The fifth chapter of Daniel continues with one of his six court narratives. The text falls into five different scenes: (1) The celebratory banquet of Belshazzar (5:1-9), (2) The Queen Mother’s speech (5:10-12), (3) Belshazzar’s speech (5:13-16), (4) Daniel’s speech (5:17-28), and (5) The way the banquet ended (5:29-31). All events in this chapter took place in one evening, which also became the last evening and the end of the Babylonian kingdom in October 539 B.C.
It all happened within some 32 years of the death of Nebuchadnezzar in 562 B.C. The Greek historians, Herodotus and Xenophon, recount how the Persians dug a trench to divert the waters of the Euphrates River, which ordinarily would run right through the city of Babylon, off into lower land, thereby allowing the enemy troops to enter the city through the lowered river bed and overrun drunken guards and a tipsy government before they realized what was happening on that final October evening of the Babylonian empire in 539.
Once again, however, mainline scholars have treated this chapter in a critical way, alleging that it contained “prophetic legend,” “myth,” Jewish “midrash,” or Jewish “pesher.” Some of the items that seemed too miraculous for them to regard as historical included: the handwriting on the wall, the lack of an identity of the Queen Mother, and the claim that the conquerors of Babylon and the new victors were a combination of the Medes and Persians, and not just one of those two nations, viz. the Medes.
If Daniel chapter 4 was God’s final word to Nebuchadnezzar, then Daniel 5 was God’s final word to Belshazzar. Thus, it became clear that God was just as much in charge of the heathen Gentile world and their rulers as he was of the Jewish people. The degeneracy of respect and regard for the sacred vessels of God stolen from Yahweh’s temple in Nebuchadnezzar’s day, and now abusively used in the time of Belshazzar, is a commentary on how the morals and fear of God had likewise declined. Indeed, the glory of Babylon was also declining as Nebuchadnezzar’s successor, Evil Merodach (562-560), ruled only for some two years, due to his notoriously wicked ways, after which he was murdered by Neriglissar, his own sister’s husband. Neriglissar (560-556), in turn, died on the battlefield in the fourth year of his reign. Neriglissar’s infant son (Labashi-Marduk (556), was enthroned for less than a year when Nabonidus (555-539) usurped the throne after he had tortured the young king to death. The last years of Nabonidus’ reign were spent in Tema, in the Arabian Peninsula, while his adopted (or real son?) carried on the affairs of state in Babylon. Thus, half of Nabonidus’ seventeen-year reign saw the king “entrust the kingship [to Belshazzar],” as the archaeological document called the “Nabonidus Chronicle” attests.
Title: “Honoring the God Who Weighs Our Lives in His Hands”
Text: Daniel 5:1-31
Focal Point: v 23d, “But you did not honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways.”
Homiletical Keyword: “Areas”
Interrogative: What are the areas in which God weighs all peoples and nations in his hands?
I. OUR RESPONSE TO THE SACRED (5:1-9)
A. Sacrilegious Insolence
B. Excursus on Drunkenness (Proverbs 23:29-36)
C. Praise of the gods of Gold and Silver
II. OUR RESPONSE TO THE REVELATION OF GOD’S WILL (5:10-16)
A. The Setting of God’s Revelation
B. The Arrival of God’s Revelation
III. OUR RESPONSE TO THE LESSONS OF HISTORY (5:17-31)
A. Belshazzar’s Four Sins
1. No Humility
2. Excess of Pride
3. Profanation of the Holy
4. No Honor of God
B. God’s Heavenly Graffiti
C. The Results of Disregarding God
(STUDY OF TEXT BEGINS…)
A. Sacrilegious Insolence
After the death of Nebuchadnezzar, the glory of Babylon was rapidly fading. Nevertheless, this nation continued its high ways as if nothing had happened. In fact, Belshazzar, who had taken over the daily operation of the affairs of state while his father, Nabonidus was away in Tema, Arabia, “gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them” (1). But suddenly the happy mood of all there turned all of a sudden as Belshazzar ”gave orders to bring in the gold and silver goblets that Nebuchadnezzar, his father had taken from the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines might drink from them” (2, 3). That is when things got ugly.
