Changing the King's Word
Daniel chapter 3 contains the well-known account of the deliverance of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace. The chapter gives an outstanding example of obedience to the First Commandment’s requirement that the covenant people are to worship God alone. These three young men display faith and courage by defying the king’s command that all men are to worship the image that he has set up. The miraculous deliverance of the Hebrew youths is a thrilling instance of God’s power to deliver those who trust in Him.
In highlighting these features of the story, Christians may overlook a significant statement in Daniel 3:28 that has important political ramifications:
Then Nebuchadnezzar spake, and said, Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who hath sent his angel, and delivered his servants that trusted in him, and have changed the king’s word, and yielded their bodies, that they might not serve nor worship any god, except their own God (emphasis added).
By their obedience to God, these men were able to change the “king’s word,” that is, they were used of God to nullify a law that was evil and directly opposed to the law of God. This aspect of the story is not an interesting subordinate theme, but reflects the central point of Daniel 3: God is sovereign over the word, i.e., the law, of the king/state.
In Daniel chapter 1, Babylon defeats Israel, and Daniel and his three companions are taken captive to Babylon. In the midst of their new circumstances, these men are required to eat and drink that which would defile them. But by wisdom and prudence they are able to work out a solution that delivers them from having to partake of the offending food and drink while satisfying their captors. But here in chapter 3, they face a new crisis where there are only two options and prudence will not avail: they will either obey God or the king.
As the experiences of these young Hebrews demonstrate, true believers, when living under non-Christian religious or secular rulers, will be faced with laws of the state that conflict with the laws of God. In this circumstance, Daniel 1 shows how God’s people might at times be delivered from keeping the offending laws by patience, wisdom, and submission. But Daniel 3 indicates that there will be times when the only course open to believers is direct disobedience to the law of the state if they are to remain faithful to the law of God.
The relationship of Daniel chapter 2 to chapter 3 is important to understand. Daniel 2, through Daniel’s interpretation of a dream given to Nebuchadnezzar, teaches that God controls history, and that He is sovereign over nations and rulers. He sets up kings and removes them at will — they are only in power because it is according to His eternal decree (Dan. 2:37-38; see also Dan. 4:17, 25-26, 32, 34) — and He will one day set up His own kingdom that will subdue all the kingdoms of the world (Dan. 2:44; see also Dan. 7:9-14). As Daniel 2 proclaims the sovereignty of God over kings and the state, so Daniel 3 reveals the sovereignty of God over the word, or law, of the king and of the state.
The tension in the story of Daniel 3 is between the law of the king and the law of God: the king commands these Israelites to disobey the law of their God and to worship the image he has set up. Nebuchadnezzar believes that he is all-powerful and no one can successfully defy his commands; he arrogantly thinks that his law cannot be “changed” — nullified or set at nought — by anyone. And to prove this, he commands that anyone who fails to submit to his absolute sovereignty will be burnt alive in a furnace of fire. Yet, the three Hebrew youths refuse to obey the king’s command. They state their refusal is these stirring words:
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, answered and said to the king, O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up (Dan. 3:16-18).
The tyrant, Nebuchadnezzar, is enraged by their disobedience and has them cast into the furnace in full confidence that his word cannot be set at nought by any man or any God (“and who is that God that shall deliver you out of my hands?” Dan. 3:15).
But to the astonishment of the king, who has taken a seat nearby to witness his victory, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are not consumed by the flames! Instead, he sees them walking around in the flames with a fourth person who is like “a son of a god” (Hebrew), that is, a divine person. So Nebuchadnezzar called to the men to come forth, and seeing that they do not even have the smell of smoke on them, confesses that the God of Israel has sent His angel to deliver His servants.
The effect of this deliverance is that “they have changed the king’s word.” The word “changed” means to alter, set at nought, nullify, or frustrate. Here, the sense is that the law of Nebuchadnezzar has been changed in that it is no longer valid and in force. A law without enforceable sanctions is by definition no longer a law. But to whom does the “they” refer? The Hebrew indicates that it is Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who have “changed” it!
How did they change the law of the king? They did so by their obedience to God’s law. Their obedience became the means whereby God demonstrated His sovereignty over the king and invalidated the evil law of the Babylonian state. If these men would not have courageously obeyed God, the law would have remained in force. But by their submission to God’s law in defiance of the king, God demonstrated His supremacy over all human law and set aside the tyrannical law of men by nullifying its appointed sanction.
This familiar story of Daniel in the lions’ den is a favorite of children, but it is not simply a children’s story. It deals with weighty issues and important truths. In fact, the theme of Daniel 6 is nearly identical to that of Daniel 3. In both, men who are faithful to God are placed in a position where obedience to the king’s law will put them in disobedience to God’s law. In both, jealous colleagues accuse these men before the king. In both, they are condemned to a cruel death for disobeying the law of the state. In both, God sends His angel to deliver them. In both, the king winds up issuing a decree honoring the God of Israel. And in both, the law of the king is changed. In Daniel 3, the unrighteous law of the state is set aside by the sovereign activity of God through His servants. In Daniel 6, again, the unrighteous law of the state is nullified by God through the obedience of one of His servants.
The parallel between Daniel 3 and Daniel 6 is also seen in the following two ways. First, the same Hebrew word for “changed” that is used in Daniel 3:28 is also used in Daniel 6:8, 15, 17 (cf. Dan. 6:12 where a cognate word for “changed” is also used). The pride of the Medes and the Persians was that any law they choose to establish could not be changed by anyone:
Now, O king, establish the decree, and sign the writing, that it be not changed, according to the law of the Medes and Persians, which altereth not (Dan. 6:8).
