3. The Fiery Furnace and the Lions' Den (Daniel 3 and 6)

Audio (39:52)

'The Fiery Furnace' (1981), stained glass, Ascension Episcopal Church, West Houston, Texas.
'The Fiery Furnace' (1981), stained glass, Ascension Episcopal Church, West Houston, Texas.

Being faithful to God unto death has been an important foundation for disciples throughout the ages. Nowhere else in the Bible are we taught these values so clearly as in the Book of Daniel. Because the themes are so similar, I've combined The Fiery Furnace (Daniel 3) with Daniel in the Lions' Den (Daniel 6), even though they are separated in time by many decades and aren't found together in the Scripture text. (If you're teaching these in a class or small group, however, feel free to treat them separately.) I hope that studying these accounts together will reinforce in your mind your intention to be faithful to Christ no matter what.

A. The Fiery Furnace (Daniel 3)

The story of the Hebrew children in the fiery furnace has been beloved by believers throughout the ages. A fresco of this is found in the Catacomb of Priscilla from mid-third century Rome.

Both of the stories of the Hebrew Children and the Fiery Furnace and Daniel and the Lions' Den concern  "court conflicts" that is, colleagues who are jealous that Jews have been promoted to higher positions in government, and the Jews' faithfulness to God is reported in order to get them out of the way (3:8; 6:13). Human nature hasn't changed all that much in 2,500 years.

As you recall, chapter two ended with the words:

"At Daniel's request the king appointed Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego administrators over the province of Babylon, while Daniel himself remained at the royal court." (2:49)

That triggers the events in chapter 3. Remember the overarching theme of the Book of Daniel: In spite of appearances, God is in control. It shows up here also.

The Golden Image (3:1)

"King Nebuchadnezzar[56] made an image of gold, ninety feet high and nine feet wide, and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon." (3:1)

The location of the plain of Dura isn't clear, but perhaps it is to be found at Tulul Dura, a series of mounds or tells a few miles south of Babylon."[57] The huge image was probably cast and constructed on the spot, for something that size would be difficult to move.

Herodotus tells of a statue of the god Bel in Babylon that was 18 feet tall.[58] Two statues were included among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World -- the Colossus of Rhodes (98 feet or 30 meters high), and the statue of Zeus at Olympus (42 feet or 13 meters tall). These last two were constructed with an interior structure covered by plates. By comparison, the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor is 151 feet (46 meters) from its base to the top of the torch.

So I picture Nebuchadnezzar's statue made of gilded metal plates over an interior structure. It's not clear if it is a statue of a god or of the king himself as some kind of deity. Whatever the case, Daniel's friends were not willing to bow to it, since it violated the command not to worship a graven image.

Government Officials Commanded to Assemble (3:2-3)

But it was important to Nebuchadnezzar that all should come to the dedication of the image. His pride was at stake. Perhaps this involved a test of loyalty on the part of his officials.

"2  He then summoned the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials to come to the dedication of the image he had set up. 3  So the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials assembled for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up, and they stood before it." (3:2-3)

The list of officials runs the gamut of great to small. "Satraps" were probably governors over large territories which were part of the Babylonian Empire, perhaps from the royal family, practically vassal kings in their own right.[59] "Prefects" were provincial rulers or governors.[60] "Governors" were probably the next lower government official in a province.[61] "Advisers" or "counselors" were the ones who advised the king on policies, part of his court.[62] "Treasurers," of course, were responsible for the king's money and tribute from the empire's far flung provinces.[63] "Judges" or "justices" presided over the legal system.[64] "Magistrates" may have served as the police, law enforcement.[65] Finally, Daniel includes all the other officials not mentioned above.[66]

The point is that every kind of officer of the empire was expected to be present at the image's dedication[67], probably to show their loyalty. This may have been an attempt by the king "to solidify control over the diverse elements of his vast empire."[68]

Command to Fall Down and Worship the Image (3:4-7)

Once the crowd of officials was assembled, they were given orders.

"4  Then the herald loudly proclaimed, 'This is what you are commanded to do, O peoples, nations and men of every language: 5  As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. 6  Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.'
7  Therefore, as soon as they heard the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp and all kinds of music, all the peoples, nations and men of every language fell down and worshiped the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up." (3:4-7)

The key words here are "fall down" and "worship." Both words involve prostrating oneself to show homage.[69]

Hearing the music was the cue to bow down. Even today, we see music preceding the Muslim call to worship. A whole orchestra of instruments is listed here,[70] and then repeated in verses 5, 7, 10, and 15. The literary effect of the repetition is to emphasize the solemnity of the occasion, heighten the tension, and the feeling of danger towards the Jews who will refuse to comply.

The Burning Fiery Furnace

In the twenty-first century we may find burning in a blazing furnace hard to believe. But we only need to look for examples to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Consider the cruel killings attributed to China's Mao Zedong, North Korea's dictators, the Pol Pot regime, Iraq's Saddam Hussein, and Uganda's Idi Amin. In 2015, ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) burned to death a Jordanian pilot who had conducted a bombing raid on their military camps. Over history, many societies have used burning as a punishment for treason and rebellion. The Babylonian Hammurabi's Code (eighteenth century BC) specified burning as punishment for certain crimes.[71] Sadly, the list of countries that engaged in such brutal practices is very long indeed.

