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Daniel 5

Chapter 4 left us with Nebuchadnezzar praising the God of heaven for making known to him that He was “able to abase” any who walked “in pride” (Daniel 4:37). It seems more than likely that he died soon after in the year 562 B.C.[1] after a 43 year reign.

His immediate successor was his son Amel-Marduk,[2] (called Evilmerodach in 2 Kings 25:27; also Jer.52:31) who reigned only two years from 562 to 560 B.C. During that brief period he is noted for having released Jehoiachin king of Judah from prison after being incarcerated for 37 years.

Allegedly because Amel-Marduk tried to modify is father’s policies,[3] he was murdered in 560 B.C. by his brother-in-law Nergal-sharezar (Neriglissar), who succeeded him.

Neriglissar’s reign lasted 4 years from 560 to 556 B.C. after which he died of natural causes.[4]

Consequently, Neriglissar’s son, Labishi-Marduk, was placed on the throne when only a boy. Not surprisingly, however, he was found unfit to rule and was murdered in a conspiracy only nine months after his inauguration.[5]

Then, Nabonidus was chosen as the new king. Things seemed to settle down a bit because he ruled 17 years from 556 to 539 B.C. But, only three years after ascending the throne, he turned over the rule of the city of Babylon to his son Belshazzar in 553 B.C. even though he was only fifteen years old![6]

For 14 years, Nabonidus remained away from the city, but: “In the year 540 B.C. Nabonidus returned from Tayma, hoping to defend his kingdom from the Persians who were planning to advance on Babylon. In 539 B.C. Belshazzar was positioned in the city of Babylon to hold the capital, while Nabonidus, marched his troops north to meet Cyrus. On October 10, 539 B.C. Nabonidus surrendered and fled from Cyrus. Two days later, October 12, 539 B.C., the Persian armies overthrew the city of Babylon.”[7]

Some question the veracity of this story. “The absence of the name of Belshazzar on the monuments was long regarded as an argument against the genuineness of the Book of Daniel. In 1854 Sir Henry Rawlinson found an inscription of Nabonidus which referred to his eldest son. Quite recently, however, the side of a ravine undermined by heavy rains fell at Hillah, a suburb of Babylon. A number of huge, coarse earthenware vases were laid bare. These were filled with tablets, the receipts and contracts of a firm of Babylonian bankers, which showed that Belshazzar had a household, with secretaries and stewards. One was dated in the third year of the king Marduk-sar-uzur. As Marduk-sar-uzar was another name for Baal, this Marduk-sar-uzur was found to be the Belshazzar of Scripture.”[8]

So, there is abundant evidence for the genuineness of the scenario that Belshazzar’s reign as co-regent in Babylon actually lasted some 14 years from 553 to 539 B.C. Thus, Belshazzar was at least 29 years old when he died at the time the Persians overthrew the city of Babylon.

With power being jockeyed from one incompetent ruler to the next after the death of Nebuchadnezzar whom the scripture identifies as “the terrible of the nations” (Ezekiel 28:7; 30:10, 11; 31:12; 32:12), the nation itself suffered the inevitable results of inward corruption ending in complete dissolution under the hand of its enemies only 23 years after the death of its leading monarch.

Verse 1: Belshazzar the king made a great feast to a thousand of his lords, and drank wine before the thousand.

So, here we are in Belshazzar’s fourteenth year of reign. Even though the Persians were laying siege outside the walls of the city, the king could think of nothing better to do than throw a party! He had complete confidence in the city’s brick walls that were 56 miles long, 300 feet high, 25 feet thick with another wall 75 feet behind the first wall, and the wall extend[ing] 35 feet below ground.” The wall was guarded by “250 towers that were 450 high.”[9] It is said enough food was within the city to last 20 years.

So, who could blame the king for feeling confident? Well, confidence might be o.k., but negligence is never excusable even under the best of circumstance and disaster is inevitable when negligence is coupled with the effects of alcohol.

This story has several lessons to teach, one being that of a king, who like his grandfather was also steeped in heathenism, crowned with glory and magnificence, but whose character and behavior was quite unlike that of king Nebuchadnezzar.

As noted above, Belshazzar was only 15 years old when his father, Nabonidus, made him co-regent with himself in 553 B.C.  Since Nebuchadnezzar died in 562 B.C., his grandson was 6 years old when Nebuchadnezzar died.

As we learned in the last chapter, Nebuchadnezzar died quite soon after he recovered from his insanity which lasted seven years. Therefore, Belshazzar was probably born quite soon after the heavenly verdict  (Daniel 4:31) fell upon his grandfather. By the time Nebuchadnezzar regained his sanity, Belshazzar was old enough to understand something of the humiliation that fell upon his grandfather. And, as he grew older, with the final details becoming even more clear to him, there was no excuse for ignoring the lesson Nebuchadnezzar had “gained at the cost of untold suffering and humiliation.”[10]

After Nebuchadnezzar died, his son Amel-Marduk took the throne then was murdered two years later. This would bring Belshazzar to his eighth year of life.  Then, he was twelve years old when Neriglisser died. Neriglisser’s son, Labishi-Marduk and Belshazar might even have been playmates at the time Labishi was placed on the throne but murdered when Belshazzar was around thirteen. When the conspirators who killed his playmate chose Nabonidus, Belshazzar’s father, to be king, Belshazzar’s elation probably eclipsed any remorse he may have had for his erstwhile friend. In fact, as the story goes, Belshazzar was probably far happier than his father, who had little interest in the affairs of government. He was far more engrossed with religious things.

So, even though he knew “of his grandfather’s banishment, by the decree of God, from the society of men; and was familiar with Nebuchadnezzar’s conversion and miraculous restoration,”[11] it appears to have made little or no impression on his mind. Perhaps, thinking about the murder of his friend Labishi by the conspirators who engineered his death, he may have concluded in order to survive one does well to be popular with “his lords,” and what better way to do that then throw parties and festivities every so often.

