Robert Duncan Culver


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Dr. Robert Duncan Culver

V.             CHAPTER FIVE: Belshazzar’s Feast

A.     Introduction

Even a hasty reading of this chapter is sufficient to show the discerning reader that here, as in several other chapters; the chief purpose of Daniel is not to recite history but to teach spiritual truth. The casual reader might think it a chapter of history, inten­ded mainly to give important information concerning the fall of a great nation. But really, the demands of history are quite fully met by the first verse and last two verses—the last Chaldean king was killed by an opposing force of Medes and Persians with a Median king named Darius becoming the new monarch. The main part of the chapter, however, reports the foolish and wicked pursuit of sinful thrills and pleasures on the part of Belshazzar, that last Chaldean king, and of the harvest of death which he so quickly reaped.

The history we might safely get along without, The lesson we dare not miss. Never, probably, in the history of the human race, have so large a portion of a nation's population been thoroughly de­voted to the pursuit of pleasure—and that successfully—as is the case right now in our own land. This has come to be so well accepted as right among us that this unfettered pursuit is sometimes equated with “the, American way of life." Some others less devoted to Americanism follow the universal pursuit of sensual pleasure in less conventional ways. Join this with our passionate devotion to the accumulation of material "things" and our "American way of life" becomes potentially one of the most explosively dangerous situations in the history of man. It is bad enough to have a Belshazzar for a king. But to have a population of Belshazzar’s is a terrifying situation of most destruc­tive possibilities.

Seventy years have passed away since the events of chapter one when the story of this chapter opens before us. Dissimulation and as­sassination have actually changed the dynasties twice in Babylon though a measure of continuity with the great Nebuchadnezzar by mar­riages has been attempted. The union of two peoples, the Persians to the east of Babylon and the Medes to the east and north, under the Persian prince, Cyrus, had recently created a formidable enemy in the neighborhood. A doughty warrior like Nabopolassar, the founder of the empire, or a bold and resourceful king like Nebuchadnezzar might have been equal to the times. But neither they nor any others like them were to be found in Babylon. The information we have, derived from ancient Greek historians and from sundry Babylonian documents and inscriptions recovered and translated in the last 100 years, pre­sents the history of those seventy years quite adequately for a fair reconstruction. Nebuchadnezzar who began his reign upon his father's death in 605 continued until 562. He continued to develop and expand his empire. As noted inconnection with our studies of Daniel 4 he enlarged, strengthened and beautified the city of Babylon. His last notable military exploit was the invasion and conquest of Egypt in about 568 B.C.[264] Upon his death he was suc­ceeded by a son named Evil Merodach[265] who appears to have been assassinated after a short reign of only two years (560) and was succeeded by a brother-in-law Neriglissar.[266] After only five years of reign his reign was cut short by death (556) when he was succeeded by his young son, Labashi-Marduk. But he was deposed at the end of nine months and was succeeded (555) by Nabonidus, a Babylonian of priestly des­cent. This is the man whom the Greek historians represent as the last king of Babylon. He is not represented as being killed at the fall of Babylon but as being left alive and pensioned. This apparent contra­diction with the story of our chapter will be treated in due season.

This passing over of the supposedly important affairs of nations and their kings and potentates by the Bible in favor of full report of small incidents exemplifying important spiritual principles deserves to be pondered. The lesson and lecture on the follies of pride and sinful pleasure are important to God and to His people. The fall of a sparrow or the wail of a neglected child may be more important to Him and to us than the fall of a government or party or the diplomatic exchanges of great nations.

B.      Pleasure, the Pursuit of Belshazzar’s Feast (5:1-4)

Belshazzar the king made a great feast to a thousand of his lords, and drank wine before the thousand. Belshazzar, while he tasted the wine, commanded to bring the golden and silver vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem; that the king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines, might drink therein. Then they brought the golden vessels that were taken out of the temple of the house of God which was at Jerusalem; and the king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines, drank in them. They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone. (Daniel 5:1-4)

There are at least five sad facts to be observed about the sinful pursuit of pleasure by the stupid young king and his silly guests.

