Daniel Commentary Chapter 3
In this chapter we see a powerful king seeking to direct the belief system of the empire, yet who ultimately finds himself standing against three ordinary men. Although these men were under the power of Nebuchadnezzar’s empire, in reality they stood in faith and in the power of God.
Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom, like all kingdoms is under the power of God. However, despite God’s great power and involvement in the world, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego knew that serving God was not a ‘get-out-of-difficulty card’.
All around the world there are Christians who suffer at the hands of those who justify what they are doing by their own religious beliefs. Yet when these beliefs have turned to dust, it is the Christian who still stands in the strength of the One who is ever-present with those in prison cells as well as those who preach in front of thousands.
There are many who have used the name of their god or gods to justify inflicting unspeakable cruelty, as is noted by the well-known Psychiatrist, Boris Cyrulnik.
Boris Cyrulnik, whose parents were killed in Auschwitz, comments on the way in which religious people go about killing innocent people. In his book, ‘Resilience’ he writes, “Submission (to a belief) strips away a killer’s sense of responsibility because all he is doing is joining a social system where subservience enables it to work properly.” In other words, people justify what they are doing because they are submitting to the belief of the day. In the Middle East evil is justified under the name, Islam, in the Second World War prison guards at Auschwitz justified what they were doing because they were serving Nazism. The death of Christ was justified, in the eyes of religion, because what they were doing was being done in the name of God. In reality what we are seeing is unchained sin, ‘licensed’, as it were, through a particular belief.
Worshipping false gods and despot leaders
The Assyrians, along with other nations in the Ancient Near East, would often erect statues commemorating their rulers. Offerings were made to the king in front of the statue with the king standing at a distance so that he would not be seen as making himself equal to the gods and displeasing them.
Statues were erected to encourage loyalty and Nebuchadnezzar built a gold statue that was around ten stories high and nine-feet wide. The statue was situated on the plain of Dura (v1) and archaeological digs have uncovered a large platform that is almost 20ft high which could have supported Nebuchadnezzar’s ‘blast against God.’
Herodotus (the historian) speaks of other statutes that were built, such as a large statue of Bal seated on a throne in Marduk’s temple with a golden table next to him. The gold in the three items was said to weigh over twenty tonnes. Nebuchadnezzar’s statue of gold may have been built of gold in defiance to the interpretation of his dream in which his kingdom would finally fall.
In the ANE everyone would have been aware of how important it was to be seen taking an oath to the king as a sign of loyalty. For example, in the historical records pertaining to Ashurbanipal, the last powerful king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (934-609BC) there is a letter from a court official which speaks of not being able to make it on time to take the oath of allegiance along with the promise to make the oath among the gods.
In North Korea, Koreans are expected to bow in front of statues of Kim-Sung and King Jong-il as a sign of dedication. It has been reported that those who don’t do this are arrested and many disappear altogether. The present leader, King Jong-Un, came to power on the death of his father, the so-called Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il in December 2011.
In Daniel 3:8 we read of some Chaldeans coming forward and pointing out that certain Jews did not serve Babylonian gods or worship the gold image. The men who made these accusations would have been the fortune tellers of the day. Perhaps they had had their pride dented when Daniel had interpreted the king’s dream. Whatever the case, they were forgetting the fact that had Daniel not interceded for them, they would have been killed along with their families. However these men were not out to get Daniel. Daniel may well have been too big a fish to tackle, so to speak, so they were out to get his friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.
The One who can deliver us from death or through death
In his anger, the King calls Daniel’s three friends and tells them that if they did not bow to his image of gold they would be thrown into a fiery furnace. The question he then posed was this: “And what is the god who will deliver you from my hands?”
The furnaces in Babylon would have been used for baking pottery and bricks and melting gold in a city that had an active and extensive building programme. The furnaces were often domed with side doors for ventilation and an inner chamber lined with stone. The heating of the furnace to ‘seven-times hotter’ speaks of being heated to full capacity which would be about 9-1100 degrees centigrade.
