Daniel Chapter 5

The Handwriting on the Wall

Daniel 5:1-31

Context

Nebuchadnezzar’s empire did not last long after the great king’s death. The years following his death were marked with turmoil; there was civil war from within, and forces threatening the frontiers of the empire from the outside. Nebuchadnezzar’s son Evil-merodach (562 – 560 BC) succeeded him, but a mere two years into his reign he was assassinated in a palace revolt. One historian recorded that he was assassinated because he was “arbitrary and licentious”. Nergal-sharezer, his brother-in-law took his place, but was not long on the throne before he also died, passing on the responsibilities of the empire to his infant son Labashi-Marduk. With the growing threat of the Medes, a strong leader was needed, so conspirators assassinated the young king by beating him to death. They then elevated one of their own to the throne, Nabonidus in 556 BC.  To explain why the son of Nabonidus – Belshazzar (553 to 539 BC) – was on the throne in Babylon, many theologians unfairly state that Nabonidas was an absentee king, living at an oasis in the Arabian Peninsula, searching for exoteric enlightenment. This is highly unlikely as the conspirators would hardly have chosen a weak king, when the goal of their assassination was to introduce strong leadership.

Nabonidas, the last king of Babylon

Belshazzar was made the vice regent in Babylon, as Nabonidus was away doing what he felt was necessary to secure the empire. The Medes had become a major threat to the Babylonian control of trade roots, and this adversely effected the economy of the empire. In response Nabonidus sent troops to Carchemish to protect the Kings Highway (Egypt to Babylon) from Mede attacks. Then after three years of ruling in Babylon, he left to establish a firm control over the southern part of his empire, by seizing the oasis Tema. This oasis, in a very arid region, had become a key centre for a number of trade routes through the area. There Nabonidus began establishing a city that he wanted to become the second most important in the empire. It was while Nabonidus was at Tema, that Cyrus with the massive Medo-Persian army set siege to Babylon.

The promise made by Belshazzar to make Daniel “the third highest ruler in the kingdom” (Vs 16), if he interpreted the inscription, once more proves the historical accuracy of Daniel. The promise meant that only Nabonidus and Belshazzar would be superior to Daniel in the empire.

By this time, Daniel is an old man, perhaps 80 years old (if he had been 15 when exiled from Jerusalem in 605 BC). As we’ll see from Daniel 5:10-12, Daniel’s dedicated service had been forgotten by most.

The Growing Threat from Cyrus the Great

Cyrus the Great monument

The threat against the city of Babylon was very real, although the city defenses were considered by the Babylonians to be impregnable. The advance of the Medes and Persians across Babylon was unrelenting, with city after city falling to the unstoppable force. The city of Babylon was their ultimate goal, and that should have caused great concern. However, the city of Babylon was ruled by a young king, who had a major character flaw – arrogance.

Cyrus the Great was the founder of the Medo-Persian Empire, the greatest empire to have ever existed, stretching from the borders of Libya in the West to India in the east. The Medes and Persians had previously assisted the Babylonians in their conquest of Assyria, but in 539 BC the Medes and Persians under their new king Cyrus, turned on their former allies. The fifth chapter of Daniel takes up the story, with the army of Cyrus besieging the city of Babylon. The response to this threat by young Belshazzar was to throw a party.

Drinking from the Temple Goblets (5:1-4)

“1 King Belshazzar made a great feast for a thousand of his lords and drank wine in front of the thousand. 2 Belshazzar, when he tasted the wine, commanded that the vessels of gold and of silver that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple in Jerusalem be brought, that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them. 3 Then they brought in the golden vessels that had been taken out of the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. 4 They drank wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone”.

The young leader’s goal was to ease the fears of the citizens of Babylon, and to assure them of their security behind the great walls of the city. The Enduring Word Commentary explains how impressive the walls of Babylon were: “Conservative calculations set the dimensions of the ancient city of Babylon like this:

  • The outer walls were 27 kilometres long.
  • These walls were 7 meters thick and 90 feet 28 meters high.
  • The outer walls also had guard towers another 100 feet 30 meters high.
  • The city gates were made of bronze.
  • A system of inner and outer walls and moats made the city very secure” (1).