Belshazzar defamed the God of Israel by using the sacred vessels that had been looted from the capture of Jerusalem’s temple. Worse still was the fact that as they took what was sacred and dedicated distinctly to Yahweh as the king, his nobles, with his wives and concubines “praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone” (4).
Five times in this fifth chapter Nebuchadnezzar is called Belshazzar’s “father” (e.g. 2, 11 [tris], 13, 18) and he is called his “son” (22). However, we know that Nabonidus was his father. Therefore, it must be remembered that the terms “father” and “son” are often used figuratively just as Elijah was called Elisha’s “father” (2 Kgs 2:12) and their disciples were called “sons of the prophets.” There is the possibility, however, that Nabonidus married the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar and that Belshazzar was the grandson of Nebuchadnezzar. The term “father” is also used for “grandfather.”
B. Excursus on Drunkenness (Proverbs 23:29-35)
Belshazzar’s decision to introduce that which had been taken from the sanctuary of Yahweh almost fifty years earlier, and suddenly hand them out to a drunken crowd, must have meant that he too was already deeply intoxicated. The scene was, as some have described it, “one of ostentatious opulence.” It is very reminiscent of the feast later put on by the Persian king Xerxes as described in the book of Esther (Est1:2-5). Later banquets, such as this one, were noted for their orgiastic and cultic practices, but regardless whether that was true or not of this Belshazzar banquet, what happened here was a scene that was revolting to say the least.
We are not told what occasioned this banquet, but given how swiftly events moved that same night, it may have been meant to be a morale booster against the impending invasion of the Medes and Persians. The text specially notes that the Belshazzar was drinking “with” (Aramaic qabel) or “in the presence of” his nobles. This is most unusual, for normally the king was hidden from the view of the others at the banquet. Does this suggest then that he was “showing off” in the presence of his wives and concubines?
Not only was the whole scene out of line, so was Belshazzar. His reckless summons to bring the vessels captured from Jerusalem seems to suggest that he wanted, in his intoxicated state, to blaspheme Yahweh by making him too look common over against what usually was regarded as sacred. If nothing else, perhaps superstition alone would have dictated that such an act of high insolence should be avoided.
It is not an accident that the warning about drunkenness in Proverbs 23:29-35 is juxtaposed with the warning against the lure of foreign and unfaithful women (Prov 23:26-28). The charming vixen is placed opposite the charms of the product of the vine. The teaching in verse 29 begins with a riddle expressed in a six-fold repetition of words, “Who has?” For each of the six questions, in a repeated anaphora (a figure of speech meaning the “carrying back of the idea to a set of words that has already occurred) is answered in verse 31. While Scripture does not teach total abstinence, but instead moderation, yet it does sternly warn against drunkenness as a sin (Dt 21:20-21;1 Cor 6:9-10; and Gal 5:19-21).
Add to the drunkenness the brash invocation of idol gods, while they are toasting these false deities with toasts lifted from the sacred vessels of Yahweh and you have a recipe for a disaster.
Who, then, has “sorrow,” “strife,” “complaints,” “needless bruises” and “bloodshot eyes” except those who linger over wine, taught Solomon in Proverbs (29-31). The consequences of lingering over alcoholic beverages is that one will “see strange sights” (33a),”imagine confusing things” (33b), and act like one who is “lying on top of the rigging” of a ship (34), unaware of the danger he is in.
All of a sudden the rivalry was interrupted by “the fingers of a human hand … [which] wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lamp stand in the royal palace” (5). Archaeologists have uncovered a large throne room, some 56 feet wide and 173 feet long in Babylon. Midway along the long wall, opposite the entrance, was a niche of front of the throne room that was covered with white plaster. This may have been the very room and same wall where the writing appeared.
