The Fiery Furnace | Daniel 3

King Nebuchadnezzar 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 Nebuchadnezzar sent to gather 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 that King Nebuchadnezzar 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 gathered for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. And they stood before the image that Nebuchadnezzar had set up. 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 Nebuchadnezzar has set up. And whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace.” 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 that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.

Therefore at that time certain Chaldeans came forward and maliciously accused the Jews. They declared to King Nebuchadnezzar, “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 Abednego. These men, O king, pay no attention to you; they do not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought. So they brought these men before the king. Nebuchadnezzar answered and said to them, “Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image that I have set up? Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?”

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If 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. But 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.”

Then Nebuchadnezzar was filled with fury, and the expression of his face was changed against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He ordered the furnace heated seven times more than it was usually heated. And he ordered some of the mighty men of his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and to cast them into the burning fiery furnace. Then these men were bound in their cloaks, their tunics, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the burning fiery furnace. Because the king’s order was urgent and the furnace overheated, the flame of the fire killed those men who took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell bound into the burning fiery furnace.

Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?” They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.” He answered and said, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.”

Then Nebuchadnezzar came near to the door of the burning fiery furnace; he declared, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out, and come here!” Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire. And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men. The hair of their heads was not singed, their cloaks were not harmed, and no smell of fire had come upon them. Nebuchadnezzar answered and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that speaks anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins, for there is no other god who is able to rescue in this way.” Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the province of Babylon.

Daniel 3 ESV

On the plains of Shinar, the whole earth gathered together as one. After being spared in the flood, their ancestor Noah was given a command by God that very much mirrored what Adam had received: “And you, be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it” (Genesis 9:7). However, as the descendants of Noah continued to increase, they began to fear that spreading across the earth would diminish their greatness and their unity. Therefore, they resolved to build a tower, one that reached the heavens and would be so mighty their it would prevent their dispersion across the earth. The LORD, however, responded to their show of power by coming down to confuse their languages and disperse them “over the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:8). The plot of Babel was undone by the God of heaven coming down to earth, but the same impulse to exalt ourselves above God’s commands continues in each and every generation. Fortunately, God would one day come down again, not only to demolish our towers of rebellion, but to renew our rebellious hearts.

UNITY AT BABYLON // VERSES 1-7

Nebuchadnezzar’s royal city of Babylon was the continuation of the ancient city of Babel, both located in “the land of Shinar” (Daniel 1:2), and under the Babylonian king, his empire had conquered the known world, uniting all peoples and nations under his rule as the king of kings. After dreaming of a frightening image composed of gold, silver, bronze, iron, and clay in the last chapter, King Nebuchadnezzar 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 (v. 1). This ninety-foot[1] entirely golden image was erected upon a plain, likely so that it would tower over everything else in its vicinity. Here was almost certainly a monument to Nebuchadnezzar’s greatness and to the grandeur of the kingdom that he had built (4:30), whether the image was of the king or not is not said in the text. Although the God of heaven had rightly revealed Nebuchadnezzar to be the head of gold in his dream, this enormous image was a sign of defiance to the prophecy that he had received. He was not content with being the first and most glorious of many kingdoms; he was determined to establish for himself a never-ending kingdom, thereby making a name for himself.

Nebuchadnezzar hoped to achieve his greatness in the same manner as the people of Babel: by uniting the world around his towering image.

Then King Nebuchadnezzar sent to gather 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 that King Nebuchadnezzar 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 gathered for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. And they stood before the image that Nebuchadnezzar had set up. 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 Nebuchadnezzar has set up. And whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace.” 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 that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.

The king’s goal sounds noble. He is gathering all the peoples, nations, and languages to worship together. It was a humanist’s dream come true, and the coexist bumper sticker found its fulfillment. After all, Nebuchadnezzar likely cared very little as to which god they worshiped as they bowed before the golden image but only that they knew that he had built it.

The human impulse is undeniably bent toward unity. We were created, after all, to dwell in community with both God and with one another. Indeed, God’s commission for mankind to fill the earth (Genesis 1:28) was never intended to hinder our unity, only to expand it and God’s image across the whole face of the earth. We, however, were not content with reflecting God’s image; instead, like Nebuchadnezzar, we desired to build our own. Although it took great skill to build the tower of Babel and Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image, every human heart is expertly trained in forming and worshiping idols. Whether digits in our bank account statement or our own happiness, we can fashion objects of worship out of anything, no matter how insignificant or abstract. These twin impulses for unity and idolatry are perpetual, and our day is no different. Today we read of secular humanism and cultural Marxism as prevailing ideologies (our study of the Secular Creed is precisely an attempt to identify some of these present trends), but they are nothing more than different spins on the original lie, promising unity unshackled from worshiping the Creator. Yet whatever shape it comes in, the world’s prescription for unity will never be enough. Indeed, successful unity under anything other than the Most High God is a unity in the dark rather than the light.

