Tricky Technicalities: How Details Outside of Context Twist the Meaning of Bible Passages

Pay Attention to Detail

Recently I was discussing the story of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah with a friend (whom we’ll call Robert) who had never heard their story before. Robert is studying to be an accountant and has a very sharp eye. Attention to detail is a gift of his. He often notices small details most people overlook and does so with very little effort. Unlike me, I have to spend a decent amount of time (often hours) going over something and categorically breaking it down before I will notice the kinds of small details Robert picks up on so naturally.

If you are sitting there thinking, I’ve never heard the story of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah before either, that might be because you probably know them as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. We find their story in the book of Daniel in the Old Testament. Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were their Jewish names. When they were just teenagers they were carried off to Babylon and their names were changed to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. They are only mentioned a few times in the book of Daniel. Once in chapter one, verses six and seven, where they are introduced to us along with Daniel. Then again in chapter two, verse 49, where we see Daniel use his favor with the king of Babylon to request that his friends be appointed “over the administration of the province of Babylon.” Finally, in chapter three of Daniel, we read the story which made them famous.

The king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, had made a statue of gold and held a dedication ceremony for this golden statue. At the dedication ceremony, everyone was commanded to “fall down and worship the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king [had] set up” (cf. Daniel 3:5). It appears as though Daniel and the king were so close that Daniel himself was exempt from this command. In the previous chapter we read about a how Daniel had been made the second in command under the king:

“Then the king promoted Daniel and gave him many great gifts, and he made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon.”
– Daniel 2:28

Daniel’s three friends were not so fortunate. They had to fall down and worship the image just like everybody else. Except they refused to. As punishment for their refusal, King Nebuchadnezzar had them tied up and thrown into a “furnace of blazing fire” (3:23). The fire of the furnace was so hot that the guards who tied them up were killed by the flames when they threw them in (cf. 3:22). But Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego “came out of the midst of the fire” and “the fire had no effect on the bodies of these men nor was the hair of their head singed, nor were their trousers damaged, nor had the smell of fire even come upon them” (cf. 3:26,27). And while they were in the furnace the Bible tells us that King Nebuchadnezzar saw a fourth man walking about in the flames with them whose appearance was “like a son of the gods” (cf. 3:25).¹ Just an all-around awesome story about God delivering the faithful.

Details Without Context Spell Disaster

So Robert had never heard this story and went to read it for himself. And, with his natural attentiveness to details, caught something in verse 26 of chapter three and asked me about it.

Then Nebuchadnezzar came near to the door of the furnace of blazing fire; he responded and said, “Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, come out, you servants of the Most High God, and come here!” Then Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego came out of the midst of the fire.
– Daniel 3:26

What are some of the details that stand out to you? Let’s make a short list of the details in this verse:

  1. Nebuchadnezzar is speaking to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego
  2. He came near to the door of the furnace to speak to them
  3. He tells them to come out of the furnace and “come here” (i.e., to him)
  4. He calls them servants of the Most High God
  5. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego came out of the furnace

If you are like me you have to make lists like this in order to catch all the details in a passage and get a clear picture of what is going on. However, if you are like Robert, you take one look at the verse and your mind is automatically creating a mental list of all the details, and mentally arranging them in relation to the other details of the passage. This is exactly what Robert did but since it was his first time reading the story he needed a little clarification with the details of this verse in relation to the larger context.

Robert’s question was, “Could we say that technically they weren’t rescued because Nebuchadnezzar orders them to come out of the furnace?” Robert immediately noticed that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego did not come out of the furnace until after Nebuchadnezzar ordered them to come out. “Technically,” Robert poised, “God did not bring them out of the furnace but only kept them safe while they were in it.” I told Robert he is going to make a great Bible teacher one day. I also used his observation and question as an opportunity to show him how we have to take every detail in its proper context.

Technically, Robert’s observation is right. God did not run in and bring Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego out of the furnace. God kept them safe in the midst of the fire and they stayed there until Nebuchadnezzar ordered them to come out. This is a great observation of a small detail which is normally overlooked. More than that, this small, often overlooked, detail is actually important because it is supportive of the main point in this story.

