Nebuchadnezzar’s Unfinished Symphony

Below are some notes on a particular sub-theme of Daniel 3, namely the downfall of Babylon’s liturgy.

First up, a few words on our text’s literary construction. One of the most conspicuous features of Dan. 3 is its author’s love of lists. Personnel are listed (vs. 2, 3, 27), viz., “satraps, prefects, governors, counselors, treasurers, justices, magistrates,” and a catch-all category, namely “every (other) ruler in the province.” People-groups are listed (vs. 4, 7, 29): “tribes, nations, and tongues” (or similar). And musical instruments are listed (vs. 5, 7, 10, 15): “(animal) horns, piped instruments, lyres, zithers, harps, tambours,” and another catch-all category, namely “every (other) kind of musical (instrument).”

These lists are significant in a number of ways. First, they bring out the excessive nature of Nebuchadnezzar’s ceremony. Every aspect of Nebuchadnezzar’s ceremony is taken to an extreme. Nebuchadnezzar does not want just Babylon’s natives to be represented; he wants every tribe, tongue, and nation represented. He does not simply want a few of his more important officials to attend his ceremony; he wants everyone present. And he does not simply want a few choice musical instruments played; he wants (quite literally) the whole ensemble. As such, our text’s lists reflect a king who has lost all sense of proportion and perspective.

Indeed, as the chapter goes on, Nebuchadnezzar’s behaviour becomes progressively more extreme. Nebuchadnezzar is not content simply to kill his three insubordinate Hebrew servants (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego); he wants to roast them in a furnace heated to seven times its normal temperature (3:19). And, soon afterwards, he reverses his decision, and threatens to dismember anyone who deigns to speak ill of the Hebrews’ God – which, I suppose, is an improvement on his previous decree, though is hardly the behaviour of a man in control of his mind and emotions.

Second, our text’s lists dictate the flow and tempo of our text, which serves to enhance its dramatic tension. As readers, it does not take us long to realise the potential danger posed by Nebuchadnezzar’s ceremony, but we are not immediately told whether Daniel and his friends (and/or other exiles) are present at the ceremony. Questions therefore form in our minds.  Where is Daniel? How will Daniel respond to Nebuchadnezzar’s decree? And what will Nebuchadnezzar do in response?

Ch. 3’s lists make us wait for the answers to these questions, and hence prolong our suspense. Indeed, the narrative transitions into virtual slow motion as it builds to its epic climax in vs. 16-18, where the three Hebrews emphatically declare they will not worship Nebuchadnezzar’s god.1

Third, our text’s lists reflect the robotic subservience of Babylon’s officials. As we work our way through our text’s lists, we naturally switch to auto-pilot. Our recital of the repeated lists tends to become mechanical and mindless. As such, it brings out Nebuchadnezzar’s servants’ mindless subservience to his will and decree, against which backdrop the calm and collected individuality of the Hebrews shines out all the more brightly.

Also important to note is how the Hebrews’ actions disrupts our text’s regularity. Nebuchadnezzar’s ceremony is intended to reflect (and enforce) the harmony and unity of his kingdom, yet the Hebrews’ actions cause our text’s regularities to dissolve. When the music plays and the Hebrews refuse to bow down (vs. 7-8), the normal seven-fold list ends up an item short. (The sumponyah– perhaps a “tambour” – is absent.) And, later, when Nebuchadnezzar has to summon his “counsellors” (haddavrey malka), the usual list of seven VIPs (plus a catch-all category) collapses to a list of only four (vs. 27).

Hence, as the Hebrews disrupt Nebuchadnezzar’s big moment, they also disrupt the harmony of our text. They are the fly in the ointment of Nebuchadnezzar’s ceremony.  Compared to the rest of Dura’s attendees, they march to the beat of a different drum (tambour?).

Our text’s numerical qualities also deserve attention.  In Scripture (as in the modern world), ten is a nice round number. Laban is said to have changed Jacob’s wages “ten times” (Gen. 31:7). Job’s friends are said to have reproached him “ten times” (Job 19:3). And Daniel and his friends are said to have been “ten times wiser” than their rivals (1:20). The text of ch. 3, however, is built around the number eleven, which is significant, since everything in the chapter is taken “one step too far.”

The text consists of 33 (3 x 11) verses. Nebuchadnezzar’s “image” (tzalma) is referred to 11 times. The verb “stand” (Q-W-M) occurs 11 times. The word “man” occurs 11 times. The verb “worship” (S-G-D) occurs 11 times. And the word “king” (malka) occurs 22 (2 x 11) times.  (Meanwhile, the image is associated with a total of 66 = 6 x 11 cubits.)

The recurrence of the number 11 in our text also has other implications, since it reflects the way in which Nebuchadnezzar overreaches himself. Just as (in ch. 7) the final beast’s 11th king arouses heaven’s attention and disapproval, so too does Nebuchadnezzar’s eleven-fold ceremony. And, ironically, the deathblow is dealt to Nebuchadnezzar’s ceremony when he sees “one figure too many” in the furnace. (“I see four men unbound . . . in the midst of the fire,” Nebuchadnezzar says, “and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods!”)

