In my morning readings this week I had the chance again to read through Daniel 3. As I did so I was reminded of how three words from the text had been used during World War 2 and it seemed
appropriate to tell the story again as we celebrate Remembrance Day.
As the allied troops faced annihilation at Dunkirk in 1940 a message was dispatched to Whitehall. It was simply this, “But if not.”
These were the words of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who were threatened by King Nebuchadnezzar with death in the fiery furnace.
In the NRSV we read “If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.” Dan 3.17-18
“But if not.” What a poignant phrase. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were resolved to obey God, whether or not he chose to save them. They knew he wasn’t obliged to help them.
“But if not.” These words were instantly recognizable to the people who were accustomed to hearing the scriptures read in church. They knew the story told in the book of Daniel. The message in those three little words was clear: The situation was desperate. The allied forces were trapped. It would take a miracle to save them, but they were determined not to give in. One simple three-word phrase
communicated all that.
Boat-owners heard about the cry for help, and they answered. They answered with merchant marine boats, with pleasure cruisers, and even with small fishing boats. By a miracle, they evacuated more than 338,000 soldiers and took them to safety.
This is a great story that has a happy ending (for many) because people of the day were familiar with the scriptures. What would the plight of those soldiers be if the same message was sent today?