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The Power of “But If Not” in Daniel 3:18: True Faith Amid Word Faith Heresies

shadrach-meshach-abednego-standIn my last post, I mentioned that Rev. Mike Caparrelli, pastor of Sacred Exchange Fellowship in East Greenwich RI, an old student of mine, recently gave a rousing example of what it looks like to preach biblical faith with all the same vigor and vim of those self-aggrandizing peacocks who strut about proclaiming what I deem a heretical vision of faith—Word Faith Teachers.

Word Faith teachers tell you that God HAS promised you a rose garden, that perfect health, and wealth aplenty is yours for the having if only you can muster the faith to take it, that it is always God’s intention for you to achieve all your heart’s desires in the here and now. If you are not living this Eden in America (or Canada, Kenya, Timbuktu, etc) it is because you are lacking in faith, because you don’t take God at His word (no matter how out of context said “word” might be, no matter how inconsistent said interpretation of said word might be with the rest of God’s sacred texts). To even question their interpretation is enough doubt to rob you of God’s perfect blessing.

There were two key moments in this sermon where Rev. Caparrelli keyed in on the subtle yet radically impacting difference between this vision of faith and a biblical vision of faith. His message was on transforming faith, he never bothered to denounce Word Faith anything per se, but the distinction stood out just the same.

The first was in his quote from Oswald Chambers: “There are some things only learned in a fiery furnace.”  When Word faith teachers convince people that all suffering is from the Devil or the result of their own weak faith, they rob these believers of the rewards to be had by standing in faith and obedience during trials of suffering, rewards that would never be possible were God to deliver them from these trials ahead of time.

Even when, perhaps especially when, our suffering is the result of our foolishness (not our lack of faith) these experiences bring a level of training and discipline to our lives that is impossible to gain in other, less torturous, ways.

The second key moment in this sermon where Rev. Caparrelli incidentally keyed in on the subtle yet radically impacting difference between a Word Faith Teachers’ vision of faith and a biblical vision of faith was in his reference to the words spoken by Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as they stood before Nebuchadnezzar.

In Daniel 3:16-18 it reads, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.’”

God is able to deliver us. It is often God’s purpose to deliver us. Sometimes he has to deliver us from our own stupidity, our own ignorance, our own selfishness. These deliverances often come through trials, through suffering, through discipline.

Sometimes it is God’s intention to miraculously deliver us from evil, from the purposes of the wicked, from the pains both big and small that creation hurls at all her children. These too are lessons for our faith. Our God is able. (Exodus 29:46) God sometimes acts that others might look on, “that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel.” (1 Samuel 17:46) Thus, YHWH accomplishes His ends among the lost saying, “They shall know that I am YHWH.” (Exodus 14:4)

Sometimes, as “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego knew…

[Not in wavering faith, but in the full conviction of faith that they served a God whose Holy, unchangeable, omniscient wisdom, means that He might have purposes and plans beyond the comprehension of foolish, short-sighted, emotionally needy and selfish men.]

…God, in spite of His capacity to save, and because of his sovereign purposes, might choose not to save from temporal troubles, so that some—so that you—might be an instrument in His hand to accomplish ends that we cannot begin to comprehend.

Biblical faith is not a means to accomplishing our purposes in this world. Biblical faith is the means by which we fully become His instruments. Biblical faith thrives in the tension between Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s “Our God is able to save” and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s “But if not,” finding a contented, obedient and trusting heart in either scenario.

5 thoughts on “The Power of “But If Not” in Daniel 3:18: True Faith Amid Word Faith Heresies

  1. Josephus says:

    Even though I agree that the word of faith movement tries to claim false promises, there is a slight translation difficulty in Daniel 3:17 that makes it not the best counter verse.

    P. W. Coxon beat me to writing an article suggesting that the best translation (and most uncomfortable one) of Daniel 3:17-18 is “If our God is able to save us… then he will, but even if he can’t… we still will not bow.” Even though I suspected that the awkward Aramaic might mean this, Cox had a much better grasp of how Akkadian grammar validates the difficult grammar here, and validates its sense too. He goes so far as to say that the “to-be” verb here takes on asseverative and confirmation force, as in “certainly” or “really” or “indeed” because of Akkadian parallels among statements of sworn witnesses. (Coxon, P W.. Source: Vetus testamentum, 26 no 4 O 1976, p 400-409.)

    In other words, the three companions are invoking God to validate them in ordeal trial, and they claim that because God can save, God will and must. This was so audacious that almost every Jewish and Christian interpreter/translator has tried to soften their words to “if God wills” instead of the definite “if God can”. But God’s “strength to save” is a core issue throughout the book of Daniel and to all the religiously suppressed exiles.

    Thus the “if not…” statement is not to be assumed to be “if God chooses not to save,” but rather, “if God is not strong enough to save us, we still won’t bow to an idol.” By all rights of ordeal trial this is beyond audacious, to lose at court and still not pay.

    The theological difficulty with this is that it encourages the idea that soon-to-be martyrs who are loyal to God should be confident that they will always be rescued. This is the hope expressed in 2 Peter 2:9.

    My only solution to this paradox is that each “deliverance” from death in Daniel has a judicial or legal aspect to it. God was in a sense at court and on trial, not figuratively, but literally. Our day to day trials of bills and disease are just not in the same league.

    1. Do you have a link to P. W. Coxon? Though at this point I disagree. He would have to convince me that his Akkadian grammar solution has any bearing here as to the ultimate connection between their God is able and but if not. To doubt God’s ability is to doubt God himself… something these young men do not do. To work a translation of an awkward phrase to be theological untenable in the mouths of these figures begs the worth of such a solution. 2 Peter 2:9 makes no such promise… given that Peter is getting ready to die and knows this it is begging a lot of questions to use it so. Just as Paul, who knows that God is able to deliver having been delivered so many times, makes no such promise, but rather prepares for either eventuality. Why press an awkward phrase to challenge the faith of men who are champions of faith. God’s ability is never on the line, only his willingness, his purpose, his plan. Even if he chooses not to save, they’d rather die and than bow. Thanks for sharing.

      1. Reading in Towner today, he discusses how the Aramaic makes the interpretation of an ambiguous Hebrew more certain… “even if he doesn’t” as opposed to “but even if he can’t.”

        Just a note of interest.

  2. Scott says:

    I agree that their statement was a certainty but the words ‘But if not’ are misapplied. “But if not” refers to ‘if you don’t throw us in the furnace’ not ‘if God doesn’t deliver us’. If the ‘but if not’ means God not delivering them then how are they to bow down and worship the idol if they have been consumed in the furnace? So it makes no sense for them to say ‘God is able to deliver us, but if he doesn’t deliver us then we won’t bow anyway’. This should be quite obvious as a pile of ashes cannot bow and worship. It can only mean that if for some reason (God’s intervention) Nebuchadnezzar decides not to throw them in the oven then they still won’t bow down after thi episode is over.

    1. I’ve never heard this position. The commentaries I’ve read disagree, as do I. The logic is that whether God delivers them or not, they have no intention of bowing down. They aren’t saying “we won’t bow,” because they are convinced that they will live through this… even if certain of their own death, they have no intentions of complying with the kings demand. They are saying, there is nothing that you can say or do that will make us bow. Kill us if you like… we won’t bow.

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