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Fiery furnace

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The Burning Fiery Furnace (Daniel 3 ) was the instrument of the intended execution of three exiles of the Southern Kingdom of Israel by the king of Babylon (Nebuchadnezzar II) after they refused to worship a golden statue that he had erected. But instead of a place of execution, it became the setting of one of three object lessons that Nebuchadnezzar had to learn before he finally came to a proper understanding of God and of his own place in the cosmos.

The Narrative

This incident took place some years after the incident involving Nebuchadnezzar's Statuary Dream. Nebuchadnezzar commissioned a very tall statue, all of gold. Some have speculated that this was a representation of Marduk, a prominent god in Babylonian religion, held to be responsible for the weather. (Nebuchadnezzar had recently refurbished the temple of Marduk, and if the statue were of Marduk, that might explain the later reference to "serving his gods.") Others have suggested that this statute was an all-gold replica of the statue that Nebuchadnezzar had seen in his dream.

The statue stood sixty cubits (about ninety US customary feet) high and six cubits (nine US customary feet) broad. Nebuchadnezzar erected it in the plain of Dura in the Babylon province (probably the Babil district of modern-day Iraq).

Nebuchadnezzar then gave all his people an ultimatum: at certain specified times of day, Nebuchadnezzar's chosen musicians would play a tune as a prearranged signal. Anyone who did not worship the statue upon hearing that signal would be thrown into a "burning fiery furnace."

Three men did not so worship: Hananiah, Michael, and Azariah, known by their Chaldean names (which Nebuchadnezzar had given them) of Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego. As is entirely consistent with human nature, a number of Chaldeans--members of the dominant race in Babylonia--informed Nebuchadnezzar of their refusal.

Nebuchadnezzar was furious. He had them arrested and brought to him, and then and there he demanded to know whether the rumors of their refusal were true. And without giving them time to answer, he warned them: if they chose to worship, he would let them live, but if not, then they would face the furnace. And then Nebuchadnezzar asked rhetorically, exactly who was their God Who could deliver them from the flames? In answer, the three said that God could indeed deliver them, if He so chose--but whether He did or no, they would not worship any gods but God Himself.

Nebuchadnezzar burst into an uncontrollable rage. He ordered the furnace heated seven times more than usual--so hot, in fact, that the guards whom he detailed to bind the prisoners and throw them into the furnace, themselves perished in the flames. But that did not stop the three from falling in.

What Nebuchadnezzar saw next astonished him greatly. He saw four men inside the furnace, walking around loose, and one of them had that about Him that strongly suggested that He was the Son of God. Nebuchadnezzar then walked to a doorway in the furnace and called for the three to come out. They came out--and were not harmed in any way. Their hair was not singed, and even their clothes had not taken any smoke.

When Nebuchadnezzar saw this, he ordered that any person who spoke against the God that these three men worshiped would be cut in pieces, and his house destroyed. He then promoted the three men to even higher offices.

Nature of the Furnace

The actual furnace that Nebuchadnezzar used has never been found, and to this day no one knows exactly what kind of furnace it was. Nebuchadnezzar probably did not build this furnace specifically as an instrument of execution, or if he did, he used an existing design from the industries of his country that used furnaces. This we may infer from the statement that he ordered the furnace heated seven times as hot as usual, in that if one speaks of a "usual" temperature for a furnace, that in itself implies that the furnace was an ordinary industrial furnace that had a customary use and would operate at a customary temperature.

All furnaces in the period in question were industrial; the type of furnace, called a hypocausis, used to heat a home would not become popular until many centuries later, in Rome and various other cities under Roman influence. Nebuchadnezzar's furnace was likely one of two types:

  1. An ore smelter. Babylonia knew iron working, and used it to great military effect.
  2. A brick kiln. Stone was rare in Babylonia, and so the Babylonians used brick rather extensively. Brick normally must be cured at 1000°C. But a Babylonian brick kiln might have operated even hotter, say at 1300°C, the temperature normally required to fire the sort of colored-glaze bricks that Babylonian artisans used to quite striking effect, especially during Nebuchadnezzar's building program.

In order to make his threat most telling, Nebuchadnezzar would probably have used the sort of brick kiln required to fire colored-glaze bricks. And if he heated this kind of furnace seven times hotter than usual, then one could well believe that the guards detailed to throw the prisoners in would be killed themselves.

Theories of Non-Miraculous Deliverance

A 1994 television production titled Mysteries of the Bible suggested that the three men might have survived the furnace by each standing in a "cool spot" inside the furnace. But this theory begs the question of how the three could have gotten to those "cool spots" unscathed and unsinged, while their guards were killed to the last man--and also why their clothes took no smoke.

The Conversation In the Furnace

The identity of the fourth man in the furnace seems clear: it was Jesus Christ in His pre-incarnation manifestation. The content of His conversation with the three prisoners is a matter of speculation. However, the author of the Book of Hebrews offers a vital clue, when he speaks of those who suffered torture, "not accepting deliverance, that they might accept a better resurrection." (Hebrews 11:32-35 ) This could be a reference to prisoners of conscience who refused to recant their faith, even under torture-to-death, knowing that the Resurrection would admit them to a better state. Or it could suggest that in those cases God offered a choice: accept immediate deliverance and remain in the world, or decline it and pass through death and Resurrection instead. Perhaps Jesus offered such a choice to Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. If so, He might have impressed upon them that the spectacle of their deliverance could not fail to impress Nebuchadnezzar on some level, and that such an impression on such a man, especially the then ruler of the known world, would go far to further God's Plan for the world. We can only marvel at the moral courage that those three men must have shown, to forego a transit to heaven that Jesus was then offering them, in order to stay in a world that had people in it that would as soon kill them as meet them socially.