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Belshazzar Saw the Writing on the Wall  (Daniel Chapter 5)

One thing that is obvious is that the fifth chapter of Daniel does not belong chronologically after chapter four.  If one were going to follow the life and events of Daniel in the order that he lived it, one would now need to proceed to chapter seven.  The chronological order of the chapters 5 through 8 are 7, 8, 5 and then chapter 6.  Chapter seven is dated by Daniel in the introduction as being "In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon" (Daniel 7:1).  Chapter 8 is dated by Daniel as being "In the third year of the reign of King Belshazzar" (8:1).  King Belshazzar dies at the end of chapter 5 so it is obvious the books are mixed up chronologically.  It appears that the book of Daniel has been arranged by placing the historical books first with the Apocalyptic writings following at the end.  It is up to the student to figure out the order.

In Daniel chapter five we are introduced to King Belshazzar at the eve of his overthrow and death and then his replacement by Darius the Mede.  Darius was the king who was coerced into throwing Daniel into the lion's den by his jealous enemies.  Every child growing up anywhere near a church knows the legendary story of Daniel and the lion's den.  It was and still is one of this servants favorite Bible stories. 

Who was this Belshazzar?  When examining the ancient records and works of the scholars it becomes evident rather quickly that there is some disagreement as to the exact details surrounding this king.  Rather than go into an exhaustive and lengthy comparison to the historical documents, we are going to stick closely with the Biblical record as to who this man was and when he reigned.  It is quite obvious that this man reigned right before Darius the Mede, having been slain in the overthrow of Babylon.  Daniel provides a vital piece of evidence in the text that helps us to identify this man who is quite vague in the historical record.  In verses 7, 16 and 29, Belshazzar declared that the person who could read and interpret the writing on the wall would be made the third ruler in the kingdom.  That was the highest position Belshazzar was authorized to grant, being himself only the second ruler in the kingdom.  Belshazzar was a co-regent king of Babylon during the reign of Nabonidus who was the first ruler of Babylon.  Co-regents were rulers who administrated the kingdoms in the absence of the king.  A modern day equivalent would be the president and the vice president.  Belshazzar was the modern day vice president of the ancient Babylonian Empire. 

After the death of Nebuchadnezzar, 562 BC, Evil-Merodach (Amel-Marduk), his son reigned about two years (562 to 560 BC), and was then betrayed and slain by his sister's husband, Neriglissar (Nergal-sharezer).  He reigned four years (560-556 BC), and was succeeded by his son Laborosoarchod (Labashi-Marduk) who reigned for less than a year (556 BC).   Laborosoarchod was only a child when he replaced his father on the throne.  After a reign of only nine months Laborosoarchod was beaten to death as a result of a conspiracy and Nabonidus, son of Evil-Merodach, was crowned king of Babylon (556 BC).  Neriglissar was a usurper of the throne.  Upon the death of his young son (Laborosoarchod), Nebuchadnezzar's royal bloodline returned to the throne of the Babylonian Empire.  In the book of Daniel, the usurper and his son who were not of the lineage of Nebuchadnezzar were not even mentioned.

Nabonidus was recorded in history as a royal anomaly. He is supposed to have worshiped the moongod Sīn beyond all the other gods, and to have paid special devotion to Sīn's temple in Harran, where his mother was a priestess, and to have neglected the Babylonian main god, Marduk.  Supposedly, because of the tensions that these religious reforms generated, he left the capital for the rich desert oasis of Tayma in Arabia early in his reign. In the meantime, his son Belshazzar ruled from Babylon. 

While the reports of the historians are very much conflicting and confusing, there is one thing which is certain:

Daniel 5:1
Belshazzar the king made a great feast to a thousand of his lords, and drank wine before the thousand.

Nabonidus had returned to Babylon by this time, probably due to the growing power of Cyrus.  History records great tensions between him and his co-regent son, Belshazzar.  Some historical documents record that Belshazzar had been relieved of his command, however inspiration labels him as a king on the eve of his death and the overthrow of the Babylonian empire.  While Nabonidus was trying to hold off Cyrus from without, Belshazzar was throwing a drunken party inside the city of Babylon.  Belshazzar was not a well loved king.  History records that Babylon fell abruptly with little resistance.  In fact, Cyrus was welcomed as a liberator by the people when he walked uncontested into Babylon.   Obviously, Belshazzar was more concerned with personal gluttony and revelry than he was with the security and welfare of the people in the empire.  The picture we have of him is that of a poor leader who was generally unloved by the populace.  By today's standards and phraseology we would conclude that he had a low approval rating.  The proper term for him would be a "despot".

