Chapter 3 of Daniel is one of the most well-known chapters in the Bible. If you are going to have a Bible study on faith under fire then this chapter would have to be the centerpiece. These three Hebrews had faith under fire in the most literal way possible. In part one we will look at the decision that these three men were forced to make. Then, in part two, we will look at what happened in the fire.
One of the things you will notice about chapter 3 is the main character is nowhere to be found. In fact, his name is not even mentioned. However, at the end of chapter two the author gives us a clue of where Daniel might have been. The passage states, “Moreover, at Daniel’s request the king appointed Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego administrators over the province of Babylon, while Daniel himself remained at the royal court.” This shows that Daniel’s place was in the king’s court and he was probably watching over the affairs of the province while the king was away. On the other hand, Daniel’s friends were administrators which means they were included in the unveiling of the statue. Daniel was spared from this horrible situation, but he will receive his turn to be tested under fire, in chapter 6, in the lion’s den. All four men are eventually tested.
“King Nebuchadnez’zar made an image of gold, whose height was sixty cubits and its breadth six cubits. He set it up on the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon. Then King Nebuchadnez’zar sent to assemble the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces to come to the dedication of the image which King Nebuchadnez’zar had set up. Then the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces, were assembled for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnez’zar had set up; and they stood before the image that Nebuchadnez’zar had set up.” (Daniel 3:1-3 RSV)
In chapter 2, God gave Daniel the interpretation of the king’s dream. He identified the five empires and showed how the last one standing would crumble at the return of Jesus Christ. After the dream was interpreted, Nebuchadnezzar could sleep again. He was so thankful that he made Daniel the ruler of his most important province. He also made Daniel’s friends important administrators. Everything was Great, everyone was happy, and all was well! . . . . But now. . . .Around 16 years have passed, and after 16 years, perspectives start to change don’t they? There’s still no sliver kingdom ready to conquer Babylon. There’s no divine mountain waiting in the distance. There’s no stone hurling towards Nebuchadnezzar. In fact, Babylon is stronger than ever. Nebuchadnezzar’s empire is even more powerful. So Nebuchadnezzar starts to wonder. Maybe the dream had been wrong? Maybe Babylon will never crumble? Maybe the head of gold will never be defeated?
Perhaps Daniel’s God had been wrong. Nebuchadnezzar is not only the head of gold. He is the whole statue. Forget the clay, the bronze, the iron, and the silver, and forget that rock too. A rock destroying his kingdom? Yeah right! His kingdom will be the eternal kingdom, his kingdom will out last time, and his kingdom will spread out and take over the entire Earth. He has it all figured out. But how can he show this to the important people of his kingdom? So he thinks to himself, “What if I build a 90 foot statue like the one from my dream, but make the whole thing gold? What if I make everyone in the kingdom bow down before me and worship it? Yeah, that would do it.”
For this huge statue to look like a person it would have needed a large base. The French archaeologist, Oppert, might have discovered the base of this huge statue. He located the remains of a brick structure, forty-five feet square, and twenty feet high, twelve miles southeast of Hillah, about four miles south of ancient Babylon, which he believed formed the pestal of this colossal image.1 It appears that Nebuchadnezzar sent word for all of the governors and other important officials from the surrounding provinces to head to Babylon for this important ceremony. This was a chance for Nebuchadnezzar to make sure that all of the people governing his kingdom were loyal to him. Shea has presented some interesting evidence for this story from an ancient Babylonian text. The names of more than fifty officials are written on a Babylonian text from the reign of Nebuchadnezzar. Shea associates Hananiah (Shadrach) with Hanunu, designated, “chief of the royal merchants,” Abednego (azariah) with Ardi-Nabu, “secretary of the crown prince,” (i.e.Amel-Marduk) and Mishael (Meshach) with Mushallim-Marduk, one of the “Overseers of the slave girls.”2 The last identification is the most tentative, but it is plausible. Hanunu and Hananiah have a clear correspondence, and Ardi-Nabu is an exact equivalent of Abed-Nabu. If nothing else this evidence shows that these names were in use in Babylon at this time.
