Robert Duncan Culver
BY THE AUTHOR
Dr. Robert Duncan Culver
This chapter of the Bible contains one of the most famous stories in the world. Not only has it served as entertainment and lesson for the very young at the knee of countless mothers but likewise as illustration in a multitude of sermons. In other days and in other lands than ours, where physical peril from the wrath of wicked men has been far more real, it has assured many of God's oppressed people of the truth that "The fear of man bringeth a snare: but whoso putteth his trust in the Lord shall be safe". The story's fame extends even to the well-known recital of historical examples of faith in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, where after mention of those "who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises" and "stopped the mouth of lions," mention is made of those who through faith "quenched the violence of fire". The three young Jews of this chapter must surely be the heroes of faith referred to.
The contents very clearly indicate, as the abovementioned uses of it, that divine purpose for the chapter is mainly practical rather than doctrinal. There are no clear predictions in chapter three. It consists simply of a narrative of the trial of faith imposed upon three believing young men by their ungrateful professional associates, of how that trial brought them into peril of life on account of their steadfast refusal to disobey God, of how God miraculously saved them, and of how they were properly rewarded. The predictive and doctrinal sections of the Book of Daniel would be quite complete without this chapter. On the other hand the Book of Daniel—and the whole Bible for that matter—would be much poorer as "instruction in righteousness … that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto every good work" without this chapter.
The "cast of characters" is already familiar. Nebuchadnezzar, the exasperated and angry king has already been introduced as the conqueror of the Jews and then as the exacting lord of his servants and convinced confessor of the greatness, even superiority, of the God of the Jews in the two previous chapters. The "Chaldeans", who herein involve the three confessors in their difficulty by informing on them, are the same passel of quacks who failed their king as advisors and interpreters in the test connected with the king's dream and whose very survival they owed to the success and intercession of these same young Jews and their more famous friend Daniel. As for the three confessors, we should remember that though herein called by their new pagan names: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (all honoring the vile pagan deities of the Babylonian pantheon) they are none other than the pious Jewish boys Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah who honored their God by refusing to defile themselves with the king's food and drink with Daniel in the signal victory of prayer in connection with the king's dream. Furthermore, to the obvious chagrin and envy of the Chaldeans, they had just now been promoted to high administrative positions in government of the home province of Babylon.
But, one known character is missing—Daniel, whose name does not even appear in the chapter. Notice of the absence of this man has set off what is probably the oldest man-hunt in history—a quite tame one, of course, in the commentaries. Was he unable to be present on account of illness? In later life he was sometimes ill for days and absent from the places of the king's business. Did his high office as president of all the "learned societies" excuse him from the necessity of being present on the occasion of the dedication of the image? This is doubtful. Or, was he simply "out of town on business" for the king? This has a kind of ludicrous sound, but it may be nearest the truth. We may be sure that if he had been "in town" there would have been four confessors, not three only,
May we, therefore, hopefully approach our study, expecting to find ourselves involved in a most complete demonstration of how Christian faith is attacked and how, through that same faith, the victory is won.
Nebuchadnezzar the king made an image of gold, whose height threescore cubits, and the breadth thereof six cubits: he set it up in the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon. (Daniel 3:1)
The image itself, its size, shape, composition, and significance draw first attention. The height of sixty cubits (about 90 feet) would have made it visible for a distance of twelve to fifteen miles in all directions on the broad lower Mesopotamian plain, and in a dry region where clouds seldom obscure the sun, would usually have been bathed at the top in the golden rays of the sun long before the light of sun struck the ground in the early morning as also after sunset. The height suggests, since it was only nine feet thick, that most of the monument was a pedestal. Proportions of 90:9 (10:1) would make a very thin man! The language, "an image of gold," requires only that it should have been covered with gold. In Old Testament times it was customary to overlay religious objects of non-precious material with a covering of gold. The tabernacle, for example, among its furnishings contained an altar called a "golden altar", yet it was only "overlaid with pure gold", not solid gold. The word for image used here is tselem common to several Semitic languages, meaning primarily shadow or by extension, a material reproduction of the outline of some living thing. The ordinary meaning would be statue, but sometimes this word tselem can describe a pillar or obelisk or stele only partially sculptured with a relief. So this may have been a pillar with either a statue or relief at the top. The ancient world was fond of gigantic statuary. Citizens of all older nations are much more familiar with this type of public monument than are we Americans whose country has as yet produced only a small amount of it. The tendency of gigantic statuary to produce a feeling of awe and of reverence—an accompaniment of worship—be acutely noticeable to all those who visit our nation's capital and enter either the Jefferson or Lincoln memorials.