Burning was used as a form of execution as early as the Hammurabi Code, a Babylonian law code going back to 1772BC. We also know that Nebuchadnezzar’s challenge to kill the men was no idle threat since a few years earlier he had burned the two false prophets Zedekiah and Ahab
“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says about Ahab son of Kolaiah and Zedekiah son of Maaseiah, who are prophesying lies to you in my name: "I will hand them over to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and he will put them to death before your very eyes. Because of them, all the exiles from Judah who are in Babylon will use this curse: 'The Lord treat you like Zedekiah and Ahab, whom the king of Babylon burned in the fire.'
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were in a tight spot, yet were not alone. They knew that whatever they were going to go through, God would be with them.
“Maurice Freehill said, “Who is more foolish, a child afraid of the dark or the man afraid of the light?” Know this: wherever God guides, He provides. And where God calls, He appoints and anoints to do the work.”
J. Mason in, “An Enemy Called Average.” Page 96
Many believers think that the God of all comfort removes us from danger. The truth is that God stand with us no matter what we go through. No matter what happens to our lives, God never leaves us. Even suffering death at the hands of the enemy is ultimately a victory in Christ for believers as the following stories now reveal.
Between 1973-4 Idi Amin had people arrested for subversive activities. On February 10th, three men were sentenced to death in Kabale. People were commanded to come to the large stadium and witness the execution of the young men by firing squad.
“I had permission from the authorities to speak to the men before they died, and two of my fellow ministers were with me.
They brought the men in a truck and unloaded them. They were handcuffed and their feet were chained. The firing squad stood at attention. As we walked into the centre of the stadium, I was wondering what to say to these men in the few minutes we had before their death. How do you give the Gospel to doomed men who are probably seething with rage?
We approached them from behind, and as they turned around to look at us, what a sight! Their faces were all alight with an unmistakable glow and radiance. Before we could say anything, one of them burst out: “Bishop, thank you for coming. I wanted to tell you. The day I was arrested, in my prison cell, I asked the Lord Jesus to come into my heart. He came in and forgave me all my sins! Heaven is now open, and there is nothing between me and my God! Please tell my wife and children that I am going to be with Jesus. Ask them to accept Him into their lives as I did.”
The second man told us a similar story, excitedly raising his hands, which rattled his handcuffs. Then the youngest said:
“I once knew the Lord, but I went away from Him and got into political confusion. After I was arrested, I came back to the Lord. He has forgiven me and filled me with peace. Please tell my parents (they are evangelists in the diocese) and warn my younger brothers never to go away form the Lord Jesus Christ.”
I felt that what I needed to do was to talk to the soldiers, not to the condemned. So I translated what the men had said into a language the soldiers understood. The military men were standing there with their guns cocked, and bewilderment on their faces. Those in the stadium who were near enough could hear it too, and the rest could see the radiance on the faces of the condemned which showed they were forgiven souls.
The soldiers were so dumbfounded at the faces and words of the men they were about to execute that they even forgot to put the hoods over their faces!
The three faced the firing squad standing close together. They looked towards the people and began to wave, handcuffs and all. The people waved back. Then shots were fired, and the three were with Jesus.
We stood in front of them, our own hearts throbbing with joy, mingled with tears. It was a day never to be forgotten. Though dead, the men spoke loudly to all the Kigezi District and beyond, so that there was an upsurge of life in Christ, which challenges death and defeats it.
The next Sunday, I was preaching to a huge crowd in the hometown of one of the executed men. Again the feel of death was over the congregation. But when I gave them the testimony of their man, and how he died, there erupted a great song of praise to Jesus! Many turned to the Lord there, and in many other places.
We heard that the soldiers who were in the firing squad and the guards standing by could not shake off the reality of what they saw – the glory of God on the faces of dying men.
That was an amazing year. In the midst of tension and strain, there was a notable working of the Holy Spirit. At King’s College, Budo, at Bweranyangi Girl’s school and in other high schools, we saw young people pushing forward to accept the Lord Jesus s their Saviour and Guide in life – as we never saw it before.”
