The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Jews

By Mary Jane Chaignot

According to the Hebrew Bible, Daniel 3:23 states that the three Hebrew men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell down bound into the midst of the burning fiery furnace. This happened because they refused to bow down and worship the golden statue that Nebuchadnezzar had set up. The plan was that whenever people heard the sound of music, they were all supposed to bow down and worship the statue, which was ninety feet tall and nine feet wide. Anyone who refused would be thrown into the fiery furnace. After a few practice sessions, some of the locals complained to the king that the three Hebrew men refused to bow down and worship. The king, of course, couldn't let them snub his command. So he called them together and offered them a second chance to right the wrong they had committed. The consequences were clear if they refused. They would be tossed into the fiery furnace, and the king asked, "Who is the God who can save you?"

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego pretty much didn't care what the king threatened to do. They knew that the God they served could rescue them, but even if He didn't, they would refuse to worship the golden statue. Needless to say, the king turned purple at this point and ordered the furnace to be heated seven times hotter than usual. He commanded that the three men be bound and thrown into the furnace. Unfortunately, the furnace was so hot that the guards who threw them in were killed. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego fell into the midst of the fire.

The prayer of Azariah would be inserted at this point. After a short introduction, the prayer proceeds as a communal lament with a request for deliverance. In so doing, Azariah (Abednego) speaks for the people of Israel by confessing their sins and affirming God's justice. The exile itself was an example of God's justice. This is doubly interesting considering that these three men are in the fiery furnace precisely because they refused to worship a golden image made by the king. In so doing, they were able to remain true to their God; nonetheless they now speak for sinful/idolatrous Israel. What is interesting about this prayer is that since there is no opportunity for sacrifice, Azariah offers a contrite heart. This would demonstrate a considerable advance in the thinking of how to mediate with God. In the absence of sacrifices, a "contrite heart" might suffice in order to assure their acceptance before God.

The next section of the addition focuses on the fiery furnace. It describes how the king's servants stoked the fire to comply with the king's request to heat it "seven times hotter." They piled on more naphtha, pitch, and brush until the flames rose seventy feet above the furnace. Ultimately, it would kill those servants who were too close. The three Hebrew men, however, were saved by the presence of an angel. The angel drove the blaze out of the middle and made it as if a dew-laden breeze were blowing through it. Obviously, they were completely protected from the fire. Some scholars think this section should precede the first. It is difficult to understand how the men survived the fall into the furnace without being burned to death, especially if the fire was so hot that it killed their executioners. It would make more sense for the angel to be present from the beginning to protect them. The dew-laden breeze would then have kept them safe even while they were falling through the flames to the bottom. Despite such logic, this appears as the second section.

Then all three men joined in praising God. Their voices were as one. They invoke all of creation to join in the praise of God, repeating the phrase "Bless the Lord…sing his praise and highly exalt him forever" with each verse except one (see v. 52). This repetition can also be found in some of the Psalms (see Ps. 103, 136, 148). The repetition adds solemnity and a majestic rhythm to the refrain.

Then the next verse (Dan. 3:24) states that King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up suddenly, saying to his advisers, "Didn't we throw three men into the fire?" The advisers answered, "Yes, we did." But now Nebuchadnezzar (and presumably everyone else as well) sees four men walking around in the midst of the flames, to say nothing of the fact that the three somehow survived without being simply consumed by the fire. And the king states that the fourth looks like a son of the gods.

The addition of the prayers has the effect of keeping the focus on the three men and the greatness of their God, instead of on the king and his outrageous commands. Previously, these three men were rather colorless characters. Now, however, they shine as faithful followers. It also highlights the idea that God is a God of justice. The exile was the result of Israel's sin. When people sin against God, God hands them over to their enemies. This thought is rooted in the premise of the Deuteronomistic history.

The irony, of course, is that the Hebrew Masoretic Text omits these verses, and Christians have tended to ignore them. Some scholars wonder why this is the case, since there is nothing in them that could be considered remotely offensive to Judaic theology. Most concur that it might simply be a matter of length. The prayer is simply too long and too disruptive within the context of the story. Nonetheless, Greek versions can be found in Orthodox and Catholic Bibles.

Most scholars think the Prayer of Azariah was probably written around 165-67 BCE, during the time of Antiochus Epiphanes. It was probably originally written in Hebrew, which was the Jewish language of worship. Some think the reason it was written lies within the text of Daniel. After the three men came out of the furnace, the king burst forth with praise for God. It seems unlikely that within the story these three men should not be given an opportunity to do so as well. So the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Jews were added; moreover, their praise came first.

These verses can be divided into three sections: 1:1-22 -- The Prayer of Azariah; 1:23-28 – Description of the Furnace; 1:29-68 – The Song of the Three Jews.

