Tuesday of Week 3 of Lent – First Reading

Commentary on Daniel 3:25,34-43

As described in the Vatican II Sunday Missal, today’s reading from Daniel is:

“…one of the most beautiful and sincere prayers in the Bible. Expressing the abandonment of 2nd century BC Judaism, this prayer pleads that the contrite heart and humble spirit of the people be accepted by God. This prayer is quoted in the offertory of every Mass.”

The context of the passage is a famous scene from the Book of Daniel. King Nebuchadnezzar had set up a huge golden statue in Babylon. All the officials were then summoned together for its dedication. At the sound of many musical instruments, all were called to prostrate themselves in worship of the statue. Anyone who refused would immediately be thrown into a mighty furnace.

It was reported to the king that some of his officials who were Jews had ignored his command. These were Shadrach, Meschach and Azariah (the Hebrew name for Abed-Nego). They were immediately summoned before the king and asked to account for themselves. When asked why they had not prostrated themselves before the statue, they said:

O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.
(Dan 3:16-18)

This reply enraged the king to such an extent that he ordered the furnace to be made seven times hotter. The three men were then thrown fully clothed into the furnace. It was so hot that the men throwing the three young men into the furnace were themselves burnt to death.

However, the three men were seen walking in the flames and they began praying aloud. Today’s passage is a part of their long prayer, led by Azariah, (see Dan 3:24-90*) of praise and thanksgiving, while the king’s servants continued to stoke the fire.

The king watched in amazement and said:

Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?…But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt… (Dan 3:92-93)

Clearly, the fourth figure was an angel of the Lord sent to protect these faithful servants of Yahweh. The king finally ordered the men to be taken from the fire – their clothes not even singed – and had the highest honours showered on them as a tribute to their God:

Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him. (Dan 3:95)

It is in this context that we read today’s passage. Azariah’s prayer begins with a plea for God not to abandon his people, nor to forget the covenant he promised so many descendants of Abraham. In faraway Babylon, separated by hundreds of miles from their religious centre in Jerusalem, there is a recognition that they are despised, abandoned and leaderless, and without their traditional religious rituals of worship:

…we have no ruler, or prophet, or leader,
no burnt offering, or sacrifice, or oblation, or incense,
no place to make an offering before you and to find mercy.

However, they pray that, even without holocausts of rams and bullocks, they can commit themselves completely to their God:

And now with all our heart we follow you;
we fear you and seek your presence.

They beg to be treated with mercy and gentleness. They at least hope that a truly repentant heart will win God’s forgiveness, and they put themselves totally at the feet of God’s mercy and compassion.

In fact, it is not necessary to do things ‘to win God’s favour’. Once we put ourselves completely in his hands, he will take care of us as he did with the three young men.

*Note: These verses from the Song of the Three Men in the Fiery Furnace are found only in the Greek text of the Old Testament, not the Hebrew text. Hence, they are not quoted in most non-Catholic Bibles. Although we only have the Greek text, it is believed that the original was in Aramaic or Hebrew, and hence is included in Catholic Bibles.

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