Daniel 5

Daniel 5

SERIES: Integrity is No Accident: The Book of Daniel

 Leadership Lite: The Handwriting on the Wall

Introduction:  Before we examine the fascinating story found in Daniel 5, I think it would help if we had a bit of a history lesson.  We noted that there were about 30 years between chapters 3 & 4.  But there are also approximately 30 years between chapters 4 & 5.  

Up through chapter 4 the King we have encountered in the book of Daniel is Nebuchadnezzar, the founder of the Babylonian Empire.  He reigned for 42 years, but shortly after his recovery from mental illness, as discussed in Daniel 4, he died and was succeeded by his son, Evil-Merodach or, as it is sometimes written, Amel-Marduk.  He is mentioned only once in the Bible–in the last paragraph of 2 Kings.  There we are told that he was the king who released Jehoiachin from prison and treated him kindly.  (Jehoiachin, the last legitimate king of Judah, had been taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar more than thirty years earlier when Jerusalem was destroyed).  

King Evil-Merodach was soon assassinated by Neriglissar, his own brother-in-law, who ruled for four years before he died and was succeeded by his son, Labashi-Marduk.  (Nerigliggar is probably the one mentioned in Jeremiah 39:3, 13 as having played a role in releasing Jeremiah from prison in 586 B.C.).  Labashi-Marduk was murdered after only 9 months and the throne was seized by Nabonidus, who ruled for the last 17 years of the Babylonian Empire.  Nabonidus does not seem to have been related to the royal house by blood, but he apparently married a daughter of Nebuchadnezzar in order to legitimize his seizure of the throne.  His eldest son was Belshazzar, also Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson, who became co-regent with his father.[i]

Toward the end of the co-regency of Nabonidus and Belshazzar, a growing military threat appeared in the form of Cyrus and his Medo-Persian army.  Nabonidus and his troops engaged Cyrus’s army at Opis, which was on the Tigris River north of Babylon, while Belshazzar was left in charge of the defense of Babylon itself.  When Nabonidus suffered serious reversals, he retreated south to Tema to lick his wounds, and the Medo-Persians laid siege to Babylon.  

Normally this would be viewed as a very serious matter, but Belshazzar did not take the threat too seriously, because he viewed the city of Babylon as virtually impregnable.  One might say he suffered from the Titanic Syndrome.  You see, Babylon was surrounded by a large moat and by a double wall 85 feet thick and almost 350 feet high.  An estimated 100 towers built along this wall provided the Babylonian military all the advantage it needed to ward off an attack.  

Furthermore, the city enjoyed a boundless supply of water, as the Euphrates River ran under the walls and through the heart of the city.  This enabled the inhabitants to raise crops within the city and withstand a long siege.  In fact, as our chapter opens, the Persians had been outside the city walls for months and they were no closer to victory than when the siege began, or so Belshazzar thought.

One might wonder why a king would be throwing a great banquet while his empire is under siege, but perhaps it was for the purpose of building morale.  Belshazzar may have reasoned that a feast of this kind would constitute a gesture of confidence on his part that could alleviate some of the anxiety his people felt.  What the drunken king did not acknowledge is that the strength of a kingdom, the strength of a city, and the strength of a home, is never on the outside, but on the inside.  He did not know that an empire won by war must be consolidated by justice and righteousness.   

Thus we come to the night of October 12, 539 B.C., a night that brought one of the most powerful empires in history to an abrupt end.  If the story of Nebuchadnezzar in chapter 4 teaches us about the patience of God in withholding judgment from those that deserve it, the story of Belshazzar warns us not to take the grace and mercy of God for granted.  While God may show great patience with one person, He brings swift and certain judgment on another.  This is not because God is unfair but rather because He knows hearts better than men know their own.  The lesson we should learn is that none of us can count on the future for time to repent of our sins.  Now is the day of salvation.

Our chapter begins with …

A riotous celebration (1-4)

“King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them. 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. 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. As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.”

What may have begun as a banquet of celebration soon deteriorated as wine began to play a prominent role.  Five times in the first four verses of Daniel 5 the drinking of wine is mentioned, giving the distinct impression that there is an intimate connection between intoxication and the events that follow.  

The connection between drunkenness and loss of judgment is well-documented in Scripture.  Proverbs 31 is well-known as the chapter describing the wife of noble character.  It should be as well-known as the chapter that warns leaders against drunkenness.  Listen:

It is not for kings, O Lemuel–not for kings to drink wine,

not for rulers to crave beer,

lest they drink and forget what the law decrees,

and deprive all the oppressed of their rights.  (Proverbs 31/??

