It happens numerous times throughout the year. At a worship service I’ll be listening and trying to sing along with the text, and suddenly a hymn about the three Holy Youths appears—the friends of Daniel who were thrown into a fiery furnace for refusing to worship King Nebuchadnezzar. The service continues, and we return to our regularly scheduled programming.
To this gal in the pews, the insertion feels like an interruption—a lovely detour, perhaps, but definitely an off-road experience.
For example, during the Dormition Fast in the first two weeks of August, we sing the Paraklesis services daily. I love these services—they give us many thoughts to ponder about the Theotokos, with so many rich verses piled on top of one another that they’re impossible to take in. One of the many powerful hymns in the Small Paraklesis proclaims,
No one is turned away from you,
Ashamed and empty, who flee unto you,
O pure virgin Theotokos;
But one asks for the favor,
And the gift is received from you,
To the advantage of their own request.
Next the priest prays the usual prayers of supplication at the iconostasis, and this hymn follows:
Coming out of Judea,
Once the young men did go to the land of Babylon;
The flame of the furnace
They trampled down while chanting,
With their faith in the Trinity:
O the God of our Fathers, Blessed are You, our God.
This is followed by “Most Holy Theotokos, save us.”
We’re in the middle of a supplication service to the Mother of God, and suddenly three young men run out to center stage, take a bow, and leave. Why are they here?
During the morning services of Matins, or Orthros, the three youths show up again:
Bless the Lord, Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael,
sing praise to Him and highly exalt Him for ever;
for He has rescued us from Hades and saved us from the hand of death
and delivered us from the midst of the burning fiery furnace;
from the midst of the fire He has delivered us;
Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endures forever.
Bless Him, all who worship the Lord, the God of gods,
sing praise to Him and give thanks to Him, for His mercy endures forever.
Matins also includes a prayer from Azaraiah and a song attributed to the Three Youths.
Okay, I expect this sort of veneration and honor on December 17, the feast day of the Prophet Daniel and his three friends. But these particular Old Testament saints keep showing up unexpectedly elsewhere: their song of praise is alluded to daily in the Matins service, odes 7 and 8. The three youths also show up frequently in the hymnography of the Nativity period and in the Bridegroom Services during Holy Week. On Holy Saturday, the reading of the story of the furnace, including the Prayer of the Three Holy Children, is part of the vesperal Divine Liturgy.
What is going on here? And where does this song of praise come from? I don’t remember that from my childhood Sunday school days.
The Story of the Three Youths in the Furnace
First, let’s reacquaint ourselves with the story of these three Holy Youths, sometimes referred to as children. In Daniel, chapter three, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon orders an attendant to gather a talented group of young men, including children of Israel who were living in exile in Babylon. He requests, in Daniel 3:4, “young men in whom there was no blemish, but good-looking, gifted in all wisdom, possessing knowledge and quick to understand, who had ability to serve in the king’s palace, and whom they might teach the language and literature of the Chaldeans.”
This group of young men included the Prophet Daniel and three youths named Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. These are their Hebrew names; their Babylonian names are Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego. I learned the Babylonian names in Sunday school as a child, and I have vague memories of a song about them. Now I think it’s odd that we didn’t memorize their Hebrew names. But I digress.
In chapter 2 the young Daniel, with God’s help, reveals the content of the king’s strange dream: a statue made of precious metals is ground to dust by a stone that is cut without hands then becomes a great mountain. He then interprets the dream.
Nebuchadnezzar promptly and wisely promotes Daniel, who then petitions the king for promotions for his three friends.
Now we get to the real meat of the story in Chapter 3, which is especially precious to the Orthodox Church. In a jaw-dropping display of hubris, Nebuchadnezzar commissions a golden image of himself to be crafted, and he orders the people to worship this statue.
The three young men, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, refuse to worship anyone but God alone. In retaliation, the king orders them to be thrown into a furnace.
So far, so good. That’s the story I learned from my Protestant children’s Bible. The story continues in verses 24 and 25:
Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished; and he rose in haste and spoke, saying to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the midst of the fire?”
They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.”
“Look!” he answered, “I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire; and they are not hurt, and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.”
Nebuchadnezzar, stunned, calls the three youths out of the fiery furnace, and the king and his officials “saw these men on whose bodies the fire had no power; the hair of their head was not singed nor were their garments affected, and the smell of fire was not on them” (v. 27).
The king then blesses God and, in a wonderful bit of understatement, proclaims, “there is no other God who can deliver like this.”
