In the Fiery Furnace

by Ed Gallagher

From the Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome, Italy. Late 3rd century / Early 4th century. Wikimedia Commons

Nebuchadnezzar said, Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him. They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.

Daniel 3:28

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Exodus 20:4–6

How easy it is to worship idols, to convince ourselves that God doesn’t mind, or that he wouldn’t really expect us to stand against an entire culture! Idolatry is all around us, in a slightly less conspicuous way than it was in the ancient Near East, or in ancient Greece and Rome, or in many modern nations (especially in Africa and Asia). In the West we have renamed our idols so that it becomes a little less obvious how we have betrayed the faith we confess. Of course, Jesus isn’t buying it. He recognized that many people serve Mammon alongside God, an impossible task (Matt 6:24). Jesus didn’t actually use the word idolatry, but Paul did (Col 3:5). And if greed can be considered a form of idolatry because it divides our loyalties, then so can all kinds of other things: career, social status, political correctness, social media, entertainment, houses, cars, food. The fact that we don’t call these things idols makes the sin all the harder to recognize. The fact that each of these things is perfectly innocuous in moderation makes the idolatry all the more insidious. 

In Daniel 3, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are confronted with an idol—not an inconspicuous idol, but one very much larger than life, easy to recognize. It was made of gold, and it was sixty cubits tall (= about 90 feet) and six cubits wide (= about nine feet). For comparison, the statue of a sitting Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, is 19 feet tall, and the building itself is 99 feet tall.

I suppose a statue in and of itself wouldn’t be an idol; we have statues all over the place that we don’t regard as idols. But Nebuchadnezzar wanted his subjects “to fall down and worship” the statue (Dan 3:5). And the people do just as Nebuchadnezzar demanded: they “fell down and worshiped the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up” (3:7). They all like sheep have gone astray (Isa 53:6). They have drunk the Kool-Aid. 

The Resistance 

Well, not everybody. Three Jewish boys refused. Now, presumably, Daniel didn’t fall down in front of the statue, either, but this chapter does not mention Daniel at all. It focuses on Daniel’s friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. We have been briefly introduced to these friends in the first two chapters, in stories that focused mostly on Daniel. After Daniel 3, the focus shifts back to Daniel, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are never mentioned again. Before they exit stage left, we have one powerful story demonstrating their total allegiance to God. 

Let’s not kid ourselves: even though these Jewish boys are being told to commit what is obviously a sin, it must have been difficult for them to decide what to do. None of that difficulty is reflected in this chapter, which shows the boys resolved to disobey the king. But we can guess at this difficulty because we are humans, and it would probably be difficult for us. Everybody else is doing it, apparently without any scruples. And refusing would mean certain death (without a miracle, which the boys are hoping for), and wouldn’t we do a better job of testifying to our God by staying alive rather than by dying? Is it really idolatry to bow down to this statue? Isn’t it really the heart that matters, so if we’re not inwardly bowing down to the statue, but only doing so outwardly, maybe it doesn’t really count? 

My guess is that most of us would have a very hard time figuring out what to do, which is why we need stories like Daniel 3 (and Daniel 6, another near-martyrdom story). 

Nebuchadnezzar confronts these boys and gives his command directly to them (3:13–15), a speech that ends with the rhetorical question: “Who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?” I love Jerome’s imagined response to this question: “Why naturally, that same God whose servant you recently worshipped and whom you asserted to be truly God of gods and Lord of kings” (Dan 2:46–47).1 Maybe Nebuchadnezzar was thinking that revealing secrets (Dan 2) is one thing, but delivering from a fiery furnace is something altogether different.2 

The boys do not hesitate: 

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. 17If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

Daniel 3:16–18

The highlight here is “but if not.” The boys have confidence in their God, but they don’t have complete confidence in their ability to predict what God will do. He can save us, but sometimes he chooses not to, for whatever reason. In this context, we might remember the prayer of Paul that God would remove the thorn in his flesh, only to be told, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). Or, even more relevant, we recall the prayer of Jesus that the Father would “take this cup from me, yet not as I will, but as you will” (Mark 14:36). We remember the outcome of that prayer: Jesus died on a cross. He tells his followers to take up their own crosses (Mark 8:34). 

