Have you ever seen a tragedy coming and could do nothing to stop it? One evening as my family and I returned from a school outing, a car passed us at incredible speed, losing control as it sped by. Careening out of control, the car bounced along the center median, rupturing the gas tank and spewing a trail of gas down the highway. Sparks flew as the underside of the car scraped the concrete curb.
Instantly, the sparks ignited, and flames followed the car to its final halt. We watched helplessly while the flames caught up with the car, ignited the gas tank, and engulfed the car in flames. A wall of fire between us and the automobile prevented our rendering aid. Thankfully, those on the other side of the flames were able to rescue the passenger.
Reading Daniel 5 gives me that same feeling of helplessness and distress. From our distance in time, our knowledge of history, and the account of Daniel, we know the king, and likely those dining with him at his royal banquet, are destined for destruction. Yet we can do nothing to prevent it. Helplessly, we look on as judgment day comes for king Belshazzar.
Announcement of the king’s coming judgment begins by a mysterious hand writing on the wall of the banquet hall. Crying aloud, the king summons the wise men of Babylon. Their inability to fulfill his instructions only adds to his frustration. When his ability to interpret such matters is made known to the king, Daniel enters the scene.
It was in chapter 2 of the Book of Daniel that king Nebuchadnezzar had a distressing dream, which he demanded that his wise men reveal and interpret; they could not do so. Daniel revealed the dream and its meaning to king Nebuchadnezzar, and in so doing spared the lives of the wise men. In chapter 4, Nebuchadnezzar had yet another dream. Once again, the king first sought the meaning from the other wise men of Babylon. When all others failed to explain the king’s dream, Daniel revealed its meaning and called on the king to repent, so that the threatened outcome might be delayed or prevented.
Another king now sits on the throne in Babylon. His name is Belshazzar, and Nebuchadnezzar was his “father.” For years, the skeptics pointed to this chapter as yet another evidence of the late date and fictitious character of the Book of Daniel. More recent findings have led many Bible scholars, even some of the more liberal ones, to agree with the facts presented in this chapter.
Recent archaeological findings have named Belshazzar and identified him as the son of Nabonidus. Now, conservative scholars generally agree that Belshazzar shared a co-regency with his father, especially in his father’s absence from Babylon. This could explain how Belshazzar offered the man who could interpret the writing on the wall the position of third ruler of the kingdom (Daniel 5:16).51
Nearly 25 years have passed since the events of chapter 4 and over 70 years since chapter 1. Now advanced in years, Daniel is a senior statesman in Babylon. He has outlasted a number of kings and in his time Belshazzar, the last of the Chaldean kings of Babylon, will be killed and Babylon will pass from Chaldean rule to rule by Darius the Mede.
In chapters 1-4, we have an account of the life of Nebuchadnezzar, the first Babylonian king to rule over the captive Jews. The account looks at several events in the life of this great king, which eventually bring him to his knees in worship and praise of the God of Israel. Daniel then passes over several kings, giving us this brief account of the last day in the reign of Belshazzar, the last of the Chaldean kings.
The death of Belshazzar at the hand of Darius is a partial fulfillment of the prophecy revealed to king Nebuchadnezzar by his dream in chapter 2. There, Daniel informed Nebuchadnezzar that his kingdom was the first of four kingdoms to precede the coming of Messiah. His was the kingdom of gold, to be followed by a lesser kingdom of silver (Daniel 2:39). The kingdom of silver is introduced in Daniel 5, when Darius captures Babylon, and Belshazzar is put to death. The Medo-Persian kingdom is born, fulfilling the first part of the prophecy revealed through Daniel.
1 Belshazzar the king held a great feast for a thousand of his nobles, and he was drinking wine in the presence of the thousand. 2 When Belshazzar tasted the wine, he gave orders to bring the gold and silver vessels which Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem, in order that the king and his nobles, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them. 3 Then they brought the gold vessels that had been taken out of the temple, the house of God which was in Jerusalem; and the king and his nobles, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. 4 They drank the wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone.
Understanding how things went from bad to worse in these verses is not difficult. As a college student, I worked several months for a caterer. One night we catered a banquet for a group of socialites in the city of Seattle. As the night wore on and the alcohol flowed freely, I saw and heard things I never would have expected or believed from people normally very proper and dignified.
