FOR GOD FOREVER
Dr. W. A. Criswell
6-7-70 10:50 a.m.
On the radio and on television you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. And this is the pastor bringing the message from the third chapter of the Book of Daniel, entitled For God Forever. The story in the third chapter of this prophet Daniel is the story of the three Hebrew children: Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, or as Nebuchadnezzar gave them names (Babylonian): Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
There is a rising crescendo of faithfulness on the part of these three young Hebrew captives. In the first chapter of the Book of Daniel, they, with their friend Daniel, refused to eat of the king’s meat or to drink the portion of his wine. And they asked for pulse to eat and water to drink. In the second chapter, they are joined with Daniel the prophet in intercession that God will reveal to them the mystery of the dream of the king.
And now rising still further in that dedication, in the third chapter, they are faced with a fiery death in a flaming furnace because of their religious conviction. For the chapter says that on the plains of Dura before Babylon, the king had erected a giant image threescore cubits high, six cubits broad, covered with solid gold. And, through a herald, he announces that all who will not bow down and worship that golden image shall be cast into the midst of a burning, fiery furnace – a place kept hot for the cremation of the dead.
And when the report is made to the king that these three refused to bow down, the king calls for them. He cannot believe his ears, that there should be – in all of his vast empire, and it covered the civilized world – that there should be in all of his kingdom even three who would not obey his mandate. So they come and stand before the king, and he asks them: "Is it true? Could it be? Is it possible? Is it true that you refuse to serve my gods and refuse to bow down before the golden image which I’ve set up?" And those three Hebrew captives said: "We are not careful to answer thee," that is, we do not have to study or to consider or to debate [Daniel 3:16]. "We will not bow down!" And that is courage – to duty, and to conscience, and to God.
Stoddard Kennedy – an Anglican minister, pastor at Worcester and a chaplain in the First World War, a man who interpreted the Christian life for so many – Stoddard Kennedy wrote from the trenches of France to his son:
The first prayer I want my son to learn to say for me is not, "God keep Daddy safe," but "God make Daddy brave – and if he has hard things to do, make him strong to do them." Life and death don’t matter, my son, right and wrong do. Daddy dead is Daddy still. But Daddy dishonored before God is something awful – too bad for words. I suppose you’d like to put in a bit about safety too, old chap – and Mother would. Well, put it in! But afterwards, always afterwards, because it really does not matter near so much.
Every man, woman, and child should be taught to put first things first in prayer, both in peace and in war, and that I believe is where we have failed. These three young Hebrew captives – facing conscience, and duty, and God – said: "We will burn rather than disobey what God has commanded us to keep!"
Ah, the tremendous courage of men like that: men whom death cannot appall!
I saw the martyr at the stake.
The flames could not his courage shake,
Nor death his soul appall.
I asked him whence his strength was given.
He looked triumphantly to heaven,
And answered, "Christ is all."
["Christ Is All"; W. A. Williams]
These young men had been taught all their lives the second of the Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image; nothing in heaven above or no likeness in earth beneath," not even an image of a virgin, or an image of a crucifix, "And thou shalt not bow down thyself before them" [Exodus 3:4-5]. And these young men being so taught said, "O King, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter," we don’t have even to study; "We will not bow down" [Daniel 3:16-18].
On the plains of Dura before our lives and in our hearts, there are images that the world sets up: images of custom and fashion and group, and they demand that we conform and bow down before them. There are two ways to that mandate from the world – there are two ways in which a Christian can respond. First: he can compromise with a hurting conscience and bow down and acquiesce; like Naaman, who, when he was cleansed of his leprosy, came back and stood before Elisha the prophet and said, "There shall be no god in my heart and life but Jehovah God." Then he added:
But in this I pray your forgiveness, that when the king goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, and he lean upon my hand, and I bow down before the god Rimmon, in this may thy servant be pardoned when I worship in the house of Rimmon.
[2 Kings 5:18].
And a Christian can do that! There are instances, and there are times, and there are places where a Christian bows down with a hurting conscience in conformity to the passions and customs and expectations of the world. That’s one way to respond, but there is another way, and that is the response of these three captive Hebrews: "We will not bow down – king or no king, mandate or no mandate, custom or no custom, fashion or no fashion, life or death, furnace or no furnace – we will not bow down!"
That was the answer of our Lord in His trial in the wilderness: "No! No! No!" [Matthew 4:1-11]. And it is an amazing, but spiritual, intuition that the English poet John Milton, when he wrote his Paradise Lost, he spake of that forbidden fruit whose mortal taste brought death into the world and all our woe when the first Adam refused to say: "No!" [Genesis 2:17, 3:6]. Then, when he wrote Paradise Regained, he concluded that epic not with a story of the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord, but the great Puritan poet closed it with the temptation of our Lord when He brought paradise back to a fallen race in saying "no" to the tempter three times. There is a way to meet the mandates of the world that we conform, that we bow down; and there is the way of our Lord, and it is the way of these three Hebrew children: "We will not conform!"
To me, any true religion has in it a measure of sacrifice, of cost. We lose our friends; we lose our possessions; we lose our opportunity for advancement; we lose our social amenabilities. But there is, in any true religion, an element of cost and sacrifice, and if I can feel and interpret this young generation that’s coming up, what I sense in them more than any one thing else is this: that they are not looking for an easy out and a palliative, ameliorating faith – compromise; they are looking for something "all-out" for God. And there are lots of people who feel that way about religion.
Must I be carried to the skies
On flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize
And sailed through bloody seas?
Are there no foes for me to face?
Must I not stem the flood?
Is this vile world a friend to grace
To carry me on to God?
Sure, I must fight if I would reign.
Increase my courage, Lord.
I’ll bear the toil, endure the strain,
Supported by Thy word.
["Am I a Soldier of the Cross," Isaac Watts, 1724]
"We will not bow down!" Now, we turn to another part of this text: a faith that faces the fiery furnace. "If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us, But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, we will not bow down" [Daniel 3:17-18].
What do you think of that? We believe our God is able to deliver us, but if He doesn’t, then what? If we’re thrown into the fiery furnace, then what? That takes the kind of faith that only God can give: "If God delivers us, we will trust Him for it. But if God does not deliver us, we will still trust Him."
They did not condition – they did not pivot their faith upon whether God delivered them or not. They would trust and believe in God if He delivered them; they would still trust and believe in God if He did not deliver them. "But if not," What a faith when God does not intervene!
I was very interested in the anthem they sang this morning – talking about the presence of God and the goodness of God. How fine! All of us have been taught that God is present, and all of us have been taught that God is good. But what about that Saturday experience, when God doesn’t seem to be present and when God doesn’t seem to be good, and we enter a time in life when faith is all but obliterated? The ways of God become so unintelligible, and His presence so far removed, until it is for us as if He didn’t exist. Like those Epicureans – they said: "We’re not atheists. We believe in God," but they also said that the gods were so far removed and so indifferent to the world, they didn’t care what happened down here on this earth where we live. And all of us have times in our lives and experiences in our lives when God was like that: we can’t understand Him, and He seems to be so far removed, and [there are] those experiences that inevitably come and we are forced to say: "You know, I thought I had faith, but now I don’t know whether I have faith in anything or not."
There is death inexorable, and there are business failures, and there are frustrations and defeat, and there are sickness and futility; and we pray, and there’s no answer, and we cry to God, and there’s no intervention. But if not – if God doesn’t intervene, then what? There are times when God seems to remove Himself and to hide Himself, and we don’t know where He is, and we don’t know how to get His ear; and if He has any response to us, we cannot see it or tell it.
There is an author named Maurice Hindus, who wrote a book called Red Bread. And in that book, he draws a pathetic picture of a Russian priest caught in the terrible confusion of trying to sustain his belief in God in the midst of conditions where that faith seemed almost impossible. And in that book, he quotes that Russian priest saying, and I quote:
Don’t you suppose if God made Himself known, people would flock back to Him? Of course they would! They would bow in repentance and promise to believe, and obey, and worship. Yet here we are, His servants, waiting, waiting, and nothing happens! Sometimes I say to myself: "If He does not care, why should I?" Or is He merely trying us out, to see how much we can endure? Perhaps. Who knows? But it is so hard, so very hard on us, His servants.
And when I read that, there came before my mind those people in Russia – like this whole audience down here was down on their knees, both of their knees, and their arms upraised and tears, tears, tears, tears; and the people praying and singing like that, down on their knees with their arms raised to heaven: "Where is God? And why doesn’t He intervene? Why doesn’t God do something? Why doesn’t God say something?" And as the time goes by, for so many, finally we find ourselves less and less and less defending the faith that apparently does not defend us. Like somebody said – lifting up his eyes to heaven, said: "God, no wonder You have such few friends, from the way You treat them."
But if not, if God does not intervene, then what? My brethren and my sisters, there are uncounted myriads of men and women and young people who have done this magnificent thing when God apparently hides Himself, and when God apparently does not intervene, and when God lets us fall into the furious fire: they still believe in the Lord! They do not – and they have not conditioned their faith upon whether God delivers or not! They just believe in God, in the furnace or out of it, plunged into it or saved from it!
Martin Luther, in his loneliness, on his way to the Diet of Worms to appear before King Charles V and the Roman Prelate and all the princes around, Martin Luther said:
My cause shall be commended to the Lord, for He lives and reigns who preserved the three children in the furnace of the Babylonian king. If He is unwilling to preserve me, my life is a small thing compared with Christ. Expect anything of me except flight or recantation. I will not flee, much less recant. So may the Lord Jesus strengthen me.
He did not say, "So may the Lord Jesus deliver me." He did not say, "So may the Lord Jesus make it easy for me." What he did say was: "As I face what I know I ought to do, may God strengthen me whether I live or die – delivered or not." And, as you know, when he stood before the king and made his confession of faith, he ended it: "Here I stand. I can do no other, so help me God."
"But if not," but if not, "be it known unto thee, O king, we will not bow down," whether the Lord delivers or not. "Oh," you say, "I would like to have a commitment like that and a faith like that, but I don’t have it." My brother, I have learned something both from reading and from experience: if you cling to God and have faith in God, when the hour of trial comes, God will give you grace for that providence. I don’t care what it is.
I have read – and I cannot know except just by reading – I have read that the martyrs – who faced the stake, and the fire, and the fagot, and the flame – that the martyrs were so given to God that when they were burned, they didn’t feel it. They drowned their tears and sufferings in hymns of praise and songs of exaltation. "But if not" – whether God intervenes or not; whether God seems to deliver or not – "but if not, we will believe in God just the same."
Now, I have one other thing. And this is something that, when you read the text, if you’re not exceeding careful, you’ll not see it; you won’t even know it’s there. The reason the young men say, "That we are clinging to God, whether it costs us our life or not, is because we believe in a life that is yet to come; we believe in an after-world that is sweeter, and better, and finer than this" – look at what they say: "O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee, If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us, But if not, be it known to thee, we will not bow down," and in this passage, I doubt whether anyone of us reading it ever catches it: "But we know this, that God will deliver us out of thine hand, O king." "This we do know, that God will deliver us out of thine hand, O king" [Daniel 3:17]. What they were saying and what they meant was this: "We may be burned to a cinder, and our lives may be snuffed out, but, O king, we’ll be in a place where your hand can’t touch us and where your commandments cannot torment us. We shall be in the presence of the great King Jehovah in heaven. We’ll be out of the reach of thy hand, O king."
And that’s why those young men were so brave: they believed in a life that is yet to come in heaven. And I do not believe that it is possible to have great meaningful religion without that faith in an afterlife and in heaven. Like our Lord said, "Except the grain of wheat fall in the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. So," He said, "He that loveth his life shall lose it; but he that hateth his life in this world" shall gain it, "shall keep it to life eternal" [John 12:24-25].
That’s why I had you read the last part of the eleventh chapter of the Book of Hebrews. Those heroes of the faith who were sawn asunder, thrown into fiery furnaces, stopped the mouths of lions, wandered around in sheepskins and goatskins, living destitute, afflicted, tormented – the author of the Hebrews says: "They had respect unto the recompense of the reward" [Hebrews 11:26, 37-38]. They were like the martyrs who, when they were burned at the stake, believed that there was a better life, an afterlife, one of glory in heaven.
And that’s why these three Hebrew captives, as they made their decision – the threat of the king did not enter into it; the fury of the burning flames did not enter into it – all that mattered was they believed there is a more glorious life that is yet to come. And when the sound of the dulcimer, and the flute, and the harp, and the psaltery, and the other instruments of music, when the sounds were heard, they were deaf to it, for they were listening to the music of the glorified in heaven. It was as nothing to them, what the king should do – to burn them alive – as they look up and forward to the glory of the life that is yet to come. And this is the great strength and comfort of the people of God.
As Paul said: "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable" [1 Corinthians 15:19]. But our strength and our comfort and our hope, however life shall turn down here – however dark and frustrating, and ultimately, of course, always to age and to death – however it turns down here, our hearts and our souls and our eyes are lifted upward, and we are comforted and strengthened by that hope of heaven.
I could not think of a more poignant illustration of that comfort to the believer of God in the resurrection of the dead, and in the life that is yet to come, than in the twenty-second chapter of the Book of Genesis when God told Abraham to slay his only begotten son. And this was the boy of whom God said that "in him shall all the families of the earth be blessed," in Isaac, in that boy [Genesis 28:14]. And yet God says for Abraham to slay him with his own hand, and Abraham, in obedience to the command of God, makes a three-day journey to Mount Moriah. There he builds the rough altar out of unhewn stone, and he binds his son, and lays him on the wood, and raises the knife to plunge into his heart [Genesis 22:9-10].
This is the lad of whom God said that, "in Isaac shall thy seed be called" [Genesis 21:12], and the nations of the world and the "families of the earth [shall] be blessed." It was for Abraham to obey; it was for God to keep His promise. And the eleventh chapter of the Book of Hebrews says that Abraham raised that knife to plunge into the heart of that boy because he believed that God would raise him up from the dead [Hebrews 11:19].
I have often thought, when Jesus said in the eighth chapter of the Book of John, "Abraham rejoiced to see My day: and he saw it and was glad" [John 8:56]. I’ve often wondered: when did Abraham see the day of the Lord, and seeing it, rejoiced and was glad? I think he did it atop Mount Moriah when he looked on that boy [Isaac] who by figure and image was slain, and believed that God was able to raise him up from the dead. That’s when Abraham saw the day of Christ, and His sufferings, and His atoning grace and love, and the resurrection – that’s when he saw it.
And that’s when we see it: when in the depths of despair, and in the darkness of death, and in the frustrations and defeats of life – that’s when we see the day of Christ and rejoice – when we lift up our eyes to heaven, and beyond the defeat and the darkness of this day, we see the glories of God in heaven.
In a moment we shall stand to sing, and as we sing that hymn of appeal, somebody you, to give your heart to God, come and stand by me. A family you, to put your life in the circle and fellowship of this wonderful church, or just one somebody you, as the Spirit shall press the appeal to your heart, come now; make it now. In the balcony round, there’s time and to spare. On this lower floor, into the aisle and down to the front: "Here I am, pastor, and here I come. I make it this morning. The decision is in my soul, and I feel it, and I’m coming today." On the first note of that first stanza, into that aisle and down to the front, come, and do it now; make it now. Come now, while we stand and while we sing.
FOR GOD FOREVER
Dr. W. A. Criswell
Threat and refusal
to God above personal safety
set up on the plains of Dura
with cost, price, commitment
If God failed to deliver from the furnace
God does not intervene
He seemingly hides Himself
fact: belief in God no matter what
Their faith in a final deliverance
in a life that is yet to come
we do right, leave the rest to God