When king Nebuchadnezzar sent three Hebrew youths into a fiery furnace, Daniel records that a fourth individual appeared, walking around with them in the blaze. Miraculously, each one remained unharmed (Dan. 3.19-24).
According to the KJV and the NKJV, the king, beholding this extraordinary event, exclaimed: “the form of the fourth is like the Son of God” (Dan 3.25).
Other translations (ASV, ESV, NIV, etc.), however, suggest that the king said that the form of the fourth is like “a son of the gods.” Why such a significant difference?
Consider a few points in connection with this matter.
Interpretation In Translation
First, this passage amply demonstrates that translating one language into another is not always a concrete process, where words, with wooden uniformity, should always be translated in an absolutely literal manner.
On occasion, since words can mean different things in different contexts, one must instead rely upon skills of “interpretation” in order to produce a more precise translation (cf. 1 Cor. 12.10; 14.13, 27).
In this very passage, the KJV translators believed it was necessary to set aside a strict, word-for-word rendition of the passage, and instead opted to follow their interpretation that the fourth individual was the second person of the Godhead, who, in the New Testament, was given the designation, “the Son of God” (Mt. 14.33; Mk 1.1; 15.39; Lk 1.35; etc.).
In their minds, then, Nebuchadnezzar — an uninspired polytheist — accidentally stumbled upon a key New Testament concept (that Jesus is the Son of God), centuries before Jesus assumed the title (cf. Lk. 1.32; Heb. 1.5).
And since, in the succeeding verses, Nebuchadnezzar acknowledges the existence and superiority of the Hebrew God (Dan. 3.26, 28, 29), it is conceivable (contextually) that he meant to refer to God (singular) rather than to gods (plural) in verse 25 as well — i.e., the form of the fourth is like the son of the Hebrew God.
However, the Aramaic word, elahin (gods), in Daniel 3.25 is a plural form. Hence, the newer versions opted to render the passage more literally (“a son of the gods”), especially since it was a worshipper of false gods who had employed the term.
As an aside, it is important to remember that Daniel is recording the remarks of a pagan who was not, himself, speaking by inspiration. Though Daniel’s record of what the king said is infallible (since Daniel was being moved to write by the Holy Spirit — 2 Pt. 1.21), what the king said itself may be either true or false.
Thus, if the king referred to the fourth individual as like “a son of the gods,” that would not suggest that the Holy Spirit necessarily endorsed that notion, nor yet polytheism in general, but would merely be an accurate record of a pagan’s faulty supposition.
At this point, then, there is merit in both methods of interpretation.
Intriguingly, the Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX), produced during the third century B.C., reads: “like an angel of God.” Thus, this version also interprets elahin as a singular (God), but interprets the word, bar (son), as “angel,” since, in verse 28, Nebuchadnezzar later describes the fourth individual as a “malak” (an angel or messenger). The Hebrew translators of the Septuagint, therefore, thought that Nebuchadnezzar was speaking idiomatically, where the phrase, son of God, references an angelic being.
This interpretation, too, is perfectly consistent with the context.
Singular or Plural?
Second, let us delve deeper into the language of the text.
As aforementioned, the passage was written in Aramaic, not Hebrew. In Hebrew, the plural form, elohim, can be used either of the true “God” — suggesting his mighty nature (Gen. 1.1ff; Deut. 7.9; Isa. 40.28) — or of false “gods” (Ex. 18.11; 20.3; Ps. 136.2).
However, in Biblical Aramaic, the plural is distinguished from the singular, where God (elah—singular) usually refers to true deity, whereas gods (elahin—plural) is reserved for idols (as in English).
Herbert Niehr, a scholar of semitic languages and a professor at the University of Tübingen, observes that
“in Biblical Aramaic…the plural elahin or elahayya, always means '(the) gods' and is not comparable to Hebrew, elohim ‘God’” (see Gzella, p. 37).
He further remarks that the singular form “refers primarily to Yahweh” (ibid.), but is also employed with reference to an individual false god (cf. Dan. 3.15; 4.8; 6.7, 12) — again, this convention is replicated in English.
Thus, unless Daniel 3.25 is the solitary exception, the newer versions are more accurate: the form of the fourth is like a son of the gods (plural).
Likewise, Aramaic/Hebrew lexicographers, Brown, Driver, & Briggs, indicate that the term in Daniel 3.25 refers to “heathen deities” (1080), not to the Son of God.
Moreover, there are eight other occurrences of the word in the plural form in the book of Daniel. In every other instance, the KJV renders the term literally, “gods” (cf. Dan. 2.11, 47; 4.8-9, 18; 5.11, 14). But it deviates from this practice only for Daniel 3.25, again, purely for interpretative reasons (the NKJV is even more inconsistent on this front).
It is also significant that whereas Nebuchadnezzar employs the plural form, “gods,” in Daniel 3.25 (“like a son of gods”), he switches to the singular form when he acknowledges the uniqueness of the Hebrew God (v. 26 “servants of the Most High God;” vv. 28-29). This change in number, from gods (v. 25) to God (v. 26), suggests that Nebuchadnezzar is distinguishing the gods of his pantheon (v. 25) from the God of the Hebrews (v. 26f).
There is this point, too. In Hebrew, when the plural form, elohim, is used with reference to the one true God, it emphasizes his supremacy and uniqueness (cf. Ps. 115.3; Isa. 46.9-10; Jer. 32.7). KJV-only advocates argue that the same convention is being adopted in Aramaic in Daniel 3.25 — “like the Son of God [plural, the mighty one].”