Such seems to have been the scene at Belshazzar’s banquet.52 One thousand of the king’s nobles were invited, along with their wives or other women. The king was responsible for what happened, and too much wine seems to have contributed to his poor judgment. A false sense of pride and self-sufficiency seems to have dominated the dinner party. The king remembered the expensive vessels which Nebuchadnezzar, his father,53 had taken when he defeated and captured Jerusalem. How much more impressive the evening would be if they drank their wine from the gold and silver vessels from the temple in Jerusalem.54
And so the vessels were brought in. The wine continued to flow freely, and toasts began to be offered. That these pagans were engaged in a kind of drinking bout with the sacred temple vessels was bad enough, but the ultimate blasphemy was toasting the gods of gold, silver, brass, iron, wood, and stone.55
God has a limit to how far He will allow men to go in their sin. In His longsuffering and mercy, God may allow men to continue in their sin for a time. But there is a time for judgment.56 The king and his Babylonian dinner guests crossed the line that fateful night in the banquet hall of Babylon. Judgment day had come, and the writing on the wall announced its arrival.
5 Suddenly the fingers of a man’s hand emerged and began writing opposite the lampstand on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, and the king saw the back of the hand that did the writing. 6 Then the king’s face grew pale, and his thoughts alarmed him; and his hip joints went slack, and his knees began knocking together. 7 The king called aloud to bring in the conjurers, the Chaldeans and the diviners. The king spoke and said to the wise men of Babylon, “Any man who can read this inscription and explain its interpretation to me will be clothed with purple, and have a necklace of gold around his neck, and have authority as third ruler in the kingdom.” 8 Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the inscription or make known its interpretation to the king. 9 Then King Belshazzar was greatly alarmed, his face grew even paler, and his nobles were perplexed.
Knowing the power of the Babylonian kings,57 Belshazzar must have seen many men stand in fear and trembling before him. Now it was his turn to tremble. In that torch-lit banquet hall, the revelry had reached its peak, doubtlessly with loud boasting and toasting, laughter and celebration. Likely, the king was the life of the party. Perhaps he was closest to the sudden emerging of the mysterious hand in the light of the nearby lamp.
One might have thought the king was having a heart attack. Barely able to stand, his face was ashen and seized with terror. The raucous laughter turned to deafening silence with all eyes on the king. The king’s eyes were fixed upon the hand as it wrote. As a sense of foreboding and panic fell on the crowd, all eyes turned to the mysterious writing on the wall. The king’s actions alarmed all who were present.
One can only imagine the scene. Already affected by too much wine, the king’s terror robbed his legs of all strength. The lower part of his body seems to have lost control. Crying aloud in fear, his speech probably slurred, the king immediately summoned his wise men to the banquet hall. What did these words on the wall mean? He must know. A tempting reward was offered to anyone who could interpret the meaning of the handwriting on the wall.
Some think the king did not recognize the words, while others believe he only failed to understand their meaning. Since the words seem to be written in Aramaic, and there are only three, it may be that he recognized the words but did not understand their meaning. Unable to decipher their meaning, the wise men come and go. The king’s fear and distress intensifies while the others remain terror stricken.
10 The queen entered the banquet hall because of the words of the king and his nobles; the queen spoke and said, “O king, live forever! Do not let your thoughts alarm you or your face be pale. 11 “There is a man in your kingdom in whom is a spirit of the holy gods; and in the days of your father, illumination, insight, and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods were found in him. And King Nebuchadnezzar, your father, your father the king, appointed him chief of the magicians, conjurers, Chaldeans, and diviners. 12 “This was because an extraordinary spirit, knowledge and insight, interpretation of dreams, explanation of enigmas, and solving of difficult problems were found in this Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar. Let Daniel now be summoned, and he will declare the interpretation.”
The queen mother58 does not seem to have attended the banquet, but eventually the cries of those in the banquet hall reach her ears, and she arrives on the scene. Taking note of Belshazzar’s appearance and demeanor, she tries to calm him. She informs the king that in the past a man named Daniel had successfully dealt for many years with such difficult matters. Daniel could decipher the words and their meaning.
The queen has great confidence in Daniel’s ability based upon his track record in the history of Babylonian affairs. Her summary of Daniel’s accomplishments in verse 12 suggests that Daniel performed other amazing tasks throughout the lifetime of king Nebuchadnezzar. Those recorded in the Book of Daniel are but a sampling of Daniel’s ministry to the king.
Sadly, we must observe that the queen mother’s confidence in Daniel does not seem to have been related to any personal faith in his God. She refers to Daniel and his great wisdom in pagan terms and makes no reference to Daniel’s God as the God of the Jews. She simply refers to his wisdom as having its source in “the gods.” His wisdom was extraordinary, but not the wisdom of a sovereign God. Her knowledge of Daniel and his God is superior to that of Belshazzar, but inferior to that of Nebuchadnezzar’s final assessment (see Daniel 4:2-3, 34-37). Her confidence does seem to produce a calming effect on the king and his guests. The king summons Daniel to appear before the king and his guests that very night.
