But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods, nor worship the golden image which you have set up.
These words represent the grand challenge of the human heart against evil fate. Those who believe in the naturalistic origin of conscience forget that its greatest achievements have not been in line with, but in defiance of, popular sentiment. They have been the victories of minorities rather than of majorities. Yet no such sacrifice has ever failed or can fail. The three Hebrew children are a figure of the moral heroes of the world. They did not debate what ought to be done in matters of conscience. It is often said that first thoughts are best. I have only two things to say to you arising out of this text. The first is that the supreme spiritual need of the hour is a strenuous morality, and the second is, there is no morality worthy of the name that is not born in conflict. You may think it strange if I say the supreme spiritual need of the hour is a strenuous morality. What has morality got to do with spirituality? Everything. There is no spiritual truth which has not a moral bearing and places the man who receives it under a moral obligation. It is a cheap spirituality that makes no demand upon conscience. I do not wish to identify morality with spirituality, but I declare they can never be separated. To-day we are confronted with two seemingly contrasted attitudes of the modern mind towards Christianity. First we see before us an admiration for the ethical value of Christianity, for the character of its Founder, for the ideal which He set up, but along with this there comes a very considerable and widespread distrust of its dogmas. He is worthy not only of imitation, but of the fullest homage that a man's heart can render. Christ stands highest, Christ stands first, Christ is my God. But about that I am not concerned to dispute at this moment. I think Christ is not concerned so much as to what we say about who He is, but He is a very great deal concerned as to the obedience we render unto Him. There is a need to-day of warmth of devotion and moral enthusiasm about the highest things which, after all, lie close to us every day. Poverty in these things leads to pessimism. Every spiritual truth makes this moral demand. The best way for you young men to find the truth about Christ, about God, about Heaven, is to be good. The good and the true are ultimately one. Do one good action and the universe speaks back to you its "Well done." Every one of you bows before a moral ideal written in his heart. You may prove unfaithful to it, but if you faithfully obey it, it will lead you into light. Whoever or whatever wrought that ideal within you is your God, and your God makes His demands upon you not simply sometimes now and then, but all the time and everywhere. The greatest need, I repeat, of the present day, is the need of a strenuous form of morality. Make men who are not afraid of rendering homage to conscience, and you will make that type of character which Christ Himself delights to honour. But to go to my second point, there is no goodness worth having which is not born in conflict. Make a distinction between the morally beautiful and the morally sublime. I trust you have all read Edmund Burke's essay on the "Sublime and the Beautiful." You will remember that he declares one ingredient of the sublime to be a feeling akin to fear, fear in the presence of an unknown dread of an experience that may come. Now, young men, the morally beautiful may contain nothing at all of that particular ingredient. The morally sublime goes to the making of character, and in the long run it cannot be different from the morally beautiful. There is nothing more winsome than the innocence of childhood. Is childhood ideal? No, but childlikeness is. You will go from the morally beautiful through the morally sublime. Begin with childlikeness if you would come to the character of Christ. If you go through the morally sublime you must be prepared to meet Apollyon in the Valley of Humiliation and the demons in the darkness of the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Simplicity, naturalness, transparency of character, absence of arrogance, are characteristic of the child. It is remarkable but splendid to think that within are the very things which the world is coming to demand from manhood. Test it yourself. Examine your own virtue and see if you have obtained these qualities. That is not virtue which is easily won. The false accent of religiosity to-day says much about humility where humility is not, and a man may come to that dangerous condition when, as has been truly said, he is proud of his own humility. Doing what one wants to is no great virtue in the sight of God. We are every day confronted with the choice between the higher and the lower, the golden image or the fiery furnace. Sometimes a grand crisis comes in life. We have to choose between God and Mammon, conscience or a momentary gain. In such crises we seem left to ourselves, but we never really are left to ourselves. In the darkest hour there stands by our side that unknown Friend. Most of us want God to rescue us before the crisis comes. He very seldom does that, but He rescues us on the other side of this strenuous activity by which character is beaten out, gained, and won. When God calls us to a crisis, God brings us to a conflict It is as though there was a bar to cross, and on the other side, and only on the other side, is the still water and safety. God does not give His rescues upon this side. It is an evil agency that would keep a man back from that by which his manhood is won. Here is opportunity in the great crises of life — to venture on for the right, and to leave the future to God. Supposing, then, that in this house of prayer there is some man listening to me who is face to face with the burning fiery furnace, I would say to him, Make this humble man your ideal. Be not careful about your answer. First thoughts are best in eases like this. Play the man. "Our God is able to deliver" you from the burning fiery furnace — but if not, if not? Then do not bow down. Leave the future to Him. Some of you are instantly tempted to compromise with the ideal. Watch what you are doing. You are perilling something higher than you know, driving from you, it may be, God's great opportunity. Faithfulness is always vindicated. There is a grandeur in moral victory. If it were otherwise, God's world would be wrongly made. No man who has ever tested the worth of righteousness has had cause to regret his choice. Listen to the call of inflexible good. Dare to trust it and obey.
(R. J. Campbell, M.A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: 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 set up.