Notice that he made a great feast to his lords.  If history is accurate in recording that his father had returned to relieve him of his command, then it is quite possible that this feast he was throwing to his lords was for the purpose of gaining their alliance and strengthening his hold on the throne.  One thing is for certain, it was an ill conceived, ill timed and ill executed endeavor and was the last official event of his life.  And he spent it drinking wine before them all so it is without question that he was intoxicated to some degree and probably quite drunk by the end of the evening. 

Daniel 5:2
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.

Inspiration lists Belshazzar as the son of Nebuchadnezzar.  History records that he was the son of Nabonidus.  Belshazzar was actually the great grandson of Nebuchadnezzar.  he was the son of Nabonidus, who was the son of Evil-Merodach, who was the son of Nebuchadnezzar.  It is common Hebrew phraseology to name distance descendants of men as their sons.  Jesus Christ Himself was called the Son of David (Matthew 1:1), by inspiration. 

It wasn't enough that Belshazzar was a drunken despot.  He purposefully chose to deliberately take the sacred vessels from the Jewish temple and use them in his party for all to drink wine from.  There were at least a thousand people at this feast.  Whether they really needed more vessels to drink from due to a shortage of wine cups, or this was a deliberate act of contempt against the Jewish people by defiling their sacred things is unclear.  However, it appears from consideration of Belshazzar's reaction to Daniel later in this narrative, it certainly appears that he knew enough about the God of the Israelites to realize He was a true God.  And well he should because it was only a matter of a few years between the death of Nebuchadnezzar and his ascension to throne of Babylon.  In either event, Belshazzar demonstrated that he was well aware of their existence in the treasure store of the empire and that he cared nothing at all about the religion of the Jews.  Obviously Nebuchadnezzar's influence had vanished.  This would not have been done in Nebuchadnezzar's later years. 

Daniel 5:3-4
Then they brought the golden vessels that were taken out of the temple of the house of God which was at Jerusalem; and the king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines, drank in them.  They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone.

Not only did they use the vessels from the temple to drink wine from in their feast, they praised their false manmade gods who were represented by idols made of all sorts of earthly materials from gold down to wood and stone.  To worship their false idols while swilling wine in a drunken state from the sacred vessels from the most holy places of God's temple in Jerusalem was a sacrilegious act of profound proportion.  In scripture this behavior is characterized as spiritual fornication. 

Daniel 5:5
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.

Belshazzar's use of the sacred vessels in his feast for the worship of false gods also demonstrated contempt  for and ridicule of the God of the Jews.  God did not let this go unanswered.  In a very short period of time following the use of the temple vessels, Belshazzar saw the fingers of a man's hand holding some kind of a writing instrument and announcing his downfall as the king of Babylon in a form he could not understand.   Belshazzar saw this as it took place and regardless of how intoxicated he was, it made quite an impression on him. 

Daniel 5:6
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.

Belshazzar was so terrified of this site that he lost control of his body and his knees were knocking together.  He saw the writing on the wall.  This where that saying came from.  This phrase usually uses the word "writing" as a noun.  Belshazzar saw it is a verb.  He witnessed a supernatural event and his anxiety over it was considerable. 

Daniel 5:7
"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."

Just like Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar consulted the mystics of his realm and promised great power and glory to anyone who could explain this supernatural event.  He declared to make the successful interpreter the third ruler in the kingdom which was the highest seat he was authorized to elevate someone to, himself only being the second ruler in the kingdom under his father.  We cannot fail to point out that this man was in some form of intoxication at this point.  Not too drunk to be terrified of the writing on the wall, but drunk enough to make rash and compulsive promises.  

Daniel 5:8-9
Then came in all the king's wise men: but they could not read the writing, nor make known to the king the interpretation thereof.  Then was king Belshazzar greatly troubled, and his countenance was changed in him, and his lords were astonied.

This inability of the mystics of the realm being unable to explain what happened was nothing new.  It has not been very many years at all since Nebuchadnezzar died and he got multiple opportunities to witness God's workings within his kingdom.  Now on the eve of Belshazzar's death, God works one last wonder in the soon to fall Babylonian empire. 

This thing was witnessed and seen by more than just Belshazzar.  His lord were likewise astonished which demonstrates this things wasn't done in a corner.  There were plenty of eye-witnesses to this event.  The writing was on the wall in front of them, nobody could read it, it got there by supernatural means and nobody could explain it. 