The Unabridged Book of Daniel
For decades I was unaware that I had grown up with a sort of Reader’s Digest version of the Book of Daniel. In Protestant Old Testaments, which are not based on the Septuagint, Daniel is much shorter than in Orthodox and Roman Catholic Bibles, where the Three Holy Youths play a prominent role.
The Book of Daniel in the Orthodox Bible includes three other sections—I almost said “extra” or “additional” sections, as if the book had been expanded. It’s more accurate to say that the Book of Daniel that I knew had been redacted. We won’t get into textual criticism here, and all the reasons for the differences in Old Testaments. That’s above my pay grade, and our focus here is on the passages that are important to the Orthodox Church and her hymnography.
In the Protestant Book of Daniel, Chapter 1, verse 1 begins, “In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it.” But if you open an Orthodox Study Bible, there are 64 verses before this that tell the story of Susanna, the daughter of Hilkiah, the wife of King Jehoiakim.
It’s interesting to me that the verses are numbered but have no chapter number, so as not to confuse the familiar numbering of the book. I guess you could call the story of Susanna “Chapter 0.”
The Orthodox Book of Daniel also features a much longer chapter 3 that includes a prayer from one of the three youths, followed by a hymn of praise. The third part of Daniel that is unfamiliar to those of us from heterodox backgrounds is the story of Bel and the Dragon, which is incorporated into Ch. 14. All three sections are considered deuterocanonical by Protestants; some current Protestant Bibles feature them in a separate Apocrypha section, but most of them simply have omitted them.
The content of these passages is a good topic for a future post, but here we will concentrate on the unabridged story of the Three Holy Youths in chapter 3 because of its importance in Orthodox Christian hymnography.
Verse 3:23 in all Bibles states, “And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, fell down bound into the midst of the burning fiery furnace.” Verse 24 in Protestant Bibles then skips over the details of this saga and goes straight to the ending: “Now Nebuchadnezzar heard their singing, and he marveled and rose up in haste…” But the Orthodox Book of Daniel includes 67 verses about what happened in that fiery furnace, inserted between verses 23 and 24; verse 24 becomes verse 91.
Confused yet? Just hang on. This is good stuff.
What Happened in That Fiery Furnace: The Rest of the Story
This section of 67 verses in chapter 3 contains the prayer of Azariah, whom many of us know as Abed-Nego, and the much-beloved Hymn of the Three Young Men.
At the beginning of this section, Azariah “stood and prayed thus and opened his mouth in the midst of the fire” (v. 25): in his eloquent prayer, surrounded by flames, Azariah affirms God’s righteousness, truth, and uprightness in His works and His judgments, confesses the sins of the people, and asks for God’s deliverance, to glorify His name among those who do evil.
Next the Angel of the Lord enters the furnace in verse 50: “He made the inside of the furnace to be as though a dew-laden breeze were blowing through it, so the fire did not touch them at all, or cause them pain, or trouble them.”
All three young men, “as if with one mouth, sang, glorified, and blessed God in the furnace” (v. 51). The words to their song of praise cry out, “Bless the Lord,” then command various elements of creation—the angels, sun, moon, stars, waters, and winds—to “sing a hymn to Him, / And exalt Him beyond measure unto the ages.”
Their song of praise should sound very familiar to you if you attended the Pascha service a few weeks ago: in the Canon of Holy Saturday before midnight we sing repeatedly, “Bless the Lord, O you Servants; sing a hymn, Priests; and People, exalt Him beyond measure unto all the ages.”
But why this particular song? The Church has many Psalms to choose from, and she uses them heavily throughout our worship. And the Old Testament is full of many moving stories. Joseph, the son of Jacob who was sold into slavery by his brothers and became Pharoah’s right-hand man in Egypt, is probably my favorite Old Testament saint because of his rock-solid faith and integrity. Yet the three Holy Youths are the ones who appear in the hymns and services throughout the year.
Why the Church Loves the Three Holy Youths
I am indebted to Fr. Emmanuel Hatzidakis, who wrote the informative article, “Why the Story of the Three Holy Youths Is So Significant,” over at Orthodoxwitness.org. I have adapted many of his points here.
The story of the three young men in the furnace is rich in symbolism. Fr. Emmanuel writes, “The Church, the only infallible interpreter of the Holy Scripture, sees in this story several important images.” As we unlock these images and their meanings, we begin to understand why this particular story is inserted into so many varied services.