Prov. 23 also describes the dangers of abuse of alcohol:

Your eyes will see strange sights and your mind imagine confusing things.

You will be like one sleeping on the high seas, lying on top of the rigging.

“They hit me,” you will say, “but I’m not hurt!  

They beat me, but I don’t feel it!

When will I wake up so I can find another drink?”

Belshazzar would probably never have suggested the blasphemous act of drinking out of the gold and silver goblets from the temple in Jerusalem had he not already had too much to drink.  Strong drink quickly blurs one’s sense of propriety.  History is replete with costly mistakes made while people were under the influence of liquor.  The Justice Department reports that nearly one-third of state prison inmates drank heavily just before committing the crimes leading to their imprisonment.  Twenty-five percent reported drinking heavily each day during the year before their crimes, and the heaviest drinkers were found to be repeat offenders.  

Statistics from the U.S. Health & Human Services and the FBI indicate that alcohol is involved in 

66 % of fatal accidents

50 % of all traffic accidents

70 % of all murders

53 % of fire deaths

50 % of rapes

60 % of sex crimes against children

56 % of assaults in homes

37 % of suicides    

55 % of all arrests

36 % of pedestrian accidents

45 % of drownings

50 % of skiing accidents 

More admissions to mental hospitals than any other cause.[ii]

One of the tragic developments of our day is the dramatic increase in alcohol consumption by high school and college-age young people.  They are abusing alcohol because they have seen their parents abuse it.   And they are making tragic, irreversible mistakes of judgment while under its influence. 

The goblets of gold and silver which Belshazzar drank from had been seized more than sixty-five years earlier when Nebuchadnezzar had first conquered Jerusalem and had taken captive the young Daniel, along with Shadrach, Meshach, and Obednego.  Nebuchadnezzar kept the vessels, but he apparently never used them because of his respect for the God of the Jews.  But Belshazzar had no such inhibitions, or if he did, the wine removed them.  In fact, it may well be that bringing out the vessels was a direct snub to the God that Nebuchadnezzar had come to acknowledge, for in verse 23 Daniel accuses Belshazzar of setting himself up against the Lord of Heaven.  It is as though he was daring God to strike him.  Not smart. 

There is another connection drawn for us here–that between blasphemy and idolatry.

The connection between blasphemy and idolatry.  Every human being is by nature religious, and if he rejects the God of the Bible it is only to pursue other gods.  Carl Sagan liked to pretend he was irreligious, but he was just as much a person of faith as you or I.  It is just that he put his faith in the religion of science.  Communists put theirs in the religion of the state.  Others put theirs in pleasure or sports or money.  Belshazzar and his fellow revelers scorned the God of Scripture and instead “praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.”  Always you will find that blasphemy and idolatry go together.  

Suddenly there was a frightful interruption to this riotous celebration.  

A frightful interruption (5-12)

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. His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his legs became weak and his knees were knocking.

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.”

Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant. So King Belshazzar became even more terrified and his face grew more pale. His nobles were baffled.

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 fingers of a human hand appeared and began writing on the plaster wall of the banquet hall.  The German archaeologist Koldeway, who excavated Babylon, found the royal palace.  Its largest room was 55 feet wide by 169 feet long and had plaster walls.  There was a niche in one of the long walls, opposite the entrance, in which he suggests the king may have been seated.  Against a white plastered surface, any dark object would have stood out distinctly, especially a human hand coming out of the wall.

The handwriting on the wall.  The fear that struck the king was palpable, as one can well appreciate.  He quickly recognized the phenomenon as a visit from the supernatural realm, and his face, probably flushed with wine and emotion, is suddenly drained of all color.  His knees knocked together (the Hebrew actually indicates his bodily functions let loose).  Immediately he calls out for the wise men of Babylon to interpret the strange symbols on the wall.

The failure of the astrologers.  This repeated theme is designed to convince us that human wisdom alone is utterly incapable of comprehending the wisdom of God.  This elite group had failed to connect on two previous occasions, and now they were up to the plate for their third and final strike at deciphering God’s message.

In contrast, when the Spirit of God is in a person’s life, he is given the ability to understand things no one else can.  And this is not true just of prophets like Daniel.  The Apostle Paul tells us that the things of God are available to the ordinary believer as well.  Listen to 1 Cor. 2: 14-16:

“The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.  The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment: ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.”

I’m not suggesting that every believer has the gift of discernment or the ability to interpret dreams, but we do have access to spiritual truth that sets us apart from unbelievers.  We have access to everything God wants us to know.

