Daniel – Part 5.2, Chapter 5 Verses 22-31

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Part 5

Belshazzar’s Dinner—and His Doom
(Chapter 5 verses 1-31)

Daniel chapter 5 verses 22-24
“But you his son, O Belshazzar, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this. 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, bronze, iron, wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or understand. But you did not honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways. Therefore he sent the hand that wrote the inscription.

Commentary
“But you his son [descendant, successor] . . . have not humbled yourself.” The contrast is sharp. It’s as though Daniel was saying, “You, sir, occupy the same throne Nebuchadnezzar did, but there the similarity between him and you ends. In your years of reign you have achieved nothing remotely comparable to the achievements of your famous ancestor.”

We might go on to paraphrase Daniel’s dramatic speech to King Belshazzar:

“Even Nebuchadnezzar, with all his gifts and his impressive list of accomplishments, humbly admitted that God rules in human affairs, appointing and deposing kings as he pleases. But you, King Belshazzar, whose achievements don’t even begin to match Nebuchadnezzar’s, are proud. What business do you have being proud? You have refused to humble yourself before the only true God, even though you knew what happened to your famous ancestor when he became proud. Not only have you repeated his sin, you have done so against better knowledge.

“For one thing, at this banquet you have praised gods invented by human minds and formed by human hands. To these you give your heart’s devotion; these you choose to serve. But you have refused to honor the God who holds your very life in his hand.

“To make matters worse, you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven. Who do you think you are, that you dare to take golden goblets once dedicated to the service of the only true God and use them as drinking cups?”

What an accurate description of sin Daniel gives us here. Sin is not simply doing naughty things. Sin is not merely an error in judgment, an impulsive action that might have been avoided if we had only counted to ten. The essence of sin is rebelling against God’s good will. Sin is the creature telling the Creator: “Listen, God, I’m talking. This is what I want for myself. I don’t care what you have decided; this is what I have decided.”

Strong words for an 80-year old Jewish exile to speak to the king in the presence of a thousand of his nobles! Daniel offered Belshazzar no pardon, no comfort, no encouragement—only condemnation. “Belshazzar, it was to punish you for your wickedness that God sent the hand to write the mysterious words.”

It took courage for Daniel to speak these words before a hostile audience; many an ancient king sentenced a man to die for less. But Daniel realized he had been placed where he was for a purpose. And that purpose was not to lift a finger into the air to see which way the wind of popular opinion was blowing. That purpose was not to win popularity contests. That purpose was to let the voice of God be heard.

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

Commentary
And Daniel did let God’s voice be heard. Before an unbelieving king and a whole roomful of banquet guests, with the mysterious words still illuminated by the flickering light of the lampstand, Daniel announced, “This is the inscription that is written: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN.”

After rebuking Belshazzar, Daniel pointed to the inscription and did what neither king nor wise man had been able to do: he read it. The inscription consisted of only three words, with the first one repeated.

A hush spread over the huge dining hall as Daniel explained each of the three words to the trembling king. He identified the three words as verbs, passive verbs: “numbered,” “weighed,” “divided.”

“MENE, MENE”—“Numbered, numbered.” In solemn repetition, Daniel informed Belshazzar that the Lord of nations whom he had insulted had numbered the days of his reign and considered them as having come to an end. Belshazzar was not going to have an opportunity for retirement, either. At the moment his reign came to an end, his life would too. Belshazzar had thought that the God of Israel was inferior to the gods of Babylon. But what he forgot is that the important thing in life is not what we think of God, but what God thinks of us.

“TEKEL”—“weighed.” Belshazzar may have considered himself worthy of honor. God disagreed. “You have been weighed on God’s scale, and you have been found wanting.” The people in that banquet hall looked up to Belshazzar as their leader; God looked down on Belshazzar as a sinner totally lacking in moral worth. He had not measured up to what God expects of all his human creatures, let alone to what God expects of a man in such a position of responsibility and trust.

“PERES”—“divided.” Belshazzar’s kingdom would not remain intact but would be broken up and given to the Medes and Persians, whose armies were even then at the city gates of Babylon.

This was the news Belshazzar was dreading to hear. The judgment God had pronounced on him was much more severe than the judgment God had pronounced on Nebuchadnezzar 50 years earlier (chapter 4 verses 31-32). The enemy outside the city gates would be victorious. Great Babylon was about to fall.