13 Then Daniel was brought in before the king. The king spoke and said to Daniel, “Are you that Daniel who is one of the exiles from Judah, whom my father the king brought from Judah? 14 “Now I have heard about you that a spirit of the gods is in you, and that illumination, insight, and extraordinary wisdom have been found in you. 15 “Just now the wise men and the conjurers were brought in before me that they might read this inscription and make its interpretation known to me, but they could not declare the interpretation of the message. 16 “But I personally have heard about you, that you are able to give interpretations and solve difficult problems. Now if you are able to read the inscription and make its interpretation known to me, you will be clothed with purple and wear a necklace of gold around your neck, and you will have authority as the third ruler in the kingdom.”
When Daniel arrived, the king was eager to assure himself that this was the man the queen mother had recommended with the credentials to perform the task at hand. His questions all pertain to Daniel’s ministry during the reign of his “father” Nebuchadnezzar. They will, to some degree, become the basis for Daniel’s indictment of the king’s sin in the verses which follow. The question then will not be whether Daniel demonstrated divine wisdom, but what this king did with the knowledge of such wisdom.
The failure of all the other wise men in the kingdom is reported to Daniel in the words of verse 15. Daniel was being asked to do what no other wise man in Babylon could do, all having failed before Daniel was summoned. If Daniel was able to fulfill the king’s request, there would be a reward. The king promised royal clothing, a gold necklace, and a position of power directly under him. Obviously, the king was eager to know what those words on the wall meant.
17 Then Daniel answered and said before the king, “Keep your gifts for yourself, or give your rewards to someone else; however, I will read the inscription to the king and make the interpretation known to him. 18 “O king, the Most High God granted sovereignty, grandeur, glory, and majesty to Nebuchadnezzar your father. 19 “And because of the grandeur which He bestowed on him, all the peoples, nations, and men of every language feared and trembled before him; whomever he wished he killed, and whomever he wished he spared alive; and whomever he wished he elevated, and whomever he wished he humbled. 20 “But when his heart was lifted up and his spirit became so proud that he behaved arrogantly, he was deposed from his royal throne, and his glory was taken away from him. 21 “He was also driven away from mankind, and his heart was made like that of beasts, and his dwelling place was with the wild donkeys. He was given grass to eat like cattle, and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven, until he recognized that the Most High God is ruler over the realm of mankind, and that He sets over it whomever He wishes. 22 “Yet you, his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, even though you knew all this, 23 but you have exalted yourself against the Lord of heaven; and they have brought the vessels of His house before you, and you and your nobles, your wives and your concubines have been drinking wine from them; and you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone, which do not see, hear or understand. But the God in whose hand are your life-breath and your ways, you have not glorified. 24 “Then the hand was sent from Him, and this inscription was written out.
Daniel begins by turning down Belshazzar’s reward. Let the king keep his gifts or give them to someone else. Why would he decline Belshazzar’s offer? Daniel knows that the king’s gifts are virtually useless. What good would it do Daniel to be given the third highest office in the administration of Belshazzar when his reign would end that very night? Daniel was God’s servant, divinely gifted to interpret dreams. He would not prostitute his gift by using it for his own gain. His was a gift of grace, and he would use it that way. Finally, Daniel was not “for hire.” As God’s prophet, Daniel spoke to men for God. He was not like Balaam, whose ministry could be bought. When the king pressed Daniel to take the gifts, Daniel did so, knowing he had faithfully carried out his task as God’s servant.
Verses 18-24 are fascinating. In these verses Daniel explains the guilt of king Belshazzar. The writing on the wall, explained in verses 25-28, speak of the imminent judgment of God which will fall upon Belshazzar and his kingdom, due to sin. Daniel spends more time on the king’s guilt than on his punishment, as he devotes more time to explaining the reason for the writing than the meaning of the writing.
Verses 18-24 are intriguing also because they focus on Belshazzar’s father, Nebuchadnezzar. Belshazzar’s sin is attributed to his failure to learn from history. The great head of gold was Nebuchadnezzar, the one into whose hand God gave king Jehoiakim, the king of Judah. He was the one who had brought the vessels from the temple in Jerusalem to Babylon (1:1-2; 5:2). Under his reign, Daniel’s divinely bestowed wisdom became evident and was displayed on various occasions. The queen mother’s words in 5:10-12 focus on Daniel’s wisdom during the days of Nebuchadnezzar. Now, when Daniel rebukes this king, he does so because he ignored the lessons he should have learned from the past, through his father’s experiences with Daniel and his God.