What Robert was unsure of was his interpretation of this detail. Or, we could say, his application of this detail to the rest of the passage. His mind pondered: Is it safe to say that technically God did not rescue them because they did not come out of the furnace until after Nebuchadnezzar ordered them out? For some the answer to this question is obvious. But detail-oriented people like Robert need to see how little things like this fit into the bigger picture in order to get a proper understanding. After all, if we are honest about the details, technically it was Nebuchadnezzar who brought them out of the furnace and not God. Technically, God did just keep them safe until Nebuchadnezzar ordered them to come out. So is this detail important? Does it change the overall meaning of this passage? How does it fit into the larger context?

Details Within Context Provide Understanding

I proposed the following questions to Robert to help him understand:

  1. Although they did not come out of the furnace until after Nebuchadnezzar ordered them to; would they have been able to come out of the furnace if God had not protected them?
  2. Do you think God’s protection of them was dependent upon whether or not Nebuchadnezzar was going to order them out of the furnace?

When we answer these questions we can confidently say that they were rescued. The technicality that they only came out of the furnace because Nebuchadnezzar ordered them to does not change the fact that it was God who rescued them from being consumed by the fire. But here is an even more interesting question which I also asked Robert:

  • Why do you think God did not bring them out of the furnace but simply kept them safe while they were in it?

Robert did not know it but his attention to detail had clued him into the real purpose behind this story. For those of us who are not detail oriented like Robert the larger details that more easily stand out can also be just as distracting from obtaining the meaning behind a passage. What would you say if I told you this story isn’t even about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego? You would probably look at me crazy and say, “Well, of course, it’s about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. Look at how they refused to worship the king’s image and God saved them from the fire. What else could it possibly be about?” What if I told you the story was really about King Nebuchadnezzar and his relationship with God?

Do I have your attention now? There are a lot of lessons we can learn from this story. The shining light of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego’s faithfulness is definitely one of them. But they are not the only characters in this story and their faithfulness and rescue is not the only detail in the story. So what do the details of their actions and God’s rescue look like in relation to the other details of the story?

There is a lot going on in the book of Daniel. But King Nebuchadnezzar seems to be the main character of chapters two, three, and four. Let’s make another list and take a look at some of the things each of these chapters have in common:

  1. King Nebuchadnezzar and God are the only characters who appear in all three chapters
  2. Every chapter includes some kind of story in which God is showing Himself supreme and sovereign over Nebuchadnezzar (who was king over the entire known world at that time)
  3. Every chapter contrasts Nebuchadnezzar’s unbelief with the faith of either Daniel or his friends
  4. And every chapter includes some kind of statement made by Nebuchadnezzar, in which he is acknowledging the sovereignty of God, after he is humbled by some divine act from God (see 2:47; 3:28,29; 4:34-37)

We can get so excited about things like God miraculously appearing in the fire to protect Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego that we miss other details like those just given in the list above. All the details of a passage (and their relationship to each other) should be taken into consideration when attempting to understand it. If we focus only on the details we like or just the ones that stand out to us, then we will twist the technicalities and miss what God is saying to us. It doesn’t matter if you are someone like me, who more easily sees the big facts (like God protecting them) unless you make a list of the other details; or, someone like Robert to whom the smaller details naturally stick out. We have to take the time to take a step back and make sure we are looking at all of it within its proper context.

Twisting the Scriptures

When we don’t take the time to make sure we are applying the details within the context we become like the people whom Peter said “twist” (or distort) the Scriptures to our own destruction. Peter wrote that there are some things in the Scriptures which are “hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction” (cf. 2 Peter 3:16). What Peter tells us here is that if we will do it with the things that are hard to understand, then we will do it with the rest of Scripture too. Thus, we will also do it with the things that aren’t so hard to understand.

This particular example with Robert and this small detail in Daniel struck a real cord with me because I have heard a Word-of-Faith preacher preach an entire message on that very detail that Robert pointed out. He took that one little detail – that they didn’t come out of the furnace until the king ordered them to – and used it to preach a message on the power of your words. The main point of his message:

They couldn’t come out of the furnace until Nebuchadnezzar ordered them to because it was Nebuchadnezzar’s words that released them from the flames.

Things like this can sound good to the untrained eye (and the sinful heart that wants to have more power than God does). Especially when they are based on some small detail that is an actual fact in Scripture. In this case that detail is that they didn’t come out until after the king ordered them to. However, in context, this does not mean that they couldn’t come out until he ordered them to. Neither does that detail, within the context of its passage, in any way support the power of words.

