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Servants or Friends: Chapter 4

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TRUST CANNOT BE COMMANDED

"On your knees or I'll throw you in the fire!"“On your knees, or I’ll throw you in the fire!”

Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon and ruler of the great Babylonian
empire, was not demanding that the people worship him. He had just
erected an enormous gold image—ninety feet high and nine feet
wide—and had summoned all the officials of his kingdom to attend the
dedication. The whole story is recorded in the Old Testament book of
Daniel.1

When all were assembled, a herald announced the king’s command that
when the musical signal was given, everyone was to bow before the image that
had been set up. Anyone who refused was to be “thrown forthwith into a
blazing furnace.”2

Nebuchadnezzar saw nothing inappropriate in commanding worship under
threat of such fiery destruction. Did not the gods themselves threaten similar
retribution on those who incurred their displeasure?

Twenty-five centuries later, many of us find the king’s call to
worship incredibly cruel and uncivilized. But was he any more cruel than the
apostle Paul—before his experience on the Damascus road—when,
“breathing out threats and murder,” he tried to force people to
submit to his fearsome god? And are there not millions in this modern age who
believe in a god who demands not only their submission, but even their love and
trust—all under threat, not just of death in a blazing furnace, but of
eternal torture in the flames?

The music sounded, and everyone knelt—except three young Jews,
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. They had been brought to Babylon as captives
during the conquest of Judah. But Nebuchadnezzar had chosen them for education
in the affairs of the royal court, and recently had elevated them to positions
of leadership in his empire. The king was furious to learn of their
disobedience, and summoned them into his presence.

“Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, that you do not
serve my gods or worship the gold image which I have set up?

Now if you are ready to prostrate yourselves . . . and to worship the
image that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship it, you will
be thrown forthwith into the blazing furnace; and what god is there that can
deliver you from my power?’ ”3

The young men respectfully refused, and explained that the God whom they
served was well able to look after them. Livid with rage, Nebuchadnezzar
ordered that the fire be heated to seven times its usual heat and that the
three be bound and thrown into the furnace.

How God Disciplined Nebuchadnezzar

How could God correct a man of such arrogance and power? How could he
even communicate with a tyrant so accustomed to having his own way that he
would destroy any who opposed?

Of course, God could easily have consumed him as he sat there on his
throne. Onlookers would have been impressed. But destruction does not
discipline the one destroyed. And the heavenly Father was only just beginning
the instruction of his brilliant but arrogant child.

One thing Nebuchadnezzar respected was superior power. When Daniel had
been able to remind the king of a dream he had forgotten, Nebuchadnezzar had
prostrated himself at the prophet’s feet. “ ‘Truly,’ he
said, ‘your God is indeed God of gods and Lord over kings, and a revealer
of secrets, since you have been able to reveal this secret.’
4

God meets people where they are. So, as he met Moses at the burning
bush,5 God met Nebuchadnezzar in the flames of the fiery furnace.

“Then King Nebuchadnezzar, greatly agitated, sprang to his feet,
saying to his courtiers, ‘Was it not three men whom we threw bound into
the fire?’ They answered, ‘Yes, certainly, your majesty.’
‘Yet,’ he insisted, ‘I can see four men walking about in the
fire, free and unharmed; and the fourth looks like a god.’
6

The king called to the young men to come out of the furnace. Then he
publicly announced:

Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego! He has sent his angel to save his servants who, trusting in him, disobeyed the royal command; they were willing to submit themselves to the fire rather than to serve or worship any god other than their own God.7

God had clearly won the king’s attention and respect. But
Nebuchadnezzar still didn’t know God very well—not nearly as well as
did Paul after the Damascus road experience. The king was still far from being
able to say with Paul, “If anyone should disagree with me, he is free to
make up his own mind.”8

Instead, Nebuchadnezzar issued another tyrannical decree:

Anyone, whatever his people, nation, or language, if he speaks blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, or Abed-nego, is to be hacked limb from limb and his house is to be reduced to rubble; for there is no other god who can save in such a manner.9

By a show of power, God had led Nebuchadnezzar to take the first step
toward reverence and a willingness to listen. The king, in his turn, resorted
to the use of power to intimidate his people into showing due respect for this
powerful god.