The events of Daniel 4 are now repeated, as a lesson which not only Nebuchadnezzar learned but which Belshazzar his son should have learned as well. God sovereignly granted Nebuchadnezzar power, glory, and majesty, and he exercised that power and authority over mankind. But his heart became proud, and he acted arrogantly. God temporarily took away his power and his kingdom, and he became like the beasts of the field, eating grass and living in the elements without shelter. All this happened so that he might recognize God as the ruler over mankind and recognize that all human authority is delegated to men by God, from whom all authority is derived.
Belshazzar knew these things, and yet he had not learned from them. His heart was now proud and haughty like that of his forefather Nebuchadnezzar. He exalted himself against the God of heaven, as evidenced in his profaning the holy vessels taken from the temple. His sin was shared by those who ate and drank toasts with him that night. Rather than glorifying the God of heaven, whom he had heard about in relationship to his forefather, Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar blasphemed the name of God by profaning the temple vessels. This was the reason for the writing on the wall. The blasphemous use of the vessels and the writing on the wall were inseparably related. Judgment day had arrived.
25 “Now this is the inscription that was written out: ‘MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.’ 26 “This is the interpretation of the message: ‘MENE’— God has numbered your kingdom and put an end to it. 27 “‘TEKEL’— you have been weighed on the scales and found deficient. 28 “‘PERES’— your kingdom has been divided and given over to the Medes and Persians.”
Three little words compose the message, one of which was repeated. They seem to be Aramaic words. While these words may have been familiar to the king, the message in writing was so terse he could not understand it. Now, Daniel is about to interpret the meaning of the words on the wall.
Scholars have spent considerable effort to explore the origin and meaning of each of these three terms.59 We need not rely on such efforts to determine the meaning of the writing on the wall. The king did not need a dictionary; he needed the interpretation of the meaning of these three words as written, in the context of that moment of history. In effect, it would seem that the message on the wall was a kind of abbreviation, summed up in three words. Imagine a three point message!
Daniel explained that the twice-used term ‘MENE’ informed the king that God had numbered his kingdom and was putting an end to it (verse 26). In effect, God seems to be saying to Belshazzar, “Time’s up.” ‘TEKEL’ meant the king had been weighed on the scales of divine justice and found deficient. The king had given God short measure. ‘PERES’60 is the divine notification that the Babylonian kingdom was to be divided and handed over to the Medes and the Persians (verse 28).
29 Then Belshazzar gave orders, and they clothed Daniel with purple and put a necklace of gold around his neck, and issued a proclamation concerning him that he now had authority as the third ruler in the kingdom.
Verse 29 describes the king’s response, which, like his life and administration, was found wanting. Belshazzar’s response to Daniel imply two sad realities. First, the king’s response indicates he believed Daniel had given him the true interpretation of the writing on the wall. He rewarded Daniel as he had promised to anyone who could interpret the writing on the wall. When he rewarded Daniel, he gave testimony to the truth of the interpretation Daniel had given. Surely he would never have rewarded Daniel for an interpretation he believed to be inaccurate.
Second, the king’s response is sadly deficient. While Daniel is not said to have urged the king to repent, as he did with Nebuchadnezzar (4:27), prophecy affords sinners the opportunity to repent.61 Daniel does not indicate how much time is left for the king. We know from the final verses of the passage that the night would not pass before the king was put to death. For him, there were only minutes—at the most hours—to repent, and he did not do so.
Is this one final act of pride described in verse 29? Did the king take such pride that his word would be carried out that he spent his last moments bestowing the promised reward upon Daniel, a reward Daniel had already turned down? Or did the king think that putting Daniel in a position of power might change things? I believe Daniel turned down the reward before he interpreted the writing on the wall because he wanted the king to know his was a ministry of grace. The king’s insistence on rewarding Daniel, even in the last moments of his own life, was to be understood as a rejection of grace. The king’s promise was fulfilled, but at the same time, his doom was sealed. How tragic to be preoccupied with purple clothing, a gold necklace, and the promotion of men, rather than with eternal destiny.
30 That same night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was slain. 31 So Darius the Mede received the kingdom at about the age of sixty-two.
While Daniel had not given a time frame for when his kingdom would end, the inference of Daniel’s words was that time had run out for the king. Did the king even have time to sober up enough to understand what Daniel had told him? That very night the writing on the wall was fulfilled. Belshazzar was killed, and Darius the Mede came to power.
Secular history fills in much detail here showing how the Babylonian king felt secure within the walls of that great city and how Darius managed to lower the level of the River Euphrates which flowed through the city so that his army could enter the city unhindered. Daniel omits these details, perhaps because they diminish the impact of the swift and devastating fulfillment of prophecy.
