My earliest memories revolve around Looney Tunes, Roger Staubach, and three young Israelites thrown into a fiery furnace. Being a 1970’s kid, cinched tight in the Texas Bible Belt, those defined a typical weekend. Mesmerized by cartoons on Saturday morning. Cheering on the Cowboys on Sunday afternoon (believe it or not, they won Superbowls back then!). And, in our little Sunday School room, trying to fathom just how red-hot that blazing furnace of Nebuchadnezzar must have been.
Back then, and for some years later, I assumed the account of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego was a captivating but also fairly straightforward story. Three stouthearted, steel-spined young men, strangers in a strange land, would rather be burnt to a crisp than bend the knee before the bad king’s golden statue.
I was right and I was wrong.
On the one hand, it is indeed a narrative of three faithful young Jews. But it’s also more. It’s a mini-story with a mega-story tucked inside it—a story with ramifications far beyond the horizon of Daniel 3. Perhaps we can call it, “The Unexpected Gospel of the Fiery Furnace.”
The deeper you dive into the biblical pool, the more you begin to pick up on instances where individuals are more than individuals. They represent larger realities. One person stands for a whole group of people. Scholars sometimes call this “corporate personality.”
For instance, Abraham embodied all subsequent Israel. We see this pointedly in his mini-exodus in Genesis 12, which is a sort of “movie trailer” for what the whole nation will later enact on the stage of Egypt. David, too, is a “corporate personality” for all his sons who will sit on the throne after him. In the New Testament, Paul reflects this same all-in-one concept when he says that “in Adam all die” (1 Cor. 15:22), meaning, squeezed into the first man was the whole human race.
The basic Bible lesson is this: by looking at individuals—how they suffer, sin, or succeed—we are looking through a small, one-person window into a grander, many-peopled vista.
Okay, so what does this have to do with our famous trio of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego?
The Furnace of Egypt and Babylon
First, consider these seven parallels between the situations, characters, and actions in the books of Exodus and Daniel:
- Both occur when Israel is in exile—first in Egypt, then in Babylon.
- Both involve hostile foreign kings who persecute God’s people—Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar.
- Both revolve around idolatry, for Pharaoh was considered the incarnation of a god and Nebuchadnezzar had erected a golden image before which he commanded all to bow.
- Both kings initially mock the God of Israel. Pharaoh asks, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go?” (Exod. 5:2). And Nebuchadnezzar asks, “Who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?” (Dan. 3:16).
- Both involve furnaces of fire. The three men are cast “into the burning fiery furnace” (Dan. 3:23) and Egypt is called the “iron furnace” (Deut. 4:20; 1 Kgs. 8:51; Jer. 11:4).
- In both stories, God sends “his angel” (lit. “his messenger”) to rescue his people and lead them out of the furnace (Exod. 23:20-21; Dan. 3:28).
- Both narratives conclude with the king, overcome by the display of divine power, forced to confess the superiority of the God of Israel (Exod. 12:31-32; Dan. 3:28-30).
These parallels are too many and too convincing to shrug off. The story of the three young men was composed with exodus melodies woven throughout it. To read Daniel without the Exodus in mind is like listening to lyrics shorn of music. It falls flat. Only by reading the Babylonian-furnace story alongside the Egyptian-furnace story are we able to fully hear what God is promising.
What is that promise? Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stand for all the people of God. They are a sort of tri-corporate personality. All three together represent the fulness of the people of God. Just as the Lord brought Israel out of the furnace of Egypt, and just as he brought these young men out of the furnace of Babylon, so he will bring his nation once more into liberation and joy. Another exodus is dawning on the horizon.
The Jesus Furnace
When you stand on Daniel 3, your eyes can see far behind you and far ahead of you. Far behind you, to the exodus of Israel from Egypt. And far ahead of you, to the return from Babylon. But rise to your tiptoes and you can see still farther, all the way to the distant border of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
This single episode in the lives of three young Jews is part of the long drama of exile-and-return theology that binds the Bible’s story together. Time and again, God is bringing his people back home—Abraham and Israel from Egypt, Jacob from Paddan-aram, David from the wilderness, Judah from Babylon, the prodigal son from a distant country. And the dénouement of all these? The return of the Son from the land of darkness and death on the day of his resurrection.
Jesus the Messiah, the Messenger of the Father, who brought Israel out of the iron furnace and rescued Shadrach and his friends from the fiery furnace, vacated his own furnace of death. He experienced his own exile and return that we, in him, might experience it as well.
All these stories are woven together in the life of Jesus. Ultimately, Daniel 3 is about Christ, as are Exodus and every other book of the Scriptures. He is their fulness and fulfillment.
To read the Scriptures aright, we ask of every chapter, "How in these words is Christ speaking of himself to the church?"
So, the next time you read about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, smile a knowing smile as you reflect upon the joyous message of “The Unexpected Gospel of the Fiery Furnace.”