In order to get the most out of the story recorded for us in Daniel 5 it’s important we begin with a little historical context. Upfront, the names of the various players recorded in history are difficult to pronounce so — while they are in the notes on C316.tv — I’ve decided to give them nicknames to make it easier for me… After a 43-year reign, on October 7, 562 BC, Nebuchadnezzar passes away leaving the throne to his son Evil-Knievel (Evilmerodach).
While this man is mentioned by name in both 2 Kings 25 and Jeremiah 52, his reign was brief when after two years he was brutally assassinated by his brother-in-law The-King-Slayer (Nergalsharezer). Mentioned in Jeremiah 39 as one of the “princes of the king of Babylon,” The-King-Slayer ruled for only four years until he dies of natural causes.
Because The-King-Slayer’s only son had a mental handicap, Few-Fries-Short-of-a-Happy-Meal (Laborosoarchod) would reign for nine months before being beaten to death by a gang of conspirators. Their leader Nabonidus — another one of Nebuchadnezzar’s son-in-laws — took the throne in 556 BC. As a former general, knowing the Persians were a growing threat, Nabonidus went on the offensive leaving control of Babylon to his eldest son Belshazzar.
According to the Babylonian records which are presently on display in the British Museum, Belshazzar became co-regent in 553 BC — the third year of his father’s reign. He would continue in this position until the ultimate fall of Babylon to the Persians in 539 BC.
The context for the occasion recorded in Daniel 5 is the Babylonian armies have been defeated. Historians are split on whether Nabonidus has been captured or simply fled the city. Either way, it’s October of 539, the Medes and Persians have surrounded Babylon, and are actively looking for a way to launch a successful siege. Approximately, 23 years have passed since the close of Daniel 4, with the prophet now in his 80’s.
Taking Babylon would be easier said than done. As I mentioned in the second study of our Grace in Exile series, the sheer size of Babylon and the breadth of her walls were unlike anything that had ever been constructed at this point in human history.
With a population totaling between 1 to 2 million, occupying an area of about 200 square miles — the size of Chicago, Babylon was entirely self-sufficient. Not only were the people living inside the walls able to grow their own food, but Babylon had a continual supply of water flowing through the heart of the city in the form of the Euphrates River.
In order to withstand a siege, Nebuchadnezzar had masterfully fortified Babylon with a massive 40-foot outer wall roughly 22 feet thick. This wall also possessed guard towers 100 feet high reinforced even further with a system of inner walls and moats to create kill zones.
In what can only be described as a feat of engineering, these walls were constructed with a series of bronze and iron gates that allowed the Euphrates to flow into the city, but keep an invading army from utilizing the waterway. With these fortifications coupled with a continual supply of food and water, the conventional wisdom was that Babylon was impenetrable.
Or so they thought… The Greek historian Herodotus recounts how the Persian King Cyrus devised an unlikely plan that was executed perfectly by general Darius. Knowing a conventional assault of Babylon was impossible, Cyrus positioned half of his army on the south side of the city — specifically downstream. The other half went miles upstream out of view and began working to divert the Euphrates River into a nearby swampland.
Completely unaware of what was happening, one fateful night the water level finally lowered enough for a small brigade of troops to quietly approach the river-gates. To their surprise and astonishment, these gates had been left unlocked providing easy entry. In the end, Babylon fell so quickly most of the residents in the city didn’t know until days later.
For additional context, I want to present a theory that while everyone in Babylon was caught off guard by what transpired Daniel knew what was coming! Jewish historians claim that when King Cyrus finally made his triumphal entry into Babylon about two weeks after her fall he was met by Daniel who read for him a prophecy given by Isaiah some 200 years earlier.
Speaking of the man God would raise up to destroy Babylon and use to restore the Hebrew people to their land… Isaiah 45:1-4, “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.”
In response to this we read in 2 Chronicles 36:22-23, “Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying, Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth the LORD God of heaven has given me. And He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah. Who is among you of all His people? May the LORD his God be with him, and let him go up!”
The reason all of this is important to know BEFORE we work our way through this chapter is that Daniel 5 provides for us the record of what was happening in the king’s palace the night Babylon fell. Prophetically, Daniel knows her days are numbered. As for everyone else on this fateful night, they are completely oblivious they will not live to see the next morning.