But if that is so, why did Nebuchadnezzar not continue to employ the Aramaic plural in verse twenty-six, where he specifically referred to God (singular) as “Most High” (a description depicting his supremacy and uniqueness)? In other words, if he was referring to God in the plural in verse twenty-five to stress his highness, surely, of all places, verse twenty-six should have also been written in the plural; but he switches to the singular form: “Most High God (singular).”
What, then, does the switch in number from gods (elahin—v.25) to God (elah—vv. 26, 28-29) tell us about the pagan king's thought-process?
Although the king still retains his idolatrous beliefs (cf. Dan. 4.8, 18), where he thinks that one of the gods (plural) has come to rescue Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the furnace (v. 25), this rescue has led him to the belief that Yahweh in particular (singular), whom the Hebrews worship, is at least more powerful (“Most High”) than the remaining pantheon of gods (v. 26). He acknowledges God’s existence and supremacy, but believes he is just one among many others. To him, even though no other god can deliver like Yahweh can (v. 29), still, other inferior gods also exist.
Most likely, then, Nebuchadnezzar, grappling with how to describe the situation in keeping with his own pagan beliefs, said that “the form of the fourth is like a son of the gods,” as the newer versions indicate.
Definite or Indefinite Phrasing?
There is another linguistic matter to consider briefly, which concerns the construction of the phrasing.
The KJV/NKJV renders the phrase with definite force: “the Son of God.” The ASV (etc.) is mixed: “a (indefinite) son of the (definite) gods.”
It should be noted that there is no definite article attached to either “Son” (the Son) or “gods” (the gods) in either the Masoretic Text or the LXX (which, again, reads “angel” instead of “son,” but is also completely anarthrous).
In Semitic languages, phrasings like these (known as “construct chains”) must be “either entirely definite (the…of the…) or entirely indefinite (a…of a…).” They cannot be mixed in form without some form of circumlocution (see Mounce, p. 3; Rosenthal, p. 25).
In that light, though the ASV (etc.) is more likely in its rendition of elahin (gods), its phrasing needs adjustment.
According to Franz Rosenthal, the late professor of Semitic languages at Yale, since the noun, elahin (gods), in Daniel 3.25 is in the absolute state, “the entire construction” of this phrase is “indetermined (sic)”: literally, a son of gods (p. 25). Hence, neither the KJV (the Son of God), nor the ASV (a son of the gods), reflects the original phrasing precisely.
In his, Basics of Biblical Aramaic, Miles V. Van Pelt likewise renders the phrase with an entirely indefinite force: “a son of gods” (Exercise 6.9, Answer key; cf. pp. 31-38).
This appears to be the most literal rendition.
A More Dynamic Approach
Finally, while it is conventionally best to render the original language as literally as possible (known as “Form Equivalence”), occasionally a more dynamic approach is necessary (cf. Jms. 1.23).
Sometimes, the word, son, is used, not of familial relationship, but of “membership in a group or class,” like prophets (Amos 7.14; 1 Kings 20.35; 2 Kings 2.3, 5, 7, 15) or disciples (see Butler, 1991).
It is likely, then, that Nebuchadnezzar means to describe the fourth individual in the blaze as looking like one from the group of gods.
In keeping with this notion, Niehr observes that, “in the book of Daniel,” elahin (gods) appears as “a genitive of quality paraphrasing the adjective ‘divine’” (loc. cit.). He recommends the translation, “a divine one” for Daniel 3.25.
Rosenthal, too, suggests “a divine being” for this passage (loc. cit.). The fact that Nebuchadnezzar later describes the fourth individual as an “angel” (v. 28) does not negate this translation, for (1) in pagan mythology, gods can function as angels/messengers (e.g., Hermes); and (2) angels are divine (though not deity) in that they are supernatural and God-sent.
All that said, perhaps the best rendition of Daniel 3.25 is this: “the form of the fourth is like a supernatural being.” This takes into account all three interpretative possibilities (i.e., that he meant either: [a] the Son of God; [b] one of the gods [sent as a messenger by Yahweh, the "Most High" of all the gods]; or [c] an angel [in the Biblical sense, a non-deity, but of heavenly origin]—each of which he would certainly describe as a supernatural being), and also functions consistently with the grammar of the text: “a son (being) of gods (supernatural—a genitive of quality).”
In nebulous cases like this, where the original language can yield several different possible renditions which do not conflict with the context or with the plain teaching of other Bible passages, the responsible Bible student, who should always remain “open to reason” (Jms. 3.17, ESV), will avoid taking a radical position, embracing one translation while denouncing all others as "corrupt." Instead, it is best to accept a rendition based upon what is most likely the original meaning, while still being tolerant of other possibilities.
Whether the pagan king literally said, “a son of [some] gods” (most likely), “a son of the gods” (less likely), or “the Son of God” (least likely), the meaning of his remark still presents itself in either of these versions: i.e., the form of the fourth looked to him like a supernatural being.
Brown, F., S. Driver, & C. Briggs. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001. Butler, Trent C. (ed.). Entry for 'Sons of the Prophets'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hbd/s/sons-of-the-prophets.html. 1991. Gzella, Holger (ed.). Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Volume 16. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018. Mounce, Bill. Basics of Biblical Hebrew, “Chapter 10a — Construct Chain.” BillMounce.com. Access date: September 13, 2020. URL: http://hebrew.billmounce.com/BasicsBiblicalHebrew-10.pdf. Rosenthal, Franz. A Grammar of Biblical Aramaic: Vol. 7. Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz, 1961. Van Pelt, Miles V. Basics of Biblical Aramaic: Complete Grammar, Lexicon, and Annotated Text. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.