Belshazzar uses a religious festival as a means to take the minds of the population off the impending threat, by celebrating their gods in a drunken feast. There are a number of factors that seem to have influenced this decision:

  • The pagan king does what pagans would do in in such a situation, turn to his gods for protection. By honouring the gods – most likely the Babylonian gods Marduk and Neb – with a festival of celebration, he believed he would ensure their protection of the city.
  • The progress by Cyrus across Babylon would have taken a long time, he would be required to subdue all the cities that stood between him and Babylon. This meant that the city of Babylon had time to prepare for the coming siege, by storing massive amounts of food and wine that would last for years. Belshazzar was using the extravagant feast as a statement to the people of the confidence they should have in their food supply, and the city’s ability to withstand a long siege.
  • The statement, “when he tasted the wine,” is very likely the author’s tactful way of saying Belshazzar was drunk. Belshazzar does what young people do to escape their troubles – party. Alcohol was, and still is, a popular means to escape the worries and anxieties of life. For a short while he is able to forget his troubles.
  • It seems most likely that while in his drunken state, Belshazzar comes up with the next reason for his party. To remember, and celebrate the nations great military victories and past conquests. Belshazzar was leaning heavily on the greatness of Nebuchadnezzar, while in reality, he was a mere shadow of the man. So, to emphasise the greatness of Babylon, Belshazzar orders that the gold and silver goblets taken from the Temple, after the destruction of Jerusalem, be brought to the feast for the revellers to drink from.

The Handwriting on the Wall (5:5-6)

5 Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, opposite the lampstand. And the king saw the hand as it wrote. 6 Then the king’s colour changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together”.

Rembrandt, ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ (1635), oil on canvas, 66 x 82 in, National Gallery, London.

God has had to go through the stigma of being labelled by the Babylonians, as being the God who could not defend His people, or His holy city. He also had to endure being labelled as inferior to the gods of Babylon. God was divorced from His people because of their rebellion, these insults He had to endure. What God would not endure was the sacrilege caused by the flagrant desecration of His holy implements, in drunken revelry, and in reverence to pagan gods such as Marduk and Nebo, who are represented in the palace by idols.

God has been patient with Belshazzar, but the clock has just run out. Suddenly the palace was silent, the drunken laughter and revelry ceased, and all stared in amazement as a hand began to write on the wall. Fear grips the Babylonians, and there is a singular concern held by all the witness, what does the writing mean?

Daniel 2-7 – a Literary Sandwich

Once more we are seeing the matching structure of the book of Daniel (chiastic) which makes chapters 2 – 7 look like a literary sandwich:

  • Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of an idol representing powerful empires recorded in chapter 2, matches Daniel’s dream of four wild beasts in chapter 7; these are the two slices of bread.
  • The narratives of the fiery furnace of chapter 3, and Daniel in the lion’s den in chapter 6 both are examples of a God who is able to protect His people, are the lettuce in the sandwich.
  • Then Chapter 4 and 5 represent the middle of the sandwich – the two pieces of beef – Chapter 4 chronicles the humbling of Nebuchadnezzar, and in chapter 5 we see God humbling another king – Belshazzar.

Belshazzar, a forgotten figure

Belshazzar is a forgotten figure, there was no other proof, other than the book of Daniel that he existed, all other evidence stated that Nabonidus was the king of Babylon. This was fodder for the many liberal theologians who claimed that Daniel was written in around 160 BC, for Jews under the persecution of Antiochus. However, recent archaeological discoveries have proved otherwise, with findings that show Belshazzar was the regent king of Babylon. Archaeology proving once more the accuracy of Daniel.