Belshazzar, who had been frightened initially by the handwriting itself, is now even more frightened by the inability of his wise men to read it.  He is undoubtedly beginning to entertain the distinct possibility that the God of Jerusalem is about to retaliate against him because of his bold defiance.  All of these developments provide a most advantageous setting for Daniel’s appearance.

The appeal to the aged prophet.  Daniel is now probably in his eighties, having been an exile in Babylon for 66 years.  He has undoubtedly retired from full-time government service.  It is the queen, probably actually Belshazzar’s mother and the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar, who brings up his name.  Belshazzar knows him only by reputation, but the queen apparently knows him personally, perhaps remembering the events of 30 years earlier that are recorded in chapter 4.  She is confident Daniel can solve the riddle.  And Daniel is willing to return from retirement to do God’s bidding.  Belshazzar is so desperate that he is willing to offer the moon, including third place in the kingdom, if Daniel can do it.  

A fearless revelation (13-28)  

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.

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.”

The first thing out of Daniel’s mouth is scorn for the reward the king has offered.

A reward scorned.  “You may keep your gifts for yourself and give your rewards to someone else.”  Daniel is wise enough to know that gifts can interfere with integrity, and he doesn’t want to feel obligated at all to this pagan king.  He will speak freely and speak the truth.  That he did eventually accept the gifts after delivering God’s message may have involved a touch of irony.  After all, if God has numbered the days of Belshazzar’s kingdom and brought it to an end, of what value are these things going to be to Belshazzar in 24 hours?  Daniel might as well accept them.  

A lesson unlearned.  Daniel addresses the fact that the Most High God had given Nebuchadnezzar sovereignty and greatness and glory and splendor.  His high position was due solely to the fact that God gave it to him, and when his heart became arrogant and hardened with pride, he was deposed from his royal throne and stripped of his glory until he was willing to acknowledge God’s sovereignty. 

Now he makes his application:  “But you his son (actually grandson—the Hebrew can mean either), O Belshazzar, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this.”  On the contrary, you went so far as to take the goblets of His holy temple and drink your liquor from them.  Not only that, you praised your idols of silver, gold, bronze, iron, wood, and stone while you were doing it.  Yet you did not honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways.  Therefore, He sent the hand that wrote the famous inscription on the wall.  

Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “Everyone sooner or later sits down to a banquet of consequences.”  Belshazzar may have thought he knew the menu, but he didn’t realize that God was serving the dessert.[iii]  

Do you notice the difference between Daniel’s attitude toward Belshazzar in chapter 5 and Nebuchadnezzar in chapters 4?  Gone is the respect, the personal concern, and the grief Daniel felt at the divine judgment Nebuchadnezzar faced.  

Daniel reads the strange symbols on the plaster, which predicts God’s judgment.

God’s judgment predicted.  The inscription apparently still remained on the wall, giving a lasting impression for all present and permitting Daniel still to read it directly.  The writing was brief, composed of only three words, with the first repeated.  MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN.  

MENE:  God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end.  The repetition of this word apparently signifies both the numbering and the termination.

TEKEL:  You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.  In other words, Belshazzar has been weighed against God’s standard of righteousness and found too light.  In terms of moral and spiritual worth he is severely lacking.

PARSIN (or PERES):  Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.

We might paraphrase the message on the wall like this: “Your number is up, You’re a moral lightweight.  You’ve squandered your privileges.  The party’s over.”  

Imagine how these words must have fallen on the ears of Belshazzar and his nobles.  I imagine the military leaders must have immediately dispatched soldiers to check with the towers around the wall to see if all was quiet.  

But it was too late.  The enemy outside Babylon’s walls against whom they felt so secure, would indeed take the city.  Cyrus’ forces would conquer, and Babylonia as an Empire, for all the glory she had known, would be no more.  

A tragic resolution (29-31)  

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.

While Daniel was still speaking God brought . . .

Immediate judgment upon Belshazzar and his empire.  Herodotus, the Greek historian, tells us that during this banquet an amazing series of events was taking place outside the city walls.  The Medes and Persians succeeded in diverting a large portion of the water of the Euphrates River into a nearby lake so that they could enter the city where the river had entered under the walls.  They surprised the defenders of the city, probably largely because many of their military officers were at the banquet, and drunk besides.  The enemy seized the city with a minimal loss of life.  

However, judgment was not only immediate, it was also final, at least for Belshazzar.  