1.      It was sinfully sensual

Anything in the ancient pagan world that would be called a "great feast" would have been thus. We have no direct detailed reports of the feasts in Babylon comparable to those of the ancient Greeks and Romans, but it is safe to say that what was true in Pagan Greece and Rome was true here also. There would have been overeating—actual gorging with food. When capacity to eat was ex­hausted emetics were sometimes taken to enable the revelers to dis­gorge their food and start in all over again. Distilled "hard liquor" as we know it today was not to be had for some centuries, yet even so, enormous quantities of wine were consumed to make the feasters drunken. One by one they drank themselves to the floors and under the tables. To demonstrate how lightly these things were held among ancient pagans it is only necessary to cite the tales about Socrates. He is the nearest thing to a "saint" the literature of Greece provides. Yet one of his best-known dialogues is reported as having taken place at a drink­ing bout where his companions discourse with him as they become pro­gressively happy, then tipsy, finally senseless and under the table. At length, Socrates, who had greater staying powers at drink than any of the others, is represented as continuing on, no longer in a dialogue but rather in a monologue. Add to this feast of Belshazzar the over­tones of sexuality provided by the presence of the wives and concubines—all drinking wine—and the details furnished by the readers imagination are probably no worse than the true facts of the case.

Shortly after the close of the late World War reports of diplomacy among the victorious allies at Yalta, especially, in just such an alcoholic atmosphere as this of our chapter, were circulated. The pass­ing of the years has only added support to the truthfulness of those re­ports. Perhaps the present deteriorating international situation has its roots in alcohol!

2.      It was unrestrained

All the bars were down. That the king "drank wine before the thousands"[267] must be interpreted in the light of court procedures and royal protocol known to have prevailed in the ancient East. It would not be thought shocking for our presi­dent to eat and drink before a banqueting crowd. Even Queen Elizabeth and her consort eat publicly. But such a thing was nearly unheard of in ancient oriental countries. Kings and queens were cloistered, especially among the Persians, and probably no less among the Babylon­ians. Curtains shut them off from view at almost all occasions—and especially at feasts. An audience today could hardly feel more shock­ed at the president's being inaugurated in a bathing suit or at their pastor's preaching on Sunday morning standing in his stocking feet and underwear. Drink was already doing its work in the brain of Belshazzar.

Proper decorum and pure morality do not necessarily require the negation or repression of natural appetites and desires. But they do certainly require their control and lawful direction. It was not the eating and drinking in themselves that were sinful, and which were working the young king's destruction. It was rather his lack of temp­erate self-control. How many sins of lust and of violence are com­mitted by otherwise law-abiding and virtuous people when under the in­fluence of group spirit, fortified with "spirits"! "Wine is a mocker; strong drink is raging."

3.      It was sacrilegious

Under the inspiration of the wine Belshazzar sent for the "golden and silver vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem" in order or have something special by way of table service for his feast. This order had not been given in his sober hours when the feast was a preparing. He would not have dared to do it then. Now with alcoholic courage he thinks he can do anything.

There is a pointed lesson; here for the present generation. Nebuchadnezzar had been a courageous and ambitious man. He had per­formed true feats of military prowess, had been a man of action in peaceful pursuits at home, and had left behind a record of noteworthy accomplishment. Nabonidus, for all his short-comings, was something of a priest and scholar himself, as the contemporary records of that day show. But, reared in luxury and unequal to the great task of meet­ing the enemies of his country in the "broad field of battle" where he might be a true "hero in the strife," because of the weakness of his character and defects of his training, Belshazzar holed up behind the walls other men had built. Here he no doubt longed for self-respect and opportunity to assert himself in some heroic way. So like the true delinquent that he was he created a situation where he could perform daring, mischievous, destructive acts. He was not different essentially from the girl who drops her virtue for a thrill, or the boy who steals a car to make himself feel big. It is time, therefore, that parents realize that they do their children no favor when they shield them from work, from responsibility, from suffering the unpleasant consequences of wrong-doing. Let the labor of learning discipline develop spiritual calluses; let the experience of true accomplishment for themselves bring about true self-respect. When this takes place there will be no cause for mock heroics.

It should be added that for Nebuchadnezzar to remove the vessels from the Jerusalem temple as an act of war was according to the accepted practices of the time, and was not regarded as sacrilegious. For Belshazzar to remove them from their proper place of display in a national depository to use them in a drinking bout was sacrilegious..