Nebuchadnezzar threatened those who did not bow down with being thrown into a "blazing furnace."[72] Nebuchadnezzar had used this punishment before to punish Israelites (Jeremiah 29:22). What was this? While no firm archaeological evidence exists for a furnace large enough to contain several men, it is clear that furnaces for metal smelting and brick kilns were common in the ancient Near East, and in the Holy Land.[73]

  To find the source of such an oven, we need only turn to Nebuchadnezzar himself -- a great builder during his reign. Following the defeat of the Assyrian Empire in 612 BC, Nebuchadnezzar rebuilt the city of Babylon on a grand scale. It has been estimated that 15 million baked bricks were used in the construction of official buildings. The British Museum has examples of such bricks stamped with Nebuchadnezzar's name. Sun-dried bricks were easy to make, but would disintegrate in a heavy rainfall, while bricks burned in a kiln were virtually indestructible.

Kilns to fire bricks on such a scale would have been close by to the city of Babylon, terrifying, and quite adequate to enclose several men.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego Denounced (3:8-12)

No one seems to be monitoring compliance for this mass ritual of bowing to the image, but jealous government officials are watching the Jews, guessing that their religion won't allow them to bow to the image.

"8  At this time some astrologers[74] came forward and denounced the Jews. 9  They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, 'O king, live forever! 10  You have issued a decree, O king, that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music must fall down and worship the image of gold, 11  and that whoever does not fall down and worship will be thrown into a blazing furnace.
12  But there are some Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon -- Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego -- who pay no attention to you, O king. They neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up.'" (3:8-12)

These government officials don't like "foreigners" getting better government positions than local, loyal citizens. So before the king they accuse[75] the Jews of not bowing.

Nebuchadnezzar Demands the Jews to Worship His Statue (3:13-15)

When he hears this, the king is angry. He sees this as non-negotiable, an act of loyalty. He doesn't care whether or not this is against the Jews' religion. They must submit or pay the consequences. At least he gives them a second chance.

"13  Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king, 14  and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, 'Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? 15  Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god[76] will be able to rescue[77] you from my hand?'" (3:13-15)

Notice the king's insult towards the God of the Jews at the end of verse 15. He knows this is a religious scruple, but doesn't care. He has no respect for their God -- even though at one point he had honored Daniel's God (2:47).

Q1. (Daniel 3:8-15) Why do the Jews' fellow government officials report them to Nebuchadnezzar? Why is the king so angry? What is his motivation to have people bow to the statue?

The Jews Refuse to Worship the Image (3:16-18)

The Jews' response to the king isn't very respectful. Instead of flattering the king, they flatly refuse to comply.

"16  Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, 'O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves[78] before you in this matter. 17  If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. 18  But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.'" (3:16-18)

The Ten Commandments clearly state that Jews are not to bow down to or worship any other gods -- or even make a graven image.

"You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, ...." (Exodus 20:3-5)

Nebuchadnezzar may take bowing down as a non-negotiable, but so does Yahweh. The Jews dare not disobey their God. And so they answer bluntly: God is able to save[79] us. But even if he doesn't, we refuse to bow down.

Notice how they state their determination:

  1. Faith in God's delivering power. They state, "Our God is able to deliver us." Yahweh is the all-powerful God. Nothing is beyond his power or intervention. Nothing!
  2. Faith in God's ultimate plan. "Even if he doesn't deliver us, we still won't bow before your image." If God doesn't deliver, he hasn't forgotten. Things don't have to end up the way we think they should. God knows better. As Job declares, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust him" (Job 13:15, KJV).

So often we are willing to serve God so long as he blesses us and we get our way. But will we serve him even though things get bad for us. When we face death? Do we desire to avoid death than we desire to be faithful to God?

Q2. (Daniel 3:16-18) How do the Jews answer Nebuchadnezzar? What is their attitude? How do they witness about their God? Do they face death with resignation or defiance? Characterize their faith.

The Jews Are Thrown into the Fiery Furnace (3:19-23)

If the king was angry before, now his anger is out of control.

"19  Then Nebuchadnezzar was furious[80] with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and his attitude[81] toward them changed. He ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual 20  and commanded some of the strongest soldiers in his army to tie up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and throw them into the blazing furnace.

21  So these men, wearing their robes, trousers, turbans and other clothes, were bound[82] and thrown into the blazing furnace. 22  The king's command was so urgent[83] and the furnace so hot that the flames of the fire killed the soldiers who took up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, 23  and these three men, firmly tied[84], fell[85] into the blazing furnace." (3:19-23)

Seven times hotter is hyperbole, of course. There was no way to measure the temperature. But the reader is given one way to estimate. The fire is so hot that it kills those who throw the Jews into the furnace.

Note that the Latin Vulgate and Catholic Bibles (following Theodotion and some versions of the Septuagint) insert at 3:23 the Song of the Three Children and the Prayer of Azariah, but they aren't included in the Hebrew text.[86]

Nebuchadnezzar Sees a Fourth Man in the Furnace (3:24-26a)

Nebuchadnezzar is watching, waiting to see the Jews burn. But he is amazed.

"24  Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement[87] and asked his advisers, 'Weren't there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?'

'They replied, 'Certainly, O king.'

 25  He said, 'Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound[88] and unharmed[89], and the fourth looks like[90] a son of the gods[91].'

26  Nebuchadnezzar then approached the opening of the blazing furnace and shouted, 'Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, servants of the Most High God[92], come out! Come here!'" (3:24-26a)

 "The Son of God" is capitalized in the King James Version, leading some to believe that Jesus was there with the Jews. However, it is better rendered "a son of the gods" (NIV, ESV), since in verse 28 the king refers to the being as an angel. "Son of God" is elsewhere used to describe heavenly beings such as angels (Genesis 6:2, 4; Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7). Notice Nebuchadnezzar's sudden respect for "servants of the Most High God."

The Jews Emerge Unscathed (3:26b-27)

"26b So Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego came out of the fire, 27 and the satraps, prefects, governors and royal advisers crowded around them. They saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them." (3:26a-27)

Everyone crowds around the Jews, hardly able to believe that the fire had absolutely no effect on them or their clothing.