If there were any words of caution or reminders of “the lessons that he should never have forgotten,”[12] those bold enough to suggest such things probably found themselves sent to remote sections of the empire. Daniel may have been one of them.[13]

So, for approximately 14 years, things seemed to be going well for Belshazzar. With all his happy and contented couturiers surrounding him, testimony to his generosity and love of “fun,”[14] his worries about meeting the same fate as Labishi seemed foolish at this point in time. In fact he never had it so good, or so he thought.

Verse 2: Belshazzar, whiles 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.

Even though secure within massive walls and stocked with an abundance of food, this was no time for this festive occasion. Just one day before, Belshazzar’s father had been taken prisoner by the Persians who were now besieging the city.

More foolish yet, with a little alcohol benumbing his mind, he gave the order to do what his grandfather had never presumed to do ever since riffling the sanctuary in Jerusalem of its treasures more than 60 years before. To use these articles for a drunken party was considered sacrilege even by his pagan forbearers who kept them secure in the department of the treasury.

But, stupefied by the intoxicating beverage, and egged on by his lords and concubines who enthusiastically emulated the drunken king, he gave the order to bring out the vessels and drink from them just for sport. He intended to “prove that nothing was too sacred for his hands to handle.”[15]

So, who committed the greatest crime? It would seem Nebuchadnezzar was far more guilty than his grandson having confiscated the sacred articles from the temple in Jerusalem.  In fact, he did it for the same reason Belshazzar presumed to drink from them—to prove his gods (not sure if he worshipped any![16]) more powerful than Judah’s. But, heaven did not see it that way. While Nebuchadnezzar was blessed exceedingly, Belshazzar met with divine scorn, and an untimely death in spite of what seems to have been a far less reprehensible crime.

As this story shows, Belshazzar met with severe condemnation, not because he did worse, but because he should have known better. Given his background and what he could have known, heaven held Nebuchadnezzar far less responsible. In fact, God used him because he was what could be called a “straight shooter.”

Verse 3: 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.

One wonders whether Belshazzar ever thought about the “watcher, watchers” and “the holy ones” (Daniel 4:13, 17 & 23) grandfather Nebuchadnezzar must have reminisced about before he died, perhaps even telling his grandson about them for a bedtime story.[17] Quite possibly Belshazzar did have that impression lurking in the back of his mind, but pride took hold of him when he gained the throne adopting an attitude of indifference to the absurd “fantasies” of his grandfather’s imagination.

Obviously, Belshazzar’s father, Nabonidus, had no use for Nebuchadnezzar’s newfound faith either, and must have secretly scoffed when he heard “Nebuchadnezzar praise and extol and honour the King of heaven” (Daniel 4:37) little realizing that he and because of his influence on his son was making the greatest mistake in his life. If he had accepted Nebuchadnezzar’s faith, instead of trying to replace Nebuchadnezzar’s former god Marduk with his new heathen god, and encouraged his son to do the same, it would have saved the kingdom.

Verse 4: They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone.

Even though Nebuchadnezzar regained his sanity then “blessed the most High, and . . . praised and honoured him that liveth …” (Daniel 4:34) his children remained fools in spite of retaining their sanity. Regardless of the overwhelming evidence “that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will” (Daniel 4:17, 25, 32), they continued rendering praise to powerless, inanimate objects.

In other words, it seems Nebuchadnezzar’s testimony had no influence whatsoever on Belshazzar or his subjects. Whether or not they gave any serious thought, other than ridicule, of the army of the Persians camped outside, would only be speculative. Legend has it that food stores in the city were so immense, that enough was within the walls to keep them from starvation for some 20 years! The people were even said to have thrown food over the wall to the enemy below, taunting them that they could outlast their would-be invaders!

So, here we have the prototypical picture of complacency right on the verge of imminent disaster.

Verse 5: In the same hour came forth fingers of a man’s hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaister of the wall of the king’s palace: and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote.

History repeats itself. Just 31 years before, at “the same hour” when boastful words fell from his mouth “was the thing fulfilled upon Nebuchadnezzzar: and he was driven from men . . .” (Daniel 4:33). At that moment, time for the execution of the “decree of the watchers, and the demand by the word of the holy ones” had arrived. The “decree” was implemented to convince all “the living . . .that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will, and setteth up over it the basest of men” (Daniel 4:17).

Nebuchadnezzar’s successors, namely his son Evilmerodach, followed by Neriglissar, Labishi, Nabonidus, then Belshazzar, with the possible exception of Labishi who was very young, could be thought of as “the basest[18] of men” with, perhaps, Belshazzar occupying the lowest level. While Nebuchadnezzar was an outstanding person who looked well to the betterment of his kingdom, his successors were “dead weights.” They were incompetent or corrupted. They weakened the kingdom so that it retained nothing more than a hollow shell of its former glory.

While the “watcher, watchers” and the “holy ones” saw fit to give Nebuchadnezzar another chance, no such opportunity was allowed his successors who were murdered unexpectedly or died prematurely.

Knowing the end of this story that depicts “Belshazzar the king” being “slain” (verse 30), we wonder why the “watcher” decided to partially reveal Himself with the “fingers of a man’s hand” in front of the astonished multitude and proceed to write undecipherable words “upon the plaister of the wall?”

Nebuchadnezzaar’s dream (of chapter 4:27), gave him opportunity to reform, while the handwriting on the wall was only a portent of doom allowing the king no opportunity to change his administration.

Interestingly, when Cyrus, the Persian king, overthrew Babylon, it appears that Belshazzar was the only casualty. According to one historian: “it is clear that Cyrus obtained the throne and empire of Babylon with the acquiescence . . . of a large part of the population. He came to free them from a ruler who had forfeited their adhesion: . . . He was the founder of a new dynasty over a willing people, not a foreign conqueror indifferent to them and their interests . . . Cyrus immediately reversed the religious policy of Nabonidus, which had provoked great resentment, and in other respects in his attitude to the Babylonian gods he put himself right with the people.”[19] So, it is rather unlikely that a great slaughter followed the Persian invasion of Babylon that would have terrorized the populace. On the contrary, it seems the Persians were welcomed as liberators with no outpouring of grief being expressed for Belshazzar in spite of his efforts, such as his drunken banquet, to ingratiate himself with his contemporaries.

Therefore, the “handwriting on the wall” must have made an ineffaceable impression in the minds of “the thousand” of Belshazzar’s “lords” including “his princes, his wives, and his concubines” in verses 1,2. But, the impression did not stop with ancient Babylon because the phrase “handwriting on the wall” has echoed down through the ages even to our time. It is a favored expression for taking heed to warning signs that all must, sooner or later, take responsibility for one’s own character and behavior.

“When the revelry was at its height a bloodless hand came forth and traced upon the walls of the palace characters that gleamed like fire—words which, though unknown to the vast throng, were a portent of doom to the now conscience-stricken king and his guests.”[20]

Those “fingers” must have belonged to one of the “watchers” or “the holy ones” of heaven who had been observing Nebuchadnezzar and discussing his destiny (as we noted in Daniel 4:13, 17). Now, 23 years later, their watch was continuing and they must have decided upon another decree unlike that made for Nebuchadnezzar. While a special test with potential for good was agreed upon for Nebuchadnezzar, from the heavenly point of view, all that could be done for Belshazzar had been done. He had reached the point of no return. Not only was Belshazzar familiar with the experiences that came to his grandfather who may have dandied him on his knee as a child,[21] he even had Nebuchadnezzar’s personal written testimony we just studied in chapter four.

So, the message of this incident has rung down through the ages, reminding men that a time of accountability is coming. There will be no exception.  The “watcher” is still watching to see, just as in the case of Belshazzar and Nebuchadnezzar, how we handle the knowledge we have.

Verse 6: 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.

The specter was like a bolt out of the blue. Terror took the place of intoxicated bliss. The shock of it shook him to the very core. The guilt, for rejecting the things he learned as a lad and suppressed for years resurged with a vengeance. Even though he had no idea what the blazing letters meant, he “realized that he must render an account of the stewardship entrusted him, and that for his wasted opportunities and his defiant attitude he could offer no excuse.”[22]

Panic seized him.

Verse 7: 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 shew 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.

With the king losing all composure and throwing his dignity to the winds, his wail of despair echoed through the great hall. It must also have been pretty frightening for the vast crowd. Perhaps there was a rush to the exit.

We don’t know if Belsazzar required as much of the “astrologers, Chaldean, and the soothsayers” as his grandfather did. We do know that his father, Nabonidus, rejected Nebuchadnezzar’s heathen god and attempted to introduce another, making himself unpopular with the people. Perhaps Belshazzar, seeing the futility of Nabonidus’ effort to change the religion of the Babylonians, decided to dispense with the matter of worship entirely and substitute a hedonistic way of life in its place.

Up to this point he may never have felt in need of special counsel. As a last resort he hailed the wise men into the hall. Perhaps, since he had never met them before he felt they must be bribed to give an answer to the mystery. Offering to make the determiner “third ruler in the land” was the best thing he could do since, as we now know, he was second next to his father Nabonidus.

Interestingly, even at this very moment, Nabonidus had just been taken prisoner by the Persians. Although Nabonidus’ fate is uncertain “Cyrus has been known for sparing the lives of the kings whom he had defeated, an idea  . . . by Berossus and the retrospective Hellenistic Babylonian Dynastic Prophecies, which mention that Nabonidus’ life was spared, and that he was allowed to retire in Carmania.”[23]

Verse 8: 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.

So, even though they “tried to read the burning letters,” Belshazzar got the same answer as his grandfather. “Heavenly wisdom cannot be bought or sold.” Even though it was obvious that the strange manifestation boded ill, “They were no more able to read the mysterious character than had been the wise men of a former generation to interpret the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar.”[24] They could have said “there is none other that can shew it before the king, except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh” (Daniel 2:11).

Verse 9: Then was king Belshazzar greatly troubled, and his countenance was changed in him, and his lords were astonied.

So, the obvious confusion and embarrassment of the wise men only added to the king’s perplexity. The murmur of excited voices rippling through the crowd did not help matters either.

While the assembled multitude “watched the hand slowly tracing the mysterious characters . . . the deeds of evil lives . . . seemed to be arraigned before the judgment-bar of the eternal God, whose power they had just defied. Where but a few moments before had been hilarity and blasphemous witticism, were pallid faces and cries of fear. When God makes men fear, they cannot hide the intensity of their terror.”[25]

Verse 10: 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 for ever: let not thy thoughts trouble thee, nor let thy countenance be changed:

The “queen” was not Belshazzar’s wife, she was his mother.[26] Note in the next verse she vividly recalls Daniel who was made “master of the magicians” more than thirty years before (see Daniel 4:9), a promotion that took place long before Belshazzar was even born. She also recalled that Daniel “had made known to King Nebuchadnezzar the dream of the great image and its interpretation”[27] more than sixty years before!

Note also that she came into the banquet hall uninvited. She entered because she heard “His wild cry [that] rang out in the assembly, calling upon the astrologers, the Chaldeans, and the soothsayers to read the writing.”[28] Nobody but his mother would dare do that.

Now, in effect, she tells her son: “come on now, pull yourself together. I want to remind you of something you should have remembered.”

Verse 11: 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, the king, I say, thy father, made master of the magicians, astrologers, Chaldeans, and soothsayers;

This verse and the next were spoken by Belshazzar’s mother. Keep in mind Belshazzar was only 29 years old. A young wife could not know the things mentioned in these verses unless she got them second hand. But, the phraseology indicates she got them first hand. Note the last phrase in the next verse saying: “he [Daniel] will shew the interpretation” indicating absolute faith in Daniel’s ability.  That “faith” was not second hand!

Note her emphasis on Belshazzar’s relationship to Nebuchadnezzar saying: “king Nebuchadnezzar thy father . . . I say, thy father” (really his grandfather) suggesting she had tried to tell him these things before. Bear in mind that she was also Nabonidus’ wife, although it is very unlikely he shared her faith in Daniel.[29] Therefore, Belshazzar was torn between the faith of his real father and that of his mother who not only espoused faith in Daniel, but likely espoused faith in Daniel’s God.

Recall, as we learned in chapter 2 that the noun “soothsayers” is from “gazerin,[30] from a root meaning ‘to cut,’ ‘to determine.’ Hence the generally accepted meaning is ‘the deciders,’ or ‘the determiners [of destiny].”[31] Also recall it is translated “cut out” in Daniel 2:34, 45, depicting the action that selects, “without hands,”[32] a “stone” from a “mountain.” The “stone” was then used by God to “brake in pieces” the elements of the great image Nebuchadnezzar saw in his dream. It then became a “great mountain” that “filled the whole earth.”

Here the false “soothsayers” were frustrated again and compelled to take a back seat to the true heavenly “soothsayer” who really could “decide” and “determine” destiny, a fact vividly demonstrated in this story where God decidedly rejects the likes of people like Belshazzar whose character and behavior disqualifies them from being selected for God’s kingdom.

Verse 12: 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 shew the interpretation.

Belshazzar’s mother is still speaking here. Since she was Nebuchadnezzar’s daughter,[33] she may have heard her father mention “Daniel, whose name was Belteshazzar,” who interpreted his dream about the great “tree” that would be hewed down if he did not mend his ways. She may also recalled how her father, although greatly impressed by Daniel’s wisdom, pass it off as absurd although not expressing his sentiments to Daniel. Then, how could she forget seeing her proud father eating grass like cows for seven, long years and feeling a sense of the burning humiliation that he endured.

So, how could she forget? We can be sure she had often recounted the hard experience of her father to her son Belshazzar. Unfortunately, like so many youths who thought such things could never happen to them, it went in one ear and out the other. Occupied with the many attractions of court life, he quickly forgot the whole thing and conducted his life as if grandfather’s repeated warning that “those that walk in pride he is able to abase” (Daniel 4:37), he probably regarded as a sign of senility.

Verse 13: Then was Daniel brought in before the king. And the king spake and said unto Daniel, Art thou that Daniel, which art of the children of the captivity of Judah, whom the king my father brought out of Jewry?

History often repeats itself. Thirty-one years before, even though Daniel was “master of the magicians” he did not come in before king Nebuchadnezzar when “the magicians, that astrologers, and the Chaldeans, and the soothsayers” were brought in, but “came in” sometime afterwards (Daniel 4:7-9). Here we see the same sequence even though it seems clear he was not now “master of the magicians.” In fact, Belshazzar, Nabonidus, or even Neriglissar may have, long before, exiled him to a remote post in the kingdom because of his faith in God. It seems possible that even Amel-Marduk (called Evilmerodach in 2 Kings 25:27) may have been responsible because it is alleged he tried to modify is fathers (Nebuchadnezzar’s) policies. Among one of those changes could have been Daniel’s removal from his post as “master of the magicians.”[34]

By this time, Daniel was approximately 85 years old.[35] Since Belshazzar’s first year, and possibly during the intervening time between Nebuchadnezzar’s death and Belshazzar’s reign, the demand on Daniel’s time had dwindled leaving him more hours to spend as he wished.  Note, his presence at “Shushan” during Belshazzar’s “third year” (Daniel 8:1) which was many miles east of Babylon suggesting that the new officials wanted nothing to do with him in the capitol city. Over time, with the encroachment of the invading Medes and Persians, Daniel and the others of his staff, were probably forced back into the city of Babylon sometime prior to this final episode of Belshazzar’s rule.

It does not appear Belshazzar issued the order to have Daniel brought in. Rather, it was his mother that commanded: “now let Daniel be called . . .” Belshazzar, who was at his wits end, silently acquiesced. After that “the king [finally] spake” asking Daniel who he was. That reveals Belshazzar had no personal acquaintance with Daniel suggesting also one of his predecessors, including Nabonidus, had long before ostracized Daniel from the court.

Verse 14: I have even heard of thee, that the spirit of the gods is in thee, and that light and understanding and excellent wisdom is found in thee.

Note, in verses 11 and 12 his mother had just said: “there is a man . . . in whom is the spirit of the holy gods . . . an excellent spirit, and knowledge and understanding.” Was Belshazzar just repeating his mother’s words, or had she spoken them to him many times before he became king? Perhaps he was just pretending ignorance!

Verse 15: And now the wise men, the astrologers, have been brought in before me, that they should read this writing, and make known unto me the interpretation thereof: but they could not shew the interpretation of the thing:

In contrast to his grandfather, who “was angry and very furious” because these men failed to explain his dream, Belshazzar was rattled and terrified of the mysterious specter of the hand and its writings on the wall. Judging by what we read in verse 6 where “his knees smote one against another,” his voice must have been quavering in sync with his knees. The inability of the wise men to help him with the difficulty he faced was far from reasurring.

Verse 16: And I have heard of thee, that thou canst make interpretations, and dissolve doubts: now if thou canst read the writing, and make known to me the interpretation thereof, thou shalt be clothed with scarlet, and have a chain of gold about thy neck, and shalt be the third ruler in the kingdom.

The first phrase “I have heard of thee” suggests he may have been attempting to repress the memories of this man that were now surging back to him like a tsunami of memories that he should never have forgotten.

As if to bribe Daniel to tell him what he knew, he did the best he knew by offering the high position his grandfather had given Daniel so many years before, and continued to counsel with him. Such a policy would not only have saved the kingdom, it would quite certainly have saved his life!

Now, at this point, the interpretations Daniel made known to both Nebuchadnezzar [36] and Belshazzar were judgment messages. Both can be seen as punishment for pride and arrogance. But, whereas Nebuchadnezzar was first given a warning followed by an opportunity to repent after the judgment, no such prospect was to be allowed in Belshazzar’s case.

Verse 17: 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, unmoved by the promises of the king, stood in the quite dignity of a servant of the Most High, not to speak words of flattery, but to interpret a message of doom.”[37] It would seem, therefore, that Belshazzar had committed the unpardonable sin. For him, probation was closed.

Daniel, who must have been occupying a minor position in government at this time, was far from troubled or resentful of the implied insult. Rather, as in chapters 7 and 8 which were written in Belshazzar’s “first year,’ and later in his “third year” (Daniel 7:1 and 8:1), he had matters occupying his mind that were far more important than the matters of administration.

Verse 18: O thou king, the most high God gave Nebuchadnezzar thy father a kingdom, and majesty, and glory, and honour:

This should not have been news to Belshazzar who must have heard his grandfather tell about “the signs and wonders that the high God hath wrought toward [him]” including Daniel’s explanation of the “great image” of Daniel 2, the wonderful deliverance of Daniel three friends from the burning fiery furnace and finally his seven years of insanity. Although it was fully apparent to his grandfather and to many others of his court that Daniel’s God was all powerful, it was scorned by such as Belshazzar.

Verse 19: And for the majesty that he gave him, all people, nations, and languages, trembled and feared before him: whom he would he slew; and whom he would he kept alive; and whom he would he set up; and whom he would he put down.

So, instead of immediately plunging into the interpretation, Daniel launched into a lecture scolding the king. He first compares his administration to that of his grandfather. While Nebuchadnezzar claimed great “majesty, glory, and honour,” the inference was Belshazzar had none of the above. While Nebuchadnezzar was greatly esteemed because they knew his threats were real, Belshazzar was secretly (I imagine!) despised as cowardly, even effeminate. While Nebuchadnezzar’s decision making ability was unaffected by hesitation and doubt, it was just the opposite for Belshazzar who must have been evasive and indecisive. It must have been difficult to know where he really stood in matters of administration.

Verse 20: But when his heart was lifted up, and his mind hardened in pride, he was deposed from his kingly throne, and they took his glory from him:

Belshazzar’s “heart” was also “lifted up” like his grandfather who viewing the beauty of his kingdom from the portico of his gorgeous palace boasted “is not this great Babylon that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power and for the honour of my majesty?” But, in Belshazzar’s case, he could make no such boast because “this great Babylon” had deteriorated to a mere shadow of its former grandeur. All he could boast of was what his grandfather had done. All he could do was take another drink and escape from reality.

Verse 21: And he was driven from the sons of men; and his heart was made like the beasts, and his dwelling was with the wild asses: 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 ruled in the kingdom of men, and that he appointeth over it whomsoever he will.

Verses 18 & 19 gave the positive aspects of Nebuchadnezzar’s character. These give the negative followed by a review of his judgment depicted in Daniel 4 verse 33.

Note some additional detail of Nebuchadnezzars’s punishment are presented here.  While ch.4 says “he was driven from men,” here “he was driven from the sons of men” or “men” of high estate. While ch.4 says he “did eat grass as oxen,” here “they fed him with grass like oxen.” The pronoun “they” suggests he was attended to by those who took care of the livestock.

Nevertheless, Daniel did neglect to mention Nebuchadnezzar’s hair grew “like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws.”

Bear in mind that Belshazzar was born soon after Nebuchadnezzar was evicted to live like a cow in the pasture. He had no excuse for forgetting all the details of his grandfather’s experience. If Belshazzar’s face wasn’t pale before, undoubtedly, it was now for he had no difficulty recalling the details!

Verse 22: And thou his son, O Belshazzar, hast not humbled thine heart, though thou knewest all this;

This is a very important verse. It makes it clear that God judges us, as well as the likes of Belshazzar, based on what we know regardless whether we chose to accept and live by it or disregard it. Belshazzar had to be what could be called an “avowed unbeliever,” one who deliberately chooses to disbelieve regardless of the strength of evidence to the contrary.

In contrast, Belshazzar’s grandfather, irrespective of the overwhelming power of the evidences that came to him, was not compelled to believe. He still had to humble himself in order to accept the evidence. Belshazzar had it easy. It should not have been a difficult choice at all to humble his heart.

Such is the case with many today. Irrespective of the overwhelming scientific evidences favoring the reality of a designer and a Divine Creator, many chose to believe that everything was made by nothing, a concept totally unscientific. Thus, there are many “avowed unbelievers” just like Belshazzar, living even in our day.

Verse 23: But hast lifted up thyself against the Lord of heaven; 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: and the God in whose hand thy breath is, and whose are all thy ways, hast thou not glorified:

Once again Daniel refers to Belshazzar’s relationship to Nebuchadnezzar as his “son” (actually grandson) and previously, in verse 18, as his “father” (grandfather).  In that case, we wonder about Nabonidus’ relationship to Nebuchadnezzar. Was Nabonidus Nebuchadnezzar’s son?

Some even believe he was the son of Nebuchadnezzar’s first born, Amel-Marduk, or Evilmerodach. But, the Cyrus cylinder [38] should have the last word in that matter:

“Nabonidus’ background is not clear. He says himself in his inscriptions that he is of unimportant origins. Similarly, his mother, who lived to high age and may have been connected to the temple of the moongod Sîn in Harran, in her inscriptions does not mention her descent. . . . One way or another, he certainly did not belong to the previous ruling dynasty, the Chaldeans, of whom Nebuchadnezzar II was the most famous member. He came to the throne in 556 BC by overthrowing the youthful king Labashi-Marduk.”[39]

In that case, his relationship to Nebuchadnezzar was likely through his mother, of whom less is known. She is the one who uttered the words of verses 10 to 12 and could have been one of Nebuchadnezzar’s daughters that some give the name “Nitocris (the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar.)”[40] Even though her husband, Nabonidus, failed to be impressed by the experience of his wife’s father, she must have taken it to heart.

Therefore, Belshazzar must have rubbed elbows with the elite throughout his life and was thoroughly familiar with the goings on of court life. The “talk of the town” during his early boy hood was Nebuchadnezzar’s condition which lasted seven years, and especially, the story of how the king’s sanity returned to him right on time when the sun dial struck the very hour, day, month and year of the termination of the “seven times” (Daniel 4:16, 23, 25 and 32) that was prophesied. That was very big news in those days, and the talk about it must have lasted for years.

Note Daniel accusation: “thou . . . hast not humbled thine heart, though thou knewest all this . . .” History confirms he had that knowledge.  Also observe that the “straw that broke the camel’s back” was Belshazzar’s direct challenge to God by bringing out “the vessels of [God’s] house . . . and  . . . have drunk wine in them. . .” Such presumptuous behavior was equivalent to that of Nebuchadnezzar even earlier in his life when he challenged the three Hebrews saying: “who is that God that shall deliver you out of my hands?” (Daniel 3:15). But, he readily reversed himself when God gave him the answer. Not so with Belshazzar, evidently, his mind set was irreversible. He was his own worst enemy.

So, “Belshazzar had not read aright the experience of his grandfather, nor heeded the warning of events so significant to himself. The opportunity of knowing and obeying the true God had been given him, but had not been taken to heart, and he was about to reap the consequence of his rebellion.”[41] Daniel soundly denounced the king’s folly in praising “gods of silver, and gold, of brass, iron, wood and stone, which see not, nor hear, nor know,” adding that his very “breath” came from the hand of God, not from his senseless idols.

Verse 24: Then was the part of the hand sent from him; and this writing was written.

The pronoun “him” refers to “the God in whose hand thy breath is” because this verse completes that of verse 23. Therefore, that “hand” belonged to God Himself! It was the same hand referred to in Daniel 2 as “without hands” in chapter 2 that was responsible for selecting the “stone” out of the “mountain” (Daniel 2:34, 45).

He was the One who wrote the words that follow. Perhaps, after the “hand” finished writing, it vanished leaving the words blazing on the wall as follows:

Verse 25: And this is the writing that was written, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.

According to the Commentary “It is futile to speculate concerning the nature of this script and its relationship to any other known script. But, even after the words had been read, they could not be understood except by divine illumination. A whole truth was expressed in each key word; hence the need for an interpretation.”[42] If you do a Google search using these three words, you will find that essentially true. Therefore, lets stick to Daniel’s God-given interpretation.

Verse 26: This is the interpretation of the thing: MENE; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it.

While “MENE” appeared twice on the wall, and repeated only once in Daniel’s interpretation, he gave it a dual application: “numbered” and “finished.” The verb “numbered” or “counted”[43] suggests the “kingdom” was under scrutiny. It was being watched by “a watcher and an holy one” who “came down from heaven” (Daniel 4:13, 17) using His fingers to write frightening words on the wall placing the king and his subjects on notice their probation was “finished.”

The transition point between the “head of gold” and the “breast and arms of silver” (Daniel 2:32, 38) had been reached. Even though this “kingdom” was number “one” under the dominion of Nebuchadnezzar, it had degenerated under the dominion of its successors, with Belshazzar giving it its mortal wound. But, “by the decree of the watchers, and the demand by the word of the holy ones” (Daniel 4:17), it was agreed that the time for the predicted change in the sequential order of kingdoms, had come for there was no prospect for its recovery.

Verse 27: TEKEL; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.

The sense of being watched continues with the “balances” being metaphoric for assessment and evaluation. The pronoun “thou” indicates Belshazzar’s personal, moral worth, his character and behavior were being scrutinized, “for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed” (1 Samuel 2:3). John saw the same figure when he “beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand” (Revelation 6:5).

The word “wanting”[44] is and old English term meaning “deficient” or “lacking.” In this case “lacking in moral worth.”[45]

“In the investigative judgment now in progress men are weighed in the balances of the sanctuary to see whether their moral character and spiritual state correspond with the benefits and blessings God had conferred upon them.”[46]

God is watching us just as closely as He was watching Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar!

Verse 28: PERES; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.

While “MENE” and ‘TEKEL” denote passive observation, assessment, evaluation and scrutiny, “PERES,” or its equivalent “UPHARSIN,” is active denoting the execution of the “decree,” the “sentence” agreed upon by the “watchers, and the demand by the word of the holy ones.”

So, the last word called “UPHARSIN” in verse 25, Daniel here calls it “PERES” and translates it “divided.” Interestingly, both words are from the same Aramaic word “p@rac”[47]. Further insight from the SDA Bible Commentary suggests its meaning to be: “The kingdom was to be divided into pieces, destroyed, and dissolved”[48] rather then chopped in half with each half distributed to “the Medes and Persians.”

So, Daniel declared, “thy kingdom is destroyed, and dissolved” very much like the great image that was “broken to pieces . . . and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, that no place was found for them” (Daniel 2:35).

Verse 29: Then commanded Belshazzar, and they clothed Daniel with scarlet, and put a chain of gold about his neck, and made a proclamation concerning him, that he should be the third ruler in the kingdom.

So, regardless of the distain Daniel regarded Belshazzar’s proffered reward, the scolding Daniel leveled at the king and Daniel’s terrible pronouncements of doom, nevertheless it appears Belshazzar accepted Daniel’s reprimands and his fearful interpretations. While it was too late to avert the doom, the final decision in regard to Belshazzar’s ultimate salvation must be left with the great “Watcher” in heaven who, we can be sure, took the king’s last recorded action into consideration and read his heart.

If time had lasted, with Daniel becoming “third ruler in the kingdom,” we can be sure a lot of changes for the better would have been made. But, it was not to be.

Verse 30: In that night was Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans slain.

Evidently, according to the testimony of the historian, Belshazzar was the only one whose blood was shed. In fact, “Cyrus is welcomed as representative of the supreme god,”[49] and because Nabonidus was despised,[50] his representative, Belshazzar, even though “not mentioned in the cuneiform sources describing the fall of Babylon,”[51] was killed

Interestingly, “Nabonidus was absent from Babylon at the time of its capture.” He, with his army and gone outside the city in a vain effort to stem the onslaught of the Persians, but were defeated near a city named Opis. The Babylonians withdrew south “to establish a line of defense near the Euphrates that should prevent Cyrus from advancing too far. However, Cyrus did not try the Babylonian army, but sent a small division south along the Tigris to try to take the capital by surprise. This plan worked: the division could reach Babylon undetected and caught it unawares, meeting only minor resistance near one of its gates. Thus, they were not only able to capture Babylon, but also king Nabonidus, who briefly afterwards left his army to return to Babylon, not knowing that the city had already been taken.

“This left the Babylonian army in a precarious position, and it soon surrendered. In the meantime, Ugbaru, the commander of the divisions that had captured, Babylon, had taken good care that his men would not plunder or otherwise harm the city; he had even made sure that the temple rites continued to be observed.”[52]

In the meantime, Cyrus had sent Nabonidus “to distant Carmania”[53] where he was allowed to retire.

Therefore, the lives of “thousand of [Belshazzar’s] lords” who “drank wine” in verses 1, 2 must also have been spared including, as we know from the next chapter, Daniel.

Verse 31: And Darius the Median took the kingdom, being about threescore and two years old.

“Babyon was conquered by Ugbaru, the governor of Gutium, who led the army of Cyrus and entered the city of Babylon on the night of Belshazzar’s feast.”[54] He accomplished this feat exactly the way it was predicted 173 years earlier when Isaiah prophesied God “will dry up thy rivers: That saith of Cyrus, He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure: … whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him; and I will … open before him the two leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut; . . .” (Isaiah 44:27, 28; 45:1).

“The exact mode by which Cyrus drained the stream of its water is uncertain. Herodotus relates that it was by turning the river into the receptacle excavated by Nitocris [Belshazzar’s mother…see discussion under verses 22, 23], when she made the stone piers of the bridge within the town. Xenophon records a tradition that it was by means of two new cuttings of his own, from a point of the river above the city to a point below it. Both agree that he entered the city by the channel of the Euphrates, and that he waited for a general festival which was likely to engage the attention of the inhabitants, before turning the stream from its natural bed. If the sinking of the water had been observed, his plan would have been frustrated by the closing of the city water-gages, and his army would have been caught, as Herodouts expresses it, ‘in a trap.’”[55]

But, who was Darius the Median? Some equate “him with Gobryas [Ugbaru?], the officer of Cyrus who actually took the city of Babylon, and may have ruled the conquered Babylonian kingdom under Cyrus for a year or so. Another explanation, plausible enough, is that Darius is another name for Cyaxares II,[56] the son of Astyages, who according to the Greek writer Xenophon was Cyrus’ uncle and father-in-law whom Cyrus might have retained temporarily as a figurehead king to please the Medes. The fact that the Persian account of the fall of Babylon to Cyrus begins Cyrus’ reign in Babylon immediately, without any intervening reign of Darius the Mede, does not contradict the Biblical narrative. Darius was evidently recognized as a ruler in Babylon by courtesy of Cyrus, while it was Cyrus who actually held the power (see Is.45:1). It was natural that Daniel, in direct contact with Darius, should speak of him as the “king” and mention his “first year” (Dan.9:1).”[57]

While all these historic things are intriguing and deeply interesting, we must remember the irony of it all. Because people fail to learn from it, history always repeats itself. Consequently: “The present is a time of overwhelming interest to all living. Rulers and statesmen, men who occupy positions of trust and authority, thinking men and women of all classes, have their attention fixed upon the events taking place about us. They are watching the relations that exist among the nations. They observe the intensity that is taking possession of every earthly element, and they recognize that something great and decisive is about to take place—that the world is on the verge of a stupendous crisis.

“The Bible, and the Bible only, gives a correct view of these things. Here are revealed the great final scenes in the history of our world, events that already are casting their shadows before, the sound of their approach causing the earth to tremble and men’s hearts to fail them for fear.”[58]

Summary of chapter 5: This chapter rounds out the picture of two pagan kings with Nebuchadnezzar being an example of one who is honest hearted that God was able to use. In contrast, Belshazzar dismissed all the privileges and opportunities that came his way that would have gained him complete success as the last king of his nation. Although the next chapter follows sequentially with this, chapter 7 falls back to Belshazzar’s “first year” to begin the prophetic portion of Daniel’s book that comprises the remainder of Daniel’s writings. However this chapter begins with the last year of Belshazzar’s reign that basically sums up the character and behavior of one who lived only for self and used his fellow men to minister to him rather than being a minister to them. The most outstanding epic of this story is the supernatural hand writing on the wall of the palace that riveted the attention of all the party goers. It exemplified the judgment scene that is going on right now in heaven where all nations, kingdoms, tongues and people are being numbered, weighed in the balance of the sanctuary and soon be divided between those whom God accepts and those whom He will reject. While Nebuchadnezzar will likely be accepted, Belshazzar probably not.


[1]  You can find this date in several sources, the one I chose was Wikepidia free encyclopedia

[2] Amel-Marduk (d. 560 BC), called Evil-merodach in the Hebrew Bible, was the son and successor of Nebuchadrezzar, king of Babylon.  (Ibid)

[3] see http://everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=1449843

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

[6] Manuscript Releases Vol.10 page 307 (italics mine)

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belshazzar

[8] see http://www.christiananswers.net/dictionary/belshazzar.html

[9] see <BIBLE HISTORY .COM> by Rusty Russell
PMB #510
14845 SW Murray Scholls Dr. Suite 110
Beaverton, Or 97007

[10] phrase taken from Prophets and Kings by E.E. White page 523

[11] Ibid 522

[12] Ibid 523

[13] we will discuss that possibility in chapter 8

[14] Others, believe he may have bankrupted the country, levied huge tax burdens on the citizenry, was scheming, treacherous self centered even to the point of murdering his brother, giving the dark side of Belshazzar’s character and behavior. Nevertheless, even without those negative details, it is clear that his character and behavior depicts a person who chose to disbelieve what God plainly and unmistakingly revealed to another (his grandfather Nebuchadnezzar) and that God holds him responsible.

[15] Prophets and Kings by E.G. White page 523

[16] In fact he may have despised his father for being so obsessed with religion.

[17] it could have happened because Belshazzar had to be at least six years old when Nebuchadnezzar died.

[18] “basest”  (Strong’s #8215) is from the Aramaic word “sh@phal” meaning “low” or “lowliest of station”

[19] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyrus_Cylinder

[20] Prophets and Kings by E.G. White page 524

[21] he was at least six years old when Nebuchadnezzar died

[22] Prophets and Kings by E.G. White page 527

[23] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nabonidus

[24] Prophets and Kings by E.G. White page 527

[25] Prophets and Kings by E.G. White page  524

[26] Historians even give her a name “Nitocris . . . the wife of Nabonidus . . . and daughter of Nebuchadnezzar by his Egyptian consort . . .” (http://www.8wiki.com/Belshazzar_–Relationship_To_Nebuchadnezzar)

[27] Prophets and Kings by E.G. White page  527, 528

[28] Ibid 527

[29] “Nabonidus’ background is not clear. . . In most ancient accounts, Nabonidus is being depicted as a royal anomaly. He is supposed to have worshiped the moongod Sîn beyond all the other gods, to have paid special devotion to Sîn’s temple in Harran, where his mother was a priestess, and to have neglected the Babylonian main god, Marduk.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nabonidus) Hence, there is no record of what he thought about Daniel or even Nebuchadnezzar whose experiences are recorded only in the Bible. Neither are there any references to Nabonidus’ wife, Belshazzar’s mother, details of which we will have to wait to review them with her in the kingdom, where I believe both she and king Nebuchadnezzar will be found.

[30] see also Strong’s Concordance where the Aramaic word for “soothsayers” is spelled “ghezar’” (#1505) meaning “to quarry; determine:–cut out . . .” Although the spelling is a little different than the Commentarie’s, it is still the same word.

[31] see SDA Bible Commentary Vol.4 page 770 (right column under “Soothsayers.”) Although that comment relates to Daniel 2:27, the same translation applies here as well as to “cut out” in Daniel 2:34, 45.

[32] “without hands” or “unaided by human agencies.” (SDA Bible Commentary Vol.4, page 771)

[33] see note #26

[34] Of course, this is speculation. It seems certain that Neriglissar did not murder Amel because he was attempting to institute worship of Daniel’s God, but for some other reason either political or religious.

[35] 605 – 538 B.C. = 67 + 18 = 85

[36] see Daniel 4 especially verses 19-27

[37] Prophets and Kings page 529

[38] “The Cyrus cylinder, also known as the Cyrus the Great cylinder, is a document issued by the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great in the form of a clay cylinder inscribed in Akkadian cuneiform script. The cylinder was created following the Persian conquest of Babylon in 539 BC, when Cyrus overthrew the Babylonian king Nabonidus and replaced him as ruler, ending the Neo-Babylonian Empire. . . .The cylinder was discovered in 1879 by the Assyro-British archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam in the foundations of the Esagila, the main temple of Babylon, where it had been placed as a foundation deposit. It is today kept in the British Museum in London. There have been reports of attempts by the directors of the British Museum and the National Museum of Iran in Tehran to arrange a loan of the Cyrus Cylinder to be temporarily displayed in the National Museum of Iran for a special exhibition.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyrus_Cylinder)

[39] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nabonidus

[40] http://www.dabhand.org/Essays/OT572%20C5%20Nitocris.htm

[41] Prophets and Kings by E.G. White page  529

[42] SDA Bible Commentary Vol. 4, page 804 (right column under “25.”)

[43] Ibid (right column under “26”) Interestingly, “numbered” according to my computer lexicon is from the Aramaic word “men-aw” meaning “set” or “ordained” rather than “counted.” I arbitrarily chose to go with “counted” because it coincides more closely with the “watcher.”

[44] “wanting” from the Aramaic word “chacciyr” Strong’s #2627 “lacking wanting, deficient.” This is the only time this word is found in the Bible.

[45] SDA Bible Commentary Volume 4, page 805 (top left column)

[46] Ibid (under “Found wanting”)

[47] Strong’s #6537

[48] SDA Bible Commentary Vol. 4 page 805 (italics mine)

[49] http://www.livius.org/ct-cz/cyrus_I/babylon01.html

[50] Ibid

[51] SDA Bible Commentary Vol. 4, page 805 (right column under “30”)

[52] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nabonidus

[53] SDA Bible Commentary Vol. 4, page 805 (right column under “30”)

[54] http://www.truthnet.org/Daniel/Chapter6/

[55] http://books.google.com/books?id=YyQTAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA430&lpg=PA430&dq=cyrus+drained+the+river&source=web&ots=Fo0wuubpCw&sig=DzcrPV7EKlr1K1ZTj97fcfD83oo&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=7&ct=result#PPA431,M1

[56] “According to Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, Cyaxares II followed king Astyages to the throne of the Mede Empire, and was also brother of Mandane, Cyrus the Great’s mother. He describes the Persian Cyrus as cooperating with his uncle, Cyaxares, in order to conquer Babylon in 539 BC. However Cyaxares was by then an old man, and because Cyrus was in command of the campaign, the army came to regard Cyrus as king. Cyrus thus received not only the king’s daughter (his first cousin), but his kingdom, as dowry, and the aged Cyaxares became Cyrus’ viceroy in Babylon for two years until his death, when Cyrus seized that kingdom as well.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyaxares_II)

[57] SDA Bible Dictionary page 254 (right column)

[58] Prophets and Kings by E.G. White page 537