Introduction to the story
In the Book of Daniel, there is an account of four young men who are forcibly taken from their home in Jerusalem to serve in the Babylonian courts after the city falls to the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar. The most famous youth is Daniel himself, whose exploits are recorded throughout the book, but in the third chapter, we also have an account of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—his countrymen and fellow captives. The icon of The Fiery Furnace centres on the story of these young men.
The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego begins with King Nebuchadnezzar having a 90ft statue of gold made, and enforcing by law that everyone in his kingdom must worship it upon pain of death. When Shadrach and his companions don’t comply with worshipping the false god as ordered, a group of concerned citizens bring their misbehaviour to the King’s notice, and they are called to give an account of their actions.
In the story, King Nebuchadnezzar reminds the youths that the punishment for refusing the law is being burned alive in his furnace, and he warns them to obey and worship his golden statue in future. But when these young men express their faith in a true God who can save them from every danger, their public challenge to his power enrages the king so much that he commands the furnace to be heated seven times hotter than usual before Shadrach Meshach, and Abednego are thrown in. The heat is so extreme that it breaks the walls of the furnace and consumes the soldiers who are feeding it. Into the midst of this raging inferno, the three youths are thrown to their presumed incineration.
But, instead of a puff of greasy smoke coming forth from the furnace, a song of praise proceeds from its flames. An angel (literally called the Son of God) appears with them in the fire, providing coolness like the morning dew, and together the three young men stand up and sing. As they sing, they call on everything in the world, the sun and moon, the whales and birds, the just and humble-hearted, (even fire and heat,) to bless God. Today this song is known as the Benedicite, Latin for “Bless”, and is still regularly sung during weekly prayers.
King Nebuchadnezzar is so astonished that he leaps to his feet. Unsure if he should believe his eyes, he asks those around him to affirm the fourth figure in the furnace before running to the furnace himself and calling to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to come out of the fire. This the young men do, and when standing before the King without a hair of their head being singed or the smell of smoke on their clothes, the King calls all the people to worship the true God.
Even though the story of The Fiery Furnace is 2500 years old, it continues to resonate powerfully today. It remains one of my children’s favourite stories (based solely on its entertainment value, I suspect). I have also often heard it used as a metaphor for living with the difficult circumstances of life. And, of course, it remains a source of liturgical praise throughout the year. And so, in our imagination, hardships, and worship, people in every corner of the world share the faith of these young men in their daily lives.
Despite the popularity of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s story, icons of The Fiery Furnace are not very common. Those that do exist depict a historical narration of the story (a simple form for festal iconography). When an inquiry came to the studio about commissioning an icon from this story, creating such an icon posed some meaningful challenges for the studio. In the end, I think that those challenges have led to the contribution, in some small way, to the general canon of iconography.
Now, with the icon hanging on the studio’s easel, awaiting its transport to a new home in Nebraska in the United States, I look at it and remember the blessings received in its making. Because of this, I thought it would be good to share in a bit more detail the story of creating this icon and some general considerations in making icons like this one by writing a short series of articles about the icon of The Fiery Furnace.