3:1-7 – The image of gold. Theodotian and the LXX provide an interesting time note that is not included in the Aramaic text found in our Bibles. They actually state that it was Nebuchadnezzar’s 18th year when what follows happened and that would place the incident of the fiery furnace in the very year of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (cf. Jer.52:29). This made the trial of the three synonymous with the trial of the people of God and offered hope of salvation through the fires of Babylonian captivity.
It is unclear whether Nebuchadnezzar made the image of himself or (more likely) of one of his gods – Marduk or Bel. The dimensions of the image or statue are irregular. In the Aramaic, it is sixty cubits high and six cubits wide (Walvoord pg.81 notes this as unintentionally the number of man; cf. Rev.13:18) with the NIV giving 90 feet high and 9 feet wide (appearing like an obelisk much like the Washington Monument). In accordance with this, the Babylonians used the Sumero-Akkadian sexagesimal system of measurement which seems to be the explanation for the dimensions being in sixes (we still use this system in telling time: 24 hours, 60 minutes, 60 seconds, etc). “To reduce [the dimensions of] the statue to something normal…[is]…to miss the point that the statue is extraordinary and monumental, even grotesque” (Goldingay 69; cf. Oppenheim 183-9). The place for the dedication was called Dura (meaning “a walled place”) and it was likely a location six miles southeast of Babylon where a massive pedestal of bricks has been discovered.
Why would Nebuchadnezzar set up such an image after his disturbing dreams mentioned in the second chapter? Perhaps the dreams gave him the idea (see the comments of third century Church Father Hippolytus 2.15), but perhaps he simply did not care what the end would be and only obsessed over the present and the head of gold which represented himself. Everyone present was commanded to worship the image at the sound of the music playing to demonstrate their loyalty to the king and to the empire and his gods (cf. Rev.13).
3:8-15 – The three Hebrews who would not bow. Some of the “astrologers” (Aram. kaśdāyin) apparently driven by jealousy for the elevated status of the three friends of Daniel accused them before Nebuchadnezzar who otherwise would have been ignorant of their failure to bow and worship the image. With all of the leaders of Babylon that are named as called to the dedication (Aram. hānukkah) of the image why was Daniel not mentioned specifically? His presence at the royal court might explain his absence from this ceremony (see Dan.2:49; Miller 108) though there may be other explanations as well.
The accusations brought against them are that they neither worship Nebuchadnezzar’s gods nor the image he has set up. They are given another chance or will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace of fire. Could Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego have bowed on the outside and still remained true to God on the inside? (cf. 2 Kings 5:18-19; but see Deut.4:27-28; while gross idolatry occurred at that very time in the temple of Jerusalem according to Ezekiel 8, yet the three remained pure in far off Babylon where no one would have been the wiser). Note Nebuchadnezzar’s challenge that no god could save the three from his hand (compare the similar comments by Rabshekah in 2 Ki.18:33-35; Isa.36:17-20). In fact, in another place we discover that Nebuchadnezzar did kill two men – Zedekiah and Ahab – by throwing them into a fire (Jer.29:22). However, this account is not really a contest between Nebuchadnezzar and the three…it is a story about the one True God and His power and presence. This is not a “moral story” but it is a “display of a God who is faithful to His people even in captivity and is ever ready to deliver those who put their trust in Him. The contrast of the God of Israel to the idols of Babylon is a reminder that the god of this world, behind the Gentile dominion, is doomed to judgment at the hands of the sovereign God” (Walvoord 94).
3:16-23 – Thrown into the fire. The three offered no defense of themselves, but left everything to their God. “Formally, the existence of their God is expressed hypothetically; but neither they nor the reader actually question his existence as uncertain. Given that he exists, he is able to rescue…and he will rescue (that is a bold, un-evidenced wager parallel to those of 1:12-13; 2:14-16)” (Goldingay 73). According to the fourth century writer Jerome, “They indicate that it will not be a matter of God’s inability, but rather of His sovereign will if they do perish” (Miller 120). They would neither worship Nebuchadnezzar’s gods (which each of the three were named after) nor would they bow before the image outwardly. They stood upon the promise that their God would be with them even through the fire (cf. Exo.3:12; Isa.7:14; 43:1-3) and so in essence they were saying, “Death is preferable to apostasy” (Goldingay 74; note the confession of Job 13:15).
