Have you ever dreamed something so amazing that you wished it was true? One of the greatest kings on earth did. And, being in his position, he could afford to literally make his dream come true. Or so he thought.
A Dream Come True
Nebuchadnezzar dreamed a statue that foretold the future of humankind: four kingdoms would succeed each other until God would permanently establish his kingship on earth. This divine message was meant to help the king recognize the superiority of the living God and his own limited role in earth’s history. While momentarily acknowledging this, Nebuchadnezzar later determined in his heart to change the course of the predicted future. Pride prevented him from accepting the dissolution of the highly civilized and powerful Babylonian empire. So, he ordered a statue built; except it was to be entirely made of gold, suggesting his desire for Babylon’s permanence: Nebuchadnezzar the king made an image of gold, the height of which was sixty cubits and its width six cubits; he set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. (Daniel 3:1) He modified the dream to suit his wishes. Talk about twisting an interpretation!
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Babylon Echoes Babel
Nebuchadnezzar’s decree reminds us of the story of Babel, where humans built a tower in the plain on Shinar to demonstrate their independence of God and their intention to enter His mysteries. Interestingly, Nebuchadnezzar’s statue was also built on a plain. In fact, “both events most likely occurred in the same place [or if not,] definitely [in] the same geographical area. And if we take the somewhat vague expression of the “plain of Shinar” used in Genesis 11 :2 (KJV) in the broader sense as a ‘province of Babylon,’ it may well be that it applies to the plain of Dura, also situated ‘in the province of Babylon’ (Dan. 3:1).”[i] Archeology confirms such a place close to the joining of the River Dura and the Euphrates, as well as a platform that might have been the statue’s pedestal.[ii]
Adoration or Death/ An Unwise Competition
In his desire to replace the living God, Nebuchadnezzar demanded adoration from all well-positioned people in his empire:
2 Then Nebuchadnezzar the king sent word to assemble the satraps, the prefects and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the judges, the magistrates and all the rulers of the provinces to come to the dedication of the image that Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up. 3 Then the satraps, the prefects and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the judges, the magistrates and all the rulers of the provinces were assembled for the dedication of the image that Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up; and they stood before the image that Nebuchadnezzar had set up. 4 Then the herald loudly proclaimed: “To you the command is given, O peoples, nations and men of every language, 5 that at the moment you hear the sound of the horn, flute, lyre, trigon, psaltery, bagpipe and all kinds of music, you are to fall down and worship the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king has set up. 6 But whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be cast into the midst of a furnace of blazing fire.” (Daniel 3:2-6)
As can be seen from the text, adoration for the king had only one alternative: death by fire. Interestingly, this echoes the final death of the wicked in a lake of fire. In seeking to replace God, Nebuchadnezzar enacts life and death decrees revolving around devotion to him in a twisted echoing of this earth’s finale. The repeated enumeration of the officials called in the plain four times (vs. 2, 3, 27) is surpassed only by the recurrent listing of the instruments inducing the adoration: horn, flute, lyre, trigon, psaltery, bagpipe and all kinds of music (vs. 5, 7, 10, 15), a rhythmic writing meant to possibly indicate an induced state of worship through rhythm.
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Sadly, Nebuchadnezzar ignorantly (or maybe not so ignorantly) engages in a competition with the living God—an infinitely more powerful Being than any earthly king. This rivalry is evident in his address to three Hebrews who refuse to bow down: “what god is there who can deliver you out of my hands?” (v. 15). Clearly, Nebuchadnezzar insisted on believing that no being more powerful than him existed despite the evidence in his troubling dream.
Power, Unity, and Intolerance
In his hunger for power, Nebuchadnezzar manifested a spirit of intolerance demonstrated in firm expectations of religious unity. Doukhan clarifies that both the
“metals and the measurements of the statue evoke a preoccupation with unity. … In reaction to the statue in the dream, which consisted of several metals, each representing another kingdom, Nebuchadnezzar casts his statue in one metal only, depicting his own kingdom, the gold. He not only rejects the idea of succession, but also the concept of difference: all is cast in the same mold.”