Q3. (Daniel 3:19-27) What effect does their deliverance have on their government official colleagues? What effect does it have on the king? What kind of glory does God receive?

Nebuchadnezzar Praises their God (3:28-30)

"28  Then Nebuchadnezzar said, 'Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel[93] and rescued[94] his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king's command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God. 29  Therefore I decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against[95] the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save[96] in this way.' 30  Then the king promoted[97] Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the province of Babylon." (3:28-30)

Nebuchadnezzar sums up the faith and faithfulness of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego:

"They trusted in [their God] and defied[98] the king's command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God." (3:28b)

That, of course, is the lesson of this story. Faithful believers are willing to die rather than betray God. Are you? Am I? Do we compromise where we should have stood firm? Do we avoid an issue, when we should face it fairly and steadfastly?

The king rewards Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego with a promotion and decrees that no one is to say anything against their God.

Q4. (Daniel 3:28-30) How does Nebuchadnezzar sum up their faith and commitment? Are you willing to disobey a command or law to be faithful to God? Are you willing to lay down your life to be faithful to God? What might hold you back?

Lessons for Disciples from the Fiery Furnace Account

  1. Disciples can't avoid persecution. If God bless us, others may be jealous. If we stand for what is right, some will resent it. We can't change how others feel about us. If we try to avoid persecution by compromise and flattery, we may be displeasing to God.
  2. When faced with an ultimatum, we need to answer clearly and boldly, not like a politician. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered forthrightly. So did Jesus before the high priest (Matthew 26:63-64) and before Pilate (John 18:33-38; 19:11). So did Stephen before he was martyred (Acts 7:51-56).
  3. Our faith should be in both God's power and God's will. We don't serve him just because he will deliver us. He is able to deliver, but his purposes are often beyond our understanding. We just trust him.
  4. God's angels are constantly around us. Only occasionally are they seen.
  5. We need to be willing to lay down our lives rather than betray our God. That's what Jesus meant when he said, "Take up your cross and follow me."

Key Verses from the Fiery Furnace Account

"If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up." (Daniel 3:17-18, NIV)

"Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods." (Daniel 3:25, NIV)

"They trusted in him and defied the king's command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God." (Daniel 3:28b, NIV)

B. Daniel in the Lions' Den (Daniel 6)

Briton Rivière (British painter, 1840-1920), 'Daniel's Answer to the King' (1890), oil on canvas, 74x47-7/16 inches, Manchester Art Gallery, UK.
Briton Rivière (British painter, 1840-1920), 'Daniel's Answer to the King' (1890), oil on canvas, 74x47-7/16 inches, Manchester Art Gallery, UK.

The story of Daniel in the lions' den has captured the imagination of believers for thousands of years. Daniel's emergence from the lions' den is typological of Jesus death and resurrection, as in third century frescos found in at least three separate Roman catacombs.[99]

This is the second time in Daniel that we see an account of Jews being sentenced to death for practicing their faith. In chapter 3 the Hebrew children are condemned to the fiery furnace, and in chapter 6, Daniel is thrown into the lions' den.

Both of these stories concern a "court conflict," that is, colleagues are jealous that Jews have been promoted to higher positions in government, and the Jews' faithfulness to God is reported in order to get them out of the way (3:8; 6:13).

The Neo-Babylon Empire fell to the Medes and Persians in October 539 BC. It is now a few years later. The government of the now Persian province of Babylon is under Darius the Mede.

Darius the Mede (5:31)

"... and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom, at the age of sixty-two." (5:31)

Now we meet Darius the Mede, but who is he? The historicity of the Book of Daniel has been questioned, since (1) Darius the Mede is not found elsewhere in ancient history, and (2) it is clear from cuneiform sources that Cyrus II was the conqueror of Babylon, the immediate successor of Nabonidus and Belshazzar. Many critical scholars have considered Darius an "historical construct."[100] However, Daniel seems to be talking about an historical person here and in the next chapter.

"So Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian." (6:28)

It is not uncommon in the Bible to have the same individual called by two names: Abram/Abraham, Jacob/Isaac, Daniel/Belteshazzar, Simon/Cephas/Peter, etc. Darius is likely a throne name for the person ruling in Babylon. But whom? Three explanations have been suggested. Darius the Mede is:

  1. Gu/Ugbaru, the general to whom the Nabonidus Chronicle attributes the conquest of Babylon. He would be ruling as a sub-king at the whim of the ultimate ruler, Cyrus himself.[101]
  2. Cyrus the Persian himself. Daniel 6:28 could be translated: "So this Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius, namely the reign of Cyrus the Persian."[102]  Cyrus is known to have been related to the Medes, to have been called "king of the Medes," and to have been about 60 years old at the fall of Babylon.[103]
  3. Gubaru, the governor of Babylon and the region Beyond the River, exercising virtually royal powers in Babylon and hence not improperly called "king." (6:1).[104]

Since the locus of the action seems to be in Babylon, not one of the capital cities of the Persian Empire (Susa, Ecbatana, Persepolis, etc.), I gather that Darius is a throne-name for the king or governor of the province of Babylon, rather than Cyrus himself.

Daniel Elevated by Darius (6:1-2)

"1  It pleased Darius to appoint 120 satraps to rule throughout the kingdom, 2  with three administrators over them, one of whom was Daniel. The satraps were made accountable to them so that the king might not suffer loss." (6:1-2)

In the context, "the kingdom" seems to refer to Babylonia itself, rather than the entire Medo-Persian empire.[105] A "satrap" (from an Old Persian word) was a ruler over a portion of a kingdom.[106] Daniel, at an advanced age, has been appointed to a high position[107] in the new Persian government over the province of Babylon. He doesn't seem to be "first" among the three, as the KJV suggests, but "one" of the three.[108]

Daniel and his other two colleagues were to make sure that none of the satraps were corrupt or made themselves rich at government expense.

