Chapter three contains one of the favorite Sunday School stories of all time: Daniel’s friends in the fiery furnace. In what was most certainly a response to his dream in chapter two, Nebuchadnezzar built a statue, possibly of himself, but the entire statue was made of gold, rather than just the head (see Daniel 2:38). He built the statue outside of Babylon and issued the decree that everyone would have to bow down to the image (Daniel 3:2-7). This was not for Babylonians only but for everyone who lived there – all “peoples, nations, and language groups” (Daniel 3:4).
In a nation where many gods were worshiped, it was likely not Nebuchadnezzar’s intent to “convert” everyone to his religion. Because government and religion were so closely linked, to reject a king’s gods was to reject the king himself. This was most likely a test of loyalty to the king (Daniel 3:12). This may also help answer the question about Daniel’s absence in the story. As the rest of the book demonstrates, he certainly would not have bowed to the image, but he was not accused with his friends. While it is possible that he may have been out of town on business, it is just as likely that Nebuchadnezzar had a handful close friends and counselors whose loyalty he did not find it necessary to test. Because this was a test of loyalty, all those who refused to obey would be executed for treason by being burned alive in the huge kilns used for firing bricks.
Daniel was not there, but his three friends were, and they did not bow down. It is probable that their accusers knew of their Jewish faith and had much to gain politically and economically if they were killed. These “certain Chaldeans” used this opportunity to ingratiate themselves with the king and remove political enemies at the same time (Daniel 3:8-12).
The strong link between Daniel and these young men may not have been known to Nebuchadnezzar. Assuming that he recognized them as Jewish captives, he could have thought that they had been fully assimilated into Babylonian culture like the other captives. Upon interrogating them, he asked a very specific question: “Who is that god who can rescue you from my power?” (Daniel 3:15). Their response was simple: “Ours can, but even if he chooses to not do so, we will not disobey him” (Daniel 3:17-18). For these three young men, it was more important that they obey the second commandment (Exodus 20:4-6) than to obey the king. Like the apostle Peter six hundred years later, they insisted, “We must obey God rather than people” (Acts 5:29).
Enraged at their perceived treason, Nebuchadnezzar intended to use them as examples for everyone who thought they could follow suit. He had the furnaces heated up so hot that the guards who were to throw the men in were killed themselves (Daniel 3:22)! However, as many Sunday School children know, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego remained unharmed (Daniel 3:23).
In a startling discovery, Nebuchadnezzar saw not three, but four men, walking in the flames (Daniel 3:25). Contrary to what some translations may read, he did not claim to see “the Son of God” but rather “a son of the gods” – a divine being that he called an angel or messenger in Daniel 3:28. With just a hint of condescension toward Babylon’s gods, Daniel noted that, when the young men emerged from the furnace (that killed the guards), they did not smell like smoke or have even a single hair singed (Daniel 3:27). Apparently, their God could rescue them.
Nebuchadnezzar could not help but praise God for showing himself powerful on their behalf for their obedience to him. Ironically, after challenging God’s power, Nebuchadnezzar embraced him as one of his “special” gods that no one was allowed to blaspheme (Daniel 3:28-29). Again, though he did not convert, he believed this God would make a great asset for him. In a twist of irony, the accusers who wanted the young men’s positions vacated got their wish, but only because they were promoted rather than killed (Daniel 3:30).