I love this chapter. You’ll probably hear me say that a lot in reference to the book of Daniel, but I can’t help it. This is a great book. Daniel 3 is one of those stories that we need to reclaim from our mental flannel-graphs and take seriously again. This is amazing.
To begin with, I have to notice the irony of this setup. In chapter 2, Nebuchadnezzar has a dream about a gigantic statue with a head of gold that gets ground into powder by a supernatural boulder. The dream terrifies him so badly that he can’t sleep. So what’s his response? “Hmm, I think I’ll go build a gigantic gold statue.” Nebuchadnezzar was a brilliant man, but this is definitely one of the stupider moves of his political career.
Something worth noting about this, though, is that Nebuchadnezzar was most likely constructing this idol for political and prideful reasons, rather than spiritual reasons. As you read through this chapter, look for the number of times it talks about the idol as something that Nebuchadnezzar specifically “set up” himself. My count is nine times (get a load of verse 3, especially). The king was primarily concerned about this ceremony as a sign of national loyalty, not as an appeasement to the gods. His ego was tremendously involved in this venture.
The decree is universal and inescapably clear. All the head rulers of the entire empire were to report to the Plain of Dura and pay homage to this gold image. All of them show up. All of them bow. Well, almost all of them.
The wisemen who rat out Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego are probably doing so out of jealousy. These three men were still quite young, were Hebrew captives to boot, and they had prominent positions of government, thanks largely to their buddy Daniel. The native-born Chaldeans probably resented these upstart superstar slaves cutting in on their priveleged turf (the anti-Semitism is betrayed in 3:12, “There are certain Jews…” — not “young men,” not even “captives,” but their ethnic identity).
One question worth mentioning here is, where is Daniel? We have no report of him creating a stir by not bowing to the idol. This has caused some commentators to suggest that he caved on this occasion and worshipped for fear of his life — a suggestion I find to be completely ridiculous. While I’m sure Daniel was as fallible as anyone else, he consistently demonstrates boldness in the face of rulers, refusing to compromise. His choice of diet in chapter 1, his straightforward dream interpretations in chapters 2 and 4, his rebuke of Belshazzar in chapter 5 and his ever-famous lion’s den incident of chapter 6 tell me that he was not backing down from his God for anybody.
So where was he? We can only speculate, but there are a number of plausible theories. He might have been home sick. He might have requested excuse from the ceremony, and been granted it because of how highly he was regarded. He may have been so favored of the king that no one would dare accuse him. Or (this is my preferred theory), he was back at Babylon, holding down the fort until Nebuchadnezzar returned from the plain of Dura. It would make sense that several second-in-command officials had to remain at their stations to keep things running and in order while the head honchos were off to pay homage to the idol.
Anyway, Daniel didn’t bow. So we can go back to the text now. 😀
Look again at how involved Nebuchadnezzar’s pride is with this project. The wisemen approach him, complaining that the Hebrews “…have not paid due regard to you. They do not serve your gods or worship the gold image which you have set up” (3:12). Nebuchadnezzar, of course, flies into a rage, as powerful tyrants are prone to do. He calls for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, and gives them the third degree. He again speaks of the idol in terms of his gods and the image that he has set up.
He manages to keep enough of his wits about him to know that he does not particularly want to destroy three men who are ten times better than the rest of his advisory staff (see Dan 1:20). So he, in his — shall we say, “benevolence” — gives them one more chance. His threat is unbelievable. “…And who is the god who will deliver you for my hands?”
Um. Do you not remember chapter 2? You know, the whole dream thing? The whole, “God of gods and Lord of kings” thing (2: 47)?
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego remembered. And they weren’t budging. I love their response. “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter” (3:16). That’s a terrifically gutsy thing to say to an angry despot who has just threatened your execution. Basically, they were informing Nebuchadnezzar that he didn’t need to waste his threats or his musicians. They weren’t bowing.
