Exposition of Daniel 7:1–8 Understanding the second half of Daniel and The vision of four grotesque beasts

Daniel 7:1–8

1 In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream, and visions passed through his mind as he was lying in bed. He wrote down the substance of his dream.
2 Daniel said: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me were the four winds of heaven churning up the great sea. 3 Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea.
4 “The first was like a lion, and it had the wings of an eagle. I watched until its wings were torn off and it was lifted from the ground so that it stood on two feet like a human being, and the mind of a human was given to it.
5 “And there before me was a second beast, which looked like a bear. It was raised up on one of its sides, and it had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth. It was told, ‘Get up and eat your fill of flesh!’
6 “After that, I looked, and there before me was another beast, one that looked like a leopard. And on its back it had four wings like those of a bird. This beast had four heads, and it was given authority to rule.
7 “After that, in my vision at night I looked, and there before me was a fourth beast — terrifying and frightening and very powerful. It had large iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left. It was different from all the former beasts, and it had ten horns.
8 “While I was thinking about the horns, there before me was another horn, a little one, which came up among them; and three of the first horns were uprooted before it. This horn had eyes like the eyes of a human being and a mouth that spoke boastfully.”

As stated in the Introduction, the Book of Daniel divides into two parts: Part One: The ministry of Daniel in Babylon (1:1–6:28), Part Two: The visions of Daniel in Babylon (7:1–12:13). Part one was largely historical in nature, though two dreams by Nebuchadnezzar eventually led the king to faith in Yahweh, the Lord of history. Part two contains four visions given to Daniel to demonstrate Yahweh’s mastery of the future as well as the past. These visions are apocalyptic in nature; that is, they are prophecies expressed in language that is highly symbolic and powerfully expressive.

The key thing about apocalyptic literature is that it shapes our present behavior by showing us how our behavior will affect our long-term future. For example, we are willing to suffer in likeness to Jesus because we will share in his triumph and live with him in the new heaven and new earth to come.

Though English versions of the Bible obscure the fact, the underlying languages of Daniel move from Hebrew (1:1–2:4a) to Imperial Aramaic (2:4b–7:28) and back to Hebrew (8:1–12:13). It is difficult to know what to make of this division. Perhaps the Aramaic section represents the period in which the nation of Judah spent in captivity under powers whose official language was Aramaic. On a wider canvas, God’s covenant with Abraham, empowered by the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, will reach its consummation in the eternal kingdom promised by God. In this view, the Aramaic section is symbolic of the period of Gentile domination, which will come to a sudden and final end when the Messiah returns to rule.

The vision of four grotesque beasts

Daniel’s first vision came in the initial year of Belshazzar (553 B.C.), according to verse 1. In verse 2, we encounter the first symbol: “the great sea.” When the vision is interpreted, in verse 17, we will find that the great sea refers to the earth as the home of humanity, and the tossing waves of the sea symbolize how human kingdoms are thrown up and then fall away. If you have never seen such surging waves, YouTube offers some scary examples.

Not only are these human kingdoms, represented by the different beasts, stormy and transitory, they are also grotesque. Many scholars have noted the similarity of the first dream of Nebuchadnezzar (chapter 2) to the first vision seen by Daniel. Wood suggests that the normal human shape seen by Nebuchadnezzar, with different metals representing the intrinsic value of each empire (2:32–35), represents a human viewpoint while the monstrous beasts seen by Daniel give us the divine viewpoint of the same kingdoms. If so, God does not have a high opinion of either the great nations or world-spanning corporations that dominate our age.

The most common word in our first text (Dan. 7:1–8) is an Aramaic verb that means “[I was] looking” (5 occurrences), and, with equal frequency, an interjection meaning “Look!” So, we can say that Daniel was a passive observer of a shocking series of visions that were suddenly presented to him. By the end of the chapter, we will find that Daniel is rocked to his core by what he has seen. Word frequency is one means of discovering what an author emphasizes, but the tendency of English versions to vary vocabulary makes using this tool more difficult.

Winged lions are among the symbols found in the ruins of Babylon , so it is not surprising that the majority of scholars believe the first beast is Babylon and specifically refers to Nebuchadnezzar. Miller notes that Nebuchadnezzar is symbolized in Jeremiah as a lion (Jer. 4:7 and 50:17) as well as an eagle (Jer. 49:22). In figurative terms, verse 4 represents Nebuchadnezzar’s humiliation as well as his restoration to rationality.