John Walvoord proposes that “the blazing furnace” following the Aramaic should be read without the definite article “the” and therefore would have “the resultant meaning that He [God] could deliver them from any fiery furnace, not just the one immediately at hand” (89). Their denial of worship absolutely infuriated Nebuchadnezzar who had the furnace heated “seven times hotter” which suggests simply that it could not be hotter (on the use of seven times cf. Prov.24:16; 26:16). His rage (as often is the case) moved beyond reason and instead of a slow burn which would have proven more painful to the three, he instead chose to kill them more quickly. The heat of the fires seems to match the heat of his temper.
He called for his strongest soldiers to throw them into the furnace, but this proved fatal to the soldiers. It appears that the three were thrown in through some hole in the top and then later the king saw them through some hole lower in the massive furnace. In the rush to punish the three they are not even stripped of their clothing as would have been normally done and so they were thrown into the fire with all their garments still on (though the exact translation of just what it was that the three Aramaic terms refer to remains unclear the significance is that they were thrown into the fire with clothes on and pulled out with their clothes not even singed or smelling of smoke let alone the any of their hairs singed, but the ropes were burned right off). At this point in the LXX the “Prayer of Azariah” and the “Song of the Three Hebrew Children” is inserted between Dan.2:23 and 2:24. The Rabbis have written that at the very moment the three were thrown into the fire Ezekiel was sent to restore the dead in the valley of dry bones…God was protecting and giving life (Sanhedrin Tractate, Rodkinson 279).
The Prayer of Azariah (and The Song of the Three Hebrew Children – NRS)
1:1 They walked around in the midst of the flames, singing hymns to God and blessing the Lord. 2 Then Azariah stood still in the fire and prayed aloud: 3 “Blessed are you, O Lord, God of our ancestors, and worthy of praise; and glorious is your name forever! 4 For you are just in all you have done; all your works are true and your ways right, and all your judgments are true. 5 You have executed true judgments in all you have brought upon us and upon Jerusalem, the holy city of our ancestors; by a true judgment you have brought all this upon us because of our sins. 6 For we have sinned and broken your law in turning away from you; in all matters we have sinned grievously. 7 We have not obeyed your commandments, we have not kept them or done what you have commanded us for our own good. 8 So all that you have brought upon us, and all that you have done to us, you have done by a true judgment. 9 You have handed us over to our enemies, lawless and hateful rebels, and to an unjust king, the most wicked in all the world. 10 And now we cannot open our mouths; we, your servants who worship you, have become a shame and a reproach. 11 For your name’s sake do not give us up forever, and do not annul your covenant. 12 Do not withdraw your mercy from us, for the sake of Abraham your beloved and for the sake of your servant Isaac and Israel your holy one, 13 to whom you promised to multiply their descendants like the stars of heaven and like the sand on the shore of the sea. 14 For we, O Lord, have become fewer than any other nation, and are brought low this day in all the world because of our sins. 15 In our day we have no ruler, or prophet, or leader, no burnt offering, or sacrifice, or oblation, or incense, no place to make an offering before you and to find mercy.
16 Yet with a contrite heart and a humble spirit may we be accepted, 17 as though it were with burnt offerings of rams and bulls, or with tens of thousands of fat lambs; such may our sacrifice be in your sight today, and may we unreservedly follow you, for no shame will come to those who trust in you. 18 And now with all our heart we follow you; we fear you and seek your presence. 19 Do not put us to shame, but deal with us in your patience and in your abundant mercy. 20 Deliver us in accordance with your marvelous works, and bring glory to your name, O Lord.21 Let all who do harm to your servants be put to shame; let them be disgraced and deprived of all power, and let their strength be broken. 22 Let them know that you alone are the Lord God, glorious over the whole world.” 23 Now the king’s servants who threw them in kept stoking the furnace with naphtha, pitch, tow, and brushwood. 24 And the flames poured out above the furnace forty-nine cubits, 25 and spread out and burned those Chaldeans who were caught near the furnace. 26 But the angel of the Lord came down into the furnace to be with Azariah and his companions, and drove the fiery flame out of the furnace, 27 and made the inside of the furnace as though a moist wind were whistling through it. The fire did not touch them at all and caused them no pain or distress.