4.      It was stupid

According to an old proverb, "Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad." Archaeology and ancient history join in reporting just how stupid the whole feast was and just how foolish the young king was. Let us take a look at the local circum­stances in relation to Biblical prophecy.

Some time before the Persians became "top dogs" in the Medo-Persian combination Jeremiah had prophesied that Babylon would be at­tacked by an invader from the north[268] whom he iden­tified with "the kings of the Medes".[269] Babylon is described in the prophecy as stocked with provisions and protected by great towering forts, high broad walls and mighty gates.[270] She would, however, be taken by a trick or snare [271] connected with drying up of certain water channels.[272] The "passages are stopped",[273] the soldiers were to be taken by surprise, and the reeds were to be burned. Jeremiah fur­ther predicted that this would be accomplished while a great feast was going on in Babylon, a feast at which the leading men of the coun­try would be gathered—at least this is the literal meaning of his words. Let the reader judge for himself: "In their heat I will make their feasts, and I will make them drunken, that they may rejoice, and sleep a perpetual sleep, and not wake, saith the Lord … And I will make drunk their princes, and her wise men, her captains, and her rulers, and her mighty men: and they shall sleep a perpetual sleep land not wake, saith the King, whose name is the Lord of hosts".[274]

Some 75 years after Cyrus conquered Babylon Herodotus visited the place and wrote his history. According to this Greek historian Cyrus neared the city in the spring of the year (539 B.C.). After being defeated in the field by Cyrus, the Babylonians retired behind their walls. "Here they shut themselves up," says Herodotus, “and made light of his siege, having laid in store of provisions for many years in preparation against this attack; [275] for when they saw Cyrus conquering nation after nation, they were convinced that he would never stop, and that their turn would come."

Herodotus' story continues by relating how Cyrus took the city, in spite of its fortifications and supplies, by a stratagem. A por­tion of his army he stationed at the point where the Euphrates entered the city on the upper side. Another force he set at the spot where the river emerged from the city with orders to both parties to march into the town by way of the river bed as soon as it should become shallow enough. Then he retired with a third part of the troops to a point up the river where there was a marshy basin formerly used to divert the river waters while the quay walls within the city had been lined with brick. On the very night of Belshazzar’s feast this army diverted the waters of Euphrates into this reservoir. But let us listen as Herodotus tells his own story—

"Hereupon the Persians, who had been left for the purpose at Babylon by the river-side, entered the stream, which had now shrunk so as to reach about midway up an man's thigh, and they got into the town. Had the Babylonians been appraised of what Cyrus was about, or had they noticed their danger, they would never have allowed the Per­sians to enter the city, but would have destroyed them utterly; for they would have made fast all the street-gates which gave upon the river, and mounting upon the walls along both sides of the stream, would so have caught the enemy as it were in a trap. But, as it was, the Persians came upon them by surprise and so took the city. Owing to the vast size of the place, the inhabitants of the central parts—as the residents of Babylon declare—long after the outer portions of the town were taken, knew nothing of what had happened, but as they were engaged in a festival, continued dancing and reveling until they learnt the capture but too certainly."[276]

These reports, the prediction of Jeremiah, and the history of Herodotus, whose truth is supported by other ancient accounts and by the findings of archaeology, make it plain that during the very hours of Belshazzar's ill-timed feast the armies of the Persians were stealthily moving through the river bed toward the inner gates, open and unguarded, opening on that river. By the time Daniel came to the palace they were likely moving toward that palace. Never in the annals of history was anything more stupid than the feast of Belshazzar.

C.      A Portent, Gods Contribution to Belshazzar2s Feast (5:5, 6)

In the same hour came forth fingers of a man’s hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace: and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote. Then the king's countenance was changed, and his thoughts troubled him, so that the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees smote one against another. (Daniel 5:5, 6)

These two verses have made such an impression on the entire world that they have given the world a commonly understood expression in the words, "the handwriting on the wall." These words and the mysterious hand that wrote them were a divine portent, that is, a supernatural sign, or omen—not a warning of coming calamity to enable the observer to escape but rather simply to notify him that doom is certain. In Belshazzar's case the time of escape had long passed in those peaceful days when he whiled away the hours by developing a lot of bad habits and wrong tastes.