Daniel intends for us to grasp this one thing: the Word of God is sure. God brought about the downfall of Babylon and Belshazzar, its king, just as He said. The history books provide details of this defeat, but Daniel underscores the one thing they will all omit: the death of Belshazzar and the defeat of Babylon was the judgment of God on a city and a people who profaned the name of the God of Israel. God will not be mocked.
We see from our passage that the events of that fateful final night in Belshazzar’s banquet hall did not profit him at all. We may conclude then that Daniel 5 was written more for our edification than for Belshazzar. Let us conclude our study by highlighting some of the lessons we should learn from the writing on the wall.
(1) The deadly nature of the sin of pride. Pride is the evil response of sinful men to the grace of God. It is taking personal credit for what God has given or accomplished. Pride was the root sin necessitating the disciplining of Nebuchadnezzar, as we learn both from Daniel 4 and our text in chapter 5. Pride was also the sin of Belshazzar. It led to his blasphemous acts with the temple vessels and, ultimately, to his death.
The Bible views pride as a dreaded and deadly sin. In our culture today, pride is seen more as a virtue. In our culture, it is not something men have too much of, but something men believe they lack and need more of. Why does the Bible condemn men for thinking too highly of themselves and command them to do otherwise (see Philippians 2:1-11), while our culture tells us the great evil, the source of many social ills, is the lack of self-esteem? If self-esteem is not another name for pride, then what is it, and when is it ever described, defended, or advocated in the Scriptures?
Like his father, Belshazzar did not see God for who He is. He had no adequate grasp of the greatness of God, which always results in humility—a realistic view of ourselves. Only when we esteem God rightly do we see ourselves correctly. Pride swells men’s ego to the point that God is small, and He can be controlled by men. True worship sees God as “high and lifted up,” infinitely wise and all-powerful. True worship causes men to fall before God in humble praise and adoration. To fail to acknowledge the glory of God and pursue and promote one’s own glory is to pursue death. We must not fail to learn this from the death of Belshazzar.
(2) The inadequacy of secular wisdom. Three times in the first five chapters of Daniel, the wisest men in the land were summoned by the king to tell him the truth which had been divinely revealed. Each time, the wise men were forced to acknowledge their inability to do so. Secular wisdom can never provide the answers for the all-important, spiritual and eternal issues of life:
8 “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8, 9)
33 Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! 34 FOR WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, OR WHO BECAME HIS COUNSELOR? 35 OR WHO HAS FIRST GIVEN TO HIM THAT IT MIGHT BE PAID BACK TO HIM AGAIN? 36 For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen (Romans 11:33-36; see also 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; 2:6-16).
A popular phrase frequently heard in Christian circles today says something like this: “All truth is God’s truth.” On the face of it, this is surely true. The problem is in placing secularly derived truth on the same level as divinely revealed truth. God’s truth, as revealed in His Word, is the only truth we need to be saved and to live godly lives in this world (see 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Hebrews 4:12-13; James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:22-25; 2:1-3; 2 Peter 1:2-4, 16-21; 3:14-18).
Why are Christians turning more and more to the secular wisdom of men (sometimes Christian men) for that which is essential for life and godliness? Are the Scriptures not sufficient? Is the cross of Christ not the solution for sin? What does the world offer that is better than the Bible has to offer? Christians are turning to secular wisdom for truth, guidance, and direction, when the Book of Daniel turns us to divine revelation. It is time to get back to the Book!
(3) Seeing the hand of God in history. The spiritual, divinely inspired account of the fall of Babylon differs greatly from that of secular accounts. I must admit it was tempting for me to “fill in” some details of the fall of Babylon from sources outside the Scriptures. But then it struck me: Daniel’s account includes all that God felt it necessary for us to know. It is not wrong to know more, but all we need to know, God has revealed in the Bible.
Daniel’s account differs greatly from the secular accounts of the historians. How and why Daniel differs is significant and instructive. Secular accounts focus on the political and administrative blunders of Belshazzar and Babylon. Daniel focuses on the moral failures of Belshazzar and the nobility of Babylon. Secular history would look at the death of Belshazzar and his kingdom from a political point of view. The Bible describes the same incidents from a spiritual viewpoint. The moral failure was that of pride. The sin was that of blasphemy and failing to give God the glory which is His. Secular accounts would focus on diverting of the river which passed under or through the walls of Babylon, while the Bible focuses on divine judgment. The city fell because this was God’s judgment on a wicked nation and a wicked king.
