Chapter introduction

A selective history.  As Ferguson (NBC) remarks, the historical portions of the book of Daniel should not be thought of as comprising a continuous narrative of events in Babylon: ‘rather, it portrays select moments of high tension in the ongoing conflict between the kingdoms of light and darkness.’  The narrative begins abruptly, without any reference to Nebuchadnezzar’s death or any other intervening events.  Nevertheless, there is thematic continuity with the previous chapters (the goblets taken from the temple in Jerusalem, the dangers of much food and wine, the summary of chapter 4’s story of Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel’s ability to interpret dreams and signs), t

Between chapters 4 and 5.  In fact, there had been several kings and twenty-three years between the death of Nebuchadnezzar (562) and date of this banquet (October 539).  To fill in some of the detail: Nebuchadnezzar died in 562 BC, having reigned for forty-three years.  He was succeeded by his son, Evil-Merodach (561–560), who was assassinated by his brother-in-law Neriglissar, whose reign lasted for about four years.  Neriglissar was succeeded by his son, Labashi-Marduk, who was assassinated with one month.  One of the conspirators, Nabonidus, then became king (555–539 BC).  Nabonidus spent some ten years away from Babylon leaving his son Belshazzar to rule as de facto king there.

Speeches.  The author leaves a number of our biographical and historical unanswered.  He tells the story mainly through the speeches of those involved.  ‘After he sets the stage in verses 1–9, the writer reports the speeches of the queen mother (10–12), Belshazzar (13–16) and Daniel (17–28). They constitute the bulk of the account.’ (Davis)

Belshazzar remembered for just one thing.  Duguid observes that ‘outwardly, this was a glorious event, full of pomp and circumstance, in which a thousand nobles were invited to drink wine with the king (Dan 5:1). Greek historians like Herodotus recorded many such lavish feasts on the part of the Babylonians, and this was one of the best. Everyone was dressed in his finest clothes and the tables were set with the most ornate silverware. Yet by focusing our attention on this elaborate feast as the sole event worth mentioning in his account, the narrator subtly underlines for us the emptiness of the remainder of Belshazzar’s life. Unlike his illustrious predecessor, King Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed cities and carried off plunder (Dan 1:2), made mighty statues (Dan 3), and built the wonders of royal Babylon (Dan 4:30), the only thing that Belshazzar could make was a feast. The former built an empire, while the latter planned a party.’

Theme.  The theme of this chapter is consistent with that of the entire book: despite appearances, God is sovereign over all rulers and nations.  This assurance gives comfort to God’s suffering and fearful people.  There is a sharp contrast between Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar.  The former ‘acknowledged that the Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and sets over them anyone he wishes’ (v21), and God brought him to repentance.  The latter, however, ‘did not honour the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways’ (v23), and God deals with him accordingly.

Dan 5:1 King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them.

King Belshazzar – The fact that no list of kings from the neo-Babylonian period contains this name previously puzzled scholars.  As previously noted, Belshazzar was, in fact, the eldest son of Nabonidus (556–539 BC), the last king of Babylon.  Nabonidus spent much of his 17-year reign campaigning in Arabia, leaving his son as de facto regent.

In 1854 four cylinders were found at a ziggurat near Babylon.  They commemorate the rebuilding of the ziggurat by Nabonidus between 555 and 539 BC.  Included is this prayer to the god Sin: ‘And as for Belshazzar my firstborn son, my own child, let the fear of your great divinity be in his heart, and may he commit no sin; may he enjoy happiness in life.’

This man gave a great banquet.  We cannot be sure about the purpose of this feast: it may have been an annual feast in honour of the gods.  It may have been intended to unite the leaders in his kingdom in the face of the Medo-Persian threat (cf. the notion of modern psychology of ‘Group-think’).  Or possibly it was simply an act of bravado.  Babylon was, after all, a city strongly guarded by seemingly impregnable walls (so wide that a chariot could be ridden on top of them and have room to perform a U-turn).  It was stocked with many months of provisions.  Moreover, there was a plentiful supply of running water, with the river Euphrates running through the city.

Excavations have uncovered the palace, including what it possibly the very room referred to here, with its plaster wall and a niche for the king’s throne.

Baldwin perhaps reads a bit too much psychology between the lines, when she says that ‘Belshazzar’s banquet was…the last fling of a terrified ruler unsuccessfully attempting to drown his fears. Little wonder that panic seized him and made a fool of him as soon as the unexpected happened.’ (Baldwin)

Partying while under siege.  At this very time the city was under siege (cf. v30 – ‘that very night’).  ‘In the past few days the Persians have taken the city of Opis (fifty miles north on the Tigris) in a bloody battle and then crossed over to the Euphrates, where the city of Sippar surrendered without a fight on the fourteenth of Tashritu. It is likely that Babylon has received word of these events and that Belshazzar knows that the Persian army is on the march toward Babylon.’ (IVP Bible Background Commentary).  According to Nelson, ‘the extrabiblical sources record a festival that took place the night Cyrus conquered Babylon…Xenophon reports, “A certain festival had come round in Babylon, during which all Babylon was accustomed to drink and revel all night long”. Herodotus adds, “All this time they were dancing and making merry at a festival which chanced to be toward, till they learnt the truth but too well”.’