Daniel's Enemies (6:3-4)

"3  Now Daniel so distinguished himself[109] among the administrators and the satraps by his exceptional qualities that the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom. 4  At this, the administrators and the satraps tried to find grounds for charges against Daniel in his conduct of government affairs[110], but they were unable to do so. They could find no corruption[111] in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent." (6:3-4)

Daniel, who has been a wise and exceptional official under Nebuchadnezzar, shines brightly under Persian rule. When his rivals hear that the king is planning to put him in charge, they search for grounds on which to discredit him, but cannot find any. Daniel's record is spotless. He conducted the king's affairs in a proper and honest manner.

Notice the character qualities of this government official. Daniel is:

  1. Trustworthy. He tells the truth and can be counted on to be faithful to his responsibilities.[112]
  2. Diligent. He keeps up with all his duties and doesn't let anything slip.[113]
  3. Honest. He doesn't take money or bribes from those trying to break the rules or be preferred over others. He hasn't been corrupted by how he might further his own interests while in office.[114]

In our day government workers and officials -- as well as managers or employees of private companies -- are sometimes accused of being lazy, incompetent, or corrupt. But Daniel was none of these. His enemies couldn't find anything in the performance of his duties by which they could accuse him. Daniel sets a high standard by which we can examine our own performance as employees.

Q5. (Daniel 6:4) What do we learn about Daniel's character qualities as a government official from verse  4? How do such qualities reflect on Daniel's God? Does your employer or supervisor see those qualities in you?

Darius Makes a Decree Banning Prayer (6:5-9)

"5  Finally these men said, 'We will never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of  his God.'

6  So the administrators and the satraps went as a group[115] to the king and said: 'O King Darius, live forever!  7 The royal administrators, prefects, satraps, advisers and governors have all agreed[116] that the king should issue an edict and enforce the decree that anyone who prays[117] to any god or man during the next thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be thrown into the lions' den. 8  Now, O king, issue the decree and put it in writing so that it cannot be altered -- in accordance with the laws of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be repealed.' 9  So King Darius put the decree in writing." (6:5-9)

The act is clearly designed to appeal to the pride of the king, and its only purpose is to find grounds to get rid of Daniel. But Daniel's enemies have lied to Nebuchadnezzar that the parties "have all agreed." Daniel, certainly, hasn't agreed to such an edict!

Daniel Prays Three Times a Day -- as Usual (6:10-11)

'The Prayer of Daniel the Prophet'
Stephen Gjertson, 'The Prayer of Daniel the Prophet' (1998), Oil on canvas, 28-3/4 x 59-3/8 in, © Stephen Gjertson. Permission requested.

"10 Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published[118], he went home to his upstairs room[119] where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before.
11  Then these men went as a group and found Daniel praying and asking God for help." (6:10-11)

I think it is interesting to consider exactly what Daniel was doing.

1. Praying privately. Daniel went to his own house. Yes, he prayed with an open window, but he didn't pray in front of his colleagues for show, that is kneeling and lifting his hands as he probably did in private. I have no doubt, however, that he prayed silent prayers while at work in the king's court.

2. Praying toward Jerusalem. Daniel prayed in keeping with Solomon's plea four hundred years previously: "Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive" (1 Kings 8:30). To this day, Muslims pray towards Mecca, Jews pray towards Jerusalem, the Eastern Orthodox face east to pray, and most cathedrals are oriented towards the east.

3. Praying regularly, three times a day. David wrote: "Evening, morning and noon I cry out in distress, and he hears my voice" (Psalm 55:17). Observant Jews today practice three times of prayer each day: morning prayer (shacharit), afternoon prayer (minchah), and evening prayer (arvith or maariv). This is said to have been codified into Jewish law about the time of the return from Exile.

4. Praying while kneeling, humbling himself before God. Daniel probably lifted his hands to God in prayer as well: "... spreading out his hands toward this temple" (1 Kings 8:38).[120]

5. Praying with bowed head. "Prayed" is ṣelâ, a generic Aramaic verb "to pray," originally, "bow in prayer."[121]

6. Praying giving thanks, praising.[122]

7. Praying and petitioning God.[123]

8. Praying seeking God's mercy.[124]

Q6. (Daniel 6:10-11) How would you characterize Daniel's prayer practices? Which of these have you adopted? Which might help your prayers if you adopted them?

Daniel's Enemies Report Him to the King (6:12-13)

Daniel's enemies personally witness him praying. Now they report him.

"12  So they went to the king and spoke to him about his royal decree: 'Did you not publish a decree that during the next thirty days anyone who prays to any god or man except to you, O king, would be thrown into the lions' den?' The king answered, 'The decree stands -- in accordance with the laws of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be repealed.'

13  Then they said to the king, 'Daniel, who is one of the exiles from Judah, pays no attention to you, O king, or to the decree you put in writing. He still prays three times a day.'" (6:12-13)

Apparently, Medo-Persian practice didn't allow laws to be repealed (Esther 1:19; 8:8).[125] That's what Daniel's enemies were counting on.

Darius Seeks to Rescue Daniel (6:14-15)

"14  When the king heard this, he was greatly distressed; he was determined to rescue Daniel and made every effort until sundown to save him. 15  Then the men went as a group to the king and said to him, 'Remember, O king, that according to the law of the Medes and Persians no decree or edict that the king issues can be changed.'" (6:14-15)

The king realizes that he has been tricked. He values Daniel's wisdom and tries to undo his mistake but cannot.

