Daniel 3:25, 34-43 (NRSVCE)
Then Azariah stood still in the fire and prayed aloud:
For your name’s sake do not give us up forever,
and do not annul your covenant.
Do not withdraw your mercy from us,
for the sake of Abraham your beloved
and for the sake of your servant Isaac
and Israel your holy one,
to whom you promised
to multiply their descendants like the stars of heaven
and like the sand on the shore of the sea.
For we, O Lord, have become fewer than any other nation,
and are brought low this day in all the world because of our sins.
In our day we have no ruler, or prophet, or leader,
no burnt offering, or sacrifice, or oblation, or incense,
no place to make an offering before you and to find mercy.
Yet with a contrite heart and a humble spirit may we be accepted,
as though it were with burnt offerings of rams and bulls,
or with tens of thousands of fat lambs;
such may our sacrifice be in your sight today,
and may we unreservedly follow you,
for no shame will come to those who trust in you.
And now with all our heart we follow you;
we fear you and seek your presence.
Do not put us to shame,
but deal with us in your patience
and in your abundant mercy.
Deliver us in accordance with your marvelous works,
and bring glory to your name, O Lord.
Today’s reading might be unfamiliar to some of you, because it just might not be in your Bible. But I’m certain you are familiar with the story surrounding it. Azariah, if you remember back from the first chapter of Daniel, is called Abednego by the Babylonians (Daniel 1:7). And the first verse here mentions that Azariah is standing in a fire. He wasn’t alone, either. He had with him his two friends, Hananiah (Shadrach) and Mishael (Meshach). We’re looking at a section of the Prayer of Azariah, the prayer that Azariah broke into when he was thrown into the fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar. And it is quite beautiful.
Remember that the three were thrown into the furnace because they would not worship the false gods of the Babylonians. They knew they would be thrown to the fire, and they didn’t even know whether God would intervene to save them. They only knew that they owed their worship to God alone, and to worship anything else would be worse than death. And because they knew this, they were to be put to death, at the moment of which Azariah is compelled to make one final plea for deliverance.
What is missing from the start of this prayer is Azariah’s confession. He knows that what has happened to Israel, being in exile, and what has happened to the three friends here in the furnace, is because of their sin. God is just, and they have sinned against His justice, and for this they are suffering. “So all that you have brought upon us, and all that you have done to us, you have done by a true judgment. You have handed us over to our enemies, lawless and hateful rebels, and to an unjust king, the most wicked in all the world” (Daniel 3:31-32).
Azariah knows that what they face is of their own making. But he has tremendous faith in God’s mercy. He knows that Israel has failed before, many a time, and God was always there to deliver them. God was always merciful. God promised much to the people of Israel, not least of which was that He promised to be their God. He promised to bless and keep them, so long as they kept to Him. Azariah admits their failure, he admits his own failure, and he does the only thing he can do. “With a contrite heart and a humble spirit,” he reaches, one last time, for his God. “Deal with us in your patience” as a parent is patient with their child, knowing their child will often fail. Deliver us, not for our own sake, but for the sake of your glory.
We all know how this story ends, of course, Azariah’s plea is met with God’s merciful protection. An angel descends and drives away the flames, and the three break into a song of praise. “The Song of the Three Jews”. If the Prayer of Azariah is new to you, I recommend also looking up that song, as it is almost certainly missing from your Bible as well.