One of the best known stories of the book of Daniel (and indeed the entire Bible) doesn’t include the character of Daniel. In his account of the story in Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism, John Lennox doesn’t speculate where Daniel might have been, but he offers enough insights to at least suggest an answer.
Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had a 90-foot-tall golden statue of himself built, and he expects the leaders of Babylon to set and tone and worship the statue.
By this time, Daniel and his three friends – Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego – have moved into significant government positions in Nebuchadnezzar’s government. Like the other leaders, they’re expected to bow the knee to the statue.
For whatever reason, Daniel does not say where he was. There’s not a single reference to him in the story, except that he had asked Nebuchadnezzar to appoint his three friends as administrators over the province of Babylon, which the king had done, overwhelmed by Daniel’s interpretation of his dream.
The story focuses on the three friends. They refuse to worship the statue. Given a second chance, they refuse again. They tell the king that their fate – incineration in the fiery furnace – is in the hands of God. They acknowledge that God may choose to save them or He may not, but regardless of what God chooses, they would not serve Babylon’s gods or worship Nebuchadnezzar’s statue.
Enraged, the king orders the furnace heated seven times hotter than the usual experience. It’s so hot that the men preparing to fling Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into the flames are themselves incinerated.
Nebuchadnezzar comes to watch. And he and the others see four men walking inside the furnace – the three friends and one who strikes the onlookers as almost supernatural, “like the son of the gods.” Some theologians see the fourth figure as an angel; others see him as the pre-incarnate Christ. Whoever it was, it was clearly someone whose purpose was to be with the three men and, perhaps, to send a message to Nebuchadnezzar.
The result: the three friends come out of the fire, completely unaffected physically by the experience. Nebuchadnezzar praises their God, and he praises their courage and faith. And then he decrees that no one can say anything against their God.
So where was Daniel?
The text doesn’t say. I offer an answer: Daniel was right there all along. The story reads like an eyewitness account. I suggest that Nebuchadnezzar refrained from throwing him into the furnace, even though he, too, would refuse to worship the statue. But Daniel’s position as such that even the king would have hesitated to order his death; after all, this was the man who had not only interpreted the king’s dream but told the king what he dream was in the first place. Sending Daniel’s three friends into the furnace could also have been the king’s threat to Daniel – bow the knee, or you could suffer the same fate.
The account of the fiery furnace suggests a larger question as well, and not the obvious “What would you have done in their place?” No, the question is, what do we do if our own government requires – if not overt worship – obedience to the point that it clearly is idolatry?
I don’t think this is a question of “if” but of “when.”
For the past several weeks, I've been discussing Against the Flow. This post is based on chapter 11, "when the state Becomes God."
Painting of the fiery furnace in Daniel 3 by Philip Prescott Parham.