Daniel 5 – The Writing On the Wall
A. A disturbing message from God.
1. (1-4) Belshazzar’s great, blasphemous feast.
Belshazzar the king made a great feast for a thousand of his lords, and drank wine in the presence of the thousand. While he tasted the wine, Belshazzar gave the command to bring the gold and silver vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple which had been in Jerusalem, that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them. Then they brought the gold vessels that had been taken from the temple of the house of God which had been in Jerusalem; and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze and iron, wood and stone.
a. Belshazzar the king: When we come to Daniel 5, Nebuchadnezzar is no longer the king of Babylon. How did it pass from Nebuchadnezzar to Belshazzar? The ancient historian Berosus gives us the following order of events:
· Nebuchadnezzar died after a 43-year reign.
· His son, Evil-Merodach (described in 2 Kings 25:27-30 and Jeremiah 52:31-34) ruled for only two years when he was assassinated by his brother-in-law Neriglassar, because his rule was arbitrary and licentious.
· Neriglassar (mentioned as Nergalsharezer in Jeremiah 39:3, 13) ruled for four years until he died a natural death.
· His son, Laborosoarchod, only a child and of diminished mental capacity, ruled for only nine months when he was beaten to death by a gang of conspirators.
· The conspirators appointed Nabonidus, one of their gang, to be king. He ruled until Cyrus the Persian conquered Babylon.
b. Belshazzar the king: For a long time, historians and archaeologists knew that Nabonidus was said to be the last king of Babylon, not Belshazzar (who was Nabonidus’ eldest son). The solution to this so-called discrepancy was apparent when evidence was uncovered indicating not only Belshazzar’s association with Nabonidus on the throne, but also demonstrating that during the last part of his reign Nabonidus lived in Arabia and left the conduct of the Kingdom of Babylon to his eldest son Belshazzar.
i. There was no additional mention of Belshazzar, the eldest son and co-regent with Nabonidus, until the Nabonidus Cylinder was discovered in this century. It is now displayed in the British Museum.
ii. According to Babylonian records, Belshazzar became co-regent in the third year of Nabonidus’ reign (553 b.c.) and continued in that capacity till the fall of Babylon (539 b.c.).
iii. It is most likely that at the time of Daniel 5, Nabonidus had gone out to fight the Medo-Persian army and had been already captured. Those armies now surrounded Babylon, and were looking for a way into the strongly defended city.
c. Made a great feast for a thousand of his lords: Belshazzar was not afraid of the siege surrounding the city. He was confident because of Babylon’s impressive defenses and his vast supplies.
i. Conservative calculations set the dimensions of the ancient city of Babylon like this:
· The outer walls were 17 miles (27 kilometers) long.
· These walls were 22 feet (7 meters) thick and 90 feet (28 meters) high.
· The outer walls also had guard towers another 100 feet (30 meters) high.
· The city gates were made of bronze.
· A system of inner and outer walls and moats made the city very secure.
d. Which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple: Nebuchadnezzar was not the direct father of Belshazzar. Either Nebuchadnezzar was his grandfather through his mother’s side, or he was Belshazzar’s father in the sense of having previously occupied the throne Belshazzar now sat on. Either usage of the term father was accepted in ancient times.
e. They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze and iron, wood and stone: The scene of partying while a hostile army surrounded the city reminds us of the spirit of our present age. Many today have the idea that the best response to the seeming danger of the times is to forget about it and escape into the pursuit of pleasure.
i. In Ephesians 5:18 Paul calls drunkenness dissipation; drunkenness is a waste of resources that should be submitted to Jesus. John Trapp wrote of drinking “all the three outs” – “that is, ale out of the pot, money out of the purse, and wit out of the head.” (Trapp’s commentary on Galatians 5:21)
f. They brought the gold vessels that had been taken from the temple of the house of God which had been in Jerusalem: Belshazzar was foolish enough to not only lose all semblance of self-control at this party, but also to openly mock God. He committed the sin of sacrilege, something few people are concerned with today.
i. Gathering the vessels from the Jewish temple served the purpose of reminding the partiers of a previous victory, and Belshazzar hoped it would boost morale. “As if these dung-hill deities had mastered and spoiled the God of Israel . . . This was blasphemy in a high degree, and therefore presently punished by God.” (Trapp)
ii. In Babylon, a large court – 56 by 170 feet – has been unearthed, decorated with Greek columns. This is probably where the feast of Daniel 5 took place.
2. (5) God writes a message on a wall.
In the same hour the fingers of a man’s hand appeared and wrote opposite the lampstand on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace; and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote.
a. The fingers of a man’s hand appeared: God can and sometimes does communicate to man in unexpected and even shocking ways. Here, a hand mysteriously appeared and wrote on a wall.
b. The king saw the part of the hand that wrote: This, of course, is where we get the proverbial phrase the writing on the wall.
3. (6-9) Belshazzar’s reaction to the message, and his call for someone to interpret the message.