Though there are reported to have been three places in Mesopotamia called "Dura" in ancient times, only one is near the city of Babylon. At this site (Tells of Dura) there are reported to be ruins which may even be related to this image and its platform.
The question of to whom or to what the image was dedicated is of greater importance for interpretation of the passage, but impossible to decide with complete certainty. The fact that several times worship of the image is distinguished from worship of the gods of Babylon indicates that it was not dedicated to any particular Babylonian deity. Several scholars (Montgomery and Keil) argue that it was a symbol of Nebuchadnezzar's empire. This is plausible, especially in connection with the dream of chapter two, and would account for the fact that representative officials from all sections of the empire were required to be present and why the Chaldeans when they refused to render the image the required worship could charge the three Jews with treason rather than sacrilege. Furthermore, just as the "head of gold" in the image stood for Nebuchadnezzar and his empire, so the statue may have been dedicated both to the empire and its king. Another most attractive suggestion is that Nebuchadnezzar had been so impressed by Daniel's revelations from Jehovah, the Jewish God, as reported to us in chapter two, that he had the image erected and dedicated in honor of the God of Israel. Farfetched as this may seem, it is by no means impossible. The image would thus take somewhat the same status as the altar "to the unknown god" of the Areopagus. Furthermore it is not without precedents. Aaron's golden calf and Rehoboam's two calves of gold, both used for idolatrous worship, were likewise certainly dedicated to Jehovah. It is precisely this perverted kind or worship which was Israel's most acute temptation—worship of the true God in an utterly false manner. This continues today in different ways, to be a great temptation.
Wherefore at that time certain Chaldeans came near and accused the Jews. (Daniel 3:8)
The significance of these words is chiefly that they show how the chief opposition to the obedient faith of God's people often comes from other people. The men, in this case, were the very professional class of wise men, advisors of the king, to which our three heroes belonged. They were professional associates, in a sense.
It will always be true that being "men of like passions," all of God's people are likely to receive their most difficult, persistent and persuasive temptation via men. Even our Lord was no exception, for it was Peter who suggested that he follow another course than the will of his Father. The tempter may be one's wife or husband, one's parents, fellow students, or fellow workmen, or professional colleagues. The younger one is, the more persuasive is social pressure. Social pressure—the dreadful insistence from without and within that one conform to the habits, pleasures, tastes, and desires of the group, particularly one's peers, is almost overwhelming in childhood and youth. A high school girl of finest tastes for example, may be pressed to wear the current outlandish costume or to exchange lucid diction for the latest "youth" jargon, just in order not to be a "square," or because "everybody" is doing it. Ten years later as an adult she might wish very much not to be seen on the street wearing style and pattern of dress as even one other woman, for people do become a bit less the conformists as they grow older.
Either good or evil men may oppose us, that is, tempt us to be less than God's will prescribes for our lives, but the temptation most frequently comes, as in this story, from those who do not love God. Our three heroes did not fear them. "The fear of man" only "bringeth a snare". Our Lord has told us how both to fear and not to fear men in an extensive section of Scripture. The worst, Jesus has said, that evil men can do to us is to harm our bodies. Since God, however, can destroy both the soul and the body in hell we should "fear him." So, "beware of men”, he says not because they themselves can really harm you ultimately but because they can lead you to sin. Yet, further on, Jesus says, "fear them not", inasmuch as their power to do harm extends only to our bodies.