1 Thess 5:3 – ‘While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly.’

Lk 12:20 – “You fool! this very night your life will be demanded from you.”

With the Persian army knocking at the door, he should, as Matthew Henry says, have pronounced a fast.  Instead, he pronounces a feast.

Drank wine with them – or, ‘before them’.  Belshazzar was making an ostentatious display of his drunkenness and sacrilege.  He presents himself as a fearless, manly, hard drinker.  He feels secure in his city – well-fortified, well-supplied, and with a reliable water supply coming from the Euphrates which flowed through it.  Ferguson (NBC) points us to Prov 18:12 – ‘Before his downfall a man’s heart is proud’.

Greidanus rightly counsels against the following kind of moralising from this text: ‘Daniel 5 is a call to modern Christians to involve themselves in prophetic delivery of God’s judgment on the gluttony of the hundreds of ‘Belshazzar’s feasts’ that have victimized so many people over the centuries.’ (Quoting Smith-Christopher)

Little did Belshazzar realise how his evening would turn out!

Dan 5:2 While Belshazzar was drinking his wine, he 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.

Belshazzar was drinking his wine – and therefore his judgement was blurred.  The wine removed his inhibitions, prompting him to do what he would not have done if sober.

Nebuchadnezzar his father – Such terms tended to be used flexibly.  Compare Ezra 6:14, where the prophet Zechariah is called the son of Iddo, with Zech 1:1, 7, where he is called the son of Berechiah, the son of Iddo.  Nebuchadnezzar was quite possibly Belshazzar’s grandfather.  Since other historical sources do not demonstrate a clear familial relationship between the two, it has been surmised that the phrase should be interpreted as ‘his predecessor’ (an expression not unknown in the ancient world).

The gold and silver goblets that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken from the temple in Jerusalem – as recorded in Dan 1:2.  These would have been regarded as trophies, indicating the superiority of the Babylonian god over the Israelite God.  Remembrance of previous victories would have bolstered their confidence in the face of the Assyrian threat.  The fact that they have not been melted down indicates their significance in this regard.

Regarding the importance of these articles to the Israelites, see Jer 27:16, 18; Ezra 1:7.

‘He wished to make a display; to do something unusually surprising; and, though it had not been contemplated when the festival was appointed to make use of these vessels, yet, under the excitement of wine, nothing was too sacred to be introduced to the scenes of intoxication; nothing too foolish to be done.’ (Barnes)

‘It would seem that Nebuchadnezzar had some respect for these vessels, as having been employed in the purposes of religion; at least so much respect as to lay them up as trophies of victory, and that this respect had been shown for them under the reign of his successors, until the exciting scenes of this “impious feast” occurred, when all veneration for them vanished.’ (Barnes)

‘Belshazzar knew of Nebuchadnezzar’s supernatural experiences with the God who stood behind those vessels. He knew that Nebuchadnezzar had eventually come to worship and honour this God as the God of heaven. He knew all this and yet he rejected it: rejected it so vehemently that he made up his mind to publicly repudiate God in a gesture of deliberate blasphemy.’ (Lennox)

Dan 5:3 So they brought in the gold goblets that had been taken from the temple of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines drank from them.  4 As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.

Contempt for God’s things = contempt for God.  As Wallace asks: ”Why should God make such a fuss about the use of a set of golden cups from a temple he seemed to have deserted?’  The answer is found in v23 – “you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven.”  In the words of Wallace: ‘It was a sign indeed that he believed that this God, whose vessels he was abusing and whose name he was insulting, had now in Babylon no reality or power.’

Davis: ‘We may put it crassly: contempt for God’s “stuff” is the same as contempt for God himself. If you arrive, let’s say, at your office and find that your desk, chair, filing cabinets, briefcases, coffee-maker, computer, pictures and knick-knacks are all sitting in the hall outside your office door, you immediately get the point. It’s not merely that your stuff is out but that you are out. So Belshazzar’s demeaning of Yahweh’s vessels was his way of demeaning Yahweh.’

They praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone – The rarest and most costly things of this world are but dumb and lifeless idols.

They used the precious things of God to toast their own worthless idols.  They were perhaps seeking to flatter their gods in the light of the Assyrian threat, and to stir them to action.

Nelson finds it ‘intriguing that in Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar is not judged for destroying the temple and stealing the vessels, but Belshazzar is harshly condemned for drinking from them. Perhaps this is because the books of Kings and Jeremiah preach that the destruction of the temple was a judgment of God on the people of Judah for their sins.’