Daniel 5:5 Over against the candlestick. The word for candle­stick used here appears nowhere else. There are no lexicographical sources from which to obtain an exact meaning. An ancient Greek translation (Theodotion) renders it lampos, which, as one would ex­pect, means lamp or lantern. It would likely have been a large candel­abrum containing many small lamps.

1.      The sign came suddenly—"in the same hour."

That is, while the belching and slobbering crowd of noble revelers was sopping up their wine out of the holy vessels of Jehovah's temple they received their divine bill of attainder. The food soon lay unnoticed on the platters, the wine disregarded in the goblets. Drunken gaiety disappeared and in its place came apprehensive sobriety. How many a drunken person has looked at the sudden calamity—violent destruction, murder, or indecency—brought about by his stupidity and has turned quickly sober. This sudden sobriety is an old, sad story.

2.      The sign was mysterious

The sign was mysterious for "there came forth fingers of a man's hand, and wrote"[277] and "the king saw the part of the hand that wrote." This has called forth much ridicule from rationalistic critics and commentators. One of the standard books of introduction to the Old Testament states that such a miracle as a hand without a body writing a message on a wall lies "outside the realm of historical facts." The author goes on to say that historical research can deal only with matters "within the sphere of natural possibilities" and that such scientific study must refrain from affirming the truth of supernatural events. This is to say that the only genuine truths lie in the realm where man can understand all about them, where all may be weighed, measured, counted, seen, tasted, touched, heard, and felt. The truth is, however, that the "Arm" behind that writing hand was much more real than the hands which Belshazzar saw. Let every Chris­tian believer, like Paul, "look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal".[278] Let us all fervently thank God that he has presented irrefragable proof of the reality of the unseen world of God Himself in the resur­rection of our Savior.[279] [280]

3.      It was ruthless

It was ruthless for the part of the hand that wrote left a new inscription "over against the candlestick upon the plaster of the wall of the king's palace." Excavators have uncovered that palace and have exposed portions of the ancient walls where remnants of the white gypsum with which they were once covered could be seen. The great central room of the palace, half the size of a football field, was joined by the throne room which itself was over fifty yards long and a third as much in width.[281] If the usual customs of antiquity prevailed, the walls were decorated with murals and in­scriptions celebrating the victories and Excellencies of the realm. Their gods and goddesses [282] would have been glorified in those representations too. Over this proud and boastful display, in full glare of the "candlestick" (i.e., a prominent candelabrum or lamp stand) God wrote his own verdict con­cerning the empire and its stupid young king. With the signs all about of such a divine verdict of God upon our own age one is moved to pray in the words of Kipling's memorable poem—

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
   Wild tongues that have not Thee in as we,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
   Or lesser breeds without the law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

4.      It was terrifying

It was terrifying for "the king saw...Then the king's countenance was changed, and … the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees smote one against another." Everything about the situ­ation inclined toward such an effect upon even the stoutest hearts and the most sober minds—of which there were few, in any, present. There were the dozens of open, saucer-like lamps distributed about the hall, each sending a thin column of smoke toward the ceiling in addition to the feeble light it cast about the room. Probably no one was devoting much care to their wicks. Perhaps there were still some musicians trying to furnish some background music. Into the murky sodden atmos­phere came the sudden apparition. No wonder the king's knees knocked together! A thing like this would be frightening enough to a sober twentieth-century psychology professor in broad daylight.

D.      Perplexity, the Effect of this Visitation at Belshazzar’s Feast (5:7-9)

The King cried aloud to bring in the astrolo­gers, the Chaldeans, and the soothsayers. And the king spake, and said to the wise men of Babylon, Whosoever shall read this writing, and show me the interpretation thereof, shall be clothed with scar­let, and have a chain of gold about his neck, and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom. Then came in all the king's wise men: but they could not read the writing, nor make known to the king the interpretation thereof. Then was king Belshazzar greatly troubled, and his countenance was changed in him, and his lords were astonished. (Daniel 5:7-9)

A few items call for explanation and interpretation before continuing.