Perhaps before proceeding it will be well to answer a question: What is temptation? In the Bible the word temptation is simply an alternate term for test or trial. In this broad sense, illness, poverty, etc. are temptations. In this sense of trial even God is tempted. In the special sense in which we now usually think of it, however, temptation is a test in the moral or spiritual realm. It consists of enticement to sin. It may be external stimulation of improper desires, as in the case of the serpent's tempting Eve. Or, it may be something that arises from within man's nature without the necessity of external stimulation, such as pride, gluttony, covetousness, etc.
There is a sense in which it is true that God never tempts any man. James says, "Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man: but every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed". Yet in an indirect manner, called providence, God does try men. "The righteous God trieth the hearts and reins". God allows Satan to be an instrument of trial. Thus, to cite a well-known example; in II Samuel 24:1 God is said to have "moved David" to perform the sinful act of numbering Israel. Yet in I Chronicles 21:1 we are caused to see that Satan was the real tempter. The explanation is simply that God's providence allowed it, in the same manner that he allowed wicked men wrongfully to sell Joseph into Egypt, or to crucify the Savior. Satan is the arch fiend behind all enticement to sin. This was clearly the case in the temptation of Jesus.
Then an herald cried aloud, To you it is commanded, O people, nations, and languages, that at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of music, ye fall down and worship the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king hath set up: and whoso falleth not down and worshippeth shall the same hour be cast into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. (Daniel 3:4-6)
It is by no means necessary to accept this as true. The fifth chapter, and several subsequent chapters, show that Daniel survived the conquest of the Babylonians by the Persians by several years, and had high office in the Persian administration. It would, then, have been most natural for him to have brought the nomenclature up to date. Actually nothing is more in accord with known history of the culture of the Near East than the preponderance of Persian words in this verse.
This proclamation presented a three-fold temptation to the three Jews—as well as to the many others of their nation who may have been present. It was first of all:
Idolatry in Israel as noted above had been always mainly a perversion of the true worship of the one true God rather than a denial or abandonment of it. The gods of their neighbors were worshipped occasionally, to be sure. But the idolatry of Israel was usually an attempt to worship Jehovah-God through some "aid to worship" such as a graven or molten image. This was clearly true of the first case after the Exodus, the golden calf incident in the wilderness, for when Aaron announced: "These be thy gods, 0 Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt," he used the plural name Elohim, the word usually translated simply, God. Perhaps it should be so translated here. In fact it is close to a certainty inasmuch as even though there was only one calf image Aaron used the plural name Elohim. So the plural Elohim should be understood in the sense of God instead of gods. Moreover, the whole affair was preparation for what Aaron further declared would be "a feast to the LORD" on the morrow. The next day Moses came down from the mountain only to find the people engaged in drunken, licentious, pagan-style dancing around a golden image of a calf—all in the name of Jehovah. The same was true of Jeroboam's worship of the calves at Bethel and Dan.
We may rightly discern in the worship of idols a perversion of a normal and healthy desire in man for a visible manifestation of the Godhead. That is, it is now entirely wrong to prefer to walk "by sight." Philip quite guilelessly suggested: "Show us the Father, and it sufficeth us”. As Jesus then pointed out to Philip, it is precisely to satisfy this longing of men that God, in part at least, sent his Son to be "God manifest in the flesh." "He became flesh" John says, "and dwelt among us". The Christian may, then, find a fully sufficient answer to this longing to see the living God by reading the Scriptural account of the life of Jesus.