Daniel 5:1-4, “Belshazzar the king made a great feast for a thousand of his lords, and drank wine in the presence of the thousand. While he tasted the wine, Belshazzar gave the command to bring the gold and silver vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple which had been in Jerusalem, that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them.
Then they brought the gold vessels that had been taken from the temple of the house of God which had been in Jerusalem; and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze and iron, wood and stone.”
When you consider the Babylonian armies have fallen and the Medo-Persians presently have the city surrounded, the scene we have being depicted in these four verses demonstrates their over-confidence and hubris. No one seems concerned in the slightest!
While you’d think the king would have displayed some kind of seriousness regarding their situation, Belshazzar does the opposite — He decides to throw a huge party with a guest list topping 1000! “The kings and lords” represented the who’s who of Babylonian society. This was an affair. The party of the year for no other reason than the king wished it.
The scene is best described using six “Ds”: First there was DECADENCE… I imagine this function kicked off at sunset with all of these A-listers rolling up to the red carpet in their platinum-plated chariots. As each guest walks up they were greeted with the flashing bulbs of the paparazzi. Entertainment Today had commentators in the gala sizing up the various outfits and dresses. The blogosphere is abuzz with all the latest gossip.
As the DJ drops the latest Chaldean top 40, it doesn’t take long for the wine and Cristal to start flowing. What should have been characterized by a sobriety on account of their present situation, following the king’s lead, it doesn’t take long for DRUNKENNESS to settle in. Everyone has thrown caution to the wind and is living it up!
With the notable mention of the king’s “wives and concubines” in attendance (concubines were basically stripper girlfriends) the party is also filled with DEBAUCHERY. “It’s gettin hot in herre, so take off all your clothes” becomes the anthem of the evening. Having such a party in the presidential palace would have been the envy of all the Kennedy brothers!
Sadly, as the party gets lit, things take an unexpected turn into DESECRATION. We’re told, “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.”
Not only does the king and his guests drink from these sacred vessels, but the party manifested a level of DEVIANCY as they “praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze and iron, wood and stone.” It’s a truth that hedonism and materialism are natural siblings.
Aside from the temple furniture and utensils, in Ezra 1:9 we’re given a description of the “vessels” Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple… “This is the number of them: thirty gold platters, one thousand silver platters, twenty-nine knives, thirty gold basins, four hundred and ten silver basins of a similar kind, and one thousand other articles. All the articles of gold and silver were five thousand four hundred.” What a set of china!
Considering Nebuchadnezzar’s conversion and his edict no one was to speak ill of the God of Israel, it’s safe to reason these holy items had been placed into safekeeping. Not only is Belshazzar desecrating the sacred by using them for such a soirée, but he’s also demonstrating a blatant DISRESPECT for the wishes and legacy of his grandfather.
This disrespectful party filled with decadence, drunkenness, debauchery, deviancy, and desecration continues long into the evening. Everyone is self-indulged burning the night away. They are oblivious to the fact the waters of the Euphrates have dropped and the Persian’s are making their way into the city when out of nowhere something unexpected happens…
Daniel 5:5-6, “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. 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.”
What a moment when “the fingers of a man’s hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace!” In a moment the music stopped, men and women scramble over one another to find their clothes, glasses and cocktail trays shatter on the ground as weak hands began to tremble with fright. People stand there mouths aghast. Everyone is shell-shocked — unable to wrap their minds around what they were seeing.
What did this look like — “the fingers of a man’s hand?” Clearly, this was an other-worldly, supernatural happening. What kind of sound did the writing make as the finger moved against “the plaster of the wall?” As the finger continued to write we’re told “the king’s countenance changed and his thoughts troubled him.” Literally, he turned white as a ghost at the implications of what he was seeing. “His knees knocked against each other” in fright and “the joints of his hips were loosened.” Belshazzar peed and soiled himself.
Keep in mind, Belshazzar was the grandson of Nebuchadnezzar. As a young man he’d seen this titan take a hard fall and he heard the explanation for what happened. Belshazzar knew from the testimony of his grandfather the truth of the God of the Jews. He’d been a witness.