Next, a bear appears before Daniel (verse 5), but it has one side raised higher than the other — perhaps symbolizing the eventual dominance of Persia over Media in their joint empire. The three bones in the mouth of this predator are thought to symbolize the conquest of Babylon (539 B.C.), Lydia (546 B.C.) and Egypt (525 B.C.). At its zenith, the Medo-Persian empire more than doubled the territory held by Babylon or Assyria and stretched from Egypt to what is now India.

The phrase “after that” (verse 6a) seems trivial, but the reader should consider that in a book filled with prophecies from God, the exact meaning of phrases affecting the timing of events becomes crucial. When Daniel first wrote down his account of the dream, these events lay in his future. But the events lie in our past, and we can easily see that the third beast — representing Greece under Alexander the Great and his successors — immediately supplanted the second beast (Persia) without any gap in between. How this came about will be explained when we encounter Daniel’s next vision in chapter 8.

The actual explanation of how Greece conquered Persia has little to do with Alexander the Great or the innovations in military technology implemented by his army. Instead, “it [i.e. the third beast] was given authority to rule [by God]” (verse 6b). This type of passive-voice construction occurs often in the Bible as an indirect means of signaling God’s action while not naming him. For this reason, the grammatical form is called the “divine passive.”

The description of the third beast uses the number four twice: “four wings” and “four heads” (verse 6). Wood explains, “Since ‘heads’ in Scripture normally represent persons or governments, it is logical further to expect this development to concern some form of fourfold division of government; and that is exactly what did occur after Alexander’s death.” Four of Alexander’s generals divided the vast empire.

The fourth beast that suddenly appeared was unlike all the others, and Daniel does not liken it to any earthly animal. Instead, he emphasizes its exceptional strength, making it “terrifying and frightening” (verse 7) as it devoured its victims with “large iron teeth.”We must now look back to the terrifying image seen by Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2:31–45), where the legs of the image were made of iron and the feet were a mixture of iron and clay (2:33). The chronology of this image started with the head (Nebuchadnezzar) and ended with the iron legs — symbolizing Rome — followed by the mixed iron and clay in the feet and toes. The Iron and clay feet and toes are somehow related to the iron legs but also somehow different. Since the iron/clay feet and toes come last in the image, they must also be chronologically last. We said this meant that the Roman Empire would come in two distinct phases, one already past and one yet to come (from our perspective).

Since the vision we are following in Daniel 7 parallels the image in Daniel 2, we should be sensitive to any possible point at which this final empire divides into two phases. We suggest that the words “It was different from all the former beasts, and it had ten horns” (verse 7b) start the description of the second phase of Roman dominance (yet future). The first reason supporting this interpretation is simple: Historic Rome never had ten kings, and verse 24 tells us the ten horns represent ten kings.

A second reason is equally compelling: We will see that this final Roman Empire is destroyed by the return of the Messiah to rule forever, and that did not occur with the historic Roman Empire. So, just as Nebuchadnezzar’s terrifying dream-image shattered when the stone struck the image on its iron and clay feet (Dan. 2:34), so this ten-horned beast will be destroyed by God.

Verse 8 begins to relate the role of the “little horn,” a powerful and blasphemous figure whose rule will be described later. If, for now, you imagine him to be the Antichrist, you will not be disappointed.

Copyright © 2014 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

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Exposition of Daniel 6:19–28, Ranking Guests for Breakfast

Daniel 6:19–28

19 At the first light of dawn, the king got up and hurried to the lions’ den. 20 When he came near the den, he called to Daniel in an anguished voice, “Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve continually, been able to rescue you from the lions?”

21 Daniel answered, “May the king live forever! 22 My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions. They have not hurt me, because I was found innocent in his sight. Nor have I ever done any wrong before you, Your Majesty.”

23 The king was overjoyed and gave orders to lift Daniel out of the den. And when Daniel was lifted from the den, no wound was found on him, because he had trusted in his God.

24 At the king’s command, the men who had falsely accused Daniel were brought in and thrown into the lions’ den, along with their wives and children. And before they reached the floor of the den, the lions overpowered them and crushed all their bones.

25 Then King Darius wrote to all the nations and peoples of every language in all the earth:
“May you prosper greatly!

26 “I issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel.
“For he is the living God and he endures forever;
his kingdom will not be destroyed, his dominion will never end.
27 He rescues and he saves; he performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth.
He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions.”