It would be remiss not to raise a strong warning for Christians today at this point. We are witnessing, in both Roman and Protestant groups, what has been called a "liturgical revival." It is not all bad, of course. Dignified forms of worship suited to the culture, education, and tastes of God's people, if kept within proper limits, is all for the good. But what are proper limits? The use of any visual representation of God whatsoever, or even of the Savior at the place where attention centers in a room where worship is conducted, certainly is wrong in educative effect. Roman Catholic worship with its use of images and intermediate objects of worship not only violates sound worship practices but at least one of the ten commandments. A discerning Christian knows that so innocent an object as a picture or other visible symbol, even if it be not a likeness, can be idolatrous or at least tend toward wrong emphasis unless extreme care is sustained. A stained glass window containing artistic portrayal of some scene from the Lord's earthly life may be justified as educational, decorative, and useful if it is at the side of the room or at the entrance of the place of worship. If set where it is the center of interest, however, rather than the invisible present Christ, revealed only through the Word, such art may become a temptation to idolatry. Certainly recent converts from idolatrous worship will be offended. Publishers of illustrative aids for the instruction of children, and especially the teachers themselves, should be careful that pictures, flannel graph objects, etc. do not become substitutes for the true, present, invisible Christ, the one really seen fully best in the stories of the Gospels. These devices may be used to obscure the truth of the invisibility of the Divine Spirit rather than to illumine this truth about Him.
Beautiful music, stately architecture, and even oratory, may become other less-obvious channels tending toward idolatry. It should be clear, however, that they are not by any means necessarily idolatrous. Rather, wherever admiration of the creature, as such, rather than the Creator occurs there is idolatry.
Both Testaments warn frequently against this perversion of the true faith. We are familiar with the warnings in the Ten Commandments and in Jewish history. Paul likewise condemns the making of an "image made like to corruptible man" for purposes of worship, and in one place even calls covetousness a kind of idolatry. Let all Christians remember and heed John's patient words, "Little children, keep yourselves from idols".
A second look at the three confessors is in order. Theywere three of the very finest physical and intellectual specimens their nation could boast. They had been chosen for training in the highest learning their age knew. They had achieved the very finest kind of success their profession offered. Moreover, they had been advanced to honors most unusual. These honors had all come to them as foreigners and—what is far more important—it had all happened to them while they were very young men. This kind of early success spoils many who achieve it. Furthermore, piety, like a good many fruits and vegetables, grows better in the shade! It was an act of God's
"mercy, therefore, to them, and for the good of the Jewish exiles, that there was still a terrible trial for them to undergo; and their faith again winning the victory, thereby became so strong and massive that henceforth no storm could overthrow them from their firm foundations. Furthermore, with them the whole nation grew strong and learned to trust in the Lord God of their fathers".
These three urbane and cultured, yet godly Jews quite naturally wanted the approval of their professional associates in Babylon. By joining in worship of the idol they might have had it. The history of the world shows that education and scientific advancement have not provided any real barriers to what is obviously foolish idolatry. Idol worship can be justified to the satisfaction of many carnal men on artistic or aesthetic grounds. The beauty of the representation of gods and goddesses (or of saints and martyrs) is held to be its own justification. In civilized countries at the present time it is sometimes justified on patriotic grounds, as in Japan or on cultural and philosophical grounds, as in India. The Bible furnishes one example of participation, by a believer in the one true God, in idolatrous practices on the grounds of custom and legal necessity. The case is that of Naaman the Syrian who, convinced of the supremacy (if not sole existence) of Jehovah, desired pardon for participation in his master's (Ben-Hadad king of Syria's) worship of the image of Rimmon, since his official duties required his presence in the idol's temple. Like Naaman, these confessors might have agreed among themselves that the idol was nothing and that they should join in the external acts of obeisance to keep up appearances while inwardly reserving all worship for Jehovah. Or, they might have joined in the idolatry and have excused it to themselves as something they were compelled to do.
Yet, they steadfastly refused to worship the hateful idol, choosing what was, humanly speaking, certain death, rather than to pervert in any manner their pure faith in the invisible God who "dwelleth in light unapproachable" and who had commanded: "Thou shall not make thee any graven image, or likeness of any thing that is in heaven above … thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God" (Deut. 5:8, 9) and who also had said, "Thou shalt have none other gods before me" (Deut. 5:7). One thinks also of James' words: "Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God" (James 4:4).