‘What Nebuchadnezzar had not dared to contemplate even in his worst moments, Belshazzar did with apparent equanimity. He knew exactly what these vessels were and from where they had come. He did not sin in ignorance but with knowledge. Paul’s words provide the true analysis: “And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; … who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them” (Rom. 1:28, 32). Belshazzar sought to mock God, but the lesson of this chapter is “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption” (Gal. 6:7–8).’ (Ferguson)

‘The scene is a warning not to be dazzled by the appearance of power and greatness but to look behind these to the reality.’ (Fyall)

Sacrilege today

Since we do not recognise in the same way the holy nature of objects and places, does this mean that nothing is sacred any more, and that there is no such thing as sacrilege?  On the contrary, in the light of the coming of Christ everything is sacred, and every place is holy.  So it it not just communion vessels that may treated as holy or profane, but the cups and saucers we use at home.  It is not only in church that we may come into God’s holy presence, but in any street, home, or bar.  It is not only those whom the church has canonised as ‘saints’ who are to be revered as holy, but all those who have been called to be saints; that is, all believers.

So, writes Longman, it is with blasphemy:-

‘Blasphemy is not just defacing a church or a cross. It is a misuse of any part of God’s creation. An assault against a fellow human being is an act of blasphemy. After all, we are all created in the image of God (Gen. 1: 27; James 3: 9). An angry word spoken against a fellow believer is an act of blasphemy. After all, Christians are all temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16). The destruction of the environment for selfish purposes is an act of blasphemy. The land, the air, the seas are each the creation of our holy God.’

Dan 5:5 Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace. The king watched the hand as it wrote.

‘The excavation of the palace has uncovered beyond three impressive courtyards a large room (52m by 17m) which has become known as the Throne Room. “Inside the throne room, and facing the doorway, a recessed niche in the wall probably indicates where the king’s throne stood.” One wall was “adorned with a design in blue enamelled bricks”, but the others were covered with white plaster.’ (Baldwin, quoting Parrot)

The fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote – the most famous piece of graffiti in history!  No explanation is given of this mysterious hand, except that we learn in v24 that it was sent by God.  Note that God has instant access to the very place that Belshazzar and his guests thought was impregnable.  His voice cannot be silenced.  No walls so thick, no door so tightly locked, that the Most High God can be kept out.

Plaster…lampstand – the writing was visible because it was on a plain wall, and illuminated.

As Longman notes: ‘The public nature of the writing as well as the fact that the wise men and finally Daniel also read the writing belie the idea that this is some sort of private vision or drunken hallucination.’

Ferguson notes: ‘Palace walls often speak with mute eloquence, covered as they often are with paintings and artifacts of an entire lineage of rulers and their achievements. Such walls characteristically display the royal family’s estimation of itself and its judgment of its dynasty. Here, however, an artist who neither possessed nor required any royal patronage depicted His estimation of the king’s rule.’

Long ago, it was suggested that ‘‘the words Mene, Tekel, Parsin are just what would be suitable to a steward’s room, which may have communicated with the banqueting hall … Some serving man may have left the door into the banqueting hall open so that the words caught the king’s eye at a moment when his conscience was struggling with his clouded brain, and the lights of the candlestick may have contributed to produce the awful effect. Nevertheless, it was a message from God, though produced, as Divine messages usually are, by natural means’ (Margaret Gibson, quoted by Baldwin, who adds, ‘The suggestion accounts for the facts recorded, and in no way detracts from the truth of verse 24’).  It is an intriguing suggestions, although Nelson thinks that it ‘has little to recommend it’.

Barnes remarks that ‘God has the means of access to the consciences of men. In this case it was by writing on the wall with his own fingers certain mysterious words which none could interpret, but which no one doubted were of fearful import…It is not often that God comes forth in this way to alarm the guilty; but he has a thousand methods of doing it, and no one can be sure that in an instant he will not summon all the sins of his past life to remembrance. He could write our guilt in letters of light before us—in the chamber where we sleep; in the hall where we engage in revelry; on the face of the sky at night; or he can make it as plain to our minds as if it were thus written out. To Belshazzar, in his palace, surrounded by his lords, he showed this; to us in society or solitude he can do the same thing. No sinner can have any security that he may not in a moment be overwhelmed with the conviction of his own depravity, and with dreadful apprehension of the wrath to come.

Dan 5:6 His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way.

The proud half-drunk reveller now cuts a pathetic figure.  He senses that the writing on the wall has an ominous meaning, though he does not understand what that meaning is.