“And the herald proclaimed aloud, “You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, you are to fall down and worship the golden image that King Nebuchadnez’zar has set up; and whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace.” (Daniel 3:4-6 RSV)
It took a while to create this huge statue and when it was finished you could imagine that there was a huge unveiling. This was something that Nebuchadnezzar was really proud of. So to mark the occasion he got a symphony together. He got every instrument known to man and set the musicians up in front of the great statue. Picture this: There is a 90 foot statue covered by a tarp of some sort. Nobody can see the statue yet. The orchestra takes its place. Next, all of the governors and administers from every province of the empire are lining up. There are hundreds, possibly thousands of administers from all over the empire, standing in lines in front of this great object that’s covered by a tarp. What a sight! There is all of the pomp and circumstance that you can imagine. This is a red carpet event. The band starts warming up, the people take their places, and Nebuchadnezzar stands up, to soak it all in.
He looks at the thousands of officials gathered around in front of him, officials from many different languages, religions, and cultures, who are now a part of this empire, then he raises his arm and gives the sign. The tarp is pulled off of the golden statue and a loud gasp is heard from the thousands in attendance. What an amazing gold statue! They have never seen anything like it! Nebuchadnezzar nods at one of his assistants, who yells at the soldiers next to the furnace, and the furnace is lit. The flames whip out of the top and the smoke rises next to the great statue. Next, the awful penalty for disobeying the king’s order to bow is formally announced to the crowd. Anyone who refuses to bow will be burned alive in the fiery furnace.
We know that this was no idle threat. The Babylonians did indeed burn people as punishment. Jeremiah 29:22 says that Nebuchadnezzar burned two men named Zedekiah and Ahab to death. We also have non-biblical evidence that this punishment was used in Babylon. Montgomery observes that “The penalty of burning” appears in the law code of the early Babylonian king Hammurapi.3 J.B. Alexander also relates the story of another early Babylonian monarch (Rim-Sim) who punished in this manner.4
Nebuchadnezzar chose this means of punishment not only because it was a horrifying way to die, but because it was convenient. A huge kiln would have been available from the making of the statue. This kiln would have been used to smelt metal for the gold plating, for manufacturing the bricks to construct the base, and possibly the inner parts of the statue itself. Archer describes the structure by saying, “Judging from bas-reliefs, it would seem that Mesopotamian smelting furnaces tended to be like an old-fashioned glass milk-bottle in shape, with a large opening for the insertion of the ore to be smelted and a smaller aperture at ground level for the admission of wood and charcoal to furnish the heat.5 Baldwin reports that the temperature in these kilns could reach as high as 1000 degrees centigrade, which is 1800 degrees fahrenheit.6 One can only imagine the fear that engulfed the crowd as the flames leaped from the top of the furnace and the smoke billowed forth.
If the rest of the crowd is afraid, you can imagine what the three Hebrews are thinking? Looking up at this giant gold statue, smelling the fire of the furnace, knowing that bowing to an image like this is the WORST thing that they could do as Jews? They remember the story in Exodus of the golden calf. They know that they can’t bow, but what do they do? They know that at any moment the band is going to play and it will be decision time. They can either bow or they can stand. And why not bow? I mean, come on, this is like a presidential proclamation, right? It’s just a stupid ceremony. It doesn’t mean anything! Certainly God wouldn’t want them to lose their lives over something so trivial right? They might as well bow. After all, it’ll only take a few seconds and then it’ll be over. They can just ask for forgiveness afterwards. Don’t we worship a God of grace? Don’t we all sin every day! Yeah, they can ask for forgiveness. Also, Nebuchadnezzar has treated them well. He has given them money and great positions. Who cares if he wants them to bow to something for a few seconds? Doesn’t he deserve that?. . . There are so many ways to rationalize things like this aren’t there? We are so good at rationalizing. If you’ve ever been on a diet then you know exactly what I’m talking about! You can rationalize yourself into any decision. So you can just imagine the rationalization that’s going on. You can imagine everything that is going through their heads.