The "scarlet" with which the interpreter of the writing was to be clothed should be translated "purple." Purple was the color of royalty among Persians, Modes, and Greeks, and likely among Babylonians also. Artistic remains of that part of the ancient world show that golden chains were associated with high offices of government. One is reminded that when Pharaoh invested Joseph with high office he not only gave to Joseph his own ring and caused him to ride "in the second chariot," but also "arrayed him in vestures of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck".[283] The expression "third ruler" is uncertain of meaning. There is small doubt that the root of the word is the usual Aramaic word for "three," but according to language authorities this form of the word could easily mean something like ad­jutant or simply, "officer." The word "lord" used of a king's adjutant in II Kings 7:2 and elsewhere is the Hebrew word shalish meaning liter­ally, third. So "third ruler" may be a reminiscence of the name of an officer in the Babylonian government. On the other hand, it may mean literally "third ruler." If so, then there is a very good ex­planation for Belshazzar's using it. Belshazzar's father had previous­ly gone into the hands of the enemy when his defense of one of the neighboring cities broke down. Ordinarily, only he, the supreme monarch, would have had authority to make another "third ruler." But under the circumstances Belshazzar was the de facto supreme monarch and would, in granting the highest possible honor, have offered the position of third rather than second out of respect to his father the de lure king. All of these facts show that the small details of this story fit the his­torical and cultural situation and are thus the finest type of evidence for the authenticity of the account.

The immediate urgent cry for a solution to the mystery of the supernatural writing shows that there was a sudden end to all the merrymaking in the banquet hall, and that more than anything else he had ever wanted, King Belshazzar wanted to know what that writing meant. The inducements offered were such as would have called forth the best efforts of anyone qualified to try.

And how characteristic of the prodigal in trouble to cry for help from those whose wise counsel he had previously ignored! Spiritual quacks that they were, the wise men, after all, did represent a fair degree of scientific learning according to standards of the time and might have been counted on to have advised more prudent activity than a drunken festival in the floe of the dangerous and powerful enemy out­side the gates.

But no one came up with a solution to the riddle. It was, after all, a divine miracle. No one has ever explained one of God's miracles and certainly no human education ever prepared one directly to know and believe the oracles of God. Education can help one to understand the meaning of words but it does not help, in itself, to place those words in their spiritual relation. A simple farmhand, or a peasant with no education at all, can, if he is born-again, know more of the truth of God's word in a minute than a Newton or an Einstein can know in a lifetime of study without benefit of spiritual understanding. The statement that "his lords were perplexed" (ASV) shows that there was a general feeling of helplessness and bafflement about the whole affair.

If someone wonders why the writing could not be read by the parties present, the question will be answered shortly in connection with Daniel's reading of the message.

E.       Pronouncement of Doom, Daniel's Contribution to Belshazzar's Feast (5:10-29)

1.      The queen-mother's visit and suggestion (5:10-12)

Now the queen, by reason of the words of the king and his lords, came into the banquet house: and the queen spake and said, O king, live forever: let not thy thoughts trouble thee, nor let thy countenance be changed: There is a man in thy kingdom, in whom is the spirit of the holy gods; and in the days of thy father light and understanding and wisdom, like the wisdom of the gods, was found in him; whom the king Nebuchadnezzar thy father, made master of the magicians, astrologers, Chaldeans, and soothsayers; forasmuch as an excellent spirit, and knowledge, and understanding, interpreting of dreams, and shewing of hard sen­tences, and dissolving of doubts, were found in the same Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar: now let Daniel be called, and he will show the interpretation. (Daniel 5:10-12)

Who is this late-comer to the banquet, called "the queen”? It is clear that she was not the king's wife. The wives were already there, and besides, she speaks as an older person who remembered better of days long ago. Furthermore, in the households of the polygamous kings of antiquity it was usually the king’s mother, or even grand­mother who was the "grand lady" or queen of the realm. This fact lies behind the regular report in Kings and Chronicles of the names of the various kings’ mothers while the names of their wives goes almost un­noticed. She could have been the wife of Nabonidus, Belshazzar's father. There is also the possibility that she may have been a daughter of Nebuchadnezzar—in which case Belshazzar would have been Nebuchadnezzar's grandson. There is still another possibility that she had been a young wife of Nebuchadnezzar who had been married to Nabonidus to give his throne greater prestige and power. She is supposed by some, not without evidence, to have been none other than a famous "Nitocris" who was an ambitious and resourceful person. Space does not allow a full discussion of this complicated technical question. Proper interpretation of the spiritual meaning of the passage re­quires only that we understand that she was an older and wiser person, related somehow to both Belshazzar and to Nebuchadnezzar in such a way that she could deliver the advice and implied reproof reported here.

