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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Daniel 3

 

 

Verses 1-30

THE IDOL OF GOLD, AND THE FAITHFUL THREE

REGARDED as an instance of the use of historic fiction to inculcate the noblest truths, the third chapter of Daniel is not only superb in its imaginative grandeur, but still more in the manner in which it sets forth the piety of ultimate faithfulness, and of that

"Death-defying utterance of truth"

which is the essence of the most heroic and inspiring forms of martyrdom. So far from slighting it, because it does not come before us with adequate evidence to prove that it was even intended to be taken as literal history, I have always regarded it as one of the most precious among the narrative chapters of Scripture. It is of priceless value as illustrating the deliverance of undaunted faithfulness-as setting forth the truth that they who love God and trust in Him must love Him and trust in Him even till the end, in spite not only of the most overwhelming peril, but even when they are brought face to face with apparently hopeless defeat. Death itself, by torture or sword or flame, threatened by the priests and tyrants and multitudes of the earth set in open array against them, is impotent to shake the purpose of God’s saints. When the servant of God can do nothing else against the banded forces of sin, the world, and the devil, he at least can die, and can say like the Maccabees, "Let us die in our simplicity!". He may be saved from death; but even if not, he must prefer death to apostasy, and will save his own soul. That the Jews were ever reduced to such a choice during the Babylonian exile there is no evidence; indeed, all evidence points the other way, and seems to show that they were allowed with perfect tolerance to hold and practise their own religion. But in the days of Antiochus Epiphanes the question which to choose-martyrdom or apostasy-became a very burning one. Antiochus set up at Jerusalem "the abomination of desolation," and it is easy to understand what courage and conviction a tempted Jew might derive from the study of this splendid defiance. That the story is of a kind well fitted to haunt the imagination is shown by the fact that Firdausi tells a similar story from Persian tradition of "a martyr hero who came unhurt out of a fiery furnace."

This immortal chapter breathes exactly the same spirit as the forty-fourth Psalm.

"Our heart is not turned back, Neither our steps gone out of Thy way: No, not when Thou hast smitten us into the place of dragons, And covered us with the shadow of death. If we have forgotten the Name of our God, And holden up our hands to any strange god, Shall not God search it out? For He knoweth the very secrets of the heart."

"Nebuchadnezzar the king," we are told in one of the stately overtures in which this writer rejoices, "made an image of gold, whose height was threescore cubits, and the breadth thereof six cubits, and he set it up in the plains of Dura, in the province of Babylon."

No date is given, but the writer may well have supposed or have traditionally heard that some such event took place about the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar’s reign, when he had brought to conclusion a series of great victories and conquests. Nor are we told whom the image represented. We may imagine that it was an idol of Bel-merodach, the patron deity of Babylon, to whom we know that he did erect an image; or of Nebo, from whom the king derived his name. When it is said to be "of gold," the writer, in the grandiose character of his imaginative faculty, may have meant his words to be taken literally, or he may merely have meant that it was gilded, or overlaid with gold. There were colossal images in Egypt and in Nineveh, but we never read in history of any other gilded image ninety feet high and nine feet broad. The name of the plain or valley in which it was erected-Dura-has been found in several Babylonian localities.

Then the king proclaimed a solemn dedicatory festival, to which he invited every sort of functionary, of which the writer, with his usual and rotundity of expression, accumulates the eight names. They were:-

1. The Princes, "satraps," or wardens of the realm.

2. The Governors. [Daniel 2:48]

3. The Captains.

4. The Judges.

5. The Treasurers or Controllers.

6. The Counsellors.

7. The Sheriffs.

8. All the Rulers of the Provinces.

Any attempts to attach specific values to these titles are failures. They seem to be a catalogue of Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian titles, and may perhaps (as Ewald conjectured) be meant to represent the various grades of three classes of functionaries-civil, military, and legal.

Then all these officials, who with leisurely stateliness are named again, came to the festival, and stood before the image. It is not improbable that the writer may have been a witness of some such splendid ceremony to which the Jewish magnates were invited in the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes.

Then a herald (kerooza) cried aloud a proclamation "to all peoples, nations, and languages." Such a throng might easily have contained Greeks, Phoenicians, Jews, Arabs, and Assyrians, as well as Babylonians. At the outburst of a blast of "boisterous janizary-music" they are all to fall down and worship the golden image.

