Nebuchadnezzar, Part 3
(The original of this poem is entitled, "Shadrach's Sacrifice." It was read on November 28, 1993)
The moon was full and ashen-white,
Like death. And in its borrowed light
The golden image of the king
Of Babylon lay glimmering
And broken on the trampled field
Of Dura. So undone! Unhealed,
But not, alas, unworshiped. There,
Six cubits tall, the fragments, square
And jagged from the fall, cast pale
And yellow shadows like a veil
Around the bent and chanting brood
Of worshipers, with relics hewed
From ancient idols to the prince
Raku, the god of night, long since
Passé, forgotten by the mass
Of Babylon, but in one class,
Revered and pacified with blood.
Four-thousand years the fatal flood
Of men and beasts had satisfied
The thirst of Raku and his pride.
Sumerians, long dead, once bowed
Before the moon and built his proud
And golden image in the plain
Of Dura long before the stain
Of Babylon exalted Bel
And Nebo, hoping to compel
The ancient cults to bow and leave
Their gods, to come of age and cleave
To newer deities—or so
They said. But little did they know—
The court, the nobles, nor his wife—
The king himself had sealed his life
With blood and oath to offer up
A sacrifice so he could sup
With Raku every new full moon.
Nebuchadnezzar, every noon,
Would pay his dues to Bel, but then
Each month, in total secret, when
The moon was full, he led the cult
To chant and kill and then consult
Raku, in hopes to learn his fate,
And how to make his kingdom great.
This night there would be secret death.
The king would offer up the breath
And blood of man to satisfy
The rage of Raku. One must die
Because, unknown to all who came
And bowed down in the royal name
Before the image of the king,
It was a secret worshiping
Of Raku and the moon. That day
The king had heard his soldiers say,
"Three Jews refuse to bow before
Your golden shrine. Do not ignore
This insolence or none will fear
Your royal throne." "Go, bring them near,"
Nebuchadnezzar said, and tensed
Inside, as if he briefly sensed
There was a power near he dare
Not touch, or even worse, a snare.
"Tell me your names that I may know
Whom I shall kill." "Abednego."
"Meshach." Then silence. "You, young man,
Your name!" Silence again. "I can,
You know, burn you to ashes in
This furnace now. Your name! You'll win
A quicker death." "You know my name.
It has not changed. It is the same
As when you gave it years ago.
'Shadrach', but now, O king, I know
The meaning." "Silence, Jew! One thing
I want to hear! Will you now bring
Your tribute to the image I
Have made of Bel, or will you die?"
Shadrach replied, "This is no shrine
To Bel, you know that well. Resign
Your cultic fraud, O king, and learn
That there is one true God! Discern
This day by choice or force, the Lord
Alone is God and will afford
His servants safety in the flames
In spite of all your haughty claims.
And should He not, let it be known
To you, O king, we will not own
Your image nor bow down before
Your gold and fragile shrine. What's more,
If we should die, then we will die,
And trust Jehovah, God Most High,
To save us from the ashes of
Your furnace floor. His steadfast love
And passion for his own make your
Frail flames feel sweet like winter's pure
And passing snow. If we should live
Or if we die, we will not give
Allegiance . . . to the moon." The word
So stunned the king, he shook and slurred
The edict as he spoke: "Make this
Flame seven-fold, like the abyss
Of Abaddon, and we shall see
How crisp a brazen Jew can be."
But God was gracious in the fire;
Not one stitch of their plain attire
Was even singed. And when they stood
Before the king they said, "Firewood
Was meant to come from mighty trees.
We thank you, king, for choosing these.
But since your flames have our limbs spurned,
Perhaps your idol should be burned?"
But Shadrach said, "Or, better, strewn
In golden bits beneath the moon."
And so it was. The fickle crowd
Pulled down the god to which they bowed.
And left its pieces on the plain
With echoes from the king: "Long reign
Jehovah over sky and sea!
Long reign Jehovah over me!
And over Bel, and Nebo too."
But Shadrach whispered, "And Raku."
Now in the middle of the night
The moon was full, and in its light
The king could see his sacrifice
Lashed tight, with moistened leather thrice
Against a golden segment of
The massive god. "Fits like a glove,
Shadrach," Nebuchadnezzar said.
"And very soon you will be dead.
Raku will not be mocked and let
His honor like an unpaid debt
Lie trampled in the field. But first
Tell me, Shadrach, how are you versed
In things so secret that you know
The ways of Raku even though
My kingdom thinks I bow alone
To Bel and Nebo? None has known
For all my years but this small flock
That I am his. Tell me, Shadrach,
How did you know?" "You thought, O king,
That in my name the hidden thing
Was this: Raku commands and I
Obey. Is that, O king, not why
You changed my name to Shad-Rach when
I came from Judah almost ten
Long years ago—and to my shame!
You thought by this to lay his claim
On me. But my God spoke to me
And said, 'Fear not, my son, nor be
In dread. This pagan name means not
That Raku rules your soul, or what
This king had thought. It means, in fact,
"Raku commands" but no contract
That you obey or ever yield.'
And so, O king, as on the field,
Today I stood against your god,
So here tonight against your rod."
Nebuchadnezzar scoffed, "Do you
Think that Jehovah will now do
For you again some trick and get
You free tonight? Although he let
Me trick the whole empire today
When I put Meshach on display
And said to all the realm that you
Abednego and he would do
The work of governors and rule
At my right hand? The world’s a fool
And easy to beguile, not me,
Not by a Jewish refugee!
Shadrach, no trick tonight will get
You free. My sword has never yet
Failed when the moon is full. Tell me,
Shadrach, do you believe that He
Will come?" "I do, O king, but not
The way you think. When you have got
The blood you need and I am dead,
Then he will come, just as he said,
For me . . . and you." "And when did he
Say this, Shadrach?" "Did you not see,
O king, a fourth man in the fire?
And do you not, O king, desire
To know who that man was? He had
A word for me . . . and you. He bade
Me on this night to give my life.
He said he would not stay the knife
As he had done the flame, but then,
When I am dead, he'd come again.
He said that I should now reclaim
That Hananiah is my name:
'Jehovah will be gracious' now,
And not to me alone." "And how,
Pray tell, when you are dead, will he
Be kind and gracious unto me?"
"Each month my blood will cover all
The moon, and night by night this ball
Of blood will rob your sleep with dreams
And turn your pride to fear and screams,
Until you lose your mind and eat
Grass like an ox, and on your feet
The nails grow long like eagles’ claws
For seven months and all the flaws
Of Raku drip with madd'ning pulse
Dissolving all your pride and cults.
And thus, O king, the tables turn.
The Lord is gracious, come and learn:
You gave a deadly name, a sign;
Now dying I will give you mine."
Behold the light in candle three,
Of Hananiah doubly free.
A furnace flames and then a sword,
And both are mercy from the Lord.
The Lord is gracious giving breath
The Lord is gracious giving death.
For either way the Lord is gain,
We neither live nor die in vain.