Why so frightened?  ‘Whether as a rebuke for the sin of revelry and dissipation, or for sacrilege in drinking out of the consecrated vessels, or whether it was an intimation of some approaching fearful calamity, would not at once be apparent…Perhaps, from the prevalent views in the heathen world in regard to the crime of sacrilege, they may have connected this mysterious appearance with the profane act which they were then committing—that of desecrating the vessels of the temple of God.  How natural would it be to suppose—recognizing as they did the gods of other nations as real, as truly as those which they worshipped—that the God of the Hebrews, seeing the vessels of his worship profaned, had come forth to express his displeasure, and to intimate that there was impending wrath for such an act.’ (Barnes)

His legs gave way – lit. ‘the knots of his joints were loosened’.  Several commentators think that the underlying expression indicates that he lost control of his bodily functions.

Dan 5:7 The king called out for the enchanters, astrologers and diviners to be brought and said to these wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing and tells me what it means will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around his neck, and he will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.”

The king called out for… – Whom do people today call out for when in a fix?  Spin-doctors?  Astrologers?  Celebrities?

Clothed in purple – the colour of royalty and nobility.

The third highest ruler in the kingdom – This is an indication that Belshazzar was, technically, crown prince and so the second highest ruler in the kingdom (after his father, king Nabonidus).

Little did he know that his kingdom had but a few more hours to run!

Dan 5:8 Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant.

They could not read the writing – Here is a familiar theme in Daniel – and, indeed, throughout Scripture: the men and women of this world cannot know or understand the things of God (cf. 1 Cor 1:21; 2:14).

Failed – again.  As usual, the religious advisers of Babylon fail.  In fact, they have failed so many times that one wonders why they still had their jobs.  They answer is, perhaps, that they told the king the things he wanted to hear (just like many political and spiritual advisers today).  As Davis says: ‘this is sometimes God’s pattern—to aggravate our helplessness by exposing the uselessness of our favourite props, even our favourite religious props. You may have your own paganism of choice—occultism, pluralism, machoism, feminism, agnosticism, moralism—and they will prove as petrifyingly useless as the Babylonian variety.’

Dan 5:9 So King Belshazzar became even more terrified and his face grew more pale. His nobles were baffled.

‘God does Belshazzar the favour of leaving him without any recourse, in utter helplessness—and hence with a huge opportunity. Whenever God brings a man to the end of himself, smashing all his props and wasting his idols, it is a favourable moment indeed. If he will but see it.’ (Davis)

Dan 5:10 The queen, hearing the voices of the king and his nobles, came into the banquet hall. “O king, live for ever!” she said. “Don’t be alarmed! Don’t look so pale!

Davis adds: ‘The role of the queen mother here in Daniel 5 is like that of Nabal’s unnamed servant in 1 Samuel 25:14–17 and of Mrs Naaman’s Israelite servant girl in 2 Kings 5:2–3. These are all minor, unnamed characters and yet the whole sequence of events in each case depends upon their words.’

The queen – Belshazzar’s wives were already present.  According to Baldwin, ‘this queen is most likely to have been the wife of Nabonidus and mother of Belshazzar.’  Herodotus names her as Nitocris.

Dan 5:11 There is a man in your kingdom who has the spirit of the holy gods in him. In the time of your father he was found to have insight and intelligence and wisdom like that of the gods. King Nebuchadnezzar your father—your father the king, I say— appointed him chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners.

King Nebuchadnezzar – who had been dead for some twenty years.  Her recollection over such a long period supports the likelihood that she was the queen mother.  ‘Her apparent respect for him was underlined by the use of his Hebrew as well as his Babylonian name and in the reference to his outstanding gifts (12; cf. Isa 11:2–3)’ (Ferguson, NBC).

Daniel and the Magi

Some scholars dating from the Reformation period thought that the Magi of Matthew 2 derived their knowledge of a coming ‘king of the Jews’ from Daniel and his contemporaries:-

‘Because Daniel had been brought up in the school of the magi (Dan 1:6; cf. Dan 4:9, 5:11), some of the magi had undoubtedly been taught the doctrine of the Messiah because of the circumstance of that relationship. Thus, it is very likely on the basis of the background and instruction of Daniel that some seeds of heavenly doctrine had remained among the magi. In Daniel 2:44, he clearly prophesies to the king of Babylon about the coming kingdom of heaven that it will endure forever. Hence it happened that not all the Jews returned to Jerusalem from their Babylonian exile, but many stayed in those places and had renowned synagogues there, just as the rabbinic scholars boast that those wise men taught many things there. Therefore, there were many in various kingdoms at that time who were neither Jews nor proselytes but who were devout, as they are called in Acts; that is, who without circumcision, used to read frequently the prophetic books as they were translated into Greek, and used to worship the God of Israel, just as we read about the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:28. On this account, it will not be absurd if some knowledge of the promises about the Messiah of the Jews whose salvation belonged also to the Gentiles is attributed to the wise men from the rest of the teachings of Daniel or from the Israelite exiles still dwelling in Chaldea or from the reading of the prophets.’ (Martin Chemnitz)

‘One can get on track even better if one considers that the prophet Daniel was reared in the schools of the Persian wise men. As a result, he would have beyond a doubt entrusted to them something about the coming Messiah. This would have continuously been retained by them, especially since these wise men were able to read the holy Scriptures, which had been translated into the Greek language. Be that as it may, one thing is for sure, they would not p 307 have been able to recognize the birth of Christ from the appearance of the star alone.’ (Johann Gerhard)

Dan 5:12 This man Daniel, whom the king called Belteshazzar, was found to have a keen mind and knowledge and understanding, and also the ability to interpret dreams, explain riddles and solve difficult problems. Call for Daniel, and he will tell you what the writing means.”

As Duguid remarks, the implication of this woman’s speech is that Belshazzar should have known who he could turn to for divine insight.

Dan 5:13 So Daniel was brought before the king, and the king said to him, “Are you Daniel, one of the exiles my father the king brought from Judah?

Daniel was brought before the king – Daniel would have been at least eighty by this time.

“Are you Daniel, one of the exiles my father the king brought from Judah?” – It would seem that Daniel was not completely unknown to Belshazzar, for this circumstance was not mentioned by the queen.  Dan 8:1,27 confirm that Daniel had been serving Belshazzar in some capacity.  What Belshazzar didn’t know, or chose to forget, was his interpretative skill in relation to Nebuchadnezzar.  Otherwise, he would have called him first, not last.  Davis thinks that Belshazzar’s question to Daniel is not an enquiry (he already knew the answer), but rather a put-down: Belshazzar has despised Daniel’s God, and now, without reference to the queen’s positive assessment, he demeans Daniel himself.

Duguid: ‘He addressed him not as the Daniel whom his father made chief of his wise men, but as the Daniel whom his father brought in exile from Jerusalem.’

Davis observes: ‘The only help for Belshazzar was a cast-off Jew whose God he despised.’  It is so for us today (see 1 Cor 1:22-24).

Dan 5:14 I have heard that the spirit of the gods is in you and that you have insight, intelligence and outstanding wisdom.

“I have heard” – Belshazzar continues in his somewhat begrudging vein.  See also v16.

Dan 5:15 The wise men and enchanters were brought before me to read this writing and tell me what it means, but they could not explain it.

Dan 5:16 Now I have heard that you are able to give interpretations and to solve difficult problems. If you can read this writing and tell me what it means, you will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around your neck, and you will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.”

“If you can read this writing and tell me what it means” – Belshazzar will get more than he asks for, for the prophet must speak the truth.

Dan 5:17 Then Daniel answered the king, “You may keep your gifts for yourself and give your rewards to someone else. Nevertheless, I will read the writing for the king and tell him what it means.

“You may keep your gifts for yourself” – ‘This was in line with prophetic consciousness that the needed word of wisdom came from the Lord, and that it could not be bought at any price (Num. 22:18; Mic. 3:5).’ (Baldwin)

Daniel’s indignation is probably a response to the sacrilege recorded in v3f.  Note that he avoids the deferential address that would have been normal under such circumstances.

Every would-be rule or leader needs a Daniel at his shoulder; who will speak the truth, however uncomfortable it may be, and whose praise cannot be bought.

Dan 5:18 “O king, the Most High God gave your father Nebuchadnezzar sovereignty and greatness and glory and splendour.

Daniel will interpret the writing on the wall.  But first he takes ‘the trembling potentate on a damning journey through the labyrinth of his mind.’ (Lennox)

“The Most High God gave your father Nebuchadnezzar sovereignty and greatness and glory and splendour” – The king had great power; the problem was that he did not acknowledge its source.  See the words of Jesus in Jn 19:11.

Dan 5:19 Because of the high position he gave him, all the peoples and nations and men of every language dreaded and feared him. Those the king wanted to put to death, he put to death; those he wanted to spare, he spared; those he wanted to promote, he promoted; and those he wanted to humble, he humbled.

Dan 5:20 But when his heart became arrogant and hardened with pride, he was deposed from his royal throne and stripped of his glory.

Dan 5:21 He was driven away from people and given the mind of an animal; he lived with the wild donkeys and ate grass like cattle; and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven, until he acknowledged that the Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and sets over them anyone he wishes.

The Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms of men – a key theme of the entire book of Daniel.

  • In chapter 1, he is the sovereign God who sends his people into exile
  • In chapter 2, he is the sovereign God whose kingdom lasts for ever
  • In chapter 3, he brings his people out of the furnace
  • In chapter 4, he is able to reach a pagan tyrant
  • In chapter 5, he is the great judge over all earthly powers

Dan 5:22 “But you his son, O Belshazzar, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this.  23 Instead, you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven. You had the goblets from his temple brought to you, and you and your nobles, your wives and your concubines drank wine from them. You praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or understand. But you did not honour the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways.