Of the six different kinds of musical instruments, which, in his usual style, the writer names and reiterates, and which it is neither possible nor very important to distinguish, three-the harp, psaltery, and bagpipe-are Greek; two, the horn and sackbut, have names derived from roots found in both Aryan and Semitic languages; and one, "the pipe," is Semitic. As to the list of officials, the writer had added "and all the rulers of the provinces"; so here he adds "and all kinds of music."

Any one who refused to obey the order was to be flung, the same hour, into the burning furnace of fire. Professor Sayce, in his "Hibbert Lectures," connects the whole scene with an attempt, first by Nebuchadrezzar, then by Nabunaid, to make Merodach-who, to conciliate the prejudices of the worshippers of the older deity Bel, was called Bel-merodach-the chief deity of Babylon. He sees in the king’s proclamation an underlying suspicion that some would be found to oppose his attempted centralisation of worship.

The music burst forth, and the vast throng all prostrated themselves, except Daniel’s three companions, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

We naturally pause to ask where then was Daniel? If the narrative be taken for literal history, it is easy to answer with the apologist that he was ill; or was absent; or was a person of too much importance to be required to prostrate himself; or that "the Chaldeans" were afraid to accuse him. "Certainly," says Professor Fuller, "had this chapter been the composition of a pseudo-Daniel, or the record of a fictitious event, Daniel would have been introduced and his immunity explained." Apologetic literature abounds in such fanciful and valueless arguments. It would be just as true, and just as false, to say that "certainly," if the narrative were historic, his absence would have been explained; and all the more because he was expressly elected to be "in the gate of the king." But if we regard the chapter as a noble Haggada, there is not the least difficulty in accounting for Daniel’s absence. The separate stories were meant to cohere to a certain extent; and though the writers of this kind of ancient imaginative literature, even in Greece, rarely trouble themselves with any questions which lie outside the immediate purpose, yet the introduction of Daniel into the story would have been to violate every vestige of verisimilitude. To represent Nebuchadrezzar worshipping Daniel as a god, and offering oblations to him on one page, and on the next to represent the king as throwing him into a furnace for refusing to worship an idol, would have involved an obvious incongruity. Daniel is represented in the other chapters as playing his part and bearing his testimony to the God of Israel; this chapter is separately devoted to the heroism and the testimony of his three friends. Observing the defiance of the king’s edict, certain Chaldeans, actuated by jealousy, came near to the king and "accused" the Jews. [Daniel 6:13-14] The word for "accused" is curious and interesting. It is literally "ate the pieces of the Jews ," evidently involving a metaphor of fierce devouring malice. Reminding the king of his decree, they inform him that three of the Jews to whom he has given such high promotion "thought well not to regard thee; thy god will they not serve, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up." Nebuchadrezzar, like other despots who suffer from the vertigo of autocracy, was liable to sudden outbursts of almost spasmodic fury. We read of such storms of rage in the case of Antiochus Epiphanes, of Nero, of Valentinian I, and even of Theodosius. The double insult to himself and to his god on the part of men to whom he had shown such conspicuous favour transported him out of himself. For Bel-merodach, whom he had made the patron god of Babylon, was, as he says in one of his own inscriptions, "the lord, the joy of my heart in Babylon, which is the seat of my sovereignty and empire." It seemed to him too intolerable that this god, who had crowned him with glory and victory, and that he himself, arrayed in the plenitude of his imperial power, should be defied and set at naught by three miserable and ungrateful captives.

He puts it to them whether it was their set purpose that they would not serve his gods or worship his image. Then he offers them a locus poenitentiae. The music should sound forth again. If they would then worship-but if not, they should be flung into the furnace, -"and who is that God that shall deliver you out of my hands?"