I – 1:1-22 – The Prayer of Azariah

  • 1:1-2
    • Introduction
    • As they walked around in the flames, they sang hymns to God
    • Then Azariah stopped and said this prayer 
  • 1:3-15
    • Confession of sins
    • Azariah begins by praising God
    • He is the God of our fathers and always just in whatever He has done
    • His deeds and judgments are true
    • The exile was "just" on account of the sins of all the people
    • The people did not obey God's commandments
    • Nor have they done "what was good for them"
    • Because of this, God's actions were justified
    • Israel has been delivered into the hands of their enemies
    • These enemies are lawless and hateful
    • Their king is completely unjust
    • Yet, the people of Israel cannot complain
    • Shame and disgrace are their lot – even for those who still worship him
    • All are culpable
    • Azariah prays that God will not abandon them forever or annul His covenant
    • He pleads that God will not withdraw His mercy from them
    • He refers to the promises made to Abraham and Isaac
    • They were promised descendants more numerous than the stars of the sky and of the sands of the seashore
    • He realizes Israel's smallness of importance and knows it is a result of their sin
    • In exile they have no king, no prophet, no leader [Technically, during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, Jeremiah and Ezekiel were both actively prophesying, which suggests that this was written much later.]
    • They have no temple or anyplace to make an offering
  • 1:16-22
    • Plea for deliverance
    • Azariah asks God to accept their contrite souls and humble spirits
    • Like the previous sacrifices of rams and bulls, he prays that God will see their sacrifice
    • All he wants is to be able to follow God wholeheartedly
    • He does not want those who trust in God to be disappointed
    • He avows that they earnestly follow God and fear Him and seek His face
    • He prays that God will not put them to shame but treat them leniently
    • This would be in accordance with God's great mercy Anyone who abuses them should be put to shame and stripped of power
    • Their strength should be broken
    • Then even the pagans will know that He "alone is Lord, God"
    • God is glorious over the whole world

II -- 1:23-28 – Description of the Furnace

  • 1:23-28
    • The king's servants tried to comply with the king's order to heat the furnace hotter
    • They stoked it with naphtha, pitch, tow, and brush
    • Naphtha would be some sort of natural oil
    • The flames rose seventy feet above the furnace
    • The flames shot out and burned the king's servants to death
    • An angel of the Lord came down and joined the three men in the furnace
    • The angel drove out the scorching blaze
    • In the middle of the furnace was a dew-laden breeze
    • The dew represents an agent of physical relief
    • The text reads, "a wind of dew, whistling through…"
    • It was so effective that the fire did not even touch them
    • It neither hurt them nor annoyed them
    • All three men then began praising God

III -- 1:29-68 – The Song of the Three Jews.

  • 1:29-34
    • Benediction
    • Blessed be God who is praiseworthy and highly exalted
    • Blessed is He in the temple of His sacred glory
    • This could be a reference to the Jerusalem temple or a heavenly one
    • Blessed is He who sits upon the cherubim and looks into the depths
    • The cherubim were winged creatures upon which God rode
    • They were oftentimes depicted as bulls with a human head
    • This is perhaps a vestige of pagan culture
    • Blessed is He who sits on His royal throne
    • Blessed is He who is in the dome of heaven
    • "Dome" could also be translated "firmament"
    • This is a reference to the thought that heaven was held back by a hammered strip of metal 
  • 1:35-66
    • Call to all of Creation 
    • Each verse includes the prayer: "Bless the Lord….sing his praise and highly exalt him forever"
    • This is similar to some of the Psalms
      • 1:35-41 
      • The heavens and inhabitants are called on to praise
      • All the works of the Lord should bless Him and sing
      • His praises forever All the heavens should do the same
      • They should be joined by all the angels and the waters above the heavens
      • The waters above the heavens are the celestial waters or upper "oceans"
      • All the powers and the sun and the moon should sing
      • His praises and highly exalt Him forever
      • "Powers" is probably a reference to all the celestial bodies
      • Lastly, the stars are included as well
    • 1:42-51 
      • Meteorological elements are called to praise
      • Rain, dew, and wind are called to praise God and exalt Him forever
      • Cold and heat, ice and snow, light and darkness, and night and day are called
      • These paired elements are all components of creation
    • 1:52-59 
      • Creatures of the earth are called to praise
      • The earth and the mountains and hills are called to praise
      • Everything that grows in the ground shall sing His praise
      • This includes the seas and rivers, rains and springs
      • It even includes the sea monsters and anything that swims in the waters
      • The birds of the air and the wild beasts and cattle are also called
      • Both animate and inanimate things are included somewhat according to their order of creation
    • 1:60-66
        • Human responses
        • Last, but not least, are the sons of men
        • This includes Israel, all its priests and servants of the Lord
        • It also includes the spirits and the souls of the just and those who are humble in heart
        • These would be all those who are righteous
        • Lastly, of course, it includes the three Hebrew men – Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – who are supremely grateful to have been snatched out of the hand of death
        • They have escaped the fiery furnace
  • 1:67-68
    • Conclusion 
    • There is nothing left but to give thanks to the Lord, for He is good and His mercy endures forever
    • The refrain is repeated for good measure 


deSilva, David. Introducing the Apocrypha. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2002.

Harrington, Daniel. Invitation to the Apocrypha. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans. 1999.

Meeks, Wayne, ed. The Harper Collins Study Bible. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins Publishers. 1993.

Metzer, Bruce, Ed. The Oxford Annotated Apocrypha. New York: Oxford University Press. 1965.

Mills, Watson and Richard Wilson, eds. Mercer Commentary on the Bible. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press. 2002.

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Christian Apocrypha