Three Holy Youths
Within Orthodoxy these three friends of Daniel have become an integral part of hymnology and theology. You may know them as Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego. Yet these were their Babylonian names. Their Hebrew names were Hananiah, Mishael, & Azariah.
We first find them in the beginning of Daniel refusing the kings food for more simple vegetables. They did this out of obedience to God to avoid those things sacrificed to idols. Rather than making them weaker, their diet made them stronger than their Babylonian counterparts. This was a testimony to the power of God in their lives. Within Orthodoxy, this retelling is found in the hymnology leading up to Lent. We are about to give up meat for a period of time as we prepare our hearts for the Passion of Christ.
The next story of the three youths is used constantly in the Church. This is the account of the fiery furnace. These young men refuse to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol and are then thrown into the fiery furnance. It was made so hot that the executioners stoking the fire died from the heat. However, the three were seen in the midst of the fire praising God and a fourth mysterious figure was seen with them. Nebuchadnezzar speaks from astonishment about the fourth person and says “the form of the fourth is like the Son of God (Daniel 3:25).” We know that person to be the pre-incarnate Jesus. The boys were removed from the fire and not even a hair on their head was singed.
What makes this story so important gets missed in the West. In the LXX, there are two hymns of praise included at this point and are missing in the Hebrew version we use. These hymns are an essential part of the Church’s hymnography. They are part of the 9 Biblical odes forming the Church’s liturgical consciousness. In this case, the hymns are Ode 7 and 8.
Often in Bibles that include the Apocrypha the two hymns are lumped together and included in one chapter entitled “The Prayer of Azariah”.
Ode 7 is Azariah’s prayer and is found in verses 3-22. This is ode is a song/prayer composed by Azarias when he and his other two friends were thrown into the fiery furnace.
In this prayer, Azariah takes responsibility for the sins of the nation as he praises God. Rather than blaming God for their circumstances, he praises God. This is amazing considering all the evil befallen upon Azariah. He was deported from his homeland, and now has been seemingly martyred for his faith. Yet in spite of it all he does not blame God but cries out in repentance. There is a sense of radical responsibility here found among all the OT prophets. Rather than blame others and God, they also see their own sin as contributing to the evil around them.
Ode 8 is found in verses 29-68 yet it is the hymn of all three. It is a hymn of praise bringing all creation together in praise of God. This is characteristically Orthodox. Man is the union of matter and spirit, and part of man’s purpose is to be the “priest” for all creation. He is the voice and representative for all creation in praise to God.
Here are a couple hymns highlighting the importance of these three in the life of the Church.
Vesperal hymn. “The youths of God walking forth amidst the flame, rejoicing in the dew of the Spirit as though they were in a garden, did go before and foreshadow therein the mystery of the Trinity and the Incarnation of Christ. And in that they were wise men they quenched by faith the power of fire. And as for Daniel the righteous, he did appear closing the mouths of the lions. Wherefore, by their beseechings we plead with thee, O Savior and Lover of mankind, to deliver us from the everlasting and unquenchable fire, and to make us worthy to receive thy heavenly kingdom”
What does this teach us?
1. foreshadows the Trinity (another hymn: Let us praise the divinity of three flames, one light shining from a single nature in three persons. The Father without beginning, The Word who is of the same nature as the Father, and the consubstantial Spirit who reigns with Him. O youths, bless your Creator and Redeemer, praise Him, you priests, and all you people, exalt Him forever!)
2. foreshadows the Incarnation (the fourth man in the fire)
3. power of faith over evil.
4. deliverance from eternal fire. (the Babylonian executioners died from the heat of the fire)
Vesperal hymn “Thy holy youths, O Christ, when they were in the furnace of fire, as though in dew, did go before and foreshadow mystically thy coming from the Virgin, which hath illuminated us without burning. And righteous Daniel, wonderful among Prophets, when he went before and explained plainly thy divine Second Coming, did shout, saying, And I saw the thrones placed, and the judge sat, and the river of fire came before him. Wherefore, by their beseechings, O Master, deliver us.”
What does this teach?
1. Foreshadows Christ’s coming from the Virgin. (another hymn: We the faithful recognize in you, O Theotokos, the spiritual furnace, and just as He saved the three youths, the Most high has renewed the entire world in your womb. For He is the Lord, the God of our ancestors, worthy of all praise and glory.) This and the burning bush of Exodus is often seen as image of the Theotokos. Mary contained the fire of the Godhead in her womb and was not burned. The Church is enthralled by this mystery.
There is a lot of content here. One day I would like to go back and explore some of the themes mentioned in Odes 7 & 8. Let me know your thoughts.