The Lions' Den (6:16-17)

Execution by being thrown to the animals was not a common form of capital punishment in the ancient Near East. It wasn't made popular until it was introduced in the Roman Empire about the second century BC.[126]

Nevertheless, lions and big cats were greatly admired. Apart from being hunted for sport, lions were sometimes kept in captivity, and the den of lions into which Daniel was thrown was perhaps part of a royal zoo. The Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) is reported to have maintained a breeding farm for lions at Nimrud. Statues of winged lions were placed at the entrances of palaces and important public buildings in Assyria and Babylonia to bring the protection of magical forces to the structures and their occupants. Probably the most outstanding artistic representation of a lion is seen in the glazed brick figures that decorated the Processional Street leading from the Ishtar Gate in Babylon (sixth century BC).[127]

King Darius is forced to execute the edict.

"16  So the king gave the order, and they brought Daniel and threw him into the lions' den. The king said to Daniel, 'May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!' 17  A stone was brought and placed over the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet ring and with the rings of his nobles, so that Daniel's situation might not be changed." (6:16-17)

Notice that the king admires Daniel, and hopes that his God, "whom you serve[128] continually[129]" will rescue him. Daniel has the reputation in court of being very serious about his faith in God.

Baldwin says that the text implies that the lion-pit had two entrances,  a ramp down which the animals would enter, and a hole in the roof by which the food would normally be fed to them. Whether Daniel was thrown in from the top or from the side there would be only one way out unless someone let down a rope.[130]

Daniel Is Delivered by an Angel (6:18-23)

The storyteller helps us see the king's anguish.

"18  Then the king returned to his palace and spent the night without eating and without any entertainment being brought to him. And he could not sleep. 19  At the first light of dawn, the king got up and hurried to the lions' den. 20  When he came near the den, he called to Daniel in an anguished voice, 'Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve continually, been able to rescue you from the lions?'

21  Daniel answered, 'O king, live forever! 22  My God sent his angel[131], and he shut the mouths of the lions. They have not hurt me, because I was found innocent[132] in his sight. Nor have I ever done any wrong[133] before you, O king.'

23  The king was overjoyed and gave orders to lift Daniel out of the den. And when Daniel was lifted from the den, no wound was found on him, because he had trusted in his God." (6:18-23)

  Just as the Hebrew children had no smell of smoke on them after leaving the fiery furnace (3:27), so Daniel has no wounds from lion bites, "because he had trusted in his God" (6:23b). Faith is the key. The writer of Hebrews comments on a long line of faithful men and women in the Old Testament:

"who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions...." (Hebrews 11:33)

Q7. (Daniel 6:21-23) How does Daniel use his experience in the lions' den to testify about God? What might have happened if, in his response to the king, Daniel had focused on the injustice done to him? What experience in your life might you use as a testimony of God's mercy to you?

Daniel's Accusers Executed (6:24)

Daniel's enemies are now held to account. They had falsely told the king that Daniel had agreed to the decree they had proposed (6:7). Thus they had committed fraud before the king. The king is furious at being used so to accomplish their ambitious schemes.

"At the king's command, the men who had falsely accused Daniel were brought in and thrown into the lions' den, along with their wives and children. And before they reached the floor of the den, the lions overpowered them and crushed all their bones." (6:24)

The narrator includes verse 24 to demonstrate to the reader that the lions not eating Daniel wasn't due to lack of hunger, but of God's intervention. They were hungry enough when the enemies and their families were offered to them as a meal.

Darius's Proclamation (6:25-28)

"25  Then King Darius wrote to all the peoples, nations and men of every language throughout the land: 'May you prosper greatly!

26  'I issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel. For he is the living God and he endures forever; his kingdom will not be destroyed, his dominion will never end. 27  He rescues and he saves; he performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth. He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions.'

28  So Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian." (Daniel 6:25-28)

The account concludes with a written decree published widely by King Darius, perhaps to undo the damage caused by his previous ill-considered decree. Notice how King Darius describes Daniel's God:

  • The living God, who

  • Endures forever, is

  • Indestructible, ruling over a never-ending kingdom, a

  • Rescuer and Savior, and

  • Performs signs and wonders.

    Specifically, he rescues Daniel. Hallelujah!

    Lessons for Disciples from the Lions' Den Account

    Daniel: Faithful Discipleship in a Foreign Land, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
    Available in book formats: paperback, Kindle, PDF

    We see a number of qualities in Daniel that we can emulate.

    1. Daniel sets a standard for disciples character as a government official -- trustworthy, diligent, and honest -- not corrupt (6:4).
    2. Daniel sets an example for disciples by praying three times a day. He prays privately, facing Jerusalem, regularly, kneeling, with bowed head, giving praise, petitioning God, and seeking mercy (6:10-11).
    3. God is able to send angels to protect his servants -- like the angel that shut the mouths of the lions (6:21).
    4. Daniel gives us an example of testifying to the king about God's deliverance.
    5. The result of Daniel's example is Darius coming to believe in God -- even if he doesn't become a monotheist. The king also ends up promoting Daniel's God to the nation. God can work amazingly as we testify concerning him.


    Lord, thank you for the example of a praying man, who walks with you through the most harrowing of circumstances and sees your deliverance. Teach us to be faithful in prayer, and give us courage to face the challenges you allow to come to us. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

    Key Verses from the Lions' Den Account

    "They could find no corruption in [Daniel], because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent." (Daniel 6:4b, NIV)

    "Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before. Then these men went as a group and found Daniel praying and asking God for help." (Daniel 6:10-11, NIV)

    "My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions. They have not hurt me, because I was found innocent in his sight. Nor have I ever done any wrong before you, O king." (Daniel 6:22, NIV)

    "For he is the living God and he endures forever; his kingdom will not be destroyed, his dominion will never end. He rescues and he saves; he performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth. He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions." (Daniel 6:26-27, NIV)


    [56] The Septuagint of 3:1 places this event in the 18th year of Nebuchadnezzar's reign, which would be about 587 BC.