Nebuchadnezzar spake and said unto them, Is it true, 0 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, do ye not serve my gods, nor worship the golden image which I have set up? (Daniel 3:14)
There are times when it is perfectly proper to believe all the truth there is and to remain discreetly silent about it. If there is no essential denial of one's God or failure in support of a beleaguered fellow-believer involved it may possibly be correct to remain silent. Yet no one especially admires Nicodemus for having come to Jesus "by night" or Joseph of Arimathea for not having declared his faith openly.
The text above should be changed to read "Is it on purpose"? instead of "Is it true"? The situation seems to have been that the king was genuinely fond of the three young men who had previously served him very well. So, after having been informed that they had now joined in worship of the image, the king, though exasperated with a disobedience he could not understand, still wished to spare them if possible. So he suggested that perhaps the failure to join in the worship had not been "on purpose." If they would only say the failure was unintended, then they would live. A little white lie would have saved them.
The writer will not soon forget an academic quarter in a state college where all his teachers were, with one exception, anti-Christian. One aged teacher especially, kept up a kind of running program of disparagement of everything Christian after he discovered that I, one of the dozen or so students in his class, was a ministerial student. Ridicule was daily fare for any known Christian believer in that class. Imagine my surprise, then, some weeks later, while attending a Christian Endeavor rally in the same town, to see a young man who had been a regular member of that class singing lustily in the choirs. How he could have silently concealed his faith for weeks while another suffered alone is hard to understand, and under the circumstances impossible to excuse.
The cause of Christ suffers daily from the failures of true Christians who deny their Lord by failing to show their colors. "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven".
Now if ye be ready that at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of music, ye fall down and worship the image which I have made, well: but if ye worship not, ye shall be cast the same hour into the midst of a burning fiery furnace; and who is that God that shall deliver you out of my hand. (Daniel 3:15)
This verse indicated that the temptation was made almost irresistibly appealing. Having been brought to the very jaws of death by their initial steadfastness, the very goodness of the king in offering them a second chance—a chance that appears to have involved the entire repetition of the ceremonies for their special benefit—must have strongly impelled the confessors to abandon their intransigent position.
This is the fourth and last enumeration of the musical instruments used in the Babylonian "orchestra." Six different instruments, as well as "all kinds of music" are mentioned. The names of the instruments are really unimportant to the story except that unbelieving criticism long claimed that the names of those instruments prove that this book could not have been written before the coming of the Greeks into Asia with Alexander in the 330's B.C. Occasionally even some contemporary critic will repeat the charge. The whole thing rests on the allegation that the names of certain of the instruments are Greek. It is by no means certain, however, that even one of the names was originally Greek. In case the one most likely word, "Dulcimer" (AV, sum-pon-ya Aramaic), should turn out to be derived from the Greek word symphonia (symphony), then it still is entirely unnecessary to think that the Greek armies and the Hellenistic culture which followed them had to arrive in Asia before the names of a few musical instruments got there. The instruments travelled through exchange of culture brought about by travel and commerce. Scholars now even know the routes the commercial caravans and fleets took. As is often the case with all such things, the names traveled with the objects of trade to which they belonged, just as names like banjo, piano, guitar, cornet, etc. have traveled to the United States without any previous conquest by the Italians and Greeks who gave us both these instruments and their names.