Daniel 5 describes the hand of God in the writing on the wall, but it also describes the hand of God in the history of Babylon and of Israel. To Belshazzar the “hand of God” was a bizarre and frightening thing. To the Christian, seeing “the hand of God” in history should be a constant mindset. Allow me illustrate this mindset.
In the past few weeks, we have seen the division of the USSR, the downfall of the Communist party, and the Communist domination of the Soviet Union. As we have watched the news, people have even had opportunity to ask questions of Soviet leaders Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. In all of the explanations, the simplest, ultimate reason for the fall of Communism has been overlooked: Communism rule in Russia has toppled because God has divinely judged it. Communism was allowed to rule for a time. Communism denies the existence of God and resists the church of Jesus Christ and the proclamation of the gospel. Communism was given its day in the sun to achieve those purposes which God had for it. Now, judgment day has come for Communism. The cause of the events which have taken place in Russia are not found in the political realm but in the spiritual realm. We must see the hand of God in the history of the USSR.
(4) Learning from history. I am impressed that while Belshazzar’s punishment was revealed by the writing on the wall, this king’s sin was the result of his failure to heed the lessons which his father, Nebuchadnezzar, had learned. The basis for Belshazzar’s judgment was his failure to heed history and the lessons of his father. All the king needed to know in order to honor God and be spared from divine judgment, he did know. But he failed to act on what he knew from history. Even when the day of judgment was revealed through the writing on the wall, he still did not repent.
When you and I stand before God, all of the Bible will be the basis for divine judgment. We cannot say we did not know better nor can we plead ignorance. No one, in all of time, has been given so much revelation as we. I must ask: “What have you done with the revelation you have received through the Bible?” As God held Belshazzar responsible for what had happened to Nebuchadnezzar, so he will hold you and I responsible for what has happened to men through history, as revealed in His Holy Word. We must learn to heed the lessons of history.
(5) The judgment of God. Daniel 5 is the inspired account of the judgment of God, falling upon the kingdom of Babylon and upon its king, Belshazzar. How sad to read of a king who parties while his kingdom crumbles, and who fails to repent even when the day of judgment is divinely revealed to him. Refusing to heed the “hand-writing on the wall,” he was judged for it. The final minutes of life were spent in matters pertaining to his earthly kingdom, rather than in seeking entrance into the eternal kingdom.
The judgment of Babylon and of Belshazzar were certain. They were also imminent. Yet the king never seemed to grasp this and act accordingly. His actions are typical of all who are blinded by sin. For this reason, our Lord warned of the dullness of men’s hearts and minds, even as the day of judgment approaches:
32 “Now learn the parable from the fig tree; when its branch has already become tender, and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near; 33 even so you, too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words shall not pass away. 36 But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone. For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. 38 For as in those days which were before the flood they were eating and drinking, they were marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that NOAH ENTERED THE ARK, 39 and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be. 40 Then there shall be two men in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left. Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming, 43 But be sure of this, that if the head of the house had known at what time of the night the thief was coming, he would have been on the alert and would not have allowed his house to be broken into. 44 For this reason you be ready too; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will (Matthew 24:32-44).
Only two letters are different in the names Belshazzar (the king) and Belteshazzar (Daniel). The life of the king was cut short, while the life of the prophet was extended, so that he outlived several Babylonian kings and served in the Medio-Persian court as well as the Babylonian court. But the difference between Belshazzar and Belteshazzar is not in the spelling of their names; the difference is in their relationship to God. Belshazzar resisted and rejected the grace of God and the revelation which he was given through history and the prophet Daniel. Belshazzar reaped the wrath of God. Belteshazzar, Daniel, trusted in God and served Him faithfully. Daniel believed, obeyed, and proclaimed God’s Word, and lived on. Not only did Daniel live long in this world, but he will live forever in the kingdom of God. May you not be like Belshazzar but like Belteshazzar.
1 “Come down and sit in the dust, O virgin daughter of Babylon; Sit on the ground without a throne, O daughter of the Chaldeans. For you shall no longer be called tender and delicate, 2 Take the millstones and grind meal, Remove your veil, strip off the skirt, Uncover the legs, cross the rivers. 3 Your nakedness will be uncovered, Your shame also will be exposed; I will take vengeance and will not spare a man.” 4 Our Redeemer, the LORD of hosts is His name, The Holy One of israel. 5 “Sit silently, and go into darkness, O daughter of the Chaldeans; For you will no more be called the queen of the Chaldeans; 6 I was angry with My people, I profaned My heritage, And gave them into your hand. You did not show mercy to them, On the aged you made your yoke very heavy. 7 Yet you said, ‘I shall be a queen forever.’ These things you did not consider, Nor remember the outcome of them. 8 Now, then, hear this, you sensual one, Who dwells securely, Who says in your heart, ‘I am, and there is no one besides me. I shall not sit as a widow, Nor shall I know loss of children.’ 9 But these two things shall come on you suddenly in one day; Loss of children and widowhood. They shall come on you in full measure In spite of your many sorceries, In spite of the great power of your spells. 10 And you felt secure in your wickedness and said, ‘No one sees me.’ Your wisdom and your knowledge, they have deluded you; For you have said in your heart, ‘I am, and there is no one besides me.’ 11 “But evil will come on you Which you will not know how to charm away; And disaster will fall on you For which you cannot atone, And destruction about which you do not know Will come on you suddenly” (Isaiah 47:1-11).