The boys’ response to Nebuchadnezzar might also remind us of this other statement from Jesus when he was facing certain death: “You would have no power over me if it were not given you from above” (John 19:11). 

Probably in a reflection on this story in Daniel 3, another ancient Jewish document (4 Maccabees, written in the first century AD) puts these words into the mouth of a Jew facing the choice of death or apostasy:

You do not have a fire hot enough to make me play the coward. 

4 Maccabees 10:14

In the Furnace 

God does save the boys, after all. 

Some sort of supernatural being joins the boys in the furnace, one that appeared to Nebuchadnezzar to have “the appearance of a son of the gods” (Dan 3:25), while the king later calls this fourth person an angel (3:28). Who was it? The text does not say. In early Christianity, it was common to identify this fourth person as the pre-incarnate Christ, and it would be difficult to argue against that interpretation, but it would also be difficult to know for sure. In the fourth century AD, Jerome expressed some doubts: “As for the appearance of the fourth man, which he asserts to be like that of a son of God, either we must take him to be an angel, as the Septuagint has rendered it, or indeed, as the majority think, the Lord our Savior. Yet I do not know how an ungodly king could have merited a vision of the Son of God.”3 In Rabbinic literature, Nebuchadnezzar is rebuked for his statement that the fourth person looks like a son of the gods: “Said Rabbi Abin: At that moment an angel came and struck that evil man on his mouth, saying to him, Correct what you have said! Does he have a son?” Nebuchadnezzar then issued the correction that we read in verse 28.4 In any case, whatever his identity, this fourth person brought the salvation of God. 

It might be significant to recognize that God does not intervene in this story until the last possible minute. (That aspect might remind us of Genesis 22.) Ellen Davis has helpfully brought up this point:

For this particular storyteller, it is surely important that the fourth figure becomes visible only in the furnace, the locus of the most intense suffering. 

Ellen Davis, Opening Israel’s Scriptures (Oxford, 2019), p. 390

This story encourages us to trust God all the way, even beyond death. 

Facing Martyrdom 

Part of what I imagine made the boys pause when they initially heard the command about bowing down to the statue is the suddenness of the change in Babylonian policy. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had been able to carve out a pretty comfortable existence even in exile. They were honored along with Daniel as wise men, wiser than others, experts in Babylonian literature. And Nebuchadnezzar had seemed open to their practicing their religion however they chose. Then the king made what must have seemed to him like a rather innocent law, encouraging loyalty among the diverse population of his empire. That’s the line the Judean boys can’t cross. 

The resolve of these boys had been made easier, no doubt, by their earlier stand in regard to the luxurious foods of Babylon. They had already refused to become completely assimilated to their new culture; they had already resolved to maintain their distinctiveness; they had already determined that they needed to hold Babylon at arm’s length. And so when the shock of this new command came to them, they had trained themselves to face the challenge.  

You’ve seen clips of the Nazi-propaganda film Triumph of the Will. I doubt you’ve endured watching the whole thing. You can find it online, and it is generally considered one of the great documentaries ever made (but an evil one!), but you can probably hold that opinion only if you don’t watch it. That’s exactly the position Roger Ebert found himself in a few years before his death, after decades of assuming that everyone knew what they were talking about that this film was so great. Upon watching it in his older age, Ebert wrote of the film: “It is a terrible film, paralyzingly dull, simpleminded, overlong and not even ‘manipulative,’ because it is too clumsy to manipulate anyone but a true believer.” My point is not that you shouldn’t watch Triumph of the Will, but that it documents a rather sudden shift in German society. The film focuses on a pro-Hitler rally in 1934. Remember, Hitler had become German chancellor in 1933, so this is just a little bit later. But the people worship Hitler. The German Christian Pastor Julius Leutheuser exclaimed: “Christ has come to us through Adolf Hitler. Through his power, his honesty, his faith and his idealism … the Redeemer has found us, [and] we know the Savior today has come!”5 That’s the twentieth century. 

