When the three men refuse to bow, Nebuchadnezzar is “furious with rage” and he orders the men into his presence. “Furious with rage” is a combination of two words (בִּרְגַ֣ז וַחֲמָ֔ה) to form a hendiadys (a figure of speech in which two words are cited as including everything in-between). Nebuchadnezzar asks if it was true they defied his orders and gave them a second chance to bow to the idol to demonstrate their loyalty in front of the King himself. If this is a “test” of loyalty, then to refuse to bow is declare oneself to be traitor.
The king makes an arrogant statement in verse 15: “Once I toss you in the flames, there is no God which is able to take you out of my hands!” This is a challenge made to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Nebuchadnezzar does not think the God of Israel is powerful enough to control events in Babylon. Interpreting a dream is one thing, but no god exists who will keep people alive when thrown into the furnace.
The three Jews make a remarkable confession of faith before Nebuchadnezzar. They contradict the king boldly by stating the God they serve is able to save them from his hands. There is a problem in 3:17. The text may be translated, “if God exists, he will save us…” or “If God is able, he will save is…” It seems unlikely the young men would say God may not exist or even that he is not powerful enough to save them. Notice the difference in several English translations:
If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. (ESV)
If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us (NRSV)
The point of their statement is that they will not bow down to the idol, whether God saves them or not! They are not doubting either God’s existence or his power, but rather making a statement that they will never bow down to the idol even if they have to die. Daniel 3:18 is clear: “O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” They do not fear Nebuchadnezzar who can only kill them, they have some sort of hope that allows them to give their lives up in the service of God.
Is there a hope of afterlife or resurrection in this passage? Some commentators think there is a hint of resurrection in Daniel 3:17, something like, “even if you kill us our God will raise us from the dead.” This seems unlikely because there is no developed understanding of the resurrection in the Old Testament. But Daniel 12:1-2 is often considered a reference to a future resurrection of the dead, so it is possible there is the barest if hints of resurrection in the statement the three young men make in Daniel 3:17.
However, resurrection is not the point of the passage. They openly and boldly confess their faith in God who he is able to save them from certain death. But even if God does not save them and they die in the furnace, they will never bow and worship the statue or the Empire which it represents. This bold faith becomes a pattern for many Jews and Christians who are unwilling to compromise and gladly give their lives in service to God.
There may other principles in the text as well. Since I frequently teach classes on Paul’s letters, I often discuss Paul’s attitude toward the government found in Romans 13. This is a passage which is badly used by alleged Christians in the government to demand loyalty to an objectively evil administration. Paul does clearly say the Christian ought to obey their government. When most people read this, they immediately try to find a way to avoid the absoluteness of the statement by adding “only if the government does not contradict the Bible.” That is not what Paul said, and he was talking about one of the emperor when he wrote this was Nero, not exactly a model of godly government. But this does not mean Paul was “pro-Empire” no matter what that government does.
If the Christian is looking for a model of resistance against an evil government (anywhere in the world at any given time in history), then the resistance of the three Jewish exiles in Daniel 3 and Daniel’s own resistance in chapter 6 are the key passages. Looking ahead to Revelation, the same pattern of resistance and submission to punishment and death is the foundation for much of the final book of the Christian Canon.
Bibliography: P. Coxon, “Daniel 3:17: A Linguistic and Theological Problem” VT 26 (1976), 400-409.