Bishop Festo Kivengere in, “I Love Idi Amin” pages 25-7
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did not feel they had to answer the King and stated that whether God spared them or took them home was His business. Whatever happened they were not going to bow the knee to Nebuchadnezzar because they had already bowed the knee to the One true God and were therefore standing in His strength.
God’s faith-enabling presence
The three Israeli men knew that God was able to deliver (v17) and that deliverance would occur on whatever level He saw fit. Note the story of Stephen’s stoning. They did not believe in a plan which they then used to comfort them; they believed in the planner, such was their faith.
In Hebrews 11 we read of ordinary people who did extraordinary things – all out of proportion to their powers. I’m sure that, at times, this must have been a surprise to themselves as well as to others, yet all was possible because they were open and available to God and therefore strengthened in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Bible is full of great men and women of faith, yet we must not make the mistake of belittling our own lives through seeing the amazing things that others do for the Lord. God did not tell us about great men and women of faith so that this could happen. God speaks and shows us His faith-enabling presence through others so that we can trust Him, feed on all He says and does and walk in the power of His Spirit, just as those who have gone before us. Neither does it matter whether this exercise of faith is giving a glass of water in His name, or running an evangelistic mission. The important point to remember is that God does not trivialise anything and that what He wants is for us to live in and by the power of His Spirit in all that we do.
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were able to have faith because they knew God. As we shall see, God was going to allow the veil between the natural realm and the spiritual realm to be pulled back for a few brief minutes so that Nebuchadnezzar could see something of the bigger picture.
A King who suffered in our place
Many Christians struggle when they see fellow-Christians suffering or read of those who are in prison or have been put to death for their faith. Yet let us remember that
Jesus became our suffering through standing in our place and paying the price for our wrong-doing. Our God is a God who knows suffering on a personal and intimate level. He did not sit on a wall, as it were, overlooking the world and make a few academic comments on what was going on: He wore our bruises (Isaiah 53) and through His life, death and resurrection we can experience the love of a Father.
Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian pastor who spent many years in solitary confinement for his faith, wrote of the way God stands with His people in his book ‘The Answer to the Atheist’s Handbook.’ He says…
“Most of those who suffer horribly in this world created by God, love Him with all their heart. Tradition and custom can account for churchgoing and attendance at religious rituals. But how can you explain that a burning love for God is sometimes seen precisely in the men who suffer most?
How can they explain what Christian’s call “joy in the Lord” felt by men who are beaten and tortured for their faith and who may have 50 lb chains at their feet?
Religion is flourishing in some very poor countries. Hungry men gather on Sundays with starving children and sing of the glory of God. Why? How is it that widows with only ‘two mites’ for their living gladly give their last coins in order that God may be served with greater pomp?”
Many persecuted Christians testify that “The God of comfort is with me in all that I go through; I am not alone.” No matter what they go through, Christians are, in the presence and power of another, able to overcome hardship and turn to do great things for God. For example in her book, “Is Believing in God Irrational” Amy Orr-Ewing writes:
“My colleague Michael Ramsden recently met a wonderful Christian in Indonesia. She had been attending a church service when militant Islamists threw grenades into the building, killing some of the worshippers. As survivors ran out of the church, they were shot. One man got hold of this woman, put the barrel of the gun in her mouth, and commanded, “Renounce Jesus and live.” She replied that she would not, that she loved and worshiped Jesus. He pulled the trigger. Half of her face was blown away but, amazingly, she survived. When Michael asked her what she felt about her oppressor, she said, “I must love and forgive as Jesus did.” She now spends her time visiting homes in the community that the militants come from, sharing the message of God’s love and serving in practical ways.”
Amy Orr-Ewing in, Is Believing in God Irrational?’ p 77
God works in unexpected ways
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego trusted God and immediately appeared to have backed the wrong horse – they were soon heading for the furnace. If we were called to write the final part of their story and put in what we think was going to happen, we may have said one of two things. We might have said, “God stopped the soldiers throwing them in the furnace,” or “God opened the door of heaven for them.” I doubt whether any of us would come up with what really happened. In fact whenever we read the stories of the Bible, we find that God works in ways that we often don’t think off – a good reason to seek His face rather than get Him to endorse our plans, if you know what I mean!