Now, in the twenty-first century in America, how much would our country have to change for it to require of us things that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not willing to do? Maybe it’s already there? Maybe it’s not? In any case, change can come suddenly. Are we ready to imitate these boys? 

They got themselves ready by training themselves to resist the empire’s allures. Perhaps we should think of ways to do this, as well. Sometimes we say, “Well, if you were in the situation in Daniel 3, you don’t know how you would respond. You really don’t know until you’re in that situation.” That may be true to some extent, but we can train ourselves. After all, we don’t accept such excuses from our military. It’s not like an army general ever tells the President, “We can send troops into this area, but we really don’t know how they’ll respond, because they’ve never been in that situation.” Surely some soldiers will turn coward, will betray their training, but the point of the training is to minimize that response. 

We need training to hold the earthly kingdoms at arm’s length. The New Testament repeatedly encourages us to be prepared for suffering (Acts 14:22; Phil 1:27–30; 2 Tim 3:12; 1 Pet 4:1–2). Our danger in twenty-first-century America is that we have become so accustomed to comfort, we have became so unfamiliar with suffering, that we misinterpret our society and suffering, so that we think that the prospect of the loss of our church’s tax exempt status is persecution. Of course, we should by all means be willing to forgo our tax exempt status, but Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were willing to do a great deal more than that. And so are many other Christians around the world today. Just do an online search for modern Christian martyrdom, and you’ll find that it’s on the rise. 

Daniel 3 reminds us of the commitment we have made to taking up our cross, that we sometimes sing about. 

Our fathers, chained in prisons dark,

Were still in heart and conscience free;

And blest would be their children’s fate,

If they, like them should die for thee:

Faith of our fathers! holy faith!

We will be true to thee till death!

Or, in the words of our Lord:

Be faithful unto death, and I will give you a crown of life.

Revelation 2:10

Bonus Material

The Longer Version of Daniel 3

The Greek translation has a longer version of Daniel 3. After the boys are thrown into the fiery furnace, one of the them (Azariah = Abednego) offers a prayer, and then all three boys sing a hymn. This additional material is found in the Greek translation between Daniel 3:23 and 3:24. You can find the entire addition in the translation of the NRSV at the link above.

Discussion Questions 

As you read through Daniel 3, do you think that Nebuchadnezzar changes? How does you change? 

What is Nebuchadnezzar’s new plan in Daniel 3:1–7? Why does he make such a plan? 

Why do the Chaldeans behave as they do (Daniel 3:8–12)? Have the events of Daniel 2 influenced the Chaldeans? 

How do Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego respond to the king’s demand? 

What means does God use to save Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego?


(1) This is Jerome’s comment on Dan 3:15 in his early-fifth-century Commentary on Daniel, trans. Gleason L. Archer (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958), 37 (translation slightly adapted). 

(2) Nebuchadnezzar’s method of killing by a furnace had become well-known among the Jewish exiles (cf. Jer 29:21–22).

(3) Jerome, Commentary on Daniel, trans. Archer, p. 43.

(4) Palestinian Talmud, tractate Shabbat 6.9, in the translation of Jacob Neusner, The Talmud of the Land of Israel: A Preliminary Translation and Explanation, vol. 11: Shabbat (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 215–16. A similar account appears in Song of Songs Rabbah 7.9, where the saying is attributed to R. Phinehas in the name of R. Reuben, and the angel who struck Nebuchadnezzar is Michael; see the translation by Maurice Simon, Midrash Rabbah: Song of Songs, 3rd ed. (New York: Soncino, 1983), 296.

(5) See J. S. Conway, The Nazi Persecution of the Churches 1933–1945 (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1968), 48. I originally found this quotation in Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Knopf, 2014), 176.

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