One like a son of the gods

Daniel is a contemporary of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. He is exiled to Babylon in 605 BC, along with Judah’s King Jehoiakim. Daniel, whose name means “God is my Judge,”  records events and visions that span seventy years, indicating he lives through the entire Babylonian captivity. The central theme of the Book of Daniel is God’s sovereignty over the people of Israel and the nations of the world, as noted when Daniel recalls the fate of former Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar:

He was driven away from people, his mind was like an animal’s, he lived with the wild donkeys, he was fed grass like cattle, and his body was drenched with dew from the sky until he acknowledged that the Most High God is ruler over human kingdoms and sets anyone he wants over them.

Daniel 5:21

The book consists mainly of historical narratives (chapters 1-6) and apocalyptic prophetic visions (chapters 7-12). For our purposes, we examine two events featuring a divine figure, one from each section of the book. In Daniel 3, one who “looks like a son of the gods” visits three Hebrew exiles in a fiery furnace. And in Daniel 7, “one like a son of man” arrives before the Ancient of Days with the clouds of heaven. In each case, we survey Daniel’s description of the divine visitor, ask whether it is the same figure in both events, and explore whether this could be the angel of the LORD.

In the next post, we briefly observe the angel God sends to rescue Daniel from the lions’ den (Dan. 6), as well as a “man dressed in linen” in Daniel’s final recorded vision (Dan. 10). Could these figures also be the angel of the LORD?

One Like a Son of the Gods

Daniel 3

The heroic account of Daniel’s friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is a favorite Bible story of people of all ages. It is a cherished account of three young Hebrew men who stand tall in their faithfulness to Yahweh, even in the face of death. Daniel is absent from this scene, having given up his role as political official in order to remain at the king’s court in Babylon, serving as chief of the wise men. At Daniel’s request, Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar has appointed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to manage the province of Babylon (Dan. 2:48-49).

Nebuchadnezzar has fashioned a statue of gold, ninety feet high and nine feet wide. He sets it on the plain of Dura and announces a day of dedication. As the kingdom’s rulers gather around the imposing image, a herald declares the king’s command: 

People of every nation and language, you are commanded: When you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, drum, and every kind of music, you are to fall facedown and worship the gold statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. But whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire.

Daniel 3:4-6

The furnace likely is a large kiln used to smelt metal for gold-plating the statue and for manufacturing bricks to construct the base. Based on bas-reliefs from that era, it seems Mesopotamian smelting furnaces are shaped like old-fashioned milk bottles, with a large opening at the top for the insertion of ore and a smaller opening at ground level for wood and charcoal to fuel the fire. The furnaces could be built into the side of a hill or a manmade mound of earth, enabling workers to more easily insert ore – or toss disobedient subjects – into the top. Temperatures in these kilns could reach eighteen hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Evidently, furnaces like this are a common form of punishment in Babylon (Jer. 29:22). One can only imagine the gripping fear of swift and certain death consuming those bold enough to defy the king.

So, it’s no surprise that everyone dutifully obeys the command, prostrating themselves before the golden image. Everyone, that is, except three young Hebrew exiles. Several unnamed Chaldeans use the occasion to accuse Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego of neither worshiping the king’s gods nor bowing down to his statue. Enraged, the king summons the young men and repeats his command: worship the image, or die. 

Nebuchadnezzar appears to have some affection for the young men, however, since he gives them a second chance to obey his decree. He even offers to have the orchestra play just for them. But so they don’t mistake his fondness of them for a free pass, he puts a fine point on the whole matter: “[W]ho is the god who can rescue you from my power?” (Dan. 3:15). This taunt echoes similar boasts by Pharaoh (Exod. 5:2) and Sennacherib (2 Kings 18:35), whom the angel of the LORD later visits in judgment.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego offer their response, a statement of respectful defiance as they express their determination to obey God rather than men (cf. Acts 5:29): 

If the God we serve exists, then he can rescue us from the furnace of blazing fire, and he can rescue us from the power of you, the king. But even if he does not rescue us, we want you as king to know that we will not serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up. 

Daniel 3:17-18

The king’s longsuffering is short-lived. Daniel records, “Then Nebuchadnezzar was filled with rage, and the expression on his face changed toward Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego” (3:19). He orders his servants to heat the furnace seven times hotter than customary – a proverbial way of saying “as hot as possible.” He commands his strongest soldiers to tie up the three young Hebrews and throw them into the furnace. 

The urgency of his request prevents the soldiers from protecting themselves from the flames. As they deliver the three young men – fully clothed and bound hand and foot – to the fire, the scorching heat, perhaps caused by a shift in the wind’s direction, consumes the executioners, and the young Hebrew men fall, unaccompanied, into the fire.

“I see four men”

End of story. Or it should have been. But King Nebuchadnezzar sees something that causes him to jump up in alarm. “Didn’t we throw three men, bound, into the fire?” he asks his subjects. “Yes, of course, Your Majesty,” they reply. “Look!” the king gasps, “I see four men, not tied, walking around in the fire unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods” (3:24-25).

