By Douglas K. Wilson, Ph.D.
Wilson is dean of Christian Studies at the University of Mobile in Alabama.
Few stories in Scripture are as familiar as this one. A giant statue overshadowing. A band playing. A crowd bowing. Three men standing. A king threatening. Three men unwavering. A fiery furnace baking. Four men in the fire walking. Three men exiting — unharmed and unsinged. A king proclaiming.
This story has captured the attention and creativity of people throughout history. Alexandrian Jews added more details about these men in the Greek version. Children’s Bible story books include versions of it. Even the Statler Brothers and Johnny Cash sang about it: “They wouldn’t bend, they wouldn’t bow, they wouldn’t burn” (“The Fourth Man”).
These young captives stood out in their allegiance to the Lord. Imagine three young men in Mecca standing tall while all around them men are circled around the Black Stone, bowing toward it. The king was not initially aware of their act of defiance, but others with an agenda came forward and made a point to inform (actually to “maliciously accuse”) the king about the men’s actions.
Allegiance Declared (14–18)
Is this the story of an egomaniacal ruler, vengeful officials, a kowtowing populous and brave young men who resisted the invasive power of this government? Or is it a story of a handful of foreigners who followed their own customs and laws and who rebelled against a few simple guidelines from government officials?
No, these were men of faith whose God commanded them not to make any graven image to bow down and worship it (Ex. 20:4–6; Deut. 5:8–10). They were more concerned about obeying the God of Israel than they were about Nebuchadnezzar taking offense. While the Babylonians may have seen this as an act of defiance and civil disobedience, these young men were declaring their allegiance to God.
When the king explained the instructions to them personally, he used an Aramaic expression “but if not.” Within our translation, the text reads, “But if you don’t worship it.” In their response to the king, the three men expressed their confidence God would deliver them from the fire and from the king. Then they used the same expression: “but if not.” The translation reads, “But even if he does not rescue us … we will not serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up.” Was this defiance or faithful confidence? Yes!
Persecution Intensified (19–23)
The three men were fully aware of the consequences that would follow resisting the king’s executive order. They knew that they could die for resisting the civil authorities. The midwives Shiphrah and Puah knew defiance to Pharaoh could lead to execution (Ex. 1:15–22). Daniel knew that continuing to pray openly would lead to the lion’s den (Dan. 6:6–10). Esther knew that breaking royal protocol and entering court without a summons by the king was grounds for capital punishment (Esther 4:16). “If I perish, I perish.”
Jesus told the crowds to count the cost for following Him (Luke 14:25–35). We must still count the cost today. Many of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world face ongoing persecution for their faith. The threats of leaders, acts of violence by neighbors from other faiths and pressures of family members weigh heavy upon them. Let us pray for persecuted believers around the world to resist the temptation to abandon their faith.
God Honored (24–26)
The king witnessed divine intervention by a fourth “man” in the fire with them. He said the being looked “like a son of the gods.” This Aramaic phrase by a Gentile king may be understood to be a reference to an angel, as some translators interpret similar phrases in Hebrew. Many evangelicals interpret the fourth person in the furnace to be the pre-incarnate Christ.
In life and in death, God is honored with unwavering commitment to biblical faith. May God be honored through our lives.