“I ordered the [following] court officials in exercises of [their] duties to take up position in my [official] suite.” (Cited by Shea)
In Daniel 3 Nebuchadnezzar creates an idol to be worshiped by the members of his government. This command follows his statement that Daniel’s God is a great god (2:47). Clearly, he did not “convert to monotheism” even if he did acknowledge Daniel’s God.
The statue is very large, the gigantic size is a common argument against the historicity of Daniel. A cubit is about 18 inches, and it is said to be threescore cubits, which is 1080 inches, or 90 feet (as the NIV reads), by only 9 feet wide. The proportions are more like an obelisk than a statue. It is very like the many obelisks found in Babylon. There is nothing in this passage implying the statue is a human let alone Nebuchadnezzar himself. The wording allows for a “man-like” figure, possibly a man’s head with an animal’s body.
Why does Nebuchadnezzar build the statue? D. J. Wiseman thought this was an expression of thanks to Nebuchadnezzar’s favored god, Bel, for his successes militarily and politically, hence this may be an image of Bel (Nebuchadnezzar, 109. But since is not referred to as a god and he required his officers to bow to it, the image may be a symbol of Babylon. Worshiping the statue was declaring loyalty to Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar and the gods of Babylon.
William H. Shea suggests that the gathering followed a revolt against Nebuchadnezzar that occurred between December 595 and January 594 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar summoned these officials to Babylon to take a “loyalty oath” to the king. If this suggestion is accurate, then the command to bow is analogous to pledging allegiance to the flag. This is a public, visible oath of loyalty to the Empire.
This command to bow is given, and the penalty for not complying with the command is death in a “fiery furnace.” Death by burning appears in the Law of Hammurabi and is known in early Babylonian dynasties. In Jeremiah 29:21-22 Nebuchadnezzar is predicted to burn a false prophet.
For the three Jewish exiles, a command to worship an idol breaks the clear command of God. Therefore they must again make a stand against the Nebuchadnezzar and the Empire they serve. To defy this command they must be willing and ready to accept the punishment, a grisly death.
The text does not say how the men defied the king’s command, only that they did. It is likely all the officials bowed to the ground toward the statue when the music played, leaving the three Judean exiles boldly standing among the crowd.
Where is Daniel? Based on the first two chapters of the book it is clear he would not bow to the idol. Some have said that because of his religious position in the kingdom he would have been except from this command. If one reads the rest of the book, however, Daniel appears to be a civil official, so this is not a likely suggestion. There is a literary explanation as well: chapters 3 and 6 are in parallel a parallel relationship if the chiastic outline of Daniel is accepted. Chapter 3 is a story resistance featuring the three Jewish men without Daniel, chapter 6 is a story of resistance featuring Daniel alone.
The Jews are accused by the Chaldeans and astrologers of Babylon. They report to the king these are the Jews who were put in charge over the affairs of Babylon are not loyal to Babylon. They are foreigners and not to be trusted since they did not bow to the symbol of the empire’s power. Is there a hint of anti-Semitism in the accusation? Possibly, since the accusation is against the Jews, not the “three young men.”
It is remarkable these three Jewish exiles would choose to die rather than submit to the demands of the Empire. They have determined not to give worship to an idol, a god, a human emperor, or an Empire. They are refusing to submit and are willing to accept death as a result of that decision. This is one of the most applicable elements of the book of Daniel for contemporary Christians. First, what are the beliefs and practices which are non-negotiable? What lines are necessary to define one’s Christian faith? Second, are you willing to die for those beliefs and practices rather than compromise them?
To take this a bit further, does the Empire (the government under which we currently live) demand absolute obedience? If so, should the Christian submit to the government in every way? Are there circumstances where the Christian must disobey the government and accept a harsh penalty, perhaps even death?
Bibliography: William H. Shea, “Daniel 3: Extra-Biblical Texts and the Convocation on the Plain of Dura” AUSS 20 (1982): 37.