in eternity, if it feed itself upon the almightiness and the grace of God, as shown in the Cross of Christ, then it will abide for ever. What took place after the great assembly gathered?
"Then an herald cried aloud, To you it is commanded, O people, nations, and languages, that at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of musick, ye fall down and worship the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king hath set up" ( Dan 3:4-5 ).
Poor herald! He was a memoriter preacher; he could but deliver a little lesson which others had caused him to learn. Think what happened here! The people were commanded to worship. That is an impossibility. The highest life lies beyond human command, though the word "human" be qualified and enriched by the word "royal." This king is making a fool of himself: he has supposed that because he can do much he can do more. He fails where all imperfect education fails; he cannot be content to live within his limits: he must try the risky delights of trespass. Suppose we command some one to love, can it be done? Let consciousness reply. Command the child to love some one appointed to teach and direct it; the child does not understand the imperative direction; the child will either love or not love, without any decree being issued from the royal court. Suppose it should be said to us by the monarch of the day, "Worship!" What would our reply be? The reply would be, It is philosophically impossible to obey such a command. Worship does not lie within human directions, rules, stipulations, and military threatenings or social penalties. Worship is a condition of the soul, it is an instinct of the life, it belongs to the interior nature, and can only be spoken to by one voice with authority, and that is the voice of God. Think of some king or mighty man commanding the nation to sympathise: the obedience could only be of the most literal and mechanical kind; it would be without richness, without nobleness, and, therefore, without acceptableness. He does no sacrifice who merely cuts the lamb's throat; he is not a worshipper who bows the knee only; the attitude is picturesque, and indicative of obedience, but whilst the knee is bent the heart is in high, scornful rebellion, and within there is an inarticulate laughter that means defiance and contempt.
We cannot do without this word "command" in our religious education. It is a divine word. It would be instructive to trace the history of that term, and to study its meaning in the various relations which it assumes. The Bible is full of commandments: in Genesis the Lord commands, in the Apocalypse there is a commanding voice; and Jesus, gracious, meek, patient, tender Jesus, commands he says, "A new commandment give I unto you." How then can Jesus give commands? Because of what he is. God can give commands because he is God; and not only so, but being God, he knows human nature, and can address it in its own terms, and according to the line of its own instincts and necessities. When he thunders down his commands there is nothing that offends the mental or moral constitution on which the commanding voice falls with ineffable authority. The command awakens something that is already slumbering in the nature. We must have our duties in the first instance in the form of commands, but only God can tell what commands are not arbitrary, but are natural, and operate in the line of instinct and divine intention. What is a commandment to one man is an easy task to another. Some hard and all but impenetrable natures require to be commanded, stirred, roused; and others hear the word of the Lord and spring to it in obedience that seems to understand it all ere it be fully spoken. Many have sweetened the bitterness of their lot by an ample and proper use of the promises who have forgotten that every promise has behind it or near it a corresponding command. The imperative mood has never been allowed to fall into disuse in the Bible: it is, "Son, give me thine heart"; it is, "Love one another"; it is, "Hear my words and do them," We draw the line, then, as between human authority and divine sovereignty, as between an arbitrary decree and a command that is in harmony with the wisdom and love of God, and in harmony with the peculiarity of human constitution and capacity.
Nothing is safe that is wrong. Nebuchadnezzar would take any angel and yoke him to his chariot if he wanted to go in a certain direction; here he takes the angel of music sweet, heavenly music. Are we staggered by these perversions? Are we overwhelmed by these unconscious tyrannies? See what this man does. If he had set up the image which we have gazed upon, that would have been bad enough, if meant to be an idol and to elicit the service of adoration; but Nebuchadnezzar proceeds further, and makes music an ally of his evil work. That would not be worth commenting upon if it did not hold within it suggestions that touch all human experience, and flow through all the channels and currents of time and action. Get wrong in your idea of worship, and everything falls down before it. A man cannot be partly an idolater. In proportion as his idolatry at any one point is real, the very reality of it makes him an idolater through and through. Do not suppose that something done on Sunday will subtly affect the whole week, how contrary soever your behaviour may be to that something which was supposed to sanctify succeeding days. Where character goes it goes altogether. Music has been seized upon by war; cruel, bloody, devastating war has had its trumpet and its drum; the carnival has hired music to keep up the dance.
