THE WRITING ON THE WALL
King Belshazzar was the guest of honor at a grand party he arranged in the king’s feasting hall. Lords and ladies attended the royal gathering and were joined by many of the elites of Babylonian society. It was a memorable event, only the best of Babylon’s higher class were allowed entry excepting, of course, the lowly servants who attended to every need of the high-society elites.
The king received high praise from his guests but it was an uninvited guest who stunned the entire crowd into silence. The king’s party was crashed by an intruder from another world, literally. God intervened, He had a message for the brash king.
The finger of God appeared in the middle of the stunned crowd of partiers and began to write on a wall. It was a message only one man could interpret, and everyone at the party feared the terrifying meaning of the words written by the hand of God. Before that night was over, many lost their lives. King Belshazzar was among the dead.
Belshazzar’s great, blasphemous feast.
Belshazzar the king made a great feast for a thousand of his lords and drank wine in the presence of the thousand. While he tasted the wine, Belshazzar gave the command to bring the gold and silver vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple which had been in Jerusalem, that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them. Then they brought the gold vessels that had been taken from the temple of the house of God which had been in Jerusalem; and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. They drank wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, and iron, wood, and stone.
How Belshazzar rose to become the king:
We have reached chapter five in the Book of Daniel. In the story, we see that some time has passed. The prophet is older and the kingdom is changing hands. Nebuchadnezzar is no longer the king of Babylon. How did the throne pass from Nebuchadnezzar to Belshazzar? An ancient historian, Berosus, gives us the following order of events:
Changing of the kings:
Nebuchadnezzar died after a 43-year reign.
- His son, Evil-Merodach (described in 2 Kings 25:27-30 and Jeremiah 52:31-34) ruled for only two years when he was assassinated by his brother-in-law Neriglassar because his rule was arbitrary and licentious.
- Neriglassar (mentioned as Nergalsharezer in Jeremiah 39:3, 13) ruled for four years until he died a natural death.
- His son, Laborosoarchod, only a child and of diminished mental capacity, ruled for only nine months when he was beaten to death by a gang of conspirators.
- The conspirators appointed Nabonidus, one of their gang, to be king. He ruled until Cyrus the Persian conquered Babylon.
Belshazzar the king:
Historians had long argued over this biblical text and about who was the real king at this time in history. It was accepted that Nabonidus was the last king of Babylon, not Belshazzar who was Nabonidus’ oldest son. The solution to the problem was cleared up when evidence was discovered showing Belshazzar’s relationship with Nabonidus. The evidence also showed that during the last part of his reign Nabonidus lived in Arabia. While there, he left the duties of his Kingdom of Babylon to his oldest son Belshazzar.
No additional historical evidence of Belshazzar was found until the Nabonidus Cylinder was discovered in this century. It is now displayed in the British Museum and shows the sharing of the Kingdom between the king and his oldest son.
Babylonian records reveal that Belshazzar became co-regent in the third year of Nabonidus’ reign (553 b.c.) He continued in that position until the fall of Babylon (539 b.c.).
It is possible that at the time of the writing of Daniel 5, Nabonidus, the true king, had gone out to fight the Medo-Persian army. The same army that surrounded Babylon while the king’s son played around at being king while his dad was out working. Sounds like some things haven’t changed.
Made a great feast for a thousand of his lords:
Belshazzar may have put too much trust in his Dad’s armies. He also would have placed great trust in the massive walls that other armies could not conquer. This was nothing to fear while his father fought the battles. He could hide behind powerful walls and party with the higher class citizens of the realm.
The walls of Babylon:
- · The outer walls were 17 miles long.
- · These walls were 22 feet thick and 90 feet high.
- · Built into the walls were guard towers rising another 100 feet higher.
- · The gates were made of bronze.
- · The impressive system of double walls, moats, and natural barriers created by the Tigres and Euphrates River gave little reason to fear.