Prophetic directness.  It has been observed that Daniel uses the words ‘you’ or ‘your’ fourteen times in these two verses.  Although preachers today are often urged to use ‘we’ and ‘our’, rather than ‘you’ and ‘your’, there is a place for prophetic directness, as this and other biblical passages show (see also 2 Sam 12:7; Acts 2:36-40).  Among other things, we are reminded here that divine sovereignty never negates human responsibility.

“You knew all this”He knew, but had not learnt.  As Ferguson (NBC) remarks, ‘he knew God, but he did not glorify him or give thanks to him (Rom. 1:21).’  We are all held responsible for the information we have been given.  And that leaves none of us with any excuse.  To how many of us – to how many who are partying on a Friday or a Saturday night – might God say, “You knew, and yet you did nothing about it.  If fact you set yourself up against me, and you mocked my holy things.”

‘Belshazzar knew about the transformation of Nebuchadnezzar’s life; and yet he had chosen to publicly insult and dishonour the God who had been responsible for it.’ (Lennox)

‘How little do men profit by the record of the calamities which have come upon others for their crimes! How little are the intemperate of one generation admonished by the calamities which have come upon those of another; how little are the devotees of pleasure; how little are those in places of power!’ (Barnes)

“The God who holds in his hand your life…” – Or, ‘your breath’.

Our lives are in his hand.  ‘It is a deeply affecting consideration, that the breath, on which our life depends, and which is itself so frail a thing, is in the “hand” of a Being who is invisible to us, over whom we can have no control; who can arrest it when he pleases; who has given us no intimation when he will do it, and who often does it so suddenly as to defy all previous calculation and hope. Nothing is more absolute than the power which God holds over the breath of men, yet there is nothing which is less recognized than that power, and nothing which men are less disposed to acknowledge than their dependence on him for it.’ (Barnes)

“…and all your ways” – ‘None of us can take a step without his permission; none can go forth on a journey to a distant land without his constant superintending care; none can return without his favour. And yet how little is this recognized! How few feel it when they go out and come in; when they go forth to their daily employments; when they start on a voyage or journey; when they propose to return to their homes!’ (Barnes)

Dan 5:24 Therefore he sent the hand that wrote the inscription.

Therefore [God] sent the hand – As Longman observes, it was not fate, but God who wrote on the wall.  Daniel is giving the king more than he asked for.  Before he interprets the writing, he will have Belshazzar know who sent it, and why.

‘When it was fully perceived that Belshazzar was not disposed to learn that there was a God in heaven; when he refused to profit by the solemn dispensations which had occurred in respect to his predecessor; when his own heart was lifted up with pride, and when he had gone even farther than his predecessors had done by the sacrilegious use of the vessels of the temple, thus showing especial contempt for the God of heaven, then appeared the mysterious handwriting on the wall.’ (Barnes)

We might wonder why God sent the writing at all.  Why did he not just deal with Belshazzar and his kingdom without sending this message?  Some think that it was sent as a warning to Belshazzar, giving him a (wasted) opportunity to repent.  But this cannot be inferred from the text itself.  In fact, as Fyall says, ‘It is too late to warn; all that remains is to announce the inevitable’ (cf. Rev 10:6).  More likely, then, all who read this account are to know that the fall of Belshazzar and his kingdom was God’s doing, for he is ‘the Most High God [who] is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and sets over them anyone he wishes’ (v21).

Dan 5:25 “This is the inscription that was written: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN.  26 “This is what these words mean: Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.  27 Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.  28 Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”

The words probably refer to weights: Mene = mina; Tekel = shekel; Parsin = half (i.e. half-mina, or half-sheckel), or shared.  However, there is additional wordplay, in that mene suggests the idea of ‘numbering’, or ‘appointing’, tekel the idea of ‘weighing’ or ‘assessing’, and parsin a pun on the word ‘Persian’.

The meaning, then is, ‘Numbered, numbered, weighed and divided’.  Belshazzar and his kingdom have been assessed and found wanting, and will be divided between the Medes and the Persians.

Weighed on the scales – The constellation of Libra was represented in Babylonian astronomy as scales.  ‘Babylon fell on the sixteenth of Tashritu (September-October), October 12 or 13, 539, so the banquet took place the evening of Tashritu 15/October 11 or 12. The Babylonians traditionally related the month of Tashritu to the constellation Libra, and the annual rising of Libra was associated in the manuals with the fifteenth of that month. This would have been well known to the astrologers of Babylon’s court, specialists in celestial divination, who were counted among the wise men. This would have importance since the Babylonians often sought linkage between classes of omens to confirm a message.’ (IVP Bible Background Commentary)

For the idea of someone’s character being weighed in the scales, see Job 31:6.