On, then, to how these issues work themselves out in our text.

Flow and Content

In 3:2-6, Nebuchadnezzar outlines how his ceremony is to proceed.  Its terms are simple: all without exception must bow down before the king’s image. Nebuchadnezzar will provide music to get people in the mood, as well as a death-threat as an added incentive. All he asks is for his guests to bow down before his image. Why they choose to do so is of no concern.

As we know, however, Nebuchadnezzar’s ceremony soon encounters a roadblock. As he looks out on a vast sea of submissive subjects, Nebuchadnezzar sees three notable exceptions still on their feet, namely, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego. And, to his great frustration, Nebuchadnezzar can do nothing to persuade them to submit to him. He is the most powerful man in the Near East. He has a whole army at his beck and call. And yet the one thing he now wants – his people’s exceptionless unity and obedience – is the one thing he cannot obtain. While Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego have been given new names, they remain faithful to their old master. They have pledged their obedience to a king far greater than Nebuchadnezzar.

The climax of our text comes in vs. 17-18, where the Hebrews state their position in no uncertain terms. Their words are a model of obedience, courage, and clarity of thought:

If our God, whom we serve, (truly) exists, then he is able to deliver us. (And both) from the furnace of blazing fire and from your hand he will deliver (us), O King.2 But, should he not do so, let (this much) be known to you, O King:  we do not render service to your gods, and we will not render worship to the golden image you have caused to stand!

In essence, then, the Hebrews’ claim is as follows: God is perfectly able to deliver them from Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace should he choose to do so. Of that, they have no doubt. The only issue is whether God will choose to do so, i.e., whether God will be more glorified via the Hebrews’ martyrdom or deliverance (cp. Phil. 1.19). The three Hebrews seem to expect God to deliver them (cp. “From your hand he will deliver (us), O King”). But they do not proffer their expectation with certainty. All they state with certainty is what they themselves are able to control, namely their next course of action. They have been forced to make a choice – to honour the God of Heaven or to honour the customs of Babylon – and they have chosen to honour God. If, as a result, they must be thrown to the flames, then so be it.

Of course, the Hebrews could easily have found a way to justify their actions. The ceremony was only a ritual, wasn’t it? And God would surely not be concerned about such minor details as whether they genuflected before a lump of metal. After all, they needn’t have acknowledged Nebuchadnezzar’s sovereignty in their hearts, which was what ultimately mattered, right? But while such gymnastics may have persuaded some to take the easy way out, the Hebrews were made of sterner stuff. Participation in Dura’s liturgy would not have been an insignificant ritual.

A final thought:

Unexpected though it may be, our text resonates with many of the events of Rev. 4-5. In Rev. 4-5, John is given a vision of a heavenly throne surrounded by heaven’s hosts, arranged in concentric circles. The inner circle consists of four mighty creatures, beyond whom are seated twenty-four elders, beyond whom are assembled the rest of God’s people – men from every tribe and tongue and nation (Rev. 5:9). Then, as John watches, a song begins in heaven.  It is initiated by the inner creatures, taken up by the elders, who fall on their faces before the throne of God, and finally echoed by all God’s people (Rev. 4:8, 9-10; 5:8, 13).

Nebuchadnezzar’s ceremony parallels these events in a number of noteworthy ways. As the focal-point of Babylon’s worship, Nebuchadnezzar’s image stands in place of the throne of God. It is surrounded by men of various degrees of importance (hence ch. 3’s lists of personnel). Then, as our text unfolds, it follows the course of Rev. 4-5. A song begins in the centre of Dura’s assembly, which slowly ripples outwards as it is taken up by men from every tribe, nation, and tongue, each of whom falls on his face in worship before Nebuchadnezzar.

As such, ch. 3 reflects Nebuchadnezzar’s remarkable pride and arrogance. But, of course, while its events parallels those of Rev. 4-5 in various ways, they are quite different from them in at least two important ways. First, whereas Babylon’s worship is directed towards an unworthy tyrant, heaven’s is directed towards a king who is entirely worthy of all praise (Rev. 4:11). Second, whereas Babylon’s worship was coerced, heaven’s is given freely, for heaven’s king has won the hearts and affections of his people and has led them to freely worship him in heaven’s courts. And, remarkably, if I read the relevant texts aright, Nebuchadnezzar himself is even now among their number, caught up in heaven’s liturgy and lost in wonder before the king of heaven’s throne!

James Bejon attends a church in Romford, London, where he fellowships, is taught, and teaches.  He presently works at Tyndale House in Cambridge (, whose aim is to make high-quality biblical scholarship available as widely as possible.

  1. Vs. 16-18 are not only pivotal in thematic terms;  they are also pivotal in numeric/textual terms.  The Aramaic text of Dan. 3 consists of 33 verses (in English versions, 3.1-4.3), of which vs. 16-18 constitute the middle three. ↩︎
  2. My translation puts more emphasis on v. 17’s atnach than is customary, but its basic sense remains much the same. ↩︎
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