One of the Bible verses I find fascinating is found in the thick of one of its most well-known stories. This particular passage recounts the plight of three Jewish exiles who lived in Babylon under King Nebuchadnezzar’s reign. After erecting a giant golden idol, the king commanded everyone who was present at its dedication to bow down and worship. The penalty for refusing was death.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were Jewish leaders of high standing in Babylon, but much to Nebuchadnezzar’s chagrin, they declined to worship the golden image. When the men were brought before the king, he gave them another chance to bow down and worship, reminding them of the alternative – death in a burning fiery furnace.
If you’re familiar with the story, you’ll catch the irony in Nebuchadnezzar’s threatening words: “But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?” (Daniel 3:15).
Really? That sounds like a dare, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
I’m not sure how I would’ve responded to the king, but I find Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s answer remarkable. They said, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (3:16-18).
“But if not”, or as the New International Version translates the phrase, “but even if he does not”. In my opinion, these are some of the most courageous words in all of the Bible. Their bold response to the king is noteworthy for at least two reasons, the first being their confidence in God’s ability. Never once did they express doubt in God’s power. “Our God…is able,” they declared. But a second interesting component of their response is that they didn’t presume on God’s ways. Just because God can doesn’t mean He has to.
Nebuchadnezzar was understandably furious at their defiance, and he ordered the furnace to be heated seven times hotter than normal. The men were then thrown into the fire, but the king was alarmed to see not three, but four individuals in the blaze. They were immediately called out of the fire, and to the king’s amazement, neither their hair nor their clothing was burned. Miraculously, the men were rescued from the fire, but not without first being cast into it.
Because they brought it up themselves, I think it’s worth asking the question, “What if God didn’t deliver Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace?” Or to put it in our context, “What if God doesn’t exercise His ability in the ways we want Him to?”
Based on the text, I think we can imagine Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s answer to our questions. I don’t think they’d be as preoccupied with the “what ifs” as with the “even if”.
Vaneetha Rendall explained this beautifully in her article titled “What If the Worst Happens”. In it she wrote, “Those three young men faced the fire without fear because they knew that whatever the outcome, it would ultimately be for their good and for God’s glory. They did not ask ‘what if’ the worst happened. They were satisfied knowing that ‘even if’ the worst happened, God would take care of them.”
This kind of thinking means admitting God knows more than we do. It requires us to acknowledge that we serve a God whose power is unlimited and whose ways are incomprehensible. It forces us to recognize the difficult truth that just because God can doesn’t mean He will.
When I struggle to understand a God who can change my circumstances in an instant but might choose not to, I remember the Savior’s plea before His betrayal and arrest: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). I trust you know how the rest of the story unfolds.
Jesus came to earth, lived a perfect life, and faced the worst possible fate in bearing His Father’s wrath against sin. The only Son of God begged His almighty Father do something in the face of the inevitable. And indeed God did accomplish something, not by sparing Jesus, but through His death.
You see, Jesus knows what it’s like to be us. He knows firsthand what it means to suffer. And He knows the challenge of bowing to God’s will. It is tremendously comforting to know that Jesus Himself lived through His very own “but if not” scenario. And I’m eternally grateful He did.
Not too long ago, my husband David preached on this passage and posed the following challenge, “Are you a ‘but if not’ Christian? That in the pain and the hurt and the suffering and the loss and the loneliness and the depression and the persecution and in death, will God sit alone on the throne of your heart, and will you worship Him as a good King?”
It’s impossible to fully understand a God whose ways are so radically different than ours. But what if that God was willing to live on earth, become susceptible to the same sorrows as us, and endure the ramifications of His own perfect will even when it meant His death? In that case, I believe it’s safe to say He can be trusted with every “but if not” situation we’ll ever face.