How could the queen refer to Nebuchadnezzar as "thy father"? Critics of a former generation made great sport of this supposed in­accuracy—it being well-known that several kings had reigned between the time of Nebuchadnezzar and this night. Even so, the death of Nebuchadnezzar had taken place less than 25 years before, and that famous king could, therefore, have been his father. The ancients of the Near East, however, used the word "father" of a number of other relation­ships than that of immediate male progenitor. Any male ancestor could be called "father." Even a predecessor in office could be called "father." As suggested above, he may have been a grandson of Nebuchad­nezzar through his mother, or a child of a former wife of Nebuchad­nezzar by Nabonidus. But, the view that seems to fit the materials furnished by archaeology is that Belshazzar was son of Nebuchadnezzar in a legal sense only. He appears to have been born some time before Nabonidus became king, and therefore not likely a child by a wife or daughter of the deceased Nebuchadnezzar. Rather, Nabonidus allied himself with Nebuchadnezzar's family by marrying a wife or daughter of the great Chaldean. It was thenceforth a matter of court etiquette to call Belshazzar son of Nebuchadnezzar. Notice how punctilious the aged queen was about it. Three times in verse eleven she refers to Nebuchadnezzar as Belshazzar’s father. Once in verse 13 Belshazzar claims Nebuchadnezzar as his father, and once in verse 22 Daniel calls Belshazzar Nebuchadnezzar's son. These multiplied occurrences make it clear that whatever the basis may have been for it, it was a matter of court etiquette to refer to Belshazzar as son of Nebuchadnezzar. There are similar situations in other portions of Scripture.[284]

How Daniel's former reputation could have been either ignored or forgotten between the days of Nebuchadnezzar and those of Belshazzar some 25 years later is not hard to suppose. He was, after all, a foreigner and of a captive nation. He had, moreover, repeatedly pre­dicted the downfall of Babylonian power under the successors of Nebuchadnezzar which would have made him unpopular. And, inasmuch as men tend to forget that which is convenient or pleasant to forget, it is not hard to believe that Belshazzar simply hadn't thought of calling him in. It is doubtful if he was still master of the wise men of Baby­lon, for he would have been in the neighborhood of 85 years of age by the time of this fateful night.

2.      The Entrance of Daniel (5:13-16)

The impression made upon the king and his crowd by the entrance of the venerable and saintly Daniel would have been quieting. There is every evidence of respect in the king's words. It should remind us in this age of grace, when the Son of God reigns from a "throne of grace",[285] that when unbelieving neighbors and relatives come to the time of distress and fear of coming judgment they will often turn for help to the one whom they know to be a man of God. Thank God there is a more hopeful message for them than that which Daniel had to report to Belshazzar!

How completely men of worldly interests misunderstand the things which move better people is exemplified here. "Clothed with purple…a chain of gold about thy neck…third ruler in the kingdom"—what did they, what could they mean to this hoary-headed old man? He had started life in the Holy Land, soon thereafter to become a captive. He had seen kings and realms come and go. Through it all he had lived a quiet, godly useful life with faith toward God and respect for his fellow man. He saw the vanity of life behind him and likewise the glory of an eternal life with God looming before him. A purple robe, a chain of gold, to be third in a kingdom doomed to end in a few hours—he could not have cared less if Belshazzar had offered him a pink em­broidery for his shroud.

3.      The Message of Daniel (5:17-24)

Then Daniel answered and said before the king, Let thy gifts be to thyself, and give thy rewards to another; yet I will read the writing unto the king, and make known to him the interpretation. (Daniel 5:17)

There is a certain sharpness about these words. If the kings conduct had been offensive to God it had been so to Daniel also. Daniel, therefore, while speaking with proper respect, could not use the customary flattering encomiums when addressing the king. Neither could he in good grace accept the gifts. One is reminded of Elisha’s refusal of Naaman's gifts and of the sad result when his servant accepted them.[286] And, besides, Daniel knew that the symbolic gifts of robe and chain together with the high office would all be meaningless or defunct before the night was over.