28 So Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian.

After spending a sleepless night, at the breaking of dawn Darius goes quickly to the lion-pit holding Daniel (verse 19). Darius at the cistern’s entrance is a picture of both anxiety and hope. Without court protocol he loudly shouts Daniel’s name, calling him “servant of the living God” (verse 20) and reminding us that God’s ability to rescue Daniel is still a question. That issue is quickly resolved when Daniel implicitly prays, “May the king live forever!” (verse 21). This dramatic and moving greeting mirrors the king’s implicit prayer  “May your God … rescue you!” (verse 16) when Daniel was condemned to face the lions.

Daniel is always looking for ways to speak about God, which should serve to remind us not only of our own mission for Christ but also that this book is not primarily about Daniel. He swiftly explains that “My God” — to distinguish Yahweh from the pantheon of Babylonian deities — “sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions” (verse 22). It is ironic that Darius, Daniel and the lions were all without food during the long night. The statement that the angel “shut the mouths of the lions” is figurative of total protection since lions can kill a man in other ways as well.

Verse 22 looks on Daniel as being on trial in two venues, before God and before the king. The angel’s protection proves Daniel’s innocence before God, and he further claims to have done no wrong before the king. Darius had never believed any such thing in the first place and orders that Daniel be lifted out of the cistern (verses 22–23). Daniel is closely inspected and found to be without injury; this state is attributed to his faith in Yahweh, and it shows how completely God has overpowered both wild lions and Medo-Persian capital punishment.

However, the vindication of Daniel is the condemnation of his accusers. When verse 24 mentions “the men who had falsely accused Daniel,” we learn from Miller that “‘falsely accused’ is literally ‘who had eaten his pieces.’”[1] The NET Bible Notes for verse 24 point out that “The Aramaic expression is ironic, in that the accusers who had figuratively ‘eaten the pieces of Daniel’ are themselves literally devoured by the lions.” This is a concrete, if ironic, example of a common biblical principle related to judgment: measure for measure.  Jesus said, “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:2).

That whole families were executed for the guilt of one person was the Persian custom during those times[2], and the practice serves to remind us that our sin affects all we know and love. Proving that they are both vicious and hungry, the lions “crush their bones” before they even reach the floor of the cistern. Dinner had been quite a disappointment, but breakfast proved memorable for all involved.

An empire-spanning decree

Once again one of the greatest rulers in ancient times feels moved to tell his people about the mighty acts of Yahweh (verses 25–27). Aside from being personally awed by the events, the king finds it necessary to explain how unbreakable Medo-Persian law could be overruled in the case of Daniel, which explains why the decree ends with “He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions” (verse 27b).

The wildly fluctuating status of Daniel may provide the occasion for the decree, but the heart of the king’s message is designed to make sure that the people of the empire do nothing to offend “the God of Daniel” (verse 26a). HCSB gets the right sense by saying “people must tremble in fear before the God of Daniel” (verse 6:26a). Trembling before God and being afraid before God are Aramaic participles that imply continuous action. Darius offers five reasons that make this ongoing attitude an absolute necessity:

“he is the living God and he endures forever” (verse 26)

“his kingdom will not be destroyed, his dominion will never end” (verse 26)

“he rescues and he saves” (verse 27)

“he performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth” (verse 27)

“he has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions” (verse 27).

If there is one thing our contemporary world has forgotten, it is the absolute need to fear and tremble before the living God, the enduring ruler who holds the power of life and death. We who have been rescued by trusting in Jesus must remember that, even in his own family, our God disciplines those he loves.

We have said before that we consider Darius the Mede to be the same person as Cyrus the Persian, also known as Cyrus the Great. This issue arises again in verse 28, where Miller explains: “If one holds that Cyrus and Darius were the same person … the phrase may be translated ‘during the reign of Darius, even (namely) the reign of Cyrus the Persian.’ If [this] view is correct, Daniel was thereby specifying for the reader the identification of Darius the Mede — he was the same person as Cyrus the Persian.”[3]

While the identification of Darius is interesting, it is not vital. What we must never forget is that God rules in heaven and on earth. He is the only one who can rescue and save, and he has done so through Jesus Christ!

Copyright © 2014 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Miller, Daniel, 187.

[2] Wood, Daniel, 174.

[3] Miller, Daniel, 189.

