The King of Babylon sent three men to their death in a fiery furnace, but when a fourth man appeared among the flames, everything changed. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who had been in the background during the first two chapters of The Book of Daniel, now take center stage. This chapter reads like a well-constructed three-act Hollywood screenplay.
THE FOURTH MAN IN THREE ACTS
Act I (setup)
Nebuchadnezzar commands all his subjects to worship a golden image under penalty of death in a fiery furnace. Three Hebrew exiles, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, choose to remain faithful to their God and refuse to comply, putting their lives in jeopardy. Some of the King’s men eagerly carry the news to Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3:12):
There are certain Jews whom thou hast set over the affairs of the province of Babylon, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; these men, O king, have not regarded thee: they serve not thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.
Act II (confrontation)
Nebuchadnezzar orders his henchmen to bring the three Hebrews to appear before him. The King gives them an opportunity to recant, but in a moment of truth, they make a choice that remains forever etched in Biblical history (Daniel 3:17-18):
If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.
The act ends with an all is lost scene in which the three faithful Hebrews find themselves bound and cast into the furnace heated seven times more than normal.
Act III (resolution)
Flames engulf Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, but cause them no harm. The appearance of a fourth figure in the furnace accounts for this miracle. An astonished Nebuchadnezzar declares, “Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.” (Daniel 3:25). The King quickly releases the three Hebrews, and in a moment of enlightenment, pays homage to the men and their God (Daniel 3:28):
Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who hath sent his angel, and delivered his servants that trusted in him, and have changed the king’s word, and yielded their bodies, that they might not serve nor worship any god, except their own God.
Now we move to the obligatory denouement which comprises the final scenes in a screenplay in which the strands of the plot come together. First, Nebuchadnezzar issues an edict that forbids anyone in the Babylonian empire to disparage the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 3:29):
Second, Nebuchadnezzar promotes Daniel’s friends to higher offices in Babylon, and that’s the last we hear of them (Daniel 3:30). We have every reason to believe, as with a good Hollywood ending, they lived happily ever after.
THE FOURTH MAN AND CHRIST
Some translations render Nebuchadnezzar’s words “and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God” as “the fourth is like a son of the gods” (NIV, ESV). The King James translators saw no reason to revise the original in this manner. The appearance of the Son of God in various forms occurs throughout the Old Testament.
For instance, besides the literal rock from which God watered the children of Israel, a spiritual rock followed them in the wilderness. And that Rock, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:4, was Christ: “And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ.”
Isaiah 63:9 refers to the angelic appearance of the Savior as a constant presence among the Israelites of the Old Testament.
In all their affliction he was afflicted,
and the angel of his presence saved them:
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old.
But how would an idolatrous king recognize the Fourth Man in the furnace as the Son of God? The only way any human comes to a knowledge of God: it must be revealed.
Natural man does not know God. “There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God” (Romans 3:11). But God opens the eyes of His people when He calls them out of the darkness. “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
Not only does God reveal Himself to His covenant people, He also temporarily opens the eyes of pagans like Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar when it serves His purpose. God told Pharaoh, “For this cause have I raised thee up, for to shew in thee my power; and that my name may be declared throughout all the earth” (Exodus 9:16). God even revealed Himself to a donkey and opened its mouth to speak to Balaam, the prophet who attempted to curse Israel (Numbers 22:28-30).
Now, as Nebuchadnezzar witnesses the miraculous rescue of the three Hebrew men, God shows Him the identity of the Fourth Man. The Son of God. And through the words of a heathen king, we receive hope that in every situation our Deliverer will be there.
THE FOURTH MAN AND YOU
The Fourth Man (Christ) was in the fire with those he rescued, not standing on the sidelines. The Captain of our salvation is the first into our battles and the last to leave. He said, “I am with you alway, even to the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20). Isaiah, writing of our ever-present Deliverer, describes Him as no mere spectator when we pass through the fire and flood of danger and affliction.
When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee. (Isaiah 43:2)
What a great hope we have. We have no promise of avoiding the fire and the flood. But we have a promise that the Fourth Man will be there, enabling us, by the grace of God, to pass on through. But Jesus went to one fire in which He was not a Fourth Man, but the Only Man.
Solus Christus, one of the five so-called Solas (Latin, sola, “alone”) of the Reformation, emphasizes the exclusivity of Jesus’ role in salvation. Solus Christus, Christ alone.
When Jesus went to the garden to pray on the night of His betrayal, the Disciples followed him. But Jesus “went a little further” (Matthew 26:39) and, while they slept, He prayed alone with such passion that “his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44).
Later, the soldiers came for the arrest and Jesus implored, “If therefore ye seek me, let these go their way” (John 18:8). His request proved unnecessary because “all the disciples forsook him, and fled” (Matthew 26:56). They led Jesus away. Alone.
Alone, Jesus stood to be interrogated by the priests, faced the mock trial by the Sanhedrin, and suffered their abuse (Matthew 26:67).
Jesus faced the Roman Governor alone, then stood before King Herod as the priests and scribes accused Him falsely and mocked Him.
No one defended the Son of God when the crowds shouted, “crucify him.” Then they delivered Him to be crucified, but not before the barbarous soldiers scourged Him, platted a thorny crown on his head, and mockingly draped Him in with a purple robe. There He stood alone as they bowed and taunted Him saying, “Hail, King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:29).
They laid a cross on his bleeding shoulder and irrespective of the help rendered by Simone of Cyrene along the way, when they came near the awful hill, John records it was Jesus alone. “He bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha” (John 19:17).
Alone he felt the nails piercing His hands and feet, and alone he hung on the cross between two malefactors. But most excruciatingly, during three hours of darkness, His Father, according to a plan initiated before the foundation of the world, looked away, prompting Jesus to cry out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
We can only understand this incomprehensible aloneness in terms of what Christ became on that cursed tree. Paul writes, “he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Christ must needs have suffered the separation from God wrought by sin (the wages of sin) so that you and I never will. Listen to these words of Luther:
What then shall we say here? Shall we not say that Christ at the same time was (as he stood in our stead) the most righteous person and the greatest sinner, of the greatest lies and the greatest truth, of the greatest glorying and the greatest desperation, the most truly blessed and the most utterly damned? For if we say not these things, I know not how he could be forsaken of God. For if in this same way many saints were left of God, such as Job, David, Hezekiah, Jacob, how much more shall it be said of Christ, the head of all the saints, that he was left of God, who carried and bore all our griefs in himself (Select Works of Martin Luther, Vol. IV).
Alone, He died after uttering the last words, “It is finished.” Mercifully, the suffering was over. But that’s not what He meant. The work, the work of redemption, now reached its completion. Finished. Jesus alone is our Redeemer. “Thou was slain,” the saints in glory sing, “and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” (Revelation 5:9). Christ alone is worthy of the glory accorded Him by the saints in Heaven who cast their crowns before His throne, saying “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power” (Revelation 4:11).
He who knew no sin bore our sins on the cross, that we might forever escape the fire of God’s judgment and wrath reserved for workers of iniquity. But He doesn’t leave it there. He promises to always be with us as He, the Fourth Man, was with Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego in the midst of the burning fiery furnace.
Yes, Nebuchadnezzar, you were right. “Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.”