Though I’m sure there were numerous factors involved, I believe Belshazzar’s reaction to this scene implies a guilty conscience. He knew what he was doing was wrong and his impulsive decision to use the temple vessels had been ill-advised. God crashed his party!
Daniel 5:7-9, “The king cried aloud to bring in the astrologers, the Chaldeans, and the soothsayers. The king spoke, saying to the wise men of Babylon, ‘Whoever reads this writing, and tells me its interpretation, shall be clothed with purple and have a chain of gold around his neck; and he shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.’
Now all the king’s wise men came, but they could not read the writing, or make known to the king its interpretation. Then King Belshazzar was greatly troubled, his countenance was changed, and his lords were astonished.”
As you study this passage you will find a myriad of different explanations as to why these “wise men” could not “read the writing or make known its interpretation.” Some will argue the text was written in an ancient form of Hebrew calligraphy these Chaldeans were unfamiliar with or that the way in which the text was written was somehow coded.
Others argue God simply blinded their ability to make sense of what He’d written or that only the vowels had been written adding to the confusion. In the end, all we know for sure is that everyone present had absolutely no idea what was written or what it all meant.
Daniel 5:10a, “The queen, because of the words of the king and his lords, came to the banquet hall.” On account of the ruckus coming from the “banquet hall” where Belshazzar had been partying, we’re told, “the queen” comes in with some advice. Since Belshazzar’s wives were already at the party, it’s likely this was his mother — Nabonidus’ wife who was one of the daughters of Nebuchadnezzar. She hadn’t dignified the party with her presence.
Daniel 5:10b-12, “The queen spoke, saying, “O king, live forever! Do not let your thoughts trouble you, nor let your countenance change. There is a man in your kingdom in whom is the Spirit of the Holy God. And in the days of your father, light and understanding and wisdom, like the wisdom of the gods, were found in him; and King Nebuchadnezzar your father — your father the king — made him chief of the magicians, astrologers, Chaldeans, and soothsayers.
Inasmuch as an excellent spirit, knowledge, understanding, interpreting dreams, solving riddles, and explaining enigmas were found in this Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar, now let Daniel be called, and he will give the interpretation.”
Again, Daniel is a senior in his mid-80s. Since being taken captive, he’s been living in Babylon for more than 60 years. Since Belshazzar doesn’t really know much about him, it’s likely Daniel’s been retired or operating way behind the scenes for several years now.
And yet, while the king was oblivious, the queen had kept tabs on the old man. First, she knows about Daniel’s special relationship with her father and the trust he’d placed in him. Secondly, she knew Daniel as a man with “an excellent spirit” in “whom is the Spirit of the Holy God.” Thirdly, she’s aware Daniel had the unique ability to “interpret dreams, solve riddles, and explain enigmas.” Finally, there is no doubt the queen personally admired this man. It’s not an accident she only refers to him as “Daniel” — his God-given Jewish name.
Daniel 5:13-16, “Then Daniel was brought in before the king. The king spoke, and said to Daniel, ‘Are you that Daniel who is one of the captives from Judah, whom my father the king brought from Judah? I have heard of you, that the Spirit of God is in you, and that light and understanding and excellent wisdom are found in you.
Now the wise men, the astrologers, have been brought in before me, that they should read this writing and make known to me its interpretation, but they could not give the interpretation of the thing. And I have heard of you, that you can give interpretations and explain enigmas. Now if you can read the writing and make known to me its interpretation, you shall be clothed with purple and have a chain of gold around your neck, and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.’”
Don’t forget… The very moment Daniel heard the name of the Persian King Cyrus he knew Babylon’s fall was a matter of when not if! My guess, as he walks into the room and looks up at the writing on the wall, it simply reaffirmed what he already knew was imminent. In light of that who really cares about being “the third ruler” in a kingdom that’s doomed!
Daniel 5:17-21, “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. (Before getting to the writing on the wall, Daniel’s going to start by giving Belshazzar a much-needed history lesson to set the stage.)
O king, the Most High God gave Nebuchadnezzar your father a kingdom and majesty, glory and honor. And because of the majesty that He gave him, all peoples, nations, and languages trembled and feared before him. Whomever he wished, he executed; whomever he wished, he kept alive; whomever he wished, he set up; and whomever he wished, he put down.