“in Babylonian numerical symbolism 60 represents the notion of unity. In erecting his statue to a height of 60 cubits, Nebuchadnezzar seeks primarily to enforce his will for unity-for one kingdom, one religion.”[iii]
It is possible that an insurrection recorded on a cuneiform tablet (dating from his ninth year as ruling) might have prompted the king’s decree as an answer to the threat of disunity.[iv] Whatever precipitated his decree, Nebuchadnezzar defiantly sought to revise the history given him in his dream. Of course, forced adoration can only suit those whose main concern is position and wealth. Having no other allegiance and no higher purposes, they are content with bowing down and securing their future stability, in so far as they grasp their future only in earthly, material terms. “A focus on external organization often seeks to compensate for internal sterility.”[v] Three young men, though, had a different vision of the future guided by a higher power. Their primary loyalty is not one of formalities, and their first concern is not for social status. Instead, they cherish a relationship with God above all wealth and despite all threats—even the threat of death. A daring spirit that doesn’t remain unnoticed, nor unpunished.
When the recently promoted Hebrews (Daniel 2:49) refused to worship the statue, jealous Chaldeans seized the opportunity to instigate the king against them and regain the king’s favor. Notice their mention of the Jews’ promotion in their complaint, which also implies a reproach to the king’s choice.
8 … certain Chaldeans came forward and brought charges against the Jews. 9 They responded and said to Nebuchadnezzar the king: “O king, live forever! 10 You, O king, have made a decree that every man who hears the sound of the horn, flute, lyre, trigon, psaltery, and bagpipe and all kinds of music, is to fall down and worship the golden image. 11 But whoever does not fall down and worship shall be cast into the midst of a furnace of blazing fire.12 There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the administration of the province of Babylon, namely Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego. These men, O king, have disregarded you; they do not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up.” (Daniel 3:8-12)
As in chapter 1, Nebuchadnezzar has another burst of anger.
13 Then Nebuchadnezzar in rage and anger gave orders to bring Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego; then these men were brought before the king.14 Nebuchadnezzar responded and said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image that I have set up? 15 Now if you are ready, at the moment you hear the sound of the horn, flute, lyre, trigon, psaltery and bagpipe and all kinds of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, very well. But if you do not worship, you will immediately be cast into the midst of a furnace of blazing fire; and what god is there who can deliver you out of my hands” (Daniel 3:13-15)
What is interesting is that he gives the Jews a second chance. Despite his fury, he evidently is not ready to part so quickly from those whose service he likely appreciated over the past years. But neither is his pride going to be demeaned by public opposition. The Jews had one chance and one chance alone to save their lives, or they would be thrown in a blazing furnace. Or so the king thought, imagining that their lives depend on him alone.
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The King Answers His Own Question
Choosing death over disloyalty towards God, the Jews are indeed cast into a furnace, heated seven times to match the augmented fury of the king. Common in the local culture and typically used in making bricks, the furnace becomes a symbol of punishment for insubordination. At least at first. For when the king looks into the blazing fire, his pride is leveled to the ground as he is compelled to admit his limits in comparison with the God of heaven and earth. His reaction of anger is followed by his reaction of amazement as he notices what can only be a miracle: the Jews are unscathed and a fourth person is present in the furnace:
24 Then Nebuchadnezzar the king was astounded and stood up in haste; he said to his high officials, “Was it not three men we cast bound into the midst of the fire?” They replied to the king, “Certainly, O king.” 25 He said, “Look! I see four men loosed and walking about in the midst of the fire without harm, and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods!” (Daniel 3:24-25)
Whatever features and/or behavior enabled him to distinguish the different nature of the fourth person, aside from his miraculous appearance, of course, Nebuchadnezzar once again, as in chapter 2, was compelled to acknowledge his inferiority to the living God. In an ironic twist, he is forced by circumstances to answer his own question addressed earlier to the young Jews: “[W]hat god is there who can deliver you out of my hands?” (v. 15)
He then answers his own question,
“Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, who has sent His angel and delivered His servants who put their trust in Him, violating the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies so as not to serve or worship any god except their own God….. [T]here is no other god who is able to deliver in this way.” (v. 28-29)
A Coveted Miracle
Gathering courage from the evident miracle, maybe even wanting to partake of it a little,
“Nebuchadnezzar came near to the door of the furnace of blazing fire” (v. 26), the same door that killed those who carried the Jews into the fire (possibly the “valiant warriors who were in his army” who had tied up Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego; v. 20). The mighty king whose statue stood tall in the plain of Dura showed his true nature and his limitations when he “stood up in haste” to call out the three “servants of the Most High God” (v. 26). These obeyed, walking out of fire in the sight of all the officials gathered to see for themselves the unimaginable.