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Exposition of Daniel 6:10–18 An unbreakable web of lies

Daniel 6:10–18

10 Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before. 11 Then these men went as a group and found Daniel praying and asking God for help. 12 So they went to the king and spoke to him about his royal decree: “Did you not publish a decree that during the next thirty days anyone who prays to any god or human being except to you, Your Majesty, would be thrown into the lions’ den?” The king answered, “The decree stands — in accordance with the law of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be repealed.”

13 Then they said to the king, “Daniel, who is one of the exiles from Judah, pays no attention to you, Your Majesty, or to the decree you put in writing. He still prays three times a day.” 14 When the king heard this, he was greatly distressed; he was determined to rescue Daniel and made every effort until sundown to save him.

15 Then the men went as a group to King Darius and said to him, “Remember, Your Majesty, that according to the law of the Medes and Persians no decree or edict that the king issues can be changed.”

16 So the king gave the order, and they brought Daniel and threw him into the lions’ den. The king said to Daniel, “May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!”

17 A stone was brought and placed over the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet ring and with the rings of his nobles, so that Daniel’s situation might not be changed. 18 Then the king returned to his palace and spent the night without eating and without any entertainment being brought to him. And he could not sleep.

The publication of the decree affecting his prayers to Yahweh was not the first restrictive edict Daniel had faced. During his first days in Babylon he had been confronted with eating food and drink from the king’s allotment (Dan. 1:8). Daniel had quietly resisted that seductive diet, and God had enabled him to prevail during his earliest days in Babylonian captivity. Now, under the reign of Darius the Mede, a much more powerful Daniel faces a situation where his normal prayer life will lead to his death. Daniel’s enemies were counting on his integrity and faithfulness to Yahweh.

As was his open custom, Daniel continues his daily prayers and praise without using Darius as a mediator (verse 10). Predictably, the same conspirators who had approached Darius with their deceptive proposal burst in on Daniel while he is praying for God’s help (verse 11). Armed with this direct evidence, the conspirators promptly approach the king and first get his confirmation of the irrevocable decree. The king naturally declares that “the decree stands” and “cannot be repealed” (verse 12).

The conspirators have very carefully teed up their accusation, but they cannot resist the temptation to enhance it with another provocative lie. While NIV says that Daniel “pays no attention to you” (verse 13), the verb means “has no regard for you,”[1] as if the king and his decree are the object of Daniel’s personal contempt. This is an attempt to inflame the king’s emotions against Daniel.

When the king grasps the situation, he is exceptionally distressed (verse 14). Wood observes, “This was not the kind of reaction by the king for which the accusers had hoped.”[2] The conspirators had previously lied by saying that Daniel had no regard for the king, and that very same Aramaic verb is used in verse 14 to say that the king has regard for Daniel to the point that he wants to rescue him from death! The king’s high opinion of Daniel has not changed. He makes every effort to save Daniel until the setting sun marks the time for execution. Wood observes, “This is a remarkable example of an absolute monarch being bound by a law still more absolute.”[3]

The conspirators had passed the point of no return long ago, and together they approach the king again to demand enforcement of the royal decree (verse 15). Having no choice, the king orders Daniel to be taken to the cistern — a rock enclosure below ground — where the lions were kept. Daniel is cast into the cistern. With sharp irony, the king, who had appointed himself the sole mediator to the gods for others, now utters what amounts to a prayer on Daniel’s behalf: “May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!” The king is calling on Yahweh to do what he could not do — rescue Daniel!

A stone is placed over the mouth of the cistern and sealed with the rings of both the king and his nobles (verse 17). Daniel’s fate is apparently sealed. The cistern is silent and nothing more is said about it. But the king, in the confines of his palace, shows every evidence of great anxiety: no appetite, no interest in diversions, and no sleep (verse 18). The question we must ask ourselves is: Why is the king so anxious?

Copyright © 2014 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] HALOT, sam, have regard for, q.v.

[2] Wood, Daniel, 165.

[3] Wood, Daniel, 166.

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Exposition of Daniel 6:1–9 The triumph of evil: Darius deceived

Daniel 6:1–9

[Dan. 5:31  and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom, at the age of sixty-two.]*

1 It pleased Darius to appoint 120 satraps to rule throughout the kingdom, 2 with three administrators over them, one of whom was Daniel. The satraps were made accountable to them so that the king might not suffer loss. 3 Now Daniel so distinguished himself among the administrators and the satraps by his exceptional qualities that the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom. 4 At this, the administrators and the satraps tried to find grounds for charges against Daniel in his conduct of government affairs, but they were unable to do so. They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent. 5 Finally these men said, “We will never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God.”