The number of the youths, three, points to the Holy Trinity, of course, and the Church sees five additional lessons in the story:
1. The event is a type of the Lord’s Nativity.
The Church sees the Theotokos prefigured in the Burning Bush that Moses encounters, and the Church also sees her in the image of the furnace. The article “The Titles of the Holy Virgin Saint Mary” from the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States tells us,
The fire is a symbol of God, “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24), and the burning bush, which was not consumed by fire, is a symbol of Saint Mary, who carried the fire of Divinity in her womb and was not consumed by it, nor was her virginity blemished.
The Paraklesis contains passages like “As the fire did not burn the Youths, so Christ was born without seed from a Virgin” (Wednesday, Ode 8).
The Church also sees the furnace itself as a type of the Virgin Mary: “You, O Theotokos, are the spiritual furnace. For as God saved the Three Youths, He recreated in your womb the entire human being.” (Sunday, Ode 7)
2. The Angel in the furnace who saved the youths is the Lord Himself.
The Church Fathers understand the Angel’s appearance in the furnace as a theophany, from the Greek theophania, meaning “appearance of God.” Again and again in the Paraklesis services, the Church makes clear that the Angel of the Lord who appeared in the flames is Christ:
- “The Offspring of the Theotokos saved the holy Youths in the furnace, then prefigured, now in actuality . . .” (Friday, Ode 8)
- “Christ spread over the pious Youths the dew of the Spirit . . .” (Sunday, Ode 7)
- “Praise God as Lord, who came down to the furnace of fire, changing the flame into dew” (Monday, Ode 8).
Other services also refer to Christ as the Angel:
- The Feast of Theophany: “He who stilled the heat of the flame of the furnace; that mounted high in the air and encircled the godly Children, burnt the heads of the dragons in the stream of the Jordan.”
- The Presentation of the Lord in the Temple: “Word of God who has dropped dew upon the Children in the midst of the fire as they discoursed in divine things, and who has taken up Your dwelling in the pure Virgin.”
- The Adoration of the Cross: “He who delivered the three youths from the flames came to earth, taking a body.”
- And from the Pascha service: “He who saved the Children from the furnace has suffered death as a mortal man.”
3. The story of the three Holy Youths affirms the Church’s teaching of God’s uncreated energy.
- From a hymn during the Dormition fast: “The All-powerful Angel of the Lord revealed to the Youths a flame that brought refreshment to the holy ones while it consumed the ungodly.”
- The Canon to St. Herman of Alaska: “As of old Thou didst bedew the three godly Youths in the Chaldean flame, so illumine too with the bright fire of Divinity us who call out: Blessed art Thou, O God of our Fathers.”
4. Across the centuries, the three Holy Youths have inspired the many Christian martyrs who refused to deny their faith in Christ.
- The Elevation of the Holy Cross: “The senseless decree of the wicked tyrant staggered the people, breathing forth threats and God-hated blasphemies. Yet neither the savage rage nor the roaring fire frightened the Three Youths. But standing in the fire they chanted in tune with the dewy breeze: ‘Blessed are You, O most praised God of our Fathers and of ours.’”
- The Feast of the Annunciation: “The Holy Children bravely trampled upon the threatening fire, preferring not to worship created things rather than the Creator.”
5. The Holy Youths are models of courage for us today.
The Kontakion for the Three Holy Youths (Dec. 17) proclaims:
You did not worship the graven image,
O thrice-blessed ones,
but armed with the immaterial Essence of God, you were glorified in a trial by fire.
From the midst of unbearable flames you called on God, crying:
Hasten, O compassionate One!
Speedily come to our aid,
for You are merciful and able to do as You will.
At last, the placement of these hymns is beginning to make sense to me. The furnace of flame as a type of the Theotokos explains a lot. So when we attend a service dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the part about the youths in the furnace is meant to direct our thoughts to her role in the Incarnation as the one who received the divine fire and was not burned. That’s why we follow the hymn about the youths with “Most Holy Theotokos, save us.”
It turns out that the hymns about the three Holy Youths in the furnace are not randomly placed throughout the services of the Orthodox Church. They are not simply filler. Of course. As we walk this ancient path together, one thing becomes increasingly clear: everything in the Orthodox Church is intentional. Over and over I discover that when something doesn’t make sense to me, the problem is not with the Church, but with my understanding.
I’m looking forward to the next appearance of a hymn about the Holy Youths. From now on, when I hear it, I’ll try to understand the point the Church is emphasizing. The message might be about the Lord’s Nativity, or of His presence in the midst of our trials and sufferings.
And now you know . . . the rest of the story.