In fact, I would dare to venture as far to say that such an interpretation of this passage, based on one small detail pulled out of context, is borderline blasphemy. It places us and the power of our words above God and His power. Leading people to believe that there are certain things God can’t do unless they “release” the right words. Ironically, that particular preacher’s interpretation of this passage is actually completely contrary to the actual lesson behind this story. It’s a prime example of how details without context spell disaster by creating tricky technicalities that twist the meaning of Bible passages.

Proper Context Provides Powerful Meaning

Have you ever been to a restaurant with great service but horrible food? You walk in and the atmosphere is just so uplifting. The hostess greets you with a smile and everybody is just outright chipper and attentive. They just make you feel like you’re the only person in the restaurant. Your waiter is quick with your drinks and extremely helpful with explaining their menu items and helping you pick something out. The service is so good that you are eagerly looking forward to some equally great food.

But then your food gets there and it doesn’t look or taste anything like the picture on the menu or the way your waiter described it. You’re just sure there has been some kind of mistake so you kindly ask your waiter to have it remade and you’re met with, “I’m sorry sir. That’s how it always comes.” And you’re sitting there looking at it thinking, Really? It looks and tastes more like something your four-year-old would’ve thrown together. Just a bunch of random ingredients sloppily thrown together with no real rhyme or reason and clearly no kind of recipe to guide how it was cooked. I’ve never been to a restaurant that bad but you get the picture. Nobody wants to eat bad food no matter how good the service is.

Random interpretations of passages like the aforementioned preacher’s that are sloppily thrown together based on tricky technicalities produced by twisting details without context sound good because they appeal to our itchy ears. (Ears that want to hear what we want to be told.) However, they are just like that restaurant with great service and horrible food. They look good but offer no sustenance for your spiritual growth. And there is really only one of two reasons for them:

  • A corrupt heart
  • Or just pure laziness

If we have a corrupt heart we will not care about understanding the Scriptures in their proper context and we will feel no remorse about twisting details to give passages whatever kind of meaning we think they mean. If we do not have a corrupt heart than our only other excuse is that we are too lazy to spend the time it takes to put in the work to dig deep and make sure we are applying everything within context. When we do we will find much more powerful meanings than the ones that scratch our itchy ears.

Within context what we see in the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego is something much more meaningful than God delivering them for their faithfulness. Yes, this is an awesome lesson and one that should be of great encouragement to us. It is also one that takes on much more meaning when we look at it in light of its larger context. The continual theme throughout chapters two through four of Daniel is God using the simple faith of Daniel and his friends to humble the most powerful man in the world and show that He alone is God and there is no other god worthy of our worship.

That, my friends, is a message with meaning. The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego is just one story among many illustrating this powerful truth. King Nebuchadnezzar was so astonished by what happened when he threw them in the furnace that he acknowledges they are servants of the Most High God and orders them to come out of the fire. He acknowledged that they served the God above all gods, that God delivered them because they refused to worship any other gods, and that no other god is able to deliver the way their God did. He even passed a decree that anyone who said anything offensive against their God would be “torn limb from limb and their houses reduced to a rubbish heap” (cf. Daniel 3:28,29)

That’s the real power of the message behind this story. Our God is sovereign over every ruler on earth no matter how powerful they are and every so-called god. King Nebuchadnezzar actually sums it up best himself at the end of chapter four:

For His dominion is an everlasting dominion,
And His kingdom endures from generation to generation.
All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
But He does according to His will in the host of heaven
And among the inhabitants of earth;
And no one can ward off His hand
Or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’

Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise, exalt and honor the King of heaven, for all His works are true and His ways just, and He is able to humble those who walk in pride.  – Daniel 4:34b,37

Taking details out of context may not seem like a big deal to some but I don’t want to miss beautiful truths like this. If this is the lesson King Nebuchadnezzar learned from his interactions with God – through the faith and courage of men like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego – how much more so should it be the lesson to us? May our faith and courage bring to those around us this same powerful revelation of God’s majesty as Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego’s did to King Nebuchadnezzar.

¹Most Bible scholars would agree that this is what we call a theophany (a visible manifestation of God) and maybe even a Christophany (a theophany in which God takes on human form and is seen as a foreshadow of the incarnation). I’m hoping to write more on this specifically soon but until then check out this link to for more information on a theophany.

Copyright © Lawrence Joseph Sterling 2017. All rights reserved.