This verse directs another important truth our way: that God's name and reputation are intimately connected with the obedient faith of his people. Nebuchadnezzar had learned to brow-beat his own gods. If they would not help him he could stop supporting their temples and feeding their priests. So he was quite prepared to declare that the Jewish God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego was not one that "shall deliver you out of my hand." In spite of the admirable earlier confession of chapter two, Nebuchadnezzar had not yet learned well enough that the Jewish people not only were different on account of their faith, but that their God was different. A century and a half earlier Sennacherib had challenged the ability of Jehovah and on a single night had lost one hundred eighty thousand warriors to the death angel of that Jehovah. So now the faithfulness of these men showed in what esteem they held their God, and his subsequent deliverance of his obedient servants showed how great God really is.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, answered and said to the king, 0 Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter. (Daniel 3:16)
There has been some discussion as to whether or not the manner of address involved disrespect for the king, and whether their answer displayed arrogance. Some say that they were both disrespectful and arrogant. We think not. It is better to say that now that the final impasse had come there was no need for further palaver. If they had explained their real reasons for defying the king's order he would not have understood anyway. After all, there -really is no courteous way to say some things. When they said, in effect, "There is nothing more to say," it was true. Perhaps it may be a bit of American pride in an inheritance of defiance of tyrants and of impatience with impossible legal procedures, but even if they did "tell the king off," the present writer can not but feel a rising bit of pride that they did so. After all, was not Paul a bit rude with the time-serving officials up at Philippi when, after they wanted to slip their unwelcome guest out the back door of jail quietly, he defiantly demanded, "Let them come and fetch us out"?
If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thy hand, 0 king. (Daniel 3:17)
It is hard to find any lack of confidence in God's ability to save them. The opening words, "If it be so" appear to express a kind of sublime, but very practical, lack of further concern about mere talk. Perhaps these troublesome words mean, even if there might be some use for further talk as far as you are concerned, our words are at an end. It should be noted that they had received no revelation as to whether or not God would preserve them alive through the furnace. God, as they knew, is quite chary in use of miracles. There was no obvious reason why God should make a special case of these Jews' extremity and perform a miracle to save them. God often lets his faithful martyrs (martyr means witness) die for their faith. So, when they said, "he will deliver us out of thy hand, 0 king” they may have been quite grimly conscious of several possible ways in which deliverance from the king might take place. It might be by death. Death puts a blessed end to persecution from man. It does but deliver the Christian into the tender hands of God and transports him into the bosom of Abraham. So, whatever the fire might do they were "Safe in the arms of Jesus, safe on his gentle breast."
Deliverance might also come by a miracle. But they knew it was by no means certain, for they had no promise of it.
But if not, be it known unto thee, 0 king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up. (Daniel 3:18)
The expression of doubt implicit in "But if not" does not imply any doubt as to God's power, but rather of what has been called "ethical ability." That is they were by no means sure what the good providence of God would make necessary. If God had good reasons for letting some "martyr blood" tell the world about Himself they would die. If His plans could be better served, say the encouragement of other persecuted Jews, by being delivered alive, then they would be delivered alive.
There at least four elements common to all overcoming Christian faith demonstrated in these verses. Their faith, in the first place, was a full committal. "We are not careful to answer thee" or "There is no need for further talk." This was the only answer Nebuchadnezzar got to his question, "Was it on purpose?" This cast the die. From here on there was no turning back. How important it is that faith be a final act never to be reversed or repented of! In the second place their faith involved full confidence. "Our God whom we serve is able" they declared. They understood, as all should, that to deny God's omnipotence is really to deny his existence. This was their answer to the king's blatant question: "Who is that God that shall deliver you out of my hands"? In the third place there is a recklessness of faith to be observed. Verse 18 fairly rings with this quality. They answered the implied question of the king, "What are you going to do?" In faith they declared: "We will not!" This element of recklessness, however, would have been quite foolish—a thing born only of the tense emotion of the moment—if it had not been for still another element, foundational to all the others: full knowledge. They knew that God would deliver in one way or another because they knew their Hebrew Scriptures. The mighty works of God at the time of the Exodus and at other junctures in their history as well as their own recent experiences in connection with the king's dream simply left no room for doubt in their pious hearts. It is this which accounts not only for their commitment, confidence, and recklessness but for these qualities of faith in all ages. Any believer can join in so claiming: "So what we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me".