These men were confident that, “…our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not…” (3:17-18, emphasis added). Look at their statement here. At first, it sounds like they have no question as to whether or not they would live out the day. But then what happened? Did they suddenly lose confidence? Far from it. Rather, they knew that God was a deliverer, no matter what. He would keep them and protect them. Period. The question was not whether or not they would be delivered. The question was whether they would be delivered by surviving the flame or by going to Abraham’s bosom (see Luke 16:22) to rest with their fathers in the Lord. They completely trusted God with their lives and refused to bow to Nebuchadnezzar’s big golden ego-trip, come what may. In the face of forced worship (sound familiar? See Rev 13:15), they wisely chose not to save their life only to ultimately lose it (Matt 16:25).
Nebuchadnezzar again completely loses his head. This very intelligent man, out of blind fury, orders the furnace to be heated seven times hotter than normal, presumably to worsen the agony inflicted on the three condemned men. If he were thinking clearly, it probably would have occurred to him that this would do nothing but shorten the torment. Wise or not, the king ordered it, so the furnace was heated to an insane temperature. These ancient furnaces were roughly igloo-shaped, with an opening on top for ventilation and fueling and a door on the side for feeding the fire or cleaning out the ashes. The victims of execution would be thrown in from the top, with the flames blazing.
Because of Nebuchadnezzar’s temper-tantrum, the furnace was roaring above and beyond its normal capacity. In fact, the guards who hauled up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego to that top opening were themselves killed by the unbelievable heat. (Personal note: I believe I detect a bit of divine irony in this, too — “You’re messing with My servants? Let Me mess with yours…”) The three Hebrews fell down into the blaze, and for all appearances, that should have been the end of it.
I love how God consistently confounds really big deal rulers in this book, over and over again. The king, who just moments ago was stewing in rage, had now leapt to his feet, shouting in disbelief for his wisemen to confirm what his eyes couldn’t possibly really be seeing. Not only were the three captives unhurt, but there was Someone else hanging out who none of the Babylonian royals could account for. Nebuchadnezzar perceived him to be like a “Son of God” (4:25), and every commentary I’ve read agrees that this is most likely the Second Person of the Trinity Himself.
I’m absolutely convinced that at this point, the entire encounter became very fun for Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego. The Scripture doesn’t say that they were huddled in the middle, holding their breath in terror that the miracle might stop working at any moment. Nor were they writhing in pain in the heat. They were “walking in the midst of the fire… not hurt” (3:25), and hanging out with Jesus, to boot. Their ropes had burned off, and their clothes hadn’t. I wonder what fire feels like when it’s not actually hot? Maybe they were laughing. Maybe they were worshipping. But I think they must have been having a blast.
Nebuchadnezzar’s tone is markedly different here. It is much more respectful, and doubtless much more rattled. “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, servants of the Most High God, come out, and come here” (3:26). The three men walked out under their own power and in perfect health. All the bystanders huddled around, marveling at these men “on whose bodies the fire had no power” (3:27). I love God’s extravagant deliverance here. If the men had straggled out of the fire, sweating, gasping, and singed bald, it still would have been a testimony to the delivering power of God. However, they still had all their hair, still had all their clothes, and — this is my favorite part — they didn’t even smell like smoke. That part gets me every time. That was so above and beyond what was necessary, but God did it anyway.
For the second time in his career, Nebuchadnezzar gets a clue. I love this little exclamation here, coming from a much humbler, less confident king. He has the sense to praise the God whose servants have “frustrated the king’s word” (3:28). He acknowledges the heroic willingness to face martyrdom which these Hebrews demonstrated.
Probably sensing his close scrape with an incredibly powerful God, he issued an instant decree that nobody in the kingdom could say anything against Yahweh. Ever. Violators of the aforementioned law would be “…cut in pieces, and their houses shall be made an ash heap” (3:29)… okay, some things take a while to change.
Nebuchadnezzar’s final statement is wonderful. “…[T]here is no other God who can deliver like this” (3:29). Especially as it pertains to Daniel’s end-time relevance, this is such a critical verse to grasp. God is a Deliverer. Period. No one can threaten so harshly that He can’t override it in a moment. No one can touch the eternal destiny of His people. No sin is worth caving to, no king worth fearing. “The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me” (Ps 118:6)?
And of course, in the true “Nebbie-gets-a-clue” fashion, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego are promoted. You’ve got to hand it to him; the man knows when he’s been beat. And if you can’t beat God, it’s a very good idea to join Him.