STREAMS IN THE DESERT
Throughout Biblical history, we have numerous examples of those who made a mess of their lives, landing in barren wilderness as it were, experiencing God’s gracious restoration consequent to their repentance. Virtually streams have gushed forth, right where they were, in the dry sterile desert, whenever they sought Him sincerely with a contrite heart. The juicy one-liner – that the good Lord creates a message from the mess His loved ones land up in – is not manifested more clearly than in the lives of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego of the fiery furnace fame.
The image of these faithful men rescued sensationally by their faithful God from the throes of death even as they defied the king by refusing to bow before an imposing idol, would doubtless inspire people of all ages. But if we were to hit the rewind button just for a moment and dig a bit deep into this thrilling account by way of some posers, a totally different dimension of this story would emerge.
What were these three Jewish youths in the post-David era doing in Babylon in the first place? Did these natives of the kingdom of Judah come over there in pursuit of higher education or in search of greener pastures, in the same way we see many doing in this modern era, crossing even several seas in the process? The benumbing, chilling answer to these questions would be that “they, like many of their ilk, (the exiled Jews) were in Babylon as a punishment for their sin of worshipping idols.” Yes, for the very same sin they refrained from now!
A history flashback would reveal that, despite several warnings through prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, the people of Judah who were sold-out to idol-worship, courtesy the wicked reigns of kings like Ahaz (2Chr.26) and Zedekiah (2Chr.36:11-13), would not turn from their idol-worshipping ways, leaving God with no option but to bring to effect all the warnings He had issued till then. In a nutshell, He had to execute His judgment of exiling them from the land flowing with milk and honey, for they had violated their covenant relationship with Him which demanded that they be allowed to enjoy the choicest portion of earth only on implicitly obeying Him (Deut.28:1-14). Disobedience would lead to a tragic situation as brought forth in II Chronicles 36:6-21, which too had been prophesied by Moses in his farewell address to his people as recorded in Deuteronomy 28:49-64.
In fact, a closer scrutiny of events related to the exile would reveal that it (exile) took place in three phases.
Political (Dan.1:1-4). The royals and the political class were exiled in 606 BC. To this group belonged our death-defying terrific trio, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.
Economical (2Kgs.24:16). The craftsmen and the business class were exiled in 597 BC.
Universal (2Kgs.25:8-9). Everyone, including the Judean king, was exiled in 586 BC. The prestigious Jerusalem Wall was demolished and the Temple in which many Jews prided (built by King Solomon) was burnt, in conformity with the Lord’s warnings (1Kgs.8:6-9).
The batch-wise exile reinforces the fact that God was giving an opportunity to His chosen ones to repent and seek Him so that their punishment is limited. Doubtless, a loving God would never want a massacre of His loved ones laced with destruction of His beloved city or His magnificent temple. But was there a reciprocal response from His select nation to His lenience? Was the first comeuppance adequate to make His special people amend their life-style? No! His people sadly stuck to their stubborn ways despite several warnings by the prophet Jeremiah of a more serious indictment coming their way. Finally, the sombre record of 2 Chronicles 36:14-20 stands as a grim reminder of what would happen when we foolishly exhaust God’s patience, for in that is a heart-rending account of a ruthless destruction sweeping across what was once a proud capital of a God-honouring nation, paving the way for yet another exile of those who survived (very few did) the onslaught of an all-powerful Babylonian war machine spurred on by God’s divine wrath.
A lesson within a lesson here. Just as God’s best is reserved for the last (Jn.2:10) for those who love Him (Rev.21-23), His worst too is reserved for the last for those who forsake Him (Rev.19:17-21;20:14-15)! Ask the hard-hearted Egyptian Pharoah, who had to bear the ignominy and pain of losing his first-born (Exo.12:29-30) when he did not humble himself after receiving a few divine blows initially.
The tragic account of the Judean exile lends itself to yet another corollary in this study. What happens when God’s people (be it Jews or their New Testament counterparts, Christians) sin and reap just punishment? Not only is there a severing of relationship between Him and His people at the time sin is indulged in (at least temporarily) but more seriously when the just punishment falls upon God’s chosen ones, the unsaved lot are presented an opportunity on the platter, so to speak, of blaspheming God’s name (2Sam.12:14). Their tongues would wag with impish delight on the perceived inability of God to protect His blessed ones from harm, little realising that He of His own accord had permitted harm to befall His disobedient special ones, so that they turn from their errant ways and seek Him once again.
The wonder of the story of heroic faith of Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego (belonging to the first batch of exiles) is that their matchless act of valour, besides bringing manifold blessings to their own lives, also set right the flawed perception of Israel’s neighbouring countries on God’s power to save his dear ones from harm’s way.
Having landed in the foreign land on account of their own sins and that of their countrymen, it is to their eternal credit that, without wallowing in self-pity or slipping into despair, these three men displayed remarkable resilience in seeking and honouring their Redeemer God in completely alien settings by first abstaining from pagan food (Dan.1:8-20) – a disposition that brought about blessings in its wake by way of their elevation in civil service – and then (when the situation demanded) publicly putting their very lives at stake for preserving the Holy name of their God.
Following the miraculous deliverance from the fiery furnace, one look at the decree of that mighty but fickle Emperor Nebuchadnezzar (Dan.1:28-29) extolling the Lord God of these three valorous men and warning people of his realm not to take His holy name lightly would convey in no small measure the magnitude of the positive fallout of this dramatic incident on the restoration of God’s holy name in the civilised world of that age. No longer would any pagan nation or its citizens dare to speak ill of His name!
And what of the future of these three heroic characters? It may never have seemed rosier than when “the king promoted them to even higher positions in the province of Babylon” (Dan.3:30). Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego for a moment and contemplate. Their future, which had seemed so dark and bleak, without any hope, when they landed in Babylon as exiles, never held so much of a promise, as now. Virtually, their ‘desert’ had been transformed by God’s faithfulness into a ‘locale abounding in life-giving cool streams’. Talk of not only streams flowing but also roses blooming in the desert…
Wouldn’t our promise-honouring God do as much for us, when we seek Him with contrite hearts even while languishing in the ‘deserts’ of our own making, in case we are ‘there’ now? The Good news is, He would! Hallelujah!