Then the king’s countenance changed, and his thoughts troubled him, so that the joints of his hips were loosened and his knees knocked against each other. The king cried aloud to bring in the astrologers, the Chaldeans, and the soothsayers. The king spoke, saying to the wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing, and tells me its interpretation, shall be clothed with purple and have a chain of gold around his neck; and he shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.” Now all the king’s wise men came, but they could not read the writing, or make known to the king its interpretation. Then King Belshazzar was greatly troubled, his countenance was changed, and his lords were astonished.
a. The joints of his hips were loosed and his knees knocked: Daniel’s vivid description shows us that Belshazzar was terrified. His carefree partying was so shallow that it turned from merry to terrified in a moment. This shows that his conscience was active beneath his energetic partying.
i. After all, if Belshazzar could not understand the writing, why should it trouble him so? It troubled him because his own conscience testified against him.
ii. “The writing on the wall he could neither read nor understand; but his conscience had written bitter things against him, which now being held to the fire of God’s wrath become legible.” (Trapp)
b. Whoever reads the writing, and tells me its interpretation: “For the king the difficulty was not to give the ‘dictionary definition’ of the terms, but to see what significance they had for him.” (Baldwin)
c. He shall be the third ruler in the kingdom: Archaeologists have discovered why Belshazzar offered the interpreter of the dream the third place in the kingdom. The real king was Nabonidus, and his son Belshazzar ruled as second in the kingdom. Belshazzar couldn’t give away the second place in the kingdom, because he was the second in the kingdom at the time. The best he had to offer was the third place.
d. They could not read the writing, or make known to the king its interpretation: When Daniel came to interpret these words, it does not seem so hard to figure out. It may be that God deliberately put a veil over the minds of these men so Daniel would be called. Others – such as Adam Clarke – suppose that the Babylonian wise men could not read the writing because it was in Hebrew.
4. (10-12) Daniel is recommended as an interpreter of the message.
The queen, because of the words of the king and his lords, came to the banquet hall. The queen spoke, saying, “O king, live forever! Do not let your thoughts trouble you, nor let your countenance change. There is a man in your kingdom in whom is the Spirit of the Holy God. And in the days of your father, light and understanding and wisdom, like the wisdom of the gods, were found in him; and King Nebuchadnezzar your father – your father the king – made him chief of the magicians, astrologers, Chaldeans, and soothsayers. Inasmuch as an excellent spirit, knowledge, understanding, interpreting dreams, solving riddles, and explaining enigmas were found in this Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar, now let Daniel be called, and he will give the interpretation.”
a. The queen . . . came to the banquet hall: This queen (or queen mother) is hard to identify with certainty. Probably it was Belshazzar’s mother, the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar.
b. There is a man in your kingdom: When the wise men were called to explain the writing on the wall to Belshazzar, Daniel apparently was not called. It seems that Daniel was semi-retired, still holding a government office yet not a main figure in the administration.
c. This Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar: The queen referred to Daniel by his Jewish name, thus showing respect for his faith and background.
5. (13-16) Belshazzar asks Daniel to interpret the message.
Then Daniel was brought in before the king. The king spoke, and said to Daniel, “Are you that Daniel who is one of the captives from Judah, whom my father the king brought from Judah? I have heard of you, that the Spirit of God is in you, and that light and understanding and excellent wisdom are found in you. Now the wise men, the astrologers, have been brought in before me, that they should read this writing and make known to me its interpretation, but they could not give the interpretation of the thing. And I have heard of you, that you can give interpretations and explain enigmas. Now if you can read the writing and make known to me its interpretation, you shall be clothed with purple and have a chain of gold around your neck, and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.”
a. Then Daniel was brought in before the king: When everything seems great – when the party is going non-stop – God and His servants are mocked, neglected, and hidden away. But when the hand of heaven wrote a sobering message, panic-stricken worldlings cried out for the one who had the Spirit of God.
b. I have heard of you: Since Belshazzar didn’t think to call for Daniel himself, it seems that his remembrance of Daniel was either long ago or just now by the queen.
i. “This silly and shallow prince hath nothing to say but what was put into his mouth by his wiser grandmother.” (Trapp)
B. What the message meant.
1. (17-23) Introduction: Daniel describes Belshazzar’s sinful pride.