DO NOT BE CONFORMED // VERSES 8-18

However, in the plains of Dura, three men[2] did not worship before the image. The Chaldeans made this accusation before Nebuchadnezzar:

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 Abednego. These men, O king, pay no attention to you; they do not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.

The king’s reaction was, of course, one of fury because these three men are a threat to his plan.

Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought. So they brought these men before the king. Nebuchadnezzar answered and said to them, “Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image that I have set up? Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?”

In an act of mercy from his hand, Nebuchadnezzar did not immediately cast Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into the fiery furnace; instead, he gave them one last chance to obey his edict. Yet the three friends answer as follows:

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If 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. But 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.”

Like Daniel, their address to the king was honorable without any degree of flattery and without fear. Indeed, by saying we have no need to answer you in this matter (v. 16), they were simply informing the king that they were answering to a higher authority, to the Source of all authority. In regards to worship, they did not owe Nebuchadnezzar any answer because his demands had exceeded the bounds of his authority. The LORD alone is worthy of worship. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, therefore, give a threefold answer to the king. First, they assert that God is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace. Second, they expressed their confidence that He would deliver them from Nebuchadnezzar’s hand. Finally, they pointedly make it known to the king that even if God does not rescue them, we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.  Thus, they were fully confident that God was able to save them and that He would save them; however, if He chose not to rescue them, their decision remained the same.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who spent eight years in Soviet labor camps for criticizing Josef Stalin, wrote an essay called “Live Not by Lies” in which his strategy for resisting totalitarian regimes sounds rather similar to that of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego:

Personal non-participation in lies… It is the easiest thing to do for us, but the most devastating for the lies. Because when people renounce lies it simply cuts short their existence. Like an infection, they can exit only in a living organism. It’s dangerous. But let us refuse to say that which we do not think.

While here in the United States we do not presently live under totalitarianism and the lies that it brings, we nevertheless do not believe that the greatest dangers are physical at all, “for we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Behind all the lies of this world is the original lie from the Deceiver: eat and you shall be like God. Indeed, the Bible’s portrait of spiritual warfare is to put on Jesus Christ as our armor and stand against the Satan and his hoards. We are to resist the lie of false worship by refusing to worship anyone other than the almighty God.

In Romans 12:1-2, Paul presents the same strategy, only from a different angle:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, we are not called to radically overturn the systems and lies of the world; instead, we are called to faithful non-conformity. Indeed, the early church followed this pattern as well. Although our ancestors in the faith certainly did set themselves apart from the culture by their actions, such as adopting discarded infants and their inclusion and elevation of women and slaves; however, they were perhaps more distinguished by what they abstained from, namely festivals and entertainment, which were both unifying events of Roman society. Christians, however, could not participate in festivals which were dedicated to false gods nor in coliseum games that reveled in violence. As with Daniel’s friends here, the early Christians were persecuted as threatening the unity of society by their abstinence. Or perhaps we could turn to the reformers whose refusal to recant of salvation by faith alone was met with excommunication and even death. After all, such heretics were a threat to society as a whole.

The times and conditions change and vary from generation to generation, but the shadow of Babel endures until Babylon’s final destruction comes (see Revelation 18). Likewise, we must continually resist the snare of the world, which is under the power of the evil one. We must begin by saturating ourselves in truth, by immersing ourselves in Scripture. After all, how easily might Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego convinced themselves that they could worship God through the golden image, as presumably some other Israelites may have done, if they had not been rooted in God’s law. Just as enduring a marathon requires training and preparation, so the three men’s life-or-death example of faithfulness was no doubt built upon their everyday, ordinary faithfulness. To we who are presently not called to choose between faithfulness or death, John Calvin gives this exhortation:

Let us therefore regard this period of quiet not as something which will last forever, but as a truce in which God gives us time to gain strength, so that, when called to confess our faith, we do not act as raw recruits because we failed to think ahead.[3]

We must prepare ourselves for whatever may lie ahead with ordinary acts of faithfulness each day. Indeed, as we submit ourselves to God’s Word and refuse to conform to the pattern of the world, we must display and proclaim the only truly unifying message in the world: the gospel. As we discussed from Ephesians 2, the gospel unifies by placing all of humanity upon an equal status before God. All are sinners before His presence, and regardless of quantity or severity of sin, we each deserve His eternal wrath. Furthermore, salvation from damnation is likewise the same. No person, however good, can claim to be saved upon their own merit, for salvation is only through Christ. Jesus alone is sufficient to unite all peoples, nations, and languages and to do so without destroying their distinctions.