Nebuchadnezzar approaches the lower furnace door. He sees that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who were bound, are now free. The ropes evidently have burned away, or perhaps were providentially sloughed off. But their clothes, hair, and skin are unscathed. They are alive, well, and walking around in the flames, “probably as if they [are] enjoying it.” Most shocking to Nebuchadnezzar is the appearance of a fourth figure, who appears to the king as “a son of the gods.”

The pagan king only means the fourth person in the fire is divine. He has no concept of the dual Yahweh figures in the Old Testament – one visible and the other invisible – and certainly no understanding of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which God provides through Scripture’s progressive revelation. The expression “a son of the gods” ascribes deity to a being, however, since an offspring of the gods shares the same nature as others in the divine court, according to Nebuchadnezzar’s thinking. 

The Chaldeans believed in families of gods. Bel, the supreme god, and accompanied by the goddess Mylitta, is considered the father of gods. So, by the phrase “son of the gods,” Nebuchadnezzar means “one sprung from and sent by the gods.” Put another way, the phrase means “son of deity, i.e., a Divine Person, one of the race of the gods, a supernatural being.” There is no doubt the king recognizes a clear distinction between the three Hebrew men and the fourth person in the fire.

But who is this fourth person, really? The majority of Jewish scholars identify this person as an angel, perhaps even Gabriel. Various English translations of Scripture address this verse differently. Many, like the NIV, CSB, ESV, and NASB, render the phrase “a son of the gods.” Others, such as the NLT and CEV, translate it “a god.” The KJV translates this phrase “the Son of God,” an apparent allusion to the second person of the Trinity. Grammatically, either “a son of the gods” or “the Son of God” is possible since in biblical Aramaic the plural noun elahin may be assumed to have the same force as elohim in biblical Hebrew, which can be rendered as a plural (“gods”) or a singular (“God”).

Looking back on this event from a New Testament perspective, we see evidence of the preincarnate Christ appearing to numerous individuals, and to groups of people, in the Old Testament. His appearance in the fire with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – likely in human form – harkens back to his human manifestations to Abraham and Sarah, Joshua, Ezekiel, and others. And his appearance in the fiery furnace reminds us of other fire theophanies as in the burning bush to Moses (Exod. 3) and upon the chariot-throne to Ezekiel (Ezek. 1, 10). 

Perhaps the strongest indication of a Christophany is Nebuchadnezzar’s reaction. He acknowledges the superiority of the Hebrew God as he cries out, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, you servants of the Most High God ​— ​come out!” (3:26). The three men step out of the fire. The king’s advisers note that the fire has no effect on the men. Not a hair of their heads is singed. Their robes are intact. They don’t even smell like smoke. The king is utterly astounded and changes his tune about whose god ranks above the others:

Praise to the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego! He sent his angel and rescued his servants who trusted in him. They violated the king’s command and risked their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God. Therefore I issue a decree that anyone of any people, nation, or language who says anything offensive against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego will be torn limb from limb and his house made a garbage dump. For there is no other god who is able to deliver like this. Then the king rewarded Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the province of Babylon.

Daniel 3:28-30 (emphasis added)

Note several keys in Nebuchadnezzar’s reaction to the fourth figure in the fire:

First, he identifies the figure as divine – someone similar to but distinct from the three Hebrew men. 

Second, Nebuchadnezzar’s boast about the inability of any god to overpower his will (3:15) gives way to acknowledgment of the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. 

Third, he declares God “sent his angel,” or messenger, to rescue the men. So, the king in essence describes this figure as both divine and sent from God. This is similar to Daniel’s testimony to Darius in Daniel 6 after it’s reported that God sent his angel to close the mouths of the lions (Dan. 6:22). 

Fourth, Nebuchadnezzar sees first-hand the power of Yahweh not only to destroy, but to deliver. 

Finally, the entire event causes Nebuchadnezzar to issue a decree protecting the free worship of the Most High God.

While Nebuchadnezzar declares that God sent his angel, the apocryphal narrative of this story reads, “The angel of the Lord came down into the furnace,” according to Matthew Henry, who adds:

But some think it was the eternal Son of God, the angel of the covenant, and not a created angel. He appeared often in our nature before he assumed it in his incarnation, and never more seasonable, nor to give a more proper indication and presage of his great errand into the world in the fulness of time, than now, when, to deliver his chosen out of the fire, he came and walked with them in the fire. Note, Those that suffer for Christ have his gracious presence with them in their sufferings, even in the fiery furnace, even in the valley of the shadow of death, and therefore even there they need fear no evil. Hereby Christ showed that what is done against his people he takes as done against himself; whoever throws them into the furnace does, in effect, throw him in. I am Jesus, whom thou persecutes.

Matthew Henry

Next: His dominion is everlasting

This post is excerpted from Jesus Before Bethlehem: What Every Christian Should Know About the Angel of the Lord, available from Amazon and other retailers.