This event was enough to alarm the king as “his face turned pale….and his knees knocked together and his legs gave way” (6). To understand what all this meant, this king called for the same failed “enchanters, astrologers and diviners,” who previously had been unable to deliver (7). If any of these so-called “wise men” were able to interpret the handwriting on the wall, the king promised that they would “be clothed in purple,” and have a gold chain placed around [their] neck, and … be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom” (7b-d). This promise of being “third” confirms the fact that Belshazzar himself was second in the kingdom to his absent father Nabonidus, who was in Arabia for those years.
I. Our Response to the Revelation of His Will (5:10-16)
A. The Setting of God’s Revelation
Alarmed by the fact that the wise men were unable to decipher the writing on the wall, the “Queen Mother” entered the hall unbidden on hearing the commotion caused by the mysterious writing on the wall (cf Est 4:11). She began by urging Belshazzar to cease being alarmed and to stop looking so pale (10). This queen could not be Belshazzar’s queen, for his wives and concubines were already at the banquet. Neither could this queen be the aged widow of Nebuchadnezzar, for whom he built the hanging gardens to overcome her home sickness for the hills of Media, called Amytis. More probably, she is the wife of Nabonidus and mother of Belshazzar, called Nitocris, also a daughter of Nebuchadnezzar.
Her solution is to call attention to Daniel, who “in the time of your father was found to have insight and intelligence and wisdom like that of gods” (11). She refers to “Daniel” by his Hebrew name, for she has lived long enough to have witnessed what Daniel had done in the past.
Daniel was summoned immediately and his past accomplishments were rehearsed (13-14). He was also told of the failure of the other wise men to interpret what the writing meant (15). Daniel was then asked to interpret the writing as the list of gifts was once again enumerated (16). The reply that came from Daniel was unexpected, for he told the king he could “keep [his] gifts to himself and give the rewards to someone else” (17a). Nevertheless, he would read the handwriting for Belshazzar and tell him what it meant.
II. Our Response to the Lessons of History (5:17-31)
A. Belshazzar’s Four Sins
Daniel began his interpretation by reminding Belshazzar of what God had done for “[his] father Nebuchadnezzar” (18). God had allowed his father to enjoy “sovereignty and greatness and glory and splendor” (18). He was at once feared and dreaded by all nations, for carried the power of life and death over all (19).
As a result of all of God’s blessing, “his [Belshazzar’s] heart became arrogant and hardened with pride” (20a). Therefore, God had stripped Nebuchadnezzar of his throne and sent him away for seven years to live with the beasts of the field until he acknowledged his pride and humbled himself before God.
Amazingly, Belshazzar learned very little from what “his father” had gone through. “Instead [Belshazzar has] set himself up against the Lord of heaven” (23a). The prophet Isaiah had used this rebuke for the king of Babylon from that prophet as well: “You have said in your heart, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God…. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High … But you are brought down to the grave, to the depths of the pit” (Isa 14:13-15). Was Isaiah pointing to Nebuchadnezzar or Belshazzar? It could apply to either one or to both.
3. Profaned the Holy
Daniel went on to rebuke Belshazzar by noting how he had “set [himself] up against the Lord of Heaven” (23a), in that he had taken the “goblets from [Yahweh’s] temple,” as he and his nobles, his wives, and concubines, drank wine from them and toasted other gods (23a-b). The very verb ”to profane” literally means to take “from” (pro) the temple,” (fanum).
4. Did Not Honor Yahweh
Even though “God [was] hold[ing] in his hand [Belshazzar’s] life and all [his] ways, there was no recognition of God (23d). Because all men and women are made by God in his image, he has a natural claim over all their lives.
B. Belshazzar’s Warning from the Hand Writing on the Wall
1. Names of Weights or Coins?
Since the king was not honoring the living and real God, this handwriting on the wall was directly from God. The three terms, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin were not mean to be a code or the like, for the king, no doubt, could probably give a dictionary meaning of each of the terms. What made it more difficult for us to understand since that day when they were first given, is the fact that the scholars have added to the task by giving their own solutions. However, the three names are simply the names of three Aramaic weighs: “a mina, a mina, a shekel and a half piece.” It was as if the writing in modern western terms had said: “a dollar, a dollar, a dime and a penny.” Or in English terms: “A pound, a pound, a shilling and a pence.”
