Nebuchadnezzar erects a huge statue and requires every subject in his kingdom to bown down to it at the sound of instruments announcing worship. It was unusual for pagan nations to require conquered nations to forsake the worship of their pagan deities and it is likely that the king is utilizing the worship of this common “god” as a symbol of national unity – a means of having a common form of worship. The king does not forbid the worship of other gods but, simply, that his subjects add this god to the pantheon of their worship. Ironically, though God had warned King Nebuchadnezzar of the destruction of the kingdoms of the earth, and his kingdom represented the gold head of the statue destroyed, this statue is likewise enormous and the entire statue is made of gold.
Although the king had been impressed by the wisdom of the one true God in the episode of Chapter 2, his heart has not been changed by it. God had “cash value” in His ability to provide the interpretation to his dream but, apparently, his folly still makes him blind to the power of God and he boldly challenges Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that their God was powerless to deliver them from his mighty hand if they do not concede to his demands.
Of interest in this account, is that the astrologers in the court of the king have to point out the civil disobedience of these three Jews. The three have not made a federal case out of their disobedience but are content to disobey in the liberty of their conscience for they understand that God, alone, has the power to bind the consciences of men. They are willing to go to their deaths lest they worship another but they don’t picket the capital in protest but, rather, quietly continue to worship the true God while refusing to bow down to an idol.
When confronted, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego continue to treat the king with the respect that his office deserves. They are not defiant in the sense of showing disdain for his person but they, nevertheless, express confidence that they need not defend their disobedience in this matter. While the king may have the authority over civil affairs he has far over-stepped his authority in commanding false worship and they confidently (yet humbly) express confidence that God will deliver them out of his hand – whether their lives are preserved or they die, God will deliver them.
The three are cast into the furnace, which is so hot that the author adds the detail that those throwing them into the fire are killed by the backblast of heat. Amazingly, however, the king sees the three walking around inside the furnace unharmed and their is a fourth person – a “son of the gods” – walking with them. Many believe this is a Christophany – a pre-incarnate vision of the Son of God. Indeed, this passage is obliquely cited in the Epistle of 1 Peter as we are promised that we participate in the sufferings of Christ. Our Savior bore the furnace of hell – God’s judgment for our sin that we deserve, and it gives us confidence in the face of trials. We may not be led through literal fire that will not harm us but, like many episodes in Biblical history, God demonstrates spiritual realities of deliverance through the physical deliverance of His people and makes a historical statement that He is immanent and strong to save.
This episode is yet another display of God’s power to the king and he adds to his confession of the might of God. He acknowledges that Yahweh is God of gods and God of kings. This is a true confession but the king stops short of confessing God as the only God worthy of worship but only requires that nobody speak ill of God. King Nebuchadnezzar has not yet been truly humbled by God. He still sees God for His power. He respects the display and deliverance but doesn’t yet grasp that his world will have to be turned upside down to understand the saving power of a Covenant God.