No One Can Interpret the Writing (5:7-9)

“7 The king called loudly to bring in the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the astrologers. The king declared to the wise men of Babylon, ‘Whoever reads this writing, and shows me its interpretation, shall be clothed with purple and have a chain of gold around his neck and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.’ 8 Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or make known to the king the interpretation. 9 Then King Belshazzar was greatly alarmed, and his colour changed, and his lords were perplexed”.

Daniel records that the king “called out,” with his face drained of blood and his knees knocking together, it was probably more of a screech! Belshazzar wanted someone to interpret the words, but none is able – this is the third strike for the Maggi of Babylon. God is underlining an important message, your horoscope will not reveal your future! Remember Belshazzar is second in the kingdom (co-regent), after his father, the king. So, he offers a reward to whoever can read the words to be third highest ruler in the kingdom, along with a royal purple robe and a gold chain. However, the motivation to interpret the writing had limited value, with Medes and Persians camped outside the walls.

Daniel Is Summoned (5:10-16)

“10 The queen, because of the words of the king and his lords, came into the banqueting hall, and the queen declared, ‘O king, live forever! Let not your thoughts alarm you or your colour change. 11 There is a man in your kingdom in whom is the spirit of the holy gods. In the days of your father, light and understanding and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods were found in him, and King Nebuchadnezzar, your father—your father the king—made him chief of the magicians, enchanters, Chaldeans, and astrologers, 12 because an excellent spirit, knowledge, and understanding to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve problems were found in this Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar. Now let Daniel be called, and he will show the interpretation’”.

The “queen” is more likely Belshazzar’s mother, verse 3 of the first chapter tells us that Belshazzar’s wives were at the banquet. Being from a different generation, the queen mother remembers Daniel, and tells the king about Daniel’s abilities. She calls Daniel’s God “the holy gods,” even though she is not sure of the number of God’s he serves, she implies that God is unique, extraordinary different from the pagan gods who exhibit human frailties. As Daniel is not one of the drunken revellers at the feast celebrating a pagan god, they need to go and find Daniel, to inform him that he has been summoned to appear before the king.

“13 Then Daniel was brought in before the king. The king answered and said to Daniel, ‘You are that Daniel, one of the exiles of Judah, whom the king my father brought from Judah. 14 I have heard of you that the spirit of the gods is in you, and that light and understanding and excellent wisdom are found in you. 15 Now the wise men, the enchanters, have been brought in before me to read this writing and make known to me its interpretation, but they could not show the interpretation of the matter. 16 But I have heard that you can give interpretations and solve problems. Now if you can read the writing and make known to me its interpretation, you shall be clothed with purple and have a chain of gold around your neck and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom’”.

Daniel Provides an Interpretation (5:17)

Daniel showed deference to Nebuchadnezzar, but none to Belshazzar. There had been a mutual respect with Nebuchadnezzar, and likely a friendship between the two men. No such relationship exists between Daniel and Belshazzar.

“17 Then Daniel answered and said before the king, ‘Let your gifts be for yourself, and give your rewards to another. Nevertheless, I will read the writing to the king and make known to him the interpretation’”.

To refuse the king’s gifts, even before performing the required service, is clearly an insult. He despises Belshazzar for desecrating the golden goblets from Yahweh’s house. And, he knows that by the next day any reward he is given will be meaningless. Daniel is not impressed with the offer to be the third ruler of a city of idolaters, whose answer to being besieged by a mighty army is drunken revelry. Being ruler of a bunch of drunken idiots is hardly a motivation for Daniel.

The narrative is drawing a distinct contrast between temporal and spiritual behaviour. The temporal reaction to the threat of the siege is hedonistic, i.e. a seeking of comfort in the things of the world, is then compared to the sober spiritual behaviour of Daniel. There is little difficulty in believing that Daniel, a man of pray, would have been found in his room, seeking God as to what was required of him as he faced the forthcoming rule of the Meds and Persians. Daniel would have been spiritually prepared to meet the requirement of interpreting the writing on the wall.  