6 So these administrators and satraps went as a group to the king and said: “May King Darius live forever! 7 The royal administrators, prefects, satraps, advisers and governors have all agreed that the king should issue an edict and enforce the decree that anyone who prays to any god or human being during the next thirty days, except to you, Your Majesty, shall be thrown into the lions’ den. 8 Now, Your Majesty, issue the decree and put it in writing so that it cannot be altered — in accordance with the law of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be repealed.” 9 So King Darius put the decree in writing.

* Ancient Jewish versions begin chapter 6 with what English versions label as verse 5:31.

My previous post adopted the view that Darius the Mede is also known as Cyrus the Great (600–530 B.C.), a view advanced by Miller[1] and others. A great deal of ink has rightly been spilled on that subject by scholars, but the details have little bearing on Daniel’s message; Miller presents other views in some detail.

From a human viewpoint, it is true that Darius “took over the [Babylonian] kingdom” (verse 5:31, NIV and NLT), but Daniel has stressed repeatedly that God gives the kingdoms of men to whomever he wishes (Dan. 4:32). That being the repeated message of Daniel, it is better to say that Darius “received the [Babylonian] kingdom” (ESV, HCSB, CEB, NASB). This difference may seem trivial, but it is Daniel’s viewpoint.

The word “satrap” (verse 1) sounds odd to us, but it is an Old Persian word that means “protector of the empire.” Cyrus’s kingdom was the largest the world had yet seen, and it was vital to have men who could act with almost unlimited power without waiting months for messages to get to Cyrus and back. Over the satraps, Cyrus established three high officials who could hold the satraps accountable. Any satrap who hoped to enrich himself at the king’s expense would regard these officials as a dangerous obstacle. Daniel was one of the three high officials (verse 2), and, because he repeatedly demonstrated that “he had an extraordinary spirit” (verse 3, NET), the king intended to make Daniel supreme.

The other two high officials and a few of the satraps did not want to see Daniel promoted. Because he was diligent, incorruptible and trustworthy, their only strategy to eliminate him was to create a conflict between Daniel’s loyalty to Yahweh and his duty to uphold the civil law (verses 4–5). They conspired to keep their plan secret from Daniel and — as a group — deceived Darius by saying that all the high officials and satraps supported their proposal.

The proposal of the conspirators had several elements: (1) strictly enforceable, (2) applicable to all, (3) irrevocable during its 30-day duration, and (4) requiring execution for violation. The key provision of their proposal is often misunderstood. Miller explains: “Darius was to be the only priestly mediator during this period. In his role as mediator, prayers to the gods were to be offered through him rather than the priests.”[2] Darius was not approving worship of himself, as is sometimes assumed, but rather taking a temporary role something like that of a high priest, who intercedes with the gods on behalf of his subjects. Collins says, “‘There is no indication that [Persian] kings had even the slightest tendency toward self-deification.’”[3]

Darius was deceived by the conspirators and issued the binding decree in written form (verse 9). From that moment, Daniel had a date with the lions.

Copyright © 2014 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Miller, Daniel, 177.

[2] Miller, Daniel, 180.

[3] Miller, Daniel, 181, footnote 50, quoting J.H. Walton.

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Exposition of Daniel 5:17–31 Belshazzar’s last command

Daniel 5:17–31

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. 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. 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.

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.

In answering the king, Daniel shows none of the deference he demonstrated when speaking to Nebuchadnezzar. He is polite but firm in refusing the rewards for his information. But, before he reads and interprets the writing, Daniel gives the king a pointed history lesson that founds the splendor of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign on the gift of his authority from the Most High God (verses 18–19). Those words must hit Belshazzar hard since he had been leading his nobles in dishonoring items sacred to Yahweh, an act of defiance.

Daniel does not neglect to recall the humbling of the great king Nebuchadnezzar until he “came to understand that the most high God rules over human kingdoms, and he appoints over them whomever he wishes ” (verse 21, NET). Not only is that heavenly rule the theme of the entire book, but it makes the ideal prelude to the crushing words to follow.