6 Seek the LORD while He may be found; Call upon Him while He is near. 7 Let the wicked forsake his way, And the unrighteous man his thoughts; And let him return to the LORD, And He will have compassion on him; And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon. 8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts. 10 For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, And do not return there without watering the earth, And making it bear and sprout, And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; 11 So shall My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:6-11).
(1) What do we know about king Belshazzar and the “queen” of Daniel 5?
For some time, no record existed of any king Belshazzar among the archaeological records known to scholars. Liberal scholars used this to prove that Daniel was mistaken in his information, showing that the Book of Daniel was not written in the 6th century B.C. but considerably later. Later findings have proven there was a Belshazzar, who was the son of Nabonidus and who ruled as vice-regent under him. In his father’s absence, he functioned as the king. So it was that Belshazzar offered the man who could interpret the writing on the wall the third place of power in the kingdom, after Nabonidus and himself.
The “queen” referred to in verses 10-12 seems not to have been Belshazzar’s wife, but his mother. This conclusion is based on her words to Belshazzar which sound more “mother-like” than “wife-like” . She speaks with more authority than a wife would in those times. Further, since this was a banquet for the nobles and their wives, it seems unlikely that the wife of Belshazzar would have been absent from the banquet. The “queen” was absent, which would be understandable if this woman were the king’s mother. Finally, the “queen” seems to have a better recollection of Daniel’s ministry to Nebuchadnezzar in the past, which would indicate that she was older than Belshazzar.
(2) Compare king Belshazzar with Nebuchadnezzar.
Nebuchadnezzar was the first king of Babylon; Belshazzar was its last. Nebuchadnezzar’s victories, including the defeat of Jehoiakim of Judah, brought Babylon to world power status. Belshazzar’s defeat spelled the end of the Babylonian empire. Four chapters are devoted to Nebuchadnezzar, during which God used Daniel to bring this man to faith. One chapter is devoted to Belshazzar. Daniel is summoned to the king on the last day of the king’s life, on which he dies, is judged, and removed by the God of Israel because of his sin. Nebuchadnezzar had a long, 43-three year reign; Belshazzar’s reign is much shorter.
(3) How did Belshazzar obtain possession of the temple vessels? What occasion prompted Belshazzar to use the temple vessels? What use did Belshazzar make of the temple vessels? Why was God offended by their use?
Nebuchadnezzar took possession of the temple vessels when he defeated Jerusalem (see Daniel 1:2; 2 Kings 24:13). He took the vessels back to Babylon, where he placed them in the house of his god. Belshazzar knew this and decided to mock Israel and her God by using the temple vessels in a blasphemous way. It almost seems this was an act of protest and rebellion against the favor shown to the God of Israel by Nebuchadnezzar. Had king Nebuchadnezzar issued decrees giving glory to the God of Israel? Had he put aside the pagan religion of Babylon? Then Belshazzar, it seems, would restore the old religion by mocking the God of Israel. It was his final and fatal act. God did not allow this blasphemy to go unchallenged, for that very day He judged Babylon and Belshazzar.
(4) What is the relationship between verses 1-4 and 5-9?
Verses 1-4 are the last straw, the final act of blasphemy which brings upon Belshazzar and the banquet nobles the judgment of God, foretold by the writing on the wall in verses 5-9.
(5) What do we learn about Daniel, the queen, and Belshazzar from verses 10-12?
These verses record the recommendation of Daniel by the queen mother. He was the one, she assured Belshazzar, who could interpret the writing on the wall. These verses indicate that Daniel’s ministry during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar was extensive and well-known. Belshazzar was aware of the experiences of his father. He both could and should have known about Daniel, but he seems to be ignorant of those truths which could have saved him from God’s judgment. The queen mother, while confident of Daniel’s abilities, views him not in terms of his relationship to the one all-powerful, sovereign God of Israel, but as only one among many wise men who served the “gods.” She does not reflect the knowledge of, or faith in, God that we can see in Nebuchadnezzar.