I can imagine what it was like at that moment, at that moment of decision. The musicians are picking up their horns. The king is raising his hands. Are they literally going to have faith under fire? The pressure is on! Stand or bow. The king drops his hands. Stand or Bow. The music plays. Stand or Bow. Everyone falls. . . Everyone bows. . . Thousands are bowing. . . Everyone bows. . . Everyone except for the three Hebrews. They stand while thousands are bowing around them, and the fire leaps in front of them, and the smoke billows out of the furnace, and every eye is on them. Only three men out of thousands are standing. These three men are literally about to show their faith under fire.
“Therefore, as soon as all the peoples heard the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, all the peoples, nations, and languages fell down and worshiped the golden image which King Nebuchadnez’zar had set up. Therefore at that time certain Chalde’ans came forward and maliciously accused the Jews. They said to King Nebuchadnez’zar, “O king, live forever! You, O king, have made a decree, that every man who hears the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, shall fall down and worship the golden image; and whoever does not fall down and worship shall be cast into a burning fiery furnace. There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed’nego. These men, O king, pay no heed to you; they do not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up.”
It’s not apparent whether the king could see the three Hebrews or not, but the astrologers made sure that the king knew. These astrologers were from the home province of Babylon, not from the rest of the nations. They were probably jealous from chapter 2 and saw an opportunity to get back at the Hebrews. They could have been waiting sixteen years for this moment since Daniel first showed them up by interpreting the king’s dream.
One of the hardest things to do is to stand up when everyone else around you is bowing down. In the 4th century, Athanasius did this. He was the Patriarch of Alexandria, and he believed in the deity of Christ as the Scriptures taught. Athanasius believed what the Scriptures said about Jesus, but there was a man at a council named Arian who was a heretic, and Arian denounced the divinity of Christ. A lot of people were following Arian. He was gaining support for this notion that Jesus was just a person. At one point in a heated council meeting, Arian stood up and said, “Athanasius, look how many people are against you. The whole world is against you.” Athanasius replied, “If the whole world goes against the truth, then Athanasius will go against the world.” Now that is what I call faith under fire!
Usually our decisions aren’t quite on the level of what Athanasius faced. They most certainly are not at the level of what the Hebrews faced in the furnace, but they’re still important. Have you ever been in one of these situations? Where every eye is on you? Pressure presents itself in different ways in our society. We might not be threatened with a furnace, but we’re still placed in situations where we have to decide whether we are going to stand or bow. For example, maybe its Friday night and you’re the new guy at work, and the decision is made that the guys are going to go to the strip club for drinks, and to get to know each other outside of work. The group walks by your desk and one of them invites you, but another guy says, “Ohh don’t bother asking him. He’s a Christian. He won’t come.” And they all laugh. One of them makes a stupid joke, and says, “Don’t worry, we’ll buy you an O’Doul’s, and we’ll keep you away from the girls!” And everyone starts laughing again. What do you do? Stand or Bow? If you listen closely, you can hear the furnace flickering in the distance. You can hear the symphony starting to play. Stand or Bow? Let the rationalization begin! Do you really want to be the weird one? I mean, how do you say no? After all, It’s work. You can’t single yourself out in front of everyone. And. . . It’s ok if you go, because you won’t really look at the girls, and you won’t drink too much. You’ll just socialize. . . BOW!. . . .BOW!
