Daniel 3 is presented as a false Babylonian Liturgy.
Some believe that the purpose of the Bible is to show how ancient Israelite cultures adapted and molded their theology around the theology of the surrounding cultures. They say that the Bible takes a polemical stance against their foreign cultures’ worship, showing how Yahweh transforms and sanctifies their practices when performed by an Israelite. I think our primary goal should be understanding Israelite Liturgy, and from there understand how ANE cultures adapted and expanded Israelite culture. Daniel 3 is a great example of how understanding Israelite worship helps us interpret the worship of other nations.
To fully understand what is happening when Nebuchadnezzar sets up the golden image, we must know what he is being compared to. In this situation, Nebuchadnezzar is presented as a false David. David, according to Chronicles, is the first to implement musical worship in the Liturgy of the Temple. Here, Nebuchadnezzar also implements musical worship into is Liturgy in two ways. He brings musicians who can play “the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music” which signal the time to worship the image. We won’t fully understand what Nebuchadnezzar is doing until we understand that he is exalting himself as a Babylonian David. This is a clear case where Israelite worship preceded Babylonian worship, so we can use Scriptural images to understand the context.
As Hector Avalos points out, the text is entirely redundant, the second form of “lyrical worship” we see in the text. The lines about “the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music” and “the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all of the officials of the provinces” are both repeated. According to Avalos: “[Henri] Bergson argued that simple mechanical iteration is a great source of comedy. When humans act as automatons or in an absentminded manner, they become subjects of comedy . . . . The four mechanical iterations of a lengthy list of musical instruments in vv. 5, 7, 10, 15 mirror the mechanistic behavior of the pagans before the image . . . . Indeed, as soon as the instruments sound, the pagans genuflect en masse before a lifeless image without a second thought.” It’s a comedic satire on Babylonian liturgy: while the Israelites repeat lines telling us that the love of God lasts forever (Psalm 136), the Babylonians become dead robots while worshiping their dead image.
After we’ve understood Nebuchadnezzar as a false David, we can continue to draw out parallels to Israelite worship. The image of the golden man should bring top mind images of the temple: the temple is a microcosm of creation, but also a microcosm of humanity. The temple is the image of man, as Jordan argues, showing how Jesus is “the Metal Man” who recapitulates both Adam and the temple in the vision of Revelation 1. So Nebuchadnezzar making a golden image of himself, a man, is itself a direct challenge to the temple of Yahweh created by Solomon. The Babylonian temple accomplishes what the prophet Isaiah saw for the Temple of Israel (Isaiah 2, 11): Nebuchadnezzar calls together a group from every tribe, tongue, and nation to worship an image he reflected. The imagery already jumps to us from the beginning: the kings of the nations gather in one place to worship the Image of the King. We know that King Jesus will eventually put the world beneath his feet (I Corinthians 15; Psalm 2), and will be worshiped by people from every tribe, tongue, and nation (Revelation 6) so this is Nebuchadnezzar’s early attempt to dethrone the coming Messiah.
Now the three friends of Daniel did not worship (this next section draws heavily on Leithart and Jordan). They were bound, a liturgical term, and were prepared to be sacrificed to the god of Babylon. The temperature of the furnace was so high that it killed the people who stoked it. The three friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednigo, were bound and tossed into the furnace. They are wearing tunics and garbs fitting their position: they are about to ascend to take high seats within the Babylonian government. They were meant as an ascension offering for the gods of Babylon, to be burnt and rise in the smoke to the face of the god. Instead of burning, they were sanctified by the presence of a fourth person, one like “a son of God”. The “satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counsellors” saw the four men. I think that the four categories represent the four corners of the world: the three friends, by their association with a fourth, become a symbol to the nations of the protection from Yahweh against false Liturgies and false gods. This connection is strengthened by the rarity of the term “son of God” in the Old Testament. Jordan says that the great sin of the Sethite tribe was intermarriage with the “sons of God”, sinning against the world. They ruined their worldwide witness, so the son of God in Daniel restores the worldwide witness of the Jews by saving the three friends in the face of the pre-eminent super power.
Their ascension offering, where they were “burnt” and, ironically, brought before Yahweh rather than the god of Nebuchadnezzar, results in Nebuchadnezzar passing a law prohibiting people from speaking against their God. The people who spoke against Yahweh would also be killed sacrificially: like the sacrificial animal, they would be torn limb from limb. Their houses would lay in ruins, and houses in Leviticus are associated with temples as a sort of “personal temple” where an image of God dwells.
In the next chapter, we see the beginning of the conversion of Nebuchadnezzar. As Leithart points out, major changes only take place after sacrifices. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednigo needed to be sacrificed in order for Nebuchadnezzar to convert, bringing Babylon with him.