Four great Jewish princes occupied a prominent place in Nebuchadnezzar's court in Babylon. They were Daniel, Chananya, Mishael and Azarya. They were descendants of the Jewish royal family and had been taken captive the first time Nebuchadnezzar invaded Jerusalem in the year 3319 (441 before the Common Era). They were quite young when they were torn away from their homes and brought to Nebuchadnezzar's royal palace. Daniel was only fifteen years old at the time. Nebuchadnezzar well appreciated their abilities, and looked forward to making good use of them. They were to be raised in the spirit of the Babylonians, and according to the customs and manners of the nobility, so that in later years they would be able to occupy high positions at court.
These Jewish youths, however, remained true to their religion, observing the laws of Kashruth and all the other laws of the Torah. When they were presented to Nebuchadnezzar after having finished their "education," they made such a strong impression on him, that he immediately appointed them to the highest positions in his mighty empire.
Daniel made an especially deep impression on the king, but we will not talk about him right now. We are going to tell you about the great miracles that happened to Daniel's three friends, Chananya, Mishael and Azarya.
Nebuchadnezzar's power became so great and boundless, that his haughtiness and pride grew to unheard of limits. He decided that all mankind must recognize him as a divine being, and must bow down to an idol that he would set up.
In the Vale of Duro, a large, empty place, Nebuchadnezzar set up a huge golden statue, sixty cubits high and six cubits wide, that he had melted down from all the gold that he had robbed from Jerusalem. The terrible king chose this place, not only because of its size, but also because this was the place where the Jews were murdered wholesale, when they were brought to Babylon after the Destruction of the Beth Hamikdosh. Here, he had already once shown his "heroism" and now, again, he would demonstrate his unlimited power at the same spot.
On the king's orders, all the ministers and courtiers of Nebuchadnezzar's far-flung empire assembled at the place. The Jewish representatives, Chananya, Mishael and Azarya, were also present. Daniel was not at hand. The king had specially sent him on a mission to Alexandria, so as not to endanger his life, so great was the king's affection for him.
The king's decree was then announced: At a certain signal, accompanied by music, all present would have to fall on their faces before the statue that Nebuchadnezzar had set up. Whosoever would disobey would be burned to death in a specially prepared furnace.
The signal was finally given, and the whole mass of people threw themselves to the ground in obeyance to the royal decree. That is, everyone excepting three men who remained standing, and they were, of course, Chananya, Mishael and Azarya.
A terrible anger seized the king. "How dare you disobey my orders!" he snarled. "How foolish of you to separate yourselves from the rest of my people. Who will protect you from my terrible punishment?"
"You are a powerful king," they answered. "Our G-d has given us over into your hands as a punishment for not keeping the Torah. We serve you devotedly, as king, but not as a god. We have only one G-d and nothing can stop us worshipping Him alone."
"Into the furnace with them, and burn them alive!" screamed the enraged Nebuchadnezzar.
The three faithful Jews were seized and thrown into the roaring furnace. At that moment the great miracle occurred! The Angel Gabriel came down from Heaven to protect the three pious Jews from the flames. On the outside, however; the heat of the furnace was so intense, that the idol-worshippers who had thrown these Jews into the furnace, were burned to death on the spot!
Nebuchadnezzar's servants came running to the king in terror, and told him what had happened. The king himself ran to the furnace to witness the great wonder.
"I see four forms in the fire;" the king called out in dread and awe. "Chananya, Mishael and Azarya are walking in the midst of the fire, unharmed. Their clothes are not even singed. As for the fourth one? I have seen him once before when he brought death to Sennacherib's complete army at the gates of Jerusalem. Only ten men remained, apart from Sennacherib, and I was one of them."
Nebuchadnezzar called to Chananya, Mishael and Azarya to come out of the fire. There was a great sanctification of G-d's Holy Name when everyone saw the wonder that had saved the three pious Jews from certain death.
The king then addressed the other Jews present, who had moments earlier bowed down to the idol: "You ought to be ashamed of yourselves! You have such a powerful G-d, and yet you are so weak as to bow down to my idol..."
The representatives of all the different nations who had witnessed G-d's great miracle could not recover from their solemn wonder: not even a hair of the three pious Jews was singed!
"Where did you learn such staunch devotion?" they asked in awe.
"We learned a lesson from the frogs of the second plague in Egypt," they replied. "G-d had commanded the frogs to enter the Egyptian ovens. These creatures did not earn reward or punishment, yet, even so, they obeyed G-d's command without hesitation. We Jews, whom G-d has commanded so many times in the Holy Torah not to serve idols, are certainly duty-bound to go into fire, if necessary, to sanctify G-d's name."
This great miracle made an unforgettable impression on the Jews themselves. They remained faithful to their religion, even in the idol-worshipping land of Babylon. They remained true to the one G-d, till G-d had mercy on them and delivered them from exile. He returned them to Eretz Yisrael where the Beth Hamikdosh was once more rebuilt in all its glory and holiness.
To this day we pray in the Selichoth Prayers with great devotion - "G-d Who answered Chananya, Mishael and Azarya in the furnace, answer us also!"
We will say this prayer this month on the Fast of the "Tenth of Teveth, when, as on all Fast days, we will say Selichoth. And when we pray to G-d to answer us as He answered Chananya, Mishael and Azarya, we will also be inspired by their courage and spirit of self-sacrifice.