The arrangement of words in verse 22 is emphatic, with greatest stress on “but you” at the start. Daniel confronts Belshazzar with his failure to humble himself and repent even though he knew all that happened to Nebuchadnezzar. Worse, “you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven” (verse 23a). Daniel details how this was done by the profaning of the goblets belonging to Yahweh, using them to praise idols (verse 23b). In a brutally honest description of idols, Daniel says they “cannot see or hear or understand” (verse 23c).

The closing sentence of verse 23 is expressed so simply that it is easy to overlook, but its implications directly affect not only Belshazzar but all of us. “You did not honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways.” It is a rare person who understands that every step they take is accomplished by God’s grace and  affects God’s response to them. In Belshazzar’s case, his rebellion and failure to honor God led immediately to the writing of the inscription (verse 24).

The Inscription on the wall

Belshazzar had ruled without regard for God, and now he finds out where that leads. First the inscription:

“MENE, MENE , TEKEL, and PARSIN” [ESV for verse 25, showing the original “and”]

It is no wonder that Belshazzar and his nobles could not interpret these words. They may be understood either as a series of nouns or as a series of passive participles. After making that decision, the interpreter is still left with the problem of determining whether the resulting words are to be taken literally or metaphorically. As it stands in the plaster on the palace wall, the sequence is like an enigma wrapped in a mystery. Wood aptly says, “Each of the words seems to carry a double sense.”[1] But the Most High God did not intend matters to stay at the level of mystery, which is why Daniel stands before the king.

Daniel clearly makes two choices in his interpretation: the words are each to be taken as passive participles and each is used metaphorically. The first word, MENE, is possibly the most difficult. The verb means to count or number, and in the passive sense to be numbered; the passive sense may also mean that the matter is completed or determined because the reckoning has reached a conclusion. Note carefully that “MENE” is repeated. Daniel speaks for God in explaining that the first instance of MENE means “God has numbered … your reign” and the second instance means “and brought it to an end.” (verse 26).

The careful reader will notice that we have said nothing about “the days” of Belshazzar’s kingdom, and that is because the Aramaic text says nothing about days. It is a popular, if unfounded, idea that each of us — or Belshazzar’s kingdom — has been allotted an exact number of days. This verse has the much richer idea that God constantly monitors our exact thoughts and actions, evaluates them and, if he wishes, brings our time to an end. Speaking generally, we are saying that God is not watching a calendar, he is evaluating our hearts!

The next word of the inscription is TEKEL. NIV’s translation “You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting” (verse 27) gives the proper sense in modern terms. However, you should imagine the type of scale that is designed as a balance with a standard weight on one side and the item being weighed on the other. The phrase “found wanting” may not be well understood. The Geneva Bible (1599) has the literal sense “found too light,” and NET’s “found to be lacking” gives the metaphorical sense. The balance is the scale of divine justice, and Belshazzar’s lack of humility, failure to repent, and his omission of honor to Yahweh as the rightful ruler of humanity all combine to tip the scales heavily against him.

The final word in the inscription is PARSIN. Chisholm gives the clearest explanation by saying, “The term uparsin (combining the conjunction ‘and’ and the plural of peres, “half-shekel”) sounded like the verb peras, ‘to break into two.’”[2] Daniel uses this wordplay to say that Belshazzar’s kingdom “is divided and given to the Medes and Persians” (verse 28).

It is ironic that the previously contemptuous Belshazzar kept his word to Daniel. The humble prophet-statesman is rewarded (verse 29) and made third highest ruler of a kingdom that would not last the night! Belshazzar is slain that very night (verse 30) by the military forces of the Medes and Persians. There is evidence in ancient documents that a certain Babylonian governor named Gobryas defected to Cyrus because the wicked Belshazzar had murdered his son during a royal hunt. It was Gobryas who led the assault troops into the palace and killed Belshazzar to avenge his son.[3]

The story of how such a mighty city could fall so easily is known from the accounts of ancient historians, but the Bible says nothing about it! As we have said before, Daniel wrote chiefly to show that Yahweh rules in the affairs of humanity; the military details are not relevant to that theme.

The identity of Darius the Mede (verse 31) is disputed. We accept the simple conclusion that this name apples to Cyrus the Great (600 B.C. – 530 B.C.). Miller explains: “Cyrus’s father was a Persian, but his mother was the daughter of Astyages, the king of Media; thus Cyrus was half Median. … Both Isaiah (13:17) and Jeremiah (51:11, 28) had predicted the downfall of Babylon to the Medes, and Daniel employed the title to emphasize the fulfillment of these prophecies.”[4] Isaiah’s prophetic ministry ended about 680 B.C., roughly 140 years prior to the fall of Babylon. Jeremiah’s prophecies ceased when Jerusalem was taken in 586 B.C., about 47 years before Darius the Mede seized Babylon. God had declared Babylon’s fall in advance!