Our business should be to sanctify music. We have not yet given hospitality enough to that radiant visitor, meant to make us glad with exceeding ecstasy. The walls of the church should vibrate with music. The music should be such that everybody has some part in it. Music that only a few can sing might have charms, and unquestionably has fascinations of a very dominating kind; but there is a larger music, that takes up all hearts, that makes the dumb sing, and gives a man a sense of intolerable incompleteness if he does not at some point come into it and swell its noble volume. Never let us forget that we can sing sympathetically as well as vocally. It is not necessary that all men should always sing with the voice; when the music is divinest the truly musical soul will be most silent It acknowledges the kinship of the service; it says within itself, That is complete; that is acceptable to God; my heart swells when I hear it; I thank Heaven for voices so rich and pure and healthful. Yet there are times of overflooding, when religious ecstasy becomes supreme, and every old man and little child must have some share in the grand shout. Why should the devil have all the instruments of music, and write his name upon them as if he had made them? He never made one of them; he is a thief from the beginning. The devil has nothing that is fascinating that he has not stolen from the Church. There is no genius in evil; there is hardly any talent in it There is a genius in goodness; blessed are the pure in heart, for that genius shall see God. There shall come another day into the history, on which day it shall be said: At what time ye hear the sound of music, rise and pray: it is the Master calling in his sweetest voice; he has left behind the mechanism of mere words, and is appealing to us through the mystery, the magic, the miracle, of tender strains of noble music. The Church has a right to all the music in the world.
It appears from this narrative that "there are certain Jews whom thou hast set over the affairs of the province of Babylon, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego; these men, O king, have not regarded thee: they serve not thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up." Jealousy can be very astute. Envy has little tricks and ways that easily take upon them the guise and semblance of perfect innocence. "There are certain Jews whom thou hast set over the affairs of the province of Babylon." This is a stroke at the king himself; this is a suggestion that Jews, colonists or captives, ought not to have been put into high office. All state functions and state pay should be in the hands of the people of the country. Still these Chaldeans accept the situation, and remind the king that he himself is responsible for the elevation of the men who have disobeyed him. There are many ways of stabbing a man; and guilt is never so guilty as when it tries to be mealy-mouthed and mock-pious. These Chaldeans suppressed themselves, controlled their feelings, and spoke with a consciousness of injury borne with ineffable dignity; but in reality they cast the king himself into a burning fiery furnace. There are many furnaces, and many ways into them, and many ways of drawing men into their awful heat. These ways are known in the family: the sweetly bitter little speeches that are made to one another by members of Christian households; the prayers that have stings in them; the benedictions that are all teeth: yet what meekness, what self-suppression, what beautiful self-control! Yet all the while the devil is trying to get his way, and to suggest what he dare not express in words; realising the words of the poet, "willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike." "Certain Jews," colonists, strangers, only a handful of them; then why mind them? why pay this tribute of recognition to a minority? Are men to be reckoned arithmetically? Do we count hands or heads? Do we number men, or weigh them? Why this trouble, when the Jews are so few that they can be named without taking breath? There is something deep behind all this; there is trouble here. Men are influential not according to their numbers, but according to their convictions. These men troubled the whole host of Babylon.
How is it that we bow down unconsciously before the strength of religious conviction and enthusiasm? Our very attempts to destroy it are tributes paid to its majesty; when we seek to sneer at an enemy we often pay him the highest compliment in our power. Why take notice of him? He is here and gone. Why trouble about a bubble, a moment seen, and gone for ever? There is an energy that cannot be sneered out of society; there is a prayer that by its very excitement of controversy proves its reality. Who would care to sit down and argue with, who would care to run after and persecute, men who are talking to mere stones, who are babbling in the air, and who have no touch or eternity? Get the conviction that three men have laid hold of the Infinite, the divine, and society can never be at rest again until those three men have been settled with. They will tear down any pillars however broad, solid, lofty, their ploughshare will tear up any foundations how skilfully laid soever that are not in harmony with the law of righteousness and the demand and claim of God. Why all this discussion about Jesus Christ, if he were only son of Mary, son of Joseph the carpenter, or an excellent man, or a fanatic that lived upon his own mistakes? Why those long, elaborate, expensive books about him? Why do not men let him alone, assured that where there is no deepness of earth the plant will soon wither away? Our enemies themselves, being judges, are continually paying tributes to Jesus Christ by the very attacks which they make upon him. And when men question the reality of prayer, what if that be but an indirect recognition of its reality and prevalence? There may be beneath the surface what we cannot wholly understand in all these moral collisions, in all these spiritual and intellectual hostilities. The minority always rules, independently of its arithmetical littleness, in proportion as it has seized a principle that is rational, profound, beneficent. The politician never succeeds except in making a noise; the statesman calmly proceeds, because he keeps pace with the march of calm philosophy, large-eyed, contemplative, assured wisdom, to whose custody is assigned the development of the ages. Christ gives us peace; Christ does not give us mere genius, mere controversial power, quick repartee, slashing and destructive retort; he gives us peace.