The question is a direct challenge and defiance of the God of Israel, like Pharaoh’s "And who is Jehovah, that I shall obey His voice?" or like Sennacherib’s "Who are they among all the gods that have delivered their land out of my hand?" [Exodus 5:2, Isaiah 36:20, 2 Chronicles 32:13-17] It is answered in each instance by a decisive interposition. The answer of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is truly magnificent in its unflinching courage. It is: "O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer thee a word concerning this. If our God whom we serve be able to deliver us, He will deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and out of thy hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up." By the phrase "if our God be able" no doubt as to God’s power is expressed. The word "able" merely means "able in accordance with His own plans." The three children knew well that God can deliver, and that He has repeatedly delivered His saints. Such deliverances abound on the sacred page, and are mentioned in the "Dream of Gerontius":-

"Rescue him, O Lord, in this his evil hour, As of old so many by Thy mighty Power: Enoch and Elias from the common doom; Noe from the waters in a saving home; Abraham from the abounding guilt of Heathenesse, Job from all his multiform and fell distress; Isaac, when his father’s knife was raised to slay; Lot from burning Sodom on its judgment-day; Moses from the land of bondage and despair; Daniel from the hungry lions in their lair; David from Golia, and the wrath of Saul; And the two Apostles from their prison-thrall."

But the willing martyrs were also well aware that in many cases it has not been God’s purpose to deliver His saints out of the peril of death; and that it has been far better for them that they should be carried heavenwards on the fiery chariot of martyrdom. They were therefore perfectly prepared to find that it was the will of God that they too should perish, as thousands of God’s faithful ones had perished before them, from the tyrannous and cruel hands of man; and they were cheerfully willing to confront that awful extremity. Thus regarded, the three words "And if not" are among the sublimest words uttered in all Scripture. They represent the truth that the man who trusts in God will continue to say even to the end, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him." They are the triumph of faith over all adverse circumstances. It has been the glorious achievement of man to have attained, by the inspiration of the breath of the Almighty, so clear an insight into the truth that the voice of duty must be obeyed to the very end, as to lead him to defy every combination of opposing forces. The gay lyrist of heathendom expressed it in his famous ode, -

"Justum et tenacem propositi virum Non civium ardor prays jubentium, Non vultus instantis tyranni, Mente quatit solida."

It is man’s testimony to his indomitable belief that the things of sense are not to be valued in comparison to that high happiness which arises from obedience to the law of conscience, and that no extremities of agony are commensurate with apostasy. This it is which, more than anything else, has, in spite of appearances, shown that the spirit of man is of heavenly birth, and has enabled him to unfold

"The wings within him wrapped, and proudly rise

Redeemed from earth, a creature of the skies."

For wherever there is left in man any true manhood, he has never shrunk from accepting death rather than the disgrace of compliance with what he despises and abhors. This it is which sends our soldiers on the forlorn hope, and makes them march with a smile upon the batteries which vomit their cross-fires upon them; "and so die by thousands the unnamed demigods." By virtue of this it has been that all the martyrs have, "with the irresistible might of their weakness," shaken the solid world.

On hearing the defiance of the faithful Jews-absolutely firm in its decisiveness, yet perfectly respectful in its tone-the tyrant was so much beside himself, that, as he glared on Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, his very countenance was disfigured. The furnace was probably one used for the ordinary cremation of the dead. He ordered that it should be heated seven times hotter than it was wont to be heated, and certain men of mighty strength who were in his army were bidden to bind the three youths and fling them into the raging flames. So, bound in their hosen, their tunics, their long mantles, and their other garments, they were cast into the seven-times-heated furnace. The king’s commandment was so urgent, and the "tongue of flame" was darting so fiercely from the horrible kiln, that the executioners perished in planting the ladders to throw them in, but they themselves fell into the midst of the furnace.

The death of the executioners seems to have attracted no special notice, but immediately afterwards Nebuchadrezzar started in amazement and terror from his throne, and asked his chamberlains, "Did we not cast three men bound into the midst of the fire?"

"True, O king," they answered.

"Behold," he said, "I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt, and the aspect of the fourth is like a son of the gods!"

Then the king approached the door of the furnace of fire, and called, "Ye servants of the Most High God, come forth." Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out of the midst of the fire; and all the satraps, prefects, presidents, and court chamberlains gathered round to stare on men who were so completely untouched by the fierceness of the flames that not a hair of their heads had been singed, nor their hosen shrivelled, nor was there even the smell of burning upon them. According to the version of Theodotion, the king worshipped the Lord before them, and he then published a decree in which, after blessing God for sending His angel to deliver His servants who trusted in Him, he somewhat incoherently ordained that "every people, nation, or language which spoke any blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, should be cut in pieces, and his house made a dunghill : since there is no other god that can deliver after this sort."

