Q. Who was the fourth man in the fire with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego?
A. The dispute regarding this verse is, to some extent, based on variations in the translation of this verse. The Christian Standard Bible represents how many translators have translated this verse since the English Revised Version Bible of 1881-1885:
He exclaimed, “Look! I see four men, not tied, walking around in the fire unharmed; and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.”
As far as the details of the correct translation of this verse, I will leave that argument for Hebrew & Aramaic scholars. The interpretation and understanding of the verse and context includes considering what Nebuchadnezzar knew, but the correct translation of the verse is not dependent on what Nebuchadnezzar knew. It will be obvious that some translators come down on one side of the issue – “the son of God” – and some come down on the other side of the issue – “a son of the gods.” Rather than enter that argument, let’s look at the context surrounding the statement made by King Nebuchadnezzar and where that points our understanding. It is better to stick as closely as possible to the statements in the context, without doing too much guessing.
Here is some of what King Nebuchadnezzar knew, based on some statements in the book of Daniel.
- Daniel 2:27-28, Daniel 2:47 – The king had experienced some of the truth of Jehovah, through Daniel’s gift of prophecy in describing and then interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. His understanding of the God of the Hebrews at this point would have been rudimentary, but not non-existent.
- Daniel 3:15-17; Daniel 3:26 – The king knew that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego served the most high God. They told him that God – the one they served – was able to deliver them, and that he will deliver them (one way or another).
- Daniel 3:28 – Nebuchadnezzar says the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego sent his angel to deliver them. In this King’s mind “the Son of God” and “his angel” are the same. He is talking about the same person/appearance.[i]
In his Notes on the Bible Albert Barnes speaks of “two inquiries which arise in regard to this expression [the Son of God, rlv].” First, what did the king mean, that is, who did he think it was in the fire? Second, who was it in the fire with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, actually? There is no reason to suppose that King Nebuchadnezzar understood anything distinctly about the “Godhead” of the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Nebuchadnezzar knew that the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego was distinct from the gods of the Babylonians. These three asserted the power of their God to deliver them from the king. Nebuchadnezzar did not know “the Son of God.” Nevertheless, he did not mean “a son of the gods” of the Babylonians, based on the context of the conversation before and after the three Hebrew children were thrown in the fire. A son of the Babylonian gods was not whom they said would come, and would not have been whom Nebuchadnezzar expected.
Some commentators – such as Jamieson-Faussett-Brown Commentary or Matthew Poole’s Synopsis – posit this consideration: that Nebuchadnezzar spoke the truth of who was in the fire without really understanding the truth of what he said. This would compare to Caiaphas’s prophecy that “one must die for the people” (John 11:49-52), or Pilate’s superscription on the cross of Jesus (Luke 23:38).
Here is Jamieson-Faussett-Brown’s explanation:
Unconsciously, like Saul, Caiaphas (John 11:49-52), and Pilate, he is made to utter divine truths. “Son of God” in his mouth means only an “angel” from heaven, as Daniel 3:28 proves. Compare Job 1:6; Job 38:7; Psalm 34:7, Psalm 34:8; and the probably heathen centurion’s exclamation (Matthew 27:54).
The Son of God is an accurate translation that fits the context. It is not necessary for Nebuchadnezzar to have a clear theological understanding of New Testament revelation yet to come or even a distinct view of present Hebrew monotheism for his statement to be correct. The fourth man walking in the fire was the Son of God, appearing with his people before his incarnation.