(6) What is different about Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in chapter 4 and the writing on the wall in chapter 5?
Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in chapter 4 was interpreted by Daniel, but his interpretation gave the king hope of avoiding God’s discipline if he repented (4:27). In addition, the discipline of Nebuchadnezzar was for a period of seven years after which he would be restored. Belshazzar was given no such hope or encouragement. His blasphemous act would result in his death. His judgment is declared shortly before it occurred, not so this king could repent as much as that the reader might recognize the fall of Babylon and the death of Belshazzar as the fulfillment of God’s purpose of judging this king and his kingdom.
(7) How does Daniel become involved in the matter of Belshazzar’s dream? Why was it especially appropriate for Daniel to interpret the king’s dream?
Daniel was called upon because no other wise man in Babylon could interpret the writing on the wall and because the queen mother recommended him so highly. Daniel had interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s first dream in chapter 2, which told of the passing of this kingdom of gold to be replaced by the kingdom of silver, that of Medio-Persia. It was likely for Daniel to be summoned, because he was a prophet of the God of Israel, to whom Belshazzar refused to give glory and honor, choosing rather to blaspheme His name. It was also fitting for Daniel to be called because he was so prominent during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, from whose experiences Belshazzar should have learned humility. But he did not.
(8) According to Daniel’s words in our text, what was the sin of Belshazzar for which he was being judged by God?
Belshazzar was judged for his pride and for not learning humility from history. He did not learn the lessons God had given Babylon through the experiences of king Nebuchadnezzar. Specifically, the king evidenced his pride through his blasphemous act of using the temple vessels to toast the gods of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.
(9) Why was the king told of his destruction only hours before his death? How did the king respond? How did his response differ from that of his father, Nebuchadnezzar?
The purpose for revealing king Belshazzar’s judgment does not seem to be to call him to repentance but to demonstrate to the reader that the fall of Babylon and its king was an act of divine judgment, due to sin. Nebuchadnezzar repented when the wisdom and power of the God of Israel was demonstrated. Belshazzar does not repent. Nebuchadnezzar died in faith; Belshazzar died in unbelief. Nebuchadnezzar came to know the salvation of God; Belshazzar came to experience the wrath of God.
(10) What purpose does chapter 5 fulfill in the argument of Daniel?
Among other things, Daniel 5 is a picture of the coming judgment of God upon sinful men and nations. In the Book of Daniel, chapter 5 demonstrates that while God raises up heathen nations and uses them to accomplish His plans and purposes for Israel, He will also judge them for their sins.
(11) What lessons are being taught in Daniel 5?
Daniel 5 reminds us of the awesome reality of the coming day of judgment, when our Lord will judge those men and nations who have rejected His revelation and who have refused to give glory to Him. It is a reminder of the certainty and the swiftness of God’s judgment and of the way in which sinners remain oblivious to their judgment, even within moments of their own destruction.
This chapter testifies that God’s hand is always present in human history, an awareness which Christians should keep uppermost in their minds. History is the outworking of God’s purposes through men and nations, whether they believe in Him or not.
This chapter represents the third occasion in the first five chapters of Daniel in which human wisdom is inadequate and unable to solve the deepest and most urgent matters of life. Only God’s wisdom, as revealed through His servants the prophets, has the words of life by which men may be saved and spared from God’s eternal wrath.
Nebuchadnezzar’s discipline, of which Belshazzar is reminded in this chapter, and the judgment of God brought upon Belshazzar and Babylon, are due to the pride of men. Pride takes credit for what God has done and does not give God the glory He alone deserves. Daniel exposes the damning sin of pride.
51 For further information concerning the identification of Belshazzar in recent archaeological findings see John F. Walvoord, Daniel: The Key to Prophetic Revelation (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), pp. 113-115, and Edward J. Young, The Prophecy of Daniel (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1949), pp. 115-118.
58 Various theories attempt to identity the “queen” in this text. The best seems to be that this was not the king’s wife but rather his mother. Her words sound more like that of a mother than a wife, and she seems to have a better knowledge of previous history than Belshazzar. Furthermore, she was not present at the banquet, which would not have been unusual if this were the king’s mother (who wants his mother to see him drunk and disorderly?). It would have been a social blunder if it were his wife; it was, after all, a banquet at which the king, his nobles, wives and concubines were present (see verse 2).
59 It seems to be fairly conclusively proven, for example, that all three terms are units for the measurement of weight. Various theories also show how the letters and words were arranged. There even seem to be puns or word plays here. See Walvoord, pp. 127-129 and Baldwin, pp. 123-125.