This difficulty about "certain Jews" must be faced. The case is brought before the king, and the king gives his directions: "Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, do not ye serve my gods, nor worship the golden image which I have set up?" Now ye shall have another chance. "Now if ye be ready that at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of musick, ye fall down and worship the image which I have made, well" you shall have an opportunity of being idolaters "but if ye worship not, ye shall be cast the same hour into the midst of a burning fiery furnace; and who is that god that shall deliver you out of my hands?" I who made the image of gold, whose height was threescore cubits, and the breadth thereof six cubits. An image so grotesquely disproportionate might by its very height have condemned the foolish king. He was struck with its height; he never saw its breadth. It is so with men who make false religions and vain philosophies and assaults upon citadels set up by hands divine; their great attacks have but one dimension. When God builds he builds foursquare. "The city lieth foursquare. The length and the breadth and the height of it are equal." Nebuchadnezzar gave them their chance, and they replied: "O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up." Never was a king talked to before in that tone.
This was, so to say, the beginning of the democracy in that time and place. There are hours in which men are themselves in the fullest expression of the divine purpose in their constitution. We cannot always live at that great height, but to have occasional moments of conscious heroism is to be assured of our immortality. Judge yourselves by your best occasions. Were we to criticise ourselves by certain special hours of weakness, folly, vanity, conceit, self-trust, despair, and the like, we could never pray any more; the last little flickering light would be blown out, and we should spend eternity in darkness. God has, however, so ordered that we are enabled to take measure of our best selves, and take heart from our best moods; and it hath pleased God so to deal with us as not to answer our prayer when it is least, but to feel it and reply when it is most expanded and most reverently audacious. See what may be on the earth; three men who have no social standing worth naming, except as the gift of this very king, say to Nebuchadnezzar that their religion is greater than their sense of self-protection! Men will risk anything for their religious conviction. These men were the heroes of their time. Their tone is very grand; it is so calm; there is no sign of fume or fury, or bluster or denunciation; the men speak as if they had just risen from prayer; these noble souls look at the king with eyes that have just been closed that they might the better see God. When men have been closeted with God no king can frighten them. Let a man see the Almighty, and he fears no face of clay. Acquaint yourselves with the living God, live and move and have your being in him, and then no face can terrify you by its sudden frowning. We are to men what we are to God: living in God, we shall love men; fearing God, we shall hold all men as but his creatures and servants and dependants. Let our worship be right, and all the details of life will settle and adjust themselves accordingly.
This answer is grand because it is so distinct. There is not one ambiguous word in the whole of the speech. Nebuchadnezzar had no doubt about it: "Then was Nebuchadnezzar full of fury, and the form of his visage was changed." I am glad of that, because he understood the speech; it went straight into his mind and heart. Congregations would be maddened if they rightly understood many a sermon. The greatest compliment that could be paid to certain ministries would be to leave them. It is an awful thing to see all the pews full, for then whom can we have offended, slashed, ripped up, broken down, confounded with judgments? There are tributes that are terrible dangers.
How easily these men could have evaded the king's fury! Let us study that a moment. They might have bowed down as a matter of form. Men of the nineteenth century would have been capable of doing so. There are persons who can attend church as a matter of form. It is possible to enter God's sanctuary simply as a matter of custom, saying in the heart: It means nothing; it is the usage, it is the fashion, it is the way of the time, and it is not regarded as conveying anything of the nature of pledge, oath, testimony, or profession; it is generally understood amongst men that to go to church means nothing. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego could have evaded the king's fury in that way; or they could have availed themselves of what is known as mental reservation; they could have bowed the knee, but not the heart; they could have assumed the Babylonian attitude, and yet have said in their souls, What does this matter? We have our state function, we are appointed over the province of Babylon, and thus and thus we keep our faith. It is shocking to read some biographies, because they reveal the fact that men have been guilty of mental reservation that is, saying one thing and meaning another; or saying one thing and mentally resolving upon another; or saying one part of the declaration very loudly, and the other part quite in an undertone, which nobody can hear, but which the speaker can aver to have been the case should he be called to criticism or penalty. We must get rid of all this if the Church is to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, and is to be lifted high upon a hill.
