Bible Commentary: Daniel 3

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Daniel 3

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Into the Fiery Furnace

Some historians believe that the language used in this chapter shows that the story occurred many years after the incidents in chapter 2. While this part of the book was written in Aramaic (the international language in use throughout the Neo-Babylonian Empire), the terms used for the various office bearers were Persian, not Babylonian, indicating that Daniel wrote the story many years later, after Babylon's fall to Persia, using Persian equivalents for the various officers to make them understandable to the Jewish readers of that time. We must remember that the early part of the book of Daniel is not a contiguous narrative, but a collection of independent accounts from the life of Daniel. Chapter 3 contains one of these separate accounts.

It seems that Nebuchadnezzar didn't really get the point from Daniel's interpretation of his dream that there is only one true God. As this chapter opens, the king decides to build a huge idolatrous image or statue. There's no indication that the image was of the king himself. It may have been a representation of his patron god Nebo, or Nabu. The people's "prostration before Nebo would amount to a pledge of allegiance to his viceroy, Nabu-kudurri-usur, i.e., Nebuchadnezzar" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on verse 1).

The construction was quite large, measuring sixty cubits high and six cubits across. "A cubit in Israel was approximately 18 inches; in Babylon it was about 20 inches. Therefore Nebuchadnezzar's image was 90 to 100 feet tall. The 10:1 ratio of height to width, however, suggests that the image was standing on a high pedestal so that the proportions of the figure itself would be closer to the normal ratio of about 4:1" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verse 1). That would mean it was perhaps a 40-foot-high statue on a 60-foot-high pedestal--still mammoth and imposing. Alternatively, some have seen the dimensions as suggestive of an obelisk or some other phallic image. Whatever the case, the construction was lavished with wealth, being made of gold, or at least overlaid with gold (the latter seeming more likely, given its great size).

The nature of the image is not relevant to the main focus of the story. If it had been important the account would have been more specific. Whatever the image, most Babylonians were expected to bow down and worship it, including all the Jewish exiles. Just how many Jews refused to worship it is not known since the Bible only records the story of Daniel's three friends. But it seems logical to assume that this was just what the locals were waiting for-a chance to get rid of their Jewish overlords. After all, the Jews were the captives. They were supposed to be beneath the Chaldeans, not in positions over them. Whatever the reason for singling out these three, it was to become a major lesson once again for Nebuchadnezzar and, no doubt, the rest of the Jews in Babylon.

Many have wondered why Daniel wasn't accused with his three friends. The Expositor's Bible Commentary lists six possible reasons:

"1. Since Daniel is not mentioned in this chapter, he may have been absent from Babylon at the time, perhaps on government business in some other part of the kingdom.

"2. He may have been closeted with other members of the king's cabinet, working on legalistic or military plans.

"3. He may have been...too ill to attend the public ceremony; we know from Daniel 8:27 that sickness occasionally interfered with his carrying on with government business (cf. also Daniel 7:28; Daniel 10:8).

"4. It may simply have been assumed that as the king's vizier (prime minister, for his responsibilities amounted to that status; cf. 2:48), he was not required to make public demonstration of his loyalty by worshipping the image of his god. After all, there is no indication that Nebuchadnezzar himself bowed down to the image. It may have been that he simply sat on his royal dais surveying the scene, with his closest friends and advisers at his side.

"5. It is true that Daniel's office as ruler over the capital province of Babylon (Daniel 2:48) was not specifically listed in the seven categories of public officials (cf. 3:3, though, of course, the rulers of subordinate provinces were required to be on hand); and none of the "wise men" (hakkimayya), over whom Daniel had been made chief, were included in the call for this public ceremony. As a type of accredited clergy serving under the state, they may have been exempted from this act of allegiance; their religious commitment would be presumed to be beyond question. In other words, Daniel did not belong to any of the special groups of jurists, advisors, financial experts, or political leaders included in the terms of the call.

"6. Perhaps Daniel's reputation as a diviner was so formidable that even the jealous Chaldeans did not dare attack him before the king" (note on verses 16-18).

Here we also have another proof of genuineness: "[Commentator] Ford...makes the following observation: 'Had the story been the invention that many have suggested; had it originated in the days of the Maccabees to nerve the faithful against Gentile oppression, it is unlikely that the chief hero would have been omitted. Reality transcends fiction, and the very "incompleteness" of this account testifies to its fidelity.' It is hard to see how the force of this deduction can be successfully evaded. There is no psychological reason for an idealizing romancer to leave Daniel out of this exciting episode. The only way to account for this omission is that in point of fact he was not personally in attendance at this important function" (same note).

Returning to the story, consider the enormity of the spectacle. A towering golden statue looms over the pageantry as a magnificent orchestra starts playing, giving the signal for the worship to commence. The music is powerful enough to signal worship to everyone in Babylon. (Incidentally, leading the orchestra are the six most common instruments of the day as well as "all kinds of music.")