Then the king-as he had done before-promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the province of Babylon.

Henceforth they disappear alike from history, tradition, and legend; but the whole magnificent Haggada is the most powerful possible commentary on the words of Isaiah 43:2 : "When thou walkest through the fire thou shalt not be burned, neither shall the flame kindle upon thee."

How powerfully the story struck the imagination of the Jews is shown by the not very apposite Song of the Three Children, with the other apocryphal additions. Here we are told that the furnace was heated

"with rosin, pitch, tow, and small wood; so that the flame streamed forth above the furnace forty and nine cubits. And it passed through and burned those Chaldeans it found about the furnace. But the angel of the Lord came down into the furnace together with Azarias and his fellows, and smote the flame of the fire out of the oven; and made the midst of the furnace as it had been a moist whistling wind, so that the fire touched them not at all, neither hurt nor troubled them."

In the Talmud the majestic limitations of the Biblical story are sometimes enriched with touches of imagination, but more often coarsened by tasteless exhibitions of triviality and rancour. Thus in the "Vayyikra Rabba" Nebuchadrezzar tries to persuade the youths by fantastic misquotations of Isaiah 10:10,, Ezekiel 23:14. Deuteronomy 4:28, Jeremiah 27:8; "and they refute him and end with clumsy plays on his name," telling him that he should bark (nabach) like a dog, swell like a water-jar (cod), and chirp like a cricket (tsirtsir), which he immediately did- i.e. , he was smitten with lycanthropy.

In "Sanhedrin" f. 93, 1, the story is told of the adulterous false prophets Ahab and Zedekiah, and it is added that Nebuchadrezzar offered them the ordeal of fire from which the Three Children had escaped. They asked that Joshua the high priest might be with them, thinking that his sanctity would be their protection. When the king asked why Abraham, though alone, had been saved from the fire of Nimrod, and the Three Children from the burning furnace, and yet the high priest should have been singed, [Zechariah 3:2] Joshua answered that the presence of two wicked men gave the fire power over him, and quoted the proverb, "Two dry Sticks kindle one green one."

In "Pesachin," f. 118, 1, there is a fine imaginative passage on the subject, attributed to Rabbi Samuel of Shiloh:-

"In the hour when Nebuchadrezzar the wicked threw Hananiah, Mishrael, and Azariah into the midst of the furnace of fire, Gorgemi, the prince of the hail, stood before the Holy One (blessed be He!) and said, ‘Lord of the world, let me go down and cool the furnace.’ ‘No,’ answered Gabriel; ‘all men know that hail quenches fire; but I, the prince of fire, will go down and make the furnace cool within and hot without, and thus work a miracle within a miracle.’ The Holy One (blessed be He!) said unto him, ‘Go down. In the self-same hour Gabriel opened his mouth and said, ‘And the truth of the Lord endureth for ever.’"

Mr. Ball, who quotes these passages from Wunsche’s "Bibliotheca Rabbinica" in his Introduction to the Song of the Three Children, very truly adds that many Scriptural commentators wholly lack the orientation derived from the study of Talmudic and Midrashic literature which is an indispensable preliminary to a right understanding of the treasures of Eastern thought. They do not grasp the inveterate tendency of Jewish teachers to convey doctrine by concrete stories and illustrations, and not in the form of abstract thought. "The doctrine is everything; the mode of presentation has no independent value." To make the story the first consideration, and the doctrine it was intended to convey an after-thought, as we, with our dry Western literalness, are predisposed to do, is to reverse the Jewish order of thinking, and to inflict unconscious injustice on the authors of many edifying narratives of antiquity.

The part played by Daniel in the apocryphal Story of Susanna is probably suggested by the meaning of his name: "Judgment of God." Both that story and Bel and the Dragon are in their way effective fictions, though incomparably inferior to the canonical part of the Book of Daniel.

And the startling decree of Nebuchadrezzar finds its analogy in the decree published by Antiochus the Great to all his subjects in honour of the Temple at Jerusalem, in which he threatened the infliction of heavy fines on any foreigner who trespassed within the limits of the Holy Court.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Daniel 3:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/daniel-3.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, July 6th, 2020
the Week of Proper 9 / Ordinary 14
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