Your hand will lay hold upon all your enemies; *
your right hand will seize all those who hate you.
You will make them like a fiery furnace *
at the time of your appearing, O LORD;
You will swallow them up in your wrath, *
and fire shall consume them. (Psalm 21:8-10)
It’s so tempting, isn’t it? To want victory in the same terms as our “enemies” enjoy it. To believe that victory means power and control over others.
Immediately after we read Psalms 20 and 21, we finally reach the climax of the opening chapters of the Book of Daniel that we’ve been reading all week. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Daniel’s Hebrew companions at the court of the king of Babylon, refuse to worship the great gold statue that Nebuchadnezzar has erected, so they are thrown into a fiery furnace.
The Book of Daniel probably came later in the compilation of the Hebrew Bible — it seems to reflect a post-Exile sensibility — but I’m tempted to believe that the Psalmist is wishing to have victory like the Babylonian king, victory that everyone can see, victory that burns up his enemies.
After our reading from the Book of Daniel, we respond with Canticle 12, appointed for Saturday mornings (BCP 144). Canticle 12 is known by three names: “A Song of Creation,” the Latin first line Benedicite, omnia opera Domini, and the descriptive title Song of the Three Young Men.
Yes, those three young men. What were Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego doing in the fiery furnace? They were praising the God of creation.
Glorify the Lord, you angels and all powers of the Lord, *
O heavens and all waters above the heavens.
Sun and moon and stars of the sky, glorify the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.
Glorify the Lord, every shower of rain and fall of dew, *
all winds and fire and heat.
Winter and Summer, glorify the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever. (BCP 88)
The mighty king of Babylon is astonished. His power has no effect on these young men. It even looks like they are walking around in the furnace with a fourth figure. An angel?
He yells at them, “Come out, come here!”
And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men; the hair of their heads was not singed, their tunics were not harmed, and not even the smell of fire came from them. Nebuchadnezzar said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him. They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. (Daniel 3:27-30)
What is victory?
Is it burning your enemies up in a fiery furnace? Is it winning control? Is it having power and prestige?
Or is it praising God in all circumstances? Is it yielding up your body rather than serve any power but God?
The three young men seem to know the answer. Jesus, meeting the devil in the wilderness after his baptism, seems to answer temptation in the same way.
Truth is, for us whose faith is formed by the Hebrew Bible and given flesh in Jesus and powered by the Spirit, victory means yielding ourselves, not lording over others.
Truth is, victory is “to worship the Lord [our] God, and serve only him” (Luke 4:8).