Then these men assembled unto the king, and said unto the king, Know, O king, that the law of the Medes and Persians is, that no decree nor statute which the king establisheth may be changed (Dan. 6:15).
The law once decreed could not be changed because when the king, as a “son of the gods” and their representative on earth, established a decree it was considered infallible.
In their arrogance, Nebuchadnezzar and the Medo-Persian kings believed that they were themselves divine, and that their word/law was “just” and could not be invalidated by anyone. In both Daniel 3 and 6 the king had issued a law that could not be changed, or so they thought.
The second parallel is that there is the same connection between Daniel chapters 2 and 3 as there is between Daniel chapters 4, 5 and 6. Daniel 2 proclaims the sovereignty of God over history and the nations and rulers of the world. This is followed with the changing of the king’s word in Daniel 3. In Daniel 4 and 5, the sovereignty of God over the nations and rulers of the earth is dramatically set forth by God’s pronouncements (4:17, 24-26, 32; 5:18-27) and actions (4:28-37; 5:5-9, 30). These things are followed in chapter 6 with the changing of the king’s word.
Two truths are clearly set forth in the opening six chapters of Daniel: 1) God is sovereign over all nations, and He sets up kings and kingdoms and removes them as it pleases Him; 2) God’s law is higher than the laws of men, and He has the power to nullify man’s law at will.
In Daniel 6, Daniel courageously defies a demonic law that made it illegal for him to pray or make any petition to his God for thirty days. The biblical text states:
Now when Daniel knew that the writing was signed, he went into his house; and his windows being open in his chamber toward Jerusalem, he kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed, and gave thanks before his God, as he did aforetime (Dan. 6:10).
Because of his disobedience to the state’s law Daniel is accused, the gruesome penalty for disobeying the law is applied to Daniel, and he is cast into the den of lions. As in chapter 3, God sends His angel to deliver His faithful servant; and so the lions have no power over him. The law of “the Medes and Persians, which altereth not” is rendered null and void by the power of God. The result is that Darius declares:
I make a decree, That in every dominion of my kingdom men tremble and fear before the God of Daniel: for he is the living God, and steadfast for ever, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed, and his dominion shall be even unto the end. He delivereth and rescueth, and he worketh signs and wonders in heaven and in earth, who hath delivered Daniel from the power of the lions (Dan. 6:26-27).
In these two accounts from the book of Daniel, we see how God uses the obedience of His people to change the king’s word. By obeying the law of God in opposition to the unjust and tyrannical laws of these despots who claimed absolute supremacy, these servants of God became the means for demonstrating the sovereignty of God over the law of the state. Two applications may be drawn for us today.
1. God is sovereign, and His law stands over the law of the state.
The great mistake of Nebuchadnezzar and the Medes and the Persians was their delusion that there was no higher law than their own pronouncements. But in these incidents of Daniel 3 and 6, these tyrants were taught differently. The tyrants and proud autonomous rulers of the secular states of today (including the United States) ought to pay heed to these lessons before they too are humbled and judged.
According to Daniel and other Scripture, the state and the civil magistrate are under a higher law, and they are accountable to frame their laws in accord with it. The higher law, of course, is the law of God. But the reigning legal philosophy of the West today is legal positivism. This theory rejects any concept of a higher law and contends that law is the mere will of the state; the state creates law, and there is no higher law that stands above it to inform it, or “change” it.
The arrogance of many civil rulers and judges today is similar to the arrogance of the pagan kings of Babylon and Persia in Daniel’s day: our law is supreme, they say, and no man or God can judge it and no man dare disobey it. But human pride and atheistic legal theory do not change the fact that God rules over the kingdoms of men and His law is supreme over all the laws of the state.
2. God’s people are called to “change” the unrighteous laws of the state.
As the accounts in Daniel reveal, God uses the obedience of His people as a means for changing the king’s word when that word conflicts with His own righteous law. In Daniel 3 and 6, that obedience takes the form of direct civil disobedience. However, in the account of Daniel 1, Daniel and his three companions are able to change the king’s word concerning their diet by means others than disobedience.
This much is clear: whenever the law of the state directly contradicts the law of God, the people of God are to seek to “change” it; whenever the state exceeds the bounds of its legitimate authority it is to be resisted by the people of God. This does not mean armed resistance — there is no armed resistance in Daniel 3 or 6 (though there may be a time and place for such resistance when it is the last resort and is pursued under the authority of a legitimate, though lesser, civil magistrate). Neither does it always mean civil disobedience (though it may come to that, if all else fails).
Christians have spiritual weapons available to them for resisting the unlawful dictates of the state, and these must be employed (cf. 2 Cor. 10:3-6; chief among these are the Word and prayer, e.g., imprecatory Psalms). Christians in republics or “democracies” also have various political avenues open to them for resisting and changing unrighteous law. These avenues must be vigorously pursued. Change will, no doubt, take time and persistence, but obedience to God requires it.
The stories of Daniel 3 and 6 teach the people of God that by their steadfast obedience to God’s law they become instruments in the Lord’s hands to “change the king’s word.”
This article was originally published in The Christian Statesman, vol. 148, no. 3, May - June 2005.