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:


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.

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