Which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple:
Nebuchadnezzar was not the father of Belshazzar. Historians have confirmed this, but this also isn’t an error in the text. He was a father in the sense that he was a great king who ruled before him. That may be all that is referred to here. The other successor kings not mentioned are not important to the story. The Bible is not a history book so a lot of facts are passed over if they don’t have an impact on the story God is writing through the inspired authors.
The Bible, as the story unfolds, often will remind the reader of a key figure in recent past. Nebuchadnezzar was the King of Babylon that Daniel knew during key events in the first four chapters.
They brought the gold vessels that had been taken from the temple of the house of God which had been in Jerusalem:
Belshazzar would eventually become a disgraced fool the night of his big party. He wasn’t a real king, that was his dad. He only pretended to be one, and this setting was perfect for his limited talents. He began the night losing control of common sense, at the end of the night he would lose control of his bladder and soil himself.
The boy who would be king disgraced himself and his father’s throne, but before that he attempted to mock the God of the Jews. He had his servants bring out the vessels of gold that were stolen from the temple in Jerusalem. The Lord, on this night, chose to act swiftly against the mockery.
Gathering the vessels from the Jewish temple served the purpose of reminding the partiers of a previous victory, and Belshazzar hoped it would boost morale. “As if these dung-hill deities had mastered and spoiled the God of Israel… This was blasphemy in a high degree, and therefore presently punished by God.” Trapp
In Babylon, a large court – 56 by 170 feet – has been unearthed, decorated with Greek columns. This is thought to be the king’s court where the feast of Daniel 5 took place.
The writing on the wall.
In the same hour the fingers of a man’s hand appeared and wrote opposite the lampstand on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote.
The fingers of a man’s hand appeared:
What the Lord did next was shocking to everyone who saw it. God can communicate with humanity in any way he chooses. He could write messages in the clouds or in our morning cup of coffee if he chose. His usual way of communicating to us is through natural, normal settings. When he reaches out to us in these times we often ask the familiar question, “Is this God trying to say something to me?”
In this story, the message is clear. God is speaking and he had the attention of everyone in the grand hall as they committed sacrilege by using the sacred vessels. The Lord sent a hand to deliver a message. Just a hand–nothing else–scribbled a message on a wall where the king could see it. That would get one’s attention.
The king saw the part of the hand that wrote:
This is where we get the familiar phrase, the writing on the wall comes from. Next, we see what the message was and what it meant for the young king.
Then the king’s countenance changed, and his thoughts troubled him so that the joints of his hips were loosened and his knees knocked against each other. The king cried aloud to bring in the astrologers, the Chaldeans, and the soothsayers. The king spoke, saying to the wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing and tells me its interpretation, shall be clothed with purple and have a chain of gold around his neck; and he shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.” Now all the king’s wise men came, but they could not read the writing, or make known to the king its interpretation. Then King Belshazzar was greatly troubled, his countenance was changed, and his lords were astonished.
The joints of his hips were loosed and his knees knocked:
“The king’s countenance changed.” Yes, I would think so. The king and his guests sobered up right away. Daniel’s words describe a terrified king. He lost control of himself, his knees and hips wobbled and he could barely stand in the presence of the messenger from God. The uninvited guest, The Lord, just ruined the party. This was unlike any other party in which a responsible adult showed up to bring sense to the senseless. This was God, arriving to bring a message of judgment.
When we have control of our lives, we don’t want anyone to take that away. While in the midst of the party, we don’t want the party to stop. If we lose ourselves in the moment and can’t control our actions, we don’t want someone to tell us to stop. As humans, we rebel against control. It’s been that way ever since the Lord told Adam to stay away from the tree of forbidden fruit.
We can’t help ourselves, so the Lord offers help and guidance. Most of us slap the hand of help that God offers. In this story, the hand was no longer offering help but came with an ominous message–time’s up!
The message was short. What did it mean? It wasn’t’ the words of the message that was hard to interpret, it was the message behind the words. Daniel, the wise prophet, was about to get called upon again. As was the case earlier in the book, Daniel was the only one who could interpret the hidden message.
