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.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!