Only God can declare future events and then bring them to pass. In saying Darius the Mede took Babylon, Daniel continues his great theme that “the Most High is ruler over human kingdoms and gives them to whomever he wishes” (Dan. 4:32, NET).

19 Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms,
the pride and glory of the Babylonians,
will be overthrown by God like Sodom and Gomorrah.
20 She will never be inhabited or lived in through all generations;
there no nomads will pitch their tents, there no shepherds will rest their flocks.

(Isaiah 13:19–20)

Copyright © 2014 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Wood, Daniel, 149.

[2] Chisholm, Handbook of the Prophets, 302.

[3] Miller, Daniel, 169.

[4] Miller, Daniel, 175.

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Exposition of Daniel 5:10–16 Voices from the past

Daniel 5:10–16

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.”

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.”

We left coregent Belshazzar, and his nobles, terrified, baffled and without appetite (verses 8–9). Happily, there is a sober woman nearby!

“The queen” (verse 10) cannot be Belshazzar’s wife because she is already in the banquet hall with the other wives and concubines (verse 2). Most scholars, ancient and modern, consider this queen to be the wife of Nabonidas and the mother of Belshazzar, the formidable Nitocris.[1] We would call her the “queen-mother,” and Babylonian custom accorded her a position of honor. She enters a confused, tense and possibly hostile scene with a confident presence, firm advice (verse 10), and a wide knowledge of the past. She knows Daniel!

The queen mother succinctly explains Daniel’s qualifications (verses 11–12): (1) he is in contact with the gods, (2) he won Nebuchadnezzar’s confidence and was appointed chief among the magi, and (3) he has “the ability to explain riddles and to solve difficult problems.” She confidently predicts that Daniel will explain what the writing means (verse 12b).

Miller explains, “Daniel probably had semiretired from public life after Nebuchadnezzar’s death ([when Daniel] was almost sixty years of age), and now he was about eighty.”[2] It is not surprising that Belshazzar does not recognize Daniel; the king is much younger than Daniel and runs with a hard-drinking crowd. In his only interview with Daniel, Belshazzar’s repeated phrases “I have heard” (verses 14 and 16) suggest that he is skeptical of the validity of the queen-mother’s claims about Daniel. After summarizing the message of the queen-mother, Belshazzar repeats his conditional offer (verse 16): interpret the writing and become rich and powerful.

Aside from the base story, this passage has several interesting subtleties. The contrast between the clear-headed, historically savvy queen-mother and the wine-addled, terrified king is notable. Further, she uses Daniel’s Babylonian name (Belteshazzar = “Protect his life!”), whereas the king (Belshazzar = “Bel, protect the king”) uses the Hebrew name Daniel (= “God is my judge”). In this war of gods and names, who will prevail? We will see that Yahweh will protect Daniel’s life, while Bel, a major Babylonian god, will not protect Belshazzar. God is the judge, and his written judgment will soon be announced.

Copyright © 2014 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Miller, Daniel, 160, and footnote 73.

[2] Miller, Daniel, 161.

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Exposition of Daniel 5:1–9 God rules the unrepentant too!

Daniel 5:1–9

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

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.

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.

A historical interlude

Before we discuss Daniel 5 and the fall of Babylon, it will be helpful to look at the list of Neo-Babylonian kings. It contains both Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 1–4) and Belshazzar (Daniel 5).[1]

 

The Neo-Babylonian kings
Nabopolassar (626–605 B.C.) conqueror of Nineveh, father of Nebuchadnezzar
Nebuchadnezzar II (605–562 B.C.) mentioned 91 times in the Old Testament
Evil-Merodach (562–560 B.C.); son of Nebuchadnezzar; 2 Kings 25:27; Jer. 52:31
Neriglissar (560–556 B.C.); AKA Nergal-sharezer murdered Evil-Merodach; Jer. 39:3, 13
Labashi-Marduk (556 B.C.) boy, son of Neriglissar; murdered by Nabonidas
Nabonidus (556–539 B.C.) resided in Arabia 10 years; coregent of Belshazzar
Belshazzar (553–539 B.C.), coregent son and coregent of Nabonidus

Both the conquest of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire, and the long reign of Nebuchadnezzar are notable. The year 556 B.C. stands out for having three kings, of whom Labashi-Marduk was only a boy when he was murdered. Since assassination was all too popular, it is understandable that Nabonidus decided to take a ten-year sojourn at an oasis in northwest Arabia while leaving Belshazzar as his coregent in Babylon.