But when his heart was lifted up, and his spirit was hardened in pride, he was deposed from his kingly throne, and they took his glory from him. Then he was driven from the sons of men, his heart was made like the beasts, and his dwelling was with the wild donkeys. They fed him with grass like oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till he knew that the Most High God rules in the kingdom of men, and appoints over it whomever He chooses.’”
Daniel transitions to how his grandfather’s story applies to Belshazzar… Daniel 5:22-23, “‘But you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, although you knew all this. You have lifted yourself up against the Lord of heaven. They have brought the vessels of His house before you, and you, 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.’”
The scene… The room is filled with 1000 drunk, half-naked, freaked out onlookers pounding down espresso in an attempt to sober up. The king looks like Casper in addition to soiling and peeing his pants. The queen is likely embarrassed Daniel is there to witness it all.
As this old man looks around he notices the vessels being used came from the temple. His heart weighs heavy to see what’s become of Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson — his family legacy. He knows what’s about to come and he takes no delight in bearing bad news.
Daniel’s rebuke of Belshazzar is tempered in no way. He speaks the truth to this man without fear. He’s not intimidated. He calls him out on his sin and wickedness. “You have not humbled your heart and have lifted yourself up against the Lord of heaven. You drunk wine from the vessels of His house and praised the gods which do not see or hear. You have not glorified the God who hold your breath in His hands and owns all your ways.”
Please notice the essence of Daniel’s rebuke… After recounting the story of his grandfather, he says, “But you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, although you knew all this.” You see Daniel is saying Belshazzar was going to be held accountable for acting contrary to and in defiance of what he already knew about God from the testimony of Nebuchadnezzar’s interactions with the Lord. Don’t miss this… God was going to hold this man accountable for his behavior in light of the witness of his grandfather!
The implications of this idea are rather radicle for you and me this morning… If Belshazzar would be held to account for failing to learn from the work God did in the life of his grandfather, what excuse do we have when we hold in our hands the stories of God’s work in the lives of countless saints throughout the centuries? We have no excuse!
After this sobering point, Daniel finally gets to the writing on the wall… Daniel 5:24-28, “‘Then the fingers of the hand were sent from Him (God), and this writing was written. And this is the inscription that was written: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN. This is the interpretation of each word. MENE: God has numbered your kingdom, and finished it; TEKEL: You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting; PERES: Your kingdom has been divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.’”
Daniel begins by relaying to the king the “inscription that was written” on the wall. Four words: “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.” Regarding “the interpretation” it would seem each word articulated a message that when placed together presented God’s judgment.
The word “MENE” signified a measurement. The first use indicated “God had numbered his kingdom” or determined how long Belshazzar’s kingdom would remain. The second use implied his time had expired… “God has numbered your kingdom, and finished it.”
The next word “TEKEL” signified weighing. Not only was his kingdom finished, but God had weighed Belshazzar and “found” him to be “wanting” or lacking and deficient.
The final word in the sequence “UPHARSIN” or “PERES” signified division. Because Belshazzar’s time had expired and he’d fallen short of God’s holy standard, “his kingdom had been divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” Note this is in the past tense. It’s likely as Daniel is saying these things to the king, the gates had already been breached.
Daniel 5:29-31, “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. (I’m of the opinion this was an act aimed at mocking Daniel and rejecting the message.) That very night Belshazzar, king of the Chaldeans, was slain. (History says everyone in this party was slaughtered.) And Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old.”
Let’s close with a few final thoughts about this story… First and foremost, Belshazzar had the false sense he was untouchable! Sure, his enemies were parked just outside the gates, but he lived in Babylon. He was safe and secure. Nothing could get to him.
The irony of ironies is Belshazzar partied that night completely oblivious his death and judgment were imminent. Even when the writing was on the wall and Daniel told him the blunt truth about his future, this proud man brushed it aside. God gave him witnesses. Daniel testified, but in the end “he stood against the Lord” — so God stood against him!