28 Then the three with one voice praised and glorified and blessed God in the furnace: 29 “Blessed are you, O Lord, God of our ancestors, and to be praised and highly exalted forever;30 And blessed is your glorious, holy name, and to be highly praised and highly exalted forever.31 Blessed are you in the temple of your holy glory, and to be extolled and highly glorified forever.32 Blessed are you who look into the depths from your throne on the cherubim, and to be praised and highly exalted forever.33 Blessed are you on the throne of your kingdom, and to be extolled and highly exalted forever.34 Blessed are you in the firmament of heaven, and to be sung and glorified forever.35 “Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.36 Bless the Lord, you heavens; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.37 Bless the Lord, you angels of the Lord; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.38 Bless the Lord, all you waters above the heavens; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.39 Bless the Lord, all you powers of the Lord; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.40 Bless the Lord, sun and moon; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.41 Bless the Lord, stars of heaven; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.42 “Bless the Lord, all rain and dew; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.43 Bless the Lord, all you winds; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.44 Bless the Lord, fire and heat; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.45 Bless the Lord, winter cold and summer heat; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.46 Bless the Lord, dews and falling snow; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.47 Bless the Lord, nights and days; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.48 Bless the Lord, light and darkness; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.49 Bless the Lord, ice and cold; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.50 Bless the Lord, frosts and snows; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.51 Bless the Lord, lightnings and clouds; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.52 “Let the earth bless the Lord; let it sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.53 Bless the Lord, mountains and hills; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.54 Bless the Lord, all that grows in the ground; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.55 Bless the Lord, seas and rivers; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.56 Bless the Lord, you springs; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.57 Bless the Lord, you whales and all that swim in the waters; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.58 Bless the Lord, all birds of the air; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.59 Bless the Lord, all wild animals and cattle; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.60 “Bless the Lord, all people on earth; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.61 Bless the Lord, O Israel; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.62 Bless the Lord, you priests of the Lord; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.63 Bless the Lord, you servants of the Lord; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.64 Bless the Lord, spirits and souls of the righteous; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.65 Bless the Lord, you who are holy and humble in heart; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.66 “Bless the Lord, Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever. For he has rescued us from Hades and saved us from the power of death, and delivered us from the midst of the burning fiery furnace; from the midst of the fire he has delivered us.67 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy endures forever.68 All who worship the Lord, bless the God of gods, sing praise to him and give thanks to him, for his mercy endures forever.”
(NRS = New Revised Standard Version. Copyright © 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America)
3:24-30 – The God who walks in the fire. Why might the Lord have allowed Nebuchadnezzar to be the first one to see the three walking in the fire and also a fourth in the fire? They were tied and he noted they were unbound…they were thrown into a fire so hot it killed his strongest soldiers for just getting to close and he noted they were unharmed and walking around (and in the LXX they are actually singing!). Who exactly is the fourth one seen by Nebuchadnezzar in the fire who never emerges from the flames? Note the reference in Isaiah 43:1-3 about the LORD being with His people even through the fire. One who looks like “a son of the gods” (Aram. bar ’elāhin) or even “a divine being” is a far more likely rendering in English than the KJV’s “Son of God”. Nebuchadnezzar also refered to this fourth being as God’s “angel” (Aram. mal’ak) sent to care for His servants.
What sort of transformation should this have made in him or did this make in him? His use of “the Most High God” is really not significant as it is other times spoken by those who were not of the faith of Israel (cf. Gen.14:19; Num.24:16; Isa.14:14). It is not that the king abandons his gods, but that he demanded that none blaspheme the God of the Jews under punishment of the very things he had declared he would do to those who failed to tell him his dreams and then interpret them (Dan.2:5). They were willing to give up their very lives or literally “yielded up their bodies” (and Theodotian adds “to the fire” which Paul adds to his letter to the Corinthians in 1 Cor.13:3) rather than deny their God total worship and trust. It was not a matter of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego knowing how their lives would end. They simply knew that to trust the LORD meant that whatever happened He would be faithful and they must also be faithful because He was faithful. This story later was taken up by Mattathias to encourage his sons in revolt against the tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes in the second century (1 Maccabees 2:59) and also by the writer of the Hebrews concerning those who “quenched the fury of the flames” in their walk of faith without having yet received the reward they sought (Heb.11:34). Contrast the command of Deut.7:25 concerning what supposed to be done to idols with what was done to the three in this account. The conclusion of Nebuchadnezzar is indeed the conclusion of the book of Daniel: no other god can save in the way that the God of Israel saves.