Then was Nebuchadnezzar full of fury, and the form of his visage was changed against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego: therefore he spake, and commanded that they should heat the furnace one seven times more than it was wont to be heated. And he commanded the most mighty men that were in his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and to cast them into the burning fiery furnace. (Daniel 3:19, 20)
There was immediate abandonment of any tentative plans for a repetition of the ceremonies. Their seeming contemptuous refusal even to recognize benevolent intentions on the king's part angered him beyond measure. The Aramaic words used are all of the utmost force in expressing anger. The furnace was to be heated seven times hotter than customarily. The mightiest, i.e., the leading generals and military men, were to execute the sentence. The furnace is not described, but, in the manner of ancient smelting furnaces, it was probably a kind of silo constructed of brick, and built into a mound or hillside with draft openings at the lower end at a lower ground level and with flue opening at the top. Presumably entrance for the victims of this manner of execution was made at the top through which the flames and smoke were belching. The king commanded the furnace to be heated seven times hotter than usual, we have already noted. This should be understood, like "ten times better", as an extreme superlative rather than in any exact sense. We speak the same way outside of circumstances where exact measurements are necessarily understood, as in a laboratory or weather bureau.
Curiosity asks for some information as to the fuel for the fire. It is not known, except that the usual fuel in those days would have been charcoal. One author  suggests that oil and naphtha were added. Presumably by naphtha he means petroleum. Petroleum and natural asphalt have long been used in that part of the world.
Then these men were bound in their coats, their hosen, and their hats, and their other garments, and were cast into the midst of the burning fiery furnace. (Daniel 3:21)
The significance of this verse is in the fact that immediately and unceremoniously these men were thrown to the fire in the very clothes they wore. Ordinarily men wear special clothes for an execution and any articles of finery would be removed, but on this occasion the king was in a big hurry. Strangely enough, no translators or commentators, ancient or modern, have attained any degree of certainty as to the meaning of the names rendered here coats, hosen, and hats. When the Septuagint (Greek) translation was made, about two centuries before Christ, the names had already been forgotten for that version shows ignorance on the part of the translators. This in itself is a very strong argument for the sixth century genuine origin of the book, for a man writing in the very era in which the Septuagint arose would have used currently understood words which the translators also would have understood. The most widely recognized authority on matters of Old Testament word meanings in our language gives the possibilities of mantle, trousers, and shoes for the first word. These are so far apart that it is clear that the meaning is simply unknown. Their outer garments, especially their turbans, were apparently stripped off and used as cords to bind them.
Therefore because the king's commandment was urgent, and the furnace exceeding hot, the flame of the fire slew those men that took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. (Daniel 3:22)
These verses remind us how absolute a monarch Nebuchadnezzar really was. Precautions could have been taken which would have enabled the executioners to cast the three confessors into the fire without causing any loss of life besides. But, on account of the king's unreasoning mad fury, they were not taken. This king, as the Bible bears some record, and as secular history and archaeology also bear out, was capable of acts of true greatness. He was interested in architecture, art, literature, and even archaeology. He was known to be affectionate and kindly with his family. Years later his aged queen could say some fine things about him, as did Daniel also, but in a rage he was a veritable devil, careless of the lives and feelings of even his most loyal subjects. In such a condition he was still King Nebuchadnezzar, of whom it could truly be said by Daniel on that other tragic night,
"And for the majesty that he (God) gave him, all peoples, nations, and languages, trembled and feared before him: whom he would he slew; and whom he would he kept alive; and whom he would he set up; and whom he would he put down."
In the present epoch, wherein thousands of fellow Christians in South America, Europe, and especially in Asia, have been called upon to pay with their lives for defiance of godless rulers and disobedience of God-dishonoring laws, it is wise for us to reflect on the causes both of the king's vicious fury and of the confessors' calm faith. Further, in a day when large areas of the earth have lost the freedoms which they had gained in recent centuries it is well to consider the cause of the loss of these freedoms to tyrants like the one exposed in this chapter.