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

The queen was obviously not present at the party.  This woman is obviously not Belshazzar's wife because verse 3 placed his wives in attendance at the party.  Nebuchadnezzar died in 562 BC and the Babylonia empire was overthrown in 539, twenty three years later.  It is possible and likely this queen was the widow of Nebuchadnezzar himself.  She directly referenced Nebuchadnezzar as "the king".  At the very least, she personally knew both Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel.  At this time in Daniel's life he had been in Babylon about 66 years.  If he were twelve at the time he arrived in Babylon, this would place Daniel at the age of seventy eight years old. 

Daniel 5:13
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?
  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.

This is almost incredible that Belshazzar had ask Daniel for his identity.  He had heard of him but he was not familiar with Daniel enough to recognize him.  Daniel chapter eight records a vision Daniel had during the third year of Belshazzar's reign (Daniel 8:1).  At the end of the vision, Daniel was sick for a period of time which afterwards the text records that he arose and did the king's business.  Daniel was serving King Belshazzar and he barely knew Daniel.  Belshazzar was obviously a poor king not even knowing the names or the faces of those who ran his business.  He obviously spent more time devoted to being a despot than he did to actually trying to be a king. 

Daniel 5:15
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:

The mystics of the realm should be getting used to this by now.  This is the third time we know of that they were unable to perform to the expectations of the king.  The first time recorded nearly cost them their lives.  If is had not have been for Daniel intervening with the correct interpretation they would have been wiped out by Nebuchadnezzar's palace guard.  It is almost unbelievable that these mystics clung to their false beliefs in the face of the numerous times that it was demonstrated to them that the God of Daniel was the one true and living God. 

Daniel 5:16
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.

Belshazzar claims to have heard of Daniel.  Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar grew to be close friends during the years he reigned as king of Babylon.  When Nebuchadnezzar died, Daniel was one of the most powerful men in Babylon and doubtless had his own house and was well provisioned for retirement.  Under the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel was the governor of the Babylonian province (Daniel 2:48).  We do not know what capacity Daniel served Belshazzar but we do know from the chapter 8 that Daniel was in service to him.  Belshazzar had heard of Daniel but was unfamiliar with him personally.   Two things are possible here.  Either Daniel was in a low enough position of service to the kingdom that he answered directly to someone in authority over him or Belshazzar was a poor enough administrator that he didn't bother to acquaint himself with the leaders of the realm.  Due to the fact that his city was overtaken the very night of this incident, it is certain that there were a great many things going on within his realm for which he was unaware.  It is this Bible student's conviction that the latter is the most logical explanation.  Belshazzar devoted himself more to debauchery, revelry and self indulgence than he did in running the kingdom effectively. 

Daniel 5:17
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 was unimpressed with the promise of the king's gifts and authority in Babylon.  He told the king to keep them.  There is an immediate difference apparent here in the demeanor Daniel has towards Belshazzar as opposed to the respect he showed for Nebuchadnezzar.  Daniel had ill tidings for Nebuchadnezzar and waited an hour to tell him because of his distress over the message and what it meant for the king.  But for Belshazzar, Daniel immediately speaks out and delivers the cold hard facts.  

Daniel 5:18-21
O thou king, the most high God gave Nebuchadnezzar thy father a kingdom, and majesty, and glory, and honour:  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.  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:  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.

Daniel preambles the interpretation by recounting to Belshazzar the lesson king Nebuchadnezzar had learned the hard way way about pride and who was really in charge of the kingdoms of earth.  Belshazzar did not learn from his predecessor's lessons. 

Daniel 5:22
And thou his son, O Belshazzar, hast not humbled thine heart, though thou knewest all this;

Of great significance here is that Daniel looks Belshazzar in the face and informs him that he knew all this.  Belshazzar knew of Nebuchadnezzar's illness.  Belshazzar knew of Nebuchadnezzar's conversion.   Nebuchadnezzar published the whole thing in the form an official document and had it sent out all over the empire.  Daniel made this point to emphasize what he was going to say next. 

Daniel 5:23
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:

Belshazzar knew exactly what those vessels were when he ordered them brought to the feast.  He also knew about Nebuchadnezzar's conversion, especially in light of the fact that he was a direct descendant of him.  Belshazzar knew of the one true and living God and he knew the things that happened in the past to his not so distant ancestor.  Daniel indicated that by doing what he done, he had lifted himself up against the Lord of heaven.  Belshazzar had no excuse whatsoever for the conduct he had displayed. 

"and the God in whose hand thy breath is, and whose are all thy ways, hast thou not glorified"

What chilling words these must have been to the drunken despot who had just witnessed the writing on the wall to hear that the God he had ridiculed and dishonored with the violation of the temple treasures, learned that the very air he breathes is in the hands of the God of Heaven.   

Daniel 5:24
Then was the part of the hand sent from him; and this writing was written.

