Rejecting Idolatry

The well-known story from the Book of Daniel of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and the associated canticles of the Prayer and Hymn of the Three children, are among the most heavily cited Old Testament texts in texts of the Orthodox Divine Services. The focus of the episode is the rejection of idolatry as a means of buying peace in this world. 

Thou sawest that the stone was cut out of the mountain without hands and that it brake in pieces the iron, the brass, the clay, the silver, and the gold; the great God hath made known to the king what shall come to pass hereafter: and the dream is certain, and the interpretation thereof sure. Then the king Nebuchadnezzar fell upon his face, and worshipped Daniel, and commanded that they should offer an oblation and sweet odors unto him.

Nebuchadnezzar the king made an image of gold, whose height was threescore cubits, and the breadth thereof six cubits: he set it up in the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon. Then the princes, the governors, and captains, the judges, the treasurers, the counselors, the sheriffs, and all the rulers of the provinces, were gathered together unto the dedication of the image that Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up; and they stood before the image that Nebuchadnezzar had set up. And whoso falleth not down and worshippeth shall the same hour be cast into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. 

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 setup.  (Dan. 2:44-46,3:1, 3,6, 16-18)

The texts of Prayer of the Holy Three Children (Dan, 3:26-56) and Hymn of the Holy Children (Dan 5:57-88), are used in Orthodox hymnography are the basis for both the seventh and eighth of "canons" (lengthy pedagogic hymns used daily in Matins and Compline services throughout the year, as well as in personal devotions. The canon as a poetic form dates from the Seventh Century). In addition, the imagery from these texts, especially "fiery furnace" and "unquarried mountain", are used independently throughout the services.

The actions of King Nebuchadnezzar reveal the fundamental errors that lead to idolatry to be rejected, specifically:

  • Failure to recognize the ability of the transcendent revelation of God to break the bonds of the material world.
  • Conflating personal insight with the person of the divinity.
  • Setting-up a material object for the dedication of life as a standard of behavior determining their living and dying.

The refutation of this type of idolatry begins with miracle-working through obedience to the righteous commandments of God, as demonstrated by Elijah's confrontation with Ahab and the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel (3 Kingdoms 18:1-46). The passage is a classic example of spiritual challenge rhetoric, which was singularly persuasive in the ancient near east as it calls for a clear material demonstration of power. In this case, though the priests of Baal sacrificially shed their own blood, they produced no effect, whilst the prophet of God set his prayer offering on fire through the firewood, soaked and saturated with water.  

Hence, the rejection of idols set-up by worldly authority does not critique the worldly authority at all, but rather offers a defense or apology through positive actions that overcome all difficulties.  

However, there is another style of idolatry to be rejected, that of the original context for the giving of the Commandment against idolatry as recounted in Exodus (Ex 32:1-34) and Deuteronomy (9:7-10:22), in which the Hebrews, awaiting the return of Moses from his encounter with God, set-up for themselves the Golden Calf at Horeb. In doing so, the Hebrews:

changed His glory into the likeness 

of a calf that eateth grass. 

They forgot God, 

Who had saved them.

Who had done great things in Egypt, 

wonders in the land of Ham, 

terrible things at the Red Sea.

(Ps 105: 21-22)

While the idols set up by the nations are those of "silver", the idols set up by one's own work are those of "gold." Both the work of human hands, they are dead, and those who worship them are dead, while the true God of Love does what pleases Him, and is the source of all blessing (Ps. 113: 10-21). 

The infidelity of forgetting God, is the fundamental evangelical failure of understanding, rejecting the Incarnation – the reality that "God is with us" and its prophetic antitypes, leaving one not only into powerlessness but reliance on idolatry (Isa. 8:10-22). 

Christ Himself shows that rejecting these mortal temptations are at the very foundation of the process of seeking to understand that God is with us: 

Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred. 

And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.  But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.

Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple.  And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.

Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.  Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. 

Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him. (Matt. 4:1-11)

The three responses of Christ reveal the means by which idols are overthrown, specifically:

  • To have a material faith that God is providing all things necessary, to be carefree in the world: poverty.
  • To act prudently in the world through personal struggle and striving, to "toil" or labor for one's needs: chastity.
  • To rationalize activity with single-minded attention to reciprocating the love of God: obedience.

The Ever-blessed Virgin-Mother of God made Christ available to human experience the mystery of the Love of God, refuting the idolatry of imagination as either philosophical speculation or the mythology (cf. St John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of St John, IV & V) without life-giving ability that fortifies Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in their defiance.  

On Mount Sinai, Moses beheld in the bush thee who,

without being consumed, 

conceived the fire of the Godhead

within thy womb.  

Daniel beheld thee,

as the unquarried mountain.  

Isaiah cried aloud: 

Thou art the rod sprung forth from the root of David!  

(Irmos of Ode 9, Octoechos, Tone 3, for Monday). 

As such, the task of refusing idolatry is to substantiate the personality into the fullness of Christ, that is, to struggle to cultivate, not extinguish in some false martyrdom, the authentic self through a life of prayer (technically, "theological"), participation in the philanthropy of God.  

To become a "Man of Faith", Abram made no cruel sacrifice but sought to love God with all his possessions, strength, and mental capacity, and to offer hospitality to all who visited, whether men or angels, and to all whom he visited, whether Egyptians or Lot.  

To become a "Man of God," courage through faith to constrain one's own thoughts (logismoi) is required in order to witness to the Truth of Life by refusing to place confidence in what is subject to corruption and belonging to creation, while rationally discerning what is life creating, choosing to face the fiery temptations of demons so as to be bedewed by God's love.

The effort of rejecting idolatry is the practice of the love of wisdom (literally, philosophy) that allows one to understand the human relationship with God, making one authentically rational. Of  course, this is the duty of each and every person who would "put on Christ.”  Nevertheless,  fundamental to the monastic life is Christian philosophy through rejecting idols through a dedication to intense, single-mindedness in order to heal the radical brokenness of a person's personal life through a hope in receiving as a blessing, a crown of blessedness by seeing God (technically, experiencing what St. Isaac the Syrian terms theoria), and, in the Orthodox tradition represented by St. Gregory Palamas, the participating in the Uncreated Light, the energies of God: pure love.