The main part of Daniel’s message to the king was a simple review of the story of chapter four, Nebuchadnezzar’s pride and the harsh discipline he received from Gad to make him humble. Nebuchadnezzar, however, was restored to his kingly power when he had learned his les­son. What about Belshazzar?

Before telling Belshazzar just what his fate would be and be­fore interpreting the mysterious writing on the wall, Daniel stated just what were the sins charged against him. They were four.

                                 i.            In the first place he had refused to acknowledge the divine revelation in the experience of Nebuchadnezzar: "thou his son, 0 Belshazzar, hast not humbled thine heart, though thou knewest all this".[287] Old men are not granted the excuses for their sins that are given youths—they should profit by years of experience and observation. Pastors and missionaries, and others who have had training like theirs, are not granted either by God or man the indulgence allowed to the un­taught or the new convert—they should know better. The entire world is not without ritual knowledge. They know there is a God and that they are expected to do right. They all can see God in nature. But "when they knew God, they glorified him not as God….Wherefore God also gave them up".[288]

                               ii.            In the second place he too had committed the horrid sin of pride—"though hast lifted up thyself against the Lord of heaven".[289] Isaiah had prophesied "against the king of Babylon",[290] "For thou hast said it thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God…I will ascend above the height of the clouds; I will be like the most High. Yet thou shat be brought down...".[291] Is it perhaps this Belshazzar whom Isaiah had in mind? This part of the prophecy, at least, fits him.

                              iii.            In the third place, he had engaged in a peculiarly offensive idolatry, a sacrilegious idolatry that was specifically insulting to the Lord—"and they have brought the vessels of his house before thee, and thou and thy lords, thy wives, and thy concubines, have drunk wine in them; and thou hast praised the gods of silver, and gold, of brass, iron, wood and stone, which see not, nor hear, nor know".[292] God had judged His own Jewish people with destruction of their nation precisely because they had mixed idolatry with their worship of Him. They had committed sacrilege. This Gentile repro­bate could not expect to be spared for committing the same sin. God will not forever let his honor be taken by senseless idols.[293] [294]


                              iv.            Finally, Belshazzar had refused to carry out the true purpose of his own and every other man's existence to glorify God— "and the God in whose hand thy breath is, and whose are all thy ways, hast thou not glorified".[295] All the fierce wrath of God upon idolatrous self-will worship described in Paul's mighty words of Romans 1:23-32 is here focused upon Belshazzar. Read it, disobe­dient wastrel, and tremble: "Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which do such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them".[296]

Terrible must be the fate of Belshazzar!

4.      Interpretation of the Handwriting by Daniel (5:25-28)

"And this is the writing that was written, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN. (Daniel 5:25)

The reader of the English Bible, or any other translation for that matter, has no way of knowing that these three words (MENE is repeated) were common everyday terms in the Aramaic language. Aramaic is the language of this portion of Daniel. It was likewise a common language on the streets and in the marts and courts of Babylon. An explanation is in order.

All ancient Semitic languages, of which Hebrew, Aramaic, and Babylonian were examples, were written without vowel marks. The alph­abet employed for Hebrew and Aramaic had capital letters only. Now, holding inmind that Aramaic was written from right to left it would have appeared on the wall as:



If we reverse it left to right according to our method of writing it would appear as:


With no context to guide the reader[297] they were incomprehensible. They could have been read as names of weights or coins, viz., a Mina, a Mina, a Shekel, a Peres; like a Dollar, a Dollar, a Dime, and a Penny; or a Pound, a Pound, a Shilling, a Penny. If, as seems unlikely, they were written in the Babylonian wedge-shaped characters, some of which were signs for syllables that served also as ideograms, then it was even more com­plicated. This is somewhat like our "O" which may stand either for the idea "zero" or for the sound "Oh." Proceeding on the near certainty that it was Aramaic, it should be observed that with the vowels supplied and printed in our Bibles, the words would be simply translated: “counted, counted, weighed, divided." But these words have no subject or object supplied--thus still need for an interpreter. Except that the last word sounded like "Paras," Persia, there was almost no suggestion that it was connected with a victory by the enemy.

