In Daniel chapter 3 the author of the book plays no part. Instead, his three companions take center stage.
After having his dream interpreted, it is plausible that the egotistical king became carried away with his self-importance, because on the plains of Dura outside the walls of Babylon, he erected a golden image approximately 27 meters high and 3 meters wide. (About 90 feet high and 9 feet wide.) Perhaps it was in the likeness of the image he saw in his dream; only this image is all gold — or more likely covered in gold leaf, since it would seem improbable for a statue nine stories tall to be solid gold.
It has been conjectured that it was a statue of the king. Others believe it was of the supreme Babylonian god Marduk, or the god Nebo, the Babylonian god of “wisdom,” after whom Nebuchadnezzar was named. Or it might even have been like the image he saw in his dream. In any case, Nebuchadnezzar decreed that all the officials and people of his kingdom fall down and worship it when they heard music — or face the music if they did not!
For a very strange punishment was announced for those who failed to obey: They would be burned alive in a fiery furnace. This would seem to be a rather extravagant form of execution. In the previous chapter, when Nebuchadnezzar ordered that the wise men be put to death, it doesn’t say that the executions were to be carried out in this manner. It seems this was an especially contrived, painful and fearful means of execution. Undoubtedly the horribleness of being burned to death was meant to enforce compliance. It could also have had eternal consequences in the minds of those faced with this kind of death, as their remains would not be able to be gathered for the correct type of burial and that could seriously jeopardize their happiness in the afterlife.
Babylon had just established itself as an empire, and perhaps this ceremony was intended to ensure the loyalty of all the officials, many of whom, like Daniel and his friends, were recruited from the conquered lands. Bowing down to this image could possibly have been a way to make sure that all the officials of the empire acknowledged the lordship and supremacy of Babylon and its patron gods.
Nevertheless, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego refused to bow, sticking to their religious convictions. This act of defiance was not a rejection of the king’s authority over them. They were probably used to bowing low in the presence of Nebuchadnezzar. But to bow to an idol was not something they would do. Jews were forbidden by the Laws of Moses to bow to any statue, whether it be of a man or a god.
And some of the Chaldeans were watching. It makes one wonder how much falling to the ground in front of the image they were doing if they took time to see that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego weren’t. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego were in charge of the affairs of the province of Babylon, and they most certainly had gained some envious enemies due to their quick elevation to such important positions.
Whatever gratitude that the wise men of the Chaldeans may have had to Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego for saving their skins in the previous chapter had obviously evaporated by now, and so they reported the noncompliance of the three men to the king. Nebuchadnezzar was furious and demanded that the trio be brought before him. He then questioned them as to the truth of the accusations and reminded them of the punishment.
Obviously they saw that there was no way around the matter and the king was quite determined to have his decree upheld, so they took the bold approach. They told him that since there were obviously lots of witnesses to what they had done — or rather had not done — there was no need to confirm or deny it to the king.
Then comes one of the most ringing statements of faith in God’s power and protection in the whole Bible: “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, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image.” They had total faith that it was within God’s power to protect them; but even if He chose not to in this case, they still were not going to compromise and worship the idol. (The fact that they said they would not serve the Babylonian gods adds weight to the theory that it was an idol of one of the gods and not a statue of the king.)
This insubordination sent Nebuchadnezzar over the edge. He had been angry before, but now it seems his rage turned to hate. The three whom he had promoted so quickly were defying him — and publicly, no less!
The furnace was ordered to be heated “seven times hotter,” probably a figure of speech to indicate that the furnace should be heated as hot as they could make it.
It is presumed that the furnace was a kiln for the firing of ceramic tiles, of the type that adorned the façades of various monuments in Babylon like the famous Ishtar Gate. Unbaked tiles were covered with sand and minerals and superheated in these kilns, until the sand turned to glaze.
But this time the furnace was going to be hotter than even the glazing required. Normally, the tiles would be placed in the furnace, the doors bricked up, and then the heat applied. Getting something into the furnace after it was fired was a challenge. There would have been only one way to get Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego into the furnace after it had been heated, and that was to throw them in from the opening at the top.
And from the passage, it sounds like this is what they did. Mighty men of valor were chosen from the army to bind the condemned, who were then carried fully clothed and thrown in. And we are told that the heat was so intense that it killed their executioners, who had to get close to the opening themselves in order to throw their victims in.
In such furnaces, there were small openings in the side for the workers to look in to see if the sand on the tiles had melted. And so it seems Nebuchadnezzar was able to see the action inside the furnace through one of these.
And there he spied not just three men but four. They were walking around, no longer bound and seemingly impervious to the flames, and the fourth, Nebuchadnezzar exclaimed, looked like the son of God — perhaps an angel, or, as many believe, Jesus Himself. And not just the king, but those with him, also saw the fourth person.
The king went as close as he could get to the mouth of the furnace and called out to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, whom he now called servants of the Most High God, to come out. And so they did. And everyone there witnessed that not a hair on their heads was singed, and there was not even the trace of fire or smell of smoke on their clothes.
One can only wonder at the fear that fell on those who had ratted on the three to the king, especially after Nebuchadnezzar decreed that anyone saying anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego would, from then on, be cut to pieces.
As for Nebuchadnezzar, he had more to go through before he finally realized that the God of Israel was the one and only true God.
Where was Daniel during this event? The chapter is silent on this, and so it can only be conjectured where he might have been. Perhaps he was away on a mission for the king. In an odd way his absence from the action supports the claim that Daniel was the author of the book. Critics have claimed that the book is not authentic and that it was written centuries after the time of the Babylonian Empire, during Judah’s struggles with the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes. It would seem strange, if this was the case, that the author would not have placed the main protagonist of the book at the center of the action. The fact that Daniel is absent lends credence to the belief that the book is the genuine article rather than a fictional forgery.
Greeks in the Band?
Some of the instruments in Nebuchadnezzar’s “orchestra” are of Greek origin. Skeptics claim that there would have been no Grecian influence in Babylon or in the region before Alexander’s conquests hundreds of years later, and that their inclusion in the text is proof of a later authorship of the book. However, records from antiquity have been unearthed that show that there was significant Greek influence in the area. As stated in chapter 2, there were Greek mercenaries in the service of the kings in the region. There were also Greek shipwrights building Nebuchadnezzar’s navy. Musical instruments originating with the Greeks could have found their way to Babylon just as easily as the Greeks themselves.