Apparently the part of the hand which had done the writing on the wall remained in sight until Daniel arrived.  That certainly would have been a chilling scene to behold. 

Daniel 5:25-26
And this is the writing that was written, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.  This is the interpretation of the thing: MENE; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it.

The words written on the wall were read by Daniel and their meaning interpreted.  The first word announced the downfall of the Babylonian empire.  Belshazzar doubtless had no idea it was going to be done as swiftly as it was.  The overthrow of the city was already well in progress at the time of Belshazzar's feast.

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

Simply stated, Daniel told Belshazzar that he did not measure up to the standards God expected.  This is the reason presented to Belshazzar for the ending of the Babylonian empire. 

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

The Medes were allies of Nebuchadnezzar's father.  Nebuchadnezzar himself having married Amytis, the daughter of Cyazares, king of the Medes.  Nabopolassar, Nebuchadnezzar's father, united with the Medes to utterly destroy Nineveh, the capitol city of the Assyrian Empire.  So now the Medes and the Persians are going to overthrow the Babylonian Empire.  Daniel prophesied it in his interpretation of the writing on the wall and it happened that very night.   

Daniel 5:29
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.

it is very interesting here that a king who had just been informed that he didn't measure up and that his kingdom would be divided went ahead and heaped all the promised treasures and the position of authority upon Daniel anyway.  He was not told he was going to die which doubtless helped to prevent a panicked reaction from Belshazzar.  The key to figuring out why Belshazzar went ahead with the treasures and the promotion is found in Daniel's words to him from verse 22, "though thou knewest all this".  Belshazzar knew all these things.  He also knew that God was very powerful and completely capable of doing all the things that Daniel said would happen.  This foolish king knew that the God of heaven struck Nebuchadnezzar mad for a period of time.  Without a doubt he knew all the other incidents which led up to Nebuchadnezzar's conversion as well.  This man knew that God was God and chose to ignore everything he knew.  Belshazzar should have seen the proverbial writing on the wall long before he saw it literally.  And it is this Bible student's belief that Belshazzar thought the heaping of treasures and accolades on Daniel would appease the wrath of God and either postpone or cancel God's intent to divide the kingdom among the Medes and the Persians. 

So then why did Daniel accept the treasures and the promotion from Belshazzar?  First and foremost, Belshazzar was the king in Babylon.  One had best be cautious about refusing the wishes of any king if they wanted to stay alive.  Daniel was an aged man and had been in administrative positions before.  It was not a new experience for him and he doubtless knew that as the 3rd person in power in the Babylonian empire, he would likely be in a favorable position during the coming takeover to help ease the transition for his own countrymen still in captivity there.  we do not know if Daniel knew of the suddenness of the takeover or not, but we do know Daniel knew it was going to happen. 

Daniel 5:30
In that night was Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans slain.

In 539 BC Cyrus invaded Babylonia. A battle was fought at Opis in the month of September, where the Babylonians were defeated.  The Battle of Opis was a major engagement between the armies of Persia under Cyrus the Great and the Babylonian Empire under Nabonidus during the Persian invasion of Mesopotamia. At the time, Babylonia was the last major power in western Asia that was not yet under Persian control. Opis was located north of the capital city Babylon and its overthrow resulted in a decisive defeat for the Babylonians.   A few days later, the city of Sippar surrendered to the Persians and Cyrus's forces entered Babylon apparently without a fight.  Cyrus was subsequently proclaimed king of Babylonia and its subject territories, thus ending the independence of Babylon and incorporating the Babylonian Empire into the greater Persian Empire.

Nabonidus fled to Babylon, where he was pursued by Gobryas (also known as Darius the Mede), and on the 16th day of Tammuz, two days after the capture of Sippara, the soldiers of Cyrus entered Babylon without fighting.  Nabonidus was captured and history vaguely records that his life was spared.  Gobryas (Darius the Mede), was made governor of the province of Babylon and Belshazzar was killed.  Thus marked the end of the Babylonian Empire which then fell to the Medes and the Persians. 

Daniel 5:31
And Darius the Median took the kingdom, being about threescore and two years old.

According to Rex A. Turner, in his book "Daniel a Prophet of God", the "Darius the Mede" who took the kingdom here was Gobryas, also known as Ugbaru, the governor of Gutium.  Under Cyrus the Great, he entered the city of Babylon on October 12, BC 539.  Darius the Mede (Gobryas) was slain in battle less than a month later and was succeeded by another man named Darius (Gubaru) also under Cyrus.  Darius (Gubaru) is the man who was coerced into throwing Daniel to the lions in chapter 6. 

 


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