Do not profess to believe more than you really believe. A little real faith is worth ten thousand folios of written doubt. Do not try to add another item to your creed. When a man has to really agitate his brain in order to know what he does believe, you may be perfectly sure he believes nothing. He may like to have a long creed in order that he may pose as a kind of theological philosopher the very worst type of man since the days of Judas Iscariot, unless he be watched at every point, and watch himself when all other watchers are asleep. Have faith, but know what it is; and having formed your conviction, it will sustain you in the midst of challenge and criticism, hostility and menace. You could hold on to the one little line. Do not try to embrace the horizon, but lay hold upon one substantial, vital, living, redeeming truth. Say, God is love; and having written that down, look at it, stand by it, live in it, return to it; it is the dawn of heaven: it is the assurance of further light and pledge of unceasing growth. Others could begin at different points; the thing insisted upon is that every man should begin somewhere, and have at least one line that he can swear by, so that when all other things become cloudy he can say, This is the refuge to which I flee: God is love; Christ died for me; God is willing to keep me in all my ways; The Bible is the living word of the living God; In the house of the living God there is a fountain that never ceases; In the Cross there is pardon for the vilest sinner. Let one of these lines be taken out and be your line, and you shall have more added until you know the meaning of the word, "the increase of faith and growth in grace.'
The three men were thrown into the hot furnace, and Nebuchadnezzar came near and looked in, and he saw a fourth man walking with the three. "Did not we cast three men bound into the midst of the fire? They answered and said unto the king, True, O king. He answered and said, Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God" like a beautiful image, like something I have never seen before, for beauty, radiance, lustre, One that seems to be able to control the fire and turn the furnace into a very garden and paradise. That is historically true of Christianity, for Christianity has been thrown into all the furnaces that men could light and heat for eighteen hundred years, and is walking about in them with the ineffable dignity of imperishable truth. This is morally true of every Christian. No Christian soul was ever in a furnace that did not realise the nearness and the protection of God. So this is experimentally true of every saint: It was good for me that I was afflicted: fear not them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. When man rages most God descends more nearly and closely into the soul, to comfort it by all the solaces and encouragements of his infinite love. Call this dream, picture, allegory, poem, still there remains a truth we cannot part with, namely, that there is divine companionship in sorrow, and that some of us never learned aught of theology until we learned it in a burning furnace. The man who has studied in that school will come out of it wise, mellow, tender, sympathetic; he will not be narrow, exclusive, domineering, and much inclined to the excommunication of others, but he will know that in life there is a great ministry wrought out by suffering, and he will know that the wrath of man is made to praise God, and the remainder of it is restrained or cut off. Until we have suffered for our religion we do not know what our religion is worth. What we need today is persecution. If we could have the fires of martyrdom relighted we should know exactly who are believers and who are mere speculators. We miss the fire; we die for want of the block; the taking down of the scaffold has ruined the altar.
Nebuchadnezzar paid a beautiful tribute to the Lord when he said, "the smell of fire had not passed on them." God's triumphs are complete. God never leaves a miracle half done. God will not permit your redemption to perish in nothingness; he does not begin without being able to finish; I am persuaded that he who hath begun a good work in you shall continue it until the day of consummation. This is our confidence, this our joy, this our music. We are not almost delivered, we are not greatly comforted, we are not very largely protected, but all men say concerning those who have been tried, The fire had no power upon them, nor was a hair of their head singed, nor were their coats changed, nor had the smell of fire passed upon them. A beautiful image is that of Buddha when he comes to the great stallion that no other rider could mount, lays his hand upon the beast's noble head, and whispers to it, as if they had met in some other state or had interchanged their relations. When God comes he turns fire into water, or water into fire; he makes things destructive into things conservative; he finds flowers for his children in the winter, in the wilderness he makes gardens, in the rocks he finds honey; and when men say there is no more hope he fills the sky with morning, and the leaden air quivers and vibrates with music This is the God we adore. He is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think. If we are in the fiery furnace, and have Christ with us, the fire will not burn; if we are in a great sea of trouble, tossed to and fro by wave and billow and great wind, and have Christ in the vessel, we smile at the storm.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Daniel 3". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany