The Face in the Furnace

Oftentimes the Bible is silent where I would have it speak; God is pretty amazing at keeping His people in suspense, wondering about the details. He doesn’t give us hints about the thorn in Paul’s flesh, that place of habitual weakness in an otherwise stalwart, steadfast man; He doesn’t invite us into Peter’s marriage or even introduce us to his wife, though she must have been quite a woman to be married to impetuous Peter, that pebble-rock upon which Christ built His church. There are myriads of details He leaves to our imaginations, and I, for one, cannot wait to sit down over a nice glass of wine (it seems they will have that in Heaven) and hear all the juicy details.

Lately, I have been wishing God had seen fit to provide us with more insider reports from Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. In Daniel 3, we are given an unusually detailed account of one crazy event in their lives. The ticker report, bare-bones headlines would have read something like this: “Three guys. Odd names. Refused to give into whims of despotic ruler. Thrown into blazing furnace. Miraculously fourth man appears. All left unharmed. Despot is changed. Three are promoted.”

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But we don’t get much of an insider report from the book of Daniel. We are left to imagine what those moments in the fiery furnace, turned seven times hotter than too hot because of the enraged ego of Nebuchadnezzar, must have been like.

Did they feel the heat? Did they smell the suffocating smoke? Did they see Jesus the whole time? If not, when did they notice Him? Did He speak to them? Introduce Himself? Were they cognizant of what was happening? When did He disappear?

It’s not just the details of that day that I long to know; I also would love to know how this one encounter changed the trajectory of their lives. How were they changed? Did they see the world differently?  Did they forever associate the smell of smoke with the safety of their Savior?

While none of us have been in their shoes, we have our own fiery experiences in the furnaces of our own lives, be they persecution, addiction, broken relationships, singleness, infertility or any of their unwelcome distant cousins. Sometimes we are put in furnaces against our will, sometimes we walk unknowing into them through our own wrong-doing and poor choices. Sometimes they are quick experiences, sometimes they seem to be our new permanent abode.

Either way, smoke billows and blinds us in our furnaces; the fumes threaten to suffocate and sting our eyes. We feel bound, hand and foot, trapped in terribly painful places, just like our three ancient friends.

While we don’t know much from their story, we know this much. God was with them in the furnace. I imagine the furnace still felt like a furnace: the flames were still hot and it was still terribly uncomfortable in there. I imagine that there were moments when the smoke obscured His face, when they feared that they were, indeed, abandoned in that death chamber. But He was there, as plain as day, even faithless Nebuchadnezzar could see.

Whatever happened in that furnace, which are not privy to, we know that when they came out, “The fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched and there was no smell of fire on them” (Daniel 3:27). 

God does not promise His children life without furnaces; on the contrary, often, upon becoming His child, the heat seems to crank up a few notches. But He does promise us something even more unbelievable: that He will join us in our furnaces.

When we find ourselves in the furnace, when the heat of pain or isolation or loneliness is turning up to unbearable temperatures, when the smoke is blinding our eyes, we can trust this: God is with us in the furnace. Smoke may obscure Him and the flames may still feel painfully hot, but we are not abandoned.  When we cannot find him in the furnace, we need only cry out for small clues to His presence with us: a glimpse here, a breeze of relief there, the slightest touch of His hand.

But now, this is what the Lord says – he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. Isaiah 43: 1-3. 

Lord, give us eyes that look for clues of your presence in the furnaces of our lives; give us faith to know that you are a very present help in times of trouble. Help us to know that you are the God who numbers the very hairs on our heads. May we become people who associate the smell of smoke with the promise of the presence of our Redeemer. Amen.

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