Yahweh kept Daniel at the pinnacle of Babylonian power through the reign of seven Babylonian kings and then into the reign of Cyrus the Persian (Dan. 1:21).

Drunk and disrespectful

As shown in the table above, Belshazzar was the last king of Babylon, serving as coregent with his father Nabonidus. Verse 2 refers to “Nebuchadnezzar his father,” but this likely means that Nebuchadnezzar was a blood relative — probably Belshazzar’s grandfather — not his biological father. [In a similar way, the Jewish leaders later told Jesus, “Abraham is our father” (John 8:39).] Nebuchadnezzar’s reign had been so splendid that everyone wanted to associate themselves with it.

Verse 1 of chapter 5 is what you might call a formula for trouble. Any monarch has to know that drinking too much in the presence of a ranking audience can lead to trouble, especially if one member of the audience is God! [The best biblical example might be Herod the tetrarch, who was forced to behead John the Baptist after a rash vow at his own birthday feast (Matt. 14:3–11).] But, as we will see, Belshazzar was a man under great pressure. His father Nabonidus had recently been defeated north of the city by the military forces of Cyrus. Wood explains, “The fact is clear that the city was in imminent danger of falling to the Persians at the time when Belshazzar held the grand feast set forth in this chapter.”[2]

Belshazzar’s banquet hall has been excavated. In shape and size the room closely matches the part of an American football field that extends from the twenty-yard line to the goal line.[3] A recessed region of the long wall opposite the great doors would have been made for the king’s table. The walls were covered with white gypsum plaster, just as verse 5 says, and the lampstand was doubtless located in the recessed area (verse 5).

Full of wine, Belshazzar manifests the family trait — soaring pride — by ordering that the gold and silver goblets taken from Yahweh’s temple be brought into the hall for drinking (verse 2).  Miller thinks it likely that “on the evening in question Belshazzar desecrated the holy objects of other nations as well as those of Israel in an attempt to demonstrate the superiority of the gods of Babylon over the deities of the nations.”[4] So, the goblets are swiftly brought in and all drink from them (verse 3). In doing so, they drunkenly praise “the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone” (verse 4). The other gods, being lifeless shams, do not care, but Belshazzar’s defiance toward Yahweh is a fatal error.

At once a hand appears, writing on the plaster wall near the lamp stand beside Belshazzar’s table (verse 5). Even though he does not know the meaning of the writing, the king’s face turns pale and his knees knock together; fear disables him (verse 6). Unlike Nebuchadnezzar’s private dreams, this supernatural message unfolds in the sight of all within the huge banquet hall.

Belshazzar's Feast - Rembrandt

Belshazzar’s Feast – Rembrandt

Belshazzar summons the Babylonian magi, the scholars who interpret dreams and mysteries, and offers great rewards, including appointment as “the third highest ruler in the kingdom” (verse 7) for anyone who can interpret the writing. Of course, at the moment the kingdom extends only to the city limits of Babylon! The appointment will place the winning interpreter behind only Nabonidas and his coregent Belshazzar in authority.

While the message is written in Aramaic, a well-known language in Babylon, none of the magi can interpret it (verse 8). Miller gives the best explanation of this failure by saying: “Most likely the words were understood, but they ‘simply did not convey any intelligible meaning.’”[5] It was too cryptic.

This failure of Babylonian wisdom leaves the king in a state of terror and his nobles both scared and bewildered (verse 9). In a banquet hall full of fine food and drink — and full of those who had mocked Yahweh — no one has any appetite for it!

Copyright © 2014 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Table adapted from Finley and Cash, Daniel, chapter 1 (in press), and Wood, Daniel, 129–130.

[2] Wood, Daniel, 131.

[3] Robert Koldewey, The Excavations at Babylon (London: Macmillan, 1914) 103; 17 meters by 52 meters. Koldewey is responsible for the dimensions but not the metaphor.

[4] Miller, Daniel, 154.

[5] Miller, Daniel, 159, quoting G. Archer.

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