The Liturgy of the Hours, the prayer of the church, offers a rich feast of psalms, canticles and readings from scripture for morning and evening prayer. It helps to know where they come from.
Two prayers of the three young men, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, from the Book of Daniel 3, 14f appear regularly in morning prayers. The first for morning prayer, Tuesday Week IV is Azariah’s (Abednego) prayer for mercy.
The young men are thrown bound into a fiery furnace by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar because they won’t worship a golden idol he set up. “Unfettered and unhurt” they walk freely in the fire, joined by an angel. They go unharmed, saved by their faith in God.
Here’s Azariah’s prayer:
“Blessed are you, and praiseworthy,
O Lord, the God of our ancestors,
and glorious forever is your name.
For you are just in all you have done;
all your deeds are faultless, all your ways right,
and all your judgments proper.
For we have sinned and transgressed
by departing from you,
and we have done every kind of evil.
For your name’s sake, do not deliver us up forever,
or make void your covenant.
Do not take away your mercy from us,
for the sake of Abraham, your beloved,
Isaac your servant, and Israel your holy one,
To whom you promised to multiply their offspring
like the stars of heaven,
or the sand on the shore of the sea.
For we are reduced, O Lord, beyond any other nation,
brought low everywhere in the world this day
because of our sins.
We have in our day no prince, prophet, or leader,
no burnt offering, sacrifice, oblation, or incense,
no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you.
But with contrite heart and humble spirit
let us be received;
As though it were burnt offerings of rams and bulls,
or tens of thousands of fat lambs,
So let our sacrifice be in your presence today and
find favor before you
for those who trust in you cannot be put to shame.
And now we follow you with our whole heart,
we fear you and we seek your face.
Do not put us to shame.
(Daniel 3, 26,27,29,34-41)
The young men in the furnace belong to a Jewish community in exile, with no priest, prophet or leader, no temple to offer sacrifice, but they willingly shoulder the world they’ve received from past generations. They also have sins and mistakes of their own.
Their imperfect world can become a fiery furnace, but the young men believe in God’s promises: offspring like the stars in the sky and the sands of the sea. “We follow you with our whole heart, we fear you and seek your face. Do not put us to shame.”
Isn’t that a good prayer for days that can become a fiery furnace? When we hope in God’s promises, trusting and uncomplaining, we can walk freely in the fire too, “unfettered and unhurt.”
The second prayer from the Book of Daniel is found in a longer form as the canticle for Sunday morning prayer in the 1st and 3rd weeks of the Liturgy of the Hours (Daniel 3, 51-90) and in a shorter form as the canticle for Sunday morning prayer for the 2nd and 4th weeks. (Daniel 3,54-57) It’s a prayer of thanksgiving.
When King Nebuchadnezzar saw the three young men walking unharmed in the fiery furnace he ordered the furnace heated seven times stronger than before. “But the angel of the Lord went down into the furnace with Azariah and his companions, drove the fiery flames out of the furnace, and made the inside of the furnace as though a dew-laden breeze were blowing through it. The fire in no way touched them or caused them pain or harm. Then these three in the furnace sang with one voice, glorifying and blessing God:
“Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord,
praise and exalt him above all forever.
Angels of the Lord, bless the Lord,
You heavens, bless the Lord,
All you waters above the heavens, bless the Lord.
Sun and moon, bless the Lord;
Stars of heaven, bless the Lord;
Every shower and dew, bless the Lord;
All you winds, bless the Lord;
Fire and heat, bless the Lord;
Cold and chill, bless the Lord;
Dew and rain, bless the Lord;
Frost and chill, bless the Lord;
Ice and snow, bless the Lord;
Nights and days, bless the Lord;
Light and darkness, bless the Lord;
Lightnings and clouds, bless the Lord;
Let the earth bless the Lord,
Mountains and hills, bless the Lord;
Everything growing on earth, bless the Lord;
O Israel, bless the Lord;
Priests of the Lord, bless the Lord;
Servants of the Lord, bless the Lord;
Spirits and souls of the just, bless the Lord;
Holy men of humble of heart, bless the Lord;
Hananiah, Azariah, Mishael, bless the Lord;
praise and exalt him above all forever.
For he has delivered us from Sheol,
and saved us from the power of death;
He has freed us from the raging flame
and delivered us from the fire.” (Daniel 3, 51-90))
This is a resurrection prayer, a prayer of thanksgiving. Their example was admired by early Christians who frequently placed the representation of the three young men in the catacombs. God hears our prayers in the fiery furnace, whether of life and death, and gives us life.
We pray the canticle from Daniel on Sunday because it is the Lord’s day, the day of his resurrection. But we are not the only ones who have the promise of resurrection. All creation has that promise, and so we call all creation to bless the Lord.