Barnes cites evidence demonstrating a widespread belief, in ancient cultures, that scales were ‘the emblem of judgment in the future state, when the conduct of men will be accurately estimated, and justice dealt out to them according to the strict rules of equity.’

“You have been…found wanting” – The text has emphasised God’s sovereignty.  But this by no means excludes human responsibility.  Belshazzar has been thoroughly and fairly assessed, and judged to be “not good enough!”

What does it take to bring a powerful kingdom or culture crashing to the ground?  Just four words!

“Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians” – Note the recurrence of the now-familiar word ‘given’.

29 Then at Belshazzar’s command, Daniel was clothed in purple, a gold chain was placed around his neck, and he was proclaimed the third highest ruler in the kingdom.

We are not told why Daniel was rewarded in this way, having refused earlier (v17).  Nor do we know whether Belshazzar’s motive in doing this was mocking or sincere.  Lennox says: ‘He insisted on performing the charade of investing Daniel with high office, and proclaimed him the third ruler in a kingdom that, unknown to Belshazzar, had only a few hours longer to exist.’

As Ferguson (NBC) observes, Daniel’s role as the third highest ruler in the kingdom (after Nabonidus and Belshazzar) would be short-lived: if his prediction was true, the Babylonian kingdom would perish; if it turned out not to be true, then surely Daniel would have perished.

30 That very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, was slain, 31 and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom, at the age of sixty-two.

That very night Belshazzar…was slain – See Isa 47:10f; cf. Lk 12:20.  Note that this fact is held back until the very end of the narrative.

History records the Babylon fell on 12th October 539 BC.  Both Herodotus and Xenophon record that Babylon was taken during a night-time banquet.  The invaders diverted the Euphrates, and entered the city of the dry river bed.  Xenophon (who describes the expedition of Cyrus) also records that the Persians killed the Babylonian king.  Just a few days earlier, Cyrus had defeated Nabonidus and his army about fifty miles from Babylon.

It was God who delivered his rebellious people into the hands of the Babylonians (Dan 1:2), and God who, in due time, delivered them out of those hands by bringing the Babylonian empire.

Why doesn’t God deal with evil quickly now, just as he did then?  We long for cruel dictatorships to be overturned, and for the oppressed to be relieved of their suffering.  Why do the wicked prosper, while the righteous suffer?  Why is it taking so long (Rev 6:10)?  Does God not know or care (Psa 73:11)?  The answer, of course, is that God is giving ample opportunity for repentance (2 Pet 3:9).  But this chapter says that, sooner or later, God will judge.  And this truth is confirmed by Paul, when he says to theAthenians: ‘[God] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.  He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).

Darius the Mede

Who was Darius the Mede?

Scholars have long puzzled over the identity of this figure.  Elsewhere in Scripture, the conquest of Babylon, together with the liberation of God’s people from exile, is attributed to Cyrus the Persian (2 Ch 36:22–23; Ezr 1:1–8; cf. Dan 1:21; 11:1).

Many critical scholars regard Darius the Mede as a fictional character, constructed out of ignorance of the actual events, in response to prophecies about a conquest of Babylon by the Medes (Is 13:17; 21:2; Jer 51:11, 28).  The Sceptic’s Annotated Bible echoes this critical stance: ‘Darius the Median is a fictitious character whom the author perhaps confused with Darius I of Persia, who came to the throne in 521 BCE, 17 years after the fall of Babylon. The author of Daniel incorrectly makes him the successor of Belshazzar instead of Cyrus.’  On Darius the Persian , see Ezra 4:5; 6:14.

J.C. Whitcomb identified Gobryas, the general who actually captured Babylon, as Darius the Mede.  Nelson objects that Goryas was never king, and that he is never called Darius.  Longman adopts a similar interpretation.

Wiseman (followed by Baldwin) argued that Cyrus and Darius are one and the same person.  They translate Dan 6:28 (which appears to distinguish between the two) as ‘the reign of Darius, that is, the reign of Cyrus the Persian’ (the same construction is found in 1 Chron 5:26).  Additionally, (a) ‘since Cyrus took over the Median Empire and had a Median mother, he could be called a Mede, even “king of the Medes.” Moreover, (b) ‘he would have been about sixty-two when he conquered Babylon (Dan 5:31).’ (c) ‘The statement that Darius’s father was Ahasuerus (Dan 9:1) is a problem, since Cyrus’s father was named “Cambyses.” Wiseman suggested that “Ahasuerus” might have been an old Achaemenid royal title.’ (d) ‘Most of the major figures in the book of Daniel have two (or more) designations.’ (e) ‘It is very unlikely that the author was ignorant of the biblical references to Cyrus as the conqueror of Babylon (e.g., 2 Chron 36:20–23; Ezra 1:2–4; Is 45:1).’ (f) ‘As a “student of prophecy” (Dan 9:1–2), he knew that the Medes should play a part in the destruction of Babylon (e.g., Jer 51:11, 28). Cyrus was partly Median and ruled the Medes as well as the Persians. This is emphasised by giving him the alternative name “Darius the Mede.”’ (Quoting E.C. Lucas, Daniel, Book of, in DOT:P, lettering added)

At the age of sixty-two – As Baldwin remarks, ‘The inclusion of the information, being about sixty-two years old, implies the existence of a particular person and not just a vague memory.’