    [57] Akkadian dûru ("circuit, wall, walled place"), from which the name is derived, is a common element in Mesopotamian place names. It can indicate a circular enclosure or fortress ("Dura," ISBE 1:996).

    [58] Herodotus, 1:183.

    [59] "Satraps" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "princes" (KJV) is ʾaḥashdarpan, a Persian loanword, used also in Ezra and Esther, referring to an official who ruled over a major division of the Persian empire. The title means "protector of the kingdom." Satraps were usually chosen from the Persian nobility, often from the royal family. The satrap was virtually a king; he had his own court and absolute civil authority, and he answered directly to the 'great king'" (R.E. Hayden, "Satrap," ISBE 4:345).

    [60] "Prefects" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "governors" (KJV) is segan, "prefect, governor," an Akkadian loanword also found in Hebrew (TWOT #2285). In 2:48, Daniel had been appointed ruler over the province of Babylon and "chief prefect" over all the wise men.

    [61] "Governors" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "captains" (KJV) is peḥâ, "governor," of Babylonian and Persian empires, an Akkadian loanword. In Ezra 5:14; 6:7 there is a governor of Judah.

    [62] "Advisers" (NIV), "counselors" (NRSV, ESV), "judges" (KJV) is ʾadargāzar, "counselor," a Persian loanword (TWOT #2561), used only here (Holladay, p. 396).

    [63] "Treasurers" is gedābar, "treasurer," a Persian loanword (TWOT #2653).

    [64] "Judges" (NIV), "justices" (NRSV, ESV), "counselors" (KJV) is detābar, "judge," Persian loanword (TWOT #2685).

    [65] "Magistrates" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "sheriffs" (KJV) is tiptāy, "police officer, magistrate," (Holladay, p. 425), the name of a provincial officer of unknown station (TWOT #3062).

    [66] "Officials" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "rulers" (KJV) is shilṭôwn, "ruler, official" (TWOT #3034c).

    [67] "Dedication" is ḥanukkâ, "dedication," used in 3:2-3 and Ezra 6:16, similar to the Hebrew word from which we get our word "Hanukkah," from the rededication of the temple under Judas Maccabeus, after its desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes.

    [68] Longman, Daniel, p. 83.

    [69] "Fall down" is nepal, "fall down" and do homage (3:5, 6, 7, 10, 11, 15) (BDB). "Worship" is segid, "do homage" (by prostration), of God, idols, and men (BDB; TWOT #2884). Nebuchadnezzar prostrates himself before Daniel in 2:46. The related Hebrew word sāgad means "to prostrate oneself in worship," and is the Arabic masgid means "mosque" (TWOT #1459).

    [70] "Horn" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "cornet" (KJV) is qeren, "horn," like Hebrew refers to the horn of an animal as well as the horn as a musical instrument (TWOT #2980). "Flute" (NIV, KJV), "pipe" (NRSV, ESV) is mashrôqî, "pipe" (TWOT #3049a). "Zither" (NIV), "lyre" (NRSV, ESV), "harp" (KJV) is qatrôs, "lyre, zither," a loan word from the Greek kitharas (TWOT #2972). "Lyre" (NIV), "trigon" (NRSV, ESV), "sackbut" (KJV) is sabbekāʾ, "a type of lyre," evidently triangular, with 4 strings and a bright tone (Holladay, p. 421). The word "trigon" refers to "an ancient triangular harp of Oriental origin which had four strings and was often used for banquet music." "Harp" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "psaltry" (KJV) is peçanṭêrîyn, "a stringed instrument." This word is doubtless borrowed from the Greek psalterion which is often used in the LXX to translate the Hebrew nebel "harp" (TWOT #2943). "Pipes" (NIV), "drum" (NRSV), "bagpipe" (ESV), "dulcimer" (KJV) is sîppōneyāʾ, "wind instrument,"  borrowed from the Greek symphonia (whence English "symphony") and was long taken as a proof that Daniel was written in the Greek period after Alexander's conquests. It is now generally recognized that since there were many earlier contacts between the Greeks and Persians, this name of a musical instrument could well be found along with the instrument at the Persian court (TWOT #2887).

    [71] Ruler Rim-Sin I, king of Larsa, a city near Ur (c. 1750 BC, a contemporary of Hammurabi): "Because they threw a young slave into an oven, throw ye a slave into a furnace." Baldwin, Daniel, p. 100, who cites John B. Alexander, "New Light on the Fiery Furnace," Journal of Biblical Literature (1950), 69, pp. 375f.

    [72] "Blazing furnace" (NIV), "furnace of blazing fire" (NRSV), "burning fiery furnace" (ESV, KJV) is three words: "Furnace" is ʾattûn, "furnace," an Akkadian loanword meaning "oven," for baking bricks or smelting metals" (WA Shell, "furnace," ISBE 2:371). "Fire/fiery" is nûr, "fire." "Burning/blazing" is the verb yeqad, "to burn" (TWOT #2774).

    [73] Genesis 19:28; Exodus 19:18; Deuteronomy 4:20; Revelation 9:2.

    [74] "Astrologers" (NIV) is probably better "Chaldeans" (NRSV, ESV, KJV), members of the tribe local to Babylon. The word is kaśdāy. The word can be used of a class of astrologers, or of members of the tribe of Chaldeans which were in power in the province of Babylon (BDB).