The Humbling of Nebuchadnezzar (5:18-21)

“18 ‘O king, the Most High God gave Nebuchadnezzar your father kingship and greatness and glory and majesty. 19 And because of the greatness that he gave him, all peoples, nations, and languages trembled and feared before him. Whom he would, he killed, and whom he would, he kept alive; whom he would, he raised up, and whom he would, he humbled. 20 But when his heart was lifted up and his spirit was hardened so that he dealt proudly, he was brought down from his kingly throne, and his glory was taken from him. 21 He was driven from among the children of mankind, and his mind was made like that of a beast, and his dwelling was with the wild donkeys. He was fed grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, until he knew that the Most High God rules the kingdom of mankind and sets over it whom he will’”.

Daniel begins by reminding Belshazzar of the story of how God humbled Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4). Daniel refers to Nebuchadnezzar as Belshazzar’s “father,” however, Nebuchadnezzar was not Belshazzar’s biological father, but rather a great royal predecessor. So, Daniel was referring to Nebuchadnezzar as “father,” in the sense that he was a great predecessor and example that Belshazzar should have emulated.

Sacrilege rebuked (5:22-23)

“22 ‘And you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this, 23 but you have lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven. And the vessels of his house have been brought in before you, and you and your lords, your wives, and your concubines have drunk wine from them. And you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know, but the God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways, you have not honoured’”.

Notice Daniel’s description of “the God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways” (5:23). This is a powerful statement, we owe God our lives, but so often we resist him in the arrogant belief that we think we can act more wisely than God. Of interest is to note that the word “breath” is used in the ESV translation in verse 23, while the NIV uses “life,” the more accurate translation is “life-breath” which is found in the NASV. The name off God is on every breath we take, if we close our eyes and listen to our breathing, when we breath in we make the sound “Yah”, and when we breath out the sound is “Weh”. The name Yahweh was on every “life-breath” that Belshazzar took.

Belshazzar, although second to his father, still held great authority and was a man to be feared, yet Daniel in righteous indignation treats him with scorn. As, a prophet of God he does not attempt to water down the message, but delivers it forcefully, as God intended. He indicates that Belshazzar was aware of God’s dealings with Nebuchadnezzar, therefore he should have known better than to desecrate His holy utensils. Belshazzar, and Nebuchadnezzar before him, had been irreverent towards God in the way that they handled the holy things of God. Belshazzar’s problem is the same as Nebuchadnezzar’s – pride. And he will be humbled! This is a powerful message once again for the Christian, expressing a need for us to analyse our lives, determine the presence of pride in our lives, and deal with it. The problem is pride is easily justified, our pride tells us that we deserve to feel the way we do, so our self-importance gives reason for pride in our lives. It is self-perpetuating and therefore an extremely difficult sin to eradicate.

Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin (5:24-28)

“24 ‘Then from his presence the hand was sent, and this writing was inscribed. 25 And this is the writing that was inscribed: Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin (Upharsin [NKJV]). 26 This is the interpretation of the matter: Mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; 27 Tekel, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; 28 Peres (Upharsin [NKJV]), your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians’”.

On completing his rebuke of Belshazzar’s foolish actions, Daniel proceeds to interpret the writing:

Mene: Was a word used for numbering and counting – God had counted up the number of days He wanted Belshazzar to be king of Babylon, that night was the last night. God has numbered the kingdom and put an end to it.

Tekel : Was a word used for weighing and assess worth by weighing. Belshazzar was placed on a scale and weighed, he had refused to learn from the life of Nebuchadnezzar – he had been weighed and found wanting.

Upharsin: Was a word used for expressing dividing or cutting in half. The kingdom would be chopped in half and given to Medes and Persians to devour.

