Hananiah, Azariah, Mishael – who are they?? This posed a mystery for me as I heard these names repeated during the Liturgy of the Hours. The names come from chapter 3 of the Book of Daniel in the context of praising the Lord. I would imagine even those who don’t pray the Liturgy of the Hours are familiar with the prayer that forms this canticle. Daniel 3:28 through Daniel 3:68 consists of a litany of blessings accorded to the Lord beginning with blessing of the Lord’s “glorious, holy name” through blessing “all works of the Lord.” The heavens, all powers, sun and moon, stars, rain and dew, winds, fire and heat, winter cold and summer heat, dews and snows, nights and days, light and darkness, ice and cold, frosts and snows, lightnings and clouds, mountains and hills, springs, seas and rivers, whales and sea creatures, birds, beasts and cattle, sons of men, Israel, priests, servants of the Lord spirits and souls of the righteous, the holy and humble of heart are all blessed. It is indeed a long list of blessings, a beautiful prayer … and then we come to Hananiah, Azariah, Mishael. When I got to this point, I wondered who these three were that they were to be blessed along with all God’s creation, from God Himself, to the heavens, the earth, the beasts, and people of God. What was special about them, but more so: Who were they?
If the prayer had just called them Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego I would have known immediately from my infrequent attendance at Protestant Sunday School who they were. But of course! They were the three men who were thrown into the fiery furnace and lived. But that was about it as far as my knowledge of these three men. My interest piqued by the Canticle I determined to learn a bit more.
Hananiah, Azariah and Mishael were captured by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon during the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Temple at Jerusalem and deported the nation of Judah to Babylon which began the great Babylonian captivity of the nation of Israel. Secular history and the Bible are in close agreement as to these facts. Upon their capture, the three youths were renamed Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, Babylonian names rather than their Israelite names of Hananiah, Azariah and Mishael.
Along with Daniel (the author of the Biblical book in which their story is told), the three youths found some favor with their Babylonian captors and were allowed to adhere to the dietary regime of the Israelites rather than partake of the king’s rich food. They thrived and grew in both knowledge and wisdom and Daniel was given the gift of interpreting visions and dreams.
Meanwhile, Nebuchadnezzar had some disturbing dreams and sought counsel among the wisest of his people. All the magicians, sorcerers and enchanters were unable to interpret the king’s dreams. The king in his rage pronounced death to all the wise men of his kingdom. Daniel, hearing of this pronouncement, sent word to Nebuchadnezzar that he could interpret the king’s dream. After recounting the king’s dream, Daniel proceeded to interpret it. He tells the king that he is the head of gold, ruling over his kingdom. Following Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom three more inferior kingdoms will follow. The final kingdom will be the kingdom of the God of heaven. Nebuchadnezzar praised Daniel greatly for the interpretation and accorded him much honor and many gifts as well as high position.
Nebuchadnezzar then proceeded to make a large image of gold and commanded all to bow down and worship this image. Well … you can imagine what happened next. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to pay homage to the golden image and were sentenced to die in a fiery furnace. And this is where their prayer begins. They tell the king that their God will save them even from the fiery furnace. The fire of the furnace was so hot that it killed the guards whose task it was to cast the three youths into the flames. Entering the fiery furnace, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego walked around, singing hymns to God and an angel came down into the furnace and made the middle of the furnace a moist wind, protecting the three Israelites from the fire. Upon this miracle, the three burst into song and blessed God. And this is the well-known of litany of blessings that we hear several times each month in the Liturgy of the Hours.
Hananiah, Azariah and Mishael, the three Israelites, bless the Lord as king of all creation. Not only is the Lord blessed but his creation as well. And Hananiah, Azariah and Mishael are blessed; they “sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.” Upon seeing how the three youths survive the fiery furnace, Nebuchadnezzar blessed the God of the three men and decreed that no ill was to be said of the Israelite God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego upon pain of being torn limb from limb.
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