Nebuchadnezzar was obviously not ready yet for the gracious offer of
friendship in John 15:15.

On one recorded occasion, Daniel did venture to inform the king that God
was expecting him to treat his subjects with greater kindness: “Therefore,
O king, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is
right, and your wickedness by being kind to the
oppressed.”10 And earlier, Nebuchadnezzar had expressed
admiration for the trust in God shown by the three young Hebrew exiles.

Finally, after several years of humbling discipline, the king was
persuaded to publicly acknowledge that “the Most High is sovereign
over the realm of humanity and gives it to whom he will.”

He does as he pleases with the host of heaven

and with those who dwell on earth.

No one can oppose his power

or question what he does.

“Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of
heaven; for all his acts are right and his ways are just, and he can bring low
those whose conduct is arrogant.”

“It is my pleasure,” the king declared, “to recount the
signs and wonders which the Most High God has worked for me: How great are his
signs, how mighty his wonders!”11

Nebuchadnezzar was still especially impressed with power, though he did
also recognize that God’s use of power was right and just. But this time
he did not follow his confession with a harsh decree that any who refused to
join him in submission to the God of heaven should be “hacked limb from
limb” or thrown into the blazing fire.

I wonder if Nebuchadnezzar ever went on to become more than a humble
servant who acknowledged his Master’s sovereign authority. The Bible story
of his life ends without any mention of his teaching the people about love and
trust—so different from the record of God’s friends Moses and Paul.
Perhaps Nebuchadnezzar will have to learn about the freedoms of friendship in
the life to come. As a reverent and teachable servant, he would be willing to
listen.

“Not by Might nor by Power”

The place where Nebuchadnezzar ordered the people to their knees is not
far from the modern city of Baghdad, the capital of Iraq. It has been reported
that the ruler of that country greatly admires the king of ancient Babylon. But
his admiration has not led to a time of peace among the nations of the Middle
East. If only Nebuchadnezzar could have served as a model of leadership among
friends, of government committed to unity that is based on trust and not on
force and fear. But then, of course, if the king of Babylon had been that kind
of leader, some modern empire builders would not have considered him so worthy
of their admiration!

How God must wish that trust and friendship could be restored in that
part of the world where so many of the people are the children of his old
friend Abraham. Then why doesn’t the omnipotent One step in and impose his
sovereign will? Didn’t Jesus himself teach that “with God all things
are possible”?12 Would anyone dare suggest that there is
anything God cannot do? But if by the exercise of might and power he could turn
everyone in the Middle East—not to mention the rest of the world—into
loving, trusting friends, then who is to blame for continuing suspicion and
hostility?

God answered these questions himself. And the rest of the Bible is a
demonstration of the truthfulness and significance of his explanation. “
‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord
Almighty.”13

This message was passed on by the prophet Zechariah to Zerubbabel, the
leader of the Israelites who had recently returned to Judah from Babylonian
exile. After 70 years of discipline in captivity, the people were being offered
yet another chance to show themselves worthy descendants of their father
Abraham, a chance to live together in such peace and harmony that Jerusalem
would become known as “the City of Truth,” “the City of
Faithfulness.”14

It could be such a safe and friendly place that “once again men and
women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with cane in
hand because of his age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls
playing there.”15

Reports of the honesty and kindness of the inhabitants of Jerusalem
would spread so far that “many peoples and powerful nations will come to
Jerusalem to seek the Lord Almighty . . . In those days ten men from all
languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and
say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with
you.’ ”16

This is what God had always wanted for the descendants of his old friend
Abraham—and not only for them, but for all who through the friendship and
trustworthiness of Abraham’s children would come to know the truth about
Abraham’s God.

But God’s message to Zerubbabel was that, much as he longed to help
Israel become such people, it could not be accomplished by might and power, but
only by the way the Spirit works. And while no one can oppose God’s
power, as Nebuchadnezzar finally conceded, it is still possible for the
weakest human to say no to the still small voice of love and truth.

By might and power God called into existence the whole vast universe.
But even infinite power could not hold the loyalty of Lucifer,17 his
most brilliant angel, or convince many of the children of Adam and Eve to love
and trust their Creator.