Concluding reflections

Divine sovereignty.  Harper’s Bible Commentary summarises: ‘In the reading of the inscription and in the events that follow, the faith of the writer of Daniel and his community is driven home once again: God’s sovereignty over all arrogant, human sovereignties is absolute and unchallenged. God can use lowly but faithful captives among the Jewish people to assist in the overthrow of the mightiest monarchs.’

Human foolishness.  Baldwin concludes: ‘Belshazzar’s blatant disrespect for the Most High God was all of a piece with the national character, indeed with our human condition, as it is depicted in Psalm 90. Though human days are numbered (verse 10), few number them for themselves and ‘get a heart of wisdom’ (verse 12). Belshazzar in this chapter presents a vivid picture of the fool, the practising atheist, who at the end can only brazen it out with the help of alcohol which blots out the stark reality.’

God acts in history.  Nelson attempts to summarise the theological implications: ‘In Daniel 5, God intervenes three times: first, by causing the inscription; second, by giving Daniel the interpretation so that the indictment and sentence can be announced to Belshazzar; and third, by bringing in the enemy army to Babylon to carry out the punishment. God acts in human history today, as well, by drawing sinners to himself, by watching out for his people, and by answering prayer. However, he does not always punish sin immediately; striking someone dead for transgression is rare in the church age (e.g., Acts 5:5). When Jesus returns, there will be a final judgment (Rev. 20:11–15). In the meantime, God has established human political structures to enforce law (Rom. 13:1–4).’

Judgement opens the door to redemption.  Greidanus notes that ‘in redemptive history God frequently judges people in order to advance the cause of his kingdom.’  This was so when the scattering of people following the building of the Tower of Babel made room for Abraham and Sarah to heed God’s call to leave Babylonia and go to the Promised Land.  Israel’s unfaithfulness sent them into exile.  God’s judgement of Belshazzar opened the way for a change of regime and an edict that would allow Israel to return (2 Chron 36:23).  In Jesus, God judged the rulers and kingdoms of this world, and will put all enemies under his (Christ’s) feet (1 Cor 15:23-25).

The folly of idolatry.  For Duguid, ‘Daniel 5 is a “Eureka” moment, in which the true nature of the young Babylonian king, Belshazzar, is exposed, along with the emptiness of his gods. For all their boasted pomp and show and in spite of all of their gold and glory, Belshazzar and his gods are found wanting and exposed as empty and insubstantial when they are weighed in God’s balance. They can offer nothing that we should envy, nor can they threaten anything by which we should be intimidated. Rather, we should pity those whose hope and glory are built on such insubstantial foundations.’

Judgement is God’s prerogative, not ours.  Longman remarks that we may not draw a straight line from Daniel’s words and actions then and our own today.  We know that God punishes sin.  But we know too that not all suffering is due to any specific sin on the part of the sufferer.  We should be extremely reticent about saying that such-and-such was a direct effect of divine judgement.  Longman asks us to consider the following scenarios:-

‘The Germans are defeated in 1945 and Hitler kills himself in a bunker in Berlin. Is this the judgment of God? An atom bomb is dropped on Hiroshima. Is this the judgment of God? An epidemic rips through the gay community. Is this the judgment of God? An abortion clinic is bombed in Atlanta. Is this the judgment of God? A child molester is beaten up in New Jersey. Is this the judgment of God? A country singer’s plane crashes off the coast of California. Is this the judgment of God? A Christian missionary dies in Pakistan at a young age. Surely this can’t be the judgment of God, can it?’

God is still Judge (Jn 8:26; 12:31; 2 Tim 4:8).  But we should be most wary about pronouncing that judgement on individuals (Mt 7:1f), or of declaring that any particular suffering is the result of particular sin (this was, of course, the error of Job’s friends; see also Jn 9:2f).  After all, who are we to judge anyone else (Mt 7:5)?  God’s judgments are ‘unsearchable’ (Rom 11:33).  We declare no-one to be beyond God’s mercy, but rather extend the gospel invitation to the worst of sinners.  Longman concludes this point:-

‘Unfortunately, I would hazard to guess that the Christian community, in the Western world at least, would be characterized by the watching world as narrow, intolerant, judgmental, and self-righteous rather than forgiving, compassionate, gracious, and redemptive. All of us who call on the name of Christ must do some serious soul-searching and repenting as we reach out to transform the world in our Lord’s name.’