Singing in the Midst of the Flames

ONE OF THE LAST BOOKS in the Old Testament – and perhaps the most intriguing – is the Book of Daniel. Written in the second century bc, it tells the adventures of the godly Jewish nobles Daniel and his companions Ananiah, Azariah and Mishael who were taken captive by the Babylonians four hundred years before. Given new names – Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – and trained for service in the Babylonian court, they were imprisoned for not worshipping the gods of their pagan masters but vindicated by the power of the true God, the God of Israel.

Daniel was written during the time when Israel had once more fallen captive to pagans: this time, in the person of the Hellenistic king of Syria, Antiochus IV who tried to eliminate the religion of Yahweh, ban the Torah and circumcision, and erect a pagan altar in the temple. Daniel is depicted as prophesying the defeat of the Babylonians and the restoration of Jerusalem by the power of God. The unwritten message was that, as the Jews had been liberated in the time of Daniel, they would be again in their present distress by the same power: the hand of the true God.

The Fiery Furnace

The Book of Daniel begins with a number of popular tales which may have come down from the sixth century BC. One of the most dramatic is the story of Ananiah, Azariah and Mishael in the fiery furnace. The king had erected an enormous golden idol of his patron, the god Nabu, in the Plain of Dura (near present-day Karbala, Iraq). Some commentators think that it was a statue of the king himself. At its dedication the people were ordered, “To you it is commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that at the time you hear the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in symphony with all kinds of music, you shall fall down and worship the gold image that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up; and whoever does not fall down and worship shall be cast immediately into the midst of a burning fiery furnace” (Daniel 3:4 6).

The youths refused to obey this order and were threatened by the king: “’If you do not worship, you shall be cast immediately into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you from my hands?’  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered with a profession of faith in the God of Israel: “…our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king” (vv.15-17). 

Then they added this remarkable statement of fidelity to God at any cost, “But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we still will not serve your gods, nor will we worship the golden image which you have set up” (v. 18). Their obedience to God did not depend on what God would do for them. Whether He preserved their lives or not, they would be faithful to Him.

The furnace was so hot that those standing nearby were burned to death themselves. But, as the story continues, “Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished; and he rose in haste and spoke, saying to his counselors, ‘Did we not cast three men bound into the midst of the fire?’

“They answered and said to the king, ‘True, O king.’ ‘Look!’ he answered, ‘I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire; and they are not hurt, and the form of the fourth is like a Son of God’” (Daniel 3:24-25). The Church has long seen this fourth person as a type of Christ who came down into our world as our Deliverer.

The king relented, freed the young men and praised the God of Israel who had sent an angel to protect them.

The Greek, Latin and Syriac versions of Daniel include additional material in this passage not found in the Hebrew text. We read in v. 23, “And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell down bound into the midst of the burning fiery furnace.” The Septuagint (LXX) and other versions then add, “They walked around in the midst of the flames, singing hymns to God and blessing the Lord. Then Azariah stood still in the fire and prayed aloud:” The prayers which follow in the Septuagint are our Canticles Seven and Eight.

The Prayer of Azariah

Our Canticle Seven is the prayer offered by Azariah in the midst of the flames. It is a prayer of repentance, confessing that the Jews had not been faithful to the covenant and were punished for their infidelity: “You have executed true judgments in all you have brought upon us and upon Jerusalem, the holy city of our ancestors; by a true judgment you have brought all this upon us because of our sins… And now we cannot open our mouths; we, your servants who worship You, have become a shame and a reproach.”

The prayer continues with words we also find in our service of the Ninth Hour: “For your name’s sake do not give us up forever, and do not annul your covenant. Do not withdraw your mercy from us, for the sake of Abraham your beloved and for the sake of your servant Isaac and Israel your holy one.”

The prayer climaxes with a plea for deliverance: “And now with all our heart we follow you; we fear you and seek your presence. Do not put us to shame, but deal with us in your patience and in your abundant mercy. Deliver us in accordance with your marvelous works, and bring glory to your name, O Lord.”

Azariah concludes with a prayer for the Babylonians: “Let them know that you alone are the Lord God, glorious over the whole world.”

The Canticle of the Three Young Men

The Septuagint text continues telling how the flames “poured out above the furnace forty-nine cubits, and spread out and burned those Chaldeans who were caught near the furnace.” Ananiah, Azariah and Mishael, however, were untouched by the flames. They sang a hymn of praise which has become our Eighth Canticle, “Blessed are you, O Lord, God of our fathers and to be praised and exalted above all forever…”

The canticle is in the form of a litany calling on all creation to praise God with the refrain, “Praise and exalt Him above all forever.” Inspiration for many hymns, we sing it antiphonally with this refrain at the Vigil Liturgy of Pascha on Holy Saturday.

“Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord; praise and exalt Him above all forever. Bless the Lord, you heavens… Bless the Lord, you angels of the Lord… Bless the Lord, all you waters above the heavens… Bless the Lord, all you powers of the Lord… Bless the Lord, sun and moon… Bless the Lord, stars of heaven… Bless the Lord, all rain and dew… Bless the Lord, fire and heat… Bless the Lord, winter cold and summer heat… Bless the Lord, dews and falling snow… Bless the Lord, nights and days… Bless the Lord, light and darkness… Bless the Lord, ice and cold … Bless the Lord, lightning and clouds… Let the earth bless the Lord… Bless the Lord, mountains and hills… Bless the Lord, all that grows in the ground… Bless the Lord, seas and rivers…Bless the Lord, you whales and all that swim in the waters…  Bless the Lord, all birds of the air… Bless the Lord, all wild animals and cattle… Bless the Lord, all people on earth… Bless the Lord, O Israel… Bless the Lord, you priests of the Lord… Bless the Lord, you servants of the Lord… Bless the Lord, spirits and souls of the righteous… Bless the Lord, you who are holy and humble in heart; sing praise and exalt Him above all forever.”