    [75] "Denounced" (NIV, NRSV), "maliciously accused" (ESV), "accused" (KJV) is qeraṣ, "accuse maliciously" (BDB), "slander" (Holladay, p. 420), from an idiom to "eat pieces of," similar to the English word, "backbite."

    [76] "God" is ʾelāh, the normal word for God in Biblical Aramaic. The plural is "gods"; there is no plural of majesty in Aramaic as in Hebrew (TOWT #2576).

    [77] "Rescue" (NIV), "deliver" (NRSV, ESV, KJV) is shêzib, "deliver, rescue, save" a loanword, but understood as šafel.  (Holladay, p. 422; TWOT #3027).

    [78] "Defend ourselves" (NIV), "present a defense" (NRSV), "answer" (ESV, KJV) is the Hafel stem of tûb, "return" (accusative of answer, etc.) (BDB), "answer" (Holladay, p. 424).

    [79] Both "save" and "rescue" (NIV) in verse 17, as well as "deliver" (NRSV, ESV, KJV) are shêzib, "deliver, rescue, save," which we saw in 3:15 and see in 3:28. "Able" is the Peal stem of yekil, "be able" (TWOT #2769).

    [80] "Furious" (NIV) is literally "filled with fury" (ESV). "Fury" is ḥamâ, "rage" (BDB).

    [81] "Attitude changed" (NIV), "his face was distorted" (NRSV), is literally "the expression of his face was changed" (ESV) with the Itpaal stem of the verb shānâ, "change" (TWOT #2419).

    [82] "Bound" is kepat, "bind" (TWOT #2798).

    [83] "Urgent" is the Hafel participle of ḥaṣap which we saw in 2:16:  "show insolence, harshness" (BDB), "harsh, severe" (Holladay, p. 406).

    [84] "Bound" is kepat, "bind" (TWOT #2798).

    [85] "Fell/fell down" is the Pael stem of nepal, "fall" (BDB).

    [86] In the common Septuagint version we have today, there are only minor differences from the Hebrew text. However the Greek translation of Theodotion included major apocryphal additions to the book of Daniel that were included in the Latin Vulgate and Catholic Bibles today. The Septuagint adds the clause, "... and walked in the midst of the flame, singing praise to God, and blessing the Lord."

    [87] "In amazement" (NIV), "was astonished" (NRSV, ESV, KJV) is tewah, "be startled, alarmed" (BDB).

    [88] "Unbound" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "loosed" (KJV) is sherāʾ, "loosen" (BDB).

    [89] "Unharmed" (NIV), "not hurt" (NRSV, ESV) is the negative particle and ḥabāl, "hurt, injury" (BDB).

    [90] "Looks like" (NIV), "appearance" (NRSV, ESV), "form" (KJV) is rēw, "appearance" (TWOT #2990).

    [91] "A son of the gods" (NIV, ESV), "a god" (NRSV), "the Son of God" (KJV). There is no article "the" in the Hebrew text. ʾElāh, "god" is in the plural.

    [92] "Most High God" is literally, "God, the most high, the most high," using a double (for emphasis) of ʿillāy, "the highest, the Most High" (TWOT 2909d) and the particle ā', "the."

    [93] "Angel" is malʾak, "angel" (TWOT #2827), with usage paralleling the related Hebrew malʾāk, "messenger, representative, courtier, angel" (TWOT #1068a).

    [94] "Rescued" (NIV), "delivered" (NRSV, ESV, KJV) is shêzib, "deliver, rescue, save," which we saw in 3:15 and 3:17 above.

    [95] "Say anything against" (NIV, cf. ESV), "utters blasphemy against" (NRSV), "speak anything amiss against" (KJV) is ʾamar, "say" plus a doubling (for emphasis) of shālû, "neglect, remissness, negligence" (BDB, Holladay, p. 422); plus the preposition ʿal, "against" (BDB).

    [96] "Save" (NIV), "deliver" (NRSV, KJV), "rescue" (ESV) is neṣal, "rescue, deliver" (BDB).

    [97] "Promoted" is the Hafel stem of selaḥ, "cause to prosper" (BDB).

    [98] "Defied" (NIV), "disobeyed" (NRSV), "set aside" (ESV), "changed" (KJV) is shenâ, "change" = "frustrate" in our verse (BDB).

    [99] One rendering of Daniel in the Lions' Den is found in the Catacomb of the Giordani, a second is in the Catacomb of Saints Marcellinus and Peter, and a third is in the Jordanian Catacomb.

    [100] Goldingay (Daniel, pp. 111-112) mentions the various possibilities without seeming to suggest which is most likely. He also notes that "critical scholarship has regarded [Darius] as an imaginary construct built up from various separate historical and scriptural elements."

    [101] Longman (Daniel, p. 142) cites W. H. Shea, "An Unrecognized Vassal King of Babylon in the Early Achaemenid Period," Andrews University Seminary Studies 9 (1971): 51-67, 99-128; 10 (1972): 88-117.

    [102] The particle usually translated "and" is sometimes used as an explicative, as in 1:3 and 6:9-10. David J.A. Clines ("Darius," ISBE 1:867) cites D. J. Wiseman, et al., Notes on Some Problems in the Book of Daniel (London: Tyndale, 1965), pp. 9-16; and J. M. Bulman, Westminster Theological Journal, 35 (1973), 247-267.

    [103] Baldwin, Daniel, pp. 26-28; D.J. Wiseman, "Darius," New Bible Dictionary (Second Edition; Eerdmans,   1982, p. 265). However, we read, "In the first year of Darius son of Xerxes (a Mede by descent), who was made ruler over the Babylonian kingdom...." (9:1). Who this Xerxes is we don't know. There was a Xerxes I, satrap of Babylon 498-486 BC, and reigned over the Persian empire 486-465 BC who was son of Darius the Great, but the Xerxes mentioned in 9:1 cannot be this person.