It was their religion, that is, the doctrines of it and the appropriation of them that had made these fearless Jews what they were. Their Scriptures told them that there is one true God, that they were personal beings as He is, and made in his likeness. They further knew that He is an ethical being who expect his people to be the same; that He is not, like the many gods of the heathen, a petulant lord to be patronized, but an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-holy person to be obeyed. In such a climate of belief the conscience grows in strength, it is guided by right knowledge, it issues in the virtues of love, mercy, fairness—and above all—of loyalty and trustworthiness.
"And in this lies the importance of a true religion, that it raises and elevates men, and gives strength and nobleness to their lives. Every corruption of our creed, every erroneous doctrine and perversion of view is a distinct loss. As far as it goes it depresses our spiritual standards, enfeebles our conscience, takes away the inner bone from our characters, and makes us unequal to a firm and consistent walk with God. But a true and scriptural belief will not by itself suffice. There must be a living faith in the God which it sets before us."
Likewise it was the religion of Babylonia which produced its tyrants and which kept it in the trail of serfdom and slavery. There is an implicit pantheism, identifying the world and its processes with God, underlying all polytheism, i.e., the worship of' many gods. Where all is god any ultimate distinction between good and evil is impossible. Such things as "certain inalienable rights" of free men are inconceivable. Though the present lords of India do not realize it, it is the pantheism of their native Hindu religion that is keeping their untouchables untouchable. The principles of freedom for which that land wistfully reaches did not come to birth there. They were imported by Christianity. Christians may deny these principles, or pervert them (as they even now are doing in many lands) but they are to that extent untrue to their faith.
The very nature of reality is such that where men lose the sense of their personal obligation to the transcendent, holy, personal, creator God they lose their freedoms. This being true, the real enemies of our political freedoms are the forces of impurity, of atheism, of Godlessness in our land. Our battles will not be won or lost in the halls of congress or in the battle fields. Rather they will be won or lost in our pulpits—and beyond that in our theological seminaries and training schools, above all in our homes.
Then Nebuchadnezzar the king was astonished, and rose up in haste, and spake, and said to his counselors, Did not we cast three men bound into the midst of the fire? They answered and said unto the king, True, 0 king. He answered and said, Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God. (Daniel 3:26, 25)
These words must be interpreted in the light of the king's own level of understanding. He was not trained in the Scriptures, hence, knew nothing of the second person of the Trinity whom Christians know to be our Lord Jesus Christ. A fair translation of his declaration would be, "the form of the fourth is similar to a son of a god." His declaration is similar to that of that other pagan, the centurion who superintended the execution of Jesus, and who exclaimed from the depths of his pagan heart, "Truly this was a son of a god." We cannot make either of these confessions mean anything like the great confession of Peter, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God" or that of Thomas, "My Lord and My God!".
The faith of these men had won a five-fold victory.
This was literally true, for the king saw the men "loose." Morally speaking, there is also a great freedom of soul when one that final plunge of commitment to God, expecting nothing from man, knowing all things are his in God.
The fire could not harm them. They were not even touched by the smell of smoke. Only those who work around wood fires can have the "poetic" appreciation this deserves. Did you ever smell an Indian? If you say yes, you are mistaken. What you really smelled were his wood-smoked buckskin moccasins. There is nothing quite like that odor—not unpleasant, but certainly unforgettable.
"One like a son of a god;' as Nebuchadnezzar described him is apparently none other than the great "Angel of the Lord," the pre-incarnate Christ whom the New Testament identifies as the Son of God, our Lord Jesus. We are reminded of how the Lord stood by Paul in a similar situation, and of how on another occasion the Lord told him to be of good courage. We are further reminded of our Lord's words for his grieving disciples, "I will never leave thee nor forsake thee …Lo, I am with you alway …I will send you another Comforter" and of many other similar words.
This is, in certain respects, the high point of the chapter. Men realize the purpose for which they were made only when their lives give God glory. Even the heathen king was convinced. Brave Christian testimony will always produce respect for the witness and his God. As says Paul: "that with all boldness, as always, so now Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death". Time-serving bowing and scraping never draws forth such admiration from kings for their underlings. It produces (and deserves) only disgust.
The devout will remember "Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life".
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