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were bound with ropes and thrown into a furnace which was so hot that the accompanying soldiers were overcome with the heat and died. Yet the only thing that the three men lost was the ropes that bound them and they were seen walking around in the furnace. Not even a hair on their heads was singed. I wonder if this is why Jesus speaks of God knowing every hair on our heads (Luke 12:6-7) – as a reminder of this event. In great difficulty, three men lost nothing except the cords that bound them.
Throughout history we see that although God has placed set laws in the Universe, He does on occasion operate them at a higher level. For example Jesus walked on water (Mat 14:25-7), turned water into wine in an instant (John 2:7-10) and created food for thousands from five loaves and two small fish (Mat 14:17).
In Hebrews 9:27 we read that “it is appointed to man once to die and then the judgement,” yet at times God suspends His laws or operates them at a deeper level. For example we see such things as Samuel briefly returning from the dead (1 Sam 28:15-16) and find a Shunnamite’s son brought back to life (2 Kings 4:12, 25, 36); and so we could go on.
A dead body touches the bones of Elisha and life is immediately restored (2 Kings 13:21). Enoch walked with the Lord and was then taken by God with no mention of death (Gen 5:21), and centuries later Elijah was taken up in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:10). The widow of Nain’s son was brought back from the dead (Luke 7:11-12) as was Lazarus (John 11:43). Then, when Jesus gave up His life at Calvary, the graves of believers broke open and bodies came back to life and appeared to people in Jerusalem.
“…And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.” Matthew 27:50-53
God is willing to reach out to all people
God’s willingness to reach out to all people is seen throughout scripture whether in his words to a rebellious Cain (Gen 4:6), wayward Israel (Isaiah 1:18) or Paul (Acts 9:4) a reformed persecutor of Christians who speaks of a man who went to the third heaven (2 Cor 12:2).
Even when He was undergoing horrendous pain and suffering, Jesus still reached out to a thief on the cross next to Him. In doing so He reveals God’s willingness to reach those who may have the smallest of faith (Luke 17:6). The reason the thief next to Jesus could have faith is because, even whilst taking our punishment on His shoulders, God reaches out.
“It is the unrivalled wonder of the gospel of Jesus Christ that no other god has wounds.”
Prof Oz Guinness in ‘No God by God’ page 13.
Over the entire world and in incredibly diverse situations, there are hundreds of thousands of stories about the way in which God reveals Himself to fallen man. Take, for example, the story of Lamin Sanneh.
Lamin (who is now a doctor) came to Christ and immediately suffered the consequences from his Muslim friends who abused him and deserted him. Yet in this he found his relationship with Jesus deepening. He writes…
“By assuming human form, with everything implied in that, god achieved for us a stupendous breakthrough in Jesus Christ. Rather than rendering Jesus immune to the tragedy and consequences of human disobedience, God was put at risk and, through Christ entered human history and thus by divine self-choosing became the supreme subject and victim of history. Christ’s suffering is a full-blooded encapsulation of the original divine intention of unconditional love and by this love we are restored to fellowship with God. God through Christ, would feel our pain and sorrow, Put to grief in the unspeakable agony of human sinfulness, Jesus became the human measure or God’s capacity to take on our condition….the Suffering Servant is God’s self-portrait and the unflattering witness to the wretchedness into which history has fallen, as the catastrophes of the twentieth century bear witness.”
Lamin Sanneh in, ‘Finding God at Harvard’ page 192
Many Christians seem to think that God is unfair when He allows His people to go through suffering, yet as Prof Custance says in his booklet, ‘Time: The Psychological Account’ what about the suffering Jesus went through?
“What then, of the suffering imposed unjustly upon a Man who is morally perfect, who is completely innocent, whose imaginative powers are developed to the highest degree possible for a human being, who is without spot or blemish in his character, and who has the capacity for suffering for others infinitely beyond that of the rest of men? Because of our selfishness most of us have too little capacity for this kind of suffering, but the capacity of the Lord Jesus for suffering with and for others was infinite.”
Prof A. Custance: Time: The Psychological Account, page 2.