Or maybe one day you decide to take your Bible to work with you. Maybe you decide that during your lunch break you’re going to do a short devotional outside at a little picnic table all by yourself. So your Bible is sitting there on your desk. One of your fellow employees walks by, and says, “Is that your Bible? What are you doing with it? This is a religion free zone! This is work, not church. I don’t think you should have your Bible here with you.” But you’re ready to stand up for God! So you say, “Hey, it’s my Bible, I don’t understand what you’re deal is. It’s not hurting you.” There you are standing up for Jesus! Don’t you feel good about yourself? Yeah! Faith under fire! But ten minutes later, he comes back and says, “Hey, Bible boy, the boss wants to see you and your Bible in his office!” So you get your Bible, and make that nervous walk, and knock on the door. “You wanted to see me?” “Someone said you had a Bible on your desk. Is that your Bible?” You can see the smoke coming up from the furnace, you can hear the symphony starting to play, and everyone is bowing. This is that moment. Stand or bow? “Well, here’s what happened, I got to my cubicle and I see this Bible on the floor, and I think, wow, that’s a Bible. So I wanted to make sure it got found. So I pick it up and put it on my desk thinking that it must be important to somebody and if it’s on my desk someone will find it.” BOW! “So it’s not your Bible?” “Not really.” “Not really? Is it your Bible or not?” “No.” And do you know what your boss says? “That’s too bad. I think I’m the only Christian here and was hoping there was someone here who I could have a bible study with during lunch.” “Ohh.” So you turn around, and as you’re walking out of the office, you hear this sound, in your head, and it sounds just like a rooster crowing. And then, the enemy whispers in your ear, so faintly that you can barely hear it, “And you call yourself a Christian?” Bow.
Our families, our coworkers, and the community is watching, and they want to see how we will respond. When we bow what does it tell everyone else in the community? They say, “I knew it, those Christians are just like me. When it gets hard they won’t stick to Scripture. They won’t stand. I knew there was nothing different about being a Christian.” God is writing a story, and we don’t get to choose the part that we play. The three Hebrews didn’t ask to play the part where they had to go in the furnace. Athanasius didn’t ask to be the one who had to stand up at the council. God decides what part he wants you to play. He puts us in these different positions. And we’re put in these positions where others are watching to give us the chance to provide the best kind of witness. Do you stand or do you bow.
Jesus had the choice to stand or bow. In the garden, he was tempted to bow, but he stood. Jesus stood against the whole world, regardless of what the consequences were. He stood. He stood for us and now he expects us to stand for him. Now it’s our turn. Do you stand or do you bow? Seventeen year old Cassie Burnell had previously practiced Satanism and witchcraft, but her heart had changed. On April 19, 1999, Cassie wrote a note to her friend, Amanda. The note ended by saying, “P.S. Honestly, I want to live completely for God. It’s hard and scary, but totally worth it.” That night she decided to stand and not bow. The next morning, Cassie handed the note to Amanda at Columbine High School. A couple of hours later, a gun was pointed at her and the gunman asked, “Are you a Christian? Go ahead and denounce Christ. She said, “I can’t do that,” and it cost her her life. What she wrote the night before is now written on her gravestone, “P.S. Honestly, I want to live completely for God. It’s hard and scary, but totally worth it.” That’s probably not going to happen to any of us though. Jesus probably won’t ask us to die for him. . . but he might ask us to LIVE for him. He probably won’t ask you to die for him. . . but he might ask you to STAND for him. So will you stand or will you bow?. . . Will you have a faith under fire?
Here is a link to the sermon that accompanies this post: “Stand or Bow”
If this post has helped to give you a more confident faith please take a moment to scroll to the bottom of this page and subscribe to my blog. Thank you for supporting this site.
What do you think Nebuchadnezzar was trying to accomplish by building this statue?
So why do you think it was important for the king to have administrators from all of his vast provinces to come bow before him?
What situations have you found yourself in where you have decided to stand or bow?
What situations have you found yourself in where you have been disappointed in yourself?
What are some common situations in our culture where Christians find themselves bowing?
When we bow, what does it tell people who are watching us?
What does standing for Jesus mean to you?
What does it mean to have a faith under fire?
How has this chapter spoken to you so far?
1) Oppert, Expedition Scientifique en Mesoptamie (1862), 1:238-40. Cited by Montgomery (Daniel, 197)
2) W.H. Shea, “Daniel 3: Extra-Biblical Texts and the Convocation of the Plain of Dura,” AUSS 20 (1982): 37-50.
3) J.A. Montgomery, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Daniel, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1979), 196.
4) J.B. Alexander, “New Light on the Fiery Furnace,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 69, 1950, 375-376.
5) G.L. Archer, Daniel Expositors Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 56.
6) J.G. Baldwin, Daniel Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1978), 103.