Daniel's three friends, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah--referred to by their Babylonian names Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego--are ready to die for their beliefs. There is no way they will bow down to the image.

Now Judah's enemies in Babylon get their chance. They report the disobedience to the king and he takes immediate action, summoning them to appear before him and explain their disobedience to his edict.

They demonstrate what the apostles were to teach many years later: "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). They tell the king that their God is able to deliver them from harm, but even if He chooses not to, they were willing to die rather than disobey God by worshiping the image. Job had made a similar statement many years before: "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him" (Job 13:15). Like the apostle Paul's sufferings many years later, their example of faith will be a marvelous lesson to all mankind (compare 2 Corinthians 4:2, 12; Hebrews 11:35-37).

"These courageous young men were willing to give their lives, if necessary, to show loyalty to God alone. Appreciating their devotion, God spared their lives in a powerful and miraculous witness to King Nebuchadnezzar (verses 19-30). The faith and faithfulness of these young men remains an enduring example of respect for God. Their example should inspire all of us to honor our Creator with a similar sense of loyalty and dedication" (Holidays or Holy Days: Does It Matter Which Days We Keep?, p. 22).

"These three young men put their lives on the line when they chose not to bow before King Nebuchadnezzar's golden image.... They did not know whether God would intervene to save their lives or not. They knew God could, but they didn't know that He would. Regardless of the outcome, their living faith convicted them to put God first--a principle Jesus emphasized during His earthly ministry (Matthew 6:33).... Godly belief inevitably leads to doing. This is why we read in James that faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26). Living faith comes by doing what God says is good and right and being willing to accept whatever results may come from our actions. The examples and testimonies of the men and women we read about in Hebrews 11 show us we can believe God. He does not lie (Titus 1:2), and, as our loving, faithful Father, He delights in providing for us. 'Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning....' (James 1:17-18)" (You Can Have Living Faith, pp. 18-20).

The Jews' open defiance of Nebuchadnezzar only makes his anger worse, and he gives what seem to be absurd orders concerning their execution. Given that the furnace would have been designed for smelting, it would have already been hot enough to consume the men, but he orders additional bellows under it to make it seven times hotter than usual. To make sure that they will be engulfed in flame and won't escape, he leaves them fully clothed even with their hats on and then binds them before having them thrown into the furnace. The furnace is so hot that even the men who threw them in were killed.

"Apparently there was no door or screen to hide the inside of the furnace from view. Judging from bas-reliefs, it would seem that Mesopotamian smelting furnaces tended to be like an old-fashioned glass milk-bottle in shape, with a large opening for the insertion of the ore to be smelted and a smaller aperture at ground level for the admission of wood and charcoal to furnish the heat. There must have been two or more smaller holes at this same level to permit the insertion of pipes connected with large bellows, when it was desired to raise the temperature beyond what the flue or chimney would produce. Undoubtedly the furnace itself was fashioned of very thick adobe, resistant to intense heat. The large upper door was probably raised above the level of the fire bed so that the metal smelted from the ore would spill on the ground in case the crucibles were upset. So the text says (v. 23) that the three 'fell down' (nepalu) into the fire. Apart from the swirling flames and smoke, then, they were quite visible to an outside observer, though, like the king, he would have to stand at a distance" (Expositor's, note on verses 19-23).

Nebuchadnezzar (and no doubt all those with him) are astonished. Not only do they see the three walking around inside the furnace, no longer tied up, but with them is a fourth person whom Nebuchadnezzar says is like a son of gods. The New King James Version translates this as "the Son of God," but this is misleading because it is the king who says this and he doesn't know anything about the real Son of God. The Babylonians believed in multiple gods, and the language of the original Aramaic literally means "like a son of gods." The Bible doesn't tell us what he really saw. It may have been an angel, it may have been the preincarnate Christ or it may have been a divinely created apparition. Whatever Nebuchadnezzar saw, it must not have appeared as a mere ordinary person for him to think it god-like. When the three men come out, this fourth does not--having apparently disappeared.

Once again the king is stopped in his tracks. But although he knows that the Jews have a very powerful God, he still doesn't recognize that the God of the Jews is the only God (verses 28-29). That lesson is still to come. At this point, God is the God of the Jews, not the God of Nebuchadnezzar. But Nebuchadnezzar is highly impressed and wants to honor their God, while at the same time emphasizing his own authority by issuing another extreme decree (verse 29). And the three Jews are promoted, obviously to the chagrin of their enemies (verse 30). Thus we see God's ironic and poetic justice.

The three men, literally thrown into a refiner's fire, could well have quoted the words of King David, which he meant only figuratively: "For you, O God, have tested us; You have refined us as silver is refined; You brought us into the net; You laid affliction on our backs; You have caused men to ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; but you brought us out to rich fulfillment" (Psalms 66:10-12).

Supplementary Reading: "Shadrach, Meschach & Abed-Nego--Faith in God's Will", Good News Magazine, Jan.--Feb. 1997, pp. 21-23.