This is the interpretation of the thing: MENE; God hath numbered thy kingdom and finished it. (Daniel 5:26)

Better, read: "God hath numbered thy reign." The number of days during which Belshazzar might reign was fixed by God and now at a complete end. Belshazzar, the jig is up! One thinks of the last hours of Adolph Hitler as with his lover, Eva Braun, he spent moments listening to the sound of exploding shells come closer and closer.

TEKEL; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting. (Daniel 5:27)

A cross-arm balanced on a post at mid-point with platters suspended from the ends by chains or cords, like the scales still used everywhere in the Orient, now seen on display in some drug stores and used in some laboratories, is the picture. There is a certain breath-stopping ex­pectancy about the process of weighing by this method. The standard weight is set on one platter; the substance to be weighed, on the other. If there is enough of the substance in question poured or set on to equal exactly the mass of weight on the other platter the weight is raised as the beam adjusts itself to level. If not, then the sub­stance is not heavy enough. The weight never rises. In the eternal scales of the judgment of God Belshazzar has been weighed in God's scales but he didn't move the beam. He had failed as a king.

PERES; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians. (Daniel 5:28)

UPSHARSIN of verse 25 is replaced by PERES here. The explana­tion is as follows: "U" was possibly not part of the inscription at all. It is the Aramaic word for "and"—supplied by Daniel in report­ing. "P" inHebrew and Aramaic becomes "PH” or "F" after a vowel, hence the change from PFARSIN to PERES. The dropping of "in" is merely a change from plural to singular. The vowel changes are in­cidental to the other changes.

The plural form of the Word suggests that "they shall be divided," i.e., the various parts of the empire will be separated again. Jeremiah prophesied this.[298] The word PERES was also a grim pun on the word "Paras" or Persia.

There is another grim suggestion in the tenses: "hath numbered… art weighed…is divided" etc., placing the judgments and decisions in the past. Even as Daniel pronounced the words the city had fallen and Belshazzar's executioners were on their way.

In the face of all this the foolish and unrepentant king still could not think it was really true that his time was up, for he went ahead to confer on Daniel the promised rewards as though he were still master of proudest realm of earth. One thinks of reports of the band of the ocean liner Titanic continuing to play as the great ship slipped beneath the waves, except that there was a certain resigned fortitude in the playing of that band—their tune the hymn, "Nearer My God to Thee.”

F.       The End of the Feast of Belshazzar (5:30, 31)

In that night was Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans slain. And Darius the Median took the kingdom, [being] about threescore and two years old. (Daniel 5:30, 31)

The punishment was no less startling in its sudden execution than the apparition of the fingers writing the inscription had been. Both were in just proportion to the rashness of the king in his sacrilegious use of the vessels of the Lord. When Uzzah rashly touched the ark God struck him dead.[299] When Nadab and Abihu incautiously offered "strange fire" before the Lord "there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord".[300] Says the Apostle Paul, "If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy".[301]

The reader who knows his Bible well cannot help but be im­pressed with the demonstration herein of the certainty of God's pro­mises and providence. A hundred fifty years and more before Isaiah, by the Spirit of the Lord, had prophesied that God would raise up one Cyrus from the east to "dry up the rivers",[302] in figure, in order that His people, the Jews might return to their land, re-establish their commonwealth, and re-build their temple.[303] Now not far away stands this very Cyrus while his general Darius invests and takes over the city. Sixty-some years before Daniel had prophesied first of the coming of the Medes and Persians, "a kingdom inferior" [304] and again just a few years later had repeated it to replace the Chaldeans as masters of the world. [305] This chapter tells us exactly how it all came to pass.

In a different, but quite as impressive manner, the man who knows little of God's Word, the Bible, who may not even acknowledge the Savior, should see in the experiences of Daniel and Belshazzar something of the importance of knowing God in a saving way, and of bringing his life into obedient relationship to Him. Life moves on inexorably toward its end. Life is a time of sowing. At its end one will, if he has sowed to the Spirit, reap life everlasting. If one has sowed to the flesh, he shall of the flesh reap corruption. It is appointed unto man "once to die, and after that the judgment." At this judgment we meet a God who will without respect of persons render to every man according to his deeds.[306] He will render "to them who by patient continuance in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life: but unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish".[307]

Let us not in that day hear, "Weighed in the balances and found wanting," but rather with sins forgiven by the grace of God through the blood of Christ, hear Christ, himself, supreme judge, say: "Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord."


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