It’s a grievous thing to consider how similar so many in our world are to Belshazzar. They reject God’s Word and resist His warnings about the judgment that awaits — partying on because they’re confident tomorrow brings them a new day. In Hebrews 9:27 we’re told, “It’s appointed for men to die once and after this the judgment.” The difficult reality of this verse is that our death is an appointment God made without our consultation. Belshazzar partied on and then in a swift and unexpected moment, his party was over.
Secondly, it’s hard to walk away from such a passage and not see the surety of God’s Word specifically as it relates to Babylon! In Nebuchadnezzar’s dream back in Daniel 2 God was clear, “After you shall arise another kingdom.” Though Babylon believed she was impenetrable, Babylon would not last forever! Judgment was coming. Her fate was sealed.
I don’t mean to be fatalistic, but brutally honest. Over the last few weeks, we’ve been reminded how fallen and broken this planet really is. The truth is this should not come as any surprise. Babylon is evil. It does whatever it can to divide. Injustices prevail. Babel fills people with hatred, separates humanity into camps, and fosters war amongst the factions!
Tragically, in our attempts to live out our faith, Christians so often forget that our mission is not to change Babylon, usher in social reforms, or create a more equitable system. As long as society is filled with sinners things will remain dysfunctional. God’s Word is crystal clear the culture and society around us are not going to get better but much worse. Divisions will harden. Godlessness will reign. And our kings will stand against the Creator.
In the end, the story of this world will close with Jesus returning. He’ll destroy Babylon, put an end to the madness, and replace it all with His Kingdom on earth. And until that happens there is nothing any of us can do to fix this place! It will take Jesus to right all wrongs and heal all wounds. Until Jesus establishes His reign on the earth and Babylon is cast into hell, peace will always be nothing more than an attainable illusion.
Again, I don’t mean to be fatalist, just realistic. I’m convinced understanding where this all ends should help clarify what we’re supposed to be doing in the meantime. You see our job as Ambassadors of Heaven is to point all people to a Savior named Jesus — A Savior who’ll liberate anyone from their brokenness and transforms any life!
I’m not saying we shouldn’t speak out against wrongs, but we should consider what we say when we speak. Babylon’s fate has been determined. Protesting for a more equitable, just, and fair cabin structure is pointless when the ship is named the Titanic. Friend, when the ship is sinking the only important thing people need to know is where to find a lifeboat. This world will end in hell and it’s our job to let people know they can go to heaven.
I’m glad people were outraged over the unjustified death of George Floyd. We should be. I just wish we were equally as outraged at how many black lives are unjustly murdered by abortionists — disproportionate to white. You want to talk about systemic racism start there.
End this end, this world will burn and Jesus will come again! As Christians may we be more passionate about Jesus and His Kingdom than we are about protesting racism or Making America Great Again. Never forget… We live in Babylon, our world is a fallen place, people are sinners and wicked, and only Jesus can change the human heart!
Lastly, in the Bible we have 3 references of the “finger of God” writing something. The first is back in Deuteronomy 9 when we’re told the finger of God wrote the law onto two tablets of stone. God’s law established the standard by which man’s standing would be weighed and measured. The second time we have the finger of God referenced is here in Daniel 5 when Belshazzar had measured, weighed, and a judgment pronounced!
What’s interesting is the only other time we have a reference to the finger of God writing something is found in John 8:1-11, “Early in the morning Jesus came into the temple, all the people came; and He taught them. Then the scribes and Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery. They had set her in the midst, they said, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery. Moses, in the law, commanded that such should be stoned. What do You say?’ But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear. So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said, ‘He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.’ And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last.
When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, ‘Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.’”
There has always been a debate as to what Jesus wrote on the ground with His finger. While I agree it’s impossible to say, I have a theory. What if Jesus wrote to this woman the same four words He did in Daniel 5: “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.” Don’t forget “MENE” was a measurement. “TEKEL” signified weighing. And “UPHARSIN” denoted a division.
The similarities between this woman and Belshazzar are interesting. For them both their time had expired. They both had fallen short of God’s standard. They both were surrounded by enemies wanting to kill them. In truth what resulted for them both was a division of sorts.
And yet, while God allowed the Medes and Persians to judge Belshazzar because of his pride, on account of the humility of this woman, Jesus divided Himself and this woman from her executioners. Instead of the judgment, she deserved He granted her a grace she didn’t.
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