This warning is history told hours in advance. This event was first revealed to Daniel 11 years earlier, in the third year of Belshazzar’s reign (8:1). Daniel was given a vision of a Ram and Goat (Vs. 3), Daniel is told that the ram that dominates the land is Medo-Persia (Vs. 20). So, Daniel already knew, even before the hand wrote on the wall, what would happen to Babylon. Going back 150 years before the event, the prophet Isaiah prophesied that God would “stir up against them the Medes (13:17),” and that they would be the kings to conquer Babylon. In fact, God even names Cyrus as the king who would do His bidding in Isaiah 45:1. God knew in eternity past His plan, it was now just unfolding.

The veracity of Daniels prophecies cannot be doubted, in Chapter 7, 9 and 11 Daniel writes of an evil dictator – the Antichrist. The man of sin will be a reality, yet the modern Church is virtually silent when is comes to the warning the world of the coming evil dictator. Daniel’s prophecies should be preparing the Church for the Antichrist’s apostate religion, and the need to inform all who will live during the Tribulation, that God can deliver even from the worst of kings in the worst of times.

Babylon Falls to the Medes and Persians (5:29-31)

“29 Then Belshazzar gave the command, and Daniel was clothed with purple, a chain of gold was put around his neck, and a proclamation was made about him, that he should be the third ruler in the kingdom. 30 That very night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was killed. 31 And Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old”.

Belshazzar fulfils his promise of a reward for interpreting the writing, but narrative reveals that the timing proved it to be an empty gesture, Babylon fell to the Medes and Persians that night. God gave Nebuchadnezzar a full year to repent, but Belshazzar had only a few hours before the judgment was carried out.

Cyrus Captures the city of Babylon

Cyrus established a siege of the city of Babylon, stationing the majority of his forces at the upstream and downstream gates that allowed the Euphrates River to flow through the city. Cyrus gave strict instruction to his soldiers to watch the banks of the river, and when the water level dropped, they were to enter the city through the river gates and sack the city. He then left the siege camp and travelled north up the Euphrates River, until he found a large low-lying swampy area to the side of the Euphrates River. Cyrus then had his engineers dig a canal from the swamp to the river. When the engineers opened the canal, sufficient water from the river flooded through to the swamp to lower the Euphrates River substantially. So much so, that the soldiers waiting by the river entrances of the city were able to wade thigh deep into the river, and then duck under the gates that hung down from the city walls into the river. Once inside they then proceeded to rampage through the city, which required little effort on their part, as the majority of the population of the city were heavily intoxicated, and therefore were no obstacle to the invading forces. 

Historical Accuracy

Herodotus, who records this ancient history, once again confirms the historical accuracy of the Bible, stating that the invading army experienced no resistance as the inhabitants of the city were celebrating a festival with dancing, feasting and drunkenness. So, the soldiers were able to go through the city with little resistance. The city is left intact, but many of the people, and all of the royal family were killed.

Chapter 5 reveals a great historical irony: the last act of the king of Babylon, the Empire that destroyed Jerusalem, was to honour a Jew.

The Fall of Babylon

Summary

  • Belshazzar was a proud fool, who believed he could make his own path, he knew all about God’s power and controlling hand, yet he ignored it. Just as we have in the world today, people know about Jesus, his death on the cross, and the reason why Jesus died, but they, like Belshazzar, are foolish. Their pride and selfish desires lead them to ignore the evidence, so that they can follow their own path, a path that leads to destruction.
  • Daniel 5 once again reveals the authority of God over kings and kingdoms. A lesson that should be learned is that we should be careful in how we act towards God, remembering to treat him as our sovereign Lord and not to be irreverent in our speech and our actions towards Him.
  • It is a sobering thought to remember that God’s name, Yahweh, is our very “life-breath”.
  • God does as He pleases (Psalm 115:3), judgement is determined by Him as He wills. Procrastination when it comes to repentance is therefore not a good idea.
  • There is a powerful lesson, that God is in control down to the very day and very hour. He is the God who is able to humble the proud and control times and events down to the very hour, minute and second.
  • Daniels’s prophecies have been proven repeatedly to be detailed and accurate. We should be paying more attention to the prophecies of Daniel that are yet to be fulfilled.

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