Then Daniel answered, and said before the king, “Let your gifts be for yourself, and give your rewards to another; yet I will read the writing to the king, and make known to him the interpretation. O king, the Most High God gave Nebuchadnezzar your father a kingdom and majesty, glory and honor. And because of the majesty that He gave him, all peoples, nations, and languages trembled and feared before him. Whomever he wished, he executed; whomever he wished, he kept alive; whomever he wished, he set up; and whomever he wished, he put down. But when his heart was lifted up, and his spirit was hardened in pride, he was deposed from his kingly throne, and they took his glory from him. Then he was driven from the sons of men, his heart was made like the beasts, and his dwelling was with the wild donkeys. They fed him with grass like oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till he knew that the Most High God rules in the kingdom of men, and appoints over it whomever He chooses. But you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, although you knew all this. And you have lifted yourself up against the Lord of heaven. They have brought the vessels of His house before you, and you and your lords, your wives and your concubines, have drunk wine from them. And you have praised the gods of silver and gold, bronze and iron, wood and stone, which do not see or hear or know; and the God who holds your breath in His hand and owns all your ways, you have not glorified.”
a. Let your gifts be for yourself: Remember that Daniel was troubled when he had to give Nebuchadnezzar bad news (Daniel 4:19). This wasn’t the case here. Daniel was not impressed with this successor of Nebuchadnezzar.
b. You his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, although you knew all this: Daniel was so harsh because Belshazzar should have known better. Even if he was not raised in a godly home, Romans 1 reminds us that all men know of God through creation. Belshazzar should have known even more through God’s dealings with and through Daniel. We are all responsible to honor God according to what revelation we have.
c. The God who holds your breath in His hand and owns all your ways, you have not glorified: It would be easy for Belshazzar to think that he never did anything against the God of Israel – at least nothing too bad. Yet at the very least, he had not glorified the true God, and every creature is obligated to give glory to their Creator.
i. The breath of the creature should praise the Creator, but Belshazzar blasphemed God with his breath. The ways of the creature should glorify the Creator, but Belshazzar used his ways to mock and offend God. Every creature owes something to the Creator.
ii. “If God held Belshazzar responsible, my friend, for the ray of light which shone across his pathway, what will He say to men living in the blaze of light which illuminates the world today? Every unconverted man in this country has more light than Belshazzar had.” (Talbot)
2. (24-28) Daniel tells Belshazzar that God’s judgment is at the door.
“Then the fingers of the hand were sent from Him, and this writing was written. And this is the inscription that was written: Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin. This is the interpretation of each word.
Mene: God has numbered your kingdom, and finished it;
Tekel: You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting;
Peres: Your kingdom has been divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.”
a. Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin. This is the interpretation of each word: “It should be observed, that each word stands for a short sentence; mene signifies numeration; tekel, weighing; and peres, division.” (Clarke)
· God had Belshazzar’s number, and it fell short.
· God weighed Belshazzar, and he came up light.
· God would therefore divide Belshazzar’s kingdom to the Medes and the Persians.
b. Weighed in the balances, and found wanting: A mighty army and brilliant tactics overcame the Babylonian Empire, yet it still fell from within. The armies of the Medes and Persians could only conquer because Belshazzar and his kingdom were found lacking in spiritual and moral values.
c. Given to the Medes and Persians: The ancient Greek historian Herodotus relates that the Persian King Cyrus conquered Babylon by diverting the flow of the Euphrates into a nearby swamp. This lowered the level of the river so his troops marched through the water and under the river-gates. They still would not have been able to enter had not the bronze gates of the inner walls been left inexplicably unlocked. This was exactly what God predicted in Isaiah 44:28-45:7 and Jeremiah 51:57-58. God opened the gates of the city of Babylon for Cyrus, and put it in writing 200 years before it happened.
i. “In October 539 bc, Cyrus advanced into lower Mesopotamia and, leaving Babylon till last, conquered and occupied the surrounding territory. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, Nabonidus of Babylon deserted his city, leaving it in the charge of his son Belshazzar . . . the taking of Babylon was as bloodless and effortless as Daniel 5 implies.” (Motyer, in his commentary on Isaiah)
ii. The fall of mystery Babylon will be like the fall of real Babylon – sudden, sure, and in the midst of her worst blasphemies. “Empires do not stand by human might, man-made machines and missiles. There is not a wall high enough nor thick enough to prevent a nation from falling when God pronounces that nation’s doom.” (Strauss)
3. (29) Daniel is promoted.
Then Belshazzar gave the command, and they clothed Daniel with purple and put a chain of gold around his neck, and made a proclamation concerning him that he should be the third ruler in the kingdom.
a. They clothed Daniel with purple: Though his words were harsh, Daniel was quickly rewarded. Either Belshazzar knew that Daniel was right and bravely tried to do the best under the inevitable circumstances, or he disbelieved the whole thing and promoted Daniel in a display of big-hearted fun.
b. That he should be the third ruler in the kingdom: Daniel held this post for only a few hours. This shows how temporary the awards and accolades of this world are. In the kingdom that succeeded Belshazzar Daniel was also promoted, but that was due to God, not to Belshazzar.
4. (30-31) The death of Belshazzar and the rise of Darius the Mede.
That very night Belshazzar, king of the Chaldeans, was slain. And Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old.
a. That very night: The word was fulfilled just as Daniel said. God’s Word is always reliable and true.
b. Darius the Mede received the kingdom: Darius was a sub-king under Cyrus the Persian. He is referred to in secular history as Gubaru.
©2013 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission