Dan 5:1 Belshazzar the king made a great feast for a thousand of his lords, and drank wine in the presence of the thousand.
Belshazzar the king
We open up this chapter with a new King of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar is gone and we are here introduced for the first time to Belshazzar.
Up until the early 1880’s critics of the Bible would point out that the archeological records available at that time showed no evidence for a king named Belshazzar. And even worse, the records that they did have said that the last king of Babylon was Nabonidus, not Belshazzar. That all changed when archeologists discovered the so-called Nabonidus cylinder which is now in the British Museum. This as well as subsequent finds now show that while Nabonidus was indeed the last king of Babylon, he had a son named Belshazzar whom he co-ruled with. Nabonidus however spent most of his reign on religious journeys in the wilderness and was generally hated for it, so Belshazzar his son was left to rule the kingdom.
This chapter occurs only a few years after Nebuchadnezzar’s death, but even in that short time there were a number of different kings with very short reigns between the two times.
Guzik gives a rundown of the events:
So we join Belshazzar who was the son and co-ruler of Nabonidus on the night that Babylon would fall. Outside the city gates was a huge Persian army who was camped outside the city waiting for the city to surrender. But the city was well stocked and well watered and was believed to be impenetrable, so in that sense they were not worried.
Despite the strength of the city however, Babylon was in no position be merry, as a huge Persian army had defeated them in battle just days before, a battle in which Nabonidus apparently back from a pilgrimage was leading and fled during the course of, and all that held back the Medo-Persian empire from becoming the new ruler of the world was the city of Babylon.
Made a great feast for a thousand of his lords, and drank wine in the presence of the thousand.
The Greek historians Herodotus and Xenophon both attest to there being a feast in progress the night that Babylon was conquered.
The reason for having this feast is debated. Some commentators suggest it was to demonstrate Belshazzar’s confidence in the city walls and their security from the army outside the gates.
Others suggest it may be that since his father, the first ruler, had fled in the battle days before Belshazzar had declared himself to be the first ruler, this was a coronation ceremony.
Herodotus suggests that this was an annual Babylonian feast that just happens to fall on an inopportune day.
The reason for the feast is not all that important. What is important is what Belshazzar does next.
Dan 5:2 While he tasted the wine, Belshazzar gave the command to bring the gold and silver vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple which had been in Jerusalem, that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them.
Dan 5:3 Then they brought the gold vessels that had been taken from the temple of the house of God which had been in Jerusalem; and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them.
Dan 5:4 They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze and iron, wood and stone.
While he tasted the wine
Some suggest that this phrase basically means that when Belshazzar got drunk he ordered these items to be brought in.
Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple which had been in Jerusalem
These were the items that Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple in Jerusalem when he conquered it back when Daniel was brought to Babylon as a young boy. These were considered very holy items by God. God had specific roles for many of these items and He was serious about them.
Nebuchadnezzar kept these items in a museum of sorts. Belshazzar’s sacrilege here is confusing to scholars as it is something that few superstitious people, which the Babylonians were, would do regardless of what god they worshipped, that is to use a sacred item in a common way like this. But it gets weirder—he does this while praising other gods, presumably his gods.
And praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze and iron, wood and stone.
It doesn’t mean the god of wood or silver but rather, from Daniel’s viewpoint, the gods who were nothing more that wood or stone or metal; in other words, gods that were not really gods at all.
I think that this demonstrates a very specific contempt for Yahweh by Belshazzar. I think that information about Yahweh was big news in Babylon both before and after Nebuchadnezzar’s conversion in the last chapter (if indeed he was truly converted). After all there was no shortage of unbelievable stories and miracles about these Jews that claimed their God was the only true God—miracles like people going into a furnace in front of all the nobles and not being burned.
We will see later that Daniel tells us that Belshazzar knew everything that happened to Nebuchadnezzar and about how and why Yahweh humbled him. Nebuchadnezzar made sure everyone knew it when he published a tract that went out to the entire world glorifying Yahweh. Yet for some reason Belshazzar was going all in here with this super blasphemy.
It could also have been related to the religious tensions that his father had been causing. His father Nabonidus was wildly unpopular because of his religious reforms. As I mentioned Nabonidus spent most of his time away from Babylon in pursuit of his religious beliefs. He was devoted the moon god Sin, which was not the main god of the Babylonian’s, and he removed idols from temples and a number of other things that angered the people and especially the priesthood in Babylon.
So this may have been Belshazzar’s attempt, with his father now killed or captured outside the gates, to praise the gods of Babylon to the exclusion of others, though this is by no means certain from the text.
It could have been a defiance of Yahweh or the followers of Yahweh who said that Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom would end, or it could be, as some suggest, a way to demonstrate that he was not afraid of the surrounding armies, though it is not clear how this specific act would demonstrate that.
What we can be sure of is that this is an unprecedented and specific attack on Yahweh by Belshazzar. And I’m sure by what happens next that he knew he was gambling here. I’m sure there were a few nobles in the room that swallowed hard when they heard this drunken king give orders to go get the temple materials. They knew that Yahweh was not to be messed with;, they had seen him do amazing things.
And He is about to something else quite amazing.
Dan 5:5 In the same hour the fingers of a man’s hand appeared and wrote opposite the lampstand on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace; and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote.
Dan 5:6 Then the king’s countenance changed, and his thoughts troubled him, so that the joints of his hips were loosened and his knees knocked against each other.
I think the king’s reaction to this supernatural event demonstrates more than a guilty conscience. I think he knew he was taking a risk with this stunt — that’s why he only did it when he was drunk. I think there was tension in the room already when they were committing this sacrilegious act on holy items, but not just any holy items, the ones that were Yahweh’s whom I’m sure many in the room remembered and even saw with their own eyes the great things Yahweh was capable of.
After all the writing could have been anything; perhaps it was saying something favorable. But because he knew he was in the process of doing evil his thoughts troubled him, so that the joints of his hips were loosened and his knees knocked against each other. That’s a pretty uncontrolled fear. I mean really, that’s like totally losing it, and in front of all your friends no less. It is likely that he thought that his offense of God would result in his death, and he was correct.
Archeologists have discovered a large room in Babylon in the king’s court that is very likely to be this very room. It is big enough, it has plaster walls as verse 5 says and it is in the right place.
“Archeologist Robert Koldewey, who found the Ishtar gate and other great finds in Babylon, said: “It is so clearly marked out for this purpose [as a throne-room] that no reasonable doubt can be felt as to its having been used as their principal audience chamber. If anyone should desire to localize the scene of Belshazzar’s eventful banquet, he can surely place it with complete accuracy in this immense room.”1
Dan 5:7 The king cried aloud to bring in the astrologers, the Chaldeans, and the soothsayers. The king spoke, saying to the wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing, and tells me its interpretation, shall be clothed with purple and have a chain of gold around his neck; and he shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.”
Dan 5:8 Now all the king’s wise men came, but they could not read the writing, or make known to the king its interpretation.
Dan 5:9 Then King Belshazzar was greatly troubled, his countenance was changed, and his lords were astonished.
The king cried aloud to bring in the astrologers.
Apparently the King was screaming for his astrologers here.
Then King Belshazzar was greatly troubled, his countenance was changed, and his lords were astonished.
So when his guys couldn’t read this writing, he really gets worried. The king feels that this writing is somehow about his fate. The thing is, his intuition is dead on, the same way that when Nebuchadnezzar had his dreams he knew that they were very different and very important, even though before Daniel showed up he didn’t yet know what they meant.
Dan 5:10 The queen, because of the words of the king and his lords, came to the banquet hall. The queen spoke, saying, “O king, live forever! Do not let your thoughts trouble you, nor let your countenance change.
Dan 5:11 There is a man in your kingdom in whom is the Spirit of the Holy God. And in the days of your father, light and understanding and wisdom, like the wisdom of the gods, were found in him; and King Nebuchadnezzar your father—your father the king—made him chief of the magicians, astrologers, Chaldeans, and soothsayers.
Dan 5:12 Inasmuch as an excellent spirit, knowledge, understanding, interpreting dreams, solving riddles, and explaining enigmas were found in this Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar, now let Daniel be called, and he will give the interpretation.”
This is probably referring to the “Queen Mother” wither the wife of Nebuchadnezzar or of Nabonidus not the wife of Belshazzar.2
This queen whoever she was seems to be someone who genuinely respects Daniel and his God when she says things like “whom is the Spirit of the Holy God. And in the days of your father, light and understanding and wisdom, like the wisdom of the gods”, were found in him. I think that there were probably more people like this in the kingdom of Babylon, people who were moved and impacted by God’s ministry through Daniel and his friends. I wish that people would look to us as Christians in the workplace like this. If something terrible happens or some questions arise about God that people would think of you: Let’s go ask Chris, he is a Christian.
We should all be salt and light to the world and we should make it our goal and ministry to do so.
Made him chief of the magicians
Daniel was currently not chief of the magicians in Belshazzar’s reign, and based on her having to remind Belshazzar about him he probably had not been in the short reigns of his relatives either.
Either Daniel stepped down by choice (retired) or he was fired by the new kings. Based on the blasphemy of Belshazzar I think we can assume that Nebuchadnezzar’s reverence of Yahweh was not shared by his successors which would surely result in firing the head of the magicians who was a Yahweh worshipper. Remember there were about three or four rulers before this who ruled for only a couple years each. There were a lot of assassinations and dirty dealings as was common in regime changes.
So Daniel, now an old man, is brought before this wicked King.
Dan 5:13 Then Daniel was brought in before the king. The king spoke, and said to Daniel, “Are you that Daniel who is one of the captives from Judah, whom my father the king brought from Judah?
Dan 5:14 I have heard of you, that the Spirit of God is in you, and that light and understanding and excellent wisdom are found in you.
Dan 5:15 Now the wise men, the astrologers, have been brought in before me, that they should read this writing and make known to me its interpretation, but they could not give the interpretation of the thing.
Dan 5:16 And I have heard of you, that you can give interpretations and explain enigmas. Now if you can read the writing and make known to me its interpretation, you shall be clothed with purple and have a chain of gold around your neck, and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.”
That Daniel who is one of the captives from Judah, whom my father the king brought from Judah?
It’s not clear why he mentions that Daniel was a Jew, but Daniel who was a Jew being the guy who could read the writing, might have confirmed his suspicion that this was all about the Jewish God Yahweh and his sacrilegious acts he just committed. Or it’s possible he was just trying to establish Daniel’s identity more clearly.
When Belshazzar tells Daniel that he had heard of him, he repeats what the queen said. This hearing of Daniel is therefore to be understood as I have just now heard of you from the queen mother, not that he had before this time heard these things of Daniel.
Belshazzar offers Daniel to be the third ruler in the kingdom. Even before the archeological evidence confirming that Belshazzar was the second ruler to his often absentee father Nabonidus was found, this offer of the third ruler should have let early commentators know that Belshazzar was a coregent, and the best he could offer was the third position.
This also argues against the idea that this party was a coronation party, because it suggests that Belshazzar still considered his father to be the first ruler of Babylon.
So what will Daniel say to this offer of being the third ruler?
Dan 5:17 Then Daniel answered, and said before the king, “Let your gifts be for yourself, and give your rewards to another; yet I will read the writing to the king, and make known to him the interpretation.”
Daniel rejects this offer. It’s tempting to see this as Daniel being rude here, based on the reprimand of the king that follows, but it is not necessary. Perhaps Daniel, as was his custom, was making sure the King knew that the gift God had given him could not be bought, and this rejection of gifts and title was a humble rejection as opposed to a haughty one.
I will read the writing to the king, and make known to him the interpretation.
Daniel announces that he will interpret this writing but before he does he has something to say.
Dan 5:18 O king, the Most High God gave Nebuchadnezzar your father a kingdom and majesty, glory and honor.
Dan 5:19 And because of the majesty that He gave him, all peoples, nations, and languages trembled and feared before him. Whomever he wished, he executed; whomever he wished, he kept alive; whomever he wished, he set up; and whomever he wished, he put down.
Dan 5:20 But when his heart was lifted up, and his spirit was hardened in pride, he was deposed from his kingly throne, and they took his glory from him.
Dan 5:21 Then he was driven from the sons of men, his heart was made like the beasts, and his dwelling was with the wild donkeys. They fed him with grass like oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till he knew that the Most High God rules in the kingdom of men, and appoints over it whomever He chooses.
Dan 5:22 “But you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, although you knew all this.
Dan 5:23 And you have lifted yourself up against the Lord of heaven. They have brought the vessels of His house before you, and you and your lords, your wives and your concubines, have drunk wine from them. And you have praised the gods of silver and gold, bronze and iron, wood and stone, which do not see or hear or know; and the God who holds your breath in His hand and owns all your ways, you have not glorified.
Dan 5:24 Then the fingers of the hand were sent from Him, and this writing was written.
Daniel was very bold in his rebuke of Belshazzar, mentioning Nebuchadnezzar who knew that Yahweh had given him his kingdom and recounting the story of Chapter 4 which ultimately brought him to that realization, and contrasting him with Belshazzar, who despite having seen all this with his own eyes Belshazzar chose to deliberately blaspheme this God he had seen work.
And you have lifted yourself up against the Lord of heaven.
This phrase shows that Belshazzar was specifically and knowingly challenging Yahweh.
Daniel also notes his drinking wine with the temple objects while praising false gods which I am certain gave Daniel a type of righteous indignation.
He even emphasizes the folly of worshipping these false gods by referring to the gods of Babylon as the gods of silver and gold, bronze and iron, wood and stone, which do not see or hear or know. He contrasts their worthlessness with the God who holds your breath in His hand and owns all your ways.
Pointing out the folly of the religion of Babylon here in front of everyone was no doubt a bold move, but Daniel could read the writing on the wall so to speak. He knew that Belshazzar’s number was up. Both of those phrases originate from the next few verses, by the way. This was yet another evangelism opportunity for Daniel who seemed to make the most of these types of situations.
Dan 5:25 “And this is the inscription that was written: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.
Dan 5:26 This is the interpretation of each word. MENE: God has numbered your kingdom, and finished it;
Dan 5:27 TEKEL: You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting;
Dan 5:28 PERES: Your kingdom has been divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.”
Dan 5:29 Then Belshazzar gave the command, and they clothed Daniel with purple and put a chain of gold around his neck, and made a proclamation concerning him that he should be the third ruler in the kingdom.
There were four words written on the wall in front of this lampstand. They were Aramaic words so it is not as though the other folks couldn’t read the words, but they didn’t know what they meant; they required an interpretation in that sense.
Mene which means “numbered” was written twice, this is possibly for emphasis, and Daniel says it means that: God has numbered your kingdom, and finished it.
The two-fold numbered and finished it perhaps accounts for the doubled mene. It was not just numbered, but that number was up, and it was all over. This would have had some extra weight given the circumstances outside the city walls.
TEKEL: You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting;
Tekel means weighed. This demonstrates that this judgment was coming upon him as a result of his lack of weight in some regard.
Dan 5:28 PERES: Your kingdom has been divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.”
Peres means divided. Daniel says not only that this means that his kingdom would be dissolved but it would be given to the armies outside the gates. Interestingly, as many of you know, there are no vowels in Hebrew. The same is true in Aramaic. And this word for divided also is the word for Persians.
By Daniel saying his kingdom would be given to the Medes and Persians is yet another place in this book where Daniel validates the idea that the Medes and Persians co-ruled the known world after Babylon fell.
Belshazzar would have known that if his kingdom was to be given to them Medes and Persians it would mean that he was as good as dead, and indeed that’s how the next verse begins.
They clothed Daniel with purple and put a chain of gold around his neck, and made a proclamation concerning him that he should be the third ruler in the kingdom.
I don’t know what this is about. The text gives us no reason to think this was mocking Daniel in any way as some suggest. I think it was a way of trying to appease Daniel’s God who he realized he had wronged in hopes of keeping what he said from happening. Or it could simply be that he gave it to him because he promised it to him, which would imply that he believed he had given the correct interpretation. In any case this would not have meant very much to anyone, all things considered.
Dan 5:30 That very night Belshazzar, king of the Chaldeans, was slain.
Dan 5:31 And Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old.
There is a lot of information about this event in secular history, but Daniel gives it only two verses here.
How did the armies get through the gates? Miller quotes some ancient historians:
The outer walls were approximately twenty-five feet in width and rose to a height of at least forty feet. These fortifications were too difficult to challenge, and so according to Herodotus and Xenophon, the Medo-Persian army diverted water from the Euphrates River (which ran under the walls of Babylon) into a marsh. With the level of the water lowered, the soldiers were able to wade the river under the walls and enter the city.100 (Miller, 1994-08-31, p. 167)
But even after they go through the first wall they still had to get though the main gates, but on this night the gates were left open. Some believe that it was a part of a conspiracy. Cyrus had been telling the people of Babylon that he should be king over them, and he already had conquered everything outside the gates. This is believed to have been an inside job.
God in the book of Isaiah says it was Him that left the gates open for Cyrus.
Cyrus was named specifically by God in the book of Isaiah hundreds of years before this. it is recorded that he was shown the scripture that we are about to read, and I can only guess this is one reason that we see him so willing to supply the Jews with the freedom and materials to rebuild their city.
Who says of Cyrus, ‘He is My shepherd, And he shall perform all My pleasure, Saying to Jerusalem, “You shall be built,” And to the temple, “Your foundation shall be laid.” “Thus says the LORD to His anointed, To Cyrus, whose right hand I have held— To subdue nations before him And loose the armor of kings, To open before him the double doors, So that the gates will not be shut: ‘I will go before you And make the crooked places straight; I will break in pieces the gates of bronze And cut the bars of iron. I will give you the treasures of darkness And hidden riches of secret places, That you may know that I, the LORD, Who call you by your name, Am the God of Israel. For Jacob My servant’s sake, And Israel My elect, I have even called you by your name; I have named you, though you have not known Me. I am the LORD, and there is no other; There is no God besides Me. I will gird you, though you have not known Me, That they may know from the rising of the sun to its setting That there is none besides Me. I am the LORD, and there is no other; I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity; I, the LORD, do all these things.’ - Isa 44:28-45:7
I love that! That is such a great passage where God glorifies Himself, and it even exemplifies one of the themes in the last few chapters, which is that God is God and does what He wishes, and He raises up who He wants and abases who He wants. He is God, we are not and heaven rules.