This event likely and unusually took place shortly after the events of chapter two. Chapter three was written in a more formal fashion with decrees stated, musical instruments listed three times, and officers accounted for. This material was not written in a style to reflect legend, but rather to reflect a more legal recounting of an event. No doubt this story was written to describe history, not fiction.
The Worship of Nebuchadnezzar (1-7)
It would seem Nebuchadnezzar decided, prompted by Daniel's vision, to form a state religion with an image of himself as the object of homage. The gold nature of the image was likely taken from his own dream, aided by Daniel's interpretation. The monstrous size of the image, some ninety feet tall and nine feet wide, meant to express his absolute sovereignty over his realm. The pedestal was massive and the image imposing, opulently fashioned out of gold. Some have speculated the shape was obelisk, which seems likely, but what was fashioned is not actually known. Interestingly, the Washington Monument, an obelisk, is also ten times taller than its width.
For certain, Nebuchadnezzar was looking for something that would reflect his strength and power over his massive kingdom (1).
After Nebuchadnezzar had the image erected, he then assembled eight different kinds of government officials to attend a dedication celebration. They assembled and stood before his image—among them seem to have been Daniel's three friends (2-3). Once at the dedication celebration, a herald proclaimed that whenever the national orchestra played the royal anthem, they were to fall and worship the golden image, which was in a sense an act of worshiping the power and sovereignty of Nebuchadnezzar (4-5). Those who refused to worship would, without judicial privilege, be immediately burned alive in a furnace. The coercion of worship displayed Nebuchadnezzar's heart as a despot and megalomaniac in demanding absolute allegiance (6). Nebuchadnezzar's subjects would have been anxious about executing the dissenters but eager to fall into Nebuchadnezzar's favor, so they complied with the law and worshiped (7).
The Conspiracy (8-12)
After the image had been set up and worship made compulsory, a group of Chaldeans came forward seeking to bring great harm to Daniel's friends. The Chaldeans would have included the enchanters who had been unable to reveal and interpret Nebuchadnezzar's dream and who were ravenously jealous of Daniel’s and his friends' promotions (8).
After these Chaldeans lavished upon Nebuchadnezzar the usual "you are awesome" formalities, they then reminded him of his command that everyone worship the golden image (9-10). They reminded Nebuchadnezzar of the sentence he had pronounced upon those who did not obey (11). They sought to prove Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not worthy of their promotion and then indicted them of being religiously apathetic toward Babylonian gods and the new state religion of Nebuchadnezzar-worship. The three men were expressing their contempt for Babylonian worship culture by refusing even to respectfully bow (12).
The Three Questioned by Nebuchadnezzar (13-15)
Essentially, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were under arrest and facing Nebuchadnezzar as their judge and jury (13). Nebuchadnezzar did four things:
a) confirmed the facts (14),
b) gave them a second chance,
c) threatened them, and
d) reminded them of his unrivaled power and authority (15).
The Three Responded (16-18)
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego responded to Nebuchadnezzar in an unapologetic way, claiming they did not feel any necessity to prove their loyalty to the king by bowing to his image. The young men then made four clear points.
a) Their sense of accountability to Yahweh was absolute and unswerving: "We have no need to answer you ..." (16).
b) Their confidence in Yahweh's power to deliver was absolute and unswerving: "... He will deliver us ..." (17).
c) Their complete faith in Yahweh's ultimate purpose for their lives was absolute and unswerving: "But if not …."
d) Their fidelity to Yahweh was absolute and unswerving: "... We will not worship the golden image" (18).
Nebuchadnezzar's Sentence (19-23)
Nebuchadnezzar went ballistic and ordered a furnace heated seven times more than usual. It was likely a brick kiln. We might imagine it to be a huge hut or a furnace built in the side of a hill, with an opening at the top for the smoke to escape and a door through which the bricks were taken in and out. Bricks would have been cured at 1832 degrees fahrenheit. It is likely the furnace would have been raised to 2372 degrees fahrenheit when Nebuchadnezzar called for it to be stoked to seven times hotter than usual. Seven times hotter indicated the furnace would be heated to its maximum (19).
Nebuchadnezzar ordered the executioners to cast Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into the roaring blaze. They were thrown in bound and clothed in their government attire (20-21). Nebuchadnezzar would have known that those throwing the men into the furnace would be immediately killed, as the executioners would have taken the young men to the top of the furnace and dropped them in the smoke-opening at the top of the kiln (22). Some have surmised the bodies of those hurling the young men in the furnace exploded. This meant the bodies heated up so fast that the water in the body would have turned to steam, making their bodies explosive. Whether the furnace was this hot is unknown. How dramatic the death of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego can only be speculative. What is not speculative is the fact the heat from the furnace killed the executioners. On the other hand, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego fell into the furnace bound, not exploding or burning up in any way (23).
The Deliverance (24-27)
As soon as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into the furnace, Nebuchadnezzar turned astonished as he watched three men appear in the fire alive, along with a fourth. He confirmed the number thrown in and declared the fourth as having to be like a son of the gods (24-25). The men would have been in the fire for some time because it cooled enough for Nebuchadnezzar to come near the door. At the door, Nebuchadnezzar called to the men by name, publicly acknowledging that they were servants of God who was the highest God and the God who was above himself. He then called the young men to come out of the furnace (26). Nebuchadnezzar then examined Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, realizing not only had the fire had no power over their bodies, but also not a hair had been singed, nor clothes charred, nor was the smell of fire on them (27).
Nebuchadnezzar Reacts (28-30)
Nebuchadnezzar reacted to the furnace event with six different responses:
a) He blessed the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
b) He recognized God had sent an angel to protect them.
c) He honored the three for being willing to defy the king and yield their bodies to death rather than worship what was false (28).
d) He made a decree that Yahweh could not be spoken against at the risk of being ripped apart, and those who owned property would have their estates destroyed.
e) He admitted no other god was capable of deliverance like Yahweh (29).
f) He promoted the three young men (30).
It should not be concluded that Nebuchadnezzar was converted to following Yahweh; he was merely smitten with the manifestation of Yahweh's power. In no way does this imply Nebuchadnezzar surrendered his soul to the One who was the source of all power.