By might and power—when he had almost lost contact with the human
race—God sadly drowned the whole world in a flood. But might and power
could not win the trust of the descendants of Noah. They had no doubts about
the existence of God. They acknowledged his superior power. But like the devils
described in the book of James, their thoughts about God made them tremble with
fear.18 It could be said that they believed in God, but they had no
desire to trust him as a friend. Instead, they built the tower of Babel to
escape him.

By might and power God rescued his people from Egyptian bondage and
established them in the land of Canaan. But all his power could not win their
trust. Again and again they showed more faith in the cruel gods of paganism.
King Solomon once knew God so very well that with inspired wisdom he could
author the book of Proverbs. But later even he sacrificed some of his own
children to the fiery god Molech.19

“‘But by My Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty”

It was not lack of might and power that led God to send the message to
Zerubbabel. It was “the Lord Almighty” who was speaking. Who would
know better the limitations of the use of power? Some understand Zechariah 4:6
to emphasize that the purposes of God can not be accomplished by human
might or human power, but only by the might and power of God himself.
But the contrast in this passage is between the use of power and the way the
Holy Spirit works.

The things that God desires the most—lasting peace, freedom, trust,
and friendship—can not be produced by force, much less by fear. If all God
wanted was submission and unthinking service, he could readily have it in a
moment. “On your knees, or I’ll throw you into the fire!” But
God is no heavenly Nebuchadnezzar. He would rather die than govern by force and
fear. And someday, to make this eternally clear, it would indeed cost him his
death.

Jesus explained how the Spirit works. He teaches, he persuades, he
pleads. It’s not that the Spirit possesses less might and power than the
Father and the Son, for he too is God. But he works especially with the
greatest and most enduring power of all—the persuasive authority of truth.
Paul speaks of the power of truth to win people back to trust.20

But this kind of power is not recognized by everyone. It is only
effective with those who are willing to listen, those who are the most deeply
stirred, not by the thunders of Sinai, but by the truth spoken softly in love.

The Spirit pleaded softly with Judas while the Master washed his
betrayer’s dirty feet. The loyal angels must have been overwhelmed to
watch the Creator of the universe, the one they worshipped and adored,
willingly on his knees in humble service to his disloyal disciple. The Holy
Spirit was speaking to the angels too, and their understanding of the
graciousness of God must have been greatly enlarged that evening in the upper
room.

But Judas, the betrayer, remained unmoved. He said no to the gentle
voice of the Holy Spirit. Why didn’t an indignant God destroy him for so
ungratefully refusing such loving persuasion? The angels were still learning as
the Father sadly left yet another of his disloyal children to reap natural
consequence. A few hours later, in the darkness of his rejection of the truth,
Judas committed suicide.

Years later, the Spirit inspired John to write a description of that
memorable event, so that we in our time could read it. Then, perhaps, some of
us would be powerfully stirred, as were the angels, to greater trust in so
gracious a God.21

Such trust is not commanded. It is not produced by threat of
destruction. It is won by the truth about God, so movingly portrayed there in
the upper room, and on hundreds of other occasions recorded in the sixty-six
books.

This is the powerful way the Holy Spirit seeks to accomplish God’s
purpose to fill his universe with trusting and trusted friends. “
‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord
Almighty.”

Crown with a rose


1. See Daniel 3.

2. Daniel 3:6 REB.

3. Daniel 3:14,15, REB.

4. Daniel 2:47, REB.

5. See Exodus 3.

6. Daniel 3:24,25, REB.

7. Daniel 3:28, REB.

8. See Romans 14:5.

9. Daniel 3:29, REB.

10. Daniel 4:27, NIV.

11. Daniel 4:32,35,37,2,3, REB.

12. See Matthew 19:26.

13. Zechariah 4:6, NIV.

14. Zechariah 8:3, NIV and REB.

15. Zechariah 8:4,5, NIV.

16. Zechariah 8:22,23, NIV.

17. See Revelation 12:79.

18. See James 2:19.

19. See 1 Kings 11:7,8 and 2 Kings 23:10.

20. See Romans 1:17.

21. See John 13:120.

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