Honor and power were promised to the one who could interpret, but the man of God had no interest in those things.
The queen, because of the words of the king and his lords, came to the banquet hall. The queen spoke, saying, “O king, live forever! Do not let your thoughts trouble you, nor let your countenance change. There is a man in your kingdom in whom is the Spirit of the Holy God. And in the days of your father, light and understanding and wisdom, like the wisdom of the gods, were found in him; and King Nebuchadnezzar your father – your father the king – made him chief of the magicians, astrologers, Chaldeans, and soothsayers. Inasmuch as an excellent spirit, knowledge, understanding, interpreting dreams, solving riddles, and explaining enigmas were found in this Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar, now let Daniel be called, and he will give the interpretation.”
There is a man in your kingdom:
The “queen” referred to here is possibly Belshazzar’s mother, the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar. The other ‘wise men’ were called first and like before, they were stumped by the message from the Lord. Daniel was older and less prominent in this new regime. The new king had to be reminded of his skills and insight. He was known by his Babylonian name, Belteshazzar, but the queen used his Jewish name.
Then Daniel was brought in before the king. The king spoke, and said to Daniel, “Are you that Daniel who is one of the captives from Judah, whom my father the king brought from Judah? I have heard of you, that the Spirit of God is in you, and that light and understanding and excellent wisdom are found in you. Now the wise men, the astrologers, have been brought in before me, that they should read this writing and make known to me its interpretation, but they could not give the interpretation of the thing. And I have heard of you, that you can give interpretations and explain enigmas. Now if you can read the writing and make known to me its interpretation, you shall be clothed with purple and have a chain of gold around your neck, and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.”
Then Daniel was brought in before the king:
Finally, a man of God is called upon for advice. God doesn’t give up on people but people usually give up on Him. We humans, usually call on wise men and women of God too late. This story is just like that. The king and his guests should have called on the man of God earlier to avoid the judgment that was coming. If so, the judgment could have been avoided. God and his servants are mocked and scoffed at until the time comes when they are desperately needed.
The Writing is on the Wall, but what does it mean?
Then Daniel answered, and said before the king, “Let your gifts be for yourself, and give your rewards to another; yet I will read the writing to the king, and make known to him the interpretation. O king, the Most High God gave Nebuchadnezzar your father a kingdom and majesty, glory and honor. And because of the majesty that He gave him, all peoples, nations, and languages trembled and feared before him. Whomever he wished, he executed; whomever he wished, he kept alive; whomever he wished, he set up; and whomever he wished, he put down.
A proud heart
But when his heart was lifted up, and his spirit was hardened in pride, he was deposed from his kingly throne, and they took his glory from him. Then he was driven from the sons of men, his heart was made like the beasts, and his dwelling was with the wild donkeys. They fed him with grass like oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till he knew that the Most High God rules in the kingdom of men, and appoints over it whomever He chooses.
God humbles the proud
But you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, although you knew all this. And you have lifted yourself up against the Lord of heaven. They have brought the vessels of His house before you, and you and your lords, your wives and your concubines, have drunk wine from them. And you have praised the gods of silver and gold, bronze and iron, wood and stone, which do not see or hear or know; and the God who holds your breath in His hand and owns all your ways, you have not glorified.”
Let your gifts be for yourself:
Daniel had no interest in gifts from the king. We could use this kind of integrity in our leaders today. Daniel cared for Nebuchadnezzar who had since died, but for this new king, there didn’t appear to be a similar affection. He got right to the point, delivering a stern message from God.
You his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, although you knew all this:
As mentioned above, the idea of son referred to the succession of kingship, not as a blood relative. Daniel was immediately harsh in his tone toward Belshazzar. The young king showed no respect for the things of God. Daniel chastized him by mentioning the great king who ruled before him. That king, though great in power, honored the God of the Jewish people. Nebuchadnezzar was humbled and gave glory to God as the Only True Sovereign. This new king partied and mocked God. The writing was on the wall for him.
