The Writing on the Wall

For more study see commentary on Daniel 5.

Daniel 4 closed with Nebuchadnezzar being humbled and placing his trust in the Lord. God restored his throne and in his final years he enjoyed more success than he had before. While we don’t know precisely when Nebuchadnezzar was converted, we know that he died in 562 BC. Daniel 5 doesn’t take place until 539 BC, 23 years after Nebuchadnezzar’s death and an untold number of years since the close of Daniel 4. Daniel is not concerned with recording all of history, only the relevant stories that God wants preserved. Nevertheless, we still have historical writings to fill in the gaps.

Without the power of Nebuchadnezzar on the throne, Babylon hasn’t fared as well. His son, Evil-Merodach takes over the throne from him and shows kindness to Jehoiachin, the former king of Judah. It was possibly for this good deed that he was murdered by his brother-in-law just three years into his reign.

At the same time as this, war breaks out between Babylon and the Medes and Persians. Evil-Merodach’s murderer holds the throne for less than four years before dying in battle. His son took the throne and was beaten to death by conspirators in less than a year. This allowed another of Nebuchadnezzar’s sons, Nabidonus, to seize power.

While Nabidonus was king, he didn’t exercise much authority. He spent much of his reign building a palace at Tema and rebuilding his army. His son, Belshazzar, ruled from Babylon with his authority. During this time the Medes and Persians kept taking city after city and pressing toward Babylon.

This sets the stage for Daniel 5.

Vs 1

King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them.

There is a time for feasts. Some people believe that Christianity is full of boring people who never have any fun but this is not the case. Many of the religious holidays that God instituted in the Old Testament were not solemn occasions but rather feasts and celebrations. With this in mind, there are also times when it is not appropriate to celebrate. As King Belshazzar held his great banquet, the Medo-Persians were literally at the gate of the city. Either one must have tremendous confidence in the fortifications of their city or one is a fool to celebrate when the enemy is at the door. Belshazzar is a fool.

Vs 2-4

2 While Belshazzar was drinking his wine, he gave orders to bring in the gold and silver goblets that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken from the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines might drink from them. 3 So they brought in the gold goblets that had been taken from the temple of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines drank from them. 4 As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.

We don’t need this as an example because we have plenty of contemporary ones but alcohol leads to bad decision making. I won’t spend my time on the issue today other than to point out that just maybe history would have played out slightly differently if the king had not become inebriated and made foolish decisions at this banquet.

Belshazzar’s decision is foolish on a number of levels. First of all, as he brings out the items from the temple in Jerusalem, he does so as a boast. He is not a great warrior. He did not capture these items or destroy any city. He is taking credit for the work of his grandfather Nebuchadnezzar.

Worse is that he uses the items that had been consecrated for the worship of God to worship false idols, those made by human hands.

Vs 5-6

5 Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace. The king watched the hand as it wrote. 6 His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his legs became weak and his knees were knocking.

As Belshazzar boasts and praises gods of gold and silver the hand of God appears and writes on the plaster wall. He doesn’t yet know what the writing says but just the appearance of the hand is enough to make him lose all strength in his legs.

If Belshazzar could have read the writing on the wall, it would have truly been cause for fear and trembling. It meant that his time was up. It is interesting to note how Nebuchadnezzar seemed to be granted many chances to eventually turn his life around while Belshazzar isn’t given any kind of warning.

We don’t know the limits of God’s patience nor should we ever want to test it. It seems as God gives some people more chances than others. We don’t know why some people die young and others live a life of sin and never seem to face the consequences. I believe that at least in part it is dependent on other people praying for a person.

Because of the gap between Daniel 4 and 5 we simply don’t know how many chances Belshazzar has already had. If nothing else, he would have been familiar with the story of his grandfather Nebuchadnezzar. He would have known of Nebuchadnezzar’s pride and then his repentance. And he would have had to make a conscious choice to reject those stories and claims.

Whatever events transpired in Belshazzar’s life and that night during the feast, his time is up. The writing is on the wall.

Vs 7-9

7 The king summoned the enchanters, astrologers and diviners. Then he said to these wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing and tells me what it means will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around his neck, and he will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.”
8 Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant. 9 So King Belshazzar became even more terrified and his face grew more pale. His nobles were baffled.

For a third time in the book of Daniel, the king’s wise men are called in to interpret something for the king but they are unable to. Daniel is showing his readers that earthly wisdom without God is worthless. Anyone who claims to be wise but does not have the fear of the Lord in them will be found wanting in the end.

Vs 10-12

10 The queen, hearing the voices of the king and his nobles, came into the banquet hall. “May the king live forever!” she said. “Don’t be alarmed! Don’t look so pale! 11 There is a man in your kingdom who has the spirit of the holy gods in him. In the time of your father he was found to have insight and intelligence and wisdom like that of the gods. Your father, King Nebuchadnezzar, appointed him chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners. 12 He did this because Daniel, whom the king called Belteshazzar, was found to have a keen mind and knowledge and understanding, and also the ability to interpret dreams, explain riddles and solve difficult problems. Call for Daniel, and he will tell you what the writing means.”

The queen is not Belshazzar’s wife as earlier it stated that his wives and concubines were with him in the hall. Nor is it his mother who was at Tema. It is in fact his grandmother, the wife of Nebuchadnezzar. She remembers Daniel and it appears as though she is a believer just like her husband. She knows that Daniel can interpret the writing just as he did before for Nebuchadnezzar.

Don’t be tripped up by the fact that Nebuchadnezzar is called Belshazzar’s father. This simply means an ancestor. This was used quite commonly in ancient times. In Aramaic there is not even a word for grandfather so father is used.

Vs 13-17

13 So Daniel was brought before the king, and the king said to him, “Are you Daniel, one of the exiles my father the king brought from Judah? 14 I have heard that the spirit of the gods is in you and that you have insight, intelligence and outstanding wisdom. 15 The wise men and enchanters were brought before me to read this writing and tell me what it means, but they could not explain it. 16 Now I have heard that you are able to give interpretations and to solve difficult problems. If you can read this writing and tell me what it means, you will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around your neck, and you will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.”
17 Then Daniel answered the king, “You may keep your gifts for yourself and give your rewards to someone else. Nevertheless, I will read the writing for the king and tell him what it means.

So Daniel is brought in to interpret the writing on the wall. It appears that since the death of Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel is no longer prime minister. There are several possibilities. Daniel is around 82 years old at this point and he may have retired from service. This one isn’t too likely however as it appears that Belshazzar wasn’t even aware of Daniel as the queen had to remind him. Daniel also goes on to serve once again under Darius so if Daniel did retire it wasn’t likely to be by choice.

More likely is that during the upheaval Daniel lost his position or was not retained by the new king who sought to separate himself from the former king. Belshazzar promises to raise Daniel to the third highest position in the kingdom which is technically correct and in line with history. As was mentioned earlier, Belshazzar is technically the second highest in the empire as his father is still living in Tema.

Daniel doesn’t want the king’s gifts however. There could be several reasons for this. One, Daniel may have no interest in serving a corrupt king. Two, Daniel may not want to appear as if he is for sale. Three, Daniel knows that what the king is offering is worthless anyway.

Vs 18-23

18 “Your Majesty, the Most High God gave your father Nebuchadnezzar sovereignty and greatness and glory and splendor. 19 Because of the high position he gave him, all the nations and peoples of every language dreaded and feared him. Those the king wanted to put to death, he put to death; those he wanted to spare, he spared; those he wanted to promote, he promoted; and those he wanted to humble, he humbled. 20 But when his heart became arrogant and hardened with pride, he was deposed from his royal throne and stripped of his glory. 21 He was driven away from people and given the mind of an animal; he lived with the wild donkeys and ate grass like the ox; and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven, until he acknowledged that the Most High God is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and sets over them anyone he wishes.
22 “But you, Belshazzar, his son, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this. 23 Instead, you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven. You had the goblets from his temple brought to you, and you and your nobles, your wives and your concubines drank wine from them. You praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or understand. But you did not honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways.

Daniel breaks into a mini sermon before offering Belshazzar the meaning of the writing. This shows that Daniel had no relationship with the man. When he is forced to give Nebuchadnezzar bad news, he is saddened and wished that it was meant for another man and even urges the king to repent. There is no sadness this time as he pronounces sentence on Belshazzar.
For all of the horrific things that Nebuchadnezzar did in his lifetime, Belshazzar has done the only thing worse. Belshazzar has rejected the truth of the gospel. It is obviously not the entire Christian gospel of today but Belshazzar knew of Nebuchadnezzar’s conversion and how it came about. But instead of accepting this news and praising the God of heaven, he set himself up against the Lord.

We all do bad things in life. We may not have been as cruel as Nebuchadnezzar but there is still plenty that we are guilty of. But all of these things can be forgiven. The only thing that isn’t forgivable is the rejection of the gospel. Belshazzar has heard the truth and rejected it. Some people get many chances in life. Belshazzar may have had many chances in life. But at this moment he is out of chances to accept the truth.Vs 24-29

24 Therefore he sent the hand that wrote the inscription.
25 “This is the inscription that was written:
MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN
26 “Here is what these words mean:
Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.
27 Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.
28 Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”
29 Then at Belshazzar’s command, Daniel was clothed in purple, a gold chain was placed around his neck, and he was proclaimed the third highest ruler in the kingdom.

In just four words, the order is issued for the end of the greatest empire on earth. What Belshazzar faced is something that every person in life will face. It didn’t end well for Belshazzar though.

No matter how long or short, each of us will reach the end of our days. God has numbered them and one day, sooner or later, our days will be up. When that day comes, we will be judged. Outside of courthouses all over America are statues of a blindfolded woman holding a set of scales. The idea is that justice is blind and only does according to the scales. God is not blind and sees all that is done. He judges righteously and perfectly. Finally, a sentence will be issued. In our case we will either hear, “Well done my good and faithful servant” or “Depart from me, I never knew you.”

The end of Belshazzar’s days has come. He has been found lacking. Because of this his kingdom will be divided up and given to the Medes and Persians.

In one last showing of ignorance of arrogance Belshazzar orders that Daniel be given the rewards that he had promised. It is apparent that Belshazzar isn’t concerned. He is confident in his own power and that of his worthless gods.

Vs 30-31

30 That very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, was slain, 31 and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom, at the age of sixty-two.

Daniel recalls the fall of the greatest empire on earth as little more than an afterthought. It gets only one sentence’s worth of regard in his writing.

According to history, that very night the Medes and Persians entered into the city of Babylon and conquered it with very little bloodshed. There was a stream which ran into the city and under its fortifications. The Medo-Persians diverted this stream and walked into the city on a dry riverbed, underneath the walls. It took three days for some people in the city to even realize that they were citizens of a new empire.

Two weeks later, Cyrus rode into the city with shouts and cheers. God is behind the rise and fall of men. His judgments are right and just. Belshazzar had ample opportunity to repent and he didn’t. Nebuchadnezzar had great opportunity to repent and he eventually did. One man met a swift and violent end while another died in power of old age.

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