THROUGH THE FIRE // VERSES 19-30

Nebuchadnezzar, who certainly cannot be accused of being indecisive or half-hearted, was so furious that he ordered the furnace heated seven times more than it was usually heated. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were then thrown into the furnace bound in their clothing. We then read that the fire was so hot that the guards who shoved them into the flames were killed by the heat themselves. The situation looked incredibly bleak for the three men; however, here is how the story concludes:

Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?” They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.” He answered and said, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.”

Then Nebuchadnezzar came near to the door of the burning fiery furnace; he declared, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out, and come here!” Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire. And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men. The hair of their heads was not singed, their cloaks were not harmed, and no smell of fire had come upon them. Nebuchadnezzar answered and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that speaks anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins, for there is no other god who is able to rescue in this way.” Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the province of Babylon.

Here we are told of God’s miraculous deliverance of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, which was so complete that their clothing did not even smell of fire. The presence of a fourth man within the furnace who was clearly beyond human only made the scene even more amazing (notice how all the people who gathered in the beginning of the chapter were gathered to witness this miracle). Whether the fourth man in the fire was a pre-incarnate Christ or an angel sent by God is not for us to know; instead, the main purpose of this divine act seems to be, as Duguid notes, “a physical demonstration of God’s presence with believer’s in distress.”[4] This certainly fits with the progression of how God has been revealing Himself to Nebuchadnezzar. In the last chapter, the wise men of Babylon lamented that knowing the king’s dream and its interpretation was knowledge that only the gods could possess, but they did not dwell with mankind. Daniel, however, displayed that the true God does interact with humanity, revealing wisdom to His people. Now Nebuchadnezzar sees[5] that this God does more than remote revelation; He made His presence physically and visibly displayed. Of course, we know that God would perform an even greater act of condescension a few centuries from the events of Daniel. Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of God, would take on flesh and dwell among the very ones who were created in His image. Unlike Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Jesus would willingly stand under the righteous fury of His own Father, so that all who believe in Him would be spared from the wrath to come.

This account of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s faithfulness and deliverance is popular for good reason. In it we witness our God who is able to deliver His people from the fire. But even though these three men were spared from death in furnace, many other saints have not received that ending. Men like Polycarp, Jan Hus, Thomas Cranmer, William Tyndale, and so many more faced the literal fires of persecution and were devoured in the flames. What are we to make of such differences?

Hebrews 11 is often called the Hall of Faith because it lists out the accounts of Old Testament saints who lived by faith. It ends with these mighty words:

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection.

Hebrews 11:32–35

These are just the accounts that we might expect to see. Indeed, “quenched the power of fire” may refer to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s passage through the fiery furnace. However, the author of Hebrews continues and reveals another angle of faithfulness:

Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

Hebrews 11:35-38

Here faithfulness is also shown to be visible in enduring suffering for the LORD’s sake. The difficult reality is that God sometimes physically delivers His people from the fires of death, while at other times allowing them to be consumed. We do not and cannot know the thoughts and ways of the LORD, but we can trust all His ways are good. Every believer must take up the resolve of Daniel’s three friends, committed to worship and serve the LORD alone even if He does not deliver us in this life.

Although most of us will likely never find ourselves in such a blatantly clear and deadly situation as this one, we must each day refuse to bend our hearts in worship to the idols both within and around us. As Satan did in the garden, sin will always be alluring, and idolatry perennially claims to be for the good and unity of humanity. Putting on truth as a belt and clinging to God’s Word, we must refuse to participate in its lie and instead proclaim the Son of God who suffered the fire of God’s wrath in our place. The outcome of all things belongs to God alone; let us hold fast in faithfulness to Christ.


[1] A cubit is about 18 inches, which makes sixty cubits equal about ninety feet.

[2] The narrative does not tell us anything about Daniel, but given the prophet’s character, we may safely assume that he was simply not present in Babylon during this episode, otherwise he would have been refusing to worship alongside his three friends.

[3] John Calvin, Faith Unfeigned, 6.

[4] Iain Duguid, Daniel, 56.

[5] Again, Nebuchadnezzar is still pretty clearly not a believer after this episode, yet the LORD continues to show Himself to the king.

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