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Like in chapter 2 where Daniel’s recounting and interpreting the king’s dream elicited his recognition of God’s superiority, this episode again compels the king to bless “the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, who has sent His angel and delivered His servants who put their trust in Him, violating the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies so as not to serve or worship any god except their own God.” (v. 28)
A Coveted Power
But “Nebuchadnezzar does not convert to the religion of the three Jews. Instead, he legalizes it and personally handles the promotion of its three representatives.”[vi] For a power-hungry king, such a mighty God is not only to be worshipped, but also exploited. Probably a mix of fear, amazement, and a desire for divine favor led the impulsive king to issue another decree, just as intolerant as the first, except the object of adoration is no longer him but the living God whose power was publicly witnessed.
29 Therefore I make a decree that any people, nation or tongue that speaks anything offensive against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego shall be torn limb from limb and their houses reduced to a rubbish heap, inasmuch as there is no other god who is able to deliver in this way.” (Daniel 3:29)
This decree forced many in the vast and diverse empire to recognize the God of the Jews. But such a fear and/or favor-based recognition was more likely to harm the divine-human relationship. Far from wanting forced adoration or legalized religion, the God of the Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego tried over and over again to bring light to Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian officials. He demonstrated that He is a God who uses His power to save his people, a God who knows the future of this world and who, to some extent, influences it. He is a God who displays proper jealously, not for the sake of self-adoration, but for the sake of His creatures whose breath depend on Him.
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The three Jews’ resounding “No” is a favorite children’s story, an inspiring episode for teenagers in search of identity, and an encouraging answer for adults confronted with the big challenges of life. When the king gave them a second chance to prove their loyalty to him, they pretty much refused it. Not only they did not ask for this second chance, they declined it when extended by the most powerful king on earth. Listen carefully to their words:
16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego replied to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this matter. 17 If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Daniel 2:16-18)
What an incredible faith they demonstrated! What a calm spirit in the face of death! The young men had no need to prove anything to the king. They knew that if God wanted to prove Himself, He could. But they did not make presumptuous promise on behalf of God. It was up to Him how He wanted to handle Nebuchadnezzar’s arrogance. They only said what their steady trust urged them to confess: God can deliver them, but they would trust Him just the same if He chose not to.
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Secrets to Success
The same God is leading each one of us today through various challenges that come our way, and the same power to deliver us is available to us. Yet God alone knows the “when” and “how” and “why,” and He chooses to act (or not) according to wisdom beyond our understanding. Despite not knowing the end from the beginning, our prayer must always be one of trust, for if a God who chose to die in our place is not worthy of trust, and if the promises of such an infinitely loving God are not worthy of trust, then we really cannot know the meaning of this word. Our love-based loyalty in response to the God’s love-based sacrifice will enable us to walk through challenging situations in a manner that cannot be achieved any other way.
[i] Jacques Doukhan, Secrets of Daniel (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2000), 45.
[ii] Doukhan, 45.
[iii] Doukhan, 46.
[iv] Doukhan, 46.
[v] Doukhan, 48.
[vi] Doukhan, 57.