Final judgment.  The king himself was found and executed that very night. The new monarch, Cyrus’ victorious general, Gubaru, apparently named himself Darius the Mede.  He was 62.  The last verse of Lord Byron’s poem, “The Vision of Belshazzar,” reads,

Belshazzar’s grave is made, his kingdom pass’d away,

He, in the balance weighed, is light and worthless clay;

The shroud his robe of state, his canopy the stone.

The Mede is at his gate!  The Persian on his throne!

Conclusion:  Belshazzar was weighed on the scales and found wanting.  Friends, God is still weighing leaders on the scales of His moral and spiritual truth.  He’s weighing world leaders, national politicians, media moguls, clergy, and athletes.  In fact, He’s weighing all of us.  An anonymous poem expresses this thought well:

When the great factories of our cities

Have turned out their last finished work,

When the merchants have sold their last yard of silk

And dismissed the last tired clerk;

When the bank has racked in its last dollar

And paid its last dividend,

And the Judge of the earth says, “Closed for the night,”

And asks for a balance–what then?

God is weighing us, but the standard He employs is no human standard.  Most of us would weigh people on the basis of the number and severity of their sins and on the number and nature of their good deeds, but not God.  If it was a human standard, Nebuchadnezzar would never have been given a second chance to repent while Belshazzar lost his life, for history tells us that Nebuchadnezzar was a far more wicked king, and he practiced his cruelty far longer. 

Oh, I believe God takes such things into consideration when determining the degree of punishment which one will receive in hell (or the rewards one will receive in heaven).  But one’s eternal destiny–whether heaven or hell–is not determined by deeds at all.  Rather it is determined by whether or not they have put their faith in the Savior.  

Nebuchadnezzar was admittedly very reticent to acknowledge the sovereignty of God over both his kingdom and his own life, but eventually he did.  Belshazzar never did.  Even when told that judgment was imminent, there is no indication he repented.  

Nebuchadnezzar taught us an important truth last Sunday, namely that God is patient and is willing to forgive anyone who humbles himself before Him.  Belshazzar teaches us another truth, namely that we dare not presume upon God’s mercy and grace.  

All of us have known perfectly healthy people who died suddenly, without warning, of a heart attack or in an accident while in the prime of life.  We cannot wait for retirement to get right with God, because none of us knows whether we will ever reach retirement.  We must respond now in faith.  Not only will that provide us the opportunity to spend eternity with God in heaven; it will also give us the opportunity to enjoy life now as God intended—in accordance with His will and with His blessing.

MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN is not handwriting meant just for Belshazzar.  It is God’s message to us all.  By His own hand God warns us of our sin.  On the cross of Jesus we see that handwriting in its boldest form, for there the script is written in the blood of God’s own Son.  But the real glory of that blood is that it does more than warn.  It saves.

DATE: August 14, 1994   







[i].  Liberal scholars for many years scoffed at the account we have here in Daniel 5, because extra-biblical history, though a bit sketchy on Babylon, made it clear that there were only five kings who ruled over this short-lived empire, and the last was Nabonidus.  There was no record of any king of Babylon named Belshazzar.  They also scoffed at the offer that Belshazzar makes here in Daniel 5 to elevate anyone who could read and interpret the handwriting on the wall to membership in the ruling triumvirate.  They claimed that such a story was made up by a later scribe who was trying to make room for the queen as co-regent.  But since Babylonian queens did not serve as co-regents, the whole account was obviously bogus.

Well, within the past century archaeologists have discovered a number of sources of information about Babylon, including the Nabonidus Chronicle, on which were written hieroglyphics telling the story of the last days of Nabonidus.  It turns out that Nabonidus, a devoted worshiper of the moon-god Sin, was experiencing a great deal of opposition from the priests of Marduk, who under the previous monarchs had been considered the chief god of the Babylonian pantheon.  He wearied of the religious battles and began to spend more and more of his time in Teima, a city in Arabia, leaving the administration of Babylon to his son and Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson, whose name, the stele says, was Bil-Shar-uzzar.  

As you may know, semitic languages are generally written without vowels, and the consonants of Bil-Shar-uzzar are identical to those of Belshazzar in Daniel 5.  So, the acting monarch in the last days of Babylon was indeed exactly who the book of Daniel claims.  Not only that, but the mystery of the offer of third place in the kingdom was likewise resolved.  Belshazzar himself was co-regent with Nabonidus, so the best he could offer was to set up a trio of power and invite the one who solved the riddle to join him and his father in ruling the empire. 

[ii] St. Louis Post Dispatch, September 14, 1986.

[iii] William Carr Peel, Living in the Lions’ Den Without Being Eaten, 128.