Abraham Lincoln & Serpents

As I have said before in this “Boosts” series, I am a student in the study of the American Civil War, and of President Abraham Lincoln. No occupants of the White House before or since have had to deal with quite the level of stress and challenge that Abraham and Mary Lincoln faced during the Civil War. Our country was almost lost due to the secession of the southern states; the chattel slavery of black Americans was almost doomed to last eternally in the South; the allied nations during World War 1 and World War 2, would not have access to what was called “the arsenal of democracy” – a United States of America – to give them aid that was necessary in the fight against tyranny in both wars.

I just came across an article by the noted Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer in which he speculates upon the effect of a certain death on both Abraham and Mary Lincoln. During the early years of the Lincoln marriage, they had four sons, Robert, Eddie – who died young in the early 1850s – then a gap of time, and then they had Willie and Tad. These last two became famous during the war as two young lads who often tore through the White House and their father’s office, playing and carrying on. Willie was older and the brighter of the two boys and was said to be his father’s favorite. Willie was talented and wrote a wonderful little poem about the death in battle of one of his father’s closest friends, E. D. Baker, which was published in a Washington newspaper.

A touching letter by Willie to a friend that Willie wrote just a year before the Lincoln family went to Washington, was found later. In this letter young Willie described a wonderful trip to Chicago he and his father made. Any boy who grew up adoring his father could relate to Willie’s description: “This town [Chicago] is a very beautiful place,” he wrote. “Me and father went to two theatres the other night. Me and father have a nice little room to ourselves. We have two little pitcher[s] on a washstand. The smallest one for me the largest one for father. We have two little towels on top of both pitchers. The smallest one for me, the largest one for father. We have two little beds in the room. The smallest one for me, the largest one for father. We have two little wash basin[s]. The smallest one for me, the largest one for father.”

In February, 1862, just a year into their time at the White House, both Tad and Willie contracted what was probably the dangerous disease of typhoid fever. Tad recovered, but Willie grew worse and worse. On the very night of the first big party thrown by Mary Lincoln in the White House – February 20, 1862 – while the party was going on downstairs, Mary and Abraham watched their Willie die. They were devastated. In fact, Mary stayed in her bedroom for 3 weeks, not even ven-turing out for the funeral. President Lincoln told a friend, “My poor boy. He was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so much. It is hard, hard to have him die!”

Mary perhaps spoke for both of them when she once exclaimed that, with Willie’s death, “the serpents had crossed our pathways.” She was likely referring to the serpent, the symbol of evil, in the Garden of Eden. Holzer writes, “The grieving mother was clearly expressing her belief that she and her husband had been repaid for their sins. Mary,” he writes, “later would elaborate: ‘I had become so wrapped up in the world…so devoted to our political advancement that I thought of little else besides.’” She would call her grief the “fiery furnace of affliction.”

That term “fiery furnace” reminds me of a story in the Old Testament, in Daniel, chapter three, which is our Bible Boost for this week. The Jews several years earlier had lost their land to the Babylonian Empire; many of the elite in Judah had been part of the exile to Babylon, their young schooled there. Four young Jewish men in the book of Daniel – Daniel himself, along with his friends Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego – found Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar’s favor. Daniel was made assistant to the king for his wisdom; Daniel in turn recommended Shadrack, Meschack and Abednego to high positions in the empire. But when these three men would not bow to a new monument the king built to portray himself as a god, jealous Babylonians reported this to the king to prove that these Jews were traitors. Then Nebuchadnezzar threw these three young men – Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego – into the fiery furnace.

Before being thrown in, the King gave these three one last chance to change their ways and bow to the idol. But, as we read in Daniel, chapter three, verses sixteen through eighteen, these three replied, “O King Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. 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.”

Now if you know the story you know that they survived being in the fiery furnace – a furnace made so hot because the king ordered it to be seven times hotter than usual; a furnace so hot that when some soldiers opened the door to throw these three in, these soldiers were immediately scorched and died.

Of course, everyone from the king on down were shocked at the miracle of the survival of Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego. The king gave them and their God even greater honor and glory due to what he had witnessed. But I want to share with you a few key details of that encounter. First, when they witnessed before the king their faith in the real God Almighty,Shadrach, Meshack and Abednego did not couch their faith on automatically surviving the fiery furnace. No, if you listen carefully to what they said, their faith was NOT in using God to get what they want, but rather they had faith in God to do what’s best in God’s will. There’s a difference – a big difference. They said, “If our God is able to deliver us from the furnace…let Him deliver us. But if not…we will [still] not serve your gods….” What they were saying was: it is up to God’s higher purpose whether our death or our life serves God best at this time. We leave it up to our God to decide to save us from the furnace or not. This is far and away a higher and better faith than those who, in their supposed faith, TEST their God, and, if God does not come through as they want, desert their God and deny their God’s wisdom. Let us have the faith of Shadrack, Meshack, and Abednego – the faith that believes in God in all ways, in all situations and circumstances, even unto eternal life.

Another key detail in this event is what King Nebuchadnezzar saw and reported while the fire surrounded the three young men. You see, all of a sudden the king exclaimed to his counselors, “Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?” When they said, yes, it was three, the king responded, “But I see FOUR men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.” You see, many Christians, I among them, believe this fourth person in the fire was the Son of God, who later came to earth as Jesus of Nazareth. You see, the Son of God was, from the beginning of time, the earth’s savior. He saved Shadrach, Meschack, and Abednego; He will save you and me.

A third and final detail is found in what the king said. The three men were put into the fiery furnace bound by ropes; but when he saw the three plus a fourth, they were all UNBOUND by ropes and able to walk around free amid the danger.

My friends, you and I can walk unbound in our hearts amid the changes and challenges we are presently going through. We can be unbound from the encumbrances of the past, free to listen and serve one another, for as Paul states in Philippians 2:3, “in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” We can be unbound by the fears of how we will look as we together struggle against his virus, for fear is the opposite of the love we show others as we wash our hands regularly, keep our social distance, and do the small thing of wearing our masks.

Back when his beloved little Willie died, Abraham Lincoln became unbound in his approach to the Civil War. Just a few months after Willie’s death, in the midst of continued Confederate intransigence, Lincoln changed policy and issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which made free every slave in every territory in the rebellious states re-occupied by Union forces after January 1st, 1863. Before this measure, Lincoln’s policy had been NOT to dismantle slavery where it had existed before the war. Unbound by that poor promise, Lincoln had the godly courage to bring a measure of justice to millions of people in bondage – a measure which pointed the way to fulfilling in the years to come, more and more, the pledge of this country that “all are created equal.” May we be like Shadrach, Meschack, and Abednego, and not bow down to the idols of the past, as we continue in faith while in our OWN fiery furnaces, walking around unbound by fear, and certain that God’s ultimate purpose will indeed prevail. Amen.

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