Commentary on Dan 3:25, 34-43
“One of the most beautiful and sincere prayers in the bible. Expressing the abandonment of 2nd century BC Judaism, this prayer pleads that the contrite heart and humble spirit of the people be accepted by God. This prayer is quoted in the offertory of every Mass” (Vat II Missal)
The context of today’s reading is a famous scene from the Book of Daniel. King Nebuchadnezzar had set up a huge golden statue in Babylon. All the officials were then summoned together for its dedication. At the sound of many musical instruments all were called to prostrate themselves in worship of the statue. Anyone who refused would immediately be thrown into a mighty furnace.
It was reported to the king that some his officials who were Jews had ignored his command. These were Shadrach, Meschach and Abed-nego. They were immediately summoned before the king and asked to account for themselves. When asked why they had not prostrated themselves before the statue, they said: “Your question needs no answer from us: if our God, the one we serve, is able to save us from the burning fiery furnace and from your power, Your Majesty, he will save us; and even if he does not, then you must know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your god or worship the statue you have set up.”
This reply enraged the king to such an extent that he ordered the furnace to be made seven times hotter. The three men were then thrown fully clothed into the furnace. It was so hot that the men throwing the three young men into the furnace were themselves burnt to death.
However, the three men were seen walking in the flames and they began praying aloud. Today’s passage is a part of their long prayer (3:24-90*) of praise and thanksgiving, while the king’s servants continued to stoke the fire. The prayer is led by Azariah, the Hebrew name for Abednego, one of the three men.
The king watched in amazement. “Did we not have these three men thrown bound into the fire?… But I can see four men walking free in the heart of the fire and quite unharmed!” Clearly, the fourth figure was an angel of the Lord sent to protect these faithful servants of Yahweh. The king finally ordered the men to be taken from the fire – their clothes not even singed – and had the highest honours showered on them as a tribute to their God: “There is no other god who can save like this.”
It is in this context that we read today’s passage. It begins with a plea for God not to abandon his people, nor to forget his covenant in which he promised so many descendants of Abraham. In faraway Babylon, separated by hundreds of miles from their religious centre in Jerusalem, there is a recognition that they are despised, abandoned and leaderless and without their traditional religious rituals of worship. “No leader, no prophet, no prince, no holocaust, no sacrifice, no incense, no place where we can offer you the first-fruits and win your favour.”
However, they pray that, even without holocausts of rams and bullocks, they can commit themselves completely to their God. “We put our whole heart into following you, into fearing you and seeking your face once more.” They beg to be treated with mercy and gentleness. They at least hope that a truly repentant heart will win God’s forgiveness and they put themselves totally at the feet of God’s mercy and compassion.
In fact it is not necessary to do things “to win God’s favour”. Once we put ourselves completely in his hands he will take care of us, as he did the three young men.
*These verses of the Song of the Three Men in the Fiery Furnace are only found in the Greek, but not the Hebrew, text of the Old Testament. Hence they are not found quoted in most non-Catholic bibles. But, although we only have the Greek text, it is believed that the original was in Aramaic or Hebrew and hence is included in our Bible.