Undoubtedly for Jewish readers, who were already interested in the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego; designed for those who had Daniel's book in their hands, who felt the Three to be heroes rightly honoured.
Of course, if the words were really spoken by Azarias, they were for the honour of God and the benefit of himself and his companions in the fire; and the Song itself becomes a real thanksgiving, on the spur of the moment, for the literal fulfilment of such promises as Isai. xliii.2 -- a form, for their own personal use, to express their immediate feelings.
Verse 24 (Th') might suggest the idea that the prayer (and perhaps the Song also) were uttered in the interval between the issue and the execution of the king's order for burning alive; but the words en meso to puri in v.25 forbid this view. (As to a possible subsequent insertion of the prayer, see Integr. and State of Text,' p.42.) Theodotion also precludes this idea by his insertion of en meso tes phlogos in v.24 itself, as well as en meso tou puros in v.25. The slight change in the case of the last two words lessens the likelihood of their having been transferred from v.25 of one version to v.25 of the other. But it is quite possible that Th may have purposely omitted the clause in v.24 of O', beginning hote autous, in order to shut out the idea of these devotions having taken place in the interval suggested above.
Dean Farrar even says that the Song is "not very apposite" (Expositor's Bible, Daniel, Lond.1895, p.180), though other minds find it remarkably so. In writing on v.27 (50) he erroneously substitutes notion for drosou. This is probably copied from Ball's note in loc. If the latter part of v.66 (88) was in the original Song, the reference to their own position is of course apposite enough.
Even a writer of such a stamp as Albert Barnes (Comm. on Dan. iii.23) is obliged to confess that "with some things that are improbable and absurd, the Song contains many things that are beautiful and that would be highly appropriate if a song had been uttered at all in the furnace." But to a contrary effect J. Kennedy goes even further than Dean Farrar, calling it "an elaborate composition by some one whose imagination failed to realise what was fitting and natural to men in the position of the three Hebrews in the fiery furnace" (Dan. from a Christian Standpoint, 1898, p.55).
The passage vv.26 to 34 is provided in Littledale's Priest's P.B. (1876, p.95) as a suitable Scripture reading for those "in fever." Although there is a kind of appropriateness in the narrative of the fire being driven off, many would regard this application of the extract as highly fanciful, and not quite agreeable to the object with which the piece was written.
Unless we assume the writer to be purely an imaginative novelist, the preservation of serviceable traditions as profitable records of religion, is clearly his principal aim. This addition cannot reasonably be said in any way to distort or disagree with, though it adds to, the sacred narrative. It is very well fitted into the main story; and the non-appearance of Daniel is quite in accord with his absence from the scene in chap. iii.
An edifying purpose is most conspicuous, and, if we assume that it is really an interpolation of the original book, we may well suppose with Bishop Gray, that "some writer desirous of imitating and embellishing the sacred text" has left us this specimen of his work; that the veneration of some Hellenistic Jew probably induced him to fabricate this ornamental addition to the history (op. cit. pp.610, 611).
One aim would be to satisfy the interest awakened by the wonderful experiences of the three, which afforded a narrative ground-work for this extension; falling in this respect, as Prof. Ryssel points out (Kautzsch I.167), into the same category as the Prayer of Manasses and the additions to Esther. It may be said that resistance to idolatry, securing divine deliverance, is, as in Bel and the Dragon, the "motif" of the piece. But this is not accomplished without great peril and anxiety to these martyrs in will, who kept before them an uncompromising standard, worthy of their noble lineage (Dan. i.3), as well as of their true religion.
In some respects we are reminded of Jonah's prayer, which had a similar object, viz., to secure a deliverance from hopeless danger, a deliverance as marvellous as that of the Three. The words by which it is introduced are similar (kai proseuxato Ionas . . . . ek tes koilias tou ketous kai eipen, Jon. ii.2; kai sustas Azarias proseuxato kai . . . . en meso tou puros eipen, Dan. iii.25, Th); and the spirit of turning to God in dire straits is the same. But Jonah's prayer differs from Azarias' in containing much mention of his immediate danger. Yet the absence of this from Azarias' prayer hardly amounts to a probable indication of forgery; indeed the possibility of so long an utterance implies some restraint of the consuming power of the furnace, such as is described in v.27 of the Chaldee.
A subsidiary purpose answered in the Song proper is that of joining nature with ourselves, by addressing it in a series of invitations to magnify Him who is its God and ours alike, thus interpreting the feelings which nature maybe supposed to entertain. It is recognised that the irrational as well as the rational have their rightful spheres of action; and a wholesome sympathy is manifested with those portions of nature which we think are lower than ourselves. With this may be compared Adam. and Eve's morning hymn (in Milton's Paradise Lost, Book V., l.153 sq.), which is very similar in tone and in sequence of objects apostrophized.
The Song so readily lends itself to use as a Canticle that the idea inevitably arises of its having been composed with that purpose in view; but proof that it was ever so used by the Jews seems entirely wanting. The statements made in some P.B. manuals that it was so used appear to have arisen from a misunderstanding of an ambiguous sentence of Wheatley's (see Liturgical Use,' p.83). Still, there may have been an arrière pensée in the composer's mind of providing models of prayer and of praise for others, in crisis of trial or deliverance, to offer unto God. It is pleasing to note in this respect, that the thanksgiving is not stinted, but is even longer than the prayer. Nowhere is the manifold wealth of God's revelation in nature more fully and comprehensively set forth in the most exalted spirit of praise; so that, if this were one of the composer's objects, it is most abundantly answered.