An amazing turnaround
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were thrown into the blazing furnace, but remained unharmed and Nebuchadnezzar then saw a heavenly being (possibly the Pre-incarnate Son of God) walking with them: the One true legitimate and all-powerful King. The real King was revealing His presence in His world.
God wants to be known and communicates with us in incredible ways when we come to Him. He does not expect us to get it right all the time, but does expect us to engage with Him through prayer.
“A Three Self pastor reported that he found in his church believers praying over a girl that the local doctor had just pronounced dead; the desperate mother had brought her to the church. “The girl recovered”. When an imprisoned believer prayed for a prostitute in the prison, the latter was healed and quickly accepted Christ. A farmer with a tumour on his leg solicited for prayer a retired physics professor ordained in the state-approved church movement. Doctors had said that only an operation could remove the tumour, yet this operation would cost more than a year’s wages for the farmer. Despite the former scientists’ scepticism about divine healing, he prayed for the man with sincere compassion, a few weeks later, when he visited the farmer’s village again, the man ran up to him and showed him that the tumour was almost gone.”
Prof C. Keener in ‘Miracles’ The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, p 300
God wants to be known
Throughout scripture we read of faith (Heb 11:3ff), yet, as we have been saying, the reason that anyone can have faith in God in the first place is because God wants to be known. We see this right from the outset of Genesis where man is made in the image of God (Gen 1:27), understands something of God’s creation (Gen 2:19) and finds grace and mercy because God initiates conversation after Adam and Eve sinned and hid from God (Gen 3:19).
Throughout scripture we see that it is God who reaches out and communicates with man and that man can respond to this in faith. For example, In Numbers 12:7-8 we find Moses being spoken of as ‘faithful in all God’s house.’ Yet without the burning bush (Ex 3:2ff), and subsequent conversations (Ex 3:5ff), and God’s disclosure of Himself, (Ex 3:14) Moses would have remained in the desert. Whilst it is true that Moses had to put his trust in God, he could only do so because God was about His work of grace, mercy and reconciliation in the first place: He shows us someone we can hold onto – God!
I recently purchased a second-hand copy of, Darlene Rose’s, book “Evidence not Seen” which is the story of her time as a prisoner in a Japanese Prisoner of War Camp. She had originally gone to N.Guinea, along with her husband, to share the gospel. The Japanese had invaded the East Indies and both she and her husband were put in separate prisoner-of-war camps and it was not long before her husband died. During the next few years she underwent forced labour starvation, beriberi, dysentery and intestinal worms. On one occasion she was locked in a cell with the words, “This person must die” written over the cell door. She also writes about how she felt strong arms around her – the presence of the Holy Spirit and then stated that although her captors could lock her in, they could not lock out the risen Lord Jesus Christ. She was with the God of the impossible and knew that wherever she ended up His presence would still sustain her.
As we focus the camera back on the events of Daniel chapter three, the result of God’s intervention and presence with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego is clearly seen. Three men did not die and the only thing they lost in the furnace was the cords that bound them.
Nebuchadnezzar then acknowledges the supremacy of God and issues a decree that none are to speak out against the God of Israel. However, in this decree Nebuchadnezzar is not entering into a relationship with God through repentance and faith; he simply wants to keep on God’s right side so to speak. God’s absolute supremacy is seen in that, in the midst of a pagan plot to destroy some of God’s people, three men were promoted in the province of Babylon (Dan 3:27-30).
As already mentioned, Nebuchadnezzar is aware of the greatness of God, yet this is probably little more than an academic knowledge at this point. He knows yet does not know a problem that many face in the church today: they know about God and can possibly quote a few scriptures but have they actually met God? – this being something quite different. For example, I may know about the food on the table in front of me, yet am only going to really benefit if I reach out and eat it.
In looking at the rise and fall of empires and amazing ways in which God reaches into the life of a captive (Daniel), powerful king (Nebuchadnezzar) and three ordinary men in extraordinary ways, we gain great hope. God sees and knows all things and is the master of every situation,
The camera now spans out and we move into chapter four: Nebuchadnezzar is going to have another dream.