Notice that Daniel interprets the third word (“PERES”) as having a double meaning. “PARSIN” can also mean “Persians.” We see, therefore, that the mysterious writing on the wall was in part a play on words, a pun.

Another play on words may have added to the king’s difficulty in reading and understanding the inscription. One Aramaic grammar note (Rosenthal, A Grammar of Biblical Aramaic, page 58) points out that the three words may also refer to monetary units: mina (50 shekels), shekel, and half-shekel. “The three terms would then seem to bear the names of three coins, a fact that would, indeed, add to the perplexity of the reader” (Leupold, Exposition of Daniel, page 236). This would have been especially true if that reader had already had too much to drink. What sense could he possibly make out of an inscription that seemed to say: “Mina, mina, shekel, half-shekels?”

It is strange that the Babylonian wise men had not even been able to read these words, since they were probably rather common Aramaic terms. But God had allowed them neither to read nor understand the message. He left it for his servant Daniel.

The nation that brought about the downfall of the Babylonian Empire was actually a merger of two nations. The Persian Cyrus brought about a union of Media and Persia. This united kingdom, destined to become the leading world power for the next two centuries, conquered Babylon, as Daniel had predicted.

Daniel chapter 5 verses 29-31
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.

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

Commentary
With his knees knocking and heart pounding, Belshazzar proved to be a man of his word. In the presence of a thousand witnesses, he had promised to reward the man who interpreted the writing, and he kept his promise. Although Daniel had expressed no interest in the rewards, he did not refuse them when they were given to him. And there was no good reason why he should have refused them. Surely no one could accuse him of having tailored his interpretation of the writing to suit the king’s preference. And so Daniel received the necklace of gold, the royal robes, and the exalted government position. In a sense the honors, especially the latter two, may seem to have been quite meaningless, since that very night the king was killed and the kingdom collapsed.

God’s judgment struck swiftly because Belshazzar’s insolence had been so daring. At least four different sources record the details of the fall of Babylon. The Greek historians Herodotus and Xenophon describe how Cyrus, the Medo-Persian king, surprised the “impregnable” city of Babylon by diverting the course of the Euphrates River, which flowed under the walls of Babylon and through the city, into a new channel. This enabled the Medo-Persian army to invade the city without a battle by crossing the shallow water of the old river bed. Nabonidus, father and coruler with Belshazzar, and Cyrus have also left written records of this event.

It is good to note that the text does not say that Cyrus’ armies invaded the city the night of the banquet. Herodotus records that Cyrus had invaded Babylonia earlier, and that the Babylonian army had advanced to meet him. But after several defeats the Babylonian army retreated behind the walls of its capital city. According to Herodotus, the city fell while a festival was being celebrated. Xenophon, another Greek historian, reports that one of the Persian leaders entered the palace and killed the king.

Darius the Mede, the man who took over the kingdom, is a man whose name does not occur outside the Bible. Some have concluded from this that he is not a historical character. But every student of ancient history knows that records from the past are very fragmentary. To conclude that a person named in the Bible is unhistorical just because his name has not turned up in sources outside of the Bible is an argument from silence. It is unscientific and unpersuasive.

And so the once proud Babylonian Empire collapsed, as the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah had predicted it would. When the news of the fall of the kingdom reached the ears of the Israelites who were exiles in Babylon, they recalled Jeremiah’s prophecy, spoken half a century earlier:

Announce and proclaim among the nations, . . .
“Babylon will be captured;
Bel will be put to shame,
Marduk filled with terror. . . .
I set a trap for you, O Babylon,
and you were caught before you knew it;
you were found and captured
because you opposed the LORD.”
(Jeremiah chapter 50 verses 2 and 24)

The exiles also would have recalled Isaiah’s prophecy, spoken nearly two centuries before Babylon’s fall:

Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms,
the glory of the Babylonians’ pride,
will be overthrown by God
like Sodom and Gomorrah.
She will never be inhabited
or lived in through all generations.
(Isaiah chapter 13 verses 19-20)

And why did Babylon fall? Isaiah stated the reason:

You said in your heart,
“I will ascend into heaven;
I will raise my throne
above the stars of God; . . .
I will make myself like the Most High.”
(Isaiah chapter 14 verses 13-14)

King Nebuchadnezzar, himself a Babylonian king, said it well, “Everything [the King of heaven] does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble” (chapter 4 verse 37).

It’s just as true today: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1st Peter chapter 5 verse 5). Humility is the only proper attitude before God.

The End of Part 5.2