    [104] J. C. Whitcomb, Darius the Mede: A Study in Historical Identification (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959).

    [105] Longman, Daniel, p. 144.

    [106] The title "satrap" comes from the Old Persian Xšaśapāvā, describing an official who ruled over a major division of the Persian empire (R.E. Hayden, "Satrap," ISBE 4:345).

    [107] "Administrators" (NIV), "presidents" (NRSV, KJV), "high officials" (ESV) is sārak, "chief, overseer" probably a loanword from Persian sar, "head" (BDB). "(High) official" (Holladay, p. 415).

    [108] "One" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "first" (KJV) is ḥad, "one."

    [109] "Distinguished" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "was preferred" (KJV) is the verb neṣaḥ, "distinguish oneself" (Holladay, p. 414).

    [110] "Conduct of government affairs" (NIV) is more literally, "in connection with/with regard to/concerning the kingdom" (NRSV, ESV, KJV).

    [111] "Corruption" (NIV), "grounds for complaint" (NRSV, ESV), "occasion nor fault" (KJV) is the participle of sheḥat, "corrupt" (TWOT #3026), "spoil," here as a noun, "mischief" (Holladay, p. 422).

    [112] "Trustworthy" (NIV), "faithful" (NRSV, ESV, KJV) is ʾaman, "trustworthy" (Holladay, p. 397).

    [113] "Corrupt/ion" (NIV, NRSV), "error" (ESV, KJV) is shālû, "neglect, remissness" (BDB), "negligence" (Holladay, p. 423).

    [114] "Negligent/ence" (NIV, NRSV), "fault" (ESV, KJV) is sheḥat, "corrupt" (BDB), "spoil" (Holladay, p. 422).

    [115] "Went as a group" (NIV), "conspired and went" (NRSV), "came by agreement" (ESV), "assembled together to" (KJV) is regash, "be in tumult" (BDB), "storm in" (Holladay, p. 420), in the English Bible at 6:6, 11, 15. The exact meaning is difficult. Goldingay (Daniel, p. 121) discusses the issues and sees the sense as, "a group acting by agreement, but with the bustle that a crowd inevitably makes."

    [116] "Agreed" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "have consulted together" (KJV) is yeʿaṭ, "advise," here, in the Itpaal stem, "take counsel together, deliberate" (Holladay, p. 408).

    [117] "Prays" (NIV, NRSV), "makes petition" (ESV), "ask a petition" (KJV) is the verb  beʿâ , "seek, request" with the noun ʿû, "petition, prayer" (Holladay, p. 400), literally, "to pray a prayer."

    [118] "Published" (NIV), "signed" (NRSV, ESV, KJV) is resham, "inscribe, sign" (BDB).

    [119] "Upstairs room" (NIV), "upper room/chamber" (NRSV, ESV), "chamber" (KJV) is ʿillî, "roof chamber" (BDB), from the verb ʿālâ, "go up, climb."

    [120] See also kneeling in 1 Kings 8:54; Ezra 9:5; Psalm 95:6; Luke 22:41; Acts 7:60; 9:40; 20:36; 21:5; Ephesians 3:14.

    [121] Selâ, BDB.

    [122] "Gave/giving thanks" (NIV, ESV, KJV), "praise" (NRSV) is yedâ, "praise, give thanks." As in the case of the Hebrew cognate yādâ, there is difference of opinion as to whether this root means "give thanks" or "praise" (TWOT #2764).

    [123] "Praying" (NIV, NRSV, KJV), "making petition" (ESV) is the Peal participle of beʿâ, "search for," here, the word describes the requesting of compassion and grace from God (= praying) in a situation of real crisis (Charles B. Isbell, TWOT #2635).

    [124] "Asking God for help" (NIV), "seeking mercy" (NRSV), "making ... plea" (ESV), "making supplication" (KJV) is ḥanan, "show mercy," but here in the  Hithpael participle it means, "implore favor"(BDB).

    [125] Also Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 17.30.6 -- "All his royal power was not able to undo what was done."

    [126] Damnatio ad bestias (Latin for "condemnation to beasts") was a form of capital punishment in which the condemned were maimed on the circus arena or thrown to a cage with wild animals, often lions. It was brought to ancient Rome around the second century BC. In Rome, damnatio ad bestias was used as entertainment and was part of the inaugural games of the Flavian Amphitheatre. From the first to third centuries AD, this penalty was mainly applied to the worst criminals, slaves, and early Christians.

    [127] R.K. Harrison, "Lion," ISBE 3:141-142.

    [128] "Serve" is pelaḥ, "pay reverence to, serve (deity)" (BDB). The original meaning of the root was "to cleave [open]" or "divide in two." From this meaning was derived (in Aramaic, not in Hebrew) the idea of cultivating a field and ultimately of cultivating (i.e. working hard at) the worship of a deity, hence the idea of service or worship of a deity (Charles D. Isbell, TWOT #2940).

    [129] "Continually" (NIV, ESV, KJV), "faithfully" (NRSV) is tedîr, "continuance," from dûr, "to dwell" (TWOT #2669d). "Circling, duration," here, "continually" (Holladay, p. 424). Also found in verse 20.

    [130] Baldwin, Daniel, p. 130.

    [131] "Angel" is malʾak, "angel" (TWOT #2827).

    [132] "Innocent" (NIV), "blameless" (ESV, NRSV), "innocency" (KJV) is zākû, "purity, innocence" (BDB).

    [133] "Wrong" (NIV, NRSV), "harm" (ESV), "hurt" (KJV) is  ḥabûlâ, "hurtful act, crime, wrong" (BDB).

    Copyright © 2023, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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