The God who holds your breath…
The king thought he held great power, but he didn’t realize the truth. He had no power at all but what was given to him by God. He couldn’t take in a breath if God had not allowed it. We all live with that same reality. Most of us don’t accept that fact. We think we are just a cosmic accident. We believe that and live it. Our breath is from Him, but we don’t thank him or acknowledge him in our lives.
That’s a big mistake. We aren’t kings but we still will give an account of our lives to Him who holds our breath in his hands.
We all should remember that.
“If God held Belshazzar responsible, my friend, for the ray of light which shone across his pathway, what will He say to men living in the blaze of light which illuminates the world today? Every unconverted man in this country has more light than Belshazzar had.” Talbot
Daniel tells Belshazzar that God’s judgment is at the door.
“Then the fingers of the hand were sent from Him, and this writing was written. And this is the inscription that was written: Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin. This is the interpretation of each word.
Mene: God has numbered your kingdom, and finished it;
Tekel: You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting;
Peres: Your kingdom has been divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.”
Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin.
This is the interpretation of each word:
“It should be observed, that each word stands for a short sentence; mene signifies numeration; tekel, weighing; and peres, division.” Clarke
- · Had Belshazzar’s number. “I have your number king.”
- · Weighed Belshazzar, and he was found wanting. Weighted scales were used for commerce and symbols of justice.
- · Would, therefore, divide Belshazzar’s kingdom to the Medes and the Persians.
Given to the Medes and Persians:
The Greek historian Herodotus writes that the Persian King Cyrus conquered Babylon by diverting the flow of the Euphrates into a nearby swamp. This lowered the level of the river so his troops could march through the now shallow river and under the river-gates. They still would not have been able to enter had not the bronze gates of the inner walls been left inexplicably unlocked. This was exactly what God predicted in Isaiah 44:28–45:7 and Jeremiah 51:57-58. God opened the gates of the city of Babylon for Cyrus, and put it in writing 200 years before it happened.
“In October 539 bc, Cyrus advanced into lower Mesopotamia and, leaving Babylon till last, conquered and occupied the surrounding territory. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, Nabonidus of Babylon deserted his city, leaving it in the charge of his son Belshazzar… the taking of Babylon was as bloodless and effortless as Daniel 5 implies.” Motyer, in his commentary on Isaiah
“Empires do not stand by human might, man-made machines and missiles. There is not a wall high enough nor thick enough to prevent a nation from falling when God pronounces that nation’s doom.” Strauss
Then Belshazzar gave the command, and they clothed Daniel with purple and put a chain of gold around his neck, and made a proclamation concerning him that he should be the third ruler of the kingdom.
They clothed Daniel with purple:
Daniel didn’t hold back the truth from the king of the crowd at the party. The truth of the message resonated with all of them. There is the sense that they all knew they were wrong, especially as Daniel relayed the prior history of Nebuchadnezzar. We all should learn our lessons from the past, but how many of us really do? They offered the prophet a prize for telling them they all could possibly die soon. How ironic, but for that short moment, they seemed to understand the message of the Lord.
Daniel didn’t care about the honor or gifts, he cared about the message of God. But more importantly, he glorified the Lord in his life and cared little for the concerns of those who chose to mock God and his followers.
The death of Belshazzar and the rise of Darius the Mede.
That very night Belshazzar, king of the Chaldeans, was slain. And Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old.
That very night: The word of God was fulfilled that same night just as Daniel said. Usually, the words of the prophet point to fulfillment years or centuries into the future. On this occasion, it was mere hours from fulfillment.
One of these days our number will be up, just like it was on that night for Belshazzar.
On whose side will we stand? Will we stand with the mockers and partiers, or will we stand with truth, honor, and a humble acknowledgment to the One who holds our breath in his hands?
None of us are good, there is only One who is good, that is God. We should accept that before our number is called. He graciously reaches his hand out to us, offering forgiveness, long before he regretfully has to write the somber message on the wall of our lives.
More prophecy from Daniel