2. “Counted, Counted, Weighed, and Divided”
These three terms, if read as verbs meant: “Numbered/counted, numbered/counted” (Past participles of mene), “weighed/assessed,” and “shared/divided”(26). Belshazzar’s kingdom already had had its days of existence numbered. The weighing of the nation gave the assessment that the kingdom would now be shared as it would be divided by the Medes and Persians.
Daniel did not mean that the Babylonian kingdom would be divided for the Medes and the Persians to each have a share. The nation of Babylon had been placed on God’s scales and morally had failed to pass the test. It would, therefore, pass on to the next empire, the Medo-Persian empire.
C. The Results of Disregarding God
That very night in October of 539 B.C., the end came to the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Herodotus, who visited this place seventy-five years after the Fall of Babylon, explained that King Cyrus finished what he had begun in the Spring of 539 B.C. Even though Belshazzar had been defeated in the field by Cyrus, Belshazzar retreated to his famous walled city of Babylon, feeling that it was so unconquerable that he would be safe. Alas, Cyrus diverted the waters of the Euphrates and he was able to storm the city through the lowered Euphrates River while the banquet was in progress.
In the meantime, Daniel was clothed in purple, given a golden chain and promoted to number three man in the kingdom. However, it was all in vain, for “that very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians was slain and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom at the age of sixty-two” (30).
Apart from the book of Daniel, the name “Darius the Mede” is unknown to history. This is unusual, since Cyrus is well known from other places in Scripture as the liberator of the Jews from Babylon (2 Chron 36:22-23; Isa 45:1; Ezr 1:1-8; 3:7; 4:5; 5:13- 6:14). There was a Darius I Hystaspes, who came later in History (522-486 B.C., so some have assumed that Daniel just confused the later Darius with Cyrus, whom he confusingly and falsely named “Darius the Mede.”
But there are a number of reasons why such a confusion was most unlikely. Daniel served in both those governments at this time of transition, so a mental confusion is most unlikely. Moreover, since Darius I Hystaspes served for thirty-six years, as already noted, so this would not match his being aged sixty-two when he began his reign, making him ninety-eight at the end of his reign!
Daniel 6 calls “Darius” the “king” twenty-eight times, yet the chapter ends in verse 28 by equating “the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian.” Yet Daniel 1:21 claimed that while Daniel remained in his new position he was awarded at the beginning of his time in Babylon with the three other Hebrew captives until the “first year of Cyrus.”
The fact is that “Darius the Mede” remains an historical conundrum, for nowhere outside of the Bible have any of the conservative solutions been verified. Some harmonizers have posed a set of solutions that makes Darius the Mede an alternate name for Gubaru, a district governor who ruled almost in place of the king – along with a number of other suggested titles. John C. Whitcomb was one who argued for such a position. However, Donald J. Wiseman argued that “Cyrus the Persian” merely took over the title of “Darius the Mede,” for in 550 B.C. Media ceased to be a separate nation and became the first satrapy, “Mada.” Wiseman would translate Daniel 6:28 as saying, “So this Daniel prospered in the reign of Darius, that is, in the reign of Cyrus the Persian.” This seems to be the best solution based on all the data we currently possess. Even while such a solution may be possible, so far we have not had outside verification of this dual identity except in a possible reading of Scripture.
1. We must always be cautious of using in a profane way things that are sacred and dedicated for holy use.
2. There comes a time when it is too late for an individual or a nation to respond to the warnings and call of God, for the time for responding to the call of God has expired.
3. God sometimes sends his warning alarm to a nation as a backup to his written word, but often mortals are so stubborn and bound in their ways that even supernatural events have little or no lasting effect on them.
Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., PhD
R.P. Dougherty, “Nabonidus and Belshazzar,” Yale Oriental Series, XV, 1929